Sunday, February 28, 2010
My friend Dana e-mailed me one day in the mid-1990s, raving about this odd, hilarious film she found called Bottle Rocket. Dana and I both studied video production, and like me, she eventually went to film school, so I trusted her judgment.
I went to Blockbuster (I think), rented the tape, took it home, and watched. I laughed a few times, but I didn't quite see what Dana saw. I'm not saying she was wrong. I just didn't feel much.
Keep in mind, this was at a time when Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were setting the standard for what was funny on film. Then along came Wes Anderson, Kevin Smith, and Noah Baumbach, and suddenly film comedy seemed to go back to this more cerebral, personal place. Sandler and Farley made hilarious films, but these indie upstart directors were fearless. So what if the audience gets a little impatient? Screw 'em. Make 'em work a little, think a little, and get a reward when they're patient with the film. These quirky, personal comedies resonated with me a bit more, and helped me to realize that I wanted to write stuff like this. (This also pretty much ensured that I would never make any money doing this.)
Later, Rushmore came out, and was so good, so full of substance, I finally decided Bottle Rocket deserved more effort from me — not some blithe dismissal because I thought the film was "weird" — and the best way to give Bottle Rocket my full attention was to own a copy.
Only one problem — I couldn't find a copy anywhere.
I looked all over town (this is pre-Internet ordering for me). Suncoast, Sam Goody, Walmart, Meijer — nobody in Muncie had a copy. I didn't want to drive to Indy and come back empty handed. So, defeated, I decided to just rent Bottle Rocket again.
I stopped at the local Blockbuster, had the movie in my hand, and had an epiphany. I wondered: if I offered to buy, would Blockbuster sell me their copy?
The Blockbuster manager was cool. He looked up the tape's rental history — only 11 rentals! He sold that used VHS tape to me for $14.99, the equivalent of like $35 or something now. What a bargain.
I played that glorious standard definition, 4:3, stereo videocassette over and over. I showed the film to friends and girls I was attempting to date, and turned a few people on to the film, but usually, the film was met with a resounding "meh." This film is not for everyone — too quirky, too jumpy, and not "Wes Anderson enough." I'm not sure how those three items can co-exist, but whatever.
My in-laws got me this Criterion DVD two Christmases ago. This is a revelation. There's like, other stuff in the frame on the left and the right sides of the screen, and the picture isn't all fuzzy and craptastic. Criterion did a 5.1 mix, and there's a commentary track with Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, and there's a whole second DVD with supplements. Plus there's Dignan's notebook — the whole 75 year plan. They even included the original short.
I'm thrilled at the wealth of supplements — way more than the original DVD release, which I think listed "Not VHS" as a special feature.
Years on, and after dozens of viewings Bottle Rocket holds up so well. I only have to hear a line or two of dialogue (or the opening bars of The Rolling Stones' "2000 Man") and I just smile this big, stupid smile because I'm happy a film like this got made. A bunch of no-name actors, a no-name director (at the time), and...James Caan? How did this movie happen?
Films like Bottle Rocket give me hope. I know times have changed and independent films like this are not so common anymore, but I can't let that get me down. I have to think like Dignan. Positive thinking taken to a certain extreme allows for a certain naivete, and that's Dignan's charm, and if I can borrow a fraction of that mindset, then I'll keep my chin up and get some things done. I'm not sure what things, but things.
Dana, if you're reading this, thanks.
I got to Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights through his third film, Magnolia, a few years after the Boogie Nights craze, which I mostly ignored.
I just didn't understand what Anderson was doing, and I wasn't listening to the right people. There were way too many late night talk show punchlines for me to take Boogie Nights seriously. My mistake.
So I missed Boogie Nights in theaters, but after I saw Magnolia in January of 2000, I decided to finally look at Boogie Nights. I had some help.
I was dating this girl when Magnolia came out. Sometime after we saw Magnolia — or maybe it was before — we watched Boogie Nights in her dorm room, in the top bunk, watching on a tiny television at the foot of the bed, atop some shelf thing. (This was the antithesis of a theatrical experience. Paul Thomas Anderson would be mortified.) Our relationship lasted about as long as Magnolia lasted in theaters, but I'll save that story for another time.
Boogie Nights is about porno culture and the mad, delusional dysfunction of it all, but beneath the madness there are these human needs. Just because they're porn stars doesn't mean Maslow's hierarchy doesn't apply to them. This film is to porno what Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are to hippie culture — bookends of success and failure, and rising again (pun intended).
In 1997, Boogie Nights was a punchline, a film not to be taken seriously, and certainly no self-respecting midwesterner would watch this film, this filthy thing, glorifying porn, blah blah blah.
Everyone was wrong. Watch Boogie Nights.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
At one point, probably when I was 14 or so, The Blues Brothers was my favorite film.
That means at one point, probably when I was 14 or so, my favorite film in the whole world was a musical, and I pretty much just now realized that. This explains so much.
Yes, The Blues Brothers is a musical. You've got dance numbers, actors spontaneously breaking into song, large-scale choreography — all wrapped around a paper-thin plot that somehow gets stretched more than two hours.
But The Blues Brothers is unlike any other musical, according to my wife, in that it does not suck. I mean, you get great music, great comedy, and the kind of dialogue you can take to school to impress women.
The Blues Brothers is also one of the greatest comedies ever made, and did more to shape my sense of humor than any one other film not called Spies Like Us or Caddyshack.
The Blues Brothers is also an action film. You've got hundreds of cops, military personnel, Nazis, jilted lovers, and a country & western bar band (they play both kinds of music) chasing them, shooting at them, firing bazookas at them...and these are some epic chase sequences — the chase sequence at the end is one for the ages. Backflipping cars?
Oh, and Steven Spielberg shows up to take their tax money at the end, and the receipt is made out to Jake and Elwood Blues, 1060 W. Addison (Wrigley Field), and is signed by R.J. Daley. That's Richard J. Daley, who had been dead for 3 years at the time. I love everything about this.
However, I've been watching the wrong movie all along. Before we could really afford to own movies, I taped The Blues Brothers from TV. Now, my most vivid memories of this film are sullied by TV edits and jumpy VHS efforts to cut out the commercials.
Plus, this DVD edition is billed as having "Bonus Footage" — 12 additional minutes not in the original theatrical release or the TV edit. No wonder I feel like I'm watching a different movie. This is the film I should've known all along.
Entire scenes are missing from the TV version I know so well (Elwood quitting the spray can factory, much of the Nazi stuff, the gas station blowing up, etc.), and the language, oh the language. I don't mind the language, but after dozens, literally dozens of viewings, I'm used to the wrong version! Was I quoting TV edits in school? That explains so much.
I've had the DVD for a few years, but I've only watched the full, unedited version maybe twice, and never paying close enough attention to see all the differences. I prefer this version now, but man, I wish I'd known years ago. What a treasure.
The world is full o' complainers. An' the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own.
When I watch Blood Simple (1984), I always think of a later Coen Brothers thriller, No Country For Old Men (2007), and not just because the two are set in Texas.
I catch myself wanting to put the two films on a timeline to show how the Coen Brothers' world view has changed over the years, and there are plenty of comparisons and contrasts to be made in support of that, but I see the two films differently.
If Blood Simple is how the Coens saw a country of men and women in moral decline in 1984, then is No Country For Old Men a reflection of where we are some two decades later? Maybe.
