CHARLIE CHAPLIN seems to get all the shine.
much of it deservedly so, especially given the transcendent greatness of films like MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR with which he used to levy criticism at capitalism and fascism at the height of his powers. it one thing to be supremely gifted and something completely different to take big risks and potentially bite the hand that feeds by critiquing your new country as an immigrant (see SPOTLIGHT on BILLY WILDER).
all that being said, watching BUSTER KEATON is akin to listening to LEADBELLY or HOWLIN' WOLF recording. at first you are mesmerized by the power of the art and then it hits you eventually how primitive the means of production where when this was made. in a sense it becomes that much more authentic and pure in its intention, although you eventually come to realize to them this was just what you did. one take. one microphone.
same with watching KEATON who wrote and directed his film which often display staggering set-pieces with stunts and acrobatics that are still thrilling and mesmerizing. when you see him throwing multiple logs from a moving train to display other logs lying on the tracks, that was actually him doing that.
whenever i feel like i've seen it all i tend to look back, way back to the early days of cinema (HAROLD LLOYD, GEORGES MÉLIÈS, JOSEF VON STERNBERG, ERICH VON STROHEIM) because there you really get a sense of the creative abandonment and potential they say in their craft. the rules hadn't been set yet.
and that's a nice place to be creatively for any artist.
at the heart of RIDLEY SCOTT's transcendent DYSTOPIAN film BLADE RUNNER (THE LADD COMPANY, 1982) is the question of what defines our humanity? what actually makes us human? loosely based on PHILIP K. DICK's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (DOUBLEDAY, 1968), this film follows a bounty hunter in a future dystopia where technology has advanced to the point that mass produced androids called replicants are used for their labor. equipped with a conscious and prefabricated memories, some of these subjects have circumvented their end dates, thus necessitating a bounty hunter (known here as a blade runner) to find and kill them.
i could go on about the revolutionary special effects and set pieces that define the look of this film, but it is my opinion that what really makes this film a touchstone for future generations are the concerns it brings up. in our modern day with modern genetics and CRISPR technology that allow us to modify the human genome to our will, it is important to consider what will be lost in the process. are we defined by our creator? are we pre-designated to serve a certain function or are we free actors allowed to explore our agency? what makes this film inspires is that there is an open question of whether HARRISON FORD's character (who is a blade runner) is himself a replicant. is the enforcer even in charge of his own will or is he too just serving the purpose of another higher entity.
when i look to the future all i see is BLADE RUNNER. this film did not foresee the internet, but i nonetheless it did see a future where information is a tool of power and identity. and that is something i see today that reduce us all to consumers that can be defined with an algorithm based on our spending habits, social media posts and spending habits. we are already defined by our reciepts in this new economy but the downsides insofar have been pretty mild to benign in nature on a personal level. i think that'll change and our agency will be in question once techniques are used to influence our decision-making, whether economically or politically. we are only in the beginning stages.
once it is in full bloom we will all be replicants in a sense. we will all be created by our environment into information consumers with a purpose we don't even envision.
that to me is the legacy of BLADE RUNNER. an absolutely can't miss, must-watch film.
so back in the early 2000s i'm at RUTGERS and somewhere along the way i ended up writing a series of film reviews for their student newspaper THE DAILY TARGUM. i loved the rush of seeing your stuff in print and still have copies of somewhere in my parents basement. it was a pretty sweet deal since i normally chose limited-run films that only showed at NYC landmarks like the ANGELIKA FILM CENTER and the FILM FORUM and the newspaper covered travel and admission costs. i essentially got free trips to the city. what a great time i had.
at some point i moved up from reviews to features and ultimately only got to do two of them. one was an interview with animator NICK PARK for a WALLACE & GROMIT film (which i will probably write about a some future point). the other was a phone interview with TIM ROBBINS. and that dude was a dick.
this is the story of that conversation.
studios usually seek out college newspapers as they service directly the much desired target demographic of college students. such is why their PR firms gave us access to their directors, actors, etc as a means of promotion. at the time ROBBINS was promoting some theater project of which i will not specify (as i still do not want to give his project any, albeit delayed by decades, publicity) that he had directed and filmed from multiple angles as part of some "punk rock opera" or whatever forced, lame term he devised at the time.
what i participated in was a group phone interview among several other college writers from NYU, COLUMBIA and HARVARD. the way this works is that the order of questioning is derived by the order you call in to the interview. now here is where it got interesting. ROBBINS' film had no distribution. normally the paper would be sent a promotional copy or be given tickets to a screening. not here with this project, i was going in blind. turns out, so was everyone else.
somehwere i have a lost tape of this interview and i should attempt to locate it, because in there i have ROBBINS condescendingly dismissing my question along with everyone else's. at some point he asked why he was even talking to us. the HARVARD writer adroitly asked questions based on a recent NY TIMES' review and that really set ROBBINS' off, asking the writer if she knew the writer personally. which was odd.
i remember leaving the interview dejected thinking "damn, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the low point of my college career." after sharing the interview tape with my editors this quickly turned to "wow, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the high point of my college career." i wrote a piece that took him to task for being a prick and not giving us the materials we needed to ask him informed questions, but ultimately i didn't want to give him any publicity.
