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.

Ten Years Ago: The Village

29 Jul

Stevi Costa rewatches M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and calls out the heteronormativity of its central narrative as well as the film’s troublesome usage of disability.

A lot of us over here at Ten Years Ago will sign up to review a series of films, grabbing a host of choices from a particular director, actor, or writer. I am always the first person to sign up for anything with Ewan McGregor in it, but I don’t generally stick to just one auteur or scribe. However, I seem to be awfully interested in revisiting the works of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan had showed great promise at the turn of the millennium with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense, which was articulate, suspenseful, and pretty tightly written. Many loved his follow-up Unbreakable, too, hailing it as a perfect comic book movie that is, amazingly, about original material. I’ll even go to bat for Signs, which I think is a pretty tight narrative, even if it’s logically flawed (as I discuss in my review). But there’s definitely a point at which his cinematic career starts to decline, and I think it’s The Village.

I didn’t hate The Village back in 2004, though I can’t tell you with any certainty why. It has a lot of great actors, and they’re all doing a pretty good job given the material. The setting is pastoral and lovely. The use of color is ham-fisted, but visually arresting. But the writing is not up to snuff, and the film is actually terribly boring. The plot twist in this film, Shyamalan’s beloved “trademark” as a writer, is and always has been utterly stupid. For those of you who haven’t seen The Village, let me save you the $4 streaming rental fee and two hours of your time with some summary.

This is a film that takes place in what seems to be an early American town in what I might guess is roughly 1800. Our protagonist is a blind woman named Ivy who is moderately spunky. She is played by the sighted Bryce Dallas Howard. There is a council of elders who spend a lot of time in a Town Hall making decisions for everyone. They include Cherry Jones, William Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver. But life isn’t easy here. In fact, our first scene is of the town burying a small child. So quiet, brooding town hunk Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix, still at peak hunkiness) earnestly asks the council if he may go to the nearby towns to procure medicine to improve quality of life in the village. The problem with this is that nobody ever leaves the village, and so his request is denied.

Why does no one ever leave the village? Well, that’s a complicated answer. The residents of the village have been told that there are creatures in the woods, known only as Those We Do Not Speak Of, that are dangerous. So no one wears red. (Not sure why – I guess it attracts Those We Do Not Speak Of.) And the perimeter of the woods is guarded by a series of mustard yellow flags, and festooned with night watch stations, where people like Michael Pitt keep an eye out at night for Those We Do Not Speak Of. (I also guess that Those We Do Not Speak Of are repelled by the color yellow.)

So, given this set up, we get little hints that something, probably Those We Do Not Speak Of, might be sneaking past Michael Pitt and entering the town. A series of rabbit corpses are shown, flayed, but with the flesh of their little bunny heads still intact. Sigourney Weaver assures everyone it’s just coyotes. And then one night, we see one of the creatures as it snorts its way through the village, creating fear simply by appearing before everyone. Those We Do Not Speak Of are, for lack of a better description, giant hedgehogs in red cloaks. They’re like something out of Beatrix Potter . . . only evil?

But there is no real threat in Those We Do Not Speak Of, either in the flayed rabbits or the snorting through town. No one is actually harmed, just scared. The creatures are neither menacing nor dangerous at all, in fact, because they are not real. Those We Do Not Speak Of are a myth perpetrated by the Town Council to keep people from leaving the village . . . because the Town Council created the village in the woods deep inside a wildlife preserve in the late 1970s because they were too afraid of what society had become. It is how they all have chosen to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one to violence.


Don’t mistake the above summary for a plot though, because it isn’t. That’s all just world-building and scene-setting. The real story of this film goes like this: Lucius is the town hunk and Judy Greer loves him, but he turns her down. Then Judy Greer marries Fran Kranz, so now Ivy can actually marry Lucius, which is what they both really want. The only problem with this is that Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man who spends a lot of time with blind Ivy, also ostensibly loves her, and so he stabs Lucius when he finds out about their engagement. (This “plot” is the first hour of the film, and it is really slow and really boring and really heteronormative.) Lucius is most certainly going to die, and so Ivy begs her father to let her make the journey through the woods to the towns to get medicine. Her father then tells her that Those We Do Not Speak Of aren’t real, lets her touch the cool hedgehog suits, and then sends her on her way through the woods to play the greatest game of Blind Lady Versus that anyone has ever played.

In the woods, Ivy is mostly fine, though, because there are no real threats. Sure, she falls into hole, but she scurries her way out. She does, however, end up accidentally-on-purpose killing Noah (in that very same hole!) because he has acquired a hedgehog suit and somehow managed to sneak into the woods without anyone in the village noticing. (Because even in a hippie commune, no one gives a shit about the disabled, apparently.) Thinking that it’s one of the creatures, but assuring herself they aren’t real, she lures it toward the hole and lets it fall in. The camera shows us Noah’s face covered in blood before he dies in agony, a victim of Ivy’s quest for heterosexual love.

Once Ivy makes it to the not-at-all-on-the-nose ivy-covered wall at the edge of the woods, she climbs over and is discovered by a park ranger at Walker Wildlife Preserve, who only needs but a little convincing by the pretty blind girl to go acquire some antibiotics to save her fiancé. Park ranger Kevin steals the drugs from behind his boss’ raised newspaper as his boss, played by Shyamalan, utters some nonsense about letting people believe stuff or something. The next shot we see is the town council looking worried over a sleeping Joaquin Phoenix, and then Ivy running in to his home with medicine in her hands and weeping.

The knowledge of what the village really is gets conveyed with a shot of William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver staring at a photo of the Town Council in 1970s clothing while each of them, in voiceover, tells us a story about how a relative died violently. This happens while, we assume, Ivy is climbing the wall. This is a moment of really awful storytelling because instead of seeing our heroine DO SOMETHING HEROIC, we get a static shot of faces staring at a photo, while Ivy’s triumph happens off screen. Therefore, rather than having the reveal hit us as Ivy climbs over the wall and we, the knowing audience, see Walker Wildlife Preserve and have to make sense of it ourselves, we’re already set up for it, and so we can’t experience triumph with Ivy or the confusion that a twist is supposed to ignite. Rather, Shyamalan spoon-feeds it to us through a static shot and VO.


However atmospheric parts of this film may be, and however good the design may look, the story itself is the problem, and the way it is told disrupts its ability to become an interesting narrative. As I’ve mentioned, the problem with the suspenseful/scary aspects of this film are that they aren’t actually scary or suspenseful at all. As an audience, we never feel the fear that the folks in the village do. And I’m not saying that as someone who knows the twist, but as a conscious reader/viewer. If livestock are dying, the thing killing them is probably a wolf or a coyote. If there’s no evidence that Those We Do Not Speak Of have ever harmed a human, then there’s no reason to fear that they will. The Town Council, in short, is not even very good at perpetrating its own lie. I really wish this film had written a myth about the death of some villager at the hands of Those We Do Not Speak Of, because that’s how you really create fear through folklore. As I tell my writing students, specificity is always going to get you much further than being vague. With specificity, there’d be some stakes in being fearful, but here there really aren’t any at all.

Further, the first hour of the film dwells in these not-at-all-effective hints of fear, but actually spends all of its time setting up the romance plot. I’ve got no beef with heteronormative romance plots, but they’re a dime a dozen. What I’ve got beef with is this: I really want to like Ivy as heroine in this film, but because of the machinations of the romance plot, I can’t. One of the first actions in the film sets Lucius up to be the hero when he requests that he go to the towns to get medicine and is denied. On the one hand, it is really awesome that Ivy gets to take up the hero’s quest, but her reason for doing so undercuts this. Lucius’ heroic drive is purely altruistic. He wants to help the sick people in the town by getting medicine. Ivy’s impetus to take up Lucius’ quest is because he is her betrothed and he is dying. William Hurt, who plays her father, mutters something about Ivy and Lucius being the future of this way of life, so his stake in her achieving this goal places the good of the village in the fruits of heteronormative marriage. Therefore, Ivy’s quest is doubly problematic because she doesn’t approach it as altruistic, but the Town Council does. Her desires are being inscribed with something more culturally binding than simply not wanting her fiancé to die. To be clear, I don’t blame her for wanting to save her partner’s life. Anyone would want that. It is the structure of the plot, however, that only makes Ivy-as-hero possible through romance that is a problem. Couple that with the camera’s undercutting of her heroism in the revelation of the plot twist, and I wonder if we’re supposed to see Ivy as a hero at all.

