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05.12.09

spectacle


(Sorry for taking so long with this, folks. I'm breaking the cardinal rule of blogging - "post, post, then post again" - pretty badly these days. If it's any consolation, here's a link to my first column for The Interim, and a post I did for BlogTO last week - regular gigs, I hope.)

ANOTHER LONG DELAY BETWEEN POSTS, but I have an excuse, inasmuch as I've had to get used to my new eyes.

One day someone will be able to write that without any sloppy metaphor, and some part of me longs for that day. Until then, I can look forward to the ordeal of the last week being repeated at roughly biennial intervals for the remainder of my life - a painful adjustment to a new pair of bifocals, which is a new ritual in my life.

Years ago, when I was still feeling flush with the novelty of a steady paycheque for the first time in more than a decade, I made an appointment with my optometrist, who told me that the lenses he was prescribing would probably be my last regular prescription before I'd need bifocals. Laser surgery, he said, was probably out of the question for someone whose eyesight was a dismal as mine, at least with the current medical technology.

It was such a horrible prospect that I let more than the customary two years elapse between check-ups - so long, in fact, that my eyesight became considerably worse, the doctor's office was demolished to make way for a condo, and I was laid off from my job. Thanks to generous donations from readers to this site, I was able to save up enough for new specs, the bill for which, I knew from previous experience, would be steep, even moreso now that I needed magic, multifocal lenses.



Sure enough, my new eye doctor told me it would be bifocals, and my optician showed me the latest and best in progressive bifocal technology, then handed me a bill just slightly larger than one of my former paycheques. After my prescription was sent off to be ground at Nikon's labs in Japan, I took delivery last week, and have spent the intervening days trying to get used to a whole new way of seeing.

Here's the thing - getting new glasses used to be much simpler, and a lot more fun. A new prescription - usually accompanied by a new pair of frames - meant something like a new face, and the refreshing sensation of a sudden, startling improvement in one's vision. With sharpness and clarity restored after the long, gradual period when your eyesight would deteriorate, you'd greedily take in everything you could suddenly see again; it was like having a new, better, stronger pair of eyes.

With bifocals, that sensation is gone forever. To be sure, I can read things in the distance once again, reading doesn't involve tromboning your book or magazine back and forth until it's reasonably legible, and a few hours at the computer doesn't mean you'll spend the rest of the day nursing a migraine. But none of these things can be done without making an effort.

If you've never had bifocals, the principal is simple enough: there are two, or perhaps three, discrete planes of vision within your new lenses, and you have to train your eye to move with your head so that it uses the correct bit of lens for what you're doing. Distance involves roughly the top half of your new lenses, reading the bottom third, and - with progressive bifocals, at least - the intermediate distance is sharpest in a small point roughly below the middle of the frame.

Adjusting to this new way of looking is wildly counterintuitive, and you spend all your time swivelling your head about, raising and lowering your nose while people talk to you, and rubbing your overtaxed eyes to mitigate the strain caused the new workload they've been given. The whole process makes you feel like an inefficient machine, and you can almost hear the little servo motors whir and ratchet back and forth, like your head has suddenly been fitted with the workings of a cheap digital snapshot camera.

Even worse, there's no way, at least with current technology, to avoid dead spots or distortions, or grind lenses that allow for sharp peripheral vision, so after spending a sum equivalent to several previous prescriptions put together, my vision will never be near as improved as it was after putting on the sort of cheap, simple lenses I'd have bought for a couple of hundred dollars, back in my twenties.

To add insult to injury, after clamping my new, high tech, as-expensive-as-a-good-used-motorcycle on to my face, the optician told me that he finds it useful to have a pair of reading glasses as well, since you wouldn't want to spend too much reading a book with bifocals. I hate to sound like Glenn Reynolds, but those bionic eyes can't come soon enough for me.



A REFLEX AVERSION KICKS IN whenever my colleagues in the film critic business come over all unanimous about a film, and I couldn't help but be wary when JCVD became a critical fave at least year's Toronto International Film Festival. After several successive years when too many serious, reputable festival films turned out to be so underwhelming, I could see that they were eager to embrace something with plenty of pop culture mojo but enough artiness to make them feel a sort of community of knowingness was coalescing around a picture.

