Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jack & George

"A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town."
--Harry Bailey

"I, Jack, the Pumpkin King: That's right! I AM the Pumpkin King!"
--Jack Skellington

With Christmas almost upon us I figured I should probably post the obligatory “Christmas-themed” blog, though the subject of this one (inspired by a recent conversation with a friend of mine) may be slightly different than what you are accustomed to. I thought I might highlight a major similarity between the protagonists of two of my favorite Christmas movies, even though, on the surface, the characters (not to mention their movies) are radically different and seem to have almost nothing in common. I am referring, of course, to George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life and the Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas.

For those few who still may not have seen these films, I shall briefly synopsize them and, hopefully, in doing so the connection will become more clear:

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a young man named George Bailey (played by the marvelous Jimmy Stewart) who lives in a small American town called Bedford Falls. Although George has lofty dreams of “shaking the dust off his heels of this crummy town” and becoming a “big” and “important” architect, circumstances more or less prevent him from doing so. His father, the owner of the Bailey building-and-loans (the only institution in town not run by the greedy Mr. Potter) dies suddenly and George is compelled to stay in town and run the business in his stead. He falls in love with a woman named Mary (the glorious Donna Reed), marries her, has several children and lives happily in Bedford Falls for several years until an unfortunate incident threatens his way of life. On one particularly glum Christmas Eve, feeling that his life has essentially come to nothing, George contemplates suicide. He is saved by an angel named Clarence who gives George an opportunity to see what things would have been like had he never been born and it is a much darker, more depressing reality. George eventually realizes how truly blessed he was and he asks to have his life back, a wish granted to him in a rather touching scene. In the end, George discovers that his problems, which he no longer cared about anyway, were solved for him by his family and friends.

The Nightmare Before Christmas takes place in a world where every holiday has its own “town” whose inhabitants work hard to make that holiday the best it can be. Jack Skellington, a spider-limbed skeleton known as “the Pumpkin King” lives in Halloween-Town and is in charge of making each Halloween scarier than the last. However, over time Jack has become more and more dissatisfied with his lot in life. Scaring people isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be and Jack now feels a terrible emptiness inside. He wants more. After one particularly depressing year, Jack accidentally wanders into Christmas-Town where he sees something he has never seen before: a bright, colorful place where everybody is smiling and laboring to make people happy rather than afraid. jack is captivated by this new world and wants to be a part of it. He decides to kidnap Santa Claus, with the intention of taking his place, and enlists the help of his fellow Halloween-town residents to help with his new holiday, which they are more than happy to do... all except for a rag doll named Sally who admires Jack from afar (though he virtually ignores her) and who has had a bad feeling about this whole endeavor. As it turns out, Jack’s attempt at running Christmas is a disaster. Rather than bringing joy and laughter to the people of the world, Jack only succeeds in doing what he has always done: he scares them. Realizing that he has failed miserably in his attempt to do something different, to try to be something he’s not, Jack returns to Halloween-Town with a newfound passion for his work and a resolution to do his job better than he ever has before, because only he can truly do it. It's what he was meant to do. In the end, Jack also manages to finally see something that was right in front of him the whole time: Sally. He comes to realize that she loves him and that he loves her.

As you can see, aside from the immediately obvious connection that Jack and George are the main characters in two Christmas movies (although some don't consider Nightmare a "Christmas" movie), an important characteristic that these two share is that they both REALLY wanted a particular thing which they did not get (and not for lack of trying). They tried something and they didn't succeed. This means that, in the eyes of many, they might be considered "failures," but they both learned an invaluable lesson in the process. They learned that, despite one's wishes and tenacity, one cannot always do whatever one wants. Sometimes, life intervenes and makes it difficult for us to pursue the things we desire. This may not sound quite so profound but when you compare it to the typical moral of our Disney-infleunced culture (i.e. you can do whatever you dream if you just try hard enough, "when you wish upon a star," etc), this is a refreshing change.

What makes their lessons really poignant though (and which I personally find very compelling) is that they learn what they wanted may not have been what they needed. This, I think, is very true to life. We don't always know what's in our best interest. We often search for satisfaction and fulfillment where we shouldn't be looking, not realizing that what we truly need (and probably deep-down what we really want) is right in front of us. Some might call this "giving up on our dream" or "accepting mediocrity," but I call it simply replacing our dream with a better one. John Lennon said "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," and these two characters, fortunately, learn that lesson before it is too late. Otherwise, they could've spent their whole lives searching for something that they'd never find. So, my wish this holiday season, is that everyone's content with who they are and where they are in their life.

Merry Christmas! :)

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Windmills" officially becomes a film blog

"That's part of your problem: you haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies."
--Davis (Steve Martin) in GRAND CANYON

As I look back over the posts I've made since I lauched this site in October, I couldn't help but notice that most of them revolve around the subject of cinema. To know me, this is not that surprising since movies are probably the primary love of my life (after family and friends of course). Nevertheless, I do find this phenomenon somewhat interesting because I did not create this blog with the intention of it becoming a "film blog." I initially envisioned it (as can be read in my first blog entry) simply as an outlet for my own personal thoughts, feelings and ideas on whatever topic I saw fit. I wanted to leave the possibilities open for Windmills of My Mind to become whatever I wanted it to become. Well, it is time for me to admit, finally, that it has become a film blog.

In a way this is appropriate for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, as I mentioned before, I really love movies. Heck, the name of my blog and its subtitle originate from a movie (extra points to those who can name which one). It is also fitting because the two sites that inspired me to join the blogosphere are both film blogs themselves: Jim Emerson's Scanners and Andy Horbal's No More Marriages. It is also better that I discover this early on in the blogging process as it would've been much more difficult to alter the identity of my blog after, say, a year of posting. So, as we enter 2007 I thought I should annouce to the world what to expect (and not to expect) from this blog.

-I can (and will) write about other things. Although I will focus most of my attention on cinema I will also write about other topics. I do have interests besides movies. In fact, almost all forms of artistic expression (music, theatre, dance, literature, etc) appeal to me. Plus, I may decide to write on something significant that occurs in my own life (as when I wrote about the parking situation at my new apartment building). If my friend Andy Horbal can write about food, I can certainly write about whatever tickles my fancy.

-No reviews. One thing that you will not find on this blog are any movie reviews (at least not in the conventional sense). This doesn't mean that I will not post my thoughts and impressions on movies as I see them, but I have never liked the idea that when I write about a film, that that piece becomes me official "review," my final word on the film. I may see it again later and completely change my mind. I think film criticism is an evolving thing and I do not want to tie myself down with a fixed opinion and any given film. Also, most reviewers feel compelled to give a film a particular "rating," i.e. a number of stars, a "thumbs up/down" or a letter grade (A-, C+, etc), a practice which I despise.

-No year-end "best/worst" lists. As much as I enjoy making lists, I hardly ever feel qualified to make a "top/bottom 10" list of movies. I confess that I have made them in the past, but later was compelled to amend them simply because I hadn't yet seen enough movies that year. Time and finances restrict my theatregoing (last year I saw 24 movies in the theatre; this year I saw only 12). Working in a video store and getting free rentals means that I see most of my movies on DVD. If I could, I would see ALL movies on the big screen as that is where they are meant to be seen, but reality often interferes with my preferences. At any rate, though I may occasional make the vague "this was one of the best/worst movies of the year" claim, I will never get more specific than that by giving it a "ranking" (top/bottom 10, 20, etc). This is also why you will rarely hear me use the handle "one of the greatest films ever made," (though I may say "it's one of the greatest films I've ever seen") because unless someone actually has seen every single movie ever made, I tend to share the sentiment of Kip Dynamite: "Like anyone can even know that."

