Saturday, September 30, 2017

better her than me

Leia is awesome. It should go without saying. Especially after so many years. Many people have written about her (and about Carrie Fisher) over the years. And, Fisher herself has had plenty to say. For example, in Rolling Stone, 21 July 1983, she says, "There are a lot of people who don't like my character in these movies; they think I'm some kind of space bitch." She follows that up with:

She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds--along with her hairdresser--so all she has is a cause. From the first film... she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.

But, that isn't really true. 1) she may have friends. Star Wars Rebels has shown us recently that Leia was involved with the rebellion for a while before the events seen at the end of Rogue One and the opening of Star Wars, but even as a rebel, she could have friends. At home an Alderaan, maybe. Or she goes out for drinks with other senators. She has adopted parents--Bail and Breha Organa. Prior to her planet being blown up--and I'll get to her being surprisingly capable after that shock in a moment--Leia was a strong leader, she had a sarcastic wit, and she stood toe to toe with Darth Vader and challenged him rather than shy away. She was tortured and didn't give up the name of the location of the rebel base. She was already a soldier, already front and center. And, by choice. Of course, her (adopted) father was there when the republic fell apart, and he surely told her stories. But, really, taking just this first film as the measure, what makes Leia so impressive is that after her entire home planet is destroyed, after she has been tortured and is scheduled for execution, she is still more capable than Han or Luke when they get pinned down. Picture it: they've run down that hallway in the cell bay, there's only one way out and they've got imperials there firing on them...

LEIA: Looks like you managed to cut off our only escape route.

HAN: Maybe you'd like it back in your cell, Your Highness.

Jump forward a few seconds. Luke's been chatting with Threepio over the radio to figure a way out.

LEIA: This is some rescue! You came in here, and you didn't have a plan for getting out?

HAN: He's the brains, sweetheart.

She takes Luke's blaster rifle and fires a hole in the wall.

HAN: What the hell are you doing?

LEIA: Somebody has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy.

Luke goes after Leia without a plan beyond the stormtrooper suits they've already got and the simple ruse of Chewbacca as prisoner. Han goes along with it because Luke told him Leia's rich. And Chewbacca is just muscle. It falls to Leia to take charge and get things done. Fisher says they made Leia angry, but I think she plays Leia as something far more positive than that. She should be angry. She should be sad. But, she doesn't have time for that. She has to save the galaxy.

Still, Fisher's got a point about Leia beyond this one film... "In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine," she explains, "more supportive, more affectionate. But, let's not forget that these movies are basically boys' fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes."

She also says something interesting--which I almost made a paranthetical Sidenote but it really cuts to the heart of the role of someone like Leia in this kind of story as well) about the way romance works and how real-life women are presented in movies...

It doesn't work, even in the Forties movies where it works the best, for me anyway. In stories like Adam's Rib and His Girl Friday, you've got two people competing as equals, but they love each other. It's the classic Forties relationship, and the conflict is what makes it passionate. And no matter how much the woman might avoid the man in the beginning, she always softens up and marries him in the end. You don't ever see what happens after the thrill of the chase is gone. I'm interested in what happens in the day-to-day business of living relationships, and that isn't what movies are cut out to do.

It's the same reason, really, that so many movies fail the Bechdel Test (or the Mako Mori Test)--screenwriter and directors, most of Hollywood really, fail to be able to imagine a female who is capable but still feminine, feminine but not inclined toward romance for her story to happen. Leia follows that same sort of path, but in this one movie she really doesn't. Luke is clearly smitten with her. And, Han is interested (but mostly only after he realized Luke wants her). But, Leia has bigger things on her mind. The Empire Strikes Back really plays up the love triangle, and then Return of the Jedi smashes it back down and forms up the nice couple, Leia and Han, and ends with a party (an echo of the classic wedding ending to remind the audience that all is well and traditional norms are in play again, evils is vanquished, men and women can get together and be happy).

But, however much Hollywood may have trouble with well-rounded women who might be independent and capable and be interested in romance (or just sex), reality doesn't play the same way. And, plenty of women and girls have seen Leia as a feminist role model. Suzi Parker, Ms. Magazine, 17 December 2015: "Leia's sassy insults and commanding wit in the first Star Wars movies showed that she wasn't going to be the ditzy female who was looking for love throughout the galaxy." Even though, I must interject, the plot hinges on her being a princess in need of rescue, which is a plotline so very far from feminist. Parker continues: "However handsome Han Solo was, Leia wasn't going to be at all tempted or intimidated by his looks or swagger." Until they were on Hoth and she might have gone for anyone who would offer up some body heat, I suppose. Parker continues: "Her unwavering sarcasm gave girls some one-liners that we still used today. Example: 'Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerd-herder!" And, Parker makes a good point about the Tattooine segment of Return of the Jedi;

Leia rescu[es] Han, the love of her life, from the evil lair of Jabba the Hutt... Yes, she becomes a slave girl and wears the infamous gold bikini, but she also doesn't need a guy to help her escape. Using her own smarts, Leia chokes Jabba to death with the chain he had used to keep her hostage. Never let something like a skimpy bikini stop you from doing what needs to be done.

Mary Pflum Peterson, writing for Huffington Post, 27 December 2016, explains:

Without question, the princess part of the story was what intrigued me the most. Growing up, I was one of "those" girls--the girly girl types--who spent hours reading fairytales and dreaming of spending my days in long, frothy gowns, waiting to kiss the frog that would turn into my prince or to be rescued from a turret in a castle. I longed to see the Star Wars princess my brother tole me about because I longed to *be* a real-life princess.

But when the lights went down and Princess Leia first appeared on the big screen, she wasn't the princess I'd expected to meet. Yes, Leia wore a pretty dress--but it was simple, not ornamental. And it wasn't a garment she was all concerned about keeping clean. On the contrary, Leia gamely maneuvered in that gown in trash compactors and gun battles alike.

And Peterson gets to the sticky angle of things...

And yes, like any good princess, Leia was technically rescued by a pair of handsome would-be princes in the movie. But she quickly established that she was just as capable of doing the rescuing as she was of being rescued (and she quickly made clear, too, that were it up to her, she would have much preferred to get herself out of her own mess than be lectured to by sexist men, thank you very much).

Most importantly, "she wasn't demure. She was strong. She wasn't quiet. Instead, she had a razor-sharp tongue. She didn't stand back and let life and the men in her life determine her fate." Really the only time she balks at all in this first film is when Tarkin threatens an entire planet. And, even then, she lies.

Megan Kearns, writing for Bitch Flicks, 1 August 2012, asks an important question: "[W]hy did Leia have to be a princess? Why did she have to bear a title that too often symbolizes hyperfemininity, passivity, and sexualization? Why couldn't she have been the President's daughter or merely a Senator?" A couple things before the big thing: she is a Senator as well, and that actually fuels her symbology as independent woman; she's a princess who went out and took on a role with more responsibility, then she added to that by going out and joining the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. She is far from hyperfeminine, far from passive, far from sexual (despite George Lucas' insistence that they didn't have bras in space). Another thing, the way movies go, the President's daughter usually plays with a lot of the same tropes as a princess; Hollywood can't let a young woman be that close to power without insisting (generally) that she is inherently weak and in need of saving. Not just Hollywood, of course. As Emily L. Hauser, writing for The Week, 16 December 2015, puts it, "That is, after all, what we do to women every day--we reduce them to their weakest, meekest, most domesticated iterations...

All of this is bad, not just for women and girls (though it is certainly bad for women and girls), but for men and boys, as well. When we reduce fully half of humanity to something far less than they are capable of being, we rob ourselves of all that they are capable of contributing.

Then, there's a big thing. Because, making Leia a princess seems like a step in the direction of reducing her. But, absent her naming in the opening crawl, before we even hear her called a princess, she has already proven herself defiant and capable. Why Leia is a princess has a quite obvious answer and a less obvious but far more important answer. The former is just simple filmmaking; Lucas was copying classic serials when he put together the story for Star Wars, and he's explicitly echoing The Hidden Fortress. Leia's predecessor(s) there are Princess Yuki, who pretends to be mute to protect her identity, and (it has a been a good while since I watched The Hidden Fortress so I can't remember just how big a part this one is) a farmer's daughter who was for sale as a slave. Leia is far from mute, and far from being a slave. But she is an explicit echo of many princesses before her, in need of rescue from evil forces. But, Lucas was in college close to the same time as those who dropped out to join the counterculture, at the same time as those who fueled second wave feminism. As much as he has to put her in the position of being capture and rescued, I think he just couldn't help but, consciously or not, write her as an actual woman with actual skills and abilities and a will to get things done. The sexual revolution turned what could have easily been a damsel in distress into something far more nuanced and positive.

Natalie Reilly, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 2016: "Princess Leia reconfigured my understanding and expectations of mythology, fairy tales, and, it almost goes without saying, women." And this:

Much has been made of her elaborate hairstyles, but you'll note that the only time her hair is out is when victory has been achieved at the end of Return of the Jedi. The reasoning is obvious: Leia doesn't take her hair out while there's still shit to do.

Jordan Maison, Cinelinx, 27 December 2016:

As a kid in the 80s, so much of the media consumed portrayed men as the be-all, end-all, heroes of the world and princesses were meant for saving and love interested only...

