Thursday, November 30, 2017

wrong is wrong even if it helps you

Popeye, especially Robin William's take in Robert Altman's film, is a strange character. Loving but prone to violence. Kind but prone to insult. He speaks without thinking and, while he's fairly accepting of the people around him (seriously, Popeye and Sweethaven here are like Phil Connors and Punxsutawney reversed), he still has his standards and, when it comes to gambling at least, he's quite expressive about them. Doesn't matter how it might actually help the baby he himself has taking to caring for (and by mere cinematic whimsy, with Swee'pea there, they cannot lose); whatever moral code Popeye's got--his "moralikies"--he sticks to it.

Meanwhile, in the real world, you've got Republicans supporting a child molester because he would support their politics, Democrats calling out sexual abusers and harassers all over the place but then when it's one of theirs, do they scream as loudly? And, if they do, what happens when their senator resigns and their politics are weakened? A bunch of partisan bullshit as usual. One side against the other against the other. Always and forever. Or so you'd think. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, two sides convinced they're permanently embroiled in a conflict for this very soul, and the soul of the country.

And the president fuels it deliberately, like this tweet from yesterday:

The only people who don't like the Tax Cut Bill are the people that don't understand it or the Obstructionist Democrats that know how really good it is and do not want the credit and success to go to the Republicans!

Some simple logical fallacies in there--a good either-or fallacy, a bit of a true scotsman crossed with a straw man, not to mention the notion that the minority in an organization built on voting holds the power to be "obstructionist". But, nevermind his inability to argue well. What matters here, regarding my current point, is that it is easy to push two opposing sides into their corners if they want to be there, if it's in their respective natures to want to back themselves into their own corners and come out fighting. It's the nature of the political beast (and I won't bother bringing out Fiske (2002) about how people seek out others like themselves yet again), and far too much the nature of the American beast; we just can't be bothered to exist without an ongoing conflict.

The people of Sweethaven are like the abused partner in a relationship with Bluto (and, to a lesser extent, the tax man). Constantly trying to appease him, to keep him from blowing up, and yet not making enough effort to really avoid him. (Like all of us liberals who have the president's tweets coming right to our phone, I suppose.) Olive doesn't have to pay taxes, of course. And, she explains to Popeye,

You think everyone pays taxes but me and my family, don't you? Well, you couldn't be more wrong... You think it's because I'm engaged to Bluto and Bluto runs the town for the Commodore so we get special favors. Well, it's a lie... Bluto is kind and generous and likes to do things for his loved ones. And you want me to hurt his feelings.

Sounds delightfully Trumpian.

And, yes, I'm partisan. Yes, I'm petty. And, yes, a simple movie from 1980 can trigger me into talking politics instead of film...

Except, as I have often contended, film is politics, politics is film. Any given film offers up a snapshot of a time and a place--on one level the time and place it is set, but even more so the time and place it was made. Consider: Popeye, like Flash Gordon, was based on old comics and a cartoon. Built-in name recognition is the kind of thing Hollywood loves. Neither of these films was considered to be particularly successful that week that they both opened, but Popeye was the #12 grossing film for 1980, and Flash Gordon was #23. (#1 was, of course, The Empire Strikes Back.) We're still in the Cold War. We've put Vietnam and the 60s counterculture mostly behind us, but free love and rock & roll gave us swinging and disco. Hollywood had been embracing more adult fare through the 60s into the 70s. And, this was the year we'd elect Ronald Reagan, the guy who, in his role of governor of California, said of protestors, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement." The American Way, use a whole lot of force as long as you think you're side is right. This is Popeye, easily. Paint Bluto as mean to everybody and Popeye doesn't have to do much to be the hero. (Hell, he never actually beats Bluto in a fight in the film. Instead, he punches an octopus and Bluto swims away scared.)

