Monday, August 29, 2011

The Biggest Movie Of All Time Is Totally Unwatchable

I was testing a piece of home theater equipment for my job last night, and wanted to see how it performed with quick-cut action sequences with a lot of special effects. So I browsed the TV listings and soon found James Cameron's "Avatar," which I decided would be ideal for my purposes.

I had not seen "Avatar" since it was in theaters. Although I remembered liking the movie (with reservations), I have always flipped past it on cable because I've never had the slightest desire to re-watch it, and I'm someone who re-watches almost everything I like.  So I settled in to watch it (and to check this piece of gear for compression issues and general HD performance), and in the first 15 minutes, I groaned out loud at least five times.  I'm convinced that King of the World James Cameron wrote a first draft, used the first thought, line, or idea that came into his head at every turn, and never did a rewrite. It was so painful that I abbreviated my gear test, went back to the TV listings, and watched the delightful "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" instead.

Maybe you remember "Avatar" fondly, as I did before this exercise. Its Rotten Tomatoes scores are still ridiculously high, so clearly everyone liked this movie. Allow me, if you will, to burst that bubble, as I watch it all the way through and pick it apart!

0:47 Droplets of condensed water (or something) hang in the foreground of the first shot of our hero, Jake Sully (played by the black hole of charisma known as Sam Worthington) in a showy demonstration of the 3D technology that made this movie such a big deal in the first place. In 3D, this shot was cool. Without 3D, I'm just thinking, "Oh, right. This movie was in 3D." Weird that I had to be reminded of that, as the 3D is the whole reason this movie fooled so many people (myself included), but it can't behind that smoke and mirrors this time! Anyway, Jake has apparently been in cryogenic freeze for six years on a spaceship.

1:18 Jake's first spoken line (as opposed to his wooden narration), as he's pulled from his cryogenic freeze: "Are we there yet?" Really? "Are we there yet?" Get it? Because that's what people say on long car trips. I have a feeling this was supposed to be cute, but it's delivered with such a thud I almost didn't even notice it. How about "Where's the bathroom?" It took me four seconds to think of that. I admit that it's hacky, but it's still better than "Are we there yet?"

1:50 So he's taking the place of his murdered brother, who was a scientist. We know this because Jake tells us three times in narration. "Yeah. Tommy was the scientist." Three times.

2:00 "Up ahead was Pandora. I grew up hearing about it, but I never thought I'd be going there." The name of the planet is Pandora. Get it? Like Pandora's Box? Like you never know what kind of awfulness will come out if you open it? Sadly, this is one of the subtler touches in this screenplay.

2:20 A couple of company guys in suits say they'd like to talk to Jake about taking over his dead brother's contract because they have the same genome. Wouldn't this conversation have taken place BEFORE Jake went into cryo freeze for six years?

4:15 Never mind, it was apparently a flashback. You can tell by Jake's long hair. Still, it's not a good sign that this was unclear.

5:07 Jake's a paraplegic ex-Marine and he took this gig to pay for repair to his spine. Evidently we still have not fixed the healthcare system in the future, not even for wounded veterans. I'm waiting for the coded reference to death panels.

6:05 A huge truck rolls by with arrows stuck in the wheels. How long till someone says "We're not in Kansas anymore?"

Now Sam, be sure not to improve these lines
in performance! I want them wooden and
ridiculous, just like I wrote them.
6:10 Five seconds! "You are not in Kansas anymore!" I swear I did not know that was coming. The most cliched line in the history of cliched lines is delivered by Stock Military Hardass #1, an older guy with three big scars in the side of his head, an all-camo wardrobe, and a pistol on his waist with the handle pointed forward. So you know he's a badass. "If there is a hell," he continues, "you might want to go there for a little R&R after a tour on Pandora." I am starting to wonder if in addition to inventing a 3D camera system for this movie, Cameron didn't also invent some kind of script-writing machine, because it seems impossible that this much hack dialogue could come from a sentient human.

6:50 Exposition time! We learn about the indigenous Na'vi and their poison arrows and their carbon fiber bones. Military Hardass #1 explains that although it is his job to keep everyone alive, he will not succeed with everyone. That's the kind of attitude they inculcate in the Marines. if you want to stay alive on Pandora, he explains, you have to follow the Pandora Rules, but Cameron cuts away before we get to hear any of them. I guess they're not that important.

