Wednesday, October 31, 2012

3 MOVIES THAT SCARED THE PANTS OFF ME

A topical Halloween costume.

Halloween. The last couple years of this blog's existence I've either been too busy (or too busy not giving a shit) to do a proper themed post on this, the re-purposed Samhain. But no more. I'll play your game, conventional society, and talk about horror movies.

Horror's not my home genre, and I rarely watch horror movies of my own accord, but whenever someone else is like “Hey, let's watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Hey, come see a Lucio Fulci mindfuck” or “Dude, watch some emotionally brutal K-horror and write about it” I'm like sure why not and I usually really enjoy myself (the K-horror one was rough, but I'm still glad I saw it). I appreciate horror as a genre more than I love it, though, and I always feel kind of left out because it feels like every other movie nerd out there grew up watching and loving shitty horror movies. That could just be me being neurotic, which would be a landmark fucking occurrence, as would any ventures into sarcasm.

But anyway. Horror movies. The dilemma I have with horror movies is that very little genuinely scares me in life. That's not bluster, and that takes into account and regards as wholly disparate entities things like anxieties (“fear” of rejection, etc) and phobias (fuck elevators, fuck heights, fuck odd-numbered scores in NBA 2K; yes, the last causes me to irrationally gun three-pointers instead of simply running my offense, fuck off). I don't really want to watch a movie that sets off any of those anxieties or phobias, because I watch movies to enjoy them, not to feel like I'm trapped in a glass elevator on the 110th floor compulsively missing pull-up threes. When I do find myself enjoying a horror movie it's either largely aesthetic (cool camerawork/design/editing), or under the ownage statutes. Maybe it'll be suspenseful, but rarely scary. Rarely. On a couple occasions, movies have scared the fucking shit out of me.


1—Dreamscape (1984) dir. Joseph Ruben

Joseph Ruben has had a monumentally weird career, being responsible for the risible Julia Roberts-fest Sleeping With The Enemy, the gimme-a-fuckin-break “Macaulay Culkin is evil” picture The Good Son, and most impressively, the “Julianne Moore loses her kid, is told the kid never existed, turns out it's motherfucking aliens” epic The Forgotten. And more. None of these wacky clusterfucks had yet clustered when I saw Dreamscape, which also predated my having any notion of movies as being directed. If memory serves correctly, I was about six, watching it with my dad.

At the time I was having pretty frequent chronic nightmares, one feature of which was my inability to wake myself up even after I realized I was dreaming. Which was pretty fucked up, and which was uncomfortably similar to what Dreamscape was about.

All I remembered about the movie was that Max von Sydow was the head grownup in charge (good casting if there ever was) until years later when some needle-in-a-haystack Googling allowed me to figure out just what the movie was that had freaked me out so badly. The main thing I remembered was that the dashing young lead (who turned out to be Dennis Quaid) and the lady from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Kate Capshaw, natch) were screwing around in other people's dreams, only there was this psycho (David Patrick Kelly; speaking of which I'm long fucking overdue for an essay about how awesome and iconic DPK has been over the course of his career) who was going around killing people in their dreams so they died in real life.

I have no idea whether Dreamscape is actually a good movie or not. All I know is that when I was six or whatever DPK fucking fucked me up. While I don't openly advocate an age restriction like for booze or cigarettes on DPK movies, I can tell you this: watching DPK movies when you're a sensitive kid—I'd had a recent fairly massive trauma that I won't get into here because it'd derail this whole essay, but rest assured if I told you what it was you'd need a very large drink—can be risky. (By the way, DPK, if you Google yourself and find this post: I'm sorry, dude. It's nothing personal. You're a great character actor. It was me. But goddammit you scared the shit out of me back then.)


2—Child's Play (1988) dir. Tom Holland

Another one that latched onto a specific recurring nightmare I'd had as a kid about my toys coming to life and menacing me. But more than subject matter, much like Dreamscape, a large part of what made this movie—which, I should mention, had been spoiled in its entirety by a dickhead classmate long before I actually saw it, and which still scared the piss out of me—so scary was the work of character actor nonpareil Brad Dourif.

People well-versed in things that are awesome are well familiar with the work of Mr. Dourif, leaving no need to catalog the thousands of reasons why Brad Dourif owns. Here is a condensed version: he makes vivid use of his eyes, one of the most powerful (and underutilized) tools in the film actor's repertoire, which when combined with his eerily, unnervingly slow vocal delivery give Brad Dourif the ability to make your fucking head explode in screaming, fundamental terror. Rather than give an example from something good that he's done, I direct you instead to the worst movie Brad Dourif—or almost anyone else on Earth for that matter—ever made, the Whoopi Goldberg “serious” cop drama Fatal Beauty, in which Dourif (contain your shock) plays the psycho villain. At one point after something ridiculous happens to Whoopi and she goes somewhere to go brood to Sam Elliott (who, like Dourif, somehow alchemically manages to own; Sam Elliott is truth), Brad Dourif calls someone on the phone and impersonates someone else while still sounding indelibly like Brad Dourif, and upon learning Whoopi's whereabouts, turns to someone (a henchman, I think) and goes “The cunt's at Vista Verde.” The line reading is completely absent of any kind of human feeling, just a flinty statement of villainous purpose, and the way he hits the word “cunt” is like an arctic blast of pure hatred. Again, note, this moment of brilliance is in one of the worst movies ever made. When he's in a good movie, he's that much more effective. Which brings us to Child's Play.

