Thursday, September 18, 2014

Play it again, Sam (and again and again)

...Going back to the same pop-culture fare for seconds, thirds, and thirtieths isn't so abnormal. If anything, my re-consumption habits are tame compared to some of you, who have have read Harry Potter more than 10 timeswatched Friday more than 100 times, and spent more of your waking life with The West Wing than Aaron Sorkin. Musicologists estimate that for every hour of music-listening in the typical person's lifetime, 54 minutes are spent with songs we've already heard. Forget the next big thing. We're all suckers for the last big thing. 
Pop culture is a relentless machine of newness and manufactured surprise. We queue around the block for new comic-book-movie installments and crash HBO Go to watch season finales. And yet, I have spent 100 hours of my life watching a movie I could perform verbatim in my living roomWhy do we spend so much time with stories whose endings we already know?
Well, I'm certainly no stranger to this phenomenon, and I imagine most people who love movies feel the same, though a topic like this obviously goes far beyond just movies. There are a couple of other reasons why repeat consumptions of pop culture is so ubiquitous that the article doesn't go into, that bear mentioning here. One is financial: when you can't afford to spend as much money as you like on new CDs and books and Blu-rays, you may find yourself with little choice but to return to the older ones you already have in order to pass the time.

Another reason is critical. There are those who advocate repeat viewings of certain movies in order to get at certain truths, or perspectives, or themes that may have eluded the viewer the first time but are worth the effort at discovering. This may apply more towards the pop culture aesthete as opposed to the casual consumer, though. Many people watch movies for no other reason than enjoyment, and may not be that interested in anything more. If they don't like a given movie, they're not likely to return to it because so-and-so said they're missing out on something deeper.

Chasing Amy is a movie I return to a lot, for many reasons, both critical and personal. I saw it when it was first released, I own the Criterion DVD, and it's a movie I feel I know inside out. Using the criteria cited in the article at the top, I wanna see if the reasons given for repeat consumption line up with my attachment to this movie. I suspect they do, to one degree or another, but let's look anyway...

- The simple reason: one simply likes it. No argument here. From a critical point of view, it remains director Kevin Smith's best movie, in my humble opinion. It takes the lessons he learned from Clerks and Mallrats (good and bad) and applies them towards a story where his raunchy humor and geek sensibility is wedded to a sensitive, modern love story about trust and friendship and discovery in a relationship. It's an unconventional romance which doesn't end on a happy note but does leave the protagonist changed. It's a rom-com that doesn't feel like it's been market-tested to death or made to fit into a certain demographic, and it features characters I feel like I could know in real life. Plus, it's funny as hell. 

- The nostalgic reason. Omigod, definitely this. When I first saw Amy, I was beginning to discover and enjoy independent films; I was an aspiring comic book creator, just like the protagonists; and I was in love with a girl who was out of my league, just like Ben Affleck's character. In watching Amy, I'm automatically taken back to this period in my life because this movie encapsulates so much of what was important to me back then!

- The theraputic reason. This one's a little harder to quantify, if I'm reading this right. Amy ends on a melancholic note, and I accept that because it's the ending that makes the most sense to me, given everything that leads up to it. Do I hope things will end differently sometimes? Do I try to imagine how it could've worked out had one or two things changed? I'm not sure. It's not something I can remember dwelling on to a great degree, but it would not be out of character for me to occasionally wish for a different outcome. Still, I think my general cynicism tends to overcome my optimism, most of the time. It's hard to address this one because it's not like I come into Amy the same way I do to a love-conquers-all kind of movie where the outcome is never in doubt.

- The existential reason. This sounds a little bit like what I said about finding new truths upon re-consumption, but I think this is meant to be on a more personal level instead of a critical one. There are times when I find new perspectives in old movies, and that's certainly possible for me with Amy. Maybe it'll take another viewing or two. I dunno.

One thing the article doesn't go into in detail, which is quite surprising, is the connection to all the reboots and sequels that dominate Hollywood these days. Sticking with the familiar is a formula that currently pays dividends for the major studios because it minimizes financial risk, but I imagine it's also possible that they're feeding the urge for nostalgia that permeates a good deal of our culture. The biggest filmmakers - guys like Nolan, Cameron, Tarantino - seem to be the only ones who mainstream audiences will take a chance on when it comes to original ideas, and even they're not guaranteed studio support sometimes. It's no wonder we end up consuming the same product again and again.

