I am not a Christian. Yet sometimes I’ll experience something that makes me get Christian spirituality. One of those things could be listening to The Louvin Brothers sing Gospel music—their pitch-perfect and straightforward sincerity has the power to stop me cold in my secular tracks. Another was dealing with a health-crisis, which caused me to understanding why people become religious as life can seem like an continuous leap-of-faith.
And recently, Stars in My Crown—which feels like the lost classic Western of my childhood that my father would’ve shown me— is another one of those things.
Based on Joe David Brown’s novel, one of the opening scenes of Stars is both funny and telling: as preacher and Civil War veteran Josiah Doziah Gray, Joel McCrea enters a rough and tumble old west saloon in the town of Walesburg and announces to the patrons that he’s going to give a sermon. Their response? Laughter. His retort? He pulls out and brandishes two pistols, which shuts-up the patrons and allows him to begin preaching.
With the assistance of a narrator, the film jumps forward to years after Gray’s arrival to Walesburg. He has long established a peaceful ministry and the town seems more civilized. What’s to be inferred from this opening is interesting: instead of the armed man of the law acting as the force that stabilizes the West—as it is in so many Westerns—it’s the man of faith.
What’s also notable is that Josiah never really preaches in the movie and Jesus Christ or the Holy Trinity as rarely referred to by name. Instead, Josiah’s faith is demonstrated as an ongoing, active and multivalent effort to help his community. So, as a religious man, Josiah isn’t defined by his word but by his action. For instance, with his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) he raises an orphaned boy (John, played by a young Dean Stockwell); or, he helps freed slave Uncle Famous Prill (Juano Hernandez) deal with a mining company that’s trying to pressure Prill off of his property.
Consequently, Stars is a work of poignant Americana that presents spirituality in terms pragmatic and palpable (something that’s often goes missing from cinematic depictions of religious life.)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past, Night of the Demon), the movie feels like a downhome fantasy that, due to the finely rendered quality of the its particularities, could’ve been real, and the folky vernacular of the script (written by Margaret Fitts) reinforces that feeling. Also, the story touches upon issues regarding race and science in ways that respect the thoughtfulness of the viewer and McCrea leads the cast with a likeable gravitas so well that, when Harriet affectionately calls Josiah “a straight stick”, you don’t need to be convinced why.
Possibly the best John Ford film directed by a Frenchman, Stars in My Crown has quickly become one of my sentimental favorites, as it was with Tourneur and McCrea. Highly recommended and available via Warner Archive.
The last time I saw David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly was right before I was diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (which I have written about, as well as my personal connection to another sci-fi property, elsewhere) and even then it was a doozy. While it tells the story of a scientist (Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum) whom splices his genes inadvertently with a house-fly as a result of experimenting with teleportation and then mutates, it’s really a movie about a basic rule of biology that effects us in seismic ways: whether it’s caused by drugs, disease or old age, our bodies will break down and we will die.
Visually elaborating upon this theme are the movie’s impressive special make-up effects, accomplished by Chris Walas, which portray Brundle’s physical and physiological breakdown in a perhaps all too gruesome manner. This aspect of The Fly made it apart of an 80s trend of horror films like An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Society and some others I’m probably missing that featured baroque, state-of-the-art and influential make-up effects. But it also gives the movie a gagging, dreadful verisimilitude.
Brundle’s transformation, step-by-step. (Source: The Cinematic Frontier)
Moreover, what makes Cronenberg’s Fly particularly wrenching is that 1) Brundle is a likable character and 2) the movie also tells the story of a burgeoning romantic relationship between him and Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) that is ruined by Brundle’s transformation into a monster. Goldblum and Davis were in a real-life relationship as The Fly was made and their noticeable chemistry transferred onto the screen. In turn, this makes the relationship between Brundle and Quaife only more palpable, which only makes the ending to The Fly even more traumatic.
