Friday, June 5, 2020

the party’s just starting

I have something to say about Campus Man still, but not so much that I will be watching it again today. As Dragent begins, I will say this:

Aside from the novelty of male bodies, something Campus Man has going for it is that while it could lean into exploitation, instead it aims for something more personal. The relationship between Todd and Brett is at the heart of the film, and it is fairly easy to believe they are actually friends and that Brett would sign that Image contract to protect Todd’s life, and would also later threaten to kill Todd and it is believable. The movie is a little tedious, but still fairly easy to watch, and that their friendship feels genuine is something that helps a lot in that regard.

Dragnet offers up a bunch of shots of Los Angeles like The Secret of My Success offers shots of New York, but this feels (maybe because of the deadpan narration from Dan Aykroyd as Friday) like a more genuine sense of the city, and a sort of spirit that will matter as the film goes on... like there will not be a “police police police” montage to match that film’s “business business business” montage.

Plus this has some fantastic (and slightly stupid) comedy that lands well, like the announcer telling us this is based on a true story and names have been changed to protect the innocent (just like the old Dragnet tv show, and then adds, “For example, George Baker is now known as Sylvia Wiss.” Silly. Hilarious.

(Also, leaning slightly into 80s casual homophobia since the character of Sylvia Wiss is explicitly female, a former centerfold.)
Cold open with fire set on a load of Bait magazine by a guy who leaves a P.A.G.A.N business card behind.

And, I wanted to say something about 80s movies generally, how their shallowness is both horrifying and really comforting watching them today. I feel like a few entries ago I leaned into being political, and the last couple days with Campus Man we’d a distraction equal parts welcome and unwelcome. To me, I mean. Not that I don’t often get political in this blog, but it is usually a little subtle, covert, or only in passing. (Except for December 2015 when I went back and forth between, of all things, political-themed movies and werewolf-themed movies.) I wanted to start ranting about current events, pandemics, racism, protests, riots, etc. but I had a good day today and Dragnet is so very charming.
Like Friday’s deadpan, and obsessively detailed voiceover. It is awesome. Add his new partner Pep Streebeck’s (Tom Hanks) smartass jokes, and then pile on top of both of those a bit of satirical humor about pornography, religion, the police, and Los Angeles... and this is great. I may just sit here today and enjoy.
The one witness—Enid Borden (Kathleen Freeman)—has a wonderfully profane bit of dialogue, and I love it. Especially because it bothers Friday.
Car chase.

And in the middle of the car chase, one of many moments is a guy with a basketball about to get hit by the car. Before he dives out of the way, he makes a hook shot over the approaching limo, and there is absolutely no reason for that, and that just makes it funnier.
”Sit down, unless you’re growing.”
And then there’s comedic police brutality involving a drawer and a suspect’s balls, and I almost want to get into a rant...
”The virgin Connie Swail.”
”And on a school night, too.”
”Detective Star Trek.”

”Granny, this is the virgin Connie Swail.”
“Thanks for trying to take us to dinner, Joe.”
“The Israelis?”
“I had a kitten once.”
”Don’t you mean ‘the virgin Connie Swail’?”

Thursday, June 4, 2020

everything about you is undesirable

Todd's business idea early in Campus Man is for people to be able to check their shoe size by putting their feet up to their tv screen and then the right size shoes will be mailed to them. Not horrible. But, not good. Worse is that he's walking around in public with his pants tucked into his socks. I mean, I had some pants with Velcro-closing cuffs about this time, and there were parachute pants... about (?) to become briefly popular, so tight around the ankle but somewhat baggy otherwise was a thing. But, Todd approximating it by tucking his pants into his socks is both kinda of awful and very much on the nose for his character--thinks he's got business savvy but fucks up his college tuition and goes to a loan shark when the bank won't front him $12,000 for a calendar.
(Which is specifically because it's a "pin-up calendar" not because it invokes men, so how did Todd fund the previous calendar?)
Somehow he got, I guess, a different loan for his previous female calendar. And, his money troubles don't include his loan payments, so I'm guessing he made good on that loan, so why is this one such a problem? The movie really wants us to buy into the novelty of putting men in a calendar is why. That's all. It being novel isn't even that important to the plot. Actually, this movie is full of very specific things that just don't matter. Like the guy at the party who walks around with his dog over his shoulder. No point to that. Todd not being under his blanket when Brett monologues, but still overhearing it. No point to that. Molly calling Todd's previous calendar pornography but selling out for $1000 to her choice of charity to help with his new one--that hypocrisy is unnecessary. There's no real conflict to it. It's a single conversation and she's in. It's rom com bullshit, basically. Molly and Todd are supposed to be together so they must have some clash of personalities, even though Todd seems perfectly fine to help with her charity stuff and other than pushing his pornography comically away she seems perfectly fine with him and what he does as a (allegedly) two-steps-ahead entrepreneur. Plus there's Dana who's got a thing for Brett because, duh, someone has to, even though it's ridiculous from the start that Todd doesn't see the inherent value in, to put it bluntly, the male flesh he sees on display all the time being best friends with Brett. Like a guy who will exploit unassuming college girls for money wouldn't be constantly thinking of other people and things to exploit.

But, that right there is what makes this so very 80s. Business guy has blinders because shallow cultural stuff. He risks his life with a loan shark for the startup cash but doesn't think far enough ahead to realize that there are limits to what college athletes are allowed to do. And of course Image Magazine swoops in because this absolutely novel calendar has to get attention, and it's very 80s for a corporation to exploit, as Todd already has done, college kids for money. An their exploitation means Todd's exploitation can't be that bad. And, he's a bad enough negotiator that Molly can name her price and not come down at all and he gives in in like ten seconds. Men and women use and abuse one another, or something like that, or maybe I'm channeling The Room, but the point is the same. The novelty of the movie is that it's male bodies being put on display. That's the only card it's got to play.

Of course, it's a good card to play. A card that needed playing in the 80s. I've said I don't think the calendar was a novelty, but putting that same thing on the big screen for a (potential) mainstream audience was novel at the time. The 80s were more about casually exploiting female flesh on the big screen.

I want to say that aiming for something new, exploiting something new, makes for a good movie. And, it's entertaining enough, even watching it now. But, Todd is an idiot, and I think we're not supposed to think that. Slightly misguided, maybe. But, not an idiot.

But, even that disparity is kind of an 80s thing. The movie just tells us he's good at business so we accept it. Movie tells us some character is an expert at something and we take it at face value. It's simple cinema. If a movie like this were made now, I'd like to think a screenwriter would do better than that.

But, I doubt it. We want shit spelled out for us. We want it easy.
Todd's not just an idiot but also kind of a dick. But, I've said many times in this blog, we love a main character who's an asshole.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

some kind of funny boy

Campus Man is rather immediately an 80s film. Guitar riff, camera comes down on a college campus. Titles are in a far too colorful font. Then there's a couple really brief bits with our lead and his business teacher because something something business business entrepreneur. But nevermind all that--

Titles continue over diving footage. A bit male gaze-y on the closeups except for one obvious thing: the bodies being ogled are male.

Not to distract from somehow our lead--I should figure out his name--Todd is supposedly advanced with business but he's also bad with money? On the one hand, that is stupid. On the other hand, that does feel very late 80s. He is the purveyor of calendars of campus women, but is in money trouble because "the scholarships didn't work and... the loan is a problem" which is vague bullshit terms for he needs to make money fast, get on with the plot.

The plot triggers when Todd's girlfriend compares diving to dancing and Todd just discovered that men are also attractive. (But he is hesitant at the bank when he mentions that men might buy his male calendar.)

This is Matt Dorff's first produced feature script (two others also get shared credit), and now I'm feeling like an asshole because I'm wondering if this is some gay fantasy posing as an 80s business fantasy.