8:00 Time to meet the avatars -- Na'vioid beings grown from a mix of human DNA and the DNA of the natives, inhabited by the minds of the humans. It just now hits me that "Na'vi" and "native" are very similar words. Cameron worked on this movie for ten years, but apparently wrote the script in an afternoon.  

9:20 In case all this exposition weren't clunky enough, Jake also has a video journal, so he can tell us what's going on and how these avatars work. He can use his dead brother's avatar because of their common DNA, but I'm wondering why there ever needed to be a dead brother. Couldn't Jake have been a scientist himself? I know there's some wish-fulfillment in the fact that Jake is a paraplegic ex-Marine so the avatar allows him to walk again, but couldn't he have been a paraplegic scientist with no dead brother? If any good plot reason for the dead brother comes along, I'll let you know.

10:10 Sigourney Weaver comes out of her avatar pod and says "Who's got my goddamn cigarette?" Is someone supposed to be standing there with a lit cigarette to stick straight in her mouth? Someone runs up and does just that, but is there some reason Sigourney couldn't have left a pack on the table right next to her pod? This is what they call a "character moment," where we learn that Sigourney's character is a) the boss and b) a total c-word! (I promised myself I wouldn't use swear words on this blog.)

11:10 Sigourney throws Jake some attitude because unlike his brother, he's not trained for this. This brings up the conflict between the corporate masters and their egghead employees, but I'm still not sure we needed to kill Jake's brother to get that across.

12:07 The Stock Corporate Douchebag is played by the otherwise appealing Giovanni Ribisi. How do we know he's a corporate douchebag? He's practicing his putting in the middle of mission control! He helpfully explains that despite his lack of scientific training, Jake is an ex-Marine and will be a security escort. Sigourney worries that he'll be trigger-happy. She is like a caricature of an uptight liberal hippie lady.

13:13 "This is why we're here: Unobtainium." This has to be the worst McGuffin in the history of McGuffins. Unobtanium? Really? Why not call it "Hardtogetium"? "Dontevenbotherum"? Even when I saw this movie in the theater and was wowed by the 3D and generally on board for the whole thing, this moment made me laugh out loud. This line alone should have disqualified the movie from contending in any Oscar category other than the technical ones. No writer should ever write that line, and even if they do, no director should ever shoot that line. Such are the perils of absolute power, such as that wielded by James Cameron.

14:35 We're not even 15 minutes into this thing yet and I want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.

15:00 This movie is a lot easier to watch when no one's talking. Jake takes his avatar out for a spin (over the objections of the scientists, of course), saying "I got this" several times in the process. This is the closest we've come to any character development on Jake.

18:34 Sigourney's avatar is wearing a Stanford tank top. As the Na'vi are nine feet tall, where did this garment come from? Of course all their clothes have been custom made, but that doesn't explain a Stanford tank top. If they're printing custom T-shirts for the avatars, why not make one for Jake that says "I got this"? It's his only memorable line in 18 minutes (and only memorable because he's said it five times).  Also, if all of the scientists are shrieking in the lab that Jake shouldn't get off his gurney until the proper testing has been done, why is Sigourney tossing him a piece of fruit and congratulating him on his motor skills? She's been hating on him nonstop, now all of a sudden she's all buddy-buddy?

20:00 Hardass Pilot #1 is played by Michelle Rodriguez. It's good she's not being typecast.

20:50 Military Hardass #1 (mid-bench press): "This low gravity will make you soft. You get soft, Pandora will shit you out dead without warning."  He's got an avatar of his own, a robot one, and he wants Jake to be his double agent. Even though all the humans are on the same side. This company has some interdepartmental issues.
24:20 My only complaint about the dual-horizontal-propeller aircraft that Cameron first put in "The Terminator" and carried over into "Avatar" is that they aren't available in real life. I saw an Osprey fly overhead when I was on a lake vacation in Virgina this summer -- that was similar.

25:00 Sigourney calls Jake an "idiot with a gun." Now she's mad at him again? She's got quite the unconventional management style!

