Friday, December 30, 2005

Top 10: 1975

As my 2005 list is still a few weeks away, the next few weeks will deal with the best movies from thirty, twenty, and ten years ago. First, 1975:

1. Nashville (Altman)
2. Jaws (Spielberg)
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Forman)
4. The Passenger (Antonioni)
5. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet)
6. The Day of the Locust (Schlesinger)
7. Tommy (Russell)
8. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa)
9. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman)
10. Love and Death (Allen)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Easy, my brother!

Jeff Daniels is painful to watch in The Squid and the Whale. Not because of any issues with his acting - it's his best performance since The Purple Rose of Cairo. His character, Bernard, is a struggling writer and English professor recently separated from his wife Joan (Laura Linney). What aches is that Bernard personifies every irritating trait of your average collegiate: he's pretentious, dismissive, elitist, self-important, and pompous. For Bernard, education is just a weapon for his passive-aggressive narcissism. He makes for a great movie character, yet I could not imagine spending more than five minutes in a room with Bernard before eating my own hands.

The Squid and the Whale is based in some part on writer/director Noah Baumbach's own parents, and while I can hardly say which parts are fact or fiction, it does resonate with the sort of truthfulness that can only be found by personal experience. It is about Bernard and Joan's separation, and the disparate effects it has on their children, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger brother Frank (Owen Klein). The kids are shuffled back and forth between their parents' homes, and each pledges allegiance to a different parent, Walt to his father and Frank to his mother. Walt parrots his father's already unoriginal opinions (losing interest in reading A Tale of Two Cities after Bernard declares it to be "minor Dickens") and blames his mother for the breakup of the marriage. Frank devolves into a profane, drunken, onanistic "Philistine" (his father's preferred term for non-intellectuals), suffering a gradual breakdown accompanied by Tangerine Dream's sublime Risky Business score. Eventually, Joan begins dating Frank's tennis coach (William Baldwin, in a perfect bit of casting), and Bernard shacks up with a student (Anna Paquin) who writes banal erotica about her "cunt." And all along, their gray, matted cat stares silently, sleepy-eyed, quietly judging them.

At the emotional core of the film is Walt's brief, sad relationship with Sophie (Halley Feiffer), a classmate who loves Walt for exactly who he is. But the son of the professor is too dumb to see what is right in front of him - at one point he comments, "You have too many freckles." Fool. Sophie isn't as articulate as Walt, yet she's clearly more perceptive about people and relationships, and in the contrast between hers and Walt's families, we see how erudition can be a refuge for the emotionally damaged. Similarly, Bernard is unable to comprehend what Joan could see in Ivan the "Philistine;" Bernard and Walt are two alike souls at different stages of their uncomprehending slog.

I realize that none of this suggests what a hilarious movie The Squid and the Whale is. Lawrence Turman, the producer of The Graduate, recommended it to the Images audience in November. And like The Graduate, this film contains dozens of moments that are hilarious because of their lacerating honesty. And while Baumbach offers no easy resolutions for his characters, he does offer all of them (even Bernard) a good share of insight and understanding. When Bernard repeats a gesture from Breathless to his wife in a last-ditch stab at romance, she misses the reference. He's trying to say "I love you," but as he couldn't just say it, it's lost in translation. And when Walt gets in trouble for pawning off a Pink Floyd song as his own, defending himself by saying "It felt like I could have written it," we wonder why this poor misguided boy didn't just write his own song.

But in real life, of course, Baumbach eventually did. More than his earlier films, The Squid and the Whale is a kindred spirit of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, for which Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay. The two films share a fine-tuned sense of outrage at the sins of fathers. But unlike The Life Aquatic, which dooms the son, this film holds out hope that eventually, the son might run away from the father. The titular sculpture (actual title: Clash of the Titans - how cool is that?) scared Walt when he was a boy and would visit the New York Museum of Natural History with Joan; by the end, he can look at it with eyes wide open. It's a damn near perfect metaphor for marriage and parenthood; the fight may last forever, but in the end both titans are just struggling to stay afloat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Trim Bin #8

- I won't be posting my year-end top 10 until the end of January - there are still a few potentially great movies (Brokeback Mountain, The New World, Match Point) that have yet to open in my neck of the woods. Overall, it seems that 2005 was a year that started unusually weakly (there were less than ten that opened before September that I'd give four stars), but things got a lot better in the last three months of the year. A quick preview: I saw Munich with Jess last night, and I'm pretty confident that it's the best movie of the year (with A History of Violence close behind). It's in limited release now; when it opens near you, check it out. Even if you dislike Munich, you won't be able to stop thinking about it.

