Saturday, March 31, 2018

like watching sir lancelot jousting sir turquine

I made the mistake--and, in this case, it was a mistake [it made hating this thing even easier]--of reading Roger Ebert's review of The Natural before I pressed play on the film tonight. I remember this film as a weird sort of film noir that somehow involves a baseball player. And, it opens now with Robert Redford (who we will find out later is playing a character called Roy Hobbs) waiting for and then getting on a train, not useful dialogue, not characterization effort, just Redford. CUT TO: flashback montage, Roy as a boy learns to play baseball while his father says some lines that someone thought were philosophical when they wrote them...

A storm. Montage of sports pennants in the flash of the lightning. Then the tree out back gets struck, Roy carves a bat out of its trunk and I get something Roger says.

Roger explains:

As for the baseball, the movie isn't even subtle. When a team is losing, it makes Little League errors. When it's winning, the hits are so accurate they even smash the bad guy's windows. There's not a second of real baseball strategy in the whole film. the message is: Baseball is purely and simply a matter of divine intervention. At about the 130-minute mark, I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field for the New York team.

Which Roger fails to connect to Roy's injury... Not that I'm going to play with any Cinematic Christ Figuring but a wound in the side is great stigmata.

Roy Hobbs is, I've read, based on Ty Cobb. [The 1952 novel was apparently based on an actual shooting incident and comeback involving Philadelphia Phillie Eddie Waitkus. Or Chicago Cub Billie Jurges.] We have barely met Roy; we know his father raised him on baseball, we know God Himself gave him the material for a bat, and we know he left a girl behind (and they had sex), but now we meet new characters on another train, including the Whammer (Joe Don Baker) who is basically a skin on Babe Ruth. I only really know that Robert Duvall's character (also on this train) is an evil sports writer [actually, he's a cartoonist] because Roger mentions him in the review. This film does not want us to know much about these characters as actual people. Any personality is coming from the actors--maybe the director, but definitely not the script.

At a carnival, there's a bet. Roy is going to try to strike out the Whammer in a field nearby. And, I realize that this film actually needs to be about real, historical baseball players and not these stand-ins, because what it's doing is like baseball myth, except there's no story passed down to become this story. Barry Levinson's direction feels like he's going for mythic, though. And, in that sense, the film is... I want to say it's working, but it's still just so overdramatic and broad that I can't be bothered to be nice.

I'm drawn back to Roger.

He begins his review with this lament:

Why didn't they make a baseball picture?

And Harriet has a line that is... Too much. Roy has no idea who Homer is when she mentions him. "Homer lived ages ago and wrote about heroes and gods," she explains. "And he would've written about baseball had he seen you out there today."

And she just disappeared in a flicker of the train's lights and I couldn't help but ask out loud, "What the hell is going on in this movie?" Not that it's confusing. It's just so full of itself. Full of the notion that baseball is the American pasttime--which, I guess it is--but... Here's the thing; I've written in this blog before about how Westerns are basically American mythology, but for the most part the key there is that the individual films are not trying to be mythic. They all invoke similar tropes and visuals, and grab the same audience, the same American cultural personality, and become mythic. The Natural is making an effort to be mythic but it hasn't earned it. Twenty minutes in, Roy is shot by Harriet because she doesn't want him to be the best... I guess. CUT TO: 16 years later, Roy is only just making it onto a real team, and we've seen nothing of the intervening years, nothing of his actual skill beyond those few pitches we saw against the Whammer. And, Wilford Brimley shows up as Pop Fisher, the team manager, and he's got more personality than anyone on the screen so far.






Jump ahead and we've got an awful montage with old-timely music and Roy isn't even allowed to play because Pop doesn't like being handed a middle-age rookie. And, I'm distracted looking at character names on IMDb--Memo Paris, Harriet Bird, The Judge, Red Blow, Sam Simpson, Bump Bailey.. It's like some crappy comic book threw up on the script.

But, let's get back to Roger's opening lines:

Why did "The Natural" have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford? Why did a perfectly good story, filled with interesting people, have to be made into one man's ascension to the godlike, especially when no effort is made to give that ascension meaning? And we're the most important people in the god-man's life kept mostly offscreen so they wouldn't upstage him?

And Roy knocks the cover off the ball--right after Pop told him to do just that--as lightning strikes, rain starts pouring and it's some bullshit miracle, and I'm done for today.

Friday, March 30, 2018

a darkness that's actively spreading

I saw A Wrinkle in Time today and it occurred to me while watching it that I don't remember ever being disappointed by a movie when I was a kid. Not that I didn't see bad movies back then. Just, I guess, I didn't care or didn't notice. The magic of whatever story it happened to be up there on the big screen (or later on the small screen as we rented a lot of movies on VHS) was bigger than my sense of narrative, maybe. Bigger than my need for great performances.

An entertaining script was more important than a good script. Fantastic details or plot twists and turns could make up for faults in the production.

When I run out of these on repeat childhood films I'm writing about through phase 4 of this blog, maybe I will hunt down movies I saw way back when that look, now, like they probably weren't any good. I'm looking at the top box office for 1984 right now and really only noticing one that might qualify: Ice Pirates. It's a good year for movies, actually; the top 10:

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  10. Splash

As you can see, 5/10 I've already written about in this blog. I will get to two more of them in the next week or two. But separate from my subjective view, those are all movies that got sequels, or remakes, or still get mentioned to this day.






A Wrinkle in Time, by the way, is made up of individual scenes that work, (some) performances that work, but the overall plot is so minimal (in the film version at least) as to not be worth the time and the effects. It feels more like some studio exec realized there was a beloved fantasy novel that hadn't made it to the big screen yet. There's no sense that, for comparison's sake, Ava DuVernay has loved that book since she was a kid and was dying to make it like there is in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or, for another comparison, I've got last night's episode of Supernatural paying as I'm writing and it's a frickin crossover with Scooby Doo, which should be ridiculous, or should be shallow nostalgia-bait. But, the script--by way of Dean--loves Scooby Doo and all of its tropes.

M Arbeiter has a piece at Nerdist that makes a great argument about Ready Player One.'s misunderstanding of pop culture. Basically, the movie is so busy making references, telling us what certain character's favorite films or games are, but it never offers up real explanations as to why they love the things they love, it never even really tells us that pop culture is something worth loving. It assumes that we love pop culture and easter egg references, because that is how it performs at the box office. But, in the end the film tries to have some message about spending time in the real world, a message the film has not really led to, and certainly hasn't earned. In fact, it's a little offensive to invite an audience in, depending on them loving all of the pop culture bits and pieces you're co-opting, and then tell them they're somehow wrong, at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

A Wrinkle in Time assumes that some of us love the book, some of us love fantasy, some of us love big screen spectacle. But, it never manages to be something itself. It's got a nice message about accepting yourself, and it even earns it better than Ready Player One earns its go outside and live message. But, the movie itself... It assumes we care, rather than giving us reason to care. One scene of father and daughter as setup before father is gone is cheap, Hollywood simplicity.

As an adult, a (somewhat) discerning movie watcher, I want more.

Show this kind of stuff to me as a kid, though, and I will be bewitched and want more in a different way.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

so we watched a movie

I don't imagine that I have much to say, if this were a review, about Ready Player One that would sway anyone either way. See it, don't see it. If you want to see it, you will likely enjoy at least some of what's up there on the screen. And, as I used to end my actual reviews on YouTube, if you don't want to see it, see something else; there's always something worth seeing out there.

Also, if you don't want to see it, you should probably not let your friends drag you to see it, because it is long and your enjoyment will depend quite a lot on how much you buy into the gaming aspects or the nostalgia aspects of the film. The plot is so slight, you have to be there for, what one Twitter user called, quite aptly, "an overload of metaphorical nerd fantasy porn".

I didn't read the book. I read a sample of it on my nook app and it didn't grab me. As I grew up in the 80s, have loved movies since before I knew what they were, and make a habit, here, of talking in depth about old movies. I felt more obligated than inspired to write about Ready Player One because it's a nerd touchstone, and it's the latest example of a film driven almost entirely by its visual effects...

Which actually brings up an interesting subject. Carolyn Giardina writes in the Hollywood Reporter about how there's a case to be made that Ready Player One could qualify as an animated film for Oscar consideration. (Nevermind that the shallow text of the film would mean it wouldn't be winning such an award.) After including the lengthy Academy definition of an "animated film", Giardina points out, "Motion-capture and real-time puppetry [both of which were used for Ready Player One] are not by themselves animation techniques." But, the most interesting bit for me was this:

The [animation] branch [of the Academy] is very much aware of the blurring of the lines between disciplines. In fact, the animated feature rules even state: "If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action."

