Monday, August 3, 2020

The Goonies (dir. Richard Donner, 1985)

Thirty-five years after its initial cinematic release, The Goonies remains among my favorite movies of all time, and it’s certainly one of my very favorite movies of the ’80s (second only to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club). It’s also one of the few movies that I love as completely as I do. I love every line, every character, every performance, every action sequence, every imaginative twist and turn. For that reason, I never tire of watching it. I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1985, when I was only 12, and I’ve watched it scores of times on video since then: as a teenager, as a young adult, and now as a middle-aged fanboy. Recently, I watched it at a drive-in theatre up in Maine, which got me thinking about the movie more deeply and made me want to write this post about it. The ’80s are long gone, but The Goonies hasn’t aged. The movie is a time machine that can whisk me right back to that time and place in a steadfast heartbeat.

The mid-’80s was the era of the fun book series called Choose Your Own Adventure, in which you made choices to determine the plot and then turned to the designated page. I owned and enjoyed several of those books as a kid, and The Goonies felt like a particularly well-crafted one. No teen movie from that decade is better cast, and I’m even tempted to say that no other ’80s teen adventure tale is better written. The Goonies isn’t perfect, but its imperfections are also part of its appeal. In spite of Steven Spielberg’s oversight as an executive producer, the movie at times retains the impish charm of semi-amateurism; it’s a film for younger fanboys made by grown-up fanboys, and this is the main reason why I still love the film and everything about it so much at age 46. The Goonies enjoys the kind of longevity that every other film of its kind that’s ever been made wishes it had. Lightning struck, and it stuck.

From the outset, the movie is crammed chock-full of campy archetypal villains: golf course developers in beige trenchcoats who are out to bulldoze homes in order to displace the Walsh family and others in their oceanside community of Astoria, Oregon; high school jocks who taunt and torture the Goonies for fun; and of course, the notoriously criminal (and fatherless) Fratelli clan, comprised of a wicked butch Mama (the late Anne Ramsey) and her two madcap sons (Joe Pantoliano and Robert Davi). The latter son even breaks out into singing opera numbers at comically inopportune or gleefully ominous moments, as if the members of the Fratelli family have wandered in from an entirely different film. The gimmick works, however, because the three actors are totally aware of just how misplaced their characters are in the movie’s script, so they just play right to that. I mean, Italian-American gangsters on the remote coast of Oregon? Go figure.

After the opening-credits jailbreak and ensuing getaway car chase scene, we meet the movie’s central heroes, the Goonies, through a long expository sequence that’s probably the most finely composed of its kind, at least as teen movies go. Ensemble films are hard to write because it’s really difficult to balance one’s attention amongst multiple characters evenly as a screenwriter. All of the characters need to be well-developed for the audience to find them believable and feel invested in the story, so that has to happen simultaneously for all of the characters through the dialogue itself. Actors can endow the characters with personality only through the right words, and screenwriter Chris Columbus (working from a story initially drafted by Spielberg) gave these young actors a hilarious, rapid-fire set of scenes filmed throughout the Walsh home, so that they all have ample time and space to establish their own stake in the narrative. Miraculously, every single one of the young actors absolutely nails each line and expression. I know guys from my generation who have every line of dialogue memorized from that entire early part of the film.

One thing that wasn’t as clear to me as a gay kid in Ohio that’s glaringly obvious when I re-watch those scenes of young guys joking around with each other now that I’m an adult gay man: the dialogue is fully loaded with tons of implications about masculinity and homosocial relations. Brand (Josh Brolin) — the athletic older brother of Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) — is the alpha-male of the bunch, as eager to preen and flaunt his physical prowess as he is to show that he genuinely cares for his younger brother and the other neighborhood kids. This role was all that Josh Brolin needed to demonstrate the qualities that would help him become one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. He definitely should have won an Oscar for his intense and demanding performance in No Country for Old Men, but that’s a story for another time.

Every exchange and detail of these scenes is focused on masculine posturing and boyish one-upmanship: Brand’s sweaty labor while lifting weights at his workout bench, Mikey’s tough-guy stance towards his own sadness about the impending loss of their family home out there in the “Goondocks,” and of course the brash entrance of Mouth (Corey Feldman), whose ebulliently pushy delivery of dialogue pretty much steals each of the scenes in which he speaks. Honestly, Corey Feldman’s genius as a comedic actor for me was wholly intact from this point onward in his career. Controversial though he may be, I still totally love everything about him even today. As evidenced by his omnipresent Purple Rain T-shirt, Mouth is also the coolest nerdy kid from any ’80s movie, and there were literally hundreds of those characters in mainstream films back then.

The arrival of Chunk (Jeff Cohen), their pudgy and unfailingly hilarious Jewish neighbor who can gain entrance to the Walsh household only by lifting up his shirt to jiggle his belly in what’s known as the infamous “Truffle Shuffle,” easily signals that he’s the beta-male character of the group and will remain so throughout the remainder of the film. He even misses out on much of the long central adventure-based portion of the movie due to his own skittish fears and apprehensions, though he winds up enduring far worse scenarios than the other Goonies for exactly the same reason, even if it all turns out just fine in the end. His relationship (and yes, it’s actually a full-on relationship) with Sloth (the late John Matuszak), the outcast and grotesquely deformed younger brother of the Fratelli clan, is what redeems Chunk from the eternal underdog status to which he’s relegated in the film. More on the Chunk & Sloth subplot later in my post.

Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), the Goonies’ sole member of color, flies his way into the story, crashing through the Walshes’ screen door when he rides a self-designed zipline over from his own house. He’s a child inventor, and an especially innovative and fearless one, too. His makeshift toolbelt and trenchcoat contain a multitude of handmade devices and experimental gizmos that will later save himself and the other Goonies from all forms of danger and treachery, while occasionally making their escapades even more treacherous whenever his inventions frequently misfire or malfunction. Nevertheless, he’s the mastermind of the group, and one who’s sorely needed, which does help to balance out his ideological function as the “token Asian character” in the story as well. When Data’s reunited with his father in the film’s final scenes, his true place in the tale and its larger community is finally brought full circle.

A pivotal moment comes when Data’s aerial landing in the Walsh home ends up breaking the penis off of their mother’s statuette of Michelangelo’s David. It’s one of a few key penis jokes that crop up in these scenes and deserve some attention here. Mikey has asthma, and he goes quite swiftly from holding the statue’s broken-off penis to sticking his inhaler into his mouth when his mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) walks through their front door with their new Hispanic housekeeper, Rosalita (the wonderful late actress Lupe Onteveros), who’ll be helping them pack for their possible upcoming move if their house gets foreclosed on by the golf course developers. Chunk, of all characters, glues David’s penis back on upside-down, so that it looks like fit young David is sporting an erection, though it really doesn’t seem to faze most of the other boys all that much. “If God made you do it that way, you’d all be pissing in your faces,” exclaims a flustered Brand to the other kids, to which Chunk calmly responds, “It looks fine to me.”

And it’s at this point, ironically, that the film’s narrative achieves liftoff. Because the Walsh family's dad (Keith Walker) is a museum curator, the boys decide to explore the attic of their family’s house to find a map that will lead them on an adventure-filled search for the legendary hidden treasure of an ancient pirate known as One-Eyed Willy, hoping to locate the bounty in order to have the money necessary to save their home from the golf course developers. You don’t have to think too hard (wink-wink) about One-Eyed Willy’s name to get the film’s most shameless inside joke. That’s right: the Goonies will spend the rest of the movie pursuing a very wealthy older man who shares his name with a nickname for one’s penis. The fun comes in when the Goonies learn that One-Eyed Willy hasn’t made it easy for them at all. Ingenious Rube Goldberg-like booby traps will hinder their progress every step of the way, keeping them constantly on their toes and proving that One-Eyed Willy is a wily force to be reckoned with.

To keep the gender dynamic more interesting (and also less homosocial), two female Goonies do join the group as well, just as their adventures get underway: high school cheerleader Andy (Kerri Green) and bespectacled tomboy Stef (Martha Plimpton). They’re equally well-drawn and fully inhabited characters, unlike in most ’80s teen movies that simply made young women second-tier characters or objectified them. Andy and Stef, while not immune to the effects of the frightful scenarios they encounter as the film goes spelunking through underground caves and grottoes, are spunky, driven, and self-aware young women with plenty of willpower and minds of their own to boot; Green and Plimpton, both ahead of their time, knowingly and winningly portray them that way. Of course, Andy also happens to be dating Brand, because a teen movie with no heterosexual romance or build-up of sexual tension wouldn’t be a full-fledged teen movie.

The film’s real wildcard female character, however, with some hints at transgender energy, is Mama Fratelli. Anne Ramsey, at this late point in her career (she acted in her first movie at age 42 in 1971 and died in 1988), was known mostly as a character actress, so the role of Mama Fratelli was a goldmine for her, as was her Oscar-nominated turn as the raucous title character of 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train, another movie that I loved and watched many times throughout my youth. Whenever I consider these two roles in tandem, I think no other actor’s pair of crowning ’80s film roles could be as potent. Through those two campy characters and her distinctive and exacting take on them, Ramsey single-handedly shaped the youths and childhood fears of millions of young people worldwide. Nobody else even came close to accomplishing that in the ’80s, not even someone like Vincent Price, as hard as he may have tried to achieve it. Ramsey’s sly command of camp in these performances to some degree overrode and exceeded camp itself, so that she achieved a truly rare combination of the comical, realistic, and visceral.

Cutely maniacal Joe Pantoliano and calmly menacing Robert Davi also made a permanent mark on the culture as the bumbling Fratelli brothers. In their slip-sliding and head-bonking antics, they were drawing on a rich film tradition from the Marx Brothers to Laurel & Hardy, while giving it some contemporary spins and updated innovations of their own. I doubt that anybody else in the movie had as much fun with their roles, and it shows in their pair of performances on camera. It’s a very tricky line to walk, one that requires the audience (particularly much younger viewers) to be scared of the villainous Fratelli brothers while also being able to laugh out loud at them and their ongoing rounds of cutting up and sparring with one another out of sibling rivalry. The brothers hamper the Fratelli clan’s pursuit of the Goonies but hope that they’ll catch up with the youngsters and be able to swipe One-Eyed Willy’s bounty for themselves. I have a feeling that Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern must have been drawing directly on these two performances for inspiration when they acted as a similar bad-guy duo in Home Alone just a few years later.