Leia wasn't some damsel in distress who needed rescuing, she was a take charge heroine who stared, unflinchingly and defiantly back at Darth Vader in the most dire of circumstances.

Glynnis MacNicol, Elle, 14 August 2015: "[Leia] represented to me everything I wanted in my life to include: adventure, independence, agency, and great hair."

Maggie May Ethridge, Romper, 18 December 2015:

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia took the word princess and tore it up, redesigned it, and wore it like a queen. She sparkled with intelligence, wit, passion, and humors. She took charge, sought out answers, and demanded respect from everyone in the galaxy, especially her male cohorts. She assumed everyone around her would treat her with respect.

Finally, my daughter Saer, while I was working on this blog entry: "Leia is just like my cat Lucy because she is fierce and fabulous and better than guys, and perfect."

Friday, September 29, 2017

he can go about his business

I was always a bigger fan of Luke than of Han. Probably because I was so young when I first came to them, or they first came to me. Luke made for the more interesting fantasy.

So, I'm looking up articles about this, Hand versus Luke, and I really wish there were a serious study, but I might be the only person who would think studying that would be worth it for the sake of, say, a film program, a communication studies program, a psychology program. Glenn Geher, PhD, writing for Psychology Today, 5 March 2013, talks about a class discussion in a graduate course in social psychology...

The conversation touched on several themes relevant to evolutionary psychology--mate choice, optimal features of long-term mates, optimal features of short-term mates, morphological features of sexually attractive mates, the handicap principle applied to high levels of testosterone, inbreeding depression, and so forth...

Let's unpack a bit of that before moving on. Evolutionary psychology is specifically about "useful mental and psychological traits--such as memory, perception, or language--as adaptations, i.e. as the functional products of natural selection" according to Science Daily. That means, in this case, you could get into why Han behaves the way he behaves--old backstory had him as an imperial cadet (I think he was just a cadet) who left the service of the empire when he saved Chewbacca from slavery (under the Empire), hence Chewbacca's life debt to Han (which is not mentioned once in the released films, of course; it's one of those things people just know, like ewoks being called ewoks), and then he became a smuggler, because he had charisma, he had great piloting skills, and he was a gambler... Of course those aspects raise more questions about who he was before he was an imperial; or why Luke behaves the way he behaves--this one is more obvious because the film shows us a snapshot of his life; he's got friends, they fly vehicles called T-16s (the film doesn't tell us this, but the small model ship he's playing with early in this film is a model of a T-16), either racing or hunting womp rats, but his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are a little overprotective of him, and while we don't know exactly why they are the way they are, we do know they fear he will turn out like his father, but do they even know that Anakin turned to the dark side, that he's Darth Vader? Did Obi-Wan tell them that when he dropped off the newborn Luke? Also, Owen relies on Luke to help work their moisture farm. Maybe Owen just can't hack it anymore, and Luke leaving (if Beru and Owen weren't murdered by stormtroopers) would have put them out of business. "Well, he'd better have those units on the south ridge repaired by midday or there'll be hell to pay" and all that. Luke is young, he's whiny, but he's got dreams. He dreams of joining the rebellion against the empire.

As for the long-term mates/short-term mates thing, there's this line from that same Psychology Today piece, from a friend of the author after hearing about that class discussion: "[C]an't it be just that Han Solo would be way better in bed? It's not like I'd want to have babies with him!" Or Dave Golder's take, writing for Games Radar, 6 February 2013: "I'd love to go out with Han sometimes, but it's Luke I'd take home." He's paraphrasing Jean Grey from X-Men 2: "Girls flirt with the dangerous guy, they don't bring him home; they marry the good guy."

Golder makes the case for Luke over Han based on 5 (misnumbered) criteria: 1) Luke is an idealist, 2) he has a lightsaber, 3) Han is "kind of a jerk", 5) Luke's a badass, 6) Luke can use the force. If you know that last one is hereditary then that's a great point in his favor when it comes to picking one of these guys as a mate. #5, though--Han is also a badass, just a different kind of badass. Luke is more of, at the same time, a dreamer and a planner. Han just makes shit up as he goes and risks everything; he's a gambler.

Since Luke just did his dramatic double take on his dead aunt and uncle, I gotta mention, a big plus for me in this film is that Mark Hamill is far a better actor than Harrison Ford. If you know the story, Ford wasn't even supposed to be in the movie. He was a carpenter, but they needed someone to read lines and George Lucas liked his delivery. Han has some great lines, and Ford has charisma, but Ford has never been much of an "actor." (He does have some great delivery occasionally, though, like his bit about the force:

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid...

Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful force controlling... everything.

There's no mystical energy controls my destiny! It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

Han's atheism might appeal to me now, but as a kid, the idea of the force, and being able to channel it to control people and move objects was awesome.

As for morphological features that make them sexually attractive, I don't think I was sexually attracted to either character when I was a kid, but I must say, looking at them now (looking at them in the movie right now, not looking at Hamill and Ford as they look now), I think Luke's loose (slightly feathered?) mop is more attractive than Han's parted (but not nearly combed) hair and those 70s sideburns... Ugh, now that I noticed them, I can't not see them. They're not long or anything, but they stand out. Anyway, I prefer men more rugged than either of them, like Ewan McGregor in Revenge of the Sith but less clean. But really, my attraction was for Leia, of course. But, I think I'll save talking about Leia for tomorrow.






Back to Psychology Today. The handicap principle is a weird one here. It applies to things like a male peacock's big tail; the male's prowess is demonstrated because he can thrive despite the extra big tail. I'm not sure, in that class discussion, where the "extravagant male trait" was exactly. "High levels of testosterone"? Han's swagger? Like because Ford was 9 years older than Hamill, he's more of a man? His voice is lower, sure. He's taller. And, as far as cinematic visual cues, go, Han is the cowboy, with his low-slung gun belt and his trusty sidekick (Chewbacca) and steed (Millennium Falcon). He's the adult, Luke's the kid. But, this just circles me right back to where I started. I think I liked Luke more because I was younger. That mythological angle, learning that your dead father was a great warrior and you can use the force and take down an evil empire--that's what a kid wants. What I wanted anyway.

(Plus, while Han and Leia would get together, Luke would eventually hook up with Mara Jade and she seemed like a pretty good catch... But, alas, she's no longer canon.)

The films set up plenty for both Luke and Han to do, though. Because, that's cast calculus. Swashbuckler rogue and monk/sorcerer, with Chewbacca the barbarian, Leia as a fighter with noble background, and in this film by itself, Obi-Wan ain't much more than a monk or a paladin. He barely uses the force, and hardly uses his lightsaber. Of course, he dresses like a samurai...

And, I'm drifting.

I wish I had time for a survey. Find the confluence of age at first contact with Star Wars and attraction to Luke or Han. But, I don't.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

don't get cocky

I am, legitimately, an expert on the movie Groundhog Day. Or at least I was a few years ago. I don't 100% have the script memorized anymore, I don't think about the film every day. But, during the first year of this blog (and a few times since) I have been contacted by strangers with questions about the movie. (I also, while IMDb still had its message board, actively joined multiple conversation threads about the film, effectively positioning myself as someone who knows the film).

Similarly, I should be considered an expert on Star Wars, or an ex-expert. When I was a kid, I watched the trilogy often. There was no box set then so each film was on a different VHS tape. (If memory serves, Star Wars was on the same tape as Adventures of the Wilderness Family, The Empire Strikes Back was on a tape with The Natural and The Last Starfighter, and Return of the Jedi was on a tape with Silverado.*)

* I don't just trust my memory. My sister recently sent me pictures of our old movie list and I doublechecked while Artoo and Threepio were getting into trouble on Tatooine and that one stormtrooper happened upon.. Was that a washer? How does a droid just drop a washer? And, in a galaxy as heavily populated and traveled as the one that contains Tatooine, wouldn't there be machine debris all over that desert? Hell, I'm not an expert in ecology but I'm guessing that debris from thousands of years worth of spaceships traveling from place to place, dumping their garbage into space (as the Star Destroyer Executor does in Empire), and being destroyed in space, would mean debris was everywhere. Much would be too small and would burn up on entry into any given atmosphere, I suppose, but maybe the presence of that debris would even be part of the very sand structure of a "desert planet" like Tatooine. But, again, I'm not an expert on ecology, or sand, or atmospheric entry.

But then, I get ahead of myself in recollecting the Endor Holocaust argument, and wonder just how one can presuppose the existence of such a galactic-wide population with regular travel routes (like the Kessel Run) and not allow for the serious ecological and environmental impacts such a thing would have on each system. Like, how is Coruscant not at least as polluted as those shots of downtown LA at the start of Adventures of the Wilderness Family if not worse? Did ancient Jedi use the force to simply push pollution out into space? If so, is that what that exogorth in Empire regularly feeds on? For that matter, is that why mynocks exist all over the Galaxy, because there is just so much detritus and debris to consume that once upon a time, maybe during the time of the Old Republic, or even before, humanoids promoted mynock population growth? The Star Wars wiki suggests their primary diet was passive radiation.