Which brings up an interesting point regarding the Oscar categories: why is there an animated category at all? There didn't used to be. This year was the 17th year for the separate category. And, in those years, the award has gone to Disney or Pixar 12 out of the 17 times. These films, KC Ifeanyi writes in Fast Company, "certainly don't reflect the breadth of what's possible in animation". Ifeanyi quotes Duke Johnson, co-director of Anomalisa:

There's the obvious problem of animation being viewed more as a genre than merely a medium viable for telling stories in any genre... Any illusions I had of us actually being able to win going into Oscar night were dashed the moment our category was introduced by Woody and Buzz Lightyear. As if to say, this category contains films that are cute and whimsical and ultimately for children.

Anomalisa was nominated against Inside Out—which in addition to being the most popular was also, justifiably, worthy of winning—Shaun the Sheep Movie, which was very much a kid's film, When Marnie Was There, a Studio Ghibli film, so at its widest release it was on 57 screens, and it only made half a million dollars in the US (Box Office Mojo says the film made over $33 million in Japan, for comparison), and Boy and the World, which was weirdly abstract (with an animation style you might see more often in a short film), had a message that wasn't very nice to hear, and it only made about a quarter million in the US. Anomalisa itself, was a very adult film that involved themes of identity, of depression, anxiety, and our ability/inability to connect with people. It would never get the audience numbers that it deserved. (For the record, I loved it. And wrote about it for a few days—885 886 887—in this blog.) Johnson continues:

I don't think people know what to do with animation that's not broad. They don't feel qualified to judge it in the same way they do live action. Many indie offerings just don't fit into the narrow understanding of what animation is and should be for most people.

Americans see animated films as children's films. Mostly for the same reason that, Ifeanyi points out, prior to animation getting its own category at the Oscars, the Academy gave "Special Achievement awards [for animation] largely to the work of Walt Disney because there simply weren't enough animated films being produced for its own category. Some years, lately, I think that is still true, but the Academy does manage to nominate unique—and not broad—animated films, even if they don't usually win. However, that was with the animation branch picking the nominees; a new rule change means that any Academy member who wants to participate in picking the nominees for that category may do so. Sam Summers argues at Vox, the animated category drew animators into the Academy and "the floodgates opened. Since 2010 [this written before this year's nominations], 13 of 33 nominees have been either foreign, independent, or both. In that same period, only 15 nominees have been CGI. Summers quotes GKIDS president Dave Jesteadt:

The nominations have done a tremendous job in raising the profile of indie animation... This is the idea we have been pushing for a decade now—that animated films do not need to look alike, or be similar broad family-targeting comedies.

Ready Player One is broad.

So, were it to somehow manage a nomination, it might have a shot at winning... Except for The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs*, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Gigantic, The Grinch... And I'm sure several other mainstream, broad family-targeting comedies.

* Sure, Isle of Dogs is not really a mainstream film, but it does lean into the broad family-targeting side of its Venn Diagram.

And let's be honest. It is March. It is pretty rare for any movie released in March to get any attention when it comes to award season. Ready Player One might raise qualification questions, but it will not be nominated for anything when it comes time. Spielberg himself has said of Ready Player One is not a "film" but a "movie". The distinction matters. Ready Player One is a ready-made blockbuster, an action-centric film with attractive leads fighting against The Man, built on a foundation of video-game visuals and pop culture nostalgia. It makes no effort to be a great film.

In his review for Consequence of Sound, Dan Caffrey suggests, after praising Ready Player One's "world-building and kaleidoscopic mashup of pop culture," "At a certain point, though, Ready Player One wants to be appreciated as a film as well as a movie, no matter what Spielberg says."

But Caffrey is wrong. Look at many a blockbuster not just in recent years but, well, ever. Plenty of deliberately commercial films have made it to theaters with no illusions that they are also good films.

And, that's okay.

As long as you know that is what you're in for.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

this map here leads to the heart

Let us start with the cynical take: love is a fantasy.

But, that is exactly why the romance in Romancing the Stone works. The premise itself is Joan Wilder's life echoing her romance novels, fantastic adventure, treasure hunting, a mysterious stranger, relentless villains. If we buy into the premise, it is very easy to buy into the romance, because the one fantasy is nested quite comfortably within the other.

Damon Suede, possibly a pseudonym, writing for Romance University, says:

Romance authors love Romancing the Stone because it simultaneously ribs and respects the genre. [Screenwriter Diane] Thomas got romance at a visceral level, and for all the winking send ups of romantic cliché, she embraces them shamelessly... no small feat. It has remains a touchstone in Hollywood and within the Romance community for a simple reason:

Romancing the Stone remains one of the only blockbuster hits in pure romance.

Suede goes on to explain how classic romance films are generally melodramas, tragedies, or screwball comedies, and offers examples. Then, Suede gets eventually to

all the stuff that romance does so well:

  • [1] showing transformation through relationships and personal growth
  • [2] exploring internal discovery as opposed to external conflict
  • [3] using intimacy to elicit overwhelming emotion
  • [4] indulging in luxury, eroticism, and escapist fantasy
  • [5] celebrating intimacy and sexuality in non-objectifying ways the stuff that Hollywood really struggles to do at ALL, let alone simultaneously.

Regarding #1 on Suede's list, structurally there is a reason that Joan and Jack work as a couple as well as adventuring partners. Early in the film, Joan is a loner. She's friendly--she helps Mrs Irwin up the stairs, she barely resists the guy selling stuffed animals on the sidewalk, she spoils her cat as she spoils herself--but she seems to live a lonely life, spending all her energy on fantasy because it is easier than living her own life. If we don't get this from what we see of her apartment, we also get her restaurant conversation with her editor Gloria, in which Gloria is actively shopping the men in the place for potential suitors while Joan is having none of it. It is also Gloria who says outright that Joan is unprepared for Colombia.

By leaving for Colombia, though, Joan has made a huge first step in altering her life. Also, her sister's tragedy works as an excuse to adventure. Alexandra Sokoloff, Screenwriting Tricks blogger, calls Elaine's phone call "a classic and blatant CALL TO ADVENTURE".

There she meets Jack. He happened his way into Colombia while working a coffee boat. He loved the ocean--which suggests that he is as hopelessly romantic as Joan--but got stuck on land. Selling birds was, he says, "a fast way" to get what he wanted--his own boat--and "a hell of a lot healthier than dealing in" drugs. He's gruff, he's dirty, but he has no interest in selling drugs because he's a nice guy. But, he's also stuck. Maybe he'll sell this load of birds, make the estimated $15,000 off this load. But--and I don't know how much boats like the one in his photo went for in 1984--is that enough? Has he gotten mired in the quest rather than the goal? I mean, that coffee boat left him in Colombia a year and a half ago. His "fast way" is taking a while. Or maybe he lives in the fantasy just as much as Joan does. Getting it seems impossible so he remains in Colombia, living on the wrong side of the law and helping the occasional stranded woman.

He is living his own fantasy, but he also is Joan's fantasy. He even arrives in the film in the same way Jesse did at the end of the novel sequence that begins the film, silhouetted atop a hill.

Then, they're together. His fantasy has just been torn apart--his birds loosed by the bus accident, so he plays in Joan's. At first, it's for the money. (And her haggling is a great moment for her.) He's got a great line that sums him up pretty well: "Now, I ain't cheap, but I can be had."

She smiles when he lifts her suitcase, first to drop it by her for her to carry, and again when he picks it up to throw it into the jungle. She's still living the fantasy, seeing chivalry where there is none... Except, there is just a little. He throws away the suitcase to be helpful to them both; it is slowing them down. Just like he cuts the heels off her shoes. His need to get things done faster is actually practical. But, gradually he is also opening up to her as he forces her to open up to the reality of her circumstances.

Jump ahead a bit. Sokoloff has a great description for Joan after the high speed chase in Juan's Little Mule; she writes:

As Juan, Jack and Joan take a breather in a mountain field, Joan picks flowers, looking very sexily disheveled and glowing from their wild ride (more and more like Angelina). Or perhaps that's just because we're seeing her from Jack's POV, and he's seeing her in a new light after having read some of her steamy novel.

Also, he just saw her win over a town full of men with guns, he saw her fame (and her prowess as a writer) buy them a brief respite in Juan's house and then a ride to where they need to go to find a phone. Joan's old reality is bleeding into the fantasy even as the fantasy is bleeding into her reality. And, Jack is benefiting from it. One can also imagine that him opening up in the downed plane before, even if only because he was breathing all that marijuana smoke from the fire and drinking tequila, was maybe the first time he's really talked about his fantasy with anyone. Something about this woman invading what has become his turf has lifted him up out of his own mire. Her fantasy has a more immediate end. Helping her achieve it makes fantasy itself more feasible.

