Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Remember Anything?: The Great IMDB Top 250 Debacle.

Stating the Subtext Up Front (Or a Refreshing Break with Convention) 

Today I would like to dwell on a particular subject matter that will attract readers to a film blog in droves.  What could that possibly be?  Death!

No, I’m not taking about “amusing kills” in the form of a hatchet to the forehead.

Perhaps using the word “Death:” is a bit too attention grabby.  Should we settle on the more highfalutin term “Mortality?”  Did I just hear a mass exodus in the form of a sea of mouse clicks?  What’s wrong with talking about how much precious time we have on dear old Spaceship Earth?  Why is it such a taboo to openly acknowledge the fact that we all waste our hours on trivial crap? 

How about climbing up on top of a mountain and screaming: “What’s it all about?”

Why not dig Peggy Lee up and have her sing a rousing chorus of “Is That All There Is?’

That’s not going to keep you here? 

Oh, all right…Disembowelment!  Decapitation!  Dismemberment by Hacksaw! 

(Or as ee cummings so articulately put it: “Ashes and So Longs.”)

Would you like another subheading under “Mortality?”  How about “regret?’ 

Oh, sorry…Chinese Water Torture, will that get you to stay? 

The Story of How I Began Wasting Time in a Vain Attempt to Reclaim It (Or How The Great “IMDB Ratings Project” Began in Earnest) 

This all had such an innocuous beginning that I almost hesitate to tell an audience about it.  There’s the standard details: Everyone that uses the Internet Movie Database is no doubt familiar with the Top 250 list.  The supposedly “best” and “highest user rated” films of all time that has a dual purpose as a deep shaming device. 

Why exactly is that?   There is a particular conundrum in my life when it comes to consuming film.  I took a rebellious stance against the “good” when I was young.  You could rant to me all day about the supposed excellence of any classic…doesn’t matter which one.  I sat in film classes where Citizen Kane was served to us on a golden platter.  (“You mean I sat through this entire film just to find out the dude was crying over a fucking sled?”)  These so-called gems just didn’t hold the same panache as the forgotten Hammer horror flick on the tube at 2 a.m.  

(This is a particularly important point that I will return to later as I continue to dig into my film watching mania.) 

The “younger” me (or perhaps “little me”) came to believe that there was a conspiracy that existed.  This was a “taste making as brainwashing” ploy that touched every aspect of what was supposed to be a well-rounded education. 

There were other issues at play that yours truly couldn’t see at the time.  What about life experience?   There are certain stories that you are just not ready to understand as a scrawny eighteen year old.  There are also the factors of film history or the crucial question of “influence.”  I know enough now to recognize that something as fabulously odd as The Warriors is just a classic western in urban drag.  This is a bit like the argument for why everyone should read Shakespeare.  He created the formal confines of storytelling that every writer can learn from.  (That is not to say that I understand Shakespeare all that well either.)

The real hook in this story appeared when I began to age.  I found myself jobless, over thirty, and living with my parents.  I have heard that hardened prisoners look at their time on the inside as a chance to reflect.  Hospice patients (or anyone near death) will tell you the same exact thing about “shuffling off that mortal coil.”  It’s time to take an unfortunate, hard look at your life. 

How exactly did I spend my time on Earth?  Did I truly live life to the hilt and accomplish everything I possibly could have? 

There were choices I had made which lead me inevitably to my parents’ guesthouse.  The life pursuit of a “career in creativity.”  (Kids, listen to your uncle Dusty; chasing after film projects royally fucks up your resume.  You constantly have to explain the gaps in your employment history and tell a potential employer why you don’t have practical skills.  Trust me, people who can unplug a toilet get work over people who can have philosophical conversations.)   The steadfast unwillingness to do something else…and frankly, the lack of acknowledgment that I would one day pass away. 

We’re back to what I so cleverly attempted to cover in my introduction.  My time on this planet is terrifyingly finite…

That said; there’s always a bit of time for a brief digression.  Let’s talk about the happenstance and the mania that led to what I would jokingly refer to as “the ratings project.” 

I began to study the Top 250, and give the movies I had seen a certain rating (between 1 to 10).  Out of the 250 films listed, I had seen just a little over half of them.  This begged the question: What the hell had I watched instead? 

That began the epic search to determine just how many films I had watched in my lifetime that weren’t “the right ones.”  I started to scale through every writer, director, and actors’ filmography that I could possibly think of at the moment.  I would make a quick acknowledgement and then assign a title I recognized with a rating.  (Side note: I find “rating films based on quality of one to ten” to be a frustratingly arbitrary experience.  There are movies that only rate a 5 in quality that I would give a 10 based on enjoyment level.  There are other movies, such as the aforementioned classics, that earn an IMDB scale of 9 that I would a 5 for because I found them boring).  

My journey led me far, far away the mythical promised land of the IMDB Top 250. 

The IMDB automatically starts to build a “list” based on the ratings you pile up.  I watched my own personal list grow from a mere hundred to a few thousand.  (The list currently rests comfortably at a little over 2500, but that is subject to change.)  I began to do simple mathematic equations (“If each of these movies were two hours long, how many hours of my life did they totally kill?”)  The ticking number on “my list” kept bursting through the ceiling, and I kept pushing it there. 

