Sunday, December 31, 2017

everyone is assholes

I found a clip of Kevin Smith reacting to Brigsby Bear last night. He laughed, he cried. Exclaim called it "awkward as all hell". I thought it was beautiful.

But, of course, the Internet is full of outspoken dicks and pickers of nits. Hell, I'm one of them.

(By the way, on my original review of Swiss Army Man last year (which has since been transferred from one YouTube channel to another, so the comment is gone), the first comment was a guy pointing out that I looked like I was about to cry near the end of it. No overt criticism, but just pointing it out without extra commentary suggests judgment. Like how dare anyone have an emotional response to a film?

Hell, when it comes to how I rate movies on IMDb, an emotional response, regardless of objective quality, usually means I'll at least rate a movie an 8 out of 10. I love an emotional response. I love a movie that makes me think, makes me feel.)

I am watching Dave Made a Maze again as I think about this past year's films.

I thought about being awful and talking about the worst films of the year. This is the year of being awful, or yet another year of being awful. Awful is de rigueur these days. But, I want to be positive. Like yesterday, throwing out award-worthy movies next to seemingly random sequels and films of social import without much commentary on most of them, suggesting you go see them all. That, though, was too positive.

So, it being the last day of the year, I figured on a TOP TEN. The first ten films I scribbled on a list turned out to be a list of eleven films (in the order they were written, not in ranked order)--

--then, other films came to mind that should be in the running and things got out of hand.

Eventually, I settled on a TOP THIRTY, with the order randomized--

  • Molly's Game
  • The Post
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • The Hitman's Bodyguard
  • mother!
  • Brigsby Bear
  • I, Tonya
  • Coco
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • The Big Sick
  • Wind River
  • The Belko Experiment
  • Dave Made a Maze
  • Happy Death Day!
  • Ingrid Goes West
  • The Shape of Water
  • Call Me by Your Name
  • Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman
  • Logan
  • Get Out
  • Free Fire
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Baby Driver
  • Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Sleight
  • Wonder Woman
  • Lady Bird
  • Girls Trip
  • Jigsaw
  • A Ghost Story

And, I thought I was done. I had already excluded It and The Glass Castle and Columbus. I hadn't even written down Detroit or The Disaster Artist or Darkest Hour or All the Money in the World. And, then I added It Comes at Night and The Florida Project and Dunkirk, and now my TOP TEN has more than thirty films on it and I don't dare try to rank them.

Officially, the Groundhog Day Project had to love Before I Fall (which doesn't even make my list), Happy Death Day and A Ghost Story because of the time loops integral to their plots. The movies I watched the most this year were Sing Street, Groundhog Day, and High Fidelity, none of which came out this year. Halloween and Dave Made a Maze each will get seven viewings (well, Dave Made a Maze will, if I watch it tomorrow, too, which I will, because then it's Groundhog Day the next day and back to the childhood deconstruction the day after that).

I calculated that, counting repeated viewings, I (will have) watched 410 movies this year. That includes a lot of old movies, a lot of new movies, and a whole lot of fun. A lot of sadness, too. I think I've made it clear that I do not watch movies just for joy and escapism. Some of the best movies are some of the hardest to watch.






The movies I rated the lowest that I saw in the theater this year were Geostorm and The Snowman, Beatriz at Dinner, 47 Meters Down, Wish Upon, The Emoji Movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Split. My BOTTOM EIGHT.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

people are gonna want to see this shit

I tend to like weird little movies. A couple of my favorites from last year were The Lobster and Swiss Army Man. A couple of my favorites from this year now would be Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze. I'm gonna watch both of those again tonight because... Well, because I can. The year is coming to an end. It's Oscar season, the Golden Globes are just over a week away, and it's time to start putting it all together, some perspective on 2017 in movies—putting off the perspective of my childhood in movies for a few days from now (but I will get back to that)—and make some recommendations perhaps...

First, there's this—when Dave Made a Maze art director Jeff White was asked by Tessa Morrison at Other Worlds, "Knowing everything you learned from this, what would you travel back in time and tell yourself on Day One of fabrication [of the cardboard sets]?":

I'm not sure that there was anything I could tell myself at that point that I would have believed. Each day was a set of new challenges and discoveries, staying nimble on your feet. Being open to all possibilities is the only way to attack a project like this one.

For the record, I've got Brigsby Bear playing first. Also, I kind of want to write about The Last Jedi again, but I want to watch The Force Awakens one more time before I go see the new one again, and I haven't gotten to it yet. I thought I might this weekend, but man plans, movies laugh. Or something like that. I saw Phantom Thread last night, Molly's Game the night before, watched Big Little Lies and Shadowhunters (both TV shows) a lot the last few days. It is winter break (and it's awards season), so it is time to play catch up. I've seen most of the movies nominated for Golden Globes, for Critics' Choice, for SAG, for Spirit Awards. And, though the nominations will not be announced for nearly a month, I can be pretty sure that I have already seen most of the movies that will be nominated (outside of the obvious categories—the three short film categories and foreign language film—that are hard to get to ahead of time).

Entertainment Weekly puts 34 films on the Oscar radar (i.e. :for the big award categories)—and I've seen the ones in bold.

Colossal, Okja, The Beguiled, War for the Planet of the Apes, Logan, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, Downsizing, Wonder Wheel, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Last Flag Flying, Victoria & Abdul, Breathe, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Detroit, Stronger, mother!, The Disaster Artist, Molly's Game, Blade Runner 2049, Wonderstruck, Mudbound, I, Tonya, Darkest Hour, Battle of the Sexes, Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman, Get Out, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Call Me by Your Name, Dunkirk

I have already written a little bit about the year in film. For now, I will add some movies to that list. It's a pretty good list. I am actually surprised that Wind River is not already on such a list. I would add The Belko Experiment, especially if you like horror or violence in film. I would add A Ghost Story. I would add Free Fire. I would add Ingrid Goes West. I would add It Comes at Night I would add Baby Driver. I would add Loving Vincent. I would add Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. I would add Happy Death Day. If you want to be thorough for awards season, then add The Post and All the Money in the World, which should already be on that EW list. Throw in The Last Jedi and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Coco, Justice League, Jigsaw, maybe some Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Baywatch, Beach Rats, The Mummy, It, and if you really want to understand what 2017 was in movies, you have to watch The Emoji Movie even though it is awful, Atomic Blonde, though its plot is forgettable. You must watch Girls Trip (probably the best comedy of the year) and Valerian (though also quite awful, it is very pretty). Watch Spider-Man: Homecoming and Alien: Covenant, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Ghost in the Shell, Power Rangers and Beauty and the Beast, all for slightly different reasons. Oh, and also Split and Rings and at least one of the two LEGO movies.

More if you don't need noteworthiness or quality.

And, imagine each of these films being made by a bunch of folks eager to make it, like James and his friends in Brigsby Bear, like Dave and his friends in Dave Made a Maze, like Tommy and Greg in The Disaster Artist. Really, film sets are much more crowded, and more dull. But, though the magic is slowed down and full of a crew sometimes numbering in the thousands, there is still magic in movies. What you get in a little movie like Brigsby Bear or a little movie like Dave Made a Maze, is maybe a less filtered form of that magic. Not that big movies cannot be good. But, there is something perhaps purer, less distilled in a little indie movie. Even when they don't say much that is profound—like this year's Columbus—the smallness, the intimacy, the sense that maybe there's less business to its production, all of this amounts to something beautiful.

Some of those bigger movies on the lists above—they feel like too many hands were in the pot, they feel like Hollywood cynically cashing in on recognizable names, banking on familiar cash cows. Unfortunately, far too many people pay attention to Hollywood only casually; they only see a few films a year; and they only pay attention the ones with the most marketing. Of course, they're going to think it's nothing but remakes and reboots and sequels. And big shared-universe stories. And, then there's Netflix and Hulu and Amazon grabbing pieces of everybody's attention. I mean, no one has time for every movie. No one has time for every TV show. Throw YouTube and every other video platform online into the mix, and throw every social media platform in too, and it can all be quite easily too much. Like throwing a thousand balls in the air and at best, you can hope to catch just one, and you're probably going to have your eyes closed, and you're probably going to be thinking about other things, about your life, your job, your school, about politics divided and dividing.