(Source: Bad Idea Racing)
Yet it was only harder to watch The Fly as a cancer survivor, which I did this week. It made me nauseous and reminded me that the beast I fended off will one day return to be victorious. So, in terms of how it affects its audience, I consider Cronenberg’s Fly to be his cruelest film. Great director, but his directorial voice can be like that of a unsympathetic doctor’s.
Same terror, previous refraction: from THE FLY (1958) (Source: Critica Retro.)
Two days after I rewatched the 1986 version of The Fly, I realized that I had never seen the original, 1958 version of The Fly, directed by Kurt Neumann and starring David Hedison, Patricia Owens and Vincent Price. Considering that I just saw the remake and wrote an article that deals with Price’s screen persona, I decided to watch it for Halloween despite reservations.
While the original Fly is not quite as great as the 1986 Fly, it did a better job of lifting my spirits. As one of 20th Century Fox’s productions from the 1950s that was shot in Cinemascope, it has that stately, widescreen and adorned quality that proclaims “THIS IS MOVIE (NOT TV).” And if it’s decent, I find something comforting in watching an unabashed, capital-M Movie.
(Source: Un Metodo Peligroso.)
Also, the story of the original Fly is pure “this is horrifying yet neat-o” hokum and you can tell that most everyone making it were aware of this. (Geoff Andrew in the Time Out Film Guide points out that the script, adapted from a George Langelaan storty by James Clavell, “successfully treads a fine line between black comedy and po-faced seriousness.”) And, as I expressed in the previously mentioned/linked article that deals with Price, I can enjoy watching things in which creative people went for it despite the mental resistance that occurs when anything fake and ridiculous has to be portrayed matter-of-factly.
My main complaint with the original Fly is that Hedison, who plays the teleportation scientist Andre Delambre who accidentally merges with a fly, and Owens, who plays Andre’s suffering wife Helene, give performances that are melodramatically canned and, considering that half of the movie focuses only on their characters, the middle flashback part of the film must work better for people who are most compelled to see a man with the head of a giant fly.
(Source: Joe Blo.)
Also, Andre has a quality of scientific male-entitlement that is never really explored or made thematic, just accepted (for obvious, extra textual reasons.) In one scene, he uses the family cat on impulse for a teleportation experiment that goes awry and results in the cat literally becoming lost in the cosmos. When Andre acknowledges this screw-up that would put any married man in the doghouse to Helene, his attitude is bascially “whoops but accept it because I’m a patriarch hahaha.” And it is. In the 1986 Fly, Seth Brundle at least regrets destroying a baboon for one of his experiments. Also, as a hand-wringing cat lover, I didn’t maintain empathy for Andre after that moment.
Except for the famous climatic scene of the movie, in which Andre’s brother Francois (Price) and Inspector Charas (a perfectly poker-faced Herbert Marshall) find the fly with the head of Andre as it is trapped in a spider’s web and is about to be eaten by a spider, all the while squeaking, “help me!”
(Source: Scarecrow Video Website.)
This scene has been spoofed in various things, which is fair due to its bizarre, “what the heck?!” nature. But it gave me a double-shock of empathy as I watched it in its proper context; not only does it present Francois and Charas’s perspective, but it also presents the perspective of Andre as he is devoured by a spider. In terms of my viewer identification, it’s like getting punched in the face and then immediately knocked in the groin.
Yet, I felt safe at the end of the original Fly because foremost it is a work of imagination, a “film fantastique.” And while the implications of the ‘86 Fly can spill out and trouble the soul, the implications of the ’58 Fly can be contained and wondered upon in the mind. And while that is less truthful, I have to deal with an ultimate truth in a tangible, non-intellectual and emotional way. So I can afford some entertainment.
(Source: Black Sheep Reviews.)
And Vincent Price, who is grandfatherly in my eyes, has a way of easing the darkness that Cronenberg prescribes. Call me a softy, I don’t care.
