Ten Years Ago: Sideways

24 Oct

In her “re-view” of Sideways, Stevi Costa tells us of her jack-of-all-trades stepgrandfather, revisits her college days in Santa Barbara, and reveals the story behind her back tattoo.

As a life-long West Coast resident, I’ve had the good fortune to always reside within an hour’s drive from “wine country.” My family home is just an hour south of the Napa Valley, the now-moneyed-former-upstart patch of land along the Silverado Trail that changed the face of viticulture in the 1970s. I currently reside in Seattle, only forty minutes or so from some small vineyards in Woodinville. But for a brief time in the early 2000s, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, a place which lauds itself as the “American Riviera” because of its plush coastal location. The beaches are great, that’s true, but just a half an hour up the 101 you’ll find miles and miles and miles of grapes all the way from Solvang to Paso Robles.

It was in Santa Barbara that I first saw Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Because of its proximity to L.A., vast number of celebrity vacation homes and AMPAS voters-in-residence, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, UCSB’s two campus movie theatres were often used to house Academy screenings, which were also open to students.

My roommates and I at the time attended many film screenings around campus, Oscar-affiliated and non. It was something to do that was either free or cheap and a good social alternative to getting shitfaced all the time (or, sometimes, a nice warm-up to getting shitfaced). We also liked going to these because my roommate had a huge crush on the guy who organized many of these screenings, so attending gave her opportunities to talk to him. (Reader, she married him!) The circumstances of seeing Sideways were as ordinary as any of the other screenings we attended (although it was our first Academy screening), but seeing the film was something of a watershed experience in and of itself. Sideways was the movie that made me fall in love with wine.

Because until I was in college and nearly-of-drinking-age, I had forgotten that wine was and could be cool. I had forgotten this fact because I grew up making wine.

My grandmother’s second husband was practically a character out of Steinbeck novel. He was raised in the Sierra foothills and eventually made his way to the Italian-American factory town of Crockett, where I grew up. Ed drove an avocado green Chevy pick-up truck from the 1970s and always wore jeans and a plaid shirt with boots of some kind (cowboy or workmen’s boots) and a signature hat: an olive green Smoky the Bear hat with a carefully rolled up brim. He was well-known in town and well-loved. He was a property owner, a journeyman plumber, jack-of-all-trades handyman, and the Scoutmaster of the town’s Boy Scout troop. He also had a unique hobby, which he basically charmed the whole town into participating in at one point in time or another: winemaking.

In the basement of one of Ed’s buildings, he had constructed his own wine cellar, filled with all of the supplies necessary to the craft. A large vat for initial fermentation, a press to clear the skins from the fermented grapes, a half dozen barrels in which each varietal would continue to ferment, bottling equipment, etc.

My father – and subsequently my mother and I – got involved in Ed’s winemaking adventures in Broglio Cellars shortly after he had begun courting my grandmother. I think I was seven or eight at the time. We would wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday, pile into a series of cars, and caravan from Crockett up the interstate to whatever vineyard Ed had made a deal with. The deal was always about access to someone else’s leftover grapes. We’d offer our labor in exchange for grapes, helping the vineyard owner cut expenses in the long run by clearing any bunches that were missed by picking machines. We’d pick a ton or so of grapes before noon most times and load them into the back of Ed’s truck or some other old Italian man’s truck and drive them back to the wine cellar, where my grandmother practiced being Italian by setting up trays of cheese and salami and little sandwiches while we started processing the grapes. Once the grapes were safely fermenting away in the vat, we’d eat Grandma’s indoor picnic spread and drink last year’s wine.

We did this once or twice a year for many years, but when I was fourteen or so I stopped going. I was a shithead about it. I didn’t want to get up early on a Saturday to do things with my family, let alone anything that involved manual labor. My father has a photograph of my utter disdain for this process as his desktop background on his computer. In it, I’m standing in front of a truck load of grapes with my arms crossed, and an expression that would seem to indicate, “These grapes are sour.” Meanwhile, Ed’s friend Hank Triglia stands beside the truck with his hand on the grape boxes, looking out onto the golden hills behind us. He looks majestic. He is so proud of the work he has done and the land that gave us these grapes. It is a perfect book cover for The Grapes of Wrath and I am ruining it. My father thinks this photograph is hilarious.

So I forgot about wine for a long time. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this weird hobby my family had. But in June of 2004, our family winemaker passed away after a long battle with mesothelioma. Ed’s property passed to his children, but he passed his basement winery to my father. Shortly after Ed died, I went on an exchange trip to Italy where talking about my grandfather and the family wine cellar was completely commonplace. Everyone over there has an uncle or a grandfather who knows how to make some kind of booze, and it’s usually wine. Italy, like my California home, has the right climate for grapes: temperate, where warm sunny days are cooled off by sea breezes and thick blankets of fog. Plus, in Italy, nineteen-year-old me got to really drink wine. And do so with practically every meal. In the old country, as Ed would have called it, wine was a way of life.

I came back to Santa Barbara after that summer and made the long drive down 101 and was suddenly so aware of all of the grapes. I may have tried to forget all the things I knew about wine, but they were always there all along. I thought about Steinbeck a lot on those drives – the way in which people would travel on horseback between King City and Paso Robles, how it must have taken days; the weight and expanse of the land; the vineyards that neatly sorted the hills into organized rectangles of cultivated property. And I thought about Ed, and how he knew California in exactly this way.

So by the time the academy screening of Sideways came to UCSB, I was ready to love wine. And to love the places it came from. Sideways, I find, is very much like Steinbeck in its approach to capturing the essence of the part of California in which it is set: Santa Barbara County. It is a special thing to see a movie in Santa Barbara that was filmed in Santa Barbara because Santa Barbara audiences get extremely excited to see themselves on film. Even though it’s a place where a lot of movie stars live, filming there is a rarity. (I recall tittering in the movie theatre at the sight of a hotel in Ventura during Little Miss Sunshine, for instance.) And Payne’s film really does work within the register of the every day. A portion of the film is set in Solvang, a strange little Danish town just a half hour from my college that my roommates and I would take day trips to every few months. We’d have Scandinavian food for lunch and eat ebelskivvers and buy pastries and drive home. So when we watched Sideways,we were watching our world on film – even if it was a world we only visited on weekends. It felt very natural and very real even then because of the Santa Barbara-ness of the film. Many of the actors in the restaurant and winery scenes are not actors, in fact. Just folks who worked in and around the wine industry. (Including a high school classmate, who thought she might become an actress, but instead became a waitress in Los Olivos.) Payne’s emphasis on everyday human beings, and movie stars who don’t look like movie stars, as the subjects of this film make it feel particularly easy and comfortable. Very slice of life.

But what I noticed in my recent re-viewing of Sideways is just how much more natural it feels because of its focus on landscapes, not people. The film dwells on the act of driving to and through wine country, dwelling on long walks down country roads to the Hitching Post II, and on the act of holding a finger of grapes in your hand. Sideways is a film that recognizes the everyday not just in its population, but in where they dwell. The irony of this is that for the characters – Miles and Jack, who are heading up to wine country for a bachelor weekend before Jack’s wedding – this is their escape. This is not the seaside cities in which they reside (San Diego and L.A.). They retreat from the city to the earthy, rural spaces of the wine country in order to shed parts of their lives they don’t feel at home in (marriage, divorce, work, a lack of work) to revel in the down-to-earthness of the countryside. This is, in essence, the same plot as many British novels from the early 19th century, only updated for men in the 21st century. And Americanized via its emphasis not on lush Italian villas, but the ruddy dirt of California’s central coast. It is a strange amalgam of plot and setting from East of Eden and A Room with a View.

It’s an achievement on the film’s part that I am so willing now to compare it to literary works like those mentioned above, and how much Steinbeck has come up in this review. I say this because Sideways is, to some extent, a literary endeavor. Like most of Payne’s films, it is an adaptation from a book. I did read the book a couple of years after the film had come out and I hate to tell you all that Sideways is one of the sad cases where the film is actually better. The book is awful. It’s a screenwriter’s attempt at creating a novel, and all of the characters are utterly terrible – particularly the women. In the novel, Jack pays one of the women they meet in wine country to be Miles’ companion for the weekend, so she and her friend (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh in the film) end up in what becomes a pretty damn misogynistic portrayal of women’s fidelity, and turns Jack (who is an asshole, but a sweet asshole who’s kind of trying not to be an asshole after he gets hitched) into no better than a pimp. Perhaps that’s the writer’s attempt to make Miles seem pathetic, and therefore likeable, serving to cut through his faux pompousness? I’m not sure. But I think Payne’s adaptation serves these characters much better. He makes the characters make mistakes, but not cartoonishly evil ones, and allows Paul Giamatti’s Miles room to be pompous and sad all at once instead of by turns.

The one thing the book has going for it is the metaphoric conceit that wine, like people, is inherently complex. Some of the film’s most philosophical scenes illustrate this, especially the one where Miles and Maya sit out on Stephanie’s porch, drinking expensive bottles and discussing their favorite varietals. Miles, who is perhaps best remembered for screaming “If anyone orders any Merlot, I’m leaving! I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” outside a restaurant earlier in the film, confesses his fondness for Pinot Noir, a grape that’s meticulous and testy, growing and flourishing only under the tender care of a vintner. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for Miles’ own need for love and care, for his prickliness that might get smoothed by someone who can recognize a good set of legs in a glass of wine, like Maya. The metaphor works. We are what we eat and we are what we drink. And wineries all across the country began to realize this after Sideways. Walk into a winery in 2005, and you’d find any number of wine accessories declaring “I’m a Merlot” or “I’m a Syrah,” like the wino version of the oldSex and the City merchandise.

After Sideways, I started taking wine seriously, or at least as seriously as my family of hobbyist oenophiles did. I started talking to my father more about making wine, recommending the movie to him because it had a winemaker’s humor to it that only he and Ed would have understood. I started bringing the family wine back to school with me when I’d come back from family visits. I’d share the story of Ed and Broglio Cellars and its legacy with anyone who came to my apartment and tried a bottle of it with me.

What you need to know about Broglio Cellars wine is this: it is perhaps not good wine, not by any professional tasting standards, but it is wine. And it’s strong both in flavor and in alcohol content. The family wine was pretty popular in my circles at UCSB for that reason.

Eventually, I started writing about wine and the business of winemaking. During my brief stint as a business journalist, I tried to make my beat Pacific Coast viticulture, but my time in journalism was short and there were only so many big stories about the wine business to tell. But I did learn a lot at that time, and I got to drink a lot of good wine in the process.

When I moved out of California, I spent 10 and a half hours in the tattoo chair having a finger of Zinfandel grapes and a spray of California poppies tattooed on my back. The irony of this is that I can’t really drink wine anymore. I have some rather unpleasant sinus reactions to wine these days, so I’ll indulge only occasionally in a glass. (Gin is my preferred spirit these days.) But Zinfandel has always been my favorite varietal. It’s bold and rich, often jammy and spicy, and you just can’t get it everywhere. It grows best in Northern California, in the Napa Valley. And whenever we got second pickings of Zinfandel for Broglio Cellars, we knew it would make an especially strong wine.

Ten Years Ago: I Heart Huckabees

13 Oct

To coincide with 10YA’s upcoming film series (more on that very, very soon), here’s Erik Jaccard on David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.

I ♥ Huckabees: A Re-View in Four Theses and an Honest Admission

I am having trouble collecting my thoughts today and this inability to focus, and to decide what I want to say about David O. Russell’s gleeful existential dramedy I ♥Huckabees. In fact, I should say up front that part of the reason I’m having this trouble is that I have so much to say. Ten Years Later, this can only seem like a good thing to me, despite the fact that it’s caused me no lack of trouble in throwing something together. In any case, what I’ve come up with here gels somewhere near the end, but it could never really decide what it wanted to be. So I apologize in advance for any confusion. That said, here you have the fruits of my labor: a review in four disconnected theses and one fairly long honest admission. 

Thesis 1: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the failure of liberal politics in the USA.

Motherfucking cocksucker motherfucking shit fucker what am I doing? What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn’t then nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I’m fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!

This idea is something I mentioned a while back, in my May, 2014 re-view of The Day After Tomorrow. The gist of my comments back then were that Huckabees dramatizes a sense of inner turmoil and frustration within the political left in an era when its fundamental premises have been undercut and marginalized by the triumphant emergence of neoliberal globalization as the dominant ideological force shaping human social and economic life. While it doesn’t take issue with the actual structural adjustments and policy initiatives which characterized this massive shift, the film nonetheless expresses a profound despair at the triumph of the logic which underpinned it and at the impotence of the progressive left to challenge it in any meaningful way. While it’s difficult not to oversimplify, the major conflict as I see it expressed in the film can be reduced to a fairly simple choice between a society conceived as a larger interconnected entity with moral and ethical obligations to the whole, or as a society composed of atomized individual actors populating a marketplace (whose primary loyalty is to their own self-interest). The ‘logic’ of the latter is the one that has won out in our twenty-first century social landscape and its enshrinement as the fundamental structuring principle of social reality is the condition against which the film’s existential crises unfold.

I didn’t catch any of this the first time around, content as I was to just sit back and enjoy the film’s random, intermittent humor. But this time through it was everywhere. I saw it Albert’s egotistical battles with his corporate nemesis, Brad, over the cooptation of Albert’s efforts to save some wetlands from development by Huckabees. Tricking Albert into including him in the campaign as a partner, Brad completely squeezes Albert out of his coalition by changing the logic on which it runs. Albert wants to save open spaces for their intrinsic value as natural space—a reminder of our connection and obligation to the natural world of which we are a part. Brad, on the other hand, sees it as capital which can be exploited for financial or political value. I saw it in Tommy’s frustrated rants about petroleum consumption, which for him is indicative of the country’s shameless, self-serving arrogance in the face of the suffering such consumption might cause around the world. I saw it in the maddening—if hilarious—confrontation between both men and a family of prototypical Bush-era Republicans whose blank refusal to consider any reality outside their own sends Albert and Tommy into apoplectic fits of futile indignation. Finally, I saw it throughout the film in the subtle implication that—as a number of Bush administration politicos might have put it in 2004—“the political battle is over. You lost. Get over it or fuck off.”

While I don’t think this is the only way to read these instances of crisis and despair in the film, it’s very difficult for me now to read them only as crises of individual subjectivity. So much of the film is an overt play on this subject, and on the contrast between ‘the blanket theory’ of holistic interconnectedness offered by ‘existential detectives’ Bernard and Vivian Joffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and the ‘nihilistic’ theory championed by their former student, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). But even these two competing philosophies—reduced to clumsy caricatures of existentialist thought—seem like relics of a faded twentieth century counterculture that has parlayed its own failed social revolution into a kind of neurotic melancholia. But while each side has devised its own therapeutic method for dealing with this condition, neither can provide much more than a list of useful concepts for analysis. Such is the problem with philosophy, one supposes, but ideas like ego, identity, and holism don’t operate in a vacuum. They require context to give them meaning and in this film that context is a political philosophy which goes out of its way to separate human beings from one another in the name of their own freedom. And maybe the point is not that we’re supposed to buy into the concept of ‘existential detectives,’ but rather that we’re meant to read their existence as an indication that current conditions have created individuals who are essentially sick at the thought there is literally nothing else beyond the world in which they live. If the left has often considered its vocation as an affirmation that other worlds are possible, then part of what Huckabees is getting at is the sheer, flummoxed, uncomprehending anger at being told that your dreams don’t matter, that they’re foolish and dangerous and ill-informed, that the best we can do is look out for ourselves.

Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit

Thesis 2: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the role of art and the artist in modern society.

What happens in the meadow at dusk?



I didn’t notice it the first time around, but this time I found myself puzzling over the place poetry plays in the film, and, in grander terms, whether we are to read Albert as a model for the alienation of the poet/creative artists from the modern world. There’s certainly nothing overt in the film to suggest this, but I also think that the way Albert wants to use poetry as a means of communicating some larger truth about the validity of his political work speaks to a long established dissatisfaction on the part of artists over who is allowed to create truth in the world. For example, in a relatively famous 1821 essay titled “A Defence of Poetry,” the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that poets—because they possess a special sensitivity to all things beautiful, pleasing, and harmonic—are no less than the guarantors of moral and social value and the true source of the laws which undergird civil society. As opposed to the prosaic vulgarity of rational science and economics, poetry for Shelley is the form of imaginative art best suited to the expression of higher truths. Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” thus attempts to reassert the centrality of the artistic imagination against the rising tide of empirical science which was then feeding the industrial revolution and transforming European (and in this case, British) society. For many Romantic poets like Shelley, one of the poet’s primary roles in society was to use their overlarge imaginations to see and report on reality for the rest of us. Ever since this time, artists of all stripes have continued to maintain that this is their vocation in defiance of a world which often rudely relegates them to commercial props or ignored seers.

This time it was difficult not to see Albert’s futile—and largely embarrassing—attempts at poetic truth-telling as an amusing play on this tradition. On the one hand, Albert’s reliance on poetry has a social function insofar as it attempts to carve out alternative space for neglected or trammeled values such as the solitary contemplation of nature and its infinite, indefinable qualities. This act has value precisely because, much as the Romantics would have claimed, the dry, formulaic, empirical world of business and technology and social progress actually turned humans away from the truth of the world by quantifying, controlling, and explaining it. If the world becomes suddenly explicable and ordered and controlled, then there is very little for a prophet-genius-poet to do but hammer his or her fists against the wall when their truth—undermined by the ‘factual’ basis of science—falls on deaf ears.  This is why it’s so important that we understand ‘what happens in the meadow at dusk.’ Connection with things bigger than you happens in the meadow at dusk; an appreciation for both your own place in the world and also its overpowering sublimity happens in the meadow at dusk; truth, for all intents and purposes, happens in the meadow at dusk. And if mega-corps like Huckabees pave over every inch of natural space, there will be no more private artistic contemplation in the meadow at dusk. One does not contemplate the sublime in a Huckabees parking lot at dusk. Therefore, Albert’s wants his poetry to mean more than just some lonely, crazy guy reading out words aloud in a concrete wasteland. He wants to be one of those unacknowledged legislators of the world.

