Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Combustable Moving-Picture Viewer Exists One Year!

"Tesla invented this cake... but I'm eating it!"

Today marks the one year anniversary of The Exploding Kinetoscope's first post. I can honestly say it has been variously fun, torturous, a waste of time, and enriching... in short, everything blogging is all about. Other film blogs may give you more daily content. I've generated only 56 posts in the entire year (a surprise even to me). I'm happy with much of that writing, though anyone reading the introductory post can sense it's not nearly as much writing as I anticipated. But I don't know who else is going to give you 10-page essays on one performance in Teen Wolf.

Minako and Usagi lay waste to the
ExKin official birthday cake.
Eat up, ladies!

I debuted ExKin the day after Christmas, but it's also the day before my birthday. There's nothing important about that, except I wanted to have three fun days in a row. Kinetoscope was always intended as a personal exercise in improving my film writing. And I wanted to sharpen my viewing habits. They go hand in hand. I like that: a passion for art consumption and an artistic skill set holding hands, on their way to the movies. And oh my God, you guys, do I love going to the movies. And almost as good, is getting espresso after, and talking about the movies. I obviously spend more time watching and writing about film than I fake-publish here. I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but dexterity of thought and speed are my focus for 2007; expect at least twice as much Kinetoscope next year. Faster, looser, but, well, more.

At times like this, it's natural to ask "why?" - why keep a public film diary? And why read someone else's? Well, I like blogs because they tend to be written by obsessives, those living the cinephile lifestyle in full, and those who write about film because they cannot help it, not because they're being paid to do so. The mission here is still a journey through all-things movies. It's a life of haunting the broken seats and smoky carpets of revival theaters... sleepwalking through the hidden aisles lined with dusty racks of over-sized VHS boxes... navigating the gleaming electronics store displays, head spinning from the new-plastic scent of freshly opened DVDs... What are we looking for? Where is Filmland?

It is the kinship between Famous Monsters and Cahiers. It is a tunnel between the drive-in concession stand and the arthouse projection booth. It's that weird spot where parallel streets Hollywood and Sunset meet:

When I moved to Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time making quiet pilgrimages to locations where Ed Wood, Jr. lived and worked. At the place where Hollywood and Sunset meet, is Wood's old office. And the Vista theater. And it's right by the Monogram studios. All in all, I'd say it's a holy place of movie history, though I doubt it's on many star maps, or gets many tourist visitors. If you've found it, you have deserved to find it. That's why I do it.

Self-Indulgence Bonus: My 5 Favorite Posts!
5. King Kong (2005) review, the first "real" post. Blogs are neat: write a review as distended, ridiculous, excessive as you like. No one can stop you.
4. Silly Red Eye review which caused much fury among young girls on Cillian Murphy crush-sites! No, seriously. I'm serious.
3. Some days it seems like I absolutely love every movie ever made.
2. Script changes to Kill Bill: how, why, and the net result. Stretching the limits of detail-enlargement like a missing scene from Blow-up!
1. Serious paper about narrative strategies in The Shining!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Notice: Black Maria Overhaul!

Boring tech note: On this fine Monday, ExKin is switching "Bloggo"-things over to a full BloggerBeta. As an artist, and typophile, I can't stand to write and present in the standard-issue Blogger template, so the parlour may look a little screwy today, as the furniture gets shifted around. Frankly, Blogger Beta's layout editor stinks for anyone who just wants to write their own HTML, but I had the foresight to create a couple dummy Beta blogs to play around with, so everything should be in order by the end of the day.

Then I'll tell you a secret about INLAND EMPIRE.

P.S. - The spellcheck's replacement suggestion for "typophile" is "pedophile". The end.

Update: Everything's now more or less in order, and a little prettier than before. The main reason to move to Beta is the new Labels function: check out the sidebar under Index and immediately find every post about Winona Ryder. I'll be adding labels to every previous post, over time. My limited CSS skills made the switchover take all day, which is ridiculous, and I would rather be working on new content. The beloved ExKin mascots of ugly '70s people shooting home movies will return, but wrangling code is not as much fun as writing about movies.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Movie Anxiety

Can today really be here? December 15, 2006 is the Los Angeles release date for David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, the Movie Day I've most anticipated all year. Strike that - this is the day I've waited for all year. And there have been a lot of big Movie Days this year. BUT!: Our greatest living film artist, my personal-all-time-favorite director, our Mr. Lynch actually favors us with a film relatively often, but it is always an event. A momentous event. There is only one chance to see a new Lynch film for the first time; that first viewing is rarely the most interesting or satisfying, but it is the most tingly, because it is the freshest, and only unprepared viewing. Like a first date, it is the excitement of full-immersion into a new world of possibility. With Lynch, I avoid spoilers like the black plague; as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Lynch will be having his way with my brain in a few hours, with no image, plot point, color or sound anticipated. So I'm pretty antsy. In lieu of a focused entry, which would be impossible, today I present a look at a feeling a few rare films have given me which is rarely talked about. I read about helpless hysterical laughter. And abject terror. Physical, gut-level sickness. Even obsessive, unrequited movie-star love. This is something... else?


When I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, it produced in me stress symptoms similar to a low-grade panic attack. From the clank/pump/wheeze of Jon Brion's woozy score, to the dialogue consisting entirely of unfinished sentences, to the haphazard arrangement of absurdist touches, indiscriminately harrowing or whimsical; the elements all butt against each other, do not fit, and made me feel like I was hyperventilating for 95 minutes. The scary, ecstatic feeling is comparable to the free-fall of a bungee jump or the prolonged head rush as a romance begins. This isn't to say I liked Punch-Drunk Love at first. As I stumbled out of the theater, I felt unhappy and wrung out, jittery and unable to speak coherently about the film. Total temporary disconnect, folks.


The first time I saw Jacques Rivette's Paris nous appartient [Paris Belongs to Us; 1960], was some European film class screening with a late start, and the meandering weirdo epic surely ended in the early hours of morning. I plopped down in a seat at that ill-attended, supposedly-mandatory screening, and as the stoned paranoia of bottomless political conspiracy unspooled, consuming every character, engulfing everything in their world, Something Bad happened. You can say this film is about a conspiracy gripping postwar Europe. A conspiracy so expansive and dispersedly structured that the more lit student Anne Goupil investigates her friend Juan's suicide, the further she gets from the heart of truth, until it includes everyone, everything, every building, every street, every object in every home. We often talk about being "absorbed" or "engrossed" by a film but Paris nous appartient leaks off the screen. It implicates your personal space. After Paris nous appartient has crawled over your body, you belong to Paris, and for days, weeks after, every time I see it, I cannot shake that feeling that I am part of this web, ever-expanding, ever more vague and confusing.

Yikes. I gotta split. More later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Schoolboy Crush: SL&TIFR's Winter Exam, Extended Edition

The (sorta) quarterly film surveys-disguised-as-tests at Dennis Cozzalio's hard-working and thoughtful movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule are fast becoming a film Blogospherical tradition. The answers are compulsively readable, though like any Internet meme basically amount to a list of superlatives and complaints. Take/ read "PROFESSOR DAVE JENNINGS' MILTON-FREE, UNIVERSE-EXPANDING HOLIDAY MIDTERM" here! Below are expanded versions of my answers. Pfft. And they say people shouldn't take movie blogs seriously.

Screencap courtesy of Winona Online

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

On DVD: Open Season (aka- The Recon Game; 1974), delightful kidnapping/rape/human-hunting/revenge junk with Peter Fonda and John Phillip Law. Why?: on a vigilante justice kick!

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

Ubaldo Terzano and Bava's photography makes Blood and Black Lace my favorite looking motion picture of all time. The primary colors will sear your brain, and the pools of pastel will cool them off again. It's a perfect marriage of form and material, as the movie needs to look like a fashion magazine photo spread in the fashion show scenes and convincingly lurid for the murders.

Among the living and working: I kicked around picking Frederick Elmes and Tak Fujimoto. No way do I miss a chance to see those guys at work. BUT: right now, I'm all about Jeong-hun Jeong, Park Chan-Wook's cinematographer for Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Not always the most sumptuous, but his pictures look tired, sad, rained-upon, and beautiful.

For the olden-timey, it's gotta be Robert Burks' hallucinogenic work for Hitchcock. If you like that, check out Joe MacDonald's color pictures, especially the dress-shopping sequence in Bigger Than Life! Sorry folks, that was a crappy answer!

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?

