Monday, July 31, 2017

another time for war

Moonrise Kingdom, another Wes Anderson film, is playing right now. I was going to write about the deliberate artificiality again, how disconnecting the audience from what a film should be, and is expected to be, draws the audience in. But then I saw Detroit today, and I was inclined to get into a sociopolitical rant...

But I've been trying to avoid that all month. I've even been toying with musical's or bad movies for next month, keeping it more enjoyable than triggering.


And I find myself sitting here just watching Moonrise Kingdom... I should be ranting. I should be raging. And people should see Detroit when it's in wider release next week and they should rage. We should all rage. We've got a president who asks what's going on in Chicago (with its high murder rate) and it seems like he really has no fucking clue why 1) poor people might exist, 2) why anyone would turn to gangs or violence to get by, 3) why systemic racism, and significant economic upheavals and industrial changes might have twisted the sounds of certain cities to the point that there not only will be but must be unrest and 4) stomping down on crime and poverty with increased use of force by the police doesn't solve anything, it just delays a (likely larger) explosion of unrest. But, he's rich. And he's rather unintelligent, with his limited vocabulary, tendency reward self-aggrandizing tangents, and his incessant need for loyalty and praise.

Meanwhile, Moonrise Kingdom, and the young love at its heart, is adorable, and distracting. Pleasantly distracting.

But, I'm distracted in other directions as well. Like an arcanist in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles (the second book of which I'm in the middle of reading), my mind is divided. I've got my teacher section, my movie section, my political section, my relationship section, my D&D section. Different sections step up at different times. And, on a really interesting day, multiple sections all scream for attention. And I try, sometimes poorly, to hold one or another down. Politics is screaming. Transgender troops to be banned from the military. A wall to be built on the border with Mexico. Healthcare being gutted (or attemptedly so, anyway) and, you know, fuck all the poor people for being poor and daring to be sick at the same time. Fuck everyone who dares to be gay or queer or anything but heteronormative, because how dare you be anyone outside the ordinary. How dare you be anything but a man or a woman, destined to marry and have your 2.5 kids and your dog and your white picket fence. How dare you be anything but a God-fearing Christian, and white. How dare you not immediately bow down to authority when it rears its hideous head and demands subservience. How dare you want your president to not beg for adulation at his inane rallies, or to not go golfing every chance he's got because he thinks the nation is a fucking business and deals are made on the golf course, or some such bullshit. How dare you be a woman and expect to be treated equally. Or black, or brown, or a Muslim, or anything but a tow-the-line white cisgendered heteronormative male... If I wasn't an atheist, and if I wasn't a bleeding heart liberal, I'd fit right in. I should apologize for that. Sorry. Like you were born as you were, I was born this way. Unlike so many other white cisgendered heteronormative males, though, I don't assume that I'm deserving of privilege because of it. I have privilege because of it, but I actively wish that others had power, that we tried something different in the Western world for a change. White men are so damned fragile, threatened by anyone different daring to have an opinion, let alone anyone different running for office.

The trainwreck of the Trump administration goes on. The trainwreck of America, so "great" yet so fundamentally flawed, divided, broken.

And, I watch movies. I play games. I teach other people to speak up, or I hope I do. I lose my own voice to the noise. On purpose mostly. Like I can't change the world on my own. I can't fix this country, or even the problems in my own life. My occasional loneliness. My anxiety. But, I can do this. I can watch things and talk about them, and maybe offer something insightful some of the time.

Or maybe just something distracting. For you. For me.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

i'm not leaving this message

I love the way The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou begins, and I really love the way Roger Ebert's review of it begins. The film begins with an announcer speaking Italian, with no subtitles. He introduces a documentary with Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-esque explorer and documentarian played by Bill Murray. The movie separates us from the action by putting this initial footage on a narrower screen framed by curtains. We see the audience watching the footage. Within the footage, we see the film crew, a camera, the boom mic. (Plus the undersea life is blatantly fake--part of the whimsy of the film, not the documentary within the film.) And this is a Wes Anderson film, inherently artificial, deliberately stylized, and explicitly distancing itself stylistically from the usual film. Roger's review begins like this:

My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn't work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can't it just exist? "Terminal whimsy," I called it on the TV show. Yes, but isn't that better than half-hearted whimsy, or no whimsy at all? Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is the damnedest film. I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.

Whimsy.

Good word.

This coming week, I will be watching Groundhog Day yet again. I will (probably) be watching the four existing Sharknado films, and I will definitely, one week from tonight, be watching the fifth Sharknado (and likely livetweeting as I have previous years). Except...

whim-sy
/'(h)wimzē/

noun

playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor...

Something the Sharknados are not--playfully quaint, I mean. Playful sure. But far from quaint. They try too hard to be bad. A low budget film can be entertaining in its cheapness, to be sure. But, a deliberately poorly put together film will remain a poorly put together film. But, the deliberately artificial nature of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou--like the full(-ish)-size model of the Belafonte, missing its fourth wall(s) for an impossible, but brilliant, cutaway--is something far more interesting.


I must come back to Scott McCloud--as I have before as recently as Day 1064--and that thing about more abstract faces giving the audience an in, an in to empathize, to sympathize, to fantasize, to be with the character or to imagine we might be the character. The unreal nature of so much of a Wes Anderson film does that sort of thing as well. For example, Zissou could have been gifted a real fish in that plastic bag early in the film, but the visual of that "crayon ponyfish" draws you into the fantasy. Anderson's tendency to frame subjects in the center of the screen instead of following the rule of thirds (though he sometimes does follow that rule) also allows you to be drawn in. The film becomes, instead of, well, a film, something else. It draws attention to its own existence, challenging you to remain inside the fantasy but with an effort. Roger says, "The colors are like the pastels produced by colored pencils, and kind of beautiful... The action goes through the motions of slapstick at the velocity of dirge." The colors, so much brighter at times than they should be if any of this were real and that slow and occasionally thoughtful slapstick combine to make something obviously and quite explicitly fake. Again, challenging us to remain drawn. The personal nature of the story, if you are pulled in, should hold you. Zissou has lost his partner and is seeking revenge on the possibly nonexistent Jaguar Shark--that is the plot. Meanwhile, Steve's possible illegitimate son comes on the trip and their relationship grounds that plot. It also allows for a strange exploration of melancholy, of emotional entropy, and of a reconnection with the world and with life. It's like a mediation on depression coupled with an entirely joyful adventure in fantasy and, well, whimsy.

Christopher Kelly at Texas Monthly complains about Anderson's "sterile affectation--a vision of the world as an elaborate dollhouse, populated not by characters but by ambulance figurines" and further complains about Anderson's preoccupation with "wide-angle shots with the characters centered perfectly in the frame; hyper-detailed, self-consciously artificial sets [and] a seventies-era Tupperware color scheme." Anderson's films are not for everyone. Hell, I appreciate them and rather love a few of them, but I've got to be in the right mood for one.

But, consider this sequence:

Kingsley/Ned (Owen Wilson) and Jane (Cate Blanchett) have just kissed. Steve sees them stripping through an interior porthole, except, what he is actually seeing is footage of them shot through an exterior porthole by one of the camera dolphins that travel with the ship. The screen showing that footage is visible through the interior porthole, and of course we are watching this action on the movie (or tv) screen. Anderson actively pushes us away from the action. Or at least invites us to distance ourselves. But, if we resist, if we stay in, stay with these strange but amusing characters and these outlandish sets and setpieces, we will be rewarded.

Or we will run from the film quite early, or avoid it altogether. And, that's okay too.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

regret it for the rest of our lives

Beatriz at Dinner is a deeply flawed film. It uses intense stares and long silences as if they are the height of characterization, offers up caricatures and simplistic dialogue instead of realistic conversation--which for a film with a heavy-handed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner vibe, is the greatest of cinematic sins. You build your film around dialogue, your dialogue better be amazing. You build your film around character interaction (as opposed to plot), then your characters should all feel real, should all be at least a little likable. Now, to be fair, I think the script (and the casting choices of Hayek and Lithgow) deliberately set up the titular Beatriz to be a bit... off, and Doug to be personable, accepting even of criticism (though mostly because experience would demonstrate that he is above it). This is a story about the 1% having dinner with a nobody, a Mexican-born masseuse and healer.

Assume SPOILERS. Don't assume that this is purely a review. As I've said many a time, I don't write reviews.


The film wants us to root for her, to root for something to happen. It's almost a brilliant commentary on film itself inasmuch as it feels like a buildup to a violent payoff, except it also doesn't. It's just dinner conversation, except you can feel Beatriz' distaste building, and Doug is a horrible person...

