Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movie Sunday: The Fifth Element is better than Citizen Kane

And before anyone starts, yes I've seen Citizen Kane, and I thought it was incredible. That's how much I like The Fifth Element.

If you haven't seen Citizen Kane, I highly recommend that you do. Then you can make up your own mind.  Not only is it probably the most beautiful film ever made in black and white, I don't know that there has ever been a more eloquent or poignant character study on film. It's a movie with the depth of a book, and just writing this makes me want to see it again.

Having said all that, it is a black and white story about a rich guy. Let's review what's in The Fifth Element:
  • space travel, pyramids, and Mangalores
  • ultimate evil
  • the perfect being*
  • a descendant of David Lee Roth (I'm pretty sure that's who that is)
  • a descendant of Prince (just guessing on this one)
  • a blue chick that can sing
  • so much shit blows up
It is almost the perfect blend of romantic comedy, action movie, and morality play. Milla Jovovich is yummy,  and as far as I can tell, not enhanced, injected, or overly pilate'd. The effects are no longer cutting edge, but it all still holds up pretty well.

I know it has Bruce Willis as the lead, but it's as much Moonlighting Bruce Willis as "yippi ki-yay motherfucker" Bruce Willis. It just works. Actually, it's just about perfect casting all around.

So let's review. Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the best film ever made. The Fifth Element is even better. See them both. Then tell me you don't want to visit Fhloston Paradise.

I'm pretty sure if I say "leeloodallasmultipass" one more time, Biscuit is going to brain me with a skillet. And I wouldn't blame her.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to build a perfect day

I've had a lot of great days with wives, lovers and good friends. Some even by myself. But like a particularly shiny rhinestone on Dolly Parton, they may have a hard time standing out from the rest of the great days. I think to have a really perfect day, it has to stand alone, unexpected and unencumbered by context.

Image from here

And I'm not talking about perfect moments, like the birth of your child, or the time the guy in your school who looked like Ashton Kutcher kissed you in the closet at your older sister's party. Because the birth was preceded by twenty-seven hours of screaming and threats, and the Ashton look-alike never called again, even though you let him go under the shirt in the closet. See where I'm going here? Minimum six hours, all pleasant. No complications before or after. These are the rules.

I've had exactly three of these wonderful days, and after careful analysis, I have a hypothesis about how one could go about building one for oneself. Because that's what I do. Show me three unrelated food items and I will develop an hypothesis about how they would taste together in a pie. Also, I invoke really old-fashioned spelling and punctuation rules intermittently, and with no perceivable pattern. Anyway, here's my (I'll count when I'm done) rules for building a perfect day.

1. Be in high school. I can't stress this enough. Perfect days require a particular blend of energy, ignorance, and foolishness that should only be found in high school kids. If you are a grownup and still doing/believing/imagining this stuff, move out of your mom's basement and get a job. Or maybe enroll in community college. Either way, the important thing is to take off the cape, put down the bong, and join the rest of us in the real world. Oh, and if you're younger than high school age, you are really not old enough to participate in, or appreciate, the PG-13 type activities required, so you're disqualified. Sorry.

2. Go someplace unusual. Preferably someplace exotic. It doesn't have to be Phuket or Xanadu, but Six Flags or Colorado will work, for instance.

3. Ditch your parents, chaperones, or any boring or ugly friends. You're allowed no more than one wingman (or lady). I really shouldn't have to include that one, but some people just need everything spelled out for them.

4. Meet someone of the opposite sex who is probably out of your league, but just barely. It helps if they are a little bored. It can be someone of the same sex if that's how you prefer to roll. I guess. Never tried it, because it's not how I roll. Not that there's anything wrong with it. And now that I think of it, a perfect gay day may be completely different than what I'm thinking. If anyone has one of those, let me know how it goes, and I will try to develop a hypothesis.

5. Play. Shop in the straw market, ride roller coasters, or explore a frontier town together. Smile. Laugh. Hold hands. You know, the crap they stuff into montages in romantic comedies, accompanied by Beach Boys music, or upbeat indie love songs.