On the other hand, though, Albert’s big problem—as it also was with many of the Romantics—is that much of his righteous indignation derives from his inflated ego. The Romantic poet was the beginning and end of all things. Genius flowed through ‘him’ and his strong, overwhelming personal feelings bound him to his reader in a flux of natural power and originality. Albert—threatened by Brad’s charisma and his refusal to acknowledge poetry as essential to the Open Spaces movement—reacts throughout the film in defense of his own personality and its perceived denigration at the hands of Brad’s influence. Most insultingly, Brad, who boasts that he has no interest in art or books, is nonetheless accorded to poet-role by Albert’s flock of Open Spaces collaborators. He speaks and people listen; he hands out kitschy presents and people fawn. He seduces the world with an allure meant only to be the province of the artist. Brad’s artistry—schmoozing, dealing, driving the company profit margin up—is the art of the day and his role as ‘artist’ is verified and legitimized while all Albert can do is stand meekly in front of the one rock he saved from developers—his private, contemplative space—and recite poems which sound like they were written by a 12 year-old: “nobody sits like this rock sits/you rock, rock/the rock just sits and is/you show us how to just sit here/and that’s what we need.’ The courage required to seem this ridiculous is actually one of Albert’s strengths—after all, we do need to learn how to just sit and be—but it’s an artistry that is too easily shouted down and shoved to the side, leaving Albert spluttering and indignant. 

Thesis 3: If Bells, Keys, or Strings are tinkling, you are in a Jon Brion movie.

I kid—Brion is an accomplished musician, producer, and composer, not a screenwriter or director. Also, he does not own the patent or copyright on the sonic tinkle. All the same, watching Huckabees this time around, with its floaty, effervescent score punctuated by tinkling of all kinds, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that I’d heard the score—or some version of it—before.  A little research confirmed for me that I was not actually crazy or dissolving into synesthetic delirium. My first thought was that it all sounded very much like what Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has done for and with Wes Anderson. Instead, as I learned, it was the other Anderson (Paul Thomas). I also learned that from 1997 to 2004 Jon Brion WAS AN AUTEUR COLLABORATION MACHINE, producing the scores for Anderson’s Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, of course, David O. Russell’s I ♥Huckabees (and, later, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). Now, this revelation doesn’t in any way detract from the achievements of any of these films, which are considerable. However, I feel a certain sense of unnamable disappointment in discovering that all of these films are tethered together by the same master of ethereal sonic quirk. I’ve re-viewed two of the films above—surprisingly, without saying word one about either score—and have treated them both as fantastic one-off marvels of cinematic delight, easy to enjoy and impossible to duplicate. Yet, I now find myself bothered by the fact that one of the reasons I like all of them could be that there is a reproducible tinkle-effect created by the Brion sound sensorium. The dude’s a multi-instrumentalist (like any good composer), so we’re not talking the same tinkle here. But there’s a palpable overlap in what his music does in those movies with what it does in this one. I guess that’s the point, and there probably shouldn’t be anything to complain about here. It’s not like I’m going to stop watching Tim Burton movies because of Danny Elfman or ‘70s Westerns because of Ennio Morricone. Nor should we hold up at the sound of a Brion-esque score simply because we’ve heard those tell-tale tinkles before. The only reason to object to Brion’s influence on all these films is if his scoring somehow flattens them out, reducing them quirky iterations of the same ‘artistic’ or ‘independent’ impulse. There is probably some of this going on—these are commercial products, after all, and each is its own eclectically produced filmic thought experiment—but I’m not willing to judge Brion or his collaborators for indulging in a successful approach, because in each case that perspective is ranged against a different product. It’s the man’s style, diversely applied. Jon Brion, Tinkle Master of your Auteur Dreams.

Thesis 4: Mark Walhberg is at his best as a comedic anti-hero.  

I’m at the fire! Where you guys at?

As an actor with pretensions to both the drama and action genres, Mark Wahlberg is often called on to demonstrate a certain muscular gravitas, and to take himself very seriously. However, I don’t think I’m alone in arguing that Wahlberg is at his best when the size and seriousness which make him a popular action-drama stalwart are put to ironic comedic effect. Because so much of what Wahlberg does as an actor is reduced in commercial blockbusters to his ‘hero’ persona, the moments when he’s given the chance to step outside that stereotype are often gleefully amusing. Such is the case with his character in Huckabees, the tortured firefighter anti-hero, Tommy Corn. To see a big bulky hero of a man reduced to the depth of despair by questions of being and nothingness is inherently funny because it’s so rare to see blockbuster heroes question themselves in this way. Heroes are vulnerable to self-doubt, yes, but usually as a function of their hero-quest, where such doubt becomes the ultimate test of their heroism and the impetus for their redemption. In a funny, postmodern twist, then, Tommy is a hero-character who has begun to question the very category of the hero and to reject such an identity being foisted on him. When the Republican family Tommy and Albert visit want to enshrine Tommy as a hero simply for being a firefighter, Tommy has to remind them that this role does not make him heroic in itself.

One of Tommy’s main problems is that he’s a hero who has begun to question whether there can even be such a thing in our world. As he amusingly attempts to explain to his daughter, it seems impossible for him to be a hero to little girls in the USA when his heroism as a privileged American means that other little girls in Third World countries must suffer to provide the shoes that he heroically provides for his family. Rather than providing the stability, certainty, and strength which his archetype would imply, Wahlberg’s Tommy can only spread uncertainty and confusion and angst, in the process tearing down the very possibility of heroic behavior. Wahlberg’s plays this tortured position with an amusing mix of boyish charm and the same bumbling incomprehension for which Family Guy writers once skewered him.

Another source of the Wahlberg’s humor derives from the casting decision to pair his brute size and strength with Jason Schwartzman’s short, scrawny Albert Markovsky. Nearly everything Wahlberg does in relation to Schwartzman is funny in a slapstick-y kind of way because of the contrast in their sizes. When beating one another in the face with a rubber ball in order to produce an evacuated sense of ‘pure being’ (as Caterine Vaubon terms it), Tommy takes all of Albert’s blows without flinching while Tommy’s first blow knocks Albert off his seat. Similarly, the sight of the two riding their bikes around LA (out of a mutual respect for the environment) is equally as amusing because, again, heroes don’t ride bikes. Nerdy Albert Markovskys, yes, but not the Tommy Corns of the world. While Albert careens around town full of suppressed rage and lust, Tommy is ironically called on to be the soft, gentle giant, a well-intentioned boy stuck in a hulky man’s body. This reverses the expectations we would naturally attach to each character, thus producing the comedy.

Now for my honest admission:

I really like this film, I do. In fact, I probably love it. Just as I did when I first watched it at Seattle’s Guild Theater in the fall of 2004, I laughed my ass this time off at certain parts and thoughtfully considered some of its more poignant and self-consciously serious moments as well. But back then I wasn’t all that concerned with finding any coherent meaning in the film’s presentation of existential dilemmas and the humorous and sad situations they produce. In fact, as I recall, I only saw I ♥ Huckabees in the theater at all because I received a free pass to an advanced screening. So I had no idea what to expect and, therefore, wasn’t disappointed.

This time around, however, I could not help but admit that it is easily Russell’s least coherent film to date and that this makes for a viewing experience that is, if not boring, then at least uneven. Now, I think there are ways to read that make it coherent, such as this fine gentleman’s analysis of the film’s deeper philosophical structure (careful, as it’s likely to make your head hurt). But the only way one can really make such readings work is by squeezing out or marginalizing the film’s many other social and cultural narratives (see above). One might also argue that the genre blurring which is otherwise one of Russell’s unique strengths as a filmmaker is something of a liability here, as it’s never entirely clear what kind of film we’re watching. A variety of different types of comedy vie with one another for prominence, among them absurdist comedy, black comedy, slapstick comedy, and vignette-ish situational comedy, with some farce and satire thrown in for good measure. If this were it, we’d at least have an amalgam of comedic modes functioning under the umbrella of the ‘independent comedy.’ But humor—while foregrounded—is not the only mechanism through which we can or should understand existential crisis in the film. And while its presentation is often comedic, its deeper currents of anxiety, doubt, and cynicism make for darker, dramatic undertones which are then also vying for one’s attention. In other words, this is a very ‘busy’ film that is probably trying to do too many things at once. And while it can certainly be an ‘existential comedy’ if read the right way, it is also nothing more than an at-times manically funny cultural and philosophical hodgepodge which never really sticks its landings because it has eight different feet and landing spots and isn’t always sure where each foot is meant to come down.

The film is also uneven in its overreaching surfeit of ambition and cleverness.  Part of the problem lies in trying to stage a comedy about real human sadness and psychological breakdown in terms of a philosophical dialogue. It’s a neat idea, as is the inspired flight of fancy behind the creation of ‘existential detectives’ (ha!). However, the comprehension baseline from which the film begins is fairly high. It demands that the viewer have an entry point into the complex discourse necessary to make sense of a great deal of the character development, if not the plot action (which is easy enough to follow). This is why a number of people I’ve encountered over the years have reacted to the film in aggressive, hostile terms. Like Jude Law’s Brad, the average viewer is likely to find that the deeper the film drags them into the “manure of human suffering” the more alienated and unsatisfied they feel. Many I spoke to felt that they were being talked down to, or worse, being talked at. This dynamic is part of the reason that the film can seem preachy, pedantic, or full of itself. As my friend and one-time 10YA writer Chris Martin commented to me, the film kind of feels like you’re sitting through a Philosophy 101 lecture.

While this can be disorienting for the average person, it also sets the bar frightfully low for anyone actually interested in philosophy. As is probably necessary for the medium, most of the actual philosophy in the film is watered down, oversimplified, and often reduced to pop culture icons which leech anything actually interesting out of what’s being said. Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vaubon is the best example of this, as her simplistic nihilism is the worst type of stereotype of postwar French existentialism. It reduces the existentialist demand that we make ethical individual choices because that’s all we have to the popular misconception that choices don’t matter because there exists no greater guarantor of truth that can make them matter. The only thing missing from Vaubon’s left bank cliché is a black beret and a dangling cigarette.

However, there are also moments where the film’s ambition and intelligence coalesce in wonderful, illuminating ways. For example, the film’s answer to the potential alienation of its less philosophically-inclined audience is to use visual conceits to illustrate existential crisis in understandable, two-dimensional terms. Thus, we get to see Albert’s aggressive psychological defense mechanisms translated from philosophical discourse into an amusing montage of Albert hacking up threatening subconscious projections with a machete. The same goes for the attempt at visually explaining the holistic universe thesis, where tiny particles of being float free of the characters’ faces, mixing and mingling with one another and even, as Tommy points out, exposing the tiny gaps in between. Then there’s the less inventive but still touching visual ploy by which the filmmakers trace Albert’s realization of his own interconnectedness with Brad (via shared suffering) by morphing Albert’s face onto a photo of Brad crying. These moments are wonderful for the viewer because they’re so goddamn simple. Now, simple can be bad and oversimplification doesn’t generally get us anywhere when it comes to real, honest to gosh thinking. However, as a form of storytelling,for the majority of filmgoers who have not read Lacan or Hegel or Heidegger or Sartre, it actually comes off as a kind of useful shtick. While I generally tend to value complexity in thought and style, I have to admit that this film’s true complexities are so unattainable for the average person that it forces us to sit back and appreciate the clever ways it goes about making itself intelligible.

All this said, I’m happiest falling back on my original reason for loving I ♥ Huckabees: at times, it’s inventively, side-splittingly, riotously funny. It is most funny, I’d argue, at moments when the unevenness I describe above flattens out and reaches a convergence point at which we can see the genius—so common to Russell’s films—in searching for comedy in dramatic situations and drama in comedic ones. This tension has always characterized Russell’s work, from his early independent films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) to his more recent, award-winning Hollywood successes (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). When these moments occur—you could probably pick and choose your favorite absurd quote—you find yourself on the floor laughing, and perhaps staying down there for fear of having to pick yourself up and then seriously consider the seriousness of what was actually said.

Ten Years Ago: Shaun of the Dead

24 Sep

In his rewatch of Shaun of the Dead, Maccewill Yip toggles on the Blu-ray’s special feature known as the Zomb-O-Meter and has a bloody good time exploring the film’s numerous in-jokes, references, and foreshadowing.

It had taken me a while before I first watched Shaun of the Dead. I first encountered it online in a clip that showed Shaun and Ed meeting the girl zombie in their garden. I thought it looked interesting and filed it in my mind as something to look into, but then I forgot about it until a couple of years later while browsing for films to rent at my local video shop (the now defunct Lunch Money in Seattle) and saw the movie on the shelf. It wasn’t until I rented and watched it that I discovered that it was the movie from where the clip came from. Since I am rarely frightened by scary movies, it was the additional mix of elements of what they dubbed as RomZomCom that quickly made this one of my favorite horror flicks. Over the years, I’ve been anticipating every new film by the director Edgar Wright, as well as looking into Spaced,the TV series he did with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost before Shaun. Although I enjoyed them all, I still hold a special spot for Shaun of the Dead.

Most fans of Edgar Wright know that his works are filled with references, so much so that there are people who see some that were never intended. I knew several of them going into my viewing for this review. For instance:

-The place Shaun was trying to get a reservation for, Fulci’s Restaurant, referred to the Italian director Lucio Fulci, who made an unofficial, yet iconic sequel to Dawn of the Dead.

-Nick Frost saying, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” A line similar to what one a character says from Night of the Living Dead: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” (Although the creator of Night, George A. Romero, loved Shaun, he apparently did not get this reference to his own movie the first time he watched it.)

-A short discussion of not using the word “zombie” because not only do they agree that it is ridiculous, some of the biggest zombie movies doesn’t use it as well. (Same with The Walking Dead, which uses the term “Walkers.”)

-Some of the songs used in the film are from Dawn of the Dead.

There was another one during this viewing that I was surprised I hadn’t noticed before: At the end of the film, a news station reported that scientists ruled out the possibility of monkeys carrying a virus was the cause of the zombie apocalypse (a reference to the rage virus from28 Days Later). To see if there were more that I didn’t catch, I decided for this viewing to turn on a feature of the Blu-ray I never really tried, the Zomb-O-Meter, a kind of pop-up trivia feature. There were lots of music titles cited, mainly electro and the Dawn of the Dead music mentioned earlier, and a few more name references that I didn’t get early on, both for people (the co-worker in the electronics shop whose out sick is named after Ash of Army of Darkness; Liz’s nickname for Shaun is Flash, after Flash Gordon) and businesses (Bud’s Pizza of Day of the Dead, Foree Electronics of Dawn of the Dead). I was surprised to learn of more references to Spaced than the ones I knew already. The ones I knew already were culled from the film’s commentary, such as the origins of the term “fried gold” (which I also learned from Zomb-O-Meter was coined by Nick Frost) and the running gag of whether dogs can look up (from difficulty of getting a dog to do so in the show). In fact, I had originally sought out Spaced because of hearing about it in the commentary. The ones I just learned about was (a) Peter Serafinowicz, who plays the roommate of Shaun and Ed named Pete, answers his phone in the movie exactly like the character he plays in Spaced; and (b), a character from Spaced called Tyres can be seen as one of the zombies outside of the Winchester pub.

Shaun of the Dead not only references other movies, but itself becomes one as elements from this film gets carried into the other two films that altogether forms the Three Flavor Cornetto Trilogy (AKA Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy): Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. As the names imply, all three films have lots of blood and each features a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream, or Drumstick here in the States. But they share more than that. The sound from the game that Ed plays in the pub can be heard in the other two films, and each film has their own unique fence jumping gag. Other than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there are other actors that pop up again in the other two films, such as Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Patricia Franklin, Rafe Spall, and Julia Deakin. Finally, there is the varying themes of friendship we see between the different characters Pegg and Frost portray for each film.

Besides the constant use of references, writers Edgar Wright Simon Pegg just loves to add tons of foreshadowing. A lot of it is throwaway lines that you only catch after repeated viewings. I would say that about sixty to seventy percent of the dialogue before the zombie apocalypse will hint at something that will happen later on in the film, and if someone at that time says “you’re dead” (soccer kid, Pete), then, well, you know what will happen to that character. Even the music does it, as you can hear at the end of the very first pub scene, the soundtracks lyrics goes: “This town is coming like a ghost town.” The most interesting one comes from the second pub scene, where Ed, trying to console Shaun after being broken up by Liz, describes what they should do the next day: “We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing, have a bite at the King’s Head, have a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and be back at the bar for shots.” The whole line hints at exactly what happens the next day: Bloody Mary (Cashier Zombie Mary in the garden), bite at King’s Head (Shaun’s stepfather, Phil, gets bit), a couple at The Little Princess (couple David and Diane at Liz’s place), and stagger back to the bar (pretending to be zombies to get into the Winchester) for shots (the shoot-out at the pub). Going through the film again with the Zomb-O-Meter brought out more that I had never even noticed. For instance, in the pub there is a patron known as Snakehips that Ed says is always surrounded by women. Later in the film when Shaun and his group heads to the Winchester and one of them ask how far they are, you see Shaun stare out to see Snakehips body surrounded and consumed by female zombies as Shaun responds, “We’re pretty close.” A big one that surprised me was how each character’s name supposedly rhymes, some imperfectly, with their fate in the film:

Shaun: Reborn

Liz: Lives

Ed: Becomes dead

Phil: Gets killed

Barbara: Ends up a cadaver

Pete: Gets Eat

Yvonne: Moves on

Dave: Goes to his grave

Di: Dies (although there is a special feature that shows that she survives)

Along with all the foreshadowing are also a variety of callbacks. In the opening credit sequence, we see various people going about their daily lives, which itself is filmed in a joking manner to show how they mindlessly go about their routine. If you pay close attention, you will find that just about everybody you see in this opening sequence appears later as a zombie, the most noticeable being Mary the grocery cashier that becomes the garden girl zombie. One discovered from the Zomb-O-Meter shows that the dialogue from a discussion Shaun has while Ed is playing a shooting game is echoed during the bar scene when Shaun is shooting at the zombies. Another way Edgar Wright adds layers of callbacks is by mirroring an earlier scene. A good example is the two times we see Shaun head to and from the mini-mart near his home. They’re both shot the same way with the same people, but the second time happens post-apocalypse where we see Shaun oblivious to the devastation around him. He uses the same technique in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End (which not only mirror the two pub crawls between when they were kids and adults, but also in the in the kids version of the events uses an anecdote that foreshadows everything that happens later when they go through the same run again as adults, like the line Ed had in the pub on Shaun of the Dead that was mentioned earlier). Another interesting mirroring joke happens when we see Shaun’s gang running into the group lead by his and Liz’s old friend, Yvonne. Every member of Shaun’s gang has an alternate in Yvonne’s. However a closer look shows that everybody in Yvonne’s group still have their weapons and their clothes are a little bloodier, showing that Yvonne’s gang seems to be faring better than Shaun’s.

