Wednesday, November 22, 2017

and yet, here we are

No childhood film today. Busy day of kitchen cleaning and map drawing. I did see a movie today--Coco. Not sure if it was great. It was good, and definitely affecting. And it had an interesting message--combining both the idea that you should follow your dreams and family is important. In context, these feel like two different directions--SPOILERS--for a good portion of the film, but then they pull together and it all gets wrapped in a little bow.

And, it got me thinking about family. Now, on the one hand, I haven't spent much time with most of my family in the past year. I'll be honest about that. The likelihood to get into a political argument has made hanging out with them less appealing. I'm talking about my parents, some of my sisters. But, it's worth noting that, for example, in many of the fictional stories I have written over the years, family was something constructed more than inherent. You choose family like you choose friends. Except you don't really choose either. My friends of late are great, but if not for chance of geography and an interested in Dungeons & Dragons, we wouldn't even know each other.

Coco involves a Mexican take on family that includes the whole Day of the Dead attachment to ancestors, to prior generations and all that. I don't have much attachment to ancestors. I know stuff about mine, like a handful of generations back, was a single mother named Hannah, for example. But, what matters to me is those here and now. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I will be making food at home and eating with my ex-wife, my two daughters and my son. This Sunday, I will be spending a few hours with my friends playing D&D. Lately, all of this feels like family.

And movies. Movies, too. Me and movies--we're close. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, I'll get to the next childhood movie--I won't spoil it now, but I've actually watched it for this blog before. Right now, though, I'm catching up on some TV. I'm having a drink. I'm looking forward to making a bunch of interesting dishes tomorrow (all vegan). I'm looking forward to maybe seeing a movie in the theater Friday; I doubt I'll be doing any Black Friday shopping. I'm looking forward to ambushing my players Sunday. Looking forward to some speeches from my high school students next week. Looking forward to winter break. To Christmas. To New Year's. To life.

It's a common theme in film--follow your dreams. Also: family is important. The reason these themes repeat so often? Because you should follow your dreams. (I wish I'd followed some of mine a little longer. I wish I would follow some of my current dreams but life doesn't always make such things easy.) Because family is important. Whatever family is.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

however dark the night

Perhaps the lesson of The Idolmaker is that whether you're the one being used or the one doing the using, there's hope for you in the end.

But, with new accusations of sexual harassment and abuse from men in power virtually every day lately, I figure those men get to the back of the line when it comes to hope.

Seriously, the scene with Tommy Dee and the 14-year-old girl in the car is on and I see on my phone that Twitter is blowing up with comments about Trump supporting Roy Moore, implying that all of Moore's accusers are liars. It's like some sick sort of poetry.

This is a movie in which the protagonist, the hero of the story, blames a young girl for being alone with his artist (though, he yells at Tommy Dee afterward, he then offers to hook him up when he wants a woman, so there's that), bribes DJs and (sort of) magazine editors for airplay and good press, yells at the woman he's with (and has already come on to), calls women "god damn broads", and then kisses that woman forcefully, and she goes to bed with him and sticks with him after. This hero recruits one singer then neglects him for another (who he meets while berating him over spilling dishes while waiting on his table), forces the second into hiding, and when that singer rebels, holds legal guardianship over him and threatens to send him home to his grandma, which would mean the end of his career. But, when Caesare finally does turn against Vincent, after Tommy Dee has already moved on to a new manager, it's like we're supposed to feel sorry for Vincent. And, when Vincent sings his own song at the end of the film, I think it's supposed to be some sort of triumph. But, I imagine Vincent singing his own music, sure, but also never getting out of that one club, just singing away because he can't give up on his dream.

The movie is, ostensibly about following your dreams... Sort of. Except, I'm not entirely sure what Vincent's dream is. Or at least what piece of it he gets out of pushing Tommy Dee and Caesare in his stead.


Meanwhile, Brenda is basically every woman who has ever had to put up with awful men (read: all men) and smile about it after. And, sure she goes to bed with Vincent because how else is she going to manage to use him like he's using her? The movie never really offers a reason Brenda would actually care for Vincent. She just does, because Hollywood. Or, she's doing what she has to do to get by, putting up with whatever comes her way, and doing it with a smile, because it's a man's world and while she may have found a little bit of power in it, she'd be nobody but for the grace of the men around her...

It's sad, really.

Focus the story on Tommy Dee or Caesare or Brenda and the film might work far better. Instead, we're with Vincent. He's not really the hero. He's the protagonist, but he's also the villain. He's every man who got a little bit of power, a little bit of money, and used and abused anyone he could to keep it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

the only way you can show your feelings

Women have been a plot device for male entitlement for as far back as stories were being told, as trophies for creepy behaviour, as the spoils of war, as the property of men, as the maiden-in-waiting for her adorable coercive, overly-persistent prince-charming. (Meagher 2015)

Vincent Vacarri is not a nice man. He is our protagonist in The Idolmaker but he is not a nice man. In fact, he is at times an awful, awful man.


Tommy Dee gets a young girl to accompany him to his car, ostensibly to get a copy of his record before it is officially released, and he tries to get more than that. We don't know how old Tommy Dee is, but he seems to be somewhere close to the age of the actor playing him--Paul Land was 23-24 when The Idolmaker was filmed. However old the actress in the scene is, Vincent says her character is 14. When Tommy Dee demands more than just a thank you, she kisses his cheek. He calls that sisterly, and goes for more. Vincent comes to her rescue. But, does he reprimand Tommy Dee? Not particularly. He warns him away from jailbait in the future and that's about it. But her? Vincent takes on a nice tone of voice, like he's concerned for her--"Do your parents know that you're here?"--and he asks what she's doing there. He tells her to button her blouse, which Tommy Dee has unbuttoned, and implies that it's for her sake, because someone might see her. He gives her extra records for her friends so they will think she's special. "We won't have to mention this to anybody," he asks. For her it's about embarrassment, but that's not it at all. For Vincent, for Tommy Dee, it's bigger than that. And, while she doesn't realize it, it is bigger for her, too. Vincent tells Tommy Dee that if he wants to get laid, Vincent will set it up. Women--whatever their age--are just pawns to be used as needed.

The very next scene is Vincent meeting Brenda (Tovah Feldshuh) for the first time.

Vincent is not looking out for that girl. He's merely looking out for Tommy Dee. With his payola, with the deal he makes with Brenda for her to cover Tommy Dee in Teen Scene in exchange for half-ownership of Tommy Dee's merchandise, and even more with his control of Caesare, Vincent is very much a manipulator, a manager and producer who is all too realistic. Use anyone he can to get what he wants. Cover up the bad things that his artist does. And, when Brenda challenges him, he tells her to shut up. "God damn broads, don't know when to keep your mouth shut," he proclaims. He grabs her, forcefully, shakes her, tells her to shut up again. And he kisses her.

Does she fight back? Barely. Does she get away from him? Does she call off their deal(s) because Vincent is being horrible to her? No, this is Hollywood. She kisses him back. This is a film and that means that romance can come right on the heals of the man being an emotionally abusive asshole. Dodgson (2017) lists a few film characters who were, on the surface level (i.e. the way the film wanted them to be), the romantic lead but really were liars or emotional abusers--obvious ones like Jim Preston (Christ Pratt) in Passengers (Black (2016) (yes, that's me) described that film as "trying to have its misogynist cake and eat it with a deus ex machina Laurence Fishburne and the sudden ability to not only save a woman's life but also offer her up some interstellar hibernation") or Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) in the Twilight series, with some less obvious ones like Westley (Cary Elwes) in The Princess Bride or even Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in You've Got Mail. Braca (2016) adds the oft cited Beast (Robby Benson) from Beauty and the Beast, adds Noah (Ryan Gosling) from The Notebook and J.D. (Christian Slater) from Heathers. He may have qualified for a meme, but Mark (Andrew Lincoln) in Love Actually makes the list from Truffaut-Wong (2017), as do Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage) from Moonstruck and Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) from Say Anything and Rocky Balbua (Sylvester Stallone) from the original Rocky. Regarding that last one, Truffaut-Wong says, "Rocky might be a classic sports movie, but it' salsa about how a man can turn a 'no' into a 'yes' just by being slightly charming and large." And, there are so many more. Look at the way Han Solo treats Leia, for example. In film, as long as the girl ends up falling for the guy in return, whatever his behaviour was it is justified after the fact. Dodgson cites psychotherapist Perpetua Neo: "In movies where the behaviours of male protagonist are not cool, we think it's okay because it's so sweet, it's love," Neo says, "Because it's wrapped up Ina. Cute ball of fuzz or a hot man - we think it's acceptable." Dodgson argues, "Those who watch these films are often young and impressionable, and so they may grow up thinking that things like waking up to a pale, brooding man in their room is not cause for alarm, but for wedding bells." Neo argues, "these idealisations of weird behaviour are setting up young people to accept it as normal." A study by Lippman (2015) seems (I've seen the abstract and one article that references it) to suggest that not every woman will fall for these things in real life just because she has seen it in the movies, but the influence is there.

