Monday, August 31, 2009

First movie/last movie: Hal Ashby

The Landlord (1970)
8 Million Ways To Die (1986)

Oddly enough, his first movie starred Beau Bridges and his last movie starred Jeff Bridges.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

American movies, 1970-1979

from Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My family on film

Two summers ago, I spent a long, sweaty August day in a Mexican restaurant in a hotel in Lockhart, Texas as an extra in Andrew Bujalski's latest film, Beeswax, which was then without a title. It's finally coming out soon, so the back of my head as I eat a cold taco that had been sitting out all day may or may not appear in a theater near you this fall. I was paid in barbecue that day, but it was really good barbecue, and the twin sisters playing the lead characters were very nice people. I also got free drinks for four hours at a downtown bar for the wrap party a few weeks later. Not counting the time my mother took me to the huge rock formations, Courthouse and Jail Rock, outside of my hometown to see a Kenny Rogers TV movie being filmed (I was two, I remember none of this) (maybe I dreamed this?), or the times I drove by the sets and/or on-the-street location filming of Death Proof, The Wendell Baker Story, and the remake of Friday the 13th, and also not counting the zombie movies and crime epic The Revenge of Barney Hoov I made on my parents' Camcorder, it was my only experience with the actual making of a film. I found it simultaneously interesting as hell and boring as bejesus. Anyway, my brother and mother beat me onto celluloid by a couple of decades. Back in the mid-1980s, one of the two family doctors in my hometown was a Vietnamese immigrant who'd escaped from Saigon. A documentary film crew came to my tiny hometown to shoot a segment on him for a film about immigrants in the U.S. that would eventually be shown on HBO. When they filmed him at his office, my sick little brother was his patient. My mom and brother got in the documentary, someone taped it for us when it was on HBO (my father's simultaneous love of television and paranoid fear of elusive yet constantly hovering economic disaster were at cross purposes, so the compromise was basic cable only, which meant no HBO), we watched the VHS dub, my mother complained in mild horror about how she looked on camera, and then we mostly forgot about it.
Fast forward to tonight, 2009!
I was watching the 1986 Louis Malle documentary ...And the Pursuit of Happiness on DVD tonight. It's a part of the Criterion Collection spin-off Eclipse, which presents bare-bones, economic DVDs of ultra-rare films by major directors. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to see my then-30-year-old mother and my wee little brother in the film. This was the forgotten HBO documentary! And Louis fuckin' Malle made it! Besides the thrill of seeing 23 years younger versions of my mother and brother on a Criterion Collection DVD, it was also exciting, hilarious, and slightly melancholy to see my shit-kickin', teeny-tiny Nebraska hometown beautifully shot and framed and cinematographed (not a real word) by a respected French filmmaker. Here's a picture I took of my bro and mom's scene:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My moviegoing: 2003

from Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (1971)
James Coburn retrospective: Alamo Drafthouse

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

First movie/last movie: Michelangelo Antonioni

Story of a Love Affair (1950)
Beyond the Clouds (1995)

Monday, August 24, 2009

American movies, 1970-1979

from Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My moviegoing: 2003

I have a notebook where I write down every concert I attend, because I'm a nerd with a constant need to document the events of my life. In 2003, I started keeping a separate notebook for every movie I've seen in a theater. I'm going to make a series out of it here. This is the first one, seen on New Year's Day, 2003.

from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

First movie/last movie: Robert Altman

The Delinquents (1957)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Monday, August 17, 2009

American movies, 1970-1979

from Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Friday, August 14, 2009

First movie/last movie

I am going to take a break from the Musicians on Film series for a while, though I intend to bring it back, and start a new series, First Movie/Last Movie. The rules: I will show stills from a director's first film and last film. The director has to be either dead or long-retired. Unlike my posting of other images on this site, I don't have to have seen the films. I am omitting short films, music videos, commercials, television episodes, and unfinished works, unless that filmmaker primarily made short films, etc. Here's #1: Robert Aldrich.

