Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stranger Than Paradise

The 1984-a-Thon is an event celebrating the films of the year 1984, presented by Forgotten Films. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

Stranger Than Paradise
seen online via YouTube

The first time I saw Stranger Than Paradise was during my video store days, in the mid-to-late-90s, which is when I was getting deep into independent cinema. Obviously, it was the perfect time for this. The 90s explosion in indie film, from sex, lies and videotape in 1989 to the rise of the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax and oh-so-many important films and filmmakers; the foundation for all of that was laid in the 80s with films like Stranger and directors like Jim Jarmusch.

Jarmusch is one of the filmmakers Kevin Smith thanks at the very end of the credits in Clerks, his debut feature, "for leading the way." Indeed, in looking at Clerks, it's easy to see the Jarmusch influence: like Stranger, Clerks is a minimalist black-and-white film with a small cast of primary characters, one without a great deal of fancy camerawork, shot on location in everyday settings.

I bring up Clerks because it, like Roger & Me a few years before it, was a popular indie movie with plenty of buzz that attracted my attention at a time when I was beginning to discover movies other than the ones at my local multiplex. Long-time readers of this blog know how much Smith's films have meant to me over the years. Well, it began with Clerks, and the roots of that movie's success can be traced back to Jarmusch and what he accomplished back in the 80s.

In the seminal book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes by influential indie film impresario John Pierson, which traces the rise of the 80s and early 90s indie boom in America, Smith provides running commentary with Pierson throughout the book as an example of a young (at the time) filmmaker who embodied the new film paradigm. Here, Smith talks about Jarmusch's influence on him:
You watch Stranger, you think "I could really make a movie".... First thing, the camera doesn't move. Jarmusch sets it up and things happen. His really sparse dialogue is not my forte, but visually he's it - at least for the first film. If I'm gonna do a movie, I'm gonna do it like this and just add dialogue.... The one shot that really got me every time I watched Mystery Train is when the Japanese couple walks with the suitcase on the stick and the camera is moving for one of the first times in a Jarmusch film other than the car shot at the beginning of Down By Law. Wow, a moving camera, but still it seems utterly unattainable. I'm sitting there watching before I'm "film knowledgeably whizzy," as Flavor Flav would say. I'm watching saying, "All right, it's gotta be maybe some tracks and a dolly - something I could do. If you have to move the camera, you could do it like that."
As a storyteller, I think Jarmusch is an acquired taste. Stranger is not a movie for the easily distracted or for those who prefer a more visual flourish - and I don't even mean your average Hollywood blockbuster, but someone more like, say, Wes Anderson, whose visual aesthetic is such a large part of his cinematic identity.

I watched Stranger on my laptop which, I admit, may not be the most ideal way to watch it. The long takes Jarmusch employs provide more opportunities to notice small things: a certain look an actor gives, a key gesture here or there, that kind of thing, which most modern films aren't interested in. I'm not sure how much of that you'll find here, though. There are scenes where they'll just watch TV, or a movie, and you're sitting there waiting for something to happen, wondering if anything will happen, and it can get pretty damn tedious! 

Smith, as he says in Spike Mike, is more interested in filling those empty spaces with his unique brand of dialogue, which is what I responded to the first time (and every time) I watched ClerksWith Stranger, one has to make more of an investment in the story to appreciate its subtlety, and that's not easy, especially when I really doubt there's much beneath the surface. The two guys are lowlifes, and while the girl may have a little depth to her, it's not really explored.

Stranger's success notwithstanding, I think it's more of a movie to be appreciated than loved. To take into consideration when it came out is vitally important in appreciating it, because, as Smith says, it made filmmaking look easy. Pierson underscores this point in Spike Mike:
[Martin] Scorsese claims that the greatest impact of John Cassavetes' 16mm Shadows was simply this: There were no more excuses for aspiring directors who were afraid of high costs or unmanageable equipment. That was then, and this was now. His statement, when applied to Jarmusch, rings totally true for the first three New York filmmakers I worked with, Bill Sherwood, Spike Lee, and Lizzie Borden, and continues all the way through to Kevin Smith.... Stranger Than Paradise was both brilliant and attainable. The camera doesn't move for artistic reasons. Conveniently that made it much cheaper to make. When the budget drops, the profit potential rises. Stranger Than Paradise grossed $2.5 million in North America and was a hit all over the world - especially in France and Japan.
Jarmusch recently talked about, among other things, the changes in independent cinema today, and he said that smaller budgets (he gave $200,000 as a ballpark figure) are critical, especially when filmmakers get down to what he called "the essential thing" of a movie. It seems to me that this sounds little different from the process he applied in Stranger. Over the course of his long career, it seems to have stood him in good stead.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Requiem for the video store, part 3: It's dead, Kim!

