Sunday, November 20, 2011

Has It All Been Done Before?

A student of mine said he feels as though every movie plot has already been thought of and made- and then he qualified that, saying that it's still possible to write something original, but that increasingly, you've got to come up with unexpected and absurd ideas in order to do that.

I almost wanted to agree with him, because in that moment I forgot the truth that a movie like Terri can bring roaring back to you: plot is not necessarily equivalent to subject matter, and that for the latter, our small lives are inexhaustible.

Terri didn't have to squeeze, wring or scrape to get novelty out of its premise. It didn't have to turn life on its head or pose some fantastical "what-if." It simply observes reality, and not even in a way that I would call particularly wry or cockeyed- it's patient, sharp, and empathetic, and that's enough. Not only does it feel utterly original, it leaves you thinking that if this is the kind of movie that can be made in 2011 using nothing other than daily life as its raw material, the well of cinema could never run dry.

It defies convention not merely to be defiant, but out of joy, because it can't help but find things in our world to point to that are never pointed to. When the two men on skateboards rolled past Terri, what did you expect them to say to him? What did you think that scene was going to be about? And how much better- and how much more delightful and real- was the actual scene than the scene you thought you were going to get?

There was hardly a scene that helped you predict what was going to follow it, hardly a line that you could anticipate. Some of the dialogue is almost violent in its terse and unexpected impact. And a sequence late in the film, in which the young leads are alone together, hums with a kind of terror, as the possibilities in the situation multiply but refuse to promise anything.

Why couldn't this have played to a wider market? Was it really so opaque, so obscure? Was it suspected that most people couldn't relate to it? Why did Juno make it to more than a dozen screens and not this? Not snarky enough? Seriously, I had to wait until it came to my local Redbox in order to watch it. It played in exactly 0 theaters within 100 miles of Boston. Come to think of it: if there was no market anticipated for this film in the entire city of Boston- not even at (I hold my nose as I write the phrase) "art house" theaters like Coolidge Corner- why is it now considered worthy to sit in the Redbox machine at the grocery store next to Captain America and The Green Lantern?

Well, what am I complaining about anyway- watching this at home with mushroom ziti from our Al Forno cookbook was one of the many highlights of this past weekend, along with:

- doing sit-ups on the cold ground in Prospect Hill Park with hawks wheeling around the tower
- intense conversations about future plans, including our next summer adventures
- pie, coffee and grading at the corner cafe
- shopping for vintage clocks in Harvard Square
- reminiscing in an Inman Square bistro
- long phone calls with friends and family
- tormenting the cat (with affection).

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Movies We Saw in Spain

We recently discovered that not all of Spain actually stays out late every night. In San Sebastian, the party continues after 2 am on a Saturday, but the rest of the week it's just not that jumping of a place (not for Spain, anyway).

It was one of our nights of cruising the old town for 3 euro foie gras and chocolate ganache. Once we left the clatter and shouting of the pintxo bars behind us, there wasn't much of a scene happening in the streets, not like the throngs we'd rolled our baggage through on the night of our arrival. Plus, Jamie had presented her research earlier that day at the International Conference on the Image and was a little tired. So, we wound up back in the hotel room at a reasonable hour and flipped on the tube.

The "la Sexta" network affiliate was showing a double feature: Game of Death and Dragons Forever (both dubbed in Spanish, of course).

I hadn't seen a Bruce Lee movie since I was a kid. Enter the Dragon was a big deal for me because it was the first movie my parents let me watch that was rated R. I still remember how excited I was- and how disappointed I was that I wasn't shocked by it, that nothing much in it seemed to be out of the bounds of movies I had already seen. I had considered the R rating a pretty clear advertisement that something in the film was going to be too advanced for my tender psyche, but no.

I had no memory to prepare me for how ridiculous Game of Death was. The fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar could have been in an episode of Batman. Once again I feel hoodwinked. All this time I'd assumed that something with a title like Game of Death was going to be frightening or intense somehow. Yet it's silly, and in a way that could only have been intentional. It was nice, though, to finally see the yellow track suit that has such a legacy.

Then it was time for Jackie Chan.

When it comes to Jackie Chan, you know what you're going to get, but some of his films are better than others. Dragons Forever seems like it was one of his best. The acting is so broad that we were able to follow the story despite the Spanish dubbing. The situations are hilarious, and the action is thrilling; this clip only gives you a taste of what comes later, when the stunt work looks so dangerous I'd be surprised if nobody broke any bones. Maybe I just need to watch more Bruce Lee, but it seems like Jackie Chan's best material has Bruce Lee beat.