-Don't expect regularity. In the almost three months since I started Windmills I have made a dozen posts. That's an average of about one a week. Some of them were done in rapid succession whereas others had quite a long time elapse between them. so, what I am more or less trying to say is that I don't plan to be disciplined enough to post a new entry everyday on this blog. I may end up posting several days in a row or, if so inclined, I may post two or three messages in a single day. However, it may be the case that weeks pass before I choose to write anything. My old English teacher used to say: "Just write. Write anything. Keep writing." This always frustrated me because this is not how I operate. I do not write just to write. I don't do anything just to do it. I write when I feel inspired to do so and that is how I will manage this blog. Please note that I am not suggesting you shouldn't check my blog every day because, well..... you never know.

I guess that about does it for now. The rest of the rules we'll figure out as we go.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Spielberg and the "Landscape of the Human Face"

Steven Spielberg turned 60 today and I thought I might take the opportunity to share some musings on this highly significant, hugely influential and hotly debated film director, of whom I must admit I am a big admirer, both as an artist and as a human being. I consider him to be not only one of our greatest living filmmakers but a truly great man.

One disadvantage of being both a dedicated cinephile and a hard-core Steven Spielberg fan is that I am almost constantly butting heads with people who seem to think that the two terms are mutually exclusive. I find myself quite often engaged in conversations with people who feel that all "Hollywood" films are by definition inferior movie products. Thus, anyone who achieves the kind of success and popularity that Spielberg has is inherently suspicious because he must have prostituted himself (or "sold out") in the pursuit of true cinematic "high" art (forgetting, of course, that some bona fide geniuses, such as, oh say... Shakespeare were incredibly popular in their day). I almost always end up defending Spielberg's status as a true artist and not just a "mass entertainer" to these close-minded, abrasive, obnoxious, elitist, pseudo-intellectual cinema snobs.

Not that I am bitter or anything.

It just gets a little tiring to hear that it's okay to revere the likes Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, Altman, Scorsese, etc. but say that you want to include Spielberg among them and you get looked at as if you were trying to suggest Pauly Shore belongs in the company of Marlon Brando. I recently got into an online conversation with someone who suggested that Spielberg was no better than Michael Bay and who actually likened Schindler's List to Pearl Harbor. All I can say is that I'm glad this discussion was conducted over the internet and not in person or the police would still be looking for the body. In a way, this blog is sort of a response to that kind of condescending attitude toward Spielberg and his work. It is by no means a comprehensive analysis of Spielberg's style or craft, but I recently re-visited one of my favorite films of his and wound up reflecting on something that I had not noticed before.

A friend of mine likes to say that one "never really knows what a film is about until the last shot." I have to agree. Until the film is over (really over) we cannot be 100% of the film's, for lack of a better word, "message" or "picture of reality." Of course, an astute viewer ought to be able to figure out well in advance of the closing shot what that "picture" is as it's extremely rare for the final image to completely subvert everything that came before it (although it has happened; Being There comes to mind). Oftentimes the last image merely confirms the themes that have been present in the film all along, but in the same way that (as Jim Emerson has pointed out with his ongoing Opening Shots Project) the first image is extremely important in understanding the language/perspective of a particular film, so I would argue is the last image.

In watching E.T. again, I was struck by this final shot:

First of all, besides being (I think) an homage to the final shot of Truffaut's 400 Blows, it comes at the end of an emotional scene in which the alien creature has said goodbye to all the major characters in the film, boarded his ship and taken off. As the ship speeds away into the night it leaves behind a rainbow (just one of many examples of religious imagery employed throughout the film). The camera then cuts to the face of every character who was present at the farewell. First, the smiling mother (Dee Wallace) with the scientist known only as "Keys" (Peter Coyote) standing behind her, followed by the three boys who helped rescue E.T. and then Michael (Robert MacNaughton) holding Gertie (Drew Barrymore). What is interesting about this sequence of shots, though, is that it cuts back to the rainbow one last time before it cuts to Elliott's face. In my mind this suggests the kind of director that Spielberg is and the kind of stories he tells.

Spielberg has often been accused of making movies that are about spectacle over story, that sacrifice character for special effects. Although I will admit this criticism does apply to some of his films, I think it is a gross generalization and an unfair "dig" at him. This final shot of Elliott's face suggests to me that Spielberg, rather than telling stories that are only about the special effects, tells stories about people. There is always a humanity at the heart of his stories: human behavior, emotions, dreams, fears, etc. The "human condition" itself is the central concern of his work (even films that seem to focus primarily on non-humans: i.e. sharks, dinosaurs, aliens, robots, etc). The simple fact that Spielberg chose to end E.T. not on the shot of the rainbow (the image that most other directors would surely have ended on) but on the face of a young boy, I think, speaks volumes about him. The image he wanted to send audiences home with was not a spectularly breathtaking and beautiful illusion in the sky, but rather the very real, and very intimate, countenance of a child (which in many ways is even more beautiful and spectacular).

The image of someone gazing at something out-of-frame is actually a very common one in a Spielberg film. James Lipton pointed this out to the director in his interview on the program Inside the Actor's Studio and Richard Dreyfus, who has acted in three Spielberg films, has joked that the name of the book he will never write is: Steven, Have They Figured Out What I Am Looking Up In Awe At Yet? Spielberg himself has said that he "likes to watch people thinking on screen because it invites an audience into the mind of that character." This may just be personal opinion, but I think that Spielberg photographs the human face better than almost any other living filmmaker.

If the history of cinema is, as some have suggested, the "history of the human face being captured on film" (since more movie frames are expended on human faces than on any other visual element), I think a very good argument could be made that Spielberg, like Tarkovsky and Pasolini, is one of cinema's great portraitists, that he just has a natural gift for depicting what Irvin Kerschner called, "the landscape of the human face."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

An Interesting Movie Quiz

Here's a movie quiz that a friend of mine showed me. It comes from the flim blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. As my friend said, it doesn't really mean anything, but it's fun.

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?
-In the theatre: Apocalypto (because however one feels about Mel Gibson as a person, as a filmmaker he's quite good)
-On DVD: World Trade Center (because I wanted to see it in the theatre but missed it)

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.
Since we lost Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood) and Sven Nykvist (Cries and Whispers), I'm gonna say Gordon Willis (Manhattan), Roger Deakins (Shawshank Redemotion), Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List), Vilmos Szigmond (Deliverance), Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) and Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential)

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?
Joe Don Baker.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…)
Any number of moments in The Exorcist

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.
I'm gonna be totally unoriginal and choose Singin' in the Rain

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.
Haven't seen any of Lang outside of Metropolis and M. Of the two I'd pick M.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.
Danny Kaye's character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?
Carole Bouquet. Bond girls are forever, baby!

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

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.
Michael Jordan in Space Jam (because it makes me laugh)

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.
Being There, but Harold & Maude runs a close second.

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

Bringing up Baby and What's Up, Doc?