Baker in Charley Varrick sleeps in his clothes, sweats a lot, says stuff like "I didn't travel six-hundred miles for the amusement of morons. Izzat clear, ladies?," threatens guys with pliers and blowtorches, and his name is Molly. Now that's a heavy. And he played Winona Ryder's dad once. And yeah, he's the better B-Puss, too.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation...…)

Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce (yeah, right. She's playing Winona Ryder) lies on her bed in a T-shirt, cigarette smoldering in hand, staring at the ceiling like a dope, contemplating the messy, un-frothy, no-fun romantic triangle she's gotten herself into. You know, basically assuming the Crucifixion position for a generation: Jesus slept. It's the one moment in Reality Bites that transcends the Gen-X-ploitation... but that's not why I gasped. I'd already fallen hard, some 6 years earlier (Beetlejuice), but I just hadn't seen anyone photograph Ryder like that before. Gulp... Gasp!

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.

Ed Wood, 8 1/2 and David Holzman's Diary are my favorite films about the joy, agony and catharsis of being a film artist, but... as a meditation on the waking dream of cinema, it's Mulholland Dr. for me, all the twisty, dangerous way.

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.

I like it pulpy, I like it eerie, I like it wacked-out as possible, I like it Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.

Francesco Dellamorte -- who continually Gets The Girl and Loses The Girl, doesn't appreciate his friends enough, dresses in cool boots, black pants and white shirts -- feeling sorry for himself, gets drunk on red wine, stands in the autumn rain, talking to a statue of the Reaper. Dellamorte Dellamore. Badass, solipsist, or romantic? And I go "Are they making fun of me?"

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?

When it comes to Conchitas in your own life, you think the lusty Molinas will be harder to handle, but the Bouquets cause more trouble in the end. Therefore: Bouquet.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

Say wha'? I'm not being a wiseacre; I don't think I understand the question.

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.

Tor Johnson, Plan 9 From Outer Space: He's a big boy, Johnny!

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.

I like to watch Being There.

12) Name the first double feature you'’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.

Children of Paradise and Night of the Bloody Apes.

13) What's the name of your revival theater?

The Thanatos -- if it's an grand old movie palace. If it's a dump-hole with brick walls and folding chairs: The Exploding Kinetoscope Parlour.

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?

If this is a question of who is the better screen Marlowe, I refuse to dignify it with a response. That thing Elliot Gould is doing is not Philip Marlowe.

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.

Yikes, don't ask me to pit Mary Poppins against That Darn Cat! Just don't... Poppins has more sheer, universal pop culture iconography, Walt's personal quality-control, and great songs, it's still funny and magical no matter what age you are... and Julie Andr--... Okay, That Darn Cat! I love TDC! so much it's repulsive. And there goes all my credibility. In all areas of life. Somebody take me inside and make me a big weird sandwich!

"D.C's wearing a wristwatch!"

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.

Daria Nicolodi as Gianna does an unexpected shimmy-shake as she haughtily leaves Marc Daly (David Hemmings)'s apartment in Deep Red She's trying to turn the head of the disinterested pianist, but also doing it to remind herself she's a desirable woman: a non-diegetic electric guitar plays a startling, cute and sassy boogie-down lick. I don't know if Marc can hear it, but we can, and that's what matters.

17) Pink Flamingos-- yes or no?

Yes, it is the funniest comedy in the history of motion pictures. Yes, if it were made today the entire cast and crew would be arrested for terrorism. Yes, the movie celebrates the spirit of America by tearing apart everything it stands for.

No, I'm not overstating the case for Pink Flamingos. Anyone who says otherwise will be executed for assholeism!

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.

Ennio Morricone's crazysexycool Diabolik, but only if Christy belting out "Deep Down" counts as part of the score.

However: The moment the mournful, noble trumpet begins playing on "L'Arena" on Morricone's score for The Mercenary is the most powerful film music I've ever heard. It reduces me to tears by the end. When it was repurposed in Kill Bill Vol. 2, as soon as the music began, I knew what was coming. It set me of immediately.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?

Naomi Watts is the better actress. Fay Wray is the better Ann Darrow. I would like to have seen Ms. Wray play Jet Girl, however.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?

"Question," certainly, but not "discount out of hand." Opinions alone are worthless: their relative value is in the "why." So: Donnie Darko, the collected anything of Kevin Smith, Twin Town, Don Bluth movies, Hard Candy. But I'm always willing to listen.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.

Best Promotional Poster Art for a Motion Picture. The intention would simply be to improve the state of movie advertising by providing motivation for more handsome posters. This year's winner: The Black Dahlia.

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.

Robocop. R-C and Showgirls are the only Verhoeven In America movies in which his satire is pleasurable in a way that actually makes me laugh, and doesn't seem to shame the audience for enjoying genre stories.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?

Better than any other artform, film preserves images of beautiful people in motion. Not to be coy: I am talking about Eros.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?

For Hercules, and in all other things: dude, Blackbeard's Ghost. Ustinov to the end. What's wrong with you people!? I'm just sayin': Blackbeard's Ghost.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

a) Warner Brothers' three-fat, wormy white stripes W in a black oval against an angry red field before The Exorcist.
b) Universal's miniature aeroplane ride before the creepy-adorable miniatures of The Mummy's opening credits.
c) Alternate selection: The Vestron Video logo before anything and everything.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman's Midnight Movies, 1983.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any "spoilers" in your answer.)

Spoiler: Psycho (1960). End spoiler.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.

Jules and Jim, I guess. Runner up... Indifferent: The Movie!

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?

Olivia Hussey never gave a performance as good as Danes on "My So-Called Life". Claire Danes never made anything as fun as Black Christmas. Call that round a draw.

So as Juliets… Claire Danes didn't take her top off, seems to misunderstand what the word "wherefore" means, but gets to wear better costumes and is in the more compelling film. Olivia Hussey's fair busting at the seams of her costume, and gives the competent performance. Round 2: Draw.

As babes: judge if you must, I'm a Claire Danes man. Danes it is.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.

I made a joke about "special sauce" while Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me) and I used adjacent urinals.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?

I realized the production tasks of a director when I read a children's special-effects overview called Magic in the Movies. Either the book or my comprehension made it sound like a lot of boring organizational work, and not a creative job.

The real answer, the realization that a director can be the key author of a film, makes vital creative decisions and might have a body of work worth exploring because of that authorship, came after watching "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episodes, asking my parents about the host, and then seeing Vertigo. Who turned a potentially hackneyed rooftop chase sequence into a mini psychodrama about perilous mortality, the queasy moral issues of self-preservation, and the sublime terror of psychological free-fall? The director did that. I realized films were directed, while hanging off a rooftop with Detective Scottie Ferguson. I was 10 years old, and so afraid I was almost sick, and I knew whose fault it was. Hitchcock did it to me.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Devil Looks Over Your Shoulder: Film Criticism On the Run

"The critics who can’t break you / unwittingly, they make you." - Morrissey

Prologue - M. Night Shyamalan Goes Nutzo / Manny's Last Laugh

A martyr for the cause. Never forget.

In the most blood-pressure-popping, teeth-gnash-inspiring moment of M. Night Shyamalan's illiterate, arrogant summer flopparoo, Lady in the Water (2006), the director sics a mythological monster that he made up on a snooty straw-man film critic played by Bob Balaban. It is clearly intended as comeuppance for a minor villain. It is staged as if it were a Stand-Up-and-Cheer! moment for the audience. The narrative justification is that the film critic has given sad-sack everyman Mr. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) bad information about how to identify mystical powers that lay dormant inside the residents of a Philadelphia apartment complex, and now the magical visiting Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) is dying for The Critic's mistake.

Now, it would take a volume - and I hope such a book is written someday - to fully unpack the hubris on display in Lady in the Water. It borders on psychosis. In the scene under discussion, Lady fully leapfrogs over the border, jumpkicks the border, and shatters the border, and crosses into hateful insanity. The attack on the critic is a tactic (one among many in Lady in the Water) to make the film uncriticizablee. It is predicated on a lengthy list of false assumptions, accusations, and primary misapprehensions.

Most insecure man in the world?

Why does Shyamalan need to lash out at critics at all, let alone in such an infantile way? Isn't this a man Newsweek called "the next Spielberg" on the cover of the magazine? Does Shyamalan imagine that popular summer movie audiences have such venom for critics that they will enjoy seeing one shredded in his movie? We are told - nay ordered - in Lady in the Water to view the story as a Fairy Tale, and with the rules of Fairy Tale narrative in place... where does petty revenge on film critics fit into the Fairy Tale model? Within the story itself, the critic has only answered questions asked of him by the misguided hero, not imposed his opinions on others with malicious intent, arrogance, or presumed authority on his own part. The misstep Cleveland Heep makes is in misreading the information given to him by the critic: Heep asks what to characteristics to look for in an archetypical protective "Guild". The critic reluctantly answers, Heep accidentally misidentifies the mystic "Guild", and almost kills his savior-figure in the process. This is hardly the critic's fault, since in the end, his information was perfectly good, valid, and true. The critic could hardly be blamed, anyhow, since such an archetype, as presented and explained in Lady, does not really exist. As always, Shyamalan's movies end up saying the opposite of the idea he intends.

