Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Halloween-time showing of The Shining, a revival of the Turner Classic Movies “event” screening, thankfully on a colossal screen at a remote cinema on the coast of Maine. There was only one other viewer in the theater, though fleetingly, a middle-aged woman who bolted out the door early on, as soon as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance viciously lashed out at Shelley Duvall’s Wendy with an arch stream of verbal vitriol. I’m not sure if that woman even saw me sitting in a dark corner of the back row, so perhaps thinking she was alone with that particular film at the cinema was just too much for her to bear? More room for me then, and Kubrick’s psychological horror masterpiece (though it never rests snugly in that genre for very long) allows for plenty of interpretive space of its own. Critics have surmised that it’s about everything from colonization of the Americas to overwhelming addiction that hinders an artist from creating. Considering that the film was released in 1980, at the height of what I’ve come to refer to as the “divorce generation,” I’d say that the film is about the dread and anxiety provoked by how many young kids’ family units, including my own, were rapidly falling apart at right around that same time.

Nearly the entire film takes place inside the sprawling Overlook Hotel, a notoriously claustrophobic setting, despite how spaciously Kubrick designed almost every interior that we see in the film. The deceptively vast spaces are clearly intentional, highlighting the impossibility of intimacy between the characters, while also forcing the audience into a kind of distant intimacy with the characters inside those spaces. It’s one of the few films that transports us, indeed envelops us, so fully and immersively within its imagined, hallucinatory world. The discomfort is palpable throughout every room and winding corridor of this seemingly warm hotel as a blizzard rages outside; the Overlook is a place that’s supposed to be a home away from home, though it never feels like one. The fractured family that inhabits it for a winter, under the guise of caretakers, is rightly Kubrick’s focus, which is perhaps why Stephen King felt that Kubrick’s adaptation was the wrong fit for his 1977 novel. The scenes that shift to the typical trappings of horror — rivers of blood cascading from the elevators, the impish ghosts of identical young sisters — have now long retained their value as camp as much as horror, and they distract from the central trio of characters, momentary diversions that audiences have fixated on at the expense of the film’s core family drama. Ultimately, because Kubrick must acknowledge his source material, King’s novel haunts the film that Kubrick tried to wrest away from it.

The theme of impending divorce is indeed explicit in King’s book, and while Kubrick’s approach to the topic is more implicit, it’s clearly the one thing on Jack Torrance’s mind. Upon the film’s initial release, Jack Nicholson’s performance, along with Shelley Duvall’s, was criticized and even ridiculed for being so far over the top. But it’s also obvious from any scene in which the two actors appear together that Kubrick relentlessly pushed them there and, from accounts of how long and grueling the takes and overall shooting schedule were, intentionally exhausted them into a kind of manic overdrive. The result is a stark and darkly humorous portrait of a mother and father trapped inside a structure that’s driving both of them crazy and that they know can never last. Jack might be attempting to use his “work” of writing a novel as a smoke-screen, providing a form of escape for himself as a charade of “providing” for his wife and child, yet his ruse collapses horrifically when Wendy discovers his hefty manuscript: page upon page upon page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” endlessly repeated and arranged differently from line to line and paragraph to paragraph.

That neurotic and empty perfectionism is the primary counterpoint and antithesis to Kubrick’s own rich and full perfectionism that’s become the film’s critical trademark over the past four decades. The performances that he coaxed from the actors within the context of strikingly meticulous visual compositions, all nestled within a semi-mythological framework of the narrative, guaranteed within a few years of the film’s release that its initial critics were wrong, which I’m sure Kubrick knew from the start. His certainty in the ambition of his vision is much of what drives the film itself, as well as what’s secured its enduring popularity. The head-on shot of Jack staring out over the small-scale model of the labyrinth of mazework hedges that lies waiting just outside the hotel is probably the film’s most revealing image. His lordlike gaze is at once imperious and uncertain, with a touch of an early bemused realization of what he’s up against. And the gleefully violent flipside of that image is his later realization, in the film’s drunken and iconic climax, that if he can’t write his way out of the maze of his own alcoholism and insanity and familial entrapment in his unwanted, conscripted role of being a husband and father, then he’ll just have to try to hack his way out of all of it with an ax.

Kubrick’s film plays with time in a way that’s unavoidable in addressing all of this as well. Jack is, of course, at odds with the decades of masculine expectations behind him for how a father is supposed to act, how his worst sin would be to be remiss in caring for the well-being of his wife and his son. It’s a duty that many men in American culture had begun to shrug off by the arrival of the 1970s and early ’80s, in the wake of a sexual revolution that made it clear to them that if the choice to be made was between working day and night as breadwinners and caretakers or sitting alone at the bar to drown their sorrows, then they’d honestly rather just be sitting at the bar. Hence, Jack’s tipsy yet forthright interactions with Lloyd, the bartender in the Gold Room prior to the flashback of the historical ballroom scene and the ghost of the hotel’s former caretaker and waiter Delbert Grady, who’s rumored to have murdered his own wife and children in the hotel, precipitating all of the hauntings of various kinds that transpire throughout the film.

