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.