25:35 Now that we're actually on Pandora, at least there's cool stuff to look at, and thank God for that -- I need something to distract me from this terrible script. But this is also where the movie shifts to being 98% CGI, and despite all the hoopla about the effects, I am still fully aware of the CGI. I wonder if this can ever be overcome, or if our brains have some kind of override that tells us when things aren't real, no matter how good the effects are.

28:43 I am beginning to suspect that Sam Worthington is hiding an Australian accent. Google confirms my suspicions. Add that to the list of things Sam Worthington can't do convincingly onscreen.

31:50 Enter the love interest, hiding in the bushes. Her entry into the plot is very similar to the way Wicket the Ewok enters "Return of the Jedi." Coincidence?

33:30 Stranded in the woods at night, Jake fashions a torch with the available natural resources. How did he know what would be flammable? The script has gone to great lengths to remind us that he's had no training and knows nothing about Pandora. And why is he carrying a box of matches? Did he get stuck being Sigourney's cigarette valet?

35:20 Under attack from all manner of beasts in the forest. I guess this is why he needed to be an ex-Marine. Nobody would believe a scientist could fight all these nasty animals. You win this round, Cameron.
35:31 Saved by the love interest! You know you're in for a long, long movie when the second lead shows up 35 minutes in. I don't know if I can make it to the end. I really don't.

37:00 The bioluminescent forest: the only (positive) detail I really remember about this whole movie. Why, oh, why didn't Cameron hire a screenwriter? The broad strokes of this story are just fine, but the devil is in the details. And by "details" I mean "dialogue" and "character logic."

39:28 Had I been in charge, I'm not sure I would have made the moss light up when you walk on it. It's cool, but a little too "Billie Jean."

46:00 One of the big problems with this flick is that Sam Worthington is a totally blank slate. The other avatars, and the Na'vi, all have some personality because they are played by actors who have some personality, but Jake has none at all, in either human or avatar form -- a problem for a main character. This is reinforced when he comes out of his avatar and he starts telling the humans at the base what he's seen. Everyone (everyone) is more interesting than Jake. Maybe they named him after Jake Lloyd.

51:14 The Na'vi worship a goddess called "Ehwa," which encompasses all living things. Jake was foretold in the prophecy to bring balance to the Ehwa. Whoops -- sorry, I'm getting my played-out, unoriginal ideas confused.

52:20 This thing where the Na'vi hook up their ponytails to the ponytails of the horses and the giant birds is a cool idea -- clearly it's a metaphor for the Na'vis' closer relationship to the natural world and the inherent value of that, but I immediately start wondering when he's going to join ponytails with Neytiri (The love interest.) If memory serves, this never happens in the movie, which is a pretty big tease. Shouldn't it have been the big love scene at the end?

54:40 Norm, the other guy who has an avatar -- a trained scientist like Jake's brother -- is suddenly being a total dick to Jake. When he first showed up and he had no training he was very friendly and helpful, but now he's throwing his lack of training in his face at every opportunity like Jake knocked up his sister or something. Couldn't he have just had a bad attitude from the beginning? Make him bad cop to Sigourney's good cop? That way they would both be -- wait for it -- consistent characters!

Despite your awful manners and offensive smell,
I think I'm falling for you
57:30 It's not clear to me why the Na'vi have taken Jake in like a lost cousin or something. He doesn't speak their language, he stumbles through their beloved forest like a bull in a china shop, they know he's a human in an avatar -- they even remark that he smells bad. So why are they adopting him into the fold? I could not be paying closer attention to this thing than I am right now, and I don't get this at all. Since the whole movie pivots on this, shouldn't it make sense?

59:40 Is it on purpose that the score sounds just like "My Heart Will Go On" from "Titanic," right down to the pan flute? Celine Dion already looks like a Na'vi so the synergy is a natural.

1:00:30 Now Norm is being nice again. Maybe he went back on his medication.

1:01:10 Long montage about Jake learning the ways of the Na'vi and the Force. After all that talk about what a hell-hole Pandora is, he certainly seems to be having a delightful experience!

1:10:40. I can't take any more. I'm tapping out. Uncle!

Here's the thing: I'm an hour-plus into this movie, all the plot pieces have been introduced and set into motion, and with 90 minutes to go, I'm not the least bit interested in how it all turns out. I'm sitting here wondering if there's anything I could be working on for my job, rather than watch the rest of "Avatar," 2009 Best Picture nominee and all-time box-office champion.