Brad Dourif is cast against type as a murderous psychopath who, rather than be taken by the cops, transfers his soul into a really rather grotesque child's doll. The doll, purchased from a street vendor by a struggling single mother for her son—and you better believe coming up broke as shit resonated with me; some times were all right but a whole lot of 'em were tight—proceeds to wreak absolute havoc. Chucky is a disturbing enough entity—Garbage Pail Kid meets Fellini clown—without being voiced by Brad Motherfucking Dourif, who compounds things by speaking Latin, which freaks me out to the point where I think that hippie chick who did my astrological chart and told me I was a quintuple Scorpio and was a druid or some such shit in ancient Britain in a past life might have had a point about the last bit if whichever druid (defined here in the hippie-speak version of “anyone in old-timey Britain” rather than the actual historical definition) I was got iced by some Romans.

Anyway, when I saw this on VHS at 12ish I spent the whole goddamn running time climbing the walls in creeping dread and then had an extravaganza nightmare the next night where Brad Dourif was chasing me chanting in Latin. Fuck you, Child's Play. Well done, but fuck you all the same.


3—Event Horizon (1997) dir. Paul W.S. Anderson

And finally, the movie that fucked me up worse than any other movie ever. The summer of '97 was kind of strenuous: I spent several weeks at a theatre program that involved heavy drama both onstage and off, and even when the program ended, an old flame who was visiting New York with her new girlfriend (whom I hadn't been told about in advance) for the first time barreled into town; not understanding why the $10 she'd brought with her wasn't enough to go out clubbing every night, she proceeded to be a giant shithead the entire time. When she finally fucked off, I just wanted to go to the movies. So my mom (who'd been remarkably patient about having a couple inconsiderate hicks crashing in the apartment where she paid all the bills) took me to Event Horizon. Hey, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill on a spaceship. What could go wrong?

Well. Funny you should ask. So, earlier, I mentioned in passing I have a problem with enclosed spaces. Spaceship travel, being through space, is defined by the inability to go outdoors. So the being confined bit's already a bit ehhhh. Problem two is that, as any number of wiseass young film critics will tell you, Paul W.S. Anderson actually really knows how to make movies. Why is this a problem? Well, it's a problem when you're emotionally vulnerable as it is and severely claustrophobic and the goddamn director keeps maximizing the feeling of confinement with his compositions and cutting. Then there's Sam Neill being a really good actor. His performance as the bad guy is more effective than DPK or Brad Dourif (may I be forgiven my blasphemy) because, let's keep it real. You see DPK or Brad Dourif coming a mile away as a psycho. Sam Neill? He's Alan Grant. He's that dude who gets the Australian ladies to take their clothes off without being skeevy about it. That's why it's so disturbing when he's five parsecs out of his duck-fucking mind in Event Horizon, opening portals to Hell and trying to kill Joely Richardson and all that horrible shit.

But the thing that really fucked me up in Event Horizon? When they reconstitute the recording of the old spaceship where everyone gouged out each other's eyes—by the way, another MASSIVE MASSIVE MASSIVE phobia of mine back then because I started slowly going blind in the first grade and if I hadn't gotten Lasik in 2000 I'd be totally in the dark as of this writing which is why eye trauma was fucking gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa at the time—and THAT FUCKING VOICE is saying “LIBERATE TUTAME EX INFERIS.” Save yourselves from hell. Now, look. I don't do the religion thing. My frame of reference contains none of that shit. It's not the hell thing so much as a) the fact that the dude saying that line was in media inferis, for fucking real; hell may not be real in real life but it fucking was in that fucking movie, and b) HE'S SPEAKING IN FUCKING LATIN!!! FUCK!!!

After Event Horizon ended—which, it should be noted, it does in perhaps the least reassuring way possible—I literally did not sleep through the night for the next week. It wasn't even that I'd fall asleep and have a nightmare about an eyeless dude croaking “liberate tutame ex inferis” while Sam Neill monologued, on fire, about Hell. It's that I'd be wide awake and suddenly I'd hear a voice as if from the other room saying it. This problem went on for long enough that my mom had time to transition from making fun of me (she thought the movie sucked) to being genuinely concerned for my mental health. Finally, after a while, I returned to “normal,” started sleeping, and stopped losing all the shit in the universe whenever someone so much as said “e pluribus unum.”

A couple years later, I was hanging out with a friend of mine and he proposed that we watch Event Horizon. Circumstances were such that I could not say no (social etiquette is a harsh mistress) and so I braced myself. The second time through, though, it was just a decently-made, sketchily-scripted SF horror picture, and watching it with the lights on while drinking 40s with a friend definitely helped. It felt good, like I'd regained the upper hand over the movie, and by extension my fear. Yeah, ecce homo, motherfucker.

