Friday, February 29, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part III - The Internet of Broken Dreams

Vanity Fair's recent cover story on INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL contained an interesting (though unsurprising) quote from George Lucas about what the potential fan reaction to the new film might be like:

“The fans are all upset,” Lucas says. “They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way.”

There are two ways of looking at this: One, Lucas is just hitting back at his fans, the ones who helped make his empire by spending years worshiping the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES series, for their griping over the STAR WARS prequels, which have been endlessly criticized despite all being mammothly successful at the box office (personally speaking, I like them all well enough). For years they loved and revered Lucas and then when he went back to the well like they had all been waiting for they hated what they got; changes to the original STAR WARS trilogy and then a new trilogy that didn't measure up to their standards, whatever those were. It was a divorce with kids involved, amicable but with a lot of post-divorce hate. You love the person you were married to for so long, love the kids, still respect that person, but the person they've become? That person is a stranger to you and you want little or nothing to do with them. Seeing the new INDIANA JONES films is tantamount to seeing your ex at your kid's high school graduation; you have to see them even though you don't want to, but you're really there because of your love of little Steven. Little Stevie Spielberg is what keeps the two of you talking to each other.

And the other way of looking at George's statement? He's 100% correct.

There is a segment of the audience that is extremely trepidatious and almost all of them can remember seeing the original film back in the summer of '81. Like myself, they don't want to see this series go out with a whimper and as much as they would love to see the movie, they also question the basic need for it. They've also had a fourth INDIANA JONES movie in their heads for almost 20 years, so no matter what the result is it won't be good enough for most. Of course, it could be great (and it would be nice if it is), but even if it were just "pretty good" it would be a letdown for many; it has to be better than the movie they have in their minds or else it doesn't deserve to exist. And rest assured, if that's the case then the fans will make sure their voices are heard, and I think you all know where that will be.

As with most every industry or artistic medium, the internet has been revolutionary in how it's allowed the audience to interact with filmmakers and studios like never before. Want to download the script to some hot new blockbuster? It's out there, and if someone isn't careful the entire film itself can be out there, too, for those who want it. Want to tell the folks how much you loved or loathed a certain flick? Start a blog or subscribe to a message board and you're off and running. The audience now has more information about a film in their grasp than ever before; reviews can show up weeks, even months, in advance, and rumors of on-set strife or battles between studios and filmmakers can hit your browser just hours after it all goes down. We've always been a movie-hungry society, but over the last decade it's become a non-stop feast that's never going to end and mine is the generation that has up and run with it. We created Ain't It Cool News, Dark Horizons, CHUD, Twitch, IGN, UGO, Bloody Disgusting and countless other news, reviews and info sites that feed our habit several times daily. I read a few of them daily and usually see the same stories posted again and again, but at least once a day one of them actually breaks an interesting story, like when Devin Faraci at CHUD revealed that Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE might be undergoing major reshoots due to studio displeasure at the film's currently shape. It's interesting to see what's happening now - the fans are rallying around Jonze, insisting the studio let him make the film his way - and perhaps, just perhaps, if the reaction gets louder and louder, maybe, just maybe, they might have an impact. It was a similar negative fan reaction that no doubt led the now-former New Line CEO Bob Shayne (an asshole he might often be, but I always admired the guy and am sad to see him go) to make peace (and payments) with Peter Jackson regarding THE HOBBIT because otherwise who'd see the movie? Every so often the fans do have their power and it's the internet that's their weapon of choice, but you know something? That's an extremely rare thing.

I remember when I first saw Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News in the fall of '96 and saw the first batch of scoops - test screening reviews and rumors (some accurate, some not) about the upcoming STAR WARS prequels - it seemed too good to be true, and it was. It felt like it was a revolution in filmmaking, giving the fans a voice in the moviemaking process and allowing them to take on the powers that be in order to get films made they way they should be made, without studio interference and with as much creative freedom as possible. Around the summer of '97 it seemed like Knowles and his readers were indeed having a positive effect: BATMAN & ROBIN was assaulted mercilessly by AICN readers at advance screenings and many fans stayed away, which happened again the following summer with Emmerich's GODZILLA. One test screening with a slew of AICN reviews helped turned the tide for TITANIC, which many were predicting would bomb thanks to its cost, and the rest was history for that film. There really was this idea that it was possible to change things, to get the studios to hear about what the audiences wanted, and it was kind of exciting. However, that's not what happened. Movies haven't gotten any better; there are more comic book movies and stupid action movies, many of them second rate or worse; more stupid blockbusters, less creativity and less respect for the audience. Everyone claims to hate Michael Bay, but his movies still make money. Just as many revolutions fail as they do succeed and this one seems to join the former camp. So where did it all go wrong? I think it might have been with STAR WARS: EPISODE I, to be honest; plenty of fans disliked the movie (I wasn't one of them), and yet it was a blockbuster, still one of the five highest grossing films of all time. Sure, it wouldn't be the first time that a movie that people disliked was a hit, but that fucker was huge, so huge that marked a considerable change in things. It seemed for a brief time that audiences would be rejecting crap in favor of quality, but that notion, as noble as it is, was fleeting. If you feed the audience the perception that they feel they must see a certain movie, then see it they will, and by the time everyone figures they've been duped, it's already in profit. Nobody wins except the studio. The audience is powerless.

People are quick to blame Harry Knowles and his ilk for the geek culture of today for feeding this notion and all I can say is that if it wasn't Harry it would have been someone else, so give the guy a break. I know Harry a little, along with Drew and Eric, the other top guys at AICN, and I admire the fact that they've taken the site and turned it into something special to certain people and that they're making a career out of something they love doing. A lot of people see them as corporate tools, but if you knew about some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that I've heard about then you'd know that that's not the case. Yes, Harry can get way too effusive about certain movies (or too many movies), but I believe the site is balanced enough if you look at it clearly and besides, the only critic you should listen to in the end is yourself. I feel the same about the other internet folks I know, like Devin at CHUD and Todd at Twitch, and if I could make a living out of doing this myself I would, so understand that I am not trying to place myself above anyone. Yes, they can all be a little too snarky at times (though well-placed snark has its benefits), but what people also don't understand is that these guys take what they do seriously. They all see themselves as journalist and they all love the opportunity to champion little movies and to call the studios out on their bullshit. The fact that it doesn't always make a difference, well, maybe that's just the system. Doesn't make it less sad, but perhaps it is what it is. Not that is has to be that way...

