sometimes you feel so connected to a piece of art that you start to wonder what you were like before encountering it. such is the case with me and the work of MEL BROOKS in general. as i think i mentioned before in my REVIEW of SPACEBALLS (BROOKSFILMS, 1987), my first viewing of his movies was early, like around kindergarten.
so that should explain quite a bit about me.
i remember during one of my first semesters at RUTGERS UNIVERSITY as an undergraduate attending a required class that was focused on the gifted and all-too-human cultural prodigy that was PAUL ROBESON. somehow with a fellow classmate, who was AFRICAN-AMERICAN, i got into a heated discussion about whether or not BROOKS was racist. if you haven't seen BLAZING SADDLES (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), it is a send-up of WESTERN films in the tradition of JOHN FORD, HOWARD HAWKS, JOHN WAYNE, ANTHONY MANN, etc. and really just eviscerates them. the language alone is something that likely wouldn't be allowed in today's political and cultural climate, as it regularly used racial epithets and ethnic, gender and sexuality-oriented slurs. but you have to ask at whose expense in the film. the answer to that is the white men. the only people being debased and pilloried in BLAZING SADDLES are the dumbass white frontier folk (men, women, young and old) that use it.
during those arguments i eventually won given that i mentioned that one of the co-writers of the screenplay was none other than RICHARD PRYOR, arguably the greatest comedian of all-time (he has my vote). if you didn't know, he's also black. years later i watched the director's comments by BROOKS and learned that all the great one-liners in the film are more or less PRYOR's, but the racist stuff was all BROOKS. hilarious.
i understand that now life is more complicated given that foolish people think that given media where people use unfortunate language that somehow gives them permission to do the same. i am talking about white people here. this phenomena is something famously that CHRIS ROCK, DAVE CHAPPELLE and countless other comics of color have had to deal with over the years, white appropriation. forget about it now in the age of TRUMP. so i get why this film still chafes at people.
but for its ability to utterly annihilated the tropes of a bullshit genre that was created to showcase the primitive superiority of the white man (a la MANIFEST DESTINTY), i am a huge fan of this film in its original savage context. not how a moronic TRUMPIST may misinterpret it and weaponize it for their own regressive agenda.
its funny, when my brother and i were both attending high school in KUWAIT roughly 20 years ago our middle eastern peers were largely naive about AMERICAN culture and pretty much anything that wasn't related to that isolated oil-rich hellhole. my brother had a binder that carried a printed out picture of JOHN TURTURRO's epic bowling nemesis from the THE BIG LEWBOWSKI (WORKING TITLE, 1998) and his KUWAITI classmates would ask him who that was. he'd cooly reply "that's Jesus" to which they'd inquire confusedly "THAT's JESUS?!"
THE COEN BROTHERS are masters of playing with genre expectations and THE BIG LEWBOWSKI is a great example of them experimenting with the cinematic form of NOIR films and their ROMAN NOIR literary antecedent. NOIR films were largely created in a post-WWII climate where the world order was being rebuilt and the role of men was being challenged and rethought along economic, cultural and social considerations. the literary analogue to this genre predates WWII. usually there is a single male who throughout the film is fighting a series of outside forces that include government agencies (of the secretive variety), the media and (of course) women. women in particular are depicted as agents of destruction, i.e. femme fatales, who use their sexuality to attempt to derail our hero from his goal. of course its bullshit, but its a construction that is dear to a genre that at its heart is questioning what identifies masculinity when their hegemonic influence is questioned in a patriarchal society.
what makes THE BIG LEWBOWSKI so interesting is that instead of a determined, idealized male protagonist that rises to the occasion to supersede these overwhelming forces, we are instead given JEFF "THE DUDE" LEBOWSKI, an aging inept stoner with no will to effect change on the world other than his commitments to his bowling league and listening to CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL. he is the personification of ineffective masculinity, yet he is the protagonist that meanders his way through a convoluted plot of outside forces that he inept to deal with any reasonable capacity. that is the core of its humor and humanity.
i think i identified with that character not for his slacker-ness but his being thrown into crazy situations, much like i had at that point survived NIGERIA and boarding school.