Happy Halloween, y'all.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

THERE IS A MOUSE IN LUKE SKYWALKER'S HOUSE

Photo from a Disney corporate retreat


The news that Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion is the kind of thing that ordinarily would be a short item in the business section (old media version) or one of those Hollywood Reporter tweets people who aren't professional industry journalists ignore (new media version). What makes this different is not that The Mouse just straight up unzipped, because that's happened before (Pixar, Marvel, etc), but that the company being bought out is Lucasfilm, as in George Lucas, as in Star Wars. And, of course, The Mouse wasted no time in saying, there's gonna be a new Star Wars movie in 2015.

I've written before about my mixed feelings about the Star Wars sextet, and that five of them secretly kind of suck, so I'm not all up in arms kvelling about how the purity of the Star Wars brand is going to be besmirched. First of all, Star Wars was never about anything other than money; why the fuck do you think the thing George Lucas put the most energy into securing in his contract for the first movie was the toy rights? That was his whole idea, before the first movie took off and took on a pop cultural life of its own. People can talk all they like about Star Wars being their childhood, and hey, I'm no one to judge: I spent those same formative years worshipping Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Dudikoff movies. But there was never anything completely innocent here.

If anything, the Evil White Guys In Suits over there at The Mouse are more likely to make another Star Wars movie that's any good than George Lucas is, with his enormous, life-consuming ambivalence about the movies that will be at the very latest after one comma in the first sentence of his obituary. Say what you will about The Mouse—and I say some colorful things indeed—but they are very smart about the way they maximize profits. Their fuckups, like John Carter, are few and far between, and they learn from their mistakes, so any plans they have for Star Wars are likely to be subject to some pretty strict quality control, ironically considerably more than Lucas had in “writing” and directing those prequel turds. People who want to see Star Wars movies that are actually good movies should be pleased that someone else is going to be making them now.

But more than that, what The Mouse is going to be making here is money. Fucktons of it. In the novel Cloud Atlas—hey, why don't you check out my review of the movie adaptation at Tor.com? Do it—there's a storyline set in the 22nd century, where all movies are referred to as “disneys,” and this acquisition of Lucasfilm is one step closer by The Mouse to that kind of total market domination of American (and by extension basically global) entertainment. While the Star Wars thing is going to be greatest source of nerd rage/squee in this whole thing, the bottom line is that this is The Walt Disney Corporation flexing its nuts and reminding us all “We major.”

And you know what? Setting all cracks about Evil White Guys In Suits and the memetics of control in which their movies traffic, and old Walt's really nasty personal history viz a vis Jews and Nazis aside for a second, a round of applause to the Disney Corporation. Personally I'd rather there were societal (governmental?) checks on runaway corporate power, because you don't even need to go to OCP's reign of terror in Robocop to see the results of that, we fucking LARPed it for eight years under George W. Bush. But when all companies are doing is making assloads of money and not doing any (real) harm in doing so, have at it. This is America. There is no one better at what they do than Disney. Mickey Mouse is a fucking OG.

Okay, let's go back to those things we just set aside: oy. Does Disney have to fucking own all the things? The same respect for freedom and ability that allows me on one hand to respect their being really good at what they do makes me look at the fact that it's them that are this good at what they do and get a little uncomfortable. The Disney machine has been behind a lot of great movies—the magnificent run Miramax experienced as their specialty division in the 90s is one of many highlights—but there's a wide streak in entirely too many of their movies that exists to reinforce the existing order without question. It's a benign order, non-threatening in every overt way, but it is order nonetheless. Once Disney reaches its logical conclusion and controls fucking everything, we can only hope that they lean more on the “benign” side of things, rather than on “OBEY.” On the other hand, Donald Duck being Minister of the Interior might mean happy days for dudes with anger management issues, lousy diction, and an aversion to pants, which will work out great for me.

(EDIT 10/31/12: You should also probably read Isaac Butler's far more articulate take on this subject over at Parabasis.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

ACTS OF WAR



What, you might ask, prompted me to (churlishly?) write the following?

I hate to be the one pointing at the emperor's dick here, but the ‘80s sucked, even aside from the political nightmare (let me tell you, the moment when you're old enough to realize the only president you remember is Ronald Reagan is the existential torture of the thousand cuts). An overwhelming majority of the music that everyone remembers fondly because they were teenagers was bad, so bad even most people who “love ‘80s music” will admit it.

