Sunday, June 27, 2010
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog challenges the very essence of Little Round Mirrors.
For one, this isn't technically a movie, but a series of video blog short film thingies that, when assembled, equal about a 45-minute program, which Joss Whedon and friends made during the Great Writers' Strike of a few years ago (2008?). But that's not important right now.
Secondly, but most importantly, Dr. Horrible challenges my ability to alphabetize my movies. I'd originally put all films starting with "Dr." after films starting with "Do-" because "Do-" comes before "Dr-" right?
But upon further review, and by review I mean, my father-in-law came over and he is in MENSA, we agreed (I acquiesced) that when pronouncing movies starting with "Dr.", we do not say, for example, "DURR No," or "DURR Zhivago." We say, "Doctor."
Leaving aside the notion that no one in MENSA ever says "DURR" for any reason unless using the sound to indicate someone of lesser intelligence has just said or done something stupid (or if one is German), the truth is that English speakers always pronounce the word "doctor" rather than the abbreviation "Dr."
Of course we pronounce the abbreviation. Why shouldn't we alphabetize accordingly?
I also should note that my father-in-law holds a doctorate AND hails from England, where English was invented, so like, he should know. Yes, I happen to hold a master's degree in English, but he's actually English, and his Ph.D. in chemistry, membership in MENSA, and position as a regional Romulan ambassador in the Star Trek role-playing game far outweigh my state school education, which stalled at the master's level. Ergo, I defer to him here because he might be reading.
But before we fully defer, I've also turned to supplemental research, as I believe fairness and accuracy are the pillars by which Little Round Mirrors exists. You might not get journalistic integrity from the mainstream media, and you might not get academic integrity from our public school system, but by God, when you come to Little Round Mirrors, you can rest assured we're (I'm) doing everything we (I) can to provide accurately (quickly, haphazardly) researched (Googled) information with a modicum of attention to the traditions of academia (spelling).
According to Wikipedia, "As for the titles Mr., Dr., etc., they are generally not spelled out in alphabetizing, though this question is obscure enough that the rule might vary from one organization to another."
In that case, my organization varies. Wikipedia continues:
"You can't go wrong alphabetizing strictly letter by letter, listing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington after Moonstruck (though other people might do it differently)."
I am other people, and I do it differently.
"Leonard Maltin's annual movie guidebook does sort 'strictly letter by letter, listing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington after Moonstruck.' As a user of the book, I find this quite inconvenient."
"Bearing in mind that other sources like TV listings may feel at liberty to use abbreviations that were not already in a title, so the form I'm looking up may not be the one that Maltin lists. I would rather have to look in just one place to find all titles that start with Dr. or Doctor."
What this means is that films starting with "Dr." (ostensibly standing for "Doctor") come before all of the other films in my collection starting with "Do-." This also solves the conundrum of where to put Doctor Zhivago, the box of which features the word "Doctor" spelled out rather than abbreviated. Thus, Doctor Zhivago comes after Dr. Strangelove, assuming I own those movies on DVD.
There are rules, people. This is not Vietnam, Donnie, and yes, "Donnie" comes after "Doctor" and "Dr." as well. So if you can think of a movie that starts with "Donnie," then you might guess a few titles to come later, but that's not important right now.
What is important is that Joss Whedon, writers' strike be damned, went ahead creatively with some fine actors (Nathan Fillion and the immortal NPH, among others) to make this series of video blog entries that my brother-in-law, also born in England (though not doctorated), called "strange."
Dr. Horrible is rather indescribable, but I'm not required to do so, as this is my blog and I make the rules. If you take nothing else away from this entry, at least know that Dr. Horrible should be viewed at the computer or on your television set, if for no other reason than Dr. Horrible holds a Ph.D. in horribleness, which trumps a Ph.D. in chemistry (according to Wikipedia).
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film that always reminds me of my own losses and pain and the need to keep going, keep creating, and not let up despite the pain, distractions, and whatever else comes along to try to mess up my universe.
I'm drawn toward those kinds of themes. Stay sharp, lose sleep, keep burning. Time is short and distractions eat away at me — even the distractions I choose.
My friend Cole read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in an undergraduate English course at Ball State. He and I worked at the campus newspaper approximately 24/7, and one day he came in with this book, raving about how the author managed to complete the project:
"He wrote a book — with his EYE!"
I actually read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a year or two later in a creative nonfiction workshop, which was the perfect class for in-depth analysis of Jean-Dominique Bauby's story.