The film critic in Lady in the Water doesn't even offer film criticism, or evaluative opinions. The information he imparts is basic narrative theory, observation on story structure, and light analysis of mythological archetypes. Shyamalan has conflated a number of different film-writing jobs and purposes into "critics". Not that he understands film theory. Not that he has probably read academic criticism or any film theory.

For some reason, the critic is named "Harry Farber", presumably after Manny Farber.

If M. Night Shyamalan thinks Manny Farber is a suitable stand-in for Every Movie Critic, pardon my French, but he's a fucking idiot, who's never read Manny Farber. That, or the guy is seriously nuts.

I. Everybody's a Critic: Toward De-Mystifying Film Criticism

Movie reviewers, critics proper, film historians, academic critics, film theorists, DVD reviewers, diarists, columnists, biographers, interviewers, industry reporters, etc. ... and etc. ... The entire family of persons who write and/or talk publicly about film have only the obvious in common, but otherwise undertake entirely different tasks, with different concerns. A misconception among non-film-literati is, sadly, that they all do roughly the same thing: review movies and tell you if they're "good" or not. Nearly every film text available on Amazon.com has riotously funny amateur User Reviews, should one scroll into the abyss: see people complain that David Skal's sociocultural analysis and reception study of American horror film and fiction, The Monster Show is not a thorough historical "making of" reference, and doesn't cover European films... though neither is Skal's stated, explicit purpose. Witness the lament of the Pauline Kael one-star reviewer: "she doesn't like Star Wars! Mrs. Kael obviously was in the wrong line of work. If you can't sit back and let the child in you enjoy 2 hours of well-crafted imagination than you can't be a legitimate critic of mainstream movies, can you? Jaded pretentious bores like Kael should just review 'Art' films." "The author struggles to make some kind of point in this book, unfortunately, neither she nor the reader can figure out what it is," moans a reader of Martha Nochimson's blazing, pioneering feminist study of David Lynch, The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. These books are respectively a jaunty cultural history, a collection of challenging film reviews pitched to a popular but intelligent audience, and a strange and wonderful scholarly analysis of a film author's oeuvre. Except for possibly Nochimson's Lynch study, none are pitched in language or founded in ideas that cannot be readily grasped by a high school graduate with no institutional film schooling. All have simply been encountered by befuddled readers who are in way over their heads. The confused, angry responses are roughly analogous to Shyamalan's critic-massacre in Lady in the Water.

Pity "Mrs. Kael", who was, of course, in the perfect line of work, wore maturity with pride, completely unconcerned about a "child living in her" (?!), didn't need legitimizing by anyone, and never particularly liked art films. Pity also, the poor readers who accidentally encounter a breed of film writing and simply cannot believe it exists.

Certain professional film writers, from Armond White to David Bordwell (maybe on the cranky-scale not so far apart, but certainly on the talent-o-meter), have been blogger-bashing in recent interviews, editorial pieces, some even in their regular-beat film writing. Some of them are plainly disgusted that non-pros think they can do the job, some seem to be fearing for their jobs, and some are just unimpressed with the level of writing to be found in Blogland. The net result is that they sound like Amazon reviewers who ordered the wrong book. (To be fair, Bordwell doesn't even mention film bloggers, just complains that "no one, as far as I know, is producing what I'd like to see," but is frustratingly vague about exactly what he wants to see. As a not-wise man once put it, then "neither [he] nor the reader can figure out what it is.")

I won't get very self-reflexive in this piece, but the by-design scattershot subject and tone of the Exploding Kinetoscope blog is both a constant source of frustration and a liberating blessing for me. I would try to focus more, but... well, it's my blog. The idea is to reflect what it's like to get coffee with me and talk about movies. So some days it's jokes, some days reviews, some days news, some days polished textual analysis that I have worked on for a month. Some days I go read a book by myself.

The history of reportage and writing about film began with movie-love stricken intellectuals trying to defend the medium as worthy of any mental effort at all. Writing about film in any capacity, at that point in history, included the value judgment that film is worth writing about.

The Ultimate Matrix Collection DVD includes two audio commentaries on each film. One track with Dr. Cornel West and controversial philosopher Ken Wilber, another with film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers and critic/biographer/weirdo David Thomson. Indulge in all six commentaries to hear a hilarious cage-match of brainpower, in which three film critics are soundly, skull-crunchingly trounced. West and Wilber discuss history, consciousness, world religion, social politics, technology and art. The critics make snarky comments about how bored they are, and don't even demonstrate much fluency in film language or history. Frankly, they sound like they don't know very much about movies.

This is going someplace specific.

The Daily Reviewer Type (who births one-word poster blurbs), and the print columnist critic with a little more elbow room (who births full-sentence poster blurbs), whether shallow or insightful, taste the wrath of cinephiles and filmmakers because they too often seem to offer a consumer report approach to art. It can be wearying, and possibly unhealthy for the medium and for viewers. This danger lies in the presentation of the separateness of a critic's expertise, when it is better regarded as a mark along a continuum of how all audiences evaluate film.

That school of criticism remains interesting to people, because it is a slightly elevated version of how they experience and discuss movies, whether they realize it or not. "What did you see this weekend? Yeah? Oh, how was it? Cool, I'll check it out." With hope, the professional version is articulate, and the critic will have the virtue of seeing a more films than the average reader, and sooner. Everybody goes to movies. Everybody has opinions, and potentially has insights about the movies. The critic's opinion isn't unassailable; they're in print and being paid because they - again, with hope - are informed about film, and have the ability to organize their thoughts. Pro critics complaining about impudent bloggers don't understand the function of blogging, or even film review websites. They are, in effect, trying to tell the world not to talk about movies without permission. From the Blogosphere to Ain't It Cool News to 24 Lies a Second, internet film writing is about taking the unnecessary mystique out of talking constantly about film. It's an electronic coffeeshop table discussion. Some bloggers would undoubtedly take issue with this, since it willfully delegitimizes the medium. So be it. That there are dozens of fine bloggers who could do Armond White's job better is beside the point. When M. Night Shyamalan kills a man for having opinions about films, he's killing everyone in his audience.

If you're reading this, and more importantly, if you're not reading this: you are a practicing movie critic. Deal with it.

II. I'll Tell You What to Think: Toward Re-Mystifying Film Criticism

The argument above is admittedly facile and obvious: "everybody's a critic" interpreted as optimistic populism. Below is... something else. Everybody is a critic, but they are not all good critics. They are not all smart critics. Everybody is certainly not a writer. It is not the inherent fineness of thought that separates the film critic's work from the filmgoer's conversation. Their intersecting spheres remain separate because of the writer's applied skills, education, and dedication to the practice of thinking and talking about film in regular, thorough manner.

Most film-blogging necessarily falls into the non-scholarly categories of review, op-ed, news, and film appreciation, because the immediacy of the medium largely excludes extensive textual analysis, position papers, academic discussion. Those sort of pieces take a long time to write, and the reality of production makes them too precious to "waste" on blogs for most writers. So the majority of bloggery resembles the work of the published newspaper critic, but without credential, credibility or the benefit/constraints of an editor. Confession: I cheated. It's the process of "reviewing" that should be made less mysterious, and criticism should reclaim its potential power.

The great film critic exerts intellectual muscle-mass and illuminates the subject under scrutiny. Beyond that, pick your poison; the truly great critic diagrams his own boxing ring, and fights a fight you haven't seen before. That doesn't necessarily involve flashier writing, formal experimentation, more acerbic opinions, more discerning, or even more open-minded taste. But it can involve any of those things. The great ones may be sharp and insightful or receptive and interpretive, cold, warm, but they will be separate. The future of popular film criticism is going to look just like its past: a smattering of remarkable, defining work amid a gray wash of lightweights thinking they're doing the same job. Do not despair of this. Stand in the warm spots.

The deck is stacked against the film critics on the Ultimate Matrix Collection commentaries. Mr. McCarthy is not the film-writing equivalent of Dr. West. Academic writers could have been summoned for the task, but these review-critics are not involved in the same practice as scholars. They aren't smart enough to fulfill the requirements of Great Critics and illuminate the complex text in any way, which may be expected. They are, however, pathetically unable to support even their knee-jerk reactions as viewers. A willingness and ability to discuss the how-and-why of his opinions is what separates the competent critic from any other moviegoer. The Great Critic is allowed, and welcome to bury us under a mountain of opinion, because their opinions are better-expressed, supported, pleasurable and stimulating to experience, while the bad critic, the average critic and the man-on-the-street schmuck's opinions are not. The Great Critic makes the reader a better viewer and critic in the process.