But No Country For Old Men is set in 1980. The more violent, more suspenseful, more frightening of the two films...is actually set earlier. Men and women were capable of worse than what the Coens depict in Blood Simple, which sort of feels like "No Country Lite."
I'm not saying Blood Simple is a bad film by any measure — but No Country is a more vivid depiction of our moral decay.
The Coens remind us again and again: This is the world, and this is what people are capable of doing, and though we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are on our own.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Most of what I learned about comedy at an inappropriately early age, I learned from Mel Brooks movies.
My parents didn't put many restrictions on my viewing habits. As a result, I can attribute much of my personality to seeing movies way too early in life. We're talking formative stages lost to the likes of Mel Brooks movies.
Example: I saw History of the World Part 1 on a pay movie channel at my Uncle Gene's when I was maybe 8 years old. That should horrify most parents now. What's more horrifying is that I don't really see the problem.
I was aware of Blazing Saddles as early as age 7, though I'm not certain I actually saw the film end to end until I was much older — at least 14.
Blazing Saddles was one of the first films, if not the first, that my friends and I quoted to each other around school. As you know, quoting movies is how menfolk bond. What you may not know is that quoting movies truly drives women wild.
Yes, to women, there's nothing sexier than a group of young males standing around, spouting off random, out-of-context movie quotes from films that pretty much only make other young males laugh.
I realize this sounds like a generalization, but you really need to trust me on this one: women dig a man who sits around with (or without) other men and memorizes movies, then quotes them ad nauseam.
Interesting Man Fact: Pretty much every guy I know hates Madeline Kahn's "I'm So Tired" number. This is the part where the film draaaaags. The interesting bit is, the perspective shifts from masculine to feminine here. Of course this scene turns men off. Bring back the racial slurs, misogyny, and puns!
(I'm not saying it's right.)
For the record, I'm sitting through "I'm So Tired" again for the purposes of this project. I'm doing this not just for the integrity of the project, but also because I believe in the empowerment of women and the Third Wave.
Like most great comedies, Blazing Saddles holds up well to repeat viewings. I've probably seen this film 50 times, and every time, something new gets me. This time? Gabby Johnson's monologue:
"I wash born here, an I wash raished here, and dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin' bushwackin', hornswagglin' cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter."
Authentic frontier gibberish.
66335 of 103000 copies.
That's what my Ultimate Collector's Edition says — a limited run of 103,000 copies. That's kind of a high number for a "limited edition," especially in this age of intangible media overthrowing the physical. I don't mind.
I heard in 2007 that Warner Bros. was re-releasing Blade Runner in deluxe packaging with five versions of the film plus gobs of special features. That was all I needed to know.
But then I learned they were releasing this in a limited edition, numbered replica Voight-Kampff briefcase with a die-cast replica of a flying car, a model origami unicorn, Syd Mead's conceptual art, and a still from the film. I nearly soiled myself.
My wife went out of her way to secure my copy at Borders in December 2007. Best. Christmas present. Ever.
As far as my DVD collection goes, and really, as far as any of my collections go, this is my most prized possession, even topping my framed Magnolia poster, my Jimi Hendrix Stages boxed set (long out of print), my autographed copy of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, the books and posters Henry Rollins has autographed for me over the years, and my sealed vinyl copy of R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People, which I bought at Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia in 1999.
I would still love Blade Runner regardless of packaging, though. I loved the film when I only had the Director's Cut on VHS — the first "widescreen" film I ever bought. I love the alternate cuts because the nuances tell slightly different stories. Is there one truth about the story of Blade Runner? Why do we need just one?
I love the ambiguity. We're not told in the film whether Deckard is a Replicant. We're meant to debate that. Ridley Scott left in clues but few definitive answers. Blade Runner is film as art, meant for us to discuss. Ridley, please stop telling us Deckard is a Replicant. Let us debate.
Much has been written on the topic, but for me, all of Ridley Scott's insistence and intentions go out the window when I see the big, happy accident in the film — Harrison Ford's glowing retinas. All Replicants have eyes that glow orange at certain points in the film — a trick with the light that was Ridley Scott's intention. Harrison Ford's eyes glowed because he stepped into Sean Young's light at a moment when only Young's eyes were supposed to glow. Years on, that's the clue for me. But I'm not totally sure. Why do I need to be?
Blade Runner is an important film because we're confronted, however subtly or overtly, with themes of emotional evolution (Batty's howling and feral nature as he simultaneously develops emotions and approaches death), immortality vs. mortality ("retirement"), and the religious overtones (Batty as Lucifer, specifically, but more broadly all Replicants as fallen angels). These themes bombard the viewer, who can just as easily get lost in Syd Mead's visuals if he/she wants to ignore the story. Or, you know, we can all debate whether Deckard is human again.
I attribute much of the success of Blade Runner to the superior storytelling of Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher, and Philip K. Dick, but also to the guiding hand of a higher power, whichever one might've been involved here. Films don't turn out this well and hold up so well without intervention of some sort. What I believe in is irrelevant. But Ridley had help.
What other film can delete all narration and improve so drastically? What other film can cause so much debate nearly 30 years after a brief run in theaters? What other one-shot science-fiction film leaves so many unanswered questions, yet leaves us so satisfied?
Is Deckard a Replicant? Why do we need to know all the answers?
That says more about us than we know.
Monday, February 22, 2010
When I was a senior in high school, the army got my phone number.
I was an average student with a creative streak. That wasn't going to get me into many colleges, but I would've made great cannon fodder. Enter the army recruiter who would not stop calling.
The calls started at the beginning of my senior year. The recruiter was asking about my future plans, as they always do, and while I didn't know what I was doing after high school, I knew that I did not want to join the military.
But he wouldn't take no for an answer. He promised me all sorts of things. "You're interested in journalism? We have a job for that! Of course, you're first and foremost a soldier in the United States Army, but we have lots of jobs that involve writing. Have you seen Full Metal Jacket? Remember Private Joker? He was a journalist. You could be doing that."
(Just as a note to any U.S. military recruiters who might be reading — do not invoke Full Metal Jacket if you're hoping to hit your quota.)
He'd call every few weeks to check up on me, and my answers were always the same. Sorry, not interested.
Still, he kept calling. Finally I just flat told him no and hung up on him. I refused to take any more calls from recruiters. That's how I finally decided I was going to college.
The military is not for everyone, and I knew I wouldn't fit. I didn't know much else when I was 18, but I knew better than to join the army.
I bring all of this up because the Battle of Mogadishu took place in October of 1993, and 19 U.S. soldiers died in Somalia. I was a freshman in college.
If anything, the gritty realism of Black Hawk Down confirms what I suspected — there's no way I could do that job, and my hat's off to men and women who do (or did) this every day.
[This post actually written Sunday, May 8, 2011, then backdated.]
Oh, hi. Tonight we're watching Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which is a recent pickup for me. I found the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection — 14 great Hitchcock films in one set — and I couldn't resist the deep discount price of none-of-your-business.
Despite being ready for another film that starts with "H," the rules state that if I purchase a film that starts with a letter I've already passed, then I have to go backward and back-date. This Hitchcock set comes with three films that I have to go back and get, and I'm sure this is all terribly interesting to you. Got me started again after more than a month, though.