Beyond all that, the other thing I look forward to in all of Edgar Wright’s films is the energy that he infuses into each work he produces. Not only is it present in the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, but also in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the movie he adapted from a comic series written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In that movie, he brought in so much different gags, trick shots, techniques, etc. that for a lesser director, it would look cluttered and convoluted. However, Wright has a way of piecing it all together in ways that there is cohesion and flow, and the variety of the different elements help bring the energy I just mentioned. You don’t see as much of it in Shaun of the Dead, but you do see seeds of those elements starting to appear and see it build and grow with Hot Fuzz. One of those techniques is the quick action cuts of mundane actions, which itself became a director trait for Wright and all his films, but was born as a parody of sequences in action films that use those kinds of shots to show a montage of getting prepared for battle. Another technique is employing various different shots, many themselves references to past directors. These variety of shot prevent the film from becoming static, and he uses them just right so that they don’t become overdone and self-indulgent.

Though compared to Hot Fuzz and The World’s End these techniques are pretty sparse, that is exactly why I still prefer to go back to Shaun. As much as I love all of Edgar Wright’s work, it often builds into the absurd and the ridiculous, although it is still a lot of fun to watch. InShaun of the Dead, although it is set in a zombie apocalypse, it somehow feels more grounded. It’s almost as if this could happen in the same universe as The Walking Dead, although not as grim. I believe this can be pinpointed beginning with one event: the death of Shaun’s mother, Barbara. In all of the commentaries, each of the actors mentioned how hard it was for them to see Barbara die, especially when she convulsed before she passed away. They then all talked about how the film got dark when Shaun was forced to shoot his mom after she turned into a zombie. In other Wright films, this moment would turn quickly back to humor; but in Shaun, this moment lingers, then continues going downhill. There are little funny quirks in between, but it mainly continues being bleak until Yvonne comes with the army to save them. As I mentioned earlier, this and other moments help ground the movie from going too far out into the absurd.

One thing upon re-watching this film that I admired was some of the acting. Most of the characters had something hidden that can be felt through their whole performance. Shaun’s mother might be the easiest to point out, where after an event of encountering a zombie who she thought was an old friend, she later seems to continually become distracted and stare out into space. It is later found out that she had been bitten earlier and was trying to hide it so as not to worry Shaun. David we have come to associate as being a “twat” who looks down on Shaun. However, it is hinted and later revealed that he had affections for Liz and was jealous of Shaun. Diane knew about it, which she revealed in the end with David’s admission, but can be seen a couple of times when she reacts to David trying to play ignorant to his feelings for Liz. All of these are surprisingly nuanced for a movie of this type and adds to its depth.

When re-watching for this review, I went through all but one of the commentaries. (There are four of them and I didn’t have time to get to all of them. Sorry, zombie acting commentators.) A lot of stuff in the first two, writers/director’s and actors’ commentary, mainly had a lot of facts and trivia that I have covered already. However, the commentary that caught my attention was the one with the actors that played Shaun’s parents, Bill Nighy (Phil) and Penelope Wilton (Barbara). There were constant praise and admiration for the young actors and director, but with a slight wisp of nostalgia for their own youth. There were a couple of times where Wilton admitted to having a crush on Nighy years ago, especially when Nighy mentions how self-conscious he is. In fact, that kind of became of running thing with him, where he feels embarrassed  whenever he comes on screen. He would keep saying “I can’t look” and “Oh, I am terrible at this.” However, his tone changes completely in the part where he becomes a zombie, because suddenly he goes from being self-deprecating and shy, to saying, “Oh yeah! Look at that!” I thought it was kind of adorable. Another moment I thought was cute was during the scene where Snakehip’s body is being devoured, Wilton excitedly describes how the effect was achieved to an attentive Nighy. They also mentioned relationships that blossomed on set: Mary the garden zombie dating the panhandling dog-walking zombie, and Edgar Wright dating the daughter of Patricia Franklin, the bar spinster. The most interesting fact I learned in the commentary, though, was how the filmmakers approached Wilton for the role by comparing what they are trying to do with the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going about their own issues amidst the grand events of Hamlet. Likewise inShaun of the Dead, Shaun and Liz are going about their relationship problems in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Revisiting Shaun of the Dead was as fun now as it did when I first watched it all those years ago. Sure, there are plenty of new zombie movies, such as 28 Days Later, zombie comedies, such as Zombieland. However, Shaun had the perfect mix that balanced each other out. It also doesn’t feel dated, at least not yet. Not only that, the plot and character motivations, although sometimes a little simple, are pretty spot on. It’s interesting to see how big Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have gotten. Especially Pegg, who has gotten into huge franchises likeMission: Impossible and Star Trek. Hell, it was even fun seeing the cameo by Martin Freeman, who has gone big himself as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Watson in Sherlock, and Bilbo in The Hobbit trilogy. Although he had done a lot of television before, it is still surprising that this was Edgar Wright’s first film. For a while he was compared to Joss Whedon, popular in the geek culture, but have yet to make it big. That is why it is disappointing that he was dropped from the Ant-Man project, which could have been his big break into the mainstream, like what The Avengers did for Whedon. However, there is word that he has a new project in mind that would involve his old pals Pegg and Frost. If that is the case, then I will be one of the first in line, hoping for a big crowd behind me to follow along.

Additional Notes:

-This viewing was the first time that I noticed that a couple of calls Ed has on his cell phone was to Noel, the teen worker at the electronics store that talks back at Shaun. I mainly discovered this through the Zomb-O-Meter defining the term “Henry” as an eighth of weed and checking the subtitles to see that both Noel and Ed use the term in their respective phone calls.

-If you want to get truly meta, the name of the trilogy itself, The Three Flavor Cornetto, was said by Wright to be a reference to The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White and Red) by Krzysztof Kieślowski.

-Nighy apparently likes to use the terms “dig” and “hip” a lot.

-In the barkeep zombie fight scene, an alternative music choice to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” would have been Boney M.’s “Rasputin.”

-An early costume choice before Ed’s “I’ve Got Wood” shirt would’ve been one with a cat that says, “I Love Pussy.” This was instead used for the alternate Ed character in Yvonne’s group.

-Really, there are lots of references, foreshadows and callbacks that I just couldn’t mention. If you’ve seen the film already, it’s fun, at least to me, to look these up and find them in another viewing.

Ten Years Ago: A Dirty Shame

19 Sep

Maggie McMuffin explores the funnier side of kink, but not without a handful of critiques, in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame.

Ten years ago I was only vaguely aware of John Waters. I had seen Hairspray and Cry-Babyon TV a couple of times and liked the aesthetic. I had caught the second half of Cecil B. DeMented at 7 a.m. during a sick day and watched Melanie Griffith’s hair catch fire while lying on a couch in a haze. I had been exposed to John Waters but I hadn’t really been aware of him or his movies.

Then A Dirty Shame came out. And I had no way of watching it, being 14 and in a small town. My only piracy experience had been with Limewire and while my mother did rent me movies every week of high school, the film never ended up in my possession.

But I watched that trailer every time it was on TV. A movie about sex, debauchery, and fighting repression. Huge-breasted women. Bright colors. I wanted it. I didn’t get it for another five years when, in the throes of some really heavy personal shit, my friend Karl took me out on a weird pseudo-date that featured gourmet pizza and viewings of some of the John Waters movies I had never seen, which were most of them. In the five years since I first sawA Dirty Shame advertised, I had developed quite the fondness for Mr. Waters but still hadn’t managed to watch a ton of stuff.

A Dirty Shame was worth the wait and I fell in love instantly.

I’ve seen it a couple of times since then, usually with other people. But I’ve never sat down and given it my full attention or put much thought into the film besides wondering about the mechanics of Selma Blair’s inflatable rack.  And I haven’t seen it in at least a year and a half at this point so….let’s see if I still like it?

Oh, and this will be a review of the NC-17 version because who doesn’t love some extra penis in their reviews?

The movie opens sweetly with some lovely retro music playing. The soundtrack for this film is absolutely wonderful, with some actual vintage tunes and some retro-feel ones with dirty lyrics. The film also opens with suburban trees and shrubs doing their best impressions of human genitalia.

We are introduced to residents of Hartford Row. Sylvia Stickles, played by Tracey Ullman, is an uptight housewife with no time or interest in sex. I’d honestly be fine with that if she wasn’t so mean about it. There’s also her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), who masturbates because Sylvia won’t fulfill his “marital needs,” and their daughter Caprice, who prefers to go by her stage name of Ursula Udders. Caprisula (as I am going to refer to her) has had some major breast surgery and holy shit Selma Blair bouncing around in those inflatable tits is amazing. Also, Selma Blair really plays against her usual type here and it is doubly amazing. Caprisula is currently under house arrest for her continued indecent exposure arrests, including nude loitering and nude drunk driving. Caprisula insists, “I wasn’t drunk. I was on pills.” I don’t know much about drugs but I do know that’s an important distinction. Sylvia declares, “Something is the matter with your vagina” while delivering Caprisula’s breakfast and when she leaves for work runs into one of her daughter’s fans: Fat Fuck Frank. He’s in love.

We also meet the neighbors, transplants from D.C. who like how colorful Baltimore is. They like the crude people, the ability to restore houses with expensive vintage rocks, the debates about sex. They aren’t a big part of the film but I’m going to come back to them later so remember that they exist.

As Sylvia goes to work we meet other residents of Hartford Row. The three men who occupy the Bear House (they’re bears and they will constantly remind you of this), Sylvia’s mom Big Ethel (who is the leader of the neuters, people who hate sex and fight against indecency), swingers (I hate swingers btw), and some other neuters. And then suddenly, Sylvia suffers from a concussion, which transforms her from loud and proud neuter to ‘bonerfide’ sex addict.

And that’s when the plot kicks in. We follow Sylvia as she explores sexuality and sluts it up all throughout the neighborhood. She picks up a water bottle with her vagina during a dance at the old folks’ home. She steals leopard print clothing from a Goodwill drop box. She fucks indiscriminately and demands satisfaction, and she gets it with the help of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), leader of the 12 sex addict apostles who are on a mission to discover a brand new sex act.

The film covers a pretty wide range of fetishes and acts while building up to the discovery. None of the fetishes are in the scary/edgeplay camp either. It’s all things like adult babies, gangbangs, tickle-tops, and dirt. Sure, bodily fluids get covered, but even the ‘gross’ fetishes like Roman showers and scat are presented in a lighthearted and comical way because, remember kids, sex is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. And whenever a sex addict is introduced, there’s a smaller screen that shows how they got the concussion that led to their addiction. Most of them are somehow connected to the actual fetish the person had hiding within them, which is a nice touch.

While the apostles fight to find a new act, the neuters mobilize to strike down indecency where it lives by…having rallies. They never do much more than that. But man, are they hilarious. This is also where Mink Stole ends up in this film, and considering all the filthy shit she’s done in earlier John Waters’ films, it’s great to see her being the over-the-top voice of conservatism.

And both sides are over the top. There is very, very little middle ground on the issue of sexual liberty vs. conservative panic. Vaughn is the closest we get, expressing a want for sex and sympathy toward Caprisula’s love of performing nude while also wanting Sylvia to recover from her concussions and then taking her and his daughter to sexual addiction meetings after another concussion makes her a neuter again. During that time, Sylvia gets a few lines about how sex addicts are everywhere and maybe they should learn to live with them, but then she goes back to wanting to be clean and pure. The only other people to hit a compromise are the neighboring couple who are attacked by horny lesbians and Mink Stole during the chaos at the end of the film. While the lesbians try turning the wife, Mink Stole lectures about how one can have their hymen replaced, causing the couple to declare, “All of you are crazy.” Which is true. Everyone in this movie is so extreme with their views that none of the arguments can be taken seriously. And while the sex addicts are technically nicer than the neuters, I still have some issues with them. Mainly that, like a lot of sex positive people in the real world, they place sexual superiority over consent. Ray Ray tells Sylvia, “You’ll learn to accept anything sexual as long as it’s safe, consensual, and doesn’t harm others.”

But the thing is, some of the sex addicts are harmful. The bears have sex on their front lawn where children can and do see it. The scat guy likes to shit where people can find it and then laughs about it. One woman is into frottage, a fetish that by its very nature is non-consensual. The swinger couple (two of the apostles btw) answers their door nude and openly hits on a couple that they know to be monogamous. None of these things are consensual and some of them can harm others since frottage is sexual assault and not everyone wants to be exposed to the sex lives of others. It can be triggering. I mean, yes we should all have open discussions about sexuality so people can be educated, but people also have the right to say “sex makes me personally uncomfortable.” While Ray Ray does say that consent is big for the sex addicts, we never see him or any of the others call out the sex addicts who don’t follow that creed. And considering how many sex positive and kinky people I’ve met who act like this in real life, I had a harder time rooting for the sex addicts on this viewing. They all reminded me of people I’ve met who make their whole person about their sex life, forgetting that being kinky is not a substitute for having a personality. People who hide abusers in their communities because they don’t want their community to look bad. I’m going to stop talking about this before I go on my usual rant about fetlife and kink-shaming so I’ll just say that while the movie doesn’t ever dive deep into these issues, I am at least glad that it features someone calling people out.

Not that I think the neuters are better. They aren’t. They shove Prozac down Caprisula’s throat to kill her sex drive. They shame people for wanting sex at all. Big Ethel demands that people with harmless fetishes be arrested and seems to go to the sexual addiction meeting just so she can judge.

All of those serious things said, this movie is hilarious and stupid and wonderful. The extremes do lend themselves to comedy and there are some great one-liners from both sides as well as some stellar comedic performances. Tracey Ullman’s face is perfect in this. Like I could just watch her scenes with the sound off and laugh.

In the end, the sex addicts win out. All the neuters end up with concussions and are turned over to the side of sexual enlightenment. Big Ethel dies and is then brought back to life through Ray Ray’s sexual healing. And the new sex act is discovered! It’s just people head butting each other. But hey, it works. Everyone levitates from their ultimate orgasms while Ray Ray floats into the sky and ejaculates out of his head. When I first saw this movie I thought the head butting was sort of a cop out, but a running conversation in the film is that everything sexual has been done before so I could imagine that actually coming up with a new sex act would be nigh impossible. And people try to make sex needlessly complicated all the time just so they can say they did something new, which I suspect is the whole reason sex swings exist.  Now watching the ending, it’s just ridiculous enough that I’ll buy it. I mean, the rest of the movie is penises and sex jokes and Tracey Ullman gyrating so why shouldn’t the last shot be a cumshot?

This isn’t Waters’ best film and it’s not my favorite film. But if you’ve got a night free and some filthy minded friends over, it’s a good thing to pop in. Just know that it’s not available on any streaming sites so you’ll have to get ahold of it some other way.


Random Thoughts

– There is a pretty touching scene after Sylvia becomes a sex addict where she reconnects with her daughter. Caprisula is reading a book and only jumps up to dance when she sees her mother coming, proving that while she is truly an exhibitionist she’s also acting out for attention because “You never listened.” Apparently, she tried talking about her concussion with Sylvia as a teenager but never got that conversation. They bond over sex and it’s vaguely uncomfortable before being really sweet.

– If you ever need new euphemisms for cunnilingus, this movie has them. Sneezing in the cabbage, whistling in the dark, and going way down south in Dixie are just a few that show up.

– Big Ethel gets several transmisogynist jokes thrown at her and that’s seriously not okay.

– Johnny Knoxville is in this and this is like the only thing I’ve seen him in. He’s good but I’m too in love with Ullman and Blair to really care about anyone else in this movie.

– Oh! There’s a David Hasselhoff cameo. It’s the sort of cameo you would expect someone to have in a John Waters movie.

Ten Years Ago: Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning

5 Sep

Our resident lycanthropist, Maggie McMuffin, experiences what happens when a franchise lets you down, then moves onto much more important topics such as gravy and the drawbacks of eating werewolf meat.

I’m not entirely sure what happened.

Having enjoyed the first and second installments of the Ginger Snapstrilogy, I was thrilled at a prequel. It was set in the 1800s, filled with fur trappers and featured more wolves than the previous two films combined. But it also featured racist tropes about First Nations people, confusing plot threads, and some incest? Maybe? I’m not as into subtextual incest as I am into subtextual lesbians, even if the two are intersecting as they do here.

When the film popped up to be reviewed I of course took it, having the extensive background in lycanthropy that I do, but when I thought back to my first, second, third viewings of Ginger Snaps Back I realized I could remember very little of it. I knew there were wolves. I knew there were fur trappers. I knew it was essentially a retelling of the first film but without periods.