The rattle of chains that bind. The brute force of an unexpected beating. The propulsion of paddle-wheels on a slave-transporting riverboat. The back-breaking thorniness of picking cotton. The sloshing of mud made by a man hanging by a noose and barely maintaining a life-saving foothold. The crispness of stolen parchment that could be used to write a liberating letter. These are some of the many sensory details of 12 Years a Slave that successfully recreate the cruelty of slavery.
Whereas other films about slavery aim for the viewer’s intellect or sense of decency, 12YaS goes for the experiential. This technique is matter-of-fact and chilling— it creates inescapable feelings of danger, dread and helplessness. The film wants you to empathize as a consequence of the sensations that it produces, even as it dramatically explores the absurd double standards and soul-crushing compromises that the institution of slavery used as fodder.
Evident in McQueen’s first two films Hunger and Shame is his predilection for cinematic synesthesia. Hunger was the more successful of the two; by focusing on the quality of substance and what its absence feels like, the film conveyed the desperation and determinism intrinsic to a political hunger strike. Yet 12YaS might be the most successful of all three McQueen films. Through artful, formalistic transmutation, it conveys the painful and concrete aspects of being a slave in an immediate manner. The result is a bruised feeling that is as universal as it is hard to ignore.
Century Park 12 in Redwood City. It is now abandoned. (Source: Cinema Treasures)
When I was a youngster growing-up in Northern California, my family and/or I would patronize any one of the Century Theaters multiplexes along the San Francisco Peninsula. Aka Syufy Theaters and now owned by Cinemark Theaters, Century Theaters did not have the best theaters in the area. Most of them were domed, free-standing, “futuristic” auditoriums that were originally designed in the 60s to show large format presentations (i.e. 70mm.) Or, they were Cinerama theater rip-offs that were dated by the 1980s, cavernous and did not function optimally due to their specific form. Now, Century Theaters are located in typical, escalated complexes that feature stadium seating, 3D and what-have-you. In fact, I worked as a projectionist at one of these newer locations, right before the place converted to digital presentations.
Still, I have many moviegoing experiences associated with the Century Theaters of the past. For instance: before every feature presentation began, their theater policy trailer would roll. Watch it below:
And somewhere it time, it became customary for audiences to clap along with the second half of the policy trailer’s song, a triumphant announcement that said you were about to WATCH A MOVIE, CONSARNIT.
“What is the most frustrating thing to you in movies or TV shows? What’s the thing that you don’t enjoy it, at all. You’re watching it, and you’re like, ‘I hate that and it actually upsets me on an emotional level,’” Scharpling said/broadcasted. “For me, it is when someone saw something fantastic happen— usually an animal speaks— and then they go get people, and then the animal doesn’t, and this guy has to go, ‘I swear, he just did it a second ago! Saw the thing you said! I was just talking to him!’ …I hate any one of those moments when someone is made to look like they’re going crazy and they’re not, and everybody goes, ‘yeah okay, whatever, what are you, drunk?’… I hate those moments so much. They’re just unfair to people.”
Two great examples of this sort of thing are the Looney Tunes cartoon short One Froggy Evening (1955, dir. Chuck Jones) and the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, dir. Don Siegel), particularly its original intended ending.
Above: a still from One Froggy Evening. (Source: Animation Magazine)
In OFE, a construction worker finds a singing, dancing, vaudevillian frog while helping to demolish a building. But to the worker’s chagrin, the frog only preforms for him and to no one else, thereby making the worker appear and almost go crazy.
Granted, the worker tries to exploit the frog for profit, and he does seem like a jerk, so his plight isn’t too iniquitous, which in turn makes his situation comical. But you still feel for the hapless soul for the basic reason that he can’t share something incredible with others. Frustration epitomized.
In IotBS, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) discovers that plant-based extraterrestrials have invaded his town by means of duplicating and replicating its citizens. Bennell’s tries to expose and stop the epidemic, and the original intended ending to film had him failing to do so. See for yourself:
Yet the film’s studio, Allied Artists, found this denouement to be way too pessimistic and got Siegel to shoot/add a prologue and epilogue that frames the story as a flashback and concludes the movie on a more optimistic note (Bennell manages to convince authorities of the invasion and they begin to act on it.) 