Coming back to Suede's list, what a film like this does for #2 is combine the internal discovery and the external conflict. This is something film specializes in, despite Suede's including it on a list of things Hollywood struggles to do... Or maybe Hollywood's problem is it focuses too much on the external so, without the right director, the right performer, the right writer, the internal gets lost, or comes across as artificial. Similarly, with #3, Hollywood gets stuck on intimacy, i.e. sex and often fails to convey the overwhelming emotion that leads to it. Romancing the Stone offers up something more like intimacy in the conversation in the downed plane. This is also when Joan finally asks Jack's name. He becomes something more than a fantasy to her in this scene.

The intimacy of their fireside conversation is echoed with the dancing later and the presumably post-coital nakedness in bed, which manages #5, "celebrating intimacy and sexuality in non-obectifying ways"; their nakedness is not salacious. Their conversation in that moment is just as intimate as their naked bodies pressed together. He's inviting her into his fantasy. Whether Joan (or the audience) can fully trust him is still debatable, but this moment is vital to the romance--Jack has already been injected into Joan's fantasy, but now she has become a part of his; they will sailed the world together. Earlier his fantasy was specifically about sailing away by himself. Now she is there, too. The film is still telling us not to completely trust Jack--he asked Juan and he asked the desk clerk at the hotel about a photo copier because he wants to copy Joan's map--but this inclusion of Joan in his fantasy is more telling in the other direction. Jack may still be living a fantasy, hoping the treasure at the end of that map can buy him that boat--and, as it turns out, it can--but his fantasy is changing. This is romance in a nutshell. This is love, at least in terms of fiction, in terms of Hollywood. A shared fantasy. #4 on Suede's list includes luxury (which this plot aims for but avoids in context), eroticism, which is what you get in the dancing and the partial nude scene instead of lustful sexuality, and escapist fantasy.

My cynical take to start this was that love itself was a fantasy. Romancing the Stone relies on that fantasy, on this idea that we might have, even if only fueled by other productions out of Hollywood, that some other person will complete us and our lives will be richer for it. But, it also relies on the idea that we need more than that for our lives to be rich. Angelina has been the main character of several of Joan's novels, yet she and Jesse are not tangibly a couple; she calls him her beloved, but her arrives as an afterthought, after she has already killed Grogan and saved herself. Like Jack does at the end of the film; he comes to rescue her but she has already managed the hard part. The fantasy is not for a knight in shining armor to come save her and take care of her, but for something more equal. Angeline can take care of herself but still wants Jesse. Joan, by the end of the film, can take care of herself, but still wants Jack. Love is externalized, which makes this, in my opinion, a much healthier view of romance than many another film offers. Love is just one fantasy. It is not the fantasy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

die in a jungle like a goddamn snake

So, I'm watching Gringo at the the theater today, and it's not as bad as some reviews had me thinking, but it has some structural issues, too much going on, dragging a bit much for a comedy that in other scenes is quite energetic. And, it wants to be about something, with the pharmaceutical angle and the drug cartel, but it keeps not quite managing. But, the thing I wanted to say about it that is definitely not the case with Romancing the Stone is that Gringo lets characters disappear for too long at times.

So, let's compare.

Not that any of you have seen (or will see) Gringo, or that a lot of you have even seen Romancing the Stone (but you should see the latter because it's amazing). (Actually, it occurs to me that I just might hashtag Gringo in the tweet link to this entry so maybe some people interested in that film will happen by. Hello Gringo fans. I will probably not be talking about Gringo beyond the next few sentences; I actually had a planned topic for this second day with Romancing the Stone, and I've got to segue into that sooner rather than later, or I will be here all day.

Characters we're following in Gringo:

  • Harold (David Oyelowo)
  • Richard (Joel Edgerton)
  • Elaine (Charlize Theron)
  • Sunny (Amanda Seyfried)
  • Miles (Harry Treadaway)
  • Celerino (Hernan Mendoza) & Angel (Yul Vazquez) for a bit, each
  • Villegas (Carlos Corona)
  • Ronaldo (Diego Catano)
  • Ernesto (Rodrigo Corea)
  • Jerry (Alan Ruck)
  • Mitch (Sharlto Copley)
  • Bonnie (Thandie Newton)

And, I'm sure I left someone out, and including a couple of those is generous because they are either only important for one segment in the film or only have a few key scenes.

The film has several duos (Richard and Elaine, Sunny and Miles, Ronaldo and Ernesto) that remain throughout, and mixes and matches some (Richard and Bonnie, Sunny and Harold, Harold and Mitch, Elaine and Jerry), but its big problem is that it leaves, for example, Ronaldo and Ernesto out of the film for a good 20 minutes or more in the middle of the film. The film tries to make things interesting by having Richard and Elaine have their own subplots going on when they are sort of the villains, but their subplots detract from the main plot more than they add to it.

On the other hand, Romancing the Stone:

  • Joan (Kathleen Turner)
  • Jack (Michael Douglas)
  • Ralph (Danny Devito)
  • Ira (Zack Norman)
  • Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor)
  • Zolo (Manuel Ojeda)

And, then it makes great use of Juan (Alfonso Arau) for an extended segment, but offers no expectation that he should remain after. He comes in, he advances the story, he leaves. Similarly, Gloria (Holland Taylor) only exists in the opening and (even shorter) closing, and we don't expect her to be anywhere else in the story. Gringo offers up characters that keep coming and going, but with no particular balance, and not always advancing the plot.

Like Gringo--and like many a film, really--Romancing the Stone has its duos (Joan and Jack, Ralph and Ira) and forms a couple important, but brief, trios (Joan and Jack and Ralph, Ralph and Ira and Elaine). Also of note: aside from Zolo, all of these main characters are outsiders in Colombia, with varying lengths of stays up to the present. So Colombia around Cartagena (as played by Mexico) is itself a sort of character...

Which I bring up because my sister Brooke, whose husband is Colombian and who has been to Colombia point out on Facebook this morning, "She should have just flown to Cartagena." Because, as I double checked with a quick Google search because that's how I do things, yes, Cartagena has its own airport now, had one in 1984, has had one since like the 20s. While the original script for Romancing the Stone was done before this, the Cartagena airport had even just been expanded in 1982.

And, I'm drifting through extra character information to get to how this film balances it's protagonists and antagonists in such a way as to play a fairly well-done romance off of the adventure plot, and I'm realizing as I go that there is something else worth talking about here.

(Side note nitpick: I just lost count, but Jack fires close to 20 shots with his shotgun, and nary an empty shell is seen flying from it, nor does he reload. On a pump-action shotgun with no obvious way to hold that many shells.)

The adventure here is driven by characters who have invaded Colombia for their various reasons. Elaine and her husband Eduardo (who we never meet) were in Colombia for... Business? There is mention of "antiquities" and "antiques"--one of Zolo's titles is "Minister of Antiquities" (he's also the Deputy Commander of the secret Police), Ralph and Ira have "stolen enough of these antique trinkets". Meanwhile, Jack is in Colombia catching exotic birds to sell elsewhere, because he wants a boat and "Birds seemed to be fast way to get [it] and a hell of a lot healthier than dealing in [marijuana]." The downed plane where Jack and Joan spend the night is full of drugs. Juan is a drug dealer, though he is local. but, where do those drugs go? Where do Jack's birds go? Where do Ira and Ralph's antiques go? There's this underlying theme here about the export of exotic goods out of Colombia, and all that gets brought into Colombia in the film is violence. A good portion of that is homegrown, obviously... And Zolo is the primary antagonist, the Grogan to Joan's Angelina.

But, consider the usual adage--that every villain is the hero of their own story. Who is Zolo from his own perspective? What is he after? Eduardo and Elaine come down to Colombia, grave robbers maybe, maybe just collectors buying rare objects off other people. Maybe Eduardo worked closely with Ralph and Ira, just three guys from New York picking apart the Colombian countryside for antiques and antiquities they could make a buck off. Meanwhile, remember Dr. Zolo has two titles: Minister of Antiquities and Deputy Commander of the Secret Police. The former sounds innocent enough even though villainous (often read: dystopian) governments like to call things "ministries". The latter is important in a locale that might be leaning into what we'd call a police state, perhaps a benevolent dictatorship. Not necessarily evil from the perspective of those living there. Maybe Zolo is a hero of his people. Only outsider thieves like Ralph and Ira and Eduardo (and maybe Elaine), and interlopers like Joan and Jack need fear him, really. Juan doesn't seem surprised that Zolo's men might come after him--though they only do so (here) once he has involved himself with Joan and Jack. Juan is, after all, a drug dealer.