Later, in Barcelona, we saw a very late showing of Pina, and I'm afraid my eyes were drooping behind my 3D glasses. But it was a wonderful reminder of the time Jamie and I saw Full Moon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Many of the dancers in that performance also appeared in the film, and after spending so much time watching them in that show and memorizing their faces, it was nice to see their 3D selves hovering in front of us. I value the memory of that show at BAM because it was a truly affecting performance. On at least one occasion I was surprised to be overwhelmed with understanding and emotion; a line that a dancer yelled out at the audience several times, while he performed a sweeping, spinning gesture, shook me to the bone. And I remember how tired the company was at the end of the performance. They were drenched with the cold water that had been raining down on the set, and they had leapt, kicked and writhed, sometimes with incredible athleticism, for two hours. They faced the audience for their bow and they looked simply brutalized. That might have been the most powerful moment of the show, because you could see so clearly what the art meant to them.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How We Finally Saw "The Clock"

The story of our encounter with The Clock goes back to last winter, when we stood on a snowy curb in Chelsea with at least 60 people queued ahead of us. The front door of the Paula Cooper Gallery was so close. It was the last weekend that Christian Marclay's film would be shown inside.

The line was not moving. Perhaps once every 20 minutes, a single person was brought in from the cold to gaze at the masterpiece for as long as he or she wished. We passed the moments imagining the theater inside, crowded with people who couldn't tear their eyes away and had no pity for us. (Jamie recounted this episode in February.)

Jamie had heard about the film through the grapevine. It is a colossal montage of clips from the entire history of cinema, each of which contains a clock somewhere in the frame. When screened, it is synched so that the time you see on screen is always the actual time, in reality. And the film is 24 hours long.

This is the kind of project that is so vast and impressive that it has the power to delight before one has even seen it- the mere fact of its existence is enough.

Needless to say, we never made it into that gallery. But last Friday night, we caught up with The Clock at the MFA here in Boston. It was a powerful evening. Ordinarily, the journey to get to a movie theater and place yourself in front of a movie is forgettable- a walk through a mall, a sticky floor, some loud, pointless advertising, and then at last the movie begins. This was one of a handful of movie-going experiences in my life during which I felt a dramatic seamlessness between that journey and the mood of the film itself.

We approached the museum around 10 PM. After trying two entrances and having security turn us away, we found our way to the Fenway entrance. There was no traffic, almost no other humans in sight- certainly none who were headed for the screening- and almost no lights on, other than the one lighting the rear door. An 8x10 sign in a metal stand was at the top of the stairs, which read:


This sign was the only indication that something might be happening inside the museum at this hour, let alone the Boston premiere of an international critical sensation.

Inside the museum, a security guard directed us up a flight of stairs, at the top of which was another guard, who pointed down a hallway, and to another pointing guard, and another, and another. The museum was dim, fast asleep. Christ looked at us from an enormous old canvas, and our footsteps echoed as dramatically as you'd imagine.

At the end of a corridor with a glass case of Chinese pots was a black wall with the entrance to the theater, over which had been painted:


…the object of our quest. Waiting behind an utterly silent door.

The most thrilling thing of all was that the theater was full. The event wasn't being ignored. Who were all these cool people who had found this?

After about 5 minutes, the concept of the piece, something that I was already so familiar with from hearing about it, had come to life in front of me and in my imagination. I was startled by how it made me feel. To watch a film, even one that attempts realism, is to enter a dream that is separate from your waking reality. You bring yourself to the activity in a film and escape into it; your mind leaves your body behind a little; you enter the time and place you've been presented, and the character's lives, hopefully, become your life.
I couldn't enter this film in the same way, nor was I expected to. It could never act as a portal of escape, because it was itself a timepiece, relentlessly referring to the proper reality of the audience. It was trying to participate in our world, rather than demanding that we accept its own. It was the chilling sensation of being watched.

Jamie and I wondered if Marclay had used only clips that he'd remembered or found personally, or if he'd hired assistants to help him. The majority of them were unrecognizable, at least by me, and I'd guess it would take someone like Leonard Maltin to recognize 80% or more of them. For every clip of Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows, there were 10 more from films that might have been quite obscure, or in some cases, perhaps not even very good; the context this piece provides for a clip gives it great power, whether its source was competently made or not. Even from the most cynically made, awful film you can think of, one could excise a choice ten seconds, and depending on how one placed it, could unlock some previously unseen potential. Everything is welcome in this montage, and part of its grandiosity comes from its reference not just to the great and memorable films, but to the whole wide world of film, every single frame of it.

Some of the clips are tantalizing, long enough to make you want to know more about where they came from just as they lead into the next one. Other clips are less attention-getting and blend into the tapestry. I was surprised that I wanted to keep watching it after an hour, but every passing minute became an event- and every future moment in time became a source of suspense. What would happen at 11:15? What would happen at midnight?