Or rather, he's a person who has taken on a horrible life. Having Lithgow humanize the role is a far better choice than Hayek dehumanizing Beatriz because humanizing Doug is useful. Humanizing the villain here makes an important point, even if the film insists with its framing and it's choice of focal point in Beatriz that Doug is part of the problems with the world today and Beatriz is part of the solution. To take the enemy--and I choose that word deliberately--as human affects what you can do to stop them. I mentioned in passing yesterday my dreams of being a revolutionary. And it is just in passing. And it is just a dream. But, damn it if I didn't want Beatriz at Dinner to get... better as it went. To really let the characters respond to Beatriz, for her to respond to them, for some actual conversation and even debate to happen. Instead, she holds it in until she has a speech to make, a story to tell, and they listen then move the fuck on with their polite conversation. Or she holds it in until she lashes out, but then, this is dismissed as her having too much to drink (an excuse, but several reviewers on IMDb seemed to take it more literally). And, at a certain point, I thought the only way the film could really work is if it turned to violence, if Beatriz killed Doug.

And we do get to see that, but only as a fantasy, a cheap turn in the third act that is immediately pulled back. And, amidst my disappointment, I'm wondering how either brilliant or stupid the filmmakers were in denying us that. I eventually leaned more toward stupid, or cowardly, as opposed to that rewind moment in Funny Games--a far greater take on satirizing our viewing of the film as we are viewing it. In that moment, we want the violence, we expect the violence, so it tantalizes us with it than yanks it away, and it works. Here, it feels cheap. It feels like an easy out. Beatriz' suicide that follows instead suggests a hopelessness that the, oddly, the film has not earned. You want to give us superliberal stereotype sits down for dinner with the 1%, you need to give us more. Especially, if you've got people like me in the audience who will buy into a message like violence against that 1% being a viable solution. See, in movies, violence is a solution. Because movies take reality and simplify it. Movies offer up characters despicable even when charming, and we can imagine that their deaths will solve something. But, in the real world, violence begets more violence, violence begets stringent laws and law enforcement, more jackboots, more clearing of land, more resort hotels replacing indigenous villages, more war, more supposedly moral denials of civil rights. And, then what can you do against that? Commit more violence? Terrorize the masses? Protest in the streets? Or shut down, close up, forget that you have a voice because the exercise of it just brings more oppression?

This film tries to say something. It does. But then it fails so spectacularly to follow through.

And it pisses me off. Pisses me off as a movie lover because I want it to be more daring. Pisses me off as a dreamer and a wannabe revolutionary because I want it to be more inspiring.

There is so much wrong with the world today that a movie that dares actually talk about a little of it needs to be good. Needs to be great. It needs to be troubling in a far different way than this one was.

Friday, July 28, 2017

i’m just sitting up here thinkin’, you know

I wanted to continue the "survey" today, throw out far too many questions--

(For example, under the banner of Action Films, I has broken the genre down into Adventure, Disaster, Superhero, and Heist movies, and there was a question about your preference between Cars or Parkour?)

--but I don't want to. I also thought I'd be watching The Room again tonight, but I am unexpectedly cut down to just the one screen for the next couple hours, and I have time to write. I did see a movie today. Of course. Atomic Blonde. I liked it more than my friend Jared--with whom I saw it--did, but I thought it felt a little long and had that first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible problem of actively trying to be overcomplicated just for the sake of being overcomplicated. Still, I was entertained, and I rather liked the way most of the violence played out, more brutal and real than most action movies, as if the characters were really getting hurt. For a film that introduces its lead naked in a tub of ice, her body bruised and cut up, I guess that makes sense.


But, I don't really want to talk about Atomic Blonde, either. Not really. I feel like going bigger... by going smaller. That is, I had an inkling as I often do to say something personal here, but in hopes that it might evoke something in you as you read it. See, yesterday was all about why you see the movies you do, my abandoned survey that was growing far too complex in my head well before I set out to work out any specific questions. And, I love to talk movies with people because, well, the obvious reason--I love movies, and talking about them exercises that love. It's something I know, something I'm into. You want to talk TV shows, I can do that, too. You want to talk board games or Dungeons & Dragons, I am right there with you. Hell, with the way Facebook algorithms work, lately my feed has been mostly Dungeons & Dragons related stuff because I've made an effort this past month to disengage from the political pages and groups that I follow, and Facebook reinforces the things you interact with by offering you more of those things. I feel like Dungeons & Dragons in particular takes up a lot of my time of late. Not in a nuisance, I have work to do, kind of way, just it's always at the corner of my mind, the game I run, the game I play in regularly, my friends from there, Critical Role... and I had this thought recently, that it's almost like Dungeons & Dragons is a religion of mine. My participation in the DM groups or the player groups on Facebook is like theology...

And this blog works the same way, but for movies. I wish I had more movie discussion groups, but it's harder to find good ones of those because, well, movies have a larger share of the population interested in them, and you get too many people together somewhere online, the discussion inevitably takes a turn toward personal attacks and nothing but negativity. Not that this blog can't be quite negative sometimes. Or that I never make personal attacks here--

Tommy Wiseau is a charisma vacuum who never should have been anywhere near the big or small screen. There--I said it.

Oh, and everyone involved in Pretty Woman, after that initial cuteness bit wore off back when it was in theaters, should have felt--and should still feel--ashamed for having been a part of it. That film is a despicable example of film, of romantic comedy, of interpersonal interaction, of acting, of scriptwriting... There is only so much that charm can cover. And, not for long.

But, anyway...

I've written so many thousands of words here in this blog, and so many pages about blogging in my master's thesis, so I'm not sure there is really anything particularly new or novel to offer. But, I will say, being able to ramble about movies for a couple hours--whether that gets me a few hundred words or a few thousand--is... Well, I won't say better. But, it can be better than other parts of the Internet. Because it's me alone, able to do whatever I like. But also because I can imagine you the reader clicking over to read this right after it's posted, or maybe a few days from now--

(A few weeks ago, for some reason, one old blog entry suddenly jumped back to the top viewed list for the blog, with like five times the amount of views that particular day than the latest entry. And, I don't know why. Someone somewhere linked to it and I don't know who, and I don't know why. Just an awesome fluke.)

--or next year when you happen to be watching a movie that I've written about here. And I imagine that you find something fascinating, or enlightening, or maybe just amusing. And, I like that. When I wanted to be a novelist--and I cranked out more than a dozen novels that might never see an audience--I didn't want to be a bestselling author. I didn't even want to necessarily be "famous". I imagined some fan, having read one of my books, heading off to a used bookstore in search of more. I mean, that's what I did in my 20s all the time. Nevermind that used bookstores barely exist anymore. Nevermind that Amazon and Google would make the search far too easy today. I had the fantasy. And, I liked it.

I'm not sure what the fantasy is, now. I mean, I'm a teacher, and just a decade ago I wouldn't have imagined myself as a teacher. When there was some thing trending on Facebook--tell us who you are with three fictional characters, or something like that--I included Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society because that's the teacher I want to be. I want to inspire my students to express themselves, to dream big and speak big and talk hard. This summer, with my Upward Bound classes, I got my best taste of that kind of teaching, and that kind of student-ing yet. And, it was awesome.

But, off in dark recesses of my mind, there are still dreams of writing novels, dreams of writing movies, dreams of acting, dreams of singing, dreams of falling in love again, dreams of so many things. And, of course that's how it is. There's not much point in dreaming about the thing you actually have in front of you. Doesn't mean that what you have isn't good. It just means that what you have is, well, what you have. And, you have to dream. Not because other versions of your life are better than the one you're living--though maybe they are--but because if you stop dreaming... If I stop dreaming, I figure I stop living. That's part of why I watch movies. It isn't because I need to escape into them and imagine myself as the hero of the story because that's so much better than the life I have. It is just because, you need to keep life on its toes. My life right now could be better, sure. But, I love my kids, I love spending time with my newfound friends, and I love teaching. But, if I never imagined anything else, good or bad, it would all be a bit boring. It's that theology thing, again. Maybe for some people it isn't like this. Hell, the way the world is sometimes, the way America is especially recently, I figure there are a lot of people for which this is NOT the way of things. But, I don't want to be like Fiero in Wicked, living the unexamined life. Dancing through life is great. You need to dance more. I need to dance more. Figuratively. Literally. But, you need to take the time to think about your life, about life itself, about the world around you and the people in it. I can't help but be a bleeding heart liberal and social justice warrior, or whatever pejorative you want to put upon my politics. Because I take time--sometimes too much time--to think about life. Not just my own, but everyone's. People I meet. Students I teach. People on TV. Politicians. Terrorists. Victims. Everyone. And, I want better things for them and for you and for me. I want the world to be a better place.