- Apocalypto. What. The. Fuck.

- Jess and I had a long conversation last night about the purpose of film criticism - of arts criticism in general. I'm not of the popular camp that sees film criticism as a formulaic, objective process - it makes my teeth cringe whenever a writer or film student gives his/her opinions as though they were gospel. However, I like the discipline of articulating my positive and negative responses to a film. When I write about, say, King Kong, I'm really writing about myself in some sense - the review is a catalog of my personal responses, and while I try to write in a way that makes a case of the movie's strengths and weaknesses, in the end it is about nothing as much as my own fetishes, fears, dreams and obsessions. The critics I admire and compulsively read get this, and have elevated film writing to the level of legitimate literature as opposed to summaries and a star system. But at the same time, I'm not really a critic - I'm a filmmaker, and my hope is to share and receive input on my process of discovery. I'd also love it if, eventually, this space was a busy forum for others on similar journeys. Because I firmly that our art experiences - movies we see, the books we read, the songs we hear - are the closest we can ever come to a shared frame of reference, a common reality, and a road that we all travel. This is all a longwinded way of saying that while this blog is a soapbox for my likes and dislikes, whether your favorite movie is La Dolce Vita, Serpico, or Fievel Goes West, it's all good, because in the end we pray at the same temple.

- Finally, rest in peace, Vincent Schiavelli. I hope your last holiday season was merry, and I hope that in your last days, you thought to yourself at least once, "Hey, I'm a Red Lectroid!" You will be missed.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Top 10: Christmas as Ironic Backdrop

1. Bad Santa
2. Gremlins
3. Eyes Wide Shut
4. Die Hard
5. Brazil
6. Lethal Weapon
7. Batman Returns
8. The Godfather
9. Catch Me If You Can
10. American Psycho

Good tidings.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cooper. I might have known.

King Kong is not at all the movie I expected it to be. Early reports about the three-hour length should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday tentpole film. Indeed, Peter Jackson's remake has more in common with Titanic or The Godfather than Jurassic Park - it's a personal, overstuffed, audacious, and downright maniacal ape epic. Everything positive and negative you've heard about Kong is true, and I can't urge you strongly enough to check it out. You have to see this.

The film opens with a breathtaking recreation of New York in the early 1930's, and it's a version of the city that is at once authentic and dreamlike. At the center of the film are three characters - Carl Denham (Jack Black), a driven, slightly mad filmmaker; Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), a writer taken against his will to Denham's latest shoot; and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress plucked off the street by Denham to be his leading lady. The heart of the film lies somewhere between Denham, an arist and showman driven, John Landis-style, to ignore the dangers that lie ahead, and Ann, who (in a performance that echoes Watts' Betty from Mulholland Drive) is a head-in-the-clouds romantic with a belief that all love stories must end tragically. These three, along with a literal boatload of supporting characters, embark on a journey a mysterious, uncharted destination known as Skull Island.

It is when they arrive at the island, as first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) quotes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that it becomes clear Jackson has more on his mind than cheap scares in DTS. Kong succeeds for the same reason that The Lord of the Rings did - Jackson never condescends to the trappings of genre, instead finding the inherent thematic depth and resonance in the source material. In other hands, this approach could have been wildly pretentious and dull, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (both of whom also worked on LOTR) have written this story with sure hands, creating a film that is at once thought-provoking, exhilarating, meditative, and, as the film reaches the Empire State Building, ultimately heartbreaking.

I'm happy to report that, in this case, the best moments of King Kong have not been spoiled in the trailer, so I'll do the same here. Skull Island, like Oz or Dagobah, is a fully realized cinematic landscape full of unexpected turns and surprises. There are delicate moments between Kong and Ann, and also downright creepy and violent moments involving the various creatures on the island. Yet through the spectacle, Jackson never loses touch of the human element - a quiet moment of communication between Ann and Kong (another perfectly realized CG performance, by the way) is as compelling as a ten-minute ape/dino brawl that ends in a moment reminiscent of Irreversible. The performances are great - Jack Black, already one of the coolest guys around establishes himself as a great actor as well with his Orson Welles-inspired performance (a role that unavoidably raises questions about Jackson's self-image). And Naomi Watts does her best work since, well, Mulholland Drive; she's sweet and sad, and her scenes with Kong (kudos also to Andy Serkis) add up to one of the best onscreen love stories in a long time.

