Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade That Was

It's that time of year, with another year over and a new one about to begin, when we all embrace the opportunity to be all reflective and contemplative about what's come before. This is doubly true with a new decade upon us, when we can reflect on the last ten years and what they meant to us --- or didn't, as the case may be.

Myself, I'm not quite so sentimental, but it's certainly as appropriate a time as any to reflect on the cinematic times that have come to pass. I quite resent the notion that the 00s have represented some kind of nadir of cinema --- as with every other era in movie history, there is the good and the bad. I don't think it's fair to judge the decade from the B to Z movies; we should evaluate the decade based on the quality of the best films, not the worst. And this decade was ripe with works that confirmed the cinema as a powerful art form. Don't listen to the people who tell you the form is on the decline; they're just not looking hard enough.

I will admit some bias in this area. The 00s represent my first full fledged decade of cinephilia, and thus I am partial to it. I was but 11 years old when the decade began, so naturally most of the truly memorable cinematic experiences I've had in my life (be it in a theater or at home) have come in the last ten years. It's important to have a respect for and understanding of what came before, of course, but appreciating what's fresh and new is equally as important an aspect of loving movies.

So, here's the movies that mattered most to me these last ten years, arranged chronologically. To make my life easy, I'm going by initial release dates, not necessarily American ones, so don't bother pointing that out to me. If the movie never had a proper theatrical release, I'll go by initial festival debut. Blind spots are too numerous to mention, so think of this not as an authoritative list, but as an ever expanding work in progress, one that I will probably post an addendum to on a yearly basis. Take a walk through the movies with me, won't you?

Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000): For me, the first great movie of the decade, and also among its most reviled, though why I'm not exactly sure. But it's a wild, bold, and beautiful take on our place in the Universe, and the miracle and wonder of existence --- simultaneously sophisticated and pulpy. You may read my humble thoughts on the picture here.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000): I may not be the most objective critic of Wong Kar Wai, whose imagery I find so intoxicating, whose world-view I find so earnest, and whose sense of romance I find so passionate that I'm generally even taken with lesser works. In the Mood for Love, however, is no lesser work --- it may be Wong's most fully realized film. This tale of the unconsummated love affair between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) still manages to be as sensual and romantic as any of Bertolucci's sex dramas.

George Washington (David Gordon Green 2000): A poetic rumination on childhood and the South --- like a cosmic, earthy Killer of Sheep.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Coen brothers, 2000): The Coens' take on American folklore elevates modern American history to a unique blending of myth, fairy tale, and folk legend. Stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, and a brilliant soundtrack to boot.

In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001): Godard best sums up the great aesthetic divide of the 21st century with In Praise of Love, half of which shot on black & white 35mm celluloid, the other half shot with video. As always with Godard, he tells us a story but also introduces a serious discourse on film, culture, and politics.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): Miyazaki brings his unique stamp to an Alice in Wonderland type story, but he doesn't just give us eye candy, he's careful to dramatize the coming of age of his heroine.

A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001): I'm gonna have to side with Jonathan Rosenbaum and pick this as my favorite movie of the decade. A brilliant pairing of perhaps cinema's greatest mind, Stanley Kubrick, and cinema's greatest eye, Steven Spielberg, is much more than a mish-mashing of sensibilities; it's filled to the brim with ideas and insight into humanity, art, and existence in general. It's also packed with some of the most dazzling imagery in modern cinema, like a 21st Century silent movie. Those who interpret the ending as sentimental need to watch it again as, like Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, it uses the so-called 'sentimentality' as a mask for much more disturbing subtext.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001): David Lynch's sad, strange tale of romance is also a bold critiquing of Hollywood convention and formula, deconstructing the very notion of Hollywood as a kind of earthly Oz. What started off as a Hollywood version of Twin Peaks became one of the most tragic love stories ever committed to film.

ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami, 2001): Kiarostami's first foray into digital is a startlingly humanist insight into the economic and political strife that still plagues the continent of Africa. Whereas many documentaries of this ilk are opportunistic and patronizing, Kiarostami's film is full of life and energy. Pure digital poetry.

The Man Who Wasn't There (The Coen Brothers, 2001): The Coens take on film-noir is one of their finest existentialist comedies. Like most of their best work, it has a unique grounding in, and understanding of, film history and genre.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001): A brilliantly conceived adaptation of Tolkien's seminal work. I'm only including the first one, because I feel that as the series went on they just got sillier and sillier, with Jackson trying to cram as many details from the novels as possible instead of fleshing out his own cinematic world. They don't play well outside of a multiplex. But as a self contained unit, Fellowship of the Ring holds up rather well.

Punch Drunk Love (P.T. Anderson, 2002): P.T. Anderson's unique love story about two outsiders is a wonderful reflection of alienation and disenfranchisement in the modern world. Every frame is absolutely stunning, and Adam Sandler turns in a performance that is nothing short of a revelation.

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002): The ultimate De Palma movie. I really can't think of much else to say about it in blurb form.

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002): Spike Lee's tale of machismo and loss is also a startling reflection of New York in the weeks and months following 9/11, to the point where you can almost smell the burning rubble. In addition to being a moving drama, with a career performance from Edward Norton, it stands as a filmic record of one of the darkest hours in American history.

Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002): Scorsese's sprawling epic is also a brilliant microcosm of racial and political tensions in 1860s America. Unlike most of the other epic films of the 00s, this one is mostly absent of CGI, and that lends the film an aura of intimacy and authenticity.

Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002): Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives home from school one day to find a lawyer in his apartment. The lawyer gives him a Sophie's choice of sorts --- his parents are getting a divorce, and he has to pick which parent he wants to live with. Instead of choosing, he runs away --- and in this one single image, Spielberg captures youth as the blending of anarchy and confusion that it is. While many of Spielberg's films deal in fantasy, this film is about a youth that attempts to live in a fantasy world, like an adolescent James Bond. He instead has to come to a harsh understanding of reality.

The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003): Bertolucci simultaneously criticizes and romanticizes youth in his brilliant The Dreamers, perhaps his best film since the 70s (Bertolucci is another director I find intoxicating so, again, I may not be the most objective of critics). Like an intimate, sexy version of Godard's La Chinoise.

Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003): I'm counting Tarantino's fractured epic as one movie, in spite of the fact that it was released in two installments. To truly appreciate the scope of Tarantino's vision, you pretty much have to treat it as one movie, in spite of the fact that the Weinstein's chose to milk every last penny out of it by releasing his 4 hour vision in two parts. Volume 1 may be balls to the wall action, and in that it's fairly unique amongst his movies, but in the second volume he gives the characters meaning, depth, and gravity, transforming what were comic book archetypes in the first volume into flesh and blood. Taken as a whole it's a rather stunning achievement.

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003): I do not think Elephant is a great film by any means; truth be told, I'm not even sure it's a very good one. It's ideologically confused, and towards the end attempts to pin school shootings on just a couple of bad eggs, almost refusing to engage with the manner in which High School culture makes youth feel isolated, alone, and confused. But, whether Van Sant means to or not, this is an important film that deals with an issue that has defined a generation (including mine), that is the issue of schools becoming warzones. Van Sant, instead of trying to find one exact reason why Columbine-type school shootings happen, takes an almost cosmic perspective towards a school shooting.

The Company (Robert Altman, 2003): Robert Altman's first foray into digital stunningly captures the majesty of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, like a painting in motion. Worthy of consideration with Altman's other great ensemble dramas.

Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004): Almodovar's tale of sexual abuse in Franco-era Spain is so personal as to make one uncomfortable during the viewing of it. Almodovar claims to have worked on the script for 10 years, and it shows --- the film is masterfully interwoven, coming together for an almost Hitchockian finale. That the film came out during the biggest child abuse scandal in the history of the Catholic church only adds to its impact.

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004): A moving and insightful film that beautifully illustrates that classicism is as much a part of why abortion was illegal as sexism --- and the manner in which the two are intimately interrelated. Though made in the heat of an ongoing and ever present abortion debate, Vera Drake never feels cheaply political.

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004): Miyazaki's follow up to his great Spirited Away suffered from a bit of a backlash effect --- how is this movie anything less than stunning from first frame to last? In addition to being another of Miyazaki’s aesthetically rich works, it has a beautifully articulated antiwar sentiment.

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004): Perhaps the decades funniest movie – in addition to having a brilliantly funny script and great comedic actors (most of whom worked together on the sitcom Spaced), it has great visual humor that relies on composition, camera movement, and the use of space for its ultimate effect. Oh, and the picture’s insights into the zombified nature of modern culture are more apt. than in the George A. Romero film from which it apes its title. Just sayin’.

The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004): I think it speaks to the scope of Steven Spielberg that his most modestly scaled film of the last ten years includes a full scale recreation of JFK Airport on a sound stage, a rather incredible feat. Though he tried to find a real airport that would allow him to film there before deciding to film on a set, this is very much to the film's benefit --- who would want to spend two hours trapped in a real airport? Instead, Spielberg's airport is as fantastic as anything he's ever filmed. The film's sensibility lies somewhere between Capra and Tati; simultaneously a sentimental fairy tale and a detached look at modern society. The Terminal also has one of the most nuanced looks into post 9/11 America, particularly the way the Patriot Act created something of a Police State.

Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004): I have mixed feelings about Solondz --- I admire Welcome to the Dollhouse very much, loathed Happiness, and appreciated Storytelling somewhat, so going into Palindromes I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react to it. It’s certainly typical Solondz subject matter; a 13 year old girl named Aviva (the cousin of Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Weiner, whose funeral opens this film) wants someone to love her, so she seeks to become pregnant by any means necessary, what’s different --- and revelatory – is the execution. Solondz has Aviva played by 13 different actresses; some children, some adults, some black, some white, but each revealing a new layer of meaning, and lending the film an almost fairy tale nature.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004): Epic film making never felt so personal. In terms of ambition and scope, The Life Aquatic stands virtually alone in the pantheon of American cinema in the 00s. A beautiful, moving film about family and the majesty of Planet Earth. If The Life Aquatic is a failure, what's a success?

War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005): Who but Steven Spielberg would give the world the first avant-garde blockbuster? Spielberg tackles his usual theme of family (specifically fatherhood), but he focuses it through the prism of post-9/11 dread. The film is a channeling of 9/11 imagery into the annals of science fiction. A haunting, beautiful nightmare.

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005): The second part of Spielberg's incredible one-two punch of 2005, and to be truly appreciated it must be seen through the prism of War of the Worlds. I had mixed feelings about War of the Worlds when I first saw it in the summer of 2005, but when I saw Munich at the end of that year, I began to understand exactly what it was Spielberg was going for. If War of the Worlds is the dream, then Munich is the reality. You wake up and begin to comprehend the dream logic; what seemed illogical, even nonsensical, suddenly makes perfect sense. So much more than a timely film about what is perhaps the most important (and complex) issue facing the world today --- the split between Israel and Palestine --- Munich is ultimately about the manner in which violence perpetuates itself. It's the most intellectual case for pacifism ever made in an American movie. The final image, which shows the World Trade Center off in the distance simply waiting to be destroyed --- yet another casualty of the Israel/Palestine conflict --- sends the message home in a powerful way.

The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Terrence Malick makes an old story (one of the oldest) feel completely fresh and new in The New World; the film is about the magic, and horror, of discovery. When the Native Americans and the Colonialists go to battle for the first time, it doesn't feel like a foregone conclusion --- in Malick's hands, it really does feel like the first time.

Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006): I know it's cheating including this on my list, as the mini-series Planet Earth --- which debuted on the BBC and had its American broadcast on the Discovery channel --- really isn't a feature film. But it's certainly cinema; an awe-inspiring, humbling filmic record of the beauty and mysteries of the rock we all call home. Using some of the most advanced digital cameras in the world, Planet Earth captures the planet and the life that populates it in a way that's never been seen before. The camera's had up to 40X magnification which allowed the documentarians to observe the animals from a distance, and they also had a special infra-red lens that made filming in pitch darkness as easy as filming in broad daylight, thus allowing the documentarians to record animals without the obstruction of heavy lighting equipment. The 40x zoom also allowed them to film from high in the sky, following predators as they capture their prey (one particularly striking sequence captures a Cheetah running at full speed through an open space to capture dinner). All in all, perhaps the most incredible nature documentary ever made.

Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006): Picture Hitchcock and Cukor collaborating on a Spanish version of The Women and you begin to understand the unique vibrations of this Almodovar masterpiece.