Even if it still involves some ambiguity, Siegel never cared for the reshot ending.  Yet it’s not hard to see a possible reason why A.A. were perturbed by the original intended ending: it portrays the individual as ineffective and suggests that regular society is already indifferent and conformed. But it’s also not hard to agree with the sentiment of the original ending in our openly cynical times. (Hence, a reason why IotBS is remade on occasion.)
Above: a still from One Froggy Evening. (Source: Ryan’s Blog.)
The cliché of a character being seen as a crazy and ignorable asshole when they have to share something incredible or important can be troubling. When identified with, it’s nightmarish in how it suggests that even when you a) know with certainty that you have something significant to communicate and offer and b) make a concerted effort to convey that thing, you can still be ignored, marginalized and made insignificant by society. It’s a reminder that not only can life be unfair but it also can be excessively unfair.
Above: a still from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Source: This Distracted Globe.)
This minor cliché didn’t bother me before. But now, after hearing Tom Scharpling expound upon it, it does, and for particular reasons. (Time for me to share too much information and be hyperbolic): I live in L.A. and living here involves confronting massive indifference on a daily basis. So there’s that. I’m also looking for work and am frustrated by how no one is really buying what I’m selling despite having a good amount of education and experience.
I’ve also been trying to deal with some writer’s block, which is very much based in a preemptive resignation to the fear that no one is or will be interested in what I will write. There are things in my personal life that may only exist in my mind but make me feel disavowed. (For obvious reasons, I won’t go into them.) And there was an instance this past summer in which I tried five times to get a requisition from my doctor’s office in order to have an important medical procedure done and they never came through. Thanks, doc!
Above: a still from One Froggy Evening. (Source: Ryan’s Blog.)
So I feel like the construction worker in OFE or Kevin McCarthy in IotBS, but instead of trying and failing to make a singing and dancing frog or an alien invasion known, I’m just trying to make myself seen, heard and understood. And top of that, there’s the concern that I will become nothing and perish if I don’t make these things happen.
However, it could be that I just need to keep trying to make these things happen. But making a constant yet unfruitful effort can be enervating and, for the time being, I feel exhausted and need to recharge somehow.
I could just be overdramatic here; everybody’s got problems and not every problem is happening to me. Still, someone’s got to believe me! There’s a metaphoric invasion of singing and dancing frogs in my life and I’m trying to cope with them!
Above: Scharpling with his own magical nonconformist animal, Gary the Squirrel. (Source: Jeff Moore’s Flickr.)
But as Tom Scharpling has also often said, “can’t go around it, gotta go through it.”  So consider this post as a case of “going through it.”
 LaValley, Al. Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Don Siegel, director. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
 Lovell, Alan. Don Siegel, American Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1975.
 If it existed, I would buy a book of Scharpling’s Quotables.
By the time I had to read Hamlet for English class in the 12th grade, I knew that I am a depressive. But as a seventeen or eighteen-year-old, I proscribed some needless grandiosity or romanticism onto my depression when in fact it is mild. I just run at a deficit of enthusiasm and have to be proactive in finding ways to compensate, which promises that I will almost always need to go to the pharmacy on a monthly basis. Or, its just “diabetes for my soul.”
Nevertheless, when I read Hamlet’s monologue in Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s eponymous play for the first time, I related to it and realized that it is one of the greatest, most eloquent descriptions or evocations of what it feels like to be depressed. And when I read it again recently as a person who is more developed and pragmatic about his depression, the monologue didn’t lose any of its power.
The monologue occurs when Hamlet is greeting and conversing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent
your discovery, and your secrecy to the king and
queen moult no feather. I have of late—but wherefore
I know now—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of
Exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my
Disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to
Me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy,
The air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament,
This majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why,
It appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent
Congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
In form and moving how express and admirable,
In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
A god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man
Delights not me- no, nor woman neither, though by
Your smiling you seem to say so.