This may shock you, but I keep everything, so I dug up my reaction paper on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tonight, and thought I'd share some excerpts.
Here's what I wrote in 2003, with minor edits for clarity:
"Regarding Bauby’s title, I’d guess his choice depended on the two poles of consciousness he encountered after suffering his stroke. He spoke in the prologue of the great diving bell which confines him, but he spoke later about 'listening to the butterflies that flutter inside my head.' Depending on his feelings, he could be confined one day, but released to wander the wind on another via his imagination and memories, which in addition to abundant time to think are all that he has left.
Nothing particularly deep there, but at least I understood the story. Some more:
"The chapter I found the most revealing is 'Our Very Own Madonna,' when Bauby takes the reader on a trip with his wife, Josephine. Bauby and his wife are having problems, and throughout the trip, Bauby engrosses himself in a book instead of paying attention to Josephine. By the end, the tension culminates in Bauby telling Josephine that he’d like to split up, and later finding a creative love note from Josephine written on the inside of the book that so enraptured [him]. This chapter more than any denotes a kind of loving relationship and a kind of attitude that Bauby may not have been able to carry on his own. With Josephine, hoping is easier.
Reading over this again, I'm realizing just how different the movie seemed tonight. Wasn't the Madonna bit with an old flame, not his wife? Wait, was Bauby married twice? This is what I get for playing with my iPhone during the movie.
"I was astounded at how little self-pity [Bauby] seemed to put to paper. Whether he felt it or not, this text does not show it. I was compelled to pity him anyway, and though this is probably not what an author of this ambition would want, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as he told about the noisy halls and the sun that shone into his eyes when he forgot to signal to have the curtains drawn."
This resonates with me even today, especially when I consider that I wrote this paper during the darkest period of my life, when I'd lost three grandparents, the family dog, and a friend from high school in the space of 9 months. Every time the phone rang, I didn't want to answer. I still hate answering the phone.
When my wife and I rented this film originally, I thought director Julian Schnabel had overdone the white-flashy editing and point-of-view/shaky camera/hand-cranky/video layering conventions, which worked more to distract me and make me aware of the film rather than allowing full immersion into Bauby's story. I got frustrated then, not because of the limited point of view, but because in my anger, I felt as if Schnabel were trying to induce a seizure rather than tell a story.
I still feel that way somewhat — these conventions are more interesting on repeat viewings, but I'm still distracted and constantly aware that I'm watching a film, and as such, I'm unable to fully let go and allow this film to work. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is visceral and rather hard to watch (I'll allow that locked-in syndrome is worse), but in the end, the film is a gratifying experience, equally sad and hopeful, in no small part because of the excellent soundtrack, which I probably focused on because the visuals were so difficult for me.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly holds an interesting distinction: This is the only film that I will watch just for the closing credits, which consist of a simple montage set to a song called "Ramshackle Day Parade" by the late Joe Strummer, from his posthumous album Streetcore.
Strummer died in 2002, about 6 weeks before I wrote the excerpts above. Streetcore followed in October 2003, shortly after I lost my grandmother and during a period when my grandfather was on his deathbed with liver cancer. I was also in my late twenties at the time, contemplating my own mortality as people of a certain disposition tend to do.
Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon also died around this same time, and their music, as well as Strummer's (especially "Ramshackle Day Parade"), inadvertently provided a soundtrack for the worst period of my life, and still take me back to that place when I want to go (and surprisingly, I often do). Somehow, revisiting old pain helps me make sense of all the loss, and why so much sadness was concentrated on me between August 2003 and May 2004. I was surrounded by death.
This was my last year of graduate school, when I was attempting to finish two master's degrees at the same time. I suppose I could've crumbled, dropped out, flunked out, turned to drinking, whatever, but I just kept thinking about how proud my grandma was of me and how I wanted to make her happy, wherever she was. I now see that as an obvious coping mechanism to help me overcome the guilt of not talking to her much for the last few years of her life. (Don't judge — that's a whole other story.)
I buckled down, put all the death aside (read: attempted to repress), sobbed hard at times (read: failed to repress), and lost a lot of sleep that year, staying up until 4 a.m. every night, listening to sad music, and spending student loan money on iTunes, downloading Willie Nelson songs that reminded me of Granny. I had bought tickets to see Willie Nelson in concert, and took my mom and her then-boyfriend. He got Granny's ticket.