That is, ultimately, all I've got. The quality that makes a critic is a willingness to fearlessly, openly criticize. Whether this is Andrew Sarris making mincemeat of auteur theory by ranking and canonizing directors like a kid organizing baseball cards, or popular Roger Ebert insisting unpopular Dark City is the best film of 1998, or Bazin sweating over the politics of editing dialectics, these forward-thinking opinions matter for their originality, the insistence, acumen and passion of expression.

All film writing, even the theoretical and historical, involves tastemaking in some capacity. The critic is a writer who should engage the task of opinion-cultivation full-on, with force and conviction. The critic must say the cruelest thing, the extreme thing, the strangest thing, must contribute that thought which only he is qualified, and able to give: opinion flanked by brain and gut. Everyone else is just a reviewer. May they all be eaten alive.

Andrew Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, gloriously vast in scope, lasts all weekend long at his entertaining No More Marriages! blog. His definitions are blurry (" I regard film criticism as simply the larger conversation about film"), but inclusive and positive. Check it totally out.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hellzapoppin'!: The Infernal Comedy of Joe Dante

At the climax of Joe Dante's 1985 Explorers, the big-eyed, pretty suburban children who have for a dreary hour and a half been constructing a functioning spacecraft out of junkheap scraps, based on dream-vision blueprints, finally come face-to-bug-eyed-face with the benevolent alien beings that have assisted from afar. The encounter with alien intelligence is not a moment of spiritual or intellectual transcendence like 2001 or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The creatures aren't E.T. They're not Starman. They're not even Mac & Me. They're gibbering morons, brains utterly melted by constant inundation by Earth television signals. The aliens babble soundbites from movies and TV and radio, spout impersonations and seem seized by full-on pop culture epileptic spasms.

It's a nasty trick. It's a children's film full of stale concepts of wonder being suddenly deflated with cynicism, and disappointment. As a joke, it does not play: it's not funny. As satire though, it is prime cut Joe Dante. He uses his entire film to backhand bitch slap one scene in E.T., where Elliot briefs his magical alien visitor on Earth culture by showing him Star Wars toys and a plastic peanut-shaped piggy bank. Explorers is to E.T. what Marxist tract How to Read Donald Duck is to Carl Barks comics. It's like expecting to pass through the 2001 star-gate, and instead being relentlessly battered with a fistful of Harvey comic books.

If you were enjoying Explorers up to the spaceman encounter, more power to you. If the prolonged media montage assault, edited to reference avant-garde film by slicing up public domain cartoons, wrecks it all for you... more power to Dante.

* * * * *

Moment: Microwave Marge battles Daffy, Lenny and George, the set of her cable TV cooking show transformed into an apocalyptic battleground. The Gremlins fling a frying pan at Marge's face, and when she pops back into frame, two gigantic sunny-side up eggs are covering her eyes. She screams and falls over. Deleted scene, Gremlins 2: The New Batch DVD. My friend Paul Rust turns to me and says "that is the funniest joke in all of movie history. You could show that to anyone, from any culture, in any time period, across the universe - even any alien lifeforms - and they would think that's funny."

I am unable to disagree.
* * * * *

So much of what makes Dante's movies his own - what constitutes his cinematic style and themes to which he returns - are the very things that prevent them from soaring as genre exercises. Checklist: Dropped-in, but fully-committed Warner Bros.-cartoon-style sight gags, sound effects, physics. Incongruous movie and TV parodies, references, swipes which apparently go nowhere after basic recognition. Cloaked sociocultural satire, not nestled as morals, lessons, or asides within innocuous family films, but fully pressing and yanking at the very seams of the films' fabric. Joe Dante sticks it to the way movies work, and the way we watch them, the way we love them, and the way we let them colonize our imaginations.

"Anarchic" is the to-watch adjective for today's Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon. It's sometimes misapplied to Dante's work when writers really mean "frantic" or "crowded with gags" or even "hysterical". Anarchy is not in his attempt to capture the kinetic energy or anything-goes humor of Tex Avery (though he often does). It's in the way Dante is willing to undermine, undercut, and explode anything, even the dramaturgical integrity of very film he is making. Why? That's why it's anarchy.

* * * * *

Moment: Billy Peltzer runs into the Kingston Falls YMCA, hot on the trail of the most vicious of the new-hatched Gremlins. And he sees the swimming pool.

Because the rules of this fantasy have been so cleanly established (the monsters multiply at the touch of water)...
Because it asks the audience to imaginatively play "what would happen if this took place in your town? Where is the worst place a Gremlin could go?"...
Because the film is set at Christmas time, it may be an extended It's a Wonderful Life parody... and it means any small, local bodies of water would be frozen solid...
Because this is followed by the otherworldly, poetic image of the YMCA pool suddenly at a rolling boil, lime green light spilling from the frothing, seething water...
Because in the middle of it all is a single, hilarious cutaway shot of Stripe holding his nose as he cannonballs to the bottom of the deep end...

Because of this, Stripe leaping into the pool in Gremlins (1984) is the greatest, most perfectly realized example of a staple moment in our collective film vocabulary, the Oh. SHIT Moment.
* * * * *

The monsters in Gremlins are born ready to imitate Bogart and scenes from Flashdance. There are days when these unfunny gags break the contract for me, and spoils Chris Columbus' otherwise pitch-perfect extended sick-joke holiday movie. Some days I think they aren't supposed to be funny, but in a way repeat the explanation of why the zombies in Dawn of the Dead want to go to the shopping mall: "They're us, that's all." What finally undoes these monsters, themselves metaphors for our own self-defeating technological dependence? A firebomb in a movie theater, where the creatures have willingly trapped themselves. "What are they doing?," Kate Beringer asks. "They're watching Snow White," Billy marvels. "And they love it!" Even mischief incarnate is undone by Disney cultural imperialism. In Gremlins 2 they're busy wasting time parodying Busby Berkeley, and are melted by a superteam of pop culture references from Grandpa Munster to Rambo III.

What makes Gremlins climax more than a hatchet job on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? What redeems Dante's world, in which children's action figures are functioning war machines (Small Soldiers), and the power of cartoons to dominate a kid's imagination portrayed as a terrifying force of destruction and enslavement (Twilight Zone: The Movie)? Answer: with the same heart, burning in anger against all this junk culture, Joe Dante loves this stuff. Loves it all.

The man wrote for Castle of Frankenstien. He's overflowing with love for '50s sci-fi movies, monster movies, Looney Tunes, and all that adored by 14-year-old boys everywhere... especially when it doesn't match the genre. When's the best time to give Chuck Jones a cameo, or swipe images from his "Feed the Kitty"? Probably a monster movie. When's the best time to include appearances from Robot Monster's Ro-Man or The Man from Planet X? Definitely a Looney Tunes movie.
* * * * *

Moment: Dick Miller driving a cab in InnerSpace.

* * * * *

Those strange, incongruous "jokes", funny or not, are part and parcel of not just the Dante aesthetic, but of his message itself, and his career-long meditation on our complex relationship with popular media. Sadly, the surface and form often prevent much critical examination beyond how funny a given film was.

It is my sincere hope that the Dante 60th Birthday Blog-A-Thon, hosted by Video WatchDog impresario Tim Lucas, will go some ways to celebrating the bumpy, nutty surface of the man's films, but also sucking out the bitter caramel inside.

Happy birthday, Joe Dante. Here's egg in your eye.

For more Gremlins reading, click here for my review of George Gipe's novelization.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blood Diamonds are Forever

Hey, Blood Diamond, your new poster is cooler than the Giant PhotoShopped Heads on the A-style poster... It's also laughably literal and silly, but that's okay. That's why we like Important Hollywood Issue Films! BUT! how easily do you think we forget the iconic cover for the uncompromising literary exposé Master of the Game?!

Oh, Blood Diamond we are not so fickle with our conflict diamond melodrama! We shall not soon forgive this swipe from such a distinguished man of American letters as Sydney Sheldon!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Meta-Post: The Pain of Multiplex Blogging

For those faithful (?) in the Kinetoscope audience still bothering to tune in regularly, only to find the station ID and a high-pitched tone perpetually burning a hole in your picture tube...

I've fallen time-and-energy victim to my other (more trafficked) blog, Permanent Monday, a daily mini-essay on Jim Davis' Garfield comic strip (no, really). Basically, I got a week behind at some point, and have vowed not to expend energy on any other writing until I'm caught up. This is foolish, because I love movies a great deal more than I do Garfield, but running two blogs is a fool's task to begin with. Exploding Kinetoscope will return by mid-week, in force, with the long, overstated, possibly crazy pieces on The Black Dahlia, and The Departed. Think of this less as a guilt-induced promise than a dull Coming Attractions reel.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Saddest Movie Theatre in the World

Leading Reasons Not to Go Into the Armed Forces: 1941 postcard depicting the sub-human filmgoing conditions of Our Fighting Boys at Fort Dix.

