Friday, July 26, 2013

Film Friday: The Way Way Back

Fourteen sucks.

Especially if your mom is dating an asshole.  And your dad's got a new girlfriend on the other coast.

That's the situation for Duncan (Liam James), who's going to be spending the summer at the beach home of aforementioned asshole Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin), as mom (Toni Collette) tries hard to make this situation work well.

But Duncan realizes that he's clearly an afterthought among all the people his mom begins to associate with: off-the-wagon neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet).   They drink, party, and when Betty's oldest son scores, they smoke pot.  "It's like spring break for grownups," quips Betty's lovely teen daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).  Duncan finds an old pink bike in the garage and begins to ride around the beach town, where he happens to make friends with Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is the manager of the Water Wizz water park.  And it is when Duncan secretly begins working at the park that he finally finds himself.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote the script, co-directed, and play minor but funny parts, have created a very charming anti-Beach movie, one that uses many silly references to eighties culture (almost as many as The Wedding Singer, which of course was set in 1985).  Rockwell's Owen is the wisecracking father figure Duncan needs, the right guy at the right time.  Of course, he's just as much an overgrown child as the adults back at the beach houses, as his girlfriend and fellow manager Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph, who doesn't make crappy movies, does she) points out to him after one near-crisis is averted.  But his status as a "guy" gives him the perspective Duncan craves; the other adults in Duncan's life seek to forget that they are grown-up.  This is especially the case with Trent; he tells Duncan that "there has to be trust and respect" in order for this potential blended family to work, but he deserves neither, and Duncan knows it.   When he confronts his mother and Trent with what he knows, it forces all the adults to make some tough, adult decisions.  (Mom makes a nice one, eventually, at the very end, not a melodramatic one, but one that makes you have hope as the credits come up.)

The script is generally clever and not cloying; the opening conversation with Trent and Duncan, where he tells the kid, "I think you're a 3," was based on a real conversation Rash had with his stepfather, and it feels about right.  Rockwell clearly is enjoying himself as the snarky wise one, and he has the best lines.  Of course the film gives us the usual boys-will-be-boys shenanigans, and some scenes at the park feel quite frankly not unlike the ones you could watch from those old sixties Beach movies.  The Way Way Back is not the innocent summer love of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, nor is it as self-consciously a fairy tale like Anderson's film was. (It's also not as meticulously composed, either.)  Nor is it really a coming-of-age film, though it has some elements of it.  It's really a snapshot, showing a young man seeking happiness and overcoming his -- and his mom's -- fears.  Maybe he'll get through fourteen and it won't suck as much.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Steroid Guys and Weiner Guys: Take a Page from Dave

"you, ah, want to hear a story?"

This is how one television icon began to diffuse what could have been -- should have been -- a career-ending scandal.

And while it happened four years ago, a lot of guys seem not to have learned any lessons from him.

David Letterman was never a jock.  And was never a politician.  But he hasn't had to quit his job even though it could have happened that way.

Back in 2009, Letterman was being blackmailed into paying someone hush-up money.  The blackmailer threatened to reveal that Dave had had numerous sexual relationships with women who worked for him  -- relationships he was having while living with his longtime girlfriend and eventual wife Regina Lasko.  Now, Hollywood scandals are cheap, we know, but Letterman, who still struggles in the ratings against Leno, surely didn't need this publicity.  Not only had it been a big deal that he'd finally married Lasko -- their son Harry was almost six when the couple "went legal" -- but these days, workplace sex politics can be complicated, even for the boss.  He might have been opening himself up to possible lawsuits just by getting involved with his employees.

Had this been an episode of Matlock, Dave would have confronted the blackmailer, killed him accidentally with a hockey stick ("hit somebody!"), and tried to cover up his crime and blame it on Paul Shaffer.

Dave could have just paid the blackmailer off.  Until of course he came calling again.

He could have done nothing, let the whole thing explode, and either deny deny deny or no-comment no-comment no-comment and then finally admit the whole thing to Oprah later on.

But Dave did none of these things.  He called his lawyer as soon as the blackmailer made his initial threat.  The lawyer contacted the Manhattan D.A.'s office.   Eventually, after several direct meetings with the man, Letterman appeared before the Manhattan Grand Jury to give evidence so that the Jury could issue a warrant for the blackmailer, who was arrested.