I mean, is it any wonder that James' family embraces his fantasy in Brigsby Bear? Is it any wonder that Dave's friends embrace his in Dave Made a Maze? We survive off fantasies big and small. Even our social media selves are inventions, picking and choosing just the right selfies, just the right 140 (or 280) characters, putting just the right phrases and terms and hashtags in our bios, following just the right accounts, commenting on just the right threads. We invent our self online as we see fit. We can't help it sometimes to step outside the lines we try to draw around ourselves, step outside our own boundaries because our real selves are bigger, more expansive than anything we can contain in a Twitter page or on Instagram. Late in my master's thesis, I wrote:

In this scholarship, I deliberately deal in the popular sense of identity more than the philosophical sense because, for me, the more one researches either, the more they become one and the same. When transgender politics figure regularly into headlines, it should be clear that we understand the importance of not only one’s sense of identity but another’s response to it. Identity is a popular subject, not just a topic for communication scholarship or sociological scholarship or anthropological scholarship. I do not believe that removing one’s self, and one’s research, from the popular, means that it is inherently more legitimate or more scholarly. Returning to grounded theory or autoethnography (and, especially, Delamont’s (2007) critique thereof), your choice of topic is not the measure of your success as a scholar; rather, your ability to explore it in detail, to offer as much objectivity as you can muster, to generalize your topic so that others can take something from it, and really your expertise as a writer is what matters. And here, again, is my own showing off. I have succeeded at this. I have chosen my angles and my words to play the “information game” even here in this thesis because that is who I am. That is what makes me a communication scholar.

That's a lot of big words and "scholarly" stuff saying basically that you are what you say you are. At least as long as you keep saying it.

"Turn your past into words, your present into words, your future into words, and your words into you," I wrote. It can be about images, too, of course. It can be about music, or whatever it is that you do, whatever it is that you put out into the world to express who you are. Whether it's a cardboard maze, an odd little film about a space-faring bear fighting a moon with a face, whether it's poetry, prose, a good meal, a fancy meal, a hug at the right time, a blog, a smile, a song... Whatever you do, do it well. Whatever you do, do it carefully. Whatever you do, do it deliberately.

I ended my master's thesis with this:

And, those selves are worth our time as scholars. Turner (1966) argues, “Our goal should be to study man alive and woman alive, in the many levels of their mutual dealings” (p. viii). As researchers, we should (be allowed to) include ourselves. Regarding blogging in particular, Boylorn (2013) argues, “Auto/ethnography as a method allows me to write (about/for) my life and to make sense of it. Blogging allows me to do that in a more open space, which jeopardizes my anonymity but creates a larger public space for the kinds of conversations auto/ethnography should instigate” (p. 80). A blog itself is autoethnographic, dealing in self as it deals in whatever its more overt substance may be. For me, this was Groundhog Day (then other films). For Bird, it was her family, always coming back to her incarcerated son. For Dai it was the absurdity of watching a film he hated more each day. In each of these instances, and in so many other blogs, this balance of self and substance may favor one over the other at any given time, but both will inevitably be present. Over time, self and substance are interchangeable and malleable. All you have to do is make the choice.

I imagine James making more films with Spencer, letting his imagination leave Brigsby behind. I imagine Dave getting together again with Gordon and Harry and making a movie. And, he's got a better grasp on himself, so I'm sure he's got a better grasp on his voice, so that film is better than what they made before. And, the next one is even better.

The more you are you, the better you ought to be at it, I figure.

Friday, December 29, 2017

everything we’ve got to work with

I would especially note the kitchen scene late in the film between Dave (Nick Thune) and Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). It goes a little something like this...

Keep in mind, Annie has bought into the maze (she is the one who hangs the towel over the exit to keep the Minotaur inside). The apartment has been taken over by the maze. They have just come up with the plan to create the chrysalis at the heart of the maze to give the whole a weak spot. Dave didn't make a weak spot originally because, "then someone could destroy it." Harry and Annie don't come right out and say it, exactly, but they frame failure (or the potential for it) as part of life. No matter how much Dave wanted this maze to last, it is supposed to have a weak spot, because everything has a weak spot. That is life itself. Success really matters because to get there you overcome the potential for failure. Dave says, of the maze, "This is the only thing I've ever started that's worth finishing, and if I hadn't made it then no one would have gotten hurt." It's unbridled ambition injected into the shape of an unemployed hipster; a strange mix, to be sure, but that's what it is. He is so used to failure--he certainly sees himself as a failure--that when he could finally make something without a weakness, he did it, damn the consequences. And, whether or not the blood and guts are real, the dead friends to not magically reappear at the end of the film.

Earlier, Dave and Gordon (Adam Busch) were rhyming for no reason than (presumably) that's a thing they do. It's also symbolic of Gordon's early buy-in. When Dave says they have to finish the maze, Gordon is there with him. But, it's a good 2/3 through the movie before Annie really buys in. She stands up boldly and pronounces: "You've got to build the chrysalis, in order to rescue us." (But, she pronounces it riscue us, to get a sort of rhyme that barely works.)

The group ventures through an odd waist-high maze inside one room of the larger maze, they meet the cardboard puppet version of Brynn (Stephanie Allynne), and Dave and Annie separate from the group to make the chrysalis, leaving the group to distract Brynn. Puppet Brynn tells the documentary crew that the Minotaur was “born in shame, the dark manifestation, the unwanted.” Annie and Dave are going to cut themselves through the walls to the center of the maze, and as they are walking, the darkness of one hallway cuts to the two of them, in the same outfits they're wearing in the maze, sitting at the kitchen counter. Two plates but only one coffee cup.

Annie: You didn't have to get up so early.
Dave: I wanted to be with you. You're coffee's gonna get cold.
Annie: Where's your cup?
Dave: I don't want coffee this morning.
Annie: Are you going back to sleep?

And, when it cuts back to Dave this time, he's wearing pajamas and a long nightcap.

Dave: No. There just wasn't enough for two.

Annie now wears a business suit, like she's off to work.

Annie: Well, now I feel bad.
Dave: Don't feel bad. Just have your coffee.
Annie: Here,have some.

She pushes the cup toward him.

His outfit flickers, between his previous outfit, the pajamas, and finally settles on a cartoonish hobo outfit, with a stick over his shoulder, makeshift bag hung on the stick.

Dave: I made it for you.

Annie's outfit flickers and settles onto a pink sleeveless dress.

Annie: I don't want to drink it all if you can't have any.

Dave: Just drink it.

The coffee clearly doesn't taste good. She drinks, makes a face, sets it down.

Annie: What have you got going on today?

Dave now wears a cartoony artist getup, paint-stained smock, beret, paintbrush and palette.

Dave: The usual.
Annie: Well, look out, world.

Dave reaches out and pulls the coffee cup to him. Drinks. Sets it down. The eye contact between the two of them is quite passive aggressive.

Annie: I thought you weren't going to have any.
Dave: I changed my mind.

Scene change, sort of. Same location. Some things are covered in cardboard--picture frames, pots, pans. Maze outfits. No plates. Bottle of wine. One glass. Annie pours.

Dave: Where's your glass?
Annie: I'm not drinking anything tonight.

Dave wears a fancy suit, bow tie, scarf.

Dave: Big day tomorrow?

Annie wears a wedding gown. She holds a bouquet.

Annie: Yep.
Dave: Well, now I feel bad.

She removes her veil. She removes her dress, and it's nothing but crepe paper. She crumples it and tosses it aside. Her maze outfit from before is underneath.

Annie: Don't feel bad. Just have a drink.

Dave pulls off his suit getup. It's also made of paper now. The scarf is cardboard. Annie smiles. Dave crumples the suit.

Annie wears a stereotypical teacher outfit, big boring white collar. Cat eye glasses. And she hits her hand with a ruler. All made of cardboard.

Dave: Here, you have some.
Annie: Just drink it.

He drinks. She pulls off the latest costume.

Dave's new costume is a clown. Mostly cardboard, even the large brown nose.

Dave: So, what have you got going on tomorrow?

Annie wears a judge costume, with packing peanut wig. She holds a gavel that is at least partly made of a crossword puzzle.

Annie: The usual.
Dave: Look out, world.

Annie leans over the counter and pulls Dave's clown costume off of him. Then she removes her own.

She takes a drink of his wine.

Dave: Oh, I thought you weren't going to have any.
Annie: I changed my mind.

Scene change again. Same room, but everything is cardboard--the cabinets, the counter, the floor, the chairs. (Even another scene outside the window.) 

