Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Movies as Meme

This past weekend was something of a relief for the struggling box office of 2023. After several disappointing weeks, a massive hit landed with the one-two punch of Barbie and Oppenheimer. While studios and theater owners are celebrating, I can’t help but feel uneasy. 
You see, “Barbenheimer” has become trendy. A hashtag. The latest “it” thing. People are flocking to the theater not because of the films themselves, but because they don’t want to miss out. I’m not here to question the quality of the films and I’m certainly not here to pontificate on the political slant of the films (I’ll leave that discussion to the idiots), but to point out that I think this recent box office bonanza is more about zeitgeist than cinema. 
And to be honest, something about that makes me uneasy. 
There’s little that these two films had going for them that other films this summer didn’t. True, much of this summer has been dominated by sequels and spin-offs and these two are originals (kinda, Barbie is a pre-existing IP and Oppenheimer is a biopic), but if people are really that starved for originality, then why haven’t other original films this year been bigger hits? Why did Dungeons and Dragons underperform? Or Joy Ride? Asteroid City? Beau is Afraid? Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? And so on. 
Are these films simply popular for the sake of being popular? Are we looking at the cinematic equivalent of the Kardashians? If this is to be the new normal in Hollywood, what does this mean for future releases? Instead of relying on franchises and movie stars, is it now going to be about what’s trending, what’s a meme, what’s going viral? 
Let’s be honest, most modern movies are regurgitated garbage. Overblown, huge-budgeted sequels/remakes that most folks want to wait for streaming to watch. I can’t say I blame them. I mean, I work at a movie theater and even I don’t bother watching that much. 
I guess what I’m getting at is that while everyone else is celebrating and cheering this record-breaking weekend, I’m over here feeling uneasy. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’m seeing the writing on the wall. 

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Boldly Going…

I am slowly becoming a Trekkie. 
I grew up with Star Wars, and I’ve still got a great sentimental attachment to those films (primarily the first three), but I find as I advance in years that I am starting to prefer Star Trek. 
(I know that some of you will argue that they are fundamentally different franchises and that one is science fiction while the other is science fantasy but I am comparing the two as they are both major franchises that start with the word “Star” and feature aliens, spaceships and the like.) 
Admittedly, some of the Trek movies are better than others (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still the best and I will not hear any arguments) and the shows can be uneven (the fact that “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” has both the worst and arguably the best episodes of the series in the same season speaks to this) but the overall franchise is one that I am enjoying more and more. 
Perhaps it is the idea that we, as a species, finally grow up, embrace our shared humanity and strive to be better. The idea that future humans are altruistic, open-minded and care nothing for money, gender or sexual identity. The ideals of Star Trek and particularly the Federation are hopeful and make me look at the complete mess that is the modern world and think that maybe, just maybe, it will get better. 
A reoccurring plot point in Star Trek is that (in the show’s cannon), the twenty-first century was a shitshow, full of hostility, greed and cruelty, which is not too far off the mark. However, also according to the lore (not Data’s brother), it is because of this awful century that humanity decides to pursue a better path. 
Maybe, right now, a little hope is what I need. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Language of Movies

*Potential Trigger Warning*

I recently had a conversation with a co-worker regarding “The F Word.” The co-worker was telling me how much she hated the word in question and I was somewhat perplexed, as I was certain that I had heard her use it before. As the conversation continued, I eventually realized that we were talking about different “F Words.” I was talking about the one that rhymes with “duck” and she was talking about the one that rhymes with “rag” (or “maggot”). 
This got me thinking. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, that particular slur was commonplace, not only in the schoolyard but also in film and television. Hearing comedians casually say “faggot” or “retard” was not unusual and such words were met with little to no condemnation. Seeing a man cross dress or undergo sexual reassignment surgery was often the butt of many jokes. 
Ethnic slurs were definitely out, unless your goal was to illustrate that someone was ignorant or cruel. This has been the case in Hollywood films for a long time, but there are other racist crimes that Hollywood is guilty of (hearing Humphrey Bogart say “It’s mighty white of you,” is unsettling- what the young people today call “cringe”). Sometimes slurs (particularly the dreaded “N-word”) can be thrown around casually by African-American comedians and entertainers and this is often given a pass. This can backfire, of course, if you’re a white kid in the suburbs reciting an Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor routine without really grasping what is being said. 
Much has been made of the “woke mob” being too sensitive to appreciate a good joke and while I think that despising someone because they believe in the equality of all humans is peak right-wing stupidity, it does bring me back to a discussion I’ve had before: what to do about those older films that contain that sort of language or depictions? 
I have long thought, and continue to believe, that the best course of action is a simple disclaimer. This alerts viewers while leaving the films themselves untouched. There are those (see “right-wing stupidity” above) who think that disclaimers are wrong but I find it interesting that they are often the same people who are horribly offended by the mere mention of an LGBTQ+ person in a Disney film. 
The films I grew up watching that contained that kind of language absolutely affected me and I am now trying to purge from my vocabulary the words that were okay thirty-odd years ago that are no longer acceptable. 
Is it giving into the “woke mob”? 
It’s simply me trying to be a better person than I was. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Safety of the Movies