I scoured the Web for cheap Warren Zevon CDs and ended up falling in love with his live album, Learning to Flinch. Zevon's "The Indifference of Heaven" stood out for me at the time, often played on repeat while my then-girlfriend slept in the next room and the walls talked to me. I woke her the night grandma died and had one of those horrible, convulsive cries on her bed until my chest and throat hurt and felt swollen shut. I kept hearing Granny's voice in my head. I still do.
But I only woke her that one time. The rest of those nights, I just sat by myself, trying to write about all this shit and listening to music, and really only succeeding at the latter.
I kept a journal at the time. My thoughts about death are surprisingly limited, maybe because I wasn't quite comfortable updating the journal with those personal matters. Then again, maybe I didn't touch that stuff because...I didn't know how. I spent most of my entries re-printing emo song lyrics, talking about stuff I'd blown money on, and making these bravado-laden statements about partying. I never really partied. I adopted another identity.
I did find this entry from Nov. 26, 2003, the only entry from that period that provides any indication that I was dealing with so much loss:
"I want everything around me to stop dying for a while, so I can give each loss the mourning I need to. Otherwise, I'm just going to go numb and then another loved one will die and I'll be like, 'Meh.'"
That's pretty much what I did when my other grandfather died that January, or February, or whenever the hell the drunk died. He's the reason I'm not an alcoholic. They say alcoholism is genetic. I say hating an alcoholic will encourage moderation, genetics be damned. Whatever the case, I felt nothing when he died. I did not go to the funeral. I do not know where he's buried. The last time I saw him, January 1999, he stumbled drunk into my uncle's funeral and called my brother "John" while I watched from across the room.
Anyway, years later, I'm still processing all the loss. I remember kind of losing it when we rented this film, and tonight wasn't much different. Those closing credits rolled and I heard Joe Strummer's voice and saw those glaciers jumping out of the water and re-assembling and I couldn't help but sit mesmerized, feeling some kind of solace I don't fully understand but still accept.
Even though I'm still frustrated with the technique of the film, Schnabel ends the picture so elegantly that I find myself letting go and drifting, feeling like a part of all things myself, and through that, I feel centered again.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Sometime in 1989, my parents rented Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on VHS from our local video store. I didn't like the movie at the time, but the older I get and the more times I watch, the more I enjoy this one.
Steve Martin plays Freddy, an amateur, boorish con artist trying to make inroads on the French Riviera. Michael Caine plays Lawrence, a slick, debonair con-man himself who has dominated the same territory for years, conning dozens of women and amassing a great personal fortune.
The two con men simply cannot co-exist in the Riviera town. They cannot work together and they really don't really get along, but neither will leave the Riviera, so they make a wager:
Together, they choose a woman, and the first one to con her out of $50,000 wins the bet and gets to stay. The loser goes away, never to return to the area.
The rest of the film is an exchange of wits, as Freddy and Lawrence take turns outsmarting each other, victimizing each other, and putting each other in compromising positions. There really aren't many laugh-out-loud moments, but this doesn't go for the "LOL" moment, instead preferring to keep things dry. Few films so eloquently capture the essence of dramatic irony — a smart audience knows what is happening even as the characters don't.
I've always considered the plot rather thin. There are some great lines and some even greater subtext, such as when Steve Martin's character rolls up in a wheelchair behind Michael Caine's chair at the roulette table. The look on Michael Caine's face is gold. So many well-timed moments and pitch-perfect dialogue...why didn't I like this film back then?
Simple: I was 14.
Now that I'm older and my sense of humor has evolved beyond dick and fart jokes (somewhat), films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are right in my wheelhouse — smart, dry, and quotable in the best way.
For $5 in the local Best Buy bargain bin, I couldn't pass up Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Plus, this film comes fully endorsed by the wife, who rarely endorses my shiny disc purchases so wholeheartedly. Dry humor and the Brits are like Marmite and water. Watching Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tonight was her idea.
And then she fell asleep on the couch.
p.s. I can never get over Ian McDiarmid as Arthur in this film. I keep expecting him to shoot lightning from his hands, especially when Steve Martin's character is kissing them.
Monday, June 21, 2010
Invisible car? Seriously?
Die Another Day is Pierce Brosnan's swan song as James Bond 007. (He even hooks up with a woman in a swan-shaped, ice-sculpture bed.) Pushing 50 in this role (he turned 50 in 2003, one year after this film), he looks every bit his age, with his hair flecked with gray. I'm not saying he's the oldest Bond to ever grace the screen, nor is he awkward or slow, but his advancing age is apparent here.
