GREAT EXPECTATIONS? GREAT MOVIE!

great expectations

Great Expectations | David Lean | 1946

I’ve long been inoculated with inadvertent propaganda – tiptoe conditioning – an accumulation of phony polemics and forced positioning and graph paper systematization. The subject, as always, is movies. Dichotomies rule in film discourse – auteurs vs. hired hacks, Hollywood vs. the arthouse, White Elephant vs. Termite Art (Farber, if ye only knew how legions of shortcut intellects would blunt the edge of your once seminal essay, now as hollow as a gutted pumpkin, as desiccated as Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones), The Tradition of Quality vs …. y’know, the one that’s supposed to be good. Cinephiles are born secretaries whose viewing histories are filing cabinets, everything neatly ordered and numerically assigned to its appropriate compartment.

David Lean’s Great Expectations is smothered in such checkbox calculus before you even sit down to view it. To condense the red flags as best I can: Dickens isn’t cool. British cinema isn’t cool. ‘Canonized Classics’ that only get a shoutout from Roger Ebert but none of the cooler cats in online film crit aren’t cool. The jury is still out on whether David Lean is cool…somehow. So, you know, it’s not a cool movie, and Tradition of Quality looms large before you’ve gotten past the title. It’s apparently not as fun as gazing into the abyss of self-delusion to alchemize Chaplin’s King in New York from garbage into gold, or to acquire the Letterboxd merit badge of proudly advocating for the work of Paul W.S. Anderson.

So yeah, I’ll admit it, I de-prioritized this.  And now having seen it, I’m not proud of that fact! As it’s a fleet-footed masterpiece that, with cartographic diligence, gerrymanders the source text so as to carve out those slivers of novelistic real estate most primed for cinematic treatment. But it also makes a great deal of those minor-key scenes which most readily suggest or imply the sections of the novel unfit to be explicitly rendered – or, to put it another way, it makes purchase of those summits that at least afford a view of the proverbial woods outside the screenwriter’s limited price range (I’m thinking of the one incursion into Wemmick’s home, for starters). Alas, so many images in that novel, lovely for what they are, but quickly lost on me as I read ahead. I was in it to ascend the bildungsroman staircase, not to stop and admire the furnishings. The film does not skimp on the novel’s steady momentum – on the contrary! – but, equipped as it is to carry you onward so that ye may rest your weary feet, it then allows you to turn your head, look out the passenger window and really absorb the novel’s imagery as it was meant to be absorbed! The environs are less constructed than archaeologically unearthed and meticulously restored. Pictorial details, fleeting in Dickens, are magnified. The chiaroscuro marshlands, the gothic vertices of the Havisham mansion, the daily grind of 19th century London that sees Pip’s comings and goings as but a strand of a larger web of urban activity – this is, as they say, the good stuff.

No scene is insisted upon – each encounter or conversation or confrontation is a narrative parabola in miniature, and once the momentum sputters for even an instant, it’s on to the next episode. Similarly, no bout of voice-over exposition, employed like everything else in service of narrative velocity, breaches the terms of its contract. Cinematic time – that hifalutin Deleuzean construct that clings like a barnacle to discussions of Akerman or Resnais – is applicable here. This is a 2-hour movie that seems at once half and double its length. It races by without at all compromising its uncanny conveyance of the novel’s elongated scope, of Pip’s having come as far as he has by closing time. It’s a seaworthy vessel, not unlike that which plays such an electrifying part in the film’s climax – a dense, hulking leviathan that, once set in motion upon the water, sails along with swiftness and with grace. Cinema, I submit for just this occasion, is a form of imaginative seafaring! And Captain Lean, I applaud the work of you and your crew!

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In Defense of Davies

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Sometimes there is edification in misery. Drenched in melancholy and nostalgia, the films of Terence Davies neither wallow in the former nor fawn over the latter. Each qualifies the other. Stifling repression unlocks the inner life of the mind – society is imprisoning, pervasive; art is transfiguring, fleeting. But only hand-in-hand does either make any kind of existential sense. For if we were all liberated tomorrow, then we would have no need to retreat. There would be no solace in private rooms, no need to smuggle into song our otherwise inexpressible feelings, no use for movie-house or concert hall escapism – for what is there to be escaped?

