Thursday, October 21, 2021

Rob Zombie is the new James Gunn

No, I'm not going to rip on James Gunn again today -- I am only going to refer to past instances of me ripping on him.

And this time it's got a Halloween theme of sorts, at least.

It seems like every couple months I have to come on here and whinge (to use the Australian word) about MovieWeb and the twice- or thrice-weekly emails it sends me compiling the latest "stories" written for the site. I put "stories" in quotation marks because my biggest complaint about these "articles" is that they are about stupid things like casting speculations that are based in no reality except maybe something some fan tweeted, or some random thing some actor said they would "love to do." Because he's so active on Twitter and loves talking about himself, James Gunn has appeared in an inordinate number of these MovieWeb stories over the years.

Lately, though, it's Rob Zombie getting all the attention.

If you didn't know, Zombie is making a version of The Munsters. I know because MovieWeb has mentioned it ... (pauses to count) ... 137 times.

Here we go:

6/10/21: "Rob Zombie Reveals Munsters Logo, Confirms he's Directing"

6/19/21: "The Munsters Movie: Rob Zombie and Butch Patrick Celebrate with a Ride in the Koach"

7/15/21: "Rob Zombie is Building an Exact Replica of The Munsters House for his Movie"

7/17/21: "Rob Zombie Reveals The Munsters Bedtime Wardrobe Designs for Herman & Lily Munster"

7/22/21: "All of Mockingbird Lane is Being Built for The Munsters, Rob Zombie Shares His Plans"

7/24/21: "Herman Munster Design Teased by Rob Zombie for The Munsters Movie"

7/24/21: "WWE's Kevin Nash Wants to Play Herman Munster in Rob Zombie's Munsters Movie"

9/25/21: "The Munsters Mockingbird Lane Lives Again Thanks to Rob Zombie"

10/2/21: "The Munsters House Looks Ready to Move Into as Rob Zombie Continues Set Construction"

10/14/21: "Rob Zombie is Back on The Munsters Set to Unveil Finished 1313 Mockingbird Lane"

10/21/21: "Rob Zombie Reveals First Look at The Munsters Reboot Cast"

Not 137. But 11 different times in the past four months and change, including two different "articles" on the same day back on July 24th. For a movie that does not even have a possible release date listed on IMDB. 

October 2022 would be a logical guess ... which means we really might get to 137.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Can movies set in 2020 be COVID-free?

I saw what may be my favorite new 2021 horror on Wednesday night. It's the latest in the Welcome to the Blumhouse series on Amazon that began last October with four entries, and has another four this October. I don't know that I'll get around to seeing and reviewing all four like I did last year, but Black as Night encourages me that maybe I should give the others a chance.

I won't go into too much detail about it since I plan to review it and link my review to the right as I always do. However, I'll tell you that it's a vampire movie set in New Orleans, but with a welcome twist: Unlike the vampire Lestat and his cohorts in Interview With the Vampire, almost all the characters are Black.

What I do want to discuss is that the film is quite clearly set in 2020, yet COVID is nowhere to be seen.

Of the new movies that appear to have been conceived in toto since the pandemic began, they tend to fall into two categories: they're either set in an indeterminate time period, or they are about COVID itself. Now, I can't say for sure that the origins of Black as Night don't go back further than the start of 2020, though I can say that parts of 2020 make their way into the plot.

The movie has a lot to do with race, more than you might expect, but also carried out without a particularly heavy hand. And Maritte Lee Go's film knows its history, as Hurricane Katrina is a touchpoint discussed a couple times, particularly the effect it had on the local Black population.

Another reference to race, albeit brief, is by one of the more powerful vampires, though I won't tell you which in order to keep the surprise and because it's not necessary for the current discussion. In rattling off a list of years in which racial intolerance reared its ugly head, this character finishes with the year 2020. He doesn't go into specifics, but we in the audience know this was the year that several deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police galvanized the Black Lives Matter protest, most prominently the death of George Floyd.

We in the audience also know that this was in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, an improbable but powerful diversion of our attentions from the thing you would have thought would be the only thing anyone was talking about in 2020. 

The New Orleans in this film, though, is not one where anyone is wearing masks. There's no social distancing. And the only people who are sick are those who have been bitten in the neck.

If you want to know when in 2020 it takes place, it's the summer, because our main character, who also narrates -- Shawna, played by Asjha Cooper -- talks about it as if she's looking back on it from a future date, referring to it as "the summer I killed vampires." We also know that she visits the tombstone of a character who dies early in the movie, and the tombstone lists the date of death as late July of that year.

No COVID though.

Does this matter?

I'm thinking no. That may especially be the case a few years from now, when we'll still obviously remember that 2020 was the first year of COVID-19, but when maybe we'll be lucky enough not to have that fact be the first thing that jumps to our minds.

It's an interesting question though. The other surrounding years may blend into each other, and we may have difficulty remembering whether something occurred in 2017 or 2018. At the very least, those years were not defined by the most radical change to our daily lives probably since September 11th. But filmmakers will always have to consider how they choose to portray 2020 on film, and whether they acknowledge the elephant in the room if they do.

Of course, there's always the argument to be made that vampirism itself is a metaphor for COVID. Like COVID, it's contagious, though unlike COVID, it does require actual physical contact. 

I think this might be a stretch though. If Black as Night is about anything from 2020, it's about social justice, and far be it from me to suggest that COVID has to worm its way in there to get an equivalent level of the viewer's attention, even if only for the sake of "realism." If you are making a movie about vampires, "realism" is probably not your first consideration anyway. 

It may be that this is only a "problem" right now, when movies are being set in "present day," and that encompasses the year 2020. A few years from now, a movie will only be set in 2020 if someone specifically wants to evoke that year -- which would probably be because their subject is either COVID, Black Lives Matter or the presidential election.

I suppose if Shawna is remembering 2020 in a future year, the fact that she spent it fighting off vampires will certainly be the most memorable part to her

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

An adjective and a noun, not a noun and a verb

Have you ever realized you got the meaning of a movie title completely wrong?

Not because you thought about the movie for longer and realized the title had untold depths and secret secondary interpretations. No, I'm talking about because, grammatically, you simply never understood it correctly.

I always thought the title of Ben Stiller's movie Reality Bites was a sentence unto itself. It was while listening to the Slate podcast Decoder Ring -- one of my favorite podcasts out there, by the way -- that I learned the error of my ways.

If you've never discovered it, Decoder Ring is hosted by Willa Paskin and it digs into cultural mysteries. Examples? Past shows have explored the rise in popularity of throw pillows, the Cabbage Patch Kid fad, and why we think we need to hydrate so much. Whatever the show concentrates on, it's always something good.

As a way in to the topic of selling out, and how it has gradually stopped feeling possible to do so, Willa (I call podcasters by their first names, even though I don't know them) talks about the movie Reality Bites, one of whose main focuses is the attempt by the characters to maintain their ideals and values -- to not sell out. As almost a throwaway comment, she mentions that the title is a variation on the common term "sound bites," and how instead of providing little snippets of audio, the script written by Helen Childress would provide its viewers little snippets of reality.