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006): What would become Altman's last film really is one of his best; the sometimes mean-spirited tone of some of his later work is completely stripped away in this buoyantly humanist tale of the last broadcast of an old-time radio show, one of a dying breed. More than just cinematic nostalgia, this film is about building a bridge from the old to the new, from youth to old age, from life to death. A truly beautiful, moving picture, and a fitting end to one of the greatest careers in American cinema.

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006): Mann's film adaptation of his own television show is one of the most intimate, romantic, stripped down blockbusters ever made; reducing action movie cliches to their existential essence. A bold, exciting use of digital film making tools that could never have been done with traditional celluloid.

Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006): Like a pop music equivalent of Fantasia, Miller's animated masterpiece finds the perfect piece of music --- be it The Beach Boys or The Beatles or Prince --- to accompany its visual rhythms. The most inventive computer animated movie since Toy Story, and to my eyes better than anything Pixar has done since that debut film.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006): David Lynch's first digital video excursion is perhaps his purest work since his seminal debut Eraserhead. Full of dream logic, loose connectives, and haunting imagery, Inland Empire is one hell of a trip.

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007): Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse double feature is a brilliant summation and transcending of screen misogyny, specifically as perpetuated by the horror genre.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (Matt Maiellaro & David Willis, 2007): The only real example of surreal animation out of America that I can think of, the film version of Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a brutal, gleeful slaughtering of Hollywood convention and formula. Not to mention it's fucking hilarious.

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007): Werner Hezog's English language debut is a beautiful tale of humanity and brotherhood in a POW camp during the Vietnam War. Like most of Herzog's work, more about the war between man and nature than between man and man.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007): Wes Anderson's masterpiece was accused of racism by a great many people --- because it dare be about white people (eww!) who go to a Third World country and learn the meaning of family, brotherhood, and love. Of course, it's not as lame as I make it sound, because Anderson's film is as much about the fact that rich white people seem to have a thing for going to India to 'find themselves'.

No Country for Old Men (The Coen Brothers, 2007): The Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel brilliantly sums up the emotional anxiety of living in post 9/11, post Iraq War America. Though described as apolitical by some detractors, I think this label is inaccurate --- just because it's not polemical doesn't mean it isn't political. It's more about an emotional state of mind than a specific sociological event.

My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar Wai, 2007): Wong Kar Wai's wildly romantic tale of human connection is like a compact Short Cuts. It's about the way human beings, in spite of needing isolation, really thrive on one another. Another stunner from Master Wong.

Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007): Francis Ford Coppola's startling cinematic comeback is perhaps the most incredible use of the form of digital thus far. The story, about an elderly man who is struck by lightning and begins to age backwards, is a perfect metaphor for an aged film maker rejuvenated by new film making tools. Coppola is back in a big way.

Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2008): Truthfully, outside of the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero's zombie films always left me a bit cold. The much lauded Dawn of the Dead struck me as sanctimonious and obvious ("Oh, I get it, putting the zombies in a mall is really a commentary on consumerist culture! Oh George, you ol' sly boots.), and that may be doubly true of Day of the Dead. I found Land of the Dead's themes of class distinction to be far more subtle and thematically appropriate than the social import in his earlier pictures, and I think the small scale Diary of the Dead is probably the best of the Dead films since the first. Diary of the Dead, while channeling post 9/11 and Iraq War dread, is also about the manner in which the digital age has radically changed the way in which information is shared --- themes Brian De Palma fumbled in his cheap anti-war diatribe Redacted. Unlike other horror films which use the first person technique strictly for cheap scares, Romero uses this perspective to approach the horror genre --- and politics --- from a new, incredibly revealing angle.

Chop Shop (Raman Bahrani, 2008): A lyrical look into the poverty and destitution in Flushing, New York is never oppressively glum. Bahrani instead offers us a poetic insight into the daily existence of his characters, mercifully avoiding the patronizing liberal guilt trip that plagues so many films about the poor.

Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008): A thoroughly wonderful film featuring perhaps the performance of the decade (Sally Hawkins), Leigh's Happy Go Lucky is a beautiful insight into human nature and the way our behavior affects everyone we come into contact with, whether we realize it or not.

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): The computer effects that George Lucas used as a toy the Wachowski's use as a tool in the unfairly maligned Speed Racer --- a case in which the form, groundbreaking and unique though it is, was all most who watched it could see. A brilliant anti-corporate fable, painted on the screen with a stunning palette of bright colors.

RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie, 2008): I never, ever thought I'd love a Guy Ritchie movie. My first exposure to him was Snatch, which I thought (and still do think) was just stupid. I didn't much care for his debut Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels either. He just struck me as another in a long line of Tarantino wannabes, only without the sense of movie history that makes Tarantino unique. I decided to give Revolver a chance when several people whose opinions I trust used superlatives when describing it, and that was certainly the film of his that won me over. However, I find RocknRolla to be a much more complete film; full of the same exciting style of Revolver, but it has far more charm, wit, and grace.

Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, 2008): Kiarostami's adaptation of the legend of "Khosrow and Shirin" is a completely radical reinvention of traditional cinematic storytelling. Instead of watching the film unfold in a traditional manner, we watch an audience as they watch the film, and we only hear a very carefully (and expertly) arranged soundtrack --- all we see for 90 minutes are the enraptured faces of the spectators of the film. It's like two films in one; in addition to being told the story of "Khosrow and Shirin", Kiarostami's film is a brilliant investigation into how cinema --- and art in general --- affects us.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008): Approximately a half hour into Demme's brilliant Rachel Getting Married, tears began flowing from my eyes; not tears of sadness, but tears of joy, for the depth and breadth of human experience is so beautifully and poignantly rendered in Demme's collage that I found it impossible not to be moved by it. In most films the images simply unfold, but in Rachel Getting Married, they dance.

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009): A truly inventive animated film that attempts to move the form past the trivializing notion of 'family entertainment'. Fuck Avatar and Up, Coraline is still the only inventive use of 3D I've ever seen. My review here.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009): I'd been lukewarm on Jarmusch up to this point; always admiring his beautiful compositions but generally being left cold by the actual content of his films. This was definitely *the* Jarmusch picture for me, and has helped me look at his filmography in a completely different light. Maybe my favorite of 2009 at this point.