Oh the fools who believe that Davies is drunk on nostalgic sentimentality! A few sips, if that, for such a reserved ascetic! And even then, the stomach sickness is acute. Have ye not seen Sunset Song? Honeymoons are hangovers for this gentle cynic! The most rapturous love curdles overnight! Everything that’s worth a damn has an expiration date on it – and Davies tasks himself with beautifying these privileged moments before they go bad (and they will go bad). Art is a coping mechanism, then. A little too clinical a thought? Nay! Art for art’s sake is the real hopeless nihilism – the cinephile snake devouring its own tail. Art for Davies is a means of survival, the last bulwark against worldly corrosion. There’s honest-to-god utility there.

I can’t say this gels entirely with my worldview or experiences or vision of the future – I’m way more optimistic! But that is an optimism born of a certain privilege, a privilege denied to Mr. Davies, the same privilege that allows people like me to throw themselves into artistic consumption at the expense of Actually Living Life. And if Davies’ movies are instructive to me, it’s in endowing art with Real Life Importance, not as a dilettante hobby, not as a vacuous exercise in checklist completism, but something to turn to in trying times for a rarefied experience. You numb yourself to that possibility when you have no day-to-day life experience for the music you listen to or the books you read or the movies you watch to inform or inflect or amplify. If you’re listening to songs about love without searching for the genuine article, if you’re gleaning moral insights from literature without practicing them day to day, if you’re gulping down movies like alcohol – as an intoxicating end in itself – then congratulations! You’ll never know what it means to be really and truly transported by this stuff, you gluttonous shut-in!

I don’t mean to be so harsh. All I know is that I first saw Distant Voices, Still Lives in college, during a deep depression, and its depiction of people sublimating their misery to larger communal rituals, of isolation dissolving into singsong, shot instantly like some chemical into my brain. My sunken heart rose to the surface, my fear of forever friendlessness was forgotten. Because here were people facing the same despair (worse, really, much worse, but it’s all relative and we’re all in the muck together – why split hairs about it?), enjoying what they had in the lovely little ways they knew how. It gave me hope! Real applicable hope! Actionable hope! Not just a pleasant palliative to take my mind off my troubles. Nay, to quote the bard (Harry Nilsson), I was thinking about my troubles, only my thoughts were pierced by the roseate light of Davies’ vision of the world – a world that is emphatically not perfect (on the contrary: cruel, evil, unfeeling, unthinking), but that affords pockets of perfection, of beauty, of love, of feeling, to even its most downtrodden inhabitants. Onward and upward my friends!

ON CINEMA, AT THE CINEMA: An Appreciation

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Cultural production posits a caste system based on creative ownership. Studios, producers, writers, directors, and distributors share ownership of a particular media franchise or phenomenon, while anything brought to it by the lowly audience is spewed out on the lower rungs of fan fiction, message boards, and Facebook groups. It can be fun to re-edit, mutilate, or expand an established fictional universe, but your customized, personalized creation will never be admitted into canon or given serious consideration by the creators of that series. Meanwhile legions of fans wait with bated breath for clues, confirmations, cryptic announcements, canonical addendums emanating from the vaunted lips or twitter feeds of the J.K. Rowlings and Joss Whedons of the world. The flow of imaginative traffic remains uni-directional – from lauded world-renowned talents to ordinary viewers/readers/consumers.

Bypass the implicit classism of this sketchily conceived relationship and you get at something more insidious. The obsessed-over sanctity of franchise-embedded fictional universes always yields diminishing returns. These branded fictions are milked for all their rigorously calculated profit potential, world-building becomes a matter of empty accumulation of meaningless miscellany long after the thematic or storytelling value of the original work has run its course, and every variant of the Klingon-speaking fan is manipulatively kept on the hook awaiting opportunistic market-mandated movie announcements and product launches. Meanwhile, the Art and Entertainment that initially formed the crux of one’s relationship with the fiction has withered and died, and you’ve scarcely noticed because capitalism has devised a formica facsimile in its place. As a one-time obsessive of The Simpsons – to my mind one of the greatest works of modern art – I know this from experience. When you’ve gotten to the point of buying episode guides, following Al Jean’s press releases, and downloading freemium smartphone apps for their tangential relationship to something you once loved for being a radical, subversive, living and breathing work of art, then you’ve lost your way, and we all know who is to blame.

So that’s fan culture in a nutshell, as I see it. But there is one fictional universe a few years under construction that, out of some mad Joycean ambition, has emerged as a never-ending text, wildly at odds with all notions of officialdom, with a fanbase that has been freely conscripted as co-conspirators in its creation. This would be Tim Heidecker’s and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema, a psychodramatic epic played out on a few meager sets, based on the endlessly regenerative joke of the two lead characters’ mutually abusive but tragically codependent relationship. No matter what strange detours it takes or outlandish permutations it experiences, the show is based on a foundational, sitcom-style bit: these guys hate each other, but, deep down, they have no one else.