You'll just have to head on over to Hudak on Hollywood to find out.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX VOL. 11: BERNIE


The way I initially heard about Bernie was odd, and it's something I can't help think about after having finally seen the movie. A couple years ago, I got into a conversation with an actor friend after a play we'd just seen. The topic of movies came up—movies, for some reason, often come up with me—and my friend told me Richard Linklater and Jack Black were making a movie about a guy he knew. Very cool, I said, or something like that, then asked what it was about. He told me it was about this guy he'd worked with in community theater in Texas who'd killed an old woman, and some of the other details. But the thing I remember him saying was that the guy, weird though he was, was really well liked, and the woman universally despised. All told it sounded like an interesting story for a movie, and I told my friend I thought it was pretty far out that he was connected, however tangentially, to a story that crazy. We both agreed that if anyone was going to tell this particular story, that Richard Linklater was maybe the perfect guy to tell it.

Linklater's made a career out of sneaking up on people. He's rarely afforded the credit he deserves as one of the great American directors of the last few decades, partly because he's resisted the mainstream for the most part (though the couple things he's done at studios have ranged from good to pretty damn good) but mostly because he isn't always waving his dick at us like some other contemporaries of his (like dudes whose names rhyme with Shmentin Shmaranshmino; don't get me wrong, I love QT, but he is a dick-waver). A Richard Linklater picture, if a director so versatile can be boiled down to an empirical core, is one whose pleasures are subtle, that values building a convincing, rich world over cleverness of narrative, and where human beings are complex, and matter. The subjects, scale, and genre of his pictures may vary, but that humanism is at the core of who he is as an artist, and it's that that made me excited about Bernie, beyond the personal connection.

And it's quite the story. Linklater tells it using a quasi-documentary style, alternating between talking head interviews with the people of Carthage, Texas—some of whom are actors, some of whom are real townspeople—and dramatic scenes. We're introduced to the locally beloved Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director and all-around total sweetheart, who as both those things comes to befriend the deeply unpopular, antisocial, and rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). For a time, they get along fine. He's basically her walker: they go to the theater, travel the world, the whole little-old-lady-and-nice-young-man nine. Only as time goes by, the fact that the old lady's really kind of an asshole leads to the relationship becoming emotionally abusive and Bernie devolving from walker to servant. One day, he can't take the belittling anymore and snaps; he lights her up, stashes her body in a freezer, and spends the next several months carrying on as if she's merely temporarily incapacitated and he's handling her business, during which time he gives away a ton of her money. Eventually, the game is up and DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew “trying to break the world's record for most awesome performances in one year” McConaughey) prosecutes Bernie for first degree murder. Then, because no one in town would vote to convict Bernie, whom they all adore, of killing Marjorie, whom they all despise, the DA has to try Bernie in San Augustine, 50 miles away. Playing on class differences (Bernie can pronounce stuff in French and has flown first class on an air-o-plane), he gets his conviction. Bernie is now serving life.

The thing about Bernie that makes it fall juuuuuust short of greatness is the conflict between the story itself and the way it's told. A few years back I learned the hard way that just because a story is true doesn't mean it works as a movie, with a script I wrote about the $9 billion in cash intended to fund the provisional government in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein that went missing. I had some thinly-fictionalized Blackwater private paramilitary contractor types get the cash heisted from them by a French diplomat, a Russian triple agent, and a hard-bitten, hard-drinking NYC cop. Disregarding the fact that that's the greatest fucking movie idea ever, and that even reading a synopsis of it will add four inches to the length of your dick, there arose issues of plausibility (not to mention every woman who read it being like what the fuck). But, I argued, it's something that really happened, how can it be implausible? It was then explained to me; the short version is “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes, we need to de-strange-ify true stories to make them work as fiction. And, for real? That story about Bernie and the old lady and him killing her and no one in town wanting to put him inside, and it taking a near unprecedented act of ruthless, ambitious jurisprudence to even get him convicted? That shit's pretty fucking weird. So weird, in fact, that when my friend first told it to me back in 2010 or whenever it was I forgot I wasn't high and thought he was fucking with me because I was high except I wasn't. That story is strange. Telling it straight up as a regular movie story is going to run the risk of having the audience go “oh, please.” That's why B-Fleck calling Argo “the declassified true story” was a brilliant touch, and that's why, one presumes, Richard Linklater used the framing device of the gossipy interviews with the townsfolk.

What presenting Bernie in that fashion does is immediately reinforce the idea that this is a thing that happened. That the interviews are so beautifully executed, amounting to the greatest love letter to East Texas accents ever captured on screen—also, you can't tell the real people from the actors, they're all absofuckinglutely amazing—reinforces that idea with a couple steel beams and a block of concrete. The presentation is absolutely brilliant, and my favorite part about the movie, even more than the great performances from Jack Black (who's as free of shtick as he's ever been in his life) and Matthew McConaughey, who activated God mode at some point about 18 months ago and forgot to shut it off.

But this approach does create a couple dramatic problems with regards to time elapsed in the story being told. The major one arises in the part of the movie where Bernie is frantically trying to keep people from finding out that the old lady's dead and that he killed her. One of the best—and weirdest—parts of the actual story is that Bernie managed to keep this all hidden for almost a year. That's fucking insane. That's also the part of the story that lends itself best to actual drama. And it's a touch ironic that Richard Linklater, who is normally so good at simply letting things unfold and letting the natural drama in events create all the suspense and shit the movie needs (see: his masterpiece Dazed and Confused), hurries past this part of the story. It's ultimately not that big a deal because the good parts of the movie are so good, but it is enough to dock a couple points (completely random thought: whoever invents the Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic/CinemaScore version of Calvinball will earn eternal life in the kingdom of heaven).