I watched the film again, this time with compatriots, and found that my mind could make no clearer sense of it. Within a week of viewing, and having taken no notes to guide me, I once again found myself unable to remember more than a few snippets of the film. Flashes of violence and sex here and there. A child half-transformed. Bits of dialogue that were vaguely heightened to give it an historical flair but, like, still rooted in modern speech.

And Katherine Isabelle in a purple dress with a low-cut bodice. The most lasting image of all. It gives me warmth as I stumble through the cold of this review, trying desperately to reach a safe haven just as the proto-Fitzgerald sisters do at the start. In order to make sense of it all, I have sequestered myself away and lit some incense with plans to meditate and hopefully piece the story back together. The room, like this film, is dark and lit by only a few candles. I am terrified and confused, the same blend of emotions I felt watching the film. Dear god, let this work.

They are orphans, I think. Yes, their parents died…somehow. They lose a horse. They end up surrounded by men (the theme of men being mostly terrible continues in this film and this grants my misandrist heart some peace). Most of the men are white but one of First Nations and he is the hottest. He is also the most sexually viable and at one point he and Ginger get to second base. That may have been a dream sequence. There are a lot of fever dream sequences in this film. Am I having a fever dream right now?

Okay the meditation isn’t working and I can only talk like this for so long. 

This movie is terrible, you guys. It’s awful. And it pains me to say that. I mean, there are good points but mostly this film is a confusing mish-mashy retread of the first film without the themes that made it so brilliant. It’s schlocky, racist, and I am not lying when I say that after four viewings in my short life I cannot remember most of it. No dialogue, little context for shots I remember, and no names aside from the two that have been used through the whole trilogy.  There’s a whole thing about ‘the red and the black,’ meaning Ginger and Brigitte. Ginger, like in the first film, becomes a werewolf and has to deal with it. Her and Brigitte get slut-shamed by the fur trapper camp, mostly by this one preacher who must have a hard on for Lars Von Trier movies with how much he goes on about ‘woman is the root of all sin blah blah blah.’ There’s a werewolf boy who bit Ginger and Ginger is supposed to kill him to cure her lycanthropy but she can’t and then he gets shot anyway and she’s immediately like ‘oh man, I should have killed that kid’ and it’s like, yeah, you should have. This kid doesn’t exist outside of being a werewolf who plays with dolls and is creepy so, yeah, I would feel nothing if you killed him. Just shoot him like the fur trappers do. And there’s also a spirit journey or some other racist nonsense and Brigitte kills the First Nations dude rather than killing Ginger and then they become werewolves together and possibly also lovers because you have to give the fans what they want? (No really, the Ginger Snaps fandom is small, but look up the fanfiction and it’s mostly incest fic. Which is also why Hannibal fans are crossing their fingers for Emily Perkins to show up and play the eventual girlfriend to Katherine Isabelle’s character.)

I just…I do not understand how a film series that had one solid and one nearly solid installation ended up doing this to me. And yes, I do take it personally. I take it very personally that the one time I opened my heart up to an entire trilogy it did this. Though it did give me Katherine Isabelle in a purple dress with a low-cut bodice. Is it wrong to mention that twice in one review? NOT AS WRONG AS THIS FILM IS.

I remember the gravy I had with this film more than the actual film. I watched it with Stevi and Marcus, two other 10YA contributors, and Linda (who if she isn’t a contributor needs to be). Stevi made us poutine* and we sat around making fun of the film. As I cannot accurately describe the film to you, I am going to relay the most memorable part of the day: our discussion on what would happen if you eat werewolf meat. 

Now, the fur trappers are shown as killing and skinning wolves (or I may have made that up to make more sense of things). They are also shown to be starving. So if you’re killing wolves, even werewolves, someone had to have eaten it at some point right? But what happens to a human who consumes werewolf? Do they become werewolf themselves? Does it taste good? If a werewolf bites a human, they become a lycanthrope. So it would stand to reason that lycanthropy is transmitted through saliva. This also is in line with the first Ginger Snaps movie where the guy Ginger sleeps with develops a slower developing form of werewolfitis. Even though she bit and scratched him in human form, it would seem that that, plus makeouts, plus not using a condom (Stay safe, kids. Lycanthropy kills.) can still make someone into an ungodly beast.

Wait. So maybe it’s not just saliva. That’s actually a massive exchange of fluids I just listed off. So maybe the saliva or other fluids need to get inside of a person. Because it probably was the biting and sexing more than the makeouts that transmitted lycanthropy to that guy. And it must be the werewolf saliva getting into the bloodstream that transforms a person.

Also, a blood exchange is how Brigitte becomes a werewolf in the first film. (And maybe this one? I don’t remember.) She cuts her hand and Ginger’s and presses them together. So eating a wolf steak, which would have wolf blood in it, could do it.

By all of that logic, consuming werewolf meat could have an effect on people. Perhaps a smaller one as it’s a smaller exchange. Maybe it’ll just make someone more aggressive or sexy or both?  Or they might have to eat a lot of the wolf meat to transform. The thing is, each Ginger Snaps film shows transformations being different for different people depending on the extent of their contact with wolves, the sort of contact, and how much the person accepts/denies their lycanthropy. So it is feasible that, within this universe, eating a werewolf could convert someone.

But then we have to consider would wolf meat even taste good? People eat dog so perhaps it would be similar? The werewolves in Ginger Snaps are muscle-y, skinny things though, so honestly they look like their meat would be really tough.

Therefore I feel like starvation or actively wishing to become a werewolf would be the only reasons to eat werewolf in the first place. Unless you’re a werewolf yourself, in which case it’s just cannibalism.

And now that I’ve spoken about cannibalism and Katherine Isabelle, I feel this is a good time to mention that the DVD set for Hannibal: Season 2** will be available for purchase on September 16th and I have a birthday coming up***. Buy me something to wash the taste of werewolf meat out of my mouth.


* Stevi makes some of the best gravy ever.

** Katherine Isabelle does not wear a purple dress with a low-cut bodice in this but she does wear some dapper suits and horse-riding outfits.

*** My birthday is in December but don’t let that stop you. 


Ten Years Ago: End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones

22 Aug

For this week’s new ten-years-later “re-view,” please welcome Brian Beckley, a writer and former bass player of The Disenchanted. He is a Tommy with a Joey rising and still has his leather jacket ready if needed.

“I want to live, I want to live my life…” – “I Want to Live,” 1987, menu song “Ramones: End of the Century”


There are very few Perfect Bands, bands that get it right on the first time and never have to change.

There are very few bands with such a unique sound that whenever you drop the needle on any song on any record, you know the band; Very few bands that on their first record define a sonic pattern so singular, so immediate that there was nowhere to evolve to as their career grew.

There’s AC/DC. Public Enemy. Rage Against the Machine.

And there’s the Ramones.

They were the beginning of everything. Not only were they a Perfect Band, but as a band, as a vision, they invented and defined a genre – Punk – changing all of music, all of culture, in a way that only the Beatles before them had done.

(As an aside, while the Beatles may be The perfect band, were never a Perfect Band, because while they defined and changed the culture around them, they evolved with the changing times, instead of holding true to the initial vision…)

The Ramones were the Founding Fathers, the archetypes of everything that came after them, everything that sprang from their vision: Skinny, gawky white kids in black leather jackets and jeans, standing against a brick wall singing twisted and pure, if FAST rock and roll songs about dancing and girls and being an outcast.

They were perfect. They were rock and roll. They were punk.

From the beginning, they were the basis for all punk to follow. They were, each of them, the archetypes of punk rock: 

Johnny is the Libertarian Rebel. He probably doesn’t like you, has no need for you, thinks he’s better than you and doesn’t care what you think of him. He has a Vision.

Joey is the Introvert. He’s the outcast, the dreamer. Joey longs to be accepted, but knows he never will.

Dee Dee is the Drunk Punk. He’s uneducated, doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be and is just looking to have a good time right now, no matter the cost for later.

Tommy is the Big Picture Punk. He’s the punk-by-choice. He’s the Philosophical Punk.

Each of them are outsiders, loners, brought together with a single vision, a single idea.

And all sealed with the last name “Ramone” to form that sense of unity, that false family that we all find in a scene of outsiders looking for a place to be themselves.

But the Ramones, in their rigid purity, were left behind, respected and loved for the way they stayed true to their ideals, but generally broke and struggling while watching others pass them by.

Like punk itself.

“Anyone else would probably be happy if they had what we had.” -Dee Dee Ramone, opening scene

End of the Century opens at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. Everywhere there are voices, voices you recognize, talking about how important the Ramones are, how no one could make the music they make without the Ramones setting the standard and starting it all, how everyone thought the Ramones would be “bigger than the Stones.”

But that was never the case.

Like the Ramones, The End of the Century is an almost perfect documentary about the band. It’s honest (sometimes to a discomforting fault), cynical, angry, gritty and in the end, you can’t help singing along.

Ten years later, it’s still the same. Like the Ramones, it could have come out yesterday or it could have come out 25 years ago and it probably would have looked and sounded the same.

The Ramones, like punk rock, never change.

But we do. 

End of the Century was released in 2004. At that time, I was living in a studio apartment in Tacoma with nothing on the walls and aside from my stereo and my air mattress and some makeshift bookshelves, all I had was my guitars.

I’m not good at the guitar and I never have been. I’ve never had a real lesson, though I was told where to put my fingers to make chords and which knobs to turn to chase respectable people of the room.

And I’ve played in several bands. Good bands.

I am a punk. And I am a punk because of the Ramones.

I didn’t see this documentary until it hit DVD, but I was still in that same studio with the same bare walls, clinging to the punk rock ideal that what I wanted to do was more important than the material possessions I gave up in that chase.

I was not a fulltime musician, but I was a writer who came up in the East Coast DIY Punk Rock scene of the mid-’90s – a scene that traces its roots directly to the Ramones – and I believed deeply the worst thing in the world is Selling Out and that eventually I would be rewarded for not only doing what I did, but doing it damn well.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

“There were no standards after the Ramones. All you had to do was be yourself.” – Kirk Hammett, Metallica

From the start, the Ramones are outcasts. In the mid-’70s world of earth tones and 27-minute Emerson Lake and Palmer theremin solos (which we get a clip of to remind us how depressing rock and roll had become), the Ramones didn’t fit in with anyone else, which brings them together.

What they all had in common was a love of music, specifically of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, one of the proto-punk bands who along with the MC5 and the New York Dolls helped pave a transition for the emergence of a true punk rock.

In the ’90s, I was an outcast. I fell in with other outcasts and we bonded over not fitting in and over music that didn’t fit in, music that was also a little outside the mainstream, but bubbling up at the time. And, obviously, the Ramones. If they could do it, we could.

For Johnny Ramone, the Dolls were that band.

“No way am I ever going to be able to play like this,” he says as ELP wank around in front of a laser show at some arena. But the Dolls? That he can do.

The band came together like almost every punk band: one guy has a cheap guitar, someone knows a drummer, maybe a bass player and someone thinks they can sing. There’s a shift of instruments here, a role change there and maybe even someone who never before played an instrument to give the sound something no one else has, like Tommy, figuring out how to play drums along with whatever it was Johnny and Dee Dee were doing to that guitar and bass.

And when Joey, the gawkiest, nerdiest, OCD-i-est outcast in the neighborhood steps to the mic, he transforms and all of sudden, everything clicks.

Ugly becomes beautiful for the Ramones, for all of punk. Celebrate the ugly things! Transform the establishment’s idea of trash, of useless and rejected and thrown-off garbage and make it strong and great.

Like Johnny and Dee Dee pushing the limits of the 12-bar blues and their amplifiers all at once. Like Joey transforming from a nobody wallflower to a howling front man. Like black leather jackets, ratty jeans and brick walls being the height of cool and fashion.

Tommy was the first to recognize it, of course. In the movie, Tommy says that while listening to “Judy is a Punk” he realized they had something, something new, something fresh, something Perfect.

At their first show, at a Bowery bar called CBGB that no one had ever heard of, the Ramones came out on stage, amps cranked, counted off and went into different songs. They stopped, stormed off stage, regrouped, came back and blew the doors off the place with “Blitzkreig Bop.”

Perfect. Punk.

“Immediately half my record collection became obsolete.” – I didn’t write down who said this because it doesn’t matter.

The Ramones first album hits like a bomb, but a very localized bomb. It’s raw, stripped-down sound appeals to New York and other areas of urban desolation, but fails to get a lot of traction. But everyone agrees it’s amazing and new.

When they hit the road, the Ramones play for nobody, despite growing crowds and a growing scene at CBGB of other musicians, inspired by the Ramones not letting a lack of training or true ability stop them. Wherever they went, the Ramones were pied pipers of punk rock. Bands sprung up everywhere, formative bands, bands that inspired the bands that took over the world in the mid-’90s: The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys.

In England, the impact of the Ramones was even bigger. Joe Strummer of the Clash and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and members of the Damned, the Buzzcocks and every other British punk band you can think of all trace their formation back to the first appearance of the Ramones in London.

St. Joe even goes so far as to say there probably wouldn’t have been a scene if not for the Ramones.

“We do what we believe in. We have our integrity. We do what we do.” – Johnny Ramone on “Heart of Glass.”

As they head back to the states, the Ramones are still nobodies, playing in small clubs and watching the records fail to break the band in the same way some of their contemporaries are beginning to break.

In the CBGB scene, the Talking Heads and Blondie each passed the Ramones on the charts and in the public eye, each taking the same DIY idea as the Ramones, but tweaking it and making it a little more palatable for a general audience, maybe with a disco beat.

Punk is not for everyone. It’s aggressive and cynical and holds to a fairly rigid set of ideologies, fairly liberally applied of course. In some ways it is perfect, but it’s not easy.

The Ramones know this and they look down on their peers for compromising.

But soon Dee Dee starts to chafe against the iron fist of Johnny’s simple vision. It’s understandable, he’s getting older, starting to get a little success and he wants to branch out. But Johnny forces the uniform, from the haircut to the jacket.

Punk rock is a young man’s game and it’s fairly rigid in its ideological outlook.

From the very first record, the Ramones are strict to their vision. Right off the bat, the head of their first label was concerned about the lyrics to “I’m A Nazi, Baby” and wanted the band to change the lyric.

Johnny refused. He was not going to compromise. Period.

But Johnny’s iron fisted rule wore on band members and Tommy, the Philosophical Punk, leaves the band to pursue a career as a producer. Tommy had bigger ideas and understood the vision, but saw how rigid the application was and worked to find a way to apply that vision while still, well, growing up.

At its core, punk rock is a teenage artform. Only when you’re young can you afford to hold rigidly to a set of principles above all else. As punks get older, we find ourselves faced more and more with the ideological cage of punk rock and its ethics of staying true to oneself at all costs – the very core of what punk means.

Because while the Ramones may have helped define the punk rock sound, it is only because it was Perfect. The real punk rock revolution started by the Ramones was that idea of staying true to yourself and your vision and that conventional wisdom and culture can go fuck itself if it doesn’t like it. Their true gift to music, to culture, to politics is the idea that not only is it ok to question the standards around you, it’s ok to not care fuck all what that culture thinks of you.

But damn that gets hard as you get older.

“What year is this?” – Rob Zombie on seeing the Ramones in the early ’90s.

Like the band, and like punk rock, the second half of End of the Century starts to get a little, well, redundant.

The band continues to make records, all of them good and all of them with bigger and bigger name producers. They get movie soundtracks and MTV play (back when MTV would play any video they could get their hands on) and even had a gun pulled on them by the legendary Phil Spector, whose wall of sound style had trouble translating to the stripped-down Ramones aesthetic they adhered to.

Though, to be fair, Joey’s vocals never sounded better.

The band continued touring and continued on with their adherence to their vision. There was infighting and “something happened with some girl” but they stayed true. Like the punk world, drummers come and go – even Dee Dee comes and goes – but the Ramones remain. 

***AT THIS POINT IN THE MOVIE Dee Dee becomes a terrible rapper, just awful.

He knows it too, but he’s trying so hard. He sees the connection between rock and rap and he gets it, he understands the drive, the flossing, the need to flash. “It’s about rising above oppression,” he says before admitting that he’s “not a negro” and probably shouldn’t be rapping and goes back to being a Ramone. Seriously, it’s so bad it goes past good and lands back on bad. ***

Even as a resurgent form of punk rock re-created the musical landscape around them with the same stripped-down honest vision of rock the Ramones had forged, the originators still failed to truly break, to truly get the success they’d seen in other countries (countries where the same no-future mentality the punk rock fed on was taking hold).

In 1996, they finally called it quits.

I saw the Ramones on that final tour. Or maybe it was the one the year before. Doesn’t really matter.

That was the beauty of the Ramones. They were always the Ramones. It didn’t matter when you saw them, it didn’t matter which album, from the opening “1,2,3,4!” to the final “Gabba Gabba Hey!” the Ramones were Perfect.

But their adherence to that vision made them an immediate nostalgia act. They were never a novelty act, never. The Ramones were real and true. But they did become a nostalgia act, almost immediately.

They were locked in their time. Punk does that. It is a young man’s game and it will trap you. It’s ideological box – once you decide which of the ideological strands will make up your particular version of that ideology, of course – is tough to break from, tough to move on from and tough to give up.

Ten years after first seeing End of the Century, I am still wrestling with that box. There comes a time when every punk is faced with needing to give up some aspect of oneself for the Almighty Dollar. There’s no way around it. This is America.

At some point, something has to give. At some point almost every one of us, even those of us who punked and rocked our way through our 20s, have to give up some part of that vision, it has to be edited, trimmed, compromised.

Only Tommy ever had post-punk success. Only in leaving the rigid vision of the Ramones was Tommy able to go to a career of his own, as a producer. He had to let go of Tommy Ramone to let Tommy Erdelyi succeed.