Tetro (Fracis Ford Coppola, 2009): Another Coppola revelation, formally speaking it's the complete opposite of Youth Without Youth, but they both indicate an artist moving into perhaps his richest phase yet. My take here.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): Tarantino's final film of the decade proved he was the maker of the most idiosyncratic epic films of the last ten years. Review here.

This Is It (Kenny Ortega, 2009): I initially planned to avoid This Is It entirely, as I didn't want to contribute any of my money to the "Michael Jackson Death Fund", but I'm glad I caved, as This Is It is worthy of consideration with any of the other great concert films you can think of. It's also different from any other concert film; as opposed to providing a filmic record of a concert, This Is It is about the concert we never got to see. And, from the looks of it, the world missed a hell of a show. Though MJ is saving his energy for the actual show through most of the film, every once in a while he feels the music and simply can't help but get into his performance, and seeing inspiration flow through his body --- especially during a beautiful rendition of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" --- is one of the great moments at the movies in 2009.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009): The last great movie I saw this decade is also perhaps the best American animated film of the last ten years; Anderson's compositions perfectly fleshes out a storybook aesthetic, but this is much more than kids stuff --- though his cast is furry, Anderson's film is ultimately about humanity, as all of his pictures are.

A Happy New Year to all of you, and a Happy New Decade as well. Thanks to all of you for making my first year of blogging memorable. I feel like many of you have become my friends over the course of the last few months, and I'm looking forward to my first full year of blogging.

Nitpickers may feel free to point out that the next decade doesn't actually begin until 2011 in the comment section.
A special thanks to my pal Rob Humanick, who grabbed that there Aqua Teen Hunger Force screencap for me at virtually a moment's notice.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Growing Up with the Movies

The blogger known by the handle The Kid in the Front Row has instigated a blogathon, which states that the participants recount an experience at the movies that's particularly memorable. Now, I'm much too indecisive to pick just one solitary night at the movies; so many incredible experiences are so ingrained into my psyche that I'd feel bad leaving so many out. So, in chronological order, here are some experiences at the movies that have helped define the person I am today (take that as you will).

We probably all had a time when we started to appreciate movies differently, more substantially, when our understanding of movies become more enriched. If I could draw it to a point, I'd say at the start of High School is when I began to expand my cinematic horizons. I began to watch older movies, foreign movies, or generally anything that was canonized in any way. Due to this, as I got older and older I could feel that my taste was out of sync with those of my peers. Some of them didn't like going on to movies because I would dare be critical of them. Also, when I hit High School, I began to take myself to movies and didn't rely on my parents to drop off and pick up, so going to the movies became less of a special, once in a while thing, and more an ingrained part of my day to day existence. Due to this, from 2002 and onward there are plenty of movies I saw that left a great imprint on me, but this list will only cover pre 2002, thereby reflecting the time in my life when my going to see a movie was a rare occurence --- and the true great experiences were few and far between.

Beauty and the Beast
Circa Christmas 1991

This is the first movie I have clear memories of seeing, and thus it warrants an inclusion on this list regardless of quality. That it happens to be the last watchable, let alone good movie that Disney's hand drawn animation studio made is beside the point, but it certainly doesn't hurt. I was like 3 years old at the time, so my memory is hazy to say the least, but I remember getting very, very upset when Gaston plummets to his death from atop the Beast's castle. I mean, that had to hurt really bad.

Jurassic Park
Circa Summer 1993

Again, I was 4-going-on-5 when I saw this movie, so my memories of it are hazy, but they're more clearly defined than my memories of Beauty and the Beast. This was the first non-Disney, non-animated, non G-rate movie I saw in a movie theater, and I remember being very excited to be seeing something that wasn't expressly 'kiddy'. I remember being scared shitless during the film's claustrophobic, expressionistic opening sequence, being in awe when we got our first glimpse of dinosaur's (the Brontosaurus sequence is quintessential Spielberg --- human beings eclipsed by technology), and then spending the rest of the movie scared shitless when all hell (not to mention carnivores) breaks loose. Most people find the T-Rex sequence to be the scariest and most memorable, but it was the Raptors that had me watching the movie between my fingers --- I had nightmares about being chased by Raptors for years and years afterward. Besides, the T-Rex is basically the hero of the movie, saving our protagonists from certain, painful death (one of the most glorious Deus Ex Machina's in modern movies). Those Raptors, on the other hand, were real bastards.

Every movie lover has that movie: the movie they saw at just the right time in their childhood that will always stick out as being the one that showed them the real power of movies. For me, Jurassic Park is that movie, in that it's the first movie I remember having a visceral, intense reaction to, and for that it will always have a place in my heart.

Toy Story
Circa December 1995

Not many movies have the distinction of being the first of a kind, but Toy Story certainly is that; and a thoroughly charming, clever, and incredibly economic one at that. I remember before we left for the movies, my parents gave me the choice between seeing this and Jumanji, for whatever reason. I chose wisely. Little did I know at the time that I'd seen Disney's swan song, their last truly great contribution to the moving image, nor did I have any conception that Pixar would some day become my mortal enemy. I just loved the movie to death, and still do.

Star Wars (none of this A New Hope shit)
Circa early 1997

I was late to the whole Star Wars party, about 20 years late, to be exact. I hadn't even heard of the movie before I started to see advertisements about the re-release of the so-called special edition of the movie, just in time for its 20th anniversary, and to help build anticipation for the upcoming series of prequels. The experience is memorable for me for many reasons; it's one of the few movies I saw in a theater as a child that actually tapped into a childlike sense of awe, and I went into the theater with virtually no expectations, because I had no idea what this movie was. I loved the movie's sense of adventure, the action, the characters, and it's sense of fun. But this is not the only reason it was memorable; I wanted to sit in the front, because I knew this was going to be a big movie, but my parents opted to sit in the middle/close to the back, so I got to sit by myself. Now, I know this seems relatively inconsequential, but to a 9 year old, this is a big deal. I felt so independent, and I remember sitting between a guy who was probably about 20 and some kid who was like 7, and chatting it up with them before and after the movie. Man, I felt so cool.