Anyway, Hitchcock — Mom was always a fan, as was my grandma. Both of them loved Psycho, and if I'm not mistaken, North By Northwest, and I vaguely remember them talking about this one. Mom also turned me on to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" at a young age, and I recently rediscovered those little episodes of suspense and sardonic humor. Good stuff.
Hitchcock set The Birds in Bodega Bay, California, which has particular significance to the wife and I, as we spent an evening there on our honeymoon. There were no plagues of birds, but we were alarmed by a giant, shaggy dog.
We actually checked in at The Flamingo Motel in Santa Rosa, which isn't far from Bodega Bay. We decided we wanted seafood for dinner, and the desk clerk sent us to the coast. We drove through Sebastopol that evening, listening to Jay Farrar's Sebastopol album on my iPod (duh) and as the skies darkened around us, we started to wonder why we hadn't found the coast yet. A few minutes later, we found the Pacific Coast Highway, and then Bodega Bay, where we found a little restaurant called Cioppino that would serve us dinner at 8:30 p.m. As we were leaving, we were alarmed by a mean-looking, shaggy dog standing in the parking lot, staring at us through the glass. No way we were going outside. Turns out, the dog belonged to this weird dude who came in at closing time and ordered a pizza. The dog went away and we left.
That restaurant is gone now, but memories don't go out of business. Despite the dog, that was one of the best evenings of our honeymoon, and watching The Birds brings all that back.
Memories of a honeymoon are much better visuals than, say, the birds exploding out of the fireplace, or the aftermath of the attack that left that one guy bloody and eyeless, or the immortal playground scene. The Birds isn't Hitchcock's best film, or my favorite or his, but as a part of a 14-film set called "The Masterpiece Collection," this one fits perfectly.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
First, I want to make something clear. Yes, there
I saw The Big Lebowski on VHS in 1998. I had the opportunity to go see the film in a theater with my roommates, but for some reason I didn't go. I don't remember why exactly. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear, why, he eats you.
When I finally saw the film, nothing monumental happened. I had no idea what I was watching. A classic film? That had not occurred to us, Dude.
I liked the film right away and laughed a lot, though, and I bought VHS and DVD copies that I watched over and over. With time and repeated viewings, I saw more subtleties, caught more jokes, memorized more quotes, and laughed in random places as new things struck me as funny. The story is ludicrous. ¡Que ridiculo!
One day, though, I realized this was not just a great film, but perhaps my favorite film of all. I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that.
I started encountering other fans, usually by referencing the film in mixed company and starting a barrage of quotes that annoy non-believers all around us. I'm a Brother Seamus. Like an Irish monk.
Then I discovered the bums mobilized. You're not dealing with morons.
I'll tell you what I'm blathering about. The older this film gets, the more rewarding the connection with others. For me, finding people to share a connection with a film is rare and great. Too many people are apt to dismiss us. We have "too much time on our hands." Yes, we (the royal we, the editorial) go out looking for a job dressed like this. On a weekday.
So if I'm forced to pick a favorite film, to use the parlance of our times, I point to The Big Lebowski, not just for the great writing and direction, but for the brotherhood of a cult following, the brilliant acting, unforgettable characters and dialogue, and the fact that any reference to this film can get a room full of people laughing (the kind of people I hang out with, anyway). I love that connection. I put this film right up there with the greats, from Ronald Kuby to Sandy Koufax. This film really ties my DVD collection together.
But that's just like, my opinion, man.
I asked my mom once why she loved my dad so much. He made a lot of mistakes, yet she kept on loving him. I didn't understand.
She said it was because he made her laugh. Something about the way he'd tell a story tongue-in-cheek, or make a silly pun, or drop a one-liner that made her smile. She didn't have much else in the way of explanation, and I never asked her again.
Dad told us kids that he once drove a tank during World War II (he was a zygote at the time, so I'll leave the logistics to your comprehension). He also told us he carried the torch in the Olympics (that probably would've put him in Munich).
Perhaps the grandaddy of them all (no pun intended) was when he told me that my great-grandfather, Christopher Columbus King, was actually Christopher Columbus. You know, the 15th century explorer.
I was in elementary school. Naturally, I went to school and told my teacher and all my friends.
Yeah, that wasn't a good day, but now that I'm older, I appreciate the joke. I'm totally telling my kid the same.
Those three stories immediately come to mind. Dad never had much in the way of details, but he did tell us tall tales. I struggle to remember them now. So does he.
I think perhaps I should get him to re-tell us so I can write them down and pass them along, or at least commit them to memory and re-tell them later, which is what worked with my grandfather.
My grandfather used to tell us kids about a red-tailed monkey that lived in his house. Whenever we kids were acting up or getting into something, Grandpa Dave would tell us, "You'd better not — the red-tailed monkey will get you."
We lived in fear of this fabled red-tailed monkey for years. Then again, we kept our butts on the couch when we visited.
I suppose now you can call that "psychological abuse," but I turned out fine. Probably. Maybe I'm damaged.
Maybe I warned a friend's kid recently about the red-tailed monkey that lives at my house. Call it "keeping my grandfather's stories alive."
Big Fish toys with the themes of eternal life through storytelling, and being bigger than life through tall tales. Without stories, how else do we remember people after they're gone? And who says we can't expand upon the truth if the facts aren't enough to reflect how much we love someone?
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves (sometimes referred to as The Bicycle Thief), was one of the first films I saw in grad school. I took a survey course in world film, and this was one of two Italian Neorealist examples we screened, both of which made me so upset I couldn't talk.
My class was full of film students of varying ages and nationalities. I remember a Somalian, a Croatian, an Indian, a few white-bread Ohio natives, an African-American, a Brazilian, and one guy from Indiana — me.
I knew little about this film before the projector started. Antonio Ricci, a man in post-war Italy, takes a job — one of the few — that requires a bicycle, and the bike is stolen on his first day. What follows is a blundering, emotional detective story of sorts. His desperate search for the thief and bicycle leads him and his young son all over the city.
I remember the waves of emotions most of all, ebbing and flowing and leaving me feeling as hopeless and helpless as Ricci. Frustration. Disappointment. Redemption. Desperation. Sadness. Rage.
By the end of Bicycle Thieves, I had to fight back tears. I felt like I was choking on a golf ball.
The lights came up. Time to discuss the film. The other students offered comments technical and trivial, educated and rational. Few focused their comments on the story, or what this film made them feel.
As for me, I couldn't form words because I was too busy trying not to cry in front of everybody. Why am I such a soft touch? Why can't I look at something objectively? Why had this film upset me so much?
We never had much money growing up. I remember Dad trying to find ways to make a living through layoffs and plant shutdowns. He worked as a janitor. He cleaned RVs. He opened a farm equipment and auto shop. I never saw him get desperate, though. He just kept moving.
I saw a lot of my Dad in Ricci's determination, but not in Ricci's desperation. Still, that was enough to get me connected to this character, to his plight, to get so emotionally involved, I lost the ability to form coherent thought.
I sat through the discussion, offered nothing of my own, went home with the golf ball in my throat, and took a nap. Since then, I've only seen this film twice more (including this viewing). I can't take many repeated viewings of this one, and that's why it's brilliant.
Years later, I got this Criterion reissue for my birthday — yet another film school find that I wanted on my shelf, as if to hold on to a piece of that time, a period I tend to idealize more and more when I do re-watch the films I saw then. I can't re-watch it very often, but I don't care.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
"Gee, I'm really sorry your mom blew up, Ricky."
