26 August 2009

E.T.: Extra Terrifying

The first clear memories I have of my life come from Argentina, where I lived with my parents, brother, and newly-born sister for about a year when I was four-years-old. Included in those memories is the first trip to the cinema that I can remember. My mother took me to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial along with a friend of hers. I don't know why E.T. was in the theatre since this was probably around 1989, seven years after its theatrical release date, but who cares.

I am a child of television, having been raised on cartoons and superhero shows - I was a big fan of various Power Rangers programs from Japan such as Ultraman and its variations - so I was accustomed to moving images as a child, but my first experience in a movie theatre was completely different: it terrified me.

I remember the darkness very clearly, the big dark room with only the light of the projector filling the screen. This was probably the first time I sat in the dark with other people, with strangers, and it placed me in a world I had never experienced before, a world that was a little creepy. I was sitting next to my mother and I remember looking up at her, seeing the dull blue of the projection flickering on her face. The enormity of the screen mixed with the darkness was a first for me and I believe that this was the first time I was being made to focus on a movie or a moving image. There was nothing else to do. Watching T.V. you could get up, get a snack, play with toys at the same time, beat on your brother, or do whatever you wanted; T.V. was never the sole activity, especially for a three/four-year-old. Being forced to focus on this movie in front of me in the dark was a different experience for me and I believe I felt uncomfortable, slightly restless and slightly anxious.

The movie went along and I was a little overwhelmed by the images and the sounds and the whole new experience. Then it happened: E.T. stuck his head out from among the stuffed animals with his huge, nasty neck and started screaming. (You know, I'm not even sure if this happened in the movie or if I am mixing two memories into one image) It was terrifying! I don't know how I reacted physically - if I screamed also or if I grabbed to my mother - but I could not handle watching the movie anymore. At that point I turned around in my seat and refused to watch the screen - it was too scary. I stared at the darkness of the back wall, trying to calm myself down. It was then that I noticed this white square in the wall from which a beam of light was coming out, filled with a faint whiteness and little specks of floating dust. I stared at this for what felt a long time, confused at why that white square with light was there. I looked back at the screen, then back at the white square. I don't believe I made the connection then; it was just another element of that strange, magical place in the dark that I didn't understand. After a while I became too anxious and my mother and her friend had to let me get out of the theatre (not unlike a young Bruce Wayne being frightened by the opera). I don't know how much of the film I watched, but I remember those images clearly. The film was during the day, so coming back into the sunlit streets of Buenos Aires was a little jarring. I remember not wanting to go back into that theatre ever again, and I don't think I did.

It's ironic that I love film so much now and the first movie I saw terrified me and made me not want to set foot in a theatre ever again. The effect of the darkness and the isolation in a public place and the huge screen all overwhelmed me in ways that I am still overwhelmed with today, except now I am old enough not to be afraid of the dark and to understand that the white box on the back wall with light coming out of it is a projector. And I do cringe and get scared in movies more easily than the common person, so maybe that E.T. experience never really left me. The cinema can still do its magic on me, for better or worse.

13 August 2009

ANNIE HALL for Dummies

"This is not a love story," warns the VOG narrator of the trailer to (500 Days of Summer), "it is a story about love." While I still fail to comprehend whether that statement has any substance (or if it is a trite play on words that sounds like it could be clever but actually says nothing), it seems to suggest that the film will make some sort claim that gets to the core reality or "truth" of love, unlike all those other romantic love stories we are all so familiar with. So what is love for handsome Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and space-eyed Summer (Zooey Deschanel)? What makes this film more true in its examination of love than all those other romantic comedies? Well, Summer doesn't believe in love and doesn't end up with Tom.

The offered insight regarding love-in-the-modern-age according to the film seems to be that the expectations we have within relationships always falls short of reality -- a reality that is paradoxical and irrational. This isn't a new concept for romantic comedies -- already perfected by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (among others) -- and director Marc Webb seems to acknowledge that by refusing to tackle anything new or insightful through his characters or their relationship. Tom and Summer are the cinematic equivalents of Dick and Jane -- average 20-ish white, middle-class purveyors of safe indie music and IKEA furniture that represent the majority of the film's hip target demographic -- in that they are pure surface; we don't need to know anything deeper about them since they are merely stand-ins for the delivery of a half-assed "moral" or "truth."

