Superheroes for Fun and Frolic

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If you haven’t heard of Chronicle, you aren’t alone. On hearing the title, most people think it’s a re-release of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Riddick. But the title of this film is just Chronicle. And it’s just out. But the word “just” doesn't do justice to this chronicle of a super-unhero in the making. This is a film — one of several this season — that focuses on the art of filmmaking. It is fun and exciting, but it also deserves critical acclaim for its cinematic techniques.

As a story, Chronicle challenges one of the basic elements of the superhero genre: for some reason, we simply accept the idea that a person who has been given supernatural powers will automatically decide to use them for the common good. From Superman to Spiderman, superheroes have accepted the idea that they have an obligation to “give back” to society by giving up their personal desires and happiness.

Chronicle asks its viewers to consider what it would really be like if a hormone-driven, angst-laden, alcohol-addled teenager suddenly developed supernatural powers of levitation and kinesthetics. In this film, might does not make man righteous, and superpowers do not necessarily make superheroes.

When three high school seniors, Andrew (Dane DaHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), accidentally stumble upon what appears to be a meteor tunneled into the ground, they are exposed to something akin to radioactive power. This affects their brains, and soon they find that they can control objects outside themselves. The story is so old it is almost iconic. But these boys revel in their newfound powers and continue to frolic like teenagers. It never even occurs to them to use their powers altruistically for the betterment or protection of humankind. In fact, they never compare themselves to superheroes. Nor do they worry about any dangers or risks that might accrue to them from having been exposed to those powerful rays. They just live in the moment, laughing and playing (and fighting) as teenagers tend to do.

As the film opens, Andrew sits behind a video camera, reflected in the mirror in front of him. He carries his camera everywhere, recording his conversations and the events around him. He represents this generation’s fixation on chronicling everything they do digitally, via video cameras, Facebook, and blogs. Director Josh Trank uses a camera-lens point of view so that the camera becomes the protagonist’s eyes. It almost becomes a character, in fact — the predator in the woods or behind the closet door that is always watching.

It may seem obvious to say that the audience sees through the eyes of the protagonist; after all, that’s just Literature 101. But although we identify with the protagonist in most films, we don’t literally see what the protagonist sees. The camera is usually focused outside the protagonist, filming the character as he or she talks, walks, and interacts with others. Most of the time the eyes are actually the viewers’, not the character’s. And that feels pretty comfortable for the viewer.

In Chronicle, however, we don’t see Andrew except when he happens to be reflected in his camera’s lens by a mirror or another shiny surface, or when he decides to turn the camera onto himself, or when other inside-the-story cameras catch him on film. This deliberately draws attention to his generation’s penchant for self-recording. It echoes the narcissistic reaction of these boys to their superpowers, while giving the film a creepy, voyeuristic tension.

It's actually a little too distracting: we constantly hear Andrew’s voice off-camera; and although tension is created in the beginning, because we see only what happens while the camera is turned on, too much attention is drawn to technique. Apparently Trank realized this, because partway through the story Andrew finds a way to film the trio without holding the camera himself. Eventually Trank abandons the technique altogether by allowing the story to be “chronicled” by all the security cameras and handheld devices in the city. This seems to be less distracting for the viewer; it maintains the integrity of the concept but adds another interesting layer of meaning to the film.

In addition to offering a fresh take on the superhero genre and a fresh approach to cinematic technique, Chronicle uses some nifty special effects in showing how the boys learn how to develop and control their powers. The subplots involving Andrew’s dying mother and abusive father are also powerful in helping us to understand Andrew as more than a two-dimensional comic-book character. This is a movie that film buffs will enjoy almost as much as the teen audience it seems designed to attract.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chronicle," directed by Josh Trank. Davis Entertainment, 2011, 83 minutes.



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Dishonorable Mentions

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Last month, this column gave out awards for the ten greatest linguistic monstrosities of 2011. It was not required that the winners be born in that year — only that they had been prominently, glossily, and grossly overused in it.

I thought I'd made my decisions wisely, but evidently I was wrong. Word Watch has an intelligent and discerning audience, and there was a great outcry against my choices.

No one asserted that the ten expressions were innocent and charming victims of Cox's vindictive spleen. After all, who could defend “dead on arrival” (used for every piece of legislation one doesn’t like), “icon” (used for everything except religious pictures), or “epic” (used for everything whatever)? The objection in each case was to my omission of other candidates, expressions just as worthy of hatred and fear as the ones I mentioned.