When we finally emerged- we had to leave at some point- I felt the same way that I imagine most people do after they eventually turn their backs on the screening: I sensed the film still running as I walked away, I sensed it when I went to bed, and I sensed it the next day up to 4 PM, the time when the screening finally ended. I wondered what happened at the end of the film. Was there any finality in the last moment? Or did it just suddenly switch off?

Jamie- thank you for hearing about this and finding out that it was going on at the MFA. I am grateful to you for so many things- this is one of them. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

George Kuchar 1942 - 2011

When Jamie and I went to his last screening at Harvard, when he joined the audience via Skype, we could tell that George Kuchar's health had taken a serious hit; he was in a hospice, which he gamely joked was a "one-way door," and he was surrounded by his family and friends.  None of this suggested that he was going to recover.
Even so, it's somewhat of a shock for us to hear that he passed away last night. It was only about three weeks ago that we saw him, and he was as sharp as ever, his mind squarely in the soup of ideas from which crawled so many films, comics and paintings that nobody knows for sure the full extent of it all, a mystery you learned about if and when you saw It Came From Kuchar (if you didn't, it's a solid documentary, and a fine introduction and tribute to the Kuchar Brothers). And he was still repeating the same refrain he's probably been saying ever since he finished his first movie: "I want to make another one."


Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Sweet Old Days of Summer

The "Porchlight Cinema" series continued last night with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. It was silly and sweet, but without very much of a plot, and so people felt less required to stay in one spot and actually watch it (although Jamie, who missed a great deal of it while socializing in the kitchen, now regrets missing out and wants to see the whole thing again).

People came and went, and that was more like an actual drive-in experience anyway. Some of the attendees materialized on our lawn- late-comers, and our neighbors, who were just returning from a trip, and whom we reeled in. It was an unpredictable and fun event, much like the film. Sadly, no pictures this time- sometimes when the party's good I just don't get around to it!

The feast inside included an elderflower grape fizz punch, a homemade salted caramel sauce for apples, a pistou for making canapes, fancy cheeses, cider, beer, champagne, scallops, pastries, this cake, and, of course, popcorn.

M. Hulot is quite special. There are many films that attempt to portray an easy pace of life, but this film effortlessly incorporates you into its own, the life of a rambling summer village, a place that in today's world would be improbable both in its human scale and in its accessibility by the likes of these characters. I'm not writing anything original here, but it feels so lived in and real that while watching it, you feel like you're taking a vacation yourself.

It made me think of our own beach hideaway.

There's a cottage in Rhode Island that's been like our Hotel de la Plage for at least three summers now. It's a quirky little place, and I suppose I am fated to keep going back.

It's interesting though, I don't think I would want to watch M. Hulot if I were actually at the beach. It's supposed to make you wish you were at the beach. When we are actually at the beach, we usually watch some kind of dark mind-effer like The Prestige or Shutter Island. What will it be next year? Yikes, I should be getting back to work on the lesson I have to teach this week- why am I already planning next summer?

DOOR and me

I didn't think about the future in art school. After graduation, I figured I could work in television, and that notion was about as far as I ever planned it. I ate and breathed animation and loved it more the more I studied it, and a job in tv would, nominally, have been a job in my field, but as my senior year approached I began to realize how little connection there was between what I really loved so much about animation and what was actually happening in entertainment. I never had any real interest in working for "Daria" or "Sheep in the City" or "TV Funhouse." All I wanted to do was make my own work, and to get inspired by the kind of art my professors were steering me to- Red Grooms, Robert Breer, Ub Iwerks. I wanted to figure out how they had made careers, or at least lifestyles, out of what they did, and emulate them. Instead of figuring this out, I spent the rest of college on Door. All I wanted to do was finish this film. After that, who cared. It was much easier to just put my head down and draw all night. 

Not that this project was purely a means of escape. I genuinely cared about it, and I remember walking along Waverly after too little food or sleep when I realized I was just on the brink of finishing it, and the rush of excitement made me break into a run. And I remember the horrible vacuum that opened up when I did actually finish it, and the months I spent grasping for jobs and direction.

As for the product, the film itself- I try not to think about it too much. I watch it and sometimes I think it's great and sometimes I cringe. And at one time, I think my opinion of it was completely controlled by the people I watched it with and how they reacted. One festival audience was nearly silent during it and I could hardly stand it. Another time, I went back to my old elementary school and showed it to a large group of 12-year-olds who enthusiastically analyzed it with me, and that was outstanding. Then there was the festival where the woman sitting behind me said, "You know, I liked the door...", and the guy next to her exhaled and groaned, "No...", and my own feelings about it went up and down with these comments like a cork on the waves.