LEBOWSKI throughout the film is manipulated by more sophisticated and devious counterparts, including another high-achieving JEFFREY LEBOWSKI who is nonetheless crippled and cuckolded by his barely legal porn star wife. even his doppelgänger or mirrored-self is compromised. much like his inability to effect change, the film also just kind of ends where it begins, and endless loop of inadequacy and mediocrity.
a film that never really ends or begins. no character development. no lessons learned.
great film well worth watching on repeat. i have since i was a teenager.
i am a total fanboy of DIVINE and JOHN WATERS.
i mean really. if you check out any of their trashy EXPLOITATION filmography from the 1970s, movies like PINK FLAMINGOS (DREAMLAND, 1972) and DESPERATE LIVING (DREAMLAND, 1977) or even more obscure earlier fare like MULTIPLE MANIACS (DREAMLAND, 1970) and MONDO TRASHO (DREAMLAND, 1969) you will not be disappointed.
my favorite out of the bunch is FEMALE TROUBLE (DREAMLAND, 1974) which depicts the life of a BALTIMORE teenager seeking attention throughout her life and ultimately commits murder for the sole motivation of becoming notorious.
for me this film is a bitter take on TABLOID culture in much the same way as BILLY WILDER's ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951) eviscerated yellow journalism a generation before. WATERS saw the future of the AMERICAN SOUL and the lowest common denominator in cultural terms as the concept of infamy being a goal in and of itself predates today's online social media culture where people are famous for being famous and being "on brand." DIVINE is psychotic as all hell in this film and the DREAMLAND cast, as always, keep the film grounded in its debased underbelly like a more deranged and conked-out alternate versions of ANDY WARHOL's superstars.
the look, the acting, the humor and the caustic message about the nature of the media and the vacuous nature of seeking fame in this film is all textbook JOHN WATERS and is why FEMALE TROUBLE has been a touchstone of my movie-viewing habits since my teen years.
this film is required viewing in my opinion.
i revisited the SCI-FI classic LOGAN's RUN (MGM, 1976) the other day and was again intrigued by its depiction of a future dystopia where all inhabitants are genetically modified to maximize pleasure, only to be discarded in public once they turn 30. what hit me about this film was its critique of ritual and the dislodging effects of free love culture.
to mark the end of a class of the population, there was an elaborate sports-like spectacle called "carousel" in an arena where participants where systematically killed off in hopes of being reincarnated. the implications of such a display are obviously barbarous, but the fact that such had been normalized via its status as an embedded ritual in society made it easy to gloss over on behalf of its inhabitants. reminds me in a way of how we choose to perceive pugilistic sports (MMA, NFL, boxing) and war as competitions rather than life-altering experiences that forever change the mental, emotional and physical capacities of its participants.
the other interesting bit about this film is how everyone is supposedly engineered to be equally desirable and sexually available for all takers, male or female. ironically, a world free of sexual prudishness and boundaries has lost the ability to connect. a world free of adults and children is rudderless, guilt-free world with no responsibility. perhaps this was a critique of the free love and commune movements of the late 60s where unconventional living and partnering relationships were experimented with for a time. i dont know how i feel about that one. i have friends from childhood who participated in kibutzim in ISRAEL and others in NIGERIA that had extended families via their father's other wives. they all seemed to be well-adjusted despite having multiple "parents." interesting thought none the less.
last thing i'll say about this film is that the youth-obsessive nature of the narrative made me immediately think of my experiences KOREA and JAPAN, where KAWAII culture has infantilized the population and really devalued people once they moved past puberty. its unhealthy and their suicide rates among teens and depreciating birth rates among adults proves such.
why cant we just value the whole spectrum of human development. where does that come from?
art by nacrowe
who doesnt love EXPLOITATION films?
i for one always appreciated their directness in selling you the base, lowest-common denominator entertainment based on sex, race and other issues deemed to taboo to be touched upon by the prudish gatekeepers of modern culture. RUSS MEYER's landmark FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (RM FILMS, 1965) is an iconic underground film that follows three go-go dancers on a murder and kidnapping spree through the deserts of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.
this film has influenced countless films in its wake, most notably those where women use their appearances to switch the tables on gender roles and exploit their oppressors in the process. this plot is still mined to this day as seen most recently in HUSTLERS with JENNIFER LOPEZ and CARDI B, where MANHATTAN strippers exploit their WALL STREET patrons in the wake of the market collapse of 2008. it begs the question of who is exploiting who?
awesome, totally underrated film that everyone should view. can't say that for the rest of MEYER's output.
there is something to be said about that brief transition period at the end of high school when the world is seemingly opening up yet becoming more complex. TERRY ZWIGGOFF's GHOST WORLD (GRANADA FILM, 2001) really nails the feeling of that era completely, and i should know since this film came out right at that very moment for me.
as a senior in high school i found myself in northern CALIFORNIA living with a relative in the aftermath of 9/11 and very much felt that my experience abroad gave me a different perspective than the parochial concerns of white-bread middle AMERICA. i'll admit it, i looked down on SACRAMENTO. in some ways i still do.
the two outcasts played by THORA BIRCH and SCARLET JOHANSSON, based on the DANIEL CLOWES' graphic novel of the same name, are over-educated and underachieving and encounter life with a joking, sarcastic distance that is as much about fear and insecurity as it is about late-teen bravado.