And, for me, quite often, the world is a better place because I get to sit on my couch (or my floor when I'm blogging) or in a darkened movie theater, and I get to go someplace else for a couple hours. I get to be someone else. And, I get to feel things that maybe I don't feel everyday. I get to do things that maybe I don't get to do everyday, or maybe ever. And it expands the universe in my head and, quite honestly, I think it makes me a better person. I'd cite a study about how watching movies increases empathy, but again, I'm down to one screen right now, I'm not at home. And despite my usual tendencies to quote sources all over the place, I want to make this point myself right now. Watching movies increases your ability to empathize with other people. If it does nothing else, it does that. And, that will make you a better person. And, that means potential for the world to be a better world to have you in it.

We can all laugh at how bad The Room is, sure. And it is bad. But, those actors put themselves out there, and made something. If more people did creative things, nevermind just how good or bad the results would be, we'd be better off. And being in their audience, especially together, we would be better off.

And, I wish politics would stop inserting itself back into my day-to-day. Activist my old dreams of being a revolutionary. But, hey. Dreaming is good. And, I've got movies to pull me out of the downward spiral of political debates online. I've got friends. I've got games. I've got kids. I've got life.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

what kind of movie are we going to see?

In no particular order:

1. What matters more--plot or story? Do you want a plot-driven story like an action film or a mystery, or a fairly basic romance? Or does the story matter more? Does each character need to feel like they've got their own story going on? Better yet, how do you define the difference?

2. How important is dialogue in a movie? Do you prefer clever dialogue? Realistic dialogue? How important is the script? What do you think of voiceover? (Side question: does that bullshit-style of voiceover that only exists at the start and end of a film bug the crap out of you as much as it does me? Girls Trip uses that style and opens with flashback moments with the main characters in college and a series of shots of their reunions every few years, and it's all stuff we just don't need. Everything that the opening of the film--especially the voiceover--offers us is something that we'll figure out ourselves later unless we're idiots.) What do you think of characters who say each other's names all the time (a la Titantic? What do you think of characters making deliberately clever observations about pop culture (a la Kevin Smith or Quention Tarantino)? How does the screenwriter rank to you relative to the director? Who matters more? What draws you to a film? Do you have a favorite screenwriter or maybe several?

3. How much do the visuals matter? That is, the visual effects, CGI or practical? That is, the cinematography? Does a particular director's visual style work for you every time? Who is/are your favorite director(s)? Do you follow cinematographers? Or Art Directors? Costumers? How much do you pay attention to who works on a a movie you're seeing? (Or is it mostly just a matter of which actors are on screen?)

4. How much does music matter? That is, do you know a film composer when you hear their score? Can a soundtrack--like last year's for Suicide Squad for example--draw you to a movie you might be on the fence about otherwise? Do you like musicals? Or movies driven by music but not really musicals themselves (like Baby Driver)?

5. Is character a big draw? Whether superheroes or detectives, the kind of characters that keep coming back, does it matter who's playing them? Are you in line for any Sherlock Holmes movie, no matter what, even Mr. Holmes that made only $17 million in the US? Can a good character (and a good actor) get you to ignore a silly plot? (I'm looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Are your favorite characters heroes or villains? Or are they regular people in more down-to-earth stories? Who is/are your favorite character(s)?


6. Why do you watch movies? I'm reminded of that bit in Almost Famous--

Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?

This matters especially with those of you who don't get out to the movies that often. Do you head to the theater for the big spectacle, the summer tentpole? Or do you see documentaries or indie films? Is it all about escapism, getting something out of the film that you can't get out of life, or is it something else? Do you seek out sad movies when you're sad? Do you seek out a comedy when you're in a good mood, or to get you into a good mood? Do you want something awesome to look at on the big screen, or something to think about, or both? Do you want to relate to the action on the screen, empathize with the characters, or do you prefer something exotic and alien, something far from your own experience? Do you see foreign films? Do you seek them out? Do you see indie films? Do you seek them out? Or do you just see what's popular, what's new, what everyone else is talking about?

This is why I can't make a survey. I want to know too much. I want to understand what you like and why you like it. And I haven't even gotten to questions about genres and subgenres. And, imagine the followup questions if I actually asked any of these things in person.

Maybe I'll just assign a single essay: What is your favorite film and why?

 

 

 

 

 

And I just realized I didn't mention Despicable Me 3, which I saw earlier today, or The Room, which is playing again now. Oh well.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

denny, don't ask a question like that

Less important than making my survey is the reasoning behind it. I've said before that I could write a memoir using a movies to tell time, a la Fever Pitch. And, the "thesis" if you will for this whole blog (per Day 579) is:

Our lives can be measured in movies and movies can be measured in our lives and profound and profane depths can be found in the intersection thereof.

That is to say, if I can know your favorite movies, know what it is you look for in a movie, then I can know you. I tweeted (and then retweeted with my personal account over to Facebook) a few posts about what people's favorite movies are--their top five. But, it's more than that. For example, there's a huge difference between how I choose my favorite movies and how I might decide what are the best movies. Hell, I don't really even bother with the latter because movies are so subjective, the experience of watching a movie is subjective, and that version of a movie that is left in each of our respective heads after watching (per Benesh) are different enough that it would be hard to have a truly objective standard for what movie is best. In fact, it would be silly to try because the viewing of a film should be subjective, should be personal.

I watch The Room, for example--watching it again right now--and my experience is different from yours. I think we can all agree on two basic truths about this film, though: 1) this might not be the worst film ever made but it is certainly the most... mediocre, feeling far too often like a bad high school play than a film made by actual adults who wanted to be actors; 2) it is still quite watchable and enjoyable. Taking the latter, this might make it onto a list of my favorite films (depending on just how long that list was) but would never come anywhere near my list of the best films.

If I were to create the survey I want, the problem is that I wouldn't want there to be easy answers to some of the most important questions. I want to know not just what is your favorite film but why? Not only what movie do you abhor but why?

For the record, I usually cite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as my favorite film, and the first film to come to mind that I abhor would be Pretty Woman. I won't explain the whys again here because I spent time with each movie in this blog, and my opinions should be quite clear. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 640 641 642 643 644 645 646. Pretty Woman: 416 417 418 419 420 421 422.

Other films that usually make my "favorite" list would be Groundhog Day, obviously; Zero Effect; Adaptation. (908 909 910); Hedwig and the Angry Inch (647 648 649 650 651 652 653); The Princess Bride; and I could go on, but if you actually care, I hope you're clicking on each of those links and you've got a lot of reading to do. If you don't care, then I'm just indulging my narcissism and pretending that my opinions matter more than yours.

(For the record, again, this is my blog, so here my opinions matter a lot more than yours do. If you want to express yours, though, go for it. Comment below, or on Twitter or Facebook. This blog could use more regular comments. Even my old standby, Maolsheachlann, seems to have mostly disappeared.)

The thing is, I want your opinions. People who see films differently than I do fascinate me sometimes. And, I wish I had the time to talk about it. I imagined an iteration of my After the Film YouTube reviews in which I actually talked to random people coming out the same movies as me, finding those unexpected opinions... But, of course, I'm socially awkward, and not that great one-on-one, especially with strangers. So, that was never going to happen. Or I watch Red Letter Media videos on YouTube where they sit around and watch bad movies and drink, and then discuss them after, and I wish my friends would be as excited about doing something like that as I would be. I think the real problem is that I literally know no one who sees as many movies as I do.

Which actually circles me back into The Room, because I'm wondering, why the hell are Johnny and Mark friends? How did they ever meet, let alone become friends? Now, Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero met because of acting class. But, I just don't see Mark and Johnny traveling in the same circle if they live in the same apartment building. Then again, considering Wiseau's followup series, Neighbors (which, alas, is no longer on Hulu) suggests that Wiseau sees neighbors and friends as kind of the same thing. And, it's a nice idea--that you might be friends with the people who live in your building, but either because I grew up in LA, or because my private school upbringing had me as friends with people who generally lived nowhere near me--or both--I have just never been that person; a few of my neighbors I might say hello to as we pass each other, but other than one family in our building, I don't even know people's names. I prefer even acquaintances to have more depth than just passing. Which makes me really bad at networking, unfortunately...

And, it is really weird to be envious of Johnny.