Circa Christmas 1997

I know, I know, James Cameron's epic blockbuster is everything that's wrong with Hollywood film making: bloated, reliant on special effects, and hijacks history to tell a trite love story. Or at least, that's what I've been told, but it's hard (nay, impossible) to erase the impact that this movie had on my 9 year old self. I was always something of a history buff, so I was fascinated by the Titanic since I was about 6 years old. I remember the first movie I saw on the subject was the Clifton Webb version from the '50s, which is everything that Cameron's film is so often accused of being: overblown, tawdry melodrama that uses the ship as a backdrop for a trite familial drama. One thing that I don't think can be argued about Cameron's film is that the ship itself is the star of the show, and it's the humans that serve as the backdrop to the grandeur and tragedy of the ship, instead of the other way around. I also saw A Night to Remember a few years before, and though I enjoyed it for its factual recounting of the events of April 14, 1912, there was no dramatic grab to the movie, at least for me (the book is truly great, though, for precisely that reason).

And then, I remember hearing whispers of this huge Hollywood movie that was going to be about the Titanic. I remember hearing that this was going to be the most expensive movie ever made, and that painstaking attention was paid to every last detail of the ship. The recreation was going to be simply unprecedented. I remember it was due to come out in July of 1997, and then it being abruptly pushed back because the movie wasn't ready. I just had to see this movie, come hell or high water.

So, when December of 1997 finally rolled around (and it felt like a long wait --- this is the first movie I remember looking forward to for more than a year before it came out), and the movie became a phenomenon, my anticipation grew. I'd heard stories of people going to see the movie and being forced to stand in the back, I'd heard stories of people going to see it and then getting on line for the next showing, of people (especially teenage girls) walking out of the picture sobbing. This was the first time I remember living through a movie that captured the popular zeitgeist. Like it or not, this was a movie everyone just had to go see.

When I finally did see the movie, it was everything I could have hoped for. I would have been more than happy if the movie just provided a recreation of the ship that had captured my imagination, but I found the love story that is the film's dramatic center to be extremely involving and moving as well, and an apt representation of the tragedy of the ship. I also remember crying like a baby from the time the ship sank to the final shot, and all the way home. But I was always a giant sap. It's also the first movie I ever saw twice, once with each of my parents.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Circa December 2001

Being a 13 years old sucks enough, but the period after 9/11 was especially rough, what with my living in the Metropolitan area, and some good escapism was sorely needed. I couldn't get too terribly into Harry Potter, but I was intrigued by the upcoming Lord of the Rings movie, the first of a trilogy. I remember checking its IMDb page a day or two after it had come out, and was floored to see it had been voted to number 1 on the top 250! (when I cared about such things) Now, I was definitely curious. I hadn't read the books, and wasn't particularly familiar with the story, so I walked into the theater more or less cold, having no clue what was about to unfold before me. I was taken in by Jackson's film in the same way I was taken in by Star Wars just a few years earlier; I was seeing a complete, self contained, spectacularly detailed cinematic world. This was also something of the end of an era for me, as even by the time Jackson's incredibly inferior sequels rolled out, I found myself mostly bored by the movies (I tried watching The Two Towers the other night, and was struck by how incredibly silly and insubstantial it is --- what you see is what you get, if that much), but the first one, due to good timing as much as anything else, will always be a night at the movies that I treasure. Plus, The Fellowship of the Ring is full of promise, except I don't feel that Jackson's vision for the saga ever realized that promise.

If I was going to stretch this list into my adolescence/early adulthood, there would be dozens and dozens more movies listen, but I figure I've rambled enough for today, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


George: Do you wanna talk about hotels, or do you wanna win some ball games?

Jeter: We won the World Series.

George: ... in 6 games.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cinematic Paradise

Today, the good folks who bring us the glorious Big Screen Classics series of revival film treated myself and my lovely girlfriend (among others) to a screening of the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. I've been to this theater exactly thrice in my life; my first time, I saw another Hitchock classic, North by Northwest, and I saw the original King Kong not long after that. Unfortunately, my work schedule has kept me from going to the screenings consistently, but if there's something really special I'll do my best to weasel my way out of it. I bring this up because what particularly strikes me about the Lafayette is the way the theater itself is as large a part of the movie watching experience as is the film itself (in the case of King Kong, an enjoyable if throw-away adventure, maybe even more so), and the way in which the theater dominates my memory of seeing those movies. Growing up in the age of the multiplex, where one theater is more or less indistinguishable from another, this is something more or less foreign to my cinephilia --- don't ask me where I saw Beauty and the Beast, Jurassic Park or Toy Story as a child, because I wouldn't be able to tell you. I could tell you that I saw them, and that those movies are as ingrained into my childhood experience as my first day of Kindergarten. I saw them at some multiplex here or there, where they shuffle you in and out like cattle. There are good multiplexes and bad multiplexes, but there's no such thing as a special one.

I remember the first time I set foot in Manhattan's Ziegfeld: I was blown away by its grandeur and majesty, and how much presentation mattered to the theater's proprietors. I'd only been in one single screen theater in my life up to that point, which was the shabby-if-charming (and now defunct) Rialto theater in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Needless to say, it didn't have nuttin' on the Ziegfeld (but, come on, what theater does?), which I still consider an ideal place to watch a movie. Not just because they realize presentation matters (how many times have you been to a multiplex, only to have the projectionist mess it up --- assuming there's even one at all), but because going to the Ziegfeld feels more like going to live theater than it feels like going to some multiplex attached to a mall. This theater was my first glimpse into a bygone era of cinema, one where movies were the dominant form of popular entertainment and they mattered. Not when they were just product being exhibited for a brief window before being dumped on home video, but when films were more special and less disposable. When going to the movies was more than a time-waster for apathetic teenagers on the weekend (and I went to enough movies with enough apathetic teenagers in my life to be able to testify to this --- they don't care what they see, or even if it's any good).

If the Ziegfeld was my glimpse into this era, then the Lafayette allows me to dive head first into the Golden Age, almost like a time machine. With the exception of some minor renovations, the theater more or less appears now as it appeared in 1924, when it first opened. As you walk in (for the Big Screen Classics series, the door opens at 11 A.M. sharp) the distinctive sound of their Wurlitzer organ fills the air and serves as fantastic and unique pre-screening entertainment. Instead of inundating you with advertising for the latest terrible television show, the latest diabetic-breeding-soft-drink, or further crap you don't really need, the sonorous music of the Wurlitzer invites you to relax before the movie, and makes the experience that much more enjoyable. So much popcorn has been sold at the Lafayette theater in its 80+ year history that the smell is part of the very fabric of the building; it's in the walls and carpet, in the curtains and the seats. It's that intoxicating movie theater smell, and damn, it makes you want some popcorn something awful. And the prices at the concession stand are reasonable, not highway robbery like they are at even the best multiplex. This is what going to the movies should be; a reasonably priced experience that exists because of a love of and respect for movies, not to further the interests of advertisers and CEOs who don't even like movies, let alone understand or respect them.