The filmmaking (and film loving) generation of Lucas and Spielberg eventually gave birth to a generation that has had most every filmmaking advantage given to it but hasn't produced real results. Some great films, yes, but mostly carbon copies of the films that our parents, George and Steven, originally made so much better 20, 25, 30 years ago. We talk and write more about great movies than we actually make them. I 'd like to think that we know what a great film really is, but with SIN CITY sitting in the IMDB Top 100 (above 2001, mind you), I'm not so sure. It's not that I think that I think people my age are stupid or lazy, but that we don't have the proper perspective; we can't do what's been done before and we have to find ways of trailblazing that are more than just putting comic book panels on the big screen. There have been opportunities to do things new and original, or even to just offer some solid entertainment, and in the words of one trailblazing classic, we blew it. But like I said before, it doesn't have to be that way. Things can change, as they always do. We can change them, but we have to change ourselves first. Like Spielberg, we can wise up, grow up, throw away our childhood things and discover something new about the world and about ourselves and bring that experience with us when we tell our stories. Like Lucas, we can stick to our guns and remain independent. We can learn the lessons of these "parents" and not blame them or ourselves when we don't measure up, but just pick ourselves up and try again. We had some damn happy childhood memories thanks to these two, but we're all adults now. Dosen't mean we have to forget our childhoods, but we can no longer afford to revel in them. Let's act accordingly and clean up this mess.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part II - The League of Ordinary Filmmakers

Over the years, the bashing of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has become something of a national pastime amongst many of our nation’s critics, and it’s something that will continue until the last critic who can remember a cinema before JAWS breathes their last. 100 years from now, or maybe even just 50 years from now, there won’t really be a heck of a lot of dissenters to swim against the mainstream that these guys were movie gods of the highest order. Not that HOOK will get reappraised as a film classic (although maybe the STAR WARS prequels, all of which I enjoyed, might get a second look), but maybe not all of the history books will state, “Not everyone was a fan”. History is written by the winners, as the saying goes, and let’s face it, George and Steven have fought their battles (sometimes even among their own fans), but they will always come out victorious in the end.

One manner of this victory is in the legacy they leave us, in this case the films made by the currently under-40 filmmakers who grew up with Lucas and Spielberg. These guys spawned more filmmakers than the Velvet Underground did bands; there are extremely few under-40 directors who didn’t see STAR WARS, RAIDERS or E.T. as a child and experience some kind of epiphany. Countless filmmakers or wannabe filmmakers have spoken about how these films (and, to be fair, many other films) changed their lives and put them on the path they are today. Even those who have gone onto another path of filmmaking, the Joe Swanbergs and Andrew Bujalskis, are working their ways out of the shadows of these cinematic father figures. It was a similar thing for Lucas and Spielberg, who grew up revering Hitchcock, Disney and Kurosawa, and for their contemporaries (Cameron, Scorsese, Coppola, Romero, Dante, Landis, Zemekis, De Palma, Woo, Carpenter) who likewise grew up the children of Fellini, Bergman, Minnelli, Ford, Hawkes, Harryhausen, Kubrick, Corman, Universal horror, Famous Monsters and countless others to create works that would also prove highly influential. Every filmmaker has their influences and you can often trace a director’s themes and style to that filmmaker they revere the most. Thing is, we now have a generation of filmmaker feeding off of another generation of filmmakers who wanted to make movies just like the movies their idols did. We’re getting third or fourth generations of stories and themes that have been around the bend a few more times than most of us care to count and for those of us who see a lot of movies, that’s not good. And what’s worse (to me, at least), tribute are being made to eras in filmmaking that weren’t all that great to begin with. As a reaction to the likes of HATCHET, I wrote a little piece at the AMC Monsterfest blog last summer about how a lot of 80s horror movies sucked and it was not that well received by the readership. I’m just waiting for the day 20 years from now when someone pays tribute to torture porn to stop watching movies altogether.

The under-40 directors of today have huge advantages that their idols never did: Tremendous leaps in technology that allow for digital filmmaking and editing; DVDs of thousands of great films with pristine transfers and supplemental features; more outlets for distribution and investors than ever before. And yet, movies aren’t better. Why is that? Are these filmmakers too lazy to find their own style or simply not good enough to develop it? Certainly there are some tremendously talented directors out there and some legitimately great films, but with so many opportunities afforded them, why are there more Shawn Levy and Brett Ratner-types than not? Hollywood certainly isn’t a place that fosters artistic growth, but even among the indie sector you’ve got directors who started out looking like they would make something of themselves but have either given up, sold out or have lost their spark. Robert Rodruiguez pretty much showed us all he had with EL MARIACHI and has more-or-less been making the same film ever since. Kevin Smith seemed to have a singular voice about him; his 90s work showed intelligence and an creative progression, from the crude but sharply-observed CLERKS to the slicker but smarter (and more heartfelt) DOGMA and CHASING AMY. His work this decade, however, has been extremely lazy and running on fumes, as though he has nothing left to say about much of anything. Jason Reitman went from the wicked satire of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING to the mush that was JUNO while M. Night Shalmyan proved he had a cinematic storyteller’s gift with THE SIXTH SENSE and the underrated UNBREAKABLE but has been coasting on fumes ever since, from the uninspired SIGNS to the utterly ridiculous LADY IN THE WATER, where he cast himself as the savior of mankind. But the most tragic of all (as far as I’m concerned) has been John Singleton. BOYZ N THE HOOD was like a much-needed punch in the gut back in ’91, and while its melodramatic elements have aged it a bit, it’s still a solid piece of filmmaking. His 90s follow-ups weren't in the same league, but at least they stayed on the same course of social outrage as BOYZ; with the exception of 2001's BABY BOY he’s been more of a studio director for hire this decade, albeit a talented one (I have to admit that I was most entertained by FOUR BROTHERS). He gets points for having produced Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW and BLACK SNAKE MOAN, but just knowing that he’s directing the movie version of THE A-TEAM (a show that even I didn’t think much of as a lad) tells me he’s more interested in the deal than anything else. I’m sure he disagrees, but these things speak for themselves.

However, bright spots abound. I mentioned Swanberg and Bujalski and the possibilities there leave one with hope, though I think it’s still a little too soon, although the fact that the whole scene that they’re part of (I’m not going to say the name… don’t ask me to say it… OK, OK, it’s called “Mumblecore”, are you fucking happy now?) is a minimalist, character-based Cassavetes/Dogma one embraced by young filmmakers. Films the likes of FOUR EYED MONSTERS and THE PUFFY CHAIR (which I wasn’t especially impressed with, though others were) wear their indie badge with pride, but they’re refreshing mainly because of what they’re not – studio product - unless they’re really awful, and let me tell you, a bad, pretentious indie movie is as depressing as any Ice Cube family comedy can be. But the two filmmakers who I believe are going to prove to be the best of our generation are both, oddly enough, named Anderson : Wes and Paul Thomas. They both make unique and distinctive films and both have styles that are very much their own. P.T. Anderson’s early works certainly owe a debt to the likes of Altman and Scorsese, but his last two features, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD have been very much his own original creations and are unquestionably masterpieces, with BLOOD taking my vote as the best film of the decade thus far. Both tales of obsessed men who finally explode after years of repressed emotions - one by love and one by hatred - P.T. Anderson is exploring some unique psychological territory that very few American filmmakers (especially those his age) are into and it's important that we don't get in the way of whatever direction he's headed in. Though THERE WILL BE BLOOD seems to owe a bit of a cinematic tip of the hat to Kubrick (I get this weird 2001 vibe every time I watch it) it truly is its own work and a stellar one at that, putting P.T. Anderson on a cinematic trail that one hopes will continue to be as exciting to view as it's been thus far.

As for Wes Anderson I see him as something of a fantasist, a Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam sort who happens to make comedies about dysfunctional men, usually in relation to family, and again, this is territory that he seems to have the market cornered on. Folks have come to be turned off by the whimsical elements to his work, but that's what I think is so wonderful about them, that there is a very positive undertone to almost every film he does. His films all see the world as a place where redemption is possible for even the most self-destructive of us, and the films never lean towards being too "cute" or phony. I also love that he's very possessive of his style; like Burton, his attitude seems to be, "There are my films, take them or leave them", and no matter what flaws you seem to think you find the first time you see them, by your inevitable second viewing they'll be gone. And like P.T., Wes also understands the power and importance of music in his films, which often contain some of the best soundtracks around. He's an impossible filmmaker to dismiss and I have no doubt he still has a few more classics in him.

