Monday, November 26, 2012

Slow Viewing

When I lived in Brooklyn, my roommate and I watched The Maltese Falcon over the course of about five evenings, about 20 minutes at a time, mostly because he was so busy. Breaking it up into chapters allowed me to actually understand the story. We would have brief discussions about what we'd seen so far, the major events, a map of the characters, and what was motivating each person and what they'd probably try to do next. Although I'd already seen the film several times, this was the viewing when I mastered it.

Somehow, I forgot how much fun that was until recently. Jamie and I watched The Seven Samurai over three nights. I'd never had trouble with the plot, but I realized something else about parceling a movie: it makes the experience more like reading a book. One of the greatest aspects of the experience of a novel is when you put the book down and go about your day while the characters continue to live and operate in the background of your consciousness. The anticipation of returning keeps you suspended between the book's universe and your own. Television shows have a similar effect, but their indefinite nature can be a diluent; their stories march not to a denouement but to an ever-receding horizon, and instead of the intense anticipation of a great book's climax and the heartbreak of its last page, we are most often simply cajoled until our interest fizzles.

The experience of a movie in chapters, therefore, is a unique thing, with the same opportunities to think and discuss as what a tv show gives you, but with more of a novel's structure. I see now that I haven't done this with nearly enough movies. Some would work much better than others, I suspect. It worked to great effect with Seven Samurai.

P.S. Mifune forever!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Where Art Thou, Indie Rentals?

It's a scattered world these days for the hapless movie renter. Now that I'm in Houston, I realize I've been spoiled these last nine years since I left New York: all the cities I've lived in since then have had good-to-excellent video stores within a short walk from wherever I was living.

Providence had two possibilities: Esta's Too on Thayer Street (is it still holding out?) and the superior Acme Video near Wickenden.

Philadelphia had the motherlode: Beaux Arts Video on Spruce Street, where trundled-away plastic bins on the floor were crammed with dusty, disorganized boxes for movies nobody ever rented (I would often pick something at random out of these bins. "Okay, we're watching 'I Love You, Alice B. Toklas' *cough sneeze gag*); TLA, just like the ones in New York; and Video City on 20th. All great.

Cambridge has just one such video store, Hollywood Express (not to be confused with the "Hollywood Video" chain), but it is truly outstanding.  

But here? I'm still looking, but it's grim here in Houston, a wasteland. No sign of so much as a mildewy basement with a passable "employee's picks" rack.

Oh sure, there's Blockbuster, but that place has changed: 100 copies of some new release, and an odd handful of token "Classics," a rather patronizing way to refer to, I guess, "Good Movies."

What else is there out there? Redbox is like a slot machine. You could hit it big- I rented Terri out of one of those boxes, after all- but it is the most strangely curated little menu of movies you'll find anywhere, and I never have interest in 90% of them. 

You've got the Netflix streaming options, but those remind me of searching through tv guide in the 80's to see what was on HBO (Let's see… InnerspaceOverboardTransylvania 6-5000OverboardTransylvania 6-5000InnerspaceInnerspace…) The mailing service is great, actually, but it's a dance of scheduling, delayed gratification,  and the conflict of what I think I'm going to want to watch three days from now vs. what I'm actually going to want to watch three days from now.

There will be a day when it's easy to see anything you want at home, as soon as you want it, cheaply. And legally. I realize there's this "bit torrent" thing, but the one time I tried to figure out how that works, it just made me feel old, and a little pathetic.

What I'm getting at is, the independent brick-and-mortar video store- a species declared extinct not less than 4 years ago, with much pageantry, in the magnificent Be Kind Rewind- is sorely needed as a bridge to that future date of total instant access. In today's landscape, it is the one legitimate option for someone who takes movies seriously and wants a decent selection at their fingertips- not to mention the opportunity to chat with a clerk who probably has a graduate degree and who also takes movies seriously, very, very seriously, in fact.

So my search for a good place to rent in Houston is a real mission, a personal mission. Cactus Music, a local vinyl institution, once rented movies, but when I visited and asked their staff they said that ended some time ago. They also said that the independent places- all of them- have folded, as far as they knew. Although there was one place- what was it called? A murmur ran through the space behind the counter. Oh yes, it's called… Audio Video Plus. Of course! They're still around, right? Don't they still rent movies?

This is an ad I found for Audio Video Plus. As you watch it, imagine me getting really, really psyched.

Houston comes through after all! A wonderland of half-inch nostalgia!

But I called, and as of just a couple of months ago, they stopped renting videos.

Can you not feel my agony, people?!?


Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Texas Halloween

Thanks for a great Halloween, Houston. The pumpkins we carved at The Orange Show are long since collapsed. I can't let any more days go by without journaling out the rest of our cinema experiences during this, our favorite time of the year.