And as for the movie itself, what more can be said of it that hasn't already been said? An aesthetically rich masterpiece with a tortured soul at its center, Vertigo is certainly one of Hitchcock's finest hours. Seeing it projected was like seeing it for the first time, and it's a film that never fails to devastate me. What starts out as a routine Hitchcock psychodrama quickly develops into one of the most tragic love stories ever committed to film, and it's the nuanced portrait of the two leads that keeps the drama grounded and believable, in spite of the fact that the movie makes you swallow its fair share of contrivances. But these contrivances seem incidental when you take into account the depth of feeling in the movie.

I will say that I've always found it interesting that Vertigo tends to be the go-to Hitchcock masterpiece (not interesting in the "that's way off base" kind of way, interesting in the "I'm surprised there isn't more debate on the subject" kind of way), because it's far from a crowd pleaser, to say the least. The first 70 minutes is a lot of exposition along with the most schmaltzy thing Hitchcock ever filmed in his career (the scene where Stewart and Novak kiss as waves crash into rocks behind them is a load of melodramatic hooey, unusually sentimental for Hitchock), and the final hour is just soul crushing devastation. If I had to take a guess as to why Vertigo is so highly regarded, I'd say it's because the film was unavailable for many years and, after a tepid initial reaction to the film (many critics complained that it was too much of a departure from the Hitchcock formula), the film feels like ours in a different way than the other Hitchcock greats do. No matter which way you cut it, this 'aint your daddy's Hitchcock, and I think Vertigo has struck a unique chord with younger movie lovers precisely because it was so misunderstood at the time of its release, and fell out of circulation for a decade.

Seeing Vertigo projected has always been something of a dream of mine, and it's thanks to all the wonderful, dedicated folks behind the Big Screen Classics series that my dream of seeing this landmark of 20th century cinema became a reality on this cold Saturday in October. Considering I live a stones throw away from New York, which is allegedly a hub for the arts, there is shockingly little respect for film history displayed in the Big Apple, and it's refreshing to know that there are people out there who care enough about the medium to put together a series of meaningful revival films for the good of the community; and they've proved that such a program can indeed be a success. They've been rewarded for having faith in their customers as opposed to giving them no credit at all, though the Big Screen Classics series strikes me as ultimately a labor of love, and should you ever be privileged enough to see a classic film at the great Lafayette Theater of Suffern, New York, you too will feel the love. It shines through in everything they do.

So, to Nelson Paige, Pete Apruzzese, and anyone else who brings us this indispensable series of classic cinema, I extend a most hearty thanks. Though I may not be able to go as often as I would like due to my work schedule, just knowing there are people who care enough to bring classic movies to our cinemas year after year gives me faith.

To my East Coast readers, the Lafayette Theater's schedule of classic films is available here, and Teaneck's Cedar Lane schedule is available here. If you have the time, be sure to check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Let My People Go

I wasn't planning to stick my nose into this whole Roman Polanski fiasco, as it seems to be bringing out heated emotions from everyone in all corners of the internet. This is all a little surprising to me, because I don't seem to remember anyone really caring about Polanski on September 25, when he was still a 'fugitive from justice' --- presumably when people would be most outraged about his crime, while he was still living free and in the lap of luxury. Coming to this situation as something of an outsider, as Polanski has always been the fugitive rapist director in my lifetime, I can't help but be a little puzzled by the moralizing it's bringing out for those against him, and the righteous indignation and bleeding-heart sympathy it's bringing out for those in support of him. As usual, I'm just kind of sitting on the sidelines wondering exactly what the problem is; he committed a crime, plead guilty to said crime, skipped out of the country, moved to a country that wouldn't extradite him to the United States (smart), then traveled to a country that does extradite criminals to the United States (not smart), and then the United States had their request for extradition granted, and thus he was arrested. What exactly is the problem?

But with the arrest comes petitions, and this is what has floored me the most about Polanski's arrest. Not that there are those who can't help but feel bad for the guy --- he's had a life filled with tragedy that would probably seriously mess anyone up, and dare I say it would be almost inhuman to not feel at least a little sorry for a man who lost his parents his mother in the Holocaust, and had his pregnant wife murdered by cultists who took The White Album as some kind of Apocalyptic manifesto. It doesn't excuse his criminal act, but surely it casts this dastardly predator into a different light.

Now, I'm in no way part of the Polanski lynch-mob, but these Hollywood petitions are down-right crazy. Some real house-of-cards shit. Ignoring the fact that they really have no legal or moral standing to speak of, they're filled with shaky arguments and logical fallacies that wouldn't fly on a High School debate team. This petition, drafted by writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and signed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Neil Jordan, Sam Mendes, Taylor Hackdord, and Mike Nichols, makes some rather incredible claims:

"Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, September 26, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison."
Oh, the humanity! It's of course un-clear exactly what Lévy means by 'apprehended like a common terrorist' (as opposed to, what, an uncommon terrorist?) --- does Mssr. Lévy mean he was subject to waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation' methods? Is he implying that he was arrested without formal charges (a blatant distortion)? It's un-clear exactly what Mssr. Lévy means by this phrase, except for the fact that he means to guilt you into sympathizing with a rapist by using non-sequiturs (what one may call a 'strawman' argument). If an officer of the law can take a citizen of this country away in hand-cuffs just because the individual game them lip (doesn't that count as being treated like a terrorist, too?), then I don't really find the handling of Polanski's case to be un-just in any way. Surely this country is filled to the brim with un-just arrests every year, from simple drug possession to, um, being black in the vicinity of a police officer, so getting worked up over the arresting of an admitted child rapist strikes me as a bit... odd.

Moving on:

"He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings."
Right, 'cept if we acquiesced to the victims wishes in every case, we would have a revenge system as opposed to a justice system. I suppose if Ms. Geimer were crying for Polanski to be put in front of the firing squad, Mssr. Lévy wouldn't take her opinion into consideration while attempting to exonerate Polanski.

"Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe."
Then he should have raped the girl in Europe. What a putz!

"We ask the Swiss courts to free him immediately and not to turn this ingenious filmmaker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States. Good sense, as well as honor, require it."
At this point, Lévy is just trying to confuse you with a load of gibberish. Don't ask me what the phrase "martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio" means, and certainly don't ask Lévy. And I'm not sure how arresting a fugitive is somehow "unworthy" of the United States, or any other sovereign nation. But such concerns are trifle, no?

But that other petition, this one drafted by France’s Société des Auteurs, is so full of holes it makes Lévy's case seem air-tight. This petition has been graced with the presence of such signatories as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, among many more, and while it's not as outwardly batshit crazy as the Lévy petition it's just as fundamentally illogical.

"We have learned the astonishing news of Roman Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police on September 26th, upon arrival in Zurich (Switzerland) while on his way to a film festival where he was due to receive an award for his career in filmmaking.

His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals.

Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision. It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him."

The astonishing news of Polanski's arrest. Yes, I too was astonished that Polanski, who more or less was going to get off scott-free for a very serious crime (one you or I would have no doubt been locked up without a moment's hesitation for), was dumb/arrogant/drunk enough to travel to a country that has extradition to the United States, because he just had to receive yet another award (remember when he didn't come to the Academy Awards for fear of being arrested? Going to Switzerland was every bit as dangerous). Many people use the fact that he fled the country as proof-positive of Polanski's scumbaggery, but I honestly have a hard time blaming him for his instincts of self-preservation. But, still, the dude was dumb enough to go to Switzerland, which has an extradition agreement with the United States, and expect to not be arrested (doesn't he ask his travel agent about these things?). Now, I understand that he had indeed gone back and forth over the years, but talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Hey now, wait a minute! Switzerland is a netural terriroty, man! That means they don't take sides:

"By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this.

The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country, where he assumed he could travel without hindrance, undermines this tradition: it opens the way for actions of which no-one [sic] can know the effects."

So film festivals and their patrons are granted diplomatic immunity? News to me. And I love how the the Société des Auteurs makes it out like the United States government is in opposition to the film festival itself, instead of just arresting a criminal that they have been trying to arrest for 30 odd years.

But the real kicker is that the Société des Auteurs is using the fact that Switzerland is a neutral country as a defense of Polanski. Perhaps they don't realize that neutrality is a term that refers strictly to warfare, which really doesn't have anything to do with extradition, now does it?

"Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown [sic] and international artist now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom."

File this one under "DUH".

"Filmmakers, actors, producers and technicians everyone involved in international filmmaking want him to know that he has their support and friendship.

On September 16th, 2009, Mr. Charles Rivkin, the US Ambassador to France, received French artists and intellectuals at the embassy. He presented to them the new Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the embassy, Ms Judith Baroody. In perfect French she lauded the Franco-American friendship and recommended the development of cultural relations between our two countries.
If only in the name of this friendship between our two countries, we demand the immediate release of Roman Polanski."

Read: Let Polanski go or it's war, muthafuckaz!

OK, maybe it's not quite that extreme --- but surely that last sentence is going for intimidation, which is just plain ridiculous. All I can say is that, if the Frenchies wants to make a mountain of this mole-hill, I say: have fun.

But more upsetting to me than these idiotic petitions is the artists, many of whom I have nothing but respect for (and some of whom taught me how to love movies in the first place), condoning such idiocy. I know, this is the part where I'm supposed to say, "And I'll never see another so-and-so movie as long as I live" and, no, that's not what I'm trying to say at all. Just as Polanski's hideous act doesn't prevent me from enjoying his work, neither does Scorsese, Anderson, Wong, Almodóvar, or Allen condoning said hideous act going to prevent me from enjoying their work (and, make no mistake, signing these petitions is nothing short of condoning). But I can only imagine what on earth compelled them to sign these petitions, and what exactly it is about rape that they don't have a problem with.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Playing Catch-Up

I haven't been as productive 'round these parts as I would have liked these last two months. I was on a bit of a roll in the early parts of summer but just kind of fizzled out through August and September. Lots of my fellow bloggers have spoken of feeling this kind of burn-out, so perhaps it's a communal thing, but for me it stops today.

So I am hereby declaring October catch-up month here at Medfly. I'm gonna do something I've never done here before, review movies from DVDs, and try to write-up some of the 2009 releases that I haven't seen yet, in addition to staying on top of the new releases this month. It's a new dawn , it's a new day, it's a new life for me... and I'm feelin' good.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Goodnight, Moon

Autobiography time: in my High School days, I dabbled in acting. I enjoyed it, and think I was reasonably good at it, considering I was an amateur in every sense of the word. My High School did two plays a year; in the Fall, a 'straight' play, and in the Spring a musical. My stage debut was a female version of The Odd Couple the fall of my Sophomore year, with all the genders of the characters being switched (transsexual Odd Couple may have been more accurate), so the bit roles of two British sisters were changed to two Hispanic brothers (I know, me in that role isn't a stretch of the imagination at all). I ran amuck with the role --- what else could one do with a part so patently ridiculous, that I so clearly didn't fit? I knew no one would buy me as a 'real' Hispanic, or even a cartoon Hispanic ala Al Pacino in Scarface, so I had fun with the role. My second play, also my Sophomore year, was a production of the musical The Pajama Game. Most of the cast didn't like the play because of how dated it was, but I loved the anachronistic quality of it all --- doing the play was almost stepping into a time machine. Plus, the film version is one of Stanley Donen's best musicals (Godard called it the 'first socialist operetta' in his review of it). The Pajama Game is the kind of good, cheap fun that Broadway was known for before it became a bourgeois Disneyland; catchy numbers, memorable dances (the original had choreography by Bob Fosse), and light-hearted comedy and romance. I played the nasty capitalist head of the Pajama factory that refused to give the workers a 7 and a half cent raise, prompting a labor strike. It's probably the best play I was in during High School.