In the real world, "Women have long been ostracized and threatened for speaking out about discrimination and abuse" (Magnani 2017). In the movies, the abused woman is more likely to fall for the man than report him. And, why not? I mean, movies come from Hollywood and Hollywood is run by men, men whose influence can make or break careers, men who can use and abuse and then be thanked from the stage at award shows because that's what you do if you want to keep starring in their films. These men write, direct, produce, distribute films that reflect this same patriarchal world--where a man can be an abusive ass and still get the woman into bed, where male characters get complicated backstories and motivations and female characters get lost in a Bechdelian void. The female character serves as goal, serves as the carrot to the protagonist ass at best. She is a prop more often than she is a fleshed-out person. Like Brenda here in The Idolmaker--she is the means to an end for Vincent, a necessary inclusion to show all the strings he has the wits to pull, and she just happens to be female so there can be a romantic element, because that might sell a few more seats.

That she is there for Vincent's final number suggests, in Hollywood terms, that he has reformed, that he is worth her presence. Except, what has changed for him? There is no reason to think he is a better man. He just lost all his other avenues so he's back to the one thing he had from the beginning--his own talent. It's a great song--"I Believe It Can Be Done"--but the lyrics position Vincent as the hero, as a guy just struggling to find love and success, and of course it's the world that is in the way, not his own arrogance, not his own entitlement, not reasonable people who want control of their own lives.

Magnani takes it back to the Bible (though she cites the wrong chapter and verse), citing Timothy... I'll offer a little context

I Timothy 2: 8-14:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Nevermind all the other verses in the Bible that offer up similar notions, there it is in one place. Women need to dress a certain way or they are not godly. Women need to remain quiet. Women need to submit to men.

Tommy Dee's scene with the girl in the car serves a purpose here; a popular singer like him would have such temptations around him. (She could have easily been older and the same point be made.) But, Brenda, aside from a kiss and the scene in bed that follows, might as well have been another man in a film full of men. And, outside of the few films that really make something of the female presence, the same could be true for many a film. They might as well be films full of men. The world, as well, might as well be a world full of men. Government might as well be a government full of men. Everything. I mean, the implication is obvious--

(And the same is true with racial and cultural minorities, but that is a discussion for another day.)

--men, powerful men, want a world where their word is law, where women submit, where women are available for whatever demeaning sexual advance the man wants to make. And, they're lucky to be the recipient, lucky to be anywhere near the men in power. Like the imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, cisgender, patriarchy's scraps are the only thing a woman (or a person of color (or a woman of color, of course)) can hope for.

Is it any wonder, when we actually start listening to women, as we have publicly recently, that more and more speak up, that more and more were victims, that more are and will be victims, that so many men, even supposedly good ones, took advantage? This is the world we've built. Through religion. Through politics. Through film. Through every social order ever (except perhaps certain matriarchal societies, but what happened to those when they faced the larger patriarchal world?).

This is our world.

We built it.

Now, we should tear it down.

WORKS CITED

Black, R.E.G. (2016, December 28). Hollywood and the White Male Problem. After Film [Weblog]. Retrieved from http://afterfilm0.blogspot.com/2016/12/hollywood-and-white-male-problem.html

Braca, N. (2016, July 9). 7 Fictional Boyfriends Who Are Actually Emotionally Abusive. Gurl. Retrieved from http://www.gurl.com/2016/07/09/tv-movie-boyfriends-who-are-abusive/#7

Dodgson, L. (2017, November 12). A lot of problematic behaviour from male characters in films is supposed to be romantic--here's why it isn't. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/this-behaviour-in-romantic-films-is-problematic-2017-11

Lippman, J.R. ((2015, February 18). I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking. SAGE Journals.

Magnani, R. (2017, November 2). Powerful men have tried to silence abused women since Medieval times. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/powerful-men-have-tried-to-silence-abused-women-since-medieval-times-a8028571.html

Meagher, T. (2015, January 3). Garden Variety Creepiness - Romantic Heroes or Abusive Men. The Blog [Weblog]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://m.huffingtonpost.co.uk/tom-meagher/fifty-shades-abusive-relationship_b_6735518.html

Truffaut-Wong, O. (2017). 17 Romantic Movie "Heroes" Who Actually Sexually Harassed The Heroine. Bustle. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/17-romantic-movie-heroes-who-actually-sexually-harassed-the-heroine-2949653

Sunday, November 19, 2017

i like coming here

My first thought upon turning on The Idolmaker is that even more than we watched the movie when I was a kid, we listened to the soundtrack. On vinyl. And, that gets me thinking about other soundtracks we listened to a lot. Somewhere in Time's soundtrack was one of them, and I don't think I mentioned John Barry's score at all last week while watching that one. There was the soundtrack to Grease 2, which will come up in this deconstruction sometime in the next month or two, probably. (The pace of this thing is not out of hand, exactly, but it is increasingly slow.) And plenty I'm forgetting. I remember a 45 single of "All Time High"--that's the theme to the James Bond movie Octopussy, which is also going to show up in this deconstruction at some point. And, outside of movie soundtracks, there were musicians from the 50s, stuff my parents liked.

And, seriously, Tommy Dee (Paul Land) starts singing "Here Is My Love" and I still know the lyrics. That shouldn't be surprising because that's how music works, but it is.

Tommy Dee, by the way, is loosely based on Frankie Avalon. Bob Marcucci--the basis for the titular Vincent Vacarri (Ray Sharkey) here--started working with Frankie Avalon when he (Frankie) was only when he was a teenager. Avalon was born in 1951. Land, who plays his fictional incarnation, was 24 when The Idolmaker came out. Peter Gallagher, who plays Caesare--the fictional incarnation of Fabian, who was 14 when Marcucci discovered him and 16 when he signed him--was 25 (playing a 16-year-old). The story of young artists getting discovered, then making it big and getting too full of themselves--that's old hat at this point (judging by Roger Ebert's review of the film, it was old hat when this film came out) but I wonder if an age-accurate version of this story wouldn't work as better commentary on the industry and what it does to artists. At least the film acknowledges that Tommy Dee might be as old as the actor. Tommy Dee doesn't want to perform for "a bunch of 13-year-olds" because he's used to playing for adults. Ray Sharkey, whose character refers to Tommy Dee as a "kid", is only four years older than Land, three years older than Gallagher.


This movie is, of course, about a couple young men becoming famous, and about their manager who would be a star but he started going bald as a teen and just doesn't have the charisma to be popular (supposedly). And, as he tells Caesare, "It's the looks that count."

 

 

 

 

 

While I saw this movie many times when I was young, I think I've seen it maybe once in the past 20 years. So, picture me getting lost in the movie and forgetting to focus on writing. These movies are like comfort food. I know I've used that metaphor before. Groundhog Day especially is that. But, this deconstruction is nice. I mean, I try to find deeper things than I would have (consciously) noticed as a kid, but at first, it's just nice to watch some of these movies I haven't seen in a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

And, it's interesting. Two nights ago, I went to a concert where a lot of the fans were young, including my daughter and one of her friends. And, young fans still go crazy at live show. No one stormed the stage like they do Caesare's, but as each song started, as there was that moment of recognition, you could feel the excitement.

 

 

 

 

 

And, Vincent is a manipulative bastard. And kind of an asshole. I think I know where this has to take me tomorrow.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

when you can’t trust the lawyers or the advertising men

Today: a deconstruction of this year so far in film... for me. I saw Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri this morning--and loved it--and got to thinking about the little movies that not enough people see. Take for example this list of things that bother me (an incomplete list in not particular order):

  • War
  • Christian rock
  • Factory farming
  • Racism
  • People leaving spreading knives in the sink, you know, because they're so damn hard to clean
  • Sexism
  • Domestic abuse
  • Self-indulgent filmmakers who are not also clever, or who were once clever but turned out to be one-trick ponies
  • Tax breaks for the rich
  • Donald Trump
  • People saying it's a bad year for movies when they've seen maybe two, and those only because they were playing on a few thousand screens, and they make no fucking effort at all to seek out better movies, more movies

That last one. Bugs the crap out of me. Especially in a year in which one of the biggest films at the box office--Wonder Woman was also pretty good. Especially when some of the same folks who I see saying as much also saw Logan and Get Out but probably don't even remember that was this calendar year because this year is taking so damn long.

