Wednesday, January 31, 2018

our country’s oldest groundhog festival

Today is Day 1279, which means that 1278 days ago... No, that's that not true. Day 1000, I stopped this blog. I had completed (except for a few edits required by faculty later) my master's thesis about blogging and about the presentation of identity on the Internet, and I decided a few days earlier that 1000 was a nice round number and I would finish up this thing and do something else. I tried my hand at YouTube movie reviews for a bit, tried to build a review blog, and eventually made my way back here. So, really, it was 1644 days ago that I sat down to watch Groundhog Day and write about it. Every day. For a year.

And, I altered the course of my life.

Now, arguably, every little decision does that. One of the points you could take from Groundhog Day. Each little decision has repercussions. I wish the shows around them were better (so I could recommend them), because Joan of Arcadia had a science fair scene and John from Cincinnati had a parking lot barbecue scene that visualized really well the way people and events can connect and twist and affect one another.

And, every movie does that, too. Which is the big theme in recent months in this blog as I return to movies I watched a lot when I was young. Not just movies that made an impact, but movies that, however big or small their impact, had repeat viewings. I come back to Roger Ebert's 1999 review of Star Wars, that line about how the film "has colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories." Groundhog Day, along with these films I've been returning to these last several months, has certainly done just that--colonized my imagination. Spend as much time with anything as I have with this film, especially--somewhere over 400 times just for this blog, now, plus all the casual viewings in the intervening 20 years between the film's release in February 1993 and Day 1 of this blog, 2 August 2013--and it leaves a mark. It changes your brain chemistry. It alters the way you look at the world. I've still got one of my WWPCD bracelets, though I don't wear it much because apparently my wrists don't much like the material, but the bracelet doesn't matter when the message is ingrained inside my head already.

In his original review of Star Wars, Roger talks about "an out-of-body experience" in which his "imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them." The way I figure it, if you can't suspend your disbelief at least a little bit when you're watching a movie, you might as well not even be there, you should probably find something else to occupy your spare time. If you can be there, on the screen, in the screen with the characters, or be those characters, then you know how great it can be sometimes, how horribly fun and tragically painful, how transcendent, how devastating. Today, for example, I'm in the middle of my last week of winter break, spring semester starts next week, and I started feeling sick last night before bed and woke up feeling worse. So, I sat around on the couch most of the day, covered in a blanket, catching up on some tv and then watching a couple movies (other than Groundhog Day, I mean, which has just gotten to the first resumption of Phil's Groundhog Day as I write). I watched again Get Out, and enjoyed some of its setup that I wouldn't have thoroughly understood the first time, on the big screen little less than eleven months ago, and was taken in by the performances, and the bizarre behaviors that tip off Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to the strange shit going on around him. And, I could be there, feel the horror, the confusion. Then, I watched Terror in Beverly Hills, ostensibly an action movie from the 80s, but very light on action, and quite boring through most of its runtime. But, even that film had one exchange, between Frank Stallone's Hack Stone and Cameron Mitchell's Captain Stills in which they felt like maybe they were real people and not shallow caricatures written and directed by, well, honestly foreigners who weren't good with the English language, and who were trying to make an action film without understanding the fundamentals that make such a thing work for an audience. Still, it had its moment.

Not punctum, but a moment in which I could get into even this poorly constructed, poorly directed, poorly acted film. When the film is done well, it's even easier.

Nonetheless, I do not subscribe to the idea that a film has to be good to be enjoyable, nor does a film being bad mean that it is not enjoyable. I don't have to like it to appreciate that a film is well-made, nor does my liking a film mean I automatically assume it is great. Two of my favorite films last year, for example, were Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze. Each enjoyable, each with nice messages, each with moments of greatness. And, I put them on my top ten list for the year. But, are they great films? No, I suppose not. But, they grabbed my imagination and pulled me into the screen and showed me pieces of myself laid bare, they offered me moments of joy and moments of sadness. In his review of The Longest Yard, Roger has to justify giving a forgettable film a thumbs up three weeks after the fact. Three weeks he spent at Cannes, watching films that were great, films that strived for greatness, films that reached it. "I do not say that I was wrong about the film," he writes. "I said what I sincerely believed at the time. I believed it as one might believe in a good cup of coffee." He writes about "a generic approach to film criticism, in which the starting point for a review is the question of what a movie sets out to achieve." He writes:

"The Longest Yard" more or less achieves what most of the people attending it will expect. Most of its audience will be satisfied enough when they leave the theater, although few will feel compelled to rent it on video to share with their friends. So, yes, it's a fair example of what it is.

I would however be filled with remorse if I did not urge you to consider the underlying melancholy of this review and seek out a movie you could have an interesting conversation about. I have just come from 12 days at Cannes during which several times a day I was reminded that movies can enrich our lives, instead of just helping us get through them.

One of the reasons I come back to Roger so often when I might not find the right words myself to talk about a film is that he understands that film is neither purely art or purely entertainment but something entirely, fundamentally, itself. And he loves it. Even when he hates it. Groundhog Day has enriched my life. Brigsby Bear enriched my life. Dave Made a Maze enriched my life. So many of the film's I've been writing about in recent months in this blog--and, note, I would not contend that all of them have--have enriched my life. Sometimes, a film just helping me through life is enough, though. When it's more--that is... I'm not sure one word would sell it.

It's everything.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

i may not be the classiest chick in this school

So, it comes down to this: what did I get from Grease 2 at six years old? And from all those many times watching it again over the next decade or more. I've already noted that 1982 may have been when I started to love musicals--three of them in my list of eight films for that year in this deconstruction of my childhood experience with movies. But, what else was there? For that matter, how do all these movies start to formulate together an explicit version of who I might be in the future?

I'm looking at the list so far and wondering just how many of these movies suggest the very thing I've suggested is wrong with the Grease films--that you need to change who you are to get with the people you want. From Arthur to The Fox and the Hound, from Meatballs to Blackbeard's Ghost, so many of these movies involve people either having to change who they are to be accepted, that the world demands you to be one way, and you better be that way or you will be shunned, you will be put down, and your world will be a mess so pain and shame and depression. None of these movies so far really get into the depth of that affect, but look at Copper and Tod who just want to be friends but can't because tradition puts them at odds with one another, look at Michael Carrington who just might have won Stephanie over with his vocabulary alone if he had just tutored her a bit more. (This film taught me the word "incestuous", by the way.) He's cute enough, and she is on her way to turning away from the Pink Lady / T-Bird dynamic. One can actually imagine Stephanie going off to college just in time for the Free Speech Movement and anti-war protests and second-wave feminism and embracing all of it.

Or maybe that's just my own hope.

That maybe, just by the fact that she's the lead here, she might amount to something better than the role life has offered her. Working class, tangential part of a motorcycle gang because maybe her daily life doesn't suggest anything better on the path ahead. We see the T-Birds working with the coach (it could just be their P.E. class--I assume it's after school since Stephanie is wearing pants) because for them, in 1961, varsity might feel like a way out of their lives, a ticket to college and something that doesn't, as they joke earlier, make them "a burden on society".

Watching the film as a kid I knew nothing about sixties politics, of course. I'd heard of Vietnam but I thought of this film as a 50s movie, and my mother talked about the 50s like Republicans might today--all positive stuff about how great it was, all the happy families with white picket fences and whatnot. I just wanted Michael to win Stephanie's attention and for Paulette to win Johnny's, and for Dolores to be happier (even if it took some pairing the spares to make it happen. Mr. Stuart and Miss Mason deserved to be happy, but mostly because they seem to like each other right away, not because lazy writing means they're the only adults in the film whose future might matter in regards to the story's themes.

Romance, signing, motorcycle action (that felt much more exciting back then than it feels now; seriously, the chase that results in Michael's "death" is so short and kinda boring, now), some comedic bits, and the American Dream notion that anybody could succeed if they just try hard enough--this was a fantastic example of what a film could offer. And, while most of it went right over my head at the time, this thing was full of sexual innuendo that I'm sure what subconsciously fueling future problems for me.

Keep in mind, I'm growing up in a nice conservative religious environment, but this movie hit all the 50s nostalgia buttons for my mother, and that overpowered the sexually suggestive content. Meanwhile, all that stuff is going into my head either way, saved for later.

Monday, January 29, 2018

charades, and pretty lies

I was going to start today's entry with a note I neglected yesterday: the first Grease does have one beat that the sequel doesn't--while Sandy changes for Danny and Michael changes for Stephanie, Stephanie doesn't change at all for Michael, but Danny does at least try to change for Sandy. He tries out for varsity sports, tries to clean up his image. It doesn't really take but Sandy's change covers the distance between them enough to make up for it. Stephanie, on the other hand, gets away with not even trying, yet Grease 2 almost feels like it wants us to see her as a feminist icon of a sort for the 60s setting, whereas Sandy was a good girl from the 50s until her makeover.