If you count all the high school students John Cusack played, then he was in high school from 1984-1990, from Sixteen Candles to Say Anything. No one seemed to notice at the time.
Cusack's extended stay at the high school level happened during formative years for me, and I suppose I have him to thank, at least in part, for how I turned out. If I didn't have John Cusack ahead of me from my 5th grade year until, well, now, then I'm not sure where I'd be or what I would be like. Cusack is sort of like the older brother I never met, but just saw in home movies.
Thanks to teen comedies, I had many misconceptions about what high school would be like. After I saw Better Off Dead, I thought maybe I'd have a Camaro, learn to ski, and maybe even meet a nice French foreign exchange student. I thought maybe I'd do a lot of things I saw John Cusack do in movies.
His characters always seemed immune to the brutal high school social hierarchy. He was neither a prep nor a jock, neither a nerd nor a stoner, neither a hood nor a band dork. He was just...Lane Meyer. Hoops McCann. Lloyd Dobler. Everyone liked him. He fit in wherever. People trusted him. He rose above all of it. He had a car. He got the girl. He was cool, but not too cool. All I wanted, more than anything, was to just be immune, rise above it all, and hell yes, get a cute girl to go out with me.
Instead, I turned out to be a huge dork with coke bottle glasses and got all the way through high school without a single threat to my virginity. No French foreign exchange student showed up to speak with me the, how you say, international language of love. I was not granted the opportunity to put my
[Note: That's a reference to the movie. I hope you see what I'm doing there. No one promised you a family blog. And no, I do not have tentacles.]
Most disappointingly, I never got that Camaro, and I kinda want a do-over now that I have a credit rating.
Even though Better Off Dead came out in 1985, I actually didn't see this film until 1988, my sixth grade year, when for some reason my middle school administrators decided to show this to the entire school in the cafeteria on the last day before a break. I can't remember whether this was before the holiday break or summer or some other time, and that doesn't matter really. Point being, they showed this at my school. (My school also showed Back to the Future and The Last Emperor. That's not a typo. I'll let you ponder.)
I could write some treatise about the downfall of a public school system that shows Better Off Dead. I could make lots of arguments as to why that's not pedagogically sound. I could, but...no.
I'm thankful that my school turned me on to this film. Most of the jokes don't work anymore, and the structure is all out of whack and random jokes seem to flutter through for no real reason. There's no semblance of realism here. But who cares?
I laughed then. I smile a lot now. That's all I want.
Well, I wouldn't mind having this, too.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
I love big pictures. Ben-Hur might be the biggest of all.
Here's a film that runs 222 minutes, spans two DVDs, features a cast of literally thousands, won more Academy Awards than any other film not named Titanic or Return of the King, and more than 50 years on, remains the standard by which all other epics can be evaluated.
Last summer, I blundered across the Four-Disc Collector's Edition in a used section, still sealed, for less than a third of the list price. I couldn't resist. (I may have yelped.)
I was so proud of my find, I took the copy to work, where I showed several people who didn't care as much, but smiled politely and indulged me with noncommittal encouragement. "Hey, that's...something there."
There's a thrill to finding stuff like this — one I find addictive. This is why I still embrace physical media. Anybody can pirate movies. There's nothing special about finding a torrent. Finding a physical copy in deluxe packaging, in pristine condition, at a greatly reduced price? That's like finding treasure. Leaving it there wasn't an option. We're talking moral imperatives here.
Ben-Hur is the kind of film you kill a Sunday afternoon watching end to end. You plan meals during it and invite cinephile friends over to watch and break bread or some such.
Or, in my case, when you're too busy to lose a whole day, you spread the film out like you're reading a novel and drive your wife nuts because it monopolizes the television for days. Except when "Lost" is on, of course.
The original novel on which the film is based, Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ, was written by a Hoosier. Gen. Lew Wallace was born in Brookville and later lived in Indianapolis. He published the novel in 1880. Wallace is buried in Crawfordsville. (Just some random Wikipedia facts. You can't use Wikipedia on research papers, kids, but you can use Wikipedia when you write a blog.)
I have a hard time watching Ben-Hur without thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian, though, especially with all the anti-Roman talk, but also with the parallel storytelling. While the life of Christ is taking place elsewhere, we're focused on a contemporary, a hero. But instead of watching Judah Ben-Hur and Messala and the kickass chariot race, I keep saying "Wome!" and "Bigguth Dickuth" and "Hail Thaethar!"
But that's me.
Monday, February 15, 2010
I went through a little Peter Sellers phase about five years ago, right after seeing The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. I gathered up the Pink Panther films, but I wanted to see some of his other work as well, so I watched The Party, re-watched Dr. Strangelove, and finally, I rented Being There.
Much of what I've read about Peter Sellers describes him as a kind of shell — a vessel where characters lived. Sellers himself led sort of a sad life riddled with personal issues and health problems, many of which were brought on by various drug problems. In many ways, Sellers was described (and portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) as sort of...blank. Nothing there. No personality.
However, as the credits to Hal Ashby's Being There roll, we're given a blooper reel — rare for cinema of the late 1970s. This is a rare glimpse of Sellers attempting to get through a take without laughing. His laughter is contagious. This guy was human after all.
Our sense of humor is a huge portion of our personality. What we consider funny or unfunny indicates much about ourselves and our world views. What makes us laugh is another matter. We can appreciate the comedy in something even if we don't laugh. To bust out laughing, sometimes repeatedly, gets at something distinctly human.
To understand what makes people laugh takes a serious understanding of people. Sellers may not have been the most normal person (no comedian is), but he had this uncanny ability to make people laugh.
How fitting that Ashby includes these clips of Sellers making himself laugh, too.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I saw Being John Malkovich at the Athena in downtown Athens, Ohio, when I was in grad school studying screenwriting. I wish I could say Being John Malkovich "changed me" or some other such profundity, but one raindrop doesn't matter much in a hurricane, and other shitty metaphors.
I was 24 then, away from home for the first time. Back home, my parents were going through their divorce after 26 years of marriage. I felt myself drifting apart from my friends, who all seemed to grow up immediately after I left Muncie. I knew no one in Athens and did not make friends easily. Dating was disastrous.
I was homesick from jump street. I found myself wearing Heorot T-shirts to class and idealizing Muncie. Do you know how hard you gotta work to idealize Muncie?
At the time, I didn't really know who I was, or what I wanted. I mean, if you'd asked me, I would've said I wanted to be a screenwriter, but I spent more time haunting used record stores and running the roads instead of writing. (Note: This has not changed.)
Mostly, I sat in my room, listening to Jawbreaker's Live 4/30/96, eating beef jerky, and feeling sorry for myself. Boo effing hoo.
Movies kept me upright even as everything else seemed to collapse. You're supposed to see a ton of films in film school, and I did, and everything I saw changed me by degrees.
With Being John Malkovich, I knew I'd seen something startlingly original, something that defied all the rules I was forced to swallow in my screenwriting classes, and something that explored themes consistent with my feelings of loneliness and pursuit of identity. But Being John Malkovich was just one example.
All of the following films came out during the 1999-2000 academic year:
American Beauty: A film about a man going through a midlife crisis, so he tried to reinvent himself by reliving some of his youth.
American Psycho: This one depicted a man whose life of material excess was so unfulfilling, he slaughtered people for fun, and when he finally tried to confess to all the killing, even his confession was meaningless.