It’s easy to overlook the key role of Danny (Danny Lloyd) in all of this. Jack’s son is gifted with frightening and telepathic abilities that give the film its title. Whether or not he’s too young to intuit everything rationally, he does realize on some level what’s coming, how doomed his family is, how doomed his father is, and what exactly he may need to do in order to salvage something for himself and for his mother, who’s tried her best and sometimes failed to succeed in protecting him. With his mother’s help, he’s able to escape from the confines of the Overlook just prior to Jack’s most dangerous moments. Danny slides his way down a steep snowdrift that’s almost entirely buried the side of the hotel, in one of the most unforgettable images from any of Kubrick’s movies, and from there Danny devises his plan to trap his father in the snow-filled labyrinth that awaits just outside the interior mazelike corridors of the Overlook. We can be liberated from the labyrinth of the family, but only into the far more difficult and potentially equally lethal maze of society and the world.

I felt like I knew that labyrinth well the first time I saw Kubrick’s The Shining at the age of nine in 1983, when it aired as ABC’s Friday Night Movie for its network television premiere here in the United States. My parents had divorced several years before, so the idea of the lost father was already quite familiar to me, and all that’s lost as collateral alongside that original archetypal loss. Even at such a young age, I intuitively understood that particular undercurrent of Kubrick’s film. I’ve written elsewhere about that aspect of my childhood and how it shaped my life then, how it continues to shape me over time, so I won’t have much else to add about it here. After Danny loses Jack inside the labyrinth’s twists and turns and again escapes to his survival, and Jack gives up to freeze to death out in the snow, we see a somewhat younger ghost of Jack enshrined in one of the Overlook Hotel’s vintage photographs of a black-tie ballroom celebration of the 4th of July from 1921, reabsorbed among the lineage of the other lost fathers and sons of history. With my own father lost, I knew that I’d always remain somewhat lost, too, while still trying to find myself in the wake of his presence.

Monday, October 12, 2020

6th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 1st - 12th, 2020)

This year’s GlobeDocs film festival, which also happened to be the festival’s biggest year so far with over 35 films, was my first time attending a film festival virtually. While I did miss the event of attending screenings in person, there’s something to be said for being able to concentrate on documentaries while watching them alone at home, especially when writing reviews of a number of films after watching them for several days in a row. This year’s excellent roster of selections was no less powerful for being viewed remotely, and the Q&A sessions between Boston Globe correspondents and filmmakers, both live-streamed and pre-recorded, were wonderful supplements to the films themselves. The documentaries that I saw ranged widely in topics from indigenous rights and the global climate crisis to the first gay rugby league, from school shootings and gun control to the inner workings of a city hall in a major metropolis.

National Geographic’s documentary The Last Ice, directed by Scott Ressler, focuses on a remote but crucial geopolitical area in terms of climate change and globalization: the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, an Arctic archipelago that’s still inhabited today by the native Inuit people. Bordering on Greenland across Baffin Bay, Nunavut is a contentious zone for several reasons. As Arctic sea ice continues to recede, its shipping lanes provide quicker and more direct access to North American trade routes, with over 900 industries currently vying for position, mostly from Russia and China, polluting the pristine channels of the North Pole in the wake of massive icebreaking vessels and cargo ships. Not only does the Arctic wildlife suffer as a result, but the native Inuit people, who often make their living by hunting, have also found themselves at the center of a historical struggle for their rights in their homeland, led by Aboriginal Canadian politician John Amagoalik, who’s often referred to as the “Father of Nunavut.”

Two younger subjects ground the documentary firmly in today’s contemporary realities as well and speak to a current audience among the newer generation. Aleqatsiaq Peary, a musician and hunter, is a descendant of Robert Peary, who’s believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole early in the 20th century. Aleq describes his time growing up on the remote terrain of Nunavut, as well as his unfulfilling education in Denmark, from which he returned in order to resume his hunting life, only to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years later. Despite his disability, he continues to support the ancestral connection of the Inuit to the land and the ritual of hunting. Maatalii Okalik, who lived for a time in Ottawa and also returned to Nunavut after ending an abusive relationship, movingly and eloquently recounts how dreams of her ancestors guided her through a month-long depression that convinced her to reconnect with her native people in her home territory, where she served as President of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council. The documentary ends on a note of both uncertainty and hope, in looking toward a future where indigenous people persist in trying to retain political control over their own lands.