Big Leaguer (1953)
...All the Marbles (1979)

I'm a big Aldrich fan, but I haven't seen either of these. I don't know why I haven't seen his last film. It stars Peter Falk and Burt Young and is about women's professional wrestling. At the very least, it should probably be the greatest film ever made.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


This blog is going to look really strange for a few days or more, until I re-size most of the posts. I'm reformatting to make the images bigger. So, chew on it, you humps. Just kidding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

American movies, 1970-1979

from Bob Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Are things worse now, or is revisionist fogeyism in full effect up in this piece?

The inescapable promotional campaigns for Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, etc. this summer (coming soon, McDonald's French Fries: The Movie, starring Don Cheadle, Shia Labeef, and Rue McClanahan) have made me even more painfully aware of the huge chasm between the movies I see and the movies most people see, even people I know and love who are infinitely curious about music and the written word but who only see recent movies with huge promotional budgets or have given up on movies entirely for television. I tend to idealize past decades while bemoaning the current era, but I secretly know I'm full of shit. For one thing, the present is always pretty mediocre. The era-specific mediocrity tends to fade away over time, and, although plenty of fantastic pieces of art remain unfairly obscure, the worthless shit we waste too much time on mostly goes away or is reevaluated as the kitsch or nostalgia of tomorrow today it always was. Complaining about the kids these days, or how mainstream taste is worse than ever, is mostly just fogeyism, with tiny flecks of truth.
Roger Ebert's recent essay about adolescents' lack of interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow's excellent The Hurt Locker as symptom of our increasingly stupider film culture and just plain culture is easy to sympathize with and my initial knee-jerk response is to agree with him, but I tend to side with Glenn Kenny on this issue. Kenny has a worthwhile essay on his blog in response to Ebert's essay called "Young and dumb versus old and in the way," and I think he's mostly right, especially when he says, "The kids of today didn't invent dumb. They inherited it." More evidence of meet the new boss, same as the old boss came from an unlikely source. One of the numerous scanned pieces of memorabilia included as a part of Neil Young's Archives Vol. 1 box set was a list of the top 50 grossing films for the week of 1974. Young's part exciting concert film, part biographical collage, part dated and overwrought heavy symbolism potfest movie, Journey through the Past, was one of those 50 films. I think of the 1970s as the last decade in the United States in which serious, talented filmmakers could get bankrolled by major studios and enjoy wide distribution while making personal, artistic films with a surprising amount of freedom, and possibly have the chance of getting their work seen by a large audience. The truth is a lot messier. On this list of 50 films were a whole lot of bad, mediocre, and prestige Oscar-bait movies. Same as now.
However, here's where the messier part of the-truth-gets-messier comes in, and where those tiny flecks of truth in the otherwise fogeyist things-are-stupider-now theory appear. I think pretty much the same amount of good-smart, bad-smart, good-stupid, and bad-stupid has always existed in mostly the same ratio, but I think the amount of space advertising fills in our lives has become far more consuming than it ever has before. Every rock band in the country is willing to sell their song to McDonald's or Chevrolet or Old Navy and no one worries about how that cheapens and devalues music. Movie theaters used to play only trailers before a film. Now everyone is forced to sit through 20 minutes of product placement featurettes and ten minutes of commercials for soft drinks, cars, and cell phones before the movie trailers start. Commercials are talked about more than movies around the office, not just the day after the Super Bowl. Teenagers are just as wonderful and awful as they always were, but two things are strikingly different about the age they're in. They are constantly being targeted by a never-ending barrage of advertising, and they rarely spend a minute without an electronic communication device in their hands. Teenagers are bombarded by advertising images, and they're less sophisticated at navigating through, ignoring, laughing at, or even recognizing the extent to which they're being manipulated. However, I don't blame them at all. Could I navigate through all that fucking noise? I, and my peers, had a lot more space and gadget-free time. They're just inheriting our dumbness, and our dumbness is a lot more technologically advanced than it used to be.
Anyway, the current manifestation of the ever-present, infinite shitty now has damaged the film world more than any other artform. Yes, most of those movies on that 1974 chart were bad, but the ones that were good were amazingly good, and the ones that were bad were still trying to achieve something, and almost all of them were made with care. And the list was varied as hell. It included drive-in exploitation movies, music documentaries, porno movies, independents, Hollywood garbage, Hollywood gold, and the occasional cynical money-grab waste of time. Look at the top-grossing list this week. It's a little more varied than most of the rest of the year, but it doesn't even go to 50, and every movie on it is a massively expensive, heavily advertised, hype machine created by mega-corporations based in Los Angeles. Also, nearly every movie on the August 2009 list is incoherently shot, edited, and scored. Times change. Fogeyism. Et cetera. But, goddamnit. People are just getting a sliver of what they used to get. And that sliver is 100 times shittier than the shit-slivers of yesteryear. No wonder people who aren't film buffs but like to watch things mostly watch TV now. The pay-cable channels have cornered the market on intelligent, mainstream entertaining art for adults with their Wire Soprano Office UK Curb Your Enthusiasm Ali G Conchord Mr. Shows. But I like seeing moving images on a big screen in the dark for longer than an hour. And so, if I was a moderately interested fan of the occasional quality movie instead of the maniacal film buff I am, and I lived in a non-urban area, I would be fucked. The Hurt Locker, an intelligent and highly entertaining film made by the intelligent and highly entertaining Kathryn Bigelow (of Near Dark and Point Break fame), a film with explosions, suspense, humor, gun battles, and fistfights, for fuck's sake, at the height of its run, played in 525 theaters in the U.S. Transformers, at the height of its run, played in 4,007 theaters. Fuck. That is sort of what's wrong here, and worse than it used to be. A movie with a tremendous amount of audience appeal is being marketed as an "art film." Bigelow is an artist, and the film is art, but it's also a very accessible and entertaining movie. It would have been released much wider 10 years ago.

