Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Projecting again, posting about it again

So is this impressive collection of films a shelf at the local video store? With that many films lined up so impressively and so neatly, it could only be, right?

Nope. That's just what I brought with me to the hotel on Friday night.

Yep, I made another trip to a dumpy hotel near my work, armed with clothes, snacks, a laptop and a projector. Oh, and lots of movies. Twenty-one physical DVD cases, one of which contained three separate DVDs. So that's 23 movies total.

You may recall that I first did this last fall, the day after my birthday. It was designed as a birthday present, to get a night off from parenting at a hotel. My wife had done such things previously, and I followed suit. Projecting movies on the wall was my own personal innovation, my idea how to get the most out of time that I could spend exactly as I wanted.

Well, since my wife went out of town for three nights for her own birthday a couple weeks back, she insisted that I take another one of these nights for myself. Initially I was not all that pumped for it, because this would be my third time borrowing the projector from work, and I was already feeling sheepish about the prospect of asking my boss. In fact, I even devised various plans to steal it (he probably wouldn't notice), or rent or even buy my own (some people were selling them really cheaply on craigslist). Ultimately I just asked him again, and again he had no problem loaning it out to me.

That's when I started getting excited.

My goal this time was to watch six movies, which would be a one-movie improvement on my previous total. Having done this once already, I figured to lose less time to the logistics of making it work. For example, this time I didn't have to go to the store to buy a box of pushpins, so I could put a sheet up on the wall to cover the patterned wallpaper. But I did forget to bring the power strip I brought last time, so I watched my first movie with the laptop running on batteries. After that finished, I headed back to the office just after the last person left for the day, and corrected that situation. Time lost: 13 minutes.

And yep, I did get in those six movies - just barely.

I didn't want to write a massive post about my experiences watching these movies, but then as I was watching them, ideas of things to write about came up for each movie. So it will in fact be a sort of massive post, but it'll be broken up by subheadings, so you can pick through it that way if it makes it easier for you.

Laurie Holden's twin sister

My first movie up was Ron Underwood's Tremors, which made its way to the top of my Netflix queue without a specific plan for me to watch it. This seemed as good a time as any. When the sunlight is still coming in the hotel window (I checked in just before 3 p.m.), it's nice to have a movie that has lots of exterior shots. Otherwise it's difficult to see anything.

One of the first things I noticed was that Laurie Holden, of X-Files and Walking Dead fame, was in it. But this struck me as very strange. The movie is 22 years old, which would mean that Holden is now in her mid-40s -- at the very youngest. And the woman in this movie didn't seem to be only in her early 20s, in part because she is playing a seismologist doing research on plate tectonics.

So I took a break from the movie to satisfy my curiosity on the internet, and in fact, the woman in the movie is Finn Carter, who I saw last fall in How I Got Into College. I didn't mistake her for Holden then. But here, look at them side by side and tell me what you think:

Uncanny, right?

Well, maybe it would seem more so if I'd been able to find better pictures to use as my examples ...

(For the record, Holden is 39 and Carter is 51.)

That strange subplot with the Japanese guy

When I got back with the power strip, I excitedly put on Fargo. The movie is one of my top ten films of all time, but I have not seen it in at least five years. This needed to be remedied.

As I was watching it, I was marveling over the perfection of the script. It's such a tight script. Except ...

... there's an otherwise totally unnecessary subplot about a former classmate of Marge Gunderson's who is trying to romantically woo her, despite the fact that she's married and seven months pregnant.

I got to wondering what the purpose of this subplot is. It never dovetails into the main plot. I was talking about it with my wife later on, and we determined that the primary function of the subplot is to show that even in a contented marriage on the verge of motherhood, Marge has doubts about her place in the world. After all, she dresses up nicely to meet her former classmate while out of town in the big city, and even chooses a fancy restaurant for their meeting -- before eventually seeing how weird the guy has become and realizing how good she has it back at home with Norm. I guess the doubting of contented marriage is a theme in this movie, as Jerry Lundegaard is also shaking up a seemingly stable family life through the choices he makes.

Still, Fargo could easily exist without the Mike Yanagita subplot. Especially if you go by the basic screenwriting guideline that every scene in a movie should move the story forward in some identifiable way.

So why did the Coens include it? Especially when the movie otherwise exists as a master class in screenwriting?