First-time documentary director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson’s Steelers celebrates the world’s first gay rugby club, the Kings Cross Steelers, founded in London in 1995, as they pursue a victory at the annual Bingham Cup world tournament of gay rugby in Amsterdam nearly 25 years later in 2018. Under the expert and careful guidance of their female coach, Nic Evans, herself a lesbian rugby player, the team meets its many challenges head-on, giving its team members both a sense of community and a way to bond with other gay men while overcoming individual obstacles. The director was also a member of the Kings Cross Steelers until an injury sidelined him and compelled him to pick up his video camera to make this rousing documentary.

The film concentrates mainly on the journeys of four members of the team: director Ashton-Atkinson, coach Evans (whose final season with the team coincided with the making of the documentary), Simon Jones, who struggled through a lengthy depression after he came out to a straight friend he’d been in love with who’d initially rejected him, and Drew McDowell, a club promoter and drag queen on the side. A fun stretch of the documentary finds Drew organizing and hosting an annual drag event at the huge gay club Heaven in Charing Cross in central London, for which most of the Steelers appear in drag themselves for a competition and to do some fundraising. An especially touching aspect of the documentary moves Nic Evans to tears when she describes the hesitancy of many gay rugby players who are successful and confident in so many other areas of their lives but have a harder time feeling at home as gay men on the rugby pitch, and how she pushes them to overcome that sense of inadequacy in athletic arenas.

Us Kids, directed by Kim A. Snyder, powerfully traces the months following the school shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. It’s impossible to watch this documentary and not feel tremendous admiration for the young people who rallied together to pull their community through the grieving process and then demanded immediate change from our government on a nationwide scale, culminating in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and a cross-country tour to turn the tide in municipalities where gun violence is in desperate need of being brought under control. Familiar faces like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Sam Fuentes are matched by their own uncompromising personalities as they spearhead demonstrations and debates across a wide swath of our deeply divided (and increasingly divisive) United States of America.

These brave students’ forthright honesty about the traumas that they’ve endured and the deep authenticity of their activism easily dispel any notions that they were lured into being political symbols by national media outlets. Their aims and tactics are specific, as are the desired results. The heartbreaking footage of students’ speeches from the March for Our Lives events unleashes a torrent of sorrow and frustration at the tragic failure of adults in our culture to protect young people’s lives in their own schools and communities. We see David Hogg intelligently strategizing how to build the itinerary for their cross-country tour, in order to visit locations where they can persuade citizens to vote out of office any politicians who’ve taken campaign funding from the National Rifle Association. Very much to the credit of these determined kids, their strategy succeeds almost uniformly, proof that politicians should totally fear the blue wave of the younger generation. After the exhaustions of their travels to places all around the country, I’ll remember the peaceful image of David and Emma coasting on an airboat in the Everglades, the one landscape on the map of Florida that’s undisturbed by shootings and gun violence.

Finally, I was excited to see Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary City Hall, an inside view of government services provided in the city of Boston, where I’ve lived for over 27 years now. Clocking in at just over four and a half hours, the film provides a comprehensive picture, to say the least, especially in its heroic portrait of our current mayor, Marty Walsh, who’s successfully led the city on all levels since 2013. The son of working-class Irish-American immigrants, Mayor Walsh is seen championing all the right causes in all the right ways, promoting a truly diverse and cutting-edge city, despite its somewhat provincial remove from more sprawling metropolises such as New York. We also see many other moving parts in close-up detail: hearings on parking tickets, exchanges of same-sex marriage vows, public testimonials from veterans on Veterans Day, planning for Red Sox World Series victory parades, stocking up the city’s food pantries for Thanksgiving, and a multitude of other complexities that comprise what makes a city’s daily urban life happen.

This is the latest installment in Frederick Wiseman’s series of documentaries about various institutions, which has also included films about the New York Public Library, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the University of California at Berkeley. As noted in his live-streamed Q&A about City Hall with Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Wiseman resists being called simply an observational filmmaker. Despite the 110 hours of footage that he filmed for City Hall, Wiseman argues that what makes his movies more active than merely observational is his rigorous editing process, whereby he structures the ideas about his subject and determines not just what the film is about, but what the film itself even is. He claims that’s not something he’s aware of at all until he arrives at that stage of the filmmaking process. Similar to his tone in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University back in 2018, Wiseman’s responses to questions are often hilariously matter-of-fact. The stately footage of Boston’s cityscape alone in City Hall shows him to be an artist of the highest order, but it’s the immersive, even meditative structure of his documentaries that demonstrates why his films are finely tuned constructions built by a masterful architect as well.

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.