From the esteemed Exploding Kinetoscope archives of crap laying around the house.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Wolf Buddy: A Celebration of Stiles

Jerry Levine and the Identity Crisis of Teen Wolf (1985)

One man cuts through the lugubrious dreamworld of Teen Wolf, like a rainbow across a murky sky. Jerry Levine as Stiles, the Beacontown High class clown, best guy-friend to the hero, and the designated comic relief of comedy film, creates a character of strange dimension and a key pivot-point for the psychodrama locked inside Teen Wolf.

The cast of Teen Wolf is thoroughly sincere; for a film that must have been conceived as a lighthearted parody of '50s teen monster flicks, the potential laughs are filtered through a proto-John Hughes mesh of parental understanding, and sympathetic adolescent drama. Few escape uncharged, from lead Michael J Fox's crack-voiced insecurity, to James Hampton's patient heart-to-heart-driven parenting as his father, to Susan Ursetti as Boof, Scott's childhood friend who expresses her romantic yearning by clutching her textbooks and making faces of doe-eyed desperation as he walks away. The few bright comic performances from Jay Tarses and Scott Paulin are outlined in my "Notes on Teen Wolf", but they are remarkable for their exception. It is the lone figure of Stiles who transcends the stereotype as written, and draws together the broken threads of Teen Wolf's plot in a meaningful way.

One of the strangest things about Teen Wolf, director Rod Daniel's 1984-lensed, '85-released teen sports comedy-cum-camp love object, is the refusal and/or inability to lend any weight to the more outrageous plot points and moments of melodrama it conjures. The plot is so determinedly focused on Beacontown, Nebraska high schooler Scott Howard's (Fox) dreams of being anything but Average, the fulfillment of his basketball dreams and complications of his werewolf lineage, that it can only demonstrate ambivalence toward the rest of its potentially complicated ideas. Though ostensibly living with the reality of his mothers' unsolved murder, Scott registers little concern when rival b-baller Mick confesses he "blew her head off with a shotgun"; Scott and Boof, lifelong friends, are peer-pressured into a closet heavy-petting session during a kegger, and never address the implications; while the "specialness" and "responsibility" that come with werewolf-powers are explored through the central sports plot, the metaphor of sexual awakening and bodily transformation is drawn, then dropped. Again we may look to Stiles for a means of reconciling the film's muddled metaphoric intentions. It is in Stiles that the scattershot emotional arcs of Teen Wolf make any sense, as he is the sole character to draw attention to the moral and logical inconsistencies. Unable to purchase beer, Stiles blithely tries to convince Scott to pretend to hold up the liquor store with a toy gun, as if there were enough legal difference between armed robbery and "pretend" armed robbery to justify the harebrained scheme.

Life Sucks, Then You Die: Enter Stiles

We get our first glimpse of Stiles during the opening basketball sequence, as he picks his way across the sparsely populated bleachers. Though not yet named, and potentially lost in an unfocused wide shot of the crowd, Stiles' spritely high-step over other spectators' legs and loose-wristed salute to Scott out on the court draw the eye even faster than his walking-billboard wardrobe. The sweaty, desperate physicality of the basketball game, as the home team is pounded by visiting Dragons, is all close-ups of Fox breathing hard, bodies being slammed to the hardwood, and the sound of screeching sneaker rubber as the Beacontown Beavers struggle to keep their footing. Stiles' fey, long-legged gait and fire engine red pants steal the attention in a space devoted to the physical fumblings of boys in uniform. Stiles is defined by his surefooted mastery of movement and privileged costuming.

It is very likely that Stiles as scripted was intended as the Bluto Blutarsky in a Teen Wolf with a more sustained, Animal House-raucous tone. Indeed, like the iconic John Belushi character, Stiles is often presented in terms of the Ultimate Party Animal, a rampaging Id beast driven by consumption and desire; the first act of Teen Wolf centers around his Herculean effort to secure a keg of beer, he officiates Bacchanalian party games, and in the third act is fueled by a hunger for money and power. There seems to end the success of the Bluto-ripoff, for Jerry Levine cannot match Belushi's lusty dominance of the screen; in a sense Belushi was not performing anyway, but submitting to the capture of his robust personality by the camera. Levine's performance, while obviously not nearly as seminal, constructs Stiles in the mold of a different archetype, and with expert physical modulation and surprising shading, creates someone fresh on the movie screen. Stiles is tied to the tradition of the Auguste clown: the buffoon figure identified by his bright, absurdly fitted costumes, aggressively foolish behavior, and opposition to authority figures. Practitioners of classical clowning can be defensive and rigid regarding definitions of clown types; since Stiles does not exist in a circus context, they would insist he cannot be a proper Auguste, and belongs to the broader "character clown" type, however, the historical and platonic ideal Auguste may remain untouched as Levine uses the model with respect and a true clown's sense of play. The Auguste's make-up is traditionally flesh-based, accentuated around the mouth and eyes, and Levine twists Stiles' mouth into geometric shapes as he hoots and shouts, leering grins to punctuate wisecracks, and draws attention to his eyes in a parade of plastic sunglasses without using the shades as a mask. The Auguste's normal exaggerated baggy, clashing clothes become Stiles' badly matched loud T-shirt, slacks and wide belt ensembles, which cling to his pinwheel body like a second skin, and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt which flaps like an extravagantly tacky cape.

Like the Auguste, while in confident control of himself, Stiles brutalizes the space around him. He blithely tears apart a pile of junk in the family garage as he hunts for his brother's marijuana stash. He slams his locker handle and has crammed it improbably full. He has done God-knows-what to his junker car, and a decapitated, nude Barbie torso dangles from the rear-view mirror.

Master of Disguise

Boldly visual in a film costumed in convincingly drab Midwestern non-fashions (Scott wears mostly plaid and denim), Stiles is unmissable in a scene, even when attempting disguise or to disavow his own identity. It is the Auguste's nature to fail and botch all tasks and to thwart the authority of his Whiteface clown foil or any others in the process. When he tries to pose as a gravel pit worker (?!) to fool the liquor store owner, his enthusiasm for costume and play overwhelm his best efforts. Stiles affects a nonregional working class drawl, an unlit cigarette bobbing between his lips, and a child's-eye grab-bag of tough guy props: ill-fitting leather coat, huge, mirrored sunglasses, and bright green trucker's cap. Making only this perfunctory effort to obscure his natural costume under another, he leans, preening and posing against the cash register, drawing maximum attention to what was in theory an attempt to make the transaction more nonchalant.

Teen Wolf, before it drops the issue in favor of the moral implications of using werewolf-powers to win basketball games, is much concerned with the adolescent tortures of the human body. In a scene as close to crystallizing the metaphor as the film gets, Scott stares in horror at his reflected image, as his face pulses, skin changes color and texture, and hair erupts in unlikely places. The easy monster/pubescent teen motif is given new life with a clever masturbation-joke edge, as Mr. Howard demands to be let into the locked bathroom. The giggly parallel is moot by the end of the movie, but Scott is consistently delineated by discomfort in his body, and resistance to his own identity. This is the drama in which Stiles is a central player: Scott's true opposite, compliment, and necessary counter-balance.

King of the Urban Surfin': the body in ecstasy

Scott cannot keep his balance in the hallways or on the basketball court, and undergoes spontaneous mutations. We are told he is allergic to eggs, thinks he has a bad "six-dollar haircut", and Boof cannot even tell if he has showered after ball practice. Where Scott Howard is defined by the uncooperative, unstable body, Stiles is defined by physical mastery and confidence, however misguided and nontraditional. The schtick may include pratfalls, but they are in counterpoint to the painful body-blow fouls Scott receives in basketball games. When Stiles hoists a keg out of the backseat of his clownmobile trashed Nova, and crumples under the weight, or is drowned in a deluge of comedy props pouring from his locker, and knocked clean out of the frame, it is the stylized slapstick of a silent movie clown. When serving as ringmaster for the kegger games, Stiles struts and performs, bending his torso nearly parallel with the floor in Gumby-like display of unlikely posture. When caged in the classroom, he sprawls comfortably in the tiny chairs. He is in such control of his convertible car that he perches on the back of the seat to get Boof's attention while cruising down the street.