Watching this again, I can tell he (well, everybody) was trying to bring Bond into the next century, scratching and clawing. Gone are the cigarettes (no Bond since Timothy Dalton has smoked them on screen), but here, Bond smokes cigars. What's the damned difference? The martinis, shaken not stirred, share time with mojitos (to be fair, Bond does order martinis in this film too).
He is captured, tortured, and Brosnan even grows out his Robinson Crusoe locks and beard again to show how long Bond was held captive. Or, you know, maybe that's all a weave.
Even with all of that, there's a spirit missing here. Brosnan's Bond films were by turns attempting to incorporate both the traditions of Sean Connery with the cartoonish wink of Roger Moore, while maintaining a modern sensibility. Shit didn't work.
Plus, most of Brosnan's films have the misfortune of co-existing with the Austin Powers films, which all came out around the same period and totally took the piss out of James Bond and the wind out of the last three Brosnan efforts. Only GoldenEye dodges the bullet, no pun intended.
So much went wrong here.
People don't go to Bond films for the story. Most of the time, the story is kind of an unnecessary burden that sort of, kind of attempts to link lavish locations and sets to spectacles of stuntplay. Spin the globe, stop it with your finger, and that's where Bond goes this time (North Korea, Cuba, London). Choose a vehicle to drive off a cliff (here, you get a hovercraft).
But with storytelling, there are rules; this isn't Vietnam. You need to meet the heavy before the 51:00 mark. Most of the good Bond films start with a good story.
And what the heck is Madonna doing not only performing the theme song (which I can live with) but appearing in the film? And Halle Berry, despite her Oscar work elsewhere, sucks ass in this movie. At least Rosamund Pike is here. I admire her work.
But instead of spending more time with her, we get to watch Bond participate in what can only be called "The World of Swordfighting," during which Bond and Graves, the heavy, first fence, then switch to Bushido blades (I think) and finish with...broadswords? Buh?
As Bond flies back to London, we are treated to the bleeding obvious soundtrack: "London Calling" by The Clash, which is not only too easy, but a bit inappropriate. James Bond is no punk rocker. But, then again, apparently he drinks mojitos now, so I reckon anything is possible.
You know, like an invisible car.
Or maybe an ice castle.
How about some gene therapy that turns an Asian into a Caucasian? We got that too.
This is the kind of Bond film that my dad would watch and hate. I'm right there with him. Aside from some memorable set pieces, this is a hard Bond film to sit through. I'll watch this one once every few years, but unfortunately, every few years this film will look more and more like an Austin Powers film, and maintain a spot in my collection only because I'm a completist sucker. This is not my father's Bond, and that's a shame.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
My dad is a big 007 fan (whose Dad isn't?). I spoke with him tonight to wish him a happy Father's Day and mentioned that we were watching Diamonds Are Forever.
Dad's the kind of guy that doesn't need (or really want) to watch movies over and over because he can remember them so well. Mention a Bond film and he'll ask, "That's the one where he..." followed by an example of some outrageous stunt or specific type of car featured in that film. He's almost always right.
There's a lot about my dad that I don't know. I know he graduated from high school in 1965 (or 1966?) in St. Cloud, Florida. I knew that shortly thereafter, he found himself in Aurora, CO, where he received his draft notice. He was deployed to somewhere in Germany, of all places, where he spent the rest of the Vietnam War. Somewhere in Germany, I have a half-sister I've never met. Dad rarely talks about anything prior to meeting my mom.
I figure Dad's seen most of the Connery Bond films in the theater, but I'm not sure which ones. In fact, I'd wager he saw most of the Bond films released before I was born in 1975.
We used to watch Bond movies on ABC when I was little. We never had money to see them in the theater. The network was good about running the Connery and Moore films (though never the Lazenby one, which is a shame). That's how I saw most of the Bond films prior to glorious standard-definition, stereo, 4:3 VHS. Those that I hadn't seen, I eventually rented myself.
We got cable in the early '90s, and suddenly I'm seeing all these James Bond marathons on TNT. After years of missing movies in the theater, I suddenly had more movies than I had time to watch — sort of like present day, actually.
Going chronological for this project was tempting (just putting all of them under "007" or "Bond" and going straight through the series), but I've watched all of the Bond films in chronological order at least twice before — no need to do that again, really.
A Sean Connery film comes first in alphabetical order, because I no longer own Casino Royale on DVD. There's a reason for that.
When I bought my PS3 in November 2009, I attempted to establish rules for Blu-Ray buying (and saving money, because I was afraid of the temptation to double-dip my entire collection). The main rule went as follows: If I own the film on DVD, then I can't buy the Blu-Ray copy.