But do the two Anderson's make up for all the Brett Ratner's of the cinematic world? No, not really, but I'm still incredibly happy to have them here in this day and age. It certainly possible that interesting new directors may come up in the next few years to rival their talents, and if they do I certainly look forward to their arrival. But in the here and now I don't exactly take a lot of pride in the filmmakers of my generation, especially if they see their childhood heroes as their co-directors. What's also troublesome (though far less so) are the cheerleaders, the fans and the press of my generation who have put them on pedestals and knocked them down with equal aplomb. They're something new for a different age of moviegoer and maybe not a positive thing. We'll get into that in Part III.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part I - The Crap of Our Youth

Indiana Jones, the films and the character, means a lot to me, perhaps a bit more than it really should. The films themselves I love, with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK being the movie that solidified my status as a lifelong movie freak. It also has a deeper meaning to me, because it was the right film at the right time, a movie friend that came along when one was sorely needed, and in this fairly bizarre way I look upon not just as a movie but as an old friend, someone I can take comfort in from time to time. I can’t really go into the whys and hows, except to say that there was a bit of a dark time for me and my family and constant returns to the old Morristown Triplex through the summer of 1981 were actually encouraged as long as it was going to help me forget about my troubles for a while (and just so you know, even though it was tough going there for a while, everything turned out OK in the end). The sequels were big events for me, too, although as much as I enjoy them they never really meant the same to me, because times were always different and the events that surrounded them were nowhere near as heavy. The last one of these films came out in 1989, half a lifetime ago for me, leading me to think I had said goodbye to Dr. Jones back then, but that, of course, turned out to not be the case. The opening of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is about three months off, but it’s been in the works for a long, long time, ever since an October 1993 Variety article about George Lucas stated that there actually were plans for another film, despite previous insistences that THE LAST CRUSADE was indeed that. It’s been a real long time in coming, but I don’t quite exactly know just how excited I am about it. Aside from the idea that I don’t want to see my favorite film series potentially get ruined with a lackluster entry (hey, it could happen), the fact of the matter is I don’t really feel like I need Indiana Jones to come back into my life again. For a chubby, sometimes dim, friendless kid in the 80s, yes, he mattered, but I’m not that person anymore. The idea to kind of tantamount to dating your old high school girlfriends once again; do I really need to go there? Can I just have my memories and leave it at that?

Ah, but this is the movie industry, where nostalgia is a star in its own right. It’s easier to make a sequel, even if it’s almost 20 year after the last film, than it is to make something original because there’s less risk: the audience will show. Will I be there opening day for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL? Of course! I’m as much of a lemming as anyone else and curiosity (and nostalgia) will certainly get the better of me, no question. But it goes beyond all of that, really. There’s the element of devotion, not just to the Indiana Jones character, but to the men who created him, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I know that I’m not alone in this, that idea that you have to go and support everything these guys do, and I know it’s something beyond just simple fandom. Everyone knows these guys changed the shape of movies, but they also helped change the face of contemporary society, unknowingly at first and (I think) unwittingly in the end, but change it they did, in a big motherfucking way. As with the movies, one can always question if the influence has been positive, but you can’t deny it’s been huge.

Case in point: When THE PHANTOM MENACE opened, it was estimated that 2.2 million full time employees at companies all across the country took the day off or called in sick so they could go see the movie. In the event of a national tragedy, a 9/11, I can see that happening, but for a movie opening? Unheard of. And yet in an odd way, it’s not that surprising when you consider the audience. Mostly Generation Xers and Millennials (both terms I despise, but it helps clarify things), young people with disposable income and a desire to relive the pleasant memories of their youths in the same manner Lucas and Spielberg did by making their films. No matter what your lives were like outside of the theater, these films left a huge mark on people my age, and when I say “people” I mostly mean guys my age. The idea of the perpetual state of childhood isn’t exactly a new one (Peter Pan, ect.), but the notion that not only would it become acceptable that you didn’t necessarily have to “grow up”, that you could even make a living off of it, that was something new altogether. Folks like Forest J. Ackerman, who turned their houses into shrines of all things fantasy, used to be the anomalies. After a certain point you were expected to throw out your comic books, give your toys to Goodwill and grow the fuck up. Now it’s socially acceptable to wrap the comics up in plastic and keep the toys in their original packaging (or close to their original condition) so that they can accrue in value, for that day when you may need to sell them off in order to pay the rent. This did not really exist 30 years ago.

So times have changed; hey, they always do. One of the things that’s changed with those times is the definition of what man is, or used to be*. A man used to mean several things: a Lee Marvin-type, a man’s man that fought in wars and could handle himself in a bar fight; a Gregory Peck-type who provided for his family and knew how to fix things around the house; a Paul Newman-type, a rugged intellectual who fought against social injustice. Those kinds of men still exists, but there are seemingly less of them, mostly replaced by “guys”, guys who like to hang out with their buddies, smoke dope and drink, play video games and talk pop culture. An excellent example of this can be found in KNOCKED UP (and most of Judd Apatow’s recent work), the shiftless loser whose main ambition is to create a Mr. Skin-style website who only deals with an adult issue (parenthood) when it’s literally forced upon him. This type of “guy” is not exactly new, either, but it was never the norm like it is now, in this era of stunted growth and the idea that “40 is the new 30”. The movies are reflecting this, no question, but they’re part of the problem, too, and always have been. As a society, we’ve been invested in fantasy for far too long. We love our TV, our music, our drugs, our celebrity culture, our fashion, and our movies far too much than we do helping our fellow man or actually making a positive change in the world. Movies are a part of our complacency and people of my generation look to them to validate this and to validate themselves, a constant escape from some kind of reality. Luke Skywalker may have had a pretty shitty childhood growing up on Tatooine, but he didn’t have to pay taxes or rent and eventually fate found him, taking him on a lifetime of adventure. Only in the movies. Real life just isn’t the same.

Movies have always been about escape and fun and fantasy, along with the occasional social statement, but over the last thirty years the line has gotten blurred. It's not so much that the films themselves are at fault (one can argue that things would have gone this course no matter how the popular culture evolved), but that they help to feed our passive-aggressive nature. The desire to have the movies become our reality has grown to greater lengths. There are certain aspects of this, like the advent of new technologies that seemed unreal 30-40 years ago, that are indeed a positive, but in the attitudes of most people my age it’s become destructive. I see it in myself and people I know and I see it in how it’s affected movie themselves. Like in the real world, we have so many advantages that we never had before, but we’re not exactly making use of them like we should. It’s not so much that I’m just waking up to this, but recent events in my life are serving as a clear reminder that this addiction to the crap of our youths isn’t doing us (or me) any good. It’s hurting our perception of reality and it’s hurting the movies themselves. Growing up is always difficult, but the process is taking longer and getting more and more painful. The shit that I’m currently going through, mostly my own damn fault (bad career choices and the male phenomenon of not thinking before you speak), is for me to go through, though I don’t deny that I’m relying on others to help work it out. I'm not sure if things will resolve themselves like I want them to, but at some point things will get better, of that I'm sure.
As for the motion picture art form that’s so important to me, I’m still trying to figure out what can be done there. We’ll discuss that in Part II.