One thing that (pleasantly) surprised me was how much overt discussion there was of Bernie being gay. There's a slim possibility he's asexual. But I mean, look, the dude was a walker for rich old ladies, he did theater, and he had really good manners, y'know what I'm sayin? Maybe I'm being provincial, but I was a bit taken aback at the way the townspeople reacted to the question of “Was Bernie Gay?” These people, from deepinahearta Jesus country, were mostly like, “Well, yeah, but—” and launched into some explanation of what an awesome guy Bernie was and how much they liked him. The one lady was like, “Well, no, he can't be gay, I mean, look at Jesus” and starts rambling about the Apostles to the point where she makes a really terrific case for them all being gigantic 'mos, all in the service of talking about how much she liked Bernie. It's almost like, if you could clone Bernie off a couple thousand times and distribute the Bernies around the Bible Belt, you could make a pretty healthy dent in homophobia. Almost. Maybe that's too idealistic. Certainly too science-fictional. But it certainly is interesting, and a really nifty reversal in expectations, to see this small southern town be so vehemently on the side of a guy who, not to be rude, is gay as a goose in Givenchy.

All in all Bernie's totally worth seeing, and a definite supporting argument for Richard Linklater as a great American director (the framing and cutting is exquisite throughout, natch). Perfect it's not, but really really good it is. And holy shit those accents. Considering Bernie didn't even make $10 mil at the box office more of You People™ need to see this, at the very least to keep Jack Black from making Ezekiel Balls Part 7 (what's good, all two of you who saw Thirteen and got that reference), so queue it up. NOW.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

ARGO BUY A NEW MIC, BOWES

B-Fleck in Argo? Keanu Reeves cosplaying Ellis from Die Hard? You be the judge.

So last night I went on a podcast to talk about Argo in particular and B-Fleck in general. (EDIT: the podcast in question, apparently, no longer exists. Apologies to anyone scouring the MBB archives.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

THE YEAR'S BEST FILM (AND MAYBE THE DECADE'S)



Other than the Warholian length, the most notable aspect of this remarkable piece of montage is the reinforcement of the idea, rendered absurd through repetition, that an ass can ever be too fat. After that, the blithe, crisp direction of the titular ass via the gesticulating puppetmaster eventually settles into an assuring rhythm that hammers home the essential ebullience of the music and the sentiment expressed. A film for this era, indeed.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

THE FAILURE OF DEMOCRACY



Annoying though the ugly end game of the presidential election might be, that is not the failure of democracy under discussion. Much as civilized people might (justifiably) want to shoot Romney voters into space without helmets, politics is one area where democracy works just fine, malleable though the electorate might be at the hands of the increasingly hysterical mass media. Democracy is the second-best form of governance there is, and the best one has a huge fucking problem. The best form of governance, of course, is a dictatorship run by me. It'd be great: I'd put a few evil white guys in suits up against the wall to send a message to the rest of them, I'd outlaw the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Heat, normalize relations with any nation willing to accept the supremacy of Kathryn Bigelow's body of work as a film director, put Gina Gershon's face on the one dollar bill, all kinds of good stuff. But the problem is, once I'm assassinated by radicalized Christopher Guest cultists (banning Waiting For Guffman leads to prison riots, etc.) some other dickface is going to take over, and there we are with a bunch of dumb shit illegal and the world's largest secret police force (that's the main reason you don't want me running anything more important than a website, I'm way too obsessed with the idea of having secret police) running around being secret police and all the other apparatuses of totalitarianism. Against that, democracy, messy as it is, looks way better as a political system. But there are limits to democracy's value as a good, and those limits stop way the hell before we get to the arts, and the “Best Of” lists that get everyone all pissed off.

The two things that inspired this post were the kerfuffle that erupted over The AV Club's best of the 90s list and the appointment by Esquire magazine of Mila Kunis as the sexiest woman alive. More on the former in a bit, as it's the subject with more substance to discuss, but for a moment, let us ponder Ms. Kunis. She is quite easy on the eyes—