what makes this film click are their encounters with STEVE BUSCEMI's middle-aged character who is a seeming loser in love, career and life in general and whose immeasurable pain gives him a real gravitas that essentially brings BIRCH into his orbit. she is like a vampire feasting on his despair but ultimately that backfires.
there is a FLANNERY O'CONNOR short story i have been attempting to find that has a similar plot in that a man pursues a woman he doesn't find attractive only to fall in love and have her leave him. been looking for a title on that one for a few days now, but can't locate it as of yet. that sort of push and pull is very much at the heart of GHOST WORLD and i would argue all adult relationships.
that conflict between fantasy and reality and coming to terms with life and reality for what it is, not what it should be.
great film. worth checking out definitely.
MILOS FORMAN's masterful film AMADEUS (ORION PICTURES, 1984) follows the life and career of childlike musical prodigy WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART from the envious perspective of his "rival," 18th century VENITIAN composer ANTONIO SALIERI. despite the fact that this rivalry is up for serious dispute by historians, in this film it functions as a useful tool in examining the nature of genius.
when confronted with those whose natural gifts for surpass our own, we often superimpose on these people an aura of power and supremacy. i know i am that way whenever i visit a clinic or step on an airplane. to me physicians and pilots are superhuman, when in reality i know that these are just talented people with lots of training and hard work to hone their respective crafts. but what if they didn't necessarily work for their position. what if it was just innate and furthermore, what if they acted immature about their stature.
to me this is the crux of AMADEUS. MOZART is depicted as a spoiled, lustful, immature, self-absorbed twit who also happens to me a musical prodigy of the first order. in SALIERI we see a composer that used his limited ability and gifts to rise up the ranks via sheer willpower and attention to his craft over years of diligent training and self-examination. he is the embodiment of the puritan ethic and yet he is outshined by this impetuous imp.
anyone entering this film has a cursory knowledge of the work of MOZART and his legacy as a seminal pillar in the western cultural tradition and very likely unfamiliar with a minor historical footnote like SALIERI, yet the film confronts us to have conflicting emotions about the two and who has value.
despite its supposed historical inaccuracies, for me this film is an incredible examination of the nature of genius and the cult of adoration that follows. obviously genius isn't bestowed on those that deserve it, but each time i look past the unfortunate aspects of people that i admire, whether that be MORRISSEY, MILES DAVIS, JAMES BROWN, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR or even CHUCK BERRY, i consider this film and how it illustrates that at the end of the day these are still just people.
i remember back in 2011 i was dominating my fantasy football league because of this surprise tight end on the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS was dominating the NFL. that tight end was AARON HERNANDEZ. my thought process was basically that quarterback TOM BRADY was so efficient that all of his possible receivers would have inflated stats and as it turned out i was correct. the other tight end ROB GRONKOWSKI was a high pick in every draft but HERNANDEZ was a sleeper. the next year i chose him again when oddly partway through the season he stopped because he was being investigated in a homicide. jokingly i remember complaining that of course this happens to my team, but quickly i realized that most in my position in all likelihood did not share my healthy distance from my own competitive self-interests.
i think one of the key components that make KILLER INSIDE: THE MIND OF AARON HERNANDEZ (NETFLIX, 2020) such a deeply distubing documentary is the culpability of all of us in this game that literally grinds up men and chews them out as broken shadows of their former selves. to me that was the bottom line as told through the story of a deeply troubled player with questionable morals that succeeded and was given no guardrails or boundaries due to his athletic prowess and our collective cult-like adoration to modern athletes.
this devotion is hollow in that none of us truly care about these players once they leave the field of play. think about that for a minute. we use these men.
HERNANDEZ throughout the 3-hour, 3-part documentary is shown to be a freak athlete who suffered through family chaos, repressed sexuality and a diminished control over his emotions that was almost certainly a result of CTE due to concussions going back to high school. this is not to say that the film offers him excuses for his actions, it doesnt. its conceit is that he had agency and made terrible choices based on a myriad of underlying issues that complicated his sense of identity and position in society. the murders he was accused of conducting were heinous and senseless and beyond tragic, as those he lashed out against were normal working-class people unassociated with any underworld connections.
you just get the feeling that this guy needed help at every stage in his development and all anyone saw in him was dollar signs. as consumers we are all implicated in the bloodsport that is AMERICAN football and the NCAA and the NFL are both hollow organizations that cater to this impulse for violence. at some point we have to come to terms with the sport and the wake of human wreckage it leaves behind. notwithstanding is the equally brutal, almost spartan, connotations it provides in celebrating a particular strain of toxic masculinity to the youth that isn't representative, fair or healthy.
