Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I blame Fight Club for so much.
For one, Fight Club made writing screenplays about split personalities okay, when the oh-shit-Norton-is-Pitt twist really wasn't that interesting a twist in the first place.
That's the least interesting bit of the film, really. Having taught screenwriting for several years, by far the most overdone, clichéd, beaten to hell plot device among beginning writers is the split personality.
That device got so common in the years following Fight Club that I eventually made a list of banned story ideas for my classes. "Split personalities" was near the top.
(Of course, I offered to grant exceptions for those students who were also licensed, practicing psychiatrists. Nobody ever took me up on that.)
Fight Club explores the emasculation of men in modern capitalist society, but doesn't do much to provide reasonable solutions or alternatives, just postulating that the pendulum on which inept men sit must one day swing back, violently, against whomever or whatever performed the emasculation.
This is the logical conclusion, circa 1999, to the arc on which we found ourselves. Prior to 9/11, our greatest enemies were ourselves. Timothy McVeigh parked a van full of explosives and blew up a building. Sound familiar? The largest terrorist attack on American soil prior to 9/11 was perpetrated by an American. This is the world into which Fight Club was born.
Who is our enemy since 9/11? You make the call. Are the terrorists our enemy? Muslims? Republicans? Someone else?
Who says we have to have just one enemy? We were fantasizing about blowing up our own financial sectors in escapist film in 1999. When you have no real threat, you make one up. Hollywood has done this for years. Don't get too comfortable.
"We're a generation of men raised by women," Tyler Durden suggests, as if mothering causes the beta male mentality, some kind of dime store psychoanalysis. I don't buy that, exactly.
(Interesting choice of words: "I don't buy that.")
No, Mom didn't make us this way. Not by herself, anyway. (A male-dominated society attributing predominantly male foibles to females. That's rich.)
Fight Club also factored into my ill-advised aspirations as a film theorist. I had these grand ideas of doing my Ph.D. in film, and I'd seen a few articles on the demasculinization theme. I read them, enjoyed them, found them fascinating, and they validated some of my favorite films. I like when scholars write papers and books about films I enjoy.
Of course, these papers and books also tend to make every male film theorist look like an asshole. Hey, look, now the white guys are wringing their hands and trying to tell everyone how tough it is, being a white male. Y'all don't know what it's like, being male, middle-class, and white.
Our fathers wouldn't do this...would they? Where's the pendulum now?
Finally, for all of Fight Club bluster against material goods, I never stopped acquiring them — still haven't. In one year of owning a Blu-Ray player, I've amassed some 60 Blu-Ray discs. I don't know what all of this means, except that I probably don't take Fight Club to heart very much. Maybe I can't blame Fight Club exactly. Maybe here I just blame myself for not getting the message.
When I think about how my collections have gotten out of control over the years — the hundreds of DVDs and CDs, the thousands of baseball cards and comics, the shelves and shelves of books, and the mountain of debt I've built for myself over the years, all in an effort to satisfy...something, I can't help but think of what Tyler Durden would say:
"The things you own end up owning you."
More than any line, that one sticks with me. So much truth there. Give up your worldly possessions and move out of town. Fight Club is Walden with bloody fists.
Everybody says marriage and family tie you down, but I was tied down long before marriage. Paralyzing fear of the unknown and the lack of control I sometimes feel all seem to feed into this obsession to collect.
I've explored that here before, tried to generate something positive by writing and examining what I've made of this, and nothing could be more beta male than this navel-gazing writing project that goes from arrogance to self-loathing to self-aggrandizing to simply justifying materialism and obsessive-compulsiveness run roughshod. I'm not going to blame a movie and I'm not going to blame Mom. There's no point in assigning blame.
If I had nothing left but my wife and my rabbit, I'd still be happy because everything else can be replaced or recreated. They are the true currency, the true possession, the real meaning.
Watching Fight Club beats all that out of me.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas caught my eye upon initial release, but I lost interest in seeing the film when I read Roger Ebert's review in which he described the film as "a horrible mess of a movie."
"If you encountered characters like this on an elevator, you'd push a button and get off at the next floor. Here the elevator is trapped between floors for 128 minutes," Ebert wrote then.
I turn to Ebert often. When I leave a movie and can't put my finger on what I liked or didn't like, I go read Ebert's review. Most of the time, he carefully and completely articulates exactly what I am thinking but can't say just yet. I'm not the only person who does this, so don't get all uppity about my lack of originality. I need time to process things, to reflect, and then assert. Ebert gets there first. So what?
He rips this film, though. He questioned Terry Gilliam's true influence on this project, given that Gilliam was not the original director (Alex Cox was fired from the project). He chalks this one up as a Johnny Depp vanity project, but I don't know how Ebert could miss Gilliam's touch here — these lens choices, soundtrack selections, and camera angles are nothing but Gilliam.
But regardless, because of Roger Ebert, I ignored the film for several years. I figured this was yet another Terry Gilliam mess, style over substance, story optional. Yawn and barf.