In a way, I hate it, because it's so deeply flawed, yet it's the closest I've ever come to expressing myself in a piece of art that I actually finished. It torments me with questions. Can I make another film I care about like this? Do I have to live in it and deny the rest of the world, or can I reconcile it with everything that is important to me right now? Do I even need to struggle with this whole process to be happy anymore, or is that who I used to be? Who am I, anyway?

And so on.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Return to Planet Kuchar

It's been several days now since we paid our annual respects to George Kuchar at the Harvard Film Archives. He usually makes an appearance here during his summer jaunt to Provincetown, and these are lively screenings; his work invites plenty of discussion, he's really funny, and he never stops talking.

This time he couldn't attend due to health problems, but he joined us via Skype for an intro and a Q & A, and we could see that he was on a sunny porch with family and friends around him. Much as I remember him from last year, he was warm and generous, and nostalgic for his younger days in San Francisco, when he associated with the artists Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman.

The program this year opened with the 16mm film Wild Night in El Reno, a quick, wordless collage of wind, rain and lightning that Kuchar filmed at a motel in El Reno, Oklahoma in 1977. The images are strikingly beautiful, and it occurred to me that I couldn't remember ever before seeing a real bolt of lightning in a movie. I certainly can't think of another film that gazes up at the sky and simply watches lightning.

Kuchar has returned to El Reno nearly every year since in search of a tornado. In 1986, he went with a Sony Handycam and made Weather Diary 1, which was the next piece we saw in the program. It is his chronicle of a full month spent at the motel. There is some gazing at the clouds, but mostly we see him gaze at other things- the television, the bad food he's eating, the pocket radio that crackles with weather bulletins, the rain coming down, the trash and the animals, alive or dead, that he finds in the fields and along the highway, and the activity of other people, some of them his vague acquaintances, as they pass by his motel window.

It may sound almost sad, like he's shuffling through a kind of prisoner's existence, but to him, there is a glory in the simplicity of it. This is a fairly complete map of solitude itself- of what happens when you have nothing but time on your hands, the things you do, the places your mind goes. He says aloud whatever might come into his head. He has conversations with a dog that seems to live outside the motel. He creates little moments of cinema with the articles in his room. And just as many of us do when alone, he becomes obsessed with the common grotesqueries of his own person; we, the hapless audience, are presented with shameless close-ups of almost everything on or produced by his body, including a massive turd before it is flushed. (In the Q&A, he recalled the many big reactions his poop shot has gotten over the years, and speculated that there could be a new kind of horror movie that used defecation instead of murder to shock people.)

Somewhere in the beginning we may ask "What is he doing there? Seriously, why the self-imposed exile?" but at some later point, we may come to understand at least somewhat. There is a self-sufficient merriness that carries on in the center of the bleakness.

By the end, we were more than ready for it to wind up- 75 minutes is quite long for this kind of material- but I was often mesmerized by it, and I'm grateful to have seen it, and to be able to consider it in retrospect. There is even a beauty to its low fidelity, to the way the weak CCD of George's camcorder struggles to capture the spectrum of a sunset, and to the blue noise churning in the black signal as he peers out the open door of his room into the night.

After the screening, I asked him about the experience. I wanted him to confirm my theories. Did he really enjoy this? Was there beauty for him in being alone? He said that it's nice to be alone after constantly working with people, and that he gets some of his best ideas out there with all that time to think. I thought back then, and realized that the diary is full of moments in which a narrative seems to occur to George for just a moment- it's just about to coalesce from out of his daily experience and idle mind, the beginnings of an idea or a story, and we catch a glimpse of it, and then it seems to be forgotten as pedestrian life, vast and meaningless, grinds on. We can see here that the creative process is a steady feature of solitude, certainly for George, and perhaps for everyone.

Stories are everywhere, but they have to be rescued from the chaos. That never happens in this piece, but the environment buzzes with possibility. George's encounters with other people- or even glimpses of them from his window- fill one with questions. Who are they, and what are their lives like? The people running the Chinese restaurant: what stories could they tell you about their lives, about moving to Oklahoma? The woman who lives in the trailer: was her home damaged by the storms? If not this time, how much longer can her home last in this hostile climate? And the couple in that lovely final shot of the piece: what might they have said to each other just then?

P.S. I was surprised to find several of Kuchar's films available to watch on this website, including Wild Night in El Reno and Weather Diary 1.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time Travel with the Beatles

It's taken me a few days to get around to reporting the second evening of our porch cinema. What's my excuse? The report for installment one came out the next day. Well, but that was Jaws, which is the original high-concept movie, and the atmosphere of that screening was of populist celebration. Watching A Hard Day's Night for the second evening of our porch cinema series required more limber minds, and resulted in a lengthy and sober deconstruction by the attendees.

Jamie's Watermelon popsicles (sic?) kept us sharp enough to meet this challenge!

