Wednesday, September 30, 2015

so sick of being picked apart by women

Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post calls Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl "the only fictional character [she] can think of who might be accurately described as simultaneously misogynist and misandrist. In fact she hates pretty much everyone else on the planet, except, briefly, her husband Nick" (Ben Affleck). Like Chad Piercewell in In the Company of Men, yes, she seems to hate everyone. She may have only ever gotten together with Nick in order to have something that "Amazing Amy" doesn't have.

(In case you haven't seen the film--and don't mind the inevitable SPOILERS that will happen in this blog entry--"Amazing Amy" is the children's book character created by Amy's parents. Amazing Amy tended to have it better than Amy did. As Amy puts it, "When I was 10, I quit cello. In the next book, [Amazing] Amy became a prodigy." Asked if she played volleyball, she adds, "I got cut, freshman year. She made varsity." Asked, "When did you get a dog?" she replies: "She got a dog. Puddles made her more relatable." Amazing Amy is Amy's real "better half" as it were, since her marriage has quite readily fallen apart.)

Robert Palmer at Interrogating Media (a book blog, I think), in response to the book's author, Gillian Flynn claiming on her website that she created Amy Dunne because she had "grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock to many books," writes:

You're tired of the "brave rape victims"? Considering what you do in this novel, give me a fucking break. That aside, Flynn's project--that of writing interesting female villains--is a fascinating and completely worthwhile endeavor. I just think the thought process by which she's arrived at this project is deeply flawed. Let's pay close attention to what she blames for the lack of compelling female baddies--the lack of the female dark side: "The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves--to the point of almost parodic encouragement--we've left no room to acknowledge our dark side."

Essentially, she blames feminism. There has been too much girl power--almost enough to be parodic--and now we can't have proper female villains.

He goes on, but you get the point. Amy Dunne, who manufactures her own apparent murder, frames her husband for it, then rejects (by killing him... oh, SPOILERS) the ex-lover who takes her in to effectively blackmail her husband into being whatever she wants him to be--she is not a construct of feminism, but in response to feminism. David Cox at the Guardian suggests that Amy is "absorbed by a kind of totalitarian narcissism that's beyond male understanding." Certainly beyond Nick's understanding. She's too smart to be a cinematic femme fatale. And, yes, too feminine to be a genius supervillain. The question is, is she a great villain anyway? The previously cited Palmer calls Amy "not an interesting or compelling villain" but rather "the crystallization of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behavior." He adds: "If we strapped a bunch of Men's Right's Advocates to beds and downloaded their nightmares, I don't think we'd come up with stuff half as ridiculous as this plot."

I wonder, however, if it's something like the opposite. Whatever Flynn says, whatever Palmer (or other reviewers say), Amy Dunne is who she is. Or rather, she is what we take her to be. Like any great character, Amy Dunne can be taken as feminist, and can be taken as some reactionary anti-feminist nightmare. At the same time, or by different parts of the audience. I mean, maybe Palmer has a point in saying, "The specific ways in which Amy is evil (lying about rape, using pregnancy as a manipulative device) feel so entangled with misogynist caricatures created by antiwomen and antifeminists," but what else is Amy going to lie about or use against her husband if she is to both be a manipulative villain and, quite explicitly, female. It is perhaps for the same reason that those antiwomen men would invent or imagine such caricatures, a character like Amy must fit them. What else is there? Have her machinations be unattached to her status as a woman, as a wife, and surely there would be complaints that she is just a woman-in-name-only. That is hardly feminist. Cement her manipulations in that same status--woman, wife--and there are complaints of it being cliched. Flynn couldn't win either way. Neither could Amy.

To be fair, the same is true of Nick; his horribleness is caught up in the usual cheating husband schtick. This couldn't just be a bad marriage, two people who just didn't work out over time. It's packed with cliches all around. The key to Nick's character--the scene playing right now, actually--is that he admits openly to his nature as a bad guy. Amy just keeps playing one part or another. Flynn herself told Oliver Burkeman at the Guardian that the thing that frustrates her "is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad--trampy, vampy, bitchy types--but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish." One person's pragmatic, I suppose, is another person's cliche.

References

Burkeman, O. (2013, May 1). Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/01/gillian-flynn-bestseller-gone-girl-misogyny

Cox, D. (2014, October 6). Gone Girl revamps gender stereotypes--for the worse. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/oct/06/gone-girl-female-stereotype-women

Palmer, R. (2012, August 20). Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism. Interrogating Media. Retrieved from http://interrogatingmedia.com/2012/08/20/gone-girl-and-the-specter-of-feminism/

Rosenberg, A. (2014, October 3). Is 'Gone Girl's Amy a misogynist? A misandrist? Or both? Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/10/03/is-gone-girls-amy-a-misogynist-a-misandrist-or-both/

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

some unprovoked assault, here

The problem with American Psycho--and there are many, of course, but one in particular that gets to me--is that Patrick Bateman is depicted as crazy. Sure, it's not entirely normal to kill people. And shouldn't be entirely normal to destroy the lives of others through mergers and acquisitions (though, to be fair, we do not see Bateman actually doing his job, taking over any companies, laying anyone off; we just kind of have to know that's what he does). But, aside from a few key moments, Bateman might as well be homicidal, yeah, but not necessarily mentally ill... He knows what he's doing. And he enjoys it. Only briefly at the end of the film does he seem to show any regret--when he calls his lawyer and confesses to the crimes we've seen and many more. Not long before that call, he has his truly (cinematically) insane moment; when he's standing at the ATM, the ATM tells him to feed it a stray cat. It's debatable (but pointless to debate) whether or not much of what he does is actually happening, because whether it's real or all in his head, it's still an elaboration on the way he lives his life everyday, how little he thinks of other people, how much above them he sees himself. But, this moment--this moment isn't happening. This is the psychotic break in all its cinematic simplicity.

(And, of course, it's when he threatens an animal that he becomes his most horrible. It's not the chainsaw chase. It's not the stabbing of the homeless man. It's certainly not his murder of Paul Allen with an axe, because that is staged as an amusement. It is Bateman putting a gun to a cat. It is Bateman stomping his foot down on a dog. The violence against humans is horrible, but expected. In reading about the film, I found a review of the book that details the grisly murders and mutilations contained therein, and how there are so many, and such grisly detail, that it becomes boring, mundane. Which seems to be the point. I suspect as much anyway; as I've mentioned, I have not actually read the book, but I suspect that the mundanity of the murders is the point. That is the satire of it, just as it is in the real world. Horrible violence happens every damn day, but we generally cannot be bothered to care because we've got our own bullshit to deal with. That poor dog, though. That poor cat. Those are moments that grab us.)

I am not watching American Psycho today, by the way. I am watching In the Company of Men, which without violence or murder covers some of the same themes--the cruelty men are capable of, especially toward women. The interesting thing, though, is that, while I do enjoy both films, In the Company of Men is less audience friendly by coming a bit closer to a believable reality. None of the hyperreality of Patrick Bateman's world; instead, we have two businessmen, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) deliberately seducing and ruining the life a deaf office worker, Christine (Stacy Edwards), while on a business trip. Roger Ebert calls Chad in particular "true evil: Cold, unblinking, reptilian." Chad, he argues,

makes the terrorists of the summer thrillers look like boys throwing mud-pies. And for every Chad there is a Howard, a weaker man, ready to go along, lacking the courage to disagree and half intoxicated by the stronger will of the other man. People like this are not so uncommon. Look around you.

And, therein lies the rub. Why American Psycho can be much more entertaining because it deliberately goes so far over the top, but In the Company of Men is the kind of thing most people would not want to sit through once, let alone watch again. But, a) I will give just about any movie a shot, b) I love the despicable nature of Neil Labute's characters and the absolute horror of his scripts (and this is also his directorial debut), and c) I think movies about such people can be more useful sometimes than movies about pleasant people and pleasant occasions. They can tell us a lot about ourselves--as individuals and as, you know, society. For example, Patrick Bateman's murderous impulses map directly onto how imagine his business impulses are. We see bankers as predatory. Chad and Howard, here in In the Company of Men, on the other hand, are not so predatory in their work--I'm not entirely sure what they're doing in their six-week visit to a different branch of whatever business it is they work for... The only thing that matters is that they work for some corporation with regional offices. Might as well be Pierce and Pierce from American Psycho or whatever that company is where The Narrator of Fight Club works. Mind-numbing office where people "push papers around" all day. Work is work, and the more ruthless man (or woman, but that's not what these particular stories are about) gets ahead. Chad clearly thinks very little of women, but he also casually insults other men in this film, usually behind their back. When the film spends time with Howard, it's a different beast--he genuinely develops feelings for Christine while Chad, you can see, is manipulating his interactions with her to get what he can while he can. One can imagine that even without the revenge notion he suggests in the opening scene (he claims his girlfriend left him, which turns out to be a lie), Chad probably finds a woman to seduce on every one of his business trips.