But then again, as soon as he could manage a cleaner look to his universe, Lucas made all the ships and buildings of the Star Wars galaxy (which, apparently, in the four decades of comics and novels and sourcebooks never got a proper name, just "the galaxy") nice and clean. Aside from the trash compactor scene in this film, the Millennium Falcon drifting along with the garbage in Empire, and Anakin's whining about sand in Attack of the Clones, the actual existence and impact of dirt and trash just doesn't matter in the Star Wars universe. (Well, there was a trash compactor scene in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy of novels, as well, if I recall, but that was more an echo of this film, in being a way to escape capture.)

But this is the stuff that goes through my mind. Sure, I grew up on Star Wars as it was, but I also grew up with Star Wars as it was. As Wooderson might put it, "I get older, Star Wars stays the same age." It's like mythology or religion... but I repeat myself. Timeless in its fundament. And, each time you come back to it, it pulls you backward, and maybe you pull it forward, you find new ways to plug it into your brain, the nooks and crannies. While there were Star Wars comics in the 80s--

(as well as Droids and Ewoks cartoons which I have never actually managed to watch because my Star Wars obsession peaked long before they showed up on home video (i.e. DVD... Supposedly, there were some VHS copies earlier, but I never saw those)

--my experience with Star Wars up until the Thrawn trilogy (starting with Heir to the Empire in 1991) was three films, a lot of toys, and playing Star Wars with friends and/or my sister Brooke. After Zahn's trilogy of novels, I worked backward, bought old comics, bought sourcebooks, pored over Bill Slavicsek's A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, bought every new comic, every new novel, all the new action figures produced from Star Wars' newfound popularity, and even add my own stories to a Star Wars timeline I wrote on my old word processor. Alas, because it was on that old word processor, I no longer have it, but one notable detail (that should tell you something about me) was that I wrote Sodom and Gomorrah into Star Wars history as twin planets destroyed because of Jedi turned to the Dark Side. When new VHS versions of the trilogy came out on video, I bought them. When the special editions came out, I lined up to see them on the big screen and bought the tapes when they were released (even though some additions were silly). And, when the new trilogy was announced, I was excited. Hell, with the more recent The Force Awakens and Rogue One, even the Rebels cartoon, it's like I can be a little kid again while I watch. But also an adult. Star Wars remains Star Wars but my perspective widens and grows. I see how it influenced other films, how it influenced filmmaking, how it influenced marketing and merchandising, how imagery like Leia's side bun hairstyle or Leia's slave outfit in Jedi infused themselves into pop culture, how turning to the Dark Side became common nomenclature... And how many times have I quoted lines from these movies in four decades?

For that matter, how much of my understanding of masculinity was influenced by the dichotomy of Luke and Han? How much of my understanding of feminists came from Leia? How much of my curiosity for the world came from the notion that other planets and alien life forms might exist out there? One of the reasons Star Wars is not science fiction, of course, is that it never really delves into the exploration aspect, the real societal impacts of so many disparate cultures merging and warring constantly over thousands of years. Lucas wasn't interested in that aspect, of course, but rather used the setting for a simple (and mythologically evocative) adventure yarn. When he did expand his approach, he went with politics instead of culture. Every culture seems monolithic, every planet has one (or two) biomes; is it any wonder that a singular Empire could rule over such a galaxy? On a related note, was the obvious distinction between good and evil a piece of the Cold War? Lucas was too old really to fall in line with the counterculture but he was in college when college campuses were still the stage for revolution. He could play with rebellion as a concept but not really explore its every nuance, or weigh it's impacts accordingly. But, oh how he could fuel a child's imagination in the direction of said rebellion... Or not, of course. Because the rebellion is drawn in broad strokes, there is room for a kid to enjoy these films but not embrace a philosophy of rebellion. Because the empire is drawn in broad (evil) strokes, there is room for a more child of a more conservative bent to watch this and still see something worth (in the moment) rebelling against. But, really, any child growing up in the early 80s absolutely should have Star Wars as a fixture in their minds of... something. If not, I am sorry that your parents didn't let you do fun things like watch movies.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

i'm getting too old for this sort of thing

To paraphrase Trent and Mike from Swingers, "VHS baby!"

That's right, I've got Star Wars on tonight, finally. And I will be refusing for the purposes of this blog to ever refer to it as "A New Hope" because however much that episode title might have been part of the opening crawl, that is not what we called it back in the day... Did I just say "back in the day"? I should apologize. As I would tell my Public Speaking students, that phrase is vague. What I meant to say was that between the first time I saw Star Wars circa it's time in the theater (maybe when I was just a few months old but I'm guessing months later or the next year in some rerelease; all I know is that when The Empire Strikes Back came out, I knew Star Wars even though I was only four. I dont' actually remember seeing Star Wars for the first time. (Some of the first movies I specifically remember seeing in the theater are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi and Halloween.) I just remember knowing what Star Wars was. It's like God or Santa, except I wasn't raised on Santa Claus, but I imagine that kids who celebrate Christmas probably couldn't tell you when they first heard of Santa. It's just something they know before they can even formulate memories of knowing it. For me, that innate knowledge included Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Stormtroopers, Tarkin... Seriously, before I could legitimately formulate memories, I had these characters in my head. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest they may have had as much of an influence on me as that other fictional character, God, did, maybe more.

And, VCR bonus, this VCR I've got has a mismatched remote--I had to buy a multi-brand one to make it work, and there is no noticeable tracking control, which if you grew up with VCRs, you should know that means, there's some graininess to the picture (which also could be because I'm watching VHS tapes from before the special editions existed) but also a little bit of the image from the bottom is up at the top.

Sidenote: it also just occurred to me that my need to name every last character in stories I've written, or to name all the NPCs when I'm DMing Dungeons & Dragons, could come from knowing all the Star Wars characters' names. But, just now, I wasn't sure if the Imperial officers that were on the Tantive IV with Darth Vader had specific names--so many minor characters got not only names but also action figures, and one of them was speaking rather boldly to Vader, and that's risky as fuck, in the modern nomenclature.

And, I had the action figures, of course. I never had all the ships, because those were more pricey. From this first film, the only vehicle I ever had was the Millennium Falcon. From Empire I had a Snowspeeder and Slave I and an AT-AT, from Return of the Jedi a Speeder Bike... Vehicles didn't matter much, but I had the special figures you had to mail away for--Palapatine, Anakin. I swear I even had the missile-launching Boba Fett but never knew it was worth money, eventually lost it, probably buried in the yard where I dug a hole to fill with water for some makeshift Dagobah action...

But, I get ahead of myself. Boba Fett doesn't exist yet. Neither does Dagobah. It is May 1977, I am only a few months old. And, according to my mother I even met George Lucas in those intervening months at the beach. He saw she had a baby boy and told her about the new movie he'd made. At the time she probably thought he was just some weirdo.

Alec Guinness supposedly read the script for this film in between scenes working on Murder by Death. And, he acts the crap out of a script that almost doesn't deserve such effort. Lucas was always good at creating worlds, imagining creatures, but I'm not sure his scripting every rose above mediocre. Fortunately, an adventure story like this, a fantasy one no less, doesn't need a script that rises above mediocre; it just needs actors willing to commit, good creature designs that the audience can accept along the way. The one saving grace here is that Lucas didn't feel the need to show us the senate. When we first hear about it, we hear that the Emperor has dissolved it. Younger Lucas was far more streamlined in his story structure.

And then the amazing thing happened. I just noticed something new. Now, lots of people (nerds especially) probably know that the bounty hunter (a Trandoshan, by the way, but I actually only remember that detail because I recently used a bunch of Trandoshan artwork for Sarkrith pawns in my D&D game, and if you understood everything in that sentence, I salute you) Bossk in Empire wears a spacesuit that was previously used in a Doctor Who episode called "The Tenth Planet." The thing is, I just spotted that same spacesuit, ever so briefly, on someone sitting at a table in the Chalmun's Cantina. Rewound, paused, did some frame advance action, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't Bossk. I didn't expect it to be Bossk as I figure the reason you don't see the guy's face very well is the spacesuit was the important background visual. If he had the whole Bossk face, Lucas couldn't have helped but make sure we saw it in that scum and villainy montage.

Except, for the record, I just got that screencap off YouTube. The VHS copy I'm watching is not widescreen.

More like this:

But with angled lines of static.

And, I just learned something new about Chewbacca. My daughter asked about the sounds he made, and I mentioned the bear that made a lot of his sounds. Googled it to doublecheck and apparently some other bears, lions, and badgers were mixed in, but the interesting thing was why they used a bear for the primary sound. The Chewbacca mask didn't have articulated lips; the mouth just opened and closed. They used a bear because bears vocalize from the back of the throat, and don't move their lips much, they just open their mouth. (One version of this information comes from Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas... A book I think I used to own. I guess it was in that box of books I lost when I moved briefly to Tennessee back in 2000. And it just occurred to me that I may have spent less time living in Tennessee (most of the month of December 2000, and a few days of January 2001), than I have spent watching Groundhog Day. There's a non sequitur for ya.






