Category Archives: Cinematics

What The Woody Allen Scandal Means For Me, A Very Important Writer

Surely no one wished to be in Woody Allen’s shoes when Dylan Farrow’s new accusations came to light earlier this week. But I assure you, gentle reader, neither did you wish to be me, a Very Important Writer, at that moment. For the news sent me into the kind of turgid self-examination and moral reassessment known only to Very Important Writers, the men to whom the world looks for guidance.

As you are no doubt wondering, how does an allegation of pedophilia make me, a Very Important Writer, feel? As shocking as it may sound to you, this is not a question I could answer immediately.

Foremost on my mind when hearing of Dylan Farrow’s tale of unconscionable sexual abuse and violation of trust was, of course, how would I enjoy Woody Allen’s films again? Could I restrict my enjoyment to one viewing of Annie Hall while sitting on an uncomfortable chair as penance? Would it be more prudent of me to watch his more difficult films such as Interiors instead? It was a quandary not to be considered lightly, and a burden that only I, a Very Important Writer, should be asked to bear.

You can be sure that when I, a Very Important Writer, heard this news, it caused me to pace about my brownstone, lost in the recesses of my Very Important Thoughts. The walls of my humble $3.5 million home soon grew too confining. I phoned up a Very Important Writer friend of mine, but he was busy preparing for the Bread Loaf Conference, and of course also preoccupied pondering the same questions about Woody Allen’s work as I. Could we ever enjoy Allen’s films again, he wondered, and if so what would be a respectable time to wait to do so? We reassured each other that we, two Very Important Writers, should be able to solve these dilemmas in our own due time.

Hoping to clear my head, I took a stroll around my colorful Brooklyn neighborhood, peering in the window of the antique shops and the coffee shops and the charming bistro that used to be a laundromat. I stopped at my favorite watering hole and sipped a 12-year-old scotch while exchanging pleasantries about a local sports team with the ruddy-faced barkeep. I sought solace in a delightful ethnic snack from a food cart while trying out snatches of Catalan I learned during one torrid summer in Barcelona. I believe I made myself understood, for all the deficiencies in my accent, and the considerable drawback that the delightful ethnic snack’s vendor was not from anywhere near Catalonia.

And as I ran across these people, I tried not to burden them with my own burden. To do so would have been unfair, for it is a burden they could not possibly have understood, no matter how much my soul yearned to cry out, You do not understand the grief Dylan Farrow’s lost childhood has caused me, a Very Important Writer.

I returned to my home, which began to seem very much like a prison to me. A prison with an ample garden and vintage pressed tin ceilings, but a prison nonetheless. The latest issue of The New Yorker was waiting in my mailbox, but it gave me no succor, despite a fascinating feature on the oldest bookbinder in Northampton. Nor did I find any relief in a sojourn through an advance reader’s copy of Franzen’s latest, The Tepids of Winona.

Alas, it is only in work that a Very Important Writer can find peace. We are much like the ant in that sense, or the miner, or the humble mechanic who toils on my Audi. And so I resolved to document my inner turmoil, because I wanted you, gentle reader, to know that even I, a Very Important Writer, can not answer every question. I must press forward nonetheless, though I can think of no person who has been hurt more by what Dylan Farrow was subjected to than I, a Very Important Writer.

¡Charlie Cubeta y la Fábrica de Chocolate!

My kid loves to watch movies in Spanish. Not Spanish language movies, but movies she’s already committed to memory with the Spanish audio track turned on. And now that she’s learning to read, she likes to see the Spanish subtitles, too.

I can’t tell you exactly why she likes to do this, but like most of her weirdness, it’s probably my fault. For years, I would bug my wife with questions about how to say this, that, and the other thing in Spanish. As an alternate means to expand my vocabulary, one meant to prevent my wife from murdering me, I began to watch Simpsons DVDs with the Spanish audio track on and Spanish subtitles. This was where I learned such valuable words as chuleta, salchicha, and trasero.

I’m sure my kid saw me doing this at some point in her formative years, because when she was very little, “Simpsons” was her catch-all word for “cartoons.” Now, she now gets really annoyed if she’s watching a DVD only to discover it doesn’t have a Spanish language track. Between DVDs, DVRs, and OnDemand, she lives in a world that denies her nothing. Healthy!