Some critics, and many internet pundits, have complained about the film's length and perceived self-indulgence. It is noticabely long, and it's definitely self-indulgent. But while self-indulgence can be killer when it stems from an inflated sense of self-importance, I really can't find any reason to complain when it is the result of a filmmaker's passion for the material. Jackson has been given unlimited resources here to revisit the film that made him want to be a director, and he has made a glorious cinematic dream, a film about the mad act of moviemaking, the fleeting nature of love, and the awesome spectacle of apes fighting dinosaurs. He's finally succeeded at making his Terrence Malick film (as he stated on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD), and he's also created a crowd-pleaser that ranks with the best of Cameron, Spielberg, or Lucas. Sure, there are a few rough CG moments, but I find it ultimately foolish to nitpick such an extaordinary work - it just feels like missing the forest for the trees. I'll just go ahead and say it - this Kong is better than the original. Go see it, because it's simply the most enjoyable movie around right now. Bring Kleenex.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Play the game (12/21/05)

It's time to steal from my more prolific contemporaries. Every Wednesday I'll post a different image from a film. Whoever guesses it first wins the prize!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Trim Bin #7

- By Wednesday this semester will be a distant memory, and I look forward to writing some reviews I've been putting off in favor of studying or some such foolishness. Look for reviews of The Squid and the Whale, King Kong, and maybe Proof or Syriana (any preference?) soon. Also, Serenity is at the top of my Netflix queue. I promise to be fair.

- Remember the days before DVD, when video was primarily a rental business with lower stakes, and a hit movie would run for months and months? I miss those days - I remember seeing Hook in April 1992 and Who Framed Roger Rabbit at a drive-in a full year after it opened. Back then, there was generally more of a correlation between high grosses and quality - word of mouth mattered. Nowadays, the opening weekend has been elevated to such importance that it's not necessarily the best movie that wins, just the best-marketed.

King Kong
, which made a mere $50 million this weekend, has already been termed a disappointment or a flat-out bomb. I think it was Robert Altman who said that one of the worst things to ever happen to cinema was the dawn of "Top 10" highest-grossing lists on shows like Entertainment Tonight; this is a perfect example of the problem. Peter Jackson made a downright brilliant movie, his best since Heavenly Creatures, but apparently its worth is only quantifiable in popcorn sales. And this is to say nothing for the dozens of worthy movies released every year that weren't as hyped as Kong, that never had a chance. Film is undeniably a business, but unless one has stock in Universal, I don't see why the grosses should overshadow the film itself.

- Love House aired on NBCTC Friday night. Watching our work broadcast with shoddy color balance and lots of noise, I was reminded of how, when I was eight, my career plan was to use Derry, New Hampshire's own WNDS (with meteorologist Al Kaprelian!) as a springboard to filmmaking. I even wrote a letter to Al proposing some ideas for shows - game shows, mysteries, sci-fi, etc. Foamy bastard never wrote me back - you'd think he could at least humor a kid. Anyway, Al, I beat you at your own game.

You can reach Mr. Kaprelian at, if you're so inclined.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Top 10: Sex Scenes

Every Friday, when I ask Jess what my Top 10 subject should be, she responds, "sex scenes." I've been avoiding it, as I am a shy cat, but as I'm at a loss for ideas today, why not. Beats a "Christmas movies" list.