real bravery is living your truth and taking responsibility for your actions. not violence. the NFL is a scourge on our society. they know they profit from and celebrate human carnage. can't help but muse over the spiraling lasting societal effects of a generation of athletes dealing with undiagnosable traumatic brain injuries. the effects on their wives, husbands, children, siblings, parents and loved ones.
powerful film well worth investigating. highly recommended.
for me, SOFIA COPPOLA's acclaimed film LOST IN TRANSLATION (FOCUS FEATURES, 2003) is one of the few films that vividly evokes the displacement that occurs to one's psyche and sense of identity when being abroad. being a THIRD CULTURE KID growing up overseas i am acutely aware of that heightened sense of awareness, especially regarding mannerisms, patterns and thought processes given that happen when you are aware of your own foreignness to your immediate surroundings. it takes some getting used to and some people lose the plot along the way.
speaking of which, for me this film is much less about the plot as it is about that need for connection and sense of home when you are far from anything familiar. i've seen it play tricks on people, especially in PEACE CORPS were relationships happened out of seeming necessity, both partners connected by this unique experience with all the excitement and fear of their new predicament mirrored in a newfound affection. but once the situation normalized and became routine, these same people regretted these trysts as they were initiated during a moment of weakness and insecurity.
in the film, the two main characters find each other despite outside considerations like marital status or age difference. being in TOKYO somehow alleviates them of their past identity.
in my mind the film raises the question of the extent to which our individual identity is fluid and contextualized based on external cues. choices you would never make back home are presented anew in a foreign context.
having been home for 2+ years now since living abroad for 8, i have the opposite problem. its beyond reverse culture shock at this point, my normal is being in an unfamiliar surrounding. maybe that is why i gravitate to this film.
if you haven't seen it, definitely seek it out.
with our country again on the brink of another needless war brought on by hubris and greed, i went back and rewatched ERROL MORRIS' masterful documentary THE FOG OF WAR (SONY PICTURES CLASSICS, 2003) in which he interviewed former secretary of defense (under both JFK and LBJ) and effective VIETNAM WAR architect, ROBERT S. MCNAMARA. MORRIS employs his combative style whereby he forgoes KEN BURNS-style narration and just directly confronts his subject from an off-camera vantage point. in effect he acts has surrogate of the audience, which is an engaging tactic. in this film it functions as a way of controlling the narrative and challenges the opinions of MCNAMARA, who had his own agenda.
nearing the end of his life, MCNAMARA used this interview as vehicle to both reflect on his controversial career in government and impart hard-fought wisdom on future decision-makers in WASHINGTON, specifically those tasked with matters of war and peace. so in a sense this film is heavy.
he goes about drawing out 11 LESSONS from his participation in VIETNAM. they include:
that was a lot of material to just throw out there i am aware, but what interests me now about our current situation are the first two lessons, which basically can summarized as put yourself in the shoes of your enemy and attempt to understand the forces that drive their decisions, both geopolitically and domestically. this documentary came out in the aftermath of the disastrous 2003 decision to go to war with IRAQ, which itself was made without a clear understanding (and i would characterize it more directly as "blatant disregard") of the regional, cultural and historical context of which we were attempting to effect. funny enough, the SECRETARY OF DEFENCE involved with that decision, DONLAD RUMSFELD is the subject of another MORRIS documentary entitled THE KNOWN UNKNOWN (MOXIE FILMS, 2013). unlike MCNAMARA, RUMSFELD is the living embodiment of obfuscation and weaseling from responsibility. he is a lesser man.
what scares me now is that we have descended even further down the rabbit hole from RUMSFELD, who manipulated information but valued it. today we are entering a reality where the only reality that matters is that of DONALD TRUMP and his misguided sycophants and enablers. i am scared and for good reason. MCNAMARA encourages us to see past our confirmation biases and have as wide a net of perspectives involved when considering violent action on a state level. those perspectives include that of our enemy.
at this current juncture in history, the only line that demarcates enemy from ally is who coddles the delusions of our commander in chief. shame on MIKE PENCE, MIKE POMPEO, STEPHEN MILLER, JARED KUSHNER, STEPHEN BANNON, IVANKA TRUMP, RUPERT MURDOCH, RUSH LIMBAUGH, SEAN HANNITY, LAURA INGRAHAM, MARK LEVIN, TUCKER CARLSON, MITCH MCCONNELL, KEVIN MCCARTHY and the entire REPUBLICAN contingent in both houses of CONGRESS.
may history judge you harshly for enabling this clown to run roughshod over our constitution and sully our flag in the eyes of the world. shame on you.