As memorable as its stellar performances make The Goonies, the inventive action sequences are really what drive the film the most, as well as the element that persuades frequent viewers to return to the movie. From suspended falling boulders to deep pits with tall spikes sticking straight up from the bottom, One-Eyed Willy has secured his treasure for centuries by making it almost impossible for outsiders to locate. We hear early in the film about how older adventurers like Chester Copperpot tried and failed to find the bounty, which is gruesomely confirmed when the kids stumble upon his skeleton at the very first round of booby traps in One-Eyed Willy’s labyrinthine underground lair. By the time the Goonies have outwitted several more of Willy’s traps, we arrive at the steepest challenge, which fans refer to as “playing the bones,” a skeletal piano that Andy has to rely on her childhood piano lessons to play, as she decodes the chords hand-written in ancient notes on the backside of the map of Willy’s lair. With each wrong note, a segment of the rock platform on which the Goonies are standing collapses into a bottomless pit, providing the movie with its most memorable and suspenseful images in a film that’s absolutely brimming with them. Andy succeeds, culminating in a group waterslide ride with a rewarding splashdown into a glowing blue-green lagoon, right beside One-Eyed Willy’s huge pirate ship.

Chunk, who’d opted out of the kids’ adventures to fetch adult assistance, only to get re-captured by the Fratelli clan, again escapes from the bad apples of the Fratelli family with the help of their younger and painfully neglected son Sloth, unforgettably portrayed with fearsome and infinite heart by former National Football League player John Matuszak. Chunk and Sloth, both outcasts, form an immediate and nearly intimate sort of bond that keeps them close on the heels of the other Goonies throughout the film. By the time they finally catch up with them, Sloth, with his combination of physical strength and emotional bravery, has been well-primed to become the movie’s ultimate hero. Matuszak’s performance is the most demanding one in the film, mainly because he has to emote through many layers of make-up, latex, and electronic prosthetics. In doing so, he also becomes the movie’s most loveable character, the antithesis of when Chunk first discovers him loudly howling while chained to a wall in the Fratelli family’s basement.

The movie’s true emotional center of gravity, however, is Sean Astin’s Mikey Walsh. Quite young and seemingly fragile, he’s also the Goonies’ finest and most persistent schemer, keeping all of them on a steady path throughout the duration of the film, arguing for the importance of their mission of saving their homes from foreclosure whenever the other Goonies are too afraid or ready to give up. Astin delivers numerous moving monologues — in the Walsh family’s attic, then surrounded by the underground waterfalls of their town’s old wishing well, and finally alone at One-Eyed Willy’s table full of treasures — with the expertise, timing, and maturity of actors four or five times his own age at the time. He’s the son of actress Patty Duke, and watching those touching scenes again always makes me wonder what in his childhood gave him access to that kind of resonant emotional depth. Because of it, he was able to craft a childhood film performance that will continue to live on for many more decades, and probably well beyond his own lifetime.

Without giving too much else away (for those who may not yet have seen the film), I’m happy to say that everything else in the movie works out just fine for the Goonies, as well it should, of course. It’s a fantasy, after all, one in which the greedy and inhumane golf course developers get duped by a group of determined kids and wind up with the short end of the deal, never the way things work out in the everyday world, where we seem to suffer small or substantial losses more or less continually and often struggle to survive. That makes the breathtaking final sight of One-Eyed Willy’s grand sea-vessel sailing from its crumbling hidden cavern at long last and out onto the open ocean all the more gratifying to behold. As the Goonies and their families stand on the beach together to cheer on the great ship and their own victory over their mindless enemies, so do we.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Kesha, High Road (RCA/Kemosabe Records, 2020)

On her latest mind-blowing doozy of a pop confection, High Road, Kesha Rose Sebert comes out full-on as a true BFF of the gay community. Not that Kesha hasn’t always been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, because she’s been about as outspoken and supportive as an artistic ally could ever be. But because of the consistent vocal and songwriting presence of Kesha’s close friend, the gay musician Stephen Wrabel — who writes and records his songs simply as Wrabel, and who co-wrote nine of the fifteen tracks on High Road — Kesha’s recent album makes her an official honorary member of our community now. High Road is my favorite album of the year so far, and it’s also the gayest album of the year by a mile, too, in all of the best possible ways.

I’ve long thought that Kesha is pretty much a pop genius, and I’m not at all using that description lightly. Her songs are so fun and so smart sonically and lyrically that they place her on an entirely different level than most of her pop peers. Listeners who write her off probably just don’t have a thorough understanding of the intricacies of popular music, or they just think that pop music isn’t intricate in the first place. Sorry, but they’re all wrong, and Kesha’s High Road is in part about why they’re wrong. It’s also about survival, tenacity, fucking up, having a blast, questioning religion, coming clean, rising above the bullshit, loneliness and friendship, having sex with a stranger, crushing all negativity, endless cycles of forgiveness and resentment, growing up without a father, heartbreak, artistic persistence, being misunderstood, understanding, letting off steam, and most important of all, just getting down.

Just as the album’s themes are that damn all-encompassing, so are the album’s sonic romps through musical genres from unabashed pop to hip-hop to folk to country to gospel to big-band to house to hi-NRG dance to silly novelty songs complete with beeping ’80s video game background flourishes. From the album’s opening throwdown on “Tonight,” Kesha is clearly harkening back to her earliest hits intentionally on every level. Wrabel raps about calling Kesha up on the phone (“Bitch, we goin’ out tonight / Bitch, pick up your phone”). Kesha raps back in a hilarious response, and the punky flow of her lyrical acceleration is irresistible: “OK, we’re goin’ out tonight, don’t wanna stay home / I got my girls to call the Uber ‘cuz I can’t find my phone.” It’s a tiny mishap, a brief missed connection that opens up into a wild night of partying euphoria, “the best night of our lives.” From that point onward, we know what we’re in for, but the album nevertheless remains as unpredictable as all art is.