Rolling around to Fall of my Junior year, I was one of the handful of reasonably talented males left auditioning for shows. I was thrilled to have nabbed my first lead in a play, Moon Over Buffalo --- until I actually read the script, that is. My God, it was awful --- a farce without the comedy. The first act is full of one-liners that fall flat more often than not, and the second act is pretty generic farce material; slamming doors, people screaming, mistaken identity, and so on. My theater director was a big Neil Simon fan, and this play, by Ken Ludwig (Lend me a Tenor, Crazy for You) was poor man's Neil Simon; smug, elitist, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The play, in Ludwig's words, is about "A couple --- a theatrical couple --- in the early 1950s. They're sort of the second-rate Luntz's of the American stage who, after learning that Frank Capra is coming to their play to maybe cast them in his new movie, goes crazy with their own greed and ambition"; that's not quite the synopsis I would have given, but hey, it's his play.

So, due to the fact that I had performed in Moon Over Buffalo, D.A. Pennebaker's film Moon Over Broadway has always been on my radar. Pennebaker is one of the great documentarians on the planet; he uses brilliant fly-on-the-wall camerawork to give us a kind of insider's look at his subjects (which range from legendary musicians, political campaigns, and Broadway shows) , and the way he forges narrative from documentary footage is fascinating --- he creates complete dramatic arks in his films, but the difference of course is that in his films they're carved out of real life. I've never seen Pennebaker use interviews in his documentaries; rather he uses documentary footage to tell a complete story, without interviewees explaining the significance of the events to us. Also, the way he gets his subjects comfortable with having a camera following them around constantly is remarkable; it allows us an all-access, insider's look at the events he captures. And Pennebaker has been given intimate access to some of the more noteworthy events and figures of the 20th Century --- from Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Bill Clinton's campaign staff.

Here, he and his wife and partner Chris Hegedus turn their perceptive eye on the backstage escapades of a Broadway show, from casting announcements to opening night. While it is specifically about the production of Moon Over Buffalo, I'm sure the backstage goings-on --- the trash talking, the drama, the politics, the fact that anything that can go wrong does go wrong --- isn't exactly unique to the production of Moon Over Buffalo. This play was noteworthy, though, for being Carol Burnett's highly-touted return to Broadway after a 30 year excursion with television and movies, which was probably the hook for Pennebaker and Hegedus. I don't think either of them could have guessed that the playwright, Ken Ludwig, would ultimately steal the show. You can think of him almost as a Salieri-type, forever confined to banality while living in the shadow of people more talented than he, and resenting it deeply.

The problems begin early on at a table reading. The play's stars, Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco, request that they be allowed to improvise, and the director Tom Moore and Ken Ludwig both shoot down that notion. This sequence is remarkable, because the two of them sum up my problems with the play perfectly --- the comedic rhythm of the play is simply off. The word selection is awkward, the punch line's have no punch to them; the jokes simply do not work. "Don't you not want our experience, our sense of comedy?", Phillip Bosco asks the director, not in a Primadonna manner but in a completely straightforward, reasonable tone. "I am not taking about improvisation, I'm talking about the actors' input in the creative process. If you consider that improvisaiton, I'll just do what is written and not contribute anything at all." The director and writer foolishly opt for that, suffocating the actors' comedic instincts because they take the mediocre text as a kind of gospel (the director of the play honest to God calls Ludwig a "modern day Faydeau"). Ludwig, behind Burnett's back, insults Burnett's background in television --- as though this mere TV actress is beneath his mighty play (and as though all the Broadway work she did before her television show somehow doesn't count). "This is the pact you make with the devil in the modern theater: you need a star to sell tickets", he whines after a preview of the play in Boston "it'll never be the play I wrote", he continues, as though that's such a tragedy.

In spite of his somewhat prickly nature, it's difficult not to feel bad for Ludwig. This is a man who, day by day, feels his work slipping away from him. He's forced to constantly re-write his play to appease his producers, and still his jokes fall-flat. He dismisses himself from a cast and crew meeting in one scene to "go home and write", "Are you writing a new play?", Carol Burnett quips, "Apparently" is his reply. In one sequence, the producers discuss "the joke problem" and note that Ludwig has had this sort of issue before, to the point that he actually had to hire an outside joke writer. Then, to add insult to injury, it's revealed that this joke writer is a dentist from Long Island! One particularly uncomfortable sequence shows him going around the theater the night of the premiere, meekishly introducing himself to the celebrities in attendance, trying desperately to appear calm, cool, and collected and falling short of the mark. He knows his ass is on the line with a 2 million dollar Broadway production that, in spite of its star power, hinges on the success or failure of his script. "Everyone else will rebound and go on to other things if the play fails," one crew member remarks "but Ken's life is really on the line".

Most of the issues he seems to be having throughout the film arise from the fact that he deeply resents being upstaged by anyone. This is hammered home during one of the play's previews when the winch that controls the curtain breaks, stranding Carol Burnett on the stage (I've been in a similar situation, though not because of a broken winch --- because the person controlling the curtain queues wasn't paying attention). Burnett, being the cool-headed professional she is, does all anyone can do in that situation --- she has fun with the audience. She knows they all paid to see her anyway, so she answers their questions and tells jokes until the winch is fixed and the play can continue. Let's just say that Burnett, doing shtick completely off the cuff, gets more laughs --- genuine, uproarious laughs --- than anything in the play. The lack of audience response is part of what prompts Ludwig to further re-write the play, causing more frustration amongst the actors and leading to greater discord between he and the cast.

But, at the end of the day, the play was a success; perhaps not a smash hit, but it was one of very few non-musicals to finish its season on Broadway that year. It received mixed reviews from critics ("The bad reviews aren't good, but they're not mean-bad", a crew member remarks), but virtually no one faulted Bosco or Burnett --- simply the play itself. "Burnett and Bosco are impeccable performers, and do their best with this stuff... Act two is a little like beating a dead horse, the jokes are worn out before we ever get to them. Surprisingly enough, Act one is much better, holding as it were the promise of things never to come." Granted, this is slightly mean spirited criticism, but surely this is the result of the director and playwright stifling the actors' comedic instincts and forcing them to do material that they knew in their hearts simply did not work. It's worth noting, however, that the film ends with a long list of revival productions of Moon Over Buffalo, performed all over the country and all over the world; after all is said and done, Ken Ludwig is the only one still making money from the play. He who laughs last laughs longest.

Yours truly at the age of 16, chewing the scenery in the aforementioned High School production of Moon Over Buffalo.