6. Make a fool of yourself. Sing to them, draw their picture, buy them a straw hat and pull it down on their head, or something equally ridiculous. If they don't push you down and laugh at you, this is how you know that you have left reality behind, and it's safe to go on to the next phase.

7. Unexpected deliciousness. Something that indicates you've both lost all common sense and inhibitions. None of my days involved sex, at least not by Presidential standards. But at least two involved things I never expected to do with girls I just met, especially without buying them dinner first. And all three were at least partly in semi-public. In fact, I think we probably need a corollary, or a lemma, or something.

7b. Inappropriate deliciousness in semi-public. Examples include behind the smokestack of the Carnival Mardi Gras, standing on the platform between two cars of the Durango-Silverton railroad, and behind the Spindletop at Six Flags Over Texas. This is just the right degree of naughtiness to ensure that there will be a little (but not too much) shame tossed in, which seems to be important for Americans to feel like they've enjoyed themselves.

8. Leave everyone wanting more. You're going to want a hard deadline. Let's face it, most of us lose our luster pretty quickly, and if someone is going to populate my fantasies, we need to hit it and quit it before they start telling me I would look better with long hair, or how I remind them of somebody famous but they can't think of who and it's going to drive them crazy all day.* Or how their college selection process is going, or what sort of car they hope they get for graduation. The park needs to close, ship dock, or train arrive while we both still think it's going great.

9. Never see them again.  This is really an extension of the last one, but I'm starting to feel like I can stretch this to ten rules, so I'm going for it. It's okay to write for a while, if you must, and you can stalk them on Facebook when you're older, but don't try to parlay this into any sort of relationship. First of all, it's never going to work, and you're just going to end up ruining a perfectly good memory. And no one wants to have to explain to their steady girlfriend or boyfriend why this person from Stone Mountain, Georgia, keeps calling their house.

10. Don't go back there. It's good not to return to the scene for at least twenty years, after everything has changed and you're not 100% sure you can recognize the place where all the fun happened. If you go back too soon, you're either going to put ridiculous expectations on yourself and whomever you're with for how much fun it's going to be, or you will see your original experience in the harsh light of reality, and realize that what actually happened is a mutual sexual assault between two underage strangers who were overcome by boredom and an unexpected blast of hormones. Great memories are like great wines. They definitely benefit from aging. And there is always some crap in the bottom of the bottle that you don't want to examine too closely.

*It's either Jeff Bridges or William Hurt. Let's move on.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movie Sunday: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the best buddy movie ever

Picture from here

To be fair, one of the reasons I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as I do is that it came out when I was the right age, so my best friend and I got to run around for about two years calling each other Butch and Sundance. Which was a little confusing, because half the other kids in my school were doing the same thing.

But what really makes this movie awesome is two things: Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In their primes. Late primes perhaps, by current Hollywood standards, but primes nonetheless. The chemistry between these two guys is unbelievable, and you've never seen four bluer eyes on a movie screen.* They may have put Katherine Ross in the movie just so we would know they were straight.

Like many other famous Hollywood duos, this pairing almost didn't happen. Newman was a big star by this point, and Redford was, well, no one's first choice. The original plan was for Steve McQueen to play Butch, and Newman would play Sundance. They were unable to come to terms about top billing, and McQueen dropped out. Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were all considered, but the director lobbied for Redford over the studio's objections, and eventually prevailed. Otherwise, none of us would probably know who Robert Redford is today, and there would certainly not be a Sundance Film Festival.

The movie itself is light-hearted, and slick, and a little sentimental, like good buddy stories should be. It wasn't exactly ground-breaking, but was well-placed in its time. The cinematography is amazing for the sixties, and still really good by today's standards. It won a bunch of awards, and made a big bucket of money.

The film has a great cast from top to bottom,  a few really golden moments, a couple of taglines, and somebody gets kicked in the nuts. You've gotta love a movie where a big guy takes it in the jewels. Also, Redford grew what may very well be the best mustache of all time for the role. It's almost certainly why I grew one as early as I was able.