Fight Club introduced us to a man whose lack of fulfillment and stifled primal nature led to a split personality.
High Fidelity depicted a glum, unfulfilled record store owner whose relationship was disintegrating because of his selfishness and failure to evolve into adulthood.
Magnolia was a pastiche of characters who were unhappy with their lives but unable to make changes as their lives careened out of control.
The Matrix was about a man who discovered the world around him was an illusion, and that he was really living out a constructed fantasy while his real body lay in stasis, feeding a machine.
The Sixth Sense gave us a dead man who did not know he was dead.
Seemingly every film of that brief period dealt with some sort of existential crisis, and that's exactly what I needed at the time. Maybe seeing these characters helped me see myself.
But that list isn't comprehensive. The list of films I watched in film school is longer than my arm, and luckily I've collected most of them on DVD and get to re-experience them. I can't wait.
So I can't say Being John Malkovich "changed me." "Helped" is a better word.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
For all the moments in Before Sunrise that I catch a flicker of who I used to be in the words or actions of Ethan Hawke or Julie Delpy's characters, I just can't find many aspects of myself in the sequel.
First and foremost, much of their conversation in this film is predicated on something that did not happen in the first. They go on and on about how they had sex (twice, in fact) in the first film, in the park, late at night. Wha?
But, there is no love scene in the first film. They make out a lot, but if we are meant to assume they indeed did the deed, then that's an awful lot to assume, especially considering how in the first film, Delpy's character told Hawke's that she did not want to have sex because she would feel bad. So they kissed some, and then we cut to daybreak.
I don't need a gratuitous love scene to get this information, but there's just not enough in the first film to suggest these two indeed had sex. And yes, that changes everything if they did. This is a major point.
Frankly, I prefer to think of their relationship as more chaste, because then the first film is about a mental connection, not a cheap one-nighter in Europe. This way, Hawke's character isn't nearly as slimy. Please tell me the whole first film was not a gambit, a conquest in the making, from the moment she sat down next to him on the train.
In the first film, was she saying she didn't want to have sex as some sort of courtesy assertion, so that she wouldn't feel as bad when she went ahead and had sex with him anyway? "At least I protested a little, and didn't just give it up..." What kind of shit is that? No means no.
Before Sunset brings these two characters together once more, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. What we can imagine is always better. I'd rather assume nothing much happened in the park, and that their not knowing what might've happened is what kept them thinking about each other for nine years.
Here, these two are even more self-absorbed and self-aware than ever, yet both are completely unaware of their self-absorption.
That said, maybe there's another interpretation...
Maybe in the years hence, both characters have fantasized so much about that one night, they may have convinced themselves of so much more than what actually happened. Memory is a cruel mistress. Make you think shit happened what didn't. Make you all jangly and shit. Make you dream up shit and shit and confuse it with reality and shit.
In their old(er) age, these two now appear to have a cavalier view of the sexual act and the feelings of others. Both talk openly about having sex with other people, and when posed with a hypothetical, if-we-were-both-dying-what-would-you-do, Hawke's character flippantly suggests they'd be in a hotel room, fucking. Yes, fucking.
I'm not here to argue sexual semantics, but fucking = animalistic, lusty, bereft of romance. As much as I hate the phrase "make love," isn't there a better phrase at his disposal? Let's pretend we're bunny rabbits? Brown chicken brown cow? Nope. Fucking.
Further, a strength of Before Sunrise — their meeting other people on the streets of Vienna (the poet, the palm reader, and even the bartender who gave them the wine) — is nonexistent here, which only adds to the self-absorption. They meet a waitress who takes their order. They speak briefly to Hawke's character's driver, Phillipe, then leave him sitting in the car. That's it. Paris has no interesting people — apparently they're all in Vienna.
They still show their pseudo-intellectual sides, and they talk about more current events, the death of Nina Simone, etc., but most of the film they spend hand-wringing and wrestling with the emotions that well up while processing the fact that here they are, together again, after nine long years during which both of them grew convinced they'd truly never meet again.
I felt a sense of affection for these characters, and a warmth when I saw the flashback clips in the beginning. However, by the end of this film, I just found myself hoping that Hawke's character would do the right thing. Get up, get your jacket, exchange contact info, and say goodbye again, and promise to write this time. Go home to your wife and kid and get things sorted before you start fooling around, because it's not just your life anymore, you selfish prick.
I keep this film on hand for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is just to see where these characters are now, and how Linklater tied the two films together. I appreciate Linklater's writing so much.
However, I also like to remind myself that sometimes what we really wish for and think we really want is the last thing we actually need. When we get what we think we really, really want, what we end up with is often quite underwhelming.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Nothing in this film has ever happened to me, really.
Almost everything Ethan Hawke does and says in this movie annoys me. He's slimy, verbose, pretentious, and he has that goatee, that peach fuzz goatee that just screams "faux beat poet." And he doesn't. Shut. Up.
Julie Delpy doesn't get a free pass. I want her to buy a hairbrush and raise her standards.
But Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy together have these conversations and little adventures in Vienna that remind me of places I've been and conversations I've had, and I'm so busy relating to these characters and drifting along with them that I can't take time to be annoyed.
I'm so busy relating to them, I'm too busy to realize that I used to be, sort of, just like them. I'm haunted. Maybe I'm annoyed because I'm reminded too much of a person I used to be. I can't tell you everything.
At some point, maybe I spent a night with someone on a couch, listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket and the autumn rainfall outside, and not really talking, but just lying still, together, until the world seemed to stop.
Maybe I turned to someone at a party and complimented her on her Airwalks, and realized her smile made me want to change everything about myself, and maybe I thought that was a good idea at the time.
Maybe I walked in the snow, across campus, to meet someone in the middle of the night just because we were both awake and it seemed like a good idea — and then we met and realized we were just silly for thinking life is like a movie.
Maybe I spent a night sitting across from someone in a restaurant, eating bad food and drinking bad coffee (I don't drink coffee, but there may have been coffee present), and confessing dark and dysfunctional neuroses and making her laugh.
(Maybe I was just talking about movies the whole time.)
Maybe I drove her home and nothing much else happened. Or maybe it lasted 3 years.
I miss the all night conversations, the untethered feeling of nights with nowhere to be the next day, and the electricity of new.
I'm not wishing for those things again, but I do miss them. Before Sunrise reminds me of that electric feeling, but also reminds me of all the mess I went through to get here.
Adulthood keeps me from idealizing the past. That was all prologue anyway.
I got married for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that all I have now is better than all of the above. I'm serious. I can miss these things and watch a film that reminds me of these things, but when the film is over, I have what I have now, which is not so much a surge of electricity all at once, but more like a lifetime power supply.
Maybe all this is ridiculous and pretentious. Of course, maybe I've been talking about a movie the whole time.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
I get asked a lot, "Say, John, your blog is freaking amazing and all, but what happens if you buy a DVD behind what you've watched in the alphabet? Do you stop and go back, or what?"
That's a good question, and I'm glad you asked. This blog is not Vietnam; there are rules.
I don't buy a lot of DVDs anymore, and if I do, I try to buy ahead of myself in the alphabet. However, when I saw part of the late Ted Demme's 1996 film Beautiful Girls via Netflix streaming this week, I realized I'd committed an egregious oversight by leaving this wonderful film out of my DVD collection.