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?
Um..... "The Big Screen?"

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?
Never saw Gould's take on Marlowe. Still, I gotta go with Bogey because.... well, he's Bogey!

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.
I guess he didn't do Treasure Island, did he? So..... Mary Poppins

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

When the woman's scream turns into the train whistle in Hitchcock's 39 Steps

17) Pink Flamingoes-- yes or no?
No. Thank you very much.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.
Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that this is an impossible question for me to answer. I shall have to content myself with giving you just a few of my favorites:

JOHN WILLIAMS - Star Wars, Superman, Schindler's List, Jaws
DANNY ELFMAN - Batman, Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas
BERNARD HERMANN - Psycho, Vertigo
ELMER BERNSTEIN - To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven
JOHN DEBNEY - The Passion of the Christ
ALAN SILVESTRI - Back to the Future, Forrest Gump
JERRY GOLDSMITH - Star trek, The Omen
ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL - Interview with the Vampire
DAVID ARNOLD - Stargate, The World is Not Enough
NINO ROTA - The Godfather
ENNIO MORRICONE - The Good, Bad and Ugly

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?
Fay Wray

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?
Armaggeddon probably

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.
-AWARD: Best Producer
-WINNER: anyone but Jerry Bruckheimer

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.
Robocop (runner-up: Starship Troopers)

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?
Transport us to another world (Sounds corny, I know).

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?
David Suchet. HA! Seriously, though, I prefer Ustinov's Poirot. I found Finney's to be somewhat annoying (though I actually think he's the better actor).

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.
You know, I really liked the 75th anniversary logo they had for Universal Studios (where it goes through all the past ones). I think it was far superior to their current one. I also miss the old United Artists logo where the white UA is slowly turning toward the camera.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.
A History of Narrative Film by David A. Cook

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

Psycho is the best. The Usual Suspects, Planet of the Apes, Memento, The Sixth Sense..... They're great, but Psycho trumps them all.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.
Only seen 400 Blows

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?
Hussey. Not a big fan of Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.
The night that Ben Stein walked into the video store

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?
Not exactly sure. Perhaps when I first started making movies with a video camera when I was very young.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Everybody Loves Peter

The incredibly versatile character actor Peter Boyle died yesterday in New York. He was 71. Apparently he passed away at New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from from multiple myeloma and heart disease. (The actor had suffered a stroke in 1990, and a heart attack in 1999). Boyle has had supporting roles in such varied films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Candidate, Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Outland, Joe, Steelyard Blues and While You Were Sleeping. Boyle also turned in a brilliant performance in one of personal favorite films: Mel Brooks' comic masterpiece Young Frankenstein.

Boyle won an Emmy for a guest turn on the The X-Files in 1996 and was cast that same year in the role that would make him a household name: the cantankerous patriarch Frank Barone in the Ray Romano sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. The part earned him seven Emmy nominations but never a win. In stark contrast to his TV role, his chilling turn as a racist former cop in 2001's Monster's Ball demonstrated that Boyle could still play intense drama as well as light-hearted comedy. Most recently, he appeared in The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Boyle is survived by his wife, Loraine Alterman (whom he met on the set of Young Frankenstein), and their two daughters.

(1935 - 2006)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Preface to A History of Narrative Film

Reading the numerous entries in Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-thon has gotten me thinking about what initially ignited my interest in film analysis/criticism. I've always loved movies but pin-pointing exactly when I began to think seriously about them is a different matter. I think that the shift toward being made aware of movies as an art form and a tool of communication rather than simply a means of entertainment started to occur in my teen years and didn't really hit "critical mass" until I got to college. One of the facilitators of this "awakening" was my good friend Tucker who, when I was 16 years old, held a weekly session on the history of film which lasted for 20 weeks. I was very excited about this because I had never taken a film class before and haven't really since. We watched a lot of great films there (Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game, etc), many of which, I am ashamed to say, I didn't like at the time. I have since repented of my iniquities.

I do remember, though, being very struck by a sheet of paper which he handed out the first week, a sheet which contained something that would play a big part in helping me formulate my future attitude/philosophy toward movies. It was the preface to David Cook's A History of Narrative Film (a book which I still consider to be, along with James Monaco's How to Read a Film, one of the seminal texts on the subject of cinema). I mentioned that I had never taken a film class before or since Tucker's, but I have managed to teach a couple to other high school students and I always begin by handing out a sheet of paper with the same preface on it. Thus, as a "tribute" to the essay which proved so influential to me personally, and without which I probably wouldn't even be participating in this "conversation" (not to mention a sort of "thank you" to the individual who first brought it to my attention and who subsequently taught me so much about cinema), I thought I might re-print the preface to A History of Narratiuve Film here. This isn't necessarily another contribution to the Blog-a-thon (because I didn't even write it) but it is food for thought regarding the medium of the moving image and a good reminder as to why film criticism is so important.

We spend much of our waking lives surrounded by moving photographic images. They have come to occupy such a central position in our experience that it is unusual to pass even a single day without encountering them for an extended period of time, through either film or television. In short, moving photographic images have become part of the total environment of modern industrial society. Both materially and psychologically, they have a shaping impact on our lives. And yet few people in our society have been taught to understand precisely how they work. Most of us, in fact, have extremely vague notions about how moving images are formed and how they are structured to create the multitude of messages sent out to us by the audiovisual media on an almost continuous basis. If we made an analogy with verbal language, we should be forced to consider ourselves barely literate–able to assimilate the language form without fully comprehending it. We would, of course, be appalled to find ourselves living in a culture whose general verbal literacy level corresponded to that of a three-year-old child. Most persons living in such a culture would, like small children, be easy prey to whoever could manipulate the language. They would be subject to the control of any minority that understood the language from the inside out and could therefore establish an authority of knowledge over them, just as verbally literate adults establish authority over children. Such a situation would be unthinkable in the modern industrial world, of course, and our own culture has made it a priority to educate its children in the institutions of human speech so that they can participate in the community of knowledge that verbal literacy sustains.

Imagine, though, that a new language form came into being at the turn of the twentieth century, an audiovisual language from that first took the shape of cinema and became in time the common currency of modern television. Imagine that because the making of statements in this language depended upon an expensive industrial process, only a handful of elite specialists were trained to use it. Imagine, too, that although public anxiety about the potentially corrupting influence of the new language was constant from its birth, it was perceived not as a language at all but as a medium of popular entertainment–that in this guise the language was gradually allowed to colonize us, as if it were the vernacular speech of some conquering foreign power. Finally, imagine waking up one day to discover that we had mistaken language for a mode of dreaming and in the process become massively illiterate in a primary language form, one that had not only surrounded us materially but that, as language forms tend to do, had invaded our minds as well. What would we do if that happened? We could choose to embrace our error and lapse into the anarchic mode of consciousness characteristic of preliterate societies, which might be fun but would most certainly be dangerous in an advanced industrial society. Or we could attempt to instruct ourselves in the language form from the ground up and from the inside out. We could try to learn as much of its history, technology, and aesthetics as possible. We could trace the evolution of its syntactic and semantic forms from their birth through the present stages of development, and try to forecast the shapes they might take in the future. We could, finally, bring the apparatus of sequential logic and critical analysis to bear on the seemingly random structures of the language in order to read them in new and meaningful ways.