His fight with Oxblood feels close to the gambling Wimpy does, but the film puts Popeye in red, white and blue for that fight and gives him the extra careful bit of 1) not getting in the ring until Oxblood has already beaten Castor Oyl, and 2) not wanting to really beat Oxblood as long as Oxblood's mother is there to watch; Popeye is painted as a knight, with not just moralicky but honor. But, morality and honor are defined by whoever's in charge, whatever societal waves are crashing at the time. And, our loss in Vietnam behind us, America wanted a win. Not that Popeye is explicitly set in America, but the character was born out of the Great Depression, and born out of our need for violence to solve our problems. And, he's finding his father, finding himself, saving a baby, and scaring off the bad guy, and it's a bit of everything we like in a film, but painted in strange brushstrokes, with bizarre characters all over the place, a comic strip writ large on the big screen.

Interesting politics, though: Bluto isn't really the bad guy. Nor is the tax man. They both work for the Commodore. The third act introduces this Commodore finally, and--you know, SPOILERS--it's Popeye's father and he's immediately painted as not that bad when 1) Bluto ties him up, and 2) he sides with Popeye and the Oyls in the final chase and gets spinach to Popeye when he needs it. It's like if, in Return of the Jedi, when Luke finally got the Emperor and Palpatine abruptly sympathized with the rebels and wanted Vader jailed. It would be a cheat there, and it's a cheat here. Similarly, the presence of the Octopus means Popeye never has to beat Bluto like he beat Oxblood. And, the Commodore never really has to be the bad guy, even though he's the one accepting all those taxes, and he's the one who left a brute like Bluto in charge in his absence.

In the world of Popeye, women barely matter and men fight over anything and everything. It would be nice if that were exclusive to just 1980 America.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

before you know it, our heart’s worn out











Today I saw Call Me By Your Name, right now I've got Whose Streets? playing on the television. I'm inclined to write in relation, in response, in my usual twisted sort of echo, to the former rather than the latter. Writing about police violence and Ferguson will get me into a political rant that I am not in the mood for...

Which is its own sort of troubling notion, separate from the rant itself. That I get to be tired to such things. That as much as I seek out stuff on social media to argue with, I can turn it off and my life is enough that I don't need to be in the middle of that. When so many people don't have such a choice.






The privilege of my life.

I can choose to write about a love story--one trapped behind an 80s anti-homosexual vibe, but--SPOILERS--that ultimately doesn't go the route that one producer apparently wanted by having a villain; instead the film embraces the relationship at its heart and so does the mother in the film quietly and the father vocally. I can choose to avoid the more political angle.






Of course, then I'm inclined to make it personal. Call Me By Your Name got me thinking about romance and love and relationships. As I was sitting in traffic afterward, headed from the Arclight in Hollywood to Bravo Medical Magnet for my speech class, I had on some old music, stuff I hadn't listened to in a while, and I was lamenting that I am too old and too socially inept to have anything again like when my ex-wife and I got together. Most days, I'm good with my life as it is. I've got some friends, I've got a fun new-ish hobby that takes up way too much of my time some days, I've got my kids, I've got movies. Still, sometimes, I wish for something more. Something more... passionate, perhaps. And, I don't mean passion just in the romantic sense. I mean, like when I started writing every day in my 20s and had it in my head that I was going to be a novelist. I mean, like when I watch a great indie movie and I want to work on something like it, to write, to direct, to act, to whatever. I mean, like when I see my daughter on stage and I want to find an audition and try my hand. And, the more personal, physical, passion, too.

Or the passion of a protest. A riot.











Something far more real than a proclamation or a sarcastic jab on Twitter.

Or a rant in a blog.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

there’s a nickel curiosity tax

The set for Sweethaven in Robert Altman's Popeye took more than half a year to build. Because of this, and because of Altman's attention to detail, there is a wonderful lived-in feel to the setting immediately. Unlike, say, Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings films, this film takes place, ostensibly, in the real world, but the setting of Sweet Haven, and all of its strange and unique folk give it a storybook feel.





Then, I'm sitting here thinking of grabbing my copy of Wright's Sixguns and Society to write about this movie and it's structure being that of a western, and instead of grabbing that book, I'm just watching and enjoying the film. It's been a long while, I think, since I last watched it. Popeye's malapropisms, especially, are quite amusing. And, there are some great lines in this thing that I'd forgotten...

"I'm a very tolerant man, except when it comes to holding a grudge" may be one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema.