I was considering writing something in which I analyzed performances of this monologue in different screen adaptations of Hamlet, but I worry that it would be too academic or pedantic and, for lack of a better term, not “bloggy” enough. Also, it would involve a lot of research and I just need to get back on the horse by just writing something at this point in time, no matter how unscholarly and second-rate that thing might be. (This isn’t to let me off the hook, though; I really could make my film writing more research based… but later.) And besides, I don’t know if a thorough analysis of a single Shakespeare soliloquy is an activity that will assuage my depression, something that always makes it harder for me to write.
Nevertheless, I do want to point out what is, so far, my favorite screen performance of this monologue, and it doesn’t even happen in an adaptation of Hamlet. It happens at the end of the 1987 film Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson.) An autobiographical work that takes place in 1969, the film is about the drug-fueled travails of out-of-work actors Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann.)
SPOILERS THAT AREN’T REALLY SPOILERS IN MY OPINION At the end of the film, “I” gets the lead part in a play, gets a haircut and needs to leave town. Withnail accompanies him as he goes and it’s implied that their friendship will fade away as a result of this reversal of fortune. They part ways at the zoo and, when “I” walks off, Withnail turns to some captive wolves in the rain and recites a version of the monologue while hanging onto an open bottle of wine.
Quotations of Hamlet are a motif of Withnail and I, so this appropriation of the monologue isn’t as random as it may seem out of context. And what is so brilliant about this appropriation is that it completely works as both an homage and transposition that reveals character. It reveals that Withnail, in all likelihood and among other reasons, drinks and does drugs in order to blot out his inner pain and depression, things that have just been activated as a consequence of knowing that he is losing his main friend. It also hints at his professional frustration while demonstrating that he is in fact a capable (yet wasted and self-destructive) actor. And it makes a sad scene even gloomier. Much of this is due to Grant’s nuanced, dynamic and haunting delivery that is born out of both pathos and spite.
And the filmmaking behind this ending is marvelously subtle. The slight camera moves convey a sense of revelation, and the match-on action cut that occurs when Withnail raises his umbrella and exclaims “how like a God!” is a perfectly timed moment of punctuation that adds power while paradoxically exposing the obscure circumstances of this inspired and impromptu performance: he is speaking to an audience of indifferent animals, one of which doesn’t even stay around for the monologue’s end. After he bows to the camera, the last shot tilts upward from the ground as Withnail exits, framing him through the bars as if to show that he is as trapped as the wolves that he just “entertained.”
Without anything being spelled out, the viewer knows that Withnail’s existence will end as a tragedy, just like Hamlet’s. If he were alive to see the film, Shakespeare would’ve approved of this finale.
And all of this, combined with my personal connection to the monologue and the fact that Withnail was based on a real person, can make me weep. So I must find solace in the genius of the words and the artistry of Withnail and I’s ending. “For what a piece of work is man…”
Every so often a new film serves as a reminder of the full meaning and potential of the term “indie drama.” And Short Term 12— a movie tells the story of a supervising employee (Grace, as played by Brie Larson) of a halfway house for troubled teens— is one of those reminders. It’s a tough yet tender work that, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have been made within any traditional system, and that’s probably for the better.
I could write about Brie Larson’s lead performance, which is so good and well-modulated that the actress has every right to consider it a landmark in her career. Or I could write about how the humor in ST12 is well-placed and demonstrates effective ways for adults to handle and deflect the behavior of problematic kids and teens. Or I could mention my minor quibbles with the film’s screenplay that don’t really detract from the movie’s gestalt. But I want to focus on an aspect that reflects the careful and genuine intent of the film’s makers: the mise en scene.
In terms of casting, production design, art direction, costuming and make-up, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team could’ve made so many decisions that would have detracted from the film’s verisimilitude and effectiveness. For instance: casting director Rich Delia could’ve only found people who would rather be on a Disney show to play the troubled teens of the eponymous facility. But they went with young actors like Kaitlyn Dever (Jayden) and Keith Stanfield (Marcus) who, for lack of a better term, seem authentic to the nature of the movie’s scenario.