As I am still learning Spanish myself, I’ve been encouraging this curious proclivity of hers. The Harry Potter films are the ones she likes to watch in Spanish most often. (This is how I learned that cicatriz is scar and varita is wand; “muggle” is still “muggle.”) But last night, she asked to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in Spanish. To call this an experience would be a gross understatement.

Here are some highlights of the bilingual discoveries I made while viewing this classic film en español.

  • Willy Wonka’s Spanish subtitles translated “scrumdiddlyumptious” as “rechupeteanchus.” The audio had a completely different nonsense word that I couldn’t discern because I was laughing too hard.
  • The lyrics to the songs were all rewritten and performed anew. Grandpa Joe’s big number, “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” became a tune called “Tengo un billeto de oro.”
  • Charlie Bucket = Charlie Cubeta
  • Augustus Gloop = Augustus Gluton
  • Veruca Salt has a different name, too, but I couldn’t make it out. Also, I distinctly heard her introduce herself to Willy Wonka as Veronica Something, even though Wonka immediately uses Veruca when addressing her.

One thing that suffers in the translation is Willy Wonka himself. As far as I’m concerned, Gene Wilder is responsible for everything great about this movie, and removing his voice from the equation robs the film of some of that greatness.

However, there is one scene in the Spanish version that stands alone. It doesn’t surpass the original, but rather tears a whole in its reality and creates a new, terrifying universe unto itself.

I am speaking of the ultra-creepy boat scene. I will not attempt to capture exactly why this is so much more unsettling in Spanish. It defies explanation, and is something you need to experience. Think this scared the crap out of you before? That’s nothing compared to this. Once I saw it, my life was transformed, and now yours will be, too.

A Life in Felt

This weekend, I went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for the first time. I’ve lived in the New York area my whole life, in the city itself for 16 years, and in Queens for 5, and yet never been there before. Shame on me, for it is awesome. Where else could you see some of the oldest movie cameras ever built and an actual Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back, and make a video flipbook of yourself doing the herky-jerky dance from Mr. Show? (After doing this, I neglected to purchase it, so double-shame on me.)

The main reason I went there is for a new exhibit about Jim Henson that runs through January 2012. And if you live anywhere near NYC and don’t go see it between now and then, shame on you, for it too is awesome. (If you want a sneak peek, peep this preview from Gothamist.)

The greatest thing about the show is how it has artifacts from Henson’s career/creative output going all the way back to the 1950s. You can see just how early his odd, unique vision took shape, in everything from little doodles to the first puppets he made. You also see how much work he did for commercials and industrial films in the 1960s. These ads look positively deranged now, so I can’t imagine what they looked like to an audience that was still grappling with the idea of the Beatles.

While he was making these ads to pay the bills, he was desperately trying to find a more creative outlet for his vision. The exhibit is filled with prototypes and proposals for different shows (of the TV and live variety) that never came to fruition. (One of them inexplicably involves Johnny Carson, I’m almost positive without Johnny’s knowledge.) Even knowing that he would become enormously successful in the future, these stabs in the dark are almost heartbreaking to view.

The thing that stood out for me while viewing the exhibit was how Jim Henson managed something almost impossible: life-affirming anarchy. A “no rules” attitude is usually associated with nihilism, and yet Henson managed to convey a positive outlook on life while also creating universes in which things constantly blew up and gotten eaten.

He strikes me as a more mischievous version of Charles Schulz, another person who made positive art with a dark undercurrent. And also like Schulz, Henson managed to license his creations for every product imaginable yet never really “sell out”. They were both so resolutely anti-cynical that it was nearly impossible for their creations to be corrupted, even when rendered in other forms. Although from what I know about Schulz, he seems to have been a much darker, more damaged individual than Henson, who was a workaholic but appeared to have his head and life together. (If you know about Henson’s life than I do, feel free to not correct me.)

The Muppets were a stealth influence on me, one that I didn’t quite get or remember until I was older. When I was a kid, there were two items I asked my grampa to tape for me and watched at his house constantly, almost as much as Charlie Brown specials. One was a Channel 5 airing of The Muppet Movie, which holds up pretty well I think. (The Steve Martin cameo in particular is fantastic.)