Um ... what?

Never in the 27 years that movie has existed did I, for a second, think the title meant anything other than the fact that reality is sometimes disappointing ... that it bites. Reality Sucks would have made an almost perfect replacement title.

It turns out that isn't what Helen Childress meant at all.

"Reality" was not a noun, but an adjective, and "bites" was not a verb, but a noun.

Who could have guessed?

Obviously, Childress would have recognized and benefitted from the title's secondary meaning, the one I -- and I suspect most people -- thought was the primary meaning. But did most people think that? Willa doesn't even mention this as part of her interrogation of cultural mysteries. Her explanation is straightforward and without any acknowledgement of this other meaning.

The funny thing is that this also means we've been pronouncing the title incorrectly.

It's the same two words no matter what they mean, but I would argue that they are not pronounced in the same way. 

If you are saying them as a sentence, you say "Reality BITES," with an emphasis on the second word. However, if you know that "reality" is an adjective, it changes the inflection. Now you say "Re-AL-ity bites," with the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the fifth.

I guess I needed to read the Wikipedia page ages ago. Reinforcing what Willa Paskin told us, it states the following:

According to Childress, the title of the film isn't meant to be interpreted as "reality sucks." During the run-up to the 1992 United States presidential election, Childress kept hearing references to "sound bites," which made her think of Lelaina's recorded vignettes of her friends as "little bites of reality."

And the funny thing is, that's a lot less of a sell-outy title. "Reality bites," the comment on the quality of our reality, is a lot more like something Bart Simpson would say, a snappy slogan that would actually be sort of corporate in its attempt to commodify twentysomething disaffection. "Little bites of reality" is a lot more independent in spirit, less commercial. Which is certainly what Helen Childress felt at the time, as the podcast touches on how she was resistant to the very potential success of her own script.

I'll continue to say it as "Reality BITES," since that's what I've been doing for 27 years. In a way, though, the dual meaning of the title is sort of the perfect example of a viewer taking away what they are inclined to take away from a piece of art. The artist can tell us what it means, but if we took it some other way, it just speaks to the dimension of that object of art.  

Monday, October 18, 2021

Easily disprovable anachronisms

When you see an anachronism in a movie, usually it's something minor, like the watch you can see on the wrist of one of the extras in The Age of Innocence -- something that resulted from an oversight, a failure to scrub all the modern conveniences from a film that takes place a hundred years before the movie was made. (Apparently that wasn't actually The Age of Innocence, as I can't now find anything about it online.)

Sometimes, though, it's central to the plot, and the filmmakers either didn't notice or just didn't care.

I watched 1978's The Cat and the Canary as my latest in a month of trying to watch 1970s horror movies. Like the most recent film I watched, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, it's hard to say that this film's genre was primarily horror. I guess that's what happens when you cast your net using various google search terms. Not all the fish you catch are actually worth eating.

The Cat and the Canary was worth eating, but it's much more a murder mystery than a horror, and despite the presence of death in both types of movie, they are genres that barely overlap. This is a lot more like Knives Out than it is like a serial killer movie, even though the movie promises a "flesh-rending maniac" present in a house full of heirs gathered to read the will of their deceased relative. The poster above is pretty suggestive of delicious period hororr as well. (Though if I'd read a little more closely, I'd have seen it was described by a critic as "amusing" and by the poster itself as a "classic tale of mystery and suspense." It was free on Amazon Prime, so I didn't look too closely into it before watching.)

No matter. I enjoyed it, despite it not really fitting my theme.

I'm actually surprised I didn't know more about this story, given that this is at least the sixth time John Willard's 1922 play has gone before the camera, including a 1939 version starring Bob Hope. And as this play surely inspired numerous other similar stories we have seen, from Clue to Knives Out, its details felt instantly familiar to me.

The story is basically this. A rich British man named Cyrus West dies in 1914, and because of the presence of greedy relatives who want to get their hands on his fortune, he leaves instructions to delay the reading of his will until 20 years after this death. Those greedy relatives are just as money hungry two decades later, so six of them appear to lay claim to his fortune, apparently knowing that only one of them may be named. 

They'll find out who that is via a film Cyrus made before dying, in which he will reveal the heir over the course of a dinner with the gathered family. That's right, he's left instructions with his loyal housekeeper to prepare the same dinner for them that she prepared for him when he was making the film, so that the screen on which the film is projected could be set up at the far end of the table, allowing him to "join" them in the meal from beyond the grave. He's even drinking the same wine, though he notes it's too fresh for him to truly enjoy at the time. It'll be perfectly aged 20 years later. 

The twist is that there is a second film that's to be shown if the conditions of the first film cannot be met, which is that the heir needs to live through the night without being declared insane to claim his or her fortune. And since insanity runs in their family, this outcome cannot be guaranteed. A second heir will be revealed, if needed, in the second film; if the conditions of the first film are met, though, the second film is to be destroyed unwatched.

This is a lovely premise for a film. Of course, in its finer details, it is also complete bullshit.

The film takes place in 1934, 20 years after Cyrus West's 1914 death. Of course, West may not have made the film in 1914. He apparently made it after becoming aware of a terminal illness, but that means it could have been made in 1913, 1912 or even earlier.

Which, as we know, is a good 15 years before the technology of the time was able to marry sound and image.

The first film to ever have sound was 1927's The Jazz Singer, as audiences gaped in amazement when Al Jolson opened his mouth and a song came out. Even that film mostly has on screen titles, though, as Hollywood was not yet capable of making a complete film in which sound was synchronized to the images.

The Cat and the Canary, on the other hand, posits that this technological advancement might have existed around the same time that the Titanic sank. 

Not only that the technology might exist, but that Cyrus West would be so comfortable with it as to use it in really clever ways. For example, he pauses in spots to give his potential heirs a chance to respond to something he's said, for each other's benefit if not for his own. He's also envisioned exactly how the table might be set up and even when and where his loyal housekeeper should walk in order to "disappear" into the side of the film as she goes to do something for him, and "reappear" out the other end at just the precise moment to create the illusion of the same person becoming 20 years younger before returning to her current age. (This trick was probably my favorite part of the whole movie.)

Now, because the play dates back to 1922, the filmed will is obviously not original to the source material. Whether it appeared in any previous version I cannot say for sure, though the Wikipedia plot descriptions do not suggest it.

The filmed will is undeniably a good way to modernize the story, as it allows West to be a character in the film -- a pretty cheeky one at that, who openly loathes his avaricious relatives. Why then, I wonder, didn't they just push the story forward 20 years? Have him die in 1934 and have the will reading in 1954? Sure, you have to sacrifice some of the 1934 design details of the story's present day, but to be honest, the way the characters relate to each other feels pretty anachronistic for 1934 anyway. Besides, the story is set entirely within West's mansion, a holdover of an older time, so whether it's actually 1934 or 1954 makes no difference in that respect. 