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Related:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love is Strange

There was a line in Love is Strange that stood out for me because it spoke directly to my experience. John Lithgow says something along the lines of how you learn more about a person than you'd like to when you're forced to live with them. I was already friends with Max when I moved in with him during my sojourn in Columbus, and we're still friends today, but without getting into too many details, there were definitely times when we got on each other's nerves. Part of it had to do with the fact that I was moving into his place, as opposed to the two of us getting a place together, but mostly it was discovering how different our lifestyles were. I had never spent so much time living with someone other than family before, and this kinda took me by surprise, because I believed, perhaps nievely, that it would be the opposite.

The lead characters in this domestic drama go through a similar experience. Lithgow and Alfred Molina are a newlywed couple who, when forced out of their apartment (and after Molina's character loses his job), have to live separately with friends and relations until they get back on their feet. There's more to the story, but what stuck with me was the whole notion of how such circumstances force you to reevaluate how you see those who you love and trust most. Living with Max tested our friendship for sure, but we got through it. I like to think I wasn't a great burden on him, at least I hope I wasn't, and he has told me that he learned from the experience, which is encouraging. And of course, I remain eternally grateful for him letting me opening his home to me for as long as he did.

As for the movie itself, it's very nice. I was totally convinced that Molina and Lithgow were a couple; they had outstanding chemistry together. And there was some nice usage of New York city streets as a background. A very reflective movie that draws you into it. Worth seeing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ninotchka

Ninotchka
seen on TV @ TCM
9.10.14

I think it was sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. At least, I'm fairly sure it was around then. I don't remember if I was channel surfing and discovered it by accident or if I knew about it in advance. I distinctly remember seeing it though: PBS aired a bunch of Greta Garbo silents. They may have been clips or they may have been full-length films; I don't recall. 

The point is that I remember watching them on TV and being mesmerized by them. Part of it has to do with the way silent films force you to pay attention to everything, because you'll miss the flow of the plot if you don't. Mostly, though, it was Garbo herself, a singular, rare beauty, timeless and exquisite, someone who belonged on a movie screen, more than most.

Modern movie stars, indeed, modern celebrities in general, can be and often are more down-to-earth and accessible, thanks to social media, than ever before. Garbo was different, though: the detached, distant superstar high up in her ivory tower, so to speak. Perhaps it was appropriate that she rose to fame as a silent star. There's something almost otherworldly about silent film stars. You can't hear their voices, or indeed the world in which they inhabit, so they seem less real, therefore, it's easy to project what you want onto them.



But then came the sound era, and hearing Garbo talk turned out to be no detriment to her career, to say the least. People today don't realize how huge a star she was. To pick one example: there's a poster for a sound movie she did called The Painted Veil, which doesn't sell the movie so much as it sells her. Not only is she above the title, her name - GARBO (no first name necessary) - is in huge letters, underneath a large, dominant shot of her. 

It's the tag line that's the real kicker, though: "The STAR whose flame fires the world!" It's breathtaking in its blunt, naked propagandizing. What is this movie about? Doesn't matter, GARBO is in it. Modern movie posters use large head shots to sell their stars all the time, even in this age of the non-movie star, but there's something about an image like this, used to sell a superstar like Garbo, that speaks to not only her fame, but her public's total adoration of her. Which modern star could you describe in such hyperbolic tones: Jolie? Streep? Depp?



And it's not even like she was that exceptional an actress, to be perfectly honest. She was good in the roles she inhabited, but it's not like she had the versatility of, say, Stanwyck or Hepburn, or the pure power of Davis. I think her appeal rested with her on-screen persona; the magnetism that her face radiated, which I experienced when I saw those silents of hers on TV. One look (preferably on a big screen) at her and you'd be willing to watch her do anything.

Ninotchka came at the tail end of her career, and in re-watching it last week, it occurred to me that this may be one of, if not the most romantic movie I've ever watched. Making an ice queen melt is a rarely-talked-about guy fantasy, an old-fashioned one. There's something about reaching the heart of a woman who seems cold on the surface that represents an almost irresistible challenge, because we guys like to believe that we're creative enough and witty enough to see beneath that cool exterior. Plus, in this case, there's the added bonus of the chick in question being from a foreign culture. More to discover, more to learn.



Melvyn Douglas' character, of course, believes himself up to the task, but it's not until he's caught in an unprepared moment with egg on his face that the object of his affection finally cracks a smile, and indeed, that's a telling moment. Only by letting oneself be exposed and vulnerable, with one's defenses down, we're being told, can one connect with another, and all the pick-up lines and bad jokes can't change that. It's a very human moment, and a very real one.