do i hold a grudge against the guy? not really. maybe he was having a bad day. i just thought he came off particularly arrogant and completely devoid of any compassion to a bunch of lowly college writers looking to potentially promote his project. you would think communicating to us his passion for this personal film would be the objective, but no, putting us in our place for not appreciating his craft seemed a better use of his time. i don't care that i agree with his politics. dude was a dick.
so i attended NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON. its a private boarding school in GILL, MASSACHUSETTS and when i attended it had two campuses and a student population nearing 2,000. in the years since its cut both the number of campuses and student population in half and is part of the exclusive EIGHT SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION, a self-contained IVY LEAGUE-like association of northeastern prep schools that includes CHOATE, PHILIPS EXETER, PHILIPS ANDOVER and the like.
i was there for two years and without doubt those two years changed me. academically it challenged me in a way nothing before or since has, including college and grad school. it also exposed me to the rotting core of white privilege and intergenerational power and wealth. i attended classes with the sons and daughters of film directors, national politicians, authors, lawyers, CEOs, drug kingpins (no joke) and foreign dictators. it was heady stuff and still is. whenever i see TRUMP speak it reminds me of half a dozen assholes i went to high school with who honestly didn't give a shit because they knew they were made for the rest of their lives.
here's an example of that ridiculousness that this place was, and no doubt still is. i was in my freshman english class and a classmate got a call on his mobile phone and let the teacher know he had to take it. i distinctly remember him saying "i'm sorry, i have to take this. its my mom, in space." he literally walked outside looked up and spoke with his mother who was orbiting overhead above NEW ENGLAND apparently and was being patched in via HOUSTON. just crazy. but that was the norm.
here is another less cheerful example. an upperclassman in my dorm sophomore year was caught selling opiates on campus, but wasn't expelled since his CEO father was giving a speech in a few days about making ethical judgements in business via a speech on the buddhist eight-fold path tenet of right occupation. you can't make this stuff up. and to make it sting of hypocrisy that much more, the fallout ended up being a few scholarship students from the inner-city being dismissed.
when WES ANDERSON's film RUSHMORE (TOUCHSTONE PICTURES, 1998) came out midway through my freshman year it was a revelation because it didn't feel that far removed from my experience, minus the creepy love triangle. there was even a junior that got christened for his bad grades and participation in seemingly everything.
by far the best thing about the film was the BILL MURRAY's epic chapel speech near the beginning of the film where he told the poor kids to "take dead aim on the rich boys, get them in the crosshairs and take them down." this was pre-COLUMBINE, but when that played in my dorm half the students would stare down each other.
watching it now makes me shudder. my time at NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON wasn't ideal, i was bullied harshly with knowing supervisors that turned the other way and "let boys be boys," but at the same time it prepared me for the reality of the world.
a world where the rich stay rich and fuck everyone else. no wonder i joined the PEACE CORPS.
i first watched CLINT EASTWOOD'S first WESTERN directorial effort HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (MALPASO COMPANY, 1973) in a film class during undergrad at RUTGERS and i remember it garnering an immediate reaction on my classmates. if i recall correctly, it pissed off more than half the audience. it is a gloriously un-PC film.
the film deals with an unnamed stranger strolling into a frontier town and basically decimating it after encountering its loutish, corrupt inhabitants, only to walk away alone at the films end. in the script he is named GABRIEL and one can assume that he is meant to be God's wrath smiting down this sin-filled SODOM-like town and burning it to the ground, but this is never stated in the actual film.
for me this film is an enigma because EASTWOOD's character is so vicious yet you root for him, he by definition is the moral center of the film despite his own deplorable actions. case in point: in the first 10 minutes of screen time this unnamed character murders 3 townsfolk in cold blood and rapes a prostitute and yet somehow you still root for him. its awful.
you can't even call this character an anti-hero, he's just a terrible person inflicting pain on other despicable people. for me i'm conflicted and perplexed by this film, which is probably why i have rewatched it several times attempting to figure it out. is it a commentary on the VIETNAM WAR or PROTEST MOVEMENTS then taking place? is he saying that brute force justifies all actions?
i really don't know. i just don't understand how a character can be that awful and still hold moral authority in a film. just on a technical narrative side, that is a neat trick. what such violence is attempting to convey to the viewer? i still don't know but am interested in finding out.
at some point TALKING HEADS frontman and notable NEW YORKER (via Rhode Island) DAVID BYRNE decided to make a film about TEXAS. sounds horrible but TRUE STORIES (WARNER BROS, 1986) is a classic film of its time.
this musical was referenced consistently throughout my childhood, especially BYRNE's obtuse narration of "who cannot say this isn't beautiful?" when speaking about the seeming infinite flat expanse that is the lone star state. literally every time we went to a new country growing up, my father used that line. "everything you see here is typically SOUTH AFRICAN, and who cannot say it isn't beautiful?"