With more than 500 DVDs, replacing all of them on Blu-Ray is not only cost-prohibitive, but a bit unnecessary. Upconversion makes most newer DVDs look and sound fine on my gear.
However, with 500 DVDs, what's left to own? Where's the fun in collecting if you own everything in the previous format?
I decided to put together the Bond films first. The only ones I owned on DVD were Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Quantum of Solace. That left 19 Bond films to collect, and to date, 11 have been released on Blu-Ray.
My first Bond film on Blu-Ray was...Casino Royale, followed by Quantum of Solace.
So much for rules.
I developed a new rule for double-dipping: If I do, then I must part with the DVD version. No sense in having two different formats of shiny disc in the house, right? Soon after, I got rid of the two Daniel Craig films on DVD.
Ah, but I'm a completist. I knew I would want all of the Bond films on Blu-Ray if I were making a transition — and that would include the Bond films that aren't so hot. Thankfully, not all of them are available on Blu-Ray yet.
Diamonds Are Forever is the last official James Bond film starring Sean Connery, and is not to be confused with the last appearance by Sean Connery as James Bond, the out-of-canon and slightly offensive-smelling Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again.
Fun facts: Jill St. John plays a Bond girl here. Jill St. John married Robert Wagner, who played Number Two in the Austin Powers films, which spoofed Bond films (including this one).
Diamonds Are Forever is also one of two Sean Connery Bond films not available on Blu-Ray just yet (the other being You Only Live Twice). I'm not sure why EON Productions and MGM are holding back on these, but have pushed Moonraker out in high-def, but I don't make the decisions. I just write a blog. I also don't mind Moonraker as long as we're on the subject. More on that later.
Anyway, long story longer, I bought all of the James Bond Ultimate Edition DVD sets, based on some convoluted reasoning. If you're following the logic, I prevented myself from buying all the Bond films on Blu-Ray by buying them all on DVD.
But I reserve the right to sell off the DVD sets if I want.
No one ever said a collector's rationale was logical. That's the beautiful thing about rationalizing superfluous purchases.
p.s. Jimmy Dean is in this one. Rest in peace, Sausage King.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Akira Kurosawa's Academy Award winning Dersu Uzala (Best Foreign Language Film, 1975) is a film about friendship through time, but also is about the clash of progress and altruism.
Unable to secure financing to make a film in Japan, the legendary director went all the way to effing Siberia to make this movie, the only film he made outside his home country.
Incidentally, I have another 25 or so Akira Kurosawa films to discuss after this one. Perhaps that will affect my readership. I don't care.
When I started grad school, I signed up for some classes in the Ohio University School of Film, which was a separate entity from the School of Telecommunications. I ended up taking film classes as electives to my screenwriting degree. One of the first classes I took was Film History 1, which focused on narrative. Obviously, we covered Kurosawa in that class.
I knew of Kurosawa, but didn't take an interest until after this class. Several years passed before I really started collecting his films on DVD. I still don't have all of them because Criterion won't release his first four films outside of the exhaustive (and expensive) boxed set released a year or two ago. I would like to take this moment to point out that Armageddon is available from the Criterion Collection but you can't get Kurosawa's first four films.
Dersu Uzala was one of the last Kurosawa DVDs added to my collection. I held off for some time because there are currently two releases: the Kino Video version pictured above and the Ruscico version from Russia, which is spread across two DVDs.
I chose the Kino because I'd rented this version from Netflix and knew what I was getting. Neither current Region 1 release is particularly pretty, with lots of grain, washed out colors, and glorious 2.0 sound. In fact the film is downright crappy looking in parts, but I'm a completist. I need everything.
Dersu Uzala is a longish film, around 2 1/2 hours, and the film seems longer because of several slow, quieter passages rather than grandiose battle sequences. The film looks and feels as though shot on the cheap, but that's not a negative criticism — Kurosawa spent the bulk of his career making films on the cheap.
There is, however, an intense sequence set on the wastelands of Siberia, when Dersu the trapper and Captain Arsenyev find themselves lost with the sun setting and the temperature dropping. If they don't find shelter or find their expedition party, they'll surely die.
Thinking quickly, Dersu yells to Arsenyev, "Cut the grass!" The two take out knives and start chopping down dead weeds, piles and piles of dead weeds, running themselves to exhaustion while the sun drops. Finally, the scene fades to black and we find Dersu and Arsenyev huddled inside a makeshift shelter of grass, and they survive the Siberian nightfall.