The ultimate answer, though, is that it just didn't matter to the filmmakers that the film contains a glaring anachronism. Films are rarely meant to be confused for the real world, perhaps most especially in a melodramatic genre like the murder mystery. Who cares if the technology is ahead of its time?

The Cat and the Canary does contain a sort of awareness of the anachronism, whether for better or for worse. At one point in both of his will films -- spoiler alert, the second one does get watched -- he declares his will in written form by holding up poster boards, which are about the size of the cue cards that would have been used on live television. He does this as a precaution in case of "sound failure."

Or maybe in the case of sound not yet existing?

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The casual teenage nudity of the 1970s

One of the first actresses I ever had a crush on was Brooke Shields. All I needed was a glimpse of her in The Blue Lagoon and I was smitten. I would have been no more than ten, which is maybe early for starting to notice the opposite sex -- maybe I was ahead of my time.

It might be that all I got was that glimpse, as my official records don't show me as having seen the whole movie. I'm pretty sure I caught Blue Lagoon, parts of it anyway, on cable at a friend's house, so it may be time to add it to my lists. But Brooke in skimpy clothing -- it's one of those movies where their nudity is covered by coconuts and well-placed hair, if I remember correctly -- was enough to send me down a Brooke Shields rabbit hole, resulting in a viewing of the considerably more adult-oriented Endless Love around the same time. (Didn't think you could go down rabbit holes in the early 1980s? Apparently you could.)

I still wanted to see more, and I sure did see more of Brooke Shields in the earliest of those three films, 1978's Pretty Baby. I don't remember much about Franco Zefferelli's film, but I remember one scene with absolute clarity: Brooke Shields, who would have been about 12 at the time of filming, jumping up and down on a bed, fully naked. 

You might think this is what I wanted, what had been teased in the comparatively chaste Blue Lagoon two years later. But even as a ten-year-old I remember feeling skeeved out by it. Here is this girl, who would have been only two years older than I was at the time she filmed it, jumping up and down in her birthday suit, without any breasts or pubic hair to speak of it. It wasn't right.

I was reminded of my Pretty Baby experience last night while watching my latest 1970s horror this October, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977)

Before we get into genre quibbling, I'll say that Nicolas Gessner's film might be more comfortable in the thriller or mystery genres than horror, but I went by the poster art above to decide it made a good viewing for the month leading up to Halloween. The movie's opening scene also takes place on Halloween, which doubles as the birthday for the main character, played by Jodie Foster.

Whether it's a horror or a thriller or a costume drama has no relevance for what I want to talk about today, which is another instance of teenage nudity, and a very matter-of-fact inclusion of themes related to child sexuality on the whole.

In that opening scene, when the movie is barely five minutes old, we see Martin Sheen's character perving on the 13-year-old Foster. He's come to visit her house under the guise of trick-or-treating, but his children aren't with him -- he's run on ahead of them, perhaps for the very opportunity to perv on Foster's Rynn Jacobs. 

After he invites himself in, first we can't tell if he's calling her pretty and touching her hair just as some kind of overly forward attempt to be charming, something that would have been more common back then and would have fallen away in the decades since. Pretty quickly, though, his advances become unmistakeably sexual, and are confirmed when he gets called out on it and quickly scampers out of the house before his own children have a chance to arrive. (They're stepchildren, we later find out, which makes more sense.)

The fact that Martin Sheen is casually a pedophile in this movie is interesting for a couple reasons. For one it reminded me that before he began playing almost exclusively good guys later in his career, Sheen could be a real weirdo on screen. He played sort of a psycho in Terrence Malick's Badlands in 1973, a few years before this, and a few years after this, he's the sinister presidential candidate in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. Playing a pedophile would not have made anybody blink at that time.

But the thing that's really strange about it is how it forefronts the sexuality of a 13-year-old girl. Foster was born in 1962, so when filming took place, presumably in 1975, she would have actually been 13 -- maybe only 12, as her birthday is late in the year. Wikipedia doesn't say exactly when filming occurred, but the movie was ready for Cannes in 1976, its general release delayed until 1977 due to the sorts of controversies I'm writing about here.

Not only does Sheen treat her as a sexual object in his every interaction with her, but the film itself does as well. She's also got a relationship that becomes actually sexual with a teenager a few years older than her, played by Scott Jacoby, who reminded me so much of Matthew Modine that I had to check to make sure it was not actually him. The existence of that relationship alone would not be enough to posit a perviness on the part of the filmmakers, but the following is.

There's randomly a scene that shows Foster stripping down naked to get in bed with Jacoby's character. We see her from behind and from the side, but her rear is fully visible and there's a very clear side view of her 13-year-old breasts, which have enough hang to them to qualify as adult breasts. There's absolutely no reason this needed to be in there, except that, according to Wikipedia, a producer wanted there to be "sex and violence" in the film. Yikes. 

At the time I was watching the film I did not know this, but it's not actually Foster we see in that shot. Her older sister Connie did a nude double for her, and Connie seems to have been 21 at the time. I'd like to go back and watch that shot to see what trickery they did to create the illusion that it was Jodie rather than Connie, because I certainly didn't suspect I was looking at anything other than Jodie Foster in that shot. However, whether the actress was of legal age or not is besides the point. The film wants us to believe we are seeing a naked 13-year-old girl. Apparently, this was not something we minded at the time -- and perhaps even something we were supposed to like?

It must have been weird to be Jodie Foster at that time, as she also made Taxi Driver, where she plays a child prostitute. That film, released in February of 1976, would have been released concurrently with the production on The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, but you'd think principal photography would have already been finished if the film were set to appear at Cannes in May. So it appears that multiple filmmakers imagined something sexual about her even when she was just a 12-year-old. And that apparently, this was not universally scorned. (Thank goodness Freaky Friday was released between these two films to give her public image some additional dimension.)

We are so nervous about these issues today that not only would you never come close to child nudity in a film today, but you'd barely even suggest anything related to child sexuality. We don't want to make films in which pedophiles appear even if it is absolutely 100% clear that that character is the scum of the earth. 

In reading up a little more, it seems that these choices were controversial even at the time, not just in hindsight. Regarding Pretty Baby, Wikipedia states:

Pretty Baby received an R rating in the United States, an X rating in the United Kingdom, and an R18+ rating in Australia, for nudity and sexual content. Continuing controversy over Shields' nude scenes resulted in the film being banned in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan until it was repealed in 1995. Gossip columnist Rona Barrett called the film "child pornography", and director Louis Malle allegedly was portrayed as a "combination of Lolita'Humbert Humbert and (by that point) controversial director Roman Polanski".[1]

Okay that seems pretty clear. Although the delay in the release of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was due to a court case over distribution rights, the controversy over the nude scene is listed in Wikipedia's opening two paragraphs about it, as word got out that Foster had a conflict with producers about it and actually walked off the set. I guess her older sister eventually had no such qualms. (The nude scene was removed for the VHS release but restored for the DVD release.)