Bigelow's screenwriter, Mark Boal, attempted to get some technical assistance for The Hurt Locker from the U.S. military but was turned down, even though they gave an unprecedented amount of technical help to Michael Bay for his sequel to his movie about a toy. A senior military official told Boal that Transformers was extremely accurate in its military detail. When Boal asked him what was accurate about fighting aliens, the official said, "If we were going to fight aliens, that's how we would do it."

Joe Dante is one of those guys who is both a great artist and a great popular entertainer. He's directed the following films:
The Movie Orgy aka Cheeseburger Film Sandwich
Hollywood Boulevard
The Howling
the best segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie
The 'Burbs
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Small Soldiers
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
, and a lot of great TV work.
He gets at a lot of the problems I have with current Hollywood filmmaking and distribution in a great interview on the film site, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I'm just going to quote a few things verbatim because he puts it better than I can with my dumb angry ranting:
(When asked about the mentality a lot of audience members have that a movie is old if it came out in 1990:)
"I know. And unfortunately, the people who make the movies also are illiterate in that way. It becomes more difficult to communicate with younger executives about points that you want to make by illustrating some great, classic moment in some movie that, unfortunately, they’ve never heard of. And sometimes they get a little annoyed, as if you’re trying to one-up them. That’s not the intent, but you find that you have to find a slightly different level of discourse with these guys."

(On the negative audience and critical reaction to the 'burbs and its better reputation in the present:)
"It’s context—what people are seeing at the time, what’s cool, what’s in. All that is ephemeral. It passes. And what’s left is the movie. The advertising is gone. Nobody remembers the trailer, the TV spots, the reviews, but the movie still lives and speaks for itself."

(On seeing movies more than once:)
"It has to have personal meaning to you, and I think that people in the culture in general are encouraged to not see films as having personal meaning, but instead as something disposable, something to pass the time, to be hip about, but without any real bearing on your life."