Especially, when he refuses to plan what movie he's going to see. That is just weird. I mean, not that I have never wandered off to a theater and picked a movie when I got there, but that's after I've already seen all the movies I really want to see. That's a backup plan to cure boredom.

And, he's so possessive. And confusing. And confused.

And if not for the (bad) script, I'm not sure I could imagine any of these people would be friends with Johnny. Lisa and Michelle, on the other hand--that's more believable.

But, I don't know what kind of movies they watch. What they do when their not there in that room talking about Johnny. In fact, there aren't nearly enough movie characters that feel like people who would go out and watch movies regularly. (Off the top of my head, it's really just Kevin Smith characters that seem like they watch a lot of movies.) Actually, these days, with so many other viewing options, there aren't nearly enough real life characters that feel like people who would go out and watch movies regularly.

Still, I'd like to do a survey. But, the best surveys are anonymous, and I don't want anonymity. I want to know who likes what. I want to know who seeks out what type of movie and why. I want to know how into movies you are.

So, question number one...

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

anyway, how is your sex life?

The Room isn't even playing yet. I saw Girls Trip today--it was pretty good and very funny. But, right now, I've actually got the Critical Role panel from Comicon playing on Twitch. But, Pages is open and I'm typing because, you know, who cares what order things happen anyway? The point is not that things are organized but that things are tragic. You find a woman and you stay together for seven years, live together, and she'll betray you with your best friend. You find a man and you stay together for seven years, he will bore the shit out of you even though he's fundamentally a good guy, and you will cheat on him and he will kill himself. No matter what you do, someone will betray someone, someone will die, life will suck... except for when it doesn't.

It's those moments when it doesn't suck that matter. When he brings you a new dress, or she has already ordered the pizza. As I write this I hear some lyrics from the Groundhog Day musical in my head--and it is quite distracting--from the song "Night Will Come." After a whole lotta lines about life inevitably heading toward death, the song ends on this cheesy-if-not-so-sad note:

As for that, the rest is just a test of your endurance
You've gotta love life
You've gotta love life
You've gotta love life

Life as a test of endurance, which we all will eventually fail. Maybe we won't go out like Johhny, shooting ourselves with a drugdealer's gun. Maybe we'll just get old. Maybe we'll get sick. But, in the meantime, we're fucking alive, and if we're lucky we're alive, fucking, too. Feeling friendship, feeling love, feeling that other people care about what happens to us, and caring about what happens to other people, loving yourself, loving others, as many others as you can. Doing things that matter to you, things that matter to other people, things that matter to the world...

And, for that last one you have to think about it like a novice debater desperate for a good impact chain. Any little action that you take can impact other people around you. Watch this Coca-Cola commercial--https://youtu.be/1veWbLpGa78--and tell me you've never been in a situation like that, where someone else's joy was contagious. And, don't get me started on how powerful a smile from the right person can be. Again, lyrics come to me, distracting from Twitch on the TV, these from Dear Evan Hansen, "If I Could Tell Her":

There's nothing like your smile
Sort of subtle and perfect and real...
You never knew how wonderful
That smile could make someone feel

The right person smiles at you, or sometimes even just near you, and all the darkness goes away. Politics forgotten. Mortality forgotten. Every miserable detail left behind for that moment. And all is good.

 

 

 

 

 

Then, the Critical Role panel ends, I go put the leftovers from the burritos I made for dinner in the fridge, set the pan to soaking to wash later, go to the bathroom and I am both thinking back on poetry within this blog--RE: Stories We Tell, which I'll come back to in a moment--and a lamentable sense that poetry ain't worth much in my life anymore. Like this bit I wrote recently, which is more stream of consciousness journaling than poetry:

But you still want to write something beautiful
As if you can still woo a woman with words...

There's more, of course, but those were the lines that were in my head. And, I wonder what Lisa ever saw in Johnny. Seven years ago, who was he? Did he have ambitions? Considering he works in banking and she works with computers, what was the connection?

And then, as Johnny wakes and walks across the bedroom naked, I find that Stories We Tell entry with the poetry. Not the only bit of poetry in this blog, of course, but this particular entry, drifts into poetry and then into the usual prose and, looking at it again, I still like it. It's one of the entries that stick in my head... It's political, but also personal--"to substantially alter our place in the larger story"--and I call it, in context, "A story, a poem, a flight of fancy with a truth to tell."

However poorly executed, however inherently misogynist, The Room is also a flight of fancy with a truth to tell. Maybe it's as simple as men and women need to put some fucking effort into getting along or they will ruin each other. Maybe it's as complex as do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Maybe it's just to love one another, romantically, sexually, platonically; just love one another, actually care what other people think, and the world will be a better place.


I'm coming up on the end of the third year of the Groundhog Day Project. (Though, that third year did take two.) I'm starting to think about endings and beginnings, about putting it all together, or like the title of Day 1000 - "one of those what-does-it-all-mean kind of things". I don't imagine that I will stop blogging next week. It's gotten too easy to fit this into irregular schedules with the likes of Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, and quite often a very casual vibe to the writing that I can do with much less effort than some of the more formal entries that I remember (accurately or not) there being in the first year.

I want to do something interesting for Day 1096 (i.e. August 1, next Tuesday). I figure I'll watch Groundhog Day (and watch it again on the 2nd, as usual). I had thoughts about a survey of a sort, something that will take time to put together, and that I would want to allow time to get a lot of people to answer... And I don't think I've got the time in the next week.

But, if Johnny and Mark can send Chris R to jail in a matter of minutes, and Johnny can be a vampire without ever revealing the truth to anyone, even the audience, maybe something is doable.

The notes I've got we're getting a little complicated, though. Numerous potential follow-up questions about genre might've complicated things--

And, I must interrupt to get back to, you know, the move that's playing, because I guess that's a thing. I just noticed something: Mark's offscreen girlfriend that Johnny asked about is Betty, Denny's offscreen girlfriend that Johnny asks about is Elizabeth. Betty is a diminutive for Elizabeth. I think Mark and Denny might have been dating the same girl.

Also, since I've interrupted the train of thought about the movie survey, why does Mike apologize to Denny about seeing his underwear when Denny wasn't in the room? Maybe it's my history with Groundhog Day, but I'm wondering if the underwear thing happens a lot, and Mike isn't even talking about the same scene that we actually saw earlier in the film with Claudette. Or maybe I'm just making excuses for the film because it's either that or critique the shit out of it.

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, the survey...

Monday, July 24, 2017

god, i'm so tired

Time for some Christ-Figuring.

(If you're new, check Days 93 and 94) regarding Phil Connors or the inaugural Kozlovic-Black Scale--when I Christ-Figured Rambo. You're welcome.)

Now, I can barely imagine Tommy Wiseau being clever enough to deliberately make Johnny a Christ-Figure, but so much of it is deliberate that it had to at least be a subconscious thing... Or rather, sacrificial characters, betrayed within their circle of friends is such a trope that it's the sheer amount of fitting details that separate our the wheat from the chaff, as it were. As I've said before, the scale is scored out of 25 but there are more than 25 items on the list. It's a thing.

1 tangible This is always the easy one. (1/1)

2 central Tommy Wiseau makes himself (or rather, his character) central to everything he makes, so yeah. (2/2) In fact , Johnny is so central here, and his and Lisa's apartment such the hub of activity for their circle of friends, he fails to get the point for 3 outsider (2/3)

Johnny is not 4 divinely sourced, nor is there reason to think he had a 4.5 miraculous birth. However, supposedly, there were plans in earlier versions of what would become The Room in which Johnny had a flying car and would turn out to be a vampire. Alas, we're scoring this version of the film, not that one. He also has no 5 alter ego nor is there a clear divide in his character about being special while seeming normal (6 special/normal). If only he were a vampire. (2/6)

For the record, the actual number for 7 twelve associates is not the point. Having a clear set of friends or followers, each with distinct personalities (or distinct lack of personalities here), is what matters. Denny, Peter, Steven, Mike, Mark, even Claudette, Michelle, and Lisa--I'm giving him this one. (3/7)

I am actually not going to look up how old Tommy Wiseau was in this movie, and will not give him the point for 8 holy age, because that man seems to be both young and old at the same time, both fit and haggard. (3/8)

(Note to self: this Kozlovic-Black Scale needs to be reordered a bit to make more sense. Having the age one in between the associates and the specific people who might be part of those associates is odd. Of course, that order came from Kozlovic, not from me.)