Some critics of the day were disappointed that George Roy Hill, the director, didn't make a more serious film, like The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde. I think the criticism is justified from one point of view. There are -- as Vincent Canby put it -- signs of another, better movie hidden behind this one. But it was 1969. Everyone was probably really stoned all the time, and they are lucky they managed to get the film in the camera the right way. And making a more serious movie probably would have required reining in the characters a little, like in The Sting.

Most of all, it's hard to argue with success. This film is still one of the best-loved westerns ever. The movie, and the relationship between its protagonists, has influenced hundreds of stories and characters over the years.  And even forty years later, it's still really enjoyable to watch, which is not something we can say for most movies made in the sixties. Or last year, for that matter. It's a great way to spend two hours with a buddy.

* These days anyone can have blue(ish) eyes. If you wanted blue eyes in 1969 you had to be born with them. And while Redford's eyes were certainly blue, Paul Newman's eyes were remarkable. They were a not insignificant part of his appeal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movie Sunday: Bullitt

Image from here.

If you've watched more than two movies with me, you have probably heard me complain about what I consider self-indulgent directors creating films that are much longer than they need to be. One or two people have probably heard it many more times than they should have to.*  I heard a rumor somewhere that it started with studios wanting to fill videotapes or something, but whatever. The end result is action scenes that go on far longer than they should, and stories that meander off and sometimes never return.

If you want to see a great example of old school cop drama movie-making, watch Bullitt. It's the movie that sealed Steve McQueen's reputation as a badass, and contains what is still one of the best movie car chases I've ever seen. No music. No explosions or driving on the sidewalk. Just two cars hauling ass through San Francisco. It made enough of an impact at the time that a number of urban myths grew up around the scene, and the movie.

You will probably be surprised at how simple the story and effects are, and how quickly it seems to be over. I was, when I watched it again recently.

* Sorry, Biscuit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Black Cats and Black Crowes

When I was a kid, my family had a fireworks stand. And when I say my family, I mostly mean me and my older brother, though the other two kids spent some time there, too. My parents' were the owners of the operaton, but neither of them ever spent a minute in the stand. Their end was being able to tell us that they weren't buying us [insert name of thing we wanted] because we had the fireworks money. Also, my father took as much product as he could carry to put together the fireworks display that ended our big 4th of July party. Which I never got to attend. Because I was working in the fireworks stand. But I'm not bitter. Anyway...

Image from here

We had quite a racket going. Fireworks were illegal to sell within the city limits, but our property and our neighbor's had been surrounded by the city and never annexed. We were on a busy street with good parking and about two miles closer than the next stand. We made several thousand dollars every year during the three week season. Which is not bad for a couple of teenagers during the seventies. Not that I ever got half. Even though I spent the most time in the heat, selling firecrackers to little kids that were raiding their parents' coin collections after spending all of their allowance. My brother got a bigger percentage because he was older. But I'm still not bitter.

The point of all of this is that there were little mom and pop stands like this all over the country, and you don't make that kind of money without attracting some attention from people with more money. So by the time we grew up and got out of the business, the big operations were starting to appear with their buy one, get one free promotions and air conditioning. The easy money disappeared pretty quickly, and the independents along with it.

This is exactly what's wrong with the music industry today. Well, actually what's wrong is that it's the music "industry," which is my actual point. There is so much money in music that the big studios have become music factories, and just like fast food, the secret is to make it just good enough that people will eat it. There is no reason to take a risk, or make anything different, when they have a formula that works. And since they own the distribution channels, there is no way for anyone with an independent voice to compete.

You can see the impact everywhere, though nowhere more apparent than American Idol. I mean, Kelly Clarkson? Really? They can pick an average person with a slightly above average voice, stick them in the machine and a pop star comes out.

I had a show on the college radio station at the second college I attended.*  We programmed our own shows, and typically brought a lot of it from our dorm rooms. I'm sure it was terrible, but we enjoyed ourselves, and with a listenership that numbered in the dozens, who cared, really? I was horrified to learn the other day that there is a format called "college radio" now, and that it's just another channel for big factories to market a slightly different version of mechanically separated music.