Then the percussive throb of “My Own Dance,” co-written by the awesome Justin Tranter, launches us off into the album’s most fabulous single, “Raising Hell,” which rapidly transforms itself from a church-basement piano intro into a reggae-spiked barn-burner of a dance-club cut, with Kesha “all fucked up in my Sunday best... / Bitch, I’m blessed” (“Hallelujah / I’m still here, still bringin’ it to ya ... / Mama raised me well / But I don’t wanna go to heaven without raising hell”). In Kesha’s religious universe, the only real place to find salvation is on the dancefloor. “High Road,” the album’s title track, is a double-entendre about having the decency to ignore our culture’s ever-escalating, social media-driven immaturity, and getting a bit high to ignore it when you need to. She also tosses in the finest sharp-pointed put-down of her storied career: “Could a bitch who’s dumb write a Number One? / More than one? More than two? More than you!” “Shadow” follows up that thought with a swift directive to leave Kesha — who’s already had to deal with a whole history of shady characters — to her sunshine and blue skies, in some peaceful land that’s far from darkness. Clearly, we could all use some of that sunny place right about now.

After “Honey” chronicles Kesha’s smackdown of a former female friend who betrayed her trust by dipping into her “sloppy seconds,” “Cowboy Blues” and the slow-burning “Resentment” anchor the album with a country-lite diptych of a centerpiece. Wrabel joins Kesha for a handsomely homespun duet on “Cowboy Blues,” a searching-for-love song that cleverly and delicately deconstructs all other love songs in the pop canon: “They say you know when you know / What do you do when you don’t? / They say in love, it’ll happen if it’s meant to happen / What do you do if it don’t?” Kesha wonders whether a cute Nashville dive-bar cowboy dressed up in shades of blue might’ve been the one she was meant to have kids with (“Did I fuck my whole life up? / Did I miss my one true love?”). Sturgill Simpson and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson both pitch in memorably and hauntingly on “Resentment,” which Kesha endows with as much gorgeous gravity as anything else to be found in her catalog, as she contemplates what emotion could be even worse than hate after being carelessly hurt by someone. So what does Kesha do? She moves past that contemplative midsection of her album to pursue some new lovers on the up-tempo pairing of “Little Bit of Love” and “Birthday Suit.”

The sublimely sexy “Kinky” and super-sweet “BFF” might be my favorite two songs Kesha has ever recorded. “Kinky” traces Ke$ha (as she’s billed on the track-listing for the song) pursuing a hot gender-blending, no-rules threesome where “Boys kiss boys kiss girls kiss girls / That’s how it’s meant to be.” (Yes, the benevolent spirit of Prince himself is absolutely looking out over this song.) And the pretty little chimes of “BFF” find Kesha and Wrabel trading off the most moving set of lyrical glances between a straight woman and her gay male best friend since probably the great “Moon River” scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “The day I met you we got drunk in the backyard / With our friend Drew / I remember we had our first slumber party / We were both feelin’ blue / A few months later, right before I went to rehab / You gave me my first tattoo / It was a hard time, a really fuckin’ dark time / Thank God I found you.” In terms of setting up a scene, I think it’s probably the best opening verse of any pop song from the past five years or so.

The album’s penultimate track, “Father Daughter Dance,” plumbs the depths of a strained father/daughter relationship better than any other song since Kelly Clarkson’s heartbreaking hit “Piece by Piece,” except that in Kesha’s song, the father is completely absent. She ponders in earnest the lifelong effect that it’s had on her and all of her other relationships (“Would he have protected me / From all the bad shit? The bad men? / Would I even be the same person?”). “Chasing Thunder” closes the album on a quietly triumphant note, as Kesha recounts her late grandmother’s story of an ageless girl who’ll be running towards a distant sky forever: “That’s the spirit, that’s the ghost inside of me / Baby, I’m not a rose, I’m a wildflower.” If Billie Holiday were still alive today, she’d be singing Kesha’s songs.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

It’s taken me a number of years to feel ready to write this post because I want to focus on just one scene from Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas, which for me is one of the most important cinematic scenes from the latter half of the 20th century. Since the first time I saw it, I’ve never stopped thinking about this scene; it’s always lingering somewhere on some level of my consciousness, every day and every night. The scene is in the last half-hour of the film, and it also takes up a large portion of that final half-hour. A two-hander, it starts out as a dialogue, then becomes one character’s monologue, then a dialogue again, then the other character’s monologue. The scene was written by the late great Sam Shepard, who’d also originally drafted two different screenplays for the film, loosely based on some elements from his book Motel Chronicles. He handed those screenplays over to L. M. Kit Carson, who skillfully re-worked and adapted them into the form that’s used in the rest of the film, culminating in the scene that I’ll be focusing on here. According to Carson, the scene that I’ll be writing about was scripted entirely by Sam Shepard. Viewers can probably hear the language shift stylistically into Shepard’s voice and thematic idiom as the scene unfolds, or at least I can.