So in the subject of this post I made it sound like this sort of thing happened all the time, but maybe I've just stumbled across two of the more egregious examples. The fact that I cannot immediately recall any other examples, despite seeing my fair share of films from that era, seems to support the relative scarcity. 

The funny thing is, apparently even The Blue Lagoon, which I thought was comparatively chaste, has a number of scenes that might qualify as nude scenes, some involving body doubles for Shields, who was still underage at that time. Reading up on the parental guide on IMDB, I found that you can clearly see Christopher Atkins' penis at a couple points, and there's even a masturbation scene, which must have been really confusing to me at that time. Atkins would have been 18 or 19 at the time of filming, at least. The other scenes where they appear without clothes are obscured underwater, so maybe not as graphic -- which is also maybe why the more in-your-face scenes in Pretty Baby shocked me so much.

Nowadays we won't even do infant nudity on screen. Back then, on the other hand, I don't believe that a young naked Clark Kent in the original Superman (1978) even raised any eyebrows, because everybody knows that a naked child under the age of three is not sexual -- we would hope. (Apparently there is also a naked baby in the later portions of The Blue Lagoon.) 

Today? The naked underwater baby who is portrayed as reaching for a dollar bill on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind has filed a lawsuit alleging "child sexual exploitation." I suppose neither extreme is particularly useful for society.  

Thursday, October 14, 2021

All's Well That Ends Welles: F for Fake

This is the penultimate installment of my 2021 bi-monthly series finishing off the feature films of Orson Welles that I had not previously seen.

F for Fake (1973) is the film I might have been looking forward to most in this series, as I'd heard more acclaim about it than any of the various other Welles misfires I hadn't gotten to yet, which this series has helped rectify. And the film did not disappoint -- with some important caveats thrown in.

F for Fake reminded me in structure of one of my favorite documentaries of the 21st century, Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. Of course, it would be appropriate to reverse that order of causation and say that Exit reminded me of F for Fake, but I saw Exit a decade earlier, and subjective impressions all have to do with which film you see first. 

Both films deal with the issue of what constitutes art and how we measure the authenticity of the artist compared to the acclaim/financial remuneration he/she receives for his/her work. Both films also feature two main characters who are kind of each other's foils, that being Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. "Mr. Brainwash") and Banksy himself in Exit, and art forger Elmyr de Hory and the journalist who writes about him, Clifford Irving, in F for Fake

Of course, if you know the history -- which I didn't -- Irving was also a faker, having written a book based on a meeting with famed recluse Howard Hughes that never actually happened. This was the basis for the Richard Gere vehicle The Hoax, but I didn't put that together until after I'd finished F for Fake and was going down various internet rabbit holes related to it.

The content that's here is very interesting, especially since Welles is in peak playful form as a kind of master of ceremonies throughout. We keep coming back to him for commentary and little sleights of hand to remind us that on some level, all film is an illusion. He doesn't seem as corpulent here as he had seemed in some of his more recent films that I watched for this series -- perhaps needing to retain a certain fitness level for his newish love interest, Oja Kodar, who has a significant role in this film -- and he doesn't at all strike you as a person winding down in his career. In reality, though, this was the final feature-length film he completed before his death in 1986. 

(I should note that I am excluding for this series a documentary he made in 1978 called Filming Othello, which I suppose supplants F for Fake as the last completed feature. It runs 84 minutes. But because a film someone makes about their making of another film does not seem like an essential part of their filmography, more like a glorified "making of" feature as a DVD extra, I am comfortable excluding it from his official filmography.)

What I found disorienting about F for Fake, though, is the frenetic editing of the material, a shortcoming that I first noted in my least favorite film so far in this series, Mr. Arkadin. The way that film slathered on information with great rapidity really put me off, and some of that same feeling creeped in as I was watching F for Fake, even though the actual content of this film was something I enjoyed much better. It's like he's layering information in a montage, which is almost chronological in its progression, but loops back enough and is just abstract enough to push you off balance. After any particular five-minute stretch of F for Fake, you've consumed the information Welles wants you to take away from that section, but you feel like he's organized it in a deliberately roundabout fashion that's designed to tease you and troll you. To the extent that it ultimately achieves its goals, it seems sort of clever -- while at the same time remaining this close to causing you to question the filmmaker's competency. 

It was interesting also to learn about this master forger, Elmyr (he's referred to that way rather than "de Hory"), who was capable of producing near perfect imitations of the works of various master painters -- not only producing them, but dashing them off quickly before lunch. He made lots of money selling these and fooling experts, though eventually, the police were only a few steps behind him. It's interesting content for me right now, having just come off of watching Tim's Vermeer, which involves a non-professional painting a Vermeer with a lot more time, labor and precision, and a lot less attempt to deceive.

It felt like the material on Clifford was considerably less well documented, such that it took me a long time to actually determine what he was guilt of, in part because the film holds that close to the vest for a while. As the two men are introduced as the film's dual focal points, the fact that Irving doesn't come to life the way de Hory (or Elmyr) does feels like one of the film's demerits.

In the end, though, the takeaway from F for Fake is a really thoughtful consideration of art and artifice, one which seems like a real extension of many of Welles' career-long interests. It's easy to see why he was intrigued by Elmyr de Hory, as he's a larger than life personality (like Welles and many of the characters he played) given to throwing lavish parties, while also containing an essentially unknowable quality. 

There's also a bit of Welles the horndog in here, as the aforementioned Oja Kodar is ogled at by the camera in two different passages of the film, sometimes without any clothes on. It's not entirely clear how this relates to the other themes -- it's supposed to have something to do, I believe, with secretly observing people whose eye is drawn by the woman's curves, and how this has to do with the role of art on the observer. Neither does it really detract from the film, but it does contribute to it feeling more diffuse, more of a dump of similar subject matter than one cogent argument seen through from beginning to end. 

Along those lines, I see F for Fake described more as a "film essay" than a documentary, though "docudrama" is often used in connection with it as well. (Because not everything in the film is actually true, though I will respect Welles' careful wording and not give away the parts that were fabricated to illustrate a point.) That term "film essay" also ecompasses its more free-form aspects, as the film is designed to promote thought about its themes more than it is designed to present a narrative that is easily tracked from point A to point B to point C. 

The final film in this series comes in December, and it was the one that sort of prompted me to set out on this journey in the first place: The Other Side of the Wind, Welles' incomplete film that was patched together and released on Netflix in 2018.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Buried under an avalanche of unavailable new movies

 As the release of No Time to Die comes and goes in the U.S., I am again reminded of how much work I'll have to do once this damn lockdown lifts.

It has now been more than two months since I last saw a film in the theater. It was Nine Days, Edson Oda's interesting existential experiment about souls jockeying for a chance to be born, which is a lot better than that description might sound. I watched it on August 4th without any knowledge, according to my recollection, that cinemas were about to enter a lengthy shutdown. We'd had a number of little week-long lockdowns which arrived and ended with equal suddenness. The one we're in now arrived that suddenly, but hasn't entered nearly so quickly.