We had to wrestle with this one a bit, I think. In order to engage it as an audience, we had to try to see it through the eyes of a teenager in 1964. That's not impossible, but it takes some work. It's interesting that people over and over again say that this film is "as fresh today as it ever was." How can that be true? It certainly doesn't feel incompetent or naive, as some dated material does. But "fresh"?

Certainly, the film has a free and dabbling spirit; like anything inventive, it gathers ideas (elements of documentary, styles of the New Wave, and conventions of movie musicals), builds on them, and eventually stands apart from them. And along its way we get numerous moments with a timeless quality; the conversation between Ringo and the boy on the river bank is an obvious example. Yet to extend that impression to the film as a whole and claim that A Hard Day's Night stands outside of time is a bit ludicrous.

You've got John Lennon in the bathtub with a battleship and a U-Boat, singing "Rule Britannia" and the anthem of the Third Reich. You've got an exploding youth culture, literally writhing from the shock of watching objects of total celebrity, and of their own pubescent fantasies, assume a physical presence in front of them, shocking also because it had never happened like this before, to anyone.

And you've got those unfriendly exchanges on the train between the snotty young band and the crusty, entitled old timer, the flip upstarts and the hardened Depression survivor. There is a nastiness in the way the lads tease the man, and a bitterness in the man's eyes. I hope I'm not wrong that intergenerational relations are no longer this strained.

The film is a vessel both for these weakening memories and for etchings that are more universal and timeless, and that may be the key to how it works. You'll find an entry point somewhere in this film- it might be the party scene, or when they jump in the fields along to "Can't Buy Me Love," or when Paul's grandfather shakes Ringo to the bone by criticizing his reading habits- it'll be something touchable, something you can imagine happening in your own life- and then you'll have little choice but to imagine that all the rest of it, all the bygone things you'll never see, are part of your life as well. It can't be considered a timeless movie, but in this way it can deliver you to its own time.

Some people argue that rebellion against the older generation is itself a timeless and ongoing phenomenon. If that's true, its vehicle is certainly no longer rock and roll music, which is now being paired with creme brulee at fancy restaurants. When did rock and roll cease to be fueled by this sentiment?

Consider Rock 'n' Roll High School, a film that came out just 15 years after A Hard Day's Night. The spirit of rebellion is raging through its every moment, perhaps most of all when the Ramones finally take the stage and belt out at least three complete songs, songs which rebel against even the conventions of rock itself. The moment is still alive.

Then there was the sequel, Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever, but not until 1991.

The music here, of course, emulates Motley Crue and Guns 'n' Roses, the kind of long haired "metal" rock that rebelled not so much against old people as it did against sobriety, but at least old people didn't like it. The moment isn't quite dead yet, but this is getting kind of silly.

Then just three years later, we had "Woodstock '94." Now what the hell was going on? Junior hippies? They're actually flattering the older generation by imitation!

And while these 20-somethings were dancing with twigs in their beards, the younger folk were at home, tuned in to My So Called Life, a show that advertised the wonders of wholesome family life, and how parents may be bumbling, but darn it, they're trying their best. Not only that, Patty's strained relationship with her father (Paul Dooley) always seemed to give the message that baby boomers have a better shot at connecting with their kids than they ever had at connecting with their own parents. That's 30 years, and a long walk, from A Hard Day's Night.

We don't have a date yet for our next screening, but since we're on the subject of the early 90's, I am seriously thinking that the film should be Army of Darkness. What do you think?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Reasonably Good Movie (an endangered species)

We just watched Fatal Attraction. It made me sigh with longing for a bygone era.

Not that it was a masterpiece. The worst thing about it: they spend so long fleshing out the character of Alex (Glenn Close consulted multiple psychiatrists to make her pathologies as real as possible) only to destroy her remorselessly at the end. Even in a monster movie, there is occasionally a tear shed for the monster when he dies. Why should King Kong get a little empathy and not this messed up girl?

And there are plenty of aspects of the plot that make you slap your forehead. Dan and his wife are made completely aware of how dangerous Alex is and that she could be lurking outside their home at any moment, yet they fail to take the obvious steps to prevent her from entering their home for the big suspenseful climax.

It's as formulaic as any thriller you could think of, but there is at least some amount of intelligence in its construction. You can imagine that the writer at least broke a sweat in his effort to craft a genre piece. There is enough room for at least a couple of surprises, and there are sequences which, though not much more than compulsory checkpoints in the plot, contain believable dialogue and performances, and bring us to a respectable level of interest and investment. The way Dan meets Alex, for example, is commendably subtle; not only does it not bludgeon us with the significance of the meeting, it avoids doing anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. And the scene that really feels alive is in the restaurant, where Dan, the fly caught in the web, gradually relents to Alex's flirtations.