That Howard's interactions with Christine are so close to Chad's, though, is sort of the point. The genuine romantic pursuit and the deliberately faked version of the same--to be fair, both are just scripted versions of the real thing--are inherently the same. It's a cynical idea but a useful one to consider. I don't think that is the potentially offensive part of this story; that would be the cliche of Christine falling for the worse guy, an idea that borders on Labute trying to prove Chad right. I've read other plays (this was a play before it was a film) by Labute--I even performed an interpretation of one of his pieces when I was still competing in speech and debate--and I have seen other film adaptations, so I trust that while he certainly invokes the darker aspects of humanity, he doesn't celebrate it. He's telling morality tales, trying to convince us of how horrible we can be.

And, Aaron Eckhart is so good at playing smug and heartless.

Patrick Bateman is murdering people, but this horrible is the harder to take. It's too close to real. Or, at least, it is too close to a real that we see in our daily lives. There's plenty of murder going on. Most of us don't really see it, though. What we do see are plenty of movies that deal in violence and death. It becomes mundane, common. The murderous impulses of cartoonish movie villains pale in comparison to the cold, deliberate, calculated cruelty of Chad Piercewell.

i like to dissect girls

Derr (2013) argues "'feminism' is not simply the absence of 'sexism'" which is good news for American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron and written by Harron and Guinevere Turner. Even though it's satire, it is difficult to suggest that American Psycho--

(For the record, unless I say otherwise--and I might later--I am referring to the film, not Bret Easton Ellis' novel. I have never read more than a few pages of the novel once upon a time in the 90s.)

--is not chock full of sexism. Still, Harron has defended the film as feminist. von Busack (2000) argues though, "American Psycho is feminist only at the level that it suggests that men can be vicious and selfish..."

(von Busack smartly critiques the film version by pointing out that the satire of the novel gets its power from being close to the 1980s--the novel came out in 1991--and "The only way to give American Psycho teeth would be to set it in the present. We can mock the fashions and the music of the '80s, but has corporate culture changed all that much in the past 13 years?" I would respond with two particulars: 1) who's mocking the fashion or music of the 80s? That stuff is golden, and this film puts them both on amazing display, 2) extend that count of years to the present, of course; we've got good reason to assume that men like Patrick Bateman are still in corporate offices dealing in brand names, impossible-to-get restaurant reservations, and mindsets in which they might as well be killing people the way their damaging the world... And, I didn't mean to turn that into a political statement.

Then again, isn't everything a political statement.

And, I didn't mean to turn that into a trite bit implying importance that isn't here. Apologies.)

Suggesting men are horrible isn't inherently feminist, of course. It's far too simplistic for that. Personally, I figure you need more of a comparison between men and women to get into something as big as feminism, anyway. The women in American Psycho are so underrepresented as far as screen time... Actually, everyone is, except for Patrick Bateman. Everyone else is just someone he's using or someone he might kill. (Except for Detective Kimball (Willem Dafoe) and Jean (Chloe Sevigny), who are the only ones to come close to believing Bateman might have actually killed anyone.)

Turner tells Dazed:

I very much think it's a feminist film. It's a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyper-real universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer and to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it's about how men perceive them and treat them.

Classic mistake--assuming that putting men down is the same as raising women up. Like those folks who reply all lives matter when they hear black lives matter.

(Getting political again. Apologies.)

But anyway, Turner continues:

It's funny to me because so many women have not seen the film because they assume it's a horrible slasher movie and that always hurts my feelings.

It's funny to me, as a fan of slasher films and of Clover (1988, 1992), and who spent last October explaining over and over how slasher films are feminist, that Turner assumes slasher films are in opposition to feminism... Then again, it's not unreasonable to think that women (or men, for that matter) might think as much. Even if it is unreasonable to think as much. If you get the distinction, there.

The film may be anti-men, but that doesn't make it feminist. Jean doesn't do enough, nor does "Christie" (Cara Seymour), and the rest of the women in the film are just as vapid and materialistic as Bateman or the other men. In fact, the irony of the film (or maybe the heart of the satire) is that Bateman seems to be the only character--

(we might include Jean or Kimball if they had more screentime or their storylines went further and this turned into something more... Hollywood with the two of them teaming up to stop Bateman's murderous spree)

--who really pays any attention to other people and is the only one who seems to actually be capable of telling all the Pierce and Pierce vice presidents apart. Well, I suppose Christie can tell there's something off about Bateman from the start. But, she dies. That old lady by the ATM can clearly see there's something off about Bateman (when he puts a gun to a cat), but she dies. Jean sees Bateman's notebook of violent drawings but the film ends before anything can come of that. Kimball's investigation goes nowhere. And, Bateman is still where he was at the beginning of the film when it ends. He will still use women. He will still kill them. He will still very much be part of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

References

Derr, H.L. (2013, November 13). What really makes a film feminist? The Atlantic. Retreived from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/what-really-makes-a-film-feminist/281402

Taylor, T. (2014). How American Psycho became a feminist statement. Dazed. Retrieved from http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/20751/1/how-american-psycho-became-a-feminist-statement

von Busack, R. (2000). A feminist 'Psycho'? metroactive. Retrieved from http://www.metroactive.com/papers/cruz/04.19.00/americanpsycho-0016.html

Sunday, September 27, 2015

it even has a watermark

I Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is like any other 1980s alpha male. Only more so. If that makes sense. His drives are the drives of men in business, men on the prowl for women. He's the bastard child of the men of Mad Men, the contemporary of the men of Wall Street and his generation bypassed the problems of John Rambo or Tyler Durden--two different angles on emasculation. Patrick Bateman, as capitalist extraordinaire, would never put up with emasculation. He's too territorial for that. He'd sooner kill you than let you even attempt to take away his power.

Maybe that's exactly the same situation as Rambo or Durden, except Bateman has money. He doesn't need to hide behind anonymity or an alias because his name has clout.

But, I'm interested in something else about American Psycho>. Patrick Bateman is also interested in brand names, owning the right things (far from Tyler Durden). But, then there's a problem; see, I'm reading on the trivia section of the film's IMDb page and I see the following:

The film had various problems with designer labels during production. Cerruti agreed to allow Christian Bale to wear their clothes, but not when the character was killing anyone; Rolex agreed that anyone in the film could wear their watches except Bateman (hence the famous line from the book "Don't touch the Rolex" had to be changed to "Don't touch the watch"); Perry Ellis provides underwear at the last minute after Calvin Klein pulled out of the project; Comme des Garçons refused to allow one of their overnight bags to be used to carry a corpse, so Jean Paul Gaultier was used instead.

Ed Owens at CineScene calls the refusal to be included by many brand names a "damning blow"--part of why the film languished for years with unsuccessful attempts to get made before. My problem--and yeah, I get that a studio like Lionsgate would not want to ruffle feathers, but you're making a satire about predatory men, predatory capitalist consumption, violence, and, really, America's obsession with brand names just as much as Patrick Bateman's. A quick Google search and I couldn't tell if any of the products in the film had placement deals, i.e. they paid to be there, or if they got paid to be there. And, I'm wondering why you don't just put whatever brand name into the film as you like because that's the point. It's satire about brand names. What's the complaint going to be? You used our Commes des Garçons overnight bag to carry the body of that Angel Face guy from Fight Club and we don't want it to look like we condone killing characters played by Jared Leto. Thus begins the cease-and-desist letter which has any leverage because...?

I mean, the novel is full of references to brand names. The characters namecheck the things they own and the restaurants they have the pull to get into. And, of course, there's a great scene in the film in which the men compare their business cards, citing the specific fonts and both paper and ink colors. Like a lower class of men talking cars.

(Bateman's obsession with Huey Lewis and Phil Collins is amazing. I'm wondering how much of it is made-up bullshit and how much makes perfect sense in terms of how you could actually describe the music and lyrics.)