I was going to argue, counter to the obvious point I made yesterday--that the message of both films is a bad one--that taking as singular instances, they're not so bad. If Sandy wants to change for Danny, that's on her. If Michael wants to change for Stephanie, that's on him. But, then 1) it becomes readily important to recognize that movies don't work that way--a singular instance in a self-contained story is almost automatically universalized in the mind of the viewer, and a well-made film (not that Grease or Grease 2 is a particularly great film) turns the specific into the every. 2) I saw Call Me By Your Name again this evening and I would rather deal with a tangential issue. Not whether or not it's okay to choose to change for someone else, but rather the larger forces that make someone have to.

Taking Grease and Grease 2 as the case studies, Sandy is very much stuck in the American 50s, though she yearns for something more. We fault her change in the end because it's all on her when Danny should have to change, too, sure, but also because she's changing away from what's "normal", what's "proper", what's "acceptable." Michael makes that same change (and as I said yesterday, it's more acceptable in him because's he's the guy), but specifically laments in "Charades" that he's a "costumed fool trapped in a tragic game." It's not comparable to the situation in Call Me By Your Name or in far too many real world places where people are rejected over their gender identity or sexuality. But, the point is the same in that it is outward forces that create the situation where this change has to happen. Stephanie can't want a guy like Michael because she's stuck in a 50s cycle of tough guys in leather and their women as property. Before the first scene of Grease 2, of course, she has rejected part of that setup, but she remains a Pink Lady through the school year nonetheless. It's all she knows.

As if that's a good excuse. What you know, what people put upon you, and what you want--these things don't have to be the same. And, frankly, it's despicable that parents and religious figures, and politicians, try to force people into traditional roles. Honestly, I want to say that Sandy's change is awesome, good for her, and all that, because fuck the wholesome girl-next-door bullshit, fuck remaining a virgin just because society says you're supposed to. And, if fixing up a motorcycle can get you the girl, Michael, have the fuck at it. He even tries to be honest about it the very next morning after his debut outside the bowling alley. (Unlike Louis' outright lies about war to get Sharon into bed (even if the double entendres in "Let's Do It for Our Country" are quite clever).)

But, you really shouldn't wear a leather jacket without a shirt under it. That look just doesn't work.

Well, maybe when its' just a vest and you've got mussed up hair from pulling off your helmet and goggles...


 

 

 

 

 

It's weird trying to write about Call Me By Your Name and Grease 2 at the same time. They are different ends of multiple spectrums by which one might judge films. I mean, take these lyrics from "Prowlin'":

There's a female butcher, at the luncheon meat display
Got the best tongue in town, she delivers both night and day!
See the apple of your eye, stackin' peaches in a five foot pile
Just waitin' some guy to come, and take her rollin' down the aisle!

Versus this bit from Call Me By Your Name, one of the best scenes in any film last year:

We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything--what a waste!

Night and day. Teenage boys (played by guys in their 20s) talking about scoring with girls who work at the grocery store versus a father talking honestly with his son about relationships and embracing how you feel and who you are.

There's a line--in Italian, so I don't know about the exact translation--in Call Me By Your Name: "Cinema is a mirror of reality and it is a filter." And, in reality, we change who we are in order to be accepted by new people, new friends. In order to get the guy, get the girl... get the nonbinary person. A film suggesting that you need to change--that's not right. But, we do it all the time. What matters is why. If Sandy is happy with Danny after putting on those tight pants and changing her hair, good for her. If Michael can be happy as a T-Bird, and he and Stephanie can love one another, good for them. Just as long as they don't let anyone tell them who to be.

Movies about this stuff, about identity and change and love and all the stuff we roll up together because we can't let anything be simple--gotta love 'em.

And, on the one hand, no, one movie, one story, one message doesn't have to be universal. But, if the audience didn't take in messages as things larger than just that one story, movies wouldn't be worth watching. The way we tell stories like these--or any stories--matters because how we choose to represent our ideas about identity and about love and romance, about anything, reinforces and recreates those things in reality. Life inspires art inspires life, and it circles around and around and around. It's award season so there are all over the Internet people talking about keeping politics out of movies and music and awards and whatever, and the last few days, there have been some great responses, because art in any form has always been political, but more importantly has always been an echo and a filter, and a building block, of life. Art can push reality in one direction or another. Life can push back or life can go with the flow. And, accordingly, art can keep pushing, or remind us where we are, or both. And, I could keep repeating the same point with different wording, but that would just be another echo of the same idea.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

where a guy’s guaranteed to score

It's actually strange watching Grease 2 again after many years because it is wide screen. I think our copy was recorded off cable, back when they just cropped the edges rather than having black bars at the top and bottom. And, kids, back in my day, the television screen wasn't wide enough to show the whole movie without doing one of those things.

Immediate observation: the opening scenes of this movie move a little too quickly. It's the first day of school, it's a week later, it's bowling night, then it's time to work on the talent contest. Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) and Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) have a two-part meet cute, with him enamored by her when she' spitting on the skirt over her capris, and then her kissing him to piss off Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed) at the bowling alley. It's both too simple and weirdly complicated. More than half an hour before "Cool Rider" gives Michael a goal and him writing essays for the T-Birds for money gives him the means.

And, it just occurred to me that knowing the lyrics to "Reproduction" when I was six might be odd.

 

 

 

 

 

As often happens on the first day returning to some old movie, I'm neglecting the writing. Just sitting here, singing along, and looking for more good old reviews besides my usual go to, Roger Ebert (who did not care for this movie at all.

Obviously, the central conceit for this film is a reversal of the original--the tough one is the girl, the foreigner is the guy--but Nic Holas, writing for Junkee, 23 January 2015, makes a great comparison between a few of the songs by the main couples. Stephanie's "here's where I speak my truth" moment, as Holas puts it, comes in the form of "Cool Rider". The equivalent in the original, despite the role reversal, is Sandy's "Hopelessly Devoted to You". Stephanie's song is an anthemic, (sort of) feminist take on an urge for a rugged Mr. Right; Stephanie won't be T-Bird property when she can instead be Miss Independent. Sandy, on the other hand, is stuck on the same kind of guy but is more desperately subscribing to submitting. On the other hand, what Holas calls "Pretty Boys with Feelings" comes in Danny's performance of "Sandy" and Michael's performance of "Charades." The former is basically Danny whining about him not getting to date rape Sandy, whereas the latter is Michael lamenting his inability to be himself and still have Stephanie's interest... Actually, I guess both men are lamenting being themselves; Michael's self just happens to be a little nicer.

A better comparison might be to compare "Cool Rider" to "Sandy" and "Charades" to "Hopelessly Devoted to You." I mean, that's the point. Michael is Sandy. Stephanie is Danny. And, both films offer the same problematic message--changing who you are is a perfectly acceptable way to find love. "Cool Rider" and "Sandy" are both about demanding something from your partner rather than letting them be themselves. "Charades" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" are not quite as much the same, though. They're both sad, but "Charades" suggests perhaps something a little healthier. Michael may be changing, but he longs for the person inside to matter. "Sandy" has been rejected because of who she is inside and, well, ultimately, she's going to make... I was going to call it the bigger change, but I realize it is only a bigger change because it comes so abruptly at the end of the film. It is sexist to suggest that Michael's transformation is not as big; in fact, his is probably bigger. But, we are there to see it happen, one piece at a time; we see him working the spare parts, we see him riding in the park. We don't get a similar broken montage of Sandy learning to walk in those heels, we don't see her getting her hair redone.

And, I'm trying to say something more clearly than I think I'm managing.

The message of both of these films is already problematic. I think Grease 2 gets away with it a little more because of sexist bullshit, basically. Get away with it isn't even the right phrasing; I think we all know Sandy's transformation at the end of Grease is wrong. But so is Michael's. And, it isn't just because we see his transformation happen that we accept it. But because, the young man who isn't so masculine making strides toward being more so is more socially acceptable than Sandy making strides toward being a little trashy.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

let’s go to the movies

Interesting movie connection, since I also watched The Jerk (1185 1186 1187 1188) for this childhood deconstruction phase of the blog: Steve Martin was supposed to play Rooster in Annie but he and Bernadette Peters had recently broken up, so he opted out.

Interesting movie connection: when Annie, Grace, and Daddy Warbucks go to the movies, they see Camille. First of all, the lyrics to the original-for-the-film-version song "Let's Go to the Movies" actually SPOIL the ending to Camille--

"and Greta Garbo is probably crying
while Robert Taylor
is locked in her dying embrace.