The goal is no longer to get down to zero cases, which was actually something we've been able to do here in Victoria for the majority of this pandemic. The goal is now to reach a certain vaccination rate, 80% for those eligible to receive them, which I believe we've already done. Nonetheless, retail stores and cinemas are still set to remain closed for the rest of this month, if I'm understanding the current timeline correctly. 

Honestly, I've kind of given up paying attention to the little changes at this point. When my kids start to go back to school maybe I'll snap back to it. Until then, I know that catching the cavalcade of new releases in the U.S. is just a pipe dream.

This wasn't a problem last year. Last year, movies weren't coming out anywhere. In fact, our cinemas were open here a lot of the time that they weren't open in the U.S. That didn't necessarily mean we were getting new releases -- if they weren't coming out in the U.S., they certainly weren't coming out here -- but there were things trickling in that qualified as "new to us." That was enough.

This year, it's completely different.

Here is a list of things that I haven't had any access to seeing, but really feel like I would/should see before the year comes to a close:

No Time to Die

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The Suicide Squad

The Many Saints of Newark

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Candyman

Reminiscence

The Card Counter

Dear Evan Hansen

and less essential but still

The Addams Family 2

It's not uncommon for there to be a delay between the U.S. release of more independent films and awards contenders and their Australian release, but the blockbusters are usually within a day of each other -- and that day usually favors Australia as movies actually release on Thursdays here.

One film that's maybe already gone from cinemas in the U.S., but still hasn't been available here, is Free Guy, the film whose advanced screening I was scheduled to attend the following week when the last lockdown started. As an indication of how long it's been since we've been able to go to the movies, Free Guy is already available for streaming on Disney+. The family and I are likely to watch it this weekend, at which point I can finally review something that's not just another new mediocre Netflix or Amazon movie.

It's probably no coincidence that I'm now just feeling kind of deflated about movies in general. At the end of each month, I take stock of the best and worst movie I saw that month, something I record for posterity in a special area of my Microsoft Word document in which I record my new viewings. The best movie I saw in September was a documentary called Tim's Vermeer, which I finally watched after being unable to get it in time for the end of my 2014 movie year (as discussed in this post). It was one of only two September movies I gave four stars on Letterboxd, the other also part of my Documentary Alternate Tuesdays series, that being Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary. To give you some sense of how this feels like a reduction in my normal level of enthusiasm, usually I'm choosing between at least two movies I gave 4.5 stars. Of course, it could also just be a mediocre month, which does happen as well. 

The choices for worst? They were plentiful, but none better than Sweet Girl, a truly awful and truly idiotic Netflix thriller with a super dumb twist. 

It's not that I think the latest MCU movie, the latest Bond movie or a Sopranos prequel is likely to provide better candidates, and in fact, if the first Venom is any indication, a Venom sequel would be a better bet for my monthly worst. But The Card Counter is directed by Paul Schrader, the guy who made my #1 movie of 2018 (First Reformed).

More generally, without this interplay of new theatrical releases and new streamer releases, the experience of consuming new movies has just left me feeling lethargic and indifferent. At a time of year when I have usually long since shifted to prioritizing new releases over older films, this October I'm doing a deep dive into the horror movies of the 1970s. Which has its own sort of excitement associated with it, but not the type I'm accustomed to as I get within three months of finalizing my year-end list.

The good news, I suppose, is that I do appear to be getting out of this movie jail in about three weeks, and at that point, it may never return. Reaching the desired vaccination percentage means that lockdowns will be a thing of the past, in theory, since we acknowledge we can no longer contain COVID. If people choose not to protect themselves from it, that's on them.

In the meantime, I do have some options for not falling completely off the map in terms of new releases. Candyman, for example, is available for $19.99 rental on iTunes, and as it makes a perfect movie for the month of October, I will probably avail myself of that option at some point. The latest Saw movie and a new Netflix movie called There's Someone Inside Your House will both help me celebrate the month of Halloween and move me closer to my usual total number of films seen before I close off my list.

But I can't deny there's been something lost in this whole experience. Not only am I behind on the movies, I'm behind on the conversation about the movies. The inability to see the new releases has also made me less likely to listen to my movie podcasts, which are essential in situating me within the movie zeitgeist. I don't feel like I'm able to live in the moment of the end of the 2021 movie year. We'll see if I have enough time to find my way back to that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Knowing Noir: Laura

This is the tenth in my 2021 monthly series watching classic film noir.

When taking my notes on Otto Preminger's Laura -- something I don't normally do while watching movies, but do in this series so I don't forget any choice noir nuggets in my monthly write-up -- I switched from doing it on my phone, as I had been, to scrawling on a notebook in the dark. I'm not sure if the disorienting nature of my choice caused me to write down less about Laura, but write down less I did.

One of the other reasons I wrote less, though, was that the 1944 film did not scream out "FILM NOIR" to me, even though I know it is considered one of the most illustrative examples of the form. Sometimes I wonder if just having a guy in a fedora and a trenchcoat -- Dana Andrews' appearance for pretty much the entire movie -- qualifies a film as an example of noir.

I guess I consider Laura more of a murder mystery, which I don't think is the same thing as noir. Yes, there's a detective investigating the details of the case, yes there are suspects, yes there are surprises, and yes, I suppose things happen that could qualify as double crosses. Still, noir did not occur to me as the immediate identifying genre assignment for this film, even with Andrews delivering clipped noir patter, smoking an endless number of cigarettes, and wearing the hell out of that fedora.

SPOILERS FOR LAURA TO FOLLOW

I suppose I've come to think of noir as being signified most by the presence of a fatale, femme or -- as we saw last month -- homme. Laura does not have such a character, not really, even though the beautiful Gene Tierney certainly looks the part. As a side note, Tierney is yet another iconic actress I am only encountering for the first time this month, though I was certainly familiar with her name, if only because I feel like it should be "Jean" not "Gene." When I think of Gene Tierney I think of this guy:

(That's Lawrence Tierney, known to us young'uns from his role in Reservoir Dogs. No relation, obviously.)

Anyway, it's hard to be a femme fatale in a movie when you are dead from the opening scene. That's why we needed a spoiler alert for Laura, though. Her character is not, of course, dead, but rather, presumed dead because a corpse with a face full of buckshot was found in her apartment, meeting her general description. The casting of Tierney might have tipped audiences off  that she wasn't dead, as they would not have needed an actress of Tierney's stardom just to pose for the portrait that hangs in the living room of her apartment, where most of the action takes place. There are a few flashback scenes, but I'm wondering if audiences at the time guessed that she would be returning from the dead before it even happened.

But does she actually return from the dead? 