Meanwhile, Lionsgate wanted Leonardo DiCaprio because he would have been a bigger box office draw. Even announced his interest at Cannes despite director Mary Harron having already offered it to Bale. To keep DiCaprio, the studio brought in Oliver Stone to take Harron's place. Nisha Gopalan at the Guardian describes what came next:

"He was probably the single worst single person to do it," [Harron] says. "I like Stone's stuff, but social satire is not his forte... and he's not known for his well-rounded, three-dimensional female characters." Stone began to chip away at Harron's script, preparing to rewrite it altogether. "It was then an issue of how the script could be improved," says [producer Ed] Pressman. "Oliver's approach was more psychological. Mary's was satirical."

Stone and DiCaprio had their own disputes over the way the film would go, DiCaprio split for The Beach then Stone left as well. Harron returned and kept Bale. But, my point in describing all this is that the studio is trying to make money. DiCaprio would grab the bigger audience. Having brands not complain about their inclusion would (presumably) work in favor of the box office as well--studios don't tend to subscribe to the idea that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

But, they're selling satire, selling a critique of a world in which the dog-eat-dog bullshit of even measuring the box office is entirely normal.

(Note: while I often check old box office reports for this blog, I generally do so in order to just see what was in theaters at the time. I'm not usually even looking at the money columns over at BoxOfficeMojo.)

But anyway, if Starbucks will let itself get namechecked in Fight Club and Gaultier is good with being used to transport dead bodies here, where does the satire bleed right into itself. I'm reminded of a passage from The Invisibles by Grant Morrison:

The most pernicious image is the anarchist hero figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis...

The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product to be consumed.

Fight Club t-shirts, for example--you can still buy those. Funko has a Tyler Durden action figure. NECA Toys has a Patrick Bateman action figure.

Yet, I had to put together my own Phil Connors figure. What does that tell you?

the glass slipper of our generation

Tyler Durden doesn't really exist. Obviously. But, there are those online who try to suggest that Marla doesn't exist either. The bit about the hallway mirror with no reflection for either Tyler or Marla is a good piece of evidence for the nonexistence of Marla, except that the scene in question isn't real either because The Narrator isn't there.

I saw an argument for the nonexistence of Bob as well, but then we're just falling into Jack's Rabbit Hole Brain where nothing actually happens and where's the fun in that?

Thing is, Marla is still The Narrator's Power Animal. Not as cute as the penguin, but more fun.

But, I don't want to start there. I want to start with Marla's ring. See, The Narrator's acid scar later is in the shape of a mouth because Tyler kissed his hand to... interact with the chemical? I don't know the science, but that seems to be how it works. Anyway, before we see The Narrator's scar, before we see Tyler's, we see Marla's ring, a pair of big red lips positioned just a little higher on the back of her hand than that scar. Backtracking to before yesterday's argument, let us assume this is a movie about the emasculation of men in modern society and men (some of them, anyway) lashing out because of it. It is Marla, then, who scars them. She's the lone representative of women in the film--

(aside from a few background extras and bit parts, the biggest of which is Chloe, who is dying but is also desperate for sex. Which brings up an interesting idea, actually. Fight Club's version of men are those capable of violence, capable of anything. There is no mention anywhere in the film about children or being tied down by marriage--except for Marla's bridesmaid dress, but we'll get to that--except for that one guy at the testicular cancer meeting talking about how the woman he used to be with is married now and just had her first kid. Chloe represents an opportunity--so does Marla in the script, as she tells Tyler she wants to have his abortion (that line got cut because Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin didn't like it, but it got replaced with "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school" ...be careful what you wish for and all that)--explicitly expressing how she wants sex but since she's already dying, there are no consequences. Or maybe that's one more form of emasculation. Can't sow your seed, does your gender even matter?)

--and cinematically, yeah, she represents one side of The Narrator's personality. But, that doesn't mean she doesn't exist. Her role in the construct of the film and her role within the reality of the film are two very different things. That she and Tyler dress alike, that they both smoke--both of these facts are used as evidence at jackdurden.com--only proves that The Narrator modeled Tyler, at least in part, on her. Hell, The Narrator--

(And, I don't want to call him Jack, even though he is called Jack in the script, because the movie never tells us that is his name. "Jack" is the name of the imaginary guy whose internal organs wrote descriptions of themselves. The Narrator just adopts that label for his own, well, not organs, but feelings. Plus, Edward Norton's character's name is Tyler Durden, duh.)

--is entirely materialistic before he meets Marla. He might adopt a Spartan lifestyle because of practical reasons with Tyler but it is Marla who introduces the idea, going to the groups because it's cheaper than a movie and there's free coffee (unlike The Narrator, who goes to them because he's miserable), stealing laundry to sell it, stealing meals on wheels, and living in a hotel. Marla is where The Narrator gets the idea for Tyler...

Sort of. Tyler has already appeared one or two times on screen in flashes before The Narrator even meets Marla.

The interesting thing for me--Groundhog Day Project and all--is that Tyler is what happens when Jack tries to change after meeting Marla, just like so many folks (that I used to like to argue with) would say Phil Connors changed because he met Rita. But, it's not so simple as that. The Narrator doesn't want to be like Marla. It's difficult to really argue that he wants to be with Marla. She's more of an expectation. An affectation of story. There must be a love interest.

And, the classic plotline dictates she must pair up with our protagonist. Given the twist of the Tyler/Narrator dichotomy, Marla does do just that. She pairs up with with both of them. And The Narrator saves her from Tyler, twice.

Still, she's got that bridesmaid's dress.

MARLA
I got this dress at a thrift store for one dollar.

NARRATOR
It was worth every penny.

MARLA
It's a bridesmaid's dress. Someone loved it intensely for one day, then tossed it... Like a Christmas Tree--so special, then... bam--it's on the side of the road, tinsel still clinging to it. Like sex crime victims, underwear inside-out, bound with electrical tape.

NARRATOR
Well then, it suits you.

MARLA
You can borrow it sometime.

jackdurden.com suggests, of course, the dress is already The Narrator's. But, its ownership is not as important as what it represents. Not just single-serving clothing, but a single-serving identity. For that one day you are a bridesmaid. The bride's role, the groom's--those go on. But, you exist only for that day. You are single-serving. It is at once the best contradiction of and the best evidence for Tyler's assertion that "You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake." You are unique in that you are simply who you are right now, whenever now may be. But, you are also just one in several billion people currently living on this planet, not to mention the billions who have come before. You are not unique except inasmuch as you demand to be unique. Tyler is wrong as long as you want him to be. As long as you are not content with your Ikea furniture, your Starbucks, your khakis, and everything else that owns you.

Me--I like the Ikea furniture I've got, especially the bookshelves.I enjoy Starbucks far too often because I'm a caffeine addict. But, maybe I'm getting somewhere because I don't own any khakis...

Anymore.

Friday, September 25, 2015

how's that working out for you... being clever?

Seriously, though, fuck the rules. I could probably spread out discussion of Fight Club over several days. I don't know that I need to, however.

I would like to begin the discussion with my usual go to--Roger Ebert. His review ranges from insightful--"eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights"--to the... well, not quite getting it, I think--"the movie stops being smart and savage and witty, and turns to some of the most brutal, unremitting, nonstop violence ever filmed."

Regarding the first quotation there, I get it. It's like the homoeroticism that sat right under the surface of so many manly 80s movies grew up to become this. Damn the women--except Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), but we'll get to her later--you don't need to include every gender to explore every gender... or to explore gender at all. I know, I've said numerous times in this blog that every film offers commentary on (or at least insight into) the way gender plays or was playing at the time the film is (was) made and is (was) released. But, I think it's shortsighted to simply say that Fight Club is about masculinity. Before you disagree, I also think it's shortsighted to say Fight Club is not about masculinity. But, it's like those action movies of the 80s that I watched last January--masculinity is not just masculinity, it's a stand in for something bigger. There it was American hegemony, here it's a sort of ennui that any gender can experience in the face of modern capitalism, modern politics, the modern thermonuclear capabilities and all the other ways we can destroy ourselves. The ways we already destroy ourselves bit by bit each and every day. No not ennui. Anger. Resentment. Powerlessness. Sure, a man who is feeling emasculated could watch Fight Club and see it as being about that, but--and, maybe it's because I've never much cared about my masculinity as such--I just don't see it as being just that. There is room for so much more.

