Thursday, November 20, 2014

HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND

Mike Nichols was already a legend when he directed his first film, the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.  As a member of Chicago's Compass Players, he had been at the forefront of the movement towards improvisational comedy, and as a result of that he formed a duet with Elaine May that quite simply helped change the form forever.  From there he easily segued to directing for the theater, where he was responsible for, among other things, the original production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

But all of Nichols' work to that point had involved connecting with a live audience.  Film is a different medium, requiring a great deal more subtlety, and here he was directing a theater piece on celluloid, starring two of the biggest ham actors of all time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  There was almost no way this could work.

He knocked it out of the park.

Of course he did.  Mike Nichols, who has died unexpectedly at the age of  83, was a professional.  Yet he was kind of an odd duck as a filmmaker, since he was never quite an auteur.  He never wrote his own scripts, and his films were often adaptations of plays or novels.  There was no difference in his mind between directing for the theater or directing movies.  The job was always to find the best way to interpret somebody else's material.

When the material was strong--The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Charlie Wilson's War--it inspired him to amazing heights, to create films that had tremendous influence of everyone from Hal Ashby to Steven Soderbergh to Wes Anderson (who gave Nichols a "Special Thanks" credit on Fantastic Mr. Fox).  His mastery of the form could be breathtaking.

But then again, there's Day Of The Dolphin.  And Heartburn and Working Girl and--shudder--Regarding Henry.  You could probably argue that Nichols made the best possible movies he could from such awful material, but that doesn't change the fact that they weren't worth doing in the first place.  Most of Nichols' worst work came in the eighties and early nineties, admittedly a bad time for the sort of literary, mid-budget film he did best, but surely he could have found better things to do than directing Wolf.

But he rebounded, with The Birdcage and Primary Colors, and a fine adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels In America for HBO.  Plus more work for the theater, and occasional reunions with Elaine May.  And he'd return to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which he'd later direct for the stage and even played the lead in one production.  And why not?  It's the quintessential Mike Nichols work--caustic, cruel and way more sentimental than it dares admit.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

IN THAT BRIGHT LAND TO WHICH I GO

I'm dreaming, and I know I'm dreaming, so it's easy to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Specifically, this ride--an endless loop around the parking ramp on the north side of Merle Hay Mall.  It's dark, and the headlights barely keep up with my speed.  But again, it's a dream.  I'm safe.

Then, immediately, the outside of a hotel, an old dilapidated affair.  There are lights around it, and machinery and scaffolding--it's being excavated.  I'm not an active participant at this point.  This is like watching a movie.

Cut to the inside of the hotel.  A small team of rugged, anti-social types have gathered to learn whatever secrets this place might tell them.  Oh, I get it.  This is like Alien or The Thing, and this band of disparate near-strangers will have difficulty working together once...whatever happens.  Will it be aliens or ghosts or...well, I guess I'll find out.

The plot moves right along, as the guy in charge--who vaguely resembles Kurt Russell, but not from The Thing but from Stargate, and since this is my dream that's weird, because I hated Stargate--is offering running exposition, even though nobody is listening to him.  He passes the desk in the lobby, and lodged between an old-timey ledger and a ceramic cherub is an envelope from Rexall pharmacy.  He opens it and pulls out a thick stack of old Polaroids.  "This is the key," he says, and hands them to me.

And it's not like a movie anymore.  I'm standing alone in the dark, with only enough light to see the photos.

The first picture is of my beloved and much-missed cat Monika.  It was taken at my apartment in Des Moines, after Monika had moved in with me when Mom passed away.  Of course, the only reason Mom had her in the first place was because I'd abandoned her when I moved away to get married.  Wait.  No...it's not quite as heartless as it sounds.  When I moved, Mom moved back into the house where I'd been living.  Monika stayed put.  She just had a different master, is all.  I didn't "abandon" her.  Why did I use that word?

Next photo: The outside of the apartment building where I lived in Iowa City.  There seems to be no significance to this picture--there are no people in it, not even my car is visible.  The sky is gray and there are no shadows.  I don't remember taking this picture.