The day of the blackmailer's arrest, Letterman taped his "confession" about the events of the previous three weeks.   If you watch it, you realize how brilliant a performance it is.  It is the best diffusing of a public relations nightmare since Tylenol managed to avoid going under after the cyanide crisis of the 1980's.  (And that, by the way, is literally the textbook on how corporations avert catastrophes, though obviously some of them haven't read it lately.)

As Ryan Braun, and before him Lance Armstrong, have stood before the microphones and emphatically denied any wrong-doing in the area of performance-enhancing drugs, and as they and so many others who have denied and denied and eventually admitted guilt, I keep thinking of Dave's confession.  As so many politicians who have come before us denying any hanky-panky only later to admit some fault, I keep thinking of Dave's confession.

The obvious first key to Letterman's success with this mess is that he got out in front of it.  Not only did he go right to the authorities, but when it came time for the truth to come out, he was the one who got to tell his story first, not the tabloids.   It's so much easier to handle the consequences that way.  A couple of baseball juicers have made admissions after getting caught, which is not quite getting out in front, but those who "confessed" -- Andy Pettitte comes to mind -- have managed to escape the sharpest scalpels of the baseball writers (who, as I have said, are a sanctimonious group to be sure.)

By telling the story first, Letterman also got to cast his blackmailer in a critical light, mocking his ambitions to turn his information into a movie script and tell-all book.   Most of the confession is spent telling of the blackmail situation; Dave reveals the substance of the blackmail near the end, and while it is surprising, the audience is behind him by this point. 

But the most important key to the genius of this confession is that Dave remains Dave.  He stays very much in the same persona that he always has had since his first morning talk show thirty-plus years ago.  He is self-deprecating, a little caustic, and full of "Lutheran Midwestern guilt."   He learned very well from his mentor, the late Johnny Carson, who had his share of private ups and downs over the years.  His use of the term "hinky" causes continued convulsions in the audience.  He's got them, and despite the seriousness of the circumstances, he knows they're his.  So by the time we get to the sex, he's already been forgiven, and when he tells them the allegations are true, they are applauding.  You'd think he'd done some kind of jedi mind trick.  Here is a man who has cheated on the mother of his child, a woman whom he'd finally married, a man who is having sex with his employees (according to what I've read, there is no specific policy at Letteman's company that prohibits sexual relationships between managers and employees, though CBS supposedly requires that "suppliers" like Letterman's company are supposed to follow protocols of the network, which Dave surely did not do). And they are cheering him.

But Ryan Braun stood before a microphone last year when his appeal for a suspension was awarded and declared that his victory against Baseball was a victory for all who have been falsely accused.  (Braun tested positive for PEDs, but because the collector's handling of Braun's sample did not supposedly follow protocols, the test was tossed out.)  Many came to his side and supported him. Now they all have egg on his face as he accepts a 65-game suspension because his name was linked to a designer drug lab in Florida, Biogenesis.  Lance Armstrong threatened to destroy people if they revealed his PED use, and he insisted for eons that he was clean.  And there he was on Oprah saying, yes, I did them, and he has become a symbol of all that is arrogant about today's athlete.  As some commentators have said recently, it's like they lie so much they really believe somehow it's true.  And was it a year ago that Anthony Weiner tried to claim that his cell phone was hacked as a way of explaining the pictures of his member?  Or Larry Craig talking about a wide stance in a bathroom?  You get the idea. 

I've always loved Dave, from way back in those early NBC days, but as I've got older I'm not usually watching much tv at all, and yes I've gravitated to the slightly younger generation of Stewart/Colbert (who are on a bit earlier, too).   I've spent little time watching much tv regularly anyway.  (As a parent, I'm used to not getting the first choice of viewing, and I also canned cable tv, preferring the streaming option.)  I feel pretty crappy for Harry, and for Dave's wife, and even the women who got involved with Letterman; those kinds of workplace situations are not easy to manage even for people who are not committed to other people, as Dave was.  I can't dismiss the idea that I'm not happy about what Dave did, because he was in a position of power with the women he was having sex with.  But make no mistake; Dave should have won an Emmy for this performance.  This is a model of how one handles scandal.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cheerios and Kids: Black and White and Green

Okay, so you've all heard about the Cheerios ad with the biracial couple and the bigoted comments left at the video's page on YouTube.  Blah Blah Blah. 