There was merit — much merit — in the protests I received. It is therefore my duty, and my pleasure, to publicize some of the strongest additional candidates for inclusion among the Most Gruesome Expressions of the Year Just Past. Again, there’s no requirement that a contender should have originated in 2011. The distinguishing characteristic is disgusting overuse.

I’ll arrange this new set of linguistic freaks under four headings.

1. The labor theory of value

When the January Word Watch was published, an anonymous correspondent wrote immediately to ask, “What about the awful term ‘worker,’ which apparently we've all now become?” To which a reader named Rusty replied, “I would add 'working families' to the list.”

They're both right. The labor theory of value continues to spawn all kinds of smarmy words. The current use of “worker” (which I'm always tempted to pronounce as "woikuh," in the old Daily Woikuh style) is one of the most insidious items in our political vocabulary. It has no meaning of its own; it’s just a code for other things. Stupid other things.

Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn.

My anonymous reader was getting at that when he noticed that we are all "workers" now. Yet because the word is used only to signify good things, certain parties are necessarily, though illogically, excluded. When President Obama uses the term, he plainly doesn’t mean “everyone who works.” He doesn’t mean people who work on “Wall Street” (however many thousands of those people he also has working in his own administration). He doesn’t mean employers. He doesn’t mean doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. He means something like “manual or subordinate laborers.” He means the people whom he frequently pictures as “living from paycheck to paycheck.”

I don't know any Indian chiefs who live from paycheck to paycheck, but maybe that's because I don't know any Indian chiefs. I do know plenty of doctors and lawyers who live that way, just as I know plenty of people who work with their hands but have no problem meeting their mortgages. So Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn. Let me tell you, my doctor does a lot of work when he has to deal with me.

The core reference of this coded language of work is “union labor.” That type of labor is, understandably, a central concern of Obama's administration, since unions were crucial to making him president. Yet from the intellectual point of view (and Obama is supposed to be an intellectual), it’s too bad that he and his friends want to wipe the literal meaning of "work" completely off the map. If the unionized denizens of the DMV do “work,” and lifesaving medicos do not, then what happens to the concept of, well, work? What happens to "effort expended for a productive purpose"? It vanishes, that’s what.

I haven’t mentioned the odor of self-righteousness that now attaches to “worker,” the word. All so-called workers, such as our friends at the DMV, are assumed to be more deserving, more useful — in short, better than everyone else. This is simply, directly, and stupidly offensive. It’s worse when the reference spreads to people who don’t even pretend to work, as in “working families.” Now the two-year-old child of the DMV desk-holder is included among the Woikuhs of duh Woiurld, and the medical scientist remains in the outer darkness.

2. The awesomeness of awesomeness

Willard Brickey wrote to say, “Maybe you've mentioned it before, but ‘awesome’ is a word abused so often that it's practically impossible to use it in its original, legitimate sense.”

True. The current plague of “awesome” resulted from some mutation in the brains of skateboarders and other such people. For more than two decades, “awesome” has been employed as a universal adjective, the anointed successor to such words as “cool” and “incredible.” At first it was boards, waves, and dudes that were awesome; but soon it was everything — caps, tatts, high ‘n’ tights — that was in any way associated with maleness. (“Awesome” is a male-coded word.)

This disease had ugly precedents at the other end of the social spectrum from gamers and thrashers. Historically, “awesome” has been most strongly associated with religion. But at some point in the 20th century, people, even religious people, stopped being interested in traditional religious language. They were no longer sure what “awe” might mean, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the word itself must have some power, since it appeared in prayers and stuff like that, but they were confused by the “some” that often got attached to it. Unwilling to resort to a dictionary, they assumed that “awesome,” the adjective, was some kind of general intensifier that could be used on anything.

Here’s an example — with a fairly long preamble.

Virtually all Christian songs that are widely known today were introduced before the mid-twentieth century. One reason is that around that time — the time when the Baby Boom first went to school — many otherwise verbal people stopped being interested in traditional literary language. They suddenly didn’t know what “hither” meant, let alone “thither” — or “sustain,” “solace,” “deplore,” or “chide.” They stopped having enough language to write enduring songs. They stopped understanding songs that had been universally popular only a few years before. They couldn’t understand what the hymn writer meant when he said, in the moving last stanza of a song that used to be standard in Christian congregations:

God be with you till we meet again:
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.

What, they wondered, could "smite" possibly mean? And how does a banner "float"?

So songs like that began to vanish.