—and has a rather wonderful touch with light comedy (not faint praise at all, that shit's hard) that, if anything, makes her more appealing. She is by no means a ridiculous choice for this exalted honor. There are, though, two glaring points that negate the entire purpose of the enterprise (beyond being able to print a bunch of airbrushed photos of a pretty girl in her underwear, which, depending on your perspective, is a purpose unto itself): one is that if one is anointed the sexiest woman (or man) alive, are you not that thing until death, a dictatorship of hotness unto oneself? Or, barring that, until you fuck up on drugs or booze or desexify in some other fatal way? The other is that, almost by definition, the only people who are ever going to be named sexiest whatever alive are the ones the largest number of people can agree on, which is to say (in this instance) people whose hotness is a little more ordinary. It's not like these people are unshtuppable, most of them are plenty hot, with a few notable exceptions whose quotidian sleaziness is presented by the media as “sexy.” More than that though, the things and people we personally find sexiest are more than often things and people at which other people don't even bat an eye. Not to go all TMI on y'all but I can attest, firsthand, that the quality of sex had and the conventional attractiveness of the partner are not directly correlated. (If you're reading this and have slept with me, I'm not talking about you, of course.) Furthermore, damn near everyone has at least one thing that they find way hot that makes other people go “eww”or leaves them cold. This is all a very roundabout way of saying that the people who actually do find Mila Kunis the epitome of sexiness are not the ones who won her this exalted title, it's the far greater number of people who, while it may not have occurred to them to begin with to think of her as the sexiest woman alive, when asked will reply, “Sure, Mila Kunis is attractive.” Again, this isn't a knock on her—and on the zillion-to-one chance she reads this, apologies for the objectification, even if Esquire started it—this is just how aesthetic choice works, even when one's dick or clit is making that choice.

So, everyone take a cold shower and let's move on to the AV Club's 90s list. Their top 50 films of the decade can be seen here, here, and here. It's a damn good list—my love for the AV Club and its influence on me as a critic are both massive—whose omissions, if you ask me, are minor and forgivable. But the me that's saying that is a complex construct. The critics being polled are ones I've been reading for years and, as above, ones who inspired me to become one myself, so that me that agrees with them is clearly biased. Beyond that, the me agreeing with them is American, male, white, and was a teenager in the 90s just coming of age as a movie lover, so the movies of that decade are ones that will always have a vivid importance to me for that reason alone. Not that any of these characteristics invalidate my (or their) perspective, by any means, but the nature of the observed does vary depending on the observer.

All that is prelude to the quite heated discussion that arose upon the posting of the top 10, when a number of women critics got pissed that there were so few films by women directors on the list. Even though two of the eight critics who contributed to the list were women, there were still overwhelmingly more male directors on the list. Whether your explanation is because, statistically, the comparatively infinitesimal number of movies directed by women leads, inexorably, to a proportionately low number of legit classics OR because in a patriarchal society we are conditioned to give less credit to women artists and their work, you're both right. That's not passing the buck. My own top 10 for the decade (the tabulation of which is, be warned, extremely rough) includes Sally Potter's Orlando and Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, and if we expand it to a top 20 Nancy Savoca's Dogfight and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides are in, at the very least. And that, mind-boggling eclecticism aside, is meaningless other than as one man's take. Not to equate advocacy of women directors with fetishism (although the idea of women making more movies is awesome, it's only erotic when Kathryn Bigelow does it, about which: ahem, “I've already said too much,” etc.) but the flattening out of taste when it comes to the democratization of critical opinion means the things that get included in best-of lists are the things as many people as possible can agree on. And this is because only five people ever saw Dogfight, and because me and a decidedly different four other people are the only ones insane enough to advocate Point Break as a work of legitimate art (though, real talk, if you want to list Kathryn's peers with regards to using cinematic technique to evoke powerful visceral reactions, we're talking Spielberg and basically no one else).

Lists made from a poll or survey are, ultimately, always going to piss someone off. Not because the AV Club are sexists, because they most decidedly are not. And not because the Sight & Sound poll are a bunch of fusty old jagoffs with a boredom fetish (geez, of all the running themes in a post, this one had to walk into mine....), because they're not that either. The problem is democracy. Eight people all agreed Goodfellas was the best movie of the 90s, and a few hundred people all agreed that it was time for Vertigo to be better than Citizen Kane after a few decades of a few dozen people all having agreed that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made. This says nothing definitive about any of these movies, however good all those movies are, which is very. It simply says these are what the largest number of people can agree on.

So, while consensus may be a comfort, or appear to validate one's personal taste, should they coincide with the consensus, it's still a very problematic way to judge art. One must always consider the source (and, I should add, afford the source their proper degree of earned respect; i.e. the AV Club are smart people who should not be dismissed) and remember that with very few exceptions, consensus is not a deliberate attempt to offend. Which is why, though we're not there yet for another few months, you'll enjoy the Oscars a lot more if you watch for the dresses. And with that koan, I bid you good day.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A FEW WORDS ON THE INTERNET AND FILM CULTURE, A WEEK AFTER EVERYONE GOT SICK OF TALKING ABOUT IT