In the most celebrated sequence, he mounts the top of Scott's family hardware store delivery van, and surfs the suburban night streets as Scott drives. As "Surfin' U.S.A." beats on the soundtrack, Stiles writhes with unrestrained delight at being a teenager in a young body in the rush of physical danger. He cheers for himself, displays his wild joy in his weightless movement, despite a lack of spectators, and has so mastered the rules of the screen that he can lip synch to the nondiegetic music. Scott, meanwhile, is too preoccupied with his ears changing shape to participate in the celebration of physicality. As Stiles dances in ecstasy, a foot below him, Scott is in the throes of bodily horror.

The Self in Question: "Are you gonna tell me you're a fag?"

Scott's discomfort in his own body is a manifestation of his larger psychic problems, and search for definition of his own identity. In his first extended scene with Boof, he rails against his perception of himself as frustratingly "average" to the point that he feels it indicates a lack of identity at all. Boof is able to see past this, as are Coach Finstock, and presumably Stiles himself, and they all identify the ethics and quiet dignity Scott has learned from his father. Stiles in particular, while constantly egging Scott to cut loose, relies on his friend's moral guidance (Scott refuses to rob a liquor store), and appreciates the light ribbing which serves as an adolescent version of reigning in of Stiles' worst impulses ("Stiles, you're a cheeseball," Scott admonishes. "A-#1, baby," the cheeseball replies, but calms down a bit). Scott, refusing to give in to impulse, no matter how it frustrates him, is the tempering Ego to Stiles' Id. This dynamic is, of course, related in the relatively calm terms that Teen Wolf offers, but in a film so nakedly psychological, it should not be embarrassing to say so. Completing the loose (and admittedly imperfect) trio is their friend Lewis (Matt Adler), a younger kid who hangs around until, as Stiles would explain it, he starts getting creeped out by the werewolf. Lewis serves the rough function of the Super-ego, opposing Stiles' wildest schemes, and aggressively begging Scott to appreciate his calm life, and take satisfaction in the culturally acceptable mate he could have in Boof, instead of lusting after Mick's girlfriend Pamela. Mr. Howard also tries to nudge Boof and Scott together: Lewis as Super-ego has retained the morality and taboo codes of the father figure, and exerts pressure on Scott and Stiles from the inside. As Scott begins to lose his sense of Self, his conscience disappears with it.

The story of Stiles and Scott is of the equation of Self thrown out of balance, the drama is of watching the equation attempt to right itself. Since his craving is simply for a strong identity of any kind, and Scott is given no role models to emulate, he latches onto the strongest confident personality around him: Stiles. The true nature of the werewolf is confused, in the film's literal narrative, but in the psychodrama of Teen Wolf it begins to take on aspects of a bastard amalgamation of Scott's and Stiles' best traits. Scott nervously confesses his problem to Stiles in the pot-searching scene, and it is pointedly played as a parody of a homosexual coming out scene. A reaction shot of Stiles freezing in his tracks, and looking over his shoulder at his transformed friend, followed by a reveal of Scott breathless, hurt, and in fear of judgment, will be echoed later in the film. Stiles' reaction is disbelief, then glee that another creature as outrageous as himself, can exist in this world; even as he giggles over "T.W."'s existence, he is scheming a way to glom onto what he sees as potential publicity. Stiles does not realize it, but with his own role in the relationship threatened, he is both resisting and trying to right the imbalance.

Wolf in Stiles' clothing

Though Stiles is too individualistic and unpredictable for team sports, his pleasure in athletic movement through space and showmanship are the first things Scott swipes, as he suddenly bursts into wolf-form on the basketball court. In a musical montage cut to the soundtrack's anthemic cue "Way to Go", Scott gradually subsumes his friend's identity in small ways: first Stiles' fearless interfacing with other students of any and all social strata, race and gender. Then dancing and twirling. Eventually Scott dons the sunglasses central to Stiles' visual makeup.

* * * * *

SCENE STUDY: The Pizza Parlor

A brief waylay, to discuss the critical moment illustrated above. A celebratory scene in the pizza parlor interrupts a musical montage which chronicles Scott's rapid ascent to Beacontown superstardom, as he leads the basketball team through undefeated victories, and becomes a local celebrity. The musical montage immediately resumes after the scene, and it punctuates the sequence so oddly it draws attention to itself.

In the first screen shot, the restaurant waits in breathless anticipation of how Scott will react to the beer he has been handed. The characters stand frozen in tableau demonstrating their collective erotic spectatorship of Scott, and the manner by which their individual sense of self has been transformed by the Wolf. The Beacontown Beaver mascot has removed her costume head, replaced by the Wolf. Gina or Tina, part of an interchangeable pair of girls who dress identically and move in synchronization, is seen alone for the first time, indicating that established identities are beginning to shift and fracture. Boof, small and frightened, peers into the scene, shouldered out by hangers on. Chubby (Mark Holton), holds his uneaten slice of pizza, unable to complete the one action that defines him (unlike Boof and Stiles, he doesn't even have a real name), until he sees if the Wolf approves. Pamela tries to hold Scott's gaze, in chilly attempt at Lady MacBeth mode, but something more dire is about to happen than Pamela could comprehend in her single minded pursuit of personal glory. Stiles stares down at Scott in panic and despair: far worse than his sunglasses, the manic unpredictability at the core of Stiles' nature is about to be stolen. He raises his hands in surrender, as if to warn Scott off, but to no avail.


Scott sinks his fangs into the beer can, sending twin geysers of white foam onto the crowd, in a moment of triumphant release. In a discontinuity with the preceding shot, Styles' posture has changed, calmed. He is empty, deflated, defeated.
* * * * *

This is Nebraska: the transformation completed

Early in the film, Stiles encourages Scott to try out the van-top mimetic surfing, hoping to draw his friend out of his shell. "C'mon, you'd be the King of the Urban Surfin', baby!," he insists, and whether ironic foreshadowing or self-fulfilling prophecy, the signal that Stiles has been eclipsed by Scott's full moon is a recapitulation of the Urban Surfing scene. Stiles pulls up to the school, having traded in his own, highly identifiable multicolored Nova for a truck emblazoned with "Wolfmobile". In an embarrassing effort to reclaim his own schtick from Scott, Stiles has deepened the hole, and swapped part of his own iconography for a tool that can only inscribe more "Stiles" upon Scott's body. Scott excitedly mounts the van roof, pulling Stiles back, and smarmily growling "these waves are mine." Scott's reenactment of Stiles' "Surfin' U.S.A." bit includes more elaborate athletics, but can never be anything more than copycatting. And when Wolf Fever manages to land Scott a role in the school play, he is hilariously awful, with none of Stiles' flair for public performance demonstrated in the liquor store or kegger scenes. He manages to sleep with dream girl Pamela, but is awkward and timid, with none of the perverse sexual verve of Stiles, who dumps a bowl of Jell-O down a girl's shirt with chortling glee. Scott can steal Stiles' thunder, which in turn makes Stiles insecure and confused, but never gains an ounce of his invention or passion.

Two men at their lowest points

In the story of how Scott leeches off his friend's identity, and Stiles' misguided, vain struggle to recover his own, the pathetic, bottom-scraping moments for both characters are revealed by that great American rite of passage, the prom. Dressing up for his big date, an already Wolfed-out Scott, admires himself in the mirror, repeats a compliment Pamela gave him ("She's right: you are an animal!"), howls, and fades from the shot, leaving the bathroom empty. The scene has no counterparts in the film, making this moment of Scott's total dissolution of Self all the eerier and privileged.

At the dance, during a song called "Big Bad Wolf," presumably playing only because the school is obsessed with one Scott Howard, Stiles leaps forth from a conga-line, screams into the camera, and pulls open his jacket. The T-shirt beneath reveals that he, too, has lost himself as A-#1 Cheeseball, and is now only able to define himself in terms of his more popular friend. The shirt simply reads: "WOLF BUDDY".

The Self in Question 2: "Do the right thing, Scotty!"

The shot setups and emotional dynamic of the "coming out" scene return near the end of the film. Scott has seen the destruction and immorality he is excusing by losing himself in the Wolf; it is perhaps what Stiles would have become without the structure of Scott and Lewis' friendship. This time when he goes to his friend, it is to tell Stiles he will not be a werewolf any longer. Stiles has dropped all his money into Teen Wolf merchandise, and begs Scott not to give up the Wolf. At this nadir of his crisis, Stiles sees that the only vestiges of himself that remain are in Scott's twisted reflection, and selfish theft. And this time Scott looks over his shoulder, as Stiles stands wounded and afraid.