And, it's interesting the things I know, or remember knowing when I was I don't even know how young. Like behind-the-scenes footage of Obi-Wan climbing on the thingy with the power switches for the tractor beam, and it was really only like two feet off the ground. Or that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill enjoyed swinging across that abyss so much that they did it an extra time. I mean, when did I watch that footage? When did I learn about them having a good time swinging? I certainly had a good time swinging from things as a kid; had a rope with a loop at the bottom hanging from a tree in the front yard, and a tire swing. The dirt under that rope was where I dug one of my swamps, actually. I had a model (not a toy... I'm not even sure if there was a toy version) of Yoda's hut, and take out the oversize Yoda and Luke and it worked pretty well with the action figures, especially if you stick it in some swallow muddy water...

And, there I go drifting into Empire again. But, these movies do blend together for me. Mostly because I liked to watch them back-to-back, like when I was home sick from school. And because when I would play with the action figures, I was not faithful to the plot as it was. Jabba could easily interact with the wampa, Leia could ride a tauntaun to Yoda's hut, and find some ewoks there.






And really, I could talk a lot about this movie, about what I took from it as a kid, what I added to it when I wrote myself some weird sort of fan fiction as a teenager... Or whatever. This ought to be fun.

precious seconds are ticking away

The thing about Murder by Death is that 1) it offers up a group of intelligent characters, capable of Sherlock Holmes-style deductions out of nowhere--

(For the record, even though I know better, when Dick Charleston asks about Marcel recovering from his accident, I assume he's talking about Marcel getting hit by the gargoyle that was pushed off the roof not ten screen minutes before. But, no, he's talking about some previous injury, and references the sound of Marcel's artificial hip, which WE CANNOT HEAR. Considering the Charlestons were also attacked with a gargoyle, it should be even more obvious that Marcel was injured. But, no, it's a previous "accident" with a car.)

--but also just dumb (if that's the word) enough to be so wrong about their guesses about the larger situation, particularly those at the end of the film, after Twain has essentially tried to kill them all in their rooms. 2) They, Sam Diamond especially, are capable of being sexist and racist and just plain dicks to one another. (The film itself involves racist stereotypes, cultural stereotypes, sexist stereotypes, but most of them feel so deliberate (and not just the result of this film being made in the 70s) that it's hard to even call them out.) About life, this is like a capsule of larger reality; you're going to meet smart people, but that doesn't mean they're always smart. You're going to meet dumb people who will surprise you when they do smart things. You will meet assholes who will still be able to get stuff done. And kind people who will be mostly useless. Some people are going to be sexist, some racist, some culturalist (now a word, if it wasn't already), some all three. Doesn't mean you can dismiss them outright. They might even have the most outlandish and entertaining things to say.

About film, Murder by Death offers up a similar concept. A lesson for writers (and not just screenwriters): your characters needn't all be the same, needn't all have the same voice. A lesson I could, of course, transpose over to D&D, too; not every player character needs to be a min/max character, not every character needs to be as powerful as can be and combat ready, you need a variety of character types, a variety of skill levels, and different skills. But, you don't have to go overboard, in D&D, in a film ensemble, or in your circle of friends... Some of them can, you know, be the same. Or same-ish.

I just noticed an awesome detail regarding Dora Charleston, by the way. Dick sees Mr. Wang, and says, "Ah, Wang." Then, to Dora, "Darling, you remember..." She answers, "Of course. Nice to see you Ah Wang." His name, of course, is Sydney; she's faking the politeness because, like her husband, I suppose she is just as "enormously well-bred" which one might also call fake, too proper to admit to not remembering someone. And, it's a great scripting detail. There's the more obvious cleverness in the parodic bits, or more overt jokes like Sam's thing about the last time he trusted a dame, or Dick's line about seeing a better place to be lost two miles back. Or Mr. Twain's complaints about the way Mr. Wang talks, or just the way Mr. Wang talks. But subtle is better, sometimes. Like--again with Dora--after Yetta comes to the dining room screaming, silently, and she has a note, "I think butler is dead. My name is Yetta. I don't work Thursdays" and Dora responds: "Ask if she sleeps in." That one, Maggie Smith really sells with the delivery. Her question, entirely separate from the murder at hand, is asked with the same urgency as all the relevant questions.

But, I digress to, you know, talk about the film directly. I didn't mean to do so, actually. Something about Murder by Death--I just don't have much to say about it that will be all that insightful, I don't think. It is what is is. I was looking at reviews on Rotten Tomatoes earlier and some complain about it being unfunny, some praising its humor. To each their own and all that. My oft repeated point in this blog: one audience is not another, one audience member is not another, we all experience films (and film) differently.

But, I gotta interrupt again because of Dora. When Dick tells her why someone might steal a dead, naked body, she says, with a wry grin, "That's tacky. That's really tacky." And, before the film cuts away, you can see that Dora is thinking about it, and pleasantly.

But, I had a point I intended to get to today. From the ensemble and especially it's internal diversity, I meant to segue to D&D (mostly because that takes up a lot of my time of late and I'm nothing if not an opportunist... When I can be. Actually, I'm not an opportunist most of the time, but here in this blog, I use what I can use to make a point. I wanted to talk about the kind of people one surrounds themselves with, your friends, your acquaintances. I mean, you can't always choose your coworkers. You can't choose your family. But, you can choose the people you spend time with outside of home (and outside of family gatherings) and outside of work. And, maybe it's because I'm getting older, or because with school behind me I don't interact with as many people anymore that aren't my students, or because being an adjunct professor, I don't even really have coworkers to interact with that often, I've noticed of late when my time is limited with my friends, with my immediate family, with the hobbies I let take up so much of my time--lately, in addition to numerous movies and D&D every Sunday (plus bursts of prep for the game I run some of the days between--like today, I had to work on expanding a map from the last session to set up the next), and painting miniatures (because I happened to get a bunch of them recently for cheap, I've had plenty to work with), I've talked politics with my son, talked movies (particularly mother!) with my daughter, talked teaching with my ex, but wasn't getting to much else that divided up the repetitive. This past weekend, though, my D&D friends (well some of us) got together to do an escape room and get dinner at a pub in Hollywood to celebrate one of our birthdays. We hadn't gotten together outside of D&D for a month and a half. Which meant more time by myself--my kids are old enough to have lives most of the time, when they're not at school or doing homework.

Is it any wonder that, this month, I have worked my way backward into my own childhood, the films I saw time and time again when I was still formulating who I was going to be (but not with too much planning because of my particular religious upbringing)? Is it any wonder that this month almost immediately became something far bigger than just a month? Murder by Death, for example, was on the full list I put together--78 films--but not the shorter list--29 films, one for each day between September 2 and October 2, except it was silly of me to think I could limit these films I know so well, that I have fond memories of, to just one day each. A month of westerns (June 2015), sure. Or that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon experiment (February 2016), sure. But, not something as personal as this.

Monday, September 25, 2017

meaningless clues to confuse us

Except, Murder by Death isn't even really a mystery. I mean, it's not like it offers up clues for the audience to solve anything, nor does it even show the detective's discovering useful information for their final solutions (plus all of their final solutions are so far out of left field, and wrong (especially Sam Diamond's (Peter Falk) theory that negates him being himself, which is funny, but ridiculous)). At best, the only things in this film that the audience might be able to figure out along the way, or more importantly, that we see the detectives figuring out, is that there are two dining rooms. Everything else is arbitrary.

Which, I suppose is the point. I actually wish I had (back when I was a kid, but also now) more experience with the genre this movie is picking apart. Lionel Twain's (Truman Capote) big speech at the end of the film does however take me in a slightly different direction. But first, here's his rant:

You've all been so clever for so long, you've forgotten to be humble. You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.

Where it takes me is not mysteries but Shyamalanian Twists. (And that isn't me being a racist asshole and misspelling his name to be funny; I don't do that. I'm turning him into an adjective, which in this case may actually be more rude.) Not just the classic horror-film-style twist of the dead killer opening his eyes in the final shot or the corpse gone missing. Not the THE END?, like Flash Gordon, either, or a post-credits bit like Skeletor after Masters of the Universe. Or even the dead body getting up at the end of the first Saw. (Even if Tobin Bell actually spent time on that floor because they didn't have a dummy, apparently.) Those are cheap, but they don't affect the film before them much. A Shyamalanian Twist transforms your understanding of the film before it (or tries to, anyway). The Sixth Sense is one of the better examples of a successful Shyamalanian Twist. There's enough there beforehand that one might guess it, and it actually changes our understanding and our emotional experience of the story when it is revealed. The Usual Suspects is another great example of one that drastically alters the story but doesn't cheapen it. Hell, there may be an important distinction with that example in that--

(SPOILERS... for a movie from over two decades ago... and a twist that everyone who cares probably already knows)

--the revelation of Verbal Kint's identity upends the story he's telling and, in turn, the story we the audience are being told, but it doesn't necessarily affect the plot. His story could still be mostly true and the revelation doesn't have to change it, but it throws another element of meaning over all of it. Primal Fear's twist is similar (though more silly). Shutter Island's twist, on the other hand, is not only poorly executed, it twists the plot as well as the story, negating much of what has come before. Atonement's twist ending negates the plot we've seen, and adds (at least in the film; I haven't read the book) a pointless framing story. The end of Wisdom is another example, the it was all a dream ending that negates everything that came before. Identity is an even more egregious example because it's twist comes before its climax, and it effectively neuters its plot by making prior dramatic tensions irrelevant. At least Wisdom has the decency to come to its climax before it erases it.