These should be easy:


9 judas figure - Mark. He even kisses Johnny's forehead after Johnny shoots himself. (4/9)
10 mary magdalene-figure - Lisa (5/10)
10.5 virgin mary-figure - Claudette, or maybe even Mike (6/10)
11 john the baptist-figure - Denny (7/11)

(But, Johnny is really the john the baptist figure here for everyone else, with his need to say hi, hey, or hello to everyone.)

12 death and resurrection Not quite. (7/12)

13 triumphalism Hard to get without at least a metaphorical resurrection. This is a tragedy, not a triumph. (7/13)

His urge to adopt Denny (and paying for Denny's tuition and apartment), and his and Lisa's apartment being Grand Central Station for all their friends makes the 14 service to lessers point easy. But, it's hard to argue for 15 willing sacrifice; unless we're feeling generous and the bank "using" him without giving him the promotion he deserves counts... Which it totally does. I mean, we're supposed to see Johnny as this put upon man, him against the world, and all he's got going for him is Lisa (and all his friends, but still). (9/15)

This next two items are on the scale so that deliberate metaphorical Christ-Figures like, say, Gibson Rickebacker in Cyborg, and obvious, rather literal Christ-Figures like Jericho Cane in End of Days, get a boost of points. More down-to-earth characters like Johnny don't do so well. No points for 15.25 torture, even if Lisa is tearing him apart, but the way Lisa’s red dress foreshadows the blood as Johnny lies on the floor at the end of the film... 15.5 stigmata. (10/15)

Here, the scale goes deep. Per Larsen (2013), 15.75 atonement is vital for the Christ-Figure. Larsen actually argues that a movie character cannot get this point (well, he would, if he knew about taking his piece and adding to the scale because of it, anyway). But, take the film as it is. Or, come back to Cyborg, for example. Gibson is traipsing around the post-apocalyptic landscape to get the cyborg with the cure to a plague to a bunch of scientists. This level of import matters. Taking The Room as the sexist and tragic male melodrama it is, Johnny is sacrificed because of the confusion that all women cause. It's a bullshit argument in reality, but the film seems to believe in it. Johnny, Mark, Peter, Steven, Claudette, even Michelle--they all question Lisa's actions and motives. The film comes down squarely against Lisa (even as one could position Lisa as a feminist role model of a sort). Johnny is paying the price for centuries of society-built norms that force women like Lisa into corners they don't want to be in, which in turn positions Mark and Johnny into their competing corners (and Denny into his creepy little corner as well). Johnny is sacrificed an atoning for the sins of all men and women, for everyone who has every been in a romantic, or just sexual, relationship. (11/15)

(Actually, I should come up with a value number for items on this scale, as well. Atonement should be worth more than just one point.)

16 innocence This is a major plot point. Lisa gets Johnny drunk some she can lie about him hitting her. His famous line--"I did not hit her. It's not true. It's bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not"--is him protesting against her accusal. And we know he is innocent. (12/16)


17 cruciform pose (13/17)

18 cross associations Roses and spoons, or footballs, maybe. But, no, not crosses. (13/18)

19 miracles and signs While the film makes no point of celebrating the miraculous, Johnny's ability to manifest a tape recorder out of thin air, to magically have a cassette tape in his shirt pocket just when he needs one, and to rather impressively hook that recorder to the phone with the ease of a master spy, is miraculous. (14/19)

20 simplicity "Do you understand life? Do you?" Johnny is clearly very simple in the head. Yet, he has his profound moments, like when he talks to Denny about love. (15/20)

21 poverty Again, the bank won't give him that promotion. He never seems to buy anything for himself, only for Lisa. And Denny. And maybe Claudette’s friend. (16/21)

22 jesus garb While Johnny is defined by his clothes--his loose suits and unbuttoned top buttons--there is nothing of the plainness of Jesus in his garb... Actually, no, that isn't true either. If Jesus were alive today, and favored black over his usual beige and cream, Johnny's loose suits would be perfect. (17/22)

23 blue eyes Despite his greasy black hair, Tommy Wiseau seems to have blue eyes. And, the length of his hair, the simple hairstyle--imagine his hair a light brown and it's very Jesus-like. (18/23)

24 holy exclamations This one hinges on coincidence of timing and audience. Mark, speaking only to Johnny says, "God, I'm so tired of girls' games." (19/24) 25. j.c. initials His name is Johnny. (20/25)

So, Johnny is not the best of Christ-Figures based on the scale, but he is good. And, he hits so many of the most important items. The circle of associates, cruciform pose, innocence in the face of accusation, atonement... And he dies for Lisa's sins, for Mark's sins, for all of our sins. As long as men and women keep getting together and breaking up again, as long as there are midnight screenings of The Room, Johnny will keep dying for us all. We owe him a great debt.

SOURCES

Kozlovic, A. K. (2004). The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 8. Retrieved from https://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/14295/1/2004054629.pdf

Kozlovic, A.K. (2009). How to create a Hollywood Christ-figure: Sacred storytelling as applied theology. Australian eJournal of Theology, 13:1, pp. 1-16. Retrieved from http://aejt.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/158538/Kozlovik_Film.pdf

Larsen, J. (2013, June 18). Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ figures. think Christian: no such thing as secular. Retrieved from http://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/man-of-steel-and-the-tiredness-of-christ-figures

Sunday, July 23, 2017

women change their minds all the time

Honestly, though, we need more people to just go ahead and make movies regardless of how good they are. I mean, sure, movies with scripts that are good are better, and movies with budgets for sets with doors that stayed closed when you close them. are better, and movies that can actually afford to film on real rooftops are better. But, The Room is entertaining, is amusing, and is strangely captivating.

Some bad movies are boring, or offensively bad. This one just works. It certainly doesn't work, you know, well. But, it's dealing with serious topics. Love, loyalty, the patriarchy, suicide. Plus, Johnny has the best take on life: "You can love someone deep inside your heart, and there is nothing wrong with it.. If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live." I've been avoiding turning to politics this month, but if you want to solve the problems of partisan politics, you just gotta listen to Johnny...

(There's also Peter's sage advice about life, part 1: "Sometimes, life gets complicated. The unexpected can happen. When it does, you just gotta deal with it." And the more important, and far more universal part 2: "Sometimes, life can get complicated, and you've got to be responsible. So you don't see Lisa again, and you definitely don't sleep with her again." That's just good advice right there. No one should sleep with Lisa. Or Johnny. Or Mark. Or Mike. Or any of the characters in this movie, really. They're all just such awful people.)

Or have people over for a screening of The Room and have a good time ridiculing it. That could bring people closer together.


You could, for example, have a serious discussion about feminism and how men and women relate to one another. Like, for example, Mike's story about his underwear issues--if you're just watching the movie and not really putting in the effort to explore its themes in your mind, you might wonder what the point of that scene is? Why is Mike so embarrassed about his underwear that he calls it a tragedy that Claudette not only handled his underwear but showed it to everyone? Why, as the conversation progresses and Mark hears about the underwear does Mark suddenly erupt in violence, slamming the football into Mike's gut so hard that he falls over? Is it just supposed to be funny? No. This is about men and women. Mike has obvious self esteem problems. He overexaggerates his facial expressions in some pathetic attempt to amuse Michelle and keep her interested, but later he just has to announce that he has to go meet Michelle to make out with her--this after telling the underwear story to Johnny, because he needs that validation, he needs them to acknowledge his relationship because he's not a man if he doesn't have a woman. (The film's perspective, not mine.) And, his underwear being handled by an old woman like Claudette, not only old but dying from breast cancer--that challenges his masculinity and his place among these other men. Mark, of course has to act out and put Mike in his place because of this.

Then there's the conversation between Johnny and Peter and Mark about women just a few minutes later. Or another one with just Peter up on the roof a few minutes after that. And a few minutes after that, and so on. This isn't just a simple movie about infidelity, it is an exploration of why infidelity happens, and an indictment of women's role in that. Which, yeah, makes it sexist as fuck. But, hey, it's a film with a point of view, and that's important.

Or maybe it's just a film about a bunch of men with that perspective. I mean, in the end, Johnny dies, perhaps, not because Lisa and Mark betrayed him but because the norms about gender relations put upon Johnny (and us) by society set him up for ideals and expectations that are not always possible. Johnny buys Lisa dresses and flowers, but that doesn't grant him ownership of her. His expectation that their seven years together privileges him to her whenever he wants her is what backfires. Lisa's urges and Mark's urges--those are more natural, more primal. Meanwhile, Claudette keeps telling Lisa she needs to stick with Johnny for financial security, which adds a capitalist angle to the heteronormative gender relations angle. And, coming back to politics, of course the patriarchy and capitalism are going to get twisted up with each other. Both dictate that certain people are on top, others are on the bottom, certain people get to have expectations and others have to service those expectations. In the face of that, Lisa is an inspiration. And, unlike Wonder Woman she doesn't have to resort to violence to make her point. She instead turns to love... Yes, Diana also turns to love, but only after killing a bunch of people. Lisa kills no one. She spreads love, sometimes right in front of partygoers. She is not responsible for Johnny. She's through with that. She's changing. She has the right, doesn't she? People are changing all the time. She has to think about her future. What's it to you?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

i'm doing what i want to do

I've written before about The Room--Days 609 610 611--but I wanted the movie version of comfort food tonight. I considered a bad horror film, but the one I picked just happens to be about the only movie unavailable on my various means of watching movies.