There is a candle burning between Dave and Annie.

Dave: There's nothing left.
Annie: Don't feel bad.
Dave: Well, I wanted us to have some.
Annie: We'll be all right.
Dave: Are you gonna go back to sleep?
Annie: No. I wanna be with you.
Dave: What are we gonna do tomorrow?
Annie: The usual.

The scene around them shakes. Dave smiles.

Annie: What are you doing?
Dave: I'm changing my mind.

He blows out the candle. The minotaur's face appears in the flame as he does so.

The costumes can be taken a couple ways.

The negative: Annie's costumes push her away from Dave. The wedding dress and suit are nice, and they work as connective tissue (but they are also the first costumes that Dave and Annie actively remove). But, otherwise, she's the working one of the couple (the business suit), she's his teacher, she's his judge. He's lazy, he's an artist (hardly a lucrative career), he's a clown.

The positive: She pulls away the clown costume, though, and of course, in whatever subconscious way, he controls the costumes. He sees himself as the lazy artist/clown. But, she pulls that costume off of him. She pulls off the teacher costume and the judge costume. She rejects his views of their relationship. She rejects his negative view of himself.

Dave's maze is a construct. He imagines his life a failure. It becomes a failure. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, what's really interesting in this scene is the reversal of roles, separate from the costume.

Dave gets up early to make coffee (albeit badly) because Annie is going to work. He lets her drink it. Then he has a drink. Annie: "I thought you weren't going to have any." Later, she pours the wine for him to drink. But, she has some. Dave: "I thought you weren't going to have any." Earlier in the film, Annie is the first one to enjoy Dave's keyboard hallway, stepping eagerly into the darkness between white keys. She leads the way into the maze. She makes him sandwiches. She helps him make the chrysalis. She gradually buys into his fantasy so he can once again buy into their reality. I say "once again" because how else did they get together? Maybe when they got together, they both had dreams. His went nowhere, probably because of a combination of his own lack of self-confidence, dreams that were too big for him, and the realities of the modern world. Annie's ambitions--whatever they were--maybe they were more down-to-earth, or maybe she got lucky, found the right interview on the right day. Whether through her own ability or not, she made it, he didn't. But, maybe she appreciated his dreams before. She liked his music. She liked his art. She loved it when he would leave origami birds on the bedside table. Then, she had a day job, she paid the rent, and his dreams unfulfilled felt more like hobbies holding him back. And she resented it.

Early in the film, when the pizza arrives, Dave asks Annie to come to the back of the labyrinth so they can talk through the cardboard wall. With little emotion--in such a way that you know there's bad feeling she's had to express so often that it has gotten boring--she says, "I can't. I have to get the pizza." She's tired. And, she's tired of being tired. But, Gordon offers to get the pizza, and Annie goes to talk to Dave, and he apologizes. And, while she doesn't buy into the labyrinth entirely just yet, you can tell she's used to Dave and his mishaps, Dave and his apologies. And, she's used to cleaning up his mess. (Earlier Gordon told her, "You know you're the one that's going to have to clean up all this cardboard once he takes up carpentry.") Next thing, she's heading to the bedroom to gear up for entering the maze.

Dave tells Annie at one point, "I know it's dangerous and unstable, but that's because it's incomplete." He's talking about his maze. But, also his life. Their relationship. In the end, they complete the maze together, and destroying it, and cleaning up the mess is part of that process. "None of this should work, but look at it--it's here," he says to Annie. Annie responds, with what must be here usual disappointment and resentment, "Yeah, in our apartment." This same exchange fits his life, fits their relationship. It shouldn't work, but it's here. Yeah, in our apartment. We shouldn't be together. You shouldn't put up with me. But, here we are. Yeah, in our apartment, where we're stuck because... Well, because she loves him. Long ago, his dreams turned into a cloud of failure. That doesn't mean he's done. Doesn't mean that he is a failure. He just needs to realize it. And, with Annie's help, he finishes something. He escapes it.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

get the story to come off the page

One more time: Dave Made a Maze. Because repetition is the heart and soul of this blog, of my life, of life itself. Day in day out, what makes it all interesting and worth bothering are the little things, the moments that make one day unique and different from the next.

Dave's incorrect use of "tertiary" for example--when friends of mine make silly mistakes with grammar (or, Phil forbid, I make one) I notice. I don't always correct them. But, I note it and if I had the memory capacity of, say, Santa Claus, I would have a list at the end of every year and I would let people know. Like, Hi Jared, you have made [this many] grammatical errors in public this year. Hi Shari, please repair the grammatical issues and try better next year. And, so on. Eventually ending with myself: Hi Robert, you have made thousands of grammatical errors, and far too many typos to ever be forgiven. You have to do better next year. Clear and civil communication is essential to a peaceful coexistence.

Dave and Gordon's absurd "beard on the face" thing.

Unnamed Boom Operator dropping his boom for about the only time in the course of the film to help Gordon secure the temporary towel wall to keep the Minotaur from escaping the smaller maze into the larger one. (But the Cameraman just keeps filming.)

Again, the Boom Operator--when everything collapses, and he crawls out from under layers of cardboard, the first thing he does, as if by instinct, is pick up his boom all over again, because that's who he is.

My daughter Saer easily distracted by talk of her current tv obsession. My son Kieran easily distracted by conspiracy theories. Me easily distracted by the latest movie, or a new D&D miniature. Little things. Things that work like magnets, focusing everything in away from everything else, even if just momentarily.

Like Dave's music, his painting, his carpentry, even his job interview. Greg and Brynn saying "Hey, Dave!" at the same time. Twice.

Phil Connors saying, "Yeah, like the groundhog, Phil." (More than just the one time in earlier versions of the script, of course.)

Various characters in Star Wars saying "I have a bad feeling about this" and you're both reminded that it's just a movie, and warmed by the familiarity of a story that is dear enough to you that you recognize its tics and its mannerisms.

Like any of the movies I've been watching in this "month"-long deconstruction of my childhood experience with movies. All these movies in these four months were like staples from my early years. They bring up memories of another time and place, of VHS tapes, of movie rental stores, of action figures. They bring up lines and lyrics that sometimes I am surprised that I still know. They echo in every day and every movie since.

And, I am just dealing in movies that I watched often as a kid. A measure built on repetition rather than, necessarily, import. Some movies impacted me greatly but maybe my family didn't own them on VHS so I didn't watch them a lot. Cloak & Dagger, Airplane!, D.A.R.Y.L., Friday the 13th, Superman, Excalibur, Rocky, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Clash of the Titans, Tron, The Beastmaster... And how many more? Like my own maze, but instead of cardboard, it's built out of movie theater tickets and VHS cases. There's a whole wing covered in comic book papier mache, too. And, the booby traps are all full of action figures come alive like it's Toy Story or Puppet Master... But I would have to also have a Minotaur because I was obsessed with Greek Mythology as a kid.

The heart of my labyrinth wouldn't be some cardboard chrysalis, though; rather, the Leviathan from Hellraiser II: Hellbound.

But, my D&D friends would probably be pretty useful in my maze. My family, too. Booby traps would probably have passwords that were just incomplete lines from old movies.

Imagine it, a giant cardboard sign in a dead-end room covered in old VHS jackets, and the sign says LESTER'S BARKING AGAIN. And, all you gotta say for a door to slide open is "and getting on my nerves again" because life is built out of all these lines of fake dialogue, all these scripted characters, these Hollywood plots, and story beats clich├ęd and original.

There's a wing of my maze dedicated to Cold War action films from the 1980s. The sign over the entrance says I FEEL THE NEED, and the password is "the need for speed."

And a wing dedicated to horror films, but especially slasher films (see any entry of this blog from October 2014 for more). The sign says NOBODY BELIEVES ME. The password: "I believe you, Tommy."

And so on. You exit the maze and there is a bigger maze built out of DVD packages. Outside that maze is another one that is, inexplicably, built out of Netflix and YouTube and Hulu. And, my maze(s) intersect with so many other people's mazes, and we can talk about why we do the things we do, why we like what we like, watch what we watch, until the cows come home--except the cows might come home, but all you have to do is rewind and start again.

We've all got our things. Things that stick with us. Things that remind us of childhood, of our teenage years, of that time we lied our way into Stephen King's Sleepwalkers then shot toothpicks into the ceiling at Rosie's Diner before heading home late... Or whatever your thing is. Whatever moments you have that still feel fresh after so many years.