Another way in which Ivy’s heroism is neutered in this film is in the treatment of her blindness, which, like everything else in The Village, is just a glorified plot device. Her blindness allows her to experience the world outside the village without actually seeing the differences, thus making her able to go back to her way of life. She is convenient to the purposes of the Town Council, and they make use of her blindness in such a way that allows them to maintain the status quo. If the film weren’t so hung up on its 11th-hour twist, this could have been a really interesting film in which a heroic blind woman actually changes her village’s way of life. But it’s not. That the film allows us to see Ivy as capable and heroic in any capacity is a feat, though, that deserves a little bit of praise. We see many shots of her navigating the town unescorted, which is amazing given that Bryce Dallas Howard really has no fucking clue how to use that cane to guide herself anywhere. We also see many shots of her abandoning her cane and freely running through the fields with Noah. When she journeys into the woods, she certainly falls down a lot, which makes sense, as the woods are full of things to trip over, and when she claws her way out of the sinkhole she falls into, we get to see her physical strength in a way we hadn’t before. I suppose it’s also nice that, in this early 19th century town, everyone is totally cool with the blind lady and they hang out with her and invite her places and integrate her into social life. It’s clear that the residents of the village see her as capable, and that’s great. But all of those good things are flattened by her existence as a plot device, not a hero.

We should also talk about Noah, the mentally challenged member of this happy little commune. Noah and Ivy are paired off as friends from the beginning because of their difference. They have many scenes together where they run around and play hide and seek, which Ivy is also really good at, especially the seeking part. As one-dimensional as basically all of the characters in this film are (especially Lucius, who spends most of the film either crying or sleeping), Noah is especially problematic. It is unclear what his particular challenges are, nor does that seem to matter to the film. Noah is treated by the other villagers as the medieval village idiot; He’s somewhat beloved, but there are also systems in place to handle him when he acts out. Notably, a room called “The Quiet Room,” which is actually quite a capacious room with windows and a fireplace in his parents’ home that locks on both the interior and exterior doors. No one treats him especially well, nor especially poorly. But, like Ivy, his function in the narrative is problematic. His sole purpose, it seems, is to be upset about Ivy’s engagement and then stab Lucius. Noah, in essence, is the root cause of Ivy’s heteronormative quest narrative at the end of the film. And the fact that she then accidentally kills him in the process of saving the life of her betrothed only further solidifies that her quest is driven by heteronormative monogamy. The threat to her relationship, in the form of this other suitor, dies in the woods while Lucius is saved to continue on this way of life.

Here the film gets a little bit eugenic, whether it intends to or not, as it hierarchizes the types of disabilities that are allowed to propagate via heteronormative marriage, and which must suffer alone in the woods. Ivy isn’t blind from birth. It’s a fact we learn only through a casual piece of dialogue in which her father mentions how sad he was when his youngest daughter “finally lost her sight and would be forever blind.” We don’t know exactly how long she was sighted, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this narrative because the real conditions of her lived experience as a blind woman are unimportant in the grand metaphorical scheme of things. Perhaps it is because her disability is not something she was born with that it is allowed, while Noah’s is not. Essentially, the film treats Ivy as though she isn’t a women with a disability, while Noah is perpetually other. Even as Ivy crosses over the wall and finds the Walker Wildlife Preserve perimeter, it is not clear to me that park ranger Kevin recognizes her as disabled. Her cane is on the other side of the wall. For all intents and purposes, Ivy can masquerade as a sighted woman. Her eyes don’t present as non-functional. They look like Bryce Dallas Howard’s eyes. No cataracts. No scarring. Her only presentational signs of her disability are her cane and her slightly downcast gaze. She’s generally well-kempt. She dresses like every other woman in town, and though her hair seems a little wild, it looks nice. I comment on this not because blind people aren’t well-kempt people, but because Noah is not. His hair is long and shaggy, stringy and greasy. It looks unwashed. His posture is slightly hunched, as though Adrien Brody read this part and thought, “Yes, I finally get to play Igor!” And his clothes are perpetually ill-fitting and dirty. The film dresses Ivy as though she belongs truly and fully, and Noah as though he doesn’t and can’t. These stylistic choices, coupled with the narrative function of each character, seem to hierarchize the character’s disabilities. Ivy can function like a human being, with some modifications, and care for herself and others. Noah cannot. He cannot control his own impulses and stabs Lucius. Indeed, when he dies, he is dressed as an animal, because people with mental disabilities totally need to be further seen as inhuman. So of course Noah doesn’t get the girl and dies alone in a hole in the woods, dressed as Those We Do Not Speak Of. Because Those We Do Not Speak Of really are the disabled.

And now is the part of the review where we consider the representational politics of able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities. Playwright Christopher Shinn (who is an amputee) recently published a piece for The Atlantic in which he calls for more roles for disabled actors, because “leaving out actual disabled people undercuts the power of works ostensibly about disability” and allows disability-as-metaphor to flourish. This is exactly what’s happening in The Village. Ivy and Noah are metaphoric plot devices, not just because they’re poorly written, but because of the actors behind them. This is not to say that Howard and Brody are doing a particularly bad job as actors, but that because they are both able-bodied, we as an audience are able to read Ivy and Noah as metaphoric. This also makes them more even more one-dimensional than they are on the page, though. And while I’d like to see more roles for actors with disabilities, they can’t be written like this. They need to be real and realized. To have an actual blind woman or an actor with a mental disability in these roles would not make them any better roles, and would actual make the violence that happens to Noah even more sad and uncomfortable. I do agree with Shinn that leaving out actual disabled people undercuts the narrative potential of works about disability. But The Village is not one of those works that’s actually “about” disability. And in that, it’s use of disability does nothing to add to anyone’s understanding of the lives of disabled people because it fails to see beyond metaphor in any part of its so-called plot.


Free-Floating Thoughts

- It’s fun to watch this film and replace the characters in it with other characters the actors have played. Then you get scenes where Mad-Eye Moody is upset that his brother was shot through the eye, which is SPOOKY! Or scenes where Ellen Ripley tells Johnny Cash that he’s a good son. Or scenes where the founder of Facebook is terrified of hedgehogs. Or scenes where Kitty Sanchez cries a lot because Theodore Twomley won’t go on a date with her. This version of the movie is a lot less boring.

- By the way, lots of actors are in this! Actors we know now but didn’t know in 2004! Jesse Eisenberg! Judy Greer! Fran Kranz!

- The wedding scene in this film looks like the most darling Portland wedding I could ever hope to attend. The twee factor is very high. There are candles strung up throughout a barn in mason jars. Everyone is wearing flowers in their hair. I think there’s a pipe band.

- As with many things, I get really caught up in the actual economic and social structures of literary and cinematic worlds. My main problem with the village here is that I can’t seem to figure out what anyone does all day. They have livestock, and I can see that they grow cabbage and kale, but, like, who is making all of these early-1800s dresses? This village seamstress is REALLY GOOD, you guys! WHERE DO THEY GET FABRIC? I SEE NO SHEEP! It just doesn’t seem like their economy, which we assume is a barter system since William Hurt has to explain currency to Bryce Dallas Howard, is very sustainable or actually thought-out.

- I also wonder about where the patterns for this period-accurate clothing came from in the first place. Like, this shit is hard to sew. And I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to figure it out without a pattern. So when the Town Council decided to create the village, where did they access these historical patterns? These things aren’t easy to find even in an internet-enabled age, so where the hell did they come from in the 1970s?

- You know this is a badly written movie when I can’t even commend a single line of dialogue as outstanding. I read through this piece again just now and realized how many times I describe the lines as being “muttered,” which is both accurate and also an awful way to describe the work of an actor, or a piece of dialogue.

- It must be really difficult to train 10 adults to speak in a slightly antiquated form of English and then keep that up for generations. That’s some serious method acting.

- Those mustard cloaks, though, they do be on point.

Ten Years Ago: A Home at the End of the World

25 Jul

Jessica Campbell, who previously re-viewed The Hours, examines another Michael Cunningham adaptation and praises the progressive found family narrative and genuine affection at the center of A Home at the End of the World.

A Home at the End of the World isn’t anybody’s masterpiece, but it’s a thought-provoking movie. I would have said the same thing walking out of the theater ten years ago, with some change in the thoughts provoked. The film is based on Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel of the same title; Cunningham also wrote the screenplay (his first), with direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer (whose non-stage directing resumé includes Flicka, several episodes of “Smash,” and “Hatfields & McCoys”; you can’t say the man’s not versatile). I was on a serious Cunningham kick following the 2002 movie version of his novel The Hours, so I had read A Home at the End of the World in the past year or so. I didn’t reread it for this review, but my recollection is that the movie is largely faithful, though inevitably streamlined.