(For example, Fight Club has eight rules. (Eight for infinity? Marla also calls The Narrator (Edward Norton) after he has been absent from the groups for eight weeks.) Not one of those rules dictates that only males can participate. Plus, the very notion that--as Ebert puts it--"It is not without irony that the first meeting [The Narrator] attends is for post-surgical victims of testicular cancer, since the whole movie is about guys afraid of losing their cojones" implies that Bob (Meat Loaf) is not a man because he was one of those victims. But, that's commentary on our idea of masculinity far more than it is a reification of it. Perhaps we should be thinking of someone like Bob, who can actually demonstrate genuine feeling, as truly masculine.)

It's also about materialism... consumerism. Or the opposite, really. The emptiness we feel when all of the material goods that we're told we need just don't fill all the holes in our souls. It's about mind-numbing jobs, mind-numbing jobs, mind-numbing life. It's about figuring out how to feel life, even if only through pain. It's like cutting for everyone.

Regarding the second quotation from Roger Ebert above, he really needs to watch more films... which is something I can't write without laughing because that guy had seen more movies in his lifetime than most of us ever will. But, the implication that unremitting violence is somehow diametrically opposed to being "smart and savage and witty" bugs me a whole lot. Sure, violence in film is not for everyone. Sure, some films take violence much farther than they've earned the right to take it. A smart story and a violent story don't have to be separate. Plenty of films have offered a great deal of violence to prove very "witty" points. And, I don't think that Fight Club ever leaves the one track for the other.

Hell, after so many movies--and remember I grew up in the 1980s, grew up on late-Cold War action films like Rambo andCommando, films that turn violence into little more than balletic abstraction. I mean, John Rambo and John Matrix kill how many nameless soldiers? And, for what? So we can win the Cold War we're already winning in order to make up for losing in Vietnam? Or because men weren't manly enough next to our cowboy president? Or because America was born in violence and we can't help but return to it again and again and again. Fight Club is not some new idea. We've got a global Fight Club--hell, the Cold War was our Fight Club for a while, with the USA in one corner and the USSR in the other, like The Narrator and Tyler Durden (but, which one is imaginary?) egging on the lesser countries to join in the violence and fight our proxy wars because we want even more ways to ruin the world....

Like violence is something new to film that Fight Club invented.

Films have been violent as long as films have been films. I was going to end my month of Westerns with The Great Train Robbery, to mix up the chronology and prove a point--that Westerns, as the quintessential American film genre, are built on an atmosphere of violence.

(Honestly, I just forgot that I had that short film waiting for me on Netflix when I finished watching Rango to end 42 Westerns in 32 days.)

But, that short film is important not just in that the Western was basically one of the first film genres--Méliés' A Trip to the Moon (science fiction) had come out the year before, so, there's that--but that violence was integral. Hell, there's fantastical violence in A Trip to the Moon as well. We've always put violence in our films, just as we keep coming back to violence in our lives. But, so much of that violence became anonymous along the way, the good guy gunning down (or cutting with a sword) a nameless horde because it's an easy exercise is power. It's simplistic shorthand for a much more difficult idea.

The thing is, we need brutal violence in our films. We need violence to be horrific, to be disgusting. We need it as an inoculation against our usual celebration of abstracted violence. One detail I absolutely love about the sex scene with Marla is how it is blurred and obscured while all the violence is deliberate and "unremitting" and impossible to ignore. That is something we could really use in film--and hell, we've gotten a lot of it; it has even come to television in shows like Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Banshee, Game of Thrones (though that one softens some of the worst violence from the books). But, we still get action films that treat violence as something as simple as walking, as running, as dancing... and that last one not necessarily in a good way, though a beautiful display of violence like a the way some movies treat dancing can serve a slightly different purpose than the more brutal violence. We get films like The Expendables that rehash old cinematic standards of violence as something closer to a cartoon than anywhere near reality.

The violence in Fight Club hurts. It's supposed to hurt. Those bruises and cuts, those swollen eyes and broken faces should make us wince.

Ebert asks, "What is all this about?" He answers: "According to Durden, it is about freeing yourself from the shackles of modern life, which imprisons and emasculates men." But, it is not that modern life imprisons and emasculates men. It is that modern life imprisons and dehumanizes us all. Tyler never says that the modern world emasculates. The is the inference of the audience. Of Roger Ebert.

In fact, the film doesn't even celebrate masculinity, except ironically. The Narrator looks at a Calvin Klein ad on the subway, an impossibly chiseled male torso--the script calls it a "bare-chested MUSCLE STUD"--and asks Tyler: "Is that how a man looks like?"

Tyler responds, with a laugh: "Ah, self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction..." Cut to the very next scene and a shirtless Tyler is fighting and, will you look at that? Brad Pitt, i.e. Tyler Durden is just as chiseled, just as much a MUSCLE STUD. And, though Edward Norton is not as obviously well-built, when we see him beat Angel Face, it turns out our Narrator is pretty chiseled himself. Tyler tells us that all of this is just masturbation and self-destruction (depending on how your read the incomplete line; in the script, Tyler finishes with "Now, self-destruction is the answer"). And, then Project Mayhem proves it in the third act. This movie doesn't celebrate its violence. It allows us to be amused by it, entertained by it. But, ultimately, this film is about the consequences of violence. An audience member in the right state of mind might see those buildings fall in the end and wish we could really take down the credit card companies and erase debt and reset our financial system. (Hell, that's the premise of the recent first season of Mr. Robot, though with less physical destruction.) I know I could appreciate that idea when I saw Fight Club in the theater opening weekend. But, even with the implicit chaos of destroying our financial system, the film never promotes anarchy. Not really. Fight Club has eight rules. And, Project Mayhem adds more. The Space Monkeys are trying to reset the system, not destroy it. It is The Narrator who actively seeks to "destroy something beautiful" in Fight Club. Tyler wants to destroy (if we must use that word) something that is far from beautiful. Modern materialism and consumerism. The shit that gums up the works of us just trying to live meaningful lives.

The things you own end up owning you. - Tyler Durden

You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. - Tyler Durden

Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions. - Tyler Durden

Or, there's this:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived. I see all this potential. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables--slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, or Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war... Our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars--

Ironic, this next part, with Brad Pitt saying it.

--but we won't. And we're learning slowly that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

Or maybe just let your ming linger on this, which is initially so damn negative but really is quite beautiful in its equity:

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. - Tyler Durden

And, so much more to say...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

i use habit and routine to make my life possible

I have many times complained about voiceover in films. Memento is one film that absolutely lives and dies with its narration, and its black and white framing story (if you can call it that), as much as its story-in-reverse gimmick.

And, I'm inclined toward a personal tangent right away. Sorry. But, in terms of Leonard's (Guy Pearce) choice to reside in a motel, having spent more time in motels in the last few years than I had in the last couple decades, I've got to say, staying in a motel is not a good way to create any real continuity in your life. Every day in a motel seems the same. If you don't put out the sign to keep the cleaning crew away, your room will be neat and your bed will be made when you've been out all day. Your stuff will still be there, but the mess and the clutter won't be so messy or so cluttered. It isn't obvious in Groundhog Day but it's the specificity--or lack thereof--of where his stuff is in his room at the Cherry Street Inn that indicates for Phil that it's not the next morning, but a resumption of the morning previous.

(Speaking of Groundhog Day, Sammy Jankis--Leonard's way of explaining his condition--is played by none other than Ned Ryerson himself, Stephen Tobolowsky. Sammy, of course, fakes recognition, while Ned ecstatically celebrates the real thing.)

Or maybe the simplicity of the motel room is the point. There are no distractions, no extraneous decorations to draw the eye away from a handwritten note on a paper bag--SHAVE LEFT THIGH. Leonard is, after all, purposely existing in a world where he isn't make new memories. Whether or not he can, he has chosen to refrain because that is the only way he can deal with life without his wife. Just now, he told Natalie (as she's falling asleep, so cinematically, this is truth):

I don't even know how long she's been gone. It's like I've woken up in bed and she's not here... because she's gone to the bathroom or something. But somehow, I know she's never gonna come back to bed. If I could just... reach over and touch her side of the bed, I would know that it was cold, but I can't.