Or, Larson could’ve been outfitted with clothes that look better and more stylish than they should. Rather, costume designers Joy Cretton and Mirren Gordon-Crozier costumed her with clothes that indicate that Grace is a fashionable young woman but only within the means of her budget and the expectations of her job, which in turn gives insight to the character and her situation.
Or, production designer Rachel Myers, art director Grace Alie and prop master Stephanie Furr could’ve designed, furnished and dressed the short-term facility with new yet out-of-place things. Instead, everything in the facility has a second-hand, dated and found quality, which is realistic but also manages to externalize the feeling that the place if filled with lives that are hanging on threads.
In other words, the choices involved in creation of the physical look of ST12 are flawless and indicate that the production-team was simpatico with the spirit of the piece. And ultimately, this is the result of how well Cretton managed to put his team all on the same page, making sure that nothing in the mise en scene came off as disingenuous. This nearly invisible aspect of the film is very impressive.
Above: Cretton. (Source: Moviemaker)
Overall, ST12 knocked me over like a strong breeze but the landing was a hopeful reminder of the capacity for redemption and goodness in people. Sure, it’s fiction, but its portrayal of social work, a profession full of under-the-radar heroes who strive to make the world less painful, is true and earned. Likewise, its portrayal of the haunting, pernicious effect of child abuse sticks with you. Since Cretton based ST12 on his experiences working at short-term home for at-risk teens, it could be considered an accomplished, personal and heartfelt work of creative journalism.
I’ve got a bone to pick with you, The Big Chill. Yes, you. I saw you for the first time with my girlfriend and we, both categorical millennials, did not like you. In fact, we were downright irritated by you. Here’s why.
As a film about a group of thirty-something friends who use to be 1960s radicals and reunite in wake of a friend’s suicide, you are a bona fide Baby Boomer cultural artifact. But by being that, you compel me to bring my embittered generational baggage to you. I don’t like hauling that stuff around, but I can’t help myself and don’t like you because of how you remind me of the worst in myself. Sorry, but I cannot “chill” when I think of you.
As the Old Economy Steve meme points out, becoming an adult by means of accomplishing certain financial goals was easier for the Boomers than it has been for subsequent generations. The state of the economy was healthier 30-40 years ago and somehow—maybe due to the general influence of the Boomer generation???—it’s harder for younger adults to find jobs, acquire real estate and feel that getting a college degree was worth all the trouble.
As someone who’s pretty much unemployed, renting and has two college degrees, I feel this change of affairs. But I try not to fixate on it. I just keep my head down and try to get by.
But then I watch you, The Big Chill, and think, “by gawd this is dredging up my resentment.” You are mostly a movie about a bunch of Boomers— who were close to the same age as I am now in 1983— sitting around, considering where their lives went and wondering if they compromised their counter-cultural idealism in order to become professionals and make a living.
Oh, but how successful they are! Harold (Kevin Kline) is a successful businessman, about to sell his company to a corporation; Sarah (Glenn Close) is married to Harold and they own two (!) houses; Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former lawyer, now real estate agent; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a writer for People magazine, which he sees as compromising; Sam (Tom Berenger) is a successful TV actor; and Karen (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife married to a well-off advertising exec (Don Galloway.) And sure Nick (William Hurt) is a disillusioned, impotent, drug-addicted veteran, but he was also a psychological radio host. If you ask me, they all did pretty well after college.
Sure, The Big Chill, your characters could just be seen as characters and not spokespeople for their generation, but it sure does seem like you position them as Boomer representatives. And you are a mainstream drama that wanted to and succeeded at connecting with your target audience. Thus, you are a generational film that can’t exactly be qualified as timeless.
Sarcasm aside, this galls me and makes it difficult for me to relate to your characters.