The other was a Muppets 30th anniversary special that aired in 1986. Aside from containing some rare, weird clips from the Muppets’ early days (like a DC-area kids show called Sam and Friends and appearances by Rowlf on a Jimmy Dean variety show), the special itself has some amazingly elaborate set pieces. Like an entire ballroom filled with basically every Muppet ever, all of them interacting with each other. There’s also some truly touching moments in it. I’ve watched it and been moved to tears more than once (and only been drunk a few of those times).

This is the first part of that special; not digitized by me, as my copy has been watched so many times the VHS tape is practically transparent. The other parts are easily found on the YouTubes and more than worth your time. As is the MOMI exhibit. Go yesterday.

Pixar and the Price of Excellence

I have a small child, so I was legally obligated to take her to see Cars 2 this weekend. By Friday, I’d already read a bunch of unflattering reviews. (I found the one in The Onion AV Club particularly ominous.) However, I’ve never been steered wrong by Pixar before. So I figured, if it wasn’t up to their usually exacting standards, it would at least be enjoyable.

If anything, the reviews I read had undersold the disappointment that awaited me. Cars 2 was terrible, and thanks to its trusted source, depressingly so. The true depths of my feelings were best expressed by A.O. Scott in The New York Times, discussing how former sidekick Tow Mater took center stage for this film : “I doubt anyone will protest much, but Pixar has now found its redneck Jar-Jar Binks. Such a proud moment.” Harsh words–I imagine one day Godwin’s Law will expand to include invocations of Jar-Jar Binks. However, they are sadly accurate.

When I complained about Cars 2 later on Twitter, a friend responded that they found it no worse than Madagascar. My initial response is to say, Pixar should be better than Madagascar. But then I also wonder if that’s entirely fair. I can’t think of an artist in any other medium–film, music, literature–who’s produced such great art for so long without slipping. Going back to the first Toy Story movie, Pixar’s been knocking it out of the park for almost two decades. Can I allow them one weak pop-up to the shortstop?

On the one hand, no, because movie tickets ain’t cheap. If I pay good money for something, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect it to be a quality product. So I guess the question is, how much quality is reasonable to expect. If I’ve come to expect a certain level of entertainment from Pixar, should I expect them to deliver at that level every time out, or at least close to it? Or is Pixar an unwitting victim of its own excellence?

Other computer animators have gotten closer to Pixar in terms of what they can do with medium. I saw Tangled last year and thought it came the closest so far to closing the gap between Pixar and everyone else. This was in part because, as a Disney product, Tangled had some Pixar assistance in its production. Still, Pixar no longer has the technological advantage it did when they invented the feature-length computer animated film.

Even as this gap closed, what separated Pixar films has been a level of sophistication and maturity that is lacking in many grown-up movies, let alone ones made for kids. Every film up until Cars 2 has very clear stakes beyond a fanciful, artificial competition or race to a finish line. No matter what the main characters in the movie are–toys, rats, robots–Pixar films have very real connections or parallels to what actual humans go through, and tackle subjects that other movies won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Very few movies of any kind capture the painful aspects of parenting, and letting go as your children get older, that Finding Nemo and The Incredibles do. Almost none come close to addressing death the way that Up or Toy Story 3 do. You have to look long and hard to find a movie that trusts its audience as much as Wall-E, which has virtually no dialogue for the first 45 minutes. Some of these movies are better than others, but they’re all admirable.

Then comes Cars 2, a movie where there is almost no connection to anything real. Many Pixar movies lack characters who are people, but Cars 2 is the first one that doesn’t feel human. It has the feel of something templated, stamped out of a mold on the same assembly line that produced dreck like Shark Tale.

In stark contrast to other Pixar movies, no one changes in Cars 2. No one grows, and there are no discernible stakes. Bad guys chase Tow Mater around the world while Lightning McQueen tries to win a grand prix. The two protagonists have a minor quarrel when Mater costs lightning a leg of the race. Before long, they make up. Good guys win. Everyone has a dumb race in Radiator Springs. The end.