Even so, the plot’s a bit involved, so here’s a refresher: The two central characters are Jonathan and Bobby (played in the early part of the movie by Harris Allan and Erik Smith, respectively), who become friends on the first day of high school in 1970s Cleveland. Bobby has lost his brother and his mother by the time he and Jonathan meet; his father dies before they graduate. Their friendship begins with listening to records and smoking weed and evolves, with no dialogue, into a relationship that includes sex. Jonathan goes off to college, but Bobby stays behind for several years living with Jonathan’s parents as he has done since the death of his father. Before long, both boys have reached 24 years old, and the teenage actors have been replaced by Dallas Roberts (of “The L Word,” “The Good Wife,” and the occasional movie) as Jonathan and Colin Farrell (of everything) as Bobby. Jonathan is living it up as a gay man in NYC in the 1980s (yes, you know what’s coming), living with his best friend, a bubbly, slightly older straight woman named Clare, a hat designer always sporting a new hair, makeup, or clothing style (played by Robin Wright then-also-Penn, obviously in view these days for her portrayal of a rather steelier Claire, the wife of Frank Underwood on “House of Cards”). It turns out that Jonathan and Clare have planned to have a child together even though they are not involved romantically, and that Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby. But Bobby and Clare begin sleeping together, so before the three really have time to settle into their friendship, things get complicated. My mother always told me three was a bad number. She was right. Jonathan soon gets fed up and goes to his parents in Arizona. His father, though (played by Matt Frewer, lately Dr. Leekie on Orphan Black), soon dies of the respiratory condition that sent him to Arizona in the first place. When Bobby and Clare come west for the funeral, Clare reveals that she is pregnant by Bobby. Suddenly everything changes: the three of them decide to move to upstate New York (Woodstock, in fact – Clare had been to the legendary concert) and raise the baby together. They hold things together for a while. The baby is born. Bobby starts a restaurant called The Home Café, at which he works as the chef and Jonathan works as a waiter, while Clare stays home to take care of the baby. Bobby and Clare continue sleeping together. While Clare becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her role as traditional stay-at-home mom in this supposedly non-traditional arrangement, Jonathan discovers telltale spots on his body that clearly forebode AIDS. He tells Bobby but not Clare. Ultimately Clare can’t take it anymore and leaves for good with the baby. Jonathan and Bobby stay on together, but Bobby knows of Jonathan’s condition. The movie ends before Jonathan dies, but we know what is coming.

Cunningham’s story was damned progressive in 1990, and it was unconventional in 2004 and 2014, too. As far as I know, hardly anyone was even talking about marriage equality in 1990. And in 2004, back in good ol’ Oregon where I grew up, “we” passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even though we went for Kerry. I was still going to a high school where they pretended homosexuality didn’t exist at all; for real, they wouldn’t let our English teacher show us Far From Heaven, solely because homosexuality was a theme. If only we don’t tell them, they’ll NEVER find out! Obviously, things have changed. Ten years later, Oregon is scrambling to pass gay marriage in November because they’re embarrassed that Washington beat them to it. And there are plenty of cultural and legal indications that the U.S. and many parts of the world more generally are becoming far more willing to consider gay rights.

And yet. That’s not actually what A Home at the End of the World is about. Nobody’s trying to get married, for one thing, and I know many people who are upset that marriage has become the banner gay-rights issue in recent years. No, this movie is more about interpersonal structures more generally, and about the cobbling together of a family. I could imagine someone who has had successful open relationships objecting that this movie seems like fear-mongering; better not try it, since somebody’s bound to get hurt. But A Home at the End of the World isn’t ultimately about that. It isn’t ultimately about sex, for one thing. In the end, the trio doesn’t fall apart because Jonathan isn’t sleeping with anyone. It falls apart because Clare feels like the odd man out emotionally, and because she gets stuck with most of the baby tasks while Jonathan and Bobby are both away from home working too much. Because the delicate emotional and practical balance of the home doesn’t work for her. They’re trying to make a functional home, not just a relationship. Needing to match up the sexual orientations is part of this trio’s problem, certainly; since it turns out that Clare had been hopelessly in love with Jonathan through much of their friendship, that means that both Jonathan and Clare struggle with romantic and sexual love for the one of the trio who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate it. But that problem is one they can get past; Jonathan moves into the house in Woodstock knowing it’ll be Bobby and Clare in one bed and him in another, and Clare is willing to pursue the relationship with Bobby that she originally wanted with Jonathan. Finding love isn’t nearly as difficult or as complicated as making a home.

In fact, there’s no shortage of love. Something I really like about this movie is that the three main characters seem genuinely to care about each other. (The apparent lack of genuine affection is the main reason “Girls” drives me crazy.) They come through in times of bereavement and enjoy each other’s company. The script suddenly gets funny when Clare announces her pregnancy and the three make their plans for choosing and setting up a house. For several minutes, we are reminded of how well these three people can fit together. They reassure each other throughout the story (as I recall Cunningham doing throughout the novel as well) that each one of the three is essential to the balance of the group. Speaking of love, I have to comment on Sissy Spacek as Alice, Jonathan’s mother. She gives a beautifully understated performance; as a midcentury suburban housewife, Alice keeps most of her feelings to herself, but Spacek always lets just enough seep through that you get the sense could have had her own movie. One day when the boys are teenagers, she overhears them playing “Desiree” and walks in to listen. Bobby, now without his own mother, has always been affectionate with Alice. In this moment, while she stands in the doorway with a laundry basket, he offers her a hit from the joint the boys are sharing. After the shock and the sense of motherly responsibility wear off, she says “Don’t tell your father” and takes one, and pretty soon the three are dancing together. Jonathan is of course mortified at first, but soon it feels natural – a little awkward, but natural. A few scenes later, Alice stumbles on Bobby and Jonathan kissing in the car. Nothing is said at the time, but later that night, Bobby finds her in the kitchen making a pie. She tells him she doesn’t know what to say to him, and he offers to move out. Instead of responding directly, she asks if he’d like to learn how to make a pie. He gives a surprised smile and says yes (and soon becomes a professional baker). This scene is one of my favorites in the movie. At first they’re standing around the kitchen several feet apart and without making much eye contact. They genuinely don’t know how to behave, but they love each other. I like that they don’t make Alice into a “cool” hippie mom; she isn’t so sure about what the boys are doing, but the fact that she loves them wins out. Within minutes, her hands are guiding Bobby’s over the rolling pin, and she has given him a livelihood.

Although there is never really any sexual tension between Alice and Bobby, she is certainly Clare’s precursor as something of a third wheel to Bobby and Jonathan. Then again, once Clare enters the picture, it’s often up for debate exactly which one of the three is the third wheel. It’s significant that, not having seen this movie for several years, I couldn’t remember which one of the trio bowed out. What kinds of love matter most? Who do you want to build a home with, if your best friend and your lover are two different people? Watching it in 2014, this movie reminded me of Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids (2011), in which a heterosexual but not (initially) romantic pair of friends decide to have a baby together. One of them gives a rather rousing speech defending that decision, essentially saying, she’s my best friend, she shares my values, we know each other inside and out, so why in the world shouldn’t we build a life together? It’s a damn good question. Looking back at the people I’ve known over the last few years, I honestly couldn’t say those things about a single person I’ve dated or wanted to date. But I could say them about several friends. I’m not on the brink of making some sort of arrangement, but having dipped my toe into some different kinds of love, I can understand why Jonathan might decide to move to the middle of nowhere with Bobby and Clare instead of staying in the city where romantic partners are everywhere.

I found myself getting impatient with Bobby this time around, a reaction I don’t remember having ten years ago. Back then, I mostly just thought it was really interesting that they were trying to live in a group of three at all. But this time it grated on me a little bit when Bobby so frequently said things like “No, it’s fine, this is great, things are perfect just the way they are.” Bobby’s older brother, before his dramatic and visually striking death by running through a very clean sliding glass door at the opening of the movie, always reassured Bobby about things like drugs and sex by saying “There’s nothing to fear, man.” I mentioned the thing about the death by glass door, though, right? The truth is that there’s a hell of a lot to fear. And obviously, as evidenced by the fact that both Jonathan and Clare give up at certain points, the arrangement isn’t perfect.

Now, I know that there’s a good reason people say “Oh, no, it’s great.” It’s an implied response to comments like “You can’t do that” or “That isn’t what people do” or “That’s weird.” And I think a lot of us today, even more than ten years ago, are very invested in saying “This isn’t traditional, but it’s fine. It’s perfect. It’s what I want.” Because we don’t want to be those conventional naysayers. And sometimes it really is fine. But sometimes you have moments like Clare’s, when she realizes, “I think maybe I’m not this unusual. Just my hair.” Yes, in fact, you can have wacky hair and want a traditional family. You can be gay and otherwise conventional. You can be a hang-loose pot lover and a virgin (as Bobby is when he moves to New York). You can love two people at once in completely different ways. But the fact that you can isn’t the end of the story. It isn’t necessarily perfect. It’s hard. For one thing, your wacky hair seems to signify that you are that unusual, both to other people and to yourself. Just before they start sleeping together, Clare persuades Bobby to let her give him a haircut on the grounds that his hippie hair doesn’t match who he really is: “If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with someone else’s whole life.” Bobby protests, but he lets her cut his hair. I hate to say it, but Clare has a point, as her own realization later in the movie bears out. I had a conversation this summer with a fellow femme-y lesbian friend about how we’d both thought off and on about cutting our hair short so that it would be easier to meet people. Neither of us has done it. For me, it’s partly because I have a hang-up about the shape of my chin (oh, shut up, everybody’s got something), but largely because I get mad when I think about there being a specific way to “look gay.” If that were the reason I did it, chopping my hair would be no different from, say, a straight girl not cutting her hair because her boyfriend likes it long. The haircut doesn’t ultimately change much for Bobby, but Clare is preemptively talking about herself. Her hair ought to signify someone who’s ready for anything, even a household in Woodstock with a baby and two men who love her very differently, but she discovers to her own surprise that it doesn’t. Sure, you can wear your hair any way you want, and you can live with whomever you want, but that doesn’t mean it will work the way you planned or make you happy.