What was so profoundly bothersome about this? 

  • 1.     I already mentioned the proverbial hours I realized I had lost in my life.  Those weren’t coming back.
  • 2.     Personal Choice:  There was the little point of what exactly I had decided to watch.  Would you care for an example?  There was a crappy little ‘50s B-movie I found in a used record store when I was in grad school called Reform School Girl (1957).  This was clearly an example of “Sleaze…’50s Style” and it was so entertaining that I watched it twice.  Yes, so entertaining that I don’t remember a fucking thing about it.  What did I get from watching it?  Maybe a catfight?  Maybe obscure ‘50s actresses dressed in risqué pajamas?  Some pithy and unintentionally funny dialogue?  I gave the thing (what I could remember of it) a modest rating of 6/10.  Meanwhile, the legitimate classic Life is Beautiful sits on my list without any rating at all.  That is right, I have never seen that.  The Holocaust versus Primitive Women in Prison?  Really, what would you choose? 
  • 3.     The “Death Bed” Fantasy:  As previously stated, I can’t get out of dying and that deeply concerns me.  I have (at numerous times in my life) pictured myself lying on what might be my deathbed.  What am I going to look back on with pride?   Will I have a moment when I say: “I never saw Life is Beautiful?”  I can tell you why I never saw it; every dumb college kid I knew at the time was swooning over it.  This was one of my “Holden Caulfield” attacks of misanthropy.  

What I Have Really Been Talking About

This is all a big front for what has been obsessing me lately; mortality. 

Do you mind if I take another excursion into the shadowy realm of the autobiographical?  (This one is going to be really heavy.  You have my full permission to check all the way out now.)    

Shortly after my move back to Mom and Dad, my nine-year-old husky Dakota started to show too many signs of wear and tear.  She simply couldn’t get up, and that final heart-breaking trip to the vet had to be made. 

However, the cruel Beast Known as Fate decided that wasn’t quite enough.  Shortly after Dakota passed on, my poor Mother suffered a severe stroke.  (Don’t worry too much about this.  She’s had a remarkable recovery and would probably kill me if she knew about this entry.  So…um, no one tell her, okay?)  I had the sudden realization that my parents weren’t going to be here forever.  This couldn’t be; they couldn’t already be at the part of their lives when serious health issues crop up.  How old did this make me?    

As the commercial announcer would say: “but wait…there’s even more.”  I ended up finding out that an acquaintance of mine from college died from Stage IV Colon Cancer.  Why was his death such a blow to me personally?  (The tragedy was for his family and friends’, and it had nothing to do with me.)  This guy was only a year or two older than I was.  He was what could best be described as a contemporary of mine.  That said, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I was doing now that my acquaintance could no longer enjoy. 

(Including sitting around the house in my boxers with the remote, scratching myself and talking to the TV.  You know, life’s simple pleasures.) 

What was my real “take away?”  Life is shockingly, scarily finite and everything second maters. 

What does this mean for someone who has spent so much time watching movies?  I started having paranoid fantasies of traveling back in time.  I would burst into my college dorm room and yank the remote out of my younger self’s hand.  “You have an eighteen year old brain and body and you’re sitting here watching Reform School Girl?”

The issue might not be watching the “right movies,” but spending so much time watching movies at all.  Movies were just supposed to be simple entertainment, not the obsessive point that I have made them into.   What about spending time outside?  What about writing that novel I always wanted to finish?  What about that trip to Ireland I always wanted to take? 

What about the fact that I had missed half the IMDB Top 250?

The Bitter Addendum: Or Watching The Bicycle Thief

I woke up one Sunday morning in the middle of this bit of existentialism and found The Bicycle Thief on Netflix.  The thing had been disappearing from my queue for over two years now.  I, of course, knew all about it by reputation but had never seen the damn thing.  To hold my thread for this piece; the movie is currently ranked at number 87 on the almighty list. 

I understand that this is a piece of film history; you can Google “Italian Neo-Realism” for yourself. 

I just found it to be an unbelievable endurance test.  I want to clarify that I didn’t find it boring.  No, I just found the character of the father absolutely insufferable.  He treats both his son and his wife in a deplorable manner.  (You almost get the sense that he resents having to make money to support them.) 

Then there are the details of what happens in the story itself.  He finally gets a job, and then his new bicycle gets stolen.  The audience watches every heart breaking second as the “hero” and his son storm Rome looking for the bike. 

I’m not going to reveal the final ironic twist, but I have no moral qualms about revealing my feelings about it.  There is not one ray of hope on display in The Bicycle Thief.  There is, however, about the same level of sadism that might occupy the latest Hostel installment.  (There are no thumbscrews or nipple slashing, but I digress.) 

In short, I didn’t find it to be the magical and transformational movie going experience I wanted.  “Hey, I could have very easily died without having seen this movie…and that might have been all right.”

Instead, I kept thinking: “So this is The Bicycle Thief?  This is really it?” 

I had just spent another two hours of my life on a film, and it had fallen short.  Where did this leave me in my crisis?  How this helped me take charge of my own short, sweet time?  What the hell is this thing called life about? 

I didn’t have any answers, and the brutal story about a stolen bike hadn’t helped me at all. 

