Sunday, July 22, 2012

It's what we do that defines us.

"I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me." - Christopher Nolan

"Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." - David Foster Wallace

Many of you have likely seen the memes such as the one above that incorporate the profile and iconography of Batman in images meant as a show of solidarity with the people of Aurora, Colorado. I've read several complaints that invoking a comic book character in relation to a real-life tragedy is in poor taste, and that's arguably true, but I can also understand where these images' creators are coming from, and I believe their intentions are earnest and not meant to trivialize what happened. As a country, we grieve for the unimaginable loss the people of Aurora have suffered, but one very disturbed young man's abhorrent actions have touched a nerve in another way. The shooting spree at the Century Aurora 16 was an assault on moviegoing, a basic experience that we all share; it was an assault on one of the few communal experiences we still participate in on a regular basis, our wish simply to get lost in a story and dream together for a couple of hours. Whether James Holmes chose a local screening of The Dark Knight Rises because of some warped identification or because of the promise of a large crowd is beside the point; what happened was a grotesque desecration of one of our most enduring heroic icons. Twelve people are dead, and the news is filled with stories questioning whether it's safe to go to the movies. So whether or not it's appropriate to create images of a grieving Batman, I understand and sympathize with the impulse; as our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible crimes, our collective imagination grieves just as strongly.

I was going to write something very different this weekend. I was going to write about why I haven't written anything about The Avengers and Prometheus, and why the prospect of writing about The Dark Knight Rises is daunting. About the tendency of fanboy culture towards group-think, how quickly one set of reactions to a highly-anticipated genre movie becomes the last word, drowning out any differing views. If one thinks that The Avengers is very entertaining but a bit shallow, or that, for all its problems, Prometheus works as a sort of abstract nightmare precisely because the world it imagines is so illogical, one should be prepared for a fair amount of bullying from a vocal section of the geek community. And I was going to write about our obsession with opening weekend records and Rotten Tomatoes scores, and how these things have contributed to fans' hostility to critics who voice dissent and the general deterioration of film culture. Those things are still true, but none of them matter all that much at the moment. I do hope, though, that the fans who were so furious that Christy Lemire failed to validate their enthusiasm understand now that a negative review is not an attack on the things we love. A damaged human being with an AR-15 - that's an attack on the things we love.

The thing is, all of us that were seemingly born with a love of the movies in our DNA will obsess over, argue about and demonstrate the intensity of our affection for cinema, and we've probably all taken it too far sometimes. This is an important moment to remember how lucky we are to be alive right now - to have the opportunity to experience movies, to share our experiences, to argue and obsess and act like silly fanboys if that's how we want to be, because at the bottom of it, we're all bound by our love for the possibilities of storytelling in the form of flickering images on a big-ass screen. Movie geeks are a big, loud, dysfunctional family, but in moments like this, we can count on each other. And this is obvious but it has to be said - we're not only lucky to be alive right now, we're lucky to be alive, period. Nobody can really make sense of what happened, though it's probably inevitable that movies will be used as a scapegoat for a little while rather than addressing the availability of assault weapons or the state of mental health services or anything that actually matters. We just need to wait it out; it'll blow over as it has before. In the mean time, let's be excellent to one another and celebrate everything we share. It's hippy-dippyish to say that, but fuck it, it's true, and wouldn't it be great if we really learned something from a horrible tragedy for once?

Other film writers and bloggers have said this already, but it's true - please go see a movie soon. Let's not allow fear to corrupt one of the purest pleasures we have in this life, not even for a moment. Buy a grotesquely large popcorn and a vat of soda and have a great time. And if the movie sucks, write a thousand words bitching about it on the internet, because being opinionated snobs is our goddamn right. The next movie you see will probably be better! I'm seeing The Dark Knight Rises Sunday afternoon; it's the first time in my life that buying a movie ticket feels like an act of defiance. Movies are my church, and as another iconic cinematic hero once said, nobody steps on a church in my town. And I know as well as anyone that these are tight times, but after you've gone to the movies, why not donate the cost of a movie ticket to help out the victims and their families? After all, in their excitement to be the first ones to see Batman versus Bane, they could have just as easily been us. We're all in this together, and for all our collective flaws, the ways we show decency to each other in moments pain are what make us great.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Headless eels, gay Marxists and the last temptation of Popeye.

I've finally found the time to complete my answers to the most recent movie quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, this one administered by Sister Superior Clodagh. Who could forget Deborah Kerr's indelible performance as a repressed nun whose world is turned upside down when two crooks on the run from the mob (Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane) dress in drag and hide out in the convent? Good times. As always, if you've never heard of SLIFR or Dennis' terrific quizzes, I highly recommend checking out both.