Teen Wolf never shows us the functioning friendship in full repair, or the psychological regeneration of Scott and Stiles, but it gestures toward a world set right again. A guilt-racked Scott learns to do without the Wolf, wins the basketball championship anyway, and in the end apparently makes right by his friends if only by hugging them and being himself. I remain concerned that Teen Wolf never decides what the Werewolf "means."  At times it is the empowered self, at others a repressed dark side, and sometimes simple adult responsibility. Since it manifests differently for Scott than for his stronger father, in the story about Scott and Stiles' symbiotic relationship, it may be most useful and interesting to consider the Wolf as an identity magnifier. In Scott's case, his insecurities and admiration of Stiles' total confidence cause him to warp and bend into a crazed mirror-Stiles. Who can blame him? The great contradiction that is Stiles begs for attention, and when you turn your head, his T-shirt asks "What are you looking at, Dicknose?"

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Jeeze Louise!: Notes on TEEN WOLF (1985)

Rialto Midnight Screening Report!

"Give me a keg of beer..."

I was entirely unaware of any burgeoning cult audience for Teen Wolf (1985), besides myself and my friends, until South Pasadena's historic and elegantly-trashed Rialto theater floated it as their Saturday midnight movie last weekend. After that sparsely-attended screening - mostly quiet but for a suspiciously rowdy and crowded 9th row - didn't do much to prove me wrong. Those held in thrall by the Rod Daniel-directed mind-boggler see it as more than a tepid, confused, rote and inoffensive kiddie horror comedy... it is the tepid, confused, rote horror comedy. Any minor generational obsession with Teen Wolf is probably the product of mushrooming '80s nostalgia, bolstered by comfy familiarity from endless cable TV airings and the patience of divergent irony-seekers. Constant catcalls and sarcastic applause (and possibly some non-sarcastic applause) for iconic moments at the Rialto show (and this writer has immunity from none of this behavior) more or less confirm Teen Wolf fans as gobbling up harmless but empty comfort food, even while gagging on it a little.

For the uninitiated, Teen Wolf reconfigures I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) as a teen high school sports comedy. Painfully average Beacontown, NE teen Scott Howard (Michael J Fox, filmed pre-Back to the Future) discovers he is the latest in a family lineage of werewolves. Able to transform at will and possessed of none of Larry Talbot's murderous instinct, Scott channels his wolf powers into phenomenal basketball skills, leads his team to the state finals, wins the lead in the play, lays the hottest girl in school, and becomes big man on campus. But at what cost?!

"... and these!"

The midnight movie has always been as much a forum for forwarding the cause of Bad Movie Appreciation as for subversive avant-garde art (if not a key locale where where they met, mingled and had babies well before "Notes on 'Camp'"). It is one of the natural tentacles of the midnight movie, coiling back further than the earliest screenings of Reefer Madness, to late-night spook shows attended by packs of howling teenagers. More and more, at least in the LA area, '80s pop movies are being programmed as midnight shows; all bases are covered, from the cream of the genre crop (Gremlins, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), to the camp non-classics (Teen Witch), to those where nostalgia-trippers-only need apply (Flight of the Navigator). I'm always a little troubled by the lumping together of the genuinely witty, the successful broad comedy and refuse that I'm happy to laugh at-but-not-with (it's how Danger: Diabolik ends up on "Mystery Science Theater 3000"), but the ideology of midnight movies has always been tangled; "troubling" is at the core of the appeal.

There's a lot about Teen Wolf that fulfills the needs of the '80s junk collector, as it abounds with high-waisted elastic cuff jeans, rolled-up sleeves, breakdancing, lots of plastic sunglasses, and eardrum-numbing soundtrack approximations of Randy Newman, "Stayin Alive" and Carly Simon. These are natural, if endearingly silly, byproducts of aiming a film at a contemporary youth market, and while Teen Wolf's surface decorations are particularly choice, I'd imagine there's only so many times you can laugh at how tight someone's pants are. To be sure, the pacing is stultifying, the cinematography ugly, the special effects makeup poor for its era, the attempts at South Pasadena standing in for Nebraska transparent and ridiculous. Having spent, well, frankly, a lot of time with the film, I believe the most astounding elements of Teen Wolf lie in profound flaws in its storytelling from basic premise to character motivation to thematic concerns.

Though the inspiration was surely to create a comic twist on I Was a Teenage Werewolf, that film already fully explored the metaphor of lycanthropy-as-adolescence, addressing the physical transformation, sexual awakening, and potential for adult violence. Teen Wolf works this idea for a few scenes: a near date-rape of Scott's gal pal Boof (Susan Ursetti) in which Scott sprouts claws during a makeout party game, and a great setpiece for the first full wolf transformation wherein the sweaty kid locks himself in the john as his father bangs on the door. "Uh no, Dad, I'm ... doing... something in here!" Fox warbles, and mutters "I'll say!" to himself. But the script drops this idea to fill the requirements of the basketball plot, where werewolfism simply unleashes hidden reservoirs of athletic talent. Scott's father, Harold (James Hampton of numerous TV guest roles) first suggests the werewolf is a manifestation of untapped personal potential ("with greater power comes a greater responsibility", he advises), only to later recant and indicate it corresponds with dark emotions, fear, rage and loss of control. It's all very confused, even down to what causes Scott to transform (full moons, anger, horniness and absolutely nothing, at various times) and what being a werewolf means in a literal sense. He is certainly not imbued with wolfish hunting instincts or a danger to others, so it's hard to buy the conclusion that the werewolf must be suppressed.

I can go on and on - why would the basketball team suddenly be good at the climax of the film when they couldn't even score before? Why is the revelation that rival b-baller Mick (Mark Arnold), murdered Scott's mother, and indeed "blew her head off with a shotgun", glossed over as normal small town villain backstory? Basically Teen Wolf tries so hard to follow so many templates that it gets its wires crossed in ways that must be seen to be believed, and seen repeatedly to be untangled in full. The whole enterprise is gloriously screwed-up in a rare way that is usually ignored in favor of fans laughing at Fox's ZZ Top-esque wolf makeup.

Jay Tarses as Coach Bobby Finstock, unrepentant slob

After enough time spent with Teen Wolf, there are some clever intentional touches to appreciate. The film opens on a glowing orb, and Scott's sweat-drenched, gasping face slides into the shot; a shock cut reveals the scene as a basketball game joined in progress, the stand-in full moon merely an out-of-focus overhead light in the gymnasium. There's a laugh-out-loud misdirect when Scott steps out his front door, and freezes when a dog on the lawn seems to say "hello!", before he realizes Boof is sitting on the porch, trying to get his attention. In two scenes, rolling objects are intercepted by disapproving authority figures: first a roll of packing tape and later an empty can. None of this modest flare makes up for the myriad of sins, but it inclines a viewer to more generosity.

As a comedy Teen Wolf is pretty anemic, except for two fun performances. Scott Paulin plays drama teacher Mr. Lolley with comical spurt and stutter line readings that rescue the character from dull stereotype. Jay Tarses is absolutely inspired as the disinterested basketball coach Bobby Finstock, armed with surely improvisation-embellished dialogue. Whether chewing gum was he shaves and eats fried chicken at his desk, or advising the boys that win or lose, it's how you play, "and even that doesn't matter that much", Tarses' role is the only entirely successful element of Teen Wolf.

NEXT on Exploding Kinetoscope: More Teen Wolf! A Celebration of Stiles

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rip-Off Alert: PRETTY IN PINK: Everything's Duckie Edition

Besides falling prey to the trend of obnoxious variations on "special edition", last week's spanking new and spakly (literally) DVD Pretty in Pink: Everything's Duckie Edition commits one serious crime. Sending the pulse of any John Hughes fan racing is the back of box copy: THE ORIGINAL ENDING: The Lost Dance. That's a word-for-word quote. So though there is everything on-hand a Pink Head could want, including genuinely informative production featurettes and a Howard Deutch director's commentary, the Holy Grail of PiP is, like, totally M.I.A. The original ending, in which Jon Cryer's Smiths fan motormouth nancy boy character Duckie ends up in the arms of Ringwald's scrappy thrift store princess, Andie, is simply not on the DVD. There is discussion of the scene, there is explanation for the test audience approved replacement, where Andrew McCarthy's flare-nostrilled blank-slate Young Republican Blane (BLANE? His name is Blane?!) earns Andie's heart... by doing nothing whatsoever.... but "the original ending" itself is not present, boldface type promise or no.

It's hard not to recommend the disc otherwise, because it's a generous package at such a low price-point (online retailers price it at less than $9). It's also interesting that this slightly cultier Hughes title was given an upgrade before the more wildly popular Breakfast Club or mega-smash Home Alone: someone knows the audience for Pretty in Pink pretty well. With limited interest in production featurettes unless they're particularly forthwith, all I really needed was a Deutch commentary, and never expected the original ending to be touched by projector light or laser-beam again anyway. I suspect other fans of this sensitive and sweet film feel the same; we didn't need such glittery bait, so why the cruel switch?

