Posts Tagged ‘americana’

(Part 33 of an ongoing series)


There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.

Mark Borchardt

I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis  (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.

Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter. 

One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”

Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.

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(Part 32 of an ongoing series)


I heard about a lot of bad shit that happened in Kuwait.

Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg)

Yeah, bad shit happened. I’m not proud of that… Maybe Saddam is very crazy. But then you are crazy for bombing all of Iraq.

Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui)

1999 was loaded with movies both of their time and ahead of their time, but few of those movies embodied the present and future as well as Three Kings. Hollywood-wise, it was a breakthrough for George Clooney and writer/director David O. Russell. Hard as it is to imagine, there was in fact a time when Clooney wasn’t yet the mega-star we knew he’d eventually be. Three Kings didn’t exactly catapult him to the A-List the way Ocean’s Eleven did, but it did definitively prove he could be a cool-yet-authoritative leading man, building on the momentum he gathered in 1998’s Out Of Sight, and clouding the memories of missteps like 1997’s Batman and Robin.

Three Kings was also a milestone for writer/director David O. Russell, who made great films before (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster) and since (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), yet nothing quite like this. It can’t be easy to make a thrilling action-adventure heist wrapped around laugh-out-loud war satire; Three Kings not only pulls off that feat, it might be the best action-adventure/war satire ever.

While Three Kings foreshadows the future success of Clooney and Russell, it’s even more prescient as a sociopolitical statement. It may not explicitly predict the post-9/11 world, but the implications are there, simmering in the subtext like a cluster-bomb baking under the desert sun. Even though we knew back then that there were plenty of Middle Easterners who hated America with violent passion, Three Kings puts a human face to that hatred, and reminds us how our government’s greed and apathy could come back to bite us in the ass.

Naturally, Three Kings was utterly ignored by the Academy when it was first released. If it came out today, however, you better believe it would be an Oscar juggernaut come winter.

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Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers

Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers

Thomas Jefferson developed his view that “all men are created equal” from the perception of the infinity within each of us, which he learned from the Scottish philosophers, Reid and Hutcheson. (It was also from Hutcheson that Jefferson got his idea of “unalienable rights,” which Congress in the interest of stylistic elegance altered to “inalienable rights.”) The Scottish Enlightenment, like the French and English Enlightenment, was the beginning of the materialization and manifestation of the Judeo-Christian vision of the Heavenly City.

It was also this 18th Century Illuminati circle which introduced the concept of progress— the conscious formulation of the symbolism of Prometheus. This vision has been under so much attack in recent decades that to defend it all will seem archaic and eccentric to many readers.

Nonetheless, evolution is real: quantum jumps do occur throughout the biosphere and throughout human intellectual history. We are riding a mounting tidal wave of rising consciousness and expanding intelligence which is accelerating whether we like it or not.

By and large, most people– and especially most ruling elites– have not liked this acceleration factor. The migration of capital (i.e., ideas) Westward has been largely a flight from oppression, an escapist movement– as critics today describe Space as “escapist.” Everywhere, everywhen, the rulers of society have tried to put a brake on the third circuit, to decelerate the acceleration function, to establish limits on what was printable, discussable, even thinkable.

The Greek myth of Prometheus Bound– the Titan who brought Light to humanity and is eternally punished for it– is the synecdoche, the perfect symbol, of how the third circuit [reason] has been handled in most human societies.

Robert Anton Wilson,  Prometheus Rising (1983)

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(Part 30 of an ongoing series)


What’s the point of prolonging the inevitable? We’re all just one stitch away from here… [points to yard sale] …to there.

Wheezy the Penguin

The Toy Story movies may be love letters to mass-market childhood, yet they refuse to shy away from mass-market childhood’s inherent defects: the disposability, the conformity, the slimy black greed fueling all those plastic factories. And right in the middle of this trilogy there’s 1999’s Toy Story 2— a movie that was supposed to be a direct-to-video cash grab and ended up the centerpiece of an epic meditation on friendship, loyalty, identity, commercialism, abandonment, obsolescence, growing up, and, of course, mortality.

On the surface, the Toy Stories pretend to lift the fairy-tale veil that hides The Secret Life Of Toys; meanwhile, in the marrow, they actually tear down the shroud of disillusionment cloaking a truth children need to hear: We’re all essentially commodities to profit-hungry forces beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live rich lives full of love and adventure! To Infinity, And Beyond!

An awfully beautiful message– although considering it was delivered by Disney/ Pixar through one of their Holiday Season Blockbusters, in a way, it also reeks of fat, hairy chutzpah. But hey, as far as works of fat, hairy chutzpah go, Toy Story 2 might be the most magical.

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(A Brief Intermission In An Ongoing Series)


Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston): What if… I were totally disfigured, if my face were all scraped away, I had no arms, no legs, no brainwaves, and I was being kept alive on a heart/ lung machine– would you love me? 

Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner): No… but we could still be friends, though.

Like fellow mad genius David Lynch, Sam Raimi made a 1999 movie you wouldn’t have expected him to make in 1999. Unlike Lynch, Raimi didn’t make a mainstream-friendly film that still twitched with traces of his twisted brilliance; he made a pedestrian snooze-fest bloated with the lamest hallmarks of Hollywood sports and romance.