When you take away the wow factor of the 3D, there is nothing here to grab onto in this movie: the main character is unsympathetic and uncharismatic; the script sounds like it was written by a seventh-grade dropout; and the story is almost a scene-by-scene remake of "Dances With Wolves."  I don't begrudge it its huge financial success, because this is a blockbuster from the top down and blockbusters are frequently of questionable quality, but the Academy Awards committee ought to have its credentials revoked for putting this steaming hunk of garbage up for the big prize.

Like I said earlier, when I was doing my gear test last night I lost interest in this movie after 10 minutes, and watched "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" instead. That movie holds up pretty well (other than the music, which couldn't be more dated): you always know who the characters are, what they think of each other, what their motivations are, and above all, you like them and root for them. And they didn't even need 3D computer-generated monsters with six legs. They don't make 'em like they used to, I guess.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Julia Roberts Hates Julia Roberts

Remember this Julia Roberts? Me neither.
It seems that we, America, have elected a new Sweetheart to rule over us from our movie screens, in the person of Anne Hathaway, who recently signed a contract agreeing to appear in every movie made between now and 2024. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the reign of the outgoing America's Sweetheart: Julia Roberts.

Hollywood bloggers started eulogizing Ms. Roberts' tenure as Most Bankable Actress when Larry Crowne both tanked at the box office and got indifferent reviews from the critics. Those eulogies were a bit late, if you ask me; I'd argue that her appeal has been steadily slipping for at least 10 years, probably longer. Moreover, I think she could have had a much better (if not necessarily bigger) career.

Despite having managed her public image extraordinarily well, keeping herself out of the tabloids (at least since her initial flurry of broken engagements with costars in the early '90s) and generally understanding how to play the role of Movie Star as well as anyone ever has, she seems to fundamentally misunderstand what kind of Movie Star we elected her to be, and that disconnect has been eroding her appeal almost since she hit the public eye.

As everyone knows, Julia's rise to the top of the Hollywood food chain was unusually quick and (seemingly) easy: Her brother, Eric Roberts, had clawed his way to success in the early 80s, playing a psycho killer in Star 80 and going way, way over the top as the second lead in The Pope of Greenwich Village; Julia followed his lead and in no time started getting work in little movies like Mystic Pizza and the Justine Bateman girl-band vehicle Satisfaction and even as a mob moll on a late episode of Miami Vice.

Everything changed, of course, when she got the career-making role of a beautiful, intelligent, charming prostitute that doesn't do drugs -- rather a large 'buy' even by Hollywood standards -- on the strength of a) her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Steel Magnolias, and b) the fact that Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Karen Allen all turned it down.

Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a superstar overnight, and it's easy to see why: she comes across as the greatest date in the world, streetwise, fearless, conversant in auto repair and torque ratios, and equally beguiling in trashy hookerwear and an elegant evening gown. Most of all, she's quick to laugh her big, bright laugh and even quicker with what is now the most gushed-over smile in the history of Hollywood.

Personally, I've always found her a little weird-looking -- maybe because she looks so much like her brother -- but there's no denying her charm in this movie. She's easy, breezy, and loose, perfecting the good-time gal persona she'd been developing in her previous roles, and America fell head-over-heels for her. Everybody zeroes in on her smile as the source of her appeal, but I'd argue that it's all in her eyes: dark brown, unusually expressive, and (in her best roles) alive with intelligence and a sense of play and mischief. When we like Julia Roberts, we like her because she seems like fun, and nowhere is this more evident than in Pretty Woman. Unfortunately, being dubbed America's Sweetheart apparently wasn't good enough for her, so she decided to set her jaw, work on her scowl, and become a Dead Serious Actress.

Dead serious.
Look at her IMDb page and her next five movies after Pretty Woman: Flatliners, where she plays a scientist; Sleeping With The Enemy, an abusive-husband melodrama in the mold of Tori Spelling's immortal Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?; Dying Young, another melodrama where she falls in love with a terminal cancer patient; Hook, one of the few irredeemably bad Spielberg movies, where she played Tinkerbell to Robin Williams' Peter Pan; and The Pelican Brief, a John Grisham thriller where she plays a precocious law student on the run. Apart from Hook, there's not a lick of good humor to be found in any of these movies -- she seems determined to let us know that she's tough, filled with empathy, and above all, very, very, smart. There's nothing wrong with being (or appearing) smart, of course -- but it's at the expense of her natural charm.  