This scenario conforms quite accurately, I believe, to our present situation in the modern world. The language of the moving photographic image has become so pervasive in our daily lives that we scarcely notice its presence. And yet it does surround us, sending us messages, taking positions, making statements, and constantly redefining our relationship to material reality. We can choose to live in ignorance of its operations and be manipulated by those who presently control it. Or we can teach ourselves to read it, to appreciate its very real and manifold truths, to recognize its equally real and manifold deceptions. As a lifelong student and teacher of language forms, both verbal and audiovisual, I believe that most intelligent and humane persons in our culture will opt for the latter. It is for them that I have written this book.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Critic On Your Corner

I really wanted to contribute something of substance to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-thon. I didn't think it would be that hard because, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a "cinemaniac." I love movies. I love watching them, I love thinking about them and I love talking about them. How hard could it to be to find something eloquent and thought-provoking to say about film criticism?

As it turns out, I found I had tremendous difficulty coming up with something that completely satisfied me. Part of the problem was that I don't often think that much about "film criticism" itself so much as I think about films. This is not to suggest that I don't think film criticism is unimportant because I think it is incredibly important, just as I think films are incredibly important, but I could talk forever about films (I have often wondered why I don't just "bite the bullet" and change my blog to a "film blog"). Yet, talking about how I talk about films is a little trickier. Slowly I began to realize that my entry was, as usual, going to have to be highly personal and coming from a completely subjective perspective (lately I find most of my blogs are like that).

Looking at some of the other contributions in this Blog-a-thon I coudn't help but feel that I was a little out of my league. Unlike a lot of other people in the film criticism blogosphere, I do not write for any sort of publication, I do not attend film festivals (for time and financial reasons) and I have never met anybody famous (except for that one bizarre night when Ben Stein walked through the door). I'm just an ordinary guy who loves movies and who works in a local video store: a small, independently-owned video store that's trying to survive in a world filled with Blockbusters and Hollywoods. And yet, despite my lack of qualifications, I do consider myself a "film critic" and there are two reasons.

First off, I have been working in the video business for over 13 years. I grew up in the video business. My father was one of the first people in the video business. I am not saying all this to brag. I'm simply trying to make a point about how much time I've had to think about what it means to work in a video store and one of the things I have learned is that it automatically makes you, in the eyes of the customer, a film critic. This is a phenomenon that I have observed quite a bit and it has caused me some dismay because there is an assumption behind it that I find more than a little frightening: namely, that because you work somewhere, you must be an expert in whatever subject your work is. This, of course, could not be more untrue. Being behind the counter in a video store doesn't necessarily mean I know anything about movies and it certainly doesn't make me an expert. In fact, it doesn't give me any authority wnatsoever. A person doesn't even have to like movies very much (or even watch movies really) to end up working in a video store. It would certainly be preferrable, but it is not always the case. It is especially not the case in a corporate video store where the hiring practices leave much to be desired.

As I began to realize that a lot of people were looking to me for advice in which movies to watch, it ocurred to me that this was an enormous amount of power to have. I wasn't just the merchant, I was the guide. I didn't just point people to where the movies were, most of the time I was pointing them toward which movies to get. Sometimes I wonder if people listen more to the guy at their local video store than they do to Rex Reed or Richard Roeper. Anyway, I realized that it was a great responsibility and I resolved to take it very seriously. I still do.

The second reason I consider myself a film critic (and I know this is not going to be a terribly original, deep or surprising revelation) is because I really consider everybody a film critic. Granted, there are an awful lot of disciplines involved in being a good film critic, or at least a professional film critic, but I would argue that, ultimately, anyone who watches a movie and has an opinion on it is a film critic. This means, I think, that everyone has to take on some degree of responsibility in learning what they can about movies... and not just "what they like," but about their language, aesthetics and history. Not everyone has to become Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, but trying to deny the fact you're, in some way, a film critic would be like trying to deny that you're a philosopher. The truth is that everyone is a philosopher because everyone has their own philosophy on life. As a wise man once said "You're either a philosopher or you're drug addict," meaning that either you think about life or you just move from one distraction to the next. Well, I would like to offer my own amended version of that quote:

"You're either a film critic..... or you're dead."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

They Don't Make Superheroes Like They Used To

Superman Returns comes out on DVD today. Thus, I thought it would be appropriate to re-print an essay I wrote about the character of Superman back before it hit the theatres. Here it is:

In a few weeks Bryan Singer's Superman Returns opens worldwide and it is a movie that has been a long time in coming (at one point the film was to be directed by Tim Burton, written by Kevin Smith and starring Nicolas Cage; I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say: "Thank God that didn't happen!"). Needless to say, I'm very excited about this event. I realize I'm advertising my hopeless "geekiness" with this blog, but I've long been a "Superfan." He's always been among my top three favorite comic book heroes (the other two being Batman and Spider-man; whoever occupied the number "1" spot depended on what phase of my life I was going through at the time).

In response to the upcoming release, the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) used its "daily poll" feature to ask its members to vote on which superhero was better: Superman or Batman. The results were interesting if, admittedly, not that surprising. Batman got a whopping 67% while Superman only got 15%. 10% said, "I like both equally" and 8% said," I don't like either." I have actually observed, in recent years, that Superman's "approval ratings" have dropped significantly and I couldn't help but wonder why that is. Superman used to be considered the greatest of the superheroes. In fact, Superman was essentially the first superhero, the "Adam" if you will. Without Superman there would be no Batman, Spider-man or anyone else. Superman used to be looked upon with awe. He was admired. He was a symbol for "truth" and "justice" and all that stuff! Why has the Man of Steele fallen into such disfavor in recent years? Why has his popularity waned so drastically and his cultural status declined so monumentally?

Is it the suit? Are the bright blue tights with the red cape, boots and the large red-and-gold "S" not only unimpressive anymore but downright corny? Perhaps its the sheer implausibility of his disguise. While Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne protect their secret identities by wearing masks that cover at least half their faces, all Superman does to become Clark Kent is put on a pair of glasses. Is it just too much anymore to accept that sharp-eyed journalist Lois Lane can't tell the difference between the guy she loves and the guy she works with? Is it the pantheon of powers that Superman possesses? Super-speed, super-strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, flight, super-breath... Do people just think it's too much? Maybe it's the invulnerability in particular. Maybe folks are just tired of Superman not being affected by anything (besides kryptonite of course). Maybe they expect that their heroes be subject to some harm or else there's no suspense. Then again, it might be the villains. Perhaps people prefer a whole rogues gallery of baddies for a hero to combat. I mean, Batman has a colorful array of nasty characters hes constantly fighting (Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Scarecrow, etc), as does Spider-man (Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Venom, Sandman, Vulture, etc), while all Superman really has is Lex Luthor (and to a lesser extent Brainiac).

Any one these things could have contributed to Supermans fall from grace, but I think it's something else that has caused him to lose his appeal, something that makes him, in the eyes of today's youth, not quite as "cool" as Batman, Spider-man or Wolverine, something that has actually caused my own personal respect for the character to increase: namely, his righteousness. This is a theory I've been formulating for a while now and I'd like to lay it out now.