*The idea of what really constitutes “a man”, and whether those old standards apply in this day and age, is a valid one, but it’s a discussion for another time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"What's the Matter, God? Don't You Like Musical Comedy?" - On the Passing of Roy Scheider

When Roy Scheider passed away last week, there were a lot of blogosphere tributes paid to a terrific actor and, by all accounts, a wonderful human being, and it was extremely nice to see them all out there. I grew up with Scheider's work and to me he was one of the first real movie stars; seeing him in JAWS at the age of 9 and then in such other formative years faves as BLUE THUNDER (a little love for BLUE THUNDER, please people) he was unquestionably a big star to those of my generation. As I later began to discover THE FRENCH CONNECTION, KLUTE, MARATHON MAN, SORCERER, LAST EMBRACE and ALL THAT JAZZ my appreciation of his work grew immeasurably. The guy had an amazing streak of work throughout the 70s, in part through talent and in part through being the right guy at the right time. But when the 80s came around, what happened to Roy Scheider? While I'm the only one looking for a little love for BLUE THUNDER (come on, it's BLUE THUNDER!), not many people are talking about 2010, STILL OF THE NIGHT, THE MEN'S CLUB, or LISTEN TO ME when discussing Scheider, and perhaps with good reason. While most, if not all, big name actors (heck, all artists) experience dry spells, Scheider never seemed to get out of his.

It's a little late for speculation as to why this happened, but the fact is that it did happen and little did anyone realize that when Scheider did ALL THAT JAZZ he would be hitting his peak. Certainly he kept on working and he even found his way back to doing supporting roles in major films (like THE RUSSIA HOUSE and a memorable bit in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH) that didn't exactly restart his career. You'd see him show up in something like THE RAINMAKER here and there, but there were also a lot of direct to video movies and then eventually a lot of TV (numerous guest spots and SEAQUEST DSV). Towards the end there wasn't much worth talking about. People knew Roy Scheider, they loved Roy Scheider, but did they cast Roy Scheider? Did they call for Roy Scheider to get roles in new major movies? No, they didn't. They may have always remembered Chief Brody or Joe Gideon, but they forgot all about Roy Scheider.

Granted, this is not a call for everyone to go and seek out NIGHT GAME or watch JAWS 2 again; Scheider appeared in a lot of lousy movies towards the end of his career, no doubt about it. And the ones he did that have good reputations, such as John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP, were only appreciated by a select few. What happend here is not all that uncommon; audiences have a tendency to abandon certain stars for no reason other than just "moving on". After 2010 (which did respectable business in 1984) he never starred in another hit movie, though he also didn't seem to get the big roles, either. Other actors of his generation who had similar success, like Hackman and Nicholson, did fine while Scheider's career fizzled for some reason. Maybe there were some bad choices made, sure, but even as we got into the 90s and this decade, the good parts still eluded him. Where were the legions of JAWS fans turned filmmakers, the Tarantinos to his Travolta? Did JAWS fanatic Bryan Singer ever offer him a role? It was known that he was battling cancer over the last few years, but he still found time to work (two films he shot last year will see release after his passing) and no doubt he wanted to. Why did this happen? What was the reason this excellent actor was left behind? I don't know, but the fact that it happend was a major shame.

This brings me back to ALL THAT JAZZ. In late December, Lincoln Center did a mini Fosse retrospective and JAZZ was the only film I was able to catch, having never seen it on the big screen before. It was a wonderful experience, especially since I was watching this definitely New York movie in the heart of the city, but more importantly, I got to appreciate Roy Scheider again after a long time away. I'd always remembered how good he was here, but on the big screen I was blown away and we're talking about a film that has a hell of a lot going on. The film itself is a masterwork (self-indulgent, yes, but that's essential to its success) and without Scheider it might have never been so. He wouldn't have been my first choice to play Fosse (and neither did Fosse; Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast, but left during rehersals), but god dammit, it's impossible to imagine ALL THAT JAZZ without him. Gideon is an incredibly demanding part, so physical and emotional, requiring Scheider to not only relate to us a man who thinks and moves like a dancer, but also to play a creative genius (which Fosse most certainly was), and Scheider unquestionably made that happen. He's also playing a rather unsympathetic character, a self-cenetered asshole ("a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody's friend"), and making him such a fascinating center was as much Scheider's doing as it was Fosse's. And you contrast this with his work in JAWS, where he was the audience's surrogate and an extremely decent and sympatheic character, and you've got to wonder why more people didn't talk about what a great actor Roy Scheider was before his passing. I'm sure he would have appreciated it.

Like everyone else, I loved his work and then I passed him over. Roy Scheider made his mark, no question, but he should have had more. He deserved better.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Be Kind - Watch These Remakes!

Ah yes, yet another opportunity to sing the praises of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. I'm starting to think Tim League should put me on the payroll.

For a while now the Drafthouse has been sponsoring numerous short film competitions, from 48 Hour film festivals to trailer competitions to the Unnecessary Sequels contest that begat SON OR DAUGHTER OF GLEN OR GLENDA? The latest is tying into Michel Gondrey's BE KIND, REWIND (supposedly not very good), using the film's concept of DIY remakes of beloved movies ("Swedes" they call them) and it has begat a slew (a slew, I say!) of clever (and some not so clever) versions of many film favorites and about a dozen fucking versions of TOP GUN, making me wonder about just what the hell it is people see in that movie, but I digress.

It's impossible to go through all of them (unless you have the time), but I'm digging quite a few of these, with my favorites thus far being Thomas Humpries' BEAST MASTER; a very amusing Syracuse-produced version of John Carpenter's THE THING; and a most creative version of LABYRINTH that has fun with the original film's overall silliness (Bowie in that stupid wig and outfit) but is also an obviously loving tribute. I suspect this one might be the winner.

The best ones for me have been those that are respectfully trying to re-create the original film on no budget (this version of TRON leaves a smile on my face for that reason alone). When the contestants go off on their own and make jokey versions of these movies it just doesn't work for some reason (BEAST MASTER being a solid exception), proof that you can't always improve on a beloved original.

The winners are going to be announced Thursday, but the site will be up for a long time, so if you've got some time to kill (and let's be honest, where the internet is concerned we all have time to kill) you'll find the Kindly Rewind website a lot of fun and a nice reminder of why we love movies (I don't really know what that last part meant, but it's sounded like a nice closer to me). In the meantime, start with BEAST MASTER (and yes, that is Jonathan Gries):

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wednesday in the Palace with George: A Conversation with George A. Romero

George Romero is one of my heroes - always has been, always will be. Like most people, all of the filmmakers I admire are ones who have do their own thing and stick to their guns, never selling out and saying what it is they think needs to be said, and that's George Romero in a nutshell. Like Ed Harris' King Billy in the beautiful KNIGHTRIDERS, Romero has lived by his own code his entire career, making only the films he's wanted to make, working only where he wants to work and only with his own crew, making Romero as much of an outsider or maverick as Altman or Cassavetes and just as important a talent. His films personify what the term "independent film" is supposed to mean, intensely personal works made under a singular vision, films that have something to say about contemporary society that become more and more potent as the years go by. There is no other filmmaker around who understands the working class of America like Romero does, putting his films more in touch with the common man than almost any other American filmmaker since John Ford (yes, I fucking said that) and those who don't bother to take his work seriously simply because he's "the zombie guy" had better get hip to that. His films also happen to be entertaining as hell, wonderful works that give you everything you should in a movie - fun and food for thought in equal measure - and, I have to say it, no one is better at gore or scares. American cinema owes a tremendous debt to George Romero, if only for the brilliant DAWN OF THE DEAD, and to anyone who loves movies, I think his films are absolutely essential.