The two characters in the scene are Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who were once a romantic couple; together they’d had a son, Hunter (played by Hunter Carson, Kit Carson’s real-life son with Karen Black). Here’s a brief synopsis of the film for those who’ve never seen it. The movie opens with Travis wandering out of the Texas desert, silent and haggard, after several years spent alone in the wilderness. He’s retrieved by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), and the two men drive the long distance back to Walt’s home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, which he shares with his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement). Walt and Anne were left to raise young Hunter in the wake of Travis’ sudden disappearance and Jane’s abandonment of her child. Much of the film’s first half focuses on Travis’ reunion with his son, whom he then innocuously absconds with so that Hunter can be reunited with his mother in Texas, once they’re able to find her. Wenders has remarked that the specific circumstances of Travis’ and Jane’s breakup are intentionally left mysterious throughout the majority of the film, and that mystery is finally unveiled during the film’s quiet and emotional climax, in the scene written by Sam Shepard.

Although they play fairly well with regard to the story on screen, those plot-based details, even when endowed with Shepard’s spare and beautiful writing, feel somewhat arbitrary to me in terms of the scene’s power, its resonance, and its ultimate meaning. While we certainly feel for Travis and Jane as we watch and listen to their interactions (movingly accompanied by Ry Cooder’s acoustic guitar score), it’s the particular mise-en-scène that makes the scene so important and unforgettable. The scene takes place in a sort of Texas peepshow emporium where Jane works. Midway through the film, Travis and Hunter follow her there in their car after she makes an anticipated deposit at a bank, and Travis then leaves the boy alone in the car so that he can sneak into the emporium and investigate. He eventually finds a dim hallway of numbered, blue-curtained booths, and inside each booth is a themed window (“Poolside,” “Hotel,” “Coffee Shop”), behind which solitary women appear in costume to play out a fantasy for individual male customers, who can speak with the woman via a telephone in the booth, and she can then respond through a two-way speaker inside the little themed room. She can see only her own reflection in a one-way mirror, however, not the anonymous man who’s sitting on the other side of the glass in the curtained booth.

Travis and Jane talk through everything that they left behind and why, both at length and in turn, as the material grows darker and more angular and tilts towards violence. Yet it remains just language and facial expressions, all words and memories, transformed into the visual incarnations of Sam Shepard’s fluid and broken-up phrases. Tears fall, of course, on both sides of the mirrored glass, and Wenders knowingly places his camera and audience with each character in alternating balance on both sides of the glass partition, too. At a pivotal moment halfway through the scene, after his monologue is finished, Travis asks Jane, “If you turn the light off in there, will you be able to see me?” to which she replies, “I don’t know. I never tried.” The scene works because the two actors are aware, ironically, of both the simplicity and intricacy of the dance that they’re inhabiting. Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton wasn’t sure at first if he could do it, and so he told Wim Wenders that he had to talk on the phone with Sam Shepard, who assured him that the language in the script would be enough to carry him through. The director let the actor start and stop the cameras as much as he needed to, and the filming of the scene went on all day long, until Travis’ monologue finally came out from beginning to end in one long uninterrupted flow.

I think this scene is timeless because it’s about how human relationships operate. Not just romantic relationships, but all relationships. And not just our relationships then or now, but always, both intimately and distantly: in person, on the phone, disembodied in typed text or on video via a computer screen, in a cinema, on television, on a stage. In office cubicles, classrooms, motel rooms, in cars on highways, moving separately or together in the same direction or in opposite directions, branching out endlessly across the miles. Even when we’re face-to-face, we speak to each other through invisible mirrors and panes of glass, through the tinny circuitry of wires, because we can never fully know what it’s like for another person inside their own room, inside their own mind, inside their personal history of their own experience. We see each other and don’t see each other in our tiny theaters of desire — backed and packed with torn tinfoil and pink tufts of insulation — and empathy is a trick of the light. That our experiences in human relationships dovetail and separate, for minutes or for decades, is one of the reasons why art exists. We play our lonely roles and we watch each other play them, trying our best to respond with our own performance, yet we know that’s ultimately what it is: that we’re alone together inside our truthful approximations, inside those scripted spaces that surround us, which we enter by parting heavy blue curtains, picking up the receiver of the phone, turning on or switching off the lights.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Some Thoughts on Cinemas

One morning a few years ago, I woke up from a dream that I’d been watching a movie at a little cinema in Harvard Square. The layout of the cinema felt very real to me. The entrance and ticket booth were located at street-level on JFK Street. Downstairs from the box office and concession stand were two long skinny auditoriums behind two slim doorways that sat side-by-side. Despite how familiar the space seemed to me within the world of the dream, I wasn’t sure if it had been an actual place or just a fabrication of my sleeping mind. When I was awake enough to start thinking about it more deeply, trying my hardest to remember something that now seemed to be long gone, I reached over to grab my laptop from my bedside nightstand.