Meeting in secret in a cemetery in the desert with a hypermasculine guy in a trench coat and cowboy boots is surely a fantasy for both men and women in the audience.
Casual nudity in the school showers in the 80s--perfectly normal. But, it's the men's locker room. This movie is trying for (and, as I remember it, kinda achieving) novelty, but within the film it is claiming far more novelty than I think a calendar with men in it would be in 1987. But, that isn't the point. What is novel is a movie aiming for the same demographic as so many 80s movies focusing on the objectification of the male form.

Speaking of which. While searching google for an image to include in the blog today, I noticed that all the images for this movie are one of three things: the poster, of course; behind-the-scenes black-and-white shots; or GIFs of, well, the diver, Brett on the diving board or pulling up his speedo in the dressing room, or another model (a swimmer, I suppose) being splashed with water). Very visually fixated.
Contemporary reviews of the film are hard to find online as well. Walter Goodman's review from The New York Times, has a pretty basic description of the film:

The look and sound of "Campus Man" ...marks it as a production done on the cheap, which is appropriate to this little anecdote about a business major at Arizona State who produces a jock calendar featuring his best friend, a champion diver, and so jeopardizes the friend's amateur standing.
Yep, that, plus a loan shark (the aforementioned trench-coated, cowboy-booted Cactus Jack) is all the important plot to the film.

But then I get distracted because the characters go to Steve's Ice Cream, which look s a lot like Cold Stone Creamery, and I'm looking up the history of cold Stone and learn that sure enough, it was founded in 1988 in Tempe, Arizona (this movie was filmed in Tempe in 1986, released April 1987), and the wiki entry for Cold Stone says outright, "The company has maintained the same concept created by Steve Herrell who founded Steve's Ice Cream."

See, I'm a mostly cis het, overweight male, who notices the ice cream more than the beefcake.

Actually, if Cactus Jack would grow out the facial hair just a little, I think he'd be as hot as I remember my sisters thinking he was in '87. (Instead, he shaves it off for the climax of the film.) And, Brett is a little too clean cut.
Throw in a convoluted climax that feels like a bigger production than Todd's calendar ever was, and 80s 80s 80s, everything turns out just fine, cue another diving montage.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

and nothing that you did mattered

Davies (1995) tells us that Groundhog Day "ignor[es] considerations of race and gender politics" (p. 215). But, in no uncertain terms, Davies is wrong. Well, somewhat wrong. Well, actually mostly right on the side of race. Gender is a different story. Take a "rom com" of any era and it will tell you something about gender politics at the time it was made. It's harder for the film to have anything to say about race when there are only two people in the cast who are not white and have lines. I argued in a media studies class once that Phil is effectively put in the position of the disenfranchised (as evidenced in his conversation with Ralph and Gus at the bowling alley bar) in that the regular rules of so-called civilized society do not apply to him anymore. Money has no value. His work has no value (though he does continue to work at least most days because Rubin wanted that check-in to sprinkle through the original script). Because this is a mainstream comedy from 1993, his white privilege may have value but no one is going to comment on it.

Take a break from me and go watch "Groundhog Day for a Black Man" on YouTube.

Then imagine this film in 2020, and I don't mean the Super Bowl commercial, I mean this story about an asshole white reporter on assignment who treats everyone like lessers and nobodies. But, he's gonna get his comeuppance, learn to care for women and children and, the horror, people who are not white, who are not like him, who don't have the comfort of making mistakes and then getting a do over.

And, my brain drifts into Bulworth territory, because that's a nice positive film on race relations... And I mean that (mostly) sarcastically. I mean, I rather like that film, but it's bordering on Soul Man in its tone-deafness about race and how to approach the subject of race relations.

Still, Bulworth's line:
The movies, the tabloids, TV and magazines,
They tell us what to think and do and all our hopes and dreams.
All this information makes America fat,
But if the company's out of the country, how American is that?
But, we got Americans with families can't even buy a meal.
Ask a brother who's been downsized if he's gettin' any deal.
Or a white boy bustin' ass till they put him in his grave.
He ain't gotta be a black boy to be livin' like a slave.
Rich people have always stayed on top, by dividing white people from colored people.
But white people got more in common with colored people than they do with rich people.
We just gotta eliminate 'em.

A bartender and a nurse, by the way--
the two black characters with lines.

There are a few other recurring extras who are not white,
But really, hardly anyone has lines in a movie like this.
Take it as the metaphor I was implying above:
White guy's privilege means he can screw up and he gets another chance.
Black guy
(or, taking the Bulworth line and setting ourselves up a nice Venn diagram, poor guy)
Messes up, the world... America anyway, takes advantage,
Stomps him down or pushes him back, and if he comes again, it's comical,
If he comes a third time,
Or comes by force,
Call in the National Guard if the cops didn't kill him first.

If you're reading this entry sometime in the future,
Check the date, check your history.
We've got a horrible pandemic raging across the country
And it disproportionately affects people of color and people without means,
And we also have COVID-19,
And if you don't get what the first one is, I'll spell it out for you because I'm feeling nice.
It's racism.
It's a country that built itself on the back of slaves
And then just never quite adjusted to those slaves not still being slaves,
Not being acquiescent and obedient, submissive and silent.

We're set in our ways as nation,
And we are just so fucking confident about all of it.
I mean, we were born as a bunch of religious folk
Who were fine with God telling them what to do but not European royals
So they ventured off to a New World,
Gradually killed off as many of the natives as they could,
Proclaimed the place their own,
And decided that this new country was the end all, be all of countries,
And the world was complete now that we were here.

America is like some inadequate adolescent or sad 20-something who thinks he's
(and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately)
All that and with Great Britain backing us,
It's like Mommy England has been telling us
Every since we had that big fight and ran away from home
That we're really the greatest little country that ever lived,
And don't let anybody tell us differently,
Even our own inner voices
When we see the horrible shit that we get up to in backwater third world countries,
And domestic streets right here in our own cities,
Because might makes right and white has might
And everyone else need not apply.

Insurrection Act v Posse Comitatus Act
But the Supreme Court is stacked against our better angels
And the decision is coming down,
The jackboot is coming down,
The hammer is coming down,
And I feel like Danny Glover in Leathal Weapon:
"I'm too old for this shit"
When anyone who knows my writing history
Would know I side with destruction, uprising,
And violence is always an option,
Or so the history books would tell us,
Except when the Powers That Be can keep tweeting
Faster than the black man can take a beating
Faster than we can sit back eating
Postmates and watching the news,
Posting memes in between black squares of solidarity.

Just a bunch of armchair quarterbacks
Watching a nation self-destruct,
But there are plenty of commercials about pills we can take
For the impotence we feel when others die,
Others cry,
And smoke is in the air,
But, we're safe at home,
Because tomorrow is Groundhog Day,
We're white,
We get to do it again,
Just keep going,
Because failure is for animals and thugs,
Leeches and bugs.

The sun sets on another day of marching,
Nothing looks to be changing,
Though everyone's watching.
Same shit, different day,
Stomp down those who rise,
And, bring on more pepper spray.