--but second of all--and probably the reason Camille is the film used (even though, its class-divided romance plot relates to Annie somewhat)--Annie's supervising editor Margaret Booth also edited Camille back in 1936.

The classist stuff of Annie is interesting, despite mostly being a shallow layer of flavor. By boiling down Little Orphan Annie to just her rags-to-riches origin story, the film insists on the importance of the class stuff while also mostly ignoring them for song and dance numbers. But, regarding, for example, the "Let's Go to the Movies" sequence mentioned above, it is actually interesting that by 1931, the movies were becoming a lower-class thing. Annie mentions that Pepper had been to the movies once and that Miss Hannigan goes all the time, but Warbucks' buys out the entire theater (or has Punjab do it, anyway) and then there's the big song-and-dance number that makes it feel even fancier (even though the biggest dance number so far was the orphans). Prior to the introduction of sound in film--the majority of theaters were fitted with sound in 1930. "By 1931, theaters without sound were in the minority; by 1934, they had all but disappeared" (Butsch, 2001, p.109). Some seven thousand theaters closed when they couldn't afford to install sound systems. Talkies were the thing now. Audiences became less rowdy. The industry was transformed. Movie palaces like the one in Annie--Radio City Music Hall--"redefined the evening from one of champagne to one of popcorn and soda. They drastically reduced prices, eliminated or reduced the stage shows, cut staffs, and redefined their jobs." When I saw Annie in 1982, most movie theaters were still single-screen; it was later in the 80s that many became multiplexes or new multiplexes sprung up. There was definitely popcorn and soda, and probably red vines or something chocolate. Historian Liz Cohen "argue[s], working class people were being incorporated into [the] mass market and shopping at chain stores" and at the movie theater, "their behavior would reflect their orientation as consumers rather than as workers" (ibid, p. 111). I thought it was Richard Butsch's piece--"American Movie Audiences of the 1930s", International Labor and Working-Class History, 59, pp 106-120--that I read the argument, or maybe it was an argument I made in class when we discussed the piece, that the movie theater was essentially where popular culture was built in the 1920s and 30s. In the 80s, for me, the movie theater was definitely a place where something was built. Not just pieces of me, one film at a time, but a larger sense of the national identity, of American culture, of the world.

And, what a twisted sense of the world it was, too. And, of American culture, or at least what we claimed American culture was. Annie was part of this. Regarding the world, you've got the Asp and Punjab as mysterious figures from the orient. You've got reference to the Bolsheviks--but no broader reference to the Communists--and at age six I would not have gotten that. I probably just thought it was cool that Daddy Warbucks had people who want him dead; it made him almost like an action star, except older, balder, and richer. Regarding American culture, you've got the usual confusingly contradictory messages about the American Dream; you can lift yourself up by your bootstraps, but it sure would be nice to just have lots of money and servants, too. And, it's strange--and I definitely didn't get this at the time--that the one New Deal program they talk about specifically in the film involves putting children to work in National Parks. The same film that has all those orphans singing "It's the Hard Knock Life" and the Democrat president (and, in theory, after Annie's excitement) the Republican Oliver Warbucks want to put children to work. Warbucks has the Mona Lisa in his bathroom, has Winged Victory on his patio, but, yeah, children should be put to work.

But, is the tone of that last line from my current political bent? Or is Annie a good representation of a lot of what's wrong with this country, with commercial capitalism? Did that fact that Annie's luck here was so very distant from the lives of anyone I knew help turn me down my Leftist path when I was just six years of age? I've already acknowledged that I was headed toward a love for musicals.

And, that just got me wondering what the political makeup of the musical audience is. A brief Google search, some Broadway League demographics reports, and political bent doesn't seem to be a specific thing they measure. In terms of class, Broadway shows (whether on Broadway or elsewhere) certainly don't have a lower-class audience, but the audience is getting younger, and (really slowly) becoming less white. (I am hovering around the average age for the Boadway audience, by the way, but am significantly lower income than the average.)

I've been seeing musicals, even on stage, since I was a kid. Nowhere near as often as I would see, or do see now, movies, of course. (I saw two of the Oscar-nominated foreign-language films today, for example.) And, I'm brought back to Roger Ebert's 1999 review of the original Star Wars; "To see 'Star Wars' again after 20 years is to revisit a place in the mind," he writes. Star Wars, of course, is a cinematic touchstone--Roger calls it "a technical watershed the influenced many of the movies that came after" (and he's got a great paragraph, that I will not quote in its entirety here, about Star Wars, Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane). It is a fixture of modern cinema (and it's been with me my whole life. But, the same holds true for any film. Roger argues that Star Wars "has colonized our imagination" but I would argue that any movie, every movie, has done that, to some extent. Even the bad ones. Even the ones that are forgettable, or whose titles elude us... (That last one is my problem often; so many cheap direct-to-video movies rented in the 80s and 90s, they blend together sometimes.)

The big screen, the live stage--these are places where dreams are writ for all to see, where we can share these things and, perhaps, find some common ground among us, before we formulate those "versions" of the film in our separate heads afterward. Before we leave the dark of the theater and return to our individual lives, we can share something magical. It doesn't have to be a musical, of course, but musicals have that extra layer of magic, and the songs can get stuck in our heads for, well, ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

everything’s urgent to a democrat

Coming on the heels of On Golden Pond, the central premise of Annie--that the presence of a kid will inject some life in an old man (though Daddy Warbucks is not as old as Norman Thayer, Jr, of course) is quite a cliché, but Annie is built of different stuff--a shallow surface of classist structures and a rags to riches plot that might as well be a romantic comedy (a little bit Pretty Woman). Oddly enough, it is also a big departure from the comic strip.

Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks was not even always a regular presence in the comic. In the place of Warbucks' secretary (or whatever her title is) Grace Farrell (Ann Reinking), there's a Mrs. Warbucks in the comic, and she is not the nice woman Grace is. She doesn't like Annie and sends her back to the orphanage more than once. (An orphanage run initially by Miss Asthma and then by Miss Treat.) The first time she tries to return Annie, a "society friend" sees her and she keeps Annie instead. Then Oliver returns from a business trip and immediately forms a connection with Annie, as do the house staff. Like in the film, Warbucks makes his money off the sale of arms, he's a Republican. He doesn't like Roosevelt's New Deal--which is a brief, and somewhat arbitrary subplot in the film, but Annie's interest in helping people is taken by Roosevelt as a sign that Warbucks might concede to running the program (though, technically, he would only be running one piece of the the New Deal, involving the National Parks and putting children to work), and the film allows the audience to infer the same. If Warbucks can take in this singular orphan, if he can eventually (seemingly; though, again, the film is vague on the specifics) take in some of the other orphans, of course he can help poor people. Nevermind the Bolsheviks wanting him dead.

In the comic, Warbucks is a pick yourself up by your bootstraps kind of Republican; September 28, 1924, after meeting Annie the previous day's strip, he tells his wife, "Annie doesn't need charity--just give her an even break and she'll do the rest." 

October 3, 1924, he suggests she "just keep a stiff upper lip and everything will be jake." A biographical sketch of Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray in Arf! The Life and Times of Little Orphan Annie 1933-1945 by Harold Gray, says

Annie epitomized Mr. Gray's personal convictions that all Americans should act with honor, independence of though, and industry, mind their own business and remain true to the traditional pioneering virtues.

Without putting much commentary on it, the film is set quite deliberately smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. Miss Hannigan's bathtub gin, the street rats, the orphans. Warbucks has two teletype machines in his house, and can be seen looking at the ticker tape more than once. Warbucks has classic pieces of art around his house, and has the Mona Lisa hung in his bathroom, because "there's something interesting in that woman's smile [and he] might learn to like her." Warbucks has two bodyguards, dozens of staff, multiple cars, and a helicopter (that shouldn't actually exist for more than a decade, but hey they also watch a film that shouldn't exist for half a decade, so I guess that is just how rich Warbucks is). Mostly, the film is set when it is set because that is when the comic started. It ran from 1924 to 1974. The film is set in 1931...

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with Annie is it doesn't make much of an effort to be about any of these things. But, part of what makes the film enjoyable is that it doesn't make much of an effort to be about any of these things. I mean, "Tomorrow" works best when it's vaguely about anything that might make today a little grey. "Maybe" is better because it is about longing for parents, for family, not about bigger issues of not being poor (though there are hints of that in the details). It's a musical, after all. It deals in broad strokes, explicit emotions, and easy plot turns.

Still, the result is enjoyable. At six, I like it in the theater. Watching it many times later, it maybe felt a little more silly, but it still worked. The basic plot still works. And, songs like "Easy Street" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" suggest a lot of the underlying classist themes that, however much I try to judge a movie on its own terms, I wish there was more of.