Of all the comic book heroes out there, Superman is the only who is naturally good. He has no ulterior motives for fighting crime. Batman's is revenge (he saw his parents murdered when he was a child) and Spider-man's is guilt (he feels responsible for the death of his uncle), but Superman does good for its own sake. He is a truly virtuous, god-like individual, his physical and moral perfection, his extreme strength and incorruptible nature, used to be the very characteristics that made him worthy of respect and emulation. However, the fact that Superman is now referred to as an overgrown "boy scout" (both in and out of the comics) demonstrates that these characteristics have lost their luster. Superman is now considered "dull" or "two-dimensional." Heroes who are darker and more angst-ridden are called "cool" or "a badass." At the very least, they are more complex and therefore more "believable," i.e. there's a greater chance that these characters could actually exist in our own reality.

Understand that I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with these other heroes. On the contrary, I am just as much a product of my culture as anybody else. I love these other heroes. I am very drawn to the inherent drama of the ongoing struggle that Bruce Wayne he has with his own dark self. I also love the realistic, and oftentimes humiliating, problems that Peter Parker has to contend with. I find these multi-layered universes are, in fact, sometimes more interesting than the fantasy world of Superman, but what saddens me is that these worlds and their heroes are now being embraced to the exclusion of Superman. It is understandable that we want our heroes to be more like us (fallible, prone to temptation, at times selfish and weak, etc) but what we are losing in the process is an ideal and that is exactly what Superman is: an ideal. He represents not who we are, and not even who we could be, but who we should be. Superman personifies the type of end goal we ought to strive for, even if we never actually get there.

When Superman does indeed return to the big screen later this month, how the film is received should be an indicator of what we as a culture think of him. Does society still care about exploits of a person who acts completely selflessly, who helps weaker individuals without any sort of desire for personal gain? Is such a superhero still worth our time? Well, here's hoping.

Incidentally, the film was relatively well-recieved by critics (ended up with a 76% on rottentomatoes) and made $200 million at the domestic box office ($390 million worldwide).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, the "Glove-maker"

The blogosphere is abuzz today with news of the death of Robert Altman. The legendary director of such films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player and Gosford Park died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 81.

My first exposure to Robert Altman came at a very young age. Although I didn't know who he was, I grew up watching one of his lesser-regarded (and I think under-appreciated) films: Popeye with Robin Williams (in his film debut) as the one-eyed sailor and Shelley Duvall as his rail-thin girlfriend (a role that to this day I think she was born to play). Though it was more or less considered a commercial and artistic failure when it came out, I loved the movie. I still love the movie and when I watch it I can clearly see Altman's hand in it. It does not surprise me that the film was not well-received upon its release because it is not like most movies that come out of the Hollywood machine.

When asked once about his relationship with mainstream Hollywood Robert Altman replied, "We're not against each other. They sell shoes and I make gloves." Indeed this was true. Altman made a different "kind" of movie from the typical Hollywood product. Altman's films were rarely about story. They were more about the characters, the environment, the dialogue (much of it improvised and a lot of it overlapping) and the "feeling" they provided. Altman gave audiences a sort of voyeuristic "slice of life" look into a slightly "skewed" world and its often quirky and eccentric inhabitants (usually played by an enormous cast of famous actors; Altman's films were truly ensemble pieces). Like most great artists, Altman was interested in exploring the potential of the cinematic medium and he produced some of the most most unique and influential American films ever made.

It was Altman's originality that made it difficult for him to be properly appreciated by the Hollywood community. Cinephiles have long lamented the fact that Altman could very well join the company of Alfred Hitchcock (and perhaps even Marty Scorsese) as a director who would never receive an Academy Award. Just this last year the Academy attempted to rectify their error by presenting him with an honorary Oscar. In his acceptance speech he said that because of his heart transplant (something about which nobody knew) he suspected he had a few more decades left in him. We all hoped it was true.

Whenever the subject of "greatest living filmmakers" would come up, I would always mention his name. I shall have to content myself now to simply call him "one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived." The world has lost a tremendous artist and America, a national treasure. Rest in peace, Robert.

ROBERT ALTMAN: 1925-2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

Time After Time

One of the most singular facets of the motion picture medium, it seems to me, is its ability to function as a sort of “time capsule” for people. I am not referring to a film’s journalistic attributes (although those are undeniably true; looking back on the shorts of the Lumiere brothers, for example, gives us contemporary folks an intriguing window into late nineteenth century French living) because we are all, I think, familiar with cinema’s ability to document/record that which occurs in front of (and even behind) the camera. Rather I am referring to the way in which movies (particularly narrative movies) can record, in the heart and mind, the ideas, sensations and emotions of those who watch them. Movies can serve as a sort of “road-marker” in the lives of its audiences. Most people remember, for example, when and where they saw “event” films like Star Wars or Titanic. Just as a movie can “freeze in time” a specific period, person, place or event, so can it also “freeze in the mind” the various circumstances that surround someone who views it for the first time. What makes re-visiting these films (or "re-opening the capsule" so to speak) such an interesting experience is that although we change, the film does not. Thus, we can simultaneously remember how we felt seeing it the first time and yet also, because in the interim we have accumulated more knowledge and wisdom, look at it with “new eyes.” Sometimes the films go up in our estimation because of this. Sometimes they go down. Recently I was compelled to re-visit one of my all-time favorite movies and I literally felt like I was seeing it, REALLY seeing it, for the first time.

Not too long ago I decided to acquaint myself with the films of the great Harold Lloyd. I was already a huge fan of Chaplin and Keaton and figured I should be at least somewhat familiar with the work of this other esteemed silent comedian. I watched most of his shorts and many of his features. In particular I enjoyed The Freshman, Girl-Shy and Safety Last, but it was during the viewing of Safety Last that something remarkable happened.

For the sake of those out there who still may not know yet, Safety Last is probably Lloyd’s most well-known film, not necessarily because it is his best (although that is certainly arguable) but because it contains one of his most memorable scenes and most indelible images. The climax involves Lloyd climbing the side of a ten-story building (a feat which he, more or less, really did). It is not only a hilariously funny sequence but an incredibly thrilling one. Apparently when it was originally shown in 1923, folks would scream quite loudly every time it appeared Lloyd was about to fall to his death. All I know is that I was on the edge of my seat watching it on the TV in the “safety” (sorry) of my own little apartment. I could only imagine how intense and powerful it must’ve been on a large screen to audiences of its day.

There is a moment in the sequence where Lloyd hangs off the face of a clock on the side of the building. It is a moment of which I am sure we’re all familiar because it has become one of the most iconic images in cinema history. I know that I myself had seen it dozens of time before I ever knew who Harold Lloyd was and I realized going into Safety Last that this scene would eventually come up. When it did, I couldn't help but smile. It was nice to finally see the entire film from which that famous image originates.

Then it hit me.

If I had been a cartoon or comic strip character a light bulb would’ve gone off over my head at that very moment, because I was suddenly reminded of the climax of another film in which a character perilously hangs off the face of a clock, a film which I had seen (conservatively speaking) a hundred times, a film which I had grown up watching, which had become one of my personal favorites and which I could recite in its entirety (easily) at the drop of a hat.

That’s right. Back to the Future.

When the realization occurred to me that perhaps director Robert Zemeckis (together with his co-screenwriter Bob Gale) might’ve been paying homage to Lloyd’s classic clock-face stunt with their own Lloyd (this time a Christopher, not a Harold) performing his own clock-face stunt, I felt like an idiot for never having made the connection before. I began to wonder if it was really a cinematic homage or just a coincidence?