This one is going to be a little hard to write. 
For many, perhaps even most, people, movies are entertainment and little more. Something to look at while you eat popcorn, a fun Saturday night and so on. For others, movies are an art form to be analyzed and studied. Neither of these approaches are wrong, but neither fully explains me and my approach to movies. 
When I was growing up, we had a VCR, a big silver model that was top-loading with a remote control that was attached by a long cable. Because of this early 80’s technological marvel, we had lots of tapes full of movies we taped off TV. To this day, if I watch one of those movies that we had taped off TV (even if it’s on Blu-Ray), I still no exactly where the commercials are. Everyone in my family liked movies. We would recite our favorite bits at dinner and it was one of the few things that we did with each other. 
For me, movies was where we didn’t argue, where we didn’t fight, where no one had screaming breakdowns threatening suicide. In short, they were safe. 
I leaned into this safety. This bit of escapism wherein true love conquered all, where villains got their comeuppance, where families were dysfunctional but loving and where anything was possible. In those movies, I wasn’t woken up by my brother choking me. In those movies, I didn’t have to listen to my mother tell me for the umpteenth time that one day she was going to leave and that I’d never see her again. In those movies, I wasn’t fat, weak and confused. 
I did what seemed right at the time: I watched more movies. LOTS more movies. Before long, I was watching films that others in my family had never even heard of. What my family saw was a fat, antisocial teenager sitting on his ass watching TV. What I saw was the entire world. I saw Samurai and silent clowns, sadistic gangsters and honest cops (sometimes the inverse), a place where the little guy could win, where the beautiful girl would find his idiosyncrasies and neurosis adorable rather than weird. 
Is it any wonder why films became the great love of my life? 
I know I’m not alone on this. Many people use art as a method of escape, be it music, books, paintings or what have you. My escape just happened to be movies. 
These days, movies aren’t an escape anymore. I have a better wife than I could have ever hoped for and children that are wonderful. Now, it’s just a passion, a love that I try to share with others. I sit on the couch with my family and watch a movie just to share, just so they can enjoy it.
 I no longer want to escape. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Blood, Devastation, War, Death and Horror

 Recently I was having a conversation about violence in the movies. One of my coworkers is extremely averse to violence in film and television to the point where they find it incredibly upsetting. When confronted with a violent image, they react first with disgust and then with anger. "And they wonder why people are out shooting each other!" they exclaimed. 

This got me thinking. 

I've seen lots of violent films and television shows. Cartoonish violence, historical violence, realistic violence, violence that is meant to be stomach-churning, et cetera. And yet, I have never committed an act of violence. I own no guns and have no interest in ever firing one. I own a few pocket knives but they were all gifts. Am I the exception or the norm?

Fun fact: I'm the same age as the perpetrators of the Columbine School Shooting. I too was picked on by other students, I too wore a trench coat and I too saw films like The Matrix and Basketball Diaries (both of which were brought up a lot in the days immediately following the tragedy). However, in spite of all of this, it never even crossed my mind to bring a gun to school. Why would I? I was told that once I graduated, I would probably never see these people again and that turned out to be very, very accurate. 

So, why were all of the ingredients there, but the recipe didn't work? Why is it that I can watch extreme violence in films and television and be unaffected by it? Or am I being affected and just don't know it? 

Perhaps I should clarify the previous statement. When I say that I am unaffected by the violence, that doesn't mean that I view it in a state of numbness or apathy. I am disgusted when I see a graphic depiction of rape or war atrocities (as one should be). I tend to laugh off over the top cartoonish violence (like Evil Dead 2) and there is something satisfying about seeing a truly villainous character receive their graphic comeuppance. I never feel bad when zombies are destroyed in blood-soaked carnage. Watching Donnie Yen beat the everliving crap out of a group of people is pretty thrilling. The Raid: Redemption is thrilling and exciting. Conversely, Come and See or Schindler's List are extremely upsetting. The awful things inflicted on the protagonist of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is almost too much to watch. 

Perhaps context is what matters. Anonymous bad guys being mowed down by John Wick can be shrugged off. A samurai slicing through a crowd of hired assassins is exciting. A Nazi officer shooting random people just because he can is disturbing. 

An example: I've been watching The Little Shop of Horrors (1987) more or less since it first came out. Rick Moranis feeding people to a monstrous plant didn't bother me, but what did bother me, and still bothers me to this day, is watching Steve Martin's sadistic dentist slap around his girlfriend. Maybe it's simply because people-eating plants don't exist (as far as I know), but assholes who slap around their girlfriends do. Maybe because it's Steve Martin doing the slapping. The Wild and Crazy Guy, the goofy comedian, the Father of the Bride shouldn't be smacking a woman around (I mean, no one should, but you see my point). The plant can eat whoever it wants. 