Monday, June 1, 2020

he’s a suit

Day 1400 and I have just a couple things to say:

1) The messaging of The Secret of My Success is that a lone white male from bumfuck flyover Kansas is going to make it to big city and be such a hard worker because he grew up on a farm and is Grade-A middle American prime that he's not only going to kick the ass of his mailroom job but he will also successfully work a second (fake) job as an executive because bureaucracy is so stupid and complicated that he can game the system to invent a second name for himself, even though he's already called Brantley as if he was born and raised on Martha's Vineyard and not Foster Farms, and be better at all of this business stuff--and we will definitely, specifically, explicitly be shown this in a montage that let's us hear none of the dialogue and plays some crappy 80s song or another over it all and then the movie is going to take too fucking long to show how this one white kid is better than everybody else even though the fucking opening titles montage was a bunch of people of color and people of no means all turning their heads, but I guess them turning their heads was really them all taking notice because this kid was going to come to the city of hostile corporate takeovers and overcome all of that in the most American way possibly--by doing too much, working two jobs when he's getting paid for one (committing fraud along the way of course), and convincing a company to expand in the late 80s as if that's a novel concept; the novel concept is that out of all the corporations in New York, Brantley finds himself at two of the ones being hostilely taken over and of course, he is taken by surprise by the first one and he gets a nice meaningful moment in his tiny cockroach-infested apartment so that we feel for him and want him to succeed, but then he's off to succeed by a) nepotism when his uncle gives him a job, b) sleeping with both a higher up (at least she is later) and a fellow executive, c) lying about who he is, d) forging paperwork, and e) being a capitalist twat sonofabitch who we all find charming because he's a basically Alex P. Keaton coming from an even smaller town than he was in Family Ties and we want to believe that a small person from a small town can make big because, hey, then any one of us can, and that's the American Dream.

2) That messaging is stupid, and it's done poorly, and we only fall for it because the 80s were the land of the montage and if a montage happens, we believe that progress is taking place, like in Iron Eagle when they've got like two days to make their plans and commit their fraud and their theft to get a teenager on an international rescue mission but the montage might as well be covering 2 months as much as it is covering 2 days, because who fucking cares when it offers us the change to cheer on another white kid from some place in America, because oh my founding fathers, that could be up there in that fighter jet, that could be in the New York City corporation fighting off a hostile takeover and being a fucking hero to my parents back in bumfuck nowhere.

Bonus #3) It helps if you have your lead be a little creepy and act like a stalker in addition to all his other crimes, and if you also get Helen Slater to march toward the camera at some point so the audience can remember the far better Legend of Billie Jean, but even that movie had a dirty of white folks, so who fucking knows?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

he’s not a person

It occurred to me today that I have never seen a production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and I am not even sure what it's about. This thought came to me when I realized I am not entirely sure I can remember the plot to today's movie: The Secret of My Success. I knew it involved Michael J. Fox, and I think there's a boss lady who wants to sleep with him, but I was also conflating the film with For the Love of Money and was excited to see a young Gabrielle Anwar because I had the biggest crush on her for a few years there... after this movie was in theaters, after this movie was something we had on VHS and we watched it more than a few times--
(But, if you're paying attention, you should know that the current theme in this blog is movies that were "fixtures" in my "childhood" but I'm 11 now in 1987, and in retrospect, things keep blurring into my teenage years, my 20s, my 30s, and the present, but who want's to talk about the present? Pandemic. Riots. Dictators. And, I've got a wish list on Amazon just for the coming apocalypse... Because I grew up in a cult bent on eschatology and the one thing I have always been at planning ahead for (at least in my head) is every fucking thing falling apart. Entropy, destruction, Armageddon, just the end of another day that went strange or went as you expected. As I expected. Same shit different day, or "anything different is good" and all that, as I'll be watching Groundhog Day again in a couple days, and I am kinda looking forward to it. 
Because, comfort? Maybe.
I mean, it's nice to know that something like a fixture still exists in my life--)
--and I can't even remember what this particular fixture--The Secret of My Success, that is--is even about. I am hoping it's about sexual harassment, but I think it's more comedic caught-between-two-women, but the woman on the non-boss side isn't going to be Gabrielle Anwar, so it won't be as good as the movie I was inventing in my head going into today's blog...

Which, I haven't even pressed play yet, because I wanted to get all that out there before I probably resort to random comments as the movie plays because, really, I do not remember any specifics except at one point a naked woman is covered only by a couple pillows, possibly in a poolhouse.

The description on HBO MAX says:
Goodbye, Kansas... Hello, New York! In this sharp and sassy comedy, Michael J. Fox plays a pint-sized charmer with big ambitions. Fresh off the farm, he comes to New York determined to climb to the top of the corporate ladder--any way he can.
I don't like the use of "sassy" in there. I am no longer looking forward to this.

I am pressing play.

The opening shots of main guy's parents are unnecessary, but fuck it, cut to 80s music no one remembers, and bus arrival in the big city. And, look, it's Alex P. Keaton and he's fucking quotes Dorothy Gale, because that's not obvious as fuck.

And then, I'm imagining covering this movie like I cover, say Annihilation on my podcast Annihilation, and all these random shots of city people under the opening credits would be a nightmare and a waste of time, because that shit (I assume) has nothing really to do with the plot to come.

As Alex P. Keaton interviews for job after job, I think I just remembered what is going to happen. Like riding a bike, The Secret of My Success returns to me. He is going to get like a mailroom job or some lowly shit, and then he switches outfits and pretend he has a better job than he actually has until people start believing it. I think this is that movie...

But then cops just shot up the phone booth where he's making a phone call because this movie is trying for satire I probably didn't get when I was 11 and saw this for the first time, and you know that bit where I said I was no longer looking forward to this? Yeah, fuck that. I'm in.

He lives in a tiny apartment with cockroaches, and we get a flashback to him telling his parents he's only ever going to return to Kansas in his own jet, and I'm reminded (not for the first time today, mind you) of my time in Tennessee (1 month) and Arkansas (3 months, but was supposed to be indefinite) and how moving off to some other state completely transforms your life. But, I did it (allegedly) for love, and whatever this guy's name is, Alex P. Marty McFly J. Fox, he did it for fucking capitalism, and I do not approve of this reasoning.

Wait, his name is Brantley? What the fuck kind of Kansas farm family names their kid Brantley? That should be is made up name when he pretends to be New York high society or whatever the fuck...

And, oh my god, this just turned into some really creepy fantasy sequence with Helen Slater drinking water in slow motion and then wearing a dress and marching in like she's Billie Jean again, but less rebel, and more awful fantasy that a guy like Alex Prantley Keaton would have at a fucking drinking fountain.

And then he's deconstructing the way Pemrose does business and casually staring at Slater's Christy from a distance... But then, he has to drive Vera somewhere for work and he isn't a trained driver so he makes conversation like this is fucking Uber and not a company car, and that freaking song from Ferris Bueller over extreme closeups of Ver putting on her lipstick (which is fine, because stalker boy Alex can see that, but then closeups on her legs, which he cannot see from the front seat, and I guess her took her home, but the only Litchfield in New York is 237 miles form New York City. Litchfield, Connecticut is only 108 miles. But, nevermind the distance and why random mailroom kid would get stuck with this job, no matter if his uncle owns the company and gave him the job, he's in the pool with Vera and she pulls off his shorts but the skintone trunks he's still got on under that are really obvious, which makes the moment quite horrible--this woman who is clearly above him at the company just talked him into a pool and then removed his clothes without consent, but Fox couldn't be bothered to actually get nude for the moment, so it barely matters... But then I wonder if the image was clear enough on VHS to notice that.

And then, it turns out that Vera is married to the boss--Brantley's uncle--and Brantley has to make a run for it, and before he gets chase off by a Doberman, there's that moment I remembered with the pillows, and dude just fucked his aunt, but CUT TO the city and we really get an 80s love song playing as Brantley fantasizes about taking over an empty office and I'm not sure I care. I mean, he works the mailroom--I've done that--he runs around with a cart of deliveries--one of my favorite jobs ever was doing just that but delivering and picking up books for the library at a law firm in downtown Los Angeles, and listening to talk radio all day in my earbuds, because I was constantly on the movie and entirely contained in my own little world at the very same time. And, I didn't need an office, though maybe that would have been nice, because I had the entire law library to myself most of the time. Had a great view from the tallest building in the city.

But, this movie is aiming for some weird romantic comedy twisted together with a gender-switched sleeping-with-the-boss plot, and really Brantley is going to get fired for not doing his regular job, while pretending to do another job, or maybe the satire's angle is that he can do both these jobs because offices are actually that inefficient. But, I'm just reminded of that "Double Date" episode of Family Ties in which Brantley P. Keaton has two prom dates and fucks it all up. And then I'm thinking about Working Girl because at least there she doesn't jut invent an entirely new person, right? And she doesn't come across as a creepy stalker every time she goes near Harrison Ford.