Needless to say, the opportunity to interview Romero for AMC's Monsterfest blog regarding DIARY OF THE DEAD was one that I wasn't going to pass up, and much to my surprise, none of the other writers sought out the job. So once I got in touch with the right people at The Weinstein Company, distributors of DIARY, the pieces were put together very easily and I was set to speak to George at the New York Palace hotel on Wednesday, February 6, the same day he was to make an appearance at a AMMI screening of DIARY later that evening. I'd met George only once before, just after the Fantastic Fest screening of DIARY, but I've been in his presence a number of times and while I was more excited than nervous, I wasn't quite sure as to what approach I was going to take with the interview. Obviously, DIARY had to take presidence, though I had no problem with that, and since this was for Monsterfest, I knew I had to slip in some horror-specific questions while also slipping in a few of my own. The list was cut down to about twelve questions overall, probably a few too many, but just enough in case George wasn't feeling talkative that particular day (though I know that's never a problem with him). In the 25 minutes I had with George I felt that we covered DIARY pretty well, though I know I could have covered a lot more, and while I didn't get to ask that many questions beyond the new film, the fact that this thing happend at all was fantastic in its own right. An abbreviated version appears on the Monsterfest site, but what you've got here is the entire thing. Enjoy. (Romero photo by Mary Sledd.)

Thanks to AMC's Drew Pisara and TWC's Lauren Felsenstein for putting this together, and to George, of course, for answering every question honestly and directly and for being super cool and super courteous after having no doubt listened to a lot of the same questions over and over again.

Do you think your films are getting angrier?

I think I’ve sorta stayed there, in a way. I think I’ve always been there, ever since the 60s didn’t work. It’s just that in-between I’ve done things that really didn’t have anything to do with it, they weren’t mine. MONKEY SHINES was adapted from a novel, the stuff I did with Steve [King] was adaptation and it wasn’t really me; you know, I was more concerned about translating their stuff. But I think in any of the stuff that’s been mine from the pop that bit of anger has always been there, but there’s also, I don’t know, I always try to lighten the load with some slapstick and somehow, it works! Even that slapstick thing with the farmer in DIARY, it’s actually a pretty angry moment. That guy is pissed off, he’s had enough, he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. I think that’s what it is, being mad as hell - nothing changes and in fact it just seems to get worse. I mean, it just blows me away that people are still sending their last dime into TV evangelist, people are willing to sucker in to whoever throws up a blog. I say jokingly, if Jim Jones was around and had a blog, there’d be millions of people drinking Kool Aid! It just blows me away that people don’t think. It’s like, come on, man. Tribalism and all these blogs, all it does is create many more tribes. It’s sort of always preaching to the converted.

You know this is going on a blog, right?

That’s fine, I’m talking about Tony’s blog from Cincinnati. I don’t know, I joke and say it’s bad enough to have to listen to pundits and people that actually have some degree of authority or some track record, so you know what their opinion is anyway, so they’re putting up a blog, but Joe Blow in Cincinnati throws up a blog and suddenly he’s got 2 million people going “Yeahhhh!!!” Maybe he’s a great guy, you know, but if he happens to be a radical of some kind he still is going to get a following, because very often he could sound quite reasonable. Hitler, I’m sure, sounded very reasonable to a lot of people. A bit dangerous, you know. That’s really what I’m attacking in this film; the fact that this guy, this character, thinks that all of a sudden thinks that he can become some kind of savior or some sort of important figure.

But people always talk about the truth, that you don’t get the real true story about what’s going on in Iraq or what happened with Hurricane Katrina, but if you see it via You Tube or the blogs…

If it’s helmet cams on real soldiers showing you how they blew away those kids, that’s not a lot. But very often it’s just opinion and it’s just some observer and not necessarily the horse’s mouth. I guess that’s really what concerns me, sort of everybody piping up. People have always had a hard time handling as much information as they get. In the old days when it was three networks, maybe it was being managed, manipulated, whatever, but it was being managed. There was nothing going out there that was particularly inciting that was going cause people to run off on their own and form some sort of a mob. I think that’s the danger, people don’t handle that stuff very well and tend to be very reactive. There could be a whole new clan started, some white supremacist gets on there and there’s going to be hell of a lot of people who’ll join up.

Something you said regarding NIGHT was that it was born out of the spirit of 60s revolution. Do you look upon it the same today with DIARY, but in a more negative sense?

Not so negative. All the zombie films I’ve done, the zombies could be… everyone keeps trying to define them. In the old days it was like, “They’re the silent majority”. No! “They’re the hurricane!” It could have been any disaster, and the stories are really about how people respond or fail to respond to this sea change. The world has changed, you have to change. People won’t. Most of the stories I’ve done have been about people being unwilling to change and trying to carry on with life as it was. So yeah, there’s that seed.

I basically ripped off the idea. I originally wrote it as a short story, never thinking it would become a movie, which I ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I AM LEGEND, which is now back with us, and I thought it was about revolution. In the case of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and in the case of all my films it’s not a failed revolution, it’s just a change, and it’s a revolutionary change, an inevitable change because the rules have changed. In this film there’s a line, “God has changed the rules”, and it’s about people failing to recognize that and failing to go along with it.

Was there one specific inspiration that did this for you? I recalled after LAND OF THE DEAD hearing that you had nothing lined up…

No, I had nothing to talk about except that I had already noticed this and I was keeping a notebook on it and we had the idea even before we started to shoot LAND. I just had this vague notion of, if we could do something about this emerging media and it would be great do this format where it’s a bunch of young students, film students and they have a camera and they’re out shooting. The idea was going back to the very first night. There was a collection of short stories called BOOK OF THE DEAD, horror writers of some note, Stephen King did one of the stories, about other people on that first night of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and said we can do the same thing, just have a parallel story with new character, but basically starting on the first night, and that was the idea. It didn’t really develop until later; we kept nibbling on it, working on it, until it finally came about. I wasn’t discouraged by LAND OF THE DEAD; I loved it and Universal, even though I was afraid of working at “The Black Tower”, but they were great, they really let me make the movie and there’s a lot about that movie that I like, but it owes nothing to the original. It was getting close to Thurderdome, it was sort of taking over, eating itself alive, just gets bigger and bigger. So I really wanted to go back and get small again, not Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.

This decade, there has been an overflow of zombie movies. There as many zombie movies as there are zombies in your movies…

There are a lot more of them. We could only afford 12 at a time!

Does that make it easier or more difficult for you, this glut of zombie movies?

We certainly haven’t felt the effect of the glut, if there is a glut. I honestly think that it’s not so much the movies that have made this creature popular – I mean, I didn’t even think of them as zombies in the first one. I didn’t call them zombies they were “flesh eaters”. In fact, that was our original title, NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS, which is why we lost the copyright. What it is, it’s almost a new creature; it’s the neighbors. The dead are coming back, the dead aren’t staying dead, and to me in my mind it was some new kind of creature, a ghoul or a flesh eater. I couldn’t use vampires because Matheson did.

But we haven’t felt the effect of the glut. You know what, there haven’t been that many that have been “big”. I don’t think of the 28 DAYS films as zombies, they’re not, they’re infected. DAWN [OF THE DEAD, 2004] made a lot of money; SHAUN [OF THE DEAD] was very popular, I loved SHAUN. RESIDENT EVIL has made a lot of money, but I was just gonna say it was the video games, more than anything else that have popularized.