...There was a mythos that everybody was an asshole there — like you would get serious attitude from the clerks. I’m a very jovial and gregarious person, and I didn’t play it like that. I talked about all the movies and all the staff really got along. When I was there, there was never any attitude that wasn’t fun. But I’d make mix tapes and always wind up playing them too loud. The customers would complain — they’re trying to pick a movie and the music’s blasting. All my connections today come from that job — everybody I work with now. The connections have like six degrees of separation, but it all goes back to Kim’s.
I worked at the Avenue A Kim's Video for the final year of its existence, from 2003-04. I'm pretty sure I answered a classified ad in the Village Voice to get the job. Previously, I had put in five and a half years at a video store on Third Avenue in Manhattan, so I had earned my cinematic education by the time I arrived at Avenue A. Unlike my first day at Third, I felt like I fit in at Kim's instead of being low man on the totem pole.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


The Spielberg Blogathon is an event devoted to the career of the titular producer-writer-director, hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, Citizen Screenings & It Rains... You Get Wet. For a complete listing of participating blogs, visit the links at the host sites.

The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past entries, visit the home site.
seen on TV @ AMC

This was a totally last-minute post! When I watched Jaws earlier this week, I hadn't planned on writing about it at first, until I realized I hadn't seen it before, and so I thought it would make for a good Blind Spot post for Ryan. Then I remembered there was a Spielberg Blogathon going on this weekend, which I had completely forgotten about! Add it all up, and I knew I could slay twice as many avian creatures with the same hunk of earth. Isn't it great how these things work out sometimes?

I totally thought I had seen Jaws at some point or another in my life. It's one of those movies where if you're a film fan, it's kinda considered part of the unofficial canon, so to speak. So imagine my surprise when I realized about a half hour or so into the movie that no, I really hadn't seen it.

I wish my first time had been on a big screen. There are numerous outdoor movies that play all over the five boroughs during the summer, and Jaws is a fairly regular staple. Granted, not all of the screenings are on large theater-style screens, nor are they all on 35mm film, but still, if ever a movie needs to be seen on the big screen, it's this one. I honestly don't feel like I got the total experience seeing it on TV.

I kept thinking as I watched it that "Oh, yeah, the shark's totally fake." I'd read about all the problems Steven Spielberg had with "Bruce" during filming and his eventual decision to just hide the shark for most of the movie. I'd say this is common knowledge to film fans, bordering on film lore. So I didn't expect to be creeped out by the shark, and I wasn't - much. Yeah, there were moments that felt real, but I think my knowledge of the making of Jaws might have gotten in the way of surrendering to the make-believe, another reason why I wish I had seen this on the big screen instead.

So history shows that Jaws was the movie that begot the blockbuster era of filmmaking, yet looking at it in 2014 for the first time, it strikes me as a far cry from Transformers or The Fast and the Furious or Avengers, and not just for the differences in technological advances. Jaws feels more character driven, for one thing. Even while Brody, Hooper and Quint are out on that boat looking for the shark (I figured out where Kevin Smith got those names from long ago, by the way), Spielberg still finds time for them to share a quiet moment together, swapping stories about brushes with death (a scene Smith parodies in Chasing Amy!).

Also, when [SPOILER] dies, it isn't telegraphed in any way. It just happens, and when it did, I was caught totally unprepared for it. I was like, "Wait, he's not really dead, is he?" even though getting chomped in half by "Bruce" would seem to provide a definitive answer to that. There was a recent article (don't have the link) about how movie deaths have lost their meaning and surprise, and indeed, I was hard pressed to think of the last movie death that surprised me - until now.

Obviously, there's something to be said for using actual, physical objects that actors can interact with as opposed to CGI. This is something I've harped on so many times before that it scarcely bears repeating, and Spielberg deserves all the credit in the world for taking a mechanical shark that gave him no end of difficulty and making it look menacing in the finished product.