The end result of Webb's reliance on storybook characterization and narrative is a pastiche of romantic comedy cliches that are exaggerated in their artificiality. While exaggeration of cliches and genre conventions can give lots of room for excellent genre subversion and cleverness (think Blazing Saddles), that is certainly not the case for (500) Days of Summer. The cliches exist for themselves, becoming incredibly tiring. For example, Tom works at a dead-end job he doesn't like that compromises his more creative desire to be an architect, so what does he do? He freaks out at a meeting and quits to pursue his dream. Yawn. Tom is depressed about not being with Summer so he walks around in a bath robe and buys bourbon and milk at the local bodega. Har har har.

The characters also suffer a lot: they are flat caricatures that are defined by a few details that are supposed to say everything about them. Perhaps the worst of the lot is Summer, which is made even worse since she is a main character, as she is defined by quirks that deserve endless rolling of the eyes: she likes to say the word penis! her favorite Beatle is Ringo! she thinks porn is funny! Tom is given a little more room for introspection ( it really is his story more than anyone elses) and he is played with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the intrigue of that introspection is blocked by all of the cartoonish characterizations and narrative of the rest of the film. I eventually found myself more interested in seeing what shirt, tie, and sweater outfit Tom would wear in the next scene more than any advancement of plot or narrative.

What is surprising to me, however, is that despite all of this I still sat through (500) Days of Summer and was able to somewhat enjoy it, even while gritting my teeth every now and then (okay, maybe a lot). It was easily-digestible, like a sugar-coated confection that cuts your tongue every now and then and leaves a bad aftertaste, making you somewhat regret eating it afterward. Maybe this is because I am part of that target demographic; maybe because I know people that are approximations of those characters; maybe because it
catered to my short attention span through jumpy vignettes. It was the same feeling I got from Juno (although that film's first 20-min are much more excruciating in its hip twee). But in both cases I always felt like I wanted my money back when the end credits start rolling, like I've been duped.

(500) Days of Summer is ultimately like Annie Hall for the Juno generation, and as such is entirely forgettable.

03 August 2009

My Favorite Femme Fatale

Gloria Grahame will be featured with a full day of films on TCM as part of their SUMMER UNDER THE STARS series on Thursday, August 13. A personal favorite, Fritz Lang's 1953 noir The Big Heat, is playing at 9:45 p.m. In it Grahame plays Debby Marsh, an opportunistic moll who hangs around with the vicious Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), full of scarcasm and nihilistic witicisms such as: "The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better." Or, when she enters Bannion's (Glenn Ford's) room, which is completely unadorned: "Hey, I like this. Early nothing." Her beautiful face becomes the site of the greatest tragedy when she famously gets a pot of hot coffee thrown at her by the vicious Stone. It's not to be missed.

Oh, and I found this poster on TCM.com, which puts a modern twist on a onesheet for the film. There are some other great ones shown here.

A coffee pot! Fantastic!

01 August 2009


As a contribution towards the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Ang Lee retrospective I did a short write-up regarding one of his two more well-known films, Brokeback Mountain (the other being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). While I don't really have an opinion on Lee as an auteur (haven't seen enough), I do think Brokeback Mountain has more substantial weight to it than it maybe gets credit for. It is often written off as an Oscar-baiting feature that uses its premise of a homosexual relationship more as a gimmick than as a sincere exploration of love. And while it certainly has all the elements of a big, sweeping Oscar film, I think there is more nuance and sincerity than can be recognized on the surface. Besides, we all remember what happened at the Oscars that year: aside from the all the accolades for artistic achievements the Academy threw at Lee and co. (winning Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Director), they were denied the laurel of Best Picture, which was given to that mess of ham-fisted morality on racism: Crash. Perhaps there is enough of a dark edge on Brokeback Mountain to ward off Academy voters.

And the darkness of the film is what I try to focus on in the piece. As tender or loving as some scenes are, there is always a pervasive darkness that haunts the characters on screen that gets conveyed visually. Anyway, the piece is here.