(Side note: it is strange that Juan drives Pepe through his gate when there has been no indication that he knows Zolo is outside. Like that is just how Juan leaves home any time he goes for a drive.)

(Extra side note: Why is Ralph trying to steal the map when Joan on her way to deliver it to him and Ira? He only even knew Zolo was involved because he (Ralph) was following Joan as soon as she got to Colombia.)

(Extra extra side note: I figure Eduardo is a more take these holy stones and shove them in your shoulder bag kind of Indiana Jones than "this belongs in a museum" Indiana Jones, and Joan and Jack aren't much nicer to that map. Nor is Zolo, Minister of Antiquities, mind you, very nice to the map when he finally gets his hands on it.)

Zolo has his cause, however much we might not like it. He isn't just a mindless villain...

Until he is:

Notice, though, in terms of the story's structure, Zolo is no mindless villain until he has become an echo of the fictional Grogan, until he has gone mad with the pain of losing his hand and has stopped acting rationally.






And, I suppose I will have to watch Romancing the Stone again tomorrow, so I can talk about how all this balances out, and makes more believable, the romance.

Monday, March 26, 2018

the best time i ever had

Joan Wilder's life isn't normally like her books. Great romance. Adventure. Life and death. Revenge. She lives alone with her cat (named Romeo), drinks alcohol from the little bottles you might have gotten on a plane back in '84. Romancing the Stone begins as she finishes writing her latest romance novel. And the premise of the film, in case you're some unfortunate millennial who has never heard of it, is simple--Joan's brother in law is murdered in Colombia, but not before getting a treasure map in the mail for Joan (Kathleen Turner). Then Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor), Joan's sister is abducted and Joan heads for Colombia, hooks up with Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), who coincidentally resembles the shadowy Jesse from her novels--think cowboy with a modern twist.

The film is basically Joan's fantasy coming true. And, for the audience, it's a nice adventure fantasy as well. And, I only just learned that this was screenwriter Diane Thomas' only finished, produced script. Spielberg would hire her to write the second Indiana Jones film, but she died in 1985, killed when her drunk boyfriend crashed the Porsche that Michael Douglas gave her as a gift. She wrote the script while working as a waitress, and pitched it to Douglas when he came in as a customer one day.

The cat was purportedly added by Treva Silverman, and Joan simply lived alone in Thomas' script. The cat was supposed to make her more "likable".






I still remember that Saturday Night Live's News a week after this movie came out (Romancing the Stone was released March 30, Michael Douglas hosted Saturday Night Live April 7) kept cutting to the mudslide scene instead of the right clips for various stories. I don't remember what stories, just that they kept cutting to that scene. I tried to find the clip just now, I found the News clip from the week after, and I found Douglas' monologue, which also included that clip, but not the News clip I remember. But, the point is, that's how it works often with specific movies from so long ago; they end up linked to other things in my head. Romancing the Stone will always be linked to Saturday Night Live for me.

Jump forward a little, when I was young, I did not know just what it meant that Jack set a fire in that plane full of marijuana, and was burning bricks of the stuff.

And Juan (Alfonso Arau) is a drug dealer, hence the nice house in the "pigsty" of a town. And Lupe's Escape, which he has used "many times in the past."






While some movies from when I was young feel quite dated, there isn't much here that feels that way. And, it's still fun. And, the romance works, maybe because it is nested inside the fantastic adventure. But, I'll get into that tomorrow.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

you men, stop that

The thing about Police Academy--in particular, but also several of the other films from my childhood that preached irreverence through most of the story--is that that, in the end, the status quo is held up. At the beginning, these new recruits are jokes. By the end of the film, they have all bought in to the police academy, even Mahoney, who was forced into it, and Jones, who happened into it because of Mahoney. The film reifies law and order, promotes conformity, and reinforces heteronormativity.

Regarding the latter, the film starts in on masculinity at least right away. The second segment is Mahoney at work and he shames a guy for having a wig. Losing your hair is an easy mark for a measure of one's manhood. McCann, Plummer, and Minichiello (2010) explains:

Humour's role as an 'othering' technique has two functions: first, it marks out what is to be taken seriously such as stoic, heterosexual masculinity, and what can be devalued by being laugh at. (p. 519)

Flacker's wife is shrill, demanding. Yet, Flacker's is not an ideal--read: masculine--male. But, he's joining the police academy, he's going through this boot camp. Flacker's is not one of the characters we really get to know, though. While he could be a larger presence, a deliberate transformation, in the end, he hasn't actually changed much. During the riot, he instead picks out a new outfit in the midst of ongoing looting.

Martin Arrives with a car full of women, all his "girlfriends".

To appease the Chief when he criticizes the mayor, Lassard replies, "The bitch." A gender-specific insult in a film that, like many films through the 80s, is stuck very much on sex/gender and sexuality.

Mahoney tricks Thompson into offering her phone number and, almost, her thighs. Later, she will describe her thighs to him, and even later she will show them off while in shorts. She is little more than a sexual object. (The only time we really learn anything about her is when Mahoney asks her why she wants to be a cop and she replies, "I like to dress like a man.")

Barbara's dog is male, but named Princess, so Harris calls the dog "a queer".

Blankes, Copeland, and Martin are told to report to the barber because their hair is longer than average. Blankes' and Copeland's crew cuts--very masculine--are judged "damn good haircuts" by Harris.

McCann, Plummer and Minichiello suggest: "Ideas of 'real' or 'failed' masculinity are so continually portrayed through media that they operate below our daily perception" (p. 510). I'm eight years old when I see Police Academy. I laugh at the Blue Oyster Bar bit, I'm probably amused by Martin dressed as a woman. I laugh at Lassard mistaking Mahoney and Thompson kissing in their uniforms for two men. Because that is what you laugh at in 1984. Especially if you go to church and have bible class in school and they're telling you that being homosexual is an abomination, especially if America under President Reagan is all about, what Rich (1980) calls "compulsory heterosexuality", and 1980s pop culture, action movies especially, is all about lifting up masculinity, lone male heroes (sometimes duos, rarely groups) taking down innumerable amounts of bad guys to save women in peril, or to save whole groups of folks in peril.

The 1980s brought us Tootsie and Bosom Buddies. But also Rambo and Rocky.

Callahan tackles Barbara to the ground and all the men want to be tackled by her. Later, Martin will be forced into bed by her and love it. It's almost like the film thinks it is being progressive but it doesn't know how.

Like the names. Harris' first name is Thaddeus. Copeland's first name is Chad. Mahoney's first name is Carey. Leslie Barbara is a male character. These aren't classic (or is it a modern, homophobic affectation?) masculine names. They are male names. But not particularly masculine. Not to mention Kyle Blankes. Because shooting blanks is a popular put down for a man who is sterile. (Plus as a cop, there's a secondary implication that he won't be able to manage this gun-centric occupation either.)

Moses Hightower, the big black man who acts out of rage and that's what gets him kicked out of the academy, used to be a florist, and goes back to being a florist after. The movie has these little details that could work so much better at a different time, maybe, or with a different director.

McCann, Plummer and Minichiello explain:

Humour may utilise 'othering' to create a target onto which social tensions underpinning the group are enunciated. In the case of race-based humour, different ethnicities are subjugated to instil power in the humorist's group; in sexist humour, one gender positions itself as different and generally superior to the other by highlighting perceived biological or social differences between them. With homophobic humour, hegemonic heterosexuality performs its self-ascribed superiority over the other, often by aligning the gender of the target with its gender opposite, i.e., gay men are derided as effeminate and lesbians are positioned as 'mannish'. (p. 507)

Similarly, Martin's put-on 'Spanish lover' persona runs along side his dressing as a woman to get into the women's barracks. Callahan's physical prowess, and her domination of Martin, suggests a masculinity to counter Martin. She's not a lesbian, though, because that would be taking it too far. She does get a "feminist" moment, though in smiling when Hooks finally gets over the wall.

Of course, Copeland and Blankes (Chad and Kyle) at the gay bar is played for laughs. Lassard thinks it was Mahoney--and not the female prostitute because he didn't see her--who fave him a blow job, so when he goes to report the incident, he cannot go through with it.