Also: Boomers like to complain about how self-involved Gen-Xers and Millennials are, but where do you they get it from? From the evidence of your openly self-involved characters: the Boomers! And considering that your characters play with a video camera and use it for mock-confessions, it could also be said that a narcissistic preoccupation with technology— a trait that millennials are criticized for having— is something that was also propagated by the Boomers. So they’re navel-gazey with their gadgets too!
And what about your characters wondering if they sold out while there is little to no acknowledgement of how they might be culpable in their own compromises as well as the impersonal corporatization of American culture? This is an arguable aspect of you, but I think the absence of the issue is somewhat telling. At one point, Meg says, “It’s a cold world out there… sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.” But could it be that the Boomers also played a part in setting the thermostat?
(Source: Film Comment)
For me, the movie that’s more honest in its depiction of the general compromise of the counter-cultural ideals of the Boomers is Albert Brooks’s 1985 film Lost in America. In it, you can sense Brooks telling his contemporaries, “you know, we had something to do with this ‘Big Chill’, so don’t act so put-upon!” In my opinion, he’s still right.
And there’s your soundtrack, which largely consists of popular songs from the 60s. While I have no issues with the tracks per se, most of which are great songs, I do have an issue with how they’re just overlaid upon scene after scene as a way to capitalize upon nostalgia. While you were one of the first films to utilize this facile technique, you also prompted many other films to copy you due to the success of your soundtrack. Consequently, it became a cliché and now feels passé within you. You are a victim of your own influence, The Big Chill!
Yet, admittedly, you are not a malevolent movie. You don’t ever make a statement that life was hardest for the Boomer generation, for instance, and I like many of the actors in your cast. You’re just a product of your times, which retroactively makes you clueless and unhip. Furthermore, you’re symptomatic of self-important and transparent coping mechanisms that are practiced by Boomers and continue to effect subsequent generations. So it’s hard for me to be im/partial and like you, The Big Chill. You just rub me the wrong way and symbolize a type of oblivious privilege that’s hard for my generation to come by.
However, there’s a silver lining: you have inspired me to come-up with a version of you for the millennials. I plan to call it Ice Cream Headache. I’ll send you a copy of the screenplay when I’m finished.
In the David A Price book The Pixar Touch, much focus is given to how many insiders didn’t see the value in developing Pixar’s state-of-art computer animation from the company’s start in 1979 (when it was just the Graphics Group of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division) all the way to the production of Toy Story. And when Pixar’s main business was computer hardware (’86-’95), there were those within the company who felt that founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith’s goal of making computer animated films was a lost, obtuse cause. So even a major powerhouse like Pixar had an awkward phase.
That’s what Andrew Bujalski’s new film Computer Chess is partly about: how innovation is a rocky road (which is something that a character says in the movie.) Taking place in 1984 during a computer chess tournament set in a hotel complex, its both a literal and figurative period piece; figurative in the sense that it depicts that awkward (to use that word again) era when computer science hadn’t really crossed over to the mainstream and was largely seen as poindexter kabbalism. But even the adherents weren’t entirely sure of how computers could change the world: things like the Internet or Artificial Intelligence were but a gleam in the eye of many professors, grad students, programmers, entrepreneurs and what-have-you.
And I deliberately use “gleam in the eye” because, in surreal, funny and sometimes eerie ways, the theme of basic technological development is merged with basic human/sexual development in CC. In one scene, programmer Bishton (Patrick Riester) gets Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the token woman of the tournament, to play chess against a computer program, during which the program plays better than when pitted against other computer chess programs. Obviously, this implies the program has an adaptive or artificial intelligence, but it’s also telling that this conception takes place in a hotel room between a young man and woman in the middle of the night. (And this is probably one of the subtler examples of what I’m talking about in the film.)
The big formalistic quality of CC—that it was mostly shot on a 40+ year-old, black and white Sony tube camcorder—visually reinforces the inherent gawkiness of the subject/s and themes, and the small formalistic touches—atypical editing patterns, simplistic split-screens, a discursion into 16mm color cinematography—punctuate the story in odd and interesting ways. There are also gags involving hotel cats, so how can I really dislike this film?