From this simple, straightforward dynamic, a universe emerges that is Tolkeinesque in its lore, Pynchonian in its densely free-associative sprawl, and ambiguously metatextual in a way far closer to Abbas Kiarostami’s mysteriously interstitial docu-fictions than Charlie Kaufman’s more easily processed self-reflexive puzzle-boxes. It’s also, I’d say, not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette for its splintered, collaborative, freewheeling process of self-creation.

But don’t worry, fellas, I’m not as far up my own ass as you might think! I know that name-drop-heavy academese can bludgeon a work into unrecognizable submission. I know that, above all else, On Cinema is authentically, instinctively hilarious and creative without any conscious aping of hifalutin arthouse precedents or striving for some larger significance. But, obnoxious shithead of a critic that I am, I can’t help but allege that, naturally and miraculously, it achieves what it doesn’t even need to strive for. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, across all of their work, strike me as radical artists by nature. But perhaps even more so than Awesome Show, Neil Hamburger in all of his incarnations, and their brilliant work for Rick Alverson, On Cinema is a work of staggering genius, even if that genius can only thrive so long as it remains hopelessly obscure.

So, yeah, how to take this voluminous unwieldy multi-platform Work Of Art and, uh, break it down so I can get any kind of handle on what I’m trying to say about it? With something like On Cinema, you can only really – to use a medical analogy – scrape off a few cells for microscopic scrutiny so as to make more general inferences about the organism as a whole. The things that I cherish about On Cinema are manifold, and I’m gonna list out only a few as briefly as possible:

1) The blurring of Tim/Gregg the On Cinema characters and Tim/Gregg as Actual people. This isn’t a Stephen Colbert playing-himself-as-a-character approach, as Tim and Gregg are really and truly embodying fully fleshed out characters of novelistic depth, abundant in rightfully stigmatized (but all too scarily human) personality traits in a way that is micro-attuned to the nuances of habitual gestures, bodily tics, speech patterns, and the most throwaway behaviorisms (i.e. this ain’t just comedy, this is capital-A Acting…and yeah, I’d say it’s Oscar-worthy) while also allowing these three-dimensional creations to recklessly, in some sense bravely overlap with their own non-fictional identities. It is in some sense obvious where the demarcation line is between Actual Tim and On Cinema Tim, but there is always the occasional enigma. I tend to believe that On Cinema Tim’s evaluations of various 6 Bag Cinemas jingle submissions are likely reflective of the extent to which Actual Tim is impressed by the fan-generated content that he, both in- and out-of-character, happily solicits.

Gregg, meanwhile, is clearly channeling or amplifying certain aspects of his Actual self – it comes down through the ol’ grapevine that he is an avid vinyl collector and old Hollywood enthusiast. And his characterization of his On Cinema doppelganger is so scarily accurate, inasmuch as we’ve all known (or have sometimes even been) people like that (you can find any number of them on Youtube, especially within the subgenre of basement-dwelling DVD hoarders who creepily pornograph their meaningless collections to likeminded whack jobs), that it can sometimes bypass comedy altogether and enter into hyperrealistic portraiture. But given that Actual Gregg has always hewn to the punk ethos of burying himself in transgressive personae (The Zip Code Rapists, Neil Hamburger), it is extremely fucking difficult to get a handle on Who This Guy Even Actually Is. Such mysteries crop up with staggering regularity in On Cinema.

2) ‘Behind-the-scenes’ takes on entirely new dimensions. Sketch comedy has long profited by show-biz send-ups wherein celebrities, sportscasters, pundits – whoever it may be – can’t help but air out their dirty laundry in an entertainment context (talk shows, radio broadcasts, etc.) where scripted talking points and stiff-necked professionalism are the unspoken law of the land. On Cinema takes this concept to an extreme I don’t think anyone imagined possible. For all of the richness of On Cinema, the plenitude of events and subplots that transpire within this universe – motorcycle accidents, Hawaiian vacations, infanticides by neglect, movie theater fires, rock shows in Dubai – these are all largely depicted off-camera. What’s on camera is just two guys on the same fucking set every single week, trying to do their shitty movie review show, the only real exceptions being the Oscar Specials (which function as special, bravura editions of the main show) and Decker episodes (a spin-off). Either way, we only technically inhabit an extremely limited low-budget space when we engage with On Cinema. And yet the show’s genius is in conjuring an entire fucked-up universe that exists forever outside the nominal scope of the show. Or, to put it another way, it stimulates the viewers’ imagination in a radically compelling way, with Gregg and Tim knowing exactly what microcosmic details to leave in and what large-scale narrative cataclysms to leave out. It is storytelling of the highest order – a multi-volume novel in which a throwaway tweet might function as an entire chapter.