Ultimately the home these three friends try to make doesn’t last. But you get to the end of the movie feeling glad that they tried, because the attempt was true to the way they felt about each other. This is a far cry, thankfully, from a ménage-a-trois, sexy partner-swapping kind of movie. It’s really just about a handful of lonely people who try to make a home together. A Home at the End of the World doesn’t have the beauty or power of The Hours, which I would also say of the novels on which they are based (both by Michael Cunningham; check out his latest novel, The Snow Queen, which I’ve just started and already found to be a pleasure). I would have liked to see more visual attention to place, since the movie is so deeply about making a home and finding a place, and since there’s so much variety in the places they try (Cleveland, New York City, Arizona, and finally Woodstock). The soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s music is nice, and tone-setting; someone who knows more about the music of that era than I do would be needed to say anything more than that. I have to confess that watching Robin Wright in this movie mostly made me want to watch “House of Cards”; she just doesn’t have as much to work with here. Colin Farrell is rather one-note but charming as Bobby, always gentle and wide-eyed, like he’s a little dazed that he’s still around. The young actors who played the characters as teenagers successfully conveyed the combined awkwardness and joy of adolescence; I was sorry to learn from IMDb that neither has gotten a great deal of work since then. But Spacek was excellent, as I’ve said, and all the actors do a nice job of making it seem they’ve known each other intimately for a long time; it’s an ensemble you believe in, even though it isn’t a very vivid one. I wouldn’t mind seeing A Home at the End of the World as a play, actually. It isn’t spectacular, but the passing of ten years absolutely has not made it obsolete. Two hours spent watching a movie that makes you think as much as I have the past week about how you cobble together a family and a home is two hours well spent.


Additional Comments on the Important Matters of Fashion and Classic Cinema:

–I love Bobby’s striped pants.

–I’d forgotten that they go to a screening in NYC of All About Eve! If you haven’t seen that, WATCH IT. Come watch it with me, I own it! In A Home at the End of the World they briefly show a three-person scene with Broadway star Margo, lover Bill, and pretender Eve – not an accident, as those characters have a bit of a three’s-a-crowd situation themselves, though a more cut-and-dried one. Bobby is clearly seeing the movie for the first time, but Jonathan and Clare are holding hands and lip-syncing enthusiastically to every word. Awesome. I wish I could say the family that watches All About Eve together stays together. Alas.

Ten Years Ago: Anchorman

11 Jul

Sex Panther aficionado Maggie McMuffin loves the 1970s and Adam McKay’s Anchorman. And pandas. And ten years later, she still loves all of these things.

I do not have any strong associations with Anchorman. Rather I just remember it being quoted incessantly all through high school. Like any teenager with a love of crude but smart comedy, I fell in love with Anchorman. So many one liners. So many cool outfits. Sex Panther, amiright? I probably last saw Anchorman three-to-five years ago. Maybe with my parents. Maybe with college friends. And going back for this re-view I had to wonder if the way this movie isn’t limited to one time in my life was due to it being good or if it was due to how much it seeped into our culture and how much people still reference it. Does this film have anything to offer outside of a bunch of really good quips?

It does. It really does.

As this movie opens I am reminded that Judd Apatow produced this film. I had forgotten that there was a time when he made really awesome movies that I couldn’t wait to see. And thinking about his other films that came out within the next few years and are still coming out today, I have to say I am disappointed in him for not keeping up this level. Anchorman is roughly an hour and a half long and does not need to be longer. Because the film rarely deviates into sub-plots or side stories, the pacing is great and the movie stays at a steady rhythm of jokes and melodrama for its entire run. Even the moments that could be cut are so hilarious that I don’t care that they’re in the film. One of my favorite scenes in this film and the one I was looking forward to the most is the newscaster fight. Aside from introducing rival news teams that show up during the climax, this scene doesn’t need to be in the movie but I would be sad if it wasn’t. I mean, Tim Robbins cuts off Luke Wilson’s arm. Steve Carell holds a hand grenade and yells. There’s a Planet of the Apes reference and god knows I will give points to anything that references Planet of the Apes.

This scene also gave us one of Anchorman’s most lasting lines—”well that escalated quickly”—a phrase which has become so ingrained in our culture that many people have no idea it came from a movie and not the internet or that it’s a quote from anything at all. It’s like how people quote Casablanca and All About Eve without getting the reference, but it took less than a decade to reach that point.

And for good reason. Anchorman is a good story with a good cast of characters and it combines all of the actors committing to the truth of their situations while also playing a heightened reality. There’s a good deal of soap opera levels of drama in Anchorman, with few moments where people are acting like real people act or even really talking like real people talk. But everything is played so honestly that it makes the comedy just happen. Everyone in this cast is clearly having fun while taking the project seriously and honestly this movie should be a prime example in acting schools about how to do comedy. Because comedy like this is deceptively difficult to pull off. If the actors took time after every joke to be like ‘see what I did there?’ then this movie would be twice as long. The speed that jokes are fired off mean that not only could one bad casting choice have thrown off the rhythm, it also means that audiences have to pay attention and keep up with this film. Even though not all of the jokes are highbrow or super intelligent, they come so quickly that lazy audiences would miss a lot of stuff on the first viewing. And why would you want to do that? People wrote those jokes, let’s fucking pay attention to them.

As for the story, Anchorman keeps it simple. Ron Burgundy, award winning news anchor, has his professional and personal world shaken up by the addition of a woman, Veronica Corningstone, to the news team. Soon after her arrival, she and Ron begin dating and become each other’s biggest competition.

Despite the fact that Anchorman’s subtitle is ‘The Legend of Ron Burgundy,’ Veronica gets her own story going. She never gets to overshadow Ron but we learn that she’s worked at multiple news stations and experienced sexism at each one. Veronica puts up with a lot of shit during this film. Ron announces their affair during a broadcast after she expressly asked him not to tell anyone. When she first arrives, every member of the news team hits on her in increasingly pathetic and insulting ways. Her periods are brought up as a safety concern despite the fact that women already work for the station, just not on the news team.

While Judd Apatow has been criticized for not having many decent female characters in his films (and most of those going to his wife), he does a better job here. And Christina Applegate, who went through her own fight to be taken seriously during her time as Kelly Bundy, brings a groundedness to Veronica. Veronica’s story isn’t a joke and while her harassment is played for laughs, it is also done in such an outlandish way as to parody the men in the film more than the struggling woman. Veronica doesn’t accept her treatment lying down, calls all the male characters out, and we see the other women in the film rally around her. After becoming the nation’s first female news anchor after Ron is unable to make it on time, Veronica is shocked to learn that Ron did not actually support her dream and thought she was joking. When he breaks up with her, Ron becomes increasingly more childish in his attempts to make her quit but Veronica remains steadfast and eventually gets Ron fired on her first try. She regrets it because she’s in love with him and it also derails his life but she also never gives up her position as his replacement.

Meanwhile, Ron and the rest of the Channel 4 news team are introduced more closely at a party. “We’ve been coming to the same party for twelve years now. And in no way is that depressing.”

As a teenager I really believed that the news team was cool and I knew a lot of guys who wanted to grow up to be like Ron Burgundy. I can see now that this film is not really advocating being like Ron, Champ, Brian, or even Brick (who is, unfortunately, a character I now see as a walking ableist trope who also happens to be hilarious to watch because I think they just let Steve Carell do whatever he wanted). Ron and his friends are all stylish man-children who invest more time and effort into drinking scotch and getting laid than they do at their jobs. They’re all resting on the success of their high ratings and cool hair-dos and are rewarded for it while women like Veronica are “chasing down leads and practicing my non-regional dialect.”

(By the way, as someone who went to theatre school, I can verify that a non-regional dialect is a fucking difficult thing and Veronica deserves kudos for putting in that sort of thankless effort.)

But this movie can’t be about Veronica. Because if it were really her story, this film would be a drama and Applegate would have been nominated for an Oscar. Or it would have been a romcom where in the end she chooses love over her job. Hollywood has enough issues making films with strong female leads and it’s a shame that we haven’t come further in the past ten years. Because Veronica is the sort of woman I’d see a movie about. She’s smart, capable, and still sexual on her own terms not on the terms of the male gaze. She dresses nicely but professionally and while her body is the source of many comments she’s never really flaunting it in the way that the romantic interest in male-heavy comedies tend to. Even though when we first meet her Ron says she has a breathtaking hiney, there are no lingering shots on her ass. Also, in the end, Ron learns that how he’s been treating Veronica is awful. He apologizes for everything (and she apologizes for getting him fired) and while she lets him do the panda birth story, he turns around and offers to let her do it with him. He even refers to her as his ‘co-anchor.’