After years of frolicking in grisly, comic-book mayhem (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman), Raimi’s 1998 adaptation of A Simple Plan proved he could cook up pulpy thrills in more realistic and subdued territory. Unfortunately, when he stepped even further out of his comfort zone with 1999’s For Love Of The Game, he neglected to bring even one of his talents.

The love story between aging Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) and fashion writer Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) is about as intoxicating as a cardboard perfume sampler from a five-year-old Cosmo. Costner ambles through his beige role, coasting on his past baseball triumphs; he drifts between Bull Durham‘s crackling Crash Davis and Field Of Dreams‘ endearingly sentimental Ray Kinsella, yet never quite grasps those characters’ charms. As for Preston’s Jane, at one point she literally says, “the real me is plain and uninteresting,” and she’s not just being modest. Nor is she setting up a character arc where she eventually learns to be not “plain and uninteresting.” She’s simply telling the audience that she won’t help make the film’s running time feel any less interminable.

Their on-again/ off-again love affair unfolds in excruciatingly ponderous flashbacks as Billy pitches his last game, which just happens to be a perfect game. By default, the sports-movie half is more entertaining than the romance-movie half, but just barely. So many of the game’s Big Plays are so blatantly telegraphed, I often felt like I was stealing the movie’s signs. Will the outfielder who blew an earlier game with a Jose Canseco-sized error redeem himself with a game-saving, home-run-robbing catch? As Vin Scully might say, No fucking doy!

Even worse, Raimi hardly tries to make the overly-predictable game more exciting to watch. It’s one thing if he wanted to continue shying away from the hyper-kinetic camera-work of Evil Dead, but he deprives this movie of anything remotely resembling cinematic style. There’s one visually interesting sequence illustrating how Billy tunes out the heckling yahoos in Yankee Stadium, and that’s about it. The gap between what the potentially dazzling Raimi could have done with the game of baseball and what he actually delivers is mind-bogglingly vast.

As I said a few months back in the post on Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, the aim of Sick Desperation In Your Laugh is to spotlight the best, most 1999-y movies rather than dump on that year’s bad or generic stuff. Yet before I get into the homestretch of this series, I had to mention For Love Of The Game because its level of mediocrity is, in a way, a noteworthy achievement. In theory, Sam Raimi should’ve made one of the 1999iest films ever, but what he gave us instead was so un-1999 it might as well have come from 1992. In fact, the more I think about For Love Of The Game, the more I wonder if it’s an elaborate prank, an impish filmmaker’s attempt to create a paragon of vanilla cinema and not let anyone in on the joke– except maybe John C. Reilly.

And if that’s the case, that is insanely 1999.

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Punch & Judy

Punch & Judy

Before Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the last time I was this hopelessly addicted to a book was when I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan. (Or was it The Ruins? Whichever one of those I read second. Anyway, I found it totally apt that Smith wrote a big juicy blurb for Gone Girl‘s book-jacket.) Flynn’s story starts out like one of those true-crime Lifetime movies, until it gets flipped over and piledriven onto the arena floor. Then just when I thought the damage had been done, this crazy monster got back up and smacked me upside the face with a barbed-wire folding chair again and again and all the while I just kept thinking Keep comin’ at me you diabolical psycho.

There are some cliches here but at least they’re acknowledged. Besides, there are so many unavoidable cliches in the Missing Wife/ Suspected Husband Story (both fiction and non-) that it’s near-impossible to subvert them all in a single book. So of course there’s a very predictable extra-marital affair. Yet for the reasonable price of a few cliches, we don’t just get all that subversion. We’re also treated to pages and pages of vicious musings on marriage, male-female relations, criminal psychology, post-recession America, and the elastic hysteria of Public Opinion. Yes, there are some cliches in that stuff too, but honestly, can we ever have too much Nancy Grace-bashing?

I’m utterly amped for the movie. It might have to be like 80% voice-over, but if anyone can work wonders with wicked voice-over, it’s David “Fight Club” Fincher. Reese Witherspoon will only be producing, not starring, and thank goodness- not because she wouldn’t be perfect in the title role, but because she’d be so obviously perfect. I’m hoping for someone who hasn’t already played this kind of character. Sure, Jessica Chastain; fine, Amy Adams. But if I had the rights to Gone Girl I’d wait about five more years and then cast Alison Brie. (Granted, I kind of wish Alison Brie was in everything.)

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(Part 29 Of An Ongoing Series)

Bringing Out the Dead

I realized that my training was useful in less than ten percent of the calls, and saving lives was rarer than that. After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply turned up.

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage)

Scorsese and Schrader revisit Taxi Driver through an Ambulance Driver. Instead of Travis Bickle’s Archangel of Vengeance, it’s Frank Pierce’s Angel of Noble Failure. When you save a life you feel like God, so when you hit that inevitable slump and everyone you try to save just dies on you, you feel like the opposite of God. Not Satan; an impotent nothing. Maybe the road to salvation involves helping more people die.

In ’99, you could almost feel nostalgic for early ’90s New York. Back then the embers of the 70’s-80’s hellhole were still glowing, but it wasn’t quite the post-Giuliani tourist Mecca, and “post-9/11” didn’t exist yet either. It was exciting and slightly less dangerous than the worst case scenario. Purgatory, maybe, but still one hell of a ride.

As Patricia Arquette’s Mary says, “This city…it’ll kill you if you’re not strong enough.” But Frank wisely reminds her: “This city doesn’t discriminate.” And if you really want this city to kill you, it has a funny way of shocking you back to life.

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