It’s also with comics, too…

Yeah, comics, too.

I don’t know how much attention you pay to the shot-on-video horror scene, but everybody and their brother has made a zombie movie in their back yard.

I go to these conventions, at each one a dozen young people come up to me and say “I made a movie, will you look at it?” and it’s always a zombie movie! I say, try something else or get an idea. If you want to do a zombie movie, put some backbone in it. I think that’s what people fail to recognize. It hasn’t been more difficult for us I guess because of my reputation I can always get the meeting; maybe not necessarily get the film. And who knows? If WORLD WAR Z gets made, if CELL gets made, maybe it’ll hit that saturation point. But I don’t know if they’ll get made you just don’t know if it’s going to happen or not.

Right now I don’t have a particular idea if we have to make a sequel to this quickly I would literally, for the first time, make it a sequel. It would be the same characters coming out of the house on another adventure and I still have a lot I could say on the same theme, which there was just no time and I didn’t want to get that talky, but I think I could whip up a sequel for the sake of making it a sequel, if that happens. Otherwise, I’ll wait for something else to happen out there. All of them have grown out of an observation that I’ve had about what’s going on. Frankly, I would rather do that, wait ‘til they nuke Philly or something.

One of the things that I love about DIARY is that you’re experimenting – narration, five-minute long takes, hand-held POV shots – it’s all new territory for you. Is this stuff that you’ve been itching to try for years or did it grow out of the material?

No, it grew out of “this is the way it would be”, it really did. It’s funny, I don’t know, maybe there really is this collective subconscious because all of a sudden there are films that we didn’t know about when we first were writing this, like REDACTED and CLOVERFIELD and VANTAGE POINT, and everyone seems to be focused on that. Everyone’s a camera these days; I am a camera. I just wanted to do it that way and actually it was a challenge. It looks like it’s free-wheeling; I mean, a lot of people will look at that film and say, “Oh, it must have been cake to shoot that, just turn the camera on and shoot it” – Not! It still needed to be lit, it has to be blocked, and it has to have all those production values that make a shot work, so it was not a cakewalk. However, because we were shooting 6, 7 pages at a time, and because this cast was able to do that without flubbing, it was great. Sometimes it would be five hours of setup, twenty minutes of shooting, but that’s what it was. Even though I hate all that waiting around, in a way it was very relaxed. Everyone was there to play ball, there were no bad apples, and it was a very collaborative effort.

You’re shooting digitally for the first time. Are you an HD convert?

No so much. I love finishing on HD; we shot LAND on film and finished on HD. Great thing about HD is that used to be if you got a shot in the can on film all you can do is effect the whole shot, make it a little greener, a little brighter. Now it’s like having a darkroom. You don’t have to worry about doing it on set you can say, “I can darken this guy’s face later, I can put a shadow on that wall”, so that’s very liberating. It just means you can get off the set later, and that’s really what you’re trying to do, when the wolf is at the door you’re just trying to get off the set and make as few compromises as possible.

I’ve noticed too that with this film and with LAND you’re going out with an R rating and I don’t think there have been any cuts…

Certainly not MPAA cuts, no.

Obviously DAWN and DAY set new standards for blood and gore…

Yeah, but the distributor put them out unrated, so we were lucky enough to have that.

But do you find yourself less enchanted with gore? The zombie attacks in DIARY are great, but there’s less of it and more of the characters and, personally speaking, I don’t feel it’s to the film’s detriment.

The tendency is when you’re shooting an objective piece is to do product shots on the gore, if you know what I mean, to focus on that. We realized early on that violates this; these kids aren’t going to go rushing in for a close up. And I found as we were watching dailies that it’s almost more effective to sort of stand back the way they would be doing and see it happen in a wider shot. It’s a bit more puzzling as to how it was done, even though we had to use CG. We’re not making a sonata out of it. They happen in real time and a bit at a distance.

OK, I’m getting the “one more question” sign from the publicist, so of course I will try and squeeze two questions in now… I read interviews with you and you tell people all the time, “I’m not really a horror guy”. You don’t keep up with the horror scene…

No, I don’t.

But I look at your list of your ten favorite films from Sight & Sound and you do have one horror film on there, REPULSION. Why is that your favorite horror film above all others?

It just worked on me. It was the most recent film to work on me at an age when I should have known better and it just worked. And I thought that the craft there, that mirror shot and the bureau being pushed open and it was just so creepy. I ripped off the hands through the wall in DAY OF THE DEAD. It’s not a monster movie; it’s all psychological and it’s one of my favorite movies.

The last question comes from a filmmaker friend of mine, Scooter McCrae, who wants to know, what is your favorite single-malt scotch?

[Laughs] Oh my god! Well, I’m not a big single-malt guy. I like good old J&B because you can stick a bunch of ice in it, you don’t have to worry about bruising it. Just give me a bunch of ice and make sure there’s some J&B or Dewars’ on there and I’m happy.

That may or may not make it in the interview…

Get me a deal from Dewars' if it does, OK?

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Jesus of Cool Returns - Nick Lowe's At My Age

I wanna be Nick Lowe when I get old. Not when I grow up, but when I get old, when I start pushing sixty and am supposed to settle down and start getting reflective on life. Lowe's latest album, At My Age, sort of sounds like the kind of album an aging rocker would put out; slower, softer, more melodic and (I hate to use the term) mellow. But this is not one of those Rod Stewart piece-of-shit nostalgia CDs (two of which I've had to buy for my mother), it's just Lowe doing what he's always done but at a much slower pace. The results prove that the Jesus of Cool is aging appropraitely.

Nick Lowe's place in music history is assured, thanks to his work with Elvis Costello, co-writing such classics and "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding?", on top of his own solo hits like "Cruel To Be Kind" and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)", a song played at every wedding in America (Amish ones included). He was the in-house producer at Stiff Records (another assurance) and is one of the unquestioned masters of power pop, even writing a brilliant anthem to the Bay City Rollers that tops the brilliance of the Rollers themselves. But in recent years Lowe has toned down the sound, getting a bit more romantic and unquestionably more reflective. However, the wit and the sarcasm remain, as evidenced in the album's third track, "I Trained Her To Love Me". This is the man who a song about Marie Prevost's tragic end, after all:

Do you see the way she lights up when I walk in the room, that's good
And the skip in her step when we're both out walkin' in the neighborhood
This one's almost done, now to watch her fall apart
I trained her to love me so I can go ahead and break her heart

For the most part, though, At My Age finds Lowe in a happier, more peaceful place, seemingly finding some peace and happiness at last and not ashamed to wallow in it. On his last album, 2001's The Convincer, things seemed to be less steady, with beautiful (if heartbreaking) songs like "Cupid Must Be Angry" and "I'm A Mess"; now, he sings about finding love with songs like "Hope For Us All" and "A Better Man" and the result is a happier, more peaceful album than before (though heartbreak does get ample due in songs like "The Club" and "Love's Got A Lot To Answer For"). Love songs are very tough to write, especially since they're so commonplace, but Lowe is a master of them, up there with McCartney, Gram Parsons and Chris Bell, someone who is able to articulate love and heartbreak in intelligent, clever and genuinely heartfelt ways that others simply cannot. Sometimes you see someone happy in love and you just want to smack them in the face, while other times you think to yourself, "Good for them, they deserve it". This is unquestionably one of those latter times.