A photo from the Great Twitter War of 2015

Owing, as I do, my modest writing career to the fact that there is an Internet, and to the fact that many others have written about movies on it before me, I always hesitate when I get the urge to write something slamming Internet film discourse. The elephant in the room is and ever shall be that I'm just Some Guy With A Blog, and just Some Guy On Twitter, on an empirical and unavoidable level. When I put someone who gets more traffic than I do on blast, I get hate mail and comments (the dumbest of which I delete because, hey, I can) accusing me of being jealous of the subject in question. Actually, the contrary is true. I revel in obscurity. I savor it while I still can. There is a one-to-one correlation between the number of people reading something you wrote online and the amount of stupid bullshit people throw at you. Even at a place with a relatively civil and intelligent a comment section as Tor.com—and let me be perfectly clear here, I'm not kvetching about the comment section at Tor.com, it's one of the very best there is—every so often someone'll just fart out some malignantly stupid comment that I'll read, even though everyone always says “never read the comment section, especially of something you write,” and just want to fucking give up and move to the woods with some Gina Gershon posters and Talking Heads records and kiss the rest of the human race goodbye. But, I get over it. The game is the game. People love movies, and take them seriously, and occasionally lash out when someone expresses a strong contrary opinion. This doesn't make it any less frustrating when lumpen fuckfaces talk about how The Master “sucks” (there are arguments to be made that some PT Anderson cultists are a little blinkered, but there are no valid ones whatsoever to made against his talent as a filmmaker; you don't have to love him, but if you say he sucks you do not know what you're talking about) or go on OCD tirades about the “flaws” in Looper, which . . . oy.

So, a while back on these hallowed Internets, specifically in the days immediately following Looper's release, when civilians could finally see it, one seriously stupid nerd argument arose. Some dickhead saw Looper and started immediately indignantly tweeting his tits off about how the central premise of the film was flawed and all manner of other quasi-smart-esque shit. His whole trip was that the time-travel thing in Looper—gangsters in the future sending dudes into the past to be whacked and incinerated—was stupid because they should have beamed the guys into the middle of the ocean with concrete shoes on. The Internet being what it is, a guy who poses as the Incredible Hulk posing as a film critic (whose work, it should be said, is actually pretty great sometimes, though he's so fuckin long-winded he makes me look like Gary Cooper) sauntered into the fray and systematically destroyed the guy's argument, which was not all that difficult, because it was so fucking stupid: the reason you don't beam the guys into the middle of the ocean with concrete shoes on is because without someone physically there to a) kill the guy, b) dispose of the body, and c) provide definitive word that a) and b) have been compassed, you're basically just trusting that the guy you want whacked is going to die, which is way stupider than having Joseph Gordon-Levitt waiting there with a blunderbuss.

It's not just the commenters either. There are some critics and bloggers, who shall remain nameless here because the point of this isn't to call out this dickface or that fucktard by name, who whether by dipshittery, a maladroit way with words, or deliberate trollishness, fuck everything up by writing luridly stupid things about movies that get good people mad and contribute nothing to culture. There's really no such thing as “the cultural conversation” about movies or anything else; what people are talking about when they deploy that shibboleth is the aggregate of all the things people have said about a thing. I use the word “aggregate” very specifically, because all “the cultural conversation” is is a statistic, it's not a work of art, or even of journalism. Individual people have valuable things to say about culture, those individual people who know their stuff, who know how to use language to explain said stuff in a way others can understand, some of whom may individually use language to craft their own take on the same subject, and so on. But make no mistake, it's the individual pieces that matter.

While we're not making mistakes and setting the record straight and speaking truth to power (eyeroll/jerkoff/etc) I need to say this: we should not view the pre-Internet years as some kind of golden age of cultural discourse. Five white dudes and Pauline Kael writing about movies as opposed to five hundred thousand not-always white not-always dudes is not a fair fight: the Internet wins that fight, hands down. No amount of deliberately crappy-looking Instagram documents of brunch, no number of done-to-death memes, no blizzard of nerdtard invective about movies they haven't seen yet will outweigh the good of the Internet, which is that anyone with a computer can communicate with anyone else with a computer (even if you're in a country that tries to censor the Internet; all that means is you gotta try harder and be careful to cover your tracks). There is no counterargument against that being a good thing. It's freedom. And not to be all flag-wavy and shit (especially since politicians use the word “freedom” as a memetic device, not as a reference to the thing itself), but freedom is a universal good.

It is, alas, messy. The part of the Internet where people schmooze about movies isn't even the worst hive of scum and villainy. No, the Mos Eisley of this shit is definitely a toss-up between the politics and sports Internets. Those people are just disagreeable. Still, movie talk on the Internet gets nasty. Most people think they know more about movies than they actually do, and I include myself in this: when I started this blog I knew some stuff, more than most people even, but not a day goes by when I don't see someone tweet about some director I don't know enough, or anything, about. Like, for example, I've never seen an Abbas Kiarostami film. This will change soon, but the larger point is: nobody knows everything. And in any case a fundamental understanding of the medium is of greater importance writing criticism than having seen every movie ever made (which is not to say you shouldn't see as many movies as you can, but still). The problem is with people who are convinced that what they already know is all that's worth knowing, which is where troll wars with people who think cinema only exists in America and was invented in 1986 start. Still, irksome as those fuckers are, they're not the only people talking about movies on the Internet. A glance at my blog roll will give you a small cross-section of good, smart, talented people writing and talking about movies online. Then there are the fine folks at the AV Club, and on the various Indiewire sites, and Slant Magazine. Any number of charming Twitter raconteurs. Sometimes we don't all get along and fight and stuff, but thus it ever has (even when it was all going on in secret) been.