And then there's business business business, and I guess in 1987, we're just supposed to assume that Carlton Whitfield (née Brantley) knows what he's talking about, and of course the real bosses who want to make cuts are clearly evil because this is Reagan's America, and you have to build build build, or something.

And, he's conducting the sounds of sex from next door and I love that I saw this movie when I was 11 and my mother was probably embarrassed as all get out when he climaxes by opening his can of beer, because blatant sexual metaphors belong in mainstream comedies, and really, it's a little sad that this late in the 80s, we're not getting more casual nudity and sexual capers...

Cue, Auntie Vera arriving at Brantley's tiny apartment, and CUT TO Uncle Boss Man hitting on Billie Jean which is, you know, clearly morally wrong, even though we are not immediately as horrified by Auntie Vera coming to Brantley's, or maybe that's progressive for '87. By the time I'm writing about it, we're on to new scenes, and I'm marveling at Brantley's choice to not only switch outfits in the elevator but specifically to switch out his socks, because while the higher ups might notice white socks, the mailroom guys are not going to care if he wears black socks. Hell, he shouldn't even be changing his pants, and could probably get away with not changing his shirt... I write as he arrives with the wrong pants for a meeting and immediately gets noticed, so I guess they're saying that would matter, but I've been teaching in blue jeans and T-shirts for years because I don't much care for dress codes.
And, then the movie has like 30-40 minutes left and I get distracted because how does this thing have that much plot left?

Saturday, May 30, 2020

they are. i’m not.

To continue somewhere before I left off, I was not sent off to boarding school like Morgan. I just had private school, which meant very few friends in my neighborhood, and limited interaction with my friends outside of school, which limited my social life, I'm sure. Or maybe my introversion has other sources and it is just easy to blame the religious environment in which I grew up, and which isolated me from the larger world for a while. I definitely blame that upbringing for my attachment to film. I mean, why wouldn't I envelop myself in fiction as much as fucking possible when I'm being told on a regular basis that the world is ending?

But then, I'm trying to come up with a comedic way to talk about the differing politics of my parents and me, even my oldest siblings and me. But, there's a pandemic and rioting and I am inclined to get into a serious rant instead...

Or to focus entirely on the film today to avoid all that.

As if that's possible.

I mean, the whole prank setup early in the film is pointless, though it does set the stage for this brilliant bit: "We did it! We did it! We did it!" Beat, as they realize the headmaster is behind them. "We didn't do it." And, it makes for the strange twist of Morgan not being kicked out of school, rather he's just being called home to, as it turns out, give his senator father's reelection campaign a better family image. Because flying your helicopter to pick up the kid is fine but I guess having your kid at a great school is not... Anymore. For some reason. The premise doesn't quite work, but it allows for interesting interactions later that are nice...

But I'll get to that. I only just realized that Morgan's mom walks in on his roommate masturbating, and when she enters the locker room the guy brushing his teeth is apparently just standing there naked, and both of these things are strange.

But, it's also strange that boarding schools exist and there are families rich enough to send their kids to them...

I mean, the mother also takes the helicopter to the hairdresser and isn't that silly? Morgan doesn't even know where his family lives and he is left on the roof, alone. And, she expects him to just be the son she wants him to be? I know she says she doesn't subscribe to the buddy-buddy school of parenting, but seven years of neglect for Morgan and seven years of absence for her--unless she cares not a whit for her son, which maybe that's the problem--shouldn't be something where either of them think it can just become something comfortable with no transition time, no change, no negotiation.

That Morgan is brought home as a prop is one thing, but that somehow his parents still see him more as a prop--or a puppet--once he is home and in front of them, and they can see his quirks, and his personality, suggests that his parents are not just oblivious but are actively uncaring and cruel.

And, the film never fixes that. I mean, Morgan's conversation with his father at Arby's is kinda sweet. But then, the end of the film--as abrupt as it is--paints a simplistic picture of magic family repair triggered by Morgan saving his father from having to drop out of the campaign (which if you've not seen the film, is because his executive aide is blackmailing him), but the movie might actually play out more genuinely, when it comes to the family unit, if the senator is not reelected, and they have to actually get along as a family... Hell, there's a better premise--something like Schitt's Creek; having to drop out from the campaign, they can't afford boarding school anymore and have to bring their worldly son home and actually try to get along with him.

Except, they've created a son who is nothing like them. I mean, that is their fault.

Similarly, my own parents sending me to private school, taking me to church, positioning me in between constant messaging of a finite lifetime and access to movies and tv and fantasy books and toys and what do you expect is going to happen? Of course, I'm going to enjoy things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and the more RPG-style Lone Wolf books--which I won't tell the whole story again this time, but those books got me in trouble at the private school, got me sent to the office, got me a stern talking to at home, and got my collection of said books tossed in the trash not unlike Morgan's collection of horror film posters, but of course I was going to latch onto fantasy and stories and anything that offered me a larger world than reality was offering. And, in connecting with so many characters in so many stories, of course I would drift away from the black and white morality of my upbringing, and then the Cold War would end and suddenly, the world was open and I had no real idea what to do in it, so I went off to college I was unprepared for, got office jobs that anyone could do, and lived a socially isolated life still stuffed with movies and books and tv and comics and toys and whatever made the world bigger than my corner of it actually was... Safely. Because, I had no idea how to expand my social circles properly, because private school miles from home meant I never had consistent social circles. What few neighborhood friends I had were entirely separate from school friends, and none of either had staying power once I was first out of high school and then, second, we moved to a new house.

I don't imagine that Morgan will be comfortable with his parents... Maybe ever. His father will continue to be a senator, his mother will continue to be controlling and dismissive. And, Morgan has interests that--nevermind the abrupt voiceover at the end of the film--will never jibe with his parents' lives.

He should trade places with Emily's little brother, really. Let the irritating snitch live with the rich folks, while Morgan and Emily enjoy watching horror films alongside her parents.

Because sometimes a kid needs space. Or a parent needs space. Rather than trying to force the other to fit into the niche you think they should. You know, let people be who they are...

Which sounds easy. Sounds cheesy. Sounds like simplistic bullshit, really. Sometimes trite is easier than the real things you want to say. And, it's easier to pretend that we should let everyone be who they want to be, nevermind that some people are just awful. Some people are too far gone already, too twisted by whatever upbringing and surroundings they had to mold them into the form they fill. And some people aren't even awful, they are just too stuck in their own selfish urges to notice that there are better options than the choices they make, the things they say. It's easier to pretend our differences are shallow than to necessarily fathom the actual divide between some of us.

Like Morgan's mom thinking getting rid of his posters and grounded him from leaving the house will change who he is.

It ain't that easy.

Friday, May 29, 2020

this is my room

Open on a poster for Zombie, drift down over more horror posters, and we know something about Morgan before we even see him. He has a specific area of interest and he overlaps his fucking posters, which most of the time, I'd say, is wrong, but there was a time in my early 20s, still in a small bedroom in my parents' house, that I had to overlap things on my wall in order to put up everything I wanted up.

My room was very small. Not sure if I've shared images before. Well, let me backtrack. As a kid, I had a race car bed that was in the dining room of all places, not because we were particularly poor but because there were a lot of us. I had six older sisters. The oldest two got married in the early 80s and then I got a very small room to myself upstairs. Barely long enough for a twin bed and only a couple feet wider. Third and fourth sister moved out and the remaining two each got larger rooms while I kept the small one. When they both left for college--the same year, I think--I finally got a bigger room. I had a rather large desk I bought at a yard sale for $60, my bed, a drawing table, and I set up a small alcove in one corner with bookshelves and a bean bag chair. And, like any teenager, I spent a lot of time up there. I didn't have my own VCR(s) or cable box until we moved into a new, smaller house when I was just out of high school. Then in a room a bit bigger smaller than the last, and a bit bigger than the one before that, I was old enough to have regular jobs, spend regular money, fill up shelves and binders with magazine and comic books, fill up shelves with books, then add more books that didn't fit on the shelves, and summer 1994 on, I was also recording a hell of a lot of tv and movies on far too many VHS tapes and those took up their own shelves.