The detective played by Andrews -- Mark McPherson -- falls in love with Laura as he investigates her death, with the portrait serving as a constant catalyst for his increasing affections. At a little way past the movie's midpoint, he falls asleep in an armchair in front of the portrait, and the camera zooms in on him. When it zooms back out, he is awakened by Laura returning to her apartment after a sojourn in the country, where she had gone to consider whether to marry a useless playboy she'd been dating (Vincent Price, showing no signs of his sinister future typecasting).

In today's cinematic parlance, this camera movement would unambiguously indicate that what follows is McPherson's dream. If he has indeed fallen in love with Laura, naturally he would be conjuring a scenario whereby they could still be together, and such a scenario would only be possible in his dreams. Interestingly, the movie never pushes this theory any further than what the viewer chooses to interpret, as the rest of the film plays out realistically as though Laura was really never dead. We've seen this trick enough in modern day, though, that I couldn't help but conclude that this might be the most valid interpretation of the second half of the film.

That ambiguity is probably the most interesting part of the movie for me, and it alone elevates the film. At this writing I think I have to think about it more before I decide whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars on Letterboxd. Although I was never bored, I did spend a fair amount of time being underwhelmed by Laura, perhaps having built it up in my head a bit because I knew its reputation. Because so much of the action takes place in Laura's apartment, the film does feel a bit inert from time to time in terms of its dramatic action. However, especially if that ambiguity about its second half is intentional, that earns it a lot more points. 

Another thing going for it was the clarity of its plot, which I could always follow even though it does contain some twists and turns. The narrative complexity, especially the clumsy narrative complexity of a film like The Big Sleep, has been a big barrier of entry for me in past noirs, and Laura avoids all of those pitfalls. It's clean and it has some really interesting characters, notably the effete writer played by Clifton Webb, Waldo Lydecker, a snob who prefers typing his newspaper articles from his bathtub.

The Waldo Lydecker character is particularly interesting as he starts out as our narrator -- perhaps writing a newspaper column -- but he does not stay in that role throughout the film. In fact, there are a number of scenes where he is not present, so if he's telling the story, he would have no way of knowing what was happening in these scenes. I'm not sure if this is a bit of intentional misdirection on Preminger's part, or more like carelessness. If we're seeing him as an unreliable narrator, that's usually a narrator who is telling us about events at which he or she was present, before we ultimately learn that we cannot trust his or her perspective on those events. Narrating events at which you were not present is a different kettle of fish, and I'm undecided on whether it totally works or not.

One more comment on the cast. It was great to see Judith Anderson appear, even if she didn't make nearly the impression she made as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca

In doing a quick search just now related to how widely the second half of Laura is interpreted by its audiences as a dream -- and let's just say there don't seem to be as many people writing about that as I would have thought -- I also hit upon questions about whether Laura herself is considered to be a femme fatale. The conclusion by one particular writer is that yes, but not because she tempts men to their doom. Rather, it's because her presence indirectly causes death. I like that secondary definition of what it means to be a femme fatale, and that has helped Laura settle in better among the other movies I would more clearly define as noirs in this series.

Okay, only two months left on the calendar. Think I've got my final movie in December picked out, now I just have to choose between a half-dozen other finalists for the November slot. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Let's Scare Jessica to Death turns 50

That subject is a bit of a joke. When using the wording "turns xx," where xx equals some number of years, in a headline about a movie, you're usually talking about something much more central to cinema history, whether it's a Star Wars or a Casablanca or a Titanic or a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A semi-obscure horror movie from the early 1970s does not fit the bill.

But I've been wanting to rewatch this movie ever since I first saw it on Halloween of 2009, and it was just a coincidence that that desire reached critical mass in October of 2021, when John D. Hancock's 1971 film turns half a century old.

We're actually six weeks past the 50th birthday. While nowadays it would be smart to release a movie like Let's Scare Jessica to Death at the beginning of October, to capitalize on viewers' newly reawakened desire for horror content, August 27th seemed to Paramount the best date to release it back in 1971. Of course, this was still four years before Jaws codified some of our modern understandings about when to release big films to maximize their impact on the audience and at the box office.

Saturday night, twelve years after my first viewing, it still scared the shit out of me. This is not a horror movie of big gestures or grand guignol kills. It's eerie in the little details, only occasionally building toward something more graphic, and it's all the better for it. It's soaking in glorious 1970s atmosphere and has some really chilling performances at its center -- from both the sinister characters and the innocent ones, making it confronting and complex as well.

As I was watching, and thinking generally about the great horror of 1970s cinema, I asked myself the following question: What other Let's Scare Jessica to Deaths are there out there?

Surely there are other semi-obscure 1970s horror movies I could name that I've already seen, but for the purposes of this exercise, I'm interested in those I haven't.

So I'm going to use the 26 remaining days before Halloween to try to dig up some great gems that might give me that Jessica vibe. Even if it means -- gasp -- renting them on iTunes, rather than just relying on what's available on streaming. (Kanopy would probably be the best resource for this but it can be a bit hit or miss.)

At first I thought I would watch only 1970s horror to scratch this October's horror itch, but since then, I've already noticed at least one new release that I want to watch within the next few weeks. So instead I'll just lean toward that goal, which will be easier to do, given that I've already scraped the bottom of the streamer barrel for horror movies worth watching from the past decade.

I can't wait to see what movies I find. I hope they scare me to death as much as Jessica did.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Movies out of sync with songs of the same name

In September, my assignment in the Facebook group Flickchart Friends Favorites Fiesta was Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, a typically ponderous slice of his trademark slow cinema. I've told you about this group before, but as a reminder, it pairs you up with another member of the group each month, and you watch that member's highest ranked film on Flickchart that you haven't seen. In September, I'd seen my partner's top 44 films. This was his #45.

I'll include below what I wrote about it when I posted in the group. But for now, I want to talk about the fact that every time I saw it among my rented items on iTunes, or considered that I needed to watch it before the calendar flipped over to October (I got it in just under the wire on Wednesday night), I had the following song going through my head:



It's not a favorite Elton John song of mine or anything, and in fact, I'm willing to bet it had been 20 years since I'd heard it. I rectified that just now while writing this post.

So it's funny to consider how these little bits of cultural ephemera sit in your head and pop up at the strangest of times. "Sacrifice" is not a particularly uncommon word, and in fact, I'm sure I've heard a handful of other songs with the same title. But the one that came up whenever I considered Tarkovsky's film was the one sung by Elton John and released in 1989. (Which, granted, was only three years after Tarkovsky released his film.) I mean, I needn't have though of any song at all when considering the film.

If you've seen The Sacrifice, you know what an odd match it makes with John. And if you haven't seen it, you may wish to avert your eyes -- consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

While John's song is a tender love ballad with the modest ambition of appealing to a very mainstream audience, The Sacrifice is an abstract example of slow cinema that deals with a man who burns down his house as part of a bargain with God to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Mainstream audiences should stay far, far away. (In fact, I could have included a poster that shows this burning house, which doesn't burn until the long-awaited final ten minutes of the movie, which couldn't have arrived sooner for me. But I decided not to spoil the movie for you right up front, despite this other poster's desire to do so.)