But, it's getting into Oscar season. I recently woke up my Oscars page on Facebook and my Oscar Fan Twitter account, because the Academy is starting to announce shortlists for some of the "lesser" award categories, there are special screenings, soon there will be critics associations' awards. For a person like me, this is like Christmas except it's a few months long (and it's got the actual Christmas right in the middle of it). So, if you trust me (and I know most of you do not), then I will tell you what I liked so far this year.

(Basically, I'm running down my ratings list on IMDb from this year and noting the films that I gave 10 out of 10... I also might note some 8s or 9s, if they were particularly unique, so don't hold me too strictly to the standard.)

Like the Academy, I will go by the calendar. Meaning: these are movies I saw this year, even if they might've been foreign films released previously, or older movies I finally got to online.

The first movies I watched this year were some documentaries that were nominated for the Oscar--Gleason, and Life, Animated. Both good, and Gleason was horribly sad. Oscar nominated foreign films also came early in the year, because that's when they become available in this country. Toni Erdmann, for example, was amazing. And, I would recommend you go watch it rather than catch the English-language remake that's supposed to be in the works. Land of Mine and A Man Called Ove were also fantastic.

In the midst of catching up on Oscar films, I also finally got around to movies like Man Push Cart. More than a decade old. Great film.

Then came Get Out. This one did well at the box office, getting not just love from critics but audiences. And it deserved it. Logan came along not long after, and while it has a narrow audience, it is one of the better films made for that audience.

The Belko Experiment is not a film for everyone, and it's not even particularly original, but it does what it does so wonderfully that I couldn't help but mention it.

Your Name, Japanese animated film that is supposed to be being remade. Instead, people should just watch the original--

(Really, my policy with remakes (to which, of course, there are always exceptions) is that movies that had some good concepts but poor execution are the ones that need to be remade.)

--because it is a story tied to a specific time and place and I don't think a remake will have the same sense of its own setting.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has some big flaws, especially in its structure, but it's just so damn fun. Wonder Woman has some flaws, too--yeah, I said it--but it was fun, it was well put together, and it hit the zeitgeist wonderfully.

I didn't give Cars 3 a 10, but it was far better than the second one (or wither of the Planes films, and may actually hold up better than the first one to repeat viewings.

Baby Driver has some flaws in its ending but is such a beautifully put together thing it deserves a viewing.

A Ghost Story will probably be hard to watch for most people; it's got a whole lotta quiet moments, long quiet moments, and its final resolution might anger people desperate for a payoff, but it is a meditative treatise on death and grief and moving on (or not) and that is the kind of thing all of could us sometime.

Wind River is not perfect. In the end, it feels like it is lacking something. But, it's performances and its direction lift it above itself.

Brigsby Bear is the one here that you've probably never even heard of in passing, and it is such a strange, and strangely optimistic little thing, it would be nice if it got more attention.

I've said before, most people will not like mother!, but I loved it.

Same goes for Ingrid Goes West.

Loving Vincent isn't a perfect film, but deserves to be seen, if for no other reason, for the sheer amount of effort put into it--it's a documentary on Van Gogh that was hand painted in the style of his paintings.

Happy Death Day might not actually be perfect. It might just be my Groundhog Day Project blinders getting in the way. But, I actually almost saw it a fourth time in the theater last week when the movie I was there to see LBJ was the mommy screening that day. (While I love that the mommy screenings exist, because I want more people to be able to see more movies, I have no interest in attending one.)

Some smaller movies you might've heard of but that aren't for everyone (and I only gave them 9s) that were out recently were Professor Martson and the Wonder Women, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Florida Project, and Lady Bird. And Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

At the end of my YouTube reviews last year, I implored viewers to see more movies. There are just so many movies out there; trust me, there are plenty worth watching at any given time. Especially if you can only get to the theater every once in a while. Me--I go anywhere from 1-4 times a week, depending on what other stuff comes up. I know that's not normal. I know I think differently about films than most of you do. But, there's certainly some middle ground you all could reach for.

Friday, November 17, 2017

what are your superpowers, again?

Today, I saw Justice League and Wonder on the big screen. I will not have time for one of my "childhood deconstruction" movies today, even though watching far too many movies seems to be one of my primary skills. Along with writing far too many words about them.

Today, I'm going to a concert, and will be home late. So, no more movies today... even though I could almost fit one in right now.

And, maybe only a few words.

Regarding a recent theme here about humanizing monsters, I was reminded of Super Friends while watching Justice League, and how even the villains had a club... SPOILERS: if you stay after the credits of Justice League you'll see the villains are forming up in the cinematic DCU as well, but it probably won't be as fun. Some good Black Manta and Lex Luthor arguing while Bizarro is perplexed about the plan--the DCU could use something light like that. And, on the heroes' side, we need some Wonder Twins. I remember when DC published some large-format prestige one shots (Superman: Peace on Earth, Batman: War on Crime, Shazam! Power of Hope and Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth) and as an April Fools Day joke in Wizard magazine, they announced Wonder Twins: Form of Water, and oh how I wanted that book. Superman had tried to solve world hunger, Batman took on something larger than everyday crime, Captain Marvel (in Shazam! for those of you who don't know all your superheroes) had to fight despair, Wonder Woman has to deal with being accepted as a woman, and the Wonder Twins were going to fight drought. And the fake cover was awesome:


Taking superheroes who were fundamentally ridiculous seriously was right up my alley. But, Zack Snyder has proven with Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice and now (but not as much as he had to leave the film after the death of his daughter) Justice League that taking them too seriously can be problematic. (And, while Christopher Nolan's Batman films may have been pretty good films (at least, The Dark Knight was) but they had their problems as well.)

On the other end of the spectrum of films for today (because you can totally have a spectrum with just two items), Wonder is a cheesy, leaning into schmaltzy, family film that still manages to have enough genuine heart that it mostly works. Structurally, it's got no clue how a film plot works, and no idea how to get to its ending. But, it has its moments.

Together, these films had me leaning into one of my occasional self-help style rants about figuring out who you are and playing into your strengths, or something. But, I'd like to think we all know that, really. We're just scared, or there's some outside force we think is in the way. But, seriously, find what you're good at and do it. (Unless it involved hurting other people, of course.) Find you and do that.

As the cheesy, and barely relevant to the story, teacher in Wonder put up on the blackboard: When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind. Cheesy? Sure. But, still good advice.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

i've tried so hard to be good

I remember thinking, at least the first time that I saw The Elephant Man, that Bytes' narrative about Merrick's origin (and that surreal bit at the opening of the film) was an accurate reason for Merrick's condition. But, we had a book about Merrick in our home and, while I never read it cover to cover, I browsed the text and looked over the photos.

But, other than that initial confusion, I don't think I thought much of those Lynchian moments; they were distractions. I also didn't think much on the idea of exploitation; Bytes was awful, Treves was nice--that's all I thought about that.


What really mattered when I saw this film as a kid--and what absolutely shines through now--is Hurt's portrayal of Merrick. (And, primarily, he's got his eyes and his voice, and little else; the malformed head prosthetic doesn't move.) Humanizing the monster, so to speak. Something close to that we've seen in multiple movies in this childhood deconstruction so far--Blackbeard's Ghost, Young Frankenstein, The Villain, even The Apple Dumpling Gang and, arguably, The Jerk (though it makes a far weaker case).

(Plus, we had protagonists who stepped outside mainstream society in Snowball Express, Adventures of the Wilderness Family, and Star Wars.)

In church every Saturday and five days a week in Bible class in private school, I was being told that there was good and evil. In those same religious environments, and in so many movies and on television, I was being told that the world was coming to end. On the big screen, violence was the way to win--Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, and so many more--because there were actual villains out there and they deserved to be killed. But, watching some of these mainstays of my childhood again in this deconstruction suggests some very mixed messages. On the one hand, monsters deserved to be destroyed. On the other hand, monsters were quite human.