So really this movie is about a man learning what feminism means. Because Ron and the rest of the team (not so much the producer, even though he only hires Veronica to keep funding) start out thinking that bringing a woman onto the news team will mean that women will take over and ruin them. In the end, Ron and Veronica become the first man/woman anchor team on an international network. Veronica changed nothing to get to where she was, she just kept fighting. Ron, however, learned that Veronica wasn’t trying to take over, she was simply trying to have the same opportunities he and other men have and that this can be much easier to achieve if men aren’t such gatekeeper about shit. Ron doesn’t even have to change his hypermasculine self to be a decent person. All he has to do is stop being such an asshole.

Unfortunately, and I include myself-as-teenager in this, a lot of people sort of missed that part of the movie. Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a t-shirt worthy quote summing it up. Which sucks because comedy is a great way to do social commentary and this movie was seen and is still seen by tons of people.

So yeah. Anchorman definitely holds up.

Now go back to making things this good, Apatow.


Other Thoughts

–That fight scene also sadly has Ben Stiller playing the Spanish News lead and that’s sort of a weird cameo to give him. And by weird I mean problematic and racist.

– The panda watch story is a great device because it gives us a steady timeline to follow and also we get to see a picture of a panda a lot.

– I have a weakness for 1970s style and a lot of the people cast in this movie. I have in my notes ‘this movie is just a parade of people I want to fuck wearing clothes I want to own.’

– I have dated two people who hated this movie/Will Ferrell. I do not understand how either of those are possible. Especially since Ferrell is essentially just tweaking his Robert Goulet impression for this film and I fucking love his Robert Goulet impression.

– Oh I forgot to mention the dog, Baxter. Baxter is cool and gets punted by Jack Black (and lives!). Jack Black being a belligerent biker is honestly my favorite thing I have ever seen him do. And I’ve seen Clone High.

– There’s a scene where Champ talks about Veronica’s ‘big ol’ behind’ and says he wants to slather it with barbecue sauce and bite it. For the past ten years I thought he was saying “butt butt butt butt“ but according to subtitles he was saying ‘bite bite bite bite’ and I like mine better.

– The feminism thing is presented well by side characters to. Danny Trejo shows up as a bartender and tells Ron that “Times are changing. Ladies can do things now. You have to deal with it.” Meanwhile the public news anchor tells Veronica that “we’re really down with the women’s lib thing” before pushing her into a Kodiak bear pit and that is just the best example of shitty male feminists I’ve ever seen. Because if you don’t think Hugo Schwyzer would do that you are just wrong.

– This film’s version of “Afternoon Delight” is the best version of “Afternoon Delight.”

– I have one burning question though. There’s a running joke where the producer/director/whatever is always on the phone talking to teachers about his troubled son and he says “I don’t know where he could have found german dungeon porn.” And I have to wonder, back before the internet, where a 17-year-old would have found that.

Ten Years Ago: Before Sunset

4 Jul

Erik Jaccard looks back on Before Sunset, Linklater’s dream-like second entry into the Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke trilogy, and wonders if perhaps the film itself is a romantic dreamscape.

Before Sunset

Dir. Richard Linklater/Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke


The Beginning Part

It’s probably coincidental that two of my favorite ‘romantic’ movies of the last decade happened to be released within months of one another and I guess it’s merely lucky that I get to be involved in a project like Ten Year Ago, which allows me to reflect on both in such a short period of time. Only on fleshing out and finishing what now constitutes the middle and later parts of this piece did I actually realize that it had grown into a kind of twinsy sequel to my March 2014 re-view of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film which, thinking about it now, shares more than a little in common with the film I take as the subject of this current offering, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Both are films primarily about love, memory, forgetting, and dreams [if you disagree with the dreams part, I’d ask you to consider why it is that the Before films’ central protagonists fit so effortlessly into the extended dream sequence that is Linklater’s Waking Life]. Both ask us to question how and why we come together with certain people, what we make of it when we do, and what it all means. I think it’s possible to see Before Sunset’s quiet interpersonal drama contained within the larger sf kernel of Eternal Sunshine’s conceptual and visual flair, just as it’s possible to see Eternal Sunshine’s daring ‘what if…?’ scenario played out subtly in Before Sunset’s fleeting implication that its two lovers “[aren’t] real anyway…[and are] just characters in [an] old lady’s dream. She’s on her deathbed fantasizing about her youth…”[1] Sure, this is a bit of stretch, and whether what we see is ‘real’ or simply the final neural sparks of a dying human mind is a fun question to ponder, but it’s hardly the point. The point, I guess, is that two very differently conceived and stylized films ultimately meet somehow around the same cluster of vectors, whatever their differences. At the end of the day, I think it’s possible to see them both as honest films about specific, memorable people coming together in a kind of fantastic dream space to negotiate and possibly resolve experiences of loss, regret, and hope. However, as much as I love both well-done sf and romantic drama (why can’t we have more quality hybrids?), the real reason for my devotion to both films, and to Linklater’s Before trilogy more generally, is balance. All of them manage to revel in a sense of wonder and romantic magic without abandoning completely the necessary condition that real romance can’t be all fantasy. Nor, I would add, do they fall back into the trap of abandoning the magic of romance for the sake of the practical or the everyday. Instead, they hold both in a fruitful tension and allow us to glimpse the possibilities and the pitfalls of veering too sharply to either side.

Clearly, then, I’ve no reservations saying up front that Before Sunset, like Eternal Sunshine, and like its trilogy namesakes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Midnight (2013), remains an odd, wonderful little eccentric wonder of a film, just as it was upon its release in 2004. I say this for the reasons I’ve named above and for others which I will explain below.  I’ve no doubt that there are some—many, even—who find the film’s limited action dull or repetitive, its dialogue tiresome, or its characters unlikeable. If such people disliked the film in 2004, they’ll probably still dislike it now. While I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion, I think reactions like these have a lot to do with how we sometimes forget that life—to which I prefer my art to have some kind of connection—is often built from these raw materials: talking, walking, existing as complex, uneven people who long for things, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s not a flashy or heroic premise, but then again, as Ethan Hawke’s Jesse explains in the film, most people’s lives are neither of these things. And if I can understand people needing a little action in their lives from time to time, as entertainment and/or escape, I can also understand us needing to reflect on the conditions of our need for escape and entertainment. For my part, I adore the way that Before Sunset allows us to do that by challenging us to be not only comfortable with, but actually interested in, a film that features no car crashes, giant robots, or superheroes, but only—at its most basic level—talking.

For those out of the Before loop, Before Sunset depicts the reunion of Before Sunrise’s young paramours, last seen saying an emotional goodbye on a Vienna train platform after spending a winding, romance-soaked day together on a whim. Determined not to let their relationship peter out prematurely, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) agree, in the finale of the first film, not to exchange contact details and to instead meet six months later on the same platform. Sunset opens nine years later in a Paris bookshop, where Jesse is performing a reading of his new novel, a fictionalization of that memorable night. When Céline shows up near the end of the reading, the truncated romance is rekindled, and the two wander the streets of Paris, discussing their lives, loves, memories, disappointments, and dreams. Like the first film, nothing much ‘happens’ beyond this and, like the first film, this ‘nothing’ is Before Sunset’s major strength. It takes our conventional attention to ‘plot’ and ‘dramatic action’ and refocuses it on a conversation, tied together by a shared memory, and fused simply by an almost Aristotelian unity of place, time, and purpose. Again, in an era of big-budget blockbusters, it’s worth remarking on how rare it is to have such a ‘small’ film continue to make such a big impact on the cinematic world. That the first small movie has grown into a trilogy of small movies, all similarly driven by collaboration, care, and honest to gosh heart and soul (yes, I said heart and soul), is nothing short of remarkable in our ‘bigger is better’ world.

Because it’s so simple in so many ways, it’s difficult to conceive of a film like Before Sunsetaging per se. While we may one day look back at the first couple decades of the 21st century as the years of the massive adaptation blockbuster and index many of the period’s films in this way, it’s unlikely that we’ll also look back and think about the time as the era of the small, dialogue-driven, chatty romance. Outside of the characters’ stages of life and the actors’ appearances, there is very little to mark any of the Before movies as emblematic of their time. Even the locations to which we are treated all seem in their own way utterly timeless, a fact only further driven home by Before Midnight’s stroll around the Peloponnese. While Before Sunrise could, and probably should, be linked to the boom in independent filmmaking in the mid-1990s, no such thing can be said of Before Sunset or its sequel. In fact, as all three of the film’s co-writers have said on numerous occasions, the only remarkable thing about the appearance of the film in 2004 is that it was allowed to happen at all.

While I initially toyed with the idea of examining the film in terms of its filmic merits and so forth, much of what follows is very personal to me. In some ways it takes much of what remained abstract about my re-view of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and personalizes it. Part of this is just how I operate in this context, while part is that there is really no way to separate my experience of the movie from my experience of my own life. Some films have this effect on you, some don’t. This one did. So while I won’t apologize for that, I will make the caveat up front. That said, here’s the rest.