I searched online and found only a few ghost-like traces — a brief mention of it on somebody’s film blog, some photos of old print ads for the theater — to prove that this cinema in my dream had indeed once existed: it was called the Janus, and I’d frequented it semi-regularly when I worked in Harvard Square in the mid-1990s. The Janus permanently closed its doors before that decade had ended. I can still recall quite vividly that I’d watched Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia there with one of my first boyfriends, a tall and handsome Mormon guy from Utah who was then a graduate student at Harvard. Of course, Tom Hanks went on to win an Oscar for playing a gay man who died of AIDS in that movie, a film that’s very much of its era in that the AIDS epidemic remained a serious concern among gay and bisexual men at the time Philadelphia was released. I’d also seen Tim Robbins’ movie Dead Man Walking at the Janus, for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for playing a nun who counsels Sean Penn’s death-row inmate before his execution. I was young then back in my twenties, and I remember crying a lot during both of those movies.

One day I also took a long lunch break to head over to the Janus to watch my very first film starring Alain Delon, René Clément’s 1960 French thriller Plein Soleil, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. I became fairly obsessed with seeing all of Alain Delon’s early films after that, and young Alain Delon remains my favorite face in cinema to this day. I was fortunate in that I’d grown accustomed to subtitles during high school, when I convinced a friend to go with me to see our very first foreign film, 1990’s Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu, at the gorgeously restored Esquire Theatre in the downtown Clifton neighborhood of my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. That same friend returned to the Esquire with me the following year to watch Isabelle Huppert as the title character in Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Madame Bovary.

Because I remember all of these kinds of details so well, it’s a mystery to me how I could have forgotten about the Janus in Harvard Square less than two decades later, and that only one of my random nighttime dreams could have returned me there. Why had the experience of seeing movies at that little cinema engraved itself so deeply in my memory that I may not have recalled the place in waking life, but the dreamworld was able to transport me back to it? Plenty of people have written about the relationship of movies to memory throughout the past century, but I think my dream speaks to something that’s equally important: how the special cultural ritual of moviegoing shapes our minds via the spaces in which we encounter art, and how exactly that ritual puts us in close physical proximity to films that we carry forward with us, to the extent that they intimately surround us, whether we fully remember those spaces or not.

This is especially worth thinking about now since my fear is that this significant cultural ritual at present is in the process of gradually becoming lost over time. I’ve read several in-depth articles recently that examined various demographics among cinema fans and concluded that the younger generation of filmgoers — those who are currently in their twenties or teenage years — don’t really go to the movies like we did when I was their age. They might go to see a movie every now and then, like a superhero blockbuster, a romantic comedy, or a popular horror flick, but most younger people don’t “go to the movies” as a matter of routine anymore. Obviously, the internet and online streaming have changed all of that, and it’s easier to stay at home and watch most films for little to no money in the comfort of a living room or bedroom.

Cinemas are trying to attract patrons in various ways lately, adding benefits like roomy “luxury” reclining seats, specialty concession stand items, and alcoholic beverages, while raising ticket prices to levels that make less and less sense for customers to pay, considering that movie audience members can turn out to be annoying or disruptive more often than they’re quiet and considerate of people around them. As often as I’ve been in a cinema auditorium that’s more than half full over the past few years (and I’m someone who usually watches two or three movies at the cinema every week), I’ve been in an auditorium that’s totally empty except for myself almost as frequently, so that I’ve gotten to have some nice private screenings, an indication that cinemas are now an aging business model that probably won’t remain sustainable anymore at some point in the near future.

I also remember David Lynch, about a decade ago now, saying that he’d been in a cinema recently and didn’t think it felt like movies would really be at home in moviehouses for too much longer. I hope he’s not right, though it does increasingly seem like cinemas will become more of a cultural novelty fairly soon. I think they’ll always be around, especially in urban areas, but perhaps in a more limited and rarified capacity, just as record stores of all sorts started to disappear after the advent of online streaming and digital downloads, which have now saturated global culture in a far-reaching and widespread way. As usual, community gets subsumed by consumerism.

Just last weekend, I went to a small-town cinema in Wellfleet on Cape Cod to see the movie Sonic the Hedgehog (believe it or not), during the film’s opening weekend. It was the 7pm screening on a Sunday night before a Monday holiday, and including myself, there were seven people total in the audience: a dad with a young son and daughter who were about 8 and 10 years old, a brother/sister pair in their early teens (whose parents were in the auditorium next door watching Parasite), and a young military guy in mud-spattered camouflage fatigues sitting by himself along the aisle.

That cinema in Wellfleet has the same kind of long skinny old-school movie auditoriums that the Janus in Harvard Square had back in its heyday. While it was a bit of a sad sight to see this slight scattering of people spread out in the dark auditorium, it was also reassuring that some parents were still taking their kids to the movies at a cinema these days, trying to hand down a tradition that had no doubt been important to them during their own childhoods. Even in a light-hearted movie like Sonic the Hedgehog, there were scenes worthwhile enough to enjoy and lessons to be learned. Whether those kinds of cinematic moments will still be learned from and enjoyed within the walls of a movie theater for many people in our culture a generation or so from now remains to be seen, yet it’s a dream that’s worth keeping alive.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Five Favorite Films of 2019

Looking back over this past year in movies, I feel like 2019 offered an unusual and interesting assortment of films overall. My visits to the cinema at least twice every week throughout the year were also more unpredictable because the movies that I’d most anticipated seeing often weren’t as great as I’d hoped, while several films that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing quite as much challenged my initial expectations in some welcome and surprising ways. Those that ended up striking me the most and lingering in my memory were a cool mix of independent and mainstream fare, even as someone who doesn’t think coolness is especially remarkable.