Does every “character-hangs-from-a-clock” moment need to be a reference to Safety Last anymore than every shower scene is a reference to Psycho? What about The Great Mouse Detective or Shanghai Knights? Those films involve characters hanging from clock faces. Were those deliberate references as well? Perhaps, but it’s a little trickier to determine than the references in, say, Scary Movie 4 because in the case of all three, the scene (more or less) arises logically out of the story and is not just a throwaway gag. I resolved to re-visit Back to the Future again and see if I could resolve that matter in my mind.

I didn’t get but thirty seconds into the film before I had my question answered.

As some of you may remember, Back to the Future opens with an extended tracking shot of the residence of Doc Brown. The credits roll over images of Doc Brown's collection of possessions... including numerous clocks ticking away. Incidentally, this establishes one of the film’s major visual motifs. Clocks appear constantly throughout Back to the Future and are not merely in the background but are almost always involved in the action of the scene in a significant manner: Marty’s digital watch alarm goes off when he’s in the 50’s emphasizing that he doesn’t belong there, Doc Brown falls and hits his head (causing him to discover the secret of time travel) as he stands on a toilet hanging a clock, the climactic scene involves a clock tower, etc.

Anyway, I sat watching this opening shot looking at the various clocks that Doc Brown owns... And that’s when I saw it.

On one of the clocks is a small figure hanging from the minute hand. I couldn’t believe I had never noticed that before. I guess when I was younger I was always just waiting for the camera to pass over the Felix-the-cat clock because that one was always my favorite. If I had been paying attention I would’ve noticed that the film was using its opening shot not only to give the audience important information about the plot (such as the news broadcast mentioning stolen plutonium and the actual plutonium case on the floor) or to reveal pertinent character details abut Doc Brown (such as the eccentric gadgets illustrating that he’s an inventor) but to actually foreshadow a significant event in Doc’s future... or would that be his past? It would have to be his past since by the time these credits are occurring the event has already happened. But then again, no! It can’t have already happened because Marty hasn’t gone back in time yet. Ack! Migraine!

Anyway, what finally resolved the matter for me, though, was the fact that if you look carefully at the little figure hanging from the clock you can clearly see that he is wearing a straw hat and glasses. This was, of course, Harold Lloyd’s signature look. And so, my question was answered. Zemeckis and company were undeniably doing a classic cinematic allusion to Safety Last in Back to the Future. I was very pleased to arrive at this conclusion and I took some small comfort in the fact that as a youngster I would never have made the connection with Harold Lloyd simply because I wasn’t as educated in film history back then. This new insight didn’t necessarily reveal any deeper “hidden truths” within the film that helped me to understand it better or appreciate it more than I already had, but it did re-confirm my knowledge that Zemeckis is himself a lover of classic cinema. Mostly it served to illustrate my point about how one can approach a movie with new information and feel as though they are seeing it for the first time because they are discovering "new" and exciting aspects about it. Or as the character of James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) says in that other great time-travel movie 12 Monkeys:

“The movie never changes. It can't change... but everytime you see it it seems different, because you're different. You see different things."

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Parking Situation

Last night I did something I'd never done before: I hung one copy of a letter on the front door of every room in my apartment building. I think it's pretty self-explanatory.

Dear fellow tenant,

Have you ever see that episode of SEINFELD entitled “The Parking Space?”

I guess there isn’t much point in trying to hide my identity because most people probably already know which room I reside in. I am the fellow who occupies room number 7 and I have taken pen to paper (or perhaps I should say “finger to keyboard”) to talk about something which really shouldn’t be that big of a deal but which, for some reason, seems to have become one: namely, the parking situation (I wonder if in the history of the Court of Kings apartment complex this has ever happened before).

When I first moved in, I was told by our lovely on-site manager Shirley that the parking spaces behind, and on the sides of, the building were numbered and intended for the vehicles of the tenants who lived in the corresponding room. This was a welcome change from my last residence which compelled one to “jockey for position” to find a parking spot. Incidentally, this place also charged $500 a month for a single bedroom (even with a lease), had no dishwasher or garbage disposal and was quite small in size (it did have a pool but not nearly as nice as ours). Thus, when I found this place, I was quite pleased with it. A vast improvement over my last home and I thought the parking situation was just one of the many perks of residing here. I just assumed that people would automatically respect the fact that the spaces were reserved. I never figured it would ever be a problem. How young and na├»ve I was.

Within the first week of living here I came home from grocery shopping one day and, lo and behold, there was someone else’s car in my spot. This was bewildering to me. Was I mistaken? Were they not reserved? Anyway, I was too tired at the time to do anything about it so, to my shame, I lazily parked in someone else’s space. This turned into a problem the next morning when the occupant of that spot knocked on my door and asked if I could move my vehicle. I apologized, told him that the only reason I had done so was because someone else took my spot and proceeded to move my car into my own space, which was now miraculously clear. I resolved then that I wouldn’t again do to someone else what was done to me. I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem, but if I found a car in my spot, I would not take someone else’s spot.

Sure enough, it did happen again and so I tried parking right by the building for a while, but that never felt right because I feared I was blocking the passage for other cars to drive through. I took to parking on the street for a period of time (sometimes as much as three blocks away). During this span of time, I was also leaving what I thought were relatively friendly-sounding notes on the windshields of the cars (“These spaces are reserved. Please, do not park in my spot again. Thank you. ---The guy in Room #7” Okay, maybe it’s not exactly a Hallmark greeting card, but given the mood I was in sometimes, I thought it was pretty pleasant). For a while I thought this procedure might work because I never saw the same car in my spot more than once. The people were apparently receiving my messages and respecting my wishes. YAAAYYY!!!

After a while, however, I got a little weary of parking on the street, especially on days when I would come home tired from work expecting to just park my car, walk up the stairs to my room and crash on my bed. Pulling into your lot and finding your own parking space occupied on such a day can be a bit of a bummer. Especially if it’s pouring down rain (as it has been a lot lately) meaning I would get drenched on the walk from my car to my room. The unfortunate thing is that I didn’t have to. I had my own parking space. It’s just that it was frequently being used by other people.

The kicker for me, though, was when I left the note on someone’s windshield and found the same car back in my spot again a day later. Not only did they choose to ignore my request, but I got the feeling that they were deliberately trying to antagonize me, as if my desire to park in my own spot (which I was paying for) was somehow unreasonable. I didn’t know what else to do. Quite frankly, I’ve never had to deal with this type of a situation before and I do not handle confrontation or conflict very well (Yes, yes. I know I’m a coward. What can I say?). I REALLY didn’t want to get into the habit of calling a tow truck because who wants to be the guy that everybody hates? I wracked my brain to come up with a possible solution and being the creative person that I am I thought maybe I could keep a small sign which read “reserved” in the backseat of my car. When I left to go somewhere I could place the sign in my spot and when I returned, I could stick it back in my car. I liked this idea because it was unconventional, non-confrontational and, not least important of all, would ensure my spot would be there (ready and waiting for me) whenever I came home. Who knows? Perhaps some of my fellow tenants might even admire my ingenuity and start adopting the practice themselves, right?

Wrong. No such luck.