For me--and for many of you, and probably all of you, since you're here, reading this blog, but I'm talking about me--movies are bookmarks in the text of my life, signposts in my cardboard maze.

And, you know what's awesome about my maze. It has several multiplexes, and a handful of still-operational movie rental shops. And comic book stores. And roller coasters. And toy stores, and a wing built out of LEGO blocks. Book stores, with real books.

There's also an entire wing decorated with pages from the bible, or are those scattered in that wing of Cold War movies? And the wing decorated with all my fears of the end of the world from when I was a kid and they told me at church and in the movies that it was all going to fall apart in a rain of fire and brimstone. It cannot all be good--my maze. But, none of these things is really isolated from any of the rest. The good. The bad. One movie or another. The experience of one movie is affected by the experience of another. I don't really remember what my first movie was. I don't know what my last movie will be. But, that first one affected my appreciation of all the rest, and that last one will be informed by them all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

it’s a little on the nose

Being the Groundhog Day enthusiast/obsessive/blogger that I am, it is interesting to me that out of all the characters in Dave Made a Maze, the one who never actually enters the maze is the hobo played by Rick Overton, aka Ralph from Groundhog Day. The one guy--who just might be Ralph all these years later--who has been around this kind of relentless, repetitive, lesson-making fantastical venture before, is the one who never participates now. (Not that he, you know, ever really necessarily knew what Phil was going through in that time loop. The closest he might have come to understanding it may only have been on that night that he and Gus were quite drunk. And, of course, they would not remember it the next day, anyway.)

Also, in the opening credits, he gets a "with".

The hobo is, of course, the person that, by choice or circumstance, exists outside the normal channels of everyday life.

Everyone else is eventually caught up in the cardboard labyrinth in some way. Even the Flemish tourists (Kamilla Alnes and Drew Knigga). Various friends: Gordon (Adam Busch), Leonard (Scott Krinsky) Jane (Kirsten Vangsness), Greg (Timothy Nordwind) and Brynn (Stephanie Allynne). The documentary crew: director Harry (James Urbaniak), Boom Operator (Frank Caeti), Camerman (Scott Narver). And, of course, Dave's girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).

(Plus Dave (Nick Thune), of course.)

Dave's malaise, Dave's aimlessness, Dave's need to do something that gets noticed. This is the trap that everyone gets caught in. We see Dave animated under the opening credits, making origami birds, painting, playing and then giving up on his keyboard, trying his hand at woodworking, panicking at a call from Annie. This is Dave's life, and this is all of our lives. The whole premise is simple--the simple that can be taken as profound if you 1) focus and obsess, or 2) are just in that right mindset. The film is ridiculous and silly. It has dialogue that barley tries to raise the material above the obvious. But, it is also honest. Like Groundhog Day, really, but without the strong central performance. Without some of the cleverness. And, with a whole lot more absurd. The film is either absurd or brilliant, or a little bit of both. But, it makes its point. Life, when you feel powerless to control it, might as well be an oversized cardboard labyrinth full of fatal traps and a murderous minotaur. Whatever you do, whether you wander around by yourself (Leonard), play around with your romantic partner (Greg and Brynn), picnic (the Flemish tourists) or try to record everything for posterity (the documentary crew), you will end up dead at some point, even if it ends up being outside the maze.

The forced perspective scene is interesting because the people on screen, inside the maze, cannot see the forced perspective, the "normal" room with table and chair, painting on wall, cups on the table. Only we can see it properly. The movie is interacting with us, but also, so is Dave's maze. And, it is immediately after this that they dive into a box on a different table, that puts them into cardboard pipes, and turns them briefly into cardboard puppets (with a great moment in which the puppet Minotaur, not being so frightening, is immediately replaced with his full-size version, towering over the other puppets. The movie is playing with its own visuals, after interacting with the audience. Effectively, we are inside the maze, too.

Which is the kind of line, writing about the movie, that is absolutely dumb and slightly brilliant.

Dave started building his maze from the middle, "like a seashell". It expands and expands, even eventually exiting itself to encompass the apartment. But, to escape, Dave has to both have help from his friends and, with his girlfriend, invent and then destroy a heart for the maze. He has to define in explicit, if not entirely understandable, terms what fuels the maze his life has become, and then break it down, and tear down the maze itself, so that life can continue with maybe some semblance of normalcy.

And, the whole thing was of course, prompted by a job interview. We don't hear how that interview went, but the implication is of course, that Dave is lost because he can't get a job. His line about how being "broke" means that you are "broken" and "you don't work". The literal meaning is obvious. The metaphor should be obvious too. That doesn't make it wrong.

Dave explains at one point, "This isn't exactly the maze I built; some things are just there."

The ultimate point, of course, is that it doesn't matter. Whether he built it, whether it built itself, whether other people built it--by chance or by circumstance, by choice or not--the end is still the same. Life ends in death. The labyrinth is still a lonely place without friends. It's simple. It's profound. It's absurd. It's stupid.

And, it's all of those things because so many people don't get it, or fail to try, or don't realize that other people need them in their mazes.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

i wanted to make something

I saw All the Money in the World today but I have nothing really to say about it. Performances were fine, but it was a bit too plot-driven to really offer any insight into the characters. Solid but nothing special.

So, the next movie on my "movie life" childhood deconstruction list is For Your Eyes Only. I watched that once before for this blog when Roger Moore died. I will likely get to it tomorrow.

Instead, I am watching Dave Made a Maze. I will save you the jump over to IMDb--though why anyone wouldn't want an excuse to jump over to IMDb, I don't know--and say it is about Dave (Nick Thune), who builds a cardboard box fort in his living room that turns out to be bigger on the inside. His friends go in after him, along with a documentary crew.






Rick Overton (Ralph from Groundhog Day) plays a hobo that Dave's friend Gordon (Adam Busch) brings in because he says he knows cardboard.






There's a Minotaur, with cardboard head. Rube Goldbergian booby traps (made out of cardboard). A pipe that turns all the people (temporarily) into cardboard puppets. And hanging a towel in a doorway works as a "temporary wall" to keep the Minotaur away. I am not sure if the movie is going to use this all for a deeper message yet but I am definitely enjoying it.






Dave tells Harry (James Urbaniak) the documentary director:

I built it because I wanted to make something. And I wanted to make something that people would see and say 'That's cool, why didn't I think of that?' ...

Some people spend their whole lives trying, or striving, to make something, and I did--

But, that's not right...

I didn't-- I wasn't striving for anything. I just wanted to make something.

I can't sit on my couch and watch tv or think that the Internet is going to inspire me because I'm fucking thirty years old and my parents are still giving me money, and I bore the shit out of them. And, I work jobs that I hate that I have to beg to get...

Do you know what it means to be broke? It means that you are broken, that you don't work.

The movie wants for bigger ideas. Whether it can manage them into the third act... Not sure yet.






Harry later says, "You don't have to fail if you never finish anything."

Puppet Brynn (I won't explain) tells them, "Life is a series of incomplete moments from which there is no escape." Nevermind the Rick Overton connection, I am liking this in a phase one Groundhog Day Project kind of way. They have a "flashback" to repeated mornings between Dave and Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) having the same conversation about coffee and what little he has planned for his day. Their outfits and the surroundings become more and more cardboard as it goes.

Monday, December 25, 2017

he learned the ways of the wind

...or was it the way of movies. The way of westerns. The way of American action stories. How the briefest of training montages can set you up to defeat a despot and save a president. Also, as long as you're the good guy, kill whoever looks like one of the bad guys.

Five-year-old me certainly didn't care that Amy Stryker gets forgotten in the third act of the movie. He didn't care that Tonto forgets how to speak for that same act. He just saw western action, explosions, and a nobody turning into a superhero... Mostly.

He also didn't notice the really bad framing and editing on the stagecoach ride early on--which I only just noticed. (They make a point of the seat on the left side of the screen being the one facing forward, but for several cuts in a row, the stagecoach is traveling to the left when seen from outside, which doesn't match the interior... A few shots later, when the sunglasses guy gets to talking, the interior is reversed making the seat on the right the one facing forward. Then, during the bandit attack, the interior switches back, left side facing forward. And back again. How about some visual consistency, people?)