I'd say that this looks like a Spielberg movie. Something about the cinematography, the editing, the interaction of the actors, feels like 70s/80s-era Spielberg, in ways that writers better versed in film technique than me could describe. The best way I can describe it is by saying that if you showed Jaws and one of the first three Indiana Jones movies back to back to someone who had never heard of Spielberg before, I'm willing to bet that this person would recognize the two as being made by the same man.

So yeah, I like Jaws a lot, but I won't consider myself having really seen it until I see it on a big screen one day. Also, did anyone else have the Jaws home game growing up? I loved that game (even if it's not fondly remembered anymore).

Other Steven Spielberg movies:
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
War Horse
The Adventures of Tintin
The Terminal
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, NY

"Beware the movie that's Fun! with a capital F, the one populated with seemingly unpretentious characters that say adorable, clever things, the one that presents each off-kilter joke as if it were a porcelain curio, the one that boasts a comfort-food soundtrack of songs you've always liked but perhaps haven't heard in a while. On the plus side, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, adapted from the Marvel comic book series of the same name, has a sense of humor about itself: Even when characters strut around dropping hefty expository bundles like 'Ronan is destroying Xanderian outposts throughout the galaxy!' they do so with a wink. But by the end, you'll have been winked at so much you may think you've been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn't got the beat...." - Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

In the words of the late great Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, "Excrement." If this were the foreword to a book about modern-day blockbuster movies, I would be imploring you to rip it out from the spine. I have nothing against Stephanie Zacharek. I remember reading her when she was at Movieline, and she always struck me as a competent reviewer. If all she was saying was that she disliked Guardians of the Galaxy, I'd be fine with that. What I object to is this notion that "Fun! with a capital F" is somehow a bad thing, especially in the context of sci-fi movies from the last five years or so (at least).

When I wrote about Man of Steel, for instance, I mocked that movie's grim, joyless atmosphere by writing in a similar manner, exaggerated for effect. By way of comparison, I re-watched Superman II not too long ago, and I was amazed at the amount of humor that movie has, even in its big fight scenes. While there's large-scale destruction, things never felt completely hopeless, and though there was a genuine sense of danger that had weight and substance, there was still room for levity. The same was true of the first Superman film.

In recent years, however, many action movies have shown less of an inclination to balance the two, or at least to do it well. Even a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I loved, was not immune to this trend. Humor is obviously subjective, and what one person finds funny, another will find dull. If Zacharek didn't find the humor in Guardians funny, I could accept that, but nowhere in the rest of her review does she imply that, nor does she allow for the possibility that others might enjoy the humor - and there are genuinely funny moments here. I can't remember the last time I laughed as hard and as much at a new movie, and it was definitely an inclusive laughter. Frankly, I find it kinda sad that Zacharek can't see that.

Granted, Guardians is a derivative movie. It follows a number of familiar story beats and tropes, and it owes a tremendous debt to the original Star Wars. Its levity is what saves the movie for me. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that it's more in the spirit of A New Hope than any of George Lucas' prequels. I went into Guardians determined to not fall for the hype. I didn't believe it was as great as everyone was making it out to be, including, it must be said, my comic book friends on Facebook and Twitter, but I was dead wrong.

In thinking afterwards about why I resisted Guardians, the answer seemed obvious. All of the other comic book superhero movies are based on characters I grew up with and have had strong feelings for. In my mind, I have fixed impressions of how they "should" be, and I've been judging those films based on how close or far they hit the mark. 

With Guardians, while I remember the names, these versions of those characters are so unfamiliar to me, they may as well be brand new. I didn't grow up with them, even though I knew they existed, and I didn't have any strong feeling for them. While there may be a Guardians comic now, I've never read it and know nothing about it. It's a Marvel movie, yet I unconsciously treated it as if it were X-Men or Avengers. Coupled with the fatigue I was feeling over superhero movies in general, I felt no motivation to see this, until the buzz became too loud to ignore.

Another thing I realized in retrospect is this: it may be different now, but for a very long time, especially when I was reading Marvel comics in the 80s, practically every alien character talked exactly the same. They all spoke in this end-of-the-world, deadly serious voice as if they were all Mr. Spock. That never bothered me as a kid; in fact, I never even noticed it. In the movie, I was momentarily taken aback to see, for example, Michael Rooker's character, Yondu, speaking like a hillbilly, but I accepted it because it made him stand out more.