After this initial gold rush, she settles in for a very forgettable stretch of movies, none of which I remember seeing (and I see everything), and a few of which I don't remember at all: I Love Trouble, Something To Talk About, Mary Reilly, Michael Collins, and Everyone Says I Love You, in which she undertook her greatest acting challenge to date: feigning sexual attraction to a 61-year-old Woody Allen.

Eight years and ten movies after being crowned America's Sweetheart, she recovers her mojo in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, a very clever rom-com that turns her into the villain of the piece (despite being the main character). The movie's not perfect, but her manic performance as a woman desperately scheming to stop her male best friend's wedding and marry him herself reminded everybody why Julia Roberts was at the top of the heap in the first place -- because she's pretty, she's charming, she radiates intelligence, and she has a good grasp of comedy.

After that, she settled into a whole bunch of boring-looking movies that I didn't see -- Stepmom, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride -- before winning an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, which succeeds because, again, it plays to her natural strengths, allowing her to infuse some humor and mischief into the role of a smart, tough, crafty legal aide. But once again, she seems to have missed that message, and ran off another bunch of movies I didn't see. The few that I did see -- Ocean's Eleven, Closer, Duplicity -- give the impression that she was taking some kind of medication to keep her stiff and rigid and humorless. She seems to only have two modes of expression: scowling and smirking. Did she decide at some point that she only had so many smiles left in her, and that she should ration them out carefully?

Don't look at me like that.
Ocean's Eleven is a perfect example of what I'm talking about: this movie is a trifle, a cotton-candy puff of nothing (entirely by design, I should add), and everyone in its huge, all-star cast seems determined to have fun with it -- except for Julia Roberts. Because you don't win Oscars by being charming, likable, and fun, and it appears that winning an Oscar was always enormously important to Julia Roberts.

For proof of that, one need look no further than her 2001 Oscar acceptance speech, where more than any other winner I can think of, she relishes every moment on that stage and defends it from those who would usher her off in the interest of keeping the show on schedule like a lion defends her cubs. Interestingly, this speech was the last time we saw the persona that both got her to where she is, and won her that Oscar; she shed it again just as quickly as she did after Pretty Woman.
 It might seem insane, or impossible, but I think Julia Roberts could have been a much bigger star and had a much better career if she had understood her own appeal. (And I feel I should be clear that I really don't care about Julia Roberts one way or the other; these are just the observations of someone who pays a little too much attention to the movies.)

When I was working at a startup cable network in another life, a longtime actor who also worked there (because he had not made a big splash as an actor) once told a roomful of us that the most important thing an actor can do if he's going to get anywhere is to "know what kind of dog you are." (I don't know why he was giving us this advice, because there was no on-camera talent in the room.) If you are a chihuahua, don't try to get a job as a guard dog, and if you're a bulldog, you don't belong at the racetrack. Her enormous charm and charisma has peeked through at key moments, and carried her to the top, but just imagine the damage Julia Roberts could have done if she had known what kind of dog she is.

IMDb says she's currently shooting the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White, a fitting end to her reign as America's Sweetheart: she'll be playing a cold, humorless, stiff villain. Oddly enough I think Anne Hathaway would probably be better in the part; she'd probably at least inject a little humor into it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Most Effective Music Video Ever Made

I really liked Bill Simmons' contribution to Grantland's "YouTube Hall of Fame" blog this week: a live MTV performance by George Michael (backed by a very able Gospel-busk octet) of his best song, 1990's "Freedom '90." The performance was great, the live arrangement re-emphasizing the strength of the song itself, whose more familiar studio version is, let's face it, a little C + C Music Factory. Simmons was spot on as usual, but I was surprised to see no reference at all to the video for "Freedom '90," which is the entire reason I remember it as George Michael's best song.