It helps that the titular orphan is effectively self-reliant but also in need of love. She is a nice conservative example for the kids in the audience. The lack of depth around Warbucks' side of the story is simply because the film aims for children more than adults. It is a fun little fantasy, but it also reinforces conservative values that most any parent might want to instill in their kids.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

do i hear happiness in here?

I've seen Annie live a couple times, for a History of Popular Culture class I read a bunch of old Annie comics... (Though I swear I didn't end up using any of those for the resulting paper. I wrote about some other comic that I had never heard of before that--Bringing Up Father.) I saw the 2014 film version. (But not the 1999 one.) And, I have seen the 1982 film version of Annie more times than I can remember.

And, a warning, if you don't like musicals, I've got three on my list for 1982. In fact, it might be very easy to establish up front what I got from 1982 films on repeat in my home--I got a love of musicals. Just last week, my daughter and I saw the new production of Disney's Aladdin at the Pantages. And, we're thinking of getting some of the rush tickets for the Pasadena Playhouse's production of The Pirates of Penzance.

The film (and any stage production) is just the origin part of the Annie story, rounded out into a self-contained thing. The old comic got into a lot more satire and politics (notably, Harold Gray's comic strip would not have presented Roosevelt so nicely)--

--weird spy stories, and adventure tales. Bigger-than-life stuff that the film only really aims for in the third act when Rooster tries to kill Annie.

Of course, being a musical, everything is bigger than life. Cleaning floors (miserably) even becomes a fun song-and-dance number. And, that is what is great about musicals in general. Songs make the mundane more interesting, songs can convey powerful emotions simply, and can also make the outlandish (though there isn't much that's outlandish here but for Punjab's (who isn't normally in the musical but comes from the comic) magic) feel just as real as everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

Plus, in this case, the casually racist stuff is accompanied by a nice musical cue. (Also, while Punjab has actual things to do and lines to say, the Asp (also not usually in the musical but from the original comic) doesn't even have any lines.)

 

 

 

 

 

I had considered lingering on On Golden Pond for a few extra days, so I had not put much thought into what I might say about Annie. I will have more tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

not such a bad place to go

So, the structure could use some work, but the performances are amazing. That's the short version. Roger Ebert writes in his review about leaving "the theater feeling good and warm, and with a certain resolve to try to mend my own relationships and learn to start listening better." On Golden Pond is mostly the tale of an old couple, still adorable with one another, and the "grandson" they take in at their lakeside summer home. The father/daughter stuff is there, mostly under the surface, but it's almost apt--almost--that it remains off to the side, not quite... there.

Because, that's how it is for Chelsea and, especially, for Norman. For Chelsea, her problems with her father are deep-seated, so much a fundamental piece of who she is (especially when she comes back to Golden Pond) that it makes sense she has trouble talking about it, expressing it, confronting it. For Norman, his failing memory can't help matters. Plus, he doesn't even realize how he was with Chelsea, the insecurities he wakes in here, the hang ups he gave her so long ago. Early in the film, he asks after a photo (that is a real photo of Henry Fonda, Jane as a baby, and her mother (Henry's second wife) France's Seymour Brokaw), "Who the hell is that?" He doesn't recognize himself. He doesn't recognize his daughter. He doesn't recognize whoever the woman is in context of the film. Norman exists in a perpetual sort of present, or close to it. When Ethel is around, he does okay. When he's fishing with Billy, he does okay. But, on his own, he has trouble. He gets lost in the woods while picking strawberries.. He forgets he called the operator. But, he faces this with a good nature and a sarcastic wit. He faces Chelsea... Well, no, he never really faces Chelsea. When she goes skinny dipping with her mother, Norman stays inside, talks to Bill and then Billy. His line about Chelsea not liking to play games is dismissive of her even as Bill is effectively inviting her into the game and into the family's interactions.

For the film, this stuff is both the weakest parts--for reasons I outlined yesterday--and some of the strongest, because it sticks with you. Not because of its depth, but because of its realism. The details don't matter when there are problems between father and daughter. Old slights grow and fester, become something bigger than they ever were. And, if you were a kid when the slights happened, they are pieces of who you are, and when it was a parent's slight, it will always be huge. Even when you get older and think you can do without your parents, you want for them, want for their approval...

 

 

 

 

 

I don't think I'm saying what I want to say as clearly as I mean to say it. But that, too, is appropriate, I suppose.

We have the people that are fixtures in our lives. We need certain things from them. When we don't have it, the world might as well be torn open.

But, however much the Chelsea-Norman stuff is weak here, it is not because it doesn't make sense. Open wounds like Chelsea's are not easy to put into words. And, those open wounds can be twisted right up next to the good feelings that those same people give you. Family is not simple business. It's pain and comfort, both aged and ingrained.

As Roger puts it,

If Hepburn and Henry Fonda are legends, seen in the twilight of their lives, and if we've heard that Jane and Henry have had some of the same problems offscreen that they have in this story, does that make the movie simple gossip? No, not if the movie deals honestly with the problems, as this one does.

Honestly, but not necessarily thoroughly.

As people, they have apparently learned something about loving and caring that, as actors, they are able to communicate, even though the medium of this imperfect script.

And, there is the important detail. Even an imperfect script can make for a film that is, maybe not perfect, but far from imperfect.

Watching the movie, I felt I was witnessing something rare and valuable.

It works even when it doesn't. Hell, it works because it doesn't.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

running back here to you

But nevermind the personal rambling. I am sure there will be more later. For now, what about the movie?

Vincent Canby, writing for the New York Times, calls the original Broadway play "processed American cheese, smooth, infinitely spreadable and bland, with color added by the actors. The screen version... Is not much different in any superficial way." I immediately think of Homer Simpson sitting up all night eating an entire package of American cheese, not because it is particularly delicious but because it just so damn edible. Canby's choice of "smooth" is a good descriptor.

To be fair, Canby suggests that the film's cast "add more than color to this pasteurized product. 'On Golden Pond' now has the bite of a good old cheddar." It's not like Canby dislikes the film. Leave that to David Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, who calls the film "the cinematic equivalent of shrink-wrapping, in which all of the ideas, feelings, characters, and images are neatly separated and hermetically sealed to prevent spoilage, abrasion, or any contact with the natural world. ... The film exudes complacency and self-congratulation; it is a very cowardly, craven piece of ersatz art."

I'm somewhere closer to my old standby reviewer, Roger Ebert, who calls the film "a treasure for many reasons, but the best one, I think, is that I could believe it." And, he opens his review, as he often does, with a wonderful breakdown of what makes the film so good. He writes:

Simple affection is so rare in the movies. Shyness and resentment are also seldom seen. Love is much talked-about, but how often do we really believe that the characters are in love and not simply in a pleasant state of lust and like? Fragile emotions are hard to portray in a movie, and the movies that reach for them are more daring, really, than movies that bludgeon us with things like anger and revenge, which are easy to portray.

For me, this film lives and dies with Norman and Ethel. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn had never worked together, and purportedly had never even met before this film. Fonda started in the theater in 1925, his first screen role was in in 1935. Hepburn started in the theater back in 1928, and her first screen role was in 1932. But, they apparently had never crossed paths. But, every scene with the two of them feels like--in cinematic terms--they had starred in a few film noir detective films back in the 30s, a few screwball comedies in the 40s, and had been looking to work together again but just hadn't found the material for the intervening decades. They feel like two people who have actually spent 50 years circling each other, bantering with each other. Chalk that up to two Hollywood greats who could act circles around so many other stars, even at the tail end of their lives--Fonda would be too sick to attend and accept his Oscar for Best Actor in March, and he would die in August 1982; On Golden Pond was his final film. Hepburn, with a noticeable tremor that keep her head shaking, had backed away from film, reportedly telling an interviewer, "I've had my day--let the kids scramble and sweat it out." But, this story, which embraces old age, brought her again to the screen. She would do some television work and her final appearance on the big screen was Love Affair in 1994. She would die in 2003.