So yes, although I just watched Orson Welles' F for Fake, now I have to go backward; Beautiful Girls arrived in the mail today.
I've started seeing my DVD collection as a finished, semi-locked project, and if I buy anything, I just fill a hole. I'm seeing my CD collection in the same way. As physical media slowly dies, I find myself in a not-quite-holding pattern, only buying what I know I will watch repeatedly, what films mean the most to me that I don't yet own, what items fill holes and round out collections, and maybe most importantly, what I need to write about here.
Writing this stuff a few times a week is a kind of therapy. I need to revisit this stuff. I need to go back to what I was thinking when I saw a film the first time, or remind myself of when I was watching the film often. With my favorites, I don't so much re-live the film as re-experience the film and compare how I feel now to how I felt then, and ponder the distance between two points. I used to be somebody; now I am somebody else. I'm folding back on myself so I can understand where I was and where I'm going.
I also just like watching movies.
At 35, mortgaged and married and teaching full-time on a loop, maybe I'm restless, too. Maybe I'm just suffering from a horrible case of creative paralysis, living in constant doubt of everything else I write (which is nothing lately), and maybe this place is where I go to try to jolt myself alive. Maybe movies are my creative crash cart. Maybe I shouldn't say maybe.
I once owned Beautiful Girls on glorious VHS, which I watched dozens of times (often with actual beautiful girls), but I never picked up this one on DVD — even after getting rid of all my VHS tapes — because there were never any features on the Miramax disc. ("Chapter Selection" is not a feature.) I even went so far as to borrow my dad's VHS-to-DVD recorder so I could burn the VHS tape, which looked awful, and I'll never watch the thing. (Plus, the project doesn't include DVD-Rs — yes, dammit, there are rules.)
Seeing part of this film via Netflix got me all nostalgic and navel-gazey, and made me think of this film as a missing piece to a DVD collection that takes up an entire wall, and that nostalgia is sort of where I am again after finishing the DVD. And I haven't even talked about the movie yet.
Timothy Hutton plays Willie, a restless piano player who comes home for a high school reunion. He's in a relationship, but he has this fear of commitment. (I assure you, the "commitment-phobic male returning home to find his center" premise was more original 15 years ago when the film came out.) Willie is so restless, so desperate, and so unable to cope with both, that when a 13-year-old neighborhood girl flirts with him and eventually throws herself at him, he realizes something is wrong; he has to face growing up. (Or, you know, he could become a pederast, which isn't a good option.)
He's not the only character who has to GTFU. Michael Rapaport plays a guy who was so afraid of commitment, his girlfriend left him. Now he buries her garage door with a snow plow every morning, and he tries to propose to her, too little too late, with a brown diamond. (She left him for an older man with a steady job and, apparently, shoveling skills.)
Noah Emmerich plays a devoted husband and father who appears to be the only one of his kind in this town full of immature twentysomethings, but he still thinks that brawling solves problems. Matt Dillon plays a former high school legend who spends his time committing adultery with his high school flame and trying to nurse his anorexic girlfriend through his infidelities.
I'm focusing on the male characters because Demme does. I'm not saying the female characters are insignificant, but they seem to have things figured out, and frankly their arcs aren't that interesting. Nobody goes to see a film called "Women Who Have Their Shit Together." However, people will go see a film called "Men Who Are Dumb But Might Grow Up A Little." (I'll hedge my bets a little; I'll try to write scripts for both. Happy, Gloria Steinem?)
Despite their immaturities, all of the male characters have an awakening at this pivotal time (here, a high school reunion and the events surrounding same). They inch forward in a town that never really changes. The town reminds me of my hometown, where I can go after a months-long absence to find everyone pretty much as I left them. Only the seasons change.
It's telling that a 13-year-old character (played by then 15-year-old Natalie Portman) appears to be the most mature character in this film at first, and maybe even in the end. When I first saw this film, I was 21 or 22. At the time, I actually thought, yeah, wait 5 years, man — she'll be 18 and that's fine! I may have said this in front of the aforementioned beautiful women dumb enough to hang out with me at the time. I can't tell you everything.
Now, at 35 (the same age as Timothy Hutton at the time of the film), I see that line of thinking as sheer madness brought on by desperation and raging against adulthood and stability, like Rob in High Fidelity, who after yet another woman tempts him to stray from his relationship, bellows, "When is this gonna stop?!?!?"
That stuff doesn't stop — if you can't commit. You'll always be tempted. You'll always have a "next." You'll never escape this stuff unless you really, fully commit not just your heart but your life to someone, when you are convinced that nothing is better than what you have at home, and there is no greater prize, no missing piece that makes you more complete.
I try not to get sentimental, but I always end up failing in that regard. What I'm saying is, the stuff isn't complicated. I made myself let go of the nonsense. I'm happy. That's how this stuff works.
Beautiful Girls is about that.
[Note: Because The Dark Knight is a direct sequel to Batman Begins, I'm watching it here rather than waiting until "D" comes up.]
I remember seeing The Dark Knight in the theater and coming away so emotionally drained and unsettled that I could not sleep properly for three days.
Much later, in an effort to understand a bit more, I started connecting the mindset and actions of The Joker (and to a lesser degree, Two-Face) to another angel of death, Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men.
To be fair, No Country For Old Men plumbed the darkness better and reached higher thematically. Chigurh had this window into existentialism, but he also killed men with a cattle stunner, as if his victims were just meat to be slaughtered. I'm not sure he wanted "to watch the world burn" in the same way as The Joker, and he was not out for revenge or some sort of irrational white knight fascism a la Two-Face. (Though interestingly, in one scene, Chigurh decides to kill or not with...a coin flip.)
No, Chigurh was essentially a terminator. Couldn't be stopped. Couldn't be reasoned with. And he was going to keep hunting and hunting and killing and killing until he finished the job. And unlike a terminator, Chigurh won.
What's especially frightening about No Country is to think that somewhere out there, Chigurh has a boss. Chigurh is on someone's leash. At least in The Dark Knight, we're pretty sure The Joker is the boss, unleashed, yet in total command of this mayhem.
Much has been written about the late Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker, but comparatively little about Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Dent's psychological breakdown would be legendary had it not appeared in the same film as Ledger's Joker. Both characters are genuinely frightening. We fear what we do not understand, what we do not see coming, and perhaps most of all, what we see as a logical extension of our darkest feelings.
In plumbing these psychological depths for antagonists, I wonder where films like this leave us. Do we walk away better off for understanding something better? (Ourselves?) Do we walk away rattled, as though our worst fears are somehow confirmed? Or are we left with a confirmation that we are normal to feel what we feel as long as we do not act?
There is value in darkness.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I pride myself on overcoming my obsessive-compulsive completist tendencies and abstaining from owning Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. I've had many opportunities — recently, in fact.
Half Price Books is like a second home. There are two branches within 15 minutes of my house, so I often stop in after work or on a Sunday afternoon. I don't always find anything, and I don't always feel compelled to buy something just because I'm there.
I typically see a copy of either Batman Forever or Batman and Robin. Usually it's the latter. However, I rarely see the two-disc special editions with the silver bordering like the ones shown in the two previous entries.
Last week, I saw used copies of both films in two-disc special editions, both priced at $6.98 each. Both were in good condition.