Wednesday Less, writing for Screen Rant, calls the whole Blue Oyster Bar segment "the ugliest intolerable humor of Police Academy... The big joke is that Blanks [sic] and Copeland spend their evening surrounded by predatory leather-clad gay men in a setting they're afraid to leave." And which they're afraid the next day to say they have ever entered.

Copeland calls Mahoney "Mahomo". Mahoney says "sleeping is for fags". The film deals in casual homosexual jabs as well as the more overt Blue Oyster Bar stuff.

And, we haven't gotten much better since. The casual jabs don't make it into popular culture so much anymore. But, they still do. Gay characters are left to the sidelines, left as punchlines, or are left out entirely. The recent Love, Simon is "groundbreaking" because it is the "first mainstream teen romantic comedy to feature a gay lead character" and Jacob Stolworthy, writing for Independent, points out that director Greg Berlanti "was adamant that [the studio] did not downplay the orientation of the titular lead character".

Ultimately, here in Police Academy Mahoney goes up on the roof to save Harris, but specifically in order to save Thompson who is pinned down behind a crate in the middle of the street. He's there to save the woman in peril. He, in turn, is saved buy the big, bad, black, masculine florist.

Notably, Steve Guttenberg pointed out in an interview in 1984 that Mahoney" is not exactly a deep character [and] Police Academy set out to be light entertainment, and that is what it is." But, light entertainment carrying such casual deprication of homosexuality and gender presentations outside the norm. For me, Christian kid, the humor worked, at the time. But, imagine if I had known openly gay people then like I know now. I saw a discussion on Quora while doing some research for writing about all this today--Why is the LGBT agenda being pushed so aggressively, especially towards children? And I was very glad to see that the responses were basically denying the premise, denying that there is any LGBT agenda, and denying that such an agenda would be a bad thing at all because if there is any agenda, it is about accepting other people for who they are. Police Academy, were it made today, would probably have to involve a Blue Oyster Bar reference for purposes of nostalgia, but I imagine it might be progressive enough to have an openly gay character as part of the diverse ensemble. For 1984, the film feels a little progressive, and a whole lot transgressive. But, in the end, it reinforces norms and doesn't really lift up any of the marginalized people represented within, except just enough to be funny.


Lee, W. (2016, August 28). 15 '80s Comedies that Are Way More Offensive than You Remember. Screen Rant. Retrieved from

McCann, P.D., Plummer, D. & Minichiello, V. (2010). Being the butt of the joke: Homophobic humour, male identity, and its connection to emotional and physical violence for men. Health Sociology Review, 19:4, pp. 505-521.

Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian experience. Signs, 5: 4, pp. 631-660.

Stolworthy, J. (2019, March 18). Love, Simon: The groundbreaking first studio teen film to feature gay protagonist. Independent. Retrieved from

Saturday, March 24, 2018

i am going to make you sorry that you ever came here

Opening crawl*:

On March 4th of this year...

...newly elected Mayor Mary Sue Beal announced that she was changing the hiring practices of this city's police force.

No longer would height, weight, sex, education, or physically strength be used to keep new recruits out of the Metropolitan Police Academy.

Hundreds of people who never dreams of becoming police officers signed up immediately.

Naturally, the police completely freaked.

* it doesn't really crawl but that's the whole reading bit to open the movie and set up information (and, in this case, a nice punchline) we will learn later anyway. Plus, here, this text appears over a background of the cityscape, drenched in pouring rain. I also think naming the mayor Mary Sue is deliberate--and only just learned that the use of Mary Sue to suggest a wish fulfillment character in fan fiction dated back to 1973. I thought it was more recent. In this case, though, the Mary Sue is ironic. Like, the liberals want everyone to get in, so they elect Mary Sue and she gives them everything they could ever dream of. And it goes horribly... Until it goes wonderfully. Satire at its best, offering up mixed messages.

The film, of course, is Police Academy.

We meet Tackleberry (David Graf) first--a security guard in need of a serious heist, instead met by an old white guy in a suit, with a brief case. Still, he sees shadows under a door after this and pulls his gun, and opens fire before turning on the lights. He is, by definition, too much.

Next Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), working a parking lot. A little wig-shaming. Lot's full, guy gives Mahoney attitude, he parks his car, on just two wheels, between two other parked cars.

Barbara (Donovan Scott) gets stolen along with the photo booth he works in, and gets dumped into a river.

Mahoney, arrested, meets Jones (Michael Winslow).

Captain Reed (Ted Ross) has a serious mustache, vest, watch chain combo going on like he's in some old west town instead of a modern police station.

The rest of our primary cast are introduced quickly--the put upon husband Fackler (Bruce Mahler); the rich girl slumming it, Thompson (Kim Cattrall); the guy who pulls up in a convertible full of women, George (Andrew Rubin), Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes), Lieutenant Harris (G W Bailey), and Chief Hurst (George Robertson), who is introduced looking over the new recruits arriving in disgust then calling one of them an asshole for talking to him. A moment later, he's in Lassard's office and he offers up this lovely line:

Look at that. Just look at that. Look at that scum. When I went through this academy, every cadet was the right weight, the right height, the right color, and they all had johnsons, Lassard, every single one of them... Back in the old days, there were johnsons as far as the eye could see.

Make Police Academy Great Again, I suppose, would be Hurst's slogan. Chief Hurst thinks "our new lady mayor" is "attempting to dismantle one of this country's great institutions of law and order". He wants a police force of white cis males, and nothing but. He assigns Harris to weed the undesirables out, forcing them to quit.

And, we haven't even met two of our main characters yet, and this bugs me. There are a lot of black extras in the recruit lines, but it is not until Copeland (Scott Thomson) says "There sure are a lot of spades around here" that we meet Hightower (Bubba Smith), and Copeland adds, "which I think is good, very good for the academy." Then, we meet Hooks (Marion Ramsey), who speaks quietly until it really matters and while she's one of the more memorable characters in this entire franchise, we've gone 15 minutes before she shows up. (And, Hightower still hasn't spoken. It's 45 minutes in that he gets to say more than one word.) (We also haven't met Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook) yet.)

Day one, Mahoney has already tricked Thompson into giving him her phone number and almost tricked her into showing him her thighs (she later describes them to him) and tricked Barbara into entering the Commandant's house uninvited, where he meets the Commandant's wife just out of the shower.

Damn if Harris' opening to his first class didn't make me laugh out loud. He's writing on the board and it starts out fine, he's writing every word. POLICE WORK IS WHAT... Then it starts getting out of hand. U R HERE 4! ARREST PRO-- but he only says "cedures"--TRF (for "traffic" V and some that looks like a smiley face for "violations". And, for "high speed driving", somehow, his writing has amounted to h:$RM.PG. Then, it almost gets normal again, S.D. for "self defense" but he says they "will have many examinations" and there's a C in a little house, EXAM (but in cursive).

And, the obvious thing that has occurred to me with many of these movies from the early 80s that were in heavy rotation around my house is how little they seem to match up to the religious, conservative world my parents were going for. I mean, this movie alone has a gay bar, nudity, insolence and rebellion against authority, blow jobs, and irreverence of all kinds.

Also, I imagine that Martin sneaking into the women's barracks dressed like a woman is the fantasy that so many conservatives have now when they express their fear of transgender individuals getting to pick what restroom or locker room they get to use. One guy, in one fictional story, nearly a quarter of a decade ago.

But me, eight years old when I see this movie in the theater (and seeing it time and time again on video over the next decade or so)--I'm finding an urge to be sarcastic and irreverent, finding Mahoney to be the character worth being.











Martin is confronted by Callahan, who finally gets to do something and it is basically stripping him and tackling him into bed--CUT TO dawn, a rooster crows, she kept him all night. Because semi-consensual sex with a superior is all good in 1984 as long as that superior is a female. (And, as long as Martin's entire character boils down to sex. And, the next time we see him he tells Mahoney that he's in love.)

Copeland and Blankes (Brant Von Hoffman) bring in a prostitute to get Barbara in trouble, he gets Mahoney's help, Mahoney stashes her inside a podium, Lassard arrives, and eight-year-old me learns what a blow job is. And, it's 1984 so I laugh when Lassard thinks Mahoney was the one who did it.






Hightower's rage at Copeland using a racial slur is both justified and over-the-top in a racist fashion. And, not long after, Fackler tosses an apple that happens to hit a black man, that black man assaults another one, and a riot ensues. With looting (which Fackler joins in) and cries of "Free TVs!" Roger Ebert complains about there not being a clear film type that this film is satirizing, but other than a few moments like this, the film doesn't seem to be aiming for satire. And, even here, it might just be an offensive stereotype rather than a satirical joke about that stereotype. It is the 80s. Comedy leans hard into offensive punchlines quite often, and mostly just for a cheap laugh rather than some thoughtful satire.