What I'm getting at is, this is what genre films used to be like. There was plenty to criticize them for, but they weren't simply imbecilic. At least you could tell that everyone involved actually cared about what they were making, had some amount of skill and creativity, and gave it a good try.

Now watch these clips from the new Captain America movie.

Genre movies these days feel as though they are parodies of the genres they supposedly belong to. Why are female characters required to prove how no-nonsense they are all the time? Why do they employ such primitive means- shooting at the protagonist, and then strutting around, for instance- to drive this point home? Can't we all be given credit for understanding that women aren't weaklings? Isn't this whole routine cliche enough already?

And how about that Tommy Lee Jones? "The sumbitch did it." The only thing lazier than that line was the decision to cast Tommy Lee Jones to read it. I can't stand it when a good actor is commodified like that.

Okay, so it's only two minutes total out of a whole movie. Maybe it's not fair to write these things after only seeing these clips. Maybe this isn't a trustworthy sample of the quality of the entire experience. But… I doubt it.

What Stephen Baldwin said in Threesome about pizza- that even when it's bad, it's still pretty good- once applied to most genre films. Going to the movies was kind of like going for pizza, or at least Taco Bell. It was even comforting in that way. But no longer.

I don't know, maybe it's just me. I can't really tell if I'm losing my taste for fast food, or if the food is really getting worse.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Porchlight Cinema: A Big Success!

We love our porch.

In the daytime, the sun, the fecundity…

In the evening, the breezes, the fireflies… (not so many, but I totally saw one last night.)

One evening last summer, as we sat out there watching Pillars of the Earth on a laptop, we were struck by the idea of projecting a movie onto a screen for friends.

A year later, the plan finally came together- Jaws and Quint battled on our porch, with a full cinema attending!

Snacks were popcorn in these sharkbite novelty bags, with Old Bay seasoning; drinks (brought by friends) were Narragansett Lager and whiskey, both endorsed by Quint in the movie.

It's not uncommon for people to want to manufacture a movie theater experience at home- by making popcorn, turning the lights down, or shelling out for a big screen or lots of speakers- but we figured we could take it another step with the theatrics and really pretend that we were at a screening in a park or a drive-in. (Showing vintage commercials before the movie helped a lot with this.)

We worried about a lot of ways that this concept might not work- rain, people not being comfortable enough, etc, but as far as I can tell it was a home run. Everyone squished in and really got in the spirit.

The movie also jibed nicely with the season and our travels (we were on Cape Cod for a couple of days).

And it was also great to return to Jaws after waiting so long to see it again, and consider the ways one's perceptions of a movie can change over time. For instance, there's a scene with a grieving mother that I once considered excruciatingly protracted; now, it seems to me about the right length. I once considered it cold and distancing that a child is killed essentially to move forward the gears of the plot, but now I feel appreciative that such a gutsy move was made at all.

There's at least one thing I never liked, and still don't: it's the shot meant to signal Roy Schieder's horror that a beach swimmer is being attacked by the shark. Spielberg uses the field-stretching effect of simultaneously trucking in and zooming out, a technique supposedly invented by Hitchcock for his masterpiece Vertigo. It must have seemed like a great idea at the time, but I still find myself wondering: did they really think they nailed that shot, or were they as put off by its execution as I am, and just couldn't bear to leave it out?

My favorite aspect of Spielberg's technique- what I consider his hallmark innovation- is on full display in Jaws. Let's call it the Dog At The Front Door Effect. Consider: when a group of people in a house are getting ready to go somewhere, and there is a dog in the house, the dog, a highly attuned observer, will see people walking from room to room, gathering things for the journey, exchanging brief sentences in passing ("Have you seen my scarf?" "What time did you say the show starts?" etc.), and the dog will understand more or less what is happening. The dog will wait at the front door, growing more interested and excited. He doesn't need to understand the details that are all over his head anyway; all he needs is the big picture, and he's quite happy to be involved at that level.

This is how Spielberg has made me feel time and again, by presenting various scientists and specialists barking at each other in jargon and busily accomplishing vital tasks that I understand partially or not at all. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind has more of this sort of activity than you can shake a stick at.) An important part of this technique is to provide us with a character who is along for the ride and is just as naive and clueless as we are. In Jaws, Roy Schieder's character is the ear for Quint and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)'s squabbling (and bonding) about fish; in Close Encounters, Dreyfuss is the one who shouts "What the hell is going on here?" to a mysterious and all-knowing Francois Truffaut. Ironically, the more Spielberg goes over our heads in this way, the more populist his movie gets. We don't need to, and aren't meant to, understand everything, and we know that; we can just enjoy being foolish mutts prancing around because something cool is happening.