My favorite film of 2019 was Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), probably his best movie since All About My Mother two decades ago, and clearly a kind of semi-autobiographical retrospective of his own personal and artistic life. The various recollections in the film are vivid and indelible, to the extent that watching the movie alone in a big cinema with only about five other people in it felt like it put me in a warm and pleasant trance for a couple of hours. I’d left work a little early that afternoon, which probably heightened that feeling a bit, too. The movie follows a later-in-life filmmaker, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, in one of his finest performances), an avatar for Almodóvar himself, as he reflects back on the earliest days of his childhood in a small Spanish village with his father and young mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, earthy yet luminous). Salvador starts some new writing based on those reflections, almost as if the memories are an escape from his many ailments due to aging, which he begins to numb with doses of heroin as a sort of self-medication, until his assistant and physician intervene.

The potentially quite dangerous introduction to that drug arises from Salvador’s reconnection with Alberto Crespo, an actor from Salvador’s early film Sabor, who’d become estranged from Salvador for years due to Alberto’s own reckless drug habit. There’s a sad and hilarious scene where the two men do a Q&A by phone for a screening of Sabor after the film’s been reissued, though they’re almost too high to answer any of the audience’s questions. Another key reconnection of Salvador’s in the film prompts an extraordinary scene in which he talks late into the night with the man who was his lover long ago in 1980s Madrid, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia, unassumingly sexy). Federico had also fallen out of Salvador’s orbit due to substance abuse, but then cries while watching a scene about himself in a play of Salvador’s that he happens to attend by chance. Now married to a woman and raising children, Federico has only wonderful remembrances of his years with Salvador. I’ve always been mesmerized by scenes of gay/bi lovers reconnecting years later, and this is one of the most heartfelt and expertly crafted dialogues between gay/bi male characters from any film in the past decade.

Amazingly, that’s within the context of a film that also includes some gorgeous recollections of Salvador’s childhood tutelage of an illiterate, scorchingly hot local houseworker named Eduardo (César Vicente, totally stunning), whose subplot includes an important picture that he draws of Salvador as a boy while he’s artfully installing tiles into Jacinta’s primitive kitchen. Young Salvador’s moment of realizing his attraction to men when he sees Eduardo bathing is both archetypal and perfectly calibrated, given how overdone such scenes can feel these days. By the sublime end of the movie, which reveals that we’re watching a film within a film at that point, all of these details made me feel like Pain and Glory is an absolute gift. (For a powerful and precise distaff version of another filmmaker’s similar coming-of-age tale from this past year, also be sure to check out Joanna Hogg’s excellent film The Souvenir.)

In the vein of space-based movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Ridley Scott’s The Martian that I loved during the past decade, James Gray’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”), my second favorite film of 2019, owes its greatest debt to Stanley Kubrick. Its distinctive tone is both deep and lofty. In a recent Washington Post Q&A panel with the film’s star, Brad Pitt, as well as two space scientists from NASA, the director said that he modeled the movie’s father-and-son narrative on the myth of Odysseus and Telemachus. Pitt’s astronaut, Major Roy McBride, is the Telemachus figure journeying to find his rogue astronaut father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), to try to bring him home, once Roy has learned that his father didn’t die during a space expedition but is hiding alone in a far outpost of the solar system aboard a space station known as the Lima Project, somewhere in the rings of Neptune.

Though its allusive underpinnings are ancient, the film’s futuristic context — in which Roy flies a commercial airline to the moon so that he can get rocketed over to Mars — is replete with contemporary relevance as well. Echoing the current climate crisis, a series of events known as surges are causing havoc and widespread deaths around the globe; energy flares from an anti-matter power source that may be connected to Roy’s missing father are being emitted from somewhere in his vicinity of outer space. The idea of the vengeful father figure wielding his malign grip on the world bears obvious correlations to the current political landscape in several countries worldwide, too, and that contrast with Roy’s quiet and sensitive character forms the noble, wounded heart of the film and anchors Brad Pitt’s astonishingly nuanced performance. I’d argue that Pitt actually gave the two best performances by any actor in 2019: his leading role in Ad Astra, as well as his casually brilliant comedic turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, for which he’ll likely win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

What really distinguishes Pitt’s performance in Ad Astra from those of actors in similar space-themed movies is the level of detail that he endows the character’s expressions with throughout the film. Even alongside Gray’s innovative and often breathtaking imagery of deep space, the camera never strays very far from Pitt’s mesmerizing face. His character bears a resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, in that both characters seem to repress and internalize their emotions, in order to function well in their jobs. Roy’s main conversations in the film — a movie with a motherlode of silence — occur when he responds to lists of questions asked by a computerized psychological profiling system that the government has built into his spacecrafts, monitoring his behavior throughout his journeys, while also providing a delicate and philosophical voiceover through which Pitt masterfully matches his physical performance.

My favorite documentary of 2019 was Andrew Slater’s fantastic Echo in the Canyon, about the legendary Laurel Canyon music scene of the mid- to late 1960s. Slater, formerly the CEO of Capitol Records, provides a wealth of knowledge to give the film’s audience the requisite background. A roster of famous artists who lived and worked in Laurel Canyon highlight that vital moment in the history of American music, the fulcrum point on which folk began to tilt towards rock, forever changing the musical landscape as acoustic gave way to electronic. The documentary is hosted by Jakob Dylan, who brings a relaxed and attentive energy to the proceedings. He interviews everyone from Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton, as well as all the members of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The only woman interviewed from the early Laurel Canyon movement is Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, whose appearance is both central and candid. Some have lamented, however, that other key “Ladies of the Canyon” such as Joni Mitchell aren’t even mentioned in the film, though that might end up being quite a different movie, and one that I hope is in the making.