1. Don't Look Now (1973) - Director Nicolas Roeg cuts between a husband and wife making love and getting ready to go out for the evening. The couple has recently lost a daughter; the juxtaposition of their downright creative sex and the small, loving gestures they exchange afterwords heighten the melancholy romance that sets this apart from other horror movies. It's often been speculated that then-couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are actually having sex in this scene; that there's even a question is a testament to the scene's believability.
2. Last Tango in Paris (1972) - The butter scene is the most-referenced (often by hack stand-ups), but my favorite scene is the early one when Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) first meet in a vacant apartment. The scene, which exists somewhere between lovemaking and rape, is reminiscent of the Francis Bacon paintings seen during the opening credits - it's stark and brutally honest. Neither actor is naked, but both seem completely exposed.
3. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) - I wanted to cheer the first time I saw the climax (how unfortunate that no equally fitting word exists) of Alfonso Cuaron's film, which blows wide open the gender politics that have been simmering under the surface throughout.
4. Wild at Heart (1990) - Easily the sexiest movie on this list. It's hard to pick just one sex scene - the sex is really more of a subplot here - but David Lynch employs rock music and a remarkable use of color that leaves us as much in love with Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) as they are with one another.
5. American Psycho (2000) - Conversely, the funniest sex scene on this list. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)'s videotaped menage a trois with two call girls to Phil Collins' "Sussudio" not only works as a critique of the character's emptiness, it's also just wonderfully ridiculous.
6. A Clockwork Orange (1971) - The fast-motion three-way between Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and two underaged girls, scored to the "William Tell Overture," probably shouldn't be as funny as it is. Kubrick is easily my favorite perv (well, second favorite).
7. American Beauty (1999) - "Fuck me, your majesty!"
8. Videodrome (1983) - James Woods. Deborah Harry. Piercings. Hallucinations. Not the sexiest entry on this list, but possibly the most memorable.
9. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) - David Bowie's penis.
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - I'd like to know exactly why our lord and savior getting busy is so offensive. Seriously.

Feel free to get awkward on the comments board.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Great party, isn't it?

Note: The following is an abridged version of an essay I wrote for my "Kubrick & Kurosawa" class. I've ditched MLA citation format in this abridgement for reasons of length and because nobody outside of a classroom should be subjected to a lot of paranthetical page numbers. It also presumes familiarity with the film, so I don't recommend reading it if you haven't seen The Shining (which you really should).

Forever and Ever and Ever: Enchantment, the Uncanny, and Kubrick's The Shining

Early in his The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim addresses the question of a child's ability to separate fairy tales from reality. "The child," Bettelheim explains, "intuitively comprehends that while these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence." Stanley Kubrick famously referred to The Uses of Enchantment, as well as Freud's essay "The Uncanny," while writing the screenplay to The Shining with Diane Johnson. These texts helped particularly in determining the nature of the Overlook Hotel's spectral guests; according to Johnson, "The psychological states of the characters can create real ghosts who have physical powers. If Henry VIII sees Anne Boleyn walking around the bloody tower, she's a real ghost, but she's also caused by his hatred."

Johnson's analogy demonstrates the key to Kubrick's film, which actually deviates from Enchantment. While Bettelhem finds fairy tales to be harmless, Kubrick's film is about the horror of actually finding oneself in the midst of such a tale. The Shining is about our inability to confront our irrational horrors, and what might happen to us if those fears were real.

Freud defines the uncanny as "that class of terrifying which leads back to something long-known to us, once very familiar." The release of The Shining in 1980 followed a decade-long resurgence of popular interest in horror; echoes of "The Uncanny" can be found in The Exorcist (re-emergence of religious horror), Carrie (horror triggered by the awakening of puberty), and Alien (horror that literally emerges from within), among many others. Stephen King's novel shares this Freudian set of concerns; a New York Times piece notes that "In The Shining, as in the best books and movies about the supernatural; we're forced back, and not gently, against that wall within ourselves, a wall constructed from lost innocence and intergenerational torment, from barely suppressed and highly atavistic fears, from doubts concerning our own sanity." Kubrick suggested similar motivations for adapting the novel, remarking that "One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly."

Where Kubrick departs from King is in the nature of these unconscious fears. This is especially clear in the difference between the book's and film's versions of the relationship between struggling writer Jack Torrance and his son Danny. At the center of The Shining is what Bettelheim describes as a fairy tale version of the oedipal conflict: "So the father who blocks the boy's oedipal desires is not seen as an evil figure within the home, or split into two figures, one good and one bad, as the mother often is. Instead, the oedipal boy projects his frustrations and anxieties onto a giant, monster, or dragon." Similarly, King's book depicts Jack as a sympathetic character who is forcibly compelled to harm his family by the malevolent hotel. But in Kubrick's film, the hotel is merely a catalyst - the Jack we meet at the beginning is already capable of becoming the monster we see at the end. Jack has a nightmare about murdering his family and exclaims, "Oh my God, I must be losing my mind!" Yet Kubrick includes details - inconsistencies between Jack and Wendy's stories about Danny's arm injury, for instance - that raise doubts about Jack's stability before arriving at the Overlook. Consider the "All work and no play" sequence, and the unanswered question it poses - how long has Jack been typing just that? Overnight? A week? All winter?