The Cape was gloriously foggy (there's the Chatham light house). Just as anyone who blurs movies and life together would, I expected that I'd link the experience of going there to Jaws, but instead I wound up with a much stronger connection to Red Desert, the latest from Jamie's Netflix queue.

I was really in the mood for Antonioni, but at first Red Desert was a bit disappointing. It opens with dazzling style, like a collage of the best moments from a dream diary: two men are made to seem the size of ants; a sheet from a newspaper is briefly anthropomorphized; a cargo ship seems to charge straight through a forest. But I never felt invested in the story until the characters found themselves in a wee pier house, full of cheerful drunk people, a charmingly partitioned bed nook and a black wood-burning stove. Outside the window the pier is engulfed in total fog, out of which great ships silently materialize. There's even more at this point with which Antonioni can create subtle visual confusion and wonder, but this sequence has something else going on that I could finally sink my teeth into: a rich interplay of small human moments and emotions that are not so opaque or mysterious as what the long first act had comprised. For once, it's easy to understand the characters and what they're all feeling and thinking, and that is a relief. Sometimes you just need an entry point like that. I didn't want that sequence to end- I would have been delighted to stay in that shack for the rest of the film. The sequence ends in a way that plunges us back into mystery, but, lo and behold, I didn't mind that at all, because now I was invested in a way I hadn't been before.

One more recent cinema adventure to relate: we had a lazy afternoon watching two indie classics, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Gas Food Lodging. My fascination with this era of cinema is as rabid as ever. Sure, there are thousands of turkeys that came out of the film school gold rush, but the good indie films are amazing because so many of them threaten to become turkeys, are just as campy as their bad siblings, and yet succeed anyway; they verbalize something rare or unexpected, and they end up actually moving you. Some movies are obviously great, but a movie that succeeds in spite of various obnoxious qualities can be just as interesting to study, if not more. Check out Gas Food Lodging. When you get to the part where they're making love in a cave, with bits of rock inexplicably sprinkling on their heads and janglin' singer-songwriter guitar stylings on the soundtrack, you'll know what I mean. And when you get to the part at the end when that guy from Dinosaur Jr. tells Fairuza Balk the untold story, you'll know what I mean again.

We're definitely doing another porch movie this summer and we're deliberating on the next one. Current possibilities are:

Sweet Smell of Success
On the Waterfront
The Thief of Bagdad
Rio Bravo
LA Confidential
Night of the Hunter
The Dark Crystal
My Neighbor Totoro
Nights of Cabiria
King Kong
A Hard Day's Night
Switchblade Sisters
Terror Planet

What do you think?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Joys of Marriage

I wanted to soak in Another Year the way all the critics did. It's great food for thought, they all said. I wanted to nod appreciatively at how it keeps its few plot mechanics quiet and sometimes abandons them entirely. Mike Leigh tells this story by accumulating what seem to be loosely related bits of wisdom, an incidental ball of wax to which each scene has something to contribute. I wanted to gratefully accept this tangle of quotidian truth and experience and awaken to its themes and its purpose, and articulate my own correlatives to its characters and situations.

Because I really love doing all those things.

But Jamie simply could not sit still. She obviously was extremely bothered by something, and my solemn contemplation was constantly interrupted by her fidgeting. At last, she blurted out: "I'm sorry, but I can't take this seriously- I can't stop thinking about The Dark Crystal! Don't you see it? Every person in this movie looks like a character from The Dark Crystal!!!!"

I made a photo montage to represent what was going on in Jamie's head:

As a quick search reveals, the practice of comparing various famous people to characters in The Dark Crystal is already rampant online, so I won't make any attempt to point out who looks like whom. But I did want to note that I put Mike Leigh in there too, because he kind of looks like Aughara.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jamie and Alex's Memorial Day Drive-In of Mayhem

Memorial Day is for Americana. For me, a drive-in movie theater- or at least the idea of one- is as good a piece of Americana as anything. They're somehow wholesome, yet… seedy.

I am captivated by the certain melange I assume was once the traditional programming at these theaters (I've only actually been to one about 4 or 5 times in my life): monster/alien movies with unconvincing costumes and/or models of buildings and vehicles; slasher films in which the blood is a cheerfully bright red; stunt-based spectacles in which car chases, martial arts and gun play were used for visual effect (I believe they used to be called "action movies"), and generally anything that exploits or aims for sensationalism, centered on something never previously captured on film, or seen before perhaps in any medium.