So then, I got distracted by some research into original Lone Ranger stuff, because I've got the movie on one more time but don't have much else to say. Simply put, it was more of the same stuff so many action movies would teach me in the early 80s--a lone hero can beat all odds if he just puts in the tiniest bit of effort and is on the side of right (aka, he's American).

(Also, despite the politics being out of place in this film, I almost wish the screenwriter has embraced the politics more. They keep trying to be political, and then it just drifts back to everything else.)

Anyway, I was curious if Amy Striker was a character out of old Lone Ranger serials or the radio show. Apparently, the Striker name came from one of the primary writers on the radio show--Fran Striker. Which means Amy's presence here is not some shoutout to the original story. Instead, her role in taking up her uncle's newspaper instead of continuing on her trip to San Francisco, is a lost thread; she could have taken up like him in printing stories about Cavendish, but instead, she gets left behind because the president is in danger.

I imagine (because I cannot help it) a different version of this story, in which Dan's politics inform John's actions more. In which maybe saving the president is more a byproduct of John's revenge plot, like, oh the president is captive, too, maybe I will tell him how awful he is while I'm getting the more important business done. (More important business being vengeance for the slaughtered rangers and saving Amy, because damn it, Hollywood trope or not, that would make a better ending here. Also, Tonto would have more to do in the third act. I swear they don't even show how he gets into Cavendish's compound; we see Silver helping John over the wall, but then Tonto is just there.)

And, it would be interesting to have a Lone Ranger more true to the creed that Fran Striker invented for the character (which almost feels like the MCU version of Captain America, actually):

I believe that to have a friend, a man must be one.

That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.

That God put the firewood there but that every man must gather and light it himself.

Okay, that's a bit too rugged individualism, maybe. Too much the American Dream and not enough practical justice. If anyone should realize that some people are not allowed by society or circumstance to gather and light the firewood themselves, it would be the Lone Ranger.

In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.

That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.

Perhaps a little vague or too open for interpretation with that "most".

That "This government, of the people, by the people, and for the people" shall live always.

That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.

Like that, for example--this utilitarian approach feels contrary to the firewood line and that make the most line.

That sooner or later... somewhere... somehow... we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.

And that--that is so far from modern "conservatism" when the cowboy ideal is inherently conservative. But, with a good writer, you could play with both angles.

Then, it gets a bit vague, subjective, and specifically theist, before circling back into the thing I like about the Lone Ranger...

That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.

In my Creator, my country, my fellow man.

The Lone Ranger should feel more like--and I cannot help but compare to recent cinematic/Netflix interpretations--Spider-Man or Daredevil than Iron Man, like a small-scale Captain America saving people from small-scale injustice. Cavendish should really be threatening the town, not the country. The Lone Ranger is a one man (with his sidekick Tonto, of course) Magnificent Seven, more Robin Hood than James Bond. In this incarnation, they even make him a lawyer instead of a ranger, and he begins a relationship with a journalist. There is room for some great storytelling there, involving propaganda and politics, the legend of a hero rather than just his guns.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

one you want to get rid of

Klinton Spilsbury is not actually that bad; the adult version of his character barely has to emote for the story as presented to work. And, the dubbing over of his voice was done quite well; even knowing it was dubbed, I could only really tell in a few spots. Michael Horse is fine, though his characters role is both expanding upon older versions and reducing it, so it is hard to gauge just how much he matters to the plot, if not the legend. Christopher Lloyd is good as Cavendish. Jason Robards is fantastic as Grant (though I'll get back to Grant below). Everyone else is so minimally affective to the story that their performances don't matter much as measure of the film.

The structure is fine as long as you don't have expectations of Lone Ranger action. An origin story, if it is going to be an origin story, should take some time, set up its pieces.

The stuntwork is awesome, especially for 1981. As is the pyrotechnics.

Merle Haggard's "balladeer" narration is so ridiculous as to circle right around to being awesome. I mean, if you're going to tell a "legend" this narration makes sense. Some of the rhymes seem a little forced, but overall, they work, and they set a better legendy tone than the hazy imagery does.

And, you must know that a but is coming. That is how this works. Because The Legend of the Lone Ranger is a deeply flawed film despite parts of it being quite good.

The but comes in two related details.

1) Amy Striker (Juanin Clay) should be more important to the plot. We meet her before we meet the adult John Reid. Their future romance is implicit immediately—yesterday I compared her stumble in the stagecoach to a meet-cute out of a romantic comedy.

(Sidenote: seeing "Chinese Stage Passenger" (as he's credited on IMDb) (Kit Wong) on the stagecoach, and then seeing him throw a knife into the leg of one of the bandits, in 2017 I want this guy to team up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto later, get a more well-rounded war party going. They could also use a demolitions guy, so Lone Ranger and Tonto are free to shoot people. And, in a more modern tone—like last year's The Magnificent Seven's Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), Amy Striker could even turn out to be good at shooting, like her uncle took time from the newspaper business to take her hunting as a girl, so she's the sniper of the group. Or something. Anything but what the short shrift she gets here...)

John meets Amy's uncle right away, John and Amy wander off from the partying crowd to share a kiss. It's all very by-the-book cinematic old west romance. The destruction of the lead's John Reid identity—digging an extra grave, donning a mask—should feel like a bigger tragedy because of the promise of John's romance with Amy. His brief return in the guise of a priest should have more impact. Or, Amy should matter to the latter half of the film. Her life should be on the line in Act Three. John's dispute with Cavendish is personal. But, the opening assault on John's family home suggests something bigger to come; the Lone Ranger is not going to maintain this personal angle on bad men, rather he is going to become a force for justice. As part one of a planned trilogy, this structure could be fine, the irrelevance of Amy would be acceptable because John's relationship with her, even if always in the guise of a priest, could be a recurring element in the larger story; she could be an anchor for him as he is drawn toward violence. A (for 1981) modern retelling of the Lone Ranger story could have dug deeper, show us the transition from revenge plot to proto-superhero plot, and play on more of the tropes of the western film.

Despite it being a stereotypical Hollywood plot device, what Act Three needs is for Amy to be in danger from Cavendish. She needs to be seen talking to the Lone Ranger by one of Cavendish's shadowy supporters. Hell, an easy detail would be to have one of his spies in the church where John pretends to be a priest. Amy is instead a footnote, a lost thread because of...

2) President Grant. He should not be in this film. It's too big, too soon. I compared plot details here to a spy film yesterday, and that still feels apt. A western should never be about saving anything more than a farm, a family, a town. Any buildup to something bigger is the kind of thing you get in a sequel, or a trilogy. And, if trilogies were more of a thing in 1981, the western genre certainly could have used such an injection of energy at the time. The Cold War was big. An actual Hollywood cowboy was president. But the western was dying, being replaced by hyperviolent cops and soldiers.

Imagine a planned (and well-executed) trilogy revitalizing the Lone Ranger for a new generation. We get the origin story in the first film, ending with personal revenge on someone like Collins (David Hayward)—the guy who set up the other Rangers for Cavendish's ambush. Cavendish's role would be set up, but would not really pay off until the second film, when the town of Del Rio is threatened. Here, Amy's role could be buffed up, with her inherited newspaper taking on Cavendish's business and political interests to such a degree that she is in danger of dying like her uncle did.

Only in the third film does Cavendish's plot to form a new Texas Republic come into play. Only in the third film does Grant enter the picture. Cavendish becomes the Emperor to, say, Collin's Darth Vader. The Lone Ranger inspires others to fight back, and by the third film, you earn the inclusion of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok and George Custer (instead of their glorified cameos here). (And, if you're being cute, you might get a cameo of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, any old west celebrity that can fit.) Chinese Stage Passenger might get a name and join in with Lone Ranger and Tonto. Amy would take up a gun as well, because Hollywood, and her newspaper role just wouldn't be big enough in the larger scheme of things.