Friday, September 01, 2006

All-American Deep-Dish Comedy: PRETTY PEACHES (1978)

Desireé Cousteau stands at the center of Pretty Peaches, moaning in befuddled despair, like a cartoonishly buxom Lucille Ball, as imagined by Bill Ward. The innocent, moronic amnesiac bubbles like a uniquely American Girl cocktail of dizziness and pluck, as she wanders through a late-'70s landscape of greed, sleaze and self-indulgence. Director Alex de Renzy's 1978 hardcore opus is an acknowledged classic of the Golden Age of American porn, and cult star Cousteau garnered an Adult Film Association of America award for her performance in the film. It is of an era for which we are starting to see ironic nostalgia crop up, fueled in no small part by Boogie Nights. That film re-cast a generation's view of the '70s porn scene as a tragic lost Eden of the American dream, much as The Godfather did for '40s gangland a generation before. What is not going hand in hand with this mythologizing is widespread revival of the films themselves. It is unfortunate that the young X'ers adding John Holmes to the Pantheon of Cool where Bruce Lee hangs out with Lou Reed, probably haven't actually seen a Gerard Damiano movie. While pornography will always be made, the astounding set of political and social circumstances that created/allowed the narrative adult films of the early '70s to mid-'80s will never be reproduced.

On one hand, that nostalgia is part of Peaches enduring magic. There are pop culture artifacts that are emblematic, seminal or landmarks of their era - e.g., for the '70s think Star Wars, the first SNL cast, the Sex Pistols. But I feel there exist some works that stand as remarkable mishmashes of so many peculiar, specific, fleeting obsessions of a time and place, they become jam-packed time capsules; art so impossibly of its day it becomes an epic critique of its native era, and looks like moon rocks to future eyes. For the '70s, think "Hong Kong Phooey", "Pink Lady and Jeff, "Oh Wicked Wanda!" Very definitely on that list is the one and only Pretty Peaches, a film which may lack the household name or iconic value of Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat, but which explores a circus tent version of 1978 like no other adult feature.

The story of Pretty Peaches is a Candide riff, similar to Terry Southern's prescient Candy. Lovable, innocent Peaches (Cousteau) arrives late at the casino chapel, but just in time to see the end of her father (John Leslie)'s wedding to a pleasant black lady (Flower). After an inexplicable, minor argument with Daddy, Peaches gulps a couple of shots at the ill-attended reception in the slot machine room, and promptly hightails it out of town in her Jeep. The plot is set in motion when Peaches crashes her truck in the woods, indicated by a single tree branch laid across the front wheel. Peaches stumbles from the wreck and passes out on the grass. Two sleazeballs with engine trouble find her, and debate how to assist, finally deciding her panties are too tight. The deeply seedy Joey Silva rapes the semi-conscious girl as his buddy tsk-tsks. When she comes to, they decide to steal her car and take the now amnesiac Peaches with them, in hopes of collecting ransom. How the amateur kidnappers intend to achieve this without knowing their victim's identity, and while letting her freely wander around the city, are the kinds of questions that do not apply.

Desireé Cousteau's gotta have her Pops.

The basic structure of Pretty Peaches is a series of madcap and/or harrowing episodes in which Peaches meets an eccentric who offers assistance but ends up taking sexual advantage of her. At the boys' house, they make repeated advances, even sleeping three abed, until the girl gets frustrated and goes to eat cereal in the middle of the night instead. An interview for an exotic dancing gig turns into a gang rape by a dozen crazed lesbian sadists, a show for which tickets are sold to to slumming socialites. In the film's most notorious (and censored from the VHS release) sequence, a low rent Dr. Benway-esque quack with his office in an echoey men's room administers a several-gallon enema as amnesia treatment. The powerful jet-spray from Cousteau's hindquarters knocks the wacky physician to the linoleum, and poor Peaches wails "I don't think he could cure anything!"

Good lord, why?

How erotic any of this is - or is supposed to be - may be up to individual taste, but it hardly seems the point. Though the sex scenes mostly involve the assault, abuse, and humiliation of the guileless Peaches, the tone is sunny and cartoonish. Even when most of the hardcore sequences end with our heroine screaming and crying, it's difficult to be disturbed. The entire cast gives their all, and the result is sweet, if unspectacular. John Leslie is passably funny as Peaches' aw-shucks Dad, and debuting Juliet "Aunt Peg" Anderson is weird as a French maid. The best bit player is the sunny Phaedra Grant, who pops up near end, bounding naked into an oh-so-'70s kitchen to drag the uncomfortable Leslie into the grand finale. Grant grins so wide it's like the biggest movie star in the world has been commissioned for a cameo: "Hey look! It's the banana girl from Candy Stripers!"

There is no such thing as "over"acting.

However, no one can keep up with Cousteau's pouting, eye-rolling, adorable performance, and definitely can't physically measure up. She's such irresistible one-woman show that even the big bad world portrayed in Pretty Peaches can't defeat the irrepressible brunette. As in Southern's Candy, the running joke is that once laying eyes on her, every human on earth has vested sexual interest in Peaches. Even the golf-cart driving psychiatrist (industry legend Paul Thomas), who eventually proves her savior, offers therapy only in the form of getting it on in his bungalow office, while Peaches squeaks "oh, doctor!" The entire Me Generation is out to use, fold, spindle, and mutilate the poor girl, and the only problem with the equation as social criticism is that Peaches - while lovable thanks to Cousteau's natural ease - doesn't stand for anything in particular. Perhaps she's the spirit of Free Love being corrupted by the spiritual vacuum of the '70s. Perhaps she's the liberated female sexuality promised by the Sexual Revolution, which in reality is just another way for the patriarchy to pry off her panties. The vague quest of Pretty Peaches is for Peaches to be reunited with her parents (though John Leslie is only 10 years older than his "daughter")... easy to forget, since they do little searching for the lost girl, and Peaches doesn't even remember she has parents.

How good is she? Costeau's giant gold heels and awesome shiny green shorts cause her to nearly fall over as she storms across a golf course. Not only does she keep going, but trips and reacts in character!

Finally, in a climactic, baby oil soaked swingers party orgy, at which all the principle players find themselves in attendance (don't ask), Peaches is snapped from her amnesia while unwittingly going down on her dad. The reunion is comically bittersweet, as the greasy nude girl hugs her new stepmom with joy, but her flustered pops storms out of the room. The picture ends on the sobbing, oily Peaches screaming "Daddy! I'm back!", and surrounded by puzzled, dripping, hairy orgy-goers. As a satire about the breakdown of the nuclear family, Pretty Peaches ranks as striking and over-the-top as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In both films it is clear something unique, nasty and uneasy is being said, but vivid images or no, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly what that message is.

Comedy. Tragedy. Beauty.
And I'm just talking about the interior decoration.

Because as erotica, Pretty Peaches has little to offer but Desireé Cousteau's spectacular pneumatic figure, and giggly sex-appeal, the film is more closely aligned with the DIY gross-out comedies of John Waters, or the anti-erotic landmine send-ups of Russ Meyer. de Renzy does not quite achieve the vulgar Americana of those Masters. Peaches is almost as loony, but misses the proto-punk attitude and outrage of Waters' finest hours, and the comedy labors a bit under the requirements of the sex scenes, grotty as they may be.

Deep focus, de Renzy style: The Lady or the Titleist?

Nor does the director quite possess Meyer's cinematic flare... which is not a cruel criticism, because after all, who does? de Renzy is ambitious, with some cute attempts at deep focus to tell the story within shots, and complicated (still sub-Meyer) montages to convey impossible feats of kinetic action, like the brain-traumatizing car crash, a seemingly endless rectal capacity in the enema sequence, and to imply the gang-raping lesbians have violated Peaches with a dildo the size of a loaf of French bread. Some non sequitur gags are puzzling, but not surreal enough to stack up to the fertile imaginations of Borowczyk, Waters or Meyer. In the best (?) of these moments, a guy climbing headfirst down a ladder for no reason conks his head on the floor and passes out.

Why? There is no why.

Admittedly, the plot - Desireé Cousteau as a bubble-brain unable to fathom the indignities to which she's subjected - is similar in several of her films, but Peaches is the ultimate fulfillment of the template. It's the family-reunion quest; it's the cast of favorites, future stars, and the iconic heroine; it's the social strata-spanning adventure, stretching from a dusty small town to the forest, suburbia to the big city, country clubs to back alley sex clubs, painting a unique portrait of a strange moment in a strange nation. These are the things that make Pretty Peaches the Golden Age's great comic epic.

Pretty Peaches is available on DVD from the fine folks at Alpha Blue Archives. The VHS-sourced disc includes the enema scene, as well as a half-hour of Golden Age adult trailers.