Next photo: A black-and-white image of the clothesline from the farm where I spent my childhood.  The grass is tall, and unshelled walnuts cover the ground.  The orchard is in the background.  Everyone called it the orchard, but nothing really grew there, unless you count the rhubarb patch.  To the right of the photo is the old broken-down swing set that took up a surprising amount of space in the yard, considering it was unusable.  Even further to the right is the very tip of a dog's tail.  That would be Penny--I know it's her even though I can't see her.

Next photo: Inside the farmhouse, in color this time.  Mom's wingback chair.  Beside it is the little wooden stand she used to hold all manner of junk, and on top of that is her jade green ashtray--complete with a lit cigarette--and coffee cup.  In front of the chair is a ratty foot rest with the remains of the day's newspaper piled on top of it.  Behind the chair is the drawing my sister scribbled when she was little, of what she said was "Mighty Mouse all tied up."  But it's a more recent photo, after the living room was painted, so the drawing had been touched up with magic marker.  And again, there are no people in this photo.  It's like a recreation in a museum.

Next photo: Dad's recliner, with the floor model ashtray beside it, and a few empty bottles of Grain Belt on top of that.  On the other side is...a stand and behind that...is nothing, literally nothing.  It's like my mind can't supply the details, but come on, I spent the best part of my life there, I can remember this, but no, this picture doesn't lie, it's right there plain as day, a document of my faded memory. 

Next photo: But no, before I can see it, I feel something, a presence, and I immediately know it's Mom trying to tell me something...

...and suddenly, violently, I'm awake, aware only of what is missing, still waiting for Mom's voice to comfort me, knowing it will never be heard.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

I HAVEN'T GOT TIME FOR ORGASMS AND FLATULENCE

Let's get this out of the way first: Robin Williams made a lot of bad movies.  Stunningly bad, reference standard bad: Jack, Jakob The Liar, Bicentennial Man, Old Dogs and especially Patch Adams had reduced Williams' name, turning him into a punchline in someone else's joke. 

True and unfortunate.  Still, there's the astonishing comic inventiveness of his work in Popeye and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, the lived-in decency displayed in The World According To Garp and Moscow On The Hudson, the terrifying darkness found in The Fisher King and World's Greatest Dad.

Good or bad, what all of his movies have in common is he was fully invested in all of them, giving absolutely everything he had.  Williams was much the same as a comedian: His material could be uneven, but that hardly mattered when skittered across the stage like a live wire, free associating random bits, observations and dialects, his whole body contorting or expanding, an entire vaudeville review in the form of one man.

More than anything, he could make people instantly connect with him.  Gen Xers first knew him as Mork from Ork, Millenials loved him first as the Genie from Aladdin, then loved him all over again in Mrs. Doubtfire, a wacky, sight-gag laden comedy that nonetheless delivers some hard truths about divorce and its effects on families.  Plus, you know, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets' Society, Jumanji...the list is yours to make.

The last few weeks have been brutal.  Increased tension with Russia and Iraq, the ongoing madness in Gaza, the racial and social fissures erupting in Missouri, the growing feeling that not only our government but our very nation is somehow broken.  Earlier this week we lost Lauren Bacall, one of the last living links to the glamour of Old Hollywood, to another, seemingly better time.

But the pain of losing Robin Williams is because he was so very much of our time.  We grew up with him and he was supposed to always be around.  To entertain us, sure, but dammit dammit dammit, even more to inspire us, to fill us with that passing joy that is as essential to human life as breathing.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

EVERYTHING YOU EVER

It's strange to even consider now, but back in 1998 I actually eagerly anticipated Roland Emmerich's Godzilla.  True, I'd hated his previous movie, Independence Day, but come on--this was a Godzilla movie.  How bad could it be?

Astonishingly bad, as it turns out, but its release at least briefly generated some interest in the character, and when Sony subsequently released the first in Toho's Millennium series, Godzilla 2000, to theaters in an English dub, I paid money to see it twice.  I also bought the DVD, as I did with all the further Millennium titles, as well as the Showa titles as they were released in definitive forms, and when Criterion released the 1954 original on Blu-ray, I bought it again, even though I already owned it in many, many different formats.