He can't because he has left his house behind, left his life behind, and lives only in the new habits, motel rooms and tattoos, casually stolen cars and deliberately invented realities. His truth continues:

I know I can't have her back... But, I don't want to wake up in the morning, thinking she's still here. I lie here not knowing... how long I've been alone. So now... how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can't... feel time?

Like depression, like an office job, like the monotony of a life that isn't worth living, but you live it anyway. Time is relative and all that jazz. Time flies when you're having fun. Time fucks around and meanders and forgets to matter except inasmuch as it pains you when life is boring and dull. Leonard's life is decidedly not boring or dull, but he choose the repetition, chooses to make for himself a life only worth living in meaningless chunks. His tattoos tell him a story with details missing so that he can interpret it however he needs to at any moment...

But, how is that different from any of us any day? Inventing life moment by moment, keeping what works, trying to forget what doesn't. (As Teddy says, "So you lie to yourslef to be happy. There's nothing wrong with that. We all do it.") Leonard is just better at the latter, not so great at the former... except going by--and I think I've mentioned this at some point in this blog before [yep]--Clark and Chalmers' (2000) notion of the "extended mind", Leonard's notes are a part of his mind, a part of his identity. They are just as much him as memories would be. And, since he cannot make new memories, the tattoos become memory, become fact. He tells Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), "[M]emories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts." In Leonard's world, though, facts and memories are one and the same.

Because of this, Leonard's character can remain consistent, while Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) can deliberately manipulate him by playing a part, giving him new "facts" to act on. Same with Teddy--use Leonard's condition to deal with whomever. Incomplete details mean there are gaps to be filled in. Like any mystery, or any movie. We fill in the gaps to understand and connect with the characters. Here, Teddy and Natalie fill in those gaps to manipulate Leonard. We're just along for the ride. One more step removed from the filmmakers than usual.

how's this for culture?

Twenty years ago, I worked at the United Artists Marketplace theater in Old Town Pasadena.

INSERT: me pausing to watch the awesome opening credits to SE7EN.

Hell, not only are those credits amazing, but I love the establishing shot that follows--nothing but buildings. Like this city has no sky, even though the incessant rain would suggest otherwise. And in the next few minutes, the shots outside are framed to leave out the sky or include the slightest glimpses of it at the edge of the frame. There was supposed to be an opening sequence with Somerset (Morgan Freeman) looking at a house outside the city, to buy for his retirement, but the production reportedly ran out of money before they could ever film that sequence. I'm kind of glad they didn't because the open space of such a sequence would have countered the way this stuff is being framed a little too much.

We're offered a dark, wet, melancholic city, and Somerset is the buddy cop stereotype, the guy about to retire partnered up with a rookie. Except, this is no buddy cop picture and Mills (Brad Pitt) is not a rookie, though he definitely has an almost childish glee next to Somerset's seriousness. As far as cop film tropes this movie utilizes then leaves behind, there's not just the retiring detective partnered with the new guy, there's also the two cases tying together--like all those novels in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang--when Mills is assigned to a new case when Somerset complains about him after the first victim (GLUTTONY) is found. His case, a district attorney found dead (GREED). Where the film

And, I have both forgotten to continue talking about working at the movie theater, and have neglected to say more about the movie. Sometimes I like movies too much to write about them; I'd rather just sit and watch.

As for the movie theater, when this film came out, out theater had this one (#1 box office), plus To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (#3, and for which I made a handdrawn banner to go over the auditorium door when the real one got lost), Dangerous Minds (#4), The Usual Suspects (#7), Babe (#9) and Braveheart (#10). Actually, one of those--Babe probably, since I can't remember seeing parts of it over and over again--was likely at the AMC theater a block away because I think we might have still had Batman Forever (#15). And, there you have the interesting thing about working in a movie theater; it's not just that you see a lot of movies (we were allowed to see them at our theater (and the one nearby, as long as we arranged ahead of time) for free), it's that you see a lot of pieces of movies. Especially, the moments before the end credits. I would actually make an extra effort to see the latest releases opening weekend (which was difficult, because I was usually working the weekends) so that there wasn't risk of spoiling the ending. For SE7EN, the whole sequence with the box out in the desert--I saw that a few times a day, a few times a week for however long the movie was at our theater. See, unless I was at the door doing tickets, I was with the cleanup crew after each screening and you'd get to know exactly when each movie was going to end and I, at least, would be there beforehand, watching the end of the movie and then, if there was a crowd, get to the door and thank them for coming as they left, or if there was only a few people in the audience, I'd probably get started cleaning before the credits even ended.

And, all that has nothing to do with this film in particular, but it's weird to recall watching the end of this film and then having to sweep up spilled popcorn. It was like two different universes entirely, but I was there in both. Even watching a short piece of a longer film, I could get into it, get involved, care about the characters and what is happening in their world--and in this film, that involvement could take one to a very dark place, thinking about the kind of message John Doe (Kevin Spacey) was putting into the world... And, right now, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Somerset are talking about how horrible the city is and whether or not she might bring a baby into such a place. And, I'm reminded of why Denzel Washington supposedly turned down the part of Mills--because the film was "dark and evil." But, while the film is certainly very dark, I don't think the film is evil. At all. This is a film about evil, about darkness, about two different men standing between that darkness and the rest of us. Somerset has seen too much, and Mills hasn't seen enough. The world in the film is a dark place--just look at the way the cinematography frames out the sky for buildings, the way everything is a little dark and hazy, the way the rain pours down in so many scenes like a failed attempt to cleanse the world. This city, regardless of Tracy saying how much she hates it, regardless of how much Somerset is dying to leave it, is a very unpleasant place. Doe's victims are clearly not the only sinners around.

Mills tells Somerset, "I don't think you're quitting because you believe these things you say. I don't. I think you want to believe them because you're quitting." And, I think of the notion of "mean world syndrome" and I've got to wonder, what else would a homicide detective think about humanity than that it is capable of horrible things? I worked office jobs and the world was a miserable, monotonous thing, and I sought out whatever outlet I could to make it more interesting. If you deal with customers complaining all day, you probably think the worst of everyone you talk to. If you see murders and murderers all day, I suspect you must assume the world is a dark place full of such things and such people. If just watching a lot of crime dramas can make you think the world a darker place (which is a fairly simplistic description of "mean world syndrome"), surely dealing with the real thing must to a far greater degree.

Then, though, I gotta wonder, a la High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, do movies like this happen because the world is a dark place? Do we think the world a dark place because we see it in movies like this? When Mills calls Doe's victims "innocent" Doe responds:

Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up... a man who if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so they could join you in mocking him? A man who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal. And after him I picked the lawyer. And you both must have secretly been thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster, to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets.

Mills interrupts: "Murderers? ...murderers, John, like yourself?" John continues:

A woman so ugly on the inside that she couldn't bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer--a drug dealing pederast, actually. And, let's not forget the disease-spreading whore. Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But, that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's commonplace. It's trivial . We tolerate it morning, noon, night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example. And what I've done is going to be puzzled over... and studied... and followed... forever.

Thing is, I think--just in the world of this film--of those security guards and janitors hanging out together in the library playing poker and listening to classical music. Even in a world cinematically constructed to be dark and depressing and cynical and unpleasant, there live people sitting around playing cards and listening to music. It's trite to say--but not inherently false--but the darkness may stand out greatly in contrast to light, but the opposite is also true. The light stands out all the greater when there is darkness to which to compare it.

Monday, September 21, 2015

some right to life working out

(Got a mention on reddit today, so there have been some new readers today--a nice jump in pageviews. Thing is, they're probably looking for Groundhog Day. Recently, I spent another week (762 763 764 765 766 767 768) with that film, and I still watch it once a month, but my 365-days-in-a-row ended more than two years ago. Lately--i.e. phase three--I try to watch a different movie each day, but occasionally they repeat if I've got more to say (like today). I'm writing my Master's Thesis about writing this blog (primarily that first year with Groundhog Day) and there's been talk about a book, but I haven't had time to look into that possibility just yet. Meanwhile, there are movies that need watching; and mostly, I pick movies I have seen before so that I've got room to go off on tangents or prepare ahead with research. With today's film--The Ref--it's the former. Enjoy.)

The synchronized "Fuck you!" that ends the opening scene at the marriage counselors provides a nice hearty laugh here. The Chasseurs (Lloyd [Kevin Spacey] and Caroline [Judy Davis]) are awesome, like some twisted final step along the romantic comedy yellow brick road. They have great conversational timing and interaction even when trying to verbally destroy one another. They make the breakdown of a marriage fun.