My ultimate conclusion: It was a deliberate imperfection introduced to showcase how brilliant the rest of the script was. I admit that this is something of a stretch, and basically accuses the Coens of patting themselves on the back. (But let's be honest, it wouldn't be the first or last time they had patted themselves on the back.) But it got me thinking about how Muslims are supposedly known for leaving deliberate imperfections in their work, because only Allah is capable of perfection. Not that the Coens are Muslims, but that there's something about an imperfection that tends to accentuate how great everything else is.

And since Fargo is perfect as it is, I would definitely miss Mike Yanagita if he weren't there.

The unintended benefits of Heath Ledger's death

At around 8 o'clock I started what I guess you would call the main course. Anyway, I'll call it the main course because my pizza arrived about 20 minutes in.

The most famous thing about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, of course, the fact that Heath Ledger was working on it when he died. Since he had not completed all his scenes, Terry Gilliam pulled the unorthodox trick of recruiting three other actors -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell -- to complete the parts Ledger had not completed.

To me, this sounded like a doomed decision that would just add confusion to what was probably already a very confusing movie, it being from the mind of Gilliam.

Then I saw the movie.

It was amazing to me how cleanly Gilliam incorporated these other actors. If Ledger had to die while making this movie, it seems he chose an opportune time to do it. He seems to have filmed all of his real-world scenes before dying, leaving those within the fantasy word of the imaginarium unfilmed. It's in this fantasy world where those other actors take over, and it makes perfect sense in terms of the logic of that fantasy world. And it's not at all confusing.

In fact, I think I liked the movie better with these other three taking on the roles they did than if Ledger had done those roles himself.

You can't make an assessment like that in a vacuum, of course. We'll never see the movie as it would have been if Ledger hadn't died. But the work Ledger did contribute to this film is not some of his best. Which may have something to do with his physical condition in the weeks before he died -- I mean, he was taking all those medications that resulted in the cocktail that killed him for a reason. It's just like when I was watching Brad Renfro's last movie, The Informers, last weekend, and he seemed to be physically struggling to complete his scenes.

And so it was that Depp, Law and Farrell injected a much-needed playfulness into both this film and the character.

Anyway, the film does not entirely work on all levels, but it does enough right to have been well worth the watch.

Cybill Shepherd as [some character you don't know]

My second viewing of Taxi Driver, which began at about 10:45, was long overdue. I saw the movie for the first time probably in the mid 1990s, and not again since. It was also the one movie of the 23 that I knew I would watch, because my boss loaned it to me. In fact, as if I'd needed to lubricate my request to borrow the projector, I told my boss about my plan to watch Taxi Driver so as to snare him in a wave of enthusiasm. (It's one of his favorite films.) I'd actually been intending to pick it up at the library, but he brought in his copy on Friday to loan to me. That meant I was committed to watching it, even if I felt like passing on it at the 11th hour. (And it literally was almost the 11th hour when I started the nearly two hour movie.)

My main and only comment on Taxi Driver, beyond the fact that I really like but don't love the movie, has little to do with Taxi Driver itself, but a phenomenon that occurred to me while watching its opening credits.

Namely, that movies used to -- and some still do -- give the name of the character such-and-such actor is playing in the opening credits.

Taxi Driver did this twice. It says "Peter Boyle as Wizard" and "Cybill Shepherd as Betsy."

While I have a certain affection for this convention because it has a long history in cinema, I did wonder what it really gains you to know the name of the character an actor is playing. You don't know the names of any of the characters at this point, so knowing which actor plays which character is of limited value. These credits are basically asking you to store that name as information in your short-term memory, and then when the character appears on screen, you can say "Oh, that character is played by Cybill Shepherd."

But in a way, isn't that kind of "breaking the spell"? Don't you just want to concentrate on the character as a character, not as an actress playing that character? That's what the closing credits are for.

I think it's slightly different if it's a character that you might know before the movie even starts. Like, if Santa Claus were a character in Taxi Driver (which would be a pretty weird version of the movie), you might say "And Harvey Keitel as Santa Claus." But who is this "Betsy," anyway? Why is she singled out from the other characters?