Pixar movies have always celebrated excellence, so it’s depressing to watch them make a movie in which the main character bumbles his way through life in an aggressively, willfully ignorant way. Tow Mater travels all over the world, listens to no one, learns nothing. He is essentially Larry the Cable Guy, right down to repeating the man’s well-worn catchphrases. Not a stupid person, just an ignorant one who has no interest learning something he doesn’t already know–the complete opposite of the lesson taught in every other Pixar film.

The movie even closes out with Mater being offered a chance to go on another spy mission, since he unwittingly proved himself worthy of this. Another Pixar film would show its hero discovering his/her talent and pursuing a dream (see: Ratatouille). In Cars 2, Mater stays in Radiator Springs because friends are important, or something. Hooray?

That seems to be the moral of Cars 2, if there is one: Friends are good! The problem is, there’s never any real connection between any character in the film. They’re friends because they’re friends, and that’s supposed to be enough for the audience to understand their relationships. Tow Mater feels remorse over messing up his friend’s effort to win the grand prix, and this is supposed to mean something to us. Let’s say his friendship with Lightning McQueen ends–then what? What is at stake for the two of them? What do they bring to one another that it’s vital they remain friends? Other Pixar films ask and answer these kinds of questions. This one does not.

Having said all of this, I can’t decide if I’m so disappointed because of the film’s actual quality or what I’ve come to expect from Pixar. It’s certainly not the worst animated movie I’ve ever seen; go watch Bee Movie some time if you wanna see a truly unfocused mess. (Actually, just take my word for it; DO NOT watch Bee Movie.) The animation is spectacular, of course, and the little background touches in the different international locales (particularly Tokyo) are responsible for the movie’s only genuinely amusing moments. It’s the main thing that keeps Cars 2 from the level of a straight-to-DVD sequel.

Had Cars 2 been made by anyone else, I would probably just shrug it off as not being very good and not be so bummed out. And yet, Cars 2 is so by-the-book and so obviously calculated for pure merchandising purposes (not that their other movies weren’t licensed to the hilt) in a way Pixar’s other movies weren’t that I have the feeling of being let down by an artist I came to trust. And not like Neil Young putting out an electronic album because he feels like like being weird for a while. This is more like Fugazi, out of nowhere, deciding to be in a Coke commercial. Nothing they’ve said or done would make you think they would remotely go in that direction, then all of a sudden, without warning, you hear “Waiting Room” over close-up shots of soda poured on ice cubes.

I suppose that’s the price of being as consistently excellent as Pixar has been for as long as they’ve been. People don’t just like you, they believe in you. You’re not just expected to produce something of quality, you’re expected to produce a masterpiece. And so releasing something that is not up to your implied standards is more than disappointing. It’s upsetting.

The pressure to produce under these circumstances must be crushing, and so I can forgive Pixar a bump in the road. It just feels weird having to do so.

A Thousand Clowns, Now Available in Non-Imaginary Form

A tweet from Jesse Thorn alerted me to the fact that A Thousand Clowns is now available as a DVD-on-demand from Amazon. This is one of my favoritest movies ever, despite the fact that it’s been nigh impossible to view or purchase over the years. If I’m not mistaken, this is the very first time it’s been made available on DVD. You should probably buy it before someone at Amazon changes their mind.

If you want to know why you should buy it, check out this post I wrote earlier this year (also prompted by Mr. Thorn) on the origins of my obsession with it. Yeah, I was obsessed with something. Hard to believe, I know.

A Terrifying Glimpse of the Future

Over the weekend, I was somehow forced to sit through the last hour of Spy Kids 3D. I’ve never seen any of the Spy Kids films before, but it’s my understanding they’re about kids who are spies.

Spy Kids 3D is easily the worst movie I’ve ever seen, with a large asterisk. I’m not saying it’s the worst because of its content per se. In pure story/direction terms, I’ve seen much worse. Spy Kids 3D is the worst because it provided a horrifying window into our cinematic future.

The entire time Spy Kids 3D flashed before my eyes, I kept wondering to myself, What in god’s name am I watching? I didn’t hate it, I simply didn’t understand it. It felt like watching somebody else play a video game. It’s a movie starring real actors which still feels resoundingly fake. Nothing but the faces look remotely real, as if everyone is shoving their heads through holes in carnival cutouts. Needless to say, the dialogue leaves much to be desired, and the story is little more than a whisper. Things moved very fast and I had no idea why. Scenes would end and the next would begin with barely a connection between them.