Blasco, Moreto, and Blasco (2015) suggest that, since "emotions usually come before rational thinking," learners (which I would extend to everyone) form a large part of their beliefs about the world from what they see in "a popular culture largely framed through emotion and images." "Life stories are a powerful resource in teaching," they argue. Every film, even one that isn't based on a "true story", is a life story; every film accesses the learner's (again, everybody's) affective mind. Neuroeconomics professor Paul Zak has found "that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin" (Popova, n.d.). Blasco and Moreto (2012) argue, "Life stories and narratives enhance emotions, and therefore set up the foundation for conveying concepts. Movies provide a narrative model framed in emotions and images that are also grounded in the everyday universe."

Lynch does ground The Elephant Man in the everyday universe. Between the surreal bits with the furnace or the factory workers and Treves' patient early in the film being the victim of an industrial machine accident, Lynch is positioning the film within a reality where the inhuman is overtaking the human, so to speak. His surreal flourishes weaken this theme, in my opinion, and the film doesn't spend enough time with the theme to really examine it. It's like an elaborate establishing shot of London, even though the film will spend almost no time outdoors, and will mostly show us the negative side of the city's society--while Treves contemplates whether or not his actions are good or bad, he continues them; on the night Merrick goes to be without his pillows, thus causing his own death by asphyxiation, Treves takes him to the theater, where the high society folk applaud Merrick. The film never actually sets those folk as that far from the lower class people that Jim brings to Merrick's room, or those who frequent Bytes' freak show.

But, because these elements are left scattered throughout the film, what we have after the first act is a film that finds its focus in Merrick himself. And, almost immediately, we can get used to his deformed appearance, and we can appreciate his emotional outbursts, and feel the anguish of both wanting people to interact with but fearing those interactions. His joyous moments are palpable, but so are his most painful.

Lynch paints a picture that is dark and twisted at its edges, and deformed at its center, but we are there in the center, and once we are there, we remain. The darkness is the inhumane and inhuman.

It is too bad that Bytes had to be smeared in the process, since in reality, he was a businessman who teamed with Merrick when Merrick was tired of workhouses. The themes about exploitation actually wouldn't have changed much if the film gave us a Bytes, and even a Jim, who were less caricature, more character.

As Roger Ebert says in Life Itself, "movies are like a machine that generates empathy." It is too bad that The Elephant Man spends so much of its effort making us/allowing us to empathize with Merrick, and so little with everyone else. But still, as a child watching this film, maybe those broadstroke villains made Merrick stand out more, forced me into his corner even before I saw him. By the time we see Merrick's face, we have seen how he is mistreated by Bytes, we have seen him put on display for doctors, and we have heard a nurse scream upon seeing him. He comes into view a quiet, scared thing, waiting for us to be in that corner with him. That corner where our brain chemistry can be altered by Merrick's story. The film's flaws do actually help promote its strengths. Both because of and despite Lynch's flourishes, we are invited into Merrick's world. And, it may be a sad world, but we remain because we can sympathize and empathize with Merrick.

WORKS CITED

Blasco, P.G. & Moreto, G. (2012). Teaching empathy through Movies: Reaching Learners' Affective Domain in Medical Education. Journal of Education and Learning, 1(1), pp. 22-34.

Blasco, P.G., Moreto, G., & Blasco, M.G. (2015). Education though Movies: Improving Teaching Skills and Fostering Reflection among Students and Teachers. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 11(1).

Popova, M. (n.d.) The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/paul-zak-kirby-ferguson-storytelling/

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

he's only being stared at all over again

What makes The Elephant Man work is that it has its cake and eats it, too, as the saying goes. The film portrays Bytes (per Treves' memoir) as a horrible man, not only exploiting but beating Merrick when he doesn't behave. (And, even beats him when Merrick spends the day with Treves with Bytes' permission; the film's version of Bytes is that jealous.) Bytes putting Merrick on display is shown as a bad thing. But, Treves does the same thing. The film lets Treves off the hook because 1) he doesn't beat Merrick (though, in reality, neither did Bytes) and 2) he realizes that he's doing the same thing and questions if it is right... But then he keeps doing it, plus 3) even as Treves continues to make a name for himself on the back of Merrick and Merrick is the talk of the upper class, the film offers up the night porter, Jim (Michael Elphick), who is making money off of bringing lower class folk to see Merrick in his room, which is easily worse than what Treves is doing.

But, the film itself takes this further.

Lynch opens the film with a surreal sequence that turns out to be a visualization of the supposed origin of Merrick's condition, as described by Bytes in the context of the freak show. Merrick's mother, "struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant." Close ups of the elephant. Quick cuts so we don't really see anything happen, but the woman screams, everything is dark and frightening. Purportedly, when studio executives saw the film, they wanted this sequence cut, and producer Mel Brooks supposedly told them, "We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you, to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives." A great line, to be sure. And a great move by Brooks to hold back the executives in favor of his director. But, what does this sequence do for the final film?

(The executives are said to have also wanted the ending removed as well--the bit with Merrick's mother, that is. There is no mention of what they might have thought of the surreal bits with the furnace or the factory workers.)

Consider: within the film, we are never told what condition Merrick actually has. His deformities are described in detail, and we see his face quite plainly once we see it. But, neurofibromatosis is never named. (Well after the release of the film, scientists studying Merricks' skeleton decided that he may have had Proteus Syndrome instead. In 2001, researchers Speculated that he had both. The details of either condition are not important, here, though, because the film doesn't really get into that.) In fact, aside from Treves' initial presentation to his colleagues, the film never bothers to make a particular point of showing Treves' working on anything regarding Merrick's condition. This is good for the film in a way, because it becomes more of a character portrait of Merrick, but the plot structure positions Treves' rescuing of him as central and vital.


Countering that last bit about the film being a character portrait of Merrick, it becomes problematic when, aside from a few key scenes, Bytes and Jim and Treves are given more to do than Merrick is. And, certain faults late in the film become more noticeable; for example, we are told that Merrick is dying only in passing, the film offers no visual representation of his dying. His worsened breathing after the mob corners him could be taken as a temporary, panicked state. (Much as his breathing is more labored after Bytes beats him and he (Merrick) comes to the hospital to stay.) If one happened to miss the single line of dialogue regarding Merrick's impending death, his suicide would feel arbitrary. In reality, Merrick had lived at London Hospital for nearly six years, and it had been his own choice to tour in a freak show. The film--and this is a problem of a lot of films based on true stories--makes no real effort to express the passage of so much time; the same nurses work the hospital, the same doctors. Bytes still lingers at the edge of Merricks' life.

The film also plays coy with Merrick's appearance. While we will become quite familiar with Merrick's face as the film continues, for the first half an hour, we see his silhouette and his shapeless form in a cloak, a hat and hood over his head. We see his face only after a nurse sees him and screams. For a film that will make a huge effort to humanize Merrick and spend time with him, this is a problematic introduction, something akin to the way the monster in a horror film might be introduced. Coupled with the choice to film in black and white, this gives a sense of something like gothic horror. And, I think that is deliberate on the part of David Lynch, but the reasoning is... Well, Tom Huddeston at Time Out London might say it best:

Despite its historical roots, Lynch's take on the life of John Merrick--tortured carnival freak turned society darling--never tries to examine the facts of the man's life, or the society in which he lived. Instead, Lynch refracts the story through the warped lens of his own obsessions: deformity and social exclusion, dreams, and childhood fears, the magic of existence and the mystery of death.

It isn't that Lynch is the wrong director for the story. But, certain proclivities in his style of direction push the story in directions it might be better off not going. Bytes and Jim, I think, come as they are here from Treves' memoir, so they aren't really Lynch's doing. Additionally, certain scenes--for example, Merrick's meeting with the head of the hospital Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), his meeting Treve's wife (Hannah Gordon), or his meeting with actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft)--offer touching and even heartbreaking moments, touches of humanity that are far from what often would be termed Lynchian. I wonder, though, if it wasn't simply John Hurt's performance as Merrick pushing through the material into something better. His John Merrick is a sad man who apologizes for crying as if he "made a spectacle" of himself. Hurt's performance surpasses and supersedes the confines of the film, and lifts it above what might otherwise be an unfortunate exercise... A story about exploitation told in such an exploitative manner.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

something you'll never ever see

The Elephant Man is a strange film to have been familiar with as a kid, I think. A drama in black and white, a true story, about a deformed man in a hospital. There's hardly a plot. The film is slow. Deliberate. And sad. But, I liked it then. I might be imagining it, but I think I even saw this movie in the theater. I would have been four, so maybe not.

I have not watched it in a while.