But then, the climax of the film involves Hightower, having been kicked out, telling the Main Bad Guy (Doug Lennox) "I want to watch you off these pigs" before turning around and punching the guy; playing the stereotype within the text of the film in addition the context.

Friday, March 23, 2018

who are we and who do we want to be?

Writing for The Atlantic, Christopher Orr sides with the more positive take on Wes Anderson's choice of a Japanese setting and having (mostly) Japanese-speaking humans in his latest film, Isle of Dogs. Yet, in passing mention of the other side, Orr makes an interesting error that both clarifies the positive take and suggests a whole other version of the problem... Let me backtrack. Orr writes (parenthetically):

Unlike the dogs, the Japanese characters--which is to say all of the human beings save one--do not have their words rendered into English, except when explicitly restated by a translator voices by France's McDormand. I leave to individual viewers to decide whether this is a way of center-staging the hounds--my view--or sidelining the Asian protagonists.

First, a small point: Orr's initial phrasing suggests that the dogs are not Japanese, which is either a mislabeling because they are obviously just as much from Japan as the human characters, or it is a cute sort of way of saying that dogs have no national identity because dogs are too pure for that kind of nationalist bullshit. I like that. Or, option three, it was just some lazy phrasing.

The bigger point: I think the language thing is quite obviously a way to center-stage the dogs--

(and I won't nitpick Orr's use of "hounds" because you cannot expect every movie reviewer to be familiar with dog breeds)

--because Orr's "Asian protagonists" are not protagonists. Atari (Koyu Rankin) is more like the One Ring to the dog's Fellowship... Except that Wes Anderson tends to offer all of his characters a bit of their own agency and the One Ring's motivations are only ever as useful as the more mobile characters can be corrupted. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang asks,

Bluntly put, does this white American filmmaker's highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?

Chang concedes "every one of Anderson's films is an act of imaginative plundering" but the point is made. And, Chang points out one bit that I didn't notice--

Much of the Japanese dialogue, especially Atari's, has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions; longer, more complicated exchanges are translated aloud by a hand on-screen English interpreter (Frances McDormand).

Chang argues, "[A]ll these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city." Which echoes Orr's mistake--Megasaki is not the setting of the film, nor are the humans the main characters--but also adds to the growing, other problem.

My take, anyway. And, for the record, because it is perhaps quite necessary in this discussion, I am a white American male.

The problem is not necessarily in sidelining the human Japanese characters, whether in terms of plot or in terms of these linguistic tricks. The problem is in letting these marginalized humans have a recognizable culture or language at all. (Having the heroic student character Tracy (Greta Gerwig) be an American foreign-exchange student creates a whole other level of problematic marginalization.) As Angie Han, writing for Mashable, argues:

The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American Art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their "exotic" cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings.

And, she begins her review with the most positive thing about the film, that

Isle of Dogs has something to say about the ugly allure of xenophobia, the sin of standing by while atrocities are committed, and the importance of protecting the most vulnerable members of society.

Karen Han, Daily Beast, says, quite rightly, "There's no discernible reason for Anderson's chosen setting beyond wanting to ape Japanese aesthetics that wouldn't feel like a stretch, or wishful retroactive thinking." I say, quite rightly except there is a very clear reason why Japanese culture works here, and I would like to think that Anderson uses it specifically so that maybe this film's message might reach an audience that needs it, and notably will not find the surface-thin pseudo-fetishization of Japanese culture offensive... But, I don't know if Anderson is that devious. I think he was working with, among others, Kunichi Namura (who also voices Mayor Kobayashi), on putting this story together and embraced the Japanese angle more than the story justified.

The wishful thinking thing, though. The reason that Japan is the culture of choice here, and not, say, Turkish society--the historical "isle of dogs" was Turkish--is because historically, cinematically, East Asian cultures like Japan were the go-to exotic cultures. Like Han's line about borrowing the "exotic" culture and settings, Hollywood has been doing that for a hundred years. And, America doesn't care--as much as it's very vocal, politically correct corners--so much for foreigner's feelings. The Japanese culture in Isle of Dogs might as well have been an alien society. Or a very hard to recognize echo of American culture in a story that invokes other marginalized groups left out of our mainstream. But, by choosing a real-world culture to represent the oppressor here, Anderson has left an opening for the wrong audience, and has diminished and undermined his own message by doing to the people of Megasaki what the people of Megasaki have done to the dogs. Richard Brody, New Yorker, counters:

I was at first surprised that Anderson would cast a white foreigner as the central figure in the political liberation of Megasaki City, but Tracy's presence--virtually inviting the xenophobic wrath of the demagogic ruler--meshes with the parallels that Anderson develops with current American politics...

For Anderson, [this fictional] Japan is a sort of mirror-America, a country that has a prominent, as rich, and as inspiring a cinematic image, due to its movie industry and to the artists whom it sustained; the Japan of "Isle of Dogs" is a movie-made place.

Movie-made place. I love that phrase. But, unfortunately, this movie-made Japan was built from too many movies that grabbed bits and pieces of Japan as (Han's phrasing) "aesthetic flourishes". That Anderson's Japan is built from earlier cinematic Japans doesn't mean that his reductionism and marginalization is okay...

Which is too bad.

Because the story of the dogs at the heart of the film is quite a lovely one.

Better told another way, in another place.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

when i find her... she’s a fish

My impulse for today was to write about the so-called manic pixie dream girl. Madison in Splash is perhaps an early prototype for a such-labeled character. But, then I was looking up pieces about those stereotypical cinematic women who, according the the TV Tropes definition, exist to "come along and open [the] heart [of a "soulful, brooding male hero"] to the great, wondrous adventure of life" and I realized something interesting... And not entirely unbelievable given the patriarchy's ability to self-perpetuate: the term coined by Nathan Rabin at AV Club that implied a weakness in "the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors" turned into a way to put down female characters instead of their creators. As Zoe Kazan, who starred as an all too easily labeled manic pixie dream girl who quite literally sprung from the fevered imagination of a sensitive writer in Ruby Sparks (but that character actually came from Kazan's own imagination, as she wrote that film) responded to the label in Vulture:

Well, I am not a fan. ... That term is a term that was invented by a blogger

--and on behalf of bloggers everywhere, I think I take offense at the implication--

and I think it's more of a term that applied in critical use than it does in creative use. It's a way of describing female characters that's reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I'm not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don't deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they've let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it's just a at of reducing people's individuality down to a type, and I think that's always a bad thing. And I think that's part of what the movie [Ruby Sparks] is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Elizabeth Donnelly, writing for Flavor Wire, suggests,

The way that "manic pixie dream girl" has memes it's way adorably through the world is a case study in how a trope can evolve from an empowering idea to a cliché and a conversation-stopper, all in the span of a couple of years.

And she asks:

But was there value to the initial diagnosis? Of course. The one-dimensional dream girl of film, television, and books isn't a very interesting character, once you get down to brass tacks. There's nothing round, nuanced, or person-like about her thoughts, fears, and desires; she's merely a prop for somebody else' story. That's bad writing and it deserves to get called out.

Unfortunately, in a male-dominated industry, male screenwriters all too often write their female leads in broad strokes. (The same is true, with bad screenwriters, of all characters, not just female ones, but the problem is sometimes more obvious and always more insidious when it comes to a female character, especially a love interest to a male protagonist.)

Who is Madison? If you've seen Splash, try to answer that question. What do we know about Madison as a person? There are interesting little details, I suppose. Like another mermaid years later, she heads into a sunken ship; Madison does so to check a map. She sees that Allen likes something--that mermaid fountain--and buys it for him... Which is kind, I suppose. Except she has no apparent concept of money, so that statue might as well be a random trinket she spotted at a corner store. There's a nice thought to it, but that thought is not as big as the visual of that statue in Allen's apartment implies. Otherwise, she's little more than cheap fish-out-of-water jokes (pun intended) and cheap romance... Except, you might as well call the romance here manic pixie dream romance because there's no real depth to the relationship either. Madison is very much a fantasy--a naive, innocent woman, with an adult body, no sense of body shame or "modesty", and an almost absolute attraction to Allen Bauer. They, of course, connected all those years ago when he jumped off that ferry, but what is that but a cheap prelude to the fairy tale to follow?

What is Madison but a collection--and maybe there would be room for something more satirical here in a different film--of impressions, and very shallow impressions at that, imposed upon her by advertisements, upper class department store standards, and television?