The closest I think I ever came to this experience- don't laugh, or groan- was when I saw Grindhouse. I hear it was overhyped, but I never even heard about it until the night it opened, which I consider one of the great film-going experiences of my life. I'm not kidding. It's not that Grindhouse was actually that great from beginning to end. It's that by attending it, I somehow fulfilled all the unrequited need I'd had to go back in time and have an authentic, raunchy drive-in experience. I didn't see it after dinner at some dull suburban multiplex with stadium seating. I saw it from 11 PM to 2:30 AM at the Roxy Theater, the stickiest, grubbiest cinema in Philadelphia, where the seats line up in a narrow shotgun file before a tiny screen, and where on that night, a full house of crazed kids was making it the event of the season. It was one of the most complete and convincing time-warps ever. I wished the filmmakers could have been there to see their creation achieve its true potential, on and off the screen.

So this Memorial Day, now that the porch is officially open for business...

...we decided we would fire up the outdoor movies, and let our selections nod as much as possible to the spirit of those old bat-shit drive-in classics.

Basket Case
This is not a horror movie. It's sweet, it's goofy, it has faith in the basic goodness of most people, and all its attempts at horror- the vehicle for this is a lump of flesh with a face and two arms- end in pure comedy. Its finest moment is a stop-motion animated sequence in which the little guy trashes a hotel room; all we could think was, this is exactly how our cat behaves at 5:30 every morning. Awww. And how is he supposed to be killing his victims, anyway? It looks like he just rubs his hands on them and then they yell and fall over, pretending to be dead so he doesn't feel bad.

Best Worst Movie
A where-are-they-now documentary about the director and cast of the fascinating bomb Troll 2. Last summer, the Village East was playing both Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie, and Jamie and I attended the former, although by then the cult frenzy had long since died down, and we were joined by just a handful of die-hard fans. If you haven't seen Troll 2, you should consider it. It fails in a way that is singular and, I am now convinced, impossible to describe. Best Worst Movie couldn't do it justice. Even with all the interviews of everyone from fan club organizers to theater owners to the cast and crew themselves, all describing this turkey, along with plenty of clips from the film, this documentary will not make you understand what it actually feels like to watch Troll 2, or how you will feel the next day or two after watching it. The director of Troll 2, who is one of this documentary's tragic figures, assesses his disaster majestically: "Making the worst movie is just as good as making the best movie; it means that I've made an impression." I'm not sure that it's "just as good," but the words certainly resonate, and come closer to explaining the phenomenon than any other statement in the film. People who love movies don't want to leave a theater unscathed; they want to be deeply affected by the experience, one way or another. And there is simply nothing comparable to how Troll 2 affects you.

Jamie and I had a lively debate about Best Worst Movie directly after watching it. We disagreed on how successful it was in providing a story arc for its main subject, the actor who played the father and whose actual profession is dentistry; we mostly agreed that the saddest parts of the documentary were unnecessary and even exploitative; and we agreed that it didn't hold a candle to Bill Cunningham New York (she bristled when I began comparing the two films).

Deep Red
I’m not really an Argento fan, so getting the director’s cut of this probably wasn’t the way to go, but I loved the way the actors would switch without warning between English and Italian, with the latter done in distinctly unconvincing ADR by other actors who had lovely voices, but who made no effort to match to the sound of their screen counterparts’ voices. The effect is that every character is apparently possessed by an Italian demon who can only take control fitfully of its host.

It struck me that the music choices for the different scenes were so unexpected- in the scenes of violence, some of which are memorably horrifying, the score jumps to life with what might have been chase music from an "A-Team" episode- and that Troll 2, essentially another Italian film, has a similarly unusual sense, although even more outrageous, of what music would be appropriate for a particular scene. Coincidence?

Something else I didn’t expect: Deep Red predates 10, one of my all time favorite films, by four years, and I think 10 must have drawn inspiration from it. There was almost never a moment that I could watch David Hemmings without thinking of the songwriter George Webber (Dudley Moore), and that of course made me think of Sam (Julie Andrews) every time Daria Nicolodi made an appearance. Hemmings’ character is crotchety, peevish, defensive, stubborn, and often pathetic in the precise way that Webber is. There’s even a scene in which Hemmings and Nicolodi face off in a “battle-of-the-sexes” argument that sounds just like George and Sam fighting in the bedroom. At least, until the demons make them speak Italian again.

Tokyo Drifter
I loved many moments in this handsome crime saga, including a brawl in a cabaret that was equal parts John Ford and Blake Edwards. Yet it flags just before the end, as do all films centered this much on style. In the DVD interview, director Seijun Suzuki says that inspiration strikes his actors at two moments: the costume fitting, and when he sets them loose on a stylish and dramatic set. These are the points at which they realize who their characters are, and how they are supposed to act. He’s almost saying out-right that he made the actors part of the scenery- which directors do at the risk of a cold and impersonal product (e.g. The Hudsucker Proxy). But what the hell- this is the kind of movie that drive-ins (and the Roxy) were made for. If I had seen this at the Roxy at midnight with a bunch of crazy kids, it would have been brilliant.