A film where an action movie star with one foot deep in has-been status plays himself, shot in the bruised tones of contemporary horror films, and packed with riffs on b-film fandom was going to guarantee at least a few packed advance critics' screenings, regardless of its quality, but my friends told me that it was really very good, and probably the best thing they'd seen at the festival that year. That made it a nice stick with which to beat Passchendaele, a big fat target which was probably the most reviled picture at TIFF, at least if you listened to the critics when they were gathering their ire for their reviews, which were usually far less vicious when they finally made it to print.

I've had the screener for JCVD for months now, since before I lost my job, so I'd made a mental note to review it when it came out, if only to have something to write about here while I waited to hear if the studios and PR agencies would provide me with review fodder. I sat down with the usual background hum of dread that accompanies a new film, and was pleasantly surprised at the almost goofy tone director Mabrouk El Mechri injected from the start.



And so we navigate a thicket of flashes back and forward as Belgian action movie star Jean Claude Van Damme hits personal rock bottom, scrambling for work in Asian co-productions to pay his lawyer in a child custody case, being harassed by fans, then getting taken hostage in a post office robbery in his hometown of Brussels. In the confusion - and aided by the apparent eagerness of police and witnesses to believe the worst - he's presumed to be behind the robbery, and the film plunges headlong into dark, knowing farce.

A reader wrote to me last week asking if I thought the film was a "despicable farce." Obviously I agree with the farce part, but I didn't think it was despicable, exactly, unless you object to a film focusing in on its audience with a precision that's rare, even in today's world of consumer-sampled and market-driven entertainment.

Van Damme plays himself, or a version of himself that draws very closely on his own life, including drug problems and an ugly divorce that saw his son choose to live with his mother. All around him, police, witnesses and gawkers openly speculate about his career, and are obviously thrilled to bask in the tainted glow of Van Damme's b-list celebrity. Almost everyone seems to be an authority on his career, and argue about the virtues of Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Street Fighter, while one of the robbers implores him to help him with his karate kicks.

It's no surprise that the film's main location, aside from the besieged post office, is a video store across the street that the police turn into the command centre. The film is a product of the video rental store, which has been Van Damme's forum for a decade of straight-to-video releases, and it treats his home theatre audience with roughly equal parts respect and ridicule, and since film critics are mostly just professional versions of this constituency, it's no surprise that they warmed to the film so avidly.



My reader suggested that he thought the film had some sort of political agenda, and that it could have been titled Les Racines de JCVD: America in the Age of Obama. Maybe I've just become immune to the casual but constant bias in movies and television today, but I didn't see any strident politicizing, unless you count the unflattering depiction of Van Damme's agent, which would be wholly unremarkable if you consider how merrily Hollywood portrays its own cruel, callow venality, with an acid edge that's become even more pronounced in the age that began with The Player and continues today with Entourage. Considering how most of the film takes place in Brussels, you might just as well look for some sly commentary on the EU.

Besides the backdrop of film geekery, it was clear to me that my colleagues took to the film's knowing embrace of the grand fact that makes itself known pretty quickly if you spend your life watching far too many movies. In a phrase, it's the simple truth that no star acts as much as they play themselves, or a variation of the persona that they've come to represent.

There are exceptions - cypher-like actors such as Christian Bale come to mind - but for the most part, a marquee name on a film prepares us for what we can expect to see, regardless of the setting, period or genre. A George Clooney film will always feature a wry, wary, roguish man who's a bit less smart than he thinks he is, while a Brad Pitt movie revolves around the moment when the leading lady, the camera, and the audience will be forced to step back and marvel at what it must be like to go through life being so fantastically good-looking. (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button actually uses this as a sort of special effect, but more about that later.)

I'm hard-pressed to think of an above-the-title movie star today who defies this rule, and I'd go so far as to state that the triumph of Hollywood is based on finding and refining an endless succession of these personas, the vast majority of which have embodied some salient human virtue or, in the case of someone as eminently likable as, say, Jimmy Stewart, several of them.

Film critics know this all too well, and while the general audience - so they presume - responds to a film based largely on how well the personas play themselves, they rate a film mostly by how knowingly that persona riffs on itself, and gets riffed upon. A film like JCVD is catnip for a critic, much like Being John Malkovich, or a good Woody Allen film, if you go far back enough in history. By this measure, any film can become a critical favorite as long as it harnesses that moment in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Bugs Bunny takes a break from tormenting Elmer Fudd, turns to the audience and says confidentially, "I do this sort of thing to him all through the picture."


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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