In case you are wondering, I only gave the movie a rating of 7 out of 10.  That niche for “number 87” on the list was filled up, and what of it? 

Mortality, my friends.  There is absolutely no sense to be made of it…our time here on Earth…the movies we watched…decisions we made.  Christ, I can just about hear the violin strings swelling in the background. 

And I have a feeling that I have completely lost my audience. 

Would you like a more satisfactory “final thought?”

Okay, fine…

Tits and blood!

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Playground Gets Ponderous: David Holzman and Reality

The Writer Isolates His Theme (Or This Bitch We Call “Reality.”)

Yes, this is a movie blog…but one with delusions of grandeur and heady philosophical matters on its mind.  Before I get move on to any sort of movie talk, I would like to plant a seed in this introductory section.   Take a deep breath, and get ready for the question that I am about to ask.  

What is “reality?” 

Look, I’m smart enough not to shoot myself in the foot by trying to answer that in any sort of concrete manner.  I will just share my own struggle with what I perceive to be real.  To be more specific, what I often completely ignore to be true in my own life.  I have a wild imagination that has been fueled by too much pop cultural interference.  What happens when the two of these things mix their deadly Maletov Cocktail? 

I have a heard time accepting the way my life “really” is.  On this site, I might live like a king and pretend that my opinion is the absolute gospel truth.  Away from the world of the net, though, I am only an obscure writer living on marginal sums and student loans.  I have absolutely no influence over what anyone does.  If a reader of this site is at least moderately encouraged to check out Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces, that is a huge and undeniable victory.  (One that I almost never privy to in “real life.”) 

So why even have a blog?  Hopefully, you paid careful attention to the paragraph above.  The blog fuels my ever-present narcissism, and allows me to appear enormously interesting…to myself.  (For those wondering, I am having a terrific time doing this.  You might be struggling to read this at a snail’s pace…if you’re even still here.)   This is a case of art (if you want to call it that) feeding ego and perhaps becoming a bit self-indulgent.  

This is a transition to (finally…or not) talking about a film.

What The Hell is David Holzman’s Diary?

That is a most interesting question; allow me to educate you.  (See?  There’s the self-importance piece again because I know something that you don’t.) 

David Holzman’s Diary is a blip on the radar of the all-encompassing Film History.  This is a truly early, underground American film made for the bare minimum amount of cash.  The movie utilizes 16 mm film, “on location” shooting, non-actors, and a certain “attack” that has a bit of an “iffy” pay off. 

I suppose I am getting ahead of myself.  What is David Holzman’s Diary about? 

Oh, that…

David Holzman is a fictional character played by LM Kit Carson (the man who went to co-write Paris, Texas.)  David straddles the fine line that I was just talking about with “reality.”  He has been way too saturated in the New Wfave, and assumes that he is just as charismatic as Jean Paul Belmondo.  Even more deadly, he feels like he has the talent of either Godard or Traufuat.  He makes absolutely no secret about his influence by the two masters.  The film is (at least I believe) a gentle satire of the indulgent side of artistic filmmaking. 

What is David blind to?  His life (before it becomes chaotic) is mind numbingly banal.  Holzman’s existence is confined to his rattrap of an apartment, his wandering around in the same limited New York neighborhood, and his fashion model girlfriend.  This is nothing unique about him, other than he somehow can afford expensive film equipment.  

What is the paradox?  Holzman starts to dive a bit too deep into his own self-importance and it becomes dangerous.  There is a sticky point that the movie never makes quite clear; Is Holzman really going “crazy” or is he just going out of the way to alter the content of the film? 

We’ll get to that, but at first I would like to take another jug into my past. 

The College Video Project: Or More Wrestles with This Bitch Called “Reality”

College was not the easiest time in the world for yours truly.  

I lived at home for most of the four and a half years.  Socially, it was just totally hopeless.  (Not for my lack of trying; it was just really difficult to make a friend).  I found a loophole to take classes on conceivably anything (the “Bachelor of University Studies” degree/excuse).  I migrated from one end of campus to another (through the English, Philosophy, and Theater department respectively). 

What was really going on?  I suppose I was beginning on my great, life long descent into existential tumult.  What if this college degree was ultimately useless?  What if I was deluding myself into thinking that I was doing something that wasn’t just “waiting around to die?”  What was it all about?  What is this illusive “reality” and am I just missing it? 

This was foremost on my mind when I signed up for the one video production class I ever took.  I found myself surrounded by the “future filmmakers” of America (or so they thought).  I had no prior movie making experience…but had to do the assignments just the same. 

I had my own opportunity to pull a David Holzman.  One of the assignments was to complete a sort of filmic poem.  We had to make a collection of images (non-linear or linear) that added up to a cumulative effect at the end.  Remember my aforementioned whining about the “point of it all?”

I shot the whole thing entirely “in camera” because I didn’t know how to use editing equipment.  (That would have required a disgusting thing called “effort,” and who has the time?)

The gist of it; I started filming really banal stuff around campus.  People standing in line, school kids being escorted on field trips, and my morning commute.  (The morning commute might not sound like much.  Keep in mind that it was through a bizarre, industrial side of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I drove as I filmed, inventing a whole series of angles on the way.) 