Something like Fight Club's twist or The Prestige's twist is like a masterclass in what a twist can do to affect story, affect meaning, affect character, and affect audience. Take Fight Club, for instance--if we're there with The Narrator (Edward Norton) panicking over the horror that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his followers are about to commit, then where do we stand, morally, when we learn that Tyler doesn't exist... or that The Narrator doesn't exist (depending on how you think on it)? Alternatively, if Tyler's brand of revolution excites us, where do we stand when he turns out to be a figment of the same disturbed mind that was obsessing over the IKEA catalog earlier? The Prestige foreshadows its ending in its very first scene, and its narrator asks us, "Are you watching closely?" As if daring us to recognize the twist(s) before they come.

Some more good twists: Memento, The Others, Planet of the Apes, The Game. And, one that shouldn't be as good as it is (because it comes so early): Gone Girl.

The big problem with a Shyamalanian Twist is that Shyamalan, aside from that first one--

(And, I suppose The Visit manages its twist well enough, but it depends so much on Shyamalan's horribly simplistic misunderstanding and mishandling of mental illness that I just can't be bothered to offer it up as a good example.)

--just isn't that good at them. Signs depends on a dramatic twist (or series of them, I suppose) for its ending, but that dramatic twist relies so heavily on an in-universe manipulation by God that the film's real power depends on your acceptance of that power. To be fair, it has been a while since I've watched Signs but a film that sets out to be about faith ought to offer up a better reason for it than manipulated coincidence. The atheist in me can't take it. The Village actually has, in terms of its story, a fantastic twist built into it, except that a) the film reveals the twist too early to Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and far too early for the audience, for the danger that comes later to have any import, and b) that twist is a little too Twilight Zone to matter in cinematic terms; that is, it's a twist for the sake of a twist. What we've seen so far is not really altered that much by it... Actually, I often contend that minus 2 1/2 scenes, The Village would play far more brilliantly. 1) cut entirely the scene in which Ivy learns the monsters are fake; this would make the revelation that Noah (Adrien Brody) is the monster stalking her in the woods far more powerful; 2) move to later (or remove) the scene where the elders find that the costume has been taken; 3) reduced the screentime of Shyamalan's park ranger and his ridiculously on-the-nose newspaper headlines. Then the twist integral to the premise takes on greater import because the revelation becomes the point rather than the message being the point. Of course, Shyamalan has trouble putting his message in the subtext, or having subtext. Signs invokes the stereotype of the faithless minister so often that it is painfully obvious that the film will eventually shove faith down upon him. Lady in the Water quite literally explains its every twist and turn, while blatantly suggesting that Shyamalan (portraying the messianic writer in the film) is an amazing writer. Unbreakable's twist is structurally cheap (though understandable in terms of character) and may actually hold up better in the future, as Mr. Glass is coming back in Glass. Which brings me to Split, where again Shyamalan mishandles mental illness to the point of being offensive, but also avoids so fundamentally the obvious twist so that the film has no real twist at all... And, yes, I understand that a film doesn't need a twist. Even a Shyamalan film doesn't need a twist. But, if you're going to, you know, be M. Night Shyamalan, and you are going to make a film about a villain with multiple personalities, you have got to Identity that shit; Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) has got to not actually exist (or Dennis et al (James McAvoy) has got to not exist), play it like Fight Club, do something that makes the story rise above its own mediocrity.






And then I got sucked into a Google search because I wanted to tie into this unreliable narrators, mostly so I could drift away from film for a moment to complain about Stephen King's Wolves of the Calla, and King's tendency in general to have characters make plans essentially in between chapters so the reader doesn't know what's coming. But, I just couldn't figure out how to make that connection, so I can't even make that complaint.

And, the twist ending(s) of Murder by Death come now as I have avoided saying much about the film itself. Maybe I'll get to it tomorrow, because I have a feeling this film told me something fundamentally important about film, if not about life, when I was young.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

i talk so much sometimes

It's interesting that, as a kid, the big mystery films I watched a lot were Murder by Death (watching it now) and The Private Eyes (watching it sometime in the coming weeks, months, years? Who knows how long this "month" will take). Comedies that parody and/or satirize older detective films and stories that I had less access to. My views of detective stories in film would forever be tainted by these movies.






And, I sit here watching (and being distracted by cats and people, but mostly just watching).

And thinking about genres, about how we experience them based on past experience. The same way we experience every film, of course, in context of your history with every other film we've seen. And, with genre, we learn the tropes, the conventions, we learn the character archetypes, the usual plots beats and settings. And, after a while, the details become so common and well known (even outside the films (or stories) themselves) that even if you haven't seen a western; you have an idea of what to expect in one, if you haven't seen a superhero film, you have an idea of what to expect in one; if you haven't seen a romantic comedy, you have an idea of what to expect in one; if you haven't seen a spy film, you have an idea of what to expect in one; if you haven't seen a murder mystery like this one (or, really, very much unlike this one), you have an idea of what to expect. Murder by Death takes all of the various tropes and conventions and character types (the various detectives are, of course, based on specific previously existing fictional detectives--

Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) based on Nick and Nora Charles, Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) based on Charlie Chan, Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) based on Sam Spade, Milo Perrier (James Coco) based on Hercule Poirot (and reportedly, though I've never seen it, there's a deleted scene that had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson arriving as well)

--and each brings a distinct tone to their interactions with the others...






And, of course those interactions don't fit together nicely, and that is where this film finds a lot of its comedy. As Mr. Wang puts it: "Most amusing. Bickering detective's like making giant lamb stew; everything goes to pot."






More tomorrow, I suppose

Saturday, September 23, 2017

no reason to put the guns on the table

To be fair, I wasn't really there in the 70s. I mean, I was, but I was an infant, a toddler, I wasn't making movie-watching decisions just yet... Well, not really. But, I certainly didn't know why certain movies were the ones making money at the time. My experience with all of these movies so far this month came later mostly. Get to the 80s and I was plenty aware then (and in retrospect as well) why things were the way they were in popular cinema.

But, I'm not above speculation, obviously. Plus, I am capable of research. For example, disaster films were big--the Airport series, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Meteor. James Bond films were in full swing with Connery and Moore. Crime was big--The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and its Part II, Death Wish, Serpico, plus the wilderness movies, of course. JT Esterkamp at Medium, says "The films [of the 1970s] would be a reflection of the anti-hero as a protagonist. Watergate and Vietnam would be the two biggest influences on the 70's mentality. Film would keep the innovations of the 60's but abandon the youthful optimism that flowed through it." Weirdly, with something like the opening of Adventures of the Wilderness Family or Snowball Express, you've got a twisted version of optimism that arises out of cynicism. It's not youthful optimism, it's some sort of fed up, mature optimism birthed out of a world that stopped being optimistic. These family films can't help but separate their protagonists from the larger world because the larger world is where you get darker subject matter like The Godfather or A Clockwork Orange. New Hollywood, as it's called, was playing with the darker side of life, celebrating it. These family-friendly wilderness films were, at once, harkening back to something more innocent and relying on plot and character details that were integral to New Hollywood films. The antihero, the scoundrel, the pirate. And, sure they celebrate nature and getting away from "society" but they also rely heavily on the strength of familial connections and, when there's an antagonist at all, doing what is right. While there are men who try to kill Zachariah Coop at the opening of Across the Great Divide, the real story here is a struggle with nature itself, not unlike Adventures of the Wilderness Family. In New Hollywood film, the protagonist could be a bad guy. In those more family-friendly films, the story structure forewent the protagonist/antagonist setup altogether.

Meanwhile, you've got little ol' me, just learning how the world works, getting dragged to church regularly, and the moral structure of film was no longer black and white. Like my wonder at other people my age not being raised on movies yesterday, I've also got to wonder about people my age not turning into a bunch of bleeding heart liberals who wanted to know the villain's backstory because it was surely tragic. Hell, the original Star Wars trilogy was this writ large on the screen (and the followup trilogy it's inevitable overthinking), taking its cue from mythology in its antagonist being the father of the hero, but take that in context of US politics from the 60s into the 70s, the era of Vietnam, young men being sent off to a losing war because of what? Because of politicians, because of the Greatest Generation, because of their fathers. The best villain these wilderness movies can get is a bear, a cougar, wolves. If you're not actually going out into the wilderness to live, these things are just as much fantasy as Darth Vader is... Maybe more, actually, because anyone can relate to rebelling against their own father.

Friday, September 22, 2017

when we reach civilization

Let's get a couple things out of the way: 1) the gambling at the end of Across the Great Divide, unless we are supposed to assume Zachariah is cheating, is bullshit. It's cheap and convenient stacking of cards so both have good cars and Zachariah wins. It's the kind of thing a lot of movies do, actually. Nevermind the way poker actually works, the way players actually bet, the way you're not going to be betting horses after like one hand; 2) the song that plays as the men try to kill Zachariah at the beginning of the film is awful; so are many of the obviously-written-for-the-film songs that play and; 3) even worse, there is a moment when they've been at the native camp for a bit where the kids run in slow motion with some cougars and that same stupid running-with-animals music from Adventures of the Wilderness Family plays and for a moment, it's like one movie is the other, and not in a good way, because I think this movie is actually better.