On Wednesday night we wrapped up our annual marathon diet of horror with a screening of A Bucket of Blood at 14 Pews, a microcinema/community center in a former chapel in the Heights with a beautifully kept interior (rich wood from floor to ceiling). The programming looks really interesting- Q&A sessions here are just as likely to be with neurosurgeons or beekeepers as with filmmakers. Sometimes I think you can keep searching in Houston and never stop finding great places like this.

We loved Bucket of Blood. Something about its design- slasher movie with a beat artist theme- suggests a Tales From the Crypt episode, but it transcends its B-Movie trappings with a startling sophistication. The actor Dick Miller, who plays the lead role here, has had over a hundred bit parts and relatively few roles with substantial screen time. He's one of these lifer character actors who we always yearn to see in bigger parts (I especially love him in Gremlins 2. "What do you mean you heard it too? Of course you heard it too!").

His performance in this film as busboy Walter Paisley (a name that has re-emerged throughout Miller's career) is a knockout. It's big and broad, but there's no room for subtlety if we're going to believe a story this ridiculous, and to my surprise I completely believed it. Miller's pleading, screwed-up face never lets us forget his total enslavement to his most basic emotional needs: he desires friends, validation, and external approval, not to mention female companionship, which he views as the ultimate provision of the former three. The film worms into our psyches by making Walter repellent while asking us the upsetting question of whether we aren't all really just like him- whether he's anything more than an unchecked human being. Artists routinely explain that great art is made to satisfy the soul of its creator, not to gain the approval of others, and professionals across the spectrum of human endeavor often make analogous claims; but we have to wonder at their sincerity when we confront Walter.

Other films we got to this year:
Kaidan- A rather dull samurai ghost story. We bailed on this after about forty minutes. Probably needed to get the original.

The Sentinel- A late seventies supernatural thriller, too hammy to sell the elaborate fantasy it spins. In spite of the effort and imagination, there were no chills here. It's kind of lovable anyway- the supporting cast is full of surprises (Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Christopher Walken... maybe this guy on the right is an unbilled John Hurt?)

Army of Darkness- Something occurred to me, while watching this film for the first time in at least a decade, about the history of movie special effects- something that I'd forgotten and that this movie illustrates better than any other I can think of.

Army of Darkness came out in 1992, a year after Terminator 2- the first film to make heavy use of CGI- and a year before Jurassic Park, which was the single greatest catalyst for the CGI revolution. Major advances in the art of movie special effects had occurred before, of course, but each new technique and innovation had been an addition to the craft- a contribution to the box of tools and tricks, to the discipline that had kept growing richer from its first days, a field of old pros who could make anything happen through pure engineering. The way that special effects changed in the nineties, suddenly, was different: the computer replaced over half the toolbox, and it was the only time this has ever happened. Veteran technicians, people like Richard Edlund, with his resume full of blockbusters and awards, were suddenly living in a world in which many of their skills were obsolete.

When we watch Army of Darkness today, and we see the rear projection and the animated skeletons, and we see that it was made around the same time as Jurassic Park, we might assume that Sam Raimi was being consciously retro and willfully analog in his choices. We may forget that at the time, these were simply practicalities; that as late as 1992, there really wasn't any kind of special effect you could use that would be considered old fashioned. Low budget, maybe, but not retro. Stop motion animation, a technique that had seen numerous cosmetic improvements but hadn't fundamentally changed in decades, was still good currency in a Hollywood film.

So was this the last gasp of analog special effects? Not really- decent looking CGI was unaffordable for another ten years, so most 90s films had either awful CGI, or some combination of awful CGI and bad analog (see John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.).

The Eye-
American horror films never stray from their primary objective of scaring the audience; the horror itself is always at the center, and everything that happens is shackled to it. That's why I'm so surprised when I see a Hong Kong film like The Eye, in which some pretty effective horror is woven into a story that seems a lot more like a romance or a drama. The love story made the film seem not so menacing or bleak as horror films often are- yet the feeling of being pursued by ghosts certainly stayed with me later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors-

Speaking of analog effects, it's hard to think of a better showcase than this film. It's already been written that it's full of imagination, amazing sets and brilliantly twisted dream sequences, and I agree- I would add that the chilling music, by Angelo Badalamenti, is first rate. Some of the plotting is a little lazy, but there's still a tremendous amount of love put in here, and there was never a moment when I wasn't invested. It's a tough call this year, but I think Dream Warriors takes the blue ribbon.

P.S. When we were in L.A. we made a point to visit the Elm Street house. The people who live there now probably hate tourists doing this, but our friend took Jamie's picture in front of it. It was a great picture, but later, it vanished from the memory card, and everyone swears they didn't delete it and had nothing to do with it.