 

 

 

 

 


The story is interesting, based on the memoir of Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and another book about Joseph "John" Merrick (John Hurt). The comparison between Merrick's role in the freak show and his role at the hospital, still on display... as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) tells Treves, "He's only being stared at all over again." Just by a different class of people.

Note: in reality, Bytes (Freddie Jones) was likely not a belligerent drunk prone to beating Merrick. Rather, he and Merrick were probably business partners and even friends. Only Treves' memoir suggests that Bytes beat Merrick.

 

 

 

 

 

Also, something I never knew before today: the film was produced by Mel Brooks. He deliberately went uncredited so audiences wouldn't see his name and expect a comedy.

 

 

 

 

 

I imagine that this film helped fuel my empathy. I mean, studies suggest that watching film in general increases empathy, but this film maybe more than some others for me. The Elephant Man offers a deformed man who can barely live his life, and he is more human than many of the "normal" people in the film. He is a curiosity to poor folks and rich folks alike. But, the freaks save him. The freaks--not just Merrick--are the good people here. (The nurses, too, of course; the film doesn't only have bad people on display, but it does make a point of countering those who are normal on the outside but awful inside with those who are freaks on the outside but good inside.

Monday, November 13, 2017

i want to be everything to you

To counter the cynical side from yesterday, there is one scene that absolutely points to the reality of the whole thing, and the cosmic import of the love story at its center, and that is the opening. Regardless of what follows, that scene is real. And, Elise's arrival as an old woman is real. What makes the scene important when you take the side of it all being real, of it all bearing the import of time itself, of love itself, is that the crowd clears for this old woman. Now, maybe they recognize this old woman as the once famous Elise McKenna, but I doubt it; if they recognize her, so should Richard. (Actually, Richard's later conversation with Miss Roberts suggests that Elise may never have been as famous after 1912 as she was then; she was increasingly reclusive from then until her death.) Rather, I think they do not, but they part because there is something about this woman being in this place, something they can sense, something that has an energy itself, her mere presence silences conversation, draws people aside, shocks Richard. And, then she hands him that pocket watch and says those fateful four words, "Come back to me."

The connection between these two is bigger than what the crowd can see. It's bigger than Robinson can recognize in the past.

Because the film is not about a guy who imagines going back in time. No. Richard goes back in time, Richard finds Elise McKenna back in 1912, and they fall in love... Or really, she falls in love, because he has already fallen in love with her.

From the novel, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson:

[Richard recounts his visit to the Hall of Histories in the basement of the Coronado Hotel (changed to the Grand Hotel for the film).] And in one of the cases is a program for a play performed in the hotel theater (wherever that was) on November 20, 1896; The Little Minister by J. M. Barrie, starring an actress named Elise McKenna. Next to the program is a photograph of her face; the most gloriously lovely face I've ever seen in my life.

I've fallen in love with her.

Typical of me. Thirty-six years old, a crush here and a crush there, a random scattering of affairs that mimicked love. But nothing real, nothing that endured.

Then, having reached a terminal condition, I proceed to lose my heart, at long last, to a woman who's been dead for at least twenty years.

Good show, Collier.

A few important details: The play is the The Little Minister because that was a play that real-life actress Maude Adams was in. Elise was modeled after her. Matheson saw her photo while on a vacation with his family and "fell in love" and he imagined this story, a man falling in love with a woman in a photo then traveling back in time to meet her. (He recounts this story in the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD.)

(By the way, Richard's play titles shown in the film are Too Much Spring (the one at Millfield College at the beginning of the film), Of course, I Love You, Don't I?, and my favorite, Passionate Apathies.)

Meanwhile, Richard is drawn to Elise's portrait. He doesn't just happen upon it in the Hall of History. He is looking at items along one wall and then suddenly, he looks to her portrait on another. Drawn there. The film uses a practical lighting effect (with a post-production one added to augment the effect) to suggest something unreal about this moment. This moment, too, exists outside the hypnosis... Although, the cynic could take Richard's feeling drawn to the portrait to be a sign of his psychosis as much as it might be a sign of something more romantic and grand.

Back to the quote from the book, though. Regarding Richard, when he says he has reached a "terminal condition" this is more than just a metaphor. On the one hand, yes, his attraction to Elise has become something terminal, an end in itself if he cannot do something about it, but also, he is dying in the novel. Regarding his take as this being typical, I think I've offered enough about my own history in this blog that a constant reader might recognize that I can relate. Fall in love with a photo, fall in love with a character, fall in love with a woman I exchange just a few words with, or no words at all. Though I think I've had more than just mimicry of love.

Richard's next line of narration in the novel after the description above: "That face is haunting me."

This phrasing matters, just as the love at the center of this time travel story, or this time travel at the center of this love story matters. Elise's face haunts Richard. Imagine as well that Richard's face haunted Elise for those sixty intervening years. Imagine the power of a love that kept her from other men in those years, that pulled her from the stage, that drew her to Finney's book Travels Through Time in 1971, a year before she finds Richard. And Finney just happens to be Richard's philosophy teacher at Millfield College. She has his book. She and Richard are being pulled toward one another.

She also has a model of the Grand Hotel that she had made, and it is a music box that plays Rachmaninoff. The piece Richard mentioned and she had never heard. She knows that Richard came back in time to her, even though he never told her as much.

In the past, Elise has been told by Robinson that one day she will meet a man who will change her life. It's actually a strange thing for Robinson to tell her, since he aims for so much control over her. But, maybe he ties up every man she meets, and she is convinced by their sudden absence that the particular man cannot be this man Robinson has predicted. But, imagine, if you will, that every time she meets a man, she asks him what she asks Richard upon first meeting him: "Is it you? Is it?" Even without the import the film is putting upon them, Elise's own romantic impulse forces each relationship to be something bigger than can be maintained.

But, then again, what romantic relationship that can transcend time can ever be maintained. The immediate examples that come to mind are Kyle Reese's attraction to Sarah Connor--he dies to keep her alive--and Jack Dawson's love for Rose Dewitt Bukater--he too dies to keep her alive.

Meanwhile, the introduction of Elise in the past. The direction is deliberate. (Director Jeannot Szwarc mentions this in the behind-the-scenes documentary and also in the commentary track (which I've got playing tonight.) She is introduced reflected in a window. We get to see her before Richard does, but only barely.

Szwarc doesn't explain why, though he does say it was the plan from the beginning. My take on it is that this is the film acknowledging itself as a film. The visual image matters. The frame of the window matters.

Consider also the moment that Robinson is getting his picture taken. We see through the camera, see him framed upside down. In the commentary track, Szwarc calls this "just a transition" but I think it is more than that. Even if not on purpose. We see the villain of the piece (I mean, aside from time itself) positioned upside down.

Consider also the driving force of Richard's attraction to Elise in the first place. It is her photograph, and it is specifically a photo of her looking at him (in the past).


This is the film being a film. And for good reason. The cynic could take it as a love like this only existing in fiction. The romantic, though--for the romantic, Somewhere in Time is acknowledgement of something that, yes, maybe it can only be imagined, maybe it cannot be quite fathomed, understood, measured, forced into a box of one couple's story in the real world because we like to imagine that love is bigger than the way it arrives in reality. Somewhere in Time is here for them--

(and it's no wonder that fans of the film organized and formed INSITE--The International Network of Somewhere In Time Enthusiasts--in 1990, and have had annual events at the Grand Hotel. Not unlike fans of Groundhog Day making pilgrimage (as I did for Groundhog Day, 2014). Because the film transcends film. It offers up something that grabs at something deep inside the viewer. Well, some viewers. And it does so for them...)

--to find comfort in the notion that love can not only alter lives but alter the world, alter the flow of time. Szwarc compares the character of Elise (especially, as they were casting her) to an iceberg, most of her beneath the surface. She has to be this way so there is something beyond Richard's obsession with her portrait through the first act. The film's take on love and romance is much the same. As a film, it can only show us so much. What is the Queen's line about love in Shakespeare in Love?

Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust, but they cannot make it true.

Meanwhile, an interesting moment: Richard has just witnessed the taking of the portrait that fueled his obsession and his trip into the past. He sits in his seat again. The play continues, but he seems to be lost in thought rather than paying attention. Elise is not on stage.

Man: I am the one who loves her!

Woman: Neither do you.

Man: I can provide her with life's enrichments, rather than the riches of life.

Meanwhile, an usher has brought Richard a note from Robinson.

Man #2: Are you sure what you're saying?