The point is, man, I love me some giant critters.  It would follow, then, that the recent spate of monster movies--Pacific Rim and its announced sequel, the newly-rebooted Godzilla and its announced sequel, as well as Skull Island, yet another King Kong adventure--should make squeal with delight.

Or maybe just sigh with regret.

Sure, the 1973 epic Godzilla vs Megalon is an objectively bad movie, but the wrestling matches between towering robot Jet Jaguar and an explosive-spitting whatsit from beneath the earth are a lot of fun, and even the (many) non-monster scenes have a certain goofy elan.  But when Guillermo del Toro--a fine director, to be sure--stages similar robot/monster fights in Pacific Rim, they somehow underwhelm, and the movie itself is ponderous and overlong.

A similar problem mars Gareth Edwards' otherwise admirable Godzilla, which keeps its title monster off screen for much of its runtime--a valid dramatic choice, but it forces us to spend too much time with flat dramatic scenes featuring charisma vacuum Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Worse, both of these movies feel incomplete, as if they're setting up not just sequels but series, inspired by the success of  the Marvel Studios superhero franchise, where every movie is connected to another and you can't tell the players without a scorecard.  This suspicion is furthered by the fact that Godzilla and Skull Island both come from Legendary Pictures, which is presumably setting up an inevitable Godzilla/King Kong showdown at some future date.

So every movie will just be a setup for the next movie, and if they're all taking place in a shared universe, they'll all be tonally similar.  Yeah, sure, Toho cranked out a lot of monster movies back in the day, but they weren't much on continuity--you could drop in to the Showa series at any point and have a great time.

Or not, if giant monsters aren't your thing--after all, Toho in the fifties and sixties not only made giant monster movies, they also produced and released many of the great films of Akira Kurosawa.  But these days, Hollywood seems to produce nothing but movies aimed at twelve-year-old boys.  Guardians Of The Galaxy is a ton of fun, but it's still just an exemplary version of the same formula we've seen a million times before, and as a former twelve-year-old, I enjoy that sort of thing, but come on.  There are still many great movies being made, but they don't have nine-digit budgets and open in 3000 theaters at once.  And to make something like, I dunno, The Godfather, you'd need that kind of money.  But studios don't want to make that kind of movie anymore.  Bring on the digitally-rendered monsters!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

ANY WORLD THAT I'M WELCOME TO (APRIL '84)

Orange.  Maybe closer to brown.  Somewhere in between.  Burnt umber, according to the Crayola Corporation.

All the walls are like this here.  Lime green, if the lime is overripe.  Sky blue, and oppressively cloudless.  A combination of bright and neutral.  Soothing by design.  Don't want to have anything that might disturb the nutjobs.

But here, in my room, orange.  Two toned orange.  The color of puke from someone who's eaten too many fruit-flavored Pop Tarts.  Not soothing.  Disturbing.

Or maybe it's just me.  I'm the disturbed one, right?  I've got the scars on my wrist to prove it.  Colors that are interesting might somehow angry up my blood, make me want to harm myself.  Not that it would be easy to do that around here.  They won't even let me have a plastic fork unless I'm supervised.  Can't even have a can of instant pudding because it has sharp edges.

But hey, I can have books.  No sharpened pencils for me, but they didn't have a problem with my mom bringing in a copy of Naked Lunch, which, let's face it, seem like the most cliched book a suicidal young man could be reading.  Maybe I should read one of the books they have in the day room, old Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins potboilers, or one of the eighty million Harlequin Romances.  It might be nice to know what normal people like.  If there are such things as normal people.

******************************************************************************

The windows in the day room face east.  The blinds are up, and morning light floods the room.  Then again, even with the blinds down, the lemon-yellow walls are clearly meant to induce some kind of fake cheer.  But it doesn't work like that.  When you're depressed, a perfect sunny day is just something to be endured.  The few people who are out sit in chairs as far from the windows as possible.

I seem to be one of the younger people here.  No sign of that cute girl I saw last night, the one I almost certainly won't talk to, because that would mean talking to someone, and I don't do that.   But that guy who looks kinda like Sean Penn in Bad Boys, he's here, still strutting around like he's waiting for his closeup.  Most of the people are in their thirties and forties, lost in themselves, making occasional small talk with the attendants but never interacting with each other.