The beauty of Derek Smalls

This is Spinal Tap is another of my all-time favorites, and another film I hadn't seen in at least five years. In fact, I can't even remember when I bought the DVD, and the packaging was still on it. (It was one of those DVDs that's taped shut along three edges, and the tape rips off in chunks. It took about five minutes for me to free the disc.) Anyway, since I know it so well, it made a perfect accompaniment to my morning coffee. The light streaming past the closed curtains wouldn't matter, because I didn't technically need to see everything that was happening.

This post is getting long, so I don't need to go on at length about This is Spinal Tap. You probably already know everything a person could say about it. But a couple quick comments nonetheless:

- I consciously noticed for the first time that Anjelica Huston is in this movie. She plays the woman who designed the 18-inch Stonehenge model. But what I found really interesting about her appearance is that her name appears twice in the closing credits, spelled two different ways. The first time they spell her first name wrong (Angelica), and the second time they spell it with the J. Funny.

- I love the "lukewarm water" that is Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). I love how even-keeled this guy is. He's always using logic to interpret every situation in the most optimistic possible way, and nothing can really throw him. On this viewing, I especially appreciated the fact that he smokes a pipe. That seems to make him all the more wise. It also makes the scene where he goes through airport security with an aluminum foil-wrapped cucumber in his pants all the more funny, because you get the prankster side of the character there as well.

Watching Raising Arizona as a father

My personal favorite among the classics I rewatched is Raising Arizona, the final movie of the visit, which I finished just 15 minutes before checking out. I have it ranked as my third favorite movie of all time on Flickchart, yet I hadn't watched it since June of 2007.

I know this movie like the back of my hand, which made for a good movie to watch as I was cleaning up the room and dealing with a stronger quality of light coming through the window. What I'd never done previously, though, was watch it as a father.

And I found myself getting emotional several times.

Some of that was just the emotion I've owned up to feeling when I love a movie so much that it touches me on a deeper level. Like, when the opening credits finally kick in at something like the 11-minute mark, with the movie's classic theme song, I think I had a bit more than just the chills I'm getting even know as I write about it.

But the ending, always sentimental and poignant, really got me this time. HI and Ed having to return the baby. Nathan Arizona realizing that it was them who took Nathan Jr. Ed explaining that they can't have one of their own. Nathan describing how lost he would be if Florence left him -- "I do love her so." And finally, HI's dream where you see him from behind, an old man at a future family reunion, and a grown woman comes to touch him on his cheek, speaking to him a single, loving word:


Yep. Waterworks.


Nick Prigge said...

I'm pretty sure I've written some variation of this comment before but so be it: being at that age where the thoughts of children become more real and, in turn, more terrifying your posts about balancing your parental duties with your film fanaticism give me faith. So thank you.

In regards to Mike Yanagita, I read a lengthy article once (I forget where) where the author argued the point of that scene was to show how "far" people would "go" to get what they wanted, making it the film's most important scene. I'm not sure if I agreed or not, but I thought it was unique take.

Travis McClain said...

Perhaps it's just me, but your blog has become increasingly casual and personal over the last several months. I can't speak for any of your other faithful readers, but I dig it. I find it more interesting to learn about you through the movies than to try to find something new to see in movies themselves.

Oh, and by the way: Your remarks on Raising Arizona constitute the finest writing you've displayed yet. Nicely done.

Vancetastic said...


Wow, that's really an interesting take. (And I never even thought of the secondary meaning of the title.) However, wouldn't you say there are other scenes that illustrate that idea more completely, and the Yanagita scene might just be a minor key version of that?

I may be a little frightened of how well I've been able to keep seeing movies as a dad. I can tell you it helps to have no shame about watching a movie I don't care much about while my wife is gone and I'm the sole caretaker. As long as it's not scarring him, I'm okay with it. (That time I watched part of Altered States at like 2 in the morning with him there awake, staring at the screen? Yeah, not my finest moment.)


Thanks for the kind words. I have always strived to achieve a balance between this blog being about me and being about movies. Rarely have I wanted to go in depth about technique, in part because it requires more research and preparation than I usually allow myself time for. And I don't usually write what I consider to be straight reviews, because I've done that in other formats and there are a lot of people who do it already (and do it quite well, including the gentleman I addressed in the first half of this response). But it's nice to hear that the me-ness of the posts is a sought-after quality among at least some of my readers, because I always worry it verges too close to the self-serving. But really, isn't the best writing in any forum the writing that reveals something about the writer?

northierthanthou said...

Raising Arizona is a really beautiful flick.