Anyway, The Room starts out nicely enough, establishing shots of San Francisco (bought on the cheap, I'm sure) and it feels like a good indie drama. But then Tommy Wiseau has to get the first line of dialogue--"Hi, babe"--and the bad acting gets going. Then, the various "actors" compete to see who can be the worst.

And, something I always liked when I was watching Groundhog Day day after day was when a new detail would jump out. Tonight, watching The Room, I got stuck on a line from the song during the first sex scene, you know the one that comes in the first five minutes of the film when we've barely had any way to get to know these characters and certainly have no reason to care about them or their lengthy sex scene. The line: "I will stand in the way of a bowler." Because that is the most dangerous thing you can do for love.


And, it's not like the movies doesn't deal in a few brilliant bits of symbolism. Tommy's obvious rose fetish in bed, but then Kitra Williams' song comes on during Lisa's sex scene with Mark, with the classic line, "You are my rose." Denny eating an apple--universal symbol of temptation--before he jumps into bed with Johnny and Lisa. And, then there's the pizza Lisa orders--two different sets of toppings because she and Johnny are drifting apart (well, she has already made it clear that she doesn't love him anymore, anyway); they eat separately. And, how about the football that the guys throw around? If that isn't a clear symbol of modern American masculinity--which here is being challenged by intermale conflict, by manipulative women... This movie is basically a really poorly done male melodrama.

As Peter tells Johnny: "Sometimes, life gets complicated. The unexpected can happen. When it does, you just gotta deal with it." And later: "People are people. Sometimes they just can't see their own faults." The movie tries so hard to be about something. Either the guy's side: women are manipulative and masculinity is under attack. Or Lisa's take: you have to do what makes you happy, live your life how you want to live it.

Friday, July 21, 2017

what makes me who i am

1. I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets today, and while it had some awesome visuals, the overall plot was fairly standard fantasy fare. Entertaining, sure. But, nowhere as original or as memorable as, say, The Fifth Element.

2. While I have ended my obsessive, extended time with Sing Street, I don't plan to return to the dystopian films to finish out the month. Instead, I think I'm just going to go with whatever comes up. My summer classes are over and I've got time.


3. Despite that image. I'm not sure I want to write about Valerian, really. In fact, the links to Rogue One yesterday got me to thinking more generally about films. Like, what do I want from them> What do I expect from them? Why do I embrace them such that I could, in Fever Pitch-style, outline my life according to the movies I saw at certain times--Cliffhanger on our senior trip to Maui; Say Anything (not the first time I'd seen it) in a motel in Los Angeles with my then-future now-ex wife; walking home from seeing Cocktail and getting picked up in my family's new car, purchased while I was out; watching The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising with my D&D friends late at night after a game night; watching Born Yesterday after trying to sneak into Indecent Proposal as a teenager; going out with a high school group of friends that would exist just for that one night in a weird, almost teen-movie-ready fluke to see Sleepwalkers and only getting in because one of the girls in the group lied about her age and flirted with the ticket booth guy; leaving the Sunday Los Angeles Times movie page, open to the full-page ad for Project X on the floor in front of my dad while he watched tv to subtly hint that I wanted to see a movie that particular Sunday (and, we did go); seeing Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in the afternoon, opening weekend, having some Chicken Littles at Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, then seeing Halloween 4 again that night because my sister wasn't able to come earlier...

And the specifics here might not even be fully accurate, but what matters is that this is how I remember things. And I actually wish that I'd seen more movies with friends, growing up, now. Lately, I've seen a few with my D&D friend Jared. In high school, I saw a couple movies with my nerdy friend Alain (like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country after a half day of school and a trip to the ice skating rink). But, mostly I have seen movies with various sisters of mine. The youngest two--Bobbie and Brooke--we've probably seen the most together, including a lot of bad horror films rented from Now Playing, a video store that was just a few blocks from the house we moved into when I was 17. As a teen, I also spent nights at my sister Stacey's house or my sister Susan's house, watching whatever looked interesting at the rental store. (It wasn't my rental store, so I don't remember the name.) And, I saw a lot with my mother as a kid, including a lot of movies at the local second-run theater The Academy and a lot of tapes rented from the Wherehouse. In my late 20s and 30s, i.e. when I was married, it would be a few movies here and there with my wife, more as she got more interested in movies, and a lot of rentals from Blockbuster, then Netflix, when it was all discs by mail. And, now, between Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention HBO, Starz and Showtime, I can find pretty much any movie the day I want to watch it. Or, I'll go to the theater, at least once a week. Thousands of films, many more thousands of hours, spent in the dark, watching a screen, watching someone else's story...

Sometimes, I'll admit, it's because my own story is just not as interesting or exciting. But, it's not just that. I'm not one to list escapism as the primary reason I watch movies. I think it's not that other stories are more interesting or exciting, but that they are more clear, perhaps. Like, just by dint of being contained within their cinematic confines, a set runtime, with opening and closing credits, it's simpler, easier to follow, easier to invest energy into. In real life, I've always had a hard time planning too far ahead. (I've explained before how my religious upbringing at the end of the Cold War fucked with my impulse to plan.) In movies, I can see where it's going, I can see how the plot will be resolved, and then it is resolved, and that's so much...

Better isn't the right word. But, picture it: I watch a romantic comedy, girl meets guy, they get to know one another after some meet-cute, some arbitrary hinderance gets in the way, they overcome it, and end up happily together; meanwhile, in reality, I'm like a timid teenager still, most of the time, hesitant to act on an attraction, afraid of being rejected, afraid of not being rejected, girl meets another guy, or another girl, and they end up happily together.

Picture it: I watch a movie about some inspirational teacher--Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, perhaps, or my favorite, Dead Poets Society--that teacher has a hard time at first, some arbitrary hinderance gets in the way of connecting with the students, then suddenly the students get it, the teacher gets them, and they pass that big exam or make bold life decisions, the music rises, the action crescendos, and the credits roll; meanwhile, in reality, I teach a lot of college freshman, taking a course they are required to take and don't really want to take, and I want it to be something important, like I want to teach them public speaking skills because I want them to be able to express their identities and put their big ideas out into the world, and I want my Mr. Holland's Opus moment where all the old students come back for an emotional reunion, or I want my students to step onto their desks and call out, "Oh Captain, My Captain" but really they barely do the work, manage some basic speeches on some generic topics and most of them are forgotten by me almost as quickly as they forget me.

Picture it: I watch a nice family holiday movie like Home for the Holidays or Christmas Vacation and there are squabbles, maybe even serious fights, maybe some hilarious antics, but a lesson is learned and all (or most) is well in the end; in reality, though, my family's holiday gatherings tend to be boring, at least until an interesting board game comes out, except for maybe once when one drunk sister got into an argument with... Oddly enough, our mother who was already asleep at the time; it was a very one-sided sort of argument. Christmas gatherings (never a thing growing up with my family, but a thing in recent years) offer up opportunity for karaoke, but I can do that elsewhere, when friends are up for it. Or I can watch a crappy pseudo-karaoke film like last year's Sing!... Actually, that is an awful plan. Though a good musical film is a nice option.

 

 

 

 

 

Last year, one of the things I considered when ending this blog--if you're confused because this blog clearly still exists, get over it--was a podcast or YouTube thing with me and someone else discussing movies after watching them. Never found someone to do that with, so I did YouTube reviews myself for a few months. Then, just as I was actually getting better at editing those things quickly, I was getting frustrated with the lack of views. (And, now a couple friends of mine are doing a podcast talking about movies; go figure.) When I took a Media Theory class in grad school, the teacher, ostensibly a film and television teacher not a communication studies teacher, was shocked when I told him I wrote over a thousand words a day about movies. "Do you want to be a film critic?" he asked. Best I could say in response was that I wouldn't mind it, but I also wouldn't know how to get into that. If I could make a living watching movies, I would probably jump at the chance. Or, I'd hesitate just long enough to miss my chance, because that's what I do.