But, we cannot just play armchair (or is it backseat?) screenwriter. The problem is not that this film (or any film) does not live up to our imaginary scenarios. In point of fact, 5-year-old me maybe needed the single film, instead of a trilogy, because that left more space for my own imagination, more room to play with the action figures—yes, I had Lone Ranger and Silver and Tonto and Scout from this film's line of toys—or play in the yard with a toy gun, or a broken tree branch posing as a gun. It is me today that is more concerned with the film's role as a film, rather than a trigger for a child's imagination; it is me today that is more concerned with the film's role as a trigger for more film, fuel for more westerns. Modernizing the legend a little bit, so that John might be more conflicted over doing violence, so that John's abandoned romance with Amy might be more affective, even links this film into the 80s need for a cinematic rebuilding of masculinity on screen. This film's choice to keep John from actually being a Texas Ranger at the time of that slaughter at Bryant's Gap even buys us into this rebuilding. His brother is more of a man than he is, in Hollywood terms. John only becomes a real man by dying, even if his death is a necessary fiction. But, the film never earns the president-saving, country-saving climax, because the Lone Ranger just isn't big enough for that. The Lone Ranger is a promoter of justice. The best this film can do for that is his saving of Tonto from hanging (which, structurally, is too brief and unrelated to the plot) and his personal revenge on Cavendish. Saving Grant is a cheap escalation. Going with the more stereotypical damsel in distress ending with Amy would have made more sense, even if it would have promoted lame gender roles. (One must wonder, is it better to be found in need of rescue or to be forgotten entirely? In film, anyway. In reality, you are probably better forgotten because at least that doesn't make you needy.)

Grant, however good a character Robards makes him with little screentime, should not be a part of this film. Dan's political views early on feel like something from a very different film. The Comanche Chief's talk about white man's promises, and Tonto's eventual request from Grant also seem like something out of a different film. Which is really this film's problem—and something I would never have noticed as a kid because I was too busy imagining myself the Lone Ranger—it feels like pieces of different films pasted together. John is in a personal story. Tonto and Dan are in a political story that connects only tangentially with John's. And, Cavendish is in some bigger story, a political thriller that doesn't fit with John's much at all. And, then there's Amy, sitting in some old fashioned western (or a modern romantic comedy) that has no place in Act Three and barely has any presence in Act Two.

But, Merle Haggard's balladeer narration nearly holds it all together. It would have held a more personal revenge/justice story together even better.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

reach out to the world of man

Got an old VHS playing tonight. The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

Cheap opening, but not an uncommon thing. Assume the audience will care about a family getting slaughtered, a kid crying.

Then, off to the Comanche village. And the spoken-word song narration gets going over a montage. Seems far too early for a montage.

As a kid, of course, I did not care one bit whether there should be a montage already. Natives throwing spears...

Ugh, then, big brother Dan shows up and the lead is crying again. I don't think we even know his name yet. And we get lots of quick cuts but it's not really another montage, exactly.

I see the name of the star and I swear that's not anyone's real name. Klinton Spilsbury. And, apparently, all of his lines were dubbed over by James Keach. So, I guess he wasn't very good.


I guess this is our lead as an adult--that whole opening could have been skipped or showed up as a flashback later--on a stagecoach ride. The spoken-word theme actually does get to some singing; that's good.

Meets some woman who gets on the coach and, of course, stumbles, and he catches her. Basic romantic comedy meet-cute. He gives up his seat so she can sit facing forward. They talk about the book. He still doesn't know her name. It's Amy (Juanin Clay), he learns after...

And, I just remembered seeing this movie. Front row at the Pacific Hastings Ranch, when it was still one big theater. And, my cousin threw up his popcorn. I was already quite familiar with westerns because my dad loved them. And, however badly this film is about to hold up, I loved it then. But anyway--

Bandits attack the stagecoach. John Reid (Spilsbury) climbs out to stop the horses after the driver is shot. Bandits have some nice masks, actually, a little bit scarecrow, but still with their hats on.

Scenes look okay, but there is some abrupt editing choices going on here. John arrives in town, asks about the bandits. Then, suddenly, he's off talking to his brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry), who seems upset that John came to Texas.

And, Dan has himself some political views. "In Texas," he proclaims, "robbers are outlaws. In Washington, robbers are elected." Seems President Grant (Jason Robards) is coming to Texas and Dan don't like him.

And, there's Cavendish--I forgot Christopher Lloyd played him. He executes some of his guys for... Something. I got distracted by some late dinner.

Then, John and Amy hook up in a nice classy, olden days way. Walk around for a bit and kiss once.

Apparently, there was some controversy at the time this movie was coming out; producers got an injunction against 65-year-old Clayton Moore, who had played the Lone Ranger way back when, so he could no longer appear at county fairs or hospitals in character. But, for those who were watching the movie anyway, another problem would be just how long it takes before John Reid becomes the Lone Ranger. I mean, he's not even a ranger, first of all. It's more than half an hour in that the rangers, including his brother Dan, are slaughtered. That's plot point one. And, I am pretty sure it is not until plot point two that John puts on the mask. Producer Lew Grade later wrote in his autobiography, "That mistake was not dispensing with the legend in ten minutes and getting on with the action much earlier on." This is a long, meandering origin story, when in 1981, the older audience would have wanted some western action and the younger audience would have wanted whatever action they could get.

The way Dan talks about something might happen to him and all that--it's a little too on-the-nose. Plus, we keep cutting to the empty cliff above, like they just rode into Texas Ranger Slaughter Canyon and we're all supposed to just know what's coming. Again, cheap. Expected, but cheap.

The Gatling gun here is a nice touch. Echoes of The Wild Bunch.

Nice violence. Some squibs, even, unlike older westerns. But, not much blood. Nice stuntwork. Good sequence overall. And, I guess that old folks who knew what had to happen to get to the whole lone ranger thing would have appreciated it. And, a kid like me, hungry for action, certainly appreciated it.

Tonto (Michael Horse) shows up, because... Actually, in modern nomenclature, there is some serious homoeroticism thing going on with this healing scene and I totally ship these two. I was going to comment on it with the "You will always be Kemosabe" goodbye earlier when they were kids, but it seemed wrong. Now, though, Tonto has John shirtless in a cave and the musical cue comes in and the image is a little glazed at the edges and it's like another love scene is about to happen. But, no. It's 1981. This is just men being men.

And, then some politics, with a line I remembered for years after, "The white man has made many promises to us. Yet they keep only one: they promised to take our land from us, and they took it."

It took me several of these narration beats to notice the lines are all rhyming couplets. It's is ridiculous, but in a good way. Especially because Merle Haggard takes them so seriously.

Useful note if you want to make yourself some silver bullets--not that I buy for a minute the notion that silver flies straighter--you don't have to make the entire cartridge out of silver. I mean, you make some basic cartridges, and just the bullet part out of silver, you can probably make a lot more.

We needed several minutes of John and Silver getting together, with slow motion closeups of the bucking horse.

And, I gotta wonder how many old folks in the audience were annoyed that Tonto can not only formulate complete sentences, but it is his agenda that really drives things. He trains John to shoot, he helps him capture and train Silver.

One hour in, we get the mask, we get "Hi-yo, Silver" and the William Tell Overture. It's about damn time.

Then, it's like a spy movie more than a western; John questions the guy who led the Rangers into Texas Ranger Slaughter Canyon, and someone shoots the guy from the shadows so John cannot get led to Cavendish.

The narration glosses over the obvious racism that would have the crowd wanting to hang Tonto, but then the Lone Ranger rescues him, the William Tell Overture plays again, and that sequence barely served a purpose.

The whole rescuing-the-president plotline feels more like a spy movie than a western. As is Cavendish's ransom plot.

I like this version of Grant, though. He sees his car has been separate from the rest of the train, he sees the small army waiting for him, and he just takes one more drink and walks out to meet them.

And he calls Cavendish a "diseased son of a bitch". And helps light the explosives.

Structurally, this is almost more like a pilot for a TV series than a movie. So much setup and barely any payoff.

But, five-year-old me loved every minute of it.

which i cannot take away

Distracted today. Aside from a game of a risk and a debate about the earth being flat tonight, I saw two new movies today. Watching The Post, I was reminded of other newspaper films, the recent Spotlight, All the President's Men (which, alas, I missed out on seeing on the big screen back when I was at USC because I was sick), and especially The Paper because that movie not only worked for me as a movie but made me want to be a journalist. This got me thinking about other movies that make me want...