“Why am I caring? But I cared. It bothered me. We’re all in it together, even if we didn’t get along.” – Johnny Ramone on Joey’s death

As the movie ends, only Johnny and Tommy are still alive.

Joey died of cancer in 2001. Neither Johnny nor Dee Dee said goodbye while he was sick. Seeing his obit on the screen filled me with an intense sadness, even today.

Dee Dee died in 2002 of a heroin overdose, just week after the Ramones were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Johnny died soon after the movie was released, also of cancer.

Tommy died this past summer, 2014.

Their deaths officially seal them, lock them in place. At the end, Dee Dee, Joey and Johnny were never really “successful,” not in the traditional sense. They were famous, respected, but all lived in what appeared to be small, crowded apartments, nothing that would indicate their importance, their imprint, their legacy.

To the end, they even looked the same. To the end, they were locked in to the vision. Never a parody of themselves, but only not quite.

Kind of like punk rock.

Only Tommy, interviewed mostly in his studio, seemed to have moved on, grown up.

Ten years later, End of the Century is still the perfect testament to a Perfect Band. And ten years later, it’s a reminder that the rigid adherence to ideology gets tougher and tougher as the world changes.

Punk rock is a young man’s game. But the lesson of the Ramones and of End of the Century is no matter how perfect the vision, no matter how pure the ideal, without the room for growth or without evolving, we all become a nostalgia act.

Me? Ten years later, I’m no longer at that apartment. I’m now in the suburbs, a little more settled and a lot less angry – happy, even – but every bit as cynical and idealistic. I have stuck to my principles and am still doing what I want and what I believe, but it’s getting to the point where that game is running its course.

I still like it loud though. And honest and aggressive. I still question. I still stick true my beliefs, to myself.

I’m still a punk.

Now I’m just a punk who waters his lawn.

Punk fucking rock. 

“What would I have done without them? What would they have done without me?” – Dee Dee Ramone

Ten Years Ago: AVP: Alien Vs. Predator

15 Aug

Michael Hodges‘ live-blog of Paul W.S. Anderson’s AVP: Alien Vs. Predator is much, much better than the movie.

The first time I saw AVP: Alien Vs. Predator, I was in college in central Florida. (Not *at* Central Florida – that was the big state school nearby – but *in* central Florida. The stories are true. All of them.) I had recently begun playing video games, and spent a fair bit of time playing through Alien Vs. Predator 2, which was the first piece of media that had actually made me identify with an utterly alien (ha) way of perceiving the world and humanity. Not even joking – playing a survival-horror first-person-shooter (though, when you’re the alien, less “shooter” and more “teeth-and-claws-er”) where the humans are the antagonists for a third of the game leads you to think about things a little bit.

At the time I saw this, I hadn’t seen any of the original Alien movies, or the original Predatormovie (though I had seen Predator 2, because… Danny Glover? I guess?), so I’m the weirdo who got introduced to the universe via a sequel and a PC game, then watched… this thing. Still haven’t seen the original Alien movie, though I feel like I know it pretty well just via existing within American and nerd culture in the 21st century. Clearly, I’m the ideal choice to be reviewing a film that’s *so* steeped in the mythos of the Alien & Predator universes.

Paul W.S. Anderson, though, his work I was and am familiar with. I’ve seen both of his Death Race movies, and all of the Resident Evil films. AVP: Alien Vs. Predator has Milla Jovovich, right? Or Jason Statham? I’ve generally found him to be a perfectly (fan-)serviceable director, with a decent eye for fight scenes.

I’m also not really into horror films, like, at all. Part of why I haven’t seen Alien. I figure the real world is scary enough already that I don’t need to be filling my brain with more terrifying things (seriously: the lightning sand scene from The Princess Bride still gives me nightmares). When I saw this the first time, I consented to do so because it was billed as more of an action movie – the GVM: Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla of the franchise. Also because I was bored, it was a Tuesday night in the dorm, and I figured there would be some scary bits, but that it would mostly be comprised of guns, fistfights, and explosions. As I recall, that anticipation was mostly satisfied. I can’t recall if I enjoyed the movie or not, or if I thought it was good, or the plot, or who was in it (though, again, given it’s a Paul W.S. Anderson flick, I assume Milla Jovovich is the star. Maybe she’s playing the Predator? I assume she’s not the alien). I do remember that I was working on a macroeconomics project. I got an A-. I was pissed.

Closing note before I actually hit play on AVP: Alien Vs. Predator: Can we talk for a minute about how weird it is that the movie’s title as it appears on the movie poster is an acronym for its own title, followed by the title of the movie?  (Answer: of course we can; this is a monologue, not a discussion.) Top three TV shows that should really be titled in this way, and spoken of only as such:

3) H2H: Hart to Hart (I like to think this would be a gritty, Nolan-esque reboot, but the original should also be spoken of in this way. 

2) BTVS: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (obvious, I know, but it had to be said)

1) M.A.O.S: Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division

Let’s do this.

A real-time blog. I’m going to be typing very fast and not thinking about things.

Antarctica. 1904. I did not recall this being a period piece. Pan through snow. Small town. Mining town? They had mining towns in Antarctica? Whaling station. Exposition via signs! Explosion. Curly-haired man running. Why is his hair so curly? Nice suspenders. Why is the color so de-saturated? Bar. Man looks at camera like a beardy Frodo. Blurred screen. Predator camouflage! Vision filter! Red dots! Headsplosion forthcoming? Clawsnick. Wolverine is in this? Alien! Clawswing. Title. Awesome.

Satellite! Wow, that CGI hasn’t aged very well. We’re in orbit now. Helloooo, Weyland Industries and plaid-shirted man in glasses driving a truck. Thanks for introducing us to someone who’s clearly going to die in the first act, or who’s going to be this film’sIndependence-Day-Goldblum (the best of the Goldblums, for my lack of money).

You ever notice that nothing goes well when a movie’s pre-credits scene is immediately followed by a closeup of laboratory mice? Aaaand we’ve got an “unidentified heat signature” in Antarctica. Do heat signatures usually identify themselves? Interesting that a signature could be unidentified, though. Seems rather a contradiction in terms.

“There isn’t anything in Sector 14.” “There is now.” Is that foreshadowing, or just foreboding? There’s a person climbing a mountain. In Sector 14? Is this person a Predator? No. She’s wearing a red hat. Everyone knows Predators don’t wear red hats, they wear guns and The Skulls Of Their Enemies. And now, yet more explanatory screentext tells us that she’s in Nepal. I never figured Nepal for being a Predator hotbed. Maybe she’s there because it’s cold, and Antarctica is also cold? (Or because it’s dark, and hell is hot? I really hope DMX is in this movie.)

Our mountain climber is getting a phone call from Weyland Industries! It surprises her and she almost falls off the mountain. They want to give her money, but she’s too far away… except that the phone call was coming from a man with a helicopter on top of the mountain. How did he get there without her noticing? Why did he call her while she was climbing up a mountain, and risk her falling off the mountain, instead of just waiting for her to get to the top and then talking to her? Was it just for the Dramatic Reveal? Clearly not.

And now we’re in Mexico, which we know because there are pyramids and also more explanatory screentext. Oh, now I get it – this is the “getting the team together” part of the movie. A man in a plaid shirt with three days of stubble so we know he’s supposed to be sexy is digging – ok, really, he’s moving some small pieces of rubble out of the way of a stone arch – and he looks at the camera and says “we must be right on top of it.” He has a slight British accent. He starts crawling through the archway into the darkness. NEVER CRAWL THROUGH THE ARCHWAY INTO THE DARKNESS. He’s clearly going to die. “What is it, Sebastian?” He’s looking in the dirt, reaching in the dirt, NO DUDE IT’S NOT WORTH IT, oh he found a bottlecap and a man with a villain beard is revoking his funding.

Cue Concerned Dialogue from his fellow but less-sexy digging people, and reassuring-but-stressed speech from Sexy Digging Man. Is this film dubbed? Because his voice doesn’t seem to be matching up with the movements of his mouth. Alternative explanation: Sexy Digging Man is a ventriloquist. Does that make us the dummies? OH GOD I’M ONLY SIX MINUTES IN.

Nope, not a ventriloquist. It was another Dramatic Reveal. Sexy Digging Man was moving his mouth for no reason(?) and mountaintop helicopter man was sitting in a tent promising him money to come work for Weyland Industries for a little while.

Pause film.

I just wrote almost 600 words in seven minutes. Apparently, either Mavis Beacon paid off, or graduate school has turned me into a lightningfingered snarkmonster. If only I could write this fast when I was writing my dissertation.

I can’t keep doing this. If I keep summarizing plot, I’m going to start Event Horizon-ing, orScanners-ing, and nobody in this coffee shop wants to see that. So far as I understand it, Ten Years Ago isn’t supposed to be about the gradual destruction of movie viewers’ souls or frontal lobes, and for all I love phrynosoma platyrhinos, I have no desire to squirt blood from my eyes.

I’m just going to watch the film and try to enjoy it for what it is, and what it isn’t (I’m assuming it isn’t an uplifting How Do I Reach These Kids, or a Rich People Have Problems Too, or, worse, a Rich People Have Problems Reaching These Kids, so it can’t be that bad). I’ll throw in occasional observations as the film progresses.

- Well, that first “occasional” was all of 30 seconds later. If you’re a character in a science fiction / horror film, and you have children, are you better off making a large production of how much you love them from the film’s beginning, or, after only a brief establishing scene, shutting up and fighting grimly to survive, letting the fact of their existence lurk in the background of your character as a trump card to be pulled out for extra motivation in a desperate circumstance? This character, who is begging to be described as Sallow Cleanshaven Receding Hairline Eye-Bag Man, but I’ll call Fred, and who is introduced to us via the time-honored method of Doing Something Annoying (waking up Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain with a camera flash as he takes pictures out the helicopter window) seems to be going for the “large production” method. We’ll see how that works out.

- “I split my time between working for a small environmental group and taking scientists on expeditions on the ice.” Way to establish your character, Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain. We know who you are now.

- Explanatory text: “Ice Breaker: Piper Maru.” Am I the only one who can’t help thinking ofStar Trek and Getting A Bad Feeling About This anytime “Maru” is used as the second word of the name of any ship? IT’S A TRAP. Am I the only one who got pissed off that the newStar Trek movies actually showed the Kobayashi Maru? Am I pissing you off right now by mashing up Star Trek and Star Wars references?

- “Two weeks, we take the money, and we head back to Mexico.” NOPE. You just killed yourself by saying that, Sexy Digging Man. Nine minutes in.

- Gruff Facial Scars is introduced via Yelling At Fred. My money’s on Gruff Facial Scars to spend time establishing his badassness, then die second, thus causing the rest of the group to panic.

- “My experts tell me it’s a pyramid.” You don’t say, Mr. Exposition Man. It took experts to figure that out? It’s geometry. Geometry experts?

- “You’re looking at the best drilling team in the world.” So – are you going to have to leave somebody behind to blow up the asteroid, or is somebody going to go crazy on the machine-gun go-kart?

- “Bova Toya is one of the most isolated places in the world.” Thanks for telling us that things are going to go badly, Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain.

- Fifteen minutes in, now. The Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain is deciding to go with the exposition rather than leaving. She knows that the group isn’t ready for… it being cold, I guess? But she’s started caring about Fred. There’s more talk about Fred’s children. WE MUST PROTECT FRED. Fred’s clearly going to die.

- I don’t actually know the name of Fred’s character.

- “Told you she would stay. She can’t resist my animal magnetism.” Good job, Fred. You’ve spent so much time establishing yourself as annoying-but-lovable, now you’re going to undercut that by being sexist and a creeper? Why you gotta get yourself killed off so fast?

- Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain lays out three simple rules for surviving a science fiction horror movie. “One: No one goes anywhere alone. Ever. Two: Everyone must maintain constant communication. Three: Unexpected things are going to happen. When they do, no one tries to be a hero.” There was a line at the National Poetry Slam, from a group piece called (if I remember correctly) “How to Survive as a Black Person in a Horror Movie” – “No! Don’t check on the white guy! His privilege will protect him!” Main Character Powers activate?

- Where’s Milla Jovovich? She’s clearly going to be the Predator, right?

- Now (18 minutes) we have a Touching Moment between Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain and a character we’ve never seen before. Are we supposed to care about these characters? New Character (let’s call her Knockoff Jovovich, or KnockJo) says a gun is like a condom. Why do you want a gun in Antarctica? “It’s better to have one and not need it, than to need one and not have it.” (The answer: you need a gun to shoot Aliens Versus Predators.)

- Sexy Digging Man is talking in Italian. He apparently grew up in Italy. He’s hitting on Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain by talking in Italian about how he grew up in Italy. Why are horror movies always so obsessed with making all of their characters straight, and douchebags?

- OH now we’re back at the abandoned whaling station. Payoff for the intro scene! Chekhov’s whaling station! Chekhov’s Alien Versus Predator? And we’re only twenty minutes in. “If there’s an Alien Versus Predator at the beginning of the screenplay, it will show up again by the twenty minute mark of the screenplay.

- NEVER set up a camera in a dark room when you’ve wandered out by yourself in direct defiance of the main character’s genre-savvy orders, Fred.

- And, Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain shows up for the jump-scare and moment of laughing relief. Also, penguins! Awww. Penguins. Y’know, penguins are actually pretty fierce Predators. Are we sure I can’t review Penguin Versus Winter rather than this film?

- There’s a hole in the ground. Nobody knows how it was made, except that everyone knows it had to be some kind of heat tunneling thing. Clawsnick Predator Sheathknife Smashcut touching moment between Lady Who Was Climbing A Mountain and a sick old man who’s on the expedition with all the rest of them for some reason. Please, Paul W.S. Anderson, stop trying to make me care about these characters. It’s not a good look on you.

- If this tunnel was bored by heat, why are the walls ridged? I’d think they’d be smooth. Something goes wrong! Dramatic music! Sick old man (Dr. Weyland, apparently, because all the other character start yelling his name) starts sliding down the tunnel, and LWWCAM catches him by sticking an ice axe through his hood. That must be some kinda tough fabric.

- So, 25 minutes into the movie, we’ve got a team underground, in a pyramid thing, navigating by flashlight and camera, looking at creepy carvings of Predators and Aliens. Cut to a holographic projection of the space, more dramatic music, and an ice-covered Alien in chains flexing (I guess), then back to the team, looking at Aztec and Egyptian symbols. “Only the chosen may enter.” GUESS WHO’S THE CHOSEN. IT’S YOU. YOU’RE THE CHOSEN.

- Surface team starts getting killed by the Predator, who stays camouflaged. Lots of shooting. I’m not clear on how Predator camouflage works, exactly. It seems to be timed for Dramatic Reveals – a spear uncloaking in a little wave after it pins a guy to a wall, a Predator uncloaking to look scary before it punches a guy and then throws him and then knocks him down the tunnel.

- Note that when I said “scary,” I meant “like a guy in a suit.” One of the defining moments of my life was when I realized that DMX is actually really short. Seriously. If you watch “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” with this in mind, you’ll catch onto the little camera tricks that get used to make him look like he’s not tiny. He’s standing on walls while all the rest of his crew(?) is standing on the ground, the camera films him from knee-level, all that kind of stuff. All of those same tricks are being used here to make these guys in Predator suits look like they’re big and fast and scary. Meh. They just kind of look awkward. Awwww.

- Sacrificial chamber! “Those that were chosen would lie here. They weren’t bound in any way. They went to die willingly. Men. And women. It was considered an honor.” I’d say GET OUT NOW to everybody, but it’s too late and I don’t care anymore. There’s an Alien noise in the background. Fred dismisses it. You gon’ die, Fred.

- It’s a frozen facehugger falling from the ceiling! “Looks like some kind of scorpion.” It’s not a scorpion, y’all. It’s not a scorpion. “They gave their lives so the hunt could begin.” This skeleton has its ribs burst outwards! “It’s common in ritual sacrifice to remove the heart of the victim.” “That’s nice. But that’s not where the heart is. Something broke out of this body.” Good job, KnockJo. You have demonstrated your knowledge of basic anatomy and mildly creepy dialogue. Now, you get to stay behind with one other character and catalogue everything in the sacrificial chamber. The Alien is thawing, and is somehow covered in mucus. Die well, KnockJo. Die well.

- There’s a carving. One of the people goes to grab it. Fred: “No! Don’t touch them!” Too late, Fred. Too late. Doors close. Predators look at holograms. KnockJo and her person try to prop doors with equipment. Equipment gets smashed. Mucusy canisters pop up. Mucusy canisters peel back. “What did you say this room was called?” “Sacrificial chamber.”

- Hello, facehuggers.

- Goodbye, KnockJo.

- Hello, KnockJo! Sorry, this is going to suck.

- Hello, chestburster!

- Goodbye, KnockJo. We barely knew ye. And then we didn’t. And then we did. And then we didn’t.

- There’s been a lot of writing about how the Alien films do visualizations of rape, of genitalia (male and female), etcetera, about how the horror of the films is based on seeing subconscious fears and anxieties about penetration and birth transmuted and put on screen and literally killing people. That’s here, somewhat, I guess, insofar as the Aliens are still Aliens, and therefore still manifestations of that same icky genital and birth and rape stuff, but mostly Alien Versus Predator just seems like an excuse to film some fairly generic deaths and jump scares. It’s almost sad, but not quite.

- The pyramid keeps changing shapes for no reason. Neat way to cut off characters from each other, neat excuse to not have to display any kind of spatial logic while you’re killing your characters.

- Fred and Gruff Facial Scars are stuck together, cut off from the rest of the group, and Fred is talking about his children again. Fred’s promising that Gruff Facial Scars will survive.