But seriously, I don't imagine giving up movies. When I hear people talk about the handful of movies they saw this year, I can barely fathom it. Like, why would you just exist in your own life all the time like that? Or is your life that exciting? (For the record, though, if all of my classes were as full of eager students like the Upward Bound classes I taught this summer, teaching might feel as exciting in practice as it does in my imagination.)

For now, I need my movies. I need my television. I need my boardgame and RPG time. And, more so lately than maybe ever before, I need my friend time. And, my kid time, of course. When any of these things overlap, that is just a magnificent bonus.

all we did is survive

My friend Shari mentioned that one of her problems with Rogue One was that lack of character arcs. And, then I went out to see Dunkirk. And, while I'm all for characters getting arcs and getting their own little stories--and I think I've made the point more than a few times in this blog that I can appreciate the arcs of characters beyond what the finite limits of a particular film allow--but sometimes, 1) I think that a certain kind of story doesn't necessarily need characters to really change as such and 2) you really shouldn't look to Star Wars movies for serious character arcs, anyway. (Sure, characters have their plot arcs, but their changes are shallow, more plot-driven than personality-driven.)


And, Dunkirk makes fantastic use of its actors, and offers up characters that are easy to follow, relatively easy to care about, and situations that are both simple enough to follow and surprisingly complicated at times, with sequences cut together out of order just as the story gets more complex, more difficult for the characters...

I should explain that.

Let me backtrack.

Nolan's latest starts with a bit of the stuff that I'm starting to get tired of in film--a bit of text to describe the setting, because the general audience is apparently made of idiots. Except, Nolan actually plays with the text a little, by intercutting four lines of text, one at a time, with the opening action, and the last couple lines are something like "waiting for deliverance" cut to action "waiting for a miracle" and it's clear before we've even really seen the horror of all of these soldiers stuck on the beach that this isn't going to go well. (My primary complaint with Dunkirk, actually, is that the film doesn't follow enough characters who don't survive... And I guess that's a minor SPOILER. Oops.)

So then, we get a few subtitles early on, setting up three interconnected and eventually overlapping stories: "1. The Mole | one week" "1. The Sea | one day" and "3. The Air | one hour." Essentially, each of these stories takes as long as it says, and they all end at about the same time... Well, the "sea" story extends past the others (and past its "hour") but the times all connect together just before the end of the film. Nolan's choice to overlay these differently paced stories on top of one another as if they are concurrent (when anyone paying attention will figure out fairly early that they are not) creates a strange sort of beast. A few times, we see scenes we've already seen, but from a different perspective. Other times, we see characters--notably Cillian Murphy's "Shivering Soldier" (so many of the characters go unnamed, which adds to the effect I'm about to describe)--already changed (but not in a character arc sort of way) by events we have not seen yet... Actually, another minor SPOILER, Murphy is tangentially connected earlier to the "one week" story, but we never actually see what happens to him to get him to the "one day" story; we just know it was bad, the ship he was on went down and he was the only survivor. We see well ahead of time (in the "one hour" story) what will happen with the young men fleeing the beach in an abandoned boat in the "one week" story, but it doesn't ruin the story, because this story is not built on the cohesiveness of its time, nor the specificity of its characters. It is built on something more like the idea of the chaos (including the chaos of time and the experience of it) surrounding these events, which are a series of repetitive attempts to leave Dunkirk and attacks stopping those attempts. Young men fleeing a war their losing make it onto ships, then those ships go down, and those young men have to find a new way to leave. It's simple. And so is its repetition, and the cycling of these three layers over each other adds to both the simplicity of understanding and complexity of presentation of the action.

And, I hope that made sense.

Nolan explained it to Premiere like this:

For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel.

To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story, one again, is very simple.

Coming back to the top, though, Dunkirk doesn't need characters to change through the action. These are human beings afraid for their lives, or setting out to defend others (afraid or not). There is no act one setup to establish characters before the action gets going. Tom Hardy's Farrier, a fighter pilot in the "one hour" story, starts the story setting out to protect other soldiers and continues to do just that. There are plot arcs but his character doesn't change. Even--bigger SPOILER, but slightly vague--the very end of his part of the story doesn't really represent a change, because we had no reason not to expect that he might sacrifice himself in such a way. Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson sets out to rescue men from Dunkirk and does that. We get to know him a little better as the action goes on, but that is not the same thing as a character arc. Fionn Whitehead's Tommy and Aneurin Barnard's Gibson start the film wanting to flee and spend the film trying, again and again, to do so. These are soldiers. Or good men (and women, though we barely see them) going to help soldiers. There doesn't need to be scripted depth. There doesn't need to be arbitrary arcs put upon them separate from the action. I had a thought, perhaps unfair, after the film. Pearl Harbor is what happens to a story like this when you put arbitrary character arcs onto it. You get cheap romance, shallow interpersonal conflict, and the historical action--arguably the point to making the movie in the first place--gets shunted to the side...

That being said, playing soldiers and the like too simply results in crap like the ending of Behind Enemy Lines where Owen Wilson randomly decides he really likes being in the Navy because reasons. Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, for example, sticks around at Dunkirk in the end (not much of a SPOILER) to help the French troops leave, which is nice, but somewhat arbitrary as we've spent no time getting to know Bolton, and this action is not a surprise, or something out of character. It's just good soldier is good solider, too simple. And, could actually use a little more depth to the decision (or maybe Bolton is based on a real guy and that choice was a big deal in history; I don't know enough about the history here to be sure.)

As I said, I love a good character arc. I love a film that takes its time and let's characters grow and change. And, while I liked Rogue One, it was definitely a flawed film. I imagine a longer version, in which we really get to know Jyn and understand why she was a criminal, why it makes sense to turn from criminal to rebel (separate from the obviousness of the plot point of seeing her father killed), get to know Cassian and see how this guy who murders a guy in his first scene (and, like Han Solo, who kinda did the same so many years before, there is little reason for him to be a better man later; it just happens), get to know Chirrut and Baze and appreciate their relationship even more, see why their sacrifice makes sense... I'm reminded of Glory, a very different, historical film, but one that also ends with (SPOILER for a two decades' old movie, and for history) the characters all dying, but there has been more character-driven buildup, we've gotten to know Shaw and Trip and Forbes and Rawlins and we've come to care about them... Then again, that's a problem generally with newer films compared to older ones--storytelling has changed, simplified, because so many of the beats have been hit so many times in so many films that we don't need to linger on them anymore. But imagine a version of Rogue One that does linger on its beats, that spends time with the main characters on that ship, having just seen Jedha City destroyed, and they actually have to deal with that fact, deal with what it means, and let the gravity of it sink in. But even that is not a new problem. Alec Guinness had some gravitas to him, to be sure, but Alderaan is destroyed and all we get is one old man having to sit down? Old men sit down all the time. Where is the meditation on the horrific reality of an entire planet being destroyed, millions of lives being snuffed out? Similarly, in The Force Awakens, multiple planets (or moons or whatever; don't go to Star Wars for science that makes sense) are destroyed and they might as well just be a handful of deaths. Or one. The film has no time to really consider the impact of most, if not all, of its horrors.

Dunkirk, on the other hand, by keeping most of its characters nameless, or nearly nameless, universalizes the various attacks to create a very repetitive horror in vivid detail. Not much gore, but plenty of explosions and men drowning. And, the sound design--some of the scenes are hard to watch, and rightly so, because of the way gunshots and explosions and the creaking of metal tears through the silence. (And some sequences go virtually without dialogue, so there is a lot of silence as well.)

 

 

 

 

 

And now, I kinda want to watch The Lord of the Rings again, all half a day of it, or however long it takes to watch all those extended versions. Because, there's a fantasy film that (because it's a trilogy) takes its time, lets its characters live a little, and also pauses from time to time to linger on the horror of what's going on.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

i often wonder what she's thinking about

It's in one of those melancholic scenes I was talking about yesterday that Brendan says today's title. He and Conor are sitting on the stairs watching their mother out on the porch. Seems she rushes home from work every day to sit in the sun and read her papers, and she has a drink. Then the sun goes behind a nearby tall tree and she goes inside. Brendan says she wants to vacation in Spain but their father won't take her. And, he wonders what she thinks about.

Earlier in the film, Conor spelled out a similar notion, except it's not about the wondering, it's about imagining, deciding for the version of another person inside your head. He tells Eamon,

When you don't know someone, they're more interesting. They can be anything you want them to be. But, when you know them, there's limits to them.