Man: I think an old song says it best.

And maybe he's about to sing. But, we don't get to know. CUT TO: Richard outside, walking to meet Robinson.

But, the movie is like an old song. An old song that has withstood the test of time. On the one hand, the film is good, well put together, and timeless. On the other, the themes of the film are, if such a thing can be measured in levels, even more timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

And, it still holds up.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

come back to me

That bootstrap paradox is vital to Somewhere in Time. In another story, it would be a stranger mystery, or a misguided mistake. Here, it is fundamental to the story being told. The bootstrap paradox has two parts here...

First, though, let me define it in case you are not nerdy about time travel stories. The Quantum Tunnel: Exploring Physics Fact in Science Fiction defines the bootstrap paradox as

a time travel paradox in which an object or information can exist without ever being created. The object or piece of information is sent back in time where it is retrieved and to become the very object or piece of information that was brought back in the beginning.

The name comes from a Heinlein story called "By His Bootstraps" Drawing on the expression about "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps", the story concerns a man who travels back in time to give his younger self a notebook of translations he has made... Except if he gives that notebook to his younger self, his younger self already has the translations he never had to make. He note "produces" them without having every actually made them. His older self still has that same notebook, and still takes them back in time, but now there is no origin for them.

In Somewhere in Time, the obvious bootstrap paradox is the pocket watch. In 1972, Elise gives the watch to Richard, and she bids him return to her. In 1980, Richard wills himself back in time and he takes that watch with him. In 1912, when he is forced back into the present, he leaves that watch behind with Elise. Sixty years later, she comes to his play and hands him the watch, and she bids him return to her. Eight years later, he wills himself back in time and he takes that watch with him. Sixty-eight years earlier, he leaves that watch with Elise. Sixty years later, she comes to his play and hands him that watch, and she bids him return to her... And so on.

Where does this watch begin? When was it made? Where was it bought? How does Richard have it? How does Elise have it? Where does it end? The watch, as an obvious metaphor, represents the time loop itself, the central piece of this story. The watch can no more begin or end than time itself can.

I had a thought about the reality within the paradox last night. Imagine this object were something simpler. The Ship of Theseus paradox write small. The question is about the identity of an object whose parts have been replaced one by one. While Plutarch's version is about Theseus' ship, the usual example I've heard is a broom. You have a broom. Its bristles can worn down to much but the handle is still good, so you replace the bristles and you keep using the handle. Maybe you do this a few times, and at some point, the handle needs replacing instead. (Also, you must assume this exercise takes place in a world where brooms are not as disposable as they are today.) At the point you replace the handle, you could argue that your broom is still the same broom. A broom has two basic parts. If one has remained the same, the idea (here, anyway) is that it remains the same broom. You replace the handle, but keep the bristles that have now become part of your broom, the whole thing still remains your broom.


If you follow me so far, imagine the same thing is true of the pocket watch here. Elise has had it for 60 years. Maybe after the first five, she had a spring replaced. After a decade, she had some gears replaced. After twenty years, the glass was cracked, and she got that replaced. After thirty, the case was dented, so she had that replaced. And so on. With each replacement, the majority of the watch remained, so Richard's watch remains Richard's watch. Even if, by the time she makes it to his play in 1972, none of the original watch remains.

By this standard, the watch would at least not suffer the entropy of a time loop, destroyed by the erosion of time inherent in its bootstrap paradox.

But, what about the other one?

The more important one.

The relationship between Richard and Elise.

Where does this relationship begin? Where does it end? Now, for Richard, the relationship is linear, even if that line is broken across two pieces of the natural flow of time. He meets Elise when she gives him the watch, he obsesses about this woman, he travels through time to find her, they fall in love, he is forced out of her time, he goes catatonic and dies, and Elise waits for him in the afterlife. Similarly, Elise's experience is linear. She meets Richard when he travels back in time, they fall in love, one day he just disappears, and sixty years later, she finds him again, still young as she remembers him, and she gives him back the watch he left behind. She dies that night, and waits for him in the afterlife.

But, if the relationship were a thing, itself, what was its experience like? It begins when Richard meets Elise in 1912, they fall in love, the relationship grows, then Richard disappears. Elise holds onto his memory, holds the relationship alive inside her for sixty years. She returns the watch to Richard in 1972, and where does the relationship go? Elise dies that night. And, for eight years, the relationship doesn't really exist. It isn't until Richard is feeling some ennui while writing a new play in 1980 that he travels, on a whim, to Mackinac Island, to the Grand Hotel, and he comes upon the old photo of Elise purely by chance. (Well, maybe not purely by chance, but I'll get to that later.) And he travels back to 1912. The relationship is in his court now, like the watch. It is reintroduced to Elise again, they fall in love, the relationship grows, then Richard disappears... And so on.

In a different tale--like a couple of my favorite time loop stories, the novel Replay by Ken Grimwood and the film Groundhog Day--we might follow the next resumption of the time loop, and maybe some details would be different. Maybe on this next iteration Richard is a little more confident about going back, is less panicked by arriving in that bickering couple's hotel room back in 1912. Maybe he goes outside to find Elise before he goes into the theater. The Butterfly Effect and all that. Elise hands him the watch a little differently, holds his hand a little more firmly, and he obsesses about her a few years earlier, and now he meets her a few minutes sooner out by the lake. Robinson (Christopher Plummer) interrupts later, the relationship begins differently, with more conversation than before. Maybe this makes a stronger bond earlier between Richard and Elise, and so she finds him before 1972. Maybe she goes to meet Doctor Finney at Milton while Richard is a student there, and she gives him the watch before he's a playwright, which changes the way he approaches her in 1912. He cannot call himself a playwright, so maybe she is less standoffish, maybe Robinson is less jealous, less guarded. So, Richard and Elise bond faster, sooner. Maybe she mentions how his suit is ten years out of fashion before that comfortable moment where Richard disappeared in the previous resumption. And, he is caught more off guard. He doesn't take that moment to celebrate his suit's many pockets, and so he doesn't pull out that penny right then. He doesn't disappear until some other trigger sets him off later. And maybe Elise doesn't have his watch when he disappears this time, so she brings some other object to him when she finds him in the future. Or maybe, because she found him sooner, that particular penny isn't even in his pocket at all.

It can get very complicated if you take the time to contemplate it.

But, what then is the point?

This loop keeps going, forever and forever, even if its pieces are replaced, because that is what the film is telling us--that love is timeless. That romance goes beyond boundaries like time and place.

A cynical viewer might assume that Richard never even goes back in time. That old lady Elise is just enamored by this playwright and she wants to offer him a bit of mystery to perhaps inspire his next play. She gives him an old pocket watch, bids him return to her, except she's never met him before. He appreciates the watch but forgets all about the incident until he happens upon a photograph of a younger woman, an actress, and subconsciously, he recognizes her. There is no timeless recognition, just one notable moment years before come back to him. And why not? He heads out and ends up at the Grand Hotel because he is having trouble writing his latest play. His agent (or producer; the guy is in the film so briefly, I'm not sure what he is) says people are waiting on it. There's pressure. So, he travels. And, he thinks about his big success from eight years ago. Maybe someone at that after party eight years ago even mentioned Elise's name because she was quite famous in her day. They don't mention it to Richard but his subconscious picks up on the name. And maybe he reads something about her a few years later, something about Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel. And, still more years after that, he is consciously thinking about that first success, and subconsciously, he links it to the watch, links it to the name Elise McKenna, links it to Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel. And, that is as good a place as any to get away to. And, it is chance that brings him to the photo, simply because he still cannot write, and he is wandering the hotel and its grounds. He finds the photo, the story proceeds as it does in the film until Richard hypnotizes himself, but only into imagining that he is back in 1912, that he is meeting Elise McKenna when she was sixty years younger than she was the night she came to his play and gave him that watch. And, because he is a mad playwright prone to periods of depression, when he wakes from this dream, he imagines it was real, or maybe he realizes that it was not; the absence might still be as strong either way. And, he is without Elise. And he cannot write. And he cannot eat. And he dies, and he imagines Elise McKenna waiting for him in the afterlife.

This version of the story is not as good, of course, because it lacks the power and import in the time travel narrative. (It does account for Elise's enigmatic line upon meeting him in 1912, because it is all in Richard's mind, and he wants their new beginning to be as mysterious as their old one. "Is it you? Is it?" If this is all in his mind, he would play on the role of fate and have her drawn to him as much as he was drawn to her.