Here's a glimpse of that room, the east wall and the west wall:

I could show you the even messier portions, but I don't want... Okay, fine, one more--the southwest corner.

This room, I spent a lot of time in. I had at one point two different cable boxes and three VCRs, I had my stereo, a whole lot of CDs (more than you can see in that one photo above), I had my word processor and I had my computer. Mid 20s, I even had my own phone line.

By the time I was in high school--not long after Morgan Stewart's Coming Home was a fixture on our family videos, but a few years after the film was in theaters--I had my own taste in films, my own taste in books, magazines, whatever. I would still sit for a movie with the family, because I would watch most any movie at least once. For a few years, the best movies I'd see were at my sisters' houses because they would rent movies our mother wouldn't. Though conservative--and this was where I was going with all this--my mother was the one who introduced me to horror films, who showed my 80s comedies that included nudity and sex, showed me action movies that involved plenty of violence and bloodshed. But, honestly, that was still the conservative version of things. We avoided some horror films, some more-adult comedies, some sexually explicit dramas, and in my teens, I sought those things. I'd mostly given up on religion already, but only in retrospect. It wasn't until my first year in college right out of high school that I openly realized/acknowledged that I was an atheist, and then, while I never discussed as much with my parents, I never lied about it and never did anything to imply I still believed any of the stuff they'd been trying to get stuck in my head my whole life. And, as far as my taste in movies, all bets were off. I would watch anything. And, along with the younger two of my sisters, back home from college, we would rent plenty of movies, from crap to classics.

And, over the years, our mother got more conservative, more offended by sex or profanity in films. Me--I didn't care. I sought violence. I sought sex. I sought the profane and profound equally. I'd been watching the oscars since I was a kid but started really obsessing about them soon after I was out of high school. Then, I sought indie films as well as genre films, popular films as well as obscure low-budget stuff. Any everything in between. I went to USC out of high school, hoping to get into their film program, but after two years there, I dropped out because as I have mentioned before in this blog, I wasn't good at planning for the future, and certainly wasn't good with contingency plans when what plans I did have failed.

My room filled with more videos, more books, more magazines, more comics. I started writing regularly. Had I had internet access in my room (instead of on my sister's computer, which was in the dining room) I probably would have kept to my room all the time. Except when I was walking or taking the free bus across town to see a movie in the theater, or hit a book store.

And, I said very little about the film today. It happens.

If you've been following this blog for a long time, you know that, of course.
Since you stuck around this long:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

we didn’t do it

I imagine that Morgan Stewart's Coming Home owes its title, if not it very existence to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

And, it is an Alan Smithee film. Only the second one to be feature in this blog, I'm pretty sure. The other was Hellraiser: Bloodline

Starts with the titular boarding school kid (Jon Cryer looking like he's about 12) learning that he will not be going home for Thanksgiving... Or Christmas. But then, a revenge prank gets Morgan in trouble and suddenly he is called home. The immediate implication is he's expelled but it turns out his Republican Senator father and equally as conservative mother need him home so they can appear more like a family.

Nice little details early on. Morgan has been in boarding school for so many years, he' snot even sure where home is. The butler Ivan is reading Robert G. Allen's book Nothing Down: How to Buy Real Estate with Little or No Money Down like he's trying to move up in the world, but he barely speaks English. Of course, Morgan is into horro films and immediately decorates the walls of his room with posters. But, maybe the best is that when Morgan runs to say hello to his father, a bodyguard tackles him.

Morgan's mom is great*. Casually intrudes into the showers at school to find Morgan. Says there's no room for a humanitarian in the senate. Goes on a tirade about eating meat at the party. She "does not subscribe to the buddy buddy school of parenthood."
(* great character, not great person)
That Morgan does not rage more at his mother having Ivan incinerate all of his posters is madness. But, I guess the point is we are supposed to assume Morgan still wants a family even if he has been isolated from them for years. He is so desperate for their love that he sits reading The American Family in Crisis and watches The Brady Bunch and waxes the floor to one large room in the house before breakfast.

What he doesn't realize with that last move--and later washing windows--is that doing work around the house is just going to make him invisible to rich assholes like his parents.

And, nevermind the film for a moment. At the mall, it is at Waldenbooks that Morgan lines up to meet George Romero (signing The Zombies that Ate Pittsburg) and meets Emily. I used to love Waldenbooks. Bought a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels at Waldenbooks. Bought Star Trek technical manuals at Waldenbooks. First regularly bought comic books from Waldenbooks. First bought a Playboy from Waldenbooks.

Speaking of pornography, it amuses me that not only does Morgan's mom call his movie posters pornographic, but so does the doctor they call for a house call after he sings about being in love. This movie couches itself very neatly into a conflict between Morgan's liberal leanings (not that horror fans need to be liberal per se) and his parents' conservative foundations, and I love that this was a movie we had on video and would watch often because my parents were conservative, of course. I grew up going to church every week, to private school every week day, and just a year after this my own poster displays would start drifting into interesting directions. Maybe sooner, actually. But, I know in '88, I had a couple posters from Willow in my room, one of General Kael because awesome skull mask, one of Sorsha because hot. And by '93 in particular, I know I had a couple posters of Jason Voorhees on my walls. And, I've mentioned before that I had subscriptions to Starlog and then Fangoria and through the 90s lots of more general film magazines, but those first two set me up for obsessing about films, and especially genre films. I will mention it again when (if) I get there, but it was in 1988 that I saw a movie in the theater by myself for the first time.

Had I known the directors (yes, there were two) of this film didn't want credit for it back when I first saw it, I would have been amazed. It's not a great movie, by any stretch, but it is a solid 80s comedy, and pretty wholesome compared to some other 80s comedies I would have seen by the time. To be fair, I did not see this movie in the theater... I don't think. We caught in cable, and then liked it enough to record it later, I'm pretty sure. It's got a basic premise, easy to follow, a zany climax with a great villain in Paul Gleason (a la The Breakfast Club. And, honestly, the parental roles here feel familiar. The mother is the overbearing one, the father feels like he's be forgiving for sure and probably even encouraging if his wife wasn't there.

Morgan runs into his father incognito at an Arby's eating meat when the mother is so much against meat, and there's a nice conversation about the family they used to be.

But then, home to getting caught by his mother for having gone out.
Regarding my opening line above, by the way, it is merely the title--the production title was Homefront--that is playing off the success of Ferris Bueller's Day Off; this film was actually filmed first, in 1985, but probably for whatever reasons Alan Smithee gets the credit, the release was delayed.

Speaking of which, Leonard Klady, Los Angeles Times, offers a fun description for Smithee, September 13, 1987:
Unheralded by press and public, Smithee's reputation within the industry is legendary. Mere mention of his name stirs violent debate among the cinema cognoscenti. But, curiously, he remains without a champion. Even the French have failed to embrace the idiosyncratic style that pervades his oeuvre
Why, in the era of the auteur, had Smithee escaped notice? 
Some tell he literally doesn't exist. Yet, the credits are there... 
He accepts only impossible projects. His forte is films abandoned by others.
And, I learned something I didn't know from Klady's piece--directors who invoked the Alan Smithee credit were not allowed to talk publicly about the film in question. (At least in '87. I don't know if that has held up, and I've heard that Alan Smithee doesn't exist anymore.) And, even more than that, according to a DGA spokesperson,
the credit [was] "a signal" to the industry and press that "moral foul play" had occurred.
I always just assumed it meant the producer and director argued over where the film would go and the director left or was fired from the project... Which, come to think of it, could pretty easily involve disputes that meet a definition for "moral foul play.".