There is still good, independent music around, if you have the means and motivation to find it. Like food, local is probably best. Personally, it seems I get busier all the time, and hipness is much less important to me than it used to be, so I find myself relying more and more on old stuff. I'm fortunate to still have friends in music who turn me on to new sounds on occasion. Like Bottle Rockets. If you haven't heard them, and you like an unpolished southern rock sound (think Presidents of the United States of America meets Georgia Satellites), spin up some "Welfare Music" and see what you think.

(See how I did that thing with "Bottle Rockets," bringing us back to fireworks? That's literary, is what that  is. My English composition teacher would be proud.)

* There were four altogehter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Sunday: The Lovely Bones

Image from here.

Hey, two weeks in a row! I'm amazing.

The Lovely Bones is a Peter Jackson movie about a young girl who gets murdered by a neighbor, and probably could have been a great movie. Unfortunately, it suffers from two of my pet movie peeves. First, it was marketed as some supernatural detective story, which is not really the point at all. I can forgive that to a degree. Like most really good stories, it is hard to categorize.

The second problem is more serious, and less forgivable. The movie is longer than it needs to be, and partially because of this, has significant loose ends. (This is the part where I get to talk about how things were better in my day.) Movies used to last an hour and a half, and anything that tried to keep moviegoers in their seats for two hours or more had better be the freaking Lord of the Rings.

Lovely Bones would have been a great ninety minute story. But in order to kill two hours and a half, they were forced to introduce extra complications, which made the middle drag, and in turn created plot elements that couldn't be properly resolved.

Still, it was in interesting story, and a fresh perspective. And the cast was very strong. Even Marky Mark was good. We definitely thought it was worth the time investment.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Looking for a One Man Dog


I received a comment on a post a while back, from someone I respect, questioning my taste for a specific music artist. It didn't particularly bother me in the "oh, no, she doesn't like my music" sense. My tastes in music are all over the place, and I have never really met anyone who likes exactly the same things I do. But it did leave me pondering how I might convey the impact that some of these artists had on the period of my youth, which I think we can (mostly) all agree produced a lot of amazing music. I have struggled somewhat to find a foothold, because most of these people have long been relegated to the genre of "music old squares listen to," while many of their contemporaries have been credited with helping to change the world. But at the time, it was all one tapestry of far out groovy heavy sound.

One possible stroke of fortune in my search for common ground is that my wonder years bore some striking similarities to the present time. There were contentious racial, economic, and political divisions in the country and the world. Common people were struggling. It seemed then, as it does to many now, that global industrialization and unbounded capitalist greed would put an end to the American middle class once and for all, and that our country was being divided cleanly between the "haves" and the "trickled down upon." The country was suffering through a long, increasingly unpopular war, and optimism for the future was at an all time low.

The media narrative of the time was almost universally grim. Body counts from the meat grinder that was Viet Nam topped the news nightly. Ghettos burned in cities across America. Churches were bombed. Banks were bombed. The Manson Family unleashed their special brand of helter skelter. American college students were shot dead by the National Guard. One political figure after another found the wrong end of a gunsight. Stories like the Son of Sam killings that would dominate the national media for months in today's climate, struggled to stay on the front page. The Apollo missions were virtually the only national bright spot in this violent, troubled landscape.

They say great art is born in suffering, and the young and rapidly expanding genre of rock produced some lasting and powerful music during these years. You've heard some of it, if only in movies. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, CSN (and sometimes Y), CCR, Richie Havens, Edwin Starr, Steppenwolf, and dozens of others produced music that was fresh, relevant, and powerful. They are the soundtrack to the pain, confusion, fear and hope of a generation of Americans. Their message was simple and compelling. Get yours now; the country is burning.

In the midst of all of this, a different movement emerged. Unlike today, this was not a movement of angry and frightened old people. Those were the people in charge. These grass roots were mostly young,   overwhelmingly white, and decidedly middle class. Their fathers fought in WWII, or Korea, and went to college on the G.I. Bill. Their mothers were housewives. Their grandparents had struggled through the Great Depression. These people believed in the innate goodness of America and its citizens, but could not delude themselves that what they saw in front of them was the American Dream. Instead of taking to the streets, they turned to each other.