1) Favorite movie featuring nuns

The Devils

2) Second favorite John Frankenheimer movie

Seconds (har dee har har)

3) William Bendix or Scott Brady?

Having just been reminded of Kill the Umpire the other day, I'll go with William Bendix.

4) What movie, real or imagined, would you stand in line six hours to see? Have you ever done so in real life?

I've never waited more than an hour or so to see a movie, though I have driven four hours to get to a horror marathon. I might wait six hours for a world premiere, but one of the silver linings of the dominance of multiplexes is that you don't really have to wait very long to see anything these days.

5) Favorite Mitchell Leisen movie


6) Ann Savage or Peggy Cummins?

Ann Savage

7) First movie you remember seeing as a child


8) What moment in a movie that is not a horror movie made you want to bolt from the theater screaming?

 The scene in The Tin Drum where a severed horse's head is used to catch eels, then we watch in close-up as a character shakes the eels free and cuts off their heads. Eeaugh. It's a great movie, but I've never felt like revisiting it.

9) Richard Widmark or Robert Mitchum?

Robert Mitchum, of course.

10) Best movie Jesus

Willem Dafoe

11) Silliest straight horror film that you’re still fond of

Prometheus comes to mind.

12) Emily Blunt or Sally Gray?

I like Emily Blunt, but I'm not familiar enough with Sally Gray's filmography to give a fair answer.

13) Favorite cinematic Biblical spectacular

The Ten Commandments. It's sillier than Prometheus, but the visual effects still thrill me.

14) Favorite cinematic moment of unintentional humor

15) Michael Fassbender or David Farrar?

Fassbender. He's probably my favorite actor to break through in the last decade.

16) Most effective faith-affirming movie

The Thin Red Line. Jim Caviezel is a more persuasive messiah in this than when he actually played Jesus.

17) Movie that makes the best case for agnosticism

Birth. We're presented with a rational answer for the film's central mystery, but a lot of questions remain unresolved when the credits roll. It's a great exploration of why we turn to the supernatural in the face of the unknown and how, though reason usually prevails, there are still far more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt up in our philosophy.

18) Favorite song and/or dance sequence from a musical

The Air-otica number from All That Jazz.

19) Third favorite Howard Hawks movie

His Girl Friday

20) Clara Bow or Jean Harlow?

Clara Bow

21) Movie most recently seen in the theater? On DVD/Blu-ray/Streaming?

Theater: The Amazing Spider Man (zzzzz...) On Blu-ray: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Still hilarious.

22) Most unlikely good movie about religion

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. One of the most compelling movies about Jesus, written and directed by a gay, Marxist atheist.

23) Phil Silvers or Red Skelton?

Phil Silvers

24) “Favorite” Hollywood scandal

The cocaine bust on the set of Popeye.

25) Best religious movie (non-Christian)

The Wicker Man

26) The King of Cinema: King Vidor, King Hu or Henry King? (Thanks, Peter)

I haven't seen enough of Henry King's movies to say.

27) Name something modern movies need to relearn how to do that American or foreign classics had down pat

When making a movie about an iconic character, concentrate on making that movie the best self-contained experience it can be, not on setting up the next installment in the franchise.

28) Least favorite Federico Fellini movie

If I were to rank the Fellini movies I've seen, Roma would be at the bottom of the list. But I like Roma.

29) The Three Stooges (2012)—yes or no?

Haven't seen it yet.

30) Mary Wickes or Patsy Kelly?

Patsy Kelly

31) Best movie-related conspiracy theory

The Shining is Kubrick's admission that he helped fake the moon landing.

32) Your candidate for most misunderstood or misinterpreted movie

The Fountain. A lot of critics dismissed its archetypal narrative and visual motifs as "New Agey," when it's actually quite the opposite.

33) Movie that made you question your own belief system (religious or otherwise)

The Last Temptation of Christ. I saw it when I was 12 and found it to be the most moving depiction of Jesus, and the closest to the Jesus I imagined and believed in - torn between his human and divine selves, tempted by nothing more than to live as a humble husband and father, filled with compassion and love for all people. When I thought about how much anger Christians had directed at the film (and how bad most church-approved movies about faith are), I realized that my fellow churchgoers and I were praying to a completely different guy. Between that and the church's positions on sex, gay people and whether man coexisted with dinosaurs, I stopped calling myself a Christian soon after, though I'm still cool with the Jesus that Kazantzakis and Scorsese believed in and brought to life so beautifully.