Somehow I resisted, but I spent all week thinking about them. Do I need to own them, to complete the set? Should I own them for the special features alone? Should I consider them artifacts for which I am some sort of curator?
Is a shitty film worth owning for reasons that somehow transcend shittyness?
I would prefer to think of the Batman films as Bryan Singer thinks about the Superman films — the third and fourth installments never happened, or something. But when I see the shiny silver packaging and how that matches my two Burton-Keaton DVDs, I can't help but feel something's missing.
Hold on — when did I become a curator?
Eliminating Batman and Robin is easy; the film is a cinematic abomination. But I don't remember Batman Forever well enough to decide for sure, so this needs further review.
I entertained the advice of friends, all of whom looked at me like I had lost my mind. "You really need advice about Joel Schumacher's Batman films?"
Well, not really. I know they're both bad. The question is not about quality, but...should I own them? I'm talking about a sense of completion. Closing the loop. Owning all four films in which Michael Gough played Alfred. And Val Kilmer isn't that bad as Batman...right?
And if I'm going to justify buying Batman Forever, I might as well buy Batman and Robin to complete the set, right? Consider them a ricketty, shitty-ass bridge to the excellent Nolan-Bale films of recent years.
Enter the mind of a self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive completist. I debated this for a few days and finally went back to the store on Sunday, but by then I had put aside the obsessiveness, sort of. I did look for them, though.
All they had was Batman and Robin. Problem solved. I'm not buying that one alone — who knows what the cashier will think? Now, buying both Schumacher films...that's a completist at work, and they can respect that, right? WHY DO I THINK ABOUT THIS STUFF?
Last night, I added Batman Forever to my Netflix queue to check out on Blu-Ray. Renting is not the same as buying.
Plus there are different rules for Blu-Ray. Oh, there are lots of rules.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Watching Batman and Batman Returns back to back, I find myself realizing all over again just how good Michael Keaton was in the role. Now that Keaton is 58, I can't help but imagine him in a live action version of The Dark Knight Returns.
But that'll never happen.
I'm also realizing just how good the script was for this film. With The Penguin and Catwoman, this film set the standard for how to juggle a primary and secondary antagonist, not just a villain and a henchman. I never think about this film in that way, and I can't figure out why. If I ever teach a screenwriting class again, I might point to this film for the balance alone.
No film has done this better, before or since. For me, the writing is the best reason to look at this film. This is how you juggle villains. Sam Raimi, I'm mostly looking at you.
And then, right around the 1:40 mark, this film starts to go wrong.
* We get penguins with missiles on their backs, and Batman gets a bat hovercraft...or something.
* A convenient female robotic announcer begins to explain much of the rest of the story over an underground P.A. system(?) rather than show us.
* The Penguin temporarily escapes his underground lair in a gigantic, motorized monster truck/rubber ducky. Which climbs stairs.
* Batman, who wears obvious black makeup under his mask, suddenly loses his black makeup when he unmasks for Catwoman. A glaring continuity error, but probably the better choice.
I try not to think about this stuff because the first 90 minutes are so well done. This movie is almost as rough as the first one in execution (continuity errors, obvious stuntmen, etc.) but the first 90 minutes (and maybe the last 10) are as solid as writing gets in a superhero film.
Burton and Keaton walked away from the franchise after this. So did a lot of fans, until Christopher Nolan came along.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Tim Burton's Batman was a Taco Bell commercial released in 1989 by Warner Bros. Pictures. Wait, no.
Batman was a craptastic Prince album released in 1989. Er, no.
In 1990, Batman was the first VHS movie we got as a family, and we watched that tape again and again. I've probably seen this film 30-plus times, which is enough to see all the flawed special effects, notice the awful dialogue, wonder about the plot holes, and maybe wish for a little more Jack Palance.
Sometimes I think Jack Nicholson just stepped into a shot, said something random — whatever insanity popped into his head at the time — and Tim Burton said, "Cut! Print!" To wit:
"In the air, junior birdman!"
"Hello, Vinny. It's your Uncle Bingo. Time to pay the check!"
"Never rub another man's rhubarb!"
Of course, The Joker's dialogue is nothing compared to pretty much everything Robert Wuhl says in this film. Good grief, that guy was annoying even then.
And yet, I still love this movie. I mean, this is about a man who dresses up in armor and drives around in a huge black car with a rocket engine, and he fights crime. His chief enemy is a guy who fell into a vat of toxic chemicals and only came out with a permanent grin on his face. What's not to love?
This film was Hollywood's first attempt to "darken" Batman. This is not Adam West with the "POW!" and "CRASH!" This is a brooding Michael Keaton instead, and let's not forget just how good Michael Keaton was in this role.
We can't take for granted the more modern, Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale interpretation. The two Burton/Keaton Batman films are a bridge from the TV series to now. My, how the mood has changed.
After graduation, most of my friends moved to L.A., but I went to Chicago. Writing interested me, but so did improv. I landed at The Second City for about a year.
I decided not to live in Chicago — too expensive. Oh, I had everything figured out. I lived in Hammond, Indiana, in a furnished, studio apartment in a converted hotel called the Southmoor.
Hammond is located in northwest Indiana, in a region known as "The Region." If "The Region" is the armpit of Indiana, then Hammond is the hairy, brown mole in that armpit. (Indiana has many armpits, not just one, or even the standard two.)
The Southmoor had all I needed. I had a living room, a small kitchenette, and a bathroom. I slept on a Murphy Bed until I couldn't take any more, and then I switched to the furnished couch, which smelled vaguely of stale smoke and whiskey.
Smoke came up through the drains. Most of the residents were elderly and/or drunks. Ambulances came and went.
I had a neighbor who came over and knocked one afternoon. He was pretty sauced. He said I should come over sometime and play cards. I told him I might do that. I never saw him again.
My commute to Second City was at least an hour, either by train or car. If I drove, parking cost me $12.00 per day. By train, I paid $14 per day round trip. I stopped messing with trains after I figured that out, although I did miss reading.
I figured out a lot of things. At Second City alone, there were roughly 1,500 people — no exaggeration — who had the same idea. We were all going to make it big someday. Jack McBrayer was there at the time. He did pretty well for himself.
Watching Barton Fink again, I couldn't help but draw parallels to my experiences in Chicago. He had a shitty studio apartment. He wanted to write. He had noisy neighbors. He got nothing done.
Of course, I never woke up next to a dead woman, or lived next to a serial killer, or watched as my wallpaper wrinkled and peeled off the walls. Much has been written about Barton's confusion of "fantasy" and "reality" in Barton Fink. I had my own reality.
I only stayed at the Southmoor about three months before I moved into Chicago. Less than a year later, I was back home.
I don't regret the choice of Chicago over L.A.; I'm still trying to pay off the credit card debt, but that year in Chicago was one of the best years of my life, even if I, too, was confusing fantasy for reality.
[Another recent addition to the collection, backdated for alphabetical goodness.]
Sometimes, you need to see someone do what you love doing.
Barcelona (1994) is a Whit Stillman film that I've only seen one other time, a few years back, but the film left a strong impression on me.
When I started writing screenplays, I tended toward writing navel-gazing dialogue full of introspective observations, examinations, and declarations, along with a ton of inside jokes ripped straight from my interpersonal relationships.
All of that stuff rang true to me. That was how people in my world talked. Granted, my world consisted of a few close friends with which I spent nearly all of my free time in college, but effective dialogue sounds real. To me, all that navel-gazing stuff seemed real.