You might have seen this video, created by Fine Bros., who specialize in producing "React" series of different demographics responding to viral videos (Kids React, Teens React, etc.).   The video is a "feel-good" one: the kids watch the Cheerios video, laugh, explain what is funny, and then they are told that some people are angry about this video.  The kids ask why.  They are told it's because the parents are biracial.  Almost all the kids are shocked, and all of them find it stupid that people would be upset by this.

Some of the comments are very perceptive: one kid mentions the "mob mentality," that when one nasty comment is left it can lead to a pile-on of nastiness.  Another suggests that if you're wasting your time reading other people's comments on YouTube and then further wasting your time posting hate-filled comments, you need to get a life.  Another makes the correlation between inter-racial and homosexual couples.  Some of the comments are also moving, when they are asked if they have ever been discriminated against, and one or two of them admit they have.  

The basic point of this video is to demonstrate that kids "get it," that we have to stop teaching prejudice, and respect everybody for who they are not for their skin color, etc.  The unseen interviewers also ask what they think of Cheerios for making this commercial, and the fact that the kids all support Cheerios and thinks the company (General Mills) is "brave" for doing this even if it made people angry.  (It's worth mentioning that the Cheerios ad is not the first major brand ad to feature a biracial couple.) 

And it's in that set of questions that my eyebrows begin to go up in that Mr. Spock way. 

Would the kids have thought Cheerios "brave" if they had not been told about the controversy?  They reacted to the video without any thought to the fact that the mom was white and the dad Black.  It didn't make a difference to them.  Had it not been pointed out, it would have never been a big deal to them.  It's a great thing  that kids seem color-blind, and it's good that they seem to understand that racism is taught.  But having introduced them to the idea of prejudice, will they see the society in a way that makes them more race-conscious?   What if we actually really meant the notion of a color-blind society and let the kids be just kids without all the burdens of centuries of prejudice? 

Yeh, I know, it's  dream world.  And when one of my liberal friends called into question the notion of celebrating various ethnic groups with weeks and months on similar grounds, I'd point out that she was living in a dream world too.  We don't have White History Month because for centuries the dominant history in Western European and American textbooks has been White History.   So I do get the point.  But watching the kids react made me think there is a modicum of truth in what my friend was saying. 

The other issue I observed with the kids concerned the celebration of Cheerios, and its maker, General Mills.  What if, instead of talking about the biracial couple, the Fine Bros. interviewers mentioned that there were comments left by viewers condemning General Mills for using genetically modified ingredients that might contradict the notion that Cheerios is heart-healthy?  What if they explained that some people believe that foods made with GMOs are unsafe to eat?  What if they  told the kids that the CEO of General Mills, believing his food is safe, opposes any labeling that would indicate that all his cereals are made with GMOs?  What if they told the kids that there are boycotts  of General Mills' cereals? Would they say Cheerios was brave, or would they call the company "chicken" for not allowing their products to be labeled? 

I am not being flip here.  (Also, in the interest of honesty: I don't formally boycott General Mills; I try to avoid non-organic food, but I'm no saint, and I still succumb to Cafe Ronald once in a while.) Race is a complicated issue in America, but if we're going to talk to kids about race -- and let me be clear, I think we have to -- we can also talk to kids about issues that affect their health.  The questions that we ask -- standardized test preparers know this, or should -- often tell us more about the questioners than the answers the kids give.  Let's also remember: the kids may not be thinking about race -- or about genetically modified foods -- but they certainly have seen enough commercials in their brief lives that they take all the underlining discourses about consumerism for as a given.  They understand the basic grammar of a tv ad, and they know that buying stuff is "normal" in our society, just as for them, a biracial couple is "normal." And while race is a complicated issue, it's "easy" for us to talk about social problems in racial terms; we may not ever ever solve the problems stemming from race, but we do have conversations about it, even if some of the conversation consists of people asking "do we have to talk about race AGAIN???"  Getting kids to see the foolishness of bigots opposing biracial couples is pretty easy; getting them to understand genetically modified foods may not be so, as it were, black and white.