The TV is tuned to Good Morning, America.  I'd turn it over to cartoons, but that's probably discouraged.  If we saw Jerry whack Tom with a pool cue, it might give us bad ideas.  My first morning here, and I feel like I've been here for years.

*******************************************************************************

Mom called last night, and asked if I'd watched the first episode of some new Earl Hamner-created TV series about young kids volunteering in a senior citizen home.  No, I hadn't seen it.

"Well, if you're still there next week, all of you should watch.  It's so nauseatingly sweet, it'll make you all mad.  You can form discussion groups and talk about how much you hate it."

So, summing up: My mother phones her son in the psych ward for no better reason than to complain about a horrible TV show she watched.

Yeah, we're definitely related.

********************************************************************************

I made a reference to Zelig during my counseling session this morning, and my therapist actually knew what I was talking about.  She even seemed to appreciate it, and I was encouraged, so I told her I wanted to make other semi-brainy references so she'd like me more, and I'd fit in, and I wanted be the depressed loser I am.  Then she asked me if I'd always felt like that around other people.

No, I said.  It was a joke.  Another Zelig reference.  Ugh.  Jokes never work when you have to explain them.

*******************************************************************************

There's a dry-erase board in the dayroom and every day a new stupid homily/affirmation/line of bullshit is written on it.  Today's bit of wisdom is this: "A comfort zone is relaxing, but nothing ever grows there."

What the hell?  OK, first of all, that's just stupid on the face of it.  So we shouldn't do what we're comfortable with, what we're good at?  Joe Namath's entire post-football career is a strong argument against that.  And did anybody ever watch a Marx Brothers movie and think, yeah, these guys need to do some heavy drama?

But more importantly...what the hell does that have to do with me, or anybody in this ward?  Comfort zone?  I cut my fucking wrists a few days ago.  I don't feel comfortable anywhere.  I would kill just for the chance to have a comfort zone.  I don't know what it's like.  Maybe I will someday, but I doubt that I'll get there if the best you can offer me by way of a cure is meaningless catch phrases and bright colors. 

I go back to my room, to the burnt umber walls and scribbled notepads, and I stare out the window.  There are trees and grass and sunshine, and it all looks like some alien world to me.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I SUPPOSE I SHOULD JUST--GOD HELP ME--LET IT GO

So the Frozen soundtrack is once again atop the charts, the Blu-ray and DVD release is poised to sell a bajillion copies, even as the movie itself is still in theaters, and still racking up record ticket sales.

And that's fine, really.  It's a good movie.  Honest.  It's easily one of the best animated movies of the last few years, which, okay, granted, isn't exactly wild praise.  (It's better than Turbo and Rio combined!)  It tells a good story, it tells it well, the characterizations are vivid, it's funny and even occasionally moving.

I just don't know why it's animated.

This is the problem I have with at least 90% of recent CGI movies: They're so busy trying to recreate reality, with meticulously rendered hair and fabrics, that they beg the question of why they weren't shot in live action anyway.

Consider this, the big moment from Frozen, the most character-defining moment.  In particular note the action starting at about 2:56.




Yes, she's literally letting her hair down, but the moment is a total throwaway, because absolutely nothing is done to emphasize it.  There is literally nothing in this entire sequence that gains from being animated.  Or, more accurately, there's nothing here that takes advantage of what animation can do.  The settings and movements are depicted with thudding literalism. 

This is the recurring problem with computer animated features.  All the software is written to depict a sort of reality.  The settings are meticulously rendered, and furnished with equally realistic lighting.  The Dreamworks feature How To Train Your Dragon went so far as to hire the great cinematographer Roger Deakins as a visual consultant.  It didn't seem to occur to anyone that maybe, for an animated movie, they should employ painters or graphic artists instead.  That's the advantage settings in an animated film have over live action: They can turn abstract, or deploy colors purely for visual emotional effect.  Here's a sequence from Pocahontas, a lesser film in the Disney canon, one of their last big successes in cel animation before Pixar started the CGI revolution with Toy Story.