Eamon says that doesn't make sense, and in some handwritten notes I scribbled sometime last week, I said of Eamon's response, "Clearly, he's never fallen for someone." He's got his rabbits and he seems to easily attach himself to Conor, but seriously, for someone capable of such creativity, he is lacking in imagination. I mean, that's just basic stuff about other people. You never know everything in their heads, especially if they're strangers or just acquaintances, or someone new that you wish was something more--you have to imagine what might fill in the gaps in what you can see. If you're lucky, or if you're particularly clever, you'll turn out to be right about what makes the person who they are...

Darren, for example, seems to know a lot about Raphina considering he tells Conor that she never talks to anyone. Has he imagined it? Has he talked to her before? Did she reject him? When Conor tells her that kid behind him is his producer, is that a look of recognition on her face because she's met him before?


The same works 1) for movies, for characters in movies, and 2) in real life.

A movie can't tell us everything about a character. It gives us what we need in order to understand the character's role in the story, and maybe it throws in a little extra--again, like Eamon and his rabbits, or Penny sitting in the sun with her papers--but so much of their internal lives is left for us to imagine... or, unfortunately, for a lot of us to not even seek because we just aren't that interested. But, I'm interested. I imagine what characters are doing when they're not on screen. I imagine what characters were doing before we meet them at the start of the film or what they're doing after the credits roll.

Maybe that's weird. But, who hasn't fallen in love with the love interest in a movie? Or wished for the same weird best friend as the protagonist?

Like in real life, too. You know that scene in so many movies, the new couple is together on the train or in the park or some place public, and it's like they don't want to get to know each other directly just yet--too nervous--so they imagine together what nearby people are doing, who these strangers around them are. I do that. And, I've described before how I play out whole conversations before they happen sometimes. I wonder what people are thinking, what they're doing, when they're not around me. Family members, friends, with lives of their own. Of course. I mean, of course they've got lives of their own. But, I guess I'm jealous sometimes. Inappropriately, maybe. But, I am.

Jealous of people in movies, too. Like Conor and his friends putting their band together, I would have loved to do something like that when I was that age.

People in movies, they have clearly defined goals most of the time. Clearly defined motives and obvious signs as to when they've made it. Guy gets the girl. Girls gets the guy. Guy gets his dream job. Girl gets a promotion. Or saves the world. So many levels to it, but so clear. Life is not nearly often enough so clear. Even if you know what you want, you don't always know how to get it. Or maybe it's just impossible. In a movie, there's some way around the impossible. A way to get the guy, get the job, win the fight, whatever. Anything is possible.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

you're not happy being sad

Sing Street--and, I think I'm about done with this film, I swear--begins with Conor playing guitar and making up lyrics on the spot, mostly basing them on the phrases he can hear his parents Robert and Penny yelling from downstairs. Then you get a news report about poor folks from Ireland migrating to England to look for something better. Then, Robert and Penny gather their three kids together to announce that they're having money troubles and Conor has to transfer schools. He was going to a Jesuit school but now he's headed to the Christian Brothers (Catholic) school, Synge Street. In passing, we also learn that Brendan has dropped out of college. In the first three minutes, we know so much about what's to come. It's a great example of how to set up the status quo quickly. Conor is a musician. His parents' marriage is coming apart. Brendan is a slacker. And, Conor is headed to a new school. The plot is in motion.

That opening bit with the singing and parents yelling, specifically, though--that one is brilliant because it sets up story beats and sets a mood. Sing Street is a decidedly optimistic film, but it is built on a melancholic foundation. I think this is why I like it so much; I can relate. I'm optimistic, or I try to be; but I am also so very often a cynic and a pessimist. And melancholy is certainly one of my settings.

(Like if you were all watching my version of Inside Out, there wouldn't just be Sadness but also Melancholy, and they would team up sometimes (like last night while I was writing this blog. But there's also Joy, or at least some version of Happiness. And, I think I've got a Dreamer in there. And, my Anger probably sits around in the control room thinking about current politics and the state of the dishes in the kitchen sink...

And, that was an odd tangent.)

Thirteen minutes in, we've met Brother Baxter, we've met Barry, we've met Darren, and now we meet Raphina. In the next few minutes, we'll meet everyone else that matters, Eamon and the rest of the band.

And more of that Irish melancholy. Eamon's father is at Saint John of God's, "a place alcoholics go to get off the drink, stop beating up their wives and kids... And neighbors." We already know Conor's parents aren't happy. Barry's parents are drug addicts and we see his father hit him. Raphina has no parents, and while she is never explicit about what happened with them, it seems that her father abused her sexually (and he was later hit by a car) and her mother was sent to a mental institution. Meanwhile, there's Brother Baxter, whose jobs it is to teach the boys at Synge Street to be good Catholic boys. And, he shoves Conor's face into a sink full of water, and rubs soap on his face as well, to get makeup off of him, and the scene is briefly quite violent and then quite sad.

Twenty minutes in, the band is together, the band is named--Sing Street. Ten minutes later, they shoot their first video--"The Riddle of the Model"--and everything is in place. Well, I suppose there's one more piece, but Raphina's boyfriend is less important to the plot than her dreams of being a model are (and he's introduced just a couple minutes later, anyway.)


But, what is really great here is not just that Sing Street puts all its pieces together so efficiently, but also that each piece connects to the plot. There are superfluous details, to be sure--like Eamon's rabbits, except even that bit of characterization fits with his friendliness and his eagerness to please. For comparison, I saw 47 Meters Down today, and like last year's shark movie, The Shallows (which I reviewed on YouTube) they throw in some big life moment that's going on right when all this shark business happens. It's unnecessary, it adds very little in The Shallows and adds nothing to 47 Meters Down. But here--here all of these little things add up to a surprisingly cohesive whole. All the abusive or damages parents produce a situation ripe for someone like Brother Baxter to be the asshole that he is. And, it sets Ireland, or at least Dublin, as a place where of course dreams are worth following because all that normal get-married-and-have-kids bullshit clearly isn't working. Why not run away when there's no reason to think staying will amount to anything?

Monday, July 17, 2017

start up the time machine

Let's go back in time to when everything was okay.

Surely, that's a time that exists. Movies call us back, make us remember the past in very specific ways, offer up rose-colored glasses and limited perspectives to make the past be just a smaller version of itself. If it can fit in a script, fit on a screen, then we don't have to remember how it really was, don't have to remember that life was always difficult. As kids, sure, we didn't know enough to know enough about what was wrong. Or maybe we grew up in a cult that told us the world was ending and all those Cold War news stories and movies were going to come true so we never really figured out how life was supposed to work, never imagined the far off future would really come. And, now it's here. And, I just want to watch this nice little movie set in the 1980s because sometimes it feels like this future I've found myself grown up in is too far outside my control to be any good. Don't get me wrong; sometimes it's wonderful, sometimes I have great times with my kids, or play fun games with friends, sometimes I get to spend time with amazing people, an amazing person, someone who makes it all seem better. But, sometimes... Sometimes, a good day can twist into a bad day in naught but a moment. And, I need something like Sing Street to untwist it...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





I think back on my own private school, wooden paddles and overbearing teachers. Ridiculous demands based on some imaginary god's rulings from longer ago than most of our societal norms were even put together yet. I remember getting into trouble a lot. I remember having fun. I remember being sad. I remember being happy. I remember playing games on the playground, climbing on and jumping off the bars. I remember having crushes on girls and finding stupid ways to let them know... or not. I remember being enamored, enlightened, enraged, energized. Mostly I remember being afraid to express myself a lot of the time because I knew someone was going to punish me. A teacher with a paddle. God. Someone.

O wish I had an outlet like a band in high school. I wish I had something more... normal? I'm reminded sometimes that I'll never be normal, that I've never been normal. There's no point sometimes to making certain changes because they won't work or won't stick. I am who I am. I thought years ago I was past the point of thinking I didn't deserve good things in my life. Then, in a stray unpleasant moment, I'm reminded of that feeling. And, I'm not surprised.

What I want is to go after the girl, go after the dream, run away on a boat for England and all that. Well, not really a boat, and not really England. The real girl is too good for me. So, I imagine the movie girl--Raphina today--and the real one can live her life, I can life mine, and we don't have to ruin it. I don't have to ruin it.

This is why this blog persists. It doesn't matter how few people read it. I need somewhere to talk to myself, if to no one else, about movies, about life. Most of the time, it helps.

Other times, it's like my kingdom for a time machine. I could go back in time to the real 1980s, tell my young self to keep dreaming big, to start ignoring all the bullshit in church and school sooner and actually imagine the future.