And so it comes down not to those two notorious colors, but to the one we all understand: green.  Fine Bros. knows it benefits from asking kids about race, because this video gets shared by everyone. (I found it posted on Facebook.)  Cheerios gets a boost because "nice" people will want to show their support against bigotry and buy more of General Mills' GMO-laced cereals. YouTube is always happy to have more and more eyes on their pages.  One kid says, when learning about the nasty comments, that perhaps YouTube could take down those comments, or maybe even shut down the whole site, "but that would be terrible!" Because after all, the kid loves watching videos on YouTube.  And that, ultimately is the point. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Film Friday: This Gold-Plated Trophy Signifying Absolutely Nothing! Watching Brando "as" The Wild One

I showed my students one of Marlon Brando's iconic early films, The Wild One, produced by the ultimate well-meaning liberal film-maker Stanley Kramer (of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner fame).  This is Brando as Rebel Biker, the legendary image that James Dean passionately emulated -- to the point where he once went to a party dressed like Brando's Johnny from this film, knowing Brando would be there.  (He was crushed to see his hero in a tux.)  This is Brando as "saintly motorcyclist" image-inspiration for perhaps the most notorious line in Allen Ginsberg's Howl.  This is the great nihilist-youth who, when asked, what are you rebelling against, answers, "whaddaya got?"

But amid all the image that this film has constructed around Brando, it's easy to forget that he was as great an actor as ever lived.  The story itself is actually pretty mundane, and presented in a fairly typical fashion in the Kramer style (though directed by Laszlo Benedick): after Johnny's gang leaves a motocross race they'd disrupted, the cop turns to a racing official to talk about how such gang members seem to go out of their way to find trouble, and that they usually end up finding it.  (I waited for a flashing caption to say: "MORAL OF THE STORY HERE!") But even in these early moments of the film, you can see Brando providing nuance to the character.  While the rest of his gang openly mocks the races and the "cheap" trophies the winners get, you can see it in Brando's face that despite his pose of cool, he wants very much to belong.  The trophy is something he does want, to signify his desire to be a part of the society that he outwardly rejects.

One of his "boys" steals the second place trophy off the table as they are being kicked out by the local cop. ("First Place was two feet high!" he explains to another member, who had got mad that "Johnny only won second place, huh?") After Johnny's very cool, arrogant exit, putting on his shades and starting up his cycle defiantly, we cut to a shot of him leading his gang on the highway, and the trophy has been tied to the front of his bike.  Afterward, it becomes the central symbol of the film.

As he arrives in a small town, he makes conversation with Kathy, niece of the owner of Bleeker's Cafe, where the gang hangs out while one member gets fixed up at a doctor's office after an accident involving a really old man too old to drive occurs.  He offers it to her, but she tells him, no, you ought to give that to a girl if you really liked her... ohhhh...! but soon Johnny finds out her dad is the sheriff, and he gets annoyed.  The gang is about to take off when they find that a rival gang has shown up, and their leader, Chino (a brilliant, I mean brilliant performance by Lee Marvin), has gleeped the trophy.

It turns out that both gangs were part of one big club that has split up.  Chino needles Johnny, dishing out the disses, and eventually they begin to fight when Johnny tries to take the trophy back.  "Oh, no, Johnny. Don't take Chino's trophy away. Chino needs it, to make him feel like a big strong man."  Chino's mock-whining further needles Johnny, but he is right: Johnny needs that trophy to establish an identity.  Eventually, Chino takes the trophy and hands it to Kathy: in a big show, he presents the trophy, "signifying absolutely nothing," to the girl, who will watch as "her hero" gets sucker-punched by his old friend, and the two have a vicious brawl that will eventually lead to the town's near-destruction.

But Chino is wrong; that trophy, while really signifying absolutely nothing,  since it was a stolen item, is Johnny's way of communicating with a world he has fought all his life.  He has rejected any attachments to girls, and he refuses to make long-term plans. (We don't go just one place, we just go, man! he tells Kathy.)  When he gets Kathy alone in a park, she asks him if he still wanted to give the trophy to her.  He doesn't directly answer her, but at the film's end, the trophy does become an acknowledgment of her kindness in helping him out of a jam that could have led him to be charged in connection with the accidental death of the cafe's elderly barman.