The final minute or so was perhaps what I was the proudest of in the entire project.  I abruptly cut from the world of an angst ridden college student to a local graveyard.  I convinced one of my acting class acquaintances to sneak in with me and do a juggling act on a gravesite.  (This is amazing to me now because we didn’t have anything resembling a permit.  In retrospect, I am probably damn lucky that we were not arrested). 

The last image was of my buddy dropping a ball in his juggling act.  I called the whole thing: “Juggling On My Gravestone.” 

I want you to pay attention to two facts in this story.  The film was both half assed and pretentious, but the surreal nature of was a brilliant cover up for that.   I think what bumped it up from a B+ to an A was the juggling act.  My teacher went apeshit for it; granted, my colleagues didn’t really set the bar too high. 

And it was a total “David Holzman” act:  I thought my life (and this “reality” question) was of much greater consequence than it was.  On top of that, I took an enormous risk by sneaking into the graveyard and altering the structure of the movie.  (I am not a risk taker, and I definitely wasn’t at that point in my life either.)  

Oh, wait, we were talking about David Holzman’s Diary.

In “reality,” we absolutely still are talking about it.

The Coining of a Term: Or “Pulling a David Holzman”

David Holzman’s Diary, at least at the outset, can be a bit of an off-putting experience. 

That is because David is completely unaware of his own indulgent nature.  (I would assume, however, that writer-director Jim McBride is completely aware of it.)  The first thought of any potential viewer might be: “How much time do I want to spend with this guy?” 

Then something happens; David’s conceit starts to pay off in a sublime sort of poetry.  The mundane becomes uniquely surreal under the camera’s eye.  The best example of this in when David sets up his camera in front of his TV set.  He then speeds up the film in his editing process; and we see an entire evening’s worth of moronic entertainment in about a minute and a half.  (Time goes by in a blink of an eye, and David has nothing to show for it).  You forgot you are essentially watching a movie about nothing and are blindsided by an original thought.  

David also begins to take unhealthy risks.  He films his girlfriend in the nude without asking her permission. 

After that girlfriend dumps him, we see the real extent of David’s split with reality.  The film turns into a photo journal of his stalking.  This ends when he is arrested outside of his ex-girlfriend’s house and his camera equipment is taken away. 

I won’t reveal the entire ending (because I have already given away too much in general).  However, David’s last line to his imaginary audience is: “I shouldn’t have done this.”  The effect is jarring and devastating, and renders the entire film in a different light.  This movie that I thought was somewhat tedious and self-indulgent suddenly had a last wallop I wasn’t ready for.  That, my friends, is “pulling a David Holzman.” 

Why is the ending so sad?  Because David has sacrificed himself for his art, and has forgotten where the line is.

Yes, his life has gone completely down the tubes.  But, hey, he got a movie from it!

The Conclusion: Or What Was I Really Talking About? 

I haven’t answered that question I posed at the beginning about “reality.”  I think I was trying to say something about how reality and art are strange bedfellows.  Maybe I was trying to talk about where egotism and art collide.  The conflict between them, perhaps? 

Did any of this have something to do with David Holzman? 

Maybe I shouldn’t have done this…

Friday, February 27, 2015

The List of Shame: '80s Classics I How Somehow Lived Without (Part One?)

The Quintessential ‘80s Childhood (That I Must Not Have Had)

There has been on-going series of entries ever since I started Playground of Doom.  (I like to throw in the title of my blog at the beginning of some of my entries…it helps fire up those engines.  You know,  in case someone should be so moved to Google “Playground of Doom.”)  

I started entitling them as the “Why Remember Anything?” musings.  The vast majority of them rotate around some obscure flick I had the (mis)fortune to still recall.  The question is right there in the title: How does the psyche choose what floats up to the surface of your hazy memory? 

Are you horribly lost?  You will notice that I have written another one of my cheeky headlines in the space above.  Yes, I grow up smack dab in the middle of the eighties…born in 1980 and I would assume that most of my earliest memories are in the first part of that decade.  I don’t want to write off my entire childhood as not being ‘80s enough.  I still owned a jean jacket, played “Simon,” saw the Star Wars movies multiple times, and had Billy Joel on my mom’s car radio. 

So what’s the problem?  There’s a bizarre empty hole in my movie viewing from that decade.  I recognize titles, know an embarrassing amount about things I never saw, and have a strong idea of what I should have seen as an ‘80s kid.  The issue is that I never did seem to see most of the flicks that my generation deems as “classic.” 

I wrote elsewhere about my lack of exposure to the John Hughes teen comedies.  The entire franchise of Nightmare on Elm Street is a foreign body to me.  (That’s not entirely true; I finally saw the original one when I was all of twenty two.  I had moved into my  “real apartment” as a full grown adult.  I decided to rent something I wasn’t allowed to watch a kid to celebrate.  By that time, I was seriously underwhelmed by Freddy and fell asleep on the couch.  I should have spent the money on booze and whores…but I don’t the $3 rental would have footed the bill).    I also have never witnessed a full “Friday the 13” flick, except for chunks on TV. 