As I write this, the lady at Bloomingdales tells Madison, regarding a particularly thin-styled dress:

You want to try that on? Who knows? Maybe it's you. It isn't me. I couldn't get one leg in there. My daughter, on the other hand, is lucky. She's anorexic.

Because that's a nice positive detail. Or another thing that could have played better if the film were a satire. But, it makes no effort to be satire. It makes no effort at depth. Yesterday, I compared the film to The Shape of Water, mostly in jest, in shallow strokes at best. Where that film aims for more meaningful depth about others action and what it means to be an outsider, this film offers up an implication only in Hanks' performance that he wouldn't fit in with too many people. (This despite the impression at the wedding early in the film that he and his brother actually have numerous friends.)

And, because this film wants to time things really nicely for me today, I glance up just before Madison climbs onto the DON'T WALK sign and see a marquee behind Allen and Madison advertising none other than 1983's The Outsiders. Which could have been deliberate... except a minute later, they're in front of a marquee advertising The Evil Dead and Xtro.

Splash is not a satire. The same character and plot could easily be mapped onto a satire in a remake, but the film as it is makes no effort to link itself meaningfully to the real world. In fact, it doesn't even take place in the present day, as most any film that wasn't a period piece would inherently do. After the flashback opening, the film cuts to


And then the next night is the wedding. The morning after that is when Allen hits his head and Madison saves him for the second time. Later that day he is called to the police station (even though that guy who owns the grocery store chain Freddie said would be there that first morning is only now visiting). The next day, Madison goes shopping. That night she informs Allen that she is in town for another six days, then she has to leave or she can never go home. The film takes place almost entirely in the future.

But, it is a future in which characters exist in broadstrokes to serve the comedy and the only women in the film are mildly deranged after being struck by lightning, victimized by a mad scientist, or naive servants to someone else's story. A naive mermaid dream girl, I suppose.

The previously cited Elisabeth Donnelly explains:

The "manic pixie dream girl," or any half-written "dream girl" character, is a symptom of something being undercooked in art, but she's not the diagnosis. We need a culture where female characters can be written with agency and nuance, strength and weakness, ideas and goals in their heads that transcend something beyond just looking for love.

Inevitably, a romantic comedy will boil down both of its leads (whatever their gender) to some version of "just looking for love". A good romantic comedy will offer up something more. (Return to Me (2000) springs to mind as a good example where the leads have more going on than just their relationship.) But, most romantic comedies aren't aiming for good. Not like that. Romantic comedy is all about the fantasy, wish fulfillment. So, if they are written by men--and purportedly, Brian Grazer thought up Splash while driving up the coast and wondering what it would be like to fall in love with a mermaid. And, he wrote the scene in which Allen gets bitter and sarcastic because Madison won't marry him.

As part of the fantasy.

Laurie Penny, writing for New Statesman, points out the real world implications of perpetuating this sexually-imbalanced shallowness:

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's.

Coming on the heels of Footloose, this is interesting for me. Now. Subconsciously tricky back then, when I am just eight. Lone young man can save a whole town from its own conservative predilections even though the preacher’s daughter—who it’s actually reductive to call her that... Ariel should have been able to get through to her father without Ren. But, white cis male is the one who makes the changes. And, he’s the one who wins the girl, whether she’s a preacher’s daughter or a stray mermaid.

Yet, I’m also being told at this time, every day in bible class, every Saturday in church, that the world will be over soon. So, what world was I going to save? What girl was I going to win?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

how she interacts with other marine life

Freddie (John Candy) is a pervert, even as a child. Allen (Tom Hanks) is more of a romantic, even as a child. As a kid, Freddie drops change on the floor to look up ladies' skirts. Allen jumps off a ferry to swim, briefly, with a mermaid girl. As adults, Allen runs Bauer Produce, Freddie... Well, Freddie is proud to have gotten a letter in Penthouse magazine. Broad strokes quickly painted, and we know these characters pretty well inside the first ten minutes of Splash.

If you're unfamiliar, think The Shape of Water with the genders swapped, a less dangerous (and less stereotypical) antagonist, and... Dare I say it? More believable romance. Don't get me wrong; I liked The Shape of Water a lot. I had a problem with one particular aspect of its conclusion, but I didn't mind how it seemed to spend more time on heist details than fleshing out its central romance.

Guillermo Del Toro's film has a couple clear advantages over Ron Howard's film. The obvious one is the production design. The other is the implicit links to larger, serious themes that don't exist in Splash. Different versions of the other. Homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins), African-American Zelda (Octavia Spencer), mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Even--SPOILERS--Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg) is played as a sympathetic foreigner a bit, though he is a Russian spy. The film deals in a love is love mentality that humanizes most of its characters quite readily.

Splash, on the other hand, is simpler. (Though, in passing, Allen does suggest that he wouldn't care if Madison were once a man.) It is still a fairy tale romance, but played as comedy. Allen runs a successful business and, while he has just been dumped by a girlfriend (who we don't even see) he seems to have a pretty good life. Unlike Elisa, cleaning up government labs and interacting with little more than the characters I've already mentioned.






And then I sit here just watching the film and reading trivia about it on IMDb (and ignoring several reviews of The Shape of Water I had bookmarked, that all compared it to this film at least in passing). Some trivia bits on IMDb seem weirdly broad, lists of who was offered or auditioned for parts with no reference to a source for the information--stuff like that. If those are all right, there are interesting connections between my last few movies in this childhood deconstruction, though. John Travolta, who starred in two (Staying Alive, Two of a Kind) of my last five films, was purportedly up for the lead in both Footloose and Splash. Additionally, purportedly, Ron Howard turned down directing Mr. Mom (which was eight films ago) and Footloose to direct Splash. Michael Keaton (who was in Mr. Mom, Chevy Chase (who was just in Vacation), and Dudley Moore (who was in Arthur), and Bill Murray all turned down the role of Allen.






Both films rush things. But, then again, this is Hollywood. Fall in love inside a week, and be willing to risk life and limb and employment for it? Totally realistic.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

the spiritual life of this community

Sometimes Roger Ebert was just wrong. I still enjoy his reviews, and he is often worth citing, but that doesn't mean he is infallible. Regarding Footloose, he writes:

"Footloose" is a seriously confused movie that tries to do three things, and does all of them badly. It wants to tell the story of a conflict Ina. Town, it wants to introduce some flashy teenage characters, and part of the time it wants to be a music video.

Also, Roger writes:

I seriously doubt a town like this exists anywhere outside of standard movie clichés.

The town of Henryetta, Oklahoma, has a law--dating back to 1979 but still on the books as of last year--restricting where public dances can happen, and apparently the law "watered down an earlier ruling that banned all public dancing regardless of location." The ordinance forbade "dance halls" from being located within 500 feet of any church or school. And, the film was supposedly inspired by Elmore City, also in Oklahoma, which had a lot dating back to the 1800s that prohibited dancing within the city limits. Rod Lott, writing for the Oklahoma Gazette, explains:

Members of the junior class--responsible for planning the annual, dance-free banquet--set out to change the law keeping them from exercising their burnin' yearnin' to kick off their Sunday shoes.

Class officers, including Leonard Coffee and Rex Kennedy (who Lott says were the basis for Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon)) approached high school principal Dean Worsham, "who personally detailed how they should make a presentation to the school board and explain their need for a prom."

In terms of the problems in Bomont in Footloose, this next part is interesting. Lott explains:

After all, they reasoned, because there was no dance, students would ditch the banquet and head for neighboring towns, sometimes getting killed in the process because of drunk driving and whatnot.

This is what they do in Bomont, and the spark for all of their overbearing rules including the ban on dancing came from just such an accident, with Ariel's older brother being one of those killed in the "infamous Crosby Bridge accident".

Leonard Coffee tells Lott:

We were told the school board was afraid things would get out of hand, so they were condemning us before we ever did anything wrong... Living in the Bible Belt, I understood their viewpoint, but I didn't see why that should keep those of us without religious convictions from dancing. But once we all started talking, we had the support of several teachers and our sponsors, and it snowballed from there.

The town was bitterly divided. Lott explains, citing current (in 2011) mayor Rachel Bailey, who was a "bummed-out student at Elmore City High's junior-senior banquet" in 1977:

The Methodists were the only church in town in favor of letting the students dance the night away, while the Baptists and the Church of Christ preached that dancing would lead to dancing in the sheets.