Like Sideways made we want to drink a lot of wine. Also to like pay attention to it and be like a connoisseur or whatever. But, also to drink a lot of wine. Into the Wild made me want to fuck off from society. Dead Poets Society made we want to write poetry (as did Paterson), to speak up, speak out. And maybe subtly to be a teacher... Really, while I compare my teaching to Mr. Keating, I don't think he is the reason I became a teacher. Just too many years between the two--my seeing Dead Poets Society in the theater and me becoming a teacher. Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark made we want to be an adventuring archaeologist, Star Wars made me want to be a Jedi. Ed Wood, Chaplin--and to a far lesser extent The Disaster Artist--made my urge to make movies rear its head again. Movies like Stories We Tell or Trumbo wake my urge to write. Musicals make me want to sing. Action films... Actually, as I get older, I don't fantasize about being in the action so much anymore. Too fucking dangerous.

Whether or not the protagonist is a good guy or some antihero, or even a villain, a movie can still be good. Indiana Jones may be an asshole, but he's mildly charming, he gets to dress in leather and a fedora and go fight bad guys. It beats going to school. It beats an office job. It beats most of the boring shit most of us have to do day in and day out.

So, he had an affair with an underage girl and he's a selfish ass. As Dusan (Christopher Waltz) says in Downsizing, which I also saw today, "The world needs assholes." And, I've written before--Day 1001 - who needs a drink?--about how we like assholes in movies...

Rob Gordon is an asshole. Han Solo is an asshole. Peter Venkman is an asshole. Katniss Everdeen is an asshole. Phil Connors is an asshole. Pretty much every action hero ever, any cad from any romantic comedy... Anyone whose story is worth telling on film is probably an asshole in some way. They have to be. That is who gets things done.

We pay at the box office to watch assholes fight other assholes, or to fuck them. We vote for assholes to hold public office, then we get to be assholes on the Internet to complain about them. That is how the Internet is the great equalizer--we all get to be assholes. We all get to get things done. Or at least pretend that we're getting things done. Pretend that what we say matters. That our comments about a particular film, for example, have impact. That our tweets about politics matter. If nothing else, our tiny screams into the great darkness at least reminds us that we exist. And, that's something.

That is Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, too. I mean, sure, he's our protagonist, he's the guy out there with the whip and the gun, he's the guy jumping onto moving trucks, riding on U-Boats, threatening the Ark of the Covenant with a rocket launcher. Still, he does not affect the outcome (except for not blowing up the Ark in that moment, of course). And that's a great lesson for life. Especially for a kid like me seeing this all those long years ago. You can put a fuck ton of effort into something and you still might be powerless against the larger world, against governments, against soldiers. You can study archaeology for years, adventure for years, handing over antiquities to museums left and right, but when God himself slaps down some Nazis nearby, you are lucky he didn't hit you too, but I guess he forgave the statutory rape (or maybe there wasn't a law about that wherever that happened back in '26) because you failed to protect his Ark from the Nazis. You can study in your field for years and your competition (Belloq) and your friend (Sallah) will both get hired by the desperate dictator jealous of other people's power. You can study for years and still have that Ark, which, hey, at least you transported it back to Washington, right, confiscated and buried in a warehouse. Because, you don't fucking matter as much as you think you do...






Most of the time.

Can't end with the negativity. Not today. It was a pretty good day. Sometimes, you do fucking matter. Sometimes, you are the light that brightens someone else's dark day. Sometimes you inspire the people around you. Sometimes, you are all that stands between chaos and a good day. And, sometimes, you just get to watch a few movies, play a board game, and debate crap science. Whatever you're doing, enjoy it. Or don't do it.

I went to a free acting class thing last week and one remarkable thing there was how people there intending to take the ongoing class (it's too rich for my blood) are making the effort to do the thing they want to do, the thing they enjoy. And, they don't even have to step on other people to do it. (Lately, of course, we've seen plenty of news about actors and producers who do step on people to get things done. But, I'm talking beginning actors, or day players looking to make their way up.)

Do what is fun. Don't hurt people. And, if you think hurting people is fun, get some help because you are wrong. Do what you love. Or love what you do. And, be good to the people around you because, yeah, sometimes you absolutely matter.

Even if it is just because you don't pull the trigger on that rocket launcher.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

not something to be taken lightly

Kasdan: Her father may have been his mentor... That's why they know each other... So they have a previous relationship through her father.

From the transcript of a story conference between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan.


Lucas: We have to get them cemented into a very strong relationship. A bond.

Kasdan: I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don't have to build it.

Lazy storytelling, but that's not the problem here.

Lucs: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.

Kasdan: And he was forty-two.

Lucas: He hasn't seen her in twelve years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.

Spielberg: She had better be older than twenty-two.

Lucas: He's thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve... It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.

Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.

Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know, it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's sixteen or seventeen, it's not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair that last time they met. And she was madly in love with him... at the time and he left her because obviously it wouldn't work out... It's not only that they like each other, it's a very bizarre thing, it puts a whole new perspective on this whole thing. It gives you lots of stuff to play off of between them. Maybe she still likes him. It's something he's rather forget about and not have come up again...


Lucas: It would be subtle. She could talk about it: "I was jail bait the last time we were together." She can flaunt it at him, but at the same time she never says, "I was fifteen years old." Even if we don't mention it, when we go to cast the part we're going to end up with a woman who's about twenty-three and a hero who's about thirty-five.

Enough of that. When the US Intelligence guys ask about Abner Ravenwood, Marion's father:

Indiana: I haven't really spoken to him for ten years. We were friends, but... had a bit of a falling out, I'm afraid.

They had a falling out when Indy slept with the guy's underage daughter. When Marcus comes to Indy's apartment, Indy speaks about Marion...

Indiana: I've got to locate Abner. I think I know where to start... Suppose she'll still be with him?

Marcus: Possibly. Marion's the least of your worries right now, believe me, Indy.

Now, from the sequence in the Raven bar:

Marion: I learned to hate you in the last ten years.

Indiana: I never meant to hurt you.

Marion: I was a child! I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!

Indiana: You knew what you were doing.

Marion: Now I do! This is my place. Get out!

A little later...

Marion: Abner's dead.

Indiana: Marion, I'm sorry.

Marion: Do you know what you did to me? To my life?

Indiana: I can only say I'm sorry so many times.

Marion: Well, say it again, anyway.

Indiana: Sorry.

Marion: Yeah, everybody's sorry. Abner was sorry for dragging my all over the earth looking for his little bits of junk. I'm sorry to still be stuck in this dive. Everybody's sorry for something.

Back to the transcript of the story conference:

Lucas: She's sort of made [the bar] her home. She started out maybe singing or being a call girl or whatever.

Also, this, from the streets of Cairo:

Marion: Dad had you figured out a long time ago. He said you were a bum.

Indiana: Oh, he's being generous.

Marion: The most gifted bum he ever trained. You know, he loved you like a son. Took a hell of a lot for you to alienate him.

Indiana: Not much. Just you.

Now, Indiana Jones is not supposed to be a good person. He's our hero because the story is centered on him. (He is, of course, quite ineffectual regarding the plot, despite being the protagonist.) He is a scoundrel. He kills far more people than he needs to to get done the things he gets done. He uses people (but he pays them).

Except, that is not how this movie was received, not how Indy was received back in '81. He was the hero because we all liked him. Because we all liked this guy who does whatever it takes to get the job done. This guy who doesn't hesitate before punching and shooting Nazis, Arabs, whomever. The movie glosses over what exactly Marion meant when she said she was a child, so that detail is an inconsequential to our acceptance of Indiana as the hero as is his own ability to affect the plot.

He takes her to Cairo and their past problems get left behind. (He thinks her dead and gets sad and drunk because... reasons.) Until he leaves her bound and gagged to avoid getting caught digging for the Well of the Souls. Or until she sees him again after that and wants nothing to do with him... until there are snakes and, being the damsel in distress, she jumps right back into his arms.

Later on the boat, he's exhausted and sore and he falls asleep after some unusual foreplay. Marion says, "We never seem to get a break, do we?"

She seems to see a relationship that they don't have, and a larger world getting in the way of it. Of course, that's easily part of her damaged psyche when she's around Indy. I wonder what she and Indy tell Mutt about how they met, how they got together, when he asks. Or does Marion avoid the topic when it comes up, or pass some bullshit story that plays better? When she stands beside Indy and marries him, has she forgotten their past or is she just stuck forever in this damaged relationship simply because she's stuck in this damaged relationship?