Why is this?  Is it because my family didn’t have cable?  Is it because my parents were at least somewhat discerning about what I subjected my young mind to?  Is it because I was a complete fucking pariah and was never invited to anyone’s house for sleep-overs?  (No, never that…I was the height of schoolyard popularity!)    Look, I don’t know…

I like to pat myself on the back for my highly evolved filmic tastes.  (While you were watching Freddy and Jason, I was watching Psycho, motherfuckers…)  Still, I have to admit that curiosity and I yearn for lost time.  (Oh, we’re talking about movies, aren’t we?  Excuse me.)  

What am I getting at with all of this?  By happenstance, I have played “catch up” in the last few months.  What have I watched?  You impatient people…okay;  Beverly Hills Cop, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and the real humdinger Red Dawn. 

This is the inverse of my “Why Remember Anything?” series.  I am not coming to these films with the burden of nostalgia.  Instead, I am looking at these things in somewhat of an anthropological manner.  I’m digging up the history that I haven’t experienced and trying to figure out its context. 

As you know, I tend to be long winded…but some of these movies I just don’t have much to say about, really.   So why don’t we just get this done with? 

Beverly Hills Cop

Yes, I knew the name Axle Foley.  I had heard the theme song to this movie countless times.  I even knew about some of the best bits; mostly the bananas in the tail pipe gag. 

Still, I didn’t even know that the Eddie character was a “fish out of water.”  This is a classic comedy conceit, and it’s reasonably effective here.  If this were a Jackie Chan movie, that role of the outsider would be one of the only jokes.  (I don’t need to remind you of Shanghai Noon or its useless sequel.)  Eddie, from what I have read, improvised the vast majority of his dialogue.  (My favorite bit has to do with the quality of the LAPD Cop Car.  “This is the cleanest police car I’ve ever been in…”) 

I give the movie massive credit for actually having a dramatic core.  Why is Axel in LA?  Because he is investigating the murder of his friend…and both Eddie and the movie have that awareness.  The most interesting scenes (for me) happen when Eddie switches out of comedic mode and reminds us that he is out for some revenge.  There is a dramatic actor there, and that is an easy thing to forget about Eddie Murphy.  Thirty years later, he still hasn’t tapped into that potential as much as he could.  (His only Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls is for another primarily serious role.)  I suppose that is because he needs to go out and make the next flick in the Daddy Daycare franchise.  (Seriously, Eddie…)

Was it worth watching?  Yes.  Do I feel drastically altered by it?  No.

Most importantly, is it something I really felt like I missed out on?  Not really. 

The John Hughes Two-fer: Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles

I wrote elsewhere about an Oscar party I attended the year John Hughes died.  I don’t want to paraphrase that story too much, other to invoke its’ central question: “Who the fuck is Duckie?”  My friends, I can now answer that question to an embarrassing degree.  That, and Long Deck Dong, the Geek, and the placement of the line: “They forgot my fucking birthday.”  

I made a somewhat crucial mistake in the watching of the John Hughes flicks.  I watched Pretty in Pink before the more iconic (at least from what I’ve heard) Sixteen Candles.  The problem with that is that I fall into the somewhat perilous position of comparing the two.  Quite frankly, I like Pretty in Pink more.  Why?  Well, we will get to that…

Before we do, I have to say that I finally “get it” about John Hughes.  There’s a certain formula that he utilizes that I call “just insightful enough.”  There is enough “real” angst among the popcorn elements to guide a generation through adolescence without thoroughly depressing them.  You know that Molly Ringwald is going to end up with “the guy.”  You know that no one will get seriously hurt.  That said, Hughes doesn’t shortchange his audience on a realistic portrait of teenage dynamics.  (This is especially true of the scenes between Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in Candles.) 

I also “get it” about Molly Ringwald.  The particular genius in casting a real sixteen year old in your movie is that you get to tap into that insecurity.  Her reactions and interactions to just about every other actor make her relatable.  

Now what about this comparison mumbo jumbo?  Hughes, for my money, makes a crucial misstep in the way he handles Candles.  There are too many digressions into slapstick, characters that don’t serve the story, and general silliness.  The “fucking birthday” story gets lost in the mishmash of underpants and racial stereotypes.  I would also note that there is no Ducky. 

Let’s handle the “Duckie” scenario first.  Duckie, is a fantastic display of teenage awkwardness and poignancy played by Jon Cryer.   You completely buy his unrequited crush on Ringwald (and his heartbreak).  You thrill to his horribly dorky bravado as he lip-synchs to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”  He feels a lot less contrived than Hughes’ other characters because you can’t pigeon hole him into a high school role.  (He’s not a total nerd…he’s not a jock…he’s almost a hipster…but was there hipsters in the ‘80s?) 

I also feel like the Pretty in Pink script is tighter.  There are digressions, but they are in the service of character.  I’ll be honest; I never for a minute bought that Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton were “poor.”  Still, the class issue gives the romance with Andrew McCarthy an added sting.  I was also a big fan of Annie Potts as the record store manager/boss.  Her scenes with Molly Ringwald go somewhere, and are a good commentary on wisdom learned with age. 

The ending is horribly rushed, but what can you do? 

On a whole, I’m glad I watched these flicks.  Now I won’t have to pretend the next time they come up at a party.  

“Oh yeah, I love Long Deck Dong…me so love racist stereotypes!”   

Red Dawn

I promised to save the aforementioned “humdinger” for last, and so I have. 