Some moments are just plain silly, and story is fairly simplistic and stereotypical, but there's a reason that a coupla kids bringing out a scoundrel's heart is a plot that's been in many a movie; it works. And, it's believable... Or we want it to be. Given the timing, mid 70s, this is basically reminding the audience that all a scoundrel--be he a beatnik or a hippie or even a soldier--needs is some kids (and a wife, but this movie skips that a little bit) to make him a good, productive member of society. (It occurs to me that, given the more liberal attitudes about women in the workplace, a film like Baby Boom a decade later is the same thing but about women who've dropped out of the wholesome life they're supposed to be living. Just get her a baby and she'll learn that she wanted one all along, damn the women's libbers and their propaganda.)

Maybe that's the thing that had all these wilderness movies coming out in the 70s. Williams and Hammond (2006) point out:

Pacific International Enterprises (PIE) developed large-scale marketing campaigns for low budget releases to care for the "great untapped public for family-oriented wilderness films, particularly in small towns and rural regions" (Rose 1982: 54-5)...

The strategy proved so successful that the major studios copied it with releases "emphasizing the family/adventure elements" of films with rural or wilderness settings... (p. 270)

One reviewer of this film on IMDb also pointed out--and I confirmed the timing with a little googling--that John Denver has his career peak in this same time period. I wonder now... Or rather, I'm piecing together various old thoughts into something coherent... I'm theorizing, I guess, that the popularity of these films at this time was like the scoundrel thing. One the one hand, hippies had a point; civilized society, cities, urban and suburban environments were not good enough, and the urge back to nature, to the wilderness could be commended, just as long as it wasn't for some weird, drug-filled liberal reason. A nice, conservative urge toward a good wholesome rural life was easily commended. Hell, it was easily commended by people on both sides of the political aisle. Plus, this meant Hollywood's "neglect of the family audience" might be ending. Williams and Hammond cite

Industry observers [who] also noted that the oldest baby boomers were going to turn 30 in 1976, and that from then on the absolute and relative size of the 30-39 age group in the US population was going to increase substantially, making it attractive again for Hollywood to pursue "a truly mass audience" of children, you and adults (Murphy 1975: 3). More generally, the 1970s saw the widespread recognition of preteen children as substantial market segment in the American economy, which was targeted by businesses with a wide range of products and services (McNeal 1992: 5-6). This in turn encouraged the film industry to make more of an effort to service children (Harwood 1975). (ibid)

Perhaps I wouldn't be the film-obsessed person I am if that wasn't the case. Right as I was born, Hollywood was actively paying attention to families and their children, when it had been neglecting them. Add to that the invention of the VCR (as we know it... or knew it; there were earlier versions of the same, but the thing we know as the VCR came...) in 1972, and the movie rental stores that sprung up in the 80s, and you really gotta wonder why everyone my age wasn't raised on movies. I mean, you've got Reagan-era end-of-the-Cold-War opulence coupled with the convenience of watching whatever movie you want at home, and there are families that didn't take advantage of that? Plus, we lived in Pasadena, which just within that city alone, there were more than half a dozen different movie theaters (only a few with more than one screen, and one of those was the cheap second-run theater I've written about in this blog before, the Academy 6), and more theaters in neighboring cities like Eagle Rock and Arcadia, Monrovia. By the time I could drive, and by the time I could see whatever movie I wanted myself, there were even more with the now nonexistent United Artist Marketplace (where I would work for a bit in when I was nineteen) and the underground AMC One Colorado, each with multiple screens. Movies became convenient, and were being more actively marketed to families and children--I'm sure I'll have something to say about the licensed toys when I eventually get to watching Star Wars (I hope) next week)--just as I was growing up. And, in the 80s, my parents were doing pretty good financially; hell, they had to be to raise seven kids. That meant spending money, that many conspicuous consumption, and plenty of ours went toward movies, rented VHS tapes or heading to the theater.

And, those movies were telling me, whether they were supposed to be or not, that scoundrels could be good people, that rebels could be right, that capitalists were bad, and that modern society wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. And, I could watch these movies over and over again at home.

Life was good.


Williams, L.R. & Hammond, M. (2006). Contemporary American Cinema. New York: McGraw-Hill.

none of this woulda happened

(So... Altering the plan a bit. This "month" is going to take far longer than a calendar month anyway, so I looked back at the longer list of films I had made before narrowing it down for this exercise in deconstruction, because, my Star Wars VHS tapes still didn't arrive. Options were, skip past it, jump ahead to Heaven Can Wait, or... I looked at the larger list and found Across the Great Divide for 1976. Fits the pattern and I might start adding some other movies from the longer list back into this. This could take a while.

But anyway, today... tonight, actually; it's a late start because my Thursdays are busy anyway and I was hoping the mail would make Star Wars possible tonight. In fact, as I'm typing this little paranthetical, I'm still watching Critical Role. Their episodes end when their episodes end. So, it's near 11pm and I don't know when the movie will begin.






11:16--that's when.)

The weird thing about watching Across the Great Divide is that I barely remember it, but I remember never wanting to watch it. One of those movies I thought was boring, but it was a nice family friendly film that came up often. Robert Logan again, star of Adventures of the Wilderness Family, but immediately there is something very different going on with him. A bunch of guys try to kill him while he's out riding. (And, some corny song plays briefly, and I'm wondering what tone this is going for.)

We're also going to have Heather Rattray, who wasn't in the first Wilderness Family but will take over the role of Jenny for the second and third installments, and George "Buck" Flower, who plays Boomer in all three Wilderness Family films. And, it looks like the same guy--Stewart Raffil--wrote Adventure of the Wilderness Family, Across the Great Divide, and The Sea Gypsies, all of which star Robert Logan. (Rattray is also in The Sea Gypsies.) Rattray plays Holly, the older of two kids here who will end up traveling with Logan's Zachariah Coop, who seems to be a drifter and a criminal... But I really wish it felt more like these guys chasing him actually wanted him dead; the music is too... happy.


Zachariah: "My whole life's fallen in ruin."

Holly: "It's your own doin'."

Zachariah: "Look, there's no denying it, Missy. Circumstances have forced me to behave less than truthful, but it's circumstances and not an evil nature that's to blame."

Now, Holly calls that "hogwash" but I'm thinking, today, this movie is going to prove him right, so what were my conservative parents doing showing this to us kids? Hell, what were the 70s doing with so many family films about so many bad people? It's like--and, actually, this makes sense--the 60s broke film just like that decade broke so much else in America.

My parents weren't much older than a lot of the hippies; they just latched onto Christian religion instead of counterculture ideals. I'd almost like to deconstruct how they got there, but I don't actually know enough about them. My father grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, lots of kids in a big house. He was a troublemaker, and he went into the navy as a teen. Fortunately for him, and for my own existence I suppose, he was in there too late for the Korean War and too early for Vietnam. My mother grew up in rural South Dakota (and she had a raccoon as a pet, so films like Wilderness Family probably reminded her of her childhood). She's always contended that she was a good girl when she was a teenager. If I remember right, they met because of church. Married and had their first four kids in the 60s, three of us in the 70s. It's like a puzzle... Not that I usually like Whiggish history, but taking me, here, right now, as the result. This film--watching it anyway--is just one of the cinematic stepping stones to who I am right now. My parents, and whatever motivation they had to not only liking this movie but recording it onto a VHS tape and showing it to their kids... I of course, would follow suit many years later and show lots of movies to my own kids--never this movie, but lots of others. So, I think about why I showed my kids the movies I showed them. Always because I liked the movies, of course, like I was trying to turn my kids into smaller versions of me. That's parenting, right? Put as much of yourself as you can into these smaller people and hope for the best when the future comes. Or something like that. Part of why I don't hold my religious upbringing against my parents much; what choice did they have, if they believed in that stuff, but to try to get me to believe in it, too?

Same goes for movies. One generation sees the previous generation's movies, but the context has changed. One filmmaker grows up in another time and makes movies echoing those from his childhood. What else are they going to make, really? You make copies of, or response to, the things you already know. The experience of watching film isn't that different.

(This movie just threw a cougar off a cliff into some water. Legal standards for that sort of thing have certainly changed a lot.)

And, it's not just generations, but years. I watch a film from my childhood, and it's like an old friend (or at least an old acquaintance) who has come to visit after being away a long time. Sure, it seems like the same person, and you two still get along, but something is different. You've changed a bit. They've changed a bit. The world has moved forward a bit. The context has changed. This movie is about two orphans and a widower. They're finding new context for themselves with each other.






And, I think that was supposed to be profound, but it's late.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

get started on the apocalypse

(We interrupt the planned programming here at The Groundhog Day Project--because my VHS set of Star Wars films didn't arrive and I don't feel like skipping ahead--to bring you a brief bit about mother!--because I saw it again today, and however much it is horrifying some people, I liked it even more the second time than I did the first time.)
Honestly, you probably won't like mother!. I mean, statistically, most people won't like it. Maybe, taking into account the limited scope of this blog and the side of the Venn diagram of film aficionados who might come to my blog regularly, you're one of the few who will not only like it but love it. An Aronofsky fan, perhaps. A fan of divisive, provocative, polarizing cinema, maybe. Let's get some stuff out of the way right off. You know, SPOILERS.