Zacharek speaks as if the distinction between genuine humor and pretentious, "winking" humor was self-evident, but I submit that it's not always as exact a science as that, and even if it were, it doesn't matter in the end. As cynical as I am about Hollywood blockbusters these days, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, as did the audience around me, and I didn't think about distinctions between what's "really" funny and what's merely "self-aware" humor. Zacharek simply missed the boat and tried to cover it up with empty rhetoric that doesn't apply here.

I would be remiss in talking about Guardians and not mentioning the story that has emerged regarding creators' compensation over some of the characters, in particular Rocket Raccoon and co-creator Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was a writer who frustrated me. In his prime, he was quite entertaining and imaginative, yet he could also be pedantic, redundant and straight-up bizarre. Like all Marvel writers back in the day, he was under a mandate to treat every issue like someone's first, which meant loading down the dialogue with exposition, but he also had a penchant for off-putting melodrama that rivaled Chris Claremont at times. Still, I read the books he wrote and generally liked them.

Work-for-hire contracts have been the rule of law for Marvel and DC Comics for many years, and it has meant many of comics' best creators not getting their fair share of the profits made from the characters they created. I've been out of the comics' game for years now, but from what little I've seen, it appears that slow, incremental progress away from that system may be getting made - nowhere near enough to bring about a sea change, though. 

Mantlo has sympathy on his side on account of his medical condition, but others have not been so fortunate as to have even that much. Still, Mantlo and Rocket co-creator Keith Giffen were acknowledged in the movie's credits, as were the creators of another, very special character who appears in the post-credits scene, one whom I was pleased to see in the movies again.

This was my second trip to Movieworld, and I indulged myself with a big ol' bag of popcorn for a big ol' popcorn movie such as this. Odd thing: at one point late in the film, someone left one of the doors open in the back and I could hear the pre-show crap coming from the auditorium across the hall. Guardians was loud enough that it could be ignored, but I still found that strange. While waiting for the post-credits scene, I saw that the auditorium doors opposite were still open. The Giver was playing. I couldn't tell if anyone was inside. None of this spoiled the movie for me, but I hope it doesn't happen the next time I go there.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Books: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Last week's suicide death of Robin Williams has reminded us once again that the life of a movie star, or any rich and famous celebrity, really, is no refuge from hidden mental anguish. For the record, I thought he was a world-class talent whose best roles fused his maniacal comic skills with his capability for deep drama. (I doubt any of us will be able to watch Dead Poets Society the same way again, that's for certain.) 52 years ago this month, however, another Hollywood legend surrendered to mental illness in an equally tragic manner. 

When Marilyn Monroe reached the end of her road, she spent much of her adult life fearing that she would end up like her mother and grandmother before her, both of whom had histories of mental problems. It was a struggle that would hamper her career and impair her business and social relationships, but because she was so beloved by those around her, and so determined to pursue her career in Hollywood despite her issues, her story comes across as more heroic than one would think.

The portrait J. Randy Taraborrelli paints in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is that of a woman emotionally scarred as the result of a difficult childhood, yet eager to love, and to be loved. The author conducts new interviews and does extensive research in putting together a more comprehensive look at the iconic glamour queen of the movies who strove to become a serious actress. Throughout the biography, he refers to books others have written about Monroe, including Monroe's autobiography, and in many places, he sets the record straight about her through his own resources and inquiries. According to Taraborrelli, Monroe spread many fabrications about her life that were taken as fact for years.

The former Norma Jeane Mortensen is presented in Secret Life as a beautiful young woman who was born the daughter of a promiscuous woman with paranoia issues inherited from her own mother, and grew up in a variety of different homes with different guardians. We see the circumstances that led Monroe to a modeling career at first, and then the life of a movie star. We see Monroe in three difficult and trying marriages. We see her attempts to both connect with the father she barely knew, and to protect her mother from total insanity as her condition worsened over the years. We see her doubting her own sanity in later years. And of course, we see the making of the films that made her who she was, and we learn that "Marilyn Monroe" was as much a construct as the roles she played.

J. Randy Taraborrelli
I never knew a great deal about Monroe's personal history, so reading about all this came as quite a revelation. All the juicy stuff is in Secret Life, of course: the marriage to an abusive and possessive Joe DiMaggio, the battles with 20th Century-Fox for more than just glamour-girl roles, the relationship with the Kennedy family, etc., but what emerges from the controversy and the afflictions is the Marilyn Monroe that often gets lost underneath all of that: a self-made movie star who went to great lengths to better herself in her career, when she could've just as easily settled for being what the public adored her as: a sex symbol. She didn't even make that much money during her lifetime, at least not compared to contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor.