The Second Part, in which I explain the personal stuff and try for a comparison

In order to really get at what I thought of Before Sunset in 2004, not to mention what I thought of it this time around, it’s necessary to provide a little backstory on how I first encountered its predecessor. I watched Before Sunrise on VHS sometime in the summer of 1999, only a couple months after returning from a six month solo backpacking trip around Europe, during which time I’d had the usual adventures, made new friends, partied a lot, and enjoyed living in a small and self-sufficient bubble of my own making, entirely removed from practical concerns or responsibility. It’s hard to overstate how profoundly that half-year affected my twenty-year-old self. That trip, along with a few other scattered moments in my twenties (all related to traveling), was one of the few times where living and dreaming seemed most similar, where practicality and desire were able to coexist productively without any annoying ‘real’ intrusions. All I had to do was wake up each morning (often in a new place), figure out which cool thing I was going to do or what amazing thing I was going to see, and see or do those things. In between, I got to mix and mingle with other young folks, talk about and read lots of books, ride on trains, flirt with girls, and generally exist free of worry about the future. While I occasionally considered what would happen ‘when I got back home,’ the quotidian concerns of my old life retreated from view to the point that my ‘real life’ all began to seem like so much blurry photography glimpsed out the back window of a speeding car.

What mattered was the now and the now was a mostly ideal dream in which I could control everything. No, the trip wasn’t always perfect, and was in fact very lonely sometimes. All the same, it was as close as I’d ever come to feeling really free at that point. Reading through my amateurish journal entries, it’s clear I’d started to idealize the experience before it was even over, nostalgically elevating it to the status of ‘that moment which I can never again have.’ And by the time I got back I was bummed. By way of keeping the moment alive, I talked about it all the time and began writing bad short stories set in cities or towns I’d adored (Barcelona, Prague, and especially the south Bohemian Czech town of Český Krumlov), populated by characters I hoped would sound like they were straight out of early F. Scott Fitzgerald. I even selected an unofficial epigraph for the trip, borrowed from the finale to Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”: “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Looking back at it now, I can see that my pose was much more Peter Pan than it was Amory Blaine: I didn’t want to grow up, and branding myself as a kind of righteous ‘romantic egotist’ (as Blaine fashions himself in Fitzgerald’sThis Side of Paradise) was one of the ways I went about avoiding the adult world and keeping my youthful dreams clutched tightly to my chest.

If you’ve seen Before Sunrise, you can probably gather what I found so refreshing about it in 1999. For one, it was about an American guy rambling around Europe and finding a dream-space with a girl, a moment in which time stops just for him, hell, just for love. It was about sweet young things living life for no other reason than because living life with others in beautiful, grandiose places is something worth doing. It featured an extemporized, unpredictable plot, like so much travel, and it glorified how bloody cool it can be to just walk around and talk with a new person equally as alienated from his/her surroundings, getting lost together and having that experience—every little detail and conversational point—mean everything. It seemed then that if you hadn’t done it, you couldn’t really understand, nor could you understand the loss [which is stupid, as one needn’t travel across the world to experience nostalgia]. Before Sunrise was a door onto that world that I’d glimpsed and seen slide out of view, and I loved it for that reason. I also loved it because it tries so hard to recreate the same magic which I’d consciously applied to my experience. It literally glowswith the overwhelming sense of unbearable, fleeting satisfaction and revels in the idea that its protagonists will memorialize it as such. Being honest, I also loved it then because I found it a very coherent film with clever, honest dialogue and two generally likeable characters who spent time exploring a city I’d only three months earlier also explored. All of this made me both tentative and eager to see Before Sunset in the summer of 2004, not long after I’d returned from another of my adventures. I was tentative because, on the one hand, watching a new installment of a film I’d so enjoyed carried the risk of disappointment (as sequels tend to do). On the other, I really wanted to know what had transpired in the interim between the two characters whose brief meeting carried all the weight of my unfulfilled longing to return.

Looking back on it now, two significant things had changed in the five years between when I first watched Before Sunrise and when I got myself down to the theater to see Before Sunset. The first was that I’d had another of those supposedly-glowy travel experiences. This one, however, had been remarkably different in a couple important ways. The first was that it had been much longer and had actually involved working, which is bound to inject a whole lot of ‘real world’ into your fantasy travel scenario, even if the work isn’t hard and much of what you enjoyed about ‘traveling’ still animates it. The second was that it involved people from my ‘real life,’ in particular one person with whom I’d long had a somewhat fraught romantic connection. Having had that relationship undergo its final death rattle while traveling somehow merged with the much more pragmatic nature of that ‘working holiday’ to produce in me (probably in conjunction with a few others things) a deep respect for the practical side of love, romance, and dreams. At that point I still harbored a great deal of idealism about love and travel and how effortlessly the two seem to mix (I would take off again only six months later on another adventure), but by the summer of 2004 it had been tempered by age and experience and a bit of overcompensation toward the ‘real world’ of relationships.

Not surprisingly, I latched on hard to Before Sunrise’s glimpse at Jesse and Céline coming together again in their early 30s after nearly a decade of disappointment. The last word is key here, as I think that by then I had come to see romance as always involving some element of disappointment. While I didn’t want to go so far as to give up on love, as Céline says she has, and I certainly didn’t want to find myself in a loveless marriage, as Jesse has, I nonetheless had decided that relationships were justifiable, worthwhile ‘work’ (my twenty-year-old self just shrieked at the idea of romance and work being placed in the same sentence). While I still harbored a lot of romantic tendencies, and could still very much get behind Jesse and Céline coming back together after all this time, what I really focused on wasn’t the nostalgia both clearly had for their past, but the futures they’d made in the interim. Relationships were supposed to be hard, I’d decided, not easy, and therefore ‘effort’ was the key, sticking with it and making sure that you didn’t let the practical stuff bog down the good, honest feelings. If you had misgivings about romance, that made sense, because romance required day to day effort and time and a lot less (I thought) of all that hooey-gooey sentimental yearning and so forth. So, weirdly, I loved Before Sunset in 2004, but for the complete opposite reason I had loved Before Sunrise in 1999.

Looking back on it now, though, I think there was something else. I think that, no matter what I told myself about how realistic and interesting and witty and smart and honest the film seemed, I still loved it for its magical moments. I’d say that I generally misunderstood what those magical moments meant, but I loved them with that same vague yearning I’d learned to treasure for something ineffable and far away. You might call it nostalgia for my nostalgia, a brief simmering flare-up of that original fire. In a film about two people talking, you really have to look for them, even find the ones you like the most and simply label them ‘magical’ for your own reasons. But they were there, in the original shock on Jesse’s face at seeing Céline, a fantastic dream-vision from his past, in the latent passion between the two as they discuss their own thoughts on love, and on way they effortlessly resume the amusing and often insightful chatter which animates their first encounter. So I came away having had both of my then-needs met: one the one hand, I’d had my new perspective on adult relationships verified in many ways, and that felt good. On the other, I’d still been allowed to grab a few gooey romantic moments and furtively keep them in my pocket for later digestion. I didn’t see it then, but there was still a problem with the way I kept these two impulses separate. 


The Third Part, in which I attempt to bring together parts one and two.

At this point I want to return to the subject of dreams and their relationship to reality. Reading back through what I’ve written above, I haven’t really abandoned the topic, but have instead let it fade into an abstract shell hovering over the more personal narrative. I suppose my goal here is to somehow fuse the abstraction of the first part with the specificity of the second by way of coming back around fully on the big ideas with which I began.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Jesse and Céline meet one another at the intersection of dreams and reality. This is true of all three films, but perhaps most true ofBefore Sunset, where their long-held notions of that night and what it meant are tested by their actual reunion, so long held at arm’s length by an unfortunate twist of fate (i.e. Céline’s perfectly good reason for not meeting Jesse in Vienna, as planned). Each claim at one point that their failed connection has resulted in a rejection of romance, wherein the reality of their lives has come to take precedence over their dreams. For Jesse this means half-heartedly throwing his lot into a relatively loveless marriage with the mother of his otherwise adored son. As he insightfully explains, in the wake of his disappointment about Céline, this result came about as the byproduct of an internal negotiation between his idealized ‘best’ self (i.e. a married, responsible father) and his ‘honest self,’ the person that would chase satisfying human connection no matter the cost. I say ‘insightfully’ because, though I’d never externalized it to myself in quite this way, this rationale is a perfectly concise explanation for how and why my own marriage flowered and wilted in the years between my two viewings of the film. What I missed in 2004, long before I was married, is how easy it can be to separateyourself into those plural selves, one which goes on living life in real time and place, drawn and tied to expedience and forward momentum, and one which you divide and hide off somewhere as a cherished secret, the self you always wanted to be. Nor did I realize then that buried somewhere in the pile of photographs and stories and memories of that European trip were the seeds of the same splitting in myself. Somehow it never occurred to me that actually sharing a life with someone would prove difficult if a good portion of the affective content of that life was devoted to a realm to which only I had access. While I had certainly let go of the specifics of the earlier nostalgia by the time I watched Before Sunset, the deeper structure remained.