"So many people I know who are my age can’t get work. People you would know who have made movies and TV shows you would recognize can’t get arrested because the studio heads don’t know who they are and their movies didn’t star Tom Cruise. They’re expected to put together MTV-like seven-minute reels that show people scenes from their movies. But if they put together these reels with lots of music and visual pizzazz and there’s still no famous movie star faces in there—“Why should we hire this guy when we can hire this music video guy?” The guys that green-light movies aren’t interested or passionate about movies, they’re interested in the bottom line. They’re interested in tent-pole movies, sequels, remakes, anything people have already heard of. They’re remaking Drop Dead Fred. They’re remaking Adventures in Babysitting. And they’re remaking them because, gee, we don’t even have to read the scripts, all we have to do is watch the movie! There’s nothing literate involved."

(Asked about handmade special effects vs. CGI:)
"Well, I’m not saying all these new techniques are better. Unfortunately, you can’t go home again, and it is difficult to make films using the old technology. I’ve seen a couple of pictures in Europe when I’ve gone to festivals where they have carefully tried to use the old Rob Bottin-Rick Baker school of do-it-in-the-camera, and it’s often very effective, but those movies often don’t get released anywhere because they’re not CGI, they’re not what people expect. I mean, love it or hate it, CGI is here to stay— the trick is to find a way to work it so that it doesn’t look as sterile and mechanical as by definition it is."

"...In the current incarnation of what are known as popular movies that are supposed to be enjoyed by kids, the amount of effects work and the number of “highlights” in the movie are astronomical. These pictures go from climax to climax to climax to climax, any one of which would have been good enough on its own for a movie made 20 years ago. But now they’re strung together one after the other and they all become kind of meaningless. No matter how technically proficient they are, no matter how spectacular they are, there’s a brain-deadening quality to them, and after a while it becomes just a bunch of visual noise. I think what modern filmmakers have to guard against is making these nonstop Hasbro toy commercials that are—the only word I can think of to say is soulless. They are showcases for the greatest technology we’ve ever had since the movies started, and yet the one thing that made the movies great, which is telling stories and having characters that you could relate to and be emotionally moved by, that’s sort of gone on the back burner."

Finally, I'm going to close with two comments from Glenn Kenny's blog that illustrate my uneasy ambivalence about the whole worse vs. same conundrum:
Commenter Dan Yeager (though he uses the word "natch," which I hate with a burning intensity, I find his comment very useful in illustrating my problem with movie talk in the '00s):
"Welcome to the '50's, Glenn. I arrived seven years ago, so let me tell you of a moment in my youth that for some reason still sticks with me. A good friend shared with me and another his enthusiasm for the movie he had seen the night before. It was A Woman Under the Influence. Now this friend was no budding cineaste, probably didn't know Bunuel from Bergman, but he raved about what he'd seen. It was also playing at the local movie theater, not some art house venue. Now jump cut to a few weeks ago and you'll find me sitting down to lunch with a number of colleagues - ages ranging from 25 to 45 and what movie do they bring up and describe as 'awesome'? Transformers, natch. Yeah, from time to time I get my dander up when pondering such things but it usually eases into 'what the hell' and a shrug of the shoulders. Life's too short and, hell, I can see what I want and if I like it pass it on to the few I know who may appreciate it as well."

And that fucking oldster Socrates:

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

American movies, 1970-1979

from Bill L. Norton's Cisco Pike (1972)

This isn't a great movie, by any stretch, but it is full of interesting people, and has that loose, lazy, wandering character-driven narrative and era-specific geographic snapshot setting I love so much. Also, a cast list that is a microcosm of 70s culture: Kris Kristofferson in his first film role (replacing Seymour Cassel, who decided to make something else instead), Karen Black, Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton, Antonio Fargas, Warhol scenester Viva, Joy Bang, Roscoe Lee Browne, Severn Darden, Howard Hesseman, Allan Arbus (former husband of Diane Arbus), Lorna Thayer (the waitress in the famous chicken salad scene in Five Easy Pieces), and rare film roles from Doug Sahm and Wavy Gravy.

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