Which is why the movie works and also why the movie constantly undermining their inability to get along also works. The film offers us the Chasseurs on the verge of a third act of their romance; an obstacle in their way... No, Gus (Dennis Leary) is not that obstacle. Gus, of course, is the--in Hollywoodland, only--therapist they really need to get their shit together. Doesn't have to be realistic. We just have to buy into it, and do we ever. I understand the original ending had Gus get caught by the police to demonstrate that crime doesn't pay or some other non-audience-friendly bullshit--seriously, test audiences hated it--but we are rooting for Gus. We don't even have to know the rich guy whose jewels he stole. If we're seeing a movie like this, we're probably middle or lower class and we just don't care about those details. The irony, though, is that we do care about Lloyd and Caroline as well as Gus. But, however much the film shows them as a bit better off than the rest of us, it immediately pulls away from that with Caroline telling Doctor Wong (BD Wong) how Lloyd's mother owns their house and their business and they owe her money. Caroline is a bit more of a free spirit than her station in life suggests, and we learn as the film goes on that Lloyd used to be more like her and not so tightly-wound as he is now. And the film quite brilliantly introduces the horrible mother/mother-in-law that has come between these two. And she is a horrible person, to be sure. Perhaps her worst trait is that she thinks she is better than everyone else around her, and she constantly reminds everyone else of it.

See, in addition to the marital issues on display--or rather, driving those issues--are some huge class-divide problems. The local police force isn't just comedically inept; they are inept specifically because the rich locals rely on their connections with higher ups like district attorneys that they know and so the local police just don't have any real experience. Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.) is not content with his parents' lifestyle, but it seems that might just be because his father puts too many rules and demands upon him, like his own mother presumably did all through his life and, really, still does. Gus appreciates the Chagall hanging on the wall by the stairs, while Caroline cannot stand it simply because they got it from her mother-in-law.

Just now, Gus was looking at some framed photos of Lloyd and Caroline (and, in a few, Jesse) and the film sets up a simple dynamic there: Lloyd is looking in several of them at Caroline, but she is never looking at him. And, I get the notion in my head that Caroline was the free spirit that actually got Lloyd away from his overbearing mother for a while, allowing him to be happy. But then, their restaurant didn't go so well and Lloyd panicked and, well, this is up for some debate, I suppose (unless you've seen the film already), he took money from his mother to get back on his feet at the behest of Caroline, who should have known better, but she was probably as panicked as he was. This is not a movie about people who are comfortable where they are. This is about people who tried to live how they wanted to live once upon a time and realized that the world just doesn't go for all that. Sometimes, no matter how much you want your life to got a certain way, events just do not work out in your favor. We like to believe--and it's part and parcel of the American Way for those of you reading this here in the United States--that we can succeed at anything we do as long as we just believe in it strongly enough and put in the work, and how dare anyone tell us our dreams aren't worth holding onto. We're all created equal and it's our fault when life doesn't go how we want it to go. The Protestant Work Ethic means people like Gus are drains on the system, with no moral leg to stand on. And, Lloyd, on some level, deserves his wife's derision because he failed.

Meanwhile, you've got Siskel (J.K. Simmons) blackmailed by Jesse because he... did something with some topless women. The details are sketchy; what matters is that Jesse operates on a level where blackmail is perfectly reasonable. That is where his life has taken him. His parents have that house and their business and he's not content. He has to ruin someone else's life (or threaten to do so) in order to... I don't know, to feel something other than powerlessness, maybe.

Gus' exchange with Jesse is vital to understanding what this film is telling us. This exchange:

JESSE
I've got a blackmail deal going in school.

GUS
Blackmail? What are we, a buck ten? You're doing blackmail on people?

JESSE
Yeah, I needed some big money fast. I was desperate. I wanted to get out of here.

GUS
Desperate about what?

JESSE
Let's see. I got two years, four months left in military school. My parents hate each other. My father records every mistake in my life like he's preparing for my parole hearing. I don't get to do anything by myself. And I live in the suburbs. You figure it out.

Then, there's some talk about Gus' usual deal, making some money off a score, heading for Jamaica, then coming back again when the money runs out. He was supposed to retire on this latest score.

JESSE
Why you quitting now? You got a great life.

GUS
Let me explain something to ya, kid. What I do, running around stealing shit--that may sound great when you're fourteen years old, but it sucks just a little bit when you're thirty-five, no family, no house. I got a partner who's fifty. He's an alcoholic. He still can't figure out why they took Happy Days off the air. Then, on TV every day, I see kids like you on these talk shows. You got everything, opportunities up the ass. You got a family to come home to. And, what do you do? You bitch and moan because things don't go your way. Well, you know what? Welcome to the real world, where most of the time things don't go your fucking way.

JESSE
Easy for you to say. Everything goes your way.

Jesse is too blinded by his own urge to escape to realize the obvious--that Gus is trapped not only in the Chasseur house on Christmas Eve but in a lifestyle he never would have chosen for himself if he could have done otherwise. Because, all too often, that is how it goes. Maybe you get the benefit of a second (or third) chance, you get to reinvent yourself--for me, as a teacher--and it might even go well. But, the idea that every failure is one's personal fault bugs the crap out of me. Hell, by my reading of Weber's Protestant Ethic, Gus is a good person because, as he tells Lloyd, he works for a living.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

into a pretty stale routine

Christmas movies in September--that's the way to go when you you just wasted a few days on increasingly bad spoof films, were stuck in the 1980s and might drift back into them again soon but just don't feel like an 80s film for a change.

(I'm considering doing some classic horror films next month--remember, last October, I watched slasher films. And, after The Visit I kinda wanted to watch more horror films. But, it's too early. Not enough days before the 2nd (Groundhog Day again) to go forward with another set of movies I've got lined up, so....

Today's movie came out in 1994, by the way. It's The Ref. It starts off with some sort of stereotypical small town Christmas scenes, kids looking in store windows and whatnot. Then we join a married couple, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) in couples therapy. This is not going to be your usual Christmas movie, clearly.

...I'm staring at my Netflix queue, which swelled up recently as I added movie after movie that might be worth watching for this blog, and nothing is jumping out at me...

Meanwhile, Gus (Dennis Leary) is committing a bit of thievery, and these two plots are going to get shoved into one another pretty damn soon. I rather like this movie, have watched it many times, and it's one of many films the lines from which I will quote in casual conversation, even with people who don't get the reference--"Didn't your alien leaders teach you that before they sent you here?" is a surprisingly useful phrase.

...I mean, I've got a few sequences of films set up on my queue, legitimate series of films and also thematic groupings. And, not one was jumping out. Tomorrow, I think I might obsess about the 80s again, get that stuff out of my system. For now, 1994.)

#4 its opening weekend behind Guarding Tess, which I think my mom convinced me to watch at some point but it was immediately forgettable, Lightning Jack, which I cannot recall what that movie is because, for some reason, it makes me think of Cactus Jack, or Cacti Jack, I guess, since two of those come to mind the one in The Villain (Kurt Douglas), and the one in Campus Man (Miles O'Keefe)... apparently, Lightning Jack was a Paul Hogan western. I was considering throwing the original Crocodile Dundee into my 80s pool of movies, so I'm surprised I didn't remember this. I think I may have even seen it.

Anyway, #3 was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in its sixth weekend. Saw that one its opening weekend. Nothing else too notable on the top box office except the fact that Jurassic Park, in its 40th weekend, was still #20, pulling in $187 thousand. That is some serious staying power. The Ref made $3 million that weekend, would eventually make $11 million. Jurassic Park was at nearly $350 million after 40 weeks. This movie should have included some dinosaurs. It deserved a bigger audience. (Deserves a higher score on IMDb, too.) Entertainment Weekly put it on a list of "The 50 Best Movies You've Never Seen" a few years back. Aside from maybe a few odd acting notes from the son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.)--and, really, I think it's just a specific tone in his voice that doesn't sound right to my ear, not necessarily a performance problem--this movie has pretty much nothing wrong with it. It adds characters as it goes and juggles them quite well. The trio at the center of the film is pitch perfect, the couple's troubled relationship getting in the way of Gus' need for hostages.