And all the while, Brando slides back and forth between this confident cocky angry rebel and this confused youth who wants so desperate to be heard and accepted in a world that has already rejected him long before he had a change to rebel against whatever it has.  The film is a classic because Brando's acting makes it so. A Streetcar Named Desire is a beautifully written play, irrespective of whoever plays the leads.  Brando is the gold standard against which all other Stanley Kowalskis must be measured, but Williams' poetry surely is a key part of the play's success when adapted for Hollywood.  The Wild One was a run-of the-mill social melodrama that Brando's performance uplifts beyond the ordinary. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Same as it Ever Was

Anyone remember Latasha Harlins?

She  was a sixteen-year-old African American who was killed in Los Angeles by convenience store owner Soon Ja Doo, after an altercation in which Doo accused Harlins of trying to steal a bottle of juice.  The gun she used to kill her was licensed to her husband, but there were a couple things about this gun.  It had been stolen from the Doos, they reported it stolen, it was recovered, but before it ended up back with its legal, rightful owners, the gun had been fixed with a hairpin trigger, unbeknownst to the Doos.

This is how Doo's gun went off more or less at the mere touch of her finger on the trigger.  And  Harlins dropped immediately. 

Doo was sentenced to five years probation and a $500 fine.  Oh, and 400 hours of community service.

You might not have remembered Latasha.  Doo killed her about two weeks after the Rodney King beating.  Like that beating, Latasha's murder was caught on tape, the store's security tape.  Had this incident -- or for that matter, the King incident -- occurred in our time, we'd all be sharing it.   But she's more or less forgotten these days.

A few more of you might remember Yusef Hawkins.  He was a 16-year-old honors student from Brooklyn.  Like Harlins, he was African American.  He went with a couple of friends to look at a used car that the owner had advertised in the paper. (This was long before Craig's List.)   The neighborhood where the owner lived, Bensonhurst, is populated by a lot of Italian Americans. (My grandmother lived in that neighborhood from 1927 until her death nearly seventy years later. My mother was born in her house.)  And as it turns out, Hawkins and his friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On this evening, a punk named Mondello got into a big fight with an ex-girlfriend.  (The gossip around the neighborhood had some not-so-nice things to say about her.  That's not surprising.  That's what gossip is. I have no idea if any of those things were true or not.)  She taunted Mondello by telling her that she was having a party and had invited some... I'll use a popular racist epithet among the paisans..."moolies" to come.   Mondello got really ticked off and organized a mob to go find any "niggers" coming into the neighborhood.  Hawkins and his friends stumbled upon this mob. The mob chased, them, beat them, and then one kid with a screw loose, name of Fama, shot his gun off, and it killed Hawkins.  

Of all the group that beat on these kids,  Mondello, as ringleader, and Fama, as shooter, and two others were charged in connection with Hawkins' death.  Only Fama was found guilty of second-degree murder; Mondello was found guilty of lesser counts including starting a riot.  They received the maximum sentences: Mondello was released after serving 8 years in Attica; Fama is still in prison.  

This story is better known perhaps because it garnered the attention of Al Sharpton, and it also probably swung the Democratic Party primary election for Mayor in favor of Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who marched with Sharpton into Bensonhurst in protest while then-Mayor Ed Koch refused.  Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing had come out that summer, and is arguably prophetic in its tone; his later film Jungle Fever is dedicated to Hawkins' memory.

This of course brings us to Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman's acquittal of killing him.   Or perhaps it brings us back, to Emmett Till.  And how many other Black teens killed mostly because their lives are not worth anything to this society.

Yes, each case is different, and yet each case is not.  Any way you want to defend Soon Ja Doo or George Zimmerman, or the cops who beat Rodney King, or the ones who shot Amadou Diallo, or even Dr. King's assassin,  it all comes down to the same thing: the life of  person of color in this country is worth diddly squat.    The thinking behind these deaths is the same: it's only a nigger, and one who is a threat to my sense of self, my property, my agency.   And because for so long people have killed Blacks with little impunity, that thinking is allowed to continue.  This thinking is aided by the continue media-projected paranoia of the Black Criminal.