It's a good half hour into the film that Chelsea (Jane Fonda) arrives (along with Dabney Coleman as her Dentist boyfriend Bill, and Doug McKeon as his son, Billy.) I said yesterday that I didn't remember from the last time I watched this film (which was a long time ago) what the plot was. Really, it barely has anything that could be called a plot. There's a little bit a of a plot line with Norman and Billy fishing and getting so into catching the local legend, a large trout that Norman calls Walter, but a lot of the progression of that plot happens offscreen or in montage. It is clear from the way Jane plays some of her looks at her (real-life and on-screen) father, that there is something wrong there; that their relationship has some trouble to it. But, some of their troubled relationship is only clear on repeat viewing; he asks what kind of car she and Bill rented and she doesn't know; he presses her but she can only say that the car is green and ugly and breaks down a lot. A few minutes later, when Norman is talking to Bill, he asks if Billy has read Treasure Island and on repeat viewing one might wonder if Chelsea ever read it when she was young. (Later, Norman will give it to Billy and tell him to go read it.) And, Bill tells Norman, "Chelsea told me all about how you like to have a. Good time messing with people's heads" as Norman is being particularly difficult answering the question as to whether he (Bill) and Chelsea will be allowed to sleep together while at the cabin. (They are unmarried, so Bill has to ask.)

But, the overt disconnection between Chelsea and her father comes abruptly when Bill and Norman are playing Parcheesi. Bill tells Chelsea he's a "Parcheesi pro" when Norman only just taught him to play. Chelsea sits off by herself away from the other four.

Norman: Chelsea doesn't like playing games. We don't know why. Probably doesn't like losing.

Chelsea: I tend to panic when the competition gets too intense.

Norman: What's that supposed to mean?

Chelsea: Nothing.

Ethel: We play serious Parcheesi around here.

Chelsea: What I'd like to know is why you [Norman] playing games. You seem to like beating people. I wonder why.

There is something there. But, the film (and presumably the play) makes us do the work for it. This is 55 minutes into the movie. And, Chelsea is about to be absent for most of the rest of the film. the next day, Chelsea mopes in the gazebo by the lake. "I don't think I've ever grown up on Golden Pond," she tells her mother. In Los Angeles, she feels in charge; back here, she feels like a "little fat girl" and she calls her father a "God damn bastard" and says she's still answering to him, but there is no detail to any of it.

And, honestly, if not for an IMDb trivia note--

that Jane and Henry had a relationship similar to Chelsea and Norman, and there's one take--in the film--where Norman covers his face after Chelsea grabs his hand because Henry Fonda started to cry, "embarrassed by his tears"

--I would argue that this film would be better off without the troubled relationship between Chelsea and Norman. Keep it simple: Chelsea and Bill leave Billy at the cabin for a month while they go to Europe, and leave more screentime for Norman and Billy. The strain and the joy in their interactions make the third act work, with Hepburn showing up now and then to make it even better.

But, it's not necessarily that the film would be better off without the troubled Chelsea-Norman dynamic. Rather, it would be better off with more of it. The film is 109 minutes and it could actually use more conversation, more dialogue to explore these relationships. There is more depth (and more screentime) in the interaction between Bill and Norman in that sex talk than there ever really is between Norman and Chelsea. Well, I guess there's depth there, between Norman and Chelsea, but... To offer up a strained metaphor, it's like a really fucking deep pond that is only a pond across. The movie doesn't give it enough time. And, as it is, it distracts from the deeper stories here--Norman's aging and his forgetfulness, Norman and Ethel's lovely marriage after five decades, and Norman's rather adorable relationship with his potential grandson.

Monday, January 22, 2018

everyone looks back on their childhood

There was an asterisk next to a paranthetical "sort of" right at the end of yesterday's entry, my seventh and last with Halloween II. I had intended to add a footnote, but with the "works cited" bit, a footnote would have looked odd. So, now that footnote:

* Not that it is an interesting footnote. I just like to imagine sometimes that there is some reader here that pays close attention to the details and loves to nitpick when I get things wrong. I called Halloween II my final film for 1981, but it turns out, when I was sorting out my 1982 movies the other day, I figured out that the release date I had for today's film was wrong. On Golden Pond was released in December 1981, not January 1982. Or maybe--and I'm writing this on the eve of the Oscar nominations for 2017--it had a limited release in December, a wider release in January. I'm sure Hollywood distributors were playing that game back then, throwing their award-hopeful films right into the end of the calendar year for the short attention spans in the award voting blocks.

But, the discrepancy brings to mind a different topic--

And, the Amazon Prime video of the film just began with like a minute of blank screen and no sound. That was odd. And distracting. And, then familiar music (but not the most familiar music from this film) plays that I've heard many times. It's weird that this movie is one of the films of my childhood, actually. This is not really a film for kids.

SMASH CUT TO: naysayers pointing out that Halloween II isn't a film for kids. And, that's not what I mean by not really a film for kids. Parents might not want their kids to watch movies like Halloween II but kids who watch those kind of movies will (at least eventually) enjoy them. A movie like On Golden Pond, all slow and meditative, talking about love and starring old people--even if you want your kids to watch it, they probably won't enjoy it. Hell, I barely remember the plot, or if there even really is one. Though I have seen this movie many times, the last time I watched it was probably in the 80s.

And, that first scene with dialogue was great. Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is excited about the loons on the pond, calls Norman (Henry Fonda) over to hear them, and he says he doesn't hear a thing. A brief exchange, but it tells us a lot about the relationship between these two old folks.

--but that wasn't my topic.

I was thinking less about cute old couples and more about me as a little kid. While I was already seeing movies and even paying attention to them (behind-the-scenes stuff and in a few years (definitely by 1984) noticing stuff like the Oscars), I was also just a kid. And, when some of the films--all these ones I've been watching these last few months for this "deconstruction"--were on regular repeat in our house, sometimes the timing of any particular film is vague and blurry. Like, prior to maybe the mid 80s, my knowledge of when a particular movie came out is something that came later, looking back. (Except for the original Halloween because one was nice enough to put its date on the screen, and my mother would always point out that she saw it that night--October 30, 1978.)

And, sometimes weird mixups occur. Norman was just walking in the woods, and the musical cue had me thinking of the movie The Four Seasons, which came out earlier in 1981. Another cabin, another forest. And, while I don't specifically recall seeing On Golden Pond in the theater--I think I did, but the memory just isn't clear--I know I saw The Four Seasons in the theater, and that is also not really a film for kids. But hey, sometime late in '82 we'd rent Summer Lovers on video, and that was really not a film for kids, and my mom would turn it off when she realized. And, I'm not sure how I managed to be in the room for the beginning of that one, but I remembered it for a long time--casual nudity like that will get the attention of a six year old, I suppose. I finally watched the whole film sometime in the 90s.

But, that's what I am talking about. Watch enough movies... Live enough life, and the stuff from long ago starts to blend together. One memory has so many connections to so many other memories, that a single reminiscence will send you down a flowchart of connections, to different movies, different theaters, different moments.

For example, one of the old theaters on Colorado in Pasadena--I forget it's name (it was either the Esquire, the Colorado, or the United Artists, or some other theater I have forgotten ever existed; Pasadena had a lot of movie theaters) but we went there a lot--had an Mario Bros game in the lobby. Going to the movies used to involve playing video games. I mean, there are theaters still that have arcade games, but it is rare that it looks like anyone is playing them. I used to look forward to specific games at specific theaters. The Academy had Centipede, had Contra. The Pacific Hastings had Track & Field and Gauntlet and Rampage.

And other thoughts pop up. Katharine Hepburn was 74 when this film came out, Jane Fonda (who plays Ethel and Norman's daughter Chelsea) was 43 (and just about to turn 44). Just this week (though, I haven't gotten to any of the new season's episodes yet), Grace and Frankie premiered a new season on Netflix. Jane Fonda is 80 now. Older than Heburn was here. But, so very different are these presentations of age.

But, I was talking about movie theaters. I got to play more games at the Academy because it was cheap and we'd go for a double feature. I'd play a few games in between.

But then, I realize that this is Dabney Coleman as Bill, and it's like Mr. Hart and Judy Bernly from 9 to 5 hooked up after the events of that film, and that's just strange. But, those connections happen in my head, whether they make sense or not.

And the Academy had chocolate malts just like they had at Dodger Stadium. At the Pacific Hastings, they had good hot dogs and they had Icees. The General Cinema in the Santa Anita Fashion Park, for some reason, had the restrooms upstairs, though all four screens were on the same floor.

Late 80s and early 90s, well before Moviefone, and centuries before IMDb or Fandango, I had about a dozen different movie theaters' phone numbers memorized. I know, that is unbelievable--that I would be that obsessive about anything related to movies.

 

 

 

 

 

As I get lost for a bit just watching, it occurs to me that this movie will forever be linked to Ulee's Gold, too. For obvious reasons. Peter Fonda, Henry's son, Jane's brother, stars. And, he stars as an old man dealing with younger family members. Saw that movie at either the Esquire or the Colorado. Before they both closed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

in order to appease the gods

I'm torn, on this final day with Halloween II; I wanted to do some Christ-Figuring but I cannot decide if I want to do a serious sort of figuring focused on Loomis or a semi-serious one focused on Laurie, or a probably not serious at all one focused on Michael.