The heart of the film is those three, but especially Lloyd and Caroline, who clearly once loved one another but are too caught up in the problems that have come along in the meantime to really even see one another anymore. The great thing that LaGravenese's and Weiss' script and Demme's direction offers is that this couple is also so preoccupied with their problems to ever be particularly bothered by being held hostage.

Plus a monologue like Lloyd's rant just now:

You know, you and my wife have a lot in common. You both think you have some right to life working out the way you want it to, and when it doesn't, you get to act the way you want. The only trouble with that is someone has to be responsible. I'd love to run around and take classes and play with my inner selfness. I'd love the freedom to be some pissed-off criminal with no responsibilities, except I don't have the time! But, you don't see me sleeping with someone else. You think my life turned out the way I wanted because I live in this house? You think every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say "Gee, I'm glad I'm me and not some 19-year-old billionaire rockstar with the body of an athlete and a 24-hour erection!" No, I don't! So, just excuse the shit out of me!

The kind of thing Spacey can pull off so well. Leary can also rant like the best of them, but most of his rants in this film remain pretty short (for the most part; he's got a good one with Jesse about how his life isn't great). His Gus is more like a short fuse on the verge of, but never quite going all the way to, exploding. While Lloyd and Caroline have already exploded--to immediately belabor this metaphor--and are heading in the opposite direction, finding the quiet that used to be between them.

Plus, there's an overbearing mother, an inept police force, and a drunk Santa Claus.

You know, bonuses.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

there's something wrong with nana and pop pop

I've complained before about M. Night Shyamalan. Hell, I've complained in this blog about M. Night Shyamalan--primarily Day 375 - used to tell you bedtime stories when I added a viewing of Lady in the Water to my week with The Sixth Sense. I am one of those folks who loved Shyamalan about when he first made it big, then was increasingly disappointed thereafter as the films mostly followed a linear trajectory downward in quality. The Visit is not a great film but it is well above that downward trajectory and it's actually pretty good.

Shyamalan dips his feet into the "found footage"* waters with a couple of kids sent to spend a week with grandparents they've never met.

* MINOR SPOILERS: "found footage" implies dead protagonists in the end. From the start, given that this involves kids, you can safely assume they will survive. But, The Visit is built on footage filmed by those kids as the older sister, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) wants to make a documentary--and speaks in cinematic terminology in the first act more than her brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) speaks in pseudo-hip hop terms--he does some freestyle rapping a few times in the film and also goes by the name T. Diamond Stylus. (Amusingly, Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) refers to him by this name rather than Tyler.)

The film builds tension well during the night sequences, but also plays a little too much with inappropriate tension in numerous other scenes--MINOR SPOILER--the two different oven sequences, for example. The Yahtzee game is entertaining though, one of the highlights of a third act that drags a little bit; the twist--yes, there is one--comes a little early, I think.

Assume HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD:

So, key to the twist is the fact that Becca and Tyler have never even seen photos of Pop Pop or Nana (Deanna Dunagan), and in act one, Nana "accidentally" messes up the webcam on Becca's laptop (oh, and there's no cell phone service in the area) so it isn't until the second plot point that Becca's and Tyler's mother (Kathryn Hahn) sees the grandparents with which her kids have been staying and, surprise--they aren't the kids' real grandparents but impostors from the nearby mental hospital where the real Nana and Pop Pop volunteer as counselors.

Which a) means we've been watching (and occasionally laughing at) the behavior of a couple mentally ill old people, which isn't the nicest setup in retrospect, but hey, it's a horror film, it doesn't have to be entirely PC (hell, before the film, we had a trailer for Eli Roth's The Green Inferno and despite some obvious racial and cultural problems in that one, I'm looking forward to watching it) and b) is better the alternative I briefly feared might happen after Nana tells Becca a story about aliens who have a bunch of kids stored in the bottom of a pond in order to take them back to their home planet. Seriously, a decade ago, I don't think there would have been a question in my mind that Shyamalan was going to take the story in that direction. After the aforementioned Lady in the Water, I would have assumed that any story any character tells is going to turn out to be entirely true later. Apparently, he's gotten over that.

Over a self-cameo, as well. There's barely room for any cameos, in fact, because the film spends almost all of its screentime with just four characters. Unlike Lady in the Water, The Happening, or even The Village, Shyamalan doesn't get as caught up in a story trying to be bigger than it is. (There's an unearned theme about not holding onto anger in the end of the film, but that seems more personal than universal and only wastes a handful of seconds of screentime, anyway.) He does get caught up in a few cliched horror film visuals--Nana crawling around like an animal, or appearing suddenly before the camera, plus the big climactic fight between Pop Pop and Becca happens in the dark basement where she has just found her real grandparents' dead bodies. It's Clover's (1992) terrible place to a T.

Probably no more SPOILERS.

Other details worth noting: the film avoids, surprisingly, the use of weapons. A piece of broken mirror is the only one. Well, that and a refrigerator door. The mirror ties to a previous discussion between Becca and Tyler (who play quite believably as siblings) but doesn't resolve it as much as Shyamalan thinks it might. MINOR SPOILER: Becca brushing her hair in front of a mirror later before Tyler's final, tacked-on rap scene actually resolves the mirror bit better than this climactic mirror breaking.

Finally, the idea that Shyamalan supposedly put together three edits of this film, one that was comedy, one that was horror and one--presumably the released version--was somewhere in between does not surprise me; the film definitely shifts tones now and then. But, those shifts are not particularly abrupt, so there's that.

All in all, far better than some of Shyamalan's other films. But far below his best. Entertaining, sure. And the self-referential filmmaking stuff worked quite well for me, even when bits of the plot didn't.

just trying to do my job

Watching Scary Movie to get the whole spoof genre out of the way. (And, to prove correct, Roger Ebert's notion that you just can't review these kind of movies properly.) Leave Zucker Abrahams Zucker behind, insert the Wayans, who enjoy a bit more crude humor, with some homophobia and violence against women thrown in.

"Run, bitch, run!" "Oh my God, we hit a boot!" About the only bits that made me laugh so far, coming up on the 20-minute mark.


I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Rick Ducommun (Gus from Groundhog Day) has a small part in this--Cindy's father.

Buffy Gilmore's (Shannon Elizabeth) death scene is pretty good.

"Please don't. I'm just a day player." Funny.

...

I think the problem with spoof films as time goes on is that jokes take the place of character... or maybe it's just personal nostalgia. I've seen Airplane! so many times over the years, I think my expectation of the punchlines is funnier than the punchlines themselves. Same with Top Secret!. The thing is, I'm not sure I can look at them objectively enough to know for sure.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

and where the hell was i?

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! adds a writer--Pat Proft--who wasn't with the Zucker Abrahams Zucker team before. He had worked on Police Squad! with them, but as far as movies go, he'd worked on five Police Academy films and Real Genius, among others. Pretty early on, it's already clear that this movie has far fewer non sequitur gags. And pretty much no puns.

Four years from Airplane! to Top Secret!, another four from Top Secret! to The Naked Gun, and the difference between the latter two seems far larger than the difference between the former two. If I wanted to break down in a horribly detailed fashion the changes in joke delivery in film over the course of the 1980s, the changes here might mean something, but I think whatever it is is escaping me for now. Like, were the non sequitur gags and asides something we needed as a response to, say, some late-term Cold War societal pressures, and by 1988 those pressures were dying down?

I don't know.

(Nice quick sight gag just now at the police lab. Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) walks around the wall between two rooms instead of going through the door. The set was clearly two rooms next to each other as you might ave on a television show like Police Squad!, camera pans from one to the next as characters pass through the door. But, then Drebin doesn't. Otherwise, this is more plot driven than joke driven... which I'm not sure is a good or a bad thing, but it's definitely a thing.)

As for serious critique of this movie, singularly, I think my old standby Roger Ebert beat me to the problem; he writes,

The film is as transparent as a third-grader with a water gun, and yet I would rather review a new film by Ingmar Bergman, for there, at least, would be themes to discuss and visual strategies to analyze. Reviewing "The Naked Gun," on the other hand, is like reporting on a monologue by Rodney Dangerfield - you can get the words but not the music.
>

Now, this scene right now with Jane (Priscilla Presley) at Drebin's house, sounds more like the same humor as Airplane! or Top Secret!.There are even stupid puns.