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

i want to fly

That Ema Hesire just does not want to marry any old guy her mother chooses for here is progressive enough that I think her urge to fly is too much, and unnecessary. But, it makes me realize that the balance of the story is off. We start with Emmy, then we go to Switcher and it is more than 10 minutes into the movie before we see Emmy in the window, and close to half an hour before she comes to life. The movie plays as Jonathan's story but the emotional payoff is Emmy's. I mean, a romantic comedy should have a payoff for both its leads but it feels like Jonathan gets what he wants before Emmy is even in the story. Richards, Felix, B.J., even Roxie--they're obstacles but not significant ones to Jonathan. Ultimately, they endanger Emmy's life (but not really, as I assume she would just be born in some future piece of art and start her cycle again), they don't endanger Jonathan's job.

And, thinking about that made me realize something. I never thought of this movie as a romantic comedy, and that is strange. In fact, I always say I am not a big fan of romcoms, as it were, but clearly I'm a fan of certain ones. Case in point, Groundhog Day. No matter how much I argued in phase one of this blog that Groundhog Day is not a romantic comedy, obviously, it is one, even if it is also a different kind of comedy. And, apparently, I grew up on a bunch of them...

So far in this Movie Life childhood deconstruction, I've covered (and skipped because I'd already covered them in this blog previously) the following films that could be construed (perhaps at a stretch) as romantic comedy:

And there are a bunch more coming now that I've reached 1987. I won't SPOIL things but out of 17 movies on the list for 1987, 10 could be construed as romantic comedy. Also, I think 1987 has the most movies altogether out of any of the years on the list.

And, as a metaphor, I suppose wanting to fly is like finding romance, when it comes to romantic comedies and the implicit magic of romance. There's a great line from Richard Curtis

(that I got from my cohost Luke on our movies by minutes podcast Two Minutes About Time)
about the realism of romantic comedies. Curtis, writer of Four Wedding and a Funeral and Notting Hill, writer and director of Love Actually and About Time, tells Times of India, that "he is unable to comprehend the argument that serious films are more real than romantic comedies. 'I am so lucky that people watch my films again and again,'" he says. "'I disagree That romantic films are not realistic. It is so strange that someone makes a movie about a serial killer--there have been only three of them in the history--'"

(awkward wording there, plus I am not sure by what definition Curtis thinks there have only been three serial killers. (It might be that India (which the particular publication I'm quoting here is from) has only had three, but I doubt that.) And, this is coming from a guy who shares a name with a serial killer)
--"'and everybody says, "Oh, that is terribly realistic" as if the world is full of murderers and haters.'" Because, it's hardly unrealistic for people to fall in love--people do it every day.

They fly too.

And, they watch romantic comedies.

I try not to.

(And, maybe that is because there were so many around when I was a kid, and the family wouldn't just let me watch Krull and Star Wars and Flash Gordon all the time.)
But, I guess I will be watching a few in the upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

if we sleep together tonight, we’d only confuse things

Let us get the silly out of the way up front. The setup in Egypt is silly--
and the set builders did not to a great job (except for the fact that they, of course, did not want this set to be taken seriously) as there is some weird thing on the wall that looks more like a... Had to double check, but it's a harpy on the wall between Emmy and the next mummy. And, who wrapped Emmy up like that, anyway? And, what was the point of it? Was she just going to stay in the tomb forever? And, how is it so well lit? And, why do the cracks all look horribly fake? Why are the hieroglyphs scattered instead of spaced uniformly spaced?Why are there some weird repeating shapes even with the tops of the alcoves that look like a deformed pharoah's head with an erection, and why are they not evenly spaced? You had one fucking job, set decorator, art director, production designed, whoever the fuck messed this up. Nevermind the Staff of Aesculapius-looking decorations at the sides of the mummy alcoves, because that shit is Greek, not Egyptian, and I stand by my line yesterday, however silly it may be, that anyone from Ancient Egypt should be offended by the start of this film. 
Based on the age Emmy offers later in the film, by the way, she should have been alive during the reign of Mentuhotep II
--but it serves its purpose. The animated opening titles feel very mid-80s but play a little too silly for me. Emmy hooked up with

  • Romans
  • Vikings
  • Druids
  • Michelangelo
  • Leonardo da Vinci (whose life overlaps with Michelangelo so how did that go?)
  • Christopher Columbus
  • (Possibly Marie Antoinette)
  • Robots in the future (however that makes sense)
  • And then some random dude in Philadelphia in 1987
She traded down.

The balloon bit is nonsense. The hedge bit, the pizza bit--Switcher is a selfish ass who should not be hired to do anything creative where he also has to follow instructions.

Illustra is tacky AF.

And Jonathan is definitely queer. He had a love he dare not talk about publicly (in 1987). He is an artiste, he works with Hollywood Montrose, Felix Maxwell definitely suspects that he is gay, and in the end, his partner has to undergo a strange transformation (at the flamboyantly tacky Illustra) to exist in "her" new body in order to be with him. And, he and Emmy are the victim between Mr. Richards and B.J. Because dick and a blowjob are not gay at all.

Rachel Bays at The Advance Titan describes some cinematic gay coding: "...soft-spoken, moving about in a 'dainty' fashion or being physically weaker than the leading male protagonist." Jonathan Switcher is the male protagonist, of course, but he is definitely soft-spoken, and his movement could be called dainty, but most importantly, he is physically weaker than everyone in this film except maybe Estelle Getty's Claire Timkin. As noted yesterday, of course, all the males in the film feel a little effeminate in their various ways. Armand is the most overtly heterosexual but in a way that feels like overcompensating. Just like Felix runs around trying to be hyper masculine (walking around with his baton out), but with his highwaters and his impulse to homophobia, he feels a little like a closeted, self-loathing homosexual himself. He does seem a little too eager to strip-search Switcher. Richards' slicked down hair presents him as an 80s douche, obviously, but also potentially coded gay himself. Looking to turn on the old-school Prince and Company and join the flamboyant Illustra. B.J.'s outfits work the same way--obvious 80s douche, potentially gay.

It occurs to me that a lot of men dressed pretty gay in the late 80s.
(Weird note: I never got Hollywood's line about meeting Albert for dinner following by "Hope he doesn't mind." And, it just hit me as something hilarious that he's going to surprise his boyfriend maybe out at dinner with other people, maybe at home. Hollywood is hilarious.)
Felix just openly attacking Switcher after he finds him rolling around with Emmy is a) a homophobic attack? 2) an envious/jealous attack? 3) a metaphor for the gay sex Felix wishes he was having with Switcher because he's stuck wandering around at night with a dog as his best friends because he couldn't possibly come out of the closet because it's 1987 (technically, it's '86, actually, given the calendar we see outside B.J.'s office), Reagan's America, and he's a good Texan boy working security.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Thomas (a fellow Prince and Company employee) thinks nothing of Jonathan and Emmy spending time in the Women's restroom.
(I always thought that old couple on the street was funny, but it's newly funnier. They see Jonathan with Emmy on his motorcycle. The woman says, "Look at him, with a dummy." The man replies, "Who are you to criticize?" Which feels at first like he's insulting her, which I think is how I always took it. But, if she's criticizing Jonathan for being with a dummy, her husband's question means she is also with a dummy. So the man is insulting himself.)
Then, Armand has a problem getting it up (which, was this the first instance of that problem I'd seen on the big screen?) and Roxie needs to stop trying to date guys who are not into 'normal' women.

To Felix, all the female mannequins look alike.

Jonathan is really quick with handcuffs.

Hollywood likes to fight and kiss boys, and he gets to turn a hose on cops (or at least security) which is a great moment for a gay man, and for a black man.
And, I never got back to the Advance Titan piece, or any other piece on gay coding... But, I think I made my point.