That I would even admit to having an opinion on what George Michael's best song might be feels a little embarrassing to the 17-year-old in me that, at the time of this song's release, was listening primarily to Guns N' Roses, Van Halen, The Replacements, Fugazi, and Jane's Addiction. I was a self-identified rock kid, and George Michael, who first came to my attention with Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" video when I was in the 5th grade, was the farthest thing from "rock" that I could think of, and therefore of zero interest.

But the "Freedom '90" video was so ingeniously conceived and perfectly executed that it made an indifferent-to-hostile audience (me) take notice. I sat up in my chair and I paid attention to a George Michael video. How did George do it? He did not appear in the video himself; instead, he got a bunch of supermodels to lip-synch the song for him. If that was not enough (it was), the video was directed by David Fincher, who is now a big movie guy but made a lot of great, famous music videos in his early career, including "Straight Up," which is the whole reason we have Paula Abdul; "Vogue," definitely the best video Madonna ever made; and Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," which seems dumb now but was a big deal at the time. Armed with a great song and the likes of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford, Fincher depicts a mysterious world where superhumanly attractive people live in well-lit squalor, ignore catastrophic plumbing problems, and declare their independence.

Independence from what?

Glammed down for the  cover of the 12"
Despite the fact that he owed all of his success to that point to the medium, "Freedom '90" was the only video made for his "Listen Without Prejudice" album, and he wasn't even in it. Apparently unhappy with the caricature he had become thanks to his phenomenally overplayed MTV hit "Faith," he blamed record company image management and public overexposure, and addressed this frustration in the "Freedom '90" video by destroying all the iconography that was coming to define him: the guitar he played (or "played," as 17-year-old me would have snorted), the leather jacket he wore, and the jukebox he stood next to. He was saying to the audience: "You know how sick and tired you all are of me and my massive media presence? I feel the same way."

At the time I did not pick up on the (in retrospect, quite clear) subtext of struggling with being locked in the closet by a record company intent on marketing him to 14-year-old girls. I was too young to even think in those terms when Wham! started showing up on MTV. Even in the video where he's nude, writing on a woman's back in lipstick, it never seemed like that relationship might outlast the photo shoot. As I remember it -- and remember, I was a rock kid, so I wasn't paying very close attention -- George Michael's sexuality was like an open secret; no one cared to dig any deeper on because on some level everyone knew. He wasn't publicly out, but when he started getting busted in men's rooms nobody was shocked. Adding this dimension to his record company struggles makes the whole thing resonate on a deeper level than a rich guy's disagreement with his even richer employers. He was saying to the audience: "You know how silly it seems to keep putting me in videos with gorgeous girls and pretending like they interest me? Yeah, I'm not on board with that either."

This video is great without all that subtext, but with it, it's a classic. Let's watch it! 