Quick: I say, welfare queen.  What image pops in your head? A Black woman, right?  Quick: I say, drug dealer? Bet you thought of a Black dude.  These images are so pervasive, they continue to perpetuate the fear of Blackness that allows shopkeepers to carefully eye the loud Black girl going to the fridge for a juice, that makes white drivers go thunk-a-thunk with their door locks when a Black man, or a group of Black men walk down the street, that allow lawmakers to cut welfare and food stamps.  And the fact that  Black man is the President hasn't changed a thing; it didn't change a thing when a Black man had the number one show on TV, nor when a Black woman became one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

When the cops who beat King were acquitted by a 1990s version of an AllWhiteJury, I showed a clip of the beating to my students and said, write me an essay that justifies this, and you get an A.  I argued with my wife about this, because, Devil's Advocate that she is, she insisted that I don't know all that happened, so I can't really know for sure. (Then she saw the tape.)    When the cops who shot Diallo were acquitted, I wrote a poem in rage.  I was much younger when King was beaten, when Harlins and Hawkins were murdered.   I don't know if I'm less angry, or less sensitive, having seen all this before.   And I do think that with the economy still in the toilet, we're gonna see more of this kind of shit.

The other day I watched Blazing Saddles with a friend.  Brooks' parody of the western is widely regarded as his masterpiece, and if so, one of the reasons is its frank presentation of race, and its explosion of racist stereotypes.   In an early scene, two Black  railroad workers are sent out to check out whether or not there is quicksand on the rails. (They are sent because, "we can't afford to lose no team of horses, you dummy," demands the foreman, "send over a coupla niggers.")  When the two workers and their hand cart start to sink,  the foreman and his henchman get a rope... for the hand cart.   I can find no better illustration than this one to demonstrate how little America cares about Blacks.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Film Friday: Why Going is so Awesome

Last Friday, I took my eldest once again toe BAM's Harvey theater, this time to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Big Screen, as part of the Big Screen Epics series, that will also feature a restored print of Lawrence of Arabia.   I'd told her a little about the film, enough that she was kind of interested, and warned her: A) it's kinda long; B) there are long stretches with no dialogue; C) I have no idea what it all means.  (Okay, the last part is not entirely true; I am a film professor, after all.)

I suspect she was one of a handful of people there seeing it for the first time, and I'm pretty sure she was one of the youngest (as she was when we went to see the silent version of Hitchcock's Blackmail the week before).  A few people around us were talking with their companions about how stunned they were that there was an intermission when they saw it back in 1968 (or in any number of revivals).  (On those few occasions when I showed the entire film in my film history class, we usually didn't take the intermission.  Usually, because I was covering a lot of ground, I'd only show the Dawn of Man sequence.)   And yes, we got an intermission this time.  (Which was good, because we wanted popcorn.)

I am happy to report that the kid -- thirteen -- was thrilled and amazed by the film.  yes, a little tired near the end, but that's as much a function of her sleep patterns -- she gets up ridiculously early -- as it was about the film's pace.  I'd described to her the key moments in the Dawn of Man sequence beforehand, including the classic graphic match of the bone becoming the spaceship, and whispered that the little girl who plays Dr. Heywood Floyd's daughter  was the director Stanley Kubrick's daughter.  But she "got" whatever one gets the first time.

 This is what is so great about going to the movies and not just sitting at home watching stuff stream on our hdtv. a beautiful widescreen film, projected at 70mm (unfortunately, not in the preferred format, Cinerama, but that's hard to find these days, with a great sound system, is still overwhelming.  Plus, when the SuperPanavasion cameras are in the hands of great cameramen like Unsworth and directors like Kubrick and David Lean, such films bring us a real sense of wonder and magic to motion pictures.  You can understand why movie theaters were so ornate and elaborate: it's like the setting had to keep up with the brilliance on the screen.