Lott doesn't say how many people were on the school board--today, there are five people on the board of the Elmore City-Pernell School District, so probably there were five--but the vote was a tie. School board president and rancher Raymond Temple, father of "Mary Ann Temple-Lee, member of that now-revolutionary Class of '81", cast the deciding vote. The story spread, eventually being covered by People magazine. Songwriter Dean Pitchford (who won an Oscar in 1981 for the them from Fame) was "looking for a movie to support the music and not the other way around" and he read about Elmore City. He visited the city, almost missed it because it was so small, spent a week "visiting the high school, hanging out with the students, attending prayer meetings and talking to shopkeepers and other locals". And, though he was a songwriter, he wrote the script himself. Director Herbert Ross "wanted to take the Oklahoma out" of the film because, Pitchford explains:

[I]f we set it in a specific time and place, the opportunity could arise where you can point to it and say, 'That doesn't happen anymore.' So, we changed the turf--there's no reference to a real town--and let the whole story float above a date and place. It never crash-lands in reality.

Pitchford would write a few more scripts years later, but mostly he stuck to music for movies.

Roger Ebert, of course, got into journalism in college in the sixties. That any town might still hold onto such conservative values in the 1980s would likely have seemed ridiculous to him, had he heard about it. But, I guess he didn't hear about it. Instead, he suggests, "If the movie had only relaxed and allowed itself to admit how silly the situation is, it could have been more fun."

It is silly.

But, it is also despairingly serious, the situation in Bomont. And, as you can see with Elmore City, quite realistic. I wrote yesterday about growing up in that cult of a church I grew up in. They didn't ban music, but we did have to get every song approved for schools dances (and it was briefly a potential big deal when we let Guns n' Roses' "November Rain" play all the way through that last, more rock and roll section at the end) at the prom my junior year.

"Instead" of playing the situation for the silliness that Roger thinks it is, Roger says, Footloose "gets bogged down in the peculiar personality of the preacher, who's I played by [John] Lithgow as a man of agonizing complexity." For me, the Reverend Shaw Moore is a great cinematic character, at once a villain and eventually a sort of savior. He is Bomont's Fisher King. His wound becomes the town's wound. Until he can manage to heal, the town cannot manage to heal. In fact, it is the moment when the town goes too far, and the Reverend Moore recognizes as much that he steps out of the antagonist box, and the conflict's end has effectively been written.

Roger complains:

"Footloose" makes one huge, inexplicable error with the Lithgow character. It sets him up as an unyielding reactionary, and then lets him change his mind 180 degrees without a word of explanation. In one scene, the preacher's daughter confronts her dad in church and announces she isn't a virgin (the movie never remembers to tell us whether she really is or not). The preacher turns livid, starts to scream, and then is interrupted by news that they're burning books down at the library. In the very next scene, the preacher is arguing against the book burners--and before long, without any meaningful transitional scenes, he has caved in to the idea of the dance. It's cheating to set up Lithgow as the enemy and then turn him into a friend without a word of explanation.

Watch any of the exchanges between the Reverend and his wife (Dianne Wiest). His exchanges with that daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer). His obstinance is being accepted (because it comes from grief) and challenged repeatedly. This is film. We don't need it to explain the Reverend's change, just show us that it is reasonable. And, I suppose I've been watching a different film than Roger saw all these years. From his opening sermon to the early conversation with Ariel while he is working on a new one, this character is just what Roger calls him, "a man of agonizing complexity". And, this is a negative?

Early in the film, there's an exchange in which Ren calls Slaughterhouse Five a great book and a classic, and his... uncle (?) counters, Tom Sawyer is a classic. The former has been banned, as has the latter. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v Pico:

[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'

Reverend Moore is not a fire and brimstone preacher who ignores the world, but since his son's death five years ago, he fears what the world does, what the world is, what teenagers are in the world today... as it were. The oft repeated complaint about kids today, and all that. He's both mired deep within that simplistic attitude and existing quite smartly above it. The book burning is quite clearly the turning point for him. We see him change. We see that he didn't really need to change. He was as mixed up about things as the town was, until suddenly, in an epiphany born in the smoke of burning books, he realizes more exactly who he is, who the townspeople are, who we all are. His God gave man free will, so that he could do wrong and learn to do better. The teenagers of Bomont need the chance to do bad things. As Reverend Moore says in his final sermon in the film, "If we don't start trusting our children, how will they ever become trustworthy?"

It is not cheating to turn the Reverend into a friend. It is drama. It is not a standard movie cliché that Bomont is oppressive. It is unfortunately realistic.

And 8-year-old me saw that town as something... Not wrong exactly, but what it was doing was wrong. I don't, however, think I equated Bomont to the church around me until much later.


Monday, March 19, 2018

somebody to tell you that life ain’t passin you by

I wrote about Footloose--my first film for 1984 in this childhood deconstruction--once before in this blog. I used it to begin my Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-inspired month back in February 2016. And, speaking of tying things together--the title of that entry, taking its title from a line from the film, was "all of our lives are ties up with each other"--the film begins with random pairs of feet dancing to the titular Kenny Loggins tune. No characters, no faces. It's deliberately universalizing in its fun. Those feet could be anybody, any of us.

And then, there's the preaching, and then high school girls being bad (and doing dangerous things; at least Ariel (Lori Singer) risk serious injury, anyway). I wrote before several attempts to link the characters to The Tempest through the name Ariel. I didn't write much about religion, but religion is all over this film. From Reverend Moore's (John Lithgow) opening sermon to the oppressive atmosphere all over the town of Bomont. It's interesting, though that when the Reverend catches Ariel dancing to her smuggled cassette, he doesn't make a scene out of punishing her. He hands her cash because her mother thought she didn't have any with her and he leaves. There is disappointment, but no overt display of parental oppression.

I've written before in this blog--for example, what are you expecting? world war iii?--about growing up in an oppressive religious environment, the Worldwide Church of God. Our church didn't outlaw music, but when I was a kid--when I was 8 and saw Footloose on the big screen, for example--girls weren't supposed to wear makeup, boys weren't supposed to wear their hair long, you didn't celebrate birthdays (though it feels like we found ways around that a lot, a gift if not a party), you weren't supposed to get involved in interracial relationships. And so much more that I didn't know about when I was young. Oh, and the world was about to end so you didn't plan for the future, or at least not a future on Earth. I also attended the private school owned and run by the church, so I didn't have the same experience that Fleur Brown describes over at Medium. She also had to make an effort not to talk about our church with her peers, with her friends outside the church. "Our church masters cautioned us against sharing church secrets with school friends, neighbours, or other outsiders," Brown explains, "they were privileged truths to be revealed when they decided someone had been properly 'converted.'" Brown doesn't shy away from calling the church a cult. I usually just describe it as cult-like. But, remember, I was watching all these movies about rebels and underdogs, outsiders fighting against authority. The pirate Blackbeard, Theodore Ogilvie and Amos Tucker, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa and Han Solo, Tripper Harrison, Cactus Jack Slade, Flash Gordon, John Reid, Snake Plissken, Boots McGaffey and Alvie Gibbs, Jack Butler, and how many others in films I wasn't watching so often? So many heroes outside the power structure. Some of them tragic, some of them comic, all of them heroic. All I had to do is get past notions of the world blowing up and maybe I had a shot of being rebellious myself.

While I was still going to the private school, still attending a weekly church service, my rebellion didn't amount to too much. I snuck off school grounds, usually only after school, when I was supposed to be waiting in around for my mother to get off work. I might climb into some of the roof's around the school campus with a friend or two, and we might jump off one of them into some weird dirt mount that was always behind the building that would house all the high school classrooms when I was in high school but was workshops when I was in elementary. Friends of mine smoked when we were in high school, but I never cared for it. People drank. Occasionally. But, I wasn't into much of that, mostly because a childhood built on fear left me lonely and isolated even when I was around other people. And, I was always around other people. I had six older sisters. Some of them married, had kids. I had friends from school and church--but no local friends in my neighborhood after... I don't actually remember when my few neighbor friends moved away. I was young. It sucked.

Movies lifted me up and away from it all. They offered conflicts small- and large-scale. They offered heroes and heroines fighting against systems of oppression, against terrorists, against criminals. I wrote in that world war iii entry three years ago about embracing "stories with good guys beating bad guys" but running through all these movies I watched and rewatched as a kid these last several months, I think it matters much more that not only were all these movies about good guys versus bad guys but that the bad guys were often bastions of civilization--bankers, businessmen, politicians... the occasional gangster but that was just another versions of the previous. Emperors. Lords. Sheriffs. Reverends.

It's like 1980s pop culture wanted my to get the hell away from the church and school I was being raised in. But, I was too young for too long to do anything about it. Every movie was another step out of the cult's shadow. Every movie was another step toward being my own person in my own life.