The soundtrack for these people was written and performed by Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Jimmy Buffett, and John Denver. That's right, I said John Denver. I dare you not to think of a John Denver song right now. And almost everyone my age liked his music, whether they will admit it or not. I knew people who had his albums right next to their Iron Butterfly. 

The music did not usually focus on the burning of America, but it also wasn't about surfing, or sock hops, or fast cars. It was music of the land, the seasons, and the road. Songs about love, and growing up, reflection, and loss. These songs reminded us that every story is a personal story, and that the only way to really make the world a better place is to be kinder to the people around us. It was about the things we valued most about our country and our lives, back then. These were the songs that people would play -- and sing -- at this time of year, outside around a fire, sometimes with a goat on a spit, or a pig roasting in a hole, but always with beer, and wine in skins or screw-top bottles. They were songs you could sing while holding your breath, which was very handy in those days.

Okay, maybe I can't explain it after all. That time is long gone, and no matter how similar this time feels to old farts like me, the world is a much different place now. Wood smoke adds to our carbon footprint, and I wouldn't even begin to know where to find a goat these days. Whole Foods, maybe? Young people have more serious things to worry about than "finding themselves," like whether the corporate recruiters are going to find the toga party pictures that their friend posted on her Facebook page.  Taking to the road is something only homeless people and illegal immigrants do.*** 

I guess I will have to be content to know that the people who didn't live it will someday struggle to explain Wilco, or Coldplay, or whatever music touched their heart when it was still tender. And every time I hear Everybody's Talkin'Moondance,  Bridge Over Troubled Water, or  You've Got a Friend, I will unabashedly sing along. Singing makes us feel better, right?

* The stuff in the picture is a mixture of basil, oregano, and mint. Seriously. I grow it myself.  I wouldn't even know where to look for that name brand weed the kids smoke these days.**

** Okay, so that's not precisely 100% true. I do work at a college.  But it may as well be true. The last thing I need is to be even more confused, forgetful, lethargic, and hungry than I am already.

*** Isn't this really what the Tea Party is up in arms about? The world got more complicated without their permission? After all, these are many of the same people. They are just old, sober, and frightened now.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Movie Sunday: To Have and Have Not

I guess it's natural for us not to fully appreciate the places where we grow up. This was certainly true when I was growing up in Little Rock, a city probably best known as the location of a fairly ugly episode in the history of school desegregation and civil rights. In those days, Little Rock was a small, relatively pretty, capital city in one of the poorest states in the nation. One of the more surprising jewels of the city was the Arkansas Arts Center, featuring a theater, sculpture garden, a nice gallery, and all sorts of studios for classes and artists in residence. I took numerous classes there, confirming to all that I have no artistic talent in any medium.

When I was in high school, the Arts Center used to show classic movies on Sunday nights. We would watch a Buck Rogers serial and then be treated to one of the best films of the black and white years, featuring a lot of people that our parents would never shut up about. A group of us went almost every Sunday, and gained a real appreciation for some of these old screen gems.

I hear the Arts Center has fallen on hard times, but I still watch a lot of movies. Since my friends are tired of hearing me talk about them, I thought maybe I would write about one a week. Some will be oldies. Some will be late models that make it to the top of my queue. Some will be just plain strange, I guarantee.  We will see how long I can keep it up.

I will kick it off with one of the first shows I remember seeing at the Arts Center, and one of my favorites, To Have and Have Not.

If you're not familiar with it, this was Lauren Bacall's first film, and she and Humphrey Bogart fell in love on the set, eventually ending his marriage. The chemistry between them is more than apparent. The story is loosely based on Hemingway's novel, but the story was changed extensively, early on with the help of Hemingway himself, and later by William Faulkner, among others.

Plot-wise, it's not that much different from a number of wartime romance dramas that were typical in the mid-1940's. But you won't be watching it for the plot. Watch it for Bogie and Bacall. Few of the movie stars were really very good actors back then, at least by today's standards, but this really didn't require much acting from the two of them.

To Have and Have Not also produced one of my favorite movie lines, in one of the most memorable scenes in early film history. Bacall tells Bogart to whistle if he needs anything, and then follows with, "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together, and ... blow."