The age of the illusory monoculture—the pervasive mythic time when everyone always agreed what was a classic and what wasn't—would have been a lot more fun with Twitter. Not only that, but it would have been impossible for William Randolph Hearst to (almost successfully) completely bury Citizen Kane with a bunch of critics raising hell on Twitter. Remember last year when Margaret came out, and Fox Searchlight tried to bury it because Kenneth Lonergan had cooties or something, and everyone raised hell to the point where Fox Searchlight was like “All right, all right, Jesus Christ, we'll release it in theaters and then on DVD/Blu Ray, you win”? Imagine the outrage from people who'd seen Citizen Kane, after the collective tantric cinephile orgasm on Twitter, and got wind that some Evil White Guy In a Suit was trying to stick his dick in Orson Welles' eye. Nuclear fucking Internet war. Sure there'd be a couple trolly dipshit blog posts about how it's a “flaw” that Kane says “Rosebud” in an empty room and some asshole or two would complain that the structure violated the accepted rules of narrative. But, it still makes it harder for Hearst to throw his tantrum and delay Kane's ascendance to all-time great status.

One thing the Internet definitely does is narrow or even eliminate the 15 year gap between Casablanca's release and winning a couple Oscars and its emergence as first a cult classic and then a genuine classic. One definite change would be a greater division of opinion on how much it rules. There'd be a lot of annoying beside-the-point nerd nitpicking about shit like the letters of transit not being a real thing, because people who either need to take a semiotics class, lighten the fuck up, or both are legion, but no worse than the “DERP WHY DON'T THEY LOOP THEM INTO THE OCEAN WITH CONCRETE SHOES DERRRP DERP DERP” dickheads or the people who spent six weeks agonizing over “flaws” in the The Dark Knight Rises. Because, here's where Casablanca benefits from the Internet: people turning Humphrey Bogart into a meme for ultimate, peerless ownage.

Maybe you need a little more negative space at the top and bottom to meme this, but  try anyway.

Speaking of ownage, Bonnie and Clyde oddly probably still goes through that false start before being re-released and becoming a hit with a working Internet at its disposal. Warner Bros sends Warren Beatty to SXSW or Fantastic Fest and plays the dual “I'm Warren Beatty and I'm incredibly handsome and charismatic” and “This movie takes place in Texas” cards. The Austin critics all go apeshit. BUT, New York and LA critic types read all the Austin dudes/dudettes' reviews and go “eh, gangster pictures are so 1940s” (assuming the democratization of genre that accompanied the democratization of mass communication didn't also take place; those paradigm shifts sure are tricky) and the picture still needs to hit a couple festivals before EVERYONE realizes how dope it is.

One thing, the run-up to The Godfather is between eleventy and twelveteen fucktillion times more annoying with people blogging about it all the time (“Why is Evans insisting on an Italian director?” “Who the fuck is Francis Ford Coppola?” “Finian's Rainbow eats cock.” “NO U EAT COCK.” “FUCK U!” then all the “What The Godfather Gets Wrong About Organized Crime” pieces in Slate....man, I'm getting annoyed at my own hypothetical here, goddamn.)

All of these pictures ultimately did fine on their own and became classics, so the changes wrought would be cosmetic, or at their most drastic, accelerating the timetable before the attainment of classichood. Movies that flopped (for occasionally specious reasons, back in the days of studio hegemony) and were allowed to slip out of the popular consciousness, or, fatally, print would have a lot more potential advocates. If we import the auteurism that pervades among Internet cinephile types along with the Internet, a lot of genre directors who punched the clock in relative anonymity for decades get a lot more love. People like Henry Hathaway, Lewis Milestone, and particularly someone like Robert Wise, journeymen like that, get 10,000 word blog posts written about them by dorks like me, decades before dorks like me started doing so. This doesn't lead to universal acclaim, of course. There's simply a light burning somewhere in the dark, shining for anyone who might glance its way, saying, “Hey, check this out.”

To bring this ramble to a close, “Hey, check this out” is what this whole writing-about-movies thing should be about. I like this, this is good. Of course, there's a bit of “whoa, you do NOT want to go in there” that needs to be done (the movie I'm obliquely referencing there is, eye-RONNNNNNN-ickly, one to avoid) as well. For the most part, though, I'm more comfortable advocating, just because I like liking things more than I like trashing them. Comes the time, I will let loose the dogs of war and savage something that needs it, but the operative word in there is “needs.” Very few things are all-time classics or travesties. Most movies are somewhere in the middle, the kind that some people will like and others won't. Much like people themselves. Which is why, the more people are talking about movies, the more we realize movies are like people, because people make movies. People are messy, annoying, impulsive, and prone to start shit. But I wouldn't have us any other way.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

AN AUDIENCE WITH ARNOLD


I'm still busy as shit, but this is too good not to host here forever and ever: Bill Simmons talking to Arnold. Arnold rules. That is all.