0:03 What is the significance of the tea kettle? It bookends the video, so does it have any deeper meaning than emitting cool-looking steam for Fincher's camera? I would imagine that it signifies the fact that George has had just about enough -- he's boiling over -- and he's about to let go of his suppressed rage in song. 0:14 What is this high-tech music device? Is it one of those laser-based record players I used to see in catalogs but never ran across in real life? If it is, then why is the next shot of a CD case? I never ran across a CD player that looked like this. I concede the possibility that there were some super high-end Brookstoney CD players out there that my plebeian circles did not have financial access to, but why is this one in a building that looks like The Carter Apartments from New Jack City? 0:25 I won't bother trying to identify the male models in this video, partly because I assume it would be impossible and partly because I am indifferent to the information, but here begins the parade of supermodels lip-syncing the song (with varying degrees of skill), led by the stunning Linda Evangelista, who, saddled with a baggy turtleneck sweater and a season-one "Melrose Place" haircut, turns out to be the only fashion victim in this video -- mostly because she's the only one wearing anything other than a) a bedsheet b) a towel c) sexy underwear or d) nothing. Once again: brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed! 1:00 Naomi Campbell enters, all twirl and swagger, artfully dodging the mason jars collecting the water leaking from the ceiling. Is this the runoff from the boiling-over teakettle in Linda's apartment, coming through the floor? Based on what we now know about Naomi's temper and disposition, I tend to doubt that she'd so breezily shrug off this infringement on her personal space. 1:03 Seriously, where is all this water coming from? Does the building have larger plumbing problems? Is this a squat situation? 1:07 - 1:24 Linda gets the lion's share of the lip-syncing in this video, presumably because she was the best at it. I once heard that the guy that produced "Walk Like An Egyptian" made the four Bangles audition for each line in the song one at a time; Fincher is rumored to be that kind of a fastidious director, so I'm sure Linda earned this honor. Note her facial sigh on the line "I guess it was enough for me." I'm a little shocked we didn't see her in any movies. 1:42 Naomi soon shows why we didn't see her in any movies when she clearly mouths that she's "gonna get myselp happy." Lip-sync always looks better when the lip-syncer is actually singing -- it puts the appropriate strain in the neck that only comes from an active diaphragm, and helps one avoid saying words that aren't words. She looks great doing it though. All is forgiven, Naomi! (Please don't hurt me.) 1:49 Christy Turlington comes through some French doors dragging a 1,000 thread-count sheet like a bridal train. She must not have any water on the floor; maybe she's in the penthouse. Judging by the lighting, the power has been shut off in this building, which seems to be occupied exclusively by supermodels. I want to know more about this scenario. Do the models have advanced drug problems, or do they just have extraordinarily poor housekeeping skills? Based on my two cohabitations (one of which just passed the 11-year mark), I'd go with the latter. 2:08 "Sometimes the clothes do not make the man" is accompanied by a shot of Michael's then-iconic leather jacket (which he had worn in the "Faith" video) in the closet. If it wasn't clear already, now we know: George is not singing about an imaginary character or a composite of people he's known or making an allegory -- he's singing explicitly about himself. A few seconds later, the jacket spontaneously combusts, and it all becomes clear: George has had enough of the image he's been cultivating for the last decade. It probably wouldn't be a terrible thing if the whole building burned down, along with the jacket and the public image; it's got some nice architectural details, but it's clearly got plumbing problems and probably needs a gut reno. 2:27 Why is Christy so morose? Despite the semi-heavy lyrics, this is a pretty exuberant song -- I have never seen it fail on a dance floor -- so what's with the shoegazey delivery? Everybody else gets it; Naomi, Linda, male model #1, they're all embracing the spirit of hope and triumph that is at the core of this song. Come on, Christy, you're in the biggest video of the year, you're only 20, and they gave you the first chorus! You're only going downhill from here, you might as well enjoy the view. Pretty soon you're going to be married to Edward Burns and moments like this will be all that stands between you and a bottle of sleeping pills. 2:50 I do not understand the appeal of gravity boots. I guess they're great for doing inverted crunches and building up your six-pack, but dude, if you want some exercise you could spend some time fixing up this condemned building. Run a little conduit! I can think of at least three very lovely ladies who'd be verrry grateful for some electricity to run their hair dryers. (Then again, female gratitude may not necessarily be a strong incentive for this guy.) 3:00 It's kind of easy to forget now how huge a pop-culture presence Cindy Crawford was in 1990. She was everywhere, all the time -- in addition to being on every magazine cover printed between 1988 and 1995, she had her own show on MTV and even got the lead in an action flick opposite a (lesser) Baldwin -- but you (or at least I) never, ever got tired of looking at her. If she had maintained that level of ubiquity all the way up to the present day, I don't think I would have had any problem with it. She was (and still is) just that easy on the eyes. Here she gets true star treatment, making her first appearance halfway through the video, though we can't be sure it's her because she's upside-down (the first of many obscured or partial views of her then-inconceivably famous face -- more star treatment). Once Fincher goes for the close-up, though, that famous mole confirms that it is, in fact, the superest supermodel of them all. 3:15 Most of these lyrics are pretty straightforward in their meaning, but "got a brand new face for the boys on MTV" gave me pause for a moment. Did George Michael have some work done? Is he referring to the unshaven-stubble look he adopted when he went solo? Whatever else he may have done to further his career (or "play the game" as the song would have it), I think we can agree that at no point did he need a new face. He must be referring to having gone slightly (emphasis on "slightly") more butch when he broke from Wham!, i.e. quit cavorting in fluorescent lipstick, short shorts, and oversized hoops on both ears, thus enabling a pre-sexual generation of girls to keep their fixations as they got a little more (but still not very) savvy. But now he is tired of living that lie! 3:30 Who is this model? The other four I remember because they were everywhere -- this one I only know from this video. Google says it's Tatjana Patitz, but that does not help me. She looks a lot like Milla Jovovich -- maybe I thought they were the same person? As a 17-year-old male in 1990, I had pretty good supermodel awareness, but I don't think I've ever seen the name Tatjana Patitz until right now. Anyway, she's pretty. And wherever she is, I bet she's a better actress than Milla Jovovich.

