flagpole and me

Just a quick update… I will be posting some substantial stuff very soon though.

I’m now reviewing movies for the fine Athens, Georgia publication Flagpole, a free newsweekly that’s just about damn everywhere in town.  I’m very happy to be a contributor to the paper and I hope to be writing for them for a long time.  For you out-of-towners, you can read the paper and my reviews online tooMy first review was for the documentary Senna, chronicling the life of famed Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in 1994.  I have no interest in automobiles and thought the movie was fantastic, so that should tell you something.  And this week I reviewed actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground.  Next week I’ll be looking at either Drive, The Future (Miranda July’s return to the screen), and/or Beats, Rhymes and Life, a documentary about the influential hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  I haven’t decided which one yet.

I’d love to see some of you over at the Flagpole web site leaving comments…  wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.

… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.

the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….

 

 

* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.

 

there will be blood: into the void

Jeremy Richey over at Moon in the Gutter has been hosting a fabulous Paul Thomas Anderson blog-a-thon for over a week now.  He invited me to contribute and you can now read my short essay about Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  And after you do that, make sure to check out all of the thoughtful, splendid essays from the other contributors.

appearing at the decatur book festival september 5

I’ll be appearing at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend, Sunday at 1:30 in the afternoon on the Emerging Authors stage.  This book festival is the largest independent book fest in the country, so you’re bound to find an author to your taste, a panel worth taking in, or maybe even “discover” a new writer you’ve previously never heard of.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.  Will talk a bit about my first book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers and do a short signing afterward.

pt anderson blogathon @ moon in the gutter

My film blogging comrade over at Moon in the Gutter, Jeremy Richey, is hosting a P.T. Anderson blogathon September 13-19 and it will no doubt be an entertaining, exciting event.  I’m contributing an essay–not sure which film I’ll be focusing on yet–and I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with.  I wrote a short piece about Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love in my first book, a film that is (I feel) one of the best of the last decade and a rather damn fine romantic comedy at that, so there’s always the temptation to revisit it… maybe do some screengrabs or something.  But I’ve been dying to write about There Will Be Blood since I saw it in January 2008 the day before I left for Europe and then watched again in the Leitrim Cinemobile when I was living in Ireland.  Seriously, some enterprising cinephiles in the States need to bring cinema to the masses with trucks like these.  They’re great.  And they’re warm too, which was surprising since it’s always so damn cold in Ireland year round!  Also, the cool thing about the Leitrim Cinemobile was that it would screen international films and smaller indie fare from the States… not blockbusters.  This was out in the boondocks, mind you.  We didn’t live in the city.  And these were real 35mm prints, not DVDs or digital projections.  Real films, real patrons in seats, and loads of arguments afterward as you scurried down the pub for a few pints.  Make sure to check out the video below that gives you a glimpse of how cool the Leitrim Cinemobile is.  But I digress.

P.T. Anderson.  Blogathon.  Moon in the Gutter.  That has Awesome all over it.