- “The pyramid reconfigures every ten minutes.” Isn’t it funny how these ancient cultures used the same units of measurement for time that we do now? Such a convenient coincidence.

- The floor opens up, Gruff Facial Scars falls through and breaks his legs and is surrounded by aliens and AK-47 and “You want a piece of me? You ugly son of a -” and mouth-in-a-mouth and dead. Fred listens to Gruff Facial Scars die. There’s an alien next to Fred. “Ohgod.”

- Goodbye, Fred.

- LWWCAM and the rest of the team get attacked by a Predator. Everyone dies except LWWCAM, who I’m going to call Alice from here out. Alice gets knocked over by a predator. Predator looms menacingly. Predator gets stabbed by an Alien. Alien Versus Predator! This was so cool when I was sixteen. Alice watches the Alien Versus The Predator. The Alien kills the Predator. That was somewhat anticlimactic. But there’s another predator! And apparently Sexy Digging Man and Dr. Weyland are still alive. Apparently we’re supposed to care about any of these characters as they run away? Alien Versus The Other Predator! I feel like this fight is happening in slow motion, even the parts that aren’t happening in slow motion. Why is the Predator doing so much flexing and grabbing and so little stabbing? Acid hits the Predator’s armor, so he takes it off. STOP FLEXING AT THE ALIEN AND START KILLING IT, ARMORLESS PREDATOR.

- Goodbye, second predator. Now is the time for the Alien to flex. See, Predator? That’s how you do it: flex *after* you kill your opponent, not while you’re fighting it.

- Hello, third Predator!

- Goodbye, Dr. Weyland.

- Third Predator bisects a facehugger and an Alien’s head. This is the Predator that’s going to actually Versus the Alien, clearly. He’s learned the secrets of the Alien, and of Post-Battle Flexing. Alien Versus Predator!

- …and he immediately gets facehuggered. Sigh.

- Backstory time! Sexy Digging Man is narrating. Apparently the Predators taught humanity how to build pyramids, or something, and in return people signed up to get facehuggered so the Predators could Versus Aliens and blah blah blah all of human history is about Aliens Versus Predators can we get back to the killing now?

- Oh hi Fred! Fred’s not dead? Fred’s glued to a wall. Hello, facehugger! Fred shoots the facehugger. Good job, Fred! Oh, there’s a bunch more facehuggers.

- Goodbye again, Fred.

- So now Alice and Sexy Digging Man have decided to help the Predator Versus the Aliens. Makes sense. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” “Let’s go find our friend.” Good dialogue, dude.

- Jumping across a chasm! Alice barely makes it. Sexy Digging Man grabs her wrist. Hello, Alien. Mouth-in-a-mouth.

- Goodbye, Sexy Digging Man.

- Alice is all alone now. We have one human character left. She meets the Predator. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Alien Versus Predator And Also Alice!

- Alice Versuses the Alien with a spear, the Predator mounts a gun on his shoulder so he can Versus the Aliens with that, and we have shooting, and suddenly there’s setup for a lot more Versusing. Let’s do this! There’s still half an hour of movie left! Oh god. There’s still half an hour of movie left.

- Boss Alien is breaking free, surrounded by Little Aliens. STOP FLEXING AND JUST VERSUS ALREADY, I WANT TO GO HOME. I just want to go home.

- I just want to go home.

- Alice has a spear now, and also a gun. She finds Fred. It’s Fred’s gun.

- Sexy Digging Man is glued to the wall next to Fred. “Sebastian. I’m going to get you out of there.” Oh, that’s right. Sexy Digging Man was named Sebastian. Is named Sebastian? Whatever. He doesn’t deserve to have a name. “It’s too late,” Sexy Digging Man says. “It’s inside of me.” I feel you, dude. Alice shoots Sexy Digging Man and drops the gun. Don’t drop the gun! Chestburster chestbursts out of Sexy Digging Corpse and Predator squishes it. Without even thinking or flinching. There’s some serious variability happening here in terms of the threat level and speed and toughness of our aliens and also our predators. Boss alien breaks free and starts slow-motion running down a stone hallway, like straight-up Chariots of Fire-ing it.

- This movie would be so much better with a Vangelis soundtrack.

- Didn’t this Predator get facehuggered, like, 20 minutes ago? I’m not saying that the movie dropped some plot points somewhere, just that I feel like it dropped some plot points somewhere.

- Now there’s something about a bomb.

- An Alien Versuses the Predator, who drops the Predator Gun mid-Versusing. Alice Versuses the Alien with the gun, and Alice and the Predator slow-motion outsled and outrun the bomb they set off. THEY JUST WANT TO GO HOME.

- I just want to go home.

- The Predator takes off its mask. It burns Alice’s face with a piece of the Alien she Versused. Aww, tender post-Versusing burnbonding moment!

- Boss Alien jumps out of the ground and Versuses the Predator by punching it. YOU HAVE CLAWS and TEETH and YOUR TAIL IS A SPEAR and YOU CAN THROW ACID, WHY WOULD YOU PUNCH. Alice Versuses the Boss Alien with a spear, YOU HAVE A GUN, and it chases after her because it thinks it should be Versusing rather than getting Versused. Versusing only works if it goes both ways, that’s like the first rule of Versusing. Predator Versuses Boss Alien with a spear, YOU ALSO HAVE A GUN and then flexes. NO. FLEX ONLY POST-VERSUSING, NOT MID-VERSUSING. Boss Alien Re-Versuses the Predator by stabbing it in the chest. Good job, Boss Alien.

- Tug of war! Boss Alien Versus Predator And Alice And Also Whaling Station! Whaling Station turns out to be the Tug of War Champion. Chekhov’s Whaling Station: If there’s a whaling station on the edge of a cliff, it will go off the cliff by the end of the movie. Or would that be Chekhov’s Cliff? I don’t care anymore. The point is Chekhov. There is no point. Interesting note: Anton Chekhov’s father was named Pavel. Why isn’t Walter Koenig in this movie?

- Lots of Predators now, looking at the body of the Predator the Boss Alien Versused and staring at the burn marks on Alice’s cheek. Predators give Alice a Predator Spear and walk away, cloaks flapping in the Antarctic breeze. Alice watches them leave as dramatic music that is not Vangelis plays. They’re going home. So am I.

- But wait, there’s more, I guess. Predators In Space. The Predator that got Versused THROUGH THE CHEST now has a CHESTburster because it got facehuggered right after it was introduced to us, like, an hour ago. It’s been fighting and getting stabbed with an alien inside of it this whole time, despite us knowing that the Predators can see through skin and see aliens inside of people. And, really, you set up this Predator, who is the only Predator who did anything cool in the entire film, getting facehuggered right at the beginning of its… I mean, it’s not an arc, but, maybe a line segment, just to have one more fight scene after the story is over? Story’s too strong a word. “Story.” The chestburster flexes. Alien Versus Predators In Space! Nope. Credits. Sigh.

- This movie seems to time all of its biology for Dramatic Reveals, rather than for Logic. It also seems to make its Aliens and its Predators exactly as badass or as wimpy as it needs to be in order to create Dramatic Tension, rather than letting them actually be characters.

- This movie kind of sucks. Nope, no kind of. This movie sucks. The human characters aren’t really characters, the Aliens and Predators aren’t really characters either, and the whole thing feels like a pitch rather than an actual movie. We came for the Versusing, and even that wasn’t up to snuff. (Ha. Snuff.) The video games were better than this. I have no idea why I wanted to watch this movie again. The fact that I think I used to like this movie, or at least that I used to not hate this movie, says bad things about who I used to be. My life is lessened by having seen this movie. I’m going to go stare at a blank wall, rock slowly back and forth, and mutter things that aren’t words. The wall will have better character development and plot logic than this movie did.

Ten Years Ago: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

8 Aug

After writing their infamous tandem re-view of EurotripKate Gorman and Joe Horton are back for more. This time, it’s a trip through Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, during which they muse on the evolution of drug comedies, taste-test White Castle’s brand-new Chicken Waffle Sandwich, and discover the American Dream.



Kate: Hello, All!

 Joe: Hello. So here’s the story – We’ve been fans of Harold and Kumar for a long time. Kate says she’s seen it ten times.

 Kate: I think that’s probably accurate

 Joe: And we have a White Castle near us. So that qualifies us to review this film. These are the requirements for being a reviewer: 1) Have you seen it? 2) Are you in jail currently? 3) Do you live near a White Castle? 4) How many laserdiscs do you own?

 Kate: We went to White Castle this evening to pick up some dinner, so we’ll be eating those tiny sliders at various moments and might comment on that. We’ll obviously save one for the end. Side note: The lady at White Castle had no teeth, and she told an amazing story about how people spill drinks in their cars and how she feels bad about it.

 Joe: Yeah. NO teeth.

 Kate: She was AMAZING.

 Joe: Also she made us wait because she is the only person working there. Kate, what is that great line from Inside Amy Schumer? “Somebody emptied their butt in the bathroom.” This toothless woman would have to clean that too. She was in charge of the whole store and I applaud her.

 Kate: Yeah, that poor woman has to do everything and she still has a smile. The other amazing thing about this is that I only started eating red meat a few years ago, so I have been missing the true experience of watching this movie and eating tiny little sweet burgers for years. I loved the movie when it came out, but only now do I know how awesome these burgers are.

 Joe: Now you know.

 Kate: Oh no, is this not a widescreen movie? It is, don’t worry. We won’t miss essential action.

 Joe: Is this from Blockbuster?

 Kate: Aw, man. We’re not THAT old. This was only 10 years ago.

 Joe: Is this the full screen version my grandfather MAKES US WATCH? Remember when you’d go to people’s houses and they’d only have full screen and you’re like, yeah, I gotta be going now.

 Kate: Man, this movie is so old you had to look at people’s photographs if you wanted to see their face. Not just go into your phone. Ethan Embry just can’t go over that girl.

 Joe: When did this movie come out?

 Kate: Ten years ago!

 Joe: Right. That’s the idea of this thing right?

 Kate: This is the BLOG, Joe.




 Joe: Hey look, it’s USC!

 Kate: USC! It’s Bovard!

 Joe: As we know, a ton of stuff is filmed at our alma mater USC, and they usually use Bovard, our main administration building, to be like a dorm or something. Nice. Our best building is some dude’s annex office.

 Kate: Fred Willard FTW.

 Joe: He was on the Hemoglobin Trotters. Kickball team name, called it.

 Kate: Oh no, Kumar has an ANTENNA on his flip phone. Aw man, Fred Willard just burned his lap with coffee. Great acting there.

 Joe: “Mr Patel, I am more than familiar with diarrhea!”

 Kate: Kal Penn looks SO YOUNG. Remember when he quit acting to write speeches for Obama?

 Joe: Yeah, right? Remember when he worked for OBAMA? What if his future self came back to the set of this movie and was like, hey dude, in a few years you’re gonna work for the PRESIDENT.

 Kate: And now Harold’s headed home.

 Joe: This has never felt like a movie that takes place in NYC/NJ to me. It’s like an anywhere movie. This happens in every city every day.

 Kate: Yeah, they live in Hoboken. Looking good, Hoboken. Aw, Harold’s dream lady is so clean cut. She’s so ‘90s – like Jennifer Love Hewitt from Can’t Hardly Wait.

 Joe: This actress’s career blew up. Oh wait, no. And nice clothes. Who checks the mail in lingerie?

 Kate: GREAT song choice. FannyPack’s “Cameltoe.”

 Joe: This is just some sound dude’s phone on shuffle.

 Kate: Oh my god, they are watching Blind Date! Remember when that was a thing? That was such a thing.

 Joe: Their elevator is from 1962.

 Kate: In, like, Rome.

 Joe: Hah!

 Kate: Oh no, the Black-Eyed Peas song “Let’s Get Retarded” is playing. Remember when they had to switch it to “Let’s Get It Started” because it was super offensive?

 Joe: Let’s get retarded in here! Review title: called it. And a Scissor Sisters poster on the wall!

 Kate: Kumar shaved his pubes into a bonsai tree shape? How is that a thing? Bonsais are shaped all sorts of different ways.

 Joe: Hey did Kumar work on pube shaves at the White House?

 Kate: Nice butt, Kal Penn.

 Joe: He has an old man ass, like, 100 years old.

 Kate: Gross. Our two reviews so far feature gross men’s butts. In Eurotrip, “chicas,” and now Kumar’s butt. Those are the movies we like, Joe. Gross men’s butts. Review title: called it.

 Joe: And this “I Heart Bush” tee shirt is a strong choice.

 Kate: Oh man, this PSA is one of the best parts of this movie:

Kid #1: Come on, dude. Just take one hit. Don’t you wanna be cool? [Kid #2 takes one hit.] Hey man, what are you doing?

Kid #2: I’m so high, nothing can hurt me. [Kid #2 picks up rifle.]

Kid #1: Noooooooooo!” [Kid #2 shoots himself.]


 Joe: And now the two of them: “We’re not low.”

 Kate: “We’re not low.” Review title: called it. Oh man, the choice was between KFC or White Castle. They made a good choice. KFC is nasty.

 Joe: Six sliders only $2.99.

 Kate: Time for the White Castle commercial: This is where the journey really begins.

 Joe: Man ten years ago we had it all FIGURED OUT.

 Kate: Okay, Joe, it’s time for the fries.


 Joe: While Kate is doing the fry-break, let me list off some new items on the White Castle menu: Fish Nibblers. “Drinks by the Gallon.” Clam Strips. I mean, they are all needing to be discussed but DRINKS BY THE GALLON? I mean, they KNOW WHO THE AUDIENCE IS. People who get up and are like, man, I need two GALLONS OF JUICE.

 Kate: Back by popular demand; orange juice! (This is an actual sign in the window at White Castle.)


 Kate: Orange juice was tired of the drama. He was like, “I gotta get out of here and move to Detroit where they’ll APPRECIATE ME.”

 Joe: Somebody like a CLAM NIBBLER was giving him ATTITUDE.

 Kate: Totally.

 Joe: Ok we’re back. Back with Rosenberg and Goldstein.

 Kate: The Jews are going for KFC.

 Joe: Man, was this before Katie Holmes was married to Tom? Yikes, a decade.

 Kate: Oh yeah! Like Dawson’s Creek Katie Homes.


 Kate: “No, we’ve gone too far.” Review title: called it. Classic line.

 Joe: Remember when people referred to gay guys as pitchers and catchers?

 Kate: Yikes, a decade.

 Kate: The Extreme dudes are amazing: “We’re gonna go get some extreme Mountain Dew!” Isn’t all Mountain Dew pretty extreme?

 Joe: Whenever I see someone drinking Mountain Dew I am immediately concerned, for them and anyone they encounter in the world.

 Kate: Totally.

 Joe: Harold and Kumar are planning to eat twenty burgers? Wow.

 Kate: That guy honking at the turnpike needs to take it down a notch.

 Joe: “Hey move your ass! Move you fucking twat!”

 Kate: “Hey check it out those guys look like a lame version of us.” [Gets the shit kicked out of them.] Dammit Newark.

 Joe: “Use the presets?” Take it easy, Harold.

 Kate: Harold needs to let go, you see. And Kumar need to take more responsibility. This crucial characterization brought to you by car radio presets.

 Joe: “Welcome to BURGER SHACK.”

 Kate: Anthony Anderson: Yes. Wow, he said “flavor crystals are in the meat.”

 Joe: “Just makes me want to burn this motherfucker down!” So many memorable lines.

 Kate: Epic. “No matter what, we are not ending this night without White Castle in our stomachs.” They are still determined.

 Joe: “Me and Pookie? We added a secret ingredient. I’ll give you a hint: it’s semen. Animal semen.”

 Kate: Goldstein and Rosenberg are watching The Gift on TV. So they can’t fast forward to Katie Holmes’s boobs or pause it when it happens. Man, remember that? Watching movies straight through?

 Joe: Mortifying.


 Joe: A decade ago was also a century ago. “Dude, do you know where I can get some chronic?” This is the George W. Bush world of marijuana.

 Kate: Oh man, remember how George W. Bush is a character in the second Harold and Kumar movie? That was quite a choice. This first movie is so much better than the other two. They should have just stopped here.

 Joe: Yeah. Really got out-of-hand. Though it’s worth mentioning here that my mom absolutely loves this movie and saw the other two. I don’t really know what to say about that.

 Kate: You know your mom is halfway through a Crave Case right now. Oh now they’re at Princeton. Great lines here:

“I’m a business hippie, man.”

“Kenny’s mom dropped off a big pot of kimchi chicken.”

Also, these British girls are really problematic. A terrible portrayal of co-eds: argyle sweaters, plunging necklines, slutty. They go to Princeton, for god’s sake.

 Joe: And also why are they the British Olsen twins?

 Kate: Roldy, aw…what a cute nickname for Harold.

 Joe: Princeton cops! “Barracuda to Sparrow: We’ve got two high fliers on level 3.”

 Kate: Ugh, these British women are talking about their breasts together and then are like, oh god, we have the taco shits. I love this movie, but I wish a woman had been on this production team.

 Joe: Yeah. Like one single woman. This is definitely how a 16-year-old dude thinks about college and the hidden mysteries of the women’s bathroom. “I’m about to have the worst case of taco shits!”

 Kate: “Hey Clarissa, do you want to play battleshits?”

 Joe: “We haven’t played that since back at camp!”

 Kate: I am so glad this humor isn’t a thing anymore…toilet humor was such a thing of the ‘90s and early 2000s.

 Joe: Oh yeah, you needed one thing about shits in every movie to get greenlit. And one brief titty flash.

 Kate: Gross. This and Eurotrip both have awkward boob scenes.

 Joe: The cops again! “Hold his throat and groin, come on rookie!”


 Kate: Oh no: Harold has a flashlight on his computer! What an odd thing.

 Joe: Oh yeah, Kate, good call. Flashlights on computers. Yes. Also, you needed a scene with an animal to get any movie like this greenlit.

