Documentary of Embarrassment

My dad recently sent in all our old VHS and film home movies to a company that digitized them for use on DVD and the web. I had to walk him through how to create the DVDs last night, since he (nor I) have any patience for how-to videos and such (they move too slowly!). I went in and started tinkering.

The first set of clips I found were from a video “tour” of my hometown my best friend from high school and I made once, I think during one of my trips home from my first year of college.

It was mortifying. I watched about 30 seconds of it before I died of embarrassment and had to shut it off.

I told my father later, “I think it’s some sort of crime of nature that memories of my 18-year-old self won’t be allowed to fade into a mellow kind of comfort because all of the worst ones have been captured on video.”

The experience reminded me of another quirky video-related thing I did around that time. A few friends and I, video cam in tow, started making a movie called Documentary of a Stranger. We went out into the wild outer ring suburbs of Milwaukee and interviewed Barnes and Noble customers mostly, but also a woman pumping her gas at SuperAmerica.

We’d introduce ourselves and explain we were doing a project for a college sociology thesis called, of course, Documentary of a Stranger. We were going to ask them a series of probing questions, we said, and we just wanted them to answer to their comfort level.

We’d introduce them on camera: “This is Not David.” “This is Not Amanda.”

The questions were always varied but tended to include:

The normal where-from/sisters-brothers type questions
What do you do for a living?
What three famous people would you most want to have dinner with?
Can you do any stupid human tricks?
If you were stranded on a desert island, which brand of pain reliever would you prefer?

What was fascinating was that most people couldn’t wait to bust out their stupid human tricks. One girl walked with her knees bent, knees swinging in and out; another man touched his tongue to his nose.

Unfortunately, Documentary of a Stranger is lost–stolen, I think, but a college friend and then never returned.

It’s lost, but not forgotten. Unfortunately.

(s)Laughter is the Best Medicine

One of the things you accept about moving to a new city is going to see movies alone. I spent almost my whole weekend alone, actually, engaging in some solipsistic “me” time that included deep cleaning my apartment, putting away all the accumulated clutter from the unpacking process, channelling my inner Guitar Hero (both acoustic and Wii varieties), going in for some retail therapy, and seeing, finally, The Dark Knight.

I think Christopher Nolan is a very talented director. The film is absolutely novelistic in scope and sprawl, but maintains a narrow narrative thread. I think the characters are richly drawn in this film–more so than the last–and this makes for some compelling performances from Ledger, Eckhart, Gyllenhaal, and Oldman. Gary Oldman is a genius, taking this nothing role and turning it into the moral center of the film the way he does. In many ways, Commissioner Gordon is the fulcrum upon which all of Gotham City hinges.

The action of the film is so finely orchestrated it climaxes more times than the best date you’ve ever been on. It’s hard to sense when the film is going to end for this reason, but the climaxes aren’t as distracting as you might imagine. And the visuals do rival the most orgiastic of the Michael Bay films without the porny connotation. These are more Woo-like in their lyricism. (Soft-core?)

I could write an entire blog post about the voice of Heath Ledger as the Joker. It’s what makes his performance stand out, become unique, be so eerie but at the same time something knowable. The slight lilt of his Lower Midwestern accent colliding with the nasally, human delivery is chilling. He seems almost like a normal person pushed to abnormal extremes.

And that’s the true power of these new film versions. Superhero narratives are always representations of our culture in some way (Spider-man’s radioactive spiderbite evidence of nuke fears, etc). In this Batman, every character is a schism, has two halves–a public self, a shadow self. Batman is a shadow self. The Joker is a shadow self.

This film makes the Tim Burton versions feel like drag performances.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Boneheaded Plot

I’ll start this review with two confessions:

1. For years, I have always conceded that my favorite film of all time was none other than Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it’s true; I’ve loved it since I was a kid and well into adulthood; I think it’s a near perfect film.

2. What I’m about to write pains me—pains me—for that reason.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a ridiculous film.

It’s a ridiculous, stupid, waste of time film, for the most part. It has its high points, sure. There are, as you’d expect, some great action sequences and stunt sequences, some tense fighting and chases, some laughs, some drama, and some liberal use of the term “archaeology.” It has Shia LaBoeuf (yay!). It has Karen Allen. (er, okay.)

Pretty much the best part of the movie right here.

Downsides: the plot. Since I don’t want to give away any spoilers, let me just say the following: the plot is completely ridiculous, even by the series’s standards. Last Crusade pushed it some, as did the magic stones from Temple of Doom, but wow. You won’t even believe what Lucas, Spielberg, et al have cooked up this time. It was such a huge disappointment that I can barely even talk about it.