Monday, May 25, 2020

it’s that switcher

1987 will be a far more fun year than 1986 was in this childhood deconstruction--
which, let's be honest, has lately been me complaining about movies that I didn't know enough not to like when I was young, and might get worse with the string of comedies in '87--
and it might also get more serious in the dismantling of 80s cinematic tropes. The casual racism and sexism, homophobia, reliance on stereotypes and simplistic characterization--it ought to be interesting.

Beginning with Mannequin.

The opening of this film ought to be offensive to anyone from ancient Egypt. At least they didn't play "Walk Like an Egyptian" over the animated titles.

Roxie should have been Julia Louis-Dreyfus, coming off of Soul Man, but it looks like Louis-Dreyfus was looking into tv work in '87. She was in the Family Ties spinoff attempt, The Art of Being Nick in August, then an episode of Family Ties (as a different character) in '88 before being a regular on Day by Day, '88-'89. But Roxie isn't the point, is she. We've got Estelle Getty right in the middle of her run on Golden Girls, James Spader coming off of Pretty in Pink, G. W. Bailey coming off of two Police Academy films already, among other things. Meshach Taylor coming off of...

Actually, this is worth its own thing. I don't think I knew Taylor before his role here as Hollywood, but his IMDb says he had done a bunch of tv roles before this, a couple movies, including Explorers, which when I was a movie I loved as a kid, but for whatever reason we just never had it on video so it didn't make it onto this "fixture" list of mine. So, while I loved that movie, I don't remember it like I remember so many others, and I cannot recall Meshach Taylor in that film. Ethan Hawke, sure. River Phoenix, sure. Even Amanda Peterson (who starred in Can't Buy Me Love which made the list but I will be skipping because I already wrote about that one). And, I only just learned that Taliesen Jaffe (from Mr. Mom and Critical Role and many things in between) was in Explorers as well. I should watch that movie again sometime... Only, not here, I guess, because I am well past 1985.

Then our leads: Kim Cattrall coming off Big Trouble in Little China. And, Andrew McCarthy--who, like one of his two nemeses here, Spader's Richards, was also coming off Pretty in Pink.

And, it is remarkable how much I still have some much of this movie's dialogue in my head.

Also, unlike with Hoosiers the last couple days, I am inclined to put myself again in the time and place where I first saw this and wonder something. Hollywood is a bit of a caricature, the nervous, flamboyant homosexual, except even at the time I loved that character. So, my wonder now is, was liking this character one of the first times I was a fan of an openly gay character, was it a stepping stone to me getting past my conservative upbringing and accepting people that weren't that same old cisgender heterosexuals? The movie uses passing lines about homosexuals that might be offensive--Felix assuming Jonathan is also gay like Hollywood and, his great line: "You mean, they got 'em in Ohio?", for example. But then, I'm wondering if one couldn't make an argument about this whole Pygmalionesque plot as a sort of metaphor for being queer. You know, secret love you can't share with the world. Happens at night. The male authority figures are all very suspicious (and eventually openly violent). I mean, Jonathan's last name is Switcher, for Phil's sake.
What is amusing now is that Richards, Felix, Armand--even B.J.--are not the most masculine specimens. I mean by 80s standards, doesn't Richards scream a little gay?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

i know what i’m doing

The music to Hoosiers sounds like something else to me, like a bit from a song... Or maybe I've just heard this soundtrack so many times that I recognize it easily. Like the music from The Man from Snowy River (1288 1289 1290) or... So many others, actually. Friday night was the sabbath growing up, and that often meant some music playing and a card game, or older sisters would come over with their husbands and kids, once they had husbands and kids. Later when I had a wife and kids, we'd drop by my parents' house on a Friday night sometimes, too. A tradition left behind now. Waiting for a new generation, maybe.

But... Hoosiers.

I have complaints, and I will get to them. One of my complaints I am inclined not to bother much about because it turns out the Myra Fleener/Norman Dale relationship got short shrift in the editing process when the film got streamlined from a much longer first cut. As it is in the end product, Myra plays a vital but entirely manipulative and ultimately unnecessary part in act one, disappears as act two goes, and then suddenly she shows up for Norman to kiss her--I will complain about that scene later--as if their relationship had been building steadily. But, it wasn't building at all. I will assume the article I saw that mentions the first cut and what got lost after was correct, and say, it sucks for the final film that this relationship that might have been quite vital to the original seems like something tacked on instead.

Norman Dale is a liar, by the way. He tells Myra that if he is convinced to go after Jimmy, she will be "the first to know" but then he just shows up and talks to Jimmy, and goes all reverse psychology on him because Norman is kind of an ass.

Jimmy is shooting baskets--and Maris Valainis just ignored Hackman and shot to make all those shots in a row--and Norman approaches. "Jimmy, I didn't see you in class today. Any reason you want to tell me about?"

Jimmy doesn't answer.

"You know," Norman says, grabbing the ball and passing it back to Jimmy, "in the ten years that I coached, I never met anybody who wanted to win as badly as I did." Jimmy keeps shooting. "I'd do anything I had to do to increase my advantage. Anybody who tried to block the pursuit of the advantage
[like Myra Fleener]
I'd just push 'em out of the way. Didn't matter who they were or what they were doing.
[like looking after a boy whose mother is sick and whose father recently died]
But that was then." Jimmy keeps shooting. So, Coach Dale turns his focus. "You have a special... A gift. Not the school's. Not the townspeople's. Not the team's. Not Myra Fleener's. Not mine. It's yours... To do with what you choose.
[then maybe don't show up at his... I guess it' s outside the school, not his home... to manipulate him]
Because that's what I believe." Coach Dale holds the ball a little longer on this one instead of just passing it back. "I can tell you this: I don't care if you play on the team or not." He passes it back. Jimmy takes another shot, and this time he misses. CUT TO Myra watching, then Jimmy making shots again. This is a kid whose mother is sick and whose father recently died, remember. The coach's move here is a dick move.

But then the entire school one-ups him at the pep rally, and Coach Dale steps up and defends the players he's got, and I think we're supposed to be moved, and to think that Myra is moved.
And, the movie doesn't give us any time with Jimmy, no time to get to know him, know what he's dealing with, or to know why he bothers to show up when the town wants to get rid of Coach Dale.
(And, it's really simplistic writing that Myra's own reason for coming back to Hickory is the same as (her reason for) Jimmy not being on the team: her mother got sick and her father died. One one level, it gives her reason to care about Jimmy, I guess. But, on another level, it's lazy screenwriting. But, maybe in the longer cut we cared that Myra tried and failed to make something of herself outside of Hickory.)
Dale insists to his boss that he knows what he's doing, and the movie wants us to believe him. But, it doesn't actually show us that we should. A big part of my master's thesis was about how I manipulate your impressions writing this blog. I control what you think of me. I cite sources casually, I reference other films and previous blog entries, because I want to demonstrate that I know what I'm talking about. I want to provide evidence for as much in the examples I offer, the sources I find. I don't just want to you agree with me because me say that I am right. It's basic research/citation management that I (try to) teach my speech students. And, instead--and I am hesitant to say this next line--I am getting a horrible politician vibe from Coach Dale, even a, dare I say it, Trumpian vibe. Say you know what you're talking about, and we are just supposed to believe you. Nevermind that the team is still losing until the star player comes back. Nevermind that your last coaching gig, a dozen years ago, ended because you punched one of your players. Nevermind that you then were in the navy for a decade and that feels like a footnote more than an influence on who you are today. You are simply what you say you are, and not in the positive way I sometimes might suggest when getting all leftist and preaching about identity and you be whoever you want to be and all that. Instead, here, Coach Dale says he's something, and the audience believes it, and I really just don't know why. At his best, he's setting up one of his Hickory players--I swear, other than Jimmy I don't know which is which--to punch a player from the opposing team. And, he should be removed from his position as coach. He could go back to the Navy, change his name to Reigert, and 15 years later be responsible for Owen Wilson miraculously deciding that the military is the life for him, nevermind that a whole other movie has failed to provide evidence for character growth or change.
And then there's that SMASH CUT to Coach Dale dunking Shooter's head in a sink even though the movie has not bothered to show us that Shooter's drinking is a problem yet.