“Amazing Grace” is a Christian song that everyone still “knows.” It was written in the 18th century and popularized by its use in a movie (The Onion Field) in 1979. Despite its present popularity, which is generally based on a serious misunderstanding of its meaning, no one could write that kind of song today. It has too many of those, like, weird old expressions in it. It even refers to “snares.”

The only other universally recognized Christian song that was popularized after the mid-20th century is “How Great Thou Art.” To my ears, this song is the pale, bewildered ghost of a great tradition. One proof is that it begins in this way:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .
Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee.
How great thou art! How great thou art!

When I hear those lines, my own soul says, “How dumb this is! How dumb this is!” Awesome doesn’t belong in there. The singer means that God is “awesome.” Fine. But what he says is that his own “wonder” is “awesome.” Which is dumb.

But why the hell shouldn’t he say it? Can’t awesome be applied to everything?

O Lord my God, it can be. But when you hear that anything-goes awesome, you are hearing the “ave atque vale” of our linguistic heritage.

If you don’t know what “ave atque vale” means, go look it up. That will be an awesome experience for you.

Snobbish? I don’t care. Would you rather know something, or not know it?

3. We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was

Let’s proceed from the falsely sublime to the truly ridiculous. One reader insisted that I must have been paid not to mention the scandalous misuse of “General” and other honorifics. I wasn’t, unfortunately — but here’s what she meant.

The Attorney General of the United States is not a military officer. Neither is the Surgeon General of the United States. They are not generals. They never lead troops into battle. They are attorneys or surgeons ingeneral service to the nation. Yet when Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, came before Congress to testify about his role in the gunrunning operation known as Fast and Furious, he was repeatedly asked such questions as, “You’re not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it wasn’t your responsibility to have known about this problem?” The questioning congressmen didn’t understand what Holder’s title meant — any more than congressmen, commentators, and other potentates understand that the Surgeon General should not be addressed as General or appear in the Ruritarian, supposedly military, uniforms in which, beginning with the Reagan administration, they have obtruded themselves on the public attention.

Why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker?

Worries about the Attorney General turned my reader’s attention to worries about political titles ingeneral, and their persistence in particular. “When,” she wondered, “do people stop being this or that which they have been in the past?”

Good question. Receiving it, I had fond memories of R.W. Bradford, founder of Liberty, who often lodged the same complaint.

At the House committee hearing called to investigate Jon Corzine’s behavior as head of the IMF investment outfit, Corzine revealed that he had no idea what had become of $1.2 billion invested with him. That was startling enough; almost as startling to me was the fact that Corzine sat behind a committee-provided sign that read, in big black letters, “The Honorable Jon S. Corzine.” Corzine is “honorable” because he used to be a senator and a state governor. Used to be (thank God).

The poet Wordsworth wrote insightfully of spiritual states that do not cease — that “having been, must ever be.” Apparently it’s the same with Corzine’s “honor.” No matter what happens, he keeps his titles, and even his moral additives, forever. He even keeps his middle initial, as if there were some other Jon Corzine, equally involved in both scandals and congressional investigations, who might otherwise be confused with him.

For God’s sake, isn’t there any statute of limitations for these political functionaries? When Gertrude Smith retires from the DMV, even she (one of the “woiking class”) isn’t addressed as Counter Clerk Smith for the rest of her life. So why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker? Is he likely to be mistaken for some other Gingrich, currently running for president?

4. How to grow your identity

So far I’ve considered individual readers’ additions to my limited list of linguistic follies. Two expressions, however, produced a general chorus of “Why didn’t you mention this?”

The first is “grow,” as in “grow the economy.” A number of readers pointed out that “the economy is not a plant.” Others observed that “if the politicians, Democrat or Republican, keep saying, over and over, that ‘we need to grow the economy,’” they, my readers, will be forced to uproot their party affiliations, chop down their vote-bearing trees, and send all political literature to the compost heap.

Those are cogent remarks. “Grow,” the organic metaphor, is absurd when it’s applied to such palpably inorganic things as “the economy,” “my bank account,” “your sales campaign,” or “your marital happiness and engagement.” (My spam box is full of offers to “grow” that last entity.) But I have something more against “grow.”

Think of the explanations it replaces. Precisely who is to grow the economy? President Obama? President Romney? The man in the moon?

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were known as “the baker and the baker’s wife,” on the assumption that they provided bread for the people of France. Now our president is pictured as the chief grower of our economic destinies. It’s hard to say which expression is sillier.