Let’s talk about Karen Allen for a minute. I’m all about crazy people coming back from the edge to be productive members of society (I’m talking to you, Anne Heche and Mariah Carey). It’s fine. Bygones, etc. But I don’t think Karen Allen made it all the way home. She spends most of her time in the movie looking so delighted that there is a camera crew filming her, that she’s in a real movie, that her lines get all chewed up. Her emotions are twofold: flustered and amourous. That is the range of her performance. It’s heartbreaking to see as she was really one of the most compelling aspects of Raiders.

This is Karen Allen’s expression through most of the film.

Overall, I think they should have waited for a better script. One of the last shots of the adventure sequence was so misguided and just WRONG…Wow. It was worse than the knight standing on the seal of the Grail Temple, holding up on tentative gauntleted hand to wave goodbye…as he is then crushed by falling boulders.

Don’t waste your money seeing this unless you want to tell me I’m right when you get home.

Speed Racer Rules!

Over the weekend I made it a priority to get to a movie theatre, away from the heat, to see Speed Racer.

I’ll be honest. I was initially skeptical about this cartoon remake, thinking it was going to end up totally LAME despite the best efforts of a great cast and a pair of visionary directors. But even the previews couldn’t have prepared me for the fun, unique, visually overwhelming ride that is Speed Racer.

First, it’s full of beefcake, which is never a bad sign. Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, and the totally foxy Scott Porter (as the doomed Rex Racer) are all good to look at. Watching a shirtless Matthew Fox kick a little ninja ass was, I admit, worth the price of admission. Rounding out the beefcake are Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mr. and Mrs. Racer and Christina Ricci as Trixie, Speed’s spunky and supportive gal pal.

But aside from the obvious, the film is also just amazing. The Wachowski Brothers, who innovated film in the last decade with the stop-motion camera angle adjustment that characterized the Matrix franchise, do themselves one better here, rendering a live action/computer animation environment that is both seamless and self-referential. As a child, Speed sits in his desk chair imagining himself in a child-drawn world of race cars and lane changes, the action is absolutely absorbing, drawing the viewer into the invented, imaginary world without destroying the suspension of disbelief.

Of course, this element (and the hyperstylized “real world” Speed Racer lives in) are both nods to the original Japanese cartoon’s brand of animation. The Wachowski brothers layer in references to anime in humorous ways that draw our attention to the rest of the film—ultimately, isn’t this whole film a live-action version of anime? Or witness Trixie’s exasperated disbelief: “Oh my God, was that a ninja?” All of these elements actually increase audience participation in the invented world rather than distancing us from it. Even though the characters experience a degree of disbelief, we never do.

The production design on this film is out of control, almost obsessive-compulsive in the degree of detail and attention to which the sets, costumes, and props all come together to create a world that is simultaneously beautiful, familiar, strange, and implausible. Mid-century modern design nestles comfortably alongside invented technologies and—yes—even a domesticated monkey, who earns his keep in the film without resorting to lame explanatory tactics (in fact, we never do learn why there’s a primate in the house…). The imagined landscapes, with their rich tones and vibrant colors are virtually unforgettable. But more than anything, this is a film about lighting. Every scene is meticulously lit, shadowing faces or spraying reflected lights across Speed’s helmet. Even the obscene amount of green screened shots are lit in believable ways, rivaling Ugly Betty for the best renderings of physical space in contemporary filmmaking.

It’s a film that’s more than worth seeing; it’s a revolution. Like the best works of art in our culture, Speed Racer draws from discrete and disparate traditions and pulls them all together into a seamless stream of consciousness that has a strong heart and a quick, unstoppable pulse.

This Film Is Not Yet Judged, Criticized, Torn Up, Shamed, Sanitized, or Otherwise Ribbed For Your Pleasure

After the conference, I dug into one of my new Netflix titles: This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Kirby Dick’s documentary explores the history and controversy of the Motion Picture Association of America’s seemingly misguided ratings system, taking issue first and foremost with the fact that all the film raters’ identities are kept secret.

Through illuminating interviews with filmmakers, Dick tries to articulate the difference between an R rating and an NC-17 rating, the latter being considered a box office “kiss of death” for filmmakers because it turns off middle America. Filmmakers discuss feedback they received from the MPAA in light of their NC-17 rating and what they can do to get down to an R rating, proving, to some degree, that the MPAA has an awareness of its influence and impact over the filmmaking community.