You're gonna get overloaded with imagery of violence, of gratuitous religiosity, of Jennifer Lawrence's breasts, of a newborn baby's half eaten corpse, and if you've made it that far, you're going to wonder what the fuck have I been watching? What you have been watching is your basic run-of-the-mill allegory about 1) the entire history of mankind's interaction with God and religion by way of the Book of Genesis and the Gospels... With a little bit of the Book of Revelation thrown in, all wrapped up in a nice metaphorical package with a poet husband, his put upon wife, some strangers who happen upon their house even though it is nowhere near anything, strangers who overrun and mangle said house, and the final (?) destruction of that house by the titular mother, herself; 1b) that entire history is going to especially play out over the course of a sequence that lasts somewhere between 15 and 40 minutes (I wasn't checking my clock because I was having an amazing time), and offers up imagery from just about any modern interaction with religion you could imagine--the faithful lining up to be blessed, zealots standing in for the Lord, folks being enslaved, folks tearing edifices down, folks building edifices up, soldiers warring with one another, sudden executions by gun, random old naked guys sitting on the edges of bathtubs, more soldiers, more faithful, more zealots, and a pregnant woman in the middle of it all, reacting as politely and innocently as she can, because that is who she is; 1c) that entire history, plus the earlier bit from Genesis, is not going to make you very happy if you are at all religious, or if you even once were, or thought about being religious, or just believe in God but don't hold any claim to organized religion, because God is an asshole, God is aloof, God is more concerned with the adoration of strangers and hangers on than the love of his wife, less concerned with the murder and consumption of his newborn child than with forgiving the people responsible so that they will go on adoring him, and more concerned with building this entire exercise again when it burns to the ground because he needs more adoring fans than he is with offering his wife a peaceful death; 1d) seriously, if you like your God to be nice and caring and loving, this is not your movie; and there's 2) the environmental angle, because, you see, the "flood" happens because all those strangers who have invaded the house (the first time) don't fucking listen when mother (nature) screams at them that that fucking sink isn't braced yet and all these damn hurricanes in a row have got to be a sign of something, and scientists seems to be pretty much on the same damn page about it... Oh, some of that might have been my own voice interjecting, but really, the house is flooded because some dumbass strangers would rather make out and then bounce up and down like ignorant children than listen to the person who knows what she's talking about because she's the one fixing this house to look nice, and so much of the trouble with the strangers who have invaded the house (the second time) is that there are limited resources, only so many pieces of the house or objects sitting around the house for them to steal as proof they were there, because for some reason a souvenir of some awesome experience is more important than living in the moment of that experience at the moment of that experience... Seriously, the "inspiration" for your beloved poet's latest piece of brilliance walks among you but you're busy tearing down and building up and tearing down, and killing, enslaving, and worrying about theology and ritual and all the bullshit that inevitably separates them further and further from the actual experience of being there, and so the more of you there are, the more you do without thinking, the more you tear down walls and blow up other walls, and break through windows and doors, of course, the "house" around you is going to start falling, and you're all going to end up dead within it or you're going to have to get over your damn egos and try just lifting each other up, lifting up the pieces of the world collapsing around them, and not fighting over who worships which God better than the other; 3) the creative process, finding your inspiration in the people around you, whoever they might be, listening to their stories, taking them in for who and what they are, then find your new piece, slave away for as long as it takes (nine months, or maybe just a day; time is all relative and blurry in mother!), then let the fans come, let them interpret it as they will interpret it because your part is over, man, and it is up to them to love it, leave it, live it, alter it, embrace it, teach it, share it, or whatever, up to them to take it into the larger world, to tell other people about it, to read it, watch it, stare at it, listen to it, meditate on it, echo it in their own art and their own lives, and then you find inspiration again, wherever you can, new strangers, a new partner, a new house, but let the old piece burn and die and fade away if you can't sustain it (and a filmmaker can't keep making the same film (either literally, or because of a lack of creative variety) and stay a filmmaker... Not to mention the film being an allegory for the interactions of male ego and whatever submissive female (or male) he can find (or create) to praise him... Also, note: Rachel Weisz, one of the stars of Aronofsky's The Fountain (my personal favorite of his films, by the way), can be seen briefly at the start of mother!, as the previous incarnation of the titular mother; she's also Aronofsky's ex, and he's now been linked to Jennifer Lawrence, so the film apes reality in that.

At the end of the film, Lawrence's mother tells Bardem's Him, "I was never enough for you." He points out, of course, nothing ever can be, or he wouldn't need to create. The film apes Rosemary's Baby, but in that moment I was also thinking of Hamilton, how it's more than just artists who can never be satisfied, who must keep creating, keep talking, keep writing, keep singing, keep painting, keep drawing, dancing, performing, because, really, why would you ever really want to be satisfied? After his Emmy win this past Sunday, Sterling K. Brown told reporters, "I feel like I have a thousand different people living inside of me and I'm just looking for opportunities to let them all out." Imagine if God were real, and he had all these billions of people we've got (not to mention all those who have come before) inside him, and just needed to get them out. It would be understandable for him to be arrogant and ego-centric, for him to demand adoration, for him to punish us and admonish us when we do not follow his precepts. Now, if he were just a nice playwright and this were all a play, it might be more pleasant. But, instead, we've got this overwrought, overcrowded stage, with no writer, no director, and mother is constantly reminding us that this shit is going to go badly. But, we'd rather fight one another over bullshit like whether or not sick people deserve to be taken care of, than to take care of sick people, to take care of the world, to take care of one another in the face of increasingly extreme weather, increasing radical politics and politically-motivated violence, wars and rumors of wars, and there is no reset, because we're neither Him nor mother, we're the random strangers taking up too much space, utilizing too many resources, and fucking up the play for everybody else because there's no script, no end in sight but entropy, and we would rather watch a movie that numbs us than one that makes us think.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

do a little better this time

I can relate to Amos and Theodore right now because sometimes plans go awry. I was supposed to be watching the original Star Wars today. But, 1) I don't own a copy of that film anymore, 2) it costs $17.99 to buy it on Amazon Prime (and apparently isn't available for rental), 3) I actually bought the original trilogy on video on eBay a few days ago hoping it would be here in time, so I didn't really want to spend money on it anyway (and that VHS trilogy did not arrive in time; let's hope it gets her tomorrow), but then this led to a dilemma earlier, 4) I had no movie to watch today.

So, I was looking up--trying to keep things chronological--movies that also came out in 1975 or that came out in 1976 that fit the bill for this month, that is, I watched them a lot as a kid. There were some good movies in those years--Carrie, Rocky, The Godfather Part II, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, and two films I've actually watched for this blog before: The Omen and The Outlaw Josey Wales--but not one of those is a movie I watched a lot as a kid, and several of those are movies I never watched as a kid. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was apparently #1 at the box office the week I was born but I never saw that film until I was in college the first time. That's when I was wanting to be a film major at USC and I not only watched films in the campus theater for three different classes I took but would also wander into the theater in my off hours to watch movies that other classes were watching. It was maybe a couple years before I was out of high school, and for a few years after, that I would also watch movies at my sisters' houses that I might not otherwise be seeing at home. Though, to be fair, my mother rented plenty of movies from The Wherehouse or (I think) Music Plus that would be termed "inappropriate" for whatever age I watched them. And, cable television made it so that I could watch plenty of "inappropriate" movies on my own, too. Once I was also old enough to rent whatever film I wanted to watch at the local Blockbuster Video or the even localer Now Playing Video, plus I was officially wanting to major in film and whatnot, that is when I really started watching serious films that I hadn't already happened upon. Essentially, this deconstruction I'm doing this month (and probably into the next month) would not be possible if I came all the way forward to the 90s; there would just be too many films. (And, I think I've mentioned in this blog before, that my obsessive watching of the Oscars, and my attempt to see Oscar-nominated films, kicked in in 1994.)

Basically, there were no movies to add to this current month that fit between The Apple Dumpling Gang and the original Star Wars. So then, it came down to watching The Apple Dumpling Gang again, which meant paying for it again--I thought I had a 48-hour rental--and I wasn't eager but I also didn't have an obvious movie worth upsetting the order of this month. So, earlier, I happen to click on The Apple Dumpling Gang on my Fire TV Box and see that it says Watch Again where it might offer a rental price. Turns out my rental was a 72-hour rental, and as long as I started the movie by 10:18, I'd have one more viewing.

This brought the new dilemma. I had nothing more to say about this film. I mean Knotts and Conway are hilarious, but what am I gonna do--recount their every joke? Or, I could theorize about how Jesse McCord in Snowball Express was a descendant of Henry McCoy here, you know, just because they're portrayed by the same actor. Or Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart were descendants of Amos Tucker and Theodore Ogelvie. (And so was Ralph Furley a descendent of Theodore, because, duh.) McCoy could easily get mangled into McCord over the course of a century. And, Amos and Theodore could have changed their names to escape the law at some point, even deliberately run off to England because there was a lot of heat after some big caper in what might have been the third Apple Dumpling Gang film, if the second had performed better than it did at the box office.