But really, does it matter? I mean, did we even blink at the prospect of all this in 1981? Or did we just buy into the adventure and hope for the romance to go well because that's what you hope for in Hollywood?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

nothing else has come close

There are some great shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I will inevitably get into a rant about how awful Indy is as a person (probably tomorrow), but importantly, the film never tells us that he is a good person. So, today, I will ignore Indy and look at Spielberg's work. From a great shot with mist and sunlight through the trees in the opening sequence to that warehouse matte painting in the final shot, Spielberg frames things nicely. But, even better--and this probably comes from screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan more than from anybody else--are a couple key moments of foreshadowing and... Whatever you call explaining something ahead so that when it happens we don't need useless dialogue.

And, I don't mean the snake thing. That's basic stuff.

Also, an odd detail I noticed yesterday (and maybe I'd seen it before, but it stood out yesterday): that bit where Sapito gets Indy to throw him the idol and then drops the whip--there are stone walls on either side of them, and a closing door ahead, collapsing temple behind, but there is no ceiling. Spielberg shoots from inside the pit and you can see the canopy of trees above. Indy could have simply climbed the wall to get out. Of course, then Sapito would have still be standing dead over the fallen idol and that ball would have closed up the entrance. And, the Hovitos might not have let Belloq get inside to retrieve the idol.

But, back to the good.

For example, when the Army Intelligence guys come to Marshall College to meet with Indy, he not only explains the Ark of the Covenant to them, he lays out how the map room in Tanis will work later with the Staff of Ra. That way, we get a great scene later with no dialogue (and it didn't even need to cutaway to Sallah above) in which Indy does his best bit as modern archaeologist and not grave robber when he actually pulls out a brush to get the sand off the panel of holes in the floor, inserts the Staff of Ra, and it flares up the location of the Well of the Souls. It's a great scene, evocative of the whole tone of the film at its best, really. Nice musical cues, fantastic set. And, since Indy has already explained what will happen there, and we've already heard the explanation and translation of the headpiece for the Staff of Ra, Indy doesn't need to say a thing.

Then there's Marion's time drinking with Belloq in his tent at Tanis. She hides the knife under the clothes she has changed out of early in their interaction. Then, she drinks, he drinks, they have some laughs, and suddenly she gets serious and pulls the knife. The film has of course already shown that she can handle her alcohol; it is how she was introduced, in fact. First we see of her, she's beating a guy bigger than her at drinking shots. If we're paying attention, we know that she can drink Belloq under the table.

Interesting moment in that same scene at the Raven, Indy is introduced there as a shadow.

(The Raven scene also makes good use shadows to avoid showing some of the violence.)

At the start of the film, he was introduced in silhouette, from behind. We don't see his face until after he has whipped the gun out of the hand of one of his guides. And, then, it's Han Solo and we've already seen two Star Wars films and a Christmas special, and we are in. Charming scoundrel on an adventure--that is practically what film was invented for.

Spielberg also makes good use of closeups, like just now, Indy is chasing the guys who have Marion in a basket and he runs toward the camera, stops really close, looking around, and we're there with him, lost, confused, because--CUT TO--he just reached a plaza full of people carrying baskets.

Indy talks to Belloq, and Belloq is in focus, talking about his pocketwatch, Indy is in slightly blurry closeup, sad, angry, a shadow of a man. Belloq even calls Indy his "shadowy reflection".

Spielberg shoots through screens, from inside pits. He's got insert shots of flying dates, of slow fan blades, guns being pulled, maps being read.

Now, I must complain about one detail of the map room scene : the translator says the Staff of Ra needs to be 6 kadam in height minus 1 kadam for the lord. This difference is why Belloq's men are digging in the wrong place. Sallah says 6 kadam is about 72 inches. That means 1 kadam is about 1 foot. Take one away and the staff should be only 5 feet tall. Harrison Ford (and thus Indiana Jones) is 6'1". The staff he takes into the map room is longer than he is tall. He, too, should be digging in the wrong place.

Even a perfect scene must have its flaws.

Also, regarding that scene. There is a small building in the map room with strings surrounding it, and it says in red NICHT STOREN (do not bother). Having watched this movie for years and years on an old VHS tape, I didn't know that writing was there until last night. Disregarding the staff length mistake, it would make sense that the location that Belloq's men found with their staff would be several feet past the location Indy finds. So, that must be the building their staff lit. So, on the one hand, they protected the model with those strings. On the other hand, they defaced it with red paint.






Tuesday, December 19, 2017

you can’t do this to me; i’m an american

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and there is one subject that must be presented first, get it out of the way before I get to anything else. It's the "Raiders Minimization" problem. That label for it comes from, of course, The Big Bang Theory. Not the greatest show, and it often fetishizes nerditry rather than represent it well, but it has had its moments. And, Amy Farrah Fowler's (Mayim Bialik) pronouncement is spot on. If Indiana were not there for this primary plot of this film, everything that happens would still have happened, with only slight differences. I'll let Amy explain:

Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If her weren't in the film, it would turn out exactly the same...

...if he weren't in the movie, the Nazis would have still found the ark, taken it to the island, opened it up and all died, just like they did.

In fact, they would have found it sooner, because there would have been no shootout at The Raven, and Toht (Ronald Lacey) would have gotten the headpiece for the Staff of Ra rather than a burned imprint of one side of it, and the German archaeology dig folk would have found the Well of the Souls more easily. They would have gotten to the Tabernacle at Geheimhaven sooner, and would have died sooner. The one difference is that maybe the Americans would not have been the next ones to get their hands on the Ark. Room for something like a sequel, with maybe the Italians swooping in and the same supernatural slaughter happening all over again. But, that would be repetitive and boring.

The thing is--and I will circle round to young me not noticing at all that Indiana was ineffectual at the time later, maybe tomorrow--what is the point to a story like this, then? American adventurer chases after powerful Christian symbol, the Nazis best him (almost) at every turn, but he wins in the end because of the power of God. What does this tell an American audience? Two big things: 1) the Christian God is real and his power is real, 2) even a scoundrel American will win over dark political forces like the Nazis (or translated out of the film's 1936 setting to the 1981 present, the Communists). Essentially, we are good, even the worst of us, and they are bad. It absolutely does not matter how sloppily Indy does what he does, how often he fails, how often his little victories get immediately reversed--he will still win because he is one of the good guys. What Culture describes Indy's role and his relation to the world around him pretty well:

Indy is pretty much the worst archaeologist in the history of the profession. He's a grave-robber, smashing artefacts [sic] and desecrating tombs at will, and he has zero concern for any native attempting to protect their cultural and ancestral heritage - because, clearly anyone with a swarthy skin-tone and a thick accent should immediately be classified as a villain.

Minor nitpick of their critique: he does have some concern for the cultural and ancestral heritage of those natives if not the natives themselves. He specifically makes sure that Brody (Denholm Elliott) has arranged for the ark to go to a museum after they recover it (this notion that the artifacts Indy "finds" belong in a museum is expanded on in the prologue to Last Crusade). But, yeah, he seems to not care at all for the natives. Belloq (Paul Freeman) at least works with the natives in the opening sequence in this film. (Of course, he's French, not one of the Nazis, even though he is working with them, too.)

But aside from one moment in the film--a piece of the map room scene that I will talk more about tomorrow--Indy does not behave like an actual

(To be fair, given plenty of stories of men robbing old tombs, maybe Indy is quite a realistic "archaeologist" for his time. I don't rightly know.)

archaeologist; he is more a professional grave robber. But, he is an American, heterosexual, patriarchal and misogynist (and we'll come to that again tomorrow or the next day), white. So, of course, he runs roughshod over other cultures in order to hold up their artifacts as something great in a museum. Nevermind them. Just celebrate the artifacts. Fetishization of foreign culture while simultaneously neglecting that culture.

That a swarthy skin-tone and a thick accent should indicate a villain becomes even more problematic in the sequel/prequel Temple of Doom, but I may just get to that film eventually in this deconstruction, so let us focus here. It is not just the Germans--hell, they are quite white. It is the French Belloq. It is all those hooded locals in Cairo (even though Cairo locals later save Indy from Belloq as well). It is hired hands in Tanis.






An interesting note before I end this today: the next film I was supposed to be watching was The Legend of the Lone Ranger, but I forgot to check its availability. Just now, when Indy was heading after the truck--what truck?--he was, of course, riding a white horse. Despite his rugged exterior, despite his dirt-covered leather jacket and fedora, Indy is still the cowboy, just like the Lone Ranger. That "good guy with a gun" idea that we Americans love so much.