The documentary’s interviews are interspliced with nostalgic images of late ’60s Los Angeles from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop, which inspired Slater to make the documentary in the first place. Also featured throughout the film are live recordings from a 2015 concert led by Jakob Dylan, where a great line-up of younger artists (Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power, and Regina Spektor, among others) performed their favorite selections from the early Laurel Canyon catalog. Their covers are both faithful and daring, and I enjoyed them nearly as much as the wealth of information shared by the older artists in their interviews. So much valuable ground gets covered: why the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds holds such a significant place in this history, how David Crosby found himself exiled from the Laurel Canyon group “because I was an asshole,” and how seemingly marginal figures like Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi influenced what’s come to be known as the California Sound by building sonic bridges back to classical compositions and earlier musical forms. Late in the documentary, Graham Nash remarks that in 200 years from now, scholars and listeners will still look back and study the music of that particular time and place, and I think he’s absolutely right. (I also want to add a quick shout-out to another awesome music/concert documentary that I loved in 2019, Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, which brilliantly showcases one of his best albums in years.)

Nadav Lapid’s wildly original Synonyms was a film that I knew would earn a spot on my year-end list of favorites as soon as I watched it at the cinema back in November. The movie’s a challenge to summarize or even to convey adequately. Yoav, a handsome young Israeli man (played by Tom Mercier, whose performance is all-in on every level), turns up in Paris suddenly under somewhat unclear circumstances. Soon after his arrival, he’s dashing around naked in a colossal, freezing cold, abandoned apartment. His satchel of clothes, the only belongings he brought with him, have apparently been stolen by two other young people who live in the same apartment building.

We soon discover that they’re Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Émile (Quentin Dolmaire), both of whom Yoav forms a flirtatious bond with. After they find him sleeping naked in a bathtub in his frigid, empty apartment, they carry him up to their place, wrap him in a big furry blanket, and watch after him to help restore him to health. We also discover that Yoav is learning the French language by reciting increasingly angry lists of synonyms that express his frame of mind and blunt animosity towards the city. He charges awkwardly around the streets in a mustard yellow coat, refusing to look up at anything, for fear that the beauty of Paris will draw him in.

Yoav has separated himself from his family, his home, his country, his work, his culture, his religion, and his language. When Émile and Caroline ask him if he knows anybody else in France, he answers in a huff, “Celine Dion.” The frequency with which he’s naked in the film (no complaints here!) signal his rebirth in a rebellious way rather than a cheesy one. He’s akin to someone who’s trying to reboot himself as an artist, a poet really, forcing himself to subsist on tightly budgeted meals of pasta with tomato sauce that he routinely prepares for himself each day. He crashes his way into a party at a dance club, chewing on a huge free pastry while getting down; he also gets talked into posing for a videographer, but the man turns out to be a borderline porn artist who humiliates Yoav in a way that conflates his Jewish identity with his sexuality. The film’s director, Nadav Lapid, has addressed how some of these details about becoming an expatriate artist himself are autobiographical. I think that’s one reason why his film Synonyms feels so innovative and freeform, mainly because it’s an abstract re-creation of how he found his own way in the world as a filmmaker.

Finally, I’m the last person on earth who’d ever have expected that a mainstream movie about race car driving would ever end up on this list of my year-end favorites, but James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (released as Le Mans ’66 in the United Kingdom and some European countries) is about as well-made as this particular brand of cinematic contraption comes. With a cast led by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the performances are stellar throughout, the screenwriting is solid and involving, and the racing scenes are as suspenseful as any I’ve ever encountered on screen. Bale plays the British racing legend Ken Miles, who’s recruited by Matt Damon’s famed car designer, Carroll Shelby, to create and drive a racing vehicle that will beat Ferrari in the international, non-stop “24 Hours of Le Mans” competition in 1966. The sponsorship and oversight of the Ford Motor Company in getting Miles and Shelby to that stage complicates matters and lends the movie much of its drama and humor, most notably Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II in one of the year’s most intimidating, hilarious, and award-worthy performances.

But it’s Damon and Bale who run away with the film as a result of their buddy-buddy rounds of virtuosity and sparring. The sidebar subplot of Ken Miles’ wife and son — who both support and revere him, while also fearing for his safety — winds up being just touching enough, without diverting energy away from the film’s central racing story. Bale has become an expert at portraying a certain type of savant character; his most recent similar foray was in The Big Short. It’s as if we can actually see what he’s thinking when his character is on screen, and it always feels like he makes us smarter in the process. He also endows his character with loads of sweetness and tenacity, to balance out Damon’s directness and practicality, which makes us feel all the closer to Ken Miles when the film takes a tragic and well-foreshadowed turn.

As somebody who thinks of himself mostly as just another guy, and who also considers himself a fairly standard-issue gay man as well, I find it interesting how consistently this list of my favorite movies of 2019 reflects those aspects of myself. I suppose that’s how we know what kinds of art we’re most drawn to. They mirror aspects of ourselves in ways that offer both pleasure and insight, while also potentially expanding our self-conceptions in the process.