Dersu is a hunter, a mountain man as it were, but when he starts to lose his eyesight, Arsenyev offers to take him back to the city where Dersu can stay with Arsenyev's family. Dersu does not fit in, and eventually wants to return to the wild.
This film is about friendship through the years, as Dersu and Arsenyev separate after Arsenyev's expedition in Siberia and reunite several years later. Seeing this film gets me thinking about the friends I've drifted away from through the years, generally becoming different people and going our separate ways without some huge falling out. Sometimes I lament those lost friends, most of whom are still out there, and I hope they're doing well. I also hope that if I see or talk to them again, we can pick up where we left off, more or less. I wonder if that's possible with some of them.
Dersu Uzala is a slow film, a methodical film, but a heartfelt one, and definitely one of Kurosawa's stronger works. However, unlike most of Kurosawa's oeuvre, Dersu Uzala is not available from the Criterion Collection. Turns out, Criterion released the laserdisc about 20 years ago, but since then, Criterion has not secured the rights to release on DVD or Blu-Ray. I trust that Criterion and Dersu will reunite someday.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
When The Departed was released on DVD, my wife and I were living in our tiny apartment in Fishers, Indiana, not far from our local Target, 3 minutes away. On that Tuesday, Target had an exclusive two-disc edition like the one shown above, and included within was a copy of the screenplay (in miniature form, the size of a DVD case).
That was all I needed to hear. I'd seen the film in the theater and predicted all of the Academy Awards bestowed upon Scorsese and company. I wanted to see this film again, read the screenplay, and check out the bonus features in this set.
Unfortunately, that Tuesday was also the day of a huge snowstorm, and I didn't go to work. My wife, however, had to go to her job, which was about 7 minutes away. I tried to get her to stop by Target on her way home (not out of the way at all), but no dice.
She told me over and over, "They'll have plenty." I didn't believe her. I'd had some terrible luck with this particular Target not getting enough copies of the "Target Exclusive" versions. I spent the day in a resentful panic.
So we had a minor squabble — something ill-advised and stupid about me not being able to rely on her, blah blah blah.
This obsessive-compulsive need to buy stuff is a real bear. I remember spending that whole day pissed...because I couldn't get a copy of The Departed on DVD with a screenplay inside. I'd love to say that I've grown since then, that I've matured, and that maybe I've even conquered my shiny disc OCD somewhat. Mostly I just don't ask my wife to stop off and buy stuff like this for me.
I went to the store a day or two later and they had plenty of copies. The snow kept the DVD hounds like me at home, and their spouses didn't pick up a copy for them either.
That's the copy I'm watching tonight for only the second time since, and I've never read the screenplay. That's just a shame for so many reasons.
The Departed is the kind of film that comes along once a decade — maybe once in a lifetime. Here you get Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and a long list of character actors you've seen play heavies and sidekicks in other films.
Lots of films have expensive casts, but not every film comes with such a great story. Yeah, yeah, Scorsese re-tooled a Hong Kong crime thriller trilogy called Infernal Affairs, relocating everything to Boston. I don't recall many bad reviews of The Departed during the film's original run, but now there are plenty around the Web. Blu-Ray.com even calls the film "mediocre," which is a happy load of revisionist horseshit. The Departed isn't Scorsese's best film, but this is still a great one, certainly worth picking up, and if you can track down a Target version (good luck), you can even get a smallish copy of William Monahan's screenplay.
But is The Departed worth arguing or obsessing over during a snowstorm? Probably not.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I owe much to a purple rhino.
Death to Smoochy came along at a difficult time in my life. In 2001, I moved back from Chicago to my hometown, where I returned to grad school for a second master's, this time in the CICS program at Ball State.
After washing out in Chicago, I needed a graduate program that would practically guarantee me a job. I was enrolled for roughly three days before I realized I didn't fit at all and immediately wanted something else. I was enrolled for about three weeks before 9/11 happened and changed everything everywhere.
I'd been dating this girl, and everything was going wrong there. We were long distance for much of the previous year, so my coming back home should've been a big boost for us, but we just fought all the time and fell apart.
I moved back into the same house where I lived as an undergrad. I guess I did this as a grasp at familiarity. After the Chicago debacle, I needed to rewind a bit, to a mental point when my life wasn't so complicated. In effect, I rewound to college — same school, same apartment. Dumb idea, really, but also one of my best ideas.
The place was one of those off-campus houses that was divided in a weird way to get maximum space (and thus, maximum rental dollars). We all had our own bedrooms; I had the basement to myself, and I shared the kitchen, living room, and bathroom with three other guys during my undergraduate years: Chris and Brian (two of my closest friends through college) and an ever-changing third roommate.