For all my moments of self-loathing when I reflect on my early 20s, I had Terry Gilliam pegged. I couldn't stand his work outside Monty Python, really. I still have trouble with Gilliam films — just not as much. I need less time to process what he's doing, and instead of getting frustrated, I welcome the challenge. After watching Lost in La Mancha, I see Gilliam as more down-to-earth, not some madman with a budget and a camera.
If I'm not mistaken, I finally watched Fear and Loathing on glorious VHS with my old film school roommate, Justin, when I lived in Ohio. He insisted I watch this one. Justin had quite the influence on me. He was the film student, while I was a screenwriting student from the telecommunications program who got to sit in film department courses. I was an interloper.
In short, I sat among future giants of the film industry who cited without fear of pretentiousness such influences as Bergman, Kurosawa, and Godard. They'd seen most of the films we screened, and had interesting things to say about technique and aesthetics. I was interested solely in storytelling.
These were true film students who shot on film, not video, like a real film school, not some podunk college that promises to "teach you valuable film industry skills that get you a job" while not actually having the equipment to do so. No, these folks were for real. They helped each other. They made actual films. They edited on Steenbecks and eschewed nonlinear editing software. Several of these folks ended up on IMDB, with actual credits. I'm not linking to them no matter what.
Anyway. Justin. I'd mention a title or he'd mention a title and we'd get around to me admitting I hadn't seen the film. First he'd sort of make me feel like an idiot, which was his custom, and then boom, he put the tape on. He did this four or five times that summer. He'd go out and get movies and come home with a pile of them. Living with Justin was sort of like living with a much younger, more pretentious version of my dad, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
That summer kicked me in the ass, in a way. I learned director's names. I learned more about shooting. He kept film stock in the refrigerator, because that's what you're supposed to do. Once, his mom called and caught me off guard. "How do you like living with Justin?" "It's fine." "Oh, trust me, I know my son. But he's harmless. He's an open book." Uh...okay. I never figured him out because I never tried.
We bickered a little. Then we had a falling out. Stupid roommate stuff. I moved to Chicago and started the next chapter, but I became more voracious with how I consumed movies. Justin and I got back in touch several years later, but hardly spoke after that. He's out there somewhere, in Colorado or Oregon or some damned place, making movies, watching movies, an open book.
I prefer the Criterion version of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because, as with most Criterion releases, you get a metric assload of special features. I don't get why people buy the cheaper, stripped-down versions of things when there's a Criterion edition. Oh, sure, the Criterion versions are always more expensive, but look at what you get!
Documentaries, artwork, liner notes, and of course, with this one, you get a commentary track with Raoul Duke himself, Hunter S. Thompson. He chimes in occasionally with something borderline lucid, but spends just as much time rambling and, from time to time, he just howls like some kind of donkey-wolf braying at the moon. This is the genius?
I wonder if Ebert evaluated this film unfairly, based on the latter-day Hunter Thompson, who burned out and became even more rambling and incoherent. Yes, there are moments of utter chaos and confusion in this film, but there are just as many quirky, humorous moments amid the chaos to keep me watching. Add to that the lucid moments, the times when we just see Depp's Thompson typing, musing, set to the music of the era, when I see that even the paragon of drug addled nonsense can articulate what I'm thinking, even about an era I never knew.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
When I first saw Fargo on glorious VHS in 1997 or so, I'd heard most of the Oscar buzz, but I don't recall the film playing in the theaters in my hometown. Of course, at 22, this isn't exactly the kind of film I went out to see.
No, back then, I was looking at independent comedies, and I fancied myself a fan of dark comedies (based mostly on my relationship with Clerks and Harold & Maude), but not necessarily films this dark. For the longest time, I didn't consider this film a dark comedy, despite all the black humor here. I'm not sure what I was thinking. I was 22. That's all I can say.
Years on, I can see why Fargo won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Fargo is an incredibly brave piece of writing. By the 6-minute mark, we've met William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard, a crooked car dealer taken to his logical conclusion, and the two dangerous types he hires to help him. See, Lundegaard just wants to run a little scheme, make a little money, and get himself out of financial trouble.
Peter Stormare's chain-smoking hitman is downright frightening in this film. He's cold-blooded, psychotic — the last kind of man Jerry Lundegaard actually wants to hire, and the last guy Steve Buscemi's character wants to offend. Of course, Buscemi's character is no Snow White (think that name over and feel free to wonder if I'm making a pun).
But that's not why the script is so brave. The protagonist, Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, doesn't even appear until the 33-minute mark of a 98-minute film, defying all the conventions in all the screenwriting textbooks. She turns out to be the most interesting character, and the Coens left her in the quiver for almost 1/3 of the picture. She's a spitfire, a real detective, able to piece together crimes in seconds, just by looking around the scene. In this way, she's a lot like Willem Dafoe in The Boondock Saints, except Fargo doesn't blow ass.