One thing Spy Kids 3D has in its favor, particularly towards the end, is that the celebrity cameos get so ridiculous and unnecessary, it’s almost admirable. One famous person suddenly appearing, then then another piled right on top, and another and another, like a Dagwood Sandwich of Stupid. And at least the celebs give a bit of an effort; especially Sylvester Stallone, who chews up scenery with gusto.

But in one terrifying moment, it occurred to me that maybe the burden was not on this movie to be more coherent, but on me to adjust my mind to it. Because I realized that my daughter had no issues watching Spy Kids 3D. It’s sometimes difficult to tell how much a four-year-old actually enjoys something, since a kid that young will consume virtually anything you put in front of them. But she will tune something out if it doesn’t appeal to her, and this definitely appealed to her. I was openly laughing at certain things that I found ridiculous, and she would shoot me scowls, silently saying, C’mon, dad. (Yes, she does this to me already. I have a long road ahead.)

Because the world she is inheriting, this is a world in which fare like Spy Kids 3D is the baseline for kids’ entertainment. Consider this: Spy Kids 3D came out in 2003, which is eight years ago. Three-D movies were unheard of back then. The success of Spy Kids 3D (almost $200 million grossed worldwide) was a huge reason why Hollywood began to throw its weight behind 3D. And yeah, 3D as a format may be on its way out again, but that only means something just as dumb and expensive is on its way.

Now, consider the Transformers franchise, which relies heavily on exploiting people’s sense of nostalgia. The Transformers movies are essentially no different than Spy Kids 3D. Mindless, disconnected scenes. Characters who barely matter. No connection to anything real. An intensely cynical view of its audience.

My daughter has no concept of commercials. Just think about that. Most kids’ channels don’t have ads these days. Maybe you think that’s a good thing, and essentially it is. But it has also made her used to a world where she gets everything she wants, uninterrupted, all the time. The idea of waiting and patience is alien to the world aimed her. So is the idea of watching anything she wouldn’t want to watch, because thanks to On Demand viewing and Netflix Instant, she knows that she can see whatever she wants to see whenever she wants to see it. Hooray?

So I almost feel like Spy Kids 3D has been placed here by the Terminator robots as a warning of what awaits us in the years to come.

Or it could just be a really shitty movie. I think I’ll keep telling myself that.

My Brief Career as a Professional Ghoul

Elizabeth Taylor has died, which I don’t have any particular comment on. I mean, I’m certainly not glad she’s dead; I just can’t add anything to the discussion of her lengthy career. But when she died, as many people pointed out, her New York Times obituary was written by theater/film critic Mel Gussow–who himself died almost six years ago.

This jarred two memories loose from my head. The first is that I edited a book by Mr. Gussow years ago (this one, if you’re curious) and had no idea he died, let alone died so long ago. The second is that I myself was once tasked with preemptive obituary writing.

Continue reading My Brief Career as a Professional Ghoul

A Thousand Clowns and Shep-Colored Glasses

thousandclowns.jpgIn a recent edition of The Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn interviewed Barry Gordon, who starred in A Thousand Clowns in its Broadway and Hollywood incarnations (1962 and 1965, respectively) as a young man. The play ran for years in New York, and the film was a big hit that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Martin Balsam. (It was also nominated for Best Picture, among other categories.)

Nowadays, it’s a fairly obscure film, not in print in any home video format. Its general availability has hovered between “not” and “barely” for the last 30 years or so. Every now and then, you can catch A Thousand Clowns on Turner Classic Movies, although if you blink you might miss it.

Listening to the interview with Gordon reminded me not only of how much I love this movie, but of how I first heard of this film: My longtime obsession with Jean Shepherd, who himself was obsessed with A Thousand Clowns, though in a not-quite-healthy way.