What to make of John Milius’ Red Dawn?  Perhaps I should start with a confession; I thought I had seen this movie all the way through at least once.  I know all about shouting “Wolverines!” at the top of your lungs.  I could rattle off some of the cast members (most of them were also doing double duty as Outsiders.)   I also have been given the impression that it was morally and politically fascistic.  That said, I started watching it a few nights ago and nothing looked familiar.  

I would also point out that fact nothing (and I mean nothing) seems to be literal.  That is to say that I don’t believe the inherent reality of the movie…and we’ll get to if that is intentional or not.
  • These are, however, the flaws that I see on the surface:
  • ·      There is next to no character development among the teenage heroes.  The one notable exception is the brother relationship between C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze.  They have a couple of good scenes together, and Swayze even manages to pull off a “real” performance.  (Check out his solemn “man cry” in the snowy woods towards the end of the movie).  Because you don’t really get to know these kids, it makes it impossible to grieve their losses as they happen. 
  • ·      On that note: this is made by the man who wrote the immortal line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”  Didn’t he know how flat his script was? 
  • ·      The chronology of this movie is completely screwed up; in one scene there is summer, and in the next there is winter.  Milius abandons his monthly captions (as in “January, February,” etc.) in the last half hour.  That causes everything to feel non-linear…once again, is that intentional?
  • ·      The movie starts out as good old-fashioned propaganda.  Get those Ruskies out of the U.S. of A!  The movie pushes past propaganda into outright pornography when the teenagers are mercilessly blown to bits.  That just seemed uncalled for me to, and I was upset by it. 
  • ·      The “explanation” for the way the world has become at the beginning is rushed and becomes forgettable.  I didn’t know who was supposed to be on what side. 
  • ·      How do the boys go from inexperienced with shotguns to experts in handling rocket launchers?  Where did they learn military strategy so abruptly?  I am talking about before they meet the Powers Booth character. 
  • ·      One last question that summates all my points: How the hell could anyone take this seriously? 

Now that I have deconstructed the movie, let me try and reassemble it.  This feels like a wildly imaginative adolescent daydream to me.  This is a daydream that places adolescent heroes at the forefront of the story.  This is the direct inverse of Lord of the Flies in which children resort to brutality without the adults.  These kids don’t need the gosh darned grown ups, anyhow!  They have camping equipment and cheap riffles and ammo…take that Ruskies…”Wolverines!” 

As a psychology student, I can hypothesize that this kind of thing is highly flattering to the teenage ego.  This is the sort of delusion that a bored thirteen year old would entertain in study hall.  If you saw this movie growing up, I assume it was daydream fuel. 

There is a fascinating parallel to me as an adult viewer between this movie and traditional fairy tales.  In many fairy tales, children are devoured at the hands of wicked witches and monsters.  That is what gives them the cautionary kick in the pants for the frightened child.  Is heroically sacrificing Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell not a different of the same thing? 

What about the ending in which a boy and girl escape into the promised land of “free America?”  How could you not think of Adam and Eve? 

None of this is to say that I think Red Dawn is “good.”  In fact, I think it’s pretty shitty.  However, I can’t help but wonder if this is supposed to be a fairy tale.   Am I looking too deeply? 

Well, now, this is a surprise…

I really didn’t intend to write this much about any of these movies.

I even smell a sequel coming on; Friday the 13, Conan the Barbarian, maybe even The Monster Squad.  (Although there was a kid in third grade I knew who recited the entire movie on a daily basis.  So…perhaps, not.)  

Thanks for reading…all two of you. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Evolution of a Film Snob: Guide for the Film Fanatic

Part One: The Creation of a Monster

This is going to be a rather mammoth entry about something that is (possibly) of no interest to anyone but yours truly.  Just remember; it’s never too late to ditch out.  Still here? 

Okay, this is a long rambling about how I discovered one of my passions in life. 

This Is What a Counseling Degree Does to You

This is a bit of a personal digression; in January of last year I started a counseling degree.  This is a bizarre process that entitles (obligates?) you to reflect on your life in a very grueling way.  I’m not going into the hours of therapy I have had to have, or the papers that I have plugged away at.  This is not what I am going to write about…but you wouldn’t happen to have any tissues, do you? 

What happens when you spend all your time gazing into your navel?  You start going way back and examining why certain things are valuable to you.  Writing and film has always been the emotional nexus of my life. 

But how did this all begin?  Let me lay down on the couch…is the clock going?  How much time do we have?  Hmmm….

The “Story” About How I Became a Film Nut

There isn’t one…really…

I wanted desperately to begin this entry with a fanciful tale about why I became so fascinated with the world of film. 

Was I abducted by aliens and forced to watch 8 ½ on the way to Jupiter?  No. 

Did angels float down from Heaven one day and whisper: “You love movies…”?  As a lifelong atheist, I can’t proclaim to have those kind of intense religious examples. 

I always envy people who have magical stories about stumbling into a movie theater one rainy day.  They (seemingly at random) watch some art film, and then rush into the streets at the end and yell: “Film shall be my life.”  I don’t have that story, either. 

My story is mundane; I walked into a public library and yanked a book off the shelf.  There wasn’t even a shaft of light that fell on the book that was Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary. 