Not everything in it works, though. There’s a scene in which swingers try to convince Bishton into a three-way that, despite how Bujalski tried to make it feel different, is just cliché. And of course, the low key-ness of it all makes some threads feel a little too loose, which is a hallmark of most filmmakers who were classified as Mumblecore. Yet, it’s hard to deny Bujalski’s skill at marrying content and form in CC, all to bolster the notion that creation is strange. To some, this film might just seem like so much quirk, but I admire the coding in this indie comedy.
Not Fade Away isn’t a perfect film. Its storytelling, which is indicative of the looseness of David Chase’s landmark TV show The Sopranos, is a tad shambolic and doesn’t feel warranted within its two-hour running time. Also, the film’s main character—Douglas (John Magaro), a 1960s New Jerseyan teenager who forms an unsuccessful rock band called The Twylight Zones, falls in love with Grace (Bella Heathcote) and seems to be Chase’s screen alter ego—isn’t the most captivating protagonist; at times, he’s the epitome of callow, rock and roll snottiness. And, unless you’re someone who is or has been in a band, the story of a band not making it may not be enticing.
At the same time, it’s a bit of mystery as to why NFA, Chase’s first feature film and an autobiographical passion project, had very little critical word-of-mouth and faded at the box-office. It’s unfortunately apropos that a movie about a band not succeeding also didn’t succeed.
Most likely, it got lost in the shuffle because it was released in late December, a time when the market is saturated with prestigious films vying for awards recognition. Or maybe the idea of a retrospective Baby Boomer coming-of-age story, no matter how personal or idiosyncratic, felt too old hat and was a hard sell. Or, there could be a contingency of Sopranos (ex-) fans that are still miffed at Chase for the controversial, willfully anti-climatic and ambiguous way he ended the series, to the point of spitefully having no interest in his debut feature-film and thereby affecting its box office performance. (This last possibility is a long shot, but people are still talking about that series finale.)
Yet NFA is a movie that has so much to chew on that it could become like one of those obscure rock albums that gains more notoriety as time goes on. Considering that it features a gruff yet bittersweet and now haunting performance from the gone too soon James Gandolfini as Douglas’s dad Pat, maybe it’s more likely to find an audience with those who are posthumously appreciating the actor’s screen work.
In the film, Chase’s unique house style that was the spirit of The Sopranos—elements of which include a matter-of-fact yet melancholic portrayal of New Jersey life and locale, deadpan humor, an offbeat flow in which scenes are often punctuated with non sequiturs and collide into each other by means of straight edits, and a straightforward yet often uncanny visual style—is applied to a different type of story, period and social sphere. Hence, it’s an interesting example of a TV auteurship being transferred into a movie and thereby being proven as just an auteurship.
Also, the depiction of the 1960s in NFA isn’t one of rosy-eyed, retroactive knowledge or importance, a point-of-view that makes many movies and TV shows set in the 60s feel mythological, hermetically sealed and “impossible” to understand to those who “didn’t have the privilege of experiencing that time.” Instead, the past of the 1960s is portrayed as something that is actually lived through: it’s detailed, tumultuous, bewildering, lacking in simple hippy dippy idealism, sometimes boring and recognizable to anyone who’s been young in the latter half of the 20th century. For instance: when The Beatles invade the U.S., it’s depicted as if a satellite crashed in everyone’s front yard.
Furthermore, the film feels like a work made by a man who’s looking back on his life and marveling at how and where it went. Among other things, Chase’s film is a parable on the mystery of fate, and puzzling vicissitudes are conflated with the enigmatic power of music. The wonderment that comes when one considers their life’s path is no different from the wonderment that comes when a music fan ponders simplistic things like the “Bo Diddley Beat” or the riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and how they can seep into a life’s very being.
The ending brings this idea home, which might be one of my favorite finales of a recent movie.