Maybe Doctor Finney was quite a popular writer. It's the 1970s. Pet rocks were popular at one point. Why shouldn't philosophical tomes about time travel be? That Elise McKenna read the book over and over and Richard had the author as a teacher is mere coincidence...

But, again, that version of the story is not only cynical but boring, and quite tragic.

There is room for a story like that, to be sure. But, the point of a story like that is to suggest the opposite of what this film does--that love is merely imaginary, that romance is in the eye of the beholder only, and will ultimately amount to nothing.

This entry has grown wordy (and only an hour into the film) so I will come to my point--or the film's point--tomorrow. The film is far from cynical. And, it is tragic not because it deals in the imaginings of a mad writer obsessed with a dead woman but because it deals in a romance destroyed because of time itself, a romance left waiting and wanting for sixty years, and then another eight, then sixty years, and then another eight, then sixty years, and then another eight, then sixty years, and then another eight...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

as he's always done

In retrospect, Somewhere in Time is an odd movie to be familiar with as a kid. And, I think I understood the film better than my review go-to Roger Ebert did at the time (and he was almost as old then as I am now). His review begins:

"Somewhere in Time" wants us to share its sweeping romantic idealism, about a love so great that it spanned the decades and violated the sanctity of time itself. But we keep getting distracted by nagging doubts, like, isn't it a little futile to travel 68 years backward into time for a one-night stand?

I bought the "sweeping romantic idealism" of it, and saw it as much more than a one-night-stand, even as a kid. And, watching it in the present, I still do. (Note: I watched this film during the first year of this blog (in addition to Groundhog Day that day, of course) because to the circular time travel loop within) and wrote about it. Particularly, I wrote about the bootstrap paradox of the pocket watch in the film, and I'll return to that tomorrow.) In Hollywood terms, if not in my own, love (however much I might often argue it doesn't even exist as a thing unto itself) is worth violating the sanctity of time itself. Hell, love violates the sanctity of everything already, separating individuals out from the herd, giving them reasons to exist beyond the mundane daily bullshit. I had no doubts about the worthiness of Richard's (Christopher Reeve) urge to will himself through time, or the worthiness of the result. And, even the tragedy of its ending is merely a fair measure of the end of any relationship. The time travel is just the analogy. The movie is about a love affair, one that has a beginning, and ending, and lingering feelings that can tear at the parties involved.

Roger continues:

The movie surrounds its love story with such boring mumbo jumbo about time travel that we finally just don't care.

And, I reject that sentence entirely. 1) The film doesn't "surround" its love story with the time travel stuff (I'll deal with his terminology regarding that in a moment), rather it surrounds its time travel stuff with a love story, embeds one into the other, twists them into one captivating thing that can no longer be separated regardless of how boring you might find one piece. 2) How is the time travel stuff "mumbo jumbo"? On the one hand, that terminology is dismissive because Roger finds it silly, but he also calls it "boring" which is strange to me because the time travel parts of the film do not actually occupy much time. The prologue in the present takes its time, but then at best you could call that segment of the film "boring" but not the time travel mumbo jumbo. 3) Roger references the film Time after Time (great film, by the way) and how it "contained a love story that had a lot of sly fun with the option of relationships between people of different eras." But, that is not what Somewhere in Time is; it is not trying to be sly. It is capturing the feeling of love, the way it separates you from the world and quite fundamentally roots you in it at the same time. He complains that film doesn't have "slyness" or "fun" but the film makes not aim for such targets. When I rate a film on IMDb, for example, I try to measure it (primarily) based on what it is trying to be. You don't have to like a movie to recognize that it is good, you don't have to think a movie bad to dislike it, or vice versa. Finally, 4) clearly some of us care. And, I don't just mean me (or my mom or my sisters, or people who came over for dinner and a movie and chose this one); the film cost around $5 million to make and grossed close to twice that. It wasn't a box office bomb.

I don't know how to gauge interest in the film over time, unfortunately. Not without a serious load of research. Home video rental numbers year by year, that sort of thing. But, I don't think it was a particularly deep cut, as they say, when they used "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" in Groundhog Day. The reference is deliberate, because when it comes to movies involving time travel and romance, sure the list isn't that long, but also Somewhere in Time is a grand example of one.

It's the kind of movie that positions love as a thing, a driving force like gravity. Richard is drawn to Elise (Jane Seymour), so much so that he goes back in time for her. Elise is drawn to Richard so much that she (now Susan French) waits 68 years to give him the watch that will trigger his interest. Roger calls Reeve's Richard "so desperately earnest in his love for this actress that he always seems to be squinting a little." He ends his review: "The whole movie is so solemn, so worshipful toward its theme, that it's finally just silly." As if solemnity is a bad thing. Inherently, I mean. Some very solemn films do feel quite silly. But, I imagine our willingness to find a film's solemnity silly waxes and wanes it direct proportion to our liking or disliking of said film's message.


Roger quite often in his reviews seems like quite the romantic. About film as an art, he certainly was a romantic. About love, I have quite often been a romantic. Hell, this movie is quite likely one of the reasons.

And, like Richard Collier, I tend to overthink the whole affair long before it begins, and lament it long after it ends. The latter, I suppose, is entirely common. The former, though--it has made for many hard and awkward moments in my life. But, however much I don't subscribe to love as a force unto itself, I think it's worth a whole lot of effort, if one can find it, or even imagine it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

happy to be anywhere

I was going to watch The Empire Strikes Back again today and write about how different people use it, how they put it into their corner, make themselves the rebels, the freedom fighters, or point out how the rebels are not necessarily good, even if they are the heroes.


Instead, I'm catching up on some TV shows on the DVR tonight. And, this morning I saw Lady Bird. I won't review it here but to say, it's good; Greta Gerwig makes for a fairly confident director and writer (only her second time doing the former, and her writing credits on IMDb are... I'm not sure exactly what she's written, or how much of particular things she's written), though I hope she continues acting as well; Saoirse Ronan is great in it, as is Laurie Metcalf as her mother, and the film makes for a very thoughtful, if occasionally contrived bit of cinema.

During the film I was noting certain lines of dialogue to use for the title for this entry, and an early contender was i wish i could live through something. I might talk about how I was born too late to be a hippie or some actively revolutionary member of the 60s counterculture, how I was born too early to be part of some anarchist group like the black bloc that was at the Battle of Seattle, or Antifa today. Because, let's be honest--I have a tendency to idolize rebels and revolutionaries. Whether that began with films from when I was little (like Star Wars) or emerged directly in opposition to my conservative upbringing, or both, plus so many other influences. Like I'm the liberal Alex P. Keaton to my conservative parents Steven and Elyse--in case you were alive after the 1980s, that's a reference to Family Ties, a sitcom about ex-hippie parents whose oldest kid is a Reaganite Republican. Another contender for line to use from Lady Bird was don't be republican, which would allow either a tongue-in-cheek (or at least pretending at tongue-in-cheek) rant about politics or a serious one, an angry one.


But sometimes, anger is too exhausting. You gotta actively step back from it and just have a good day. Saw a good movie, watched some good tv, prepped some stuff for this Sunday's D&D game, picked up dinner with my daughter then took her to her voice lesson. That's all better than ranting about politics, ranting about sexually abusive politicians and actors (#AllMen), about the potential for violence and war that is all to constant... Like an echo of my childhood at the tail end of the Cold War, being told at church and at school that the world was coming to an end, and being told in movies and on television that World War III was going to be the method it would take to do so. I'm trying to remember the 90s, when I was too busy working bullshit office jobs after having dropped out of college to notice if we were on the verge of war or if mass shootings were happening every damn week. When I was writing fiction a couple hours a day, though I was still seeing movies often, and renting them on video, and watching them on cable.

Sometimes I just want to ignore the news, ignore breaking stories online. But, it has become a fundamental part of my day to read those things, to respond to them.

A break.

Sometimes, you just need a break.

And, I feel sorry for those who don't have the time or privilege to take one.

And, tomorrow I will return to old movies. Return to politics. Return to being sarcastic and sometimes outright belligerent on social media.

Or maybe I'll see another good movie tomorrow and want to remain thoughtful and positive.

We'll see.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

who's scruffy-looking?

Han Solo likes it when Leia calls him a scoundrel. He gets involved with the rebellion only because he's out for cash. And, decades later (presumably after some brief attempt at settling down and starting a family with Leia) he's a smuggler all over again. And then he dies.