On the first night of trying this I came home to find another sign attached under my “reserved” sign which said “for a**holes.” Someone had also scribbled “You’re a douche” in red ink on my sign. So, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I actually DID end up becoming the cantankerous tenant that nobody likes and who cares so much about his precious parking space that he just wants to make everyone else’s life miserable. Great. Lucky me.

So, that is why I am writing this letter because I really don’t know what else to do. I am at my wit’s end. I am completely at a loss for what course of action to take next and this is my last resort since, as I said, I don’t plan to start calling any tow trucks anytime soon. I guess I am just trying to appeal to the better natures of everyone here. Am I really being unreasonable? Is it actually so absurd to want others to respect a person’s space in such a manner? Am I expecting too much of my fellow man? If so, please, feel free to tell me. I admit I would like it if I could park in my own spot whenever I wish although, to be honest, I’d be willing to go back to the “first-come/first-serve” parking method as long as we can ALL agree on that. In the meantime, I shall refrain from using the sign that seemed to ignite such fury in people and I shall also stop placing notices on windshields since they don’t seem to do much good either. If you still wish to think me an “a**hole” or a “douche,” I guess that’s your choice. I won’t try to stop you. Just believe me when I say that I’m not really that bad of a guy once you get to know me. Really.

Anyway, I know this was a long letter and I apologize for that. Brevity has never been my strong suit. At any rate, I thank you for your time, attention and patience and hope you have a wonderful rest of the day with nobody taking anything that belongs to you. Oops! Sorry. Couldn’t resist. :)


The A**hole in Room #7

They say a person should get to know their neighbors, but I never anticipated it would happen like this.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Hitchcock Story

As part of the Alfred Hithcock Blog-a-thon, I thought I would post a story I wrote about a year ago when I had a lot of spare time on my hands. Though you may wonder at first what on earth this peculiar tale could possibly have to do with the late great Alfred Hitchcock, I am confident that by the end of it you will understand. Enjoy.

I want to set the record straight about my friend Harry Durant.

The American press has labeled him as “rich and strange” because he was known not only for being incredibly wealthy, which is an easy virtue to acquire, but for frequently behaving in the most bizarre and inconsistent manner. He would, for example, have no difficulty standing atop a tall skyscraper or a mountain cliff, but would avoid ever getting on a stepladder because of what he called his “extreme vertigo.” He also had no problem addressing a television camera knowing that literally hundreds of millions of people were watching him, but was completely incapable of making a speech in front of more than 10 people due to his “severe case of stage fright.”

Harry was perhaps best known for occasionally losing all self-control over the most seemingly random, insignificant things, his most notorious episode being his last one. Some have kindly said that he was merely eccentric. Others have called him flat-out, certifiably insane. However, I know the real truth. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Harry Durant was neither of these things.

In the summer of ’44 my wife, Marnie, and I had accompanied Harry on a trip to the Caribbean. For several weeks we stayed at the Jamaica Inn. Apparently Harry had been a lodger there before and called it “a fine establishment.” One evening the three of us were up in my room (Number 17) having a wonderful time talking, laughing, drinking champagne and listening to some of Strauss’ waltzes from Vienna on the radio. He started explaining to us the rules of something called the skin game, which apparently he learned how to play during his travels in Europe, when I happened to look over my shoulder and notice a couple of birds (a juno and a paycock) landing on the outside balcony. Harry also caught sight of the birds and suddenly went completely berserk. In a frenzy he ran toward the window screaming (which frightened both of them off), grabbed the curtains and ripped them to shreds. He stopped and stood there for several seconds holding the torn curtain in his hands and breathing heavily.

My wife and I just sat there completely spellbound by this outburst. I started to think Harry might just be joking around, but I soon realized he was deadly serious because at that moment there was a knock at the door. Harry ran to the door and opened it. Standing on the other side was a sweet, handsome young couple from an adjoining room. They introduced themselves as John and Jane Smith and asked us to please keep it down as they were on their honeymoon. Harry took one look at Mr. Smith and yelled, “I knew it! I knew you were here!” The Smiths just stood there looking totally confused while Harry continued. “Don’t pretend you don’t remember me! We met several years back as strangers on a train while traveling North by Northwest through Allied territory! You were posing as a foreign correspondent, but I later learned that you were really a saboteur! You blew up the Manxman Express. Killed hundreds of innocent people! I barely survived. Well, this time you won’t get away so easily!”

What occurred next was a sequence of events that I shall never forget. In fact, I can recall every single detail as if it were all happening in front of me again right now. The lady vanishes (probably running out to get some help) and Mr. Smith tries to convince Harry that he’s got the wrong man! “No, No. You’re mistaken. I’m only a farmer! Really!” he pleads, but Harry won’t listen.

“You can’t fool me! I know it’s you! I’d recognize your face anywhere! You stole the Paradine Case documents and tried to blackmail the U.S government into surrendering!” I told Harry to relax, but Harry just wasn’t having it. He turned to me and said “He’s part of the ring of German conspirators dedicated to destroying America and all it stands for. We must stop him! Call the police!” Then with a horrifying giggle, Harry pulled out a gun (which I didn’t even know he had on him), pointed it at Mr. Smith and said, “In fact, Dial ‘M’ for “murder.”

“What?” I shouted. “Harry, are you out of your mind?” At this point, Mr. Smith suddenly turned and ran away down the hall. Harry took off in hot pursuit.

“Harry, come back here!” I called out. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To catch a thief and a murderer!” he shouted back. At that moment, the farmer’s wife returned with hotel security, saw the predicament that her poor husband was in and joined in on the chase. So, Mr. Smith, Harry, Mrs. Smith and the security men all ran down the 39 steps leading from the second story to the hotel lobby, out the front door, across the lawn and toward the boat docks. I decided to stay in the room. Looking out the rear window, I could see Mr. Smith in the distance jump into a lifeboat, untie the rope and start to row away. Harry dove into the water to swim after him. He almost caught up to the boat when, to my shock and horror, he was suddenly attacked and eaten by a shark. That was the end of my friend Harry.

Several weeks later, I attended Harry’s funeral back in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. I stood next to his sister Rebecca and watched as her brother’s body was lowered into their family plot. After the ceremony, I tried to console her. I spoke of how he was a good man, I told her how sorry I was and that I wished I could have done something to prevent this terrible tragedy. She said nothing. She just stared silently at the grave for a long, long time. Finally, I decided to leave her alone to mourn. As I turned to go, she spoke.

“Did you happen to see the morning edition today?” she asked stopping me in my tracks.

“I confess that I have not,” I responded somewhat bewildered. She held up a copy of their local newspaper (The Daily Capricorn). On the front page, right under “Capricorn,” was a story about a Nazi criminal, code-named Topaz, and his female assistant that were picked up on suspicion of sabotage and murder. Apparently, they traveled the world posing as man and wife and using trained birds to carry secret messages back to their co-conspirators. Lo and behold, right below the headline there was a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Smith being taken away in handcuffs. “I don’t believe it,” I said, “Harry was right. They were enemy spies! But they seemed so young and innocent!”

I was dumbfounded, speechless, but most of all, I was ashamed. How could I possibly have ever doubted my friend Harry Durant? He was not a madman. He was a hero. He was a secret agent working undercover protecting our country… and I didn’t believe him.