One of things that I find most remarkable about At My Age is that even though it's an album that fits squarely into that mellower baby boomer sound but is so miles above anything else of its type out there (and trust me, I've had to listen to some of it at family gatherings) that I have to wonder who the fuck Lowe has to bribe to get this album out to more people. He's gone the indie route (the album was released by Yep Rock Records here) and no doubt he's been able to do what he does without much interference, but if Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, and Josh Grobin can sell shitloads of records to folks my mom's age, can't we have a little justice in the world for Nick Lowe? The guy is a brilliant songwriter, not off his game one little bit, and the stuff he does is perfectly in line with what old folks seem to like these days, so where's the love? Can someone shove a copy of At My Age into Oprah's hands and get her to book Lowe on her show? This is a guy who has unquestionably met with some success in his lifetime, but he's still due that huge, massive hit that will endear him to the masses, and At My Age deserves to be it. Why this isn't happening, I don't know, but I know that it certainly deserves to happen, and happen soon. If even Nick Lowe can have a bit hit on his own terms, then there must be hope for us all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn't, so it doesn't." - IN BRUGES

Before the Tarantino wannabes came along, movies about hit men were a reputable genre (or is it a sub-genre? Discuss). There's a long standing history of really good hetman movies, like THE KILLERS, LE SAMURAI, Woo's THE KILLER, and GET CARTER that helped make this very cinematic profession very cool. Even PULP FICTION, which added the great banter that humanized these types of characters, yet still kept them cool, was a worthy edition, but once the PULP knock-offs started coming, it was over for hit men in the movies. Suddenly it became a cliché and a really bad one, too, as hit men all became foul-mouthed, pop culture taking bores. The genre (sub-genre?!?) has seen some resurrection as of late, and thanks mainly to Johnnie To's THE MISSION and EXILED some of the cool has returned, too, but the duds can still do their damage to the genre and make one dread seeing a picture like Martin McDonough's IN BRUGES, which shouldn't be the case because it's quite good; smart, funny, even a little heartfelt, it's in no way to be confused with the likes of HITMAN or SHOOT 'EM UP, though I doubt any semi-intelligent filmgoer would. I'm just sayin'.

But is IN BRUGES a hetman movie or a movie that just happens to feature hit men? You know, that's not actually all that important - it works either way - but it restores some luster to the hetman genre, no doubt about that. The best thing, though, is that the film is a solid effort all around; excellent acting, lots of smart, funny dialog and wicked black humor, and it's a movie that lives by its own principles, in more ways than one. Despite the stage pedigree of writer/director Martin McDonough, IN BRUGES is not an all that heavy message movie or character study, it's simply a good time, a movie equivalent of a couple beers downed with pals in your favorite watering hole. It's has a pleasant beer buzz to it, but just in the manner that it rolls along and makes you smile and forget your troubles, which was appreciated on my end. The humor is incredibly black and the film has a wicked wit about it that helps it stand out from most of the other movies out there (it's also insanely violent - in a good way) that I couldn't help but be won over. Adding to the pleasure factor are the three leads, all terrific; this is Farrell's best work in a while and he looks like he's having a lot of fun working in his natural voice and working alongside a pro like Gleeson, who I keep admiring more and more with each new film and is really wonderful here (as an aside, I heard that Boorman's THE TIGER'S TAIL finally got picked up for an April U.S. release, though I don't know who has it). Finnes doesn't show up until the final third but he owns every moment he's in; this is a role that lets him cut loose in a big way and he's really a lot of fun to watch. And I can't help but mention Jordan Prentice as Jimmy, the racist dwarf. Almost steals the show.

Know what I also liked about IN BRUGES? Not that the filmmakers could have known, but this is a perfect February release. I wrote a thing last year about February movies and how they had a special feel to them and IN BRUGES has that, too. It's not Oscar bait, it's not a summer blockbuster, it's the kind of movie that opens in February when only die hard moviegoers keep going to the movies and they want to see something good. Hey, it's cold out, it gets dark early, it's not like there's a heck of a lot of fun stuff to do out there, so a good movie like IN BRUGES fits the bill just fine. Quality little flick, one that's not too hyped so it gives you a sense of discovery, that's what you want to see right now and that's what this is. Most of you will probably be discovering this film long after this month is history, but here, in February 2008, IN BRUGES is exactly the kind of flick that's needed. Doesn't make it perfect, doesn't even make it great, but it's appreciated and a movie that's appreciated is still a film worth seeing no matter what.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Long Live The New Flesh: 25 Years of VIDEODROME

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

There are a lot of filmmakers who take some time to find their voice, but David Cronenberg has always been David Cronenberg. If you go back to his student films STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, you'll find the same themes of biological change and the melding of body and machine that have persisted throughout almost all of his work. Still, there has been a critical consensus to separate Cronenberg's earlier work up to SCANNERS, which is often seen as more commercial, from his later work, which is regarded as more personal. I find this idea interesting, as if Cronenberg the filmmaker has been growing since he was "born" in 1966 and started making films fresh out of the womb. The early work is more adolescent, with its fixation on sex and violence (and in the case of FAST COMPANY, cars) while the later work more mature and character-driven. This is all well and good in theory and while there are certainly "old Cronenberg" and "new Cronenberg" camps, I think that all sides can agree that the film that turned the corner for Cronenberg, from Grindhouse director to arthouse auteur, was 1983's VIDEODROME, his "coming of age" as a filmmaker and his first of many masterpieces.

Interesting thing about VIDEODROME is that even though it's considered by many to be a classic today, it's taken a long ass time to get there. Although it was Cronenberg's first studio film (the success of SCANNERS brought Universal a-callin'), it was dumped into early February (a movie wasteland even then) and barely lasted a month in theaters, making absolutely no money (its box office failure led Cronenberg into a "director for hire" phase that gave us THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY, two more masterworks). Horror fans and Cronenberg aficionados picked up on it throughout the years, as did the odd intelligentsia (apparently Warhol was an admirer, quoted in the ads calling it, "The CLOCKWORK ORANGE of the 80s"), but it took quite some time for VIDEODROME to become what it is today. The rising of Cronenberg's stock on the international film scene made a big difference, but even more so was something that no one could have ever predicted: VIDEODROME became downright prophetic. This movie isn't just 25 years before its time, it's 25 years before the rest of time, a movie that may not have predicted the internet, iPods and iPhones, mini-DV cams, YouTube and the like, but god damn if it doesn't feel like it played a role in their development. Although it's filled with plenty of outdated technology (Beta tapes and Atari 2600s), it feels like an incredibly relevant film today, 25 years to the day after its original release.

“I believe that the growth in my head-this head-this one right here. I think that it is not really a tumor... not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling pot of flesh... but that it is in fact a new organ... a new part of the brain.”

Cronenberg claims that he wasn’t trying to be visionary with VIDEODROME and that any similarities to the reality of the film and the reality of today is nothing more than coincidence, but it’s downright eerie when you think about it. TV monitors are everywhere, from phones to supermarkets to the backseats of cars to, yes, the Internet (you’re not reading this in a magazine, are you?), and seemingly every moment of our lives is being recorded in one way or another, whether we’re aware of it or not. More so than ever we’re living in a televised age and the manner to which this has altered our reality and our perceptions of reality (“After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?”) has turned Cronenberg’s vision of “The New Flesh” into real flesh. Of course, many of Cronenberg’s ideas were inspired by Marshall McLuhan, but the manner to with which he took those ideas and made them into something so truly unique, so Cronenbergian, if you will, makes VIDEODROME a truly original film. I love how the force behind Videodrome turns out to be a conservative force out to destroy society’s dregs with the sleaze they so desire (“What kind of person would want to watch a scum show like ‘Videodrome’?”); VIDEODROME may have been a reaction to early 80s conservativism, but once again, in the age of Bush, it feels like it’s a concept that’s never left us. It’s in every porn site, every place for online gambling or gaming, anywhere that’s going to give the dregs of society a place to destroy themselves from within while the morally upright wait for their opportunity to seize control. Again, Cronenberg insist that it’s not meant as any kind of warning sign, but VIDEODROME can’t help but feel like a warning: Your freedom isn't as free as you think it is.