The second time around, the house was the only thing unchanged; I shared the house with three strangers: Kris, Dave, and Tom, who all lived upstairs.
Kris was (still is) a devout Christian, a conservative, and a nursing student (now a nurse). We should not have gotten along, but we had many great conversations about politics and religion — two areas that are sure bets for a fight. I learned a lot about my opposition by having actual discussions with him. We could talk. We disagreed on things, but in two years, I don't remember a single argument.
Oh, and Kris turned me on to Death to Smoochy. Figure that one out.
Dave was the first "new guy" I met, and he seemed okay at first — a little rednecky, and he'd tell you that. He was an urban planning student with a penchant for racist remarks and some lapses in common sense (he once put liquid dish soap in the dishwasher and flooded the kitched with suds). Ironically, we came to call him "Dirty Dave" because he had a thing for porn and Internet dating. Kris sold him a laptop and helped create a monster.
Tom was quiet, kept to himself, generally weirded me out, and two months after I moved in, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in a suicide attempt. I saw him that afternoon, carrying a gas can inside the house — I didn't even think about this; I figured he was just going to mow the lawn.
His suicide attempt set the house on fire. Dave lost almost everything. Luckily, Kris kept his door shut, so his losses were minimal, as were mine because almost all of my belongings were downstairs. Tom ended up in the burn ward in the local hospital, and we never saw him again. We went through some of his stuff and found a copy of the Unabomber Manifesto and some anti-psychotic drugs.
We were homeless and a bit frightened, until Dominic, a friend of Dave's, mentioned a newly open apartment off-campus, above the liquor store where he worked. We all looked at the apartment and decided to stick together so we could afford the place — 1,700 square feet, washer/dryer, all new appliances, all new everything, and built to commercial standards (which meant low utilities). Did I mention this apartment was upstairs from a liquor store? I'm not encouraging drinking. I'm just saying.
Kris, Dave, and I barely knew each other, but when you're homeless at the end of September in a college town, you take what you can find and band together if needed. I'm not the most spiritual person, but I have no problem saying we were blessed to have found such an amazing apartment on such short notice. Everything fell into place. I lived there for the next two years.
Getting to know Dave and Kris was a great experience. They were like two sides of a weird spectrum — Kris the conservative, God-fearing nursing student, and Dave the slightly perverted, short-tempered, hillbillyish urban planning student. Kris, Dom, and I soon found a common activity — picking on Dave. One night, Kris, Dom, and I moved all of Dave's bedroom furniture out to the parking lot and arranged everything exactly the way Dave arranged his bedroom. We even turned down the covers on his newly relocated parking lot bed.
We had a neighbor, Zac, who was dating the girl who eventually became my wife. I met her in the liquor store downstairs. I noticed her, but we didn't get together until years later. I had nothing to do with their breakup. Seriously.
I guess Death to Smoochy makes me think about how my best and worst choices got me here — moving back home, picking the familiar apartment even though strangers were living there, moving in above the liquor store, ending a dysfunctional relationship, going back to grad school — all of that somehow set up the life I lead right now.
I can't help but be grateful for how everything just sort of...worked out.
In a way, I am indebted to a purple rhino for bringing these memories back, and to all the forces that look out for me. Indeed, friends come in all sizes.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
We are all food for worms.
Dead Poets Society bemoans bad parenting and a failed preparatory school model and the loss of one great teacher as a scapegoat, but one can extrapolate. The film works as a requiem for our youthful flirtation with idealism, teachers and students alike.
We're shown the culture of the school. Rigorous academic standards. Expectations of excellence defined by people too old to understand what excellent looks like at 18 — what the world looks like at 18 — and the fogeys' cynicism/realism becomes their substitute for idealism once they realize their own dreams have fled. Their fire has died, the embers now as cool as the distance between them and the students whose best interests they purport to serve.
And then John Keating enters a classroom, whistling "The 1812 Overture," walks right out the back door, and beckons his new students to follow. He urges them to make their lives extraordinary..."gather ye rosebuds while ye may." We are all food for worms. He connects on the first day. He doesn't need a syllabus. He doesn't need a diagnostic, a pre-test, some kind of yardstick. He has something greater. The students don't realize this at first: "That was weird." Yet Keating reaches them, through mild acts of rebellion and encouraging them to embrace self-determination.