These details have led to the frequent criticism of the film, and more specifically Jack Nicholson's performance, as "over the top." Pauline Kael wrote in her review that "There's nothing he can do with the role except express the gleaming-eyed undercurrents of incipient madness while waiting to go whole-hog crazy." What Kael completely missed is how this change in character motivation makes the film more complex, and scarier, than the book. Simply put, the book is about evil spirits who compel a man to kill his family, while the film is about a man who wants to kill his family and doesn't know it yet.

There are three scenes I'd like to discuss in this context. The first is the dialogue between Danny and Dick Halloran, the Overlook's chef, about their shared psychic abilities. Halloran fills the dual parent role that Bettelheim describes as "a means of preserving an internal all-good [parent] when the real [parent] is not all-good." When Danny asks Halloran if he is scared of the Overlook, he shrugs it off, saying, "There's nothing here." Yet when Danny presses him about Room 237, Halloran lies: "There ain't nothing in Room 237. But you ain't got no business going in there anyway. So stay out, you understand? Stay out!" Halloran is trying to placate the boy, yet the anxiety in his voice tells us there is indeed something to be afraid of. Bettelheim writes of this adult tendency to be dismissive of childish fears: "Since it creates discomfort in a parent to recognize these emotions in his child, the parent tends to overlook them, or he belittles these spoken fears out of his own anxiety, believing this will cover the child's fears." Halloran later dies because of his denial of what is literally around the corner.

Danny is later confronted by the ghosts of two girls who were brutally murdered by their father, a previous caretaker of the Overlook, ten years earlier. The sisters are a version of what Freud calls "the double," an invention of one's ego: "The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the 'double' being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The 'double' has become a vision of terror, just as after the fall of religion the gods took on dramatic shapes." There are numerous instances of doubles in The Shining - Danny's friend Tony, Charles Grady (caretaker) and Delbert Grady (servant), Jack 1980 and Jack 1921 - that transcend their psychological origins and manifest themselves in a tangible way. The sisters invite Danny to "come play with us - forever and ever and ever." A childhood convention has been turned into something dangerous here; we see this later when Jack references The Three Little Pigs and Wendy's discovery of a dog-costumed man performing fellatio on a tuxedoed party guest. In this case, when the sisters leave, Tony attempts to reassure Danny, saying "Remember what Mr. Halloran said. It's just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn't real." However, the look on Danny's face tells us that either Tony is lying or the reality of the ghosts is beside the point. Later, Danny will regress into the persona of his "double," and his reemergence signifies the confrontation of the uncanny and the putting away of childish things.

This scene has its own double in the later conversation between Jack and his son. Jack tells his son that he loves him, that he wants him to have a good time at the hotel. Then he echoes the Grady sisters: "I wish we could stay here forever and ever and ever." Jack has embraced the Overlook as though it were always a part of him (as the final scene suggests it has been). The oedipal conflict comes to the forefront here; what distinguishes this scene is that strips the film of the separation from literal fears that is essential to fairy tales. The source of our dread is made manifestly clear; it's not cackling corpses, phantom blowjobs, or bloody elevators. It's dad.

It is perhaps this directness that caused The Shining to be met with a mixed reception upon its release. It went into wide release the same day that Friday the 13th opened, placing it squarely on the divide between the existental dread of the seventies and the more physical horrors of the eighties (a 1981 Fangoria poll named The Shining the worst recent horror film at the same time that Friday the 13th was named the best). The film's departures from the more optimistic elements of the book led King to conclude, "You know what? I think he wants to hurt people with this movie. I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people." This criticism fits The Shining just fine; it is a calculating, methodical dissection of our worst fears made literal, and King later conceded that "even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there."

Of course, Kubrick probably would have resisted this process of interpretation entirely. Commenting on his film, Kubrick said that "I read an essay by the great master H.P. Lovecraft where he said that you should never attempt to explain what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people's imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of anxiety and fear." So I'll close with Lovecraft:

And then there came to me the crowning horror of all - the unbelievable, unthinkable, almost unmentionable thing. [...] Shall I say that the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; disembodied? What shall I say? It was the end of my experience, and is the end of my story.

Just like pictures in a book.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Trim Bin #6

- Richard Pryor's died this week. The only really honest thing to say is, this sucks. It sucks that he's gone, it sucks that MS kept him inactive for the last decade, and it sucks because only a handful of comedians today come even close to being as good as Richard Pryor was. Let's hope he's been reunited with Wonder Wheel.