His sister took the paper out of my hands, folded it, placed it under her arm and turned to leave. She stopped, looked back at me one last time and said quietly, “You see, the trouble with Harry was not that he was psycho. He was simply a man who knew too much.”

I paused. “The original or the remake?”

She smiled. “Both.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Do you want to go see a James Bond movie?"

I was seven years old.

It was the summer of '83 and my family and I were visiting my grandparents in New Jersey. I am a little fuzzy as to some of the details, but I seem to recall my mother and grandmother had taken my brother and sister on a walk to get some ice cream or something. I was at the house with my father and grandfather (whom I believe was taking a nap). I do, however, vividly remember sitting on the front porch and being bored out of my mind when my dad stepped through the door and asked me:

"So, Damian, do you want to go see a James Bond movie?"

I had never seen a James Bond movie. I had never even heard the name "James Bond" before. I honestly thought he was referring to an actor. He might as well have asked me if I wanted to go see a "John Wayne movie" for all the difference it would have made. Still, whoever was in it, it was a movie and I loved going to the movies. It got me out of the house and saved me from boredom.

When we arrived at the theatre I remember seeing some large, and rather striking, photos hanging in the lobby. One, in particular, featured a man who looked like he was trapped in a giant spider web. I turned to my dad and asked excitedly, "Is that the movie we're seeing?" He nodded. We entered the auditorium and, to my dismay, we were apparently a little late because the movie had already started. Up on the screen was that same man flying around in a small jet with a heat-seeking missle in "hot" pursuit. Even at that young age I knew that, for there to be so much action occurring up on the screen, we had to be either well into the movie or, worse, it was nearly over. I got upset. "We missed it!" I cried. My dad said, "No, no, Damian. It just started." I kept protesting but he just kept assuring me that we hadn't really missed anything yet.

We took our seats. The man in the jet eluded the missle (blowing up a building in the process), noticed that his fuel guage was blinking "empty," landed the jet, pulled up to a gas station where an old man was sitting in a rocking chair, popped the hatch, leaned out and said, with a wry smile, "Fill 'er up, please." Suddenly the opening credits started. I was dumbfounded. My dad was right. I looked at him and said, "How did you know?" I assumed that he must have seen the movie already, but he told me he hadn't. So, how did he know? He knew because he was aware of something then that I was not aware of (but am now): namely, that every James Bond movie opens up with an exciting action sequence before the main titles.

I don't remember a whole lot more of that afternoon except that during the chase scene through the streets of New Delhi my dad whispered to me, "I love the music." and proceeded to hum along with the score. Again, I wondered how he knew the music without having seen the movie before and, again, he knew because of what I also know now: that every James Bond movie, at some point, features the "James Bond theme," an instantly recognizable, super-cool piece of music that perfectly captures the essence of its title character. From that day on I was hooked on Bond movies.

I have since learned that the movie I saw that day was called Octopussy (one of the more provocative Bond titles), that the man portraying James Bond was named Roger Moore and that he was not the first to play the role but was rather the third in a collection of actors that currently numbers six (not including the "unofficial" entries), the other five being Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.

I've also, since then, watched every single Bond film at least a dozen times and made sure to see each subsequent entry in the theatre. If there is one movie series about which I am most fanatical, this would probably be it..... more so even than Back to the Future, Godfather, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings and probably Star Wars (although that's a close one). I realize that, although it has the distinction of being the longest running movie series in cinema history (spanning over 40 years and 20 films), it is not the deepest movie series. A Bond movie is pretty much always a work of fluff. As Roger Ebert said, "If it is not great art, it is great entertainment" and that's what I get out of them. They're fun. They maye be more fun for guys than for girls, but being a guy I am not ashamed to say that I love them.

This Friday the new Bond film Casino Royale, the last entry to be based on an Ian Fleming novel, will be released and it will introduce a new Bond actor. You can bet that I will be there on opening night, because whenever I see that familiar gunbarrel logo, listen to that jazzy guitar riff or hear those three memorable words ("Bond, James Bond"), I feel like I'm seven years old again.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

My First Blog

I was so excited to finally have my very own blog that I had tremendous difficulty coming up with an appropriate topic with which to launch it. For nearly a month I wrestled with what to write about. I listed several possibilities and meditated on the numerous insights I could offer into each of them. I thought my most promising subject was the ever-changing face of technology (I even had a great title picked out: "I'm Being Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into the Twenty-first Century"). Before making my final decision, however, I wanted to be certain that I wasn't misusing my blog. I figured there was no point in starting this whole thing off on the wrong foot. The truth of the matter is, I didn't even know for sure what a blog was. I had heard the term many times, and had even used it myself on occasion, but never actually bothered to learn its strict definition. I began to wonder how many people, including those who regularly keep one, truly know. I had come to assume it was simply an outlet for those who didn't have a TV/radio show or newspaper/magazine column to share their thoughts and feelings about what's happening in the world. I thought a blog was a way of providing a voice for those individuals who couldn't otherwise get the attention of hordes of people, a way for them to reach others (lots of others) with their ideas and opinions. I soon found out that it can be that, but it doesn't have to be.

For the benefit of those who still may not know, "blog" is short for "web log," i.e. a log kept on the web. Obviously this does not refer to the kind of log a lumberjack would send down a river, but rather (for those who never watched Star Trek) a kind of journal or diary. This discovery relaxed me a bit. The pressure of finding the "perfect topic" and writing the "perfect first blog" was taken off. A blog entry does not need to be a professional writer's column or a college essay paper. I mean, how many folks write in their diary as if they were Thomas Paine? I need not wax eloquent about deep ideas and profound truths. I can come on and write completely stupid and inane remarks about nothing. (as many do). I also don't have to write paragraphs and paragraphs of words. I can be short and sweet (as many are). I could get on and write, "Hey there! Just got back from Tucson. Wanted to let y'all know. Later!" or "Whoa! I never realized before how hot Bea Arthur is. I am so drunk right now..." and they would both be legitimate blog entries. In other words, a blog is whatever the blogger wants it to be. Thus, I resolved to make my very first blog a simple, straightforward announcement, a mere: "Hello, everyone. Here I am. Stay tuned," and leave it at that

But I couldn't.

The truth is I can't get excited about engaging in an activity, especially a semi-regular one, unless I believe it to be in some way substantive. There's nothing wrong with wasting time, of course, but it's hard for me to do. I find it difficult to put any effort into something that seems, in my eyes, to be completely empty and inconsequential. If it is devoid of value, perhaps it isn't worthy of my energy in the first place. How could I possibly write meaningless drivel when I have a genuine opportunity to say something that might even get someone out there in the world to actually think about what I find significant? I would be a fool not to at least take this somewhat seriously.

If a blog is whatever one wants it to be, then I decided to make this particular blog a greeting and a warning. If you choose to continue reading this, you ought to be prepared. Most likely, there will be very little fluff in my blog. I will try not to allow it to become bloated with the self-importance of a fellow hoping to win a Pulitzer, nor delude myself into thinking I could possibly "change the world" with this "powerful and influential tool of education." However, I will also strive to value the effect of this newfound medium of communication and not take lightly the responsibility that comes with possessing a means of self-expression that has the potential to reach the masses.

So... "Hello, everyone. Here I am. Stay tuned."