Good teachers want to do just one thing: connect. You connect, and you can teach anybody anything. For some, that connection with students is through mutual passions: a love for literature, art, science, math, history. For others, that connection comes from kindred spirits — a similar sense of humor, a similar personality, similar pet peeves, identification with someone older...maybe a role model, a template by which we combat the unknown. We don't need treats; our students aren't pets. We don't need recognition. We just need to make consistent connections in order to feel that we're making a difference through the miasma.
I have a lot to learn about teaching, but in less than a decade of experience, I've had more than my share of students stick around after class to talk. I've had plenty follow me back to my office to continue a conversation started in class, or just to talk about whatever. I get people who thank me, years on, for something I barely remember saying in class. I have the benefit of youthfulness and (fleeting) relevance despite my increasing age — I'm now almost twice the age of the typical incoming freshman. Somehow I can still do this.
I did the math recently. I started teaching in 1999, and aside from a year or so here and there, I've been teaching ever since. In that time, I've taught something like 80 class sections of at least 20 students. That's more than 1,000 students (conservative estimate). Not all of them liked my class or even me for that matter. Some thought I was a wanker. Most returning students, ages 40 and up, usually female, can't stand me, and I've never known why (I've stopped wondering). You can't please everybody, and frankly, my job is not to please people.
Sometimes, though, a student or batch of students stands out. They bring their passion to class — passion, how refreshing in a sea of apathy — they want to learn, want to read, want to work, see the point, and most of all, they don't make excuses. They just kick ass.
Those people keep me going. They challenge me to be better.
My high school creative writing teacher, Mr. Williams, was my John Keating. He saw in me a passion for words, and he encouraged me when I wanted to write but didn't know how — when I needed an outlet and had nothing. He let me use his typewriter, a great electric with a correcting ribbon, years before computers were in the classroom. I wrote poems then. I also filled five notebooks with experimental fiction, or at least that's the only thing I can call the stuff now (better than "misguided tripe"). All I wanted to do was write, and maybe someday reach people.
I never stood on a desk and shouted, "O Captain! My Captain!" but Mr. Williams, at last check, was still teaching at my high school, some 17 years after I left. We haven't seen each other in several years, but the last time, he invited me over for tea and we talked about writing. As I sit here on the couch, tapping this out, I look up at the home around me and realize that my house and his house have nearly identical floor plans. I don't know what this means, but I can't help but wonder if this is relevant somehow. Kindred spirits need kindred dwellings?
Such is the parallel with Dead Poets Society, when Keating's students ask him about the club and he tells them. His students go to the same cavern, and in the best tradition of misreading (nodding to Harold Bloom, and my former colleague Fred Johnson here), the students tell each other scary stories at first, but slowly they turn to poetry, and something in them finds flight.
Unfortunately, in this age, and in every age, those who do not teach, who do not understand teaching, get to make decisions that affect teachers. They are taxpayers, politicians, boosters, spouses of important people in the community, owners of corporations that make voting machines, and, yes, the occasional misguided administrator who lost his/her soul in the name of upward mobility. Teaching is plagued by budget cuts, insufficient materials, outdated textbooks, bad hires, forced fires, poor methods of evaluation, simple forgetfulness of what life was like in the classroom, and the crushing pressure we take home at night, and we must bear all of this with relatively little complaint in order to keep our dream job. Socrates was sentenced to die. John Keating was fired. We know.
Now teaching is an unending list of expectations. Teach overcrowded classes with the same verve as we would teach individuals. Inspire like we have an unending supply, like we don't go home tonight with our own dreams in addition to our dream of effective teaching. Educate increasingly specialized people in general subjects: "We're _____ students. We don't read/write/study/take notes/take tests/listen/follow directions." Design courses to accommodate all learning styles, all disabilities, all cultures, because we have absolutely no idea who will show up next term. Teach subjects you are not quite qualified to teach because the school has no choice. Lose weekends and weeknights to piles of grading and class prep. Somehow, on a teacher's salary, scrape together money for a professional wardrobe that is not entirely comprised of corduroy coated in chalk dust. I'm just getting started.
We are, in essence, expected to be superheroes working at the behest of an unsympathetic, overworked, under-budgeted administration.
The best teachers keep their capes out of sight.
Because if we're too good at our jobs, we're asked to leave.
I like to believe that all teachers share a common hope, that on the day we leave our classroom, either at the end of the year or in the twilight of our careers, we can turn around to see a handful of faces — maybe not standing on their desks, in angular formation like birds — but at least looking back at us from a higher plane of view than where we started with them.
I lose sleep over nothing else.