 Kate: Raccoooooon!

 Kate: Aaaand Jamie Kennedy: GO.

 Joe: It all happens.

 Kate: This scene stands the test of time.


 Kate: “Huh? This your bush? You have a special bond with this bush?”


 Kate: Well-delivered line by Kumar: “Don’t worry about it, I really don’t feel like getting stabbed today.”

 Joe: Man.

 Kate: That raccoon is killer. Stellar acting, raccoon.

 Joe: Who is the raccoon puppetmaster? And when is puppetry getting its own category at the Oscars?

 Kate: Right? Puppeteers are some of the hardest workers in the biz. Aw man, why is that vicious raccoon throwing up blood on Harold?

 Joe: Just a really strong choice.

 Kate: And now Goldstein and Rosenberg are back! Eddie Kaye Thomas is keeping relevant.

 Joe: Kate, here he comes.

 Kate: Yes! Now it’s time for the guy with the pinky touch! The old dude sitting next to Kumar in the waiting room. He looks like The Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis commercials. It’s his, like, hobo brother.

 Joe: “I don’t always have brothers, but when I do, they are creepy hobos who love to pinkie touch.” I mean, this man does not know he is in a movie and reacted naturally in a waiting room. He’s just looking for a connection.

 Kate: He just really wants to touch Kumar with his pinky. He is like Uncle Moke from Eurotrip. They should be friends.

 Joe: This is his actual move in real life.

 Kate: Tots. I want him to make that move on me.

 Joe: Legitimately this man pinky-skoots like every ten minutes, no matter where he is. Kate, I think it’s time for a chicken waffle sandwich break.




 Kate: Guys, this is an actual new special sandwich at White Castle. It horrifyingly has waffles instead of bread, surrounding fried chicken. It smells sugary, like maple syrup.

 Joe: I think this is what displaced orange juice.

 Kate: This is going to be amazing. Also: We’re going to have heart attacks tonight.

 Joe: They were like we can have orange juice or chicken waffle burgers BUT NOT BOTH.

 Kate: Okay everyone. Joe just spit out the sandwich. Things are going really well. He literally spat it back out onto the plate.

 Joe: It’s like eating through your bedroom pillow, then biting into a rat.

 Kate: It is a total meltdown over here.

 Joe: It tastes like what a bounce castle smells like.

 Kate: Okay it’s my turn to try it…You know, it doesn’t taste like anything. It just tastes like starch. Okay, back to the movie.  Man, why did they go to Kumar’s dad’s hospital? This actor is good. He’s very committed to the role.

 Joe: Harold still has raccoon blood on him. Think about that for the rest of this movie.

 Kate: Ryan Reynolds: GO. Remember when he wasn’t an A-list actor? He was just the guy from Van Wilder? Was he married to Alanis Morissette at this time?

 Joe: Oh yeah.

 Kate: Time for them to be called into random surgery!

 Joe: Man, Ryan Reynolds’ character gets creepy in a hurry, calling Kumar “sweet pea.” Then, “your soft chocolate lips.” Yikes.

 Kate: Kumar forgot to sew up the bullet holes. He maybe isn’t a great doctor?


 Joe: Newsflash. We are now eating the first burgers of the movie. They are delicious. Lots of flavor crystals.

 Kate: Totally. Did surgery make us want to eat burgers?

 Joe: Mmmmm bullet holes.

 Kate: Uh-oh, they’re in a car crash!

 Joe: Also they’re like, if you make a wrong turn and go down a small hill, you’re now in the deep South. Welcome to New Jersey.

 Kate: Yeah they are now in the deep swamp. Christopher Meloni: GO. Always playing weirdos. I mean, this character’s name is Freakshow.

 Joe: Also I like that a decade ago the pot heroes had to be like really great citizens and professionals. Now they’re like, yeah, we don’t do anything. Think about Smiley Face. She couldn’t even back the car out of the garage.

 Kate: Yeah, I think that’s apt. Aw man, Freakshow just LOVES Jesus.

 Joe: Also Meloni was definitely like, I get one take and I can do whatever I want. End of contract.

 Kate: “….I heard everything you said.” I’m terrible at quoting movies, but I can always quote this movie. Especially that line, because I love his delivery so much.  I also like that there’s a trash fire in the background and hella rabid dogs. It’s like Eastern Europe in Eurotrip.

 Joe: Freakshow concerns: 1) boxes of barking dogs 2) medieval organ 3) Leanne

 Kate: Ew, look at all the dolls! So creepy. Oh god, he’s brainwashed poor Leanne. He’s like Charles Manson. Also, why would she go from wanting it in both holes to giving blow jobs? This is the stupidest male fantasy of all time. And now more random boobs. Saying, “Do you wanna play with them” is the worst way to start sex ever.

 Joe: And now they’re off again. Oh man, remember when we didn’t have GPS? They are so lost. “Is that a hitchhiker?”


 Kate: NPH: GO

 Joe: “Excuse me, are you Neil Patrick Harris?” Remember when he was known for Doogie Howser?

 Kate: Yeah, before he blew up.

 Joe: Another actor who also demanded a one-take role. Let me say whatever I want, signed, NPH.

 Kate: “Yeah, I’ve been craving burgers too, fur burgers.” Fur burgers, review title name, called it.

 Joe: Perpetually sweaty people cannot be trusted even if they are NPH. Actually especially if they are.

 Kate: Which came first: this is or HIMYM? Was he a lady killer on that because of this? Weird.

 Joe: The extreme guys are back. Could you, in the George W. Bush years, just go around being professionally extreme? And doing velociraptor noises?

 Kate: I’m pretty sure I went to high school with that pterodactyl extreme guy. EXTREME KAYAK!

 Joe: Extreme kayaking!

 Kate: “Check it out, extreme cheddar! Wooooooooooooo!”

 Joe: He has a sun tattoo on his shoulder

 Kate: And a Misled Youth tattoo. Classy.

 Joe: The classiest.

 Kate: NPH! Don’t steal the car!

 Joe: Just checking in: Harold still has raccoon blood on his jacket. Really raises the stakes of this movie.

 Kate: Omg payphones! Why doesn’t Harold have a cell phone? He has a job and everything.

 Joe: They should get a ticket for using a payphone. The officer should arrest them for using a payphone.

 Kate: “When are they going to develop button technology that will understand URGENCY?” I think of that often in my daily life.

 Joe: “Who the fuck are you, shitwad?” New Jersey Police: “NPH wouldn’t do that!”

 Kate: “NPH WOULDN’T DO THAT, ALRIGHT?” “What kind of name is that anyhow? Kumar? What is that – five o’s or two u’s?”


 Kate: Aw man, poor Princeton drug dealer Bradley Thomas had to be bailed out of jail. Good thing his mom loves him.

 Joe: “Get in the car, Bradley Thomas.” Meanwhile, the search for the escaped cheetah continues. Oh, this exchange is priceless:

“So what are you in here for?

“For being black.”

“I was walking out of a Barnes & Noble and cop stops me.”

“Look at me, I’m fat, black, can’t dance, and I have two gay fathers. People have been messing with me my whole life.”

 Kate: “In the end, the universe unfolds like it should.” Oh man, Harold’s police record is on paper. Not in a computer. This movie is old.

 Joe: That desktop computer is a foot thick.

 Kate: Another great song choice—“Crazy on You” from Heart. Heart is amazing.

 Joe: And cue the weed dream sequence!!

 Kate: It’s time for Kumar’s dream of a love affair with a bag of pot. Aw man, he beats his weedbag wife because of her poor coffee-making skills. Poor bag, she’s doing her best.

 Joe: And back to jail. This poor guy: “That’s not a gun, it’s a book.”

 Kate: This movie really thinks America/Jersey is racist. It makes quite a statement about American white people.

 Joe: White people are the worst. And that carefully placed picture of Bush on the wall.

 Kate: And here it is. CHEETAH! It’s animated so poorly; it’s like a Veggie Tale.

 Joe: Is this cheetah really eating people? Yikes.

 Kate: No, just the beef jerky! He’s a sweet cheetah.

 Joe: Man, that cheetah loves weed.

 Kate: This is not the point, but why would anyone ever ride a cheetah? That’d be the worst. They, like, hunt prey. It’d be a bumpy ride.

 Joe: So this is certainly the most famous part of this movie? Like, people remember this riding the cheetah stuff clearly. And is really is quite a choice. Most of the rest of the movie isn’t that. There are so many good and less-crazy things, comparatively, that go on, I don’t know…

 Kate: Harold’s concussion dream scene…commence!

 Joe: Oh yeah.

 Kate: Marrrrrriiiiaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

 Joe: Bullets, my only weakness.

 Kate: Omg Maria’s last name is Quesa Dilla. Maria Quesa Dilla! This is the first time I noticed that.

 Joe: It’s a strong choice.



 Kate: Uh-oh…NPH picked up some strippers.

 Joe: And they’re all in the sunroof.

 Kate: “I want that feeling…

 Joe: “…that feeling that comes over a man when he gets exactly what he desires.”

 Kate: “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? We’re going to White Castle.”

“Dude, that was so not extreme.”

“I  know, Extreme Sports Punk #1.”

 Kate: This song “Hold On” came onto the radio today when Joe and I were driving and we knew tonight had to be the night.

 Joe: Yeah. “We’ve come too far.”

 Kate: You see, now Harold’s letting loose. Character arc.

 Joe: I love how there’s this gigantic chasm in New Jersey.

 Kate: Like the rock quarry in Garden State!

 Joe: Right?

 Kate: Kumar says this journey is about the immigrant experience. “They were very very hungry.”

 Joe: “It’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country escaping persecution, poverty, and hunger.”

 Kate: This is all about the American Dream, Joe. That’s why this movie is so good.

 Joe: We’re on the main nerve. It’s vibrating on every level. It is absolutely the American Dream to spend all night looking for burgers and confronting racism and extreme punks and riding cheetahs.

 Kate: It took the cops until sunrise to find them. They made like one sneaky turn to elude that cop and now it’s been six more hours.

 Joe: That cop car has been chasing them THROUGH THE BREAK OF DAWN. Their special effects budget of one Crave Case didn’t cover nighttime work.

 Kate: Skateboard punks FRAMED. They deserve it.


 Joe: They flew in a hang glider all across America to get a dozen blocks.

 Kate: So many stunts in this movie. And now….It’s time for White Castle!

 Joe: Literally there was going to be a double murder and then they made it to White Castle. This movie turns on a dime.

 Kate: “Ooof, looks like you guys had quite a night, huh.” Good job, White Castle employee. Oh man, $46.75 is so much for fast food! Fast food usually costs, like, $7.68 total for a family of four. Good thing NPH saves the day. His hair is dyed this bleachy color. Funny.

 Joe: “Yeah, it was a dick move on my part, that’s why I’m paying for your meal.” “I made some love stains in the backseat. You’ll see.” I gotta start using “love stains” way more in my life.

 Kate: “Where are you going? Wherever god takes me.” NPH OUT.

 Joe: So we’ve gone officially into our case of burgers. These little boxes are so cute. Major selling point to the kleptomaniac crowd. I am going to eat a million burgers.

 Kate: “That was the best meal of my life.”  “Mine too.”

 Joe: Man if you see someone eating White Castle while weeping…odds are they just sat on a cheetah.

 Kate: Ethan Embry—booooooooo.

 Joe: Turns out Kumar does want to be a doctor after getting White Castle tonight.

 Kate: They’ve switched roles, you see. They are becoming better people. AND LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM.

 Joe: The office dudes have gonorrhea. Harold just GUESSED about the gonorrhea. Life rule #1: don’t let someone be able to guess that you’ve got gonorrhea. Rule #2: if you do get gonorrhea, spend as much time as necessary developing a poker face. Rule #3: don’t get gonorrhea.

 Kate: Agreed. And now they’re back home, to the slowest elevator ever. In Rome.

 Joe: It’s 1962 Rome. Maria’s leaving!

 Kate: Cool outfit, Maria, very AMERICAN. A midriff-baring star shirt.

 Joe: After that, she’ll be quite unreachable. This is definitely Eurotrip 2: How This Shit Goes When You’re 30. Harold and Kumar are like what Scotty and Cooper would be at 30.

 Kate: Hold on. Why would Maria just kiss him? Honestly, not a great female portrayal in this movie.

 Joe: So really he just went from, I don’t know who you are to kissing her in one elevator ride.

 Kate: Well she liked him already and was waiting for him to make a move, so I guess it’s okay.

 Joe: She’s going to Amsterdam? To Club Vandersexxxxx?

 Kate: She’s never coming back from Amsterdam.

 Joe: “Just a little kiss action.” Oh yikes. That’s how he talks about romance?

 Kate: “You do realize what’s legal in Amsterdam, right?”

 Joe: And now the wrap-up. This is a great narrative device: explain every subplot that did not get resolved through TV news narration.

 Kate: Yeah, it’s smart.


 Joe: Oh man, I am definitely going to eat the last two burgers.

 Kate: Justice for all, the American Dream is real, the end.

 Joe: I just like how serious a weed movie needed to be in 2004. Like, we will become great doctors and citizens but give us this one vice. Now characters are like, Oh, man, do we really have to get milk today?

 Kate: That’s really true. These two actors are good together. I hope they actually liked each other. That’s another thing that makes this movie awesome – pretty solid acting. A funny and relatable everyman story. Lots of madcap adventures. Dated by references and technology use, but not by humor, really. It’s still funny. Good jokes. TONS of memorable lines.

 Joe: Yeah, it does feel ten years old. I think the weed world has changed a lot since. With Washington and Colorado, and the fact that marijuana is so much more mainstream, this movie plays up the lunacy of it in a way I don’t think movies have to now.

 Kate: Yeah, that’s true. It’s more commonplace in pop culture now. Just regular people doing regular things.

 Joe: So a movie like Smiley Face can exist. Or for that matter, Neighbors this year when these grown-ass adults with a new kid give their weed to a frat as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.

 Kate: This movie is like, if you smoke weed, crazy adventures like this happen.

 Joe: We go from let’s ride this cheetah to I can’t back my car out of the driveway so I got problems.

 Kate: Totally. Or, like, I can’t get a job. Or later with Judd Apatow, it’s like not being able to be a responsible partner and dad.

 Joe: Being stoned doesn’t have to be played as a silly thing anymore, or like a fringe thing. Like, the difference is this is a movie about it taking a whole night to get to White Castle. Movies now are like, I felt like it took the whole night. Also it was only 30 minutes.

 Kate: Truth. All right, I think we’ve said it all. Sweet movie.

 Joe: Sweet. Nice castling with you, Kate.

 Kate: Nice castling with you, Joe. Except for the chicken waffle sandwich, which was not our favorite part of the night.



Ten Years Ago: Last Life in the Universe

6 Aug

Maccewill Yip returns with a ten-years-later look at Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, and gushes over Christopher Doyle’s glorious cinematography.

I first saw the movie when I was in college with a friend, Jeff. We were both into comics, movies, and memorabilia collecting. We were in one of those stores that sold Asian movies and music, remote cars and planes, and swords and knives. He grabbed a copy after hearing some good stuff about it, and that very night we screened it. We talked about it a few days, looked into the posters to add to our collection, then moved on to our next movie discovery. I would once in a while revisit it, but it has been years since my last viewing and it had gotten buried over other films I was getting into. So this review became an excuse for me to watch it again.

So I began…and stopped. Watched and stopped…watched and stopped. Since I remembered the basic story, there were several things I began to notice in just the first few minutes. I looked at the numbers on labels and wondered what the numbers meant, besides the obvious years. I wondered what the titles were on the stack of books and if they gave any insight into the main character, Kenji (probably not). I noticed the symmetrical chairs with the most likely unintentional moving reflection in the metal trim. Then the shoe rack, labeled for each day of wear. Finally it comes to one of my favorite shots which sum up the scene. Until then, everything we’ve seen is neat and orderly: books, chairs, shoes. Immediately, we can see that the occupant is an obsessive-compulsive. Suddenly, we have a shot that show a change: books scattered with one slipper on top. It is from there the camera moves up and we see feet, one foot still wearing the other slipper. What we see is one of the many fantasies of Kenji’s many suicide attempts in the film, in this case a hanging. What topped it for me were those damn slippers. Looking back at the shoe rack, they were labeled as “Every day” wear. When we see Kenji’s imagination continue, a woman and a security guard enters his apartment to see his dead body. Whereas the woman passes out, the guard walks up to him and, instead of checking the body, pulls off and examine the other slipper. The scene not only shows the mentality of our main character Kenji, but somehow, intentional or not, made slippers a darkly comedic prop. At least for me.

Kenji’s suicidal tendencies, as mentioned in his narration, have nothing to do with money, heartbreak, or hopelessness. He read that death is relaxing, no need to keep with the trends and pace of the modern world. At one point, we see a nightstand with a book that has the only translated title and author: The Black Lizard by Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a prolific, post-war writer who ended his life in ritualistic seppuku after a failed coup at a Japanese army camp. The writer also wrote and made a film adaptation to Patriotism, a short story about a soldier who disobeyed orders, went home to make love to his wife, and together committed suicide. Kenji’s fantasies reminded me a little of both Harold and Maude and Divorce Italian Style. However, his dreams are more somber, looking for a release, or as the cinematographer Christopher Doyle said, an intent to go somewhere else. His attempts are also twinged with feelings of isolation. This is present not only in the title of the film itself, Last Life in the Universe, but the story of the other reptile-titled book that’s brought up several times in the film, The Last Lizard. In the story, a lizard wakes up to find he is the only one left in the world. Finding himself alone, he finds himself missing his friends, family, and even his enemies. “It’s better being with your enemies than being alone,” he thought. In the beginning of the film, though, Kenji had not reached that thought. He has a brother and a co-worker that is infatuated with him, and yet he still feels lonely and, being a Japanese man in Thailand, literally out of place.