That's why more than any other style of film, I'm a sucker for a chatty, indie comedy from the 1990s: Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, and others. They made what I was trying to do seem okay, despite all the screenwriting textbooks and teachers who tried to tell me differently.
In retrospect, I tend to agree with the books and profs now. I usually fell in love with the sound of my own characters and often forgot what the screenplay was even about, which killed me. I still struggle with this. I can't start a script unless I know the story. I didn't do that before. I just...started writing.
Despite all that inspiration and rationalization derived from '90s independent film, I hadn't heard of Whit Stillman until I was watching the special features on Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming. In one featurette, Baumbach sits down with Chris Eigeman, a character actor who appears in both Baumbach's and Stillman's films (including this one). That crossover is easy for them to discuss.
I rented Stillman's Barcelona and Metropolitan at the time, mostly on the basis of their conversation. I found Stillman's films similar to Baumbach's in pacing and rhythm, but Stillman has a bit more to say about social classes, manners, and mores. His films aren't as funny, but they're just as poignant.
For me, Stillman's work reinforces the notion that yes, I can write a chatty little script, and yeah, people will want to hear those characters talk, even if there's not much of a story holding it all together. That's okay. I can experiment with story structure, focusing on character development and arcs. There's still an audience for that. I'm okay.
Barcelona depicts navel-gazers abroad, contemplating the minutiae of their lives against the backdrop of political unrest in early '80s Spain. They experience the city, find a bit of romance, and ponder ideas such as whether they have been shaving in the wrong direction their whole lives, why they appear to look better in a mirror than in a photograph, or how people at parties always seem to talk about marketing.
I said the film was navel-gazey.
In all, Stillman has made three films: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, all of them chatty '90s pictures. He hasn't released a film since 1998.
Sony Classics recently issued a press release announcing Stillman's fourth film, Damsels in Distress. After more than a decade, Stillman is back.
I'm stoked, because now, maybe more than ever, I need a film to come along and remind me that what I like to write still has validity. Noah Baumbach's last couple of films have left me empty, and Wes Anderson's last couple of films have been too childish and didn't resonate as much as his earlier work. Kevin Smith and Ed Burns simply have gone off the reservation, and both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino make blockbusters now.
I'm hopeful that Stillman's new film will have something to say, and that I'll get that same feeling again, that maybe what I like to write isn't so crazy. Sure, I can get validation from friends, relatives, and mentors, but there's nothing quite like seeing someone do what you like doing.
Minor Kurosawa is the cold pizza of film. The Bad Sleep Well is one I've had trouble with in the past. I essentially blind bought this DVD after renting the film from Netflix and giving up after 30 minutes of watching.
The problem wasn't that the film was bad. The problem was with me. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to watch a 50 year old Japanese film about corporate corruption. I'm not sure how one gets to this frame of mind.
I still think the film is overlong and terribly slow. But Kurosawa films grow on me.
I've written previously about how one has to watch a film at the right time in order to fully appreciate what the director/writer/what-have-you are getting at, and sometimes that involves the viewer getting to a certain point in life. We have that transaction with film — we don't watch passively. We process information. If we can't fully perform the transaction, then we don't understand all or part of the film.
This is not the Kurosawa film to start with, of course. However I appreciate the film for its balance of darkness and slight humor, along with Toshiro Mifune's performance. There's a lot of good here.
Mostly I appreciate that this film will still be in my collection for the day that I'm truly ready.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
One of the drawbacks of this project is I can't control the timing if I want to keep moving forward in order. So tonight I'm watching Bad Santa, perhaps the most offensive Christmas movie ever made.
I was 9 years old when I remember seeing trailers for a film called Silent Night, Deadly Night a slasher film in which the killer dressed as Santa. Oh, the uproar. That film eventually got pulled from theaters. We were a bunch of uptight assholes in the 1980s.
Still, that's probably the most offensive, puerile Christmas film ever made. At least Bad Santa is funny and gives the main character a real shot at redemption.
Plus, the kid's name is Thurman Merman. How is that not funny?
What's more, you get John Ritter's last live action performance. I grew up watching reruns of "Three's Company" in the afternoons after school. Mom would take naps on the couch, so I'd have to watch TV quietly. Ever try to laugh quietly? Not happening. I woke her up a lot.
Bernie Mac is here too. He deserves kudos for the negotiation scene alone. "Half."
I don't connect to this film in the same way I connect with Christmas Vacation, which for us is a family tradition on Christmas Eve. However, Bad Santa makes us laugh consistently (even if we feel like we shouldn't be laughing). Plus we get to see John Ritter again each time — always a good thing. This is a great film for right around December 7 — something to watch as the tree goes up.
People wait for the right time of year for a lot of things. Watching a holiday film in the "offseason" isn't a bad thing. Now I actually have some money in the bank and I'm not stressed out and pissed off. I don't want to punch other customers in the store. I can find stuff I want. There's parking everywhere.
Life's pretty great when it's not Christmas. People forget that.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Lots of films don't age well. We remember films being a whole lot better when we saw them the first time. We were once mesmerized. Now we can't get over how much they suck, and how in the hell we didn't notice the first time.
The Back To The Future trilogy is, appropriately, timeless.
Back To The Future premiered when I was 10 years old; Parts II and III came out when I was 14 and 15, respectively.
Dad usually rented good movies. Now he buys Blu-Ray discs. Guess who got him the Blu-Ray player? Call it payback for nurturing my love of movies. I was pretty much allowed to watch anything at a young age (okay, no porn). I saw The Terminator when I was 11 or 12. I turned out mostly fine.
I don't remember how I saw Back To The Future Parts II and III, so let's assume I saw those on video as well in the early 1990s. I may have seen both of them in the theater, or at the drive-in a mile from my childhood home. I have no idea.
I distinctly remember seeing the TV special that promoted Parts II and III, when Zemekis, Spielberg, and screenwriter Bob Gale went back to the well. Talk about excited. Even then I knew there was more story to tell, and I wanted to see where everything went. I digress.
These films mesmerized me when I was a kid, and seeing them now, I appreciate them for how they take me back, and for how they have barely aged.
Perhaps most importantly, Michael J. Fox is forever young here, before Parkinson's derailed his career. I love seeing him in supporting roles in shows like "Rescue Me" now, but this trilogy is the best work of his career.
Sure, there are plot holes you can drive (or fly) a DeLorean through. How did the walkie-talkies in Part II work all over town except in the Hill Valley tunnel? I distinctly remember endless childhood frustration with lots of different walkie-talkies that barely received from across the yard.
How come the DeLorean only runs when the plot needs the DeLorean to run?
Never mind. This is brilliant stuff.
I went several years without owning these films. The studio screwed up the initial DVD release with technical problems. I felt like a sucker. But when I saw the reissues pictured above, I snapped them up.
Having a film (or trilogy of films) I loved as a child connects me to my youth. I have a lot of films like this. In a way, they're like traveling through time.
When I watch this trilogy, everyone is young again. These films put me right back in the 1980s, stretched out on the living room floor in front of the family's wooden, console television. The front door is propped open, and I can hear the insects outside on a summer night. I can hear the semi trucks on the highway in the distance. Unfortunately I can smell Mom's cigarette smoke, but I can also smell the popcorn she made.
Back here in the future, I find myself looking backward a lot.