The vital question, because I think we know what I got from a movie like this back when I was five years old, is can I manage all three. And, in the process make an even bigger farce of the Kozlovic-Black Scale of Christ-Figuring.

Note, in case you are new: the scale is scored out of 25, but there are more than 25 items.

1 tangible and 2 central are easy here, but Michael and Loomis take the lead over Laurie with 3 outsider and Michael takes the lead with 4 divinely sourced (though I could make the argument for Loomis having that point, too). Michael: 4, Loomis: 3, Laurie: 2.

No one gets the point for 4.5 miraculous birth but Laurie gets the point for 5 alter ego. I'm tempted to give that point to Michael as well, since he's also the Boogeyman, and he's credited as The Shape. But, his alter egos are not really different guises, just different names. Cynthia Myers is a forgotten person that Laurie Strode used to be. Michael: 4, Loomis: 3, Laurie: 3.

I had to get out the original Kozlovic text (and he's got a few variations) to check the description for 6 special/normal. Obviously, Michael fits this one. But, Laurie's marksmanship at the end of Halloween II seems particularly impressive for a teenage girl in 1981... except she is a girl scout/tomboy final girl who, for all we know, has been hunting or shooting with her father many times. Loomis, as I have pointed out before, Loomis is not special; in fact, he's pretty bad at his day job and his killer-chasing volunteer gig. Michael: 5, Loomis: 3, Laurie: 3.

No 7 twelve associates for any of these three, nor does the 8 holy age point apply. The question is, does Marion (Nancy Stephens) count as a 9 judas figure for dragging Loomis away from Haddonfield? I'm inclined to say yes. Then there is 10 mary magdalene-figure; for Michael, this would be Judith. Laurie would be his 10.5 virgin mary-figure, Loomis his 11 john the baptist-figure. Helpful, giving Michael a bigger lead. Michael: 8, Loomis: 4, Laurie: 3.

I want to give Michael more than just one point for 12 death and resurrection because just in this film, he is thought dead once in context, once in the “previously on Halloween“, and in the larger franchise, he's thought dead again at the end of this one. If I count that last one, Loomis also gets a point... So I'm not going to count it. This movie only (even though that makes problematic Judith for #10). However, I will also count Loomis' "death" at the end of the film for 13 triumphalism because he earns that one. Loomis also gets 14 service to lessers and 15 willing sacrifice, because folks around Haddonfield are ungrateful, and Loomis just keeps doing what he' scoring because Michael needs to be stopped. Loomis is closing the gap, and Laurie is getting left behind.. Michael: 9, Loomis: 7, Laurie: 3.

I am inclined to give Laurie a point for 15.25 torture, if for no other reason, because she has to flee Michael's homicidal urges while drugged and (mostly) without any help from anybody else. Michael, though, also undergoes some torture. In the "previously on" bit he is stabbed and shot seven times; in this one he is shot another seven times and gets blown up. Plus, he probably didn't do much cardio at Smith's Grove and Laurie makes him chase her around. That is just rude. Michael: 10, Loomis: 7, Laurie: 4.

No points for 15.5 stigmata. But, I will give a point to Loomis for 15.75 atonement. His failure in dealing with Michael while he was at Smith's Grove is the reason he's out there trying to stop him, and ultimately the reason he sacrifices himself. Also, Loomis gets a point for 16 innocence. Brackett's "Damn you" (and his "Damn you for letting him go" in the previous film) is not entirely fair. Michael: 10, Loomis: 9, Laurie: 4.

No points for this trio for 17 cruciform pose or 18 cross associations, but, on behalf of whoever was in charge of continuity, Loomis gets a point for 19 miracles and signs, firing seven shots out of his six shooter, and hitting his target with every shot. (And, if he were in the running, Budd (Leo Rossi) would get this point for hooking up with Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop) when he is such a goober. Since I didn't give Laurie the point for being special for her marksmanship, I will give her a point here for hitting Michael twice while under duress. Michael: 10, Loomis: 10, Laurie: 5.

Michael gets the point for 20 simplicity. Kozlovic quotes Matthew 18:3 while defining this one: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Michael is essentially a child inside. I could give him a point for 21 poverty, but his theft when he doesn't have money, and his eating dog when he cannot afford food--those things happen in the previous film. While Michael has a fairly basic outfit in his mechanic's uniform, I can only give the point for 22 jesus garb to Loomis (for his ubiquitous brown coat) and Laurie (for her hospital gown). Michael: 11, Loomis: 11, Laurie: 6.

Michael, here, has 23 blue eyes, and do do Loomis and Laurie. Michael: 12, Loomis: 12, Laurie: 7.

Michael gets the point for 24 holy exclamations because of the phone conversation between Alice and her friend. Alice: "Do they know who it was?" Alice's Friend: "No." Alice: "Oh, God." But, no one gets points for 25. j.c. initials... though it is interesting that Michael's two sisters--who should be the Cult of the Thorn-induced sacrifices--are Judith and Cynthia (though we never hear the latter name within the film).

The final scores are not that impressive. Michael: 13, Loomis: 12, Laurie: 7. Arguably, Loomis should score higher; if the various elements were weighted, his self-sacrifice in the end would certainly be worth a lot. But, 1) there are no Christ-Figures here, and 2) there shouldn't be. Going way back to Walsh (2013), perhaps it is time that I put "a moratorium on the study of 'Christ figures' in film" (pp. 79-80). Walsh makes the argument that cinematic heroes will inherently share some elements of the Christ-Figure not because filmmakers are all aiming for Christ but rather,

...filmmakers cadge together numerous traditions to create syncretic heroes in order to widen the appreciative market for their films. Thus, Buddhists, Christians, gaming geeks, philosophers, and others can all relate to some piece of the mosaic that is Neo [in The Matrix, Walsh's example in passing]. (pp. 80-81)

Expanding on Walsh's larger arguments, I would add, insistence on calling a hero a Christ-Figure strengthens, even if unintentionally, the notion that the world and all its stories are or should be Christian. Even my own increasingly ridiculous uses of the Christ-Figure in this blog expands Christian influence, when I would never want to do that. I find it fun. But, so was linking Arthurian characters and the Magnificent Seven characters to dramatic archetypes. Linking Phil Connors to Siddhartha. So many other figures separate from Christ that filmmakers put into their stories, consciously or unconsciously. Walsh suggests, "a modest christ-figure analysis would assay a meaningful, interesting interpretation of the film in question." Halloween II has nothing... I really want to quote that doctor from the opening sequence of Halloween 4, "Jesus ain't got nothing to do with this place". The Halloween franchise is not about Christianity. The evil of Michael Myers is not related to the devil, even if Loomis describes his eyes as "the devil's eyes". Loomis' descriptions of Samhain and Halloween in this film, the Cult of the Thorn stuff in Curse of Michael Myers--this should make it obvious; this franchise is about pagan things. But, films, even with a deliberately religious text, are bigger than any one set of beliefs. And, they should be. As Walsh puts it,

Such forays should recognize the syncretic, cinematic, and modern character of cinematic heroes, respect the genre of the films under review, and seek to learn what "christ" means in the film's own intertextual play. (p. 97)

I like that. Add it to the list of the Groundhog Day Project's ongoing themes--that every film is an intertextual play, building on societal, cultural, religious, and personal ideas to build something that will mean something different to each person involved in making it, each person watching it, and each person who might review it.

So, as I move on from 1981 (sort of*) in this deconstruction of my childhood interaction with film, as the Groundhog Day Project continues for however long as it may continue, no more flippant Christ-Figuring.

SOURCES

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.

Walsh, R. (2013). A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations: Explicated with Two Test Cases. Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, 3:1, pp. 79-97.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

it can get cold in here

Lest I complain too much, I will get one last detail of scientist's piece out of the way. scientist describes the the death of Nurse Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop) like this:

...for sheer nastiness, nothing beats the hot-tub boiling of Karen Bailey. This sequence is truly ugly, with long, loving shots of Ms Karen's hideously blistered face interspersed with equally loving shots of her bare breasts--which, by the way, shouldn't be bare; when Michael enters the room, her towel is beneath her arms; when he grabs her, it's mysteriously around her waist. Also disturbing here is Michael caressing Karen before he gets to work, another action at variance with the child-man concept of the first film.