And precisely what is to be grown? Explain that to me. Investments? OK, how? How are they grown? Or are revenues the crop? Or jobs? What’s the seed? What are the tools? But don’t worry; we need to elect someone who can grow the economy.

So much for grow. The second type of “why didn’t you mention this?” referred to those demon twins, the political pronouns “we” and “our” — monsters now appearing everywhere in the discourse of presidential candidates.

Originally the political function of these words was to deflect personal responsibility, as in the president’s frequent comments about how “we, uh, we never, uh, said that this process of, uh, economic healing wouldn’t be, uh, hard or that it, uh, wouldn’t take a, uh, uh, long time to, uh, provide what we, uh, want to provide.”

The deflection function persists. But for Obama’s Republican opponents, “we” and “our” have an aggrandizement function also. The pronouns are the Republican candidates’ way of inflating their magnitude, of multiplying their insignificant personalities.

“From the start of our campaign our intention has always been to,” oh, whatever. How many times have you heard that one? More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away. It’s just too weird when somebody checks into a hotel as “Newt Gingrich” (singular) but tells everyone outside that he’s actually a whole mob of candidates.

Michele Bachmann, whose continued presence “on the campaign trail” will be missed by five or six of her “fellow Americans,” has always had difficulty fitting the start of her sentences to the ends thereof. So naturally, she told Fox News that “no other candidate [singular] is doing a 99-county tour of Iowa, but we [plural] are.” That would have been easy, if there had been plural Bachmanns, but I’m happy to say there weren’t.

Bachmann was such an irresistibly representative American illiterate that I number myself among the few who will miss her (or them). She provided constant instruction in how the English language should not be used. She was even more helpful in this regard than Sarah Palin. You could always trust Bachmann to say something pompous and foolish.

More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away.

By “illiterate,” incidentally, I don’t mean “folksy” or “colloquial.” I wish that political candidates would speak good colloquial English, rather than the speech-from-the-throne lingo they prefer. Unfortunately, they have nothing compelling or colorful to say in any dialect. The fact that they resort for emphasis to the official “we” demonstrates just how far down the linguistic totem pole they are.

On January 19, Gingrich reported, “Callista [his wife] and I were really honored today when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed us.” If you want ickiness, this is almost as good as “working families.” It seems that when I’m voting for a candidate, I’m also endorsing the candidate’s spouse. And maybe the kids and the dog. Today, all candidates are Kennedys.

Even Donald Trump, who brought ego to the Republican Party and now brings ego to the so-called independents, has started talking like this. Asked, before the Iowa caucus, whether he was going to support Mitt Romney, if Romney won, Trump repeatedly resorted to the plural pronoun: “We’re watching, to see what develops.” Someone of my age can’t help remembering the

two-headed dragon once impersonated by Fred and Ethel Mertz in the old I Love Lucy show. The monster wandered across the television scenery, eyes rolling, tail switching, pretending to growl. But it was still Fred and Ethel Mertz. And that’s one more character than Donald Trump can manage to impersonate.




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Office Complex

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Recently, I missed a flight and ended up in a vast airport-adjacent suburb with a few hours to kill. My first stop was at a Starbucks to do some quick work. (Although I don’t drink coffee, I travel enough to know that Starbucks outlets almost always have clean bathrooms and reliable wireless Internet connections.)

One appeared quickly, at the corner of a big box shopping center. It was larger than most of the shops in the Pacific Northwest, so I figured there’d be plenty of room near noon on a weekday. But I was mistaken. The place was packed.

It took a few minutes to find an empty table where I could set down my tea and set up my laptop. In the meantime, I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

A youngish man with a carefully cultivated scraggly beard and black apparel was plugged into his laptop via elaborate headgear. He was facing me, so I couldn’t see the screen of his computer; but, from the cadence of his talk, it was evident that he was participating in some sort of video conference. He made direct eye contact with me for a few moments — which I thought might be a reproach for looking at him — but then he changed his gaze to another person and spoke into his mic.

I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

Something I’d read somewhere came back to me: videoconferencing veterans suggest choosing people or things in the room around you to represent the other participants in a conference call. On video, this creates the impression that you’re responding to specific others in the “meeting,” as if they were in a real room with you. He was just using me as an eye-contact avatar.

I couldn’t make out everything the fashionable man said. He was too far away and the Starbucks had too much background noise. But a few phrases made it across the space. “Elevations.” “Build-out.” “Retrofit.” “Improvements.” Because my wife is an architect, I recognized these as terms from a construction project — and, specifically, the expansion of an existing building.