The director of Boys Don’t Cry, for instance, explained that it was fine to show Brandon Teena being shot in the head, but not fine for her to film Lana’s face as she orgasms for about a full minute. The film is full of such comparisons, including an extended montage that posits that heterosexual sex acts, no matter how explicit, often capture the R rating, while homosexual sex acts generally lead to an NC-17 rating, even if the characters are fully clothed and, in the case of But I’m a Cheerleader, only masturbating.

Dick makes the point that in America, the only two organizations that work in secret are the CIA and the MPAA. To that end, he hires a team of private investigators to uncover the identities of the raters.

Through surveillance and good old fashioned detective work, the team track, follow, and unearth the identities of the raters, all of whom are purported to be parents of children up to age 18…but most of whom have adult children only. Dick discovers the ratings board’s appeal board is made up almost entirely of studio executives and theatre chain owners, who, through the appeals board, are able to effect undue impacts on the filmmaker’s creative decisions–and the general public’s moviegoing options.

Of all the documentaries I’ve seen, I think this is one of the most chilling for the insidiousness of its subject. It points out yet another hypocrisy in the nation of free speech and free thought, neither of which seem to be in good health these days.

The Anachronist’s Cookbook: Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette

It seemed an unlikely pairing this weekend, when I watched both Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette, but I found the juxtaposition of these two films especially fitting. While both maintain a connection to an historical past, they both engage in felicitous and creative use of anachronism to create a further commentary on their source texts.

Superstar is a passion play detailing the last weeks in the life of Christ and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version features hippies, heavy artillery, pipe scaffolds, and even picture postcards in the temple. The film opens with a bus full of hippies arriving in Israel, unloading their props and costumes, and then beginning to act out the rock opera from there.

The musical itself is a fairly modern critique of celebrity and American culture, laid over the familiar story of the events that led to the martyrdom of Christ. “What’s the buzz? / Tell me what’s a-happenin,” one song chants over and over, while another connective piece features reporter-like characters sticking their fists in Christ’s face, as if holding a microphone, while they ask a series of invasive questions. Even the lepers, wrapped in black bandages as they crawl over the rocks and beg for Christ’s healing, bear a strange resemblance to starfuckers and autograph seekers you see on, say, That particular number concludes with Christ sinking deeply into a sea of lepers, who pull him down into their circle. It resonated oddly with footage I saw on Best Week Ever this week of the paparazzi swarming Britney Spears’s car—in traffic—ambushing her.

Antoinette is anachronistic, too, but mostly in a non-diegetic way. Coppola takes her straightforward filming of the ill-fated queen’s rise to the throne and puts down modern rock tracks. While the music is obvious, it does not detract from the film, but draws attention to Antoinette’s youth and rebellious nature (as portrayed in the film). By linking Antoinette to the modern culture of youth while showing her engaging in the decadent partying, drinking, gambling, and seduction that were her ultimate downfall, Coppola locates a renewed humanity in her story, a way we can understand her—and her failings.

Dunst’s Antoinette is capricious, barely able to keep her mouth shut, and she speaks not in the stuttered tones that affect the French around her, but in a nonchalant and flowing tone that bespeaks her confidence. Contrast her to Judy Davis’s Countess, who can barely wrap her teeth around her carefully enunciated lines and you see the difference. Dunst’s line delivery is also playful and sort of seductive in and of itself. It’s an interesting performance for a costume drama to say the least. A breath of fresh air, if you ask me.

Superstar is one of my favorite musical dramas. I’m not sure why. I do enjoy the anachronism present, but I also think the staging and choreography are brilliant, and Judas turns in a star-making performance here, particularly in the final number that solidifies the show’s primary themes:

“Could Muhammad move a mountain
or was that just PR now?
Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake,
or did you know your messy death
would be a record breaker?”

It’s also fun to watch this song evolve while Judas wears a bright white bellbottomed jumpsuit with arm-to-floor fringe, backed up by Solid Gold-style dancers.

Antoinette, on the other hand, is an intensely internal film. Coppola tries to invite us not only into the decadant world of her heroine, but into her psyche as well. Echoing the imagery of her version of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola shows us Antoinette’s disembodied hand gliding over the tall grasses of the fields beyond Versailles, Antoinette lounging in the grass, filled with ennui and disillusionment. The conceit, for me, was effective and moving; a departure from the stereotypcial portrayals we historically see.