full disclosure: i've never been to TEXAS. its a streak i am hoping to keep. closest i got was the GEORGE BUSH INTERCONTINENTAL AIRPORT in HOUSTON and that was enough. unfortunately i feel like i was partly raised in the south given that for three years in NIGERIA i lived in a guarded company compound full of TEXANS and LOUISIANANS, but that is a story for another entry.
what separates this film from just being an eccentric look at a southern state by an outsider is the soundtrack. what makes the music work is its earnestness and ability to illustrate different aspects of TEXAN culture, from its proud LATINX population to its crazed-apocalyptic evangelical doom-spouting sermonizers to its then-growing construction of new mega-malls brought on by new wealth from the tech and petroleum industries, this film really captures a moment in the AMERICAN psyche where capitalism seemed to potentially provide a means to self-actualization.
or maybe it showcased the insular nature of a pre-internet AMERICAN landscape where basic needs were met for the first time in history and all that is left is the vacuity of media culture to provide meaning. i don't know. its a very interesting film that means something different each time i see it. sometimes i feel BYRNE is viciously satirizing and mocking MIDDLE AMERICAN VALUES while other times it seems he is empathetically presenting an endearing slice of AMERICAN life. it's probably all true. oh shit, see what i did their on accident. that's good stuff.
i should mention that the songs are sung in the film by an impressive cast including JOHN GOODMAN, TITO LARRIVA (THE PLUGZ/TITO & TARANTULA/THE FLESH EATERS), POPS STAPLES (THE STAPLES SINGERS) and, my personal favorite, GENERAL HOSPITAL actor JOHN INGLE as a crazed televangelist preacher spewing crackpot conspiracy horse shit. most people are also suprised to learn that BRITISH INDIE/ALTERNATIVE legends RADIOHEAD derived their name from a song in this film.
regardless, this film is amazing. you should see it whether you are a fan of DAVID BYRNE and/or TALKING HEADS or not. but really you should be a fan of them as well.
ED WOOD (TOUCHSTONE PICTURES, 1994) is my favorite TIM BURTON film despite the fact that it is the least TIM BURTON-like project he ever made (with possible exceptions being BIG FISH or BIG EYES).
this film is a love letter to B-movies of early cinema and the people who made them. for a man known for his elaborate GERMAN EXPRESSIONISTIC set design and macabre EDWARD GOREY-indebted aesthetic, the fact that BURTON during his early peak chose to take on a project that glorified the questionable talents and even more suspect creative vision of such a figure as b-movie director ED D. WOOD JR, who made his filmography under limited budgets (to put it very diplomatically) and with no conceivable audience, was a truly a bold departure and a touching tribute to the essence of film-making.
it is hard not to fall under the spell of WOOD, masterfully depicted by JOHNNY DEPP, and his singular focus to make his magnum opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), which to this day is continually on worst movies of all-time lists (which come to think of it is a feat in and of itself). when i re-watched this recently what struck me was how much this film deals with the production of film-making, the almost fanatic zeal to which WOOD goes about corralling his merry band of enablers strikes me as a commentary on the communal aspects and the trust, risks and responsibilities involved in taking on such an endeavor.
this film also touchingly tackles the trust and communication of a director and his actor, here with MARTIN LANDEAU as washed-up, drugged-out, humiliated later years horror icon BELA LUGOSI. his portrayal is done with much humility and grace and is deeply affecting as it showcases the collateral damage of a defeated human being discarded after his usefulness to a studio he helped build rejects him. that is until he is rediscovered by WOOD who gives him a second lease on communal appreciation before his death.
i think for BURTON this film is meta-observation on the pressures, challenges and potential pitfalls of movie-making, but also its community. for me at least such makes this his most impactful film in a career of high-water marks.
this film is definitely worth your time. for the horror/exploitation/b-movie buff or layman irrespective, this is a truly great achievement.
HAL ASHBY's adaptation of the JERZY KOSIŃSKI novel BEING THERE (UNITED ARTISTS, 1979) starring PETER SELLERS in arguably his greatest role in a career of stellar high points (DR. STRANGELOVE, LOLITA) is truly transcendent film. it follows the career trajectory of a lowly manor servant named CHAUNCEY GARDINER whose whole world literally is a garden he tends on premise to that of the american presidency.
the genius of the novel and the film adaptation is the delight to which it manipulates and delights in the inherent malleability of language to evoke separate meanings to different audiences. throughout the novel, GARDINER answers questions in relation to the one thing he knows about, his master's garden, yet everyone around him identifies in his words parables and coded sage wisdom about foreign policy and international monetary policy.
every time i watch a public event and then see how such gets filtered through our media landscape, whether such be sports, politics or film/tv, it only reinforces this view of mine that meaning is contextual to the audience receiving it.
i feel that KOSIŃSKI knew this loophole implicitly and created a scenario to play out this fantasy to great effect. its numbing that such actually came to pass with the TRUMP era. the idea that this clown can say literally anything and sycophantic echo chambers will deliberate a rationale post hoc is the great sociopolitical challenge of this anonymous, multi-interpretative, post-meaning internet age. to me this narrative gets to the heart of that dilemma and is always painful to watch.
BEING THERE is a great film that should be shown in schools everywhere. please seek it out.