And then there's that conversation late in the film where we learn about his past problems and he transitions from that to immediately kissing Myra and I kinda want her to punch him and file a grievance over his taking liberties because, seriously, that moment is not earned in the shorter cut, and I would wager that even in the longer cut, it is hard to go from I once punched one of my athletes to hey, why don't we kiss and be a couple because movies got to have romance or something.

And then there's that final play of the final game, where the movie just throws out everything the coach has supposedly done for this team and it's just give Jimmy the ball and win...

Except that was set up from early one, wasn't it? Coach Dale told Jimmy, "I never met anybody who wanted to win as badly as I did." So, of course, damn his own coaching, damn his own four passes before the shot, just give the ball to JImmy and win already because the audience wants to cheer like mindless fools and head home happy as can be.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

more to the game than shooting

The description on STARZ for today's movie begins: "The best sports film ever?"

As I tell my Speech 101 students, don't start with a question. It gets me thinking, gets me not paying attention to you speaking and, in the case of this description, has me thinking about other films. I'm not a sports film kind of guy. I mean, I like some of every kind of movie, I'm sure, but if I ranked my genres--and I recently did just that, actually, while running a bracket of my favorite films on my podcast Cock & Bull--sports film is not near the top. My top 380 has so few that would qualify that when I broke down the list for an excel sheet, there wasn't even a column for it.

A couple that might qualify:
A couple documentaries:
  • Hoop Dreams
  • Free Solo
The Wrestler comes pretty close to what makes a "sports film", and that's on the list as well.
But, the only one on the list that, I suppose, is really a "sports film" is The Karate Kid (1343 1344).

I feel like my general distaste
--but, not necessarily dislike; for example, Hoosiers is a great film
(and is the one I'm watching today, by the way. Just realized I hadn't said that.)
but not because it's a great sports film. It's a dramatic story done well--
for sports films is similar to my dislike of most movies about writing or about artists. Usually, the cinematic version of such a story cannot really tell you the story of the creative process. And, maybe a film like this one tells you plenty about the sport
--I actually don't know, because I also have never played much of sports outside of school. I was on varsity in volleyball and I did play basketball for a church team (though only because I had to, and I eventually got out of it) and I tried out for baseball as well. I also don't watch sports much. I used to watch a Dodgers baseball game from time to time because my family was into that, but give me access to a second television or a computer and I'm watching something else or playing a video game instead--
but it feels more like the sport is just dressing. Someone who likes basketball can appreciate it. If I remember right, the games for this film were not choreographed per se except for certain moments. They just had the players play and worked out what made sense for the story.

But also, sport is not the point. Of this film, or of any sports film. Like most any action film, adventure film, even any romantic film, the points is the characters dealing with a struggle. In this case, as a team. Not much different from, say, The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

Half hour into Hoosiers, I'm not even sure Coach Dale knows what he's doing. It's like a movie about a teacher. We're stuck with that teacher, this coach, so we have to assume he's doing it right. But, I'm thinking of the recent The Way Back with Ben Affleck, for example, where it plays pretty close to Stand and Deliver (739) or Dangerous Minds (743) than something specifically sports related. New authority figure comes to the school, other adults don't necessarily like what they're doing, some of the kids don't necessarily like what they're doing, but they just keep doing it until the script tells us that it works, and all ends well.
(Or, SPOILERS, in the case of The Way Back it actually doesn't end all that well, which may have been the one bit of that film that made it feel somewhat original, or at least bold. But even in that, it's like Hoosiers except Coach Dale (Gene Hackman) and Shooter (Dennis Hopper) have been mashed into one character.)
In his book The Sports Film: Games People Play, Bruce Babington offers Invictus as his initial example of a great sports film. Invictus, he writes, "through its sports narrative addresses not just sporting matters but wider issues, not implicitly as many do, but very explicitly, this providing an overt opening example of the genre's workings." Hoosiers, just on a casual pass, is perhaps just as interested, as it is in basketball, in the idea that small town folk can feel stuck, and need to find a way out. Myra (Barbara Hershey) is not just arbitrarily trying to keep Jimmy from being on the team; she specifically takes a dig at Dale, after saying she wants Jimmy to get an academic scholarship:
I don't want this to be the high point of his life. I've seen 'me. The real sad ones. They sit around all their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17... A man your age comes to a place like this, either he's running from something or he has nowhere else to go... Just stay away from Jimmy. I don't want him coaching in Hickory when he's 50.
And that's what Hoosiers is about more than basketball. It's about a guy who failed at his job--in this case, he assaulted one of his own players--and needs a comeback. All we really know about his way of coaching is that it is unlike the last coach or the interim guy or what the players' fathers might want. He demands four passes before a shot. Is that good? I don't know. Does it even work? The film suggests it doesn't go well. I mean, the team doesn't start really winning until Jimmy joins the team to keep Coach Dale from being removed. Why Jimmy believes in Dale--the film doesn't really tell us. The basic gist is Dale cares more about playing well than winning. But, for a sports program to survive long, I would expect one thing to be the other and vice versa. You don't have to be the best but you gotta do something to justify your existence.

The problem I have is I want something less vague. What about Dale's coaching makes the Huskers better? What about Shooter made Dale think he could coach at his side? What about Dale made Jimmy want to return? Actually, that last one is easy; Jimmy clearly enjoys the sport and would have probably come back at some point; the bigger issue is why after Jimmy returns does it feel like Myra's reasoning for keeping him away--and Myra's role in the film, really--just doesn't matter anymore. Jimmy's absence feels like a gimmick for the first act, or two acts, I guess; I wasn't paying attention the timing on when they wanted to get rid of Dale and Jimmy deus ex machinaed Dale's continued job as coach.

Roger says the film's structure is
the broad over-all structure of most sports movies: It begins with the problem of a losing team, introduces the new coach, continues with the obligatory training sequences and personality clashes, arrives at the darkest hour and then heads toward triumph.
To be fair, if you boil any film down to its primary beats, everything is pretty generic. Every horror film is a bit like every other horror film. Every science fiction film is a bit like every other science fiction film. Every fantasy film. Every romantic comedy. Every buddy cop movie. Every sports movie. Jimmy is in this movie because the movie needs Coach Dale to be the underdog and barely survive the town of Hickory. Shooter is in this movie because the script needs something horrible to happen in act three. Myra is in the movie... Actually, once Jimmy is on the team, I'm not sure why she ever was in the film at all. She was an obstacle posing almost as a potential romantic interest, but then she just kinda went away (she will be back later, but it's like a stray unrelated subplot at that point).

The aforementioned Babington suggests that sports films typically follow a pattern described by Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: "causality, consequence, psychological motivations, the drive towards overcoming obstacles and achieving goals." One of those doesn't really fit well in Hoosiers, though. What are any of these characters' motivations aside from the ones we put on them because maybe we've been in a similar place before? Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with letting the audience identify with characters and put ourselves into the story, but Myra's urge for Jimmy to have something better than basketball is important. Her own inability to really make it out of Hickory--she did go to grad school but ended up back in the small town--is important. Dale's anger issues are important. Strap's religion is important. But, do we know any details about any of these things. We almost get detail about Myra, but then the movie moves on. We start to learn about Dale's history--which might hint at the reasons for his anger issues--but then the movie moves on. Character, psychological motivation, is secondary to just playing, winning, overcoming obstacles and achieving goals.

And, while I'm watching a film like this, I guess it works for me. But, afterward, I'd generally rather watch something else.