I had never seen a book like this one before.  Every conceivable genre was included the same book as “essential viewing.”  Peary states at the very that watching every movie in the book (including slashers, pornos, and plenty of obscure B-movies) will serve to make you a “film fanatic.”  This, my friends, became a bit of a crusade for me at that time in my life.  
  • “The game” of becoming a “film fanatic” is relatively simple:
  • ·      You identify an obscure B-movie, slasher, or porno that you absolutely can’t live without seeing.  After that, you put a little box next to the title.  What happens after that? 
  • ·      Dear reader, you have to understand that this was “the ‘90s.”  A decade that the popular conscience is now obsessed with sentimentalizing.  I survived the decade, and I’m here to tell you it wasn’t that fucking great.  If you are one of my younger readers, imagine a time without the magic of cheap ITunes downloads and affordable streaming services.  There wasn’t even the choice to dial up some cinematic oddity on YouTube.  This meant that I was reduced to spending thousands of hours in video stores…often watching “prints” (as they say) with seriously subpar quality to fill in those boxes. 
  • ·      What happened when I filled out one of those boxes?  Most of the time, I was drastically disappointed with what I watched.  (We will touch on why that is in a minute.) 
  • ·      The biggest let down was most of the movies I read about I would never be able to find.  (Remember…the ‘90s.)   

This was one of those times in my life when I badly needed a project.  Why?  Indulge me while I venture into the personal. 

A Little Story about the Year I Didn’t Exist

There are typical stories about high school losers.  You see countless examples of this every time you flip o the TV.  There are cultural paradigms that we seem particularly obsessed as a nation.  The first one is the “nerd who makes good,” the guy who was perpetually ignored until he found his real gift in his parents’ garage.  The other archetype we love has to do with the “loner who goes over the edge.”  This is the bullied kid who (seemingly) out of nowhere explodes and riddles the hallways with bullets and makes national news.

Which one was I?  Neither.

Both of these roles required one thing I didn’t have much of: initiative!  This was something that I sorely lacked at that time in my life.  I had manipulated my mother into convincing her I needed a stint of “homeschooling.”  I was yanked out, and got to spend a plethora of time on my own.  (This is where I cultivated my absolutly stunning social skills.  I also decided a strange fixation with Country Music Television…when I could get away with watching it during the day.  Sorry, Mom…)

This lead to me getting sent back to back into public school for my “senior year.”  I reentered the public school nightmare at the biggest learning facility in town.  I didn’t know a single person, student or teacher, and wasn’t about to change that on my own.  My grades plummeted, my confidence crashed, and I slept all of two hours a night.  (I had an easier time when I stumbled around the school like a zombie all day.) 

The general consensus was that I was someone to be completely ignored.  (In retrospect, I thought I was “enjoying” this experience much more than I actually was.  There is nothing all that enjoyable about being written off by your peers and teachers).    

I suppose I could go on with tales of woe.  That’s not the point; Mr. Peary had provided me with the secret mission of being a “film fanatic.”  This entitled me to feel secretly superior to the “stars of track and field” that I was sharing the halls with at school.  I would stole away at my lunch table with my library copy of the book.  After that, I would take it home with me and stay up all night reading the thing. 

This lead to a variety of odd habits; excuse me, I mean the work of “becoming a film fanatic.” 

This lead to a gathering of utterly bizarre behaviors that got me through being “invisible.” 

The Odd Habits of a Film Fanatic

Bad Habit #1:

I mentioned previously that this was in the glory days before I could get on the Internet.  There was also very few used bookstores around my area; fewer still that would carry a copy of Guide for the Film Fanatic. 

I grew tired of not being able to track my progress as a fanatic.  This led me to doing something at least marginally illegal.  (Hopefully the statute of limitations is up on what I am about to confess.)  I started to write in the library book!  I put Danny Peary’s suggested “check boxes” next to various pieces of junk I wanted to (eventually) get to.  I would mark a few more off the list every time I brought the book home. 

Bad Habit #2:

Danny Peary was from a time when this twenty first century notion of “spoilers” simply didn’t exist.  The man would succinctly tell you the entire story of a film before offering his critical analysis.  I never felt cheated by this particular practice; in fact, quite the opposite happens. 

I would start to interpret Peary’s summaries with my own imagine.  The movies I had no way of tracking down would become vivid daydreams.  I would drift off and think about them in class or when I couldn’t sleep.  This would lead to an inevitable let down when I finally did manage to find a worn out VHS tape. 

Bad Habit #3:

I developed a bizarre, obsessive relationship with the local TV page.  (Will someone write in and tell me if such a thing still exists?)  I had absolutely no interest in catching a rerun of Family Ties. 

No, instead I will flip to the back and study the “Movies” section.  I would, of course, be scanning the rags for familiar sounding titles.  I would mostly find them at the off hours; the dark of night, the early morning, or when I was supposed to be at school. 

I got my own TV at some point during this miserable “senior year.”   I remember setting my clock radio to watch Cornel Wilde’s brutal, primitive feeling nightmare The Naked Prey.   (A film that contains sequences more terrifying than any horror flick; including a man being encased in dried mud and fed to ants.) 

This led to more zombie walking, sleep deprivation, and an over all apathetic indifference towards anyone living. 

But, damn it, I was one step closer to being a “film fanatic.” 

All of this did lead to one formative experience that I will never forget. 