Except, while you could call the shots of Karen's face "lingering" (at best), calling them "loving" suggests that scientist might have a problem. Also, there are not shots of her bare breasts while Michael is killing her. He dunks her five times into the water, the last two particularly long, and her towel is still tucked into itself just below her arms. It is not until the loose tuck she has given it has been in the water as long her face has that the towel (realistically) has come unfastened. Someone--maybe scientist themself--has put as a "goof" on IMDb: "When Michael is drowning Nurse Karen in the scalding water, her towel goes from being wrapped right below her shoulders to tied around her waist between shots." Yes, it does go from up under her arms to her waist between shots, but that is because the camera setup is different for Michael letting go of her and dropping her to the floor. For the kill, it was closeups. After, the camera is farther back. So, yes, the change happens between shots, but that doesn't make it a continuity error; the splashing water, and the position of Michael's arm, make it hard to see if the towel is actually falling loose from getting wet or if during the production they deliberately moved the towel for the new camera setup so her breasts would be bare when she fell dead to the floor... which, of course, is likely, but that doesn't make it an error; it does maybe push it into scientist's "nastiness" territory, but I have already covered the necessary inclusion of sex (and nudity) and violence (and gore) in a movie like this.

And, Michael does not caress Karen. He touches her, he doesn't move his hand. She grabs it and starts kissing it.

I have a history with IMDb's goof pages. So many of them, for so many films, are just wrong. Because people don't pay close enough attention, or they imagine things that aren't there (like interspersed shots of Nurse Karen's breasts; easy to imagine since they were previously on view and are again when she falls to the floor; or quite famously like the shower scene from Psycho where it is shot specifically to not show the knife entering flesh, but people imagine seeing what is only there in between the shots.)

For another example from Halloween II--something I was thinking of writing about as if the complaints were accurate, actually--the continuity in the first act with the news reports and Sheriff Brackett being told about Annie. I lied; I'm not quite done with scientist just yet, because I like how scientist phrases this, even though it is wrong:

The trouble is--the bodies haven't been discovered yet [when Alice hears about the murders]. The actual discovery occurs simultaneously with the roasting of Ben Tramer; it is immediately subsequent to that event that Sheriff Brackett gets the dreadful news about his daughter.

But, the timing there only requires that they just identified the bodies, not that they just found them. None of the news reports name any of the dead teenagers. The notion that the press, especially in "a pretty quiet town" like Haddonfield, might be on the scene before the bodies were identified is not unrealistic. And, identifying the bodies would have taken a little while because 1) none of them lived there, or would have specifically been expected to be there (I assume it was Tommy and Lindsey who drew the attention of the police to that house, and they might have been too traumatized to clearly explain who was there), and 2) their IDs might not have been readily available, Lynda's and Annie's at least; neither was wearing all their clothes, nor did Annie take any purse with her to the car, nor did Lynda take one to the phone. And Bob, who smokes pot, drinks beer, and can't even be bothered to close the door to his van, might not even carry ID. (The actual continuity error is that Bob's van is gone... But maybe it was the van getting towed because they don't allow overnight parking that got the attention of the police, and Tommy and Lindsey are still off running through town screaming.)

(Also, another goof in IMDB points out, more appropriately, the other police officers should have recognized Annie, given how small the town seems to be... Jimmy, Mixter, and Jill know Laurie. Bud guesses that her father owns Strode Realty... but, Haddonfield is also big enough to have a 17th Street.)

Furthermore:

That a radio announcer and a paramedic refer to the hospital as a clinic is not an "error made by characters"; that's just small-town talk. I lived in a rural community briefly many years ago; actual names for things are not as important as what people know them as.

Jimmy, being a paramedic, could also have a change of clothes handy, explaining why his back isn't covered in Mrs. Alves' blood when he gets into his car. He could actually have changed his shirt. If something is easily explained, it's not an error.

Mrs. Alves has time to reapply the tourniquet to Laurie's arm out of frame as Laurie tells Mixter and the other nurse (I forget which one is there) not to put her to sleep.

When Laurie enters the elevator in the basement, the first thing she does is move out of view toward where the elevator buttons are. That would be when she presses one. We may not see it but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Also, Ben Tramer might not have died on impact, hence, his body could have slumped forward onto the hood of the car and been upright a moment later. And, maybe he's just too drunk to be flailing about in pain.

And, yes, I am ridiculous.

Friday, January 19, 2018

omens of the future

That being said, Carpenter made the choice deliberately to give Halloween II more gore than the original. The director, Rick Rosenthal, was trying to ape the original a little more, but Carpenter altered it, reshot scenes (and I believe shot a few new ones as well). Our friend from the other day, scientist, may think this means Halloween II has gone "off the rails", but the "rails" for films like this were headed toward more gore, toward an increased body count, because, well, that was inevitable.

scientist also argues, "The whole point of Halloween is, after all, that its events have no point." But, while the original film may not offer a specific motive for Michael's kills, it does explicitly namecheck "fate". Every person's fate is to die. Every character in a slasher film (even if at the time, there was no such thing as a "slasher film" just yet) is looking at the possibility that fate will come soon. scientist has a problem with the idea that Michael could both be personally invested in his return to Haddonfield because of his remaining sister and also be a force of nature, willed by or through (keep in mind, the Cult of the Thorn connection will not be made until a few more movies down the line) Samhain. And, while one might see a problem fitting Michael's personal connection to Laurie into the plot of the original film (surely, if she hadn't happened to have come to his door with that key, he would have just lingered by the high school alter anyway until he found her), the Samhain thing also echoes the earlier film's suggestion that Michael is bigger than just this personal quest. That he kills so many other people on his way to Laurie fits the larger view but not the smaller.

But, what is scarier?

For Laurie, the personal element adds something to an already unbeatable monster coming her way. For us, though, making it personal lessens it a little. I'm just five when this movie comes out, so I'm seeing the "boogeyman" in the shape of Michael Myers in darkness all over the place. But, for a purely rational adult (as if such a thing exists), he must be either a force of nature or an indiscriminate killer to be scary outside the context of this film, this story.

But, this is not simply the case with Michael Myers but with Jason Voorhees, with Freddy Krueger. But, also with Harry Callahan. With Paul Kersey. With John Rambo. If you are good enough for sequels, eventually, whatever personal motivation you had to commit violence before must be left behind (for the most part), and you must be something bigger. Whether for good (Callahan, Kersey, Rambo) or evil (Myers, Voorhees, Krueger), your violence must serve something bigger, or must serve your own psychosis. The latter doesn't make for a very commercial film (though, I think I would like it). The former--the something bigger--makes new films possible. This fuels a committed audience. And a committed audience means even more sequels, and then eventually remakes and reboots. (Although, I would love to see Michael Myers with a ragged grey beard poking out from under his mask, his stature a little more hunched, his gait a little more wobbly and slow, but he's still out there killing sinful people wherever he finds them.) The same thing that allows more death--which means more cheering in the action film, more cheering and fearing in the horror film--means that the body count has to rise or, well, each sequel will be effectively a remake of the previous film.

Admittedly, most are in many ways the same. Clover (1987) compares this to folklore (and also to pornography). She writes:

The fact that the cinematic conventions of horror are so easily and so often parodied would seem to suggest that, individual variation notwithstanding, it's basic structures of apperception are fixed and fundamental. The same is true of the stories they tell. Students of folklore or early literature recognize in the slasher film the hallmarks of oral story: the free exchange of themes and motifs, the archetypal characters and situations, the accumulation of sequels, remakes, imitations. This is a field in which there is in some sense no original, no real or right text, but only variation; a world in which, therefore, the meaning of the individual example lies outside itself. The "art" of the horror film, like the "art" of pornography, is to a very large extent the art of rendition, and it is understood as such by the competent audience. A particular example may have original features, but it's quality as a horror film lies in the ways it delivers the cliché. (p. 190)

I love that last line because it is so very true of any genre of film, but maybe especially of horror, of the slasher. A clever twist that transforms a film away from what we want, or subverts our expectations might work, if done well. But really, we head into most films with clear expectations and we want those expectations to be met. The specific details and nuance that come from a particular film matter but only inasmuch as they fuel the delivery of what the audience wants. This is true of any genre, not just horror. Every genre and subgenre has its tropes, its clichés. If every film had to be original, every film had to be entirely unique, there would not be very many films at all.