Even today, little is known about how to treat mental illness and depression. In Secret Life, we see Monroe go through a battery of doctors, take a pharmacy's worth of different pills, and drink herself into stupors, all in a frantic attempt to combat what she believed was the slow deterioration of her mind. Taraborrelli's account has her clinging to hope that something, some combination of the right doctor and the right pill, would work. 

She never found it... but she was able to not only persevere despite this ongoing battle, but she left behind a legacy matched by very few in Hollywood history, which is why we cherish her memory, even today, and likely always will.

Main Street
Silent Stars
Three Fingers

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am number four (in a metaphorical sense)

I can hardly believe I've made this blog last four years. It hasn't always been easy, but it has been personally rewarding for me in a lot of ways. Thank you for joining me on this little journey.

A quick update on the WSW book: I've picked out which essays to include and I've gone over them forwards and backwards, spell-checking and streamlining them. It's tedious, to say the least, but it must be done. Also, in case I hadn't mentioned it, there will be new material in this volume. What exactly it is will be revealed in due course. The plan is to release this as an e-book first, and depending on how well it does, a print version will hopefully follow, so stay tuned.

Finally, going through my archives has made me realize that it's been two years since I released my "City Mouse, Agent of AMPAS" comic strip and a lot of you haven't seen it, especially you classic film fans who would really appreciate it, so here it is once again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Split Second

Split Second
seen on TV @ TCM

I've written before about growing up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war hung over our heads, even if it wasn't something we thought about every day. It wasn't like it was in the 50s; we never had to practice "duck and cover" routines in the classroom or anything like that. For my generation, nuclear war was woven into the culture, but in the background for the most part. Something talked about every now and then, but in the abstract. Something that was the grown-ups' problem.

The first American atomic bomb test was on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, and though its original intent was to win World War 2 for the Allied powers, it evolved into what was supposed to be the ultimate deterrent against the Soviet Union, who developed their own A-bomb four years later.

Split Second came out in 1953, when bomb testing became a regular thing. By this time, we had moved on to hydrogen bombs (the first test was in 1952 in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands), and both the US and the Soviets were indeed in a race to see who could build the biggest and baddest arsenal. The movie takes place in Nevada. The Nevada Test Site was 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and the mushroom clouds resulting from the tests could be seen for a hundred miles.

Split Second was the directing debut of singer turned actor Dick Powell. I didn't know much about him other than he started out as a romantic lead who switched to noir films, which, I suppose, would be the equivalent today of what Matthew McConaughey has done with his career. I saw him recently in a film called Footlight Parade, with Jimmy Cagney, which was a lot of fun. His singing wasn't bad, but he struck me as being little different from a lot of 30s movie crooners. Nothing like Crosby or Sinatra.

Give him props, though, for reinventing his career not once, but twice, first as a dramatic actor, then as a director. Murder My Sweet has been on my to-watch list for a long time, and the fact that it's as revered as it is must mean that he did a good job with drama. According to the TCM Database, he tried out for what became Fred MacMurray's role in Double Indemnity, which would've been his dramatic debut instead!

Split Second is an actor's ensemble with a clever premise: an escaped convict and his wounded partner kidnap a group of strangers and hide out in a deserted town near where a nuclear bomb test is about to commence. One of the strangers has an ex-husband who's a doctor, and the con negotiates with him for his help in treating his comrade before the bomb goes off.

Powell does a good job with the actors. It's a big cast for a debut film, one which bounces back and forth against each other in different ways throughout the film, and he gets good performances out of them. Most of the action takes place in a single location, which helped, I'll bet. After this, Powell would go on to do the Genghis Khan biopic The Conqueror, with John Wayne of all people, so even if it may not have been the best choice for a follow-up, at least he felt confident enough to tackle something much bigger.

My interest in seeing this film was actress Alexis Smith. Jacqueline wrote a terrific piece about her a few years ago - it was probably one of the first posts I ever read on her blog - and it made me aware of the actress for the first time. Smith was never a superstar, at least not in Hollywood, but she had a late career comeback on Broadway which led to a Tony Award. She has a great role in Split Second, one that requires her to be vain, shallow and self-centered, and she does it very well.