The Time Five Easy Pieces Got Stuck in My VCR

I had done a thorough job cycling through the schlock that Peary lists.  There was, however, one review that I read repeatedly for a film I had never even heard of before.  This is Bob Rafelson’s immortal 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces. 

For those of you not in the know; this movie stars Jack Nicholson as the “black sheep” in a rich family.  He has left a career as a classical pianist to work in the oil industry.

By this time in my youth, Jack Nicholson had become: “Jack!”  I didn’t know the man could legitimately act his heart out, and make you cry as he confronts his vegetable father in a wheel chair.  I didn’t know that movies where you could be coerced into rooting for a hapless loser were a thing.  (The term “anti-hero” hadn’t come up in my “outside of school” activities) 

Five Easy Pieces affected me in a very deep way that I didn’t quite understand.  The movie wouldn’t leave my head; and the tape got lodged in my VCR.  I spent about three hours trying to dislodge the damned thing by ejecting and reinserting it.  While I was doing that, I would watch sections of it over and over again.  This was actually an exercise in honing my critical skills, but I didn’t know that at the time. 

Part Two: The Boy Becomes a Man, or the Emergence of the “Inner Snob.”

Life has a bizarre way of imposing transitions on you (even if you don’t ask for them). 

I wasn’t going to languish in high school forever…instead; I could move on and languish at a higher educational level.  This meant the state college, which welcomed me in a manner resembling a factory assembly line.  Have you ever watched a car being assembled?  Scrap parts are assembled into a functional car without much thought or art to the process.  I felt the same way about college; you were shuffled out with a stamp that read “Graduate.” 

The library copy of Guide for the Film Fanatic that I had horribly mangled was finally returned.  I did go back and look for it once in my sophomore year, and found it in the same place.  This time I didn’t have as many spare hours to obsess about it. 

This wasn’t all glum, because I started to take film classes in the false belief they would be “easy As.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong, as Intro to Film was one of the hardest classes I ever took.

Remember my story about Five Easy Pieces stuck in the VCR?  These classes were like being encouraged to jam your VCR all the time.  We would watch one film, and then we would go back and study individual scenes an infinite amount of times.  I learned fancy words like “Mise en scene” and “Kuleshov effect.” 

More importantly, I discovered it wasn’t as painful to sit through movies like Citizen Kane and Antoinia’s Line as previously thought.  In fact, “artier” movies could lead to more intellectually and emotionally rewarding experiences. 

How disgustingly mature of me, right? 

Part Three: The Roundabout Experience

In my late twenties, I somehow scrambled together an actual film crew together and made a movie.  Making a film is like having that first “free sample” of chocolate at the Sam’s Club.  All you can do is think about ways to replicate that experience, even you know (realistically) that it might never happen again. 

I wanted to fill that void by continuing to study movies.  This led to me looking for my “old friend” on Amazon, and finding it for a very low price.  (We are talking in the range of a couple of dollars for a very used copy.) 

The book arrived, and it was a “same but different” experience. 
  • Here is what I discovered: 
  • ·      The “artier” fare that I had somewhat of an aversion to watching was always listed in the book.  I just didn’t pay attention in my days of youthful apathy. 
  • ·      I disagree with Mr. Peary on a few different titles that he accuses of being “boring.”  One example: he calls My Dinner with Andre “boring” and makes it sound self-indulgent.  I finally watched that movie last year, and had a real “nothing will ever be the same for me” experience with it.  I found the format of “two guys blabbing on philosophically” challenging and invigorating. 
  • ·      I still have that bizarre, (possibly false) sense of achievement when I check off a title.  This happened just this week when I sat through the generic and not very good ‘80s comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills.  I didn’t laugh once (outside of a polite chuckle), and kept checking my phone for e-mails.  However, I didn’t feel like it was a waste of time because Danny Peary said I should watch it.    

What I Am Really Getting At?  (Or “Back to Counseling School”)

I have a habit of watching my “word count” as I write these entries.  This particular “word count” is upsettingly huge and unwieldy.  That said, I still don’t know what the hell I am talking about here.  (Or do I?  How should go deeper with this sense of incoherence?  Hmmmm….)

What really happened when I yanked that library off the shelf?  I don’t know, really. 

I can jabber on about “formative experiences,” or wonder about mere happenstance.  Right now, I just know that it was the beginning of an interest.  Staying up all night to watch some obscure flick led to me wanting to use my writing skills to document that.  This all made me (to use a horrible cliché that I hate) the “person I am today.”  I am still writing, and still watching movies.  I will be doing this until it’s the ordained (or completely random) time for me to croak.  The fact that I now realize I won’t be Roger Ebert or Robert Altman when I grow up hasn’t deterred me. 

As I write this, I realize that you just don’t know where and when these kinds of moments will happen.  The random discovery of a neglected book can lead a person off in a new direction in life.  How does that happen?  I wish I had a concrete answer to that. 

All right, this particular entry is toast.  I am going back to studying about how to diagnose mental illness and affects of antidepressants.   

After I do that, I have Blindman (1971) queued up as a “study reward.”  This is apparently a riff on Zatioichi and has Ringo Starr playing the central villain. 

Sounds horrible, right?  Yes, this is one more open box for me to fill in…