I did think it was interesting to note something that this poster reveals, which is that it expects you to have a very difficult time with this film. The poster pleads "Hang on to the very end and you may find yourself moved as you have never been moved before." It's essentially an admission that this is an arduous viewing experience, but has its rewards if you just stick with it. Well, it's debatable. 

If I had the energy I used to have, I'd now give you five other example of movies that are very hilariously different from songs that share their name. Instead, I'll just give you my write-up on The Sacrifice as promised. I've removed the guy's name just because it's irrelevant and I'd like to preserve his privacy. Though he has nothing to be ashamed of in his love for The Sacrifice. The problem clearly lies with me.

Here it is:

Andrei Tarkovsky's films are endurance tests under the best of circumstances. For me, the best of circumstances was Solaris, which was long but incredibly fulfilling, becoming a favorite of mine. But I lost the battle with Stalker, feeling every passing minute of that movie without enough reward to justify the commitment. I do, in that case, recognize a desire to revisit it again one day, knowing there is thematic material that I might appreciate more on a second viewing.
I don't know that I'll ever be going back to xxx's #45, The Sacrifice (1986). This is not to say that I hated it. I got what it was going for, with a little help from Wikipedia along the way. But it's one of those films where as it is progressing, things are happening that you can't really incorporate into your understanding of what the film has set up for you so far. As an example, I very belatedly got that this is a movie about an imminent nuclear holocaust and one man's attempt to bargain with God to prevent it from happening. (That's partially because this stuff doesn't start happening until the 45 minute mark or so.) Once I understood that, though, it confounded me that one of the man's friends urges him to go sleep with his maid, an act of adultery, because she is "the best kind" of witch. Witches now? So I had to go back to Wikipedia again to figure out what I may have missed.
The answer is, I didn't miss anything, but this is Tarkovsky. His films are meant to be appreciated on very abstract levels, or not at all. I'm not going to say The Sacrifice was an instance of "not at all," but it worked significantly less well for me than Stalker and that was already borderline incomprehensible for me. Those that love Tarkovsky worship him, and I know I have the potential given my feelings toward Solaris. So I guess we'll see how I go with my fourth film of his, after another rest of a couple years to regather myself.
I did very much appreciate the apocalyptic tone that hangs over the film. The man has sort of visions to a future post-nuclear landscape covered with snow and ash, as the camera crawls along the detritus on the ground -- a scene that reminded me of similar camera movements along the refuse-strewn ground in Stalker. I was also reminded of Bergman while watching this, and not just because the film was in Swedish, but because of its religious themes as well. It turns out this is no coincidence as Bergman's son worked on the film, as well as Bergman's personal DP, Sven Nykvist, plus I think a couple Bergman collaborators in the cast as well. I love Bergman so this should be a good thing, but the Bergman film it reminds me of most is my least favorite, Cries and Whispers, which also takes place largely inside one palatial house. As it turns out, Nykvist also shot this, though the two films couldn't look more different in terms of their color. While the reds are downright garish in Cries and Whispers, I learned (also from Wikipedia) that Tarkovsky drained at least 60 percent of the color from The Sacrifice in post-production.
Let's see how it enters my chart:
The Sacrifice < The Hate U Give
The Sacrifice > I Shot Andy Warhol
The Sacrifice < Burning Cane
The Sacrifice > Meet the Browns
The Sacrifice < Somewhere
The Sacrifice < Auntie Mame
The Sacrifice > Premonition
The Sacrifice > John Carter
The Sacrifice < Sleepers
The Sacrifice < Chuck Norris vs. Communism
The Sacrifice < The Man from London
The Sacrifice > Finding Dory
3777/5593 (32%)
This session of dueling was particularly interesting, as the movie came up against two other examples of slow cinema that I found really challenging, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere and Bela Tarr's The Man from London. I really had to sit and think about both choices, and the challenger won in both cases, though I'm not sure that's right. If it had beaten Somewhere, The Sacrifice would have landed much higher than 32%, but that's Flickchart for you. However, there's clearly something wrong with my list as I like this film MUCH better than Finding Dory.
Thanks xxxx. Whether he works for me all the time or not, Tarkovsky is a master and this was an important benchmark in working my way through his films.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

I'm Thinking of Kaufman Things: Synecdoche, New York

This is my penultimate edition of a 2021 bi-monthly series revisiting the films of Charlie Kaufman.

In the previous four instances of this series, I spent a lot of time talking about the ways the movie(s) I watched that month related to other movies written or directed by Charlie Kaufman.

This month, when taking notes, I found myself just writing down a lot of snippets of rich and meaningful dialogue. That's certainly an equally valid way of "thinking" about Kaufman.

I'll still do a little talking about how this film fits into Kaufman's body of work, but I may not concentrate on a bunch of superficial (yet still interesting) similarities between Synecdoche, New York and other Kaufman films. You could easily argue that Kaufman reveals himself most in the superficial details, but you could just as easily argue that nothing in a Kaufman movie is accurately described as "superficial," since he has clearly done so much thinking about every minute piece of the puzzle. 

The film it reminds me of most is, it probably goes without saying, Adaptation. Kaufman was literally a character in that film, and Caden Cotard, the main character in this film (played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the character most clearly a direct analogue for Kaufman among his rich collection of characters. But the similarity presents itself most in a phenomenon I described in the opening sentence of my review of Adaptation for AllMovie nearly 20 years ago:

"Critics charged with the divine headache of describing Adaptation, in all its twisted magnificence, should find it appropriate that the story concentrates on the paralysis of writer's block, brought on by the impossible urge to say everything."

Synecdoche, New York is chock full of that impossible urge, and it is a divine headache indeed. If a 300-word review of Adaptation was insufficient to tackle its many complexities -- that was the word length I was writing back then, for the princely sum of $20 a pop -- then I have no idea what I would have done with a similar length allotment for Synecdoche. Fortunately, I didn't see that movie until after I stopped writing for AllMovie.

In fact, it was only just after I stopped writing -- like, one week later. That wasn't in 2008 when Synecdoche came out though. To give you some indication how different my movie viewing was back then, I didn't see this movie until Thanksgiving of 2011, November 21st to be exact. Only one week earlier, I had watched Sorry, Thanks, the last movie I ever reviewed for AllMovie. (I didn't stop out of choice; they changed their financial model to stop using freelancers.) 

The timing of my first viewing of Synecdoche, New York is interesting for a couple reasons. For one, it is absolutely unimaginable to me that I could have let three years elapse before getting around to watching it. Not with Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind both having claimed my #1 spot for their respective years. I lose that much trust in Kaufman just one film later, just because I don't really like how the trailer looks and some people say they didn't get it? What a fool I was.

But then there was the timing of what was going on in my life, and this is something that is only just occurring to me now. When I wrote that review of Sorry, Thanks, that was my last paying review gig -- to date. Six weeks from now, that will be ten years ago. Sure, I say I get paid, in a manner of speaking, for the reviews I currently write because I have a critics card that gets me into screenings for free ... when there isn't a pandemic on, anyway. But actually receiving direct compensation for the work that I consider my passion? Hasn't happened in ten years.