Other snippets of words he used conveyed a certain fastidiousness; he constantly asked others what they thought and if they understood what someone else had said. Sounded like he was the construction manager or coordinator on the project.

I noticed that he’d chosen a seat with a blond panel wall behind it. The small video camera atop his computer screen would frame him in a background that could be from some fashionable office. And the elaborate headgear probably filtered out the background noise. Smart. His clients would have no idea he was sitting in a coffee shop.

Closer to me, a middle-aged salesman and saleswoman huddled at a smaller café-style table and swapped office gossip. The man did most of the talking — an overweight man with an overbearing voice: “The guy is so clueless that he has no idea Everett actually hates him. And he’ll never figure that out.” “I tried to give him some advice. Live on your draw and save your commissions. Don’t count on commissions for paying bills. But he doesn’t listen.” “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not my fault it’s like this. I mean, times are hard. We’re all cutting back.’”

The woman listened and nodded agreement with most of this. But she looked tired and clearly wished she were somewhere else.

As they reached the bottoms of their lattes, the salespeople plotted their afternoon. They were sharing one rental car but had separate appointments before their flight home that evening. He sketched out a plan for dropping her off at her next call while he made his and then switching driving chores, so that she’d drop him off at his last call while she made hers.

If times were better, they’d each have rented their own car.

Just behind me, two women — one older and very sharply dressed, one younger and casually dressed — talked about graphic design work. Their conversation was more about practical matters than aesthetics. The older woman opened a nice leather portfolio and showed the younger various business forms: letterhead, contracts, purchase orders and invoices.

It wasn’t clear whether the business forms were the product of the older woman’s practice or the forms that she used to deal with clients. And the younger woman’s questions were so elementary that they didn’t make matters any more clear.

This meeting seemed to be a “Can I pick your brain?” session. Perhaps the younger woman was the daughter of one of the older woman’s friends. The younger may have read somewhere that asking an established person for “advice” is the best way to get intelligence on employment.

Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

I’ve been on the older woman’s side of the table for a few of these meetings myself. I caught a glimpse of her face. She was in her late 40s or early 50s, quite attractive and carefully appointed. But her eyes looked sad. They squinted a lot — in contempt, I think — at the younger woman, whose childish questions and cadence made her sound simple-minded.

If the meeting behind me was a job interview, the younger woman wasn’t going to be hired. As the older woman folded up her portfolio, the younger asked her about any contract work that might be available. “It would be subcontract work,” the older said ruefully. “Give me a couple of business cards. I’ll keep them handy.”

Nearly finished with my emails, I took a break to use the men’s room. There were a couple of men ahead of me. While waiting, we listened to a white-haired man pitch four or five other older men and one woman on an investment scheme.

He’d handed each of his marks letters and information printed on heavy-stock paper which had a Baroque-style firm name ending in “Capital” at the top.

“ . . . our record speaks for itself, of course. But, like everyone, we are always looking for more business. And advertising on radio or television, frankly, isn’t something that interests us.”

The others nodded eagerly. This was a job interview. The white-haired man was selling them on becoming sales representatives for his firm — which was involved in some capacity with reverse mortgages. But my turn to use the bathroom came before I could hear the details.

Reverse mortgages are, essentially, the subprime loans of the coming decade. They are legal but unwise financial vehicles that are most effective at separating gullible people from their wealth. The gullible people, in this case, are seniors with real estate that they own outright or nearly outright; with a reverse mortgage, they get a monthly stipend in exchange for leaving their property to the mortgage company when they die.

If they die after just a few years of payments, the gullible old people have effectively sold their property for a fraction of its value.

Although he had the cheap sophistication of a game-show host, the white-haired man couldn’t have been very high up on the food chain of his shady industry. Multilevel marketing schemes are usually desperate to seem established, so they aren’t usually run out of coffee shops. But, hey, times are hard. And we’re all cutting back.

Back from the bathroom, I packed up my computer and scanned the place one last time on my way out. There were at least a dozen intense conversations going on; and another dozen or so people working intensely on computers or other devices. Did any of these people have “jobs” in the sense that the Department of Labor defines them?

Statist hacks like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Barack Obama think of “jobs” as compliant proles lining up at the gates of General Motors for hourly-wage work, performing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined places. But this thinking is antiquated and wrong. Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

For most people, a “job” means — and will mean, for the foreseeable future — hustling for freelance work. Contracts and subcontracts. Commission sales. Multilevel marketing. There’s money in it, but that money doesn’t come easily. And, sometimes, it doesn’t come reliably.