 3:50 Remember when models were really, really pretty? I miss that. I miss it a lot. I would take the present-day, late-40s versions of any one of these ladies over anybody on any "cycle" of "America's Next Top Model." 3:55 - 4:06 "All we have to do is take these lies and make them true." This is a brilliant example of turning something as simple as "let's stop lying" into a wildly singable rhyming couplet. George Michael wrote some pretty great pop songs. (I'm partial to "Anything She Wants" by Wham! if I had to pick a runner-up.) "All we have to see is that I don't belong to you and you don't belong to me." You can read this just about any way you want -- it applies to almost any situation, and gives it a little F-you, which is what makes it a great lyric. 4:07 Man, Cindy Crawford looks good in that bathtub. Remember when models were really pretty? 4:11 The jukebox explodes. I bet it wasn't a real jukebox, though. If somebody found an authentic working jukebox that looked like that and blew it up, it would really be a shame. It actually explodes three times, but I'm assuming they just shot the same explosion with three cameras, because if they blew up three authentic working jukeboxes, eBay would put a price on their head. Two "Faith" props down, one to go. The guitar is next! 4:37 - 4:57 What is the meaning of this quick-cut montage with all the girls looking gorgeous ending with a pricked finger and sucking the blood? I am having a hard time grasping a meaning here. I have been tough on female fans of vampire mythology, but when the shoe is on the other foot, I have to admit It looks pretty sexy. I am still a 17-year-old rock kid paying close attention to a George Michael video in 1990, so whatever it is, it's working. 5:00 - 5:13 "When you shake your ass, they notice fast, some mistakes are built to last." Purely speculation, but I wonder if George isn't referring here to Dana Carvey's impression of him on "Saturday Night Live." 
5:36 Dueling symbolisms here: Someone is rustling around like the Snuffleuppagus under Christy's sheet, and Linda is trying to hide her face in her turtleneck. What's the deeper meaning here? I don't know, but between this and the bloodsucking, this completely, overtly stylized piece is finally starting to feel a little pretentious. Maybe because we haven't seen Cindy in a while, and we still haven't seen her whole face. Fincher (or his editor) knows what I want and he's going to make me watch to the end to get it. Point: Fincher. 5:56 There goes the guitar! Google says it's a Gretsch G400 Synchromatic Archtop! I bet it's not fake. How many guitars do you think are purposely destroyed on stage or on film each year? I would love to see some statistics on this. Could Pete Towshend ever have imagined what he'd unleashed? 6:08 Finally, a clear shot of Cindy Crawford. I once read that Orson Welles called "the star part" the character in a movie that everyone talks about constantly, but who the audience doesn't see until the end. (Welles got the star part of Harry Lime in "The Third Man.") That's what Cindy has in this video: the star part. One thing I always find interesting is when a songwriter jams run-on sentences that don't rhyme into his verses; it shows that the lyrical content of the song is very important to the songwriter and, oddly, this kind of free verse comes closer to poetry in music than rigidly metered lyrics do. Clearly, George Michael had a lot to say here, and he said it very well.  It's too bad that, after this most eloquent declaration of independence in every sense, I cannot name one George Michael song recorded after 1990, and that at this point if you refer to "George Michael" there's a good chance people will think you're talking about Michael Cera's character from "Arrested Development." It's pretty common when a musician comes out with a new record that it gets hyped up as being "more personal" than earlier work, but that work rarely delivers much insight into the artist.  I think "Freedom  '90" might be the most personal piece of pop music I can think of. I wouldn't classify myself as a George Michael fan -- the stuff he did before this is not to my liking and I don't know what he did after this -- but this song is pretty awesome even if it is, let's face it, a little C + C Music Factory.
Final note: I went back to to find the link to the live performance I referenced in the opening paragraph, and what's the top story but a meditation on the career of Cindy Crawford by Molly Lambert. Convergence!