Like Jesse, I threw my lot in and hoped that feeling ‘respect, trust, [and] admiration’ for another person would be enough. It wasn’t. And I know now that, because allowing these two worlds to coexist is dangerous, threatening to break the security and stable ‘happiness’ of the real, Jesse maintains his marriage at the cost of his own satisfaction, channeling everything else into his novel, a private paean to the dream scenario of his night with Céline. The novel [which, one wonders, might have made his wife fairly nervous] is an interesting artifact in the film. More than just a story, it comes to seem like the desperate cry of someone trapped on both sides of a looking glass, always looking both out and in, but unable to cross the dividing threshold. The presence of the novel also tells the lie to Jessie’s claim to have rejected romantic love. He doesn’t reject it; he just compartmentalizes it, finds it a secure hiding place (usefully, in the past, where no one else save Céline can touch it). It is only when he sees her again in the film that the two compartmentalized worlds are allowed to coexist and rupture the tedious calm to which he’s grown inured. While my story didn’t shake down this way (I never had a Céline), I nonetheless kept a vague sense of hope separate from any real-life expectations. Two worlds, two sets of conditions. In inhabiting my ‘real’ life I got to have that ‘best self’ of which Jesse speaks, but without the corresponding sense of honesty. In inhabiting my honest world I was able to dream and live a fulfilling life, but only at the cost of seeing my ‘real’ world in less than genuine terms—and what’s more, always feeling pretty guilty about the fact. It was never as clean as this explanation implies, of course. For instance, in revising Jesse’s theory to fit my own reality, I’d say that the ‘best self’ exerts an enormous influence that often comes to take on the totalizing appearance of reality. That’s why, no matter what you always knew you felt, it’s such a shock when the world that fantasy propped up comes crashing down. Moreover, because my ‘honest self’ wasn’t tied to a specific person, there was nothing more than a vague sense of discontent lurking at the edge of my affective vision. When it actually all did come apart, the seams were suddenly so obvious that it hurt all the more for realizing the extent to which one can fall back on a part of themselves and fail to see the forest for the trees.

If you read back through my piece on Eternal Sunshine and consider Jesse’s actions (and my own, I suppose) in light of the discussion I have there about Nietzsche’s amor fati (the love of fate), you can see that Jesse originally says ‘yes’ to fate in name only, assenting not to all that fate has to offer (his entire life, good and bad) but rather to a particularly failed version (which he has extended to become his entire life). Much as Joel is allowed to do in the earlier film, Jesse is then granted a fairly miraculous chance to remake that choice in the context of a dream-scenario, for better or worse (given the romantic context of the film, we assume better, but Before Midnight has a lot to say about what it actually is that both Jesse and Céline actually want and need in each other). In choosing to embrace the ‘failure’ of his real married life, a choice left much less ambiguous at film’s end than some would claim, he opts to accept all possibilities. The point is that he chooses to live.

For Céline the process is a little different, but mostly similar. As she explains in one of the film’s most poignant and gorgeously filmed scene (so gorgeous it made the cut for the primary poster), since her night with Jesse she’s learned to separate herself from romance because of how the process of splitting and forgetting is built into the process of coming together and loving. For Céline the emotional weight of each individual romance becomes—or so she says—too much to bear, and so she doesn’t even bother. If we juxtapose this perspective with Eternal Sunshine, we can see that what she really means is how hard it is—or would be—to have to deal with three, four, or however many Joel and Clementine moments. The comparison I make between Eternal Sunshine and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my earlier re-view is equally as applicable here in that Céline’s objection is to saying yes to fate too many times, to having the burden of numerous fates compounded. The idea provides a much more realistic dimension to the ‘fated lovers’ story in that it more accurately depicts the average person’s reality: sure, some of us will easily find that one person with which we click, but most of us will take a few stabs at it before we get something right. And each one of those attempts is, as she notes, heartbreaking and debilitating. Céline’s problem, as Jesse is quick to point out (because he suffers from it, too), is that she’s trained herself to treat her life as a failure (see the extended debate the two have in the car on the way back to Céline’s place for more on this) and has thus essentially said no to fate. Like Kundera’s Sabina, she lives a life mostly unattached from lovers, with the important difference that she, unlike Sabina, hates herself for it.

If what I gleaned from the film in 2004 was an emphasis only on the practicality necessary in love, what I took from it this time around was the bigger picture. The dream space of the film that both Jesse and Céline occupy exists precisely so that both can come together and negotiate these two conditions and find a middle ground. While it may seem facile, there is definitely something to the idea that any good romance requires the practicality of the real and any practical connection requires the fantasy of romance. Without the romantic side the experience will feel incomplete and surreal, as though it were lived separately from one’s desires. Without the practical side, the romance remains complete fantasy, unbound by the reality of actually needing to exist with and accommodate another human being. Without sounding too philosophical I’d say that the best of the couples out there manage to entertain this productive potential of this paradox, and to do so in such a way as to create a commonspace in which there is no longer a difference between the practical and the romantic, between the fantastically lovey and the tediously ordinary. This is no small feat, and as we see in Before Midnight (spoiler alert), it’s one that not even Jesse and Céline are able to navigate without significant stress. But here at the end I feel much more comfortable stating that these films have helped me reach a point in my life where, no matter how difficult, this rough synthesis seems not only possible but desirable. What Before Sunset demonstrates that Eternal Sunshine, perhaps, does not, is that we need not have recourse to see what’s really in front of our faces the whole time: two people talking and trying to live together. 


The Final Part, being the part with the ‘free floating thoughts’

  • While I adore nearly everything about this film, I sincerely dislike the “You promised to stay in touch” song which plays over the film’s opening credits. Sure, there’s something ‘fitting’ about it, but it’s a cloying, annoying kind of aptness that makes me cringe rather than nod in approval.
  • It was interesting this time around to consider the various ways in which the actors’ autobiographical details played a role in determining character growth. For example, given the timing of the film’s 2004 release, it’s difficult not to see Jesse as intimately related to what must have seemed like Hawke’s very fresh divorce from actress Uma Thurman. I suppose I could have noticed that back then, but it didn’t occur to me to do so. Delpy’s biographical connections were also easier for me to see in 2014, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, after watching her directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris(2008), as well as its follow-up, 2 Days in New York (2012), I found it easier to see the overlap between the Delpy-protagonists of both films, where certain details (like descriptions of both Céline and Marion’s childhoods) seem very consistent. Six years ago I attended a talk with Delpy as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s lecture series and I kind of regret now not having the gumption to ask her about the connections between her biography and the writing of those two characters.
  • It’s probably a necessary evil of these kinds of movies that national stereotypes, and especially American stereotypes about Europeans, play a role in characterization. That said, it annoys me that when we first meet her in Before Sunrise, Céline is attending university at La Sorbonne, just as it annoys me that, in Before Sunset, Jessie and Céline meet at Paris’s famed Anglo hideout bookstore, Shakespeare and Company (Which is, of course, her favorite bookstore). Of course, it could very well be that Céline attends the most famous French university (actually 13 different universities) in the world and that her favorite bookstore in all of Paris is a famous expat hangout. But these decisions reek of Jesse’s romanticism and of the film’s decision to indulge it. Perhaps this is simply a way of communicating to the audience the greater romantic/idealistic quality of the pair’s encounters….but it still bugs me.
  • Sorry, Ethan Hawke, but this Skeletor-skinny version is not the best looking you. On another note, I’m pretty stoked that you got rid of that facial hair from the first film and added facial hair that seems a lot less…teenage.
  • Is it me, or are Céline/Delpy’s random asides simply more interesting than Jesse/Hawke’s? Her more general and philosophical insights always attract my attention in a way that his do not. In this film, I love her story about visiting relatives in Poland and finding shelter from the overstimulation of the modern world. It was the direct inspiration for my comment, made in my June 2013 re-view of 28 Days Later, about dreaming of a world without advertising.
  • This type of talk usually goes in the main observation section of these things, but this time I thought I’d leave it as an ending aside: Outside of the occasional references to the tense political climate which characterized relations between the USA and European nations like France and Germany following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there is very little in the film that ‘dates’ it as such. At one point Céline remarks that she is glad that Jesse isn’t “one of those ‘freedom fries’ Americans,” a direct reference to the (thankfully brief) cultural spat in the USA over the name ‘French Fries,’ wherein some supposedly patriotic Yankee apologists for the Iraq war rebranded the ubiquitous snack to remove its association with French dissent. But otherwise, the film is refreshingly ethereal and removed from real time. The Paris to which we are exposed is generally that which retains the ‘timeless’ quality we filmgoers adore so much about the city (no visible fast food chains, thank you) and the locations—likely carefully chosen—all reinforce its most charming aesthetic stereotypes: winding cobblestone streets, lush garden paths, the Seine, lovely, hidden courtyards and seemingly sophisticated apartments (I guess there’s nothing really ‘French’ or ‘Parisian’ about sophisticated apartments. Maybe only in my mind).
  • Notice Delpy’s parents, Albert Delpy and the now-deceased Marie Pillet, near the end, as Jessie and Céline walk into the latter’s apartment. If you haven’t already, you’ll see them both again in the cute and very amusing 2 Days in Paris (2009), where they play—surprise—her parents.
  • For a long time my favorite part of Before Sunset’s many scenes was the one with Jesse and Céline riding back to the latter’s apartment near the end. It’s where they’re finally able to break through their outer walls and meet on somewhat even emotional terms. It’s also where we really see how deeply the events of Before Sunrise have affected them. But this time I have to admit that my favorite bit was the one just before this, when they—at Jesse’s eager bidding—decide to ride one of the scenic tourist boats down the Seine from Notre Dame to Quai Henri VI. It’s here where the seeds of that later scene are planting firmly in the ground, where both are able to open up about how that night has affected the way they view their selves and their partners. Watching them again, it became clear that both scenes essentially express the same deep content, but in very different ways. In the first the expression is safer and more carefully worded, so as to keep the emotion bubbling underneath contained, while in the second the gates come down and the two finally speak to one another honestly. What I found myself appreciating about the first scene is the way the emotional content of the second is forced by the situation into a kind of coded articulation in language. If you look back from the vantage point of the emotional crescendo in the car, the earlier scene drips with a desperate tension.
  • The ‘day’ in which Jesse and Céline’s Parisian encounter takes place looks resplendent, all golden hues and fresh late spring colors. But apparently the actual climate in which the film was made—during the European heat wave of 2003, the hottest yet on record. So, yeah…hot.