Noticed a mistake that isn't on the IMDb goofs page: Oxblood and his mother are at Olive's party before the fight poster goes up and the fighting boat shows up in the village With Oxblood and his mother on board.






And so on...






Popeye is not a great movie, it's not much of a musical, but it embraces its own strangeness from the get go and runs with it so fervently that it can't help but be fun.

And, "the good always wins over the bad" is a nice echo of what so many other films were telling me as a kid. Plus, you could have bulging forearms, a squinky eye, and smoke (except I'm not sure he ever actually smokes it) a pipe and a girl might still like you over the brute next door. Not always accurate to the real world, of course, but these are common lessons from Hollywood.

Monday, November 27, 2017

waiting for someone to lead them in revolt

Filmmakers steal ideas all the time. Even if not on purpose. Every storyteller does. George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film before he couldn't get the rights and went ahead with his own story--Star Wars. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that his story, a space fantasy designed like an old serial would bear some resemblance to Flash Gordon (even if this film ended up taking long to get made, remember, characters in Flash Gordon. Which is another reason I'm still sad that Prince Thun was just a black guy with a big hat instead of a furry lion man. I mean, if Lucas could have Chewbacca, Hodges should have been able to have a more visually interesting Prince Thun. And, a Prince Thun with a bigger part of the story. And maybe he could be applauded at the end of the story, and Chewbacca could get a medal along with Luke and Han (or maybe every pilot who survived that assault on the Death Star should have gotten an award, not just the MVP(s)). We've got moons here and planets over in that Star Wars galaxy that have nice neat descriptions. The Forest Moon of Endor, Arborea; Hoth, Friggia; Sky City, Cloud City. And characters with such straightforward roles. The hero, the princess, the rogue, the evil wizard.

We could've used Prince Thun the black man with the big hat (if we couldn't have the lion) as an important role. I mean, sure he rebels in his final moments, but he is defeated easily, killed with his own weapon. Growing up at the time this movie came out--so many movies could've use more racial diversity, more woman with more power. Leia has become a symbol of feminism but she doesn't really do that much more than Dale Arden here, and would anyone call this version of Dale a symbol of feminism? I don't think so. In the 70s, there were blaxploitation films and plenty of cop films that managed to have lead characters who weren't white, but there was a time in the 80s when every action film had a white guy as the lead, because of course. And, when there was a black guy near center stage, he was paired up with a white guy (or two)--Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Running Scared...

Meanwhile, I'm being raised in a church that threatens interracial couples with being disfellowshiped. Being told that the world is coming to an end and we're all going to go spend time with white guy Jesus and his white guy father. And, buff (and not so buff) white dudes are beating the bad guys on the big screen and I am loving it. It's such easy fantasy--that a lone good guy (or a small band of them) could beat the worst of bad guys, no matter what. It might take a few films, but it would always work out. And, it was (I assume) never deliberate that the hero was always the white guy; that was just Hollywood writers writing what they knew, Hollywood directors directing what they knew. Systemic racial bias built on the backs of a (supposed) white majority that was (and still is) used to being in charge. I mean, you call someone white supremacist today and, on the one hand, it's assumed that you mean they are actively seeking to put down all other races, that they are deliberate and conniving. But, it's simpler than that, too much simpler actually; white people, white Americans, white American males--we got to be in charge for so long (or we think it's so long because our country is the upstart adolescent who thinks it knows everything) that when anyone was allowed to have some rights or some power, we felt threatened. And, far too many of us seem to think that feeling threatened means that we are threatened. Far too many of us want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, you know, like it used to be in the 1950s, when white folks were in charge, women knew their place in the home, and black folks knew their place in the poor neighborhoods or outside of the city, or working for us so we could pretend we still had slaves. It's such a damaged, psychically and psychologically fucked up place, this country of ours. Stolen from natives, built with slaves, and now everybody wants a piece of the pie, and so many uneducated assholes cannot imagine that the pie might actually have gotten big enough for everybody.