This is not very focused, and I'm sorry for that. I'm still weighing a lot of this in my mind and perhaps even I am a little unsure of what point I am trying to make. 

Oh, well. It's not like anyone reads this stuff anyway. 

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Inherit The Earth: The Most Mediocre Movie You Never Saw

Not many people know this about me, but half a lifetime ago, I made a movie. At the ripe old age of twenty-one, I wrote, produced and directed a feature film called Inherit The Earth.  It was a coming-of-age drama about a seminary student who meets and falls in love with a free-spirited young woman who opens his eyes to the world. I shot it on digital video and made the whole thing for around $2,000 (yes, really). 
So, where is this film now? 
No idea. 
See, the funny thing is, I never one hundred percent finished the movie. I shot all of the scenes I wanted to shoot and edited the film how I wanted it edited, but the guy who was supposed to write the score never came through. (That’s what I get for trusting my brother.) The final sound mix was never finished because we never got the music. 
The film was screened three times: once at the church where we filmed a few scenes (Unitarians, nice people), once at an art house where cast and crew brought their friends and family and once at some old ladies house because I was looking for completion funds (all three women in attendance fell asleep). We used music that we had no legal right to, but thankfully, no one turned us in. 
Eventually, the film I had worked so hard on wound up in a box at the back of my closet, a VHS that gathered dust until the day it was finally thrown away. I threw it away because looking at it made me sad. Not because the film was compromised (low budgets force you to compromise), and not because my ex-wife was in it (and dare I say she was actually pretty good, too), but because I viewed it as yet another failure. Not only was this incomplete, shot on video and wholly unmarketable movie sitting there with my name on it, more importantly, it was a constant reminder that I didn’t try again. 
“So your first movie sucked. So what? Get over it and make another one!” you might say and logically, you would be right.  But I didn’t try again. I was defeated and I slunk back with my tail between my legs. Even know, writing about it for the first time ever, the sadness is almost overwhelming. 
Making a movie is work. It can be extremely stressful, difficult and exhausting. It can ruin friendships, can turn anyone into a raging lunatic on set (like when I attacked a water fountain for turning on mid-scene and ruining the take- not my best moment) and can make you wonder why you even fucking bother. But, there is something wonderful about seeing your name up on the screen, about hearing an audience react to what you created and knowing that if you do absolutely nothing else with your life, at least you made this. 
But now it’s all gone. Like tears in the rain, to borrow a line from Blade Runner. 
If, by some miracle, a copy of my film were to turn up, what would I do? Would I hold on to it, for old times sake, or would I once again dispose of it, letting it dissolve in the dustbin of history ? 
I honestly don’t know. 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Monsters and Me -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Horror

Growing up, we had lots of VHS tapes. Not store-bought movies, but blank tapes that we filled with movies taped off television. We had all kinds: science-fiction, drama, comedy, children’s films, classics and so on. What we didn’t have was horror. 
Well, that’s not entirely true. We had exactly two horror films: Poltergeist and House of Wax
Growing up in the 1980’s was a booming time for horror. It seemed like every few weeks there was a new horror film playing at the local theater, often the latest A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. On our frequent trips to Blockbuster, there would always be new horror films on the New Release wall, often with lurid, shocking (and enticing) artwork.  
But these films were forbidden, by decree of Mom. 
She didn’t (and still doesn’t) like horror, therefore we weren’t allowed to watch it either. In retrospect, it’s a little strange, considering what she did let us watch. I remember watching The Color Purple when I was about six years old and obviously not understanding most of what I was seeing. I saw both Dances With Wolves and Schindler’s List in theaters, at the ripe old ages of nine and twelve, respectively. Not that these are bad films, far from it, but I find that I, as a parent now, have the exact opposite view that my mother did. I’m more okay with my kids seeing monsters and fanatical horrors than real-life ones. 
Anyway, as I got older and began broadening my cinematic knowledge, horror was still a blind spot for me. On Halloween, after trick-or-treating, my friends mom would let us watch Universal Monster movies like Frankenstein or Dracula. A few years later, I managed to sneak a screening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when it came on HBO. I had even, when I was home alone, surreptitiously borrowed my older brother’s copy of Army of Darkness, a film I expected to completely terrify me. Imagine my surprise. 
It wasn’t until I got to college, surrounded by other film nerds that I started really looking at horror and then it was just so I could keep up with the conversation. It was around this time that I discovered and embraced the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and George Romero. I still hold a special place in my heart for the Universal Monster movies and the Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allen Poe films, but I am also a huge fan of the Evil Dead franchise and Romero’s zombie films. 
I believe that John Carpenter’s The Thing is an absolute masterpiece. I love that films like The Wicker Man and Audition don’t really become horror films until the third act, and then what horrors they unfold! While I’m still not a big fan of “torture porn” and most slashers leave me cold, I can now happily point to many horror films that I love and admire. 
I just don’t show them to Mom.