- The insane trailer for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette confirms her high placement on my "best new directors" list - she's one of the most distinctive voices working in film today. Marie Antoinette could be brilliant, or it could be laughable. Either way, I've watched the trailer a dozen times.

- In the vein of the faux-Shining trailer comes this version of Big as a...well, just watch it.

- Walter Chaw wrote an excellent review of Memoirs of a Geisha that addresses the cultural landmine the filmmakers stepped into by casting three Chinese actresses in the lead roles. Entertainment Weekly ran a very disappointing puff piece on Geisha that completely sidestepped the issue, which is at the very least worthy of discussion. To be fair, I haven't seen Geisha - it could be good, I guess. I'll let you know when I see it on TBS in six years.

- Salad, eggs.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Top 10: Bah Humbug!

I got a memo today about how, when writing about film, I'm obligated to at least occasionally act the part of the grumpy, pretentious killjoy. So for this week's list, I've put together what I consider to be the ten worst films on the list of 100 highest-grossing movies of all time (found here). This isn't solely for the sake of being contrarian and elitist; it's always a lot of fun when a seriously great movie is also a big popular success. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Next to these films are their respective grosses in millions - consider how many tickets these sold. Way to go, America.

1. Armageddon ($201)
2. Bruce Almighty ($242)
3. My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241)
4. Pearl Harbor ($198)
5. What Women Want ($182)
6. Pretty Woman ($178)
7. Mrs. Doubtfire ($219)
8. Jurassic Park III ($181)
9. 'Crocodile' Dundee ($174)
10. Mission: Impossible II ($215)

Please feel free to be an insufferable snob on the comments board.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Gremlins opens with a shot of inventor and family patriarch Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) walking through the streets of Chinatown. When Max and I saw the film in South Hadley, he noted the obligatory sailor crossing the street. But then there was a second sailor, and then a third, at which point I decided that director Joe Dante knew exactly what he was doing. This isn't the Chinatown of New York, Boston, or L.A. - it's the Chinatown of the movies, with all of the loaded historical and cultural baggage that American cinema carries. As Rand discovers the mogwai in Mr. Wing (Key Luke)'s shop, it becomes clear that China here is a signifier of "the other" - the promise of mystery and magic. It's an offensive connotation, no doubt, but such associations are largely the subject of Gremlins, that rare summer blockbuster that is also about something.

In his introduction to the Sandman collection The Doll's House, Clive Barker distinguishes between two kinds of fantasy: in the first, an alien frame of reference intrudes on our own and must be exercised or resolved, while the second depicts shades of reality throughout the whole world. Barker suggests that the latter is more difficult to write, which is perhaps true; however, Gremlins makes a good case for the possibilities of the former. As "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love is heard on the soundtrack, we abruptly cut from Chinatown to Kingston Falls, a fictional middle-American town which serves as the "near" to Chinatown's "far."

The first credit is "Steven Spielberg Presents," which speaks of volumes more than Spielberg's brand-name value. Paul Thomas Anderson said in an interview that it was Spielberg who legitimized the suburbs; indeed, both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. succeeded in a kind of revolutionary populism. These films clearly tapped into something, as throughout the 80's, a slew of films, both with and without Spielberg's involvement, chose suburbia as the backdrop for fantastic stories. Yet Joe Dante, unlike Spielberg acolytes Chris Columbus (screenwriter of Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis, has a distinct vision that strays in anarchic ways from the generally optimistic work of his producer. Dante eventually subverts the entire values system of Kingston Falls and, by extension, us, the audience, who wanted to see a movie called Gremlins in the first place.

Most reviews of Gremlins upon its release cited its E.T.-meets-Alien structure, which probably led to its massive popular appeal. It's a clever idea, of course, but Dante also finds a great deal of resonance with this family/horror fusion. The scenes that introduce us to Gizmo, who is basically a walking, talking guinea pig, are designed to make audiences coo. Later, when Gizmo begins to multiply, our response is turned on its head - the little mogwai's beaming face contorts into a screaming, ugly mess as his body ejaculates slimy, squishy creatures in a way that taps directly into our collective fear of childbirth. And even before the other Mogwai transform into the titular creatures, they're more obnoxious and off-putting than Gizmo; puking, screaming, gluttonous creatures. The loveable aspects of the mogwai have been perverted through reproduction; perhaps the film is commenting on the commodification of dreams - merchandising, marketing, mass-production - that is an inseparable part of American cinema culture ("Mommy, I want one!").