Some quick background for those in need of it (those who don’t, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two) Jean Shepherd is best know for writing and narrating A Christmas Story, but my love of him has more to with his radio show, which aired on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. It’s hard to encapsulate exactly what he did on the radio; something in the Venn intersection of improvised monologue, storytelling, and sardonic commentary on the day’s events. It was done completely off the top of his head, with no notes, outlines, or anything. It is better experienced than described, so I’d encourage the curious to check out some of my Shep-related posts, or The Brass Figlagee, a podcast that makes available hundreds of his old shows.

When he came to New York in the mid-1950s, Shepherd had an overnight show that garnered a huge following among jazz artists, writers, and other Night People (a phrase he claimed to have coined, and just may have). By his definition, a Night Person was someone who probably had a day job to get up for in the morning but preferred to stay up into the wee hours, just brooding, because they were “bugged” about some inexplicable something. His monologues were a stab at trying to get at that something.

At that time, among his many pals in the nocturnal, creative set was the future author of A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner. They appeared together in neo-vadevillian revue, Look, Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall (which also featured another erstwhile Shepherd BFF and fellow Chicagoan, Shel Silverstein). The exact content of the show has been lost to the mists of time, but peep this page from its program, in which both Shepherd and Gardner are listed with their respective credits. (Also, note the illustrations by Silverstein.)

Shepherd used to promote Gardner’s “Nebbishes” cartoons on his WOR show, embellishing the spots (as he often did to those who dared advertise on the program) with his trademark rambling. Shepherd did not have many guests on his show–he preferred to work solo–but Gardner was one of the few, and he came on the program to promote Nebbishes in person. Gardner in turn wrote the liner notes to Shep’s second LP, Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd?

Shortly thereafter, the two men had a falling out, and the reason was almost certainly A Thousand Clowns.

Continue reading A Thousand Clowns and Shep-Colored Glasses

Internet Trainspotting at its Finest

ferris.jpgBy this point, nearly every artifact from the 1980s has had its bones picked completely clean by ironic vultures. Bill Simmons single-handedly ruined The Karate Kid for everyone by referencing it constantly. All conceivable angles of Back to the Future have been examined under a cultural electron microscope. The rehashings of G.I. Joe and Transformers speak for themselves, loudly and poorly. (Not that the originals were high art.)

Maybe I’m nuts (a distinct possibility), but I feel like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has largely escaped this treatment. Of course, it remains a beloved film (and righfully so), often quoted and referenced. But comparatively speaking, it did not reach nauseating levels of ubiquity and reference-itude. It even survived a weird televisual adaptation produced four years too late.

That is why I was delighted to see someone tackle a Ferris angle I had never seen addressed before: Exactly what game did Mr. Bueller and his buddies attend at Wrigley Field? Larry Granillo of Wezen-Ball (previously best known for his sabermetric study of Charlie Brown’s baseball career) did some serious detective work over the weekend at Baseball Prospectus to answer this very question.

Granillo carefully studied the video evidence–both the live footage seen in the film and the game as broadcast on TV as Mr. Rooney is in the pizza joint. Considering this, he surmised that it occurred on June 5, 1985 as the Cubs played the Braves.

As the post caught proverbial wildfire across the interwebs, there was some speculation that the date Granillo couldn’t have happened, since principal shooting for Ferris didn’t begin until September 1985. Granillo disagreed, saying that the footage shown on TV in the film was clearly from a midsummer game against the Braves. He further determined that the scenes actually featuring Ferris in the stands could have taken place late in the season when the Cubs played either the Braves or another team with similar powder blue away uniforms.

It turns out he was right, as confirmed by an assistant director who worked on the film, who said he was “pretty sure” the game in question happened on September 24, against the Expos (who had powder blue unis at the time). Mystery solved!

Perhaps it’s because I have my own dumb obsessions, or because something resembling baseball is a mere eight days away, but I found this Ferris endeavor completely charming. Of course it represents the dedication of considerable brainpower and deductive powers toward something that means absolutely nothing. But then again, once you invest that much perspiration in the effort, it means everything.

Such an effort speaks to my soul. I can not tell you how many times I’ve poured hours upon hours of mental gymnastics into completely futile gestures, just to prove I could solve them. Running this site alone, I’ve thrown away weeks trying to solve the most trivial technical minutiae, just so I could say “Yeah, I did it!” to nobody but myself.

In conclusion, I’m saluting Mr. Granillo’s effort because of my own deep personal failings.