So, they elect Ming the Merciless, basically. He demands tribute from the various tribes. He believes in nepotism, except when it suits him not to. He destroys the lives of other people for fun. And, he keeps a harem of drugged women and thinks that it's love when he touches them without permission because what the fuck does he know about genuine connections with other people, really? I mean, you can destroy Sky City and expect no uprising from the Hawkmen, you can throw paper towels at Puerto Ricans whose island has been devastated by a hurricane and proclaim yourself a hero. You can openly comment about your daughter in a sexual manner. You can kill those who are insubordinate, and demand that everything be rewritten to your specifications (which are too damn simple to be exacting). You can demand the audience at your wedding be merry and threaten them with death. You can claim your inaugural crowd set records. You can call nazis good people. You can demand that football players stand or execute them for making a scene at your tribute party. And, you still get to be in charge.

You still get to be in charge because half the white men think you're wonderful and half are too scared to storm your palace, even when you destroy (or allow to be destroyed) their homes.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

you can’t beat the human spirit

"From Dan Dare to James Tiberius Kirk, Flash Gordon's DNA is shot through our notions of what a hero - and superhero - is like a jagged bolt of lightning," writes Adam Smith in Empire. Director Mike Hodges describes the role of Flash as "an all-American hunk, decent, honourable, but, most importantly, naive." And, taking this film version, energetic and fun, and hardly capable of, let alone prone to, bouts of negativity. A nice birthplace for the 80s action hero, really. For example, Rambo had his angsty origins, but was all action and getting things done in the 80s. Not every 80s hero was angst-proof; Martin Riggs, for example, was essentially suicidal. But most were almost gleefully violent (and so, really, was Riggs, just for different reasons).

Compare even Riggs to say, Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films, begun in 1974; or Harry Callahan, whose films began in 1971. Seventies violence may have been just as outlandish as the best moments of, say, Commando, but played more real. Here, Flash Gordon is a cartoon hero. Watch the football scene, watch the Ajax battle, watch anything here. The darkest moments--like Flash's execution--get some nice music to cover them, happen just offscreen--when Flash is in the dungeon, we hear whipping like someone might be being tortured, but we don't see it; when Ming is impaled by the front of the Ajax, we don't see that actual moment he is hit--or are so over-the-top as to be unreal--Klytus' melting, or whatever happens to him when he dies, for example.

I would have liked to know what the bore worms are, and what they do. (Do they bore into you, or just make your bored?) But, those too, exist offscreen.






And then, I found myself just watching and enjoying the film.

When I was a kid, I wanted every film to have a hero like Flash Gordon, a treacherous villain like Ming. Black and white, good and evil.

As I got older, I'd expect and even want more nuance, more shades of grey. But, oh for the days where the bad guy was obvious, the good guy was easy to cheer for, and even in the real world we could easily pretend the same.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

not speaking out is ordinary

Flash Gordon waits.

Today, I saw Roman J. Israel, Esq. and... Well, a quick review of sorts: Denzel Washington and the character of Roman--awesome. The movie--not as awesome. Good, but not great. Like I wish it hadn't tied its own hands in the opening moments by establishing a timeline of just three weeks, because then SPOILERS, we don't get any real moments of realization from George (Colin Farrell) that Roman is at all correct about him wanting to be a more proactive sort of defense attorney. It just happens. Mostly offscreen. There was room for something a little more inspirational, like Denzel's titular bulldog of a lawyer is so committed to the details that he inspires attorneys around him and it all becomes something good. Or, alternatively, he takes that one instance of corruption--seen in the trailer--and just dives into being corrupt, and the film is more of a Faustian piece. Instead of either, the film treads water in the middle. And abruptly, it does a have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too ending. Overall, still, it's good.

And it got me thinking, which is always a plus.

And, then there was shopping for a new Christmas Tree, and then cards at my sister's place. And then, decorating the tree and I'm not in the mood for the political rant I was thinking of... Having? Making? Ranting.

There is just this:

If you have something to say, say it. If you want to make a point, make it. If you've got an argument to put out there, put it the fuck out there. Be heard.

Friday, November 24, 2017

i don’t know but it was pretty sensational

We've been here before.