Even before the visuals turn vaguely abstract, the colors are varied, the shades of blue alone turn according to the emotion of the scene.  Quite a contrast with Frozen, where the color and lighting remains the same from shot to shot.

But the movement is even more mundane that the setting.  Again, consider the shot of her letting down her hair.  She just kind of reaches up, removes the tiara and her hair...just falls.  The moment isn't emphasized, or, more to the point, the movement isn't emphasized.  Animation is all about exaggeration, a caricature of reality, but that isn't what happens here.  It's what you'd see if this was being performed on a stage, but shouldn't the power of animation be used to emphasize the significance of the moment?  She's becoming a whole new person, but this is depicted almost entirely through the song and through Idina Menzel's powerhouse vocals.  True, she's making a palace over in her own new image, but even that is depicted rather prosaically--that is, the character is literally doing this, and we see it, but it doesn't have the impact it would have with more vivid staging.

 I admit, I prefer hand-drawn animation to CGI, but every form of art has its strengths and limitations.  Brad Bird made fine use of stylized movement and realistic settings in The Incredibles, Pete Docter beatifully gave cartoonishly-designed characters a sense of reality in Up and, though the movie itself isn't much, Genndy Tartakovsky proved computer animated characters could stretch and squash with the best of old school cartoons in Hotel Transylvania.  My problem isn't really with computer animation, it's with how it's deployed.  And with the massive success of Frozen, it seems less likely than ever that anyone will try to do anything new.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

I HEAR YOU ARE SINGING A SONG OF THE PAST

There's an old issue of Weird War Tales about a soldier who receives a talisman from some wizened gypsy that reveals the moth and year of his death.  It's the middle of World War II, but this talisman says he won't die until sometime in the seventies.  Which means...well, as far as this war goes, he's bullet-proof.  He begins taking crazy chances, because he knows he won't die.  Except the talisman only promises he'll still be alive by that date.  It doesn't say his body will be in one piece...

Cheap irony, with a big twist you can see coming from a mile away, but it made a huge impression on eight-year-old me, and I find myself thinking about it a lot lately because...Well, partly because my brain pan is crowded and random memories float to the surface and refuse to leave.  But mostly because reading that story provided the first time I'd ever considered mortality.  There's no magic talisman, and you can't know the precise date and time, but there will come a day when you will die.

It's OK, really.  I'm fine.  As far as I know.  That's the thing, though: As far as I know.  But I turn forty-nine in a couple of months.  My mom and dad both had colon cancer.  Family history being what it is, I have a preview of what's going to happen.  Sure, a safe could fall on me or my heart could explode, but barring that, I will get cancer and die.  It's a certainty, an inevitability, like Charlie Sheen getting fired from another TV show.

(Incidentally, and because I love pointless parenthetical asides, I would observe here that almost twenty years ago--Lordy, I'm old--when I used to write for a kinda-sorta-alt weekly in Des Moines, I was known to use Charlie Sheen as a metaphor for terrible things happening so often that one of the editors rejected a column with a hand-written note: "Charlie Sheen AGAIN?")

Obviously, like most people, I'll ignore the warning signs, signs that will be in flashing neon because, again, I know they're coming, and soon it will be too late and...Why yes, funny you should ask, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  And I wish I could say I've been using all that time in a valuable way, taking stock of my life, making plans for the great inevitable, or maybe for crying out loud actually getting around to doing some work on that one idea I had for a novel that one time that really, swear to God, would have been great, I had a killer opening paragraph and everything but man it just kind of sat there and I was so terrified by the notion that it wouldn't be interesting for more than twenty, thirty pages max that I just kind of let it die.

But, uh, I've done none of those things.  Things get in the way.  Good things, mostly, and bad ones, too.  I mean, my life is good, relatively speaking.  I try to live in the here-and-now, but the reality of now changes as you go through life.  You acquire knowledge along the way, and you can rage against it, or try to ignore it, or even accept it, but that knowledge rules your existence.

So sometimes I escape into the past: I'm sprawled out on the couch in the living room, all excited because when Mom came home from town today, she brought me the latest issue of Weird War Tales, always one of my favorites.  I open the cover with anticipation, not knowing that will be the last moment of my life untouched by a feeling of creeping dread.