This brings us to our other main character, Noi. She and Kenji are both linked by the scene of an accident of Noi’s younger sister, Nid. However, both have had further associations with Nid. Noi is of course Nid’s older sister, but she is feeling guilty for demanding Nid to leave her car after an argument about Nid sleeping with Noi’s womanizing boyfriend, where shortly after Nid is hit by another car. Working as a librarian, Kenji had seen Nid in the library reading The Last Lizard, which, as mentioned before, becomes a focal point in a several moments in the film. The way Kenji views Nid reminds me of how Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Guido, had viewed Claudia Cardinale in Fellini’s 8 ½, as a sort of idealized woman that is only glimpsed at, but most likely never existed when encountered. Not only are they joined by the death of Nid, but like Kenji, Noi also has a need to get away. Instead of Kenji’s escape from his detachment of the modern world through suicide, Noi was on her way to Osaka, Japan, leaving not only her abusive boyfriend, but also her current guilt of Nid’s death.

How both came to get their escape is interesting. After his brother, a member of the Yakuza, gets shot by another member for sleeping with the mob boss’ daughter. In the heat of the moment, Kenji manages to kill his brother’s murderer. He cleans up the evidence and store the bodies in the apartment, leaving for work the next day. Noi comes at the end of the day to return his bag he left at the hospital after Nid’s accident. After having dinner together, Noi asked if he wanted her to drive him home. Wanting to avoid his apartment with the decaying bodies, he asked if he can stay at her place.

She allows him to stay, and at first he becomes a nuisance to her. As days pass, however, you see that they needed each other for different reasons. For Noi, it was someone to help her get a new start with a blank slate, which Kenji does by actually cleaning her house. She was able to ignore her abusive boyfriend and was almost comforted into letting go of her guilt for her sister. It is here that she can fully go through with her plans to move to Osaka. For Kenji, Noi’s home was a place to both get away from his apartment and the bodies within, as well as a way to get close to something that was a part of Nid. But then, you see another part of him change. He came in with his suicidal thoughts in tow, as seen with a knife close to wrist, or laying out to be run over by Noi’s car. Over time, as he is away from the modern world to Noi’s home near the marsh, we see his isolation begin to crumble, and he begins to open to Noi. It is not through much verbal communication, as he doesn’t know much Thai, she’s not fully fluent in Japanese yet, and they both supplement with English.

We see many subtle signs of these changes, but there is one in a segment of the film that is the elephant in the room. At one point, we just begin seeing Noi as Nid, still in the bloody schoolgirl outfit she died in. Essentially, it’s still Noi, but for a period we just see her as Nid. From watching the interview with director, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and commentary with cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, I found that the scene was mainly conceived after a frustrating day of shooting. After a few drinks, they thought about bringing the actress who played Nid back on to “energize” the set. So they experimentally switched Noi out with Nid, without drawing attention to the change at all, and just let it play out for a few scenes. Thematically, it works. At that point, Noi was still grieving over Nid, and there are some people who embody something from those that passed away, either by just handling or reading stuff they have left behind, to extremes of actually dressing up like them. Kenji we can see is actually imagining Noi as Nid, again probably his vision of an idealized woman. So it is probably the point where both Noi finished grieving and Kenji starts to fall in love with Noi herself that you see the vision of Nid turn back into Noi. With that scene, you see Noi gives him her car and, since he doesn’t have one, offers her license as well. They joke back and forth with each other about how the picture on the license looks nothing like her. It’s a lovely little moment, but is one that also highlights the changes Noi’s gone through.

Now that they are in love with each other, Kenji decides to go with Noi to Japan. However, when he goes back to his apartment to grab his passport, he is left with a situation involving not only the dead bodies he had left behind, but also Noi’s boyfriend following him and the Yakuzas coming to see what happened to one of their own. It all leads to a series of events that left the boyfriend dead and Kenji escaping the Yakuzas, but apparently caught by the police. We see him in what looks like an interrogation room, handcuffed, with all his stuff, including his bag and his copy of The Last Lizard. The next thing we see is Noi in Japan, sporting shorter hair to indicate some time has apparently past. Coming home from her waitressing job, her roommate tells her someone is looking for her. She sees the bag withThe Last Lizard sticking out. We see her run off excited, but then the next shot takes us back to Keji in the interrogation room, and then the film ends ambiguously. So what happened? Well, there are probably many explanations, but I see mainly two. One is that Kenji’s suicidal fantasies has been replaced by one of being able to see Noi again in Japan. Just like the first time we see him imagine hanging himself and saying, “This could be me three hours from now,” we ourselves can also imagine the end of the film saying, “This could be me some time from now.” Another possibility is that the scenes in Japan IS what really will happen in the future. This is not just optimistic thinking. Also in the beginning of the film, after the hanging fantasy, we have the opening credits intercut with scenes of Noi at her home and her little pool in the backyard. We see the same shots in the middle of the film. So just as those early scenes can foreshadow later events, what we see of Noi in Japan can be what will hopefully happen to Kenji.

Out of several reasons I wanted to re-visit this film, one was to enjoy Christopher Doyle’s cinematography again. There is just something special about the way he captures images on film that totally engrosses me. In fact, one of the primary reasons this movie was made was that the director wanted to work with Doyle, as well as Tadanobu Asano (Kenji) and Takashi Miike (Yakuza). I had admired his work back when he shot with Wong Kar Wai on works such as Chungking Express, Ashes of Time and In the Mood for Love. Listening to him on the commentary was great, albeit repetitive. He constantly mentions the space and engagement, the rhythm and resonance, the beauty and lyricism. He talks about trying to express universal themes through simplicity, which is one thing I admire most in the films that can pull it off.

I noticed while I was writing just how much was in this film. It seems there’s a lot going on, but watching it the one thing you notice is how sparse is. It is these kind of films, the one that shows so little and yet expresses so much, that are among some of my favorites, such asTwo-Lane Blacktop and Revanche. Given how the film came together, it was surprising how well it gelled together. The interviews with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang reminds me of a interview I read the comic book writer, Jason (John Arne Sæterøy), who also have a wonderfully simplistic style. In part, it seems that some of these works of expressive minimalism are usually people just putting together and experimenting with what they like or how it feels, but the results come out being enjoyed and interpreted in so many ways that the creator had probably never thought of when making it happen. In essence, it’s the mood and feeling we as an audience bring into these different mediums that acts like tone poems, and how these images are translated to us as both private and shared experiences.


Other Random Thoughts:

-I noticed how moments for the main characters are interrupted by pretty obtrusive noises: the buzzer at Kenji’s apartment from his brother trying to get in, and the phone ringing from the boyfriend as he constantly tries to reach Noi.

-Kenji and Noi occasionally using English to communicate kind of reminds me of Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion.

-Title of film doesn’t come in until about thirty-three minutes into the movie.

-Completely forgot about Kenji’s little wet dream.

-Modern way of showing cute couple: show them playing Dance, Dance Revolution together (e.g., Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World).

-First time they eat together, Kenji and Noi are at opposite sides of the table. As the film progress, we eventually see them sit right next to each other on the same side.

-For those who don’t know, in most of Asia, full back tattoos usually indicates that the person is Triad, Yakuza, or some other gang members.

-Christopher Doyle Notes:

+Asian filmmakers usually do innovative things, like jump narrative continuity, to create an energy to the film.

+A cinematographer has to be a good whore.

+Implication vs. explication of ideas; what you see vs. what you imply.

+Takashi Miike came into the set dressed in what we saw in the movie.

-Pen-Ek Ratanaruang Notes:

+Both director and cinematographer agrees on the shooting of space and how the sparse script/story allows for a creation of a certain rhythm.


+They really didn’t care if the story was good. They just wanted the chance to work with people they liked.



Ten Years Ago: De-Lovely

1 Aug

Our resident musicologist Max DeCurtins revisits De-Lovely and examines both the historical impact of Cole Porter’s music and the personal impact of being in the closet (even if that closet is lined with Armani suits). 

I was gay in 2004. Actually, I was gay long before that. When I first saw De-Lovely I had just finished my freshman year of college, the liberating environment of which often provides the necessary freedom for exploring and acknowledging one’s sexuality. But not me. I would not come out of the closet for another eight years. To this day I still can’t understand why. While I won’t call those years wasted time, I regret almost nothing as much as the fact that I should have come out at some point early in my college career and yet didn’t. I could not completely square my public-facing self with my internal self-knowledge, the cost of which failure I have only begun to learn.

Unlike a number of the films I’ve re-viewed for 10YA, I haven’t once seen De-Lovely since that initial viewing. I definitely didn’t remember just how frankly the film approaches Porter’s sexuality. To some extent, De-Lovely tells the story of Cole Porter’s struggle to bridge the gap between his internal and external lives. I qualify the preceding statement because the film doesn’t really present a central theme or narrative. De-Lovely isn’t necessarily aboutanything in particular; as Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) admonishes the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) in the opening moments of the film, “Songs don’t have to be about someone, you know.” To me it feels accurate to call the film a true biopic; we live in Cole Porter’s life for a while, experiencing what he experienced, not focusing too heavily on the arc of his career, the details of his engagement and wedding, his marriage to Linda, his homosexuality, or his taste for indulgence. All of these elements come together in an uneasy balance—tense, but balanced nonetheless.

De-Lovely makes use of an unapologetically self-conscious frame story. The angel Gabriel, appearing to Porter as a theatre director, reviews his life in Dickensian fashion, playing at once the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Sometimes this framing comes off as just a little too self-conscious, particularly when Pryce’s Gabriel plays up the directorial persona. Despite a shaky opening number (“Oh my God, it’s an opening number, of course!”), director Irving Winkler skillfully effects transitions in and out of the frame story, which contributes significantly to the success of the film, but at times the transitions feel self-indulgent. I suppose that Winkler’s style in this film invites comparisons to Rob Marshall’s, particularly Chicago, in which a very loose frame story provides the glue for the narratives of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly as told through musical numbers in the Cook County jail, and in fact I do find a similar quality in the cuts and transitions of De-Lovely as I do in Chicago; the problem in De-Lovely, perhaps, is that the musical numbers don’t really advance any kind of narrative or understanding of the context for the story. A number such as “Be a Clown” doesn’t tell us much of anything, unlike the Chicago number “When You’re Good to Mama,” which informs us—in whatever limited fashion—about the quid pro quo nature of life in Chicago at the time, and along with Billy Flynn’s numbers (“All I Care About”), paints a picture for the viewer of rampant corruption. What I do appreciate about De-Lovely is that it offers a glimpse into the constraints of the turn-of-the-century closet, however plush the interior. Cole’s closet presents few problems for him, until it does, and this parallels my experience.

Linda (Ashley Judd) arguably represents the most challenging character for contemporary audiences to understand; in our age of reality shows, a woman married to a possibly-gay, or definitely-gay, man, would probably end up on Big Brother or The Real Housewives of New Jersey. To be certain, Cole and Linda—who did in fact love each other—know that their marriage conferred mutual benefits in a society that still had nineteenth-century expectations and social class structures. Cole’s sexuality seems, moreover, a relatively open secret, and given the now-stereotypical attraction of gay men to the arts, and to musical theatre in particular, it makes sense that the circles in which he travels have well-developed ways of serving the needs of its gay members. Linda too appears quite open-minded regarding Cole’s sexuality, but we begin to see over the course of the film that, when confronted with the actual evidence of Cole’s dalliances with men, her open mind narrows considerably. Now let it be said that I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself a “sassy” gay, but even I found myself heckling my screen with occasional cries of “oh, honey, no….”. While I hope that we’ve learned enough about human sexuality in the last six or seven decades to know that romantic attachment and sexual desire may not happen with members of the same sex, I found it hard to find too much sympathy for Linda when she discovers holes in her bubble of tolerance. Her tolerance lives at an abstract, theoretical level. Being gay isn’t, however, an abstraction. It’s not theoretical. She puts up with it at first, but after a while the subtext coursing through Linda and Cole’s interactions sheds all the subtlety usually associated with subtexts and positively takes over what they say to each other and how we as the audience interpret the lyrics of Cole’s songs. This became for me the most disagreeable part of De-Lovely—I began to feel as if I had watched the same insinuations multiple times. It makes the film feel, unnecessarily, like it drags its feet. Perhaps Judd’s performance, which doesn’t quite play at the same level as Kline’s, contributes to my dissatisfaction. The degree of tension injected into the portrayal of their relationship does, however, highlight their devotion to each other; Linda, aware that she will die, tries to arrange a male companionship for Cole with Jack, and Cole, for his part, ensures that Linda’s final moments are filled with love and peace.

Anyone who watches De-Lovely and doesn’t feel as if they’re watching an alien culture has, I think, not fully grasped the scope of the change in the practice and experience of music over the course of the twentieth century. A standard course of Western music history generally covers everything from the emergence of written musical notation in the ninth century to notable musical trends in the twenty-first. That’s some twelve hundred years of music history, the teaching of which gets precisely zero attention in public education and in higher education it often falls to indentured servants adjuncts. Yet it’s absolutely crucial, I think, to understanding the world of De-Lovely.

The early twentieth century stands out for developments in many areas: mechanized and chemical warfare, modern medicine, manufacturing, the first aircraft—and also music. The advent of recording, first acoustic and then electric, as well as the explosion of access to radio meant that music now had the unprecedented capacity to reach the public in numbers absolutely unimaginable to any composer preceding those active at that time. Recording radically reshaped musical form itself: the duration of music one could fit on each side of a record directly influenced the length of each song or composition. The price of printed sheet music, historically relatively expensive, dropped to the point that new hits, relatively easy to play by amateur musicians, became affordable to even those of solidly middle-class means. In other words, Cole Porter came along at just the right moment in music history. Until recording and broadcast technologies came along, the only way one experienced music besides going to a concert hall would have come through at-home performance. If you wanted to hear music, you made it yourself, with family and friends; if you wanted music at your party, you hired musicians. This stands in such stark contrast to our current culture’s consumption of music that I couldn’t shake the alien feeling I had watching De-Lovely’s preponderance of live music.

I can only wonder what it must have felt like to live in the middle of such dizzying musical and cultural change. Music whose significance we have codified in retrospect had yet to reach the public, now much more unified in its ability to consume culture than ever before. One of my favorite professors in graduate school, a man who looks like the human incarnation of Grumpy Cat, comes from a New York era in which Leonard Bernstein is the name on everyone’s lips. My professor, then a young man, can go to his local music shop and ask if Stravinsky has anything new. The Rite of Spring premiered a century ago last year. We know these pasts and these artists only by the works that they have left behind, works that we have canonized (think The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath) perhaps because they carry some spirit of the context that produced them. This epitomizes De-Lovely for me: a glimpse of the context that produced Cole Porter, a context I cannot possibly know and which therefore feels alien to me. As Belloq says in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this is history.”

If you’ve read any of my previous re-views, you will probably have guessed by now that I don’t have much of a penchant for pop music, a fact surely to my detriment as a would-be academic given that pop music studies lately have captured an increasing share of the attention of musicologists and ethnomusicologists. Sometimes the De-Lovely soundtrack exhibits the gentle caress of pop music and its hallmarks. You can hear it Lemar’s vocals in “What is this Thing Called Love?” and Alanis Morissette’s performance of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” I think this probably makes De-Lovely more accessible to twenty-first century viewers, but it does confuse the historical impact of the music somewhat.

It’s easy to forget that Cole Porter’s career overlapped with composers such as Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, and Igor Stravinsky, all of who caused considerable consternation in the musical world and whose works count among the most influential of the time. Small, almost imperceptible clues appear to remind us of this fact, such as the deliciously subtle nod to Vaslav Nijinsky’s costume for the ballet version of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’une Faune that one of the costumed young revelers at the party in Venice wears as he ascends a staircase. (Song for reference: “Let’s Misbehave.”) A stylized faun, he wears brown-spotted nylons, laurel, and sports little horns in his hair, recalling the art direction of Léon Bakst, who did costumes, sets, and even program design for the ballet. Debussy’s work itself takes its inspiration from the eponymous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, the sensuality and eroticism of which strongly informed the music, and especially Nijinsky’s choreography. Nijinsky, with his somewhat androgynous appearance and style of dance, himself pushed the boundaries of modern queerness just as Debussy pushed the boundaries of musical modernism. His story, in fact, parallels Porter’s somewhat: Not only had he received considerable acclaim for his natural talent and commanding technique, he also lived as a semi-openly gay man, marrying a woman of relative stature. The direct link back to ­De-Lovely comes through Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who founded Paris’Ballets Russes, had an affair with Nijinsky, and in the film dated blonde bombshell Boris, hispremier danseur, whose eye Porter caught early in the film, in Paris. They later hook up in Venice, where Porter meets composer and songwriter Irving Berlin for the first time.

Porter’s musical output occupies a space in which musical theatre and jazz mingle in a way that eschews the notorious divide drawn between “low art” and “high art.” Certainly “In the Still of the Night” speaks to Dave Brubeck and the more experimental side of cool or “West Coast” jazz—moreover, I can’t imagine a contemporary musical figure of similar stature to Porter producing a song so profoundly un-danceable and meditative. The orchestrations done for the film certainly speak to the exotic space between the two types of art; the instrumentation doesn’t just call for a plain old jazz combo and leave it at that—some numbers push the envelope of musical timbre. “Begin the Beguine” immediately springs to mind, as its ensemble includes a bass flute—yes, there exists such a thing. Notice the thickness of the body and the way that the head joint (the part into which the flutist blows) doubles back on itself—the only way to lower the pitch of the instrument without making it unwieldy to play. The bass flute has a seductive timbre like the flute equivalent of sexy congested cold voice that finds little use in orchestras because the sound it produces is by necessity extremely soft and easily covered. These are the subtleties of music that De-Lovely inspires us to reconsider in every number, and ten years on, I find it still does just that.


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