The scene after the gremlins have hatched, when Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) must defend herself against the monsters in her own home, makes the statement behind the blending of genres clear. Every innocent thing in the house becomes a threat (Christmas tree) or a weapon (microwave, blender). Dante is stripping away the illusion of safety in the suburbs; previously, the biggest fear in Kingston Falls was the threat of financial trouble, possibly eviction, at the hands of the gleefully cruel Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). But the gremlins' swift (and hilarious) offing of Mrs. Deagle, it's clear that, to Dante, there are much bigger things to worry about than bills. Obeying the rules of the mogwai, for instance.

Gremlins also has another layer of subtext in the form of Murray Futterman (the legendary Dick Miller), Billy Peltzer's xenophobic neighbor. Mr. Futterman responds to the discovery that his Kentucky Harvester is full of foreign parts by getting drunk; he is generally distrustful of foreign technology, citing experiences with gremlins in WWII. Yet later, when the gremlins attack Mr. Futterman and his wife, he is surprised and horrified. Mr. Futterman never saw a gremlin; Mr. Futterman is full of shit. He deserves what he gets.

There are also a number of pop cultural references throughout the film that serve a purpose other than easy laughs. During the serene opening scenes of the film, we see It's a Wonderful Life on TV; later, when things have gone wrong, it's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Our dreams and our nightmares, two sides of the same coin. Once the film has become totally anarchic, we catch a glimpse of Cocteau's Orpheus and know that we are beyond logic. Chuck Jones makes a cameo, cuing us into the film's Looney Tunes sensibility. A brief scene where Rand calls from an inventor's trade show displays George Pal's time machine and Robby the Robot; we are in a world where these are not scenes from the movies, but rather, a world where Robby actually exists. The nuanced dissection of layers and layers of filmic reality is one of Joe Dante's greatest strengths; he manages the incredible feat of making post-modern movies that aren't totally smug and unbearable.

I've noticed that what most people really remember about Gremlins is the cuteness of Gizmo; seeing it again, I was really taken aback at what a rich cinematic experience it is. I haven't even gotten into Kate's (Phoebe Cates) brilliantly bleak Christmas story (which, again, was turned on its head in the sequel), or the perfection of Judge Reinhold as all-around dick Gerald. Gremlins is a film that satisfies our sense of wonder and our dread in equal measure. It's the perfect Christmas movie.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Trim Bin #5

- Right now, a copy of Love House, the documentary that Jess, Max, Garrison, and I worked on this and last year, is in the hands of Jonathan Caouette, the director of Tarnation. Max also gave him the first two issues of Samurai Dreams. This, along with Jess' 22nd birthday, was cause for a great, celebratory weekend - it's a funny, anxious, promising feeling to be out there, in the vast creative stratosphere, in some small way.

- Alex Jackson just posted a fascinating review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I'm not sure I agree with the central Kubrick vs. Altman thesis - to borrow Jackson's analogy, I think Altman is a believer, he just attends a different church. But it's a thought-provoking piece.

- I'm really looking forward to Brokeback Mountain. It's a movie that should have been made twenty years ago, and if it's as moving as the early reviews suggest, then it could do a great deal of good. For better or worse, a lot of America votes and engages in political discourse with their hearts rather than their minds; if a mediocre movie like Dances With Wolves can get more people to think about the plight of the Native Americans than Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, imagine what a well-made, mainstream gay love story could do. Either way, it renders Rent irrelevant.

- Scrambled Eggs All Over My Face...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Top 10: New Directors

This list is comprised of directors who have made four or less features. I've chosen these directors because they've already pointed us towards exciting new possibilitiess for cinema, whether through innovative techniques, distinctive and truthful visions, or exciting displays of unique imagination. Each name links to the filmmaker's IMDb entry; Netflix away if you want to see the future of film.

1. Paul Thomas Anderson
2. Sofia Coppola
3. Wes Anderson
4. Sam Mendes
5. Spike Jonze
6. Todd Haynes
7. Miranda July
8. Jonathan Caouette (who, I swear, was on my rough draft of this list yesterday)
9. Richard Kelly
10. Edgar Wright

HONORABLE MENTION: Terrence Malick. With four pictures under his belt, this scrappy youngster might just make something of himself.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Are you ready for Freddy?