Once Douglas and Garbo hook up, though, all bets are off. (Does anyone else ever confuse Douglas with William Powell? I used to, but not anymore.) Theirs is a very chaste romance, something else I noticed in watching it last week. Ninotchka and Leon get loaded and stumble back to her hotel room, playing around with the movie's Macguffin, the disputed jewelry, but when she falls asleep, he simply puts her to bed and quietly slips away. It's more than just not wanting to take advantage of her, it's a loving gesture. Ninotchka's not just an infatuation for Leon. By this point in the movie, he genuinely adores her and he wants to do right by her.



Ninotchka is Lubitsch and Wilder (and Brackett), of course, the first Ernst Lubitsch film I ever saw, long before I knew and appreciated who he was, especially in relation to Billy Wilder. In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations with Wilder, Wilder cited the French hat in this movie as an example of the "Lubitsch touch": each time we see Ninotchka and that hat, her attitude towards it changes slightly, from contempt to curiosity to acceptance. Wilder called it a "superjoke," though to me it's less a joke than a shorthand way to define character. The hat in itself is not as important as Ninotchka's perception of it.

As Europeans, Lubitsch and Wilder were in a prime position to examine Soviet Russia and Communism in general in this movie, not just in the culture-clash jokes, but in the contrast between Garbo's Ninotchka, who represents the "new," post-Revolution Russia, and Ina Claire's Grand Duchess Swana, who represents the "old." Claire's is a terrific role, and she gets some great scenes, such as the one where she meets Ninotchka and Leon at dinner and Ninotchka's wearing that stunning evening dress for the first time. 



Swana, as a former member of the aristocracy, wears her sense of entitlement like the jewelry she's fighting to get back, and in this scene she keeps trying to bait Ninotchka, a true believer in the "fairer" world offered by Karl Marx and Communism, who won't fall for it. It's more than a battle of wills, it's a battle of ideologies, and as such, it's not easily resolved.

I can easily watch Ninotchka again and again, even though it kinda drags a little bit after she returns to Russia, and I was pleased to find new things about it to appreciate while watching it last week. (Brief aside: in searching for pics for this post, I had the misfortune to see a few stills from a colorized version, and they look absolutely awful! May that version never see the light of day again!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gremlins

Gremlins
seen on TV @ Ovation
9.9.14

Okay, first things first:

- They can't be exposed to bright light. Okay, that would explain the large pupils. (And you probably thought that was just so they would look cuter, right?) But direct exposure to sunlight kills them? Assuming the mogwai evolved on Earth - which is not at all certain, but let's assume it for now - this kinda flies directly in the face of all we know about solar radiation and its effect on all life on Earth. But we don't know where mogwai come from, so we might as well take this at face value.

- They can't be around water, because they multiply out of all control. Asexual reproduction in animals can be found in nature. The mogwai appear to go through a budding stage kinda like jellyfish, in which they break away from the parent and grow on their own, but there are no precedents in nature for asexual reproduction in such humanoid-looking creatures. (They certainly look mammalian, at any rate.) And yet, they must be asexual - do you recall seeing any female mogwai?


- They can't be fed after midnight. Is that midnight Eastern Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time, Pacific Standard Time, what? And when exactly does the period of not-feeding-mogwai end? At dawn?

None of this is meant to be taken terribly seriously. Gremlins is a fun little B-movie with more wit, heart and imagination than not only most horror movies today, but most movies today in general. Looking at it as an adult, however, I find I can't help but think about these logistical questions that should count as plot holes, but are conveniently ignored thanks to the Rule of Cool.


We first glimpse the mogwai in a "Chinatown" antique shop, and the dual nature of the mogwai - cute, furry and harmless on one hand, yet gruesome, creepy and malicious on the other - made me think about the Chinese concept of yin and yang: complementary, not opposing forces, within the same form. One can't exist without the other when it comes to the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the mogwai. I wonder if writer Chris Columbus had this in mind.

It's interesting to note how quickly the evil mogwai not only corrupt human virtues, but take on human vices. They seem to come out of nowhere; it's like, causing mischief isn't enough, all of a sudden without humans around they start doing things like smoking, drinking and gambling. I would've liked to have seen them learning these things from humans, perhaps from watching TV or movies. That would lend more weight to what Keye Luke says at the end, about how humans aren't ready to handle the mogwai.


Joe Dante is an underrated director. He's never one to settle for cheap thrills; his work always has a satirical edge to it, and yet, they also have much of the spirit of old Hollywood (in the case of Gremlins, sadly, in more ways than one). There's the use of classic movies as touchstones to the plot, of course (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a prelude to the hatching of the evil gremlins, for example), but also in the presentation of the characters: the innocent teenage (young adult?) protagonists who have to save the day when the adults won't listen to their warnings, the good-hearted but clueless father, the crusty-but-lovable salt-of-the-earth types, the cranky, antagonistic senior citizen. They all feel like classic movies tropes to one extent or another, but the story is modern, and it's a shame that there's no room for movies like this in Hollywood anymore.