Okay, I know some of that is probably hooey.  This is America, and the theaters were so designed to justify higher ticket prices and bring in a wealthier clientele than the first generation of peepshow and nickelodeon customers.  And movies went widescreen to demonstrate their superiority over television.  But as we know, even in a commercially-driven system, artists create important stories in dramatic manners that audiences still love.   D.W. Griffith made hundreds of short films working at Biograph, and not all of them were classics, but they showed a man who grasped a fundamental understadning of motion pictures' power: "you can photograph thought."  And his best films articulate his vision in stunning fashion, even if that vision was clouded (to put it too mildly) by prejudice.  The same holds true for the great autuers of Classical Hollywood: Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock.  Not all great directors offered a stunning visual power akin to Ford's work in Monument Valley; Billy Wilder's film's are driven by narrative, by story, and no one offered a more acerbic vision of American life than Wilder.   Yes, some movies lose less of their power on a small screen: are we missing much watching Stalag 17 on TV? Probably not.  But would I go see Some Like it Hot at a retrospective?  Absolutely.

For me, movie theaters are temples; it always hurts when one closes.  I'm lucky to live in a place where you can still see great big films on great big screens, but even here, there have been so many to shut down just in the last twenty-five years I've lived here as an adult.  Watching old movies  that show theaters -- like Woody Allen's films -- I cringe knowing that this or that theater is gone.  One must take what one can get.  And when you get a chance to see something special in a special, sacred place, you take it. and you take your kid with you.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Film Friday: A Sequel and a Prequel!

Yes, with the kids off from school, it's movie time! On Tuesday, we saw the prequel Monsters University, and on Wednesday, we saw the sequel Despicable Me 2.  Both are fun films, with stuff the kids and the adults will enjoy, but if given a choice, I'd choose the sequel over the prequel. 

Monsters University tells the story of how James P. Sullivan and Mike Wizowski became partners, but it's really the story of Mike, explaining his desire to be a scarer at Monsters Inc as a childhood dream.  And therein lies the simplicity of the film's narrative.  Mike is inspired to work hard, hit the books, and get accepted to the scaring school of Monsters U., but no one -- including the dean of the school -- believes he is scary at all. 

Sully, meanwhile, has a natural gift for scaring, but he's too lazy to study any scare theory, and he doesn't pay attention to scenarios and kiddie files to learn what their fears are.  The top "jock frat" on campus, who wants him in their group (his family has a tradition of great scarers), pressure him to study more.

In many ways, things become very obvious.  Sully and Mike dislike each other, their fighting leads to an accident that gets them both kicked out of the scaring school  (and into the school designing scream containers, portrayed as a dull education program), and they have to learn to work together if they want to get back in. How? By joining a fraternity of misfits and winning the Scare Games competition and getting the dean to agree to readmit them if they win.

In an inspiring scene, Mike takes the group on an unauthorized field trip to Monsters Inc, and shows them that there is not one type of scarer; if they work hard both physically and intellectually (the classic montages of training show both) they can win the competition.   This is of course the movie's central theme: the Protestant Work Ethic!

I won't spoil the film's finish in this edition (I might update it in a month).  Suffice to say that such an ideological position is defeated by certain plot events related to the competition.   The film has some fun special effects, though I must confess to being unimpressed by the 3-D animation.  A few clever jokes for grownups are scattered about, but this is very much targeted at kids.  The first film has an engaging (though I suppose similarly predictable) story of a corporate culture and the dynamic between two worlds, and how Mike and Sully ultimately discover a radical truth that changes their world.   It's a film whose ideas are adult, even if they are personalized and made relatively easy for kids to comprehend.  This prequel keeps it pretty simple. 

Despicable Me 2 also has a less complicated story line, and let's face it, having already had his little orphan girls worm their way into his once-evil heart, Gru himself is not going to be quite as interesting as he once was.  But that is one aspect of the plot that's played up: his old friend Dr. Nefario leaves him because he's got an offer to do some evil work. (Gru has been preparing to sell jellies and jams and they have been working on new formulae, a deep step down from plotting to steal the moon!)

Gru is actually recruited by an anti-villain government agency to stop a mysterious terrorist who has stolen a formula to turn cute creatures like bunnies into indestructible monsters.  (I wonder if there's a message about steroids here!)  But Gru also has the personal issues to handle, as a single dad: the magic fairy princess fails to show up for little Agnes's birthday party; Gru's neighbor keeps trying to set him up on dates with her friends; and as the spy plot advances, oldest girl Margot gets wooed by the son of one of Gru's suspects.  Meanwhile, someone has been stealing the minions...