[1] This quote, while taken from Before Sunset, is itself a reference to the conversation between Jesse and Céline in Waking Life.

Ten Years Ago: Spider-Man 2

2 Jul

In our first re-view this week, Max DeCurtins compares Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 to a Passover Seder. This means its time to intro this re-view with our favorite fact about the filming of this movie: While Alfred Molina was suited up as Doc Ock, he would rehearse his songs for his upcoming turn as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Now that you can properly imagine this image, please keep it in mind as you read the following re-view.

“Time to teach these Stoli-drinking Tchaikovskys a thing or two about free press, American-style. You don’t ban those who supported your opponent, you make them wallow in their loser-dom by covering your victory; you sit ‘em in the front row, you give ‘em a hat!” Thus declares Toby Ziegler, White House Director of Communications, on one of my favorite shows of all time, The West Wing.

While anyone whose home pro sports team has competed in a national championship can recognize this behavior, Toby’s snarky comment actually speaks to an under-explored attraction of stories that feature a protagonist with a mild-mannered alter ego: the thrill we get when the protagonist, usually an underdog-type character, finally reveals his/her supernatural abilities to the character who most made the protagonist feel vulnerable and ashamed. As the shy, geeky kid for most of my school life, I certainly imagined at times what it might feel like to shed my alter ego and bust out some magic or superpower, to the manifest amazement of my peers. Years later Lee Pace, as the Piemaker, would articulate exactly what my then-school-aged self had thought: “I wanted to be a Jedi.” I call it an under-explored attraction because, for all the magnanimity that we can dream of in becoming a superhero or sorcerer, one of the chief guilty pleasures of imagining ourselves as these characters includes imagining ourselves using their powers to kick some serious ass.

Toby’s little moment atop the soapbox acknowledges that simply having the antagonist go down in fiery agony doesn’t really satisfy our sense of poetic justice in the way that witnessing the antagonist understand his error satisfies that craving. As—and here I reach deep down to scrape the bottom of my barrel of geekhood—Gul Dukat explains in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, true victory involves making your opponent see that they were wrong to oppose you in the first place. Say what you will about the climax of Return of the King (and I could say plenty), I find it incredibly important that Gollum, having reclaimed the Ring, shows a momentary flash of understanding that the Ring has betrayed him, that in fact the Ring never really belonged to him at all, before he gets swallowed by the molten lava of Mount Doom.

Spider-Man 2 itself resembles a Passover Seder in its structure: one must slog one’s way through most of the ritual, only occasionally nibbling on something bland (matzah), something spicy (maror), or something sweet (charoset), before finally—after what seems like an eternity—getting to the desired bit, the festival meal itself. (Full disclosure: Passover counts among my favorite Jewish holidays, and I actually enjoy very much the long slog that is the Seder. As the structure for a movie it meets, however, with far less enjoyment.) InSpider-Man 2, we get bland things, spicy things, and sweet things, but in the end we pretty much have to sit through the whole movie to see what this chapter really accomplishes.

In many ways the movie is written to function as the perfect middle act: good things, important things tend to happen in second acts; characters endure trials, but major questions and plot points necessarily go unresolved until the third act. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and his friendship with Harry Osborn (perpetual gay tease James Franco) tested as he seeks to reconcile the strength of Spider-Man with the frailty of his mild-mannered alter ago. In particular, the question of Harry Osborn’s destiny has us all wound up tighter than a web of spider silk, and over the course of the movie he displays frustration with Peter Parker for what he views as his friend’s collusion with Spider-Man. When he discovers that Spider-Man and his best friend inhabit the same body, he finds himself torn in his loyalties. Spider-Man 2 proposes an interesting idea: that a superhero’s superpowers depend on the hero’s emotional health and the strength of identification with the superhero ego. Spider-Man has a more difficult time becoming Peter Parker than Parker does becoming Spider-Man; for all his powers, Parker is powerless to prevent Mary Jane’s engagement to John Jameson (Daniel Gillies) or Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) having to leave her house.

Many of the things that happen in the Spider-Man series focus on how fundamentally good people deal with hardship and loss; as a result, we don’t really hate on those characters who fall from grace, like Doc Ock and Harry Osborn. We want them to experience redemption and, as Toby’s self-assuredness suggests, we also want to gloat a little. I know I do, and not just over the defeat of the villains.

Arguably, Spider-Man 2 contains the scene we’ve all waited for since Peter Parker first got snacked on by that radioactive spider. In order to get Doc Ock to reconnect with his humanity, Spider-Man has to remove his mask and reveal himself as the familiar Peter Parker. Doc Ock rises and goes to the fusion reactor to shut it down while Peter looks on; turning around, Peter stands unmasked in front of Mary Jane. Ever since that upside-down kiss in the rain in Spider-Man, we’ve waited for this. Finally, finally Mary Jane knows the true identity of Spider-Man. We revel just a little bit in her sudden understanding of why her relationship with Peter has never gone according to expectation; her character, ostensibly, is not redeemed until she leaves Captain Pretty Boy at the altar and shows up in the doorway of Peter’s Bohème-worthy studio. Though the end of the movie clearly sets up the expectation for the third installment, the resolution of this chapter with regard to the central love story between Peter and Mary Jane does much to bring most of the narrative to a satisfying end. Had Peter and Harry had a true reconciliation (and had it not been contractually ordained), Spider-Man 3 might not have needed to happen.

As I re-viewed the movie I caught myself at times sneering at the somewhat lackluster dialogue and the rather bland acting, but the more I’ve thought about it the more easily I can see these things as deliberate artistic choices that respect the two-dimensionality of the comic book as an artifact printed on paper. Mark Batalla, of Daily Nexus fame, found fault with the acting in his re-view of the first Spider-Man, but I think the quality improved in the second movie, and in any case I can’t be certain that the two-dimensionality of the movie doesn’t deliberately pay homage to the art and artifact that is the comic. Admittedly, I haven’t read the comics, so I can’t speak from a position of knowledge with regard to the source material, but I’ll try a bit of armchair humanities anyway. The art of the comic book transcends its physical limitations even as it enables the genre of the superhero comic to get away with a certain amount of cheesiness that works precisely because of the medium that expresses it. Movies like Superbad play on this cheesiness to great effect. Simplistic lines and basic delivery don’t necessarily come across that way when written on paper and accompanied by rich illustrations; movies, obviously, come with a different set of expectations and face commensurate judgment from the public that consumes them, just as comic books do. I imagine that handling the movie in this way would require a much more sophisticated approach than that taken by director Sam Raimi.

Ten years later, I can see why the doctor ordered a reboot of the franchise. Spider-Man 2, though better than the two installments surrounding it, doesn’t escape the middling performances from just about everyone save JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, whose exaggerations account for a significant portion of what is actually entertaining in this movie. Honestly, for all that happens in it, and for the not one but several times that Peter Parker reveals his superhero identity, Spider-Man 2 should have packed a much bigger emotional punch than it did.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • Hal Sparks’ terse conversation with Spider-Man in the elevator was quite possibly the best scene in the entire movie. Michael Novotny would have jizzed his pants. That elevator would have been great for a little man-on-Spider-Man action.
  • Is it me, or is Octavius’ transformation into Doc Ock comically self-aware?
  • The busking violinist is so awkward. SO AWKWARD.
  • Wagner has never sounded so tonal as during Mary Jane’s flight from the church to Peter Parker’s front door. Go figure.


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