Also, Phoebe Cates.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Grand Illusion

The World War I in Classic Film Blogathon observes the centennial of the first World War through the films based on or inspired by it, hosted by Movies Silently and Silent-ology. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

Grand Illusion
seen @ "Films on the Green Festival," Pier 1, Riverside Park, New York, NY
7.18.14

When I was in college, I took an art class whose specific name I don't remember, but I certainly recall the teacher. Julie was perhaps my favorite college instructor, partly because she was such a cool person, but also because she encouraged us to think outside the box when it came to our art, and to try things we wouldn't ordinarily do.



In the second half of the class, in the spring, our assignment for the whole semester was to make an art book - a booklet of whatever size featuring original artwork which may or may not have a theme. (See here and here for examples.) This was a new concept to me, and though she didn't say otherwise, I thought she meant a graphic novel, so that's what I did. After wracking my brain for ideas, I came up with a story set during World War 1. Why? Like I said, Julie encouraged us to think big. Even though I had never written a war story of any kind before, nor did I have any experience with drawing things like biplanes or tanks or guns (all of which had to be period- and place-specific), I took a shot.

No, I won't go into detail about it because looking back on it now, the end product is pretty damn embarrassing. I will say a few things about it: I lucked out in finding a photo book on WW1 in a used bookstore, which was of tremendous value. Still have it, in fact. I put myself and a bunch of my friends in the story as characters, which they got a kick out of. And Julie liked my finished book (which I bound myself as well) enough to give me a passing grade. Still, if I were to do it again, it would look very different.



The WW1 movies I've seen almost never get into the politics of the conflict. They tend to just plop you down into the middle of the war and assume you understand why it's going on in the first place. World War 2 movies, on the other hand, tend to be different. It's easy to see why Hollywood, and indeed, the European film industry as well, returns to WW2 time and again, even today. For one thing, it's still within living memory for some. More importantly, though, there are clearer-cut good guys and bad guys. When the Pearl Harbor centennial comes around in 2041, I have no doubt that it'll be a major event that every American will reflect on to one degree or another. The generation who grew up with WW1, by contrast, is gone, and the name Franz Ferdinand is arguably better known today as that of a rock band.



Still, the movies we got out of WW1 are good, and few are better than Grand Illusion. For one thing, Erich von Stroheim gets to speak three different languages, which is pretty boss. It may seem quaint, the way it depicts German officers having such respect and even admiration for their French counterparts, even though they're on opposite sides of the conflict, but I think it says something about the common humanity they share. It's so easy to make the enemy out to be unworthy of mercy or sympathy, especially when they come from another culture.

And of course, for those of us removed from the fighting, it's an aspect of military culture we rarely get to see - at least, not while the fighting's still going on. I'm reminded, as I write this, of a documentary that I saw earlier this year, The Second Meeting, in which two soldiers on opposite sides meet in civilian life years after they met in combat. Once again, war is incapable of obscuring the things we all share, on both sides of the battlefield.



It was a huge crowd, or at least it felt like one, at Riverside Park's Pier 1 on the night I saw the movie, back in July. The pier is comparatively skinny, and everyone was seated close together, which certainly made it seem like there was lots of people. They ran out of seats at one point and the latecomers simply sat down on the concrete, maybe 20-30 feet behind the seated audience at least. It wasn't as windy that night as it was last year, when I went there to see Gold Diggers of 1933, but the weather out on the Hudson River was still cool and pleasant.

The woman seated next to me told me that she and her husband (I think he was her husband, anyway) came without knowing what movie was playing. I had to tell her! They were an older couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s. They had heard that movies were being shown at Riverside and decided to come down for a lark. I had never heard of anybody doing anything like that before, though now that I think about it, I'll bet it may happen more often than I imagine. Still, I thought it was quite a leap of faith on their part. I mean, the movie could've been Manos: The Hands of Fate for all they knew!



She had a bit of a problem seeing the subtitles in the beginning. She switched seats with hubby but that didn't seem to help. I was sitting on the aisle, and I thought about letting her switch with me, but then she whipped out her cell phone and started texting somebody, and as soon as I saw that, I thought, the hell with it. Let her suffer! They both ended up moving forward when space opened up, so I never found out what she thought of the movie. Oh well.