(By the way, if you don't know who Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart are, stay tuned, because I will get to that movie soon enough.)

The Apple Dumpling Gang is on, right now, of course. The kids just happened upon Theodore and he's about to get yanked onto the roof of the bank by Clarice the mule. I'm past the rental time, so if I were to turn off the movie for whatever reason, I couldn't start it up again. Without paying for it again, of course. It's a fortunate thing that the first night with this movie was a late one. That was because of going to the 24-Hour Theater Festival at the high school, where my daughter was directing a play. Tonight, I was in an underground gym, beneath a church over in Pasadena, because that same daughter had gymnastics. There are always things going on. Fortunately, streaming services have made a thing like this doable even with the schedules of work and kids. Still, rentals, when I'm getting picky about what movie I'm watching--for reasons such as this deconstruction of my childhood experience with film--can make it tricky.

(By the way, I just noticed that after Donavan hands Dusty the makeshift ring during their brief wedding ceremony, she puts it on her middle finger. So, then I got distracted and did some searching on my phone, because that's what you do in this day and age. Couldn't find a notable reason why she might use that finger, though. (Since the ring comes off some random bottle in the Sheriff's barbershop, the prop might just not have fit Susan Clark's ring finger, so she put it on the finger it did fit. I didn't notice Dusty having any trouble with the fit, though--trying the ring finger and then having to switch--so, if this was the reasoning, it happened before the take you see in the film.

I found someone mentioning some Jewish thing called Chukot Ha'Akum, in which a Jew cannot imitate Gentile customs. Some guy on some message board theorized that a Jew might wear the wedding ring on a different finger. But then, something like the Wikipedia page on wedding rings would probably mention that. You know, if it was common. Still, I was curious if Susan Clark happened to be Jewish, so that got me over to her Wikipedia page, and there I learned that she was not only the mother in Webster, which I maybe should have recognized her from, she was also Cherry Forever in Porky's. So, I guess Cherry Forever, which sounds like a made up hooker name anyway, is a descendant of Magnolia "Dusty" Clydesdale. Even if her name is Cherry, it's probably Cherry Clydesdale... Or Cherry Donavan, I suppose.

But then, I gotta try to remember, was the hooker's role in Porky's a progressive role as far as feminism goes? I mean, what kind of serious rant can I get into about the progress, or lack thereof, from Dusty to Cherry. Hell, there's a good title about women in film (or maybe just a biography about Susan Clark) somewhere there. From Dusty to Cherry: How Film Won't Let Women Get Ahead.

There's always something. Worth ranting about, I mean.)

So, let us hope that my VHS Star Wars trilogy arrives tomorrow. Otherwise, I might be stuck.

(Or maybe I'll go see mother! on the big screen again so I can talk about that... But what does that have to do with my childhood? Unless that baby in the final act represents me, and all those people consuming him are representative of cinema itself, consuming me over all these many years, drawing me in, trapping me, turning me into some obsessive freak who can ramble on for, well, as long as I have today, with only the briefest sign of an actual point. All for the sake of film...


Monday, September 18, 2017

see you next tuesday

I don't really want to rehash the inherent sexism in a family film made in the 70s--that's just par for the course, another sign of the times that were. At some point, you must take a film on its own terms, let it have its timely biases and its timely treatments of men, of women, of people of color, of varying ethnicities. What then can you take from The Apple Dumpling Gang?

It's an entertaining film. It's funny. It's got heart. It's plot is simple and easy to understand, and Donavan and Dusty ending up a couple is a good ending to the story as offered. That Amos and Theodore ride off with the happy couple and their kids is icing on the cake.

But, what really stands out watching The Apple Dumpling Gang after so many years--and I have seen it in the intervening years, probably most recently in the last 10 to 15 years--is just how well put together it's plot is. (Except for one detail.) The Hash Knife Gang--Amos and Theodore--and their antics are barely connected to the plot for much of the film. Sure, the film opens with them attempting to ambush Donavan as he arrives in Quake City. Sure, they try to rob him again later when he's won $500. Sure, they are there to direct the kids to the Commodore Mine, which leads to the kids finding the giant nugget that drives the rest of the story. And, sure, Donavan (and then the kids, too) is there to almost catch them stealing the ladder to get into the bank. And, sure, they're trying to get into the bank to steal the very nugget the kids have found. But, every one of these things is more coincidence than actual plotting.

To be fair, westerns rely on coincidence a lot. Gunslingers all know one another. Outlaws all know one another. That Wintle and Donavan already know each other is a coincidence at the start of this one. (For an example from another film, that Chisholm in the remake of The Magnificent Seven happens into a job that slides him into a position for revenge is coincidence.)

Dusty cares about other people and has to look after her alcoholic gambler father (plus she seems to do all the actual work for the Butterfly Stagecoach Line). So, she has an interest in the three kids she just delivered into town. This puts her in contact with Donavan because he's a gambler and had a chance at money right when he needed some to pick up what he thought was just a package. Meanwhile, Amos and Theodore are trying to be outlaws, bandits, thieves. But, they are no good at it. (It is mentioned briefly (just over half an hour into the film.) by Dusty that they used to be part of the Stillwell Gang. Amos accidentally shot Stillwell. This will be important later. This is also part of the one detail that isn't all that well put together.) This and the kids' antics makes for all the humor. Well, the Sheriff has some great lines, too.

(Including today's title, which probably went over the heads of anyone who saw this movie back then; since it was surely good wholesome families seeing the film, of course, and good wholesome families don't go for that sort of thing... Imagine me rolling my eyes now, except I surely didn't notice it before. Not until two nights ago. I probably just thought that guy in the barbershop got his shave every Tuesday.

The Sheriff also, as I've already mentioned, mentions seeing Dusty "caught in a cloudburst" (i.e. with her shirt wet from the rain).)

Wintle comes back after Donavan has convinced Dusty to marry him, for the sake of the kids having a mother and Donavan having access to their money and having the kids off his hands. McCoy is literally about to bang his gavel and make it official that the newlyweds will legally be the kids' parents, and Wintle walks into the courtroom. Coincidence. Off screen, the kids learn the Wintle just wants their gold, so they go to Amos and Theodore to get them to steal the gold nugget, leaving nothing to interest Wintle, and the kids will get to stay with Donavan and Dusty.

Then, the not-so-well-put-together bit comes into play. Sure, Dusty has mentioned the Stillwell Gang and Amos' having shot Stillwell, but for the Stillwell Gang to really matter in this plot, they should have been introduced earlier, or Amos and Theodore should have talked about them. That these two think they can be a gang, taking the whole situation in mind, probably comes from actual success they might have had with the Stillwell Gang. That is, the Stillwell gang may have managed some success despite having bumbling fools like Amos and Theodore as members. (Because this is a comedy, the Stillwell Gang isn't all that great at what they do, either, of course.) But, something else has to get in the way of Amos and Theodore really succeeding. I mean, why suddenly would they be any good at this? So, the Stillwell Gang is introduced (not counting Dusty's brief mention 34 minutes in) an hour and four minutes into the film. This is too late really to be introducing characters that will affect the plot in such a big way. In fact, that Amos and Theodore take old, sweating dynamite into the bank in the first place could easily have resulted in the same explosion and the same failure to secure the nugget, and we wouldn't need Stillwell. But, any movie with scoundrels in it--Amos and Theodore, but also Donavan--needs bigger scoundrels. Blackbeard's Ghost needed Silky Seymour to be actively trying to kick old women out onto the street, and for his men to pulls guns on people because that is visual scoundrelry, something concretely villainous while even reminders of Blackbeard's horribleness is mostly in the abstract; in the present, he's a nuisance and a drunk, but he never really does much that is that bad (cheating at the track meet and the roulette table don't count because that is in service of the greater good). Here, we need Stillwell, who is marked with a limp and a leg brace 1) as Amos' accidental victim (hence it makes their conflict in the bank personal) and 2) as an evil cripple. Physical disability as obvious sign of his less obvious moral disability.

Had Amos and Theodore talked about Stillwell early on, or had we seen Stillwell earlier, the plotting here would be perfect. (I imagine this story as drama, the Stillwell Gang introduced at the beginning of the film, and we keep going back to them, witnessing their awfulness, and the tension builds because we know that, at some point in act three, they will find Amos and Theodore again.) The barely tangentially linked antics of Amos and Theodore work as the fool(s) that distract from an otherwise quite simple story that wouldn't require such screentime. But then, they get pulled into the central story more overtly when the kids invite them to steal their nugget (something Amos and Theodore have already failed to do once). Their inevitable failure--Stillwell Gang involved or not--means Donavan and Dusty must stay together because they want to, not because the kids have money and Dusty is willing to be the abandoned wife. It's practically Shakespearean, really. The fools are exactly the twist in the plot that drives it all to the happy ending. It a classic story, that ending would include their wedding, but the cleverness here is that they have already married, legally. In the end, though, with father-in-law and three kids and two outlaws in tow, that is when Donavan and Dusty are really married. Classic romantic comedy trick, question tradition along the way only to uphold it in the end. (And it's not a surprising response, as it were, to the decade before its release.) The film upholds the family structure, "normal" gender roles, and gives Amos and Theodore a way out of town (not that the Sheriff would really have hung them).