I remember being more entertained by this movie when I saw it in the theater. Then again, I was twelve. While I was saying the other day (and Mal agreed in a comment) that Airplane! holds up because it keeps coming back to the throughline of its plot, I think, oddly enough, that The Naked Gun could use more twists and turns away from its plot... and it could use more of a "straight man" main character. Ted Striker may have had a tendency to long drawn out narratives that bored people to suicide but at least he seemed like an actual character rather than a walking, talking joke. Same with Nick Rivers. Frank Drebin, on the other hand, met and fell for Jane in a day and I just don't care.

That security search bit with Frank getting into Ed's pockets instead of the guy's in between them was pretty funny, though. A lot of this movie is funny. It's just not very good.

it all sounds like some bad movie

The Zucker brothers and Abrahams again, this time Top Secret!

I was surprised to learn--primarily because this movie was such a fixture of my childhood, my family having it on VHS and all--just now on Box Office Mojo that this movie apparently wasn't even in the top 13 movies its opening weekend (June 8-10, 1984). Though it would eventually make double its budget at the box office, there was some serious box office going on that weekend. #1 was Ghostbusters, making $13.5 million it's opening weekend. Gremlins, also in its opening weekend, was #2 with $12.5 million. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was #3 in its third weekend with $12 million...

I wonder sometimes when I see a box office weekend like this--and I know how many of these movies we saw in the theater--how often my family went to the movie theater. Anyway...

#4, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock I didn't see in the theater, but it made $9.6 million in its second weekend. #5 was Beat Street... and I have no idea what that is from the title, but it made $5 million its opening weekend. The Natural was #6 with $2.4 million its fifth weekend. Then Romancing the Stone at #7 in its eleventh weekend, making $1.5 million.

By the way, unless otherwise noted, I saw all of these in the theater, probably their respective opening weekends, or maybe on a Thursday. I remember we used to go to some theater that had cheap Thursday shows. The Academy had not reopened as a multiplex yet; the Academy was a second-run theater (with some low budget movies going there directly) and it was cheap and we went there a whole lot. Anyway...

#8 was Breakin', and I think I saw that on video. In retrospect, that does not seem like a movie my mother (who was usually the one picking the movies we rented) would have rented. But, we rented a lot of movies. They couldn't all be obvious choices. #9 was Streets of Fire... no clue what that one is. But, then, in its twelfth weekend, #10 Police Academy made $1 million. That was another one that we had on video so I saw it a lot. #11 Once Upon a Time in America, I wouldn't see until the late 90s. Finally, #12 was Sixteen Candles in its sixth weekend, and #13 was Footloose in its seventeenth...

And, now forget what I just said. Well, actually, just the opening bit about how that was the weekend Top Secret! came out. It's official release date on IMDb is June 8, but I happened to click forward on Box Office Mojo and there was Top Secret! making $4.4 million its opening weekend two weeks later, June 22-24. Same weekend that Karate Kid debuted at $5 million. Ghostbusters, Gremlin, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were still the top three. Weekend after that, Indiana Jones would be knocked down to #5 by Cannonball Run II (which I think I saw on video at some point), and Conan the Destroyer, which I think we might have seen at a drive-in... or am I just remembering the trailer and a poster in the snack shop at the drive-in? Maybe I just saw Conan on television.

And, I have neglected to say anything about the movie.

(And, I knew where that was going and I was 8.)

I'm curious when the Zucker/Abrahams sense of humor either shifted away from what amused me or I shifted away from being amused by it. I assume it is the former since I still enjoy Airplane! and Top Secret! and The Naked Gun. I suspected maybe the Zucker brothers or Abrahams stopped writing and/or directing and were just producers by the time of, say, Scary Movie. But, nope.

Curious...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

As Airplane! begins, I realize I was only four when I saw this movie the first time. Many of the jokes probably went pretty far over my head, but it's got so many that I still had a lot to appreciate. The Jaws opener, for example.

It's one of those weird cases, for me, though, when I've seen the movie so many times over so many years that my memory of it is hardly genuine to that first experience. Each viewing alters the memory of the previous one and they stack up.

I find myself just sitting here and watching, forgetting all about typing anything. Maybe I should stop using 80s movies for this blog. They're just too fun for me.

As for some actual commentary, I'll refer to the old Groundhog Day Project standby--Roger Ebert. I rather like this bit from his review of the film because it seems like a line you might see in a review of many comedies today:

Movie comedies these days are so hung up on being contemporary, radical, outspoken, and cynically satirical that they sometimes forget to be funny.

And, I write that as Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) said, after people are getting sick, "I haven't seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert." There's plenty of contemporary, radical, outspoken, and... well, maybe not cynically satirical, but definitely satirical. The one thing that stands out to me about, say, Airplane! versus more recent parody films like the Scary Movie franchise or the fill-in-the-blank Movie movies that came after, is that this movie does seem more like an actual movie and not a meager collection of jokes... which is a weird thing to say about a film which has more jokes per minute than probably anything else. I imagine that Scary Movie movies, increasingly as they went along, as cynical cashgrabs more than legitimate comedies...

But then, I don't like the idea of deciding which comedies are "legitimate."

Maybe I just like this one more because it's been with me for so long. Or maybe because, even with its most offensive jokes, it's just so innocent about everything. It just doesn't seem like it's out to hurt anyone.

yeah, well, so were my parents

You know what movies made more recently that are set in the 80s do wrong? They only use the famous and obvious music. "Bit by Bit"--the opening song for Fletch (not to mention Harold Faltermeyer's music) has a definitive 80s sound. Seriously, that song starts and I'm there in the 80s. Just like a lot of the music in Better Off Dead... or Say Anything. There's not a lot of music you'd still hear about on these soundtracks, but if you were there, watching these movies at the time, you've got sense memory of all of them.

Me--I'm back in the 80s again when I watch movies like this one. End of May, beginning of June, really. Last weekend, we saw Rambo: First Blood Part II and A View to a Kill. Rambo was #1 last week and will be again this weekend. Fletch will be #2 this weekend. #4 is Brewster's Millions; we won't see that until it's at a drive-in with A Nightmare on Elm Street a month into that film's run. Whenever that would be in the near future, it would be disappointing because we'd end up leaving during the first act of Nightmare. I wouldn't get to see that movie all the way through until it was on TV. Beverly Hills Cop was #5 in its 26th weekend, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment #6 in its 10th. Saw those both in their respective opening weekends. #7 Mask I wouldn't see until video. #8 Desperately Seeking Susan, not until television. Same with #9 Code of Silence. Filling out the top ten was Witness in its 17th weekend. Saw that opening weekend.

Roger Ebert makes a pretty good assessment of Chevy Chase's performance(s) in his review of Fletch; "whenever the film threatens tor work," he writes, "there's Chevy Chase with his monotone, deadpan cynicism, distancing himself from the material." I think Chase's usual mannerisms rather work for the character of Fletch, though. Maybe it's all of his various "characters" being a bit like his old sketch comedy, or maybe it's that Fletch is also a bit above the action, too smart for his own good, but not smart enough to keep his mouth from getting ahead of him a lot of the time. Fletch is very 80s. A smartass who is too good for awesome stuff he's getting to do, and we in the audience wish our lives were as interesting.

Like Lane Myer, for that matter. Sure, his girlfriend dumped him and he kinda lost his mind for a bit, but dude can ski, dude's got a Mustang, and dude gets the cute French girl. What else was there in the 80s? Fletch is smarmy and offputting but there's still a strange charm to him. Like Phil Connors. Maybe it's a sketch comedy thing. You need too many jokes so inevitably you've got to be mean or insane or both. But, you're funny, and we like funny.

In the 80s--you know, prime Ronald Reagan Cold War time--we loved characters like this. It's not that they are smart (though Fletch does seem smart); it's that they are smarter than they need to be. But, even more than that, they show off. Even when they shouldn't.

Maybe it was because I was a kid and I didn't know any better. Maybe it was because it was the tail end (not that we knew that) of the Cold War and I was being told in church and at school at the world was coming to an end and a character who was fun was just fine. Who cared if they were nice. Like Chris Knight in Real Genius... hell, like most any action hero from the 80s as well, John Matrix, John McClane, Martin Riggs. It was all about confidence and competence. We wanted heroes funnier than us, stronger than us, whatever-er than us.

And, I saw a whole lot of them. My family saw movies all the time. Went to the theater often, rented movies, watched them on television.

I wish more of that had rubbed off.

People that know me probably wish the opposite.