Christmastime always makes me think about Freddy Krueger. And while the first film is obviously the best, the third perhaps the most fun, and the second fascinating from the perspective of queer theory, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is unfairly overlooked.

The reason is simple. What distinguishes A Nightmare on Elm Street from the Friday the 13th series is its pronounced sense of style. The dream structure of the former allows more room for directorial flourishes than the straightforward assaults of the latter. So each entry in the series carries a distinctive filmmaking voice. And The Dream Master, released when I was in preschool, is Freddy for kids. Renny Harlin, the director, was subsequently responsible for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea, Driven and Mindhunters. Each of those films shares a fidgety, immature, pre-adolescent sensibility; The Dream Master is easily Harlin's best film because the silliness works with the material.

Consider the obligatory "resurrection of Freddy." These scenes, in which Freddy is revived by some not-yet-mentioned bit of wizardry, are neccessary to keep the sequel train rolling. But where other entries struggled to come up with scenes that were plausible within the context of the Elm Street universe, Freddy is resurrected here by flaming dog urine. It's as if the screenwriters were protesting against the very suggestion that a Freddy picture should be believable. Filmed straightforwardly, this could have ended the series, but Harlin films it with just the right amount of sophomoric humor - not too sleazy, not too insulting. This endearingly naive enthusiam reappears throughout the film. There are references to Friday the 13th and Jaws that a preschooler might find hilarious. Karate and pizza both factor heavily into the mise en scene. For an 80's slasher film, The Dream Master is remarkably sexless; sex is only invoked in childish terms, as a put-down or an obscure concept, such as when Alice (Lisa Wilcox) fantasises about Rick (Andras Jones) a hunk, which causes him to blush. And to top it off, the soundtrack features an original Fat Boys tune - the Fat Boys weren't for hip-hop fans, they were for kids. Remember their song on the PBS math show Square One about a million being greater than a billion? I know I do.

I realize this could be taken as condescending, and I don't mean it that way. I've wondered lately whether a thematically rich film is of any less value if its merits are unintentional. On the one had, a consciously "honest" movie speaks for the artistry of those involved. On the other hand, something that unconsciously arrives at the same conclusion, the same truth, carries with it a feeling of purity - truth discovered rather than designed. And The Dream Master, like The Shining or Suspiria, does tap into an elemental fairy tale sense of dread. And this is why it is interesting from a child's perspective. Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively on the need for children to be exposed to darkness, so long as the story eventually delivers its characters and therefore encourages children to be optimistic - to know that there is a way out of the witch's gingerbread house. The Dream Master has just the right level of artifice to support a "fairy tale" reading; here Freddy has more in common with a Brothers Grimm monster than the grimy child killer Wes Craven created, and so he works more as a mythic obstacle to be overcome by growth and experience rather than a projection of our real-life fears.

This is not to say that the film is a masterpiece - much of the acting is wooden (save for the excellent Ken Sagoes, reprising his Kincaid from Dream Warriors). The characters often make decisions that are laughably stupid even in a fairy-tale context (Joey falls for the exact same trick that he did in Dream Warriors). And the final deus ex machina, involving a shard of stained glass, is much more contrived than anything in Adaptation. But still, The Dream Master is interesting both as a well-made horror sequel and a cultural artifact. It exists in its own silly little universe. I wouldn't be surprised if Richard Kelley is a fan - this shares with Donnie Darko a distinctly late-80's otherworldly atmosphere. As my friend Garrison once observed during a scene in which a high school teacher delivers exposition about the Dream Master mythos: "What the hell kind of class is this, Dream Master 101?"

Garrison's comment speaks to all that is wrong and right about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. And as for why Christmas makes me think of Freddy, remember that the year this film was released, I was entering preschool. That October, my mom scandalized other parents at Playmates Preschool by allowing me to go trick-or-treating dressed as the son of a hundred maniacs. I hadn't yet seen any Nightmare movies, but I was well aware of Freddy through his frequent appearances on TV (even Nickelodeon!), and there simply was no cooler, creepier monster. Like Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy tapped straight into my post-toddler anxieties. And there, on the other end of the spectrum, was Santa, who was all that is right in the world. Yet Christmastime is also a time of ghosts and spirits, and Freddy's red-and-green sweater only complicates things further. That's far as I'll go into a personal semiotic analysis for now, but Freddy will always be the left hand to Santa's right.

Also note that Will Smith wrote songs about both Christmas and Elm Street when he was still the Fresh Prince. The Willenium and I have a lot in common.