This film is a clever story about how one mixes a life of international intrigue with "ordinary" family life. (Kinda like The Sopranos, without the f-bombs and strip clubs.)  There's enough funny stuff for the grownups in this one, and scenes we all would find familiar as parents, single or not.  And a few clever allusions that go over the kids' heads too: a boy-band homage at the finale caused much convulsions in the theater, and I myself cracked up when seeing that one of the suspects, who operates a hair-replacement center, is named Floyd.  (Unfortunately, I must have been the only one in the theater old enough to get that reference.)  The 3-D effects are pretty fun, but again, I don't think all that big a deal; perhaps I'm getting used to them, since I'm usually choosing to watch the big-screen movies in 3-D?

And of course, who doesn't love the minions, who pretty much steal the show, though not the story?  Their antics are just hilarious and have to be seen to be enjoyed. 

Take the little kids to see the prequel; the older tikes (my kids are 10 and 13) will love the sequel. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Watching Blackmail!

Saturday night, I took my oldest to see Blackmail, Alfred Hitchcock's -- and, as far as legend is concerned, Great Britain's -- first sound film.  Except that it was part of the series The Hitchcock 9, produced by the BFI last year and now "on tour" in the States.  That is, the nine still surviving silent films Hitchcock made in the mid-to-late twenties. 

So, if you're confused, let me explain.  Blackmail was being made as the major film studios were addressing the questions pertaining to the use of sound in producing motion pictures: there were questions of economics, technology, etc.  Blackmail had been conceived as a silent film, but at some point during production, British International decided the film would be promoted as England's first sound picture.  (Some books suggest that Hitchcock had anticipated this possibility even in preproduction.)  This created a few complications: early sound film made production a bit clumsy, as equipment was still something to get used to.  In the case of this film, the lead actress, Anny Ondra, was Polish and spoke English with a heavy accent, so her voice was dubbed by an English actress, Joan Barry. (Ondra did lip-sync perfectly, it must be said.)   Despite the complications, Blackmail  is an impressive early sound film, when compared to some of the clumsy early productions from Hollywood. 

Like many pictures in those days, Blackmail was also released as a silent version; not every theater had been re-wired for sound right away. (Indeed, I've been told of a silent version of It Happened One Night, made nearly a decade after the introduction of sound to Hollywood.)  But in the case of Blackmail, the silent version fell into nonuse, and the sound version, given its historical importance, was hailed as the "true" version.  the BFI has handsomely restored all the Hitchcock silent films, including the silent version of Blackmail.  As a person very familiar with the sound version, I was thrilled to be seeing this version, which has been very difficult to located on video in the States.  And, with live orchestral accompaniment, I was not disappointed.

It's interesting to see how much of the spoken dialogue in the sound version appears as intertitles in the silent one.  There really wasn't that much to add in that regard, except for the song sung by the artiste Mr. Crewe, something clearly put in to emphasize the novelty of hearing sound in film, though it does also provide a counterpoint to the image of Ondra changing her clothes. One of the most famous scenes in the sound version is the "knife" sequence, where a gossipy customer has been going on about how the Mr. Crewe's murderer should not have used a knife.  In the scene, Ondra's character, Alice, has only just returned from Crewe's flat, having stabbed him in self-defense. (He was forcing himself on her.)  Her father asks her to cut the bread served for breakfast, and the customer keeps blathering, but all Alice hears is the word "knife," until she loses it and tosses the bread knife away in a panic.   The scene is played out in the silent version, too, though with no emphasis on "knife."  Interestingly, the actress who played the gossipy customer in the sound version is not the same as the one who played the part in the silent version.

I hope the BFI releases these films onto home video; I would love to compare the two versions of the film.  I must say that the silent version is visually impressive and seems to have a very droll sense of humor that is a trademark of Hitchcock.  The film has the same basic theme, obviously, but the camera is more fluid in the silent version, though Hitchcock is a master even at this early stage. 

Oh, and my kid loved it!