Delve into the Expanded Universe--most of which is no longer canon--and he used to be an Imperial soldier. He defected when he saved Chewbacca from being enslaved by the Empire. That's why Chewbacca owes him a "life debt". One bright light of action in an otherwise scoundrelous (c) existence--

(Which brings to mind an interesting sidenote: How did I know about that life debt as a kid? Was that something they put on the description text of the Chewbacca action figure? Like everybody knows those smaller furry forest folk in Return of the Jedi are Ewoks, but no one ever calls them that. We know it because of licensed products, action figures, books, promotional materials. (Similarly, I wonder if, in The Last Jedi they will actually name the Porgs, or will we all know what they are because of interviews and press releases?) Same for the Wampa that attacks Luke. I know what that thing is called because I had the toy. I didn't have a Dewback toy, but I know what those are called because the toy existed. They do actually namecheck the Tauntaun and the Rancor (both of which I had).


Sidenote part two: Having never actually read Brian Daly's Han Solo novels (which is where I guess that story of Han saving Chewbacca was mentioned), why do I know about Han being a soldier? The blood stripe on his pants I know because of a book about costumes or more general designs for the films; the blood stripes came from his time in the Corellian military. I have no idea why I know this.

Sidenote part three: And where was it mentioned that Obi-Wan and Anakin fought a lightsaber duel near lava so many years before that event was finally visualized (quite outrageously) in Revenge of the Sith? I knew about it back when I was reading Star Wars novels and comic books regularly, but it wasn't in any of the ones I read, I don't think. And this was before the Internet, before fans would share stuff like that for those who hadn't kept up with every story.)

--and that existence is even worse in the Expanded Universe (and also better, since he doesn't return to smuggling years later). In The Courtship of Princess Leia, Han gets jealous when Leia might enter an arranged marriage for political convenience so he kidnaps her and takes her to the planet he just won in a game of Sabacc. And hilarity ensues... Well, if rancors and weird snakes and force-wielding witches is hilarious.

My point is: Han Solo is not a nice guy, not a good guy. Still--and I might comment on this again when I get to Return of the Jedi--he is pretty forgiving, at least when it comes to Lando; Han has been hibernating for months, knowing that Lando betrayed him to the Empire, and yeah, Chewbacca probably caught him up on all the details, but a real scoundrel, dangling off that Sciff, might've actively tried to shoot Lando and called it an accident, rather than blindly hoping to shoot a Sarlacc tentacle. Or maybe, since we don't know exactly how much Chewie told him--because we don't speak Wookie and the movie doesn't linger for everything Chewie's got to say--that Han is not angry at Lando says something positive about Han for a change. I mean, sure Han comes in at the last minute in the Battle of Yavin, saves Luke's life really, but one could argue he was still looking out for his own interests. He had his reward money but could also use a bit more instability in the Imperial government, or the collapse of the Empire itself. Han is not really involved in the Battle of Hoth, and he doesn't rescue everyone who is left who might need rescuing; he rescues Leia (and Threepio tags along). And he spends the next... month?

(The film plays with time here, because the tedious slog from Hoth to Bespin without the hyperdrive would have made for a very boring--or brilliantly observational-of-the-human-condition but far from action-packed--film. And, since space is dark, and Han rarely changes his outfit and Leia probably didn't have a bunch of extra clothes stored on the Falcon, we can't even get a good montage to show them trying to repair different parts of the hyperdrive on a lot of different days, maybe drinking and playing Sabacc or Dejarik, having a good time, Han and Leia really getting to know and like another, lots of shots of Chewie growling and Threepio looking confused. Then, the romance would feel more real, but maybe play a little too generic Hollywood.)

Repairing the Falcon (or failing to) and hitting on Leia. Who is stuck there with him.

(Stray observation: Why does the Exogorth poke its head out of its cave to try to grab the Falcon? For that matter, how does it know to close its mouth at all as the Falcon leaves? The Falcon is flying. If the tiny spaceship were flying through my throat and out of my mouth, I don't think I'd feel it unless it crashed into the walls... Unless the Exogorth has eyes inside its throat. Which would be awesome... And logically more canonical than Exogorth anatomy drawings online...

And then I learned even more about Exogorths because I bothered to check. While the Exogorth has little eyestalk-looking things on the side of its head, apparently, a Wildlife book established that they have a "highly evolved sense of spatial awareness [and] they were capable of calculating the speed, trajectory, and distance of perilous moving bodies around them." This means it didn't need to see the Falcon trying to escape. It had some entirely different sensory organs for that.)

So, I gotta wonder... Or maybe I don't given men's movements and toxic masculinity in our society today. I was going to wonder how more men who grew up on Star Wars didn't turn out to be rebels and/or assholes. I mean, the heroes are a guy who can't complete his training (and gets credited in the opening crawl as a leader of the rebellion even though his leadership is never really demonstrated) and rebels against the only form of government he's ever known, and a guy who looks out for himself over everyone else and takes advantage of being trapped on a spaceship with a girl to, at any opportunity, come on to her and harass her...

I guess I don't have to wonder. These were '70s heroes. Womanizers and rebels.

And, it's no wonder that in recent years, some conservatives have framed Luke as a radicalized jihadi, Palpatine as a benevolent dictator, and even justify destroying Alderaan. The politics of Star Wars are skewed toward rebellion. Some, growing up with these movies, might embrace such politics. Some might reject them and stand opposed. Good and Evil will do that to people.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

there is no try

Roger Ebert apparently never reviewed The Empire Strikes Back when it came out. He wrote a review for it in 1997, though, and he's got a great description of why this film is the reason the trilogy resonates. He writes:

After the space opera cheerfulness of the original film, this one plunges into darkness and even despair, and surrenders more completely to the underlying mystery of the story. It is because of the emotions stirred in "Empire" that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first and ahead to the third. This is the heart.

It's an interesting idea, actually--that one film in a series might be the one that really makes the whole work. In the case of Star Wars, with only three films--the prequels and the new Disney-produced films are a separate case--and with repeated actors and filmmakers (and George Lucas behind all three), it is much easier to understand how this works. These three films connect more than, say, the Friday the 13th films... Which were the other franchise I thought of first when contemplating the way this might work in a less cohesive series. And, I thought of the trilogy of films in the center of the Friday the 13th series, The Final Chapter, A New Beginning, and Jason Lives, first. These three are tied together by the presence of the character of Tommy Jarvis (played by three different actors). The central film of these three is actually rather bad; it has its moments, but it is second only to Friday the 13th Part III for worst in the series. But, Tommy holds the films together and forms a relatively cohesive... Heart is not right, but neither is spine. Core--he forms a more cohesive core. And, without that core, the series would not feel that connected. Interestingly--and I've written about this before [actually, it was something I mentioned in my “Top Five Slasher Films” YouTube video]--Part 2, Part III and The Final Chapter connect rather directly by timeline and watched with that in mind make for a nice chunk of horror. But, they were released in May 1981, August 1982, and April 1984, respectively, so would have been experienced at the time as three somewhat separate films.


Star Wars was rereleased, was a cultural touchstone, and then Empire came along and grabbed everyone in the audience by the heart and you had to come back three years later to see what happened. Horror films have cliffhangers all the time, but a fantasy cliffhanger like this--that's a different beast. A horror film almost has to have a cliffhanger; that's part of the horror, that whatever evil might never actually be contained. Here, though, this is the heroes losing. Han is frozen and taken captive, Luke loses his duel, learns his father is the enemy (OOPS, SPOILERS), and loses his hand. This isn't even a Pyrrhic victory; it's just outright loss. You don't end a movie on this kind of dark note unless you're making a point about the futility of regular life--see the original ending of Clerks, for example.

Star Wars is not about futility. There is futility in it, in the darkness, in the despair. Even torture. But, the series is about something brighter.

Still this middle film does revel in the darkness. Quite literally in the Dagobah scenes, with the fog and the strange lighting. Something altered in the so-called "Special Edition" actually, with more windows, and more light, in the already relatively bright Cloud City.

 

 

 

 

 

Then I sat here watching The Empire Strikes Back and helping my daughter with some homework about Shakespeare (and also thinking about a backup character for D&D). You know, rather than writing. I swear I had something else to say about trilogies if not longer series of films.

 

 

 

 

 

Odd note: that last Stormtrooper to shoot "at" Luke when Leia is screaming that it's a trap, has a really awkward way about him. It's like the actor both wanted to walk to the side and realized he had to stay in place to get another shot off. It comes off like it's a kid in the armor who really has to pee.