Flash Gordon. Silly, stupid fun with a kickass soundtrack and score.

With the unreal, murky red sky and Aquaman flying between Cyborg and the Batmobile, I wonder if someone working on Justice League didn't have some love for this film... Hell, given the likely ages of people working behind the scenes on a movie like Justice League, I wouldn't be surprised if they all had some love for Flash Gordon. But--not that I'm reviewing Justice League right now--they could have used a lot more of the sense of fun that Flash Gordon has.

Seriously, even in its quietest, most serious moments, this movie can't help but be fun. From Ming's ridiculously labeled-in-English world-destroying computer to the "football" game to Aura kissing Flash while he's trying to communicate telepathically with Dale to that silly rocketcycle and the sheer beyond-Stormtrooper level of missing the targets by the palaces guns--it's all so damn silly.

And--if such a thing can be, and in a film from 1980, the label would be apt--it's so innocently racist and sexist and macho.

(I will admit, I kind of wanted a color-coded little person as a pet like Aura has. But, well, that would be wrong. Or, as I got older, I wanted to be that little person, perhaps.)

But, Flash Gordon just doesn't care about that stuff. It's too busy just being itself.

Like Flash (Sam Jones) and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) have matching outfits for some reason--white and red. I think Zarkov (Topol) and Munson (William Hootkins) are wearing identical shirts, too... Close anyway. They're outfits are the same beige and white shades (except for Munson's jeans) but in slightly different combinations. I imagine that someone from Mongo actually made the film. When the various tribes come to the palace, they have obvious styles that make them distinct. So, someone in the costume department, who happened to be from the real Mongo, made Munson and Zarkov match because they're the scientist tribe. And, Dale and Flash match because they're in the passenger tribe.

(The inversions are the interesting thing. Flash is earring white with red cuffs and red lettering. Dale is wearing a red dress with a white coat. (Additionally, Jones' dark hair was lightened for the role of Flash and Anderson's lighter hair was darkened for the role of Dale.) Zarkov has a lighter shirt with a darker jacket, Munson a darker shirt under a lighter coat.)

And, I just learned that John Hollis, who plays Lobot in The Empire Strikes Back, also plays one of Klytus' observers--meaning, before he had a cybernetic implant around the back of his head, and now he's got one around the front. I swear I used to joke (possibly just in my head) that the observers were related to Lobot, and it's the same actor. With no IMDb when I was a kid--and I wouldn't have a subscription to Starlog magazine until the back half of the 80s--I didn't know how right I was.

Another thing I just learned: probably a big reason for the film being so... Simple, painted in such broad strokes, aiming for fun more than depth. Producer Dino De Laurentiis, while he could read English, liked to have his commissioned scripts translated into Italian (and his translator wasn't that good) because he didn't "want to be fooled by the words," screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr explains to io9. (A foreign crew working with American actors--a combination that when horribly for Troll 2.) De Laurentiis told Semple, "I do want to be fooled by written words. I want to know the story." On the one hand, that is an awful, awful way of making a film. But, you just might get a ridiculously fun movie out of it as long as someone fixes the dialogue later, and your actors improvise, and no one thinks too deeply about how a comic book might work in live action.






I get that the lizard people are odd, what with the eyes inside their mouths. But, it feels like no one likes them in this film. One dares to cross a hallway and is vaporized by that floating head robot thingy. We see more in the dungeon. Two are in the cage with Flash when he's lowered into the swamp. In the comics, they were actually even less lizard-like. And, they ate people, apparently. And, they were led by a "Grand Dragon"--and this was in 1936... well after the KKK was using that term. Maybe it's better that no one was offering any respect to the followers of the Grand Dragon in this film. We've already got both a Yellow Menace stereotype as the villain and a whitewashed casting of said menace. There was already enough potential for offense.






Flash sets the final timer in the Ajax. Except, he hasn't talked to Zarkov in a while, so how can he be so precise, setting minutes and seconds? Nevermind that killing Ming doesn't necessarily save the Earth from the Moon crashing into it. I mean, Ming's world-destroying computer thingy could easily still be operational, and the Great God Dyzan might want Earth destroyed anyway, maybe even because Flash killed Ming.