For slasher films, and for horror more generally, advances in makeup and computer effects combined with changes in ratings standards meant death would be more graphic. It didn't have to be. Which makes me want to come back to that line from Friday the 13th director Sean S Cunningham I quoted the other day, how

he had been eager to limit violence and gore in Friday the 13th. 'Most scary movies aren't scary', revealed Cunningham [to journalists], '[t]hey're just disgusting. A face hacked into four pieces isn't scarier than a face hacked into two pieces, it's just more disgusting' (quoted in Chase, 1981a, p. C8). (requoted in Nowell, 2010)

Even that first Friday the 13th, where the director wanted to limit violence and disgust, includes Kevin Bacon getting an arrow pushed up through him and out his throat. Not that Cunningham doesn't have a point. In the hands of a bad director, gore can be a cheap replacement for suspense. But, in the hands of a good director, gore can augment a kill, and sometimes even replace a kill in a way that stimulates the imagination of the audience (e.g. Event Horizon). The rule is not, and should not be, that gore is inherently bad because disgust is different from horror; rather, the distinction should be made between one author and another, one director's execution (pun intended) and another. That is, gore became part of the cliché as soon as gore was possible and allowable. What matters is how that cliché is delivered.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

you don’t know what death is

...and I like the gore. But, I will get to that. First, the promised list, films released between Halloween and Halloween II that fit the "slasher" bill (even if they were likely not called that at the time; more likely, they were marketed as "splatter" films or "thrillers" depending on the intended audience. The films are:

Driller Killer, Savage Weekend, Tourist Trap, The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher--

(How have I 1) never heard of this one, because that title is so amazingly evocative and on-the-nose as to a brilliant piece of art regardless of the film itself (and, it is worth noting, Friday the 13th was marketed based on the title alone, before a script had even been written), and 2) never seen it? Hell, too many of the movies on this list I have not seen. Also, since I am interrupting, a few of the films on this list push the definition of "slasher" a bit, but I was trying to be as complete as I could. And, I'm sure some were still missed. Anyway, back to the list:)

--Giallo a Venezia, The Demon, Prom Night, Maniac, Terror Train, Friday the 13th, He Knows You’re Alone, Christmas Evil--

(These next three have amazing titles, as well, and I may or may not have seen all three. Sometimes, low-budget horror films blend together a little if you see too many. But, really, that is true of any genre. Anyway...)

--Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Go in the Woods, New Year’s Evil, Silent Scream, To All a Goodnight, Schizoid, My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, The Prowler, Happy Birthday to Me, Friday the 13 Part 2, Final Exam, The Funhouse--

(That last one is interesting for me because it had a novelization written by Dean Koontz, and I remember reading in an interview once that he deliberately put far more backstory for the killer into the novel than the movie made any attempt to have. Also, speaking of novelizations, purportedly today's title line, which Loomis says to the MacKenzie's neighbor just before the opening titles of Halloween II, actually comes from the novelization of the original Halloween. Novelizations of films (rather than films based on novels) intrigue me, because of how they might differ from the film, add backstory, add details not explained (for example, Piers Anthony's novelization of Total Recall (itself based on a short story by Philip K. Dick) added a lot of detail regarding aliens and radioactive rods meant to creat the atmosphere, which mostly happens offscreen at the end of the film. Similarly, Orson Scott Card's novelization for The Abyss explains details on how the aliens communication, which one might only infer from the film. But, there's more:)

--Graduation Day, Madman, Night School, Eyes of a Stranger, Bloody Birthday, Madhouse, Bloody Moon, Student Bodies, Nightmare, Home Sweet Home, Hospital Massacre, and Scream.

Making that list last night, after finishing yesterday's blog entry, I couldn't help but wish I had seen (and remembered) every one of the films on that list. But, I was still just five years old when Halloween II came out. I was not hunting down obscure slasher films and watching them in my spare time; that would happen in my teens and twenties. I wasn't even entirely in charge of my spare time. Through the 80s, I would see plenty of obscure films, many that are probably still not on my IMDb "seen it" list because I don't know the titles. We frequented the Wherehouse in Hastings Ranch and would rent popular movies and obscure little things regularly.

My thing, regarding gore in horror films, may come from seeing far too many horror films. Done well--and that is an important caveat (and a distinction that might get lost on a more casual viewer)--gore does two very different things: It makes you turn away, and it draws you in to look closer. Citing scoiologist Margee Kerr, Crystal Ponti, writing for SYFY Wire calls this "the tension between attraction and repulsion" and goes on to cite a passage from Plato's Republic--

(But, I have to interrupt myself here because Deputy Gary Hunt's (Hunter von Leer) delivery when he tells Sheriff Brackett that Annie was found dead is already hilarious--he is trying so hard to act but not quite getting there--but it occurred to me last night that it's also amazing how focused the character of Hunt is. I mean, there is a police car crashed into a van, and a person on fire just a handful of feet away, and I swear he doesn't even look at the fire. He gets out of his patrol car, runs right over to the Sheriff, tells him about the bodies, and they leave. That is impressive.)

--in which Leontius, son of Aglaion, passes by recently executed corpses and

He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, "Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight."

Ponti cites filmmaker Dan Sellers regarding "blood and gore hav[ing] an attraction that's fairly primal." Sellers gets at something like the opposite of sympathy; he says:

Perhaps seeing mangled limbs, decomposing body parts, and blood baths in that controlled movie-going experience provides some weird level of comfort, disguised as excitement." Ponti goes on to describe excitation transfer theory, suggesting psychological arousal from horror that lingers after the film. Essentially, in a controlled situation, we can feel our fight-or-flight response without having to act on it. I haven't done any studies myself--though I have read plenty that suggest as much--but the titillation from fear in a more "psychological" horror film can produce much the same feeling afterward that disgust can in a more "splatter"-oriented horror film can, or that the nudity and sex in either one can. In fact, the juxtaposition of sex and violence is not just a result of the inherently conservative bent of slasher films--those who have sex are usually the ones to die and the virginal final girl survives--but also a deliberate positioning of similar human feelings next to one another because they work wonderfully together. Even if you are devoutly religious and horrified by the sex, that is still a state of arousal. And, if you find the sex and nudity appealing, again, arousal. Then comes the bloodshed, and that is exciting, especially because, in that moment, as I suggested above, because of whatever opposite of sympathy (and I don't mean apathy) is; an even more twisted form of schadenfreude--in that instant, you feel more alive because the danger is up there, controlled, contained. The horror film allows us to feel sublimated urges that society deems unacceptable but which psychiatrist Gail Saltz (cited by Ponti) suggests "is a normal part of human character [i.e.] to have both sadistic and, the other side of the coin, masochistic interests." Or, coming back to Clover (1987, and probably 1992, but I have yet to figure out who I lent my copy of Men, Women, and Chain Saws, nor have I sucked it up and bought a new copy), horror (and pornography) is "specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation... Exist[ing] solely to horrify and stimulate" (p. 189). "[I]n horror-film circles," Clover argues, "'good' means scary, specifically in a bodily way (ads promise shivers, chills, shudders, tingling of the spine...)"

Early in Halloween II, there is a series of short scenes unrelated to the larger plot. A mother brings her son to the same hospital where Laurie will later come because the boy has a razor blade stuck in his tongue.

The one shot of the blade is graphic but hardly titillating. So, what is the point? On the one hand, it is a thematic echo of the original film in its connection to urban legend--the original's phone calls remind the viewer of "the man upstairs", of a babysitter beset upon by a madman in the house, here you're reminded (and far more directly) of the yearly warnings about checking your child's treats from trick-or-treating (despite a serious lack of evidence that strangers regularly (or ever) poison Halloween candy or embed razors within it. But, separate from that reminder of what likely doesn't happen, you are offered a much more real-world depiction of injury and pain. The razor blade is not titillating, but it does provide a stepping stone into the higher levels of gore to come. We might not imagine hammers hitting skulls, or needles stuck into eyes, but the media puts that razor blade idea into our heads every year, so that sequence positions the film to come closer to our reality. As John Squires, writing for Bloody Disgusting, puts it, “His appearance, it seems, exists only to show that Michael isn’t the only threat on Halloween night.” Even then, the fake blood, like so much of the blood later in the film, is unrealistically bright, easier to see in the dark, easier to focus our vision on injury so we can be overpowered by our appetites, and take our fill of the beautiful sight, to paraphrase Plato.

INSERT: me, five years old. I haven't seen that many horror films just yet. I will. I will see a lot of them. Well before many might think I should. Already, that excitement is drawing me toward more of the same. And not just in horror films. Look at the explosions and death in action films like Rambo, especially those arrows; like Commando, especially those saw blades; the gunshots and bruises of Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, of The Terminator or any of the Rocky films (well, no gunshots, but definitely bruises and blood), and so many other films. As Clover puts it, horror films exist "solely to horrify and stimulate" whereas one could argue that action films, especially jingoistic, hypermasculine, 80s action films, have something else going on, so it is easier to ignore the violence, and especially the gore. Additionally, the horror audience tends to be younger, so an implicit defensive stance comes into play, because "what about the children?!" and all that.

Of course, maybe everything I say in defense of such films, of the use of gore, the use of violence and sex and nudity, is proof that such films do mess with kids. Alter us inside. Make us keep seeking that same fix of fear and arousal...

Or maybe that's just life.