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Other WW1 movies:
Sergeant York
All Quiet on the Western Front
Wings
War Horse

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mickey (1918)

Mickey (1918)
seen online via YouTube

I had a vague understanding of who Mabel Normand was prior to reading Jeanine Basinger's book Silent Stars, but of course I had never seen any of her films. I knew she was an early comedic actress of note. That was about it. I doubt that even casual film fans know who she was, since she's not talked about as often as much as the big three of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

A former model, Normand first rose to prominence in films with actor/producer Mack Sennett, first at DW Griffith's Biograph, and in 1912, at Keystone, the studio Sennett co-founded. Later, Normand would be teamed up with Fatty Arbuckle for a successful run of films. Normand and Sennett formed a romantic relationship during this time that almost led to marriage, but not quite. In 1916, at Normand's request, Sennett formed a production company for her, where she hoped to make movies that would expand her range, and Mickey was the first film to come from this new company.


I didn't really grok much of Mickey. She plays the adopted tomboy daughter of a miner who gets sent east to live with rich relations in an effort to make her more of a lady. Some dude falls in love with her, there's some stuff about the mine, there's a horse race, and she ends up happily married, but I kinda got lost after she moves east. I didn't care about the dudes who fall for her; they both seemed interchangeable until one of them shows his true colors late in the film. I couldn't quite follow the stuff about the mine, either, because there's some sort of deception involved which didn't make any sense to me and isn't even revealed until the very end.

I did like Normand, however, and I liked watching her. She's adorable, for one thing. For another, she's not afraid to do physical comedy, the kind that guys like Chaplin (with whom she worked with) were famous for, from gags with animals like dogs and horses, to big chases. She had an exuberance that shows when she does things like dance or run. There's one scene where it looks like she's diving naked into a lake, but it's shot from so far away that one can't be entirely sure whether she's naked or not (but I think she is!).


Mickey was made as an attempt by Normand to do a Mary Pickford kind of movie - that is, a rags-to-riches Cinderella story where she goes from a rough-and-tumble tomboy to a glamour girl, and at the time of its release, it was a big hit. Afterwards, she left Sennett and signed with Goldwyn Pictures. Normand and Sennett argued throughout the production of Mickey in a battle for control. Mickey came out in 1918, but it was completed in 1917. Normand was acknowledged by the public as a comedic star, but she wasn't getting paid like one, hence the move to Goldwyn. She would return to Sennett after Goldwyn Pictures went under in 1920.

Normand's career declined in the 20s as the result of her connection to several industry scandals, excessive partying off-screen (including a spur-of-the-moment marriage made in a drunken stupor), and a bout of tuberculosis. She died in 1930 at the age of 37 without having ever made the transition to the sound era. Still, even though I wasn't that crazy about Mickey, she strikes me as having been a lively and fun actress.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Back to school links

I don't have too much more to add to the things everyone else has already said about the death of Lauren Bacall last month. I regret to say that outside of her movies with Humphrey Bogart, I haven't seen much of her other films. For instance, I saw How to Marry a Millionaire long ago, during my video store days. I think I saw Young Man with a Horn recently, but I don't remember. That's about it. I suspect the movies with Bogey are so iconic, loom so large in people's memories, that it's easy to forget the other stuff she did, but she worked well into the 21st century. She had a full life and a fine career. Can't ask for much more.

As you've noticed by now, I have a new home on Tumblr. Facebook was pissing me off; I was losing posts for no particular reason, which was a pain because sometimes I need to go back and refer to a link I posted there and it would be gone. So that's why I decided to shut down my page there. The Tumblr page will serve the exact same function. Head on over and take a look and let me know what you think of it.

So after all that talk about going to outdoor movies this summer, I ended up fizzling out on them. Why? A number of reasons: the weather, working on the book, abrupt changes of plan, general apathy. I dunno. I don't think I'm getting tired of them, but maybe I am.


Your links for this month:

Page tours the museum devoted to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell.

Danny breaks down the Jimmy Cagney classic Public Enemy in grand fashion.

Aurora recaps her time at CapitolFest.

If you haven't been following Fritzi's "Cooking With the (Silent) Stars" feature, you really oughta. She's found a 1929 Photoplay cookbook which features movie stars of the day endorsing recipes, and she's cooking them.

Jennifer's written a novel! And classic movies helped her write it.

Ellen Burstyn, age 81, is gonna direct her first movie.

Film projectionists know their time is coming soon.

Superstar cameos in blockbuster movies is a thing now, and it's a bit of a problem.

Why some comic books adapt to the movies harder than others.

Kirk Douglas remembers Lauren Bacall.