And, oh how young me wanted a sequel. Give me a THE END? and I want more.

Also, I just noticed after all these years, the graffiti on the big Ming heads. (I'd noticed long ago the LONG LIVE FLASH graffiti in the dungeon.) One head has painted on it MING IS DEAD. The other one had three tears painted beneath one eye. Part of the fun of revisiting all these movies I've seen so many times is the familiarity, cinematic comfort food. But, finding something new is wonderful, too.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

nobody means what they say on thanksgiving

I like the implication that Claudia (Holly Hunter) is lost in the painting she's restoring, so much so that she isn't sure where to walk after.

(I've written about Home for the Holidays before--

--and I probably don't have anything new to say. I just...)

I just wanted an old standby tonight. Long day of cooking and then eating, and there might be shopping later.

And, there's Angela Paton (Mrs. Lancaster in Groundhog Day) as the mildly annoying old lady next to Claudia on the plane. Like Thanksgiving can be, it's like a reunion.

I like how Henry (Charles Durning) sneaks some pumpkins pie the night before Thanksgiving, slips into bed and immediately admits to it without any prompt or accusation.











Home for the Holidays "captures something ineffable about how going back home to squabble with relatives and eat lots of food can add a nostalgic glow to the child of late November," writes Todd VanDerWerff at Vox.

Aunt Glady's (Geraldine Chaplin) reminiscence about meeting her sister's husband for the first time is an amazing bit of cinema--great performance, great reactions, and when she turns to the kids, it's both horribly ridiculous and wonderfully meaningful at the same time.

The movie "knows these characters will do this again, and again, and again, even if we don't get to drop in on their future family gatherings," VanDerWerff says. "Like a family photo, the movies is a snapshot of a time and a place, one that leaves us to extrapolate everything that happens after the photo is taken, wishing only good things for its subjects."

Like real family. However insane, however bitter and angry, however nice, however much you hate them or love them, you do wish them well when they're gone.






Did I make that connection before--the fish? Claudia's thing with her daughter (Claire Danes) is to think of an angelfish they saw when they were snorkeling once. When life s too hard, just think of the fish and just float. Leo's (Dylan McDermott) last name is Fish. He's the guy introduced to Claudia's life in such a way that in a different movie it might've just been a romantic comedy about them. The meet-cute is that she thought he was her gay brother's (Robert Downey, Jr) new boyfriend (and he heard her distraught voicemail she left her brother), but Leo is available. She and Leo interact nicely. He's a calm in her family storm. He's the fish she forgets to remember.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

and yet, here we are

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

however dark the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's sad, really.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

the only way you can show your feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Timothy 2: 8-14:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is our world.

We built it.

Now, we should tear it down.


Black, R.E.G. (2016, December 28). Hollywood and the White Male Problem. After Film [Weblog]. Retrieved from

Braca, N. (2016, July 9). 7 Fictional Boyfriends Who Are Actually Emotionally Abusive. Gurl. Retrieved from

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

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

Magnani, R. (2017, November 2). Powerful men have tried to silence abused women since Medieval times. Independent. Retrieved from

Meagher, T. (2015, January 3). Garden Variety Creepiness - Romantic Heroes or Abusive Men. The Blog [Weblog]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Truffaut-Wong, O. (2017). 17 Romantic Movie "Heroes" Who Actually Sexually Harassed The Heroine. Bustle. Retrieved from

Sunday, November 19, 2017

i like coming here

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

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

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

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






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






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






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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same goes for Ingrid Goes West.

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

what are your superpowers, again?

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

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

And, maybe only a few words.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

i've tried so hard to be good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Popova, M. (n.d.) The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

he's only being stared at all over again

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

But, the film itself takes this further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

something you'll never ever see

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

I have not watched it in a while.






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

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






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






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

Monday, November 13, 2017

i want to be everything to you

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

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

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

From the novel, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson:

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

I've fallen in love with her.

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

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

Good show, Collier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man: I am the one who loves her!

Woman: Neither do you.

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

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

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

Man: I think an old song says it best.

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

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






And, it still holds up.