Marge owns every scene, and pwns every male in this film. She doesn't need help. She's a supportive wife to a dutiful artist, a competent chief of police, a great detective, an excellent shot, and a mother-to-be. I'm not sure there's ever been a stronger protagonist ever put to film. Her husband is just as supportive, offering to make her eggs when she's called to work in the night, and insisting that she eat a good breakfast. He's also the kind of guy who will fall asleep in bed with his hand in a bag of potato chips. He's harmless, a beta male. They make a great couple.
This time through, I saw shades of my wife and me. She's going to end up making more money when she's done with school, and I'm not too fussed about that. I'll play the supporting role in this house. She's no cop and I'm no painter, but the comparisons aren't too hard to make. She's in nursing school and I'm a teacher. When she's done, I won't be the breadwinner. I'll be the breadrunner-upper or something. Whatever. If the Gundersons are any indication, that stuff works too.
I made a point to collect all the Coen Brothers' films on DVD, because as far as modern filmmaking goes, nobody is doing better work. I don't reach for Fargo often, but when I do, I always see new bits to appreciate, and I don't just mean bits of Steve Buscemi flying out of a wood chipper. You betcha.
Monday, September 13, 2010
I'm backing up to get two Hitchcock films, both of which are contained in the Masterpiece Collection. I've never seen either film, so I'm just reacting as I go.
Family Plot is Hitchcock's final film, a sort of thriller/black comedy. Though far from Hitchcock's best work, he was in his mid seventies at the time of the film's release, and still puts together a film that trumps most stuff made in the last 35 years.
Unfortunately, such faint praise is the only praise I can give Family Plot. What's more, despite a 95% fresh rating, many of the critics resort to faint praise, too, using phrases such as "not exactly top-tier Hitchcock," "minor but worthwhile," "pretty good," and my favorite, "enough good stuff to make it at least worth one viewing." Uh...okay. Perhaps more telling is the 57% fresh rating among audiences, or the 2.5 star rating on Netflix. The film has many fans, but most of them are hardcore Hitch fans who like everything, and/or critics who are afraid to call this film dopey.
For a start, the medium/psychic scenes with Barbara Harris are kind of painful to watch, Bruce Dern plays pretty much the same character in every film, and the melodrama is hard to swallow. Still, I'm sticking with this one.
A tall, mysterious woman who goes by "The Trader" and who looks like a young Tom Petty walks around this film, dressed head to toe in black. What's her deal? Oh, wait, that's Karen Black. I liked her better in Five Easy Pieces.
And...oh, wait, there's William Devane, formerly of "Knots Landing," and a dude I once saw roam into the Borders bookstore where I worked in Chicago. Hard to believe that guy worked with Hitchcock. What's he done since? Uh...a lot of television, mostly typecast as the creepy or unscrupulous type. Still working, though. Hey! I was once within 10 feet of an actor who worked with Hitchcock. That's kinda cool, I guess. Devane is super slimy in this film, all mustache and teeth and licking his lips a lot.
The plot is twisty, features egregious and unnecessary blue screen use, and doesn't make a lick of sense. I can do without this one.
Frenzy, on the other hand, is a fantastic film. I wish this had been Hitch's last film, because Family Plot is such a slog. Set in London, Hitchcock's penultimate film is a straight-ahead suspense film about a "Necktie Killer" on the loose. When a stack of circumstantial evidence puts the law on the trail of Richard Ian Blaney, a hard luck case, he has to find a way to clear his name. Jon Finch plays Blaney, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, temper-prone Englishman who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up the target of a police investigation into a series of grisly strangulations.
Frenzy is deftly written and paced, and seems the kind of film that is much more polished and lucid than Family Plot. Hitch has this incredible cast of great English character actors: Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, and on and on and on.
Hitch returns to England with a keen eye for the distinctly English. At one point, we're treated to a protracted conversation between a police inspector and one of his underlings, while the inspector eats the bigger part of a traditional English breakfast of eggs, sausages, rasher bacon, mushrooms, toast, and other fatty protein-y things that are awesome. When I visited England, I had a real breakfast at least twice. I was full for hours. The average LDL number in England must be in the thousands.
Food plays a significant role in this film, for some reason. Hitch features characters eating something in just about every scene. Brit food is often slagged off for being bland, boring, or just plain gross (blood pudding, anyone?), but I must say, after seeing what the police inspector's aspiring "gourmet" wife made him for dinner, I'd take this any day:
For Hitch, Frenzy seems like a love note to all things English — the plot is a nod to Jack the Ripper, the food is distinctly English, the black taxis are prominent, and familiar pieces of London are given plenty of screen time — Tower Bridge, Covent Garden, etc. Normally I'd say that this is why I liked the film so much, but really, the film is just damned good.
I'm not one to recommend many movies, but if you get anything out of this Hitchcock jag that I'm on, maybe you'll get a look at a lesser-known Hitch film like this one. In many ways this is a textbook thriller — the kind of film Hitchcock could make in his sleep, but in other ways this is Hitch coming full circle to make one last great film.