I mentioned before how VIDEODROME was an important transitory film for Cronenberg, but just as important, is was also the film where he and his collaborators all started to find their grooves and began to do some of their best work. Howard Shore’s score is positively haunting throughout and a perfect mixture of orchestral and electronic; Mark Irwin’s cinematography is beautifully dark and oppressive, while Carol Spier’s production design is note-perfect, especially the world of Videodrome itself, which couldn’t have been conceptualized better. This is also the film that set Cronenberg on a long run of brilliant lead performances; who else could have played Max Renn except James Woods? This may have been one of those roles that typecast Woods as a sleazebag for the early part of his career, but he’s so perfect in this part, and he plays it so smart (the guy’s not an idiot), that this is unquestionably Woods’ best roles. Cronenberg was also wise to cast Debbie Harry, one of the most desirable women of her time (and one of the most adventurous), as Nicki Brand, and she's honestly never looked better than she did here, nor was she ever as seductive, either, and she was a pretty damn seductive woman in her time. Sonia Smits and Les Carlson also supply solid backup. Simply put, everyone involved in VIDEODROME is working at the level of quality that Cronenberg needs them to be, and they all share in the film's artistic success. This is unquestionably one of the best films of the 80s and one of those movies that defines just what kind of cinema fan you are: safe or adventurous? It's become a major favorite of mine and I make sure I view it at least once every five years not just to re-visit its qualities but to see if I can get a glimpse into the future. It's going to remain relevant for a long motherfucking time to come.

"Your reality is already HALF video hallucination. If you're not careful, it will become TOTAL hallucination. You'll have to learn to live in a very strange new world."

Friday, February 1, 2008


There was a recent news article in USA Today that I found morbidly fascinating: "An Economy Grows Around Britney Spears". Britney in turmoil is good business for magazine publishers, websites, photographers, comedians, ect. and while it's amusing it's also very, very sad, as you have a lot of people who should know better profiting off of someone's downfall. But what's even sadder still is the business of 9/11, people who have taken one of the worst days in history and are working it for their own financial gain. If you go down Church St., Broadway or West Broadway in NYC (down to the construction site known as "Ground Zero") you'll encounter folks selling World Trade Center postcards, 9/11 memorial glass etchings, NYPD hats and all other kinds of paraphernalia, the sales of which are almost most certainly not going to the families of the victims of September 11, 2001. On top of that are the countless books, websites, forums, doohickeys and whatzits devoted either to the events of that day, the events leading up to that day, the events following that day, or just the WTC itself that can make your head spin. Living and working in the NY/NJ area, I see plenty of 9/11 signs and bumper stickers that say "Never Forget", as if the publishing industry alone (must less the bumper sticker industry) would ever in a million years let us black it out of our memories.

Worse still are the 9/11 documentaries, many of them homemade, low-budget affairs which must now number in the hundreds that take every conceivable point of view imaginable: Conspiracy (LOOSE CHANGE), conspiracy debunking, tribute to heroes, the events of 9/11 (9/11), first step in the new world order (TERRORSTORM), it's more than enough to make you sick. I'm the first to admit that there are a lot of unanswered questions from that day and no one questions that what happened wasn't a terrible thing, but after a certain point you simply can't listen to any more theories. What happened happened and as awful as it was, this blame game is simply becoming too much. Bush won't be President this time next year (thank goodness), so let's focus on cleaning up his mess and figure out whether or not we're going to string him up later.

I'm sorry, I'm ranting. I do that.

Anyway, the latest of the 9/11 docs (although I'm sure the filmmakers wouldn't call it that) is Morgan Spurlock's WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, which premiered last week at Sundance. More so than any other documentary since FAHRENHEIT 9/11, WHERE IN THE WORLD... stands a good shot at reaching the masses thanks to Spurlock's previous doco hit, SUPER SIZE ME, and this film's more genial, "Why can't we be friends" attitude. There was a bit of buzz (even some excitement) over the secrecy behind it, that there might actually be some kind of major revelation, either that Spurlock actually found Bin Laden or that he uncovered some kind of giant scoop about the war on terror. Well, it's not giving anything away to say that nothing like that happens in WITW; in fact, the most significant thing that happens here is the on-camera birth of Spurlock's son, which is a lovely, beautiful thing, but not really what most folks are coming to see, unless you've got a thing for pregnant ladies, in which case I can think of at least one ticket sold.

Spurlock's extremely flimsy premise is that he's about to become a father and in order to make sure his son grows up in a world of peace and harmony, he must find and capture Osama Bin Laden. This is Spurlock's hook, but it's not what the film is really about; he spends a nominal amount of time on the actual search and more on the cause and rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the world today. There are plenty of "person on the street" interviews with lots of common folk throughout the Middle East, most of whom are good people who hate the current U.S. policies but not the American people, dislike Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and want to make it clear that most Muslims are not radicals. Spurlock visits Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and tries to show that for all of our differences in cultures and religions, people are pretty much the same everywhere you go. And again, that's fine, it's nice, but it's not a real movie if you ask me. You've got a pretty serious topic that's being treated with kid gloves, and while it's occasionally enlightening and amusing, there's no depth to this. When I watch a CNN documentary with Christiane Amanpuor or Anderson Cooper I usually see something far more substantial than this, and when you're discussing this subject matter, it's the right approach, too. The old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time is always apt, and I'm sure that there's a great, DR. STRANGELOVE-esqe comedy to be made from the war of terror, but Spurlock's not the person to do it. You either go about this with knives sharpened or not at all; there is a wealth of material at hand, but it requires no-holds-barred satirical genius to make it work.

This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its moments. The best part is Spurlock in Afghanistan with U.S. troops in Taliban territory and those moments, when you're actually on the front lines of the war on terror and in some dangerous spots, is when the film is its most interesting. He also makes it clear that it's as much about winning hearts and minds more than blowing things up; one Afghan complains that farming is impossible because the U.S. bases have taken up much of their local water supply and villages that were destroyed years ago have yet to be rebuilt. There's a "no wonder they hate us" feeling you get, but it's also the only time the film is able to provide some kind of possible solution to winning the war of terror, and our government's inaction in this area is perhaps the most shameful thing of all. But that's the only moment of any real insight that WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LDEN is able to grant its audience. Otherwise, it's merely a snarky, self-satisfied piece of fluff and not what I wanted to see. I wasn't expecting miracles from Spurlock, but something more respectful to the situation at hand seemed to be more fitting.

The poster art, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Warning: Cuteness Ahead!

If you're like me and have been having a terrible week, you're going to need a little pick me up. Well, I've got your pick me up right here. Don't worry, it's totally safe for work and something you can show the grandkids. I've become a little obsessed with it and it's put a smile on my safe when I've needed it over the last few days. If you're one who likes cute animal websites, this is going to make your day.

Ready? OK, here it is!

See? Wasn't I right?