That’s what I saw at the suburban Starbucks freelance labor bazaar.




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This Modern Life

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Not Just a 9/11 Flick

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To say that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about 9/11 is akin to saying that Moby-Dick is about a whale. Yes, the attack on the Twin Towers is an essential part of the story, but it is used as a metaphor, not as a plotline. The attack provides a setting and a backdrop for exploring the universal issues of grief and crisis, and of family relationships. This film is about fathers and sons, and about mothers, too. It is about trying to make sense out of something that is essentially senseless.

Death is always cataclysmic. It always feels like two giant towers collapsing. When one person dies, another disintegrates. That's the larger point of this film.

Many elements of the movie just don't seem to make sense — initially. The central figure, 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), simply isn't reacting properly. When he returns home from school on the morning the Towers come down, he's too flippant with the doorman, and too calm when he enters his apartment. The doorman is flippant in return. I was in New York that day. I know what it was like. And it wasn't like this — calm and normal, as though nothing had happened at all.

Before long, however, I realized that this was the other point of the film. It challenges our ideas of what "normal" means. And "proper." And "making sense." The film's series of mistakes isn't really a mistake. It is a deliberate means of conveying an idea: life doesn't make sense, but we have to try to make sense of it anyway.

To make this point, director Stephen Daldry uses a precocious young boy as his central figure. Oskar has a remarkably close relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), who encourages his young son's imagination with games of discovery and "expeditions." Oskar has "something like Asperger's syndrome," which gives him tremendous focus and memory. It also explains his odd reactions in the first half hour of the film. His condition provides not only a skewed point of view, but a metaphor.

Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

The film's title is about Oskar's reaction to sensory stimulation, not to the planes flying into the Towers. Oskar has extraordinary intelligence, but struggles to make sense of ordinary things, like sidewalk lines and answering machines. Similarly, we struggle to make sense of the crises that happen in our lives. Death is an "ordinary" thing. It happens every day. But when it happens to someone we know and love, it isn't ordinary at all. And it does not make sense.

When Oskar finds a key inside a vase in his father's closet, he is convinced that it will lead him to something profound that his father left for him. With his unusual focus and quirky intelligence he devises a plan and sets out on a journey that will take him over the boroughs of New York, searching for a message from his father. He knows it will be nearly impossible, but he says, "If things were easy to find, they wouldn't be worth finding."

Along the way Oskar meets dozens of New Yorkers. Many of them have experienced a profound loss. Their losses are not as public or as shared as the losses experienced at the Towers that day, but they are felt just as deeply. Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

Early trailers focused on the scenes that include Tom Hanks, a multiple Oscar winner and box-office draw. This makes good marketing sense, even though Hanks is seldom on screen. But after the Oscars were announced last week and Max von Sydow was nominated for best supporting actor, I noticed that the trailers suddenly changed and von Sydow became their new central figure. That makes good business sense too, and even better artistic sense. Von Sydow plays a renter who lives in an apartment across from Oskar's building. Known simply as The Renter, he has experienced a trauma that prevents him from speaking, but not from communicating. Von Sydow is simply brilliant in the role. His expressions transcend the need for words.

As Oskar's mother, Sandra Bullock also demonstrates a wide range of emotions, from numbness to horror to sadness to joy. Yes, even joy, amid the loss. Her grief is almost too painful to watch as she realizes that her husband is doomed, yet she never steps into the realm of melodrama. She manages to stay authentic and vulnerable in every scene.

I wish the same could be said for Thomas Horn as Oskar. He speaks precociously enough, and his moment of cathartic crisis is believably powerful. But he does not portray Asperger’s (or the condition that is "like Asperger’s") well. He has the actions down, but something is missing. Or, more to the point, something almost imperceptible is not missing from the look on his face. It keeps the film from quite making sense . . . but that seems to be the point too, doesn't it?

I wasn't planning to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I really wasn't ready to see a schmaltzy, melodramatic movie about the day the Twin Towers were attacked, and that's exactly what the early trailers led me to believe Extremely Loud would be. But when it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, I felt an obligation to review it, even if just to say, "What was the Academy thinking?"

Having seen it now, I have to admit: the Academy was right. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is another of this season's artistic gems. I don't think it deserves the Oscar, but it certainly does deserve the recognition of an Oscar nod.


Editor's Note: Review of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," directed by Stephen Daldry. Paramount, 2011, 129 minutes.



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