And I'm pretty sure I had that existential pit in my stomach when I watched Synecdoche just a week after filing my last review for AllMovie. I surely knew that the film criticism industry was changing, and that the chances of me getting paying work as a critic again were slim to none. So a movie that does a deep dive into the idea of your life passing you by, of measuring your accomplishments and the accomplishments you are still likely to make in the future, would have resonated with me quite a bit at the time. Even if I didn't consciously realize it until now.

But Synedoche, New York is about so much more than that. It might take me 10,000 words to talk about the things it's about. But hopefully you've already seen it, so you already know. 

So instead of doing the rigorous comparisons between movies to isolate similar themes -- you know, what's been the bread and butter of this series -- I'm just going to finish with the string of quotes/exchanges that I jotted down from Synecdoche, which in and of themselves reminded me of Kaufman's entire body of work. Even those that might require explanation, I will just leave to you to sort through. 

Forthwith:

"It's been a year."
"It's been a week!"

"The murky, cowardly depths of my fucked up being."

"It's about everything. Dating, birth, death, life, family. All of that."

"I'm fun."
"Oh sweetie no you're not."

"You wish you were a girl?"
"I think I would have been better at it."
"It's a drag in a lot of ways."

"I'm aching for it to be over. The end is built into the beginning."

"There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You destroy your life every time you choose. But you may not know it for 20 years. And you may not ever trace it to its source. And you only get once chance to play it out."

"No one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own."

"Everyone is disappointing, the more you know someone."

"This is everyone's experience, the details hardly matter. You are everyone."

"As you learn there is no one watching, and there never was."

"I know how to do the play now."

That's pretty much the last thing Caden says in the movie, though it's at least the third time he's said it. He's got his head on the shoulder of the actress who plays the mother in the dream of Ellen the cleaning woman, who as far as I can tell is a character Caden never even met. He either heard of her or just made her up. That's how deep the rabbit hole goes. 

After that, Dianne Wiest, the director in his earpiece, gives him a final stage direction that I only properly understood on this third viewing:

"Die."

Caden complies.

This series will die, so to speak, after one more installment in November, when I watch Anomalisa for only the second time.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Mike Lookinland's second career, and remembering an old cup

If you're like me, you'll look at the long crawl of credits at the end of a movie without really looking at it. Your eyes are pointed at the screen and information is hitting your cerebral cortex, but you're not really processing it. If you're like me, you'll read the acting credits, but words like "second unit director" then cause your eyes to glaze over. You keep watching, but you shift into the dutiful position of a person bearing witness. You're not actually taking anything in, not actually broadening the personal database of key grips and dolly grips you're aware of.

Every once in a while, though, you might find yourself a little nugget of something choice.

As I was bearing witness to the credits at the end of the 2000 film The Way of the Gun on Friday night, I saw a familiar name buried long past the point where I'm continuing to take in useful information. That name was Mike Lookinland, and if you're like me, a Boston area child of the 1980s weaned on the afternoon programming of WLVI, Channel 56, you know immediately who that is:


That's right, that's Bobby Brady, younger brother of Peter and Greg, son of Mike, stepson of Carol, stepbrother of Marcia, Jan and Cindy. 

But surely if the erstwhile Bobby Brady worked on The Way of the Gun, it should be as an actor, right?

This is what interested me: This Mike Lookinland was credited as "First Assistant Camera."

Must be a different Mike Lookinland, then? Surely, there might be as many as two people in the world named Mike Lookinland?

No, it's the same one. Apparently, he shifted from in front of the camera to behind it. In fact, Lookinland has 20 camera-related credits on IMDB from 1987 to 2007, at which point, it seems like he gave that up -- though he does still appear in front of the camera from time to time, even now at age 60, as a TV movie called Blending Christmas is listed as in post-production. It should be noted, though, that this is his first acting role since 2003, when he played himself in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.

I'm sure taking up in another part of the entertainment industry is not uncommon for former child stars, or any other actors who aren't really making it in front of the camera. What's probably not as likely is for you -- and by you I mean me -- to notice their names among a flow of hundreds in a typical end credits crawl. 

And if I didn't see Mike Lookinland's name in the end credits for The Way of the Gun, I might not ever have seen it. Of the 19 other projects he worked on as a first assistant or second assistant cameraperson, only two others were things I even recognized. One was a TV show, Everwood, that I never watched and probably never will watch. The other is Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Mayers. I have three other Halloween movies that I've never seen and probably never will see before I'd get to that.

IMDB thinks his work on The Way of the Gun was pretty significant, too. On the brief synopsis of his career on his IMDB page, it says "He is known for his work in The Brady Bunch (1969), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976) and The Way of the Gun (2000)." The idea that a person would be known for performing the function of first assistant camera is, I think, hilarious.

I have two more things to tell you about The Way of the Gun.

One of them is this:


Do you remember this cup?

I hadn't thought of it in ages, but you used to always get your soda in these cups from random snack bars back in the day. In fact, I'm pretty sure we used them in the snack bar I worked in for a summer back in 1992. 

White top, light gray bottom, with a sort of flame icon in red ink. What did that flame mean? Who even knew?

They are kind of like that generic white and blue coffee cup with Greek lettering and the columns of antiquity on the side, the kind you were particularly likely to see if you lived in New York.

Last thing.

The reason I watched The Way of the Gun on Friday night was because I once caught a few minutes of it on cable 20 years ago, and those few minutes stuck with me. I'm not sure why they stuck with me, except that they contained a moment of sudden violence that seemed very shocking in the context of not having watched the rest of the movie.

Spoiler alert, if you care about spoilers for The Way of the Gun.

The moment involved the death of Taye Diggs' character. I had no idea when it actually occurred in the movie, and when I finally watched it, I learned that it wasn't until the final 15 minutes. But the scene involved a tense standoff in a small room, and Diggs suddenly being shot out of the blue by one of the other people in the room. Shot in the chin, I realize now that I've watched it, but not instantly fatal -- he has a moment to kind of gape in surprise as he slumps against the wall and fruitlessly tries to apply pressure to the wound.

For some reason, this isolated moment had always sat in the back of my mind, leading me to think The Way of the Gun was some kind of profound comment on the suddenness and brutality of violence. 

Finally watching the film, I know that this is not an accurate descriptor of this film. It's just another post-Tarantino crime movie, even if director Christopher McQuarrie has subsequently distinguished himself through several Mission: Impossible movies (with at least one more to come) as well as Jack Reacher. (In fact, this guy seems to work almost exclusively with Tom Cruise -- he was also writer for Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, The Mummy and Top Gun: Maverick.)

It's not bad, and in its opening moments it even has a fair amount of promise. But then it degenerates into a bunch of really unbelievable shootouts and a series of strained character motivations.

Of course, what it's really known for is the camerawork of Mike Lookinland.