This on-camera/off-camera dynamic might warrant an essay unto itself. Tim’s various maladies – the blood clots in his brain, his acupuncture-needled face, his bandaged, burnt-to-a-crisp hands, and now his rotting skin and protruding skull – are effects (rendered via the gnarliest make-up and costume jobs) from which we are forced to intuit the even more grisly off-screen causes. These continual lapses into what I suppose can only be called body horror are representative of the series’ extraordinary bathos, by which I mean the characters’ utterly mangled sense of priority. One of Tim’s most essential character traits is his short fuse, and yet he only blows his top selectively – usually if Gregg or Mark or another perceived underling is undermining his authority. By outlandish contrast he takes all of his life-threatening ailments in incredible stride, usually addressing them via the most nonchalant top-of-the-show “so this is what’s going on with me” announcements.

3) Uh, The Supporting Cast. Because of this aforementioned limited scope, we don’t see members of Dekkar’s audience, or patrons of the Victorville Film Center. In fact, we aren’t really privy to ordinary humanity – it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Ayaka and Sally Kellerman are the extent of female representation in this man-cave alter-verse. Axiom, Manuel and the rest of Dekkar are totems of the most hollowed-out rock-god culture. Mark and Gregg are charisma cavities, and what to even make of Dr. San, Chef John Lennard, James fucking Dean? None of these are ‘real people,’ except for the fact that they kinda are. The various ‘actors’ inhabiting these roles clearly aren’t chosen for their acting ability, but for something intrinsic to themselves, and the extent to which some of these people are ‘in’ on the joke is subject for extensive debate (if you’re enough of a sleuth, go down the rabbit hole of investigating the ‘real’ Axiom and see what conclusions you can draw).

And, furthermore, what would a general humanity even look like in this universe? We know from our vantage point as fans to laugh at Tim’s fat middle-aged attempts to be a rock god, or Gregg’s reverential attitude toward Michael Keaton movies, but we also take this to its logical endpoint, relishing the idea of a world wherein the VFC is playing restorations of garbage 80s movies to packed houses and Tim is performing at popular EDM festivals all across the country. So while we’re only witness to a cast of carefully selected freaks and weirdos, we (‘we’ meaning The On Cinema Family) can only view them as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave standing in for an even more warped general viewership. If these people are successful – if ‘Empty Bottle’ is the number one download in America, if Decker is exerting a limitless influence over Hollywood, if Joe Estevez is of America’s most esteemed actors – then who is the fictional audience that is fueling all this success?

4) WE ARE. We are fueling this success. We are a dually engaged viewership who, on one level, watches On Cinema as a work of brilliant transgressive comedy, while, on another level, doubling as the fictional audience that is referred to time and time again on the show. The nameless masses who are downloading Dekkar’s hits, writing partisan fan-mail (you know, the Timheads vs. Greggheads), seeking to get involved in the 6 Bag Cinema franchise, driving up Decker’s ratings, going to see Ant-Man, etc. on top of etc. To bring this bad boy of an essay full circle, it needs to be addressed that On Cinema is the antithesis to aforementioned closed-loop fan communities that seem to dominate popular culture. On Cinema does not exist without Tim and Gregg’s trust in our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to tune into their wavelength.

I used the term ‘regenerative’ earlier in this essay, and this is more or less what I mean. For all their shading and nuances as finely wrought characters, Tim and Gregg are ultimately proffering up two extremely simpleminded ways of viewing the world. It’s the old jock vs. nerd canard taken to a crazed extreme. Tim is a sponge freely absorbing all of the douchiest sub-cultures in America – middle-American libertarians, image-conscious classic rock fanatics, alternative medicine devotees, EDM bass heads, fine-dining hipsters with money to blow and ‘enhanced’ food palettes to satiate — and this list will probably never exhaust itself so long as 1) these subcultures still continue to exist in this stupid country and 2) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on. Meanwhile, Gregg’s perpetual reliving of the 80s and 90s, masquerading his nostalgia as Film Expertise, his relentlessly clichéd soundbite approach to evaluating motion pictures, his stubborn analog fetishism, and his single-minded insistence that movies are The Only Thing That Matters (meaning a total lack of interest in sex, an inability to grasp the indecency of insisting on CGI talking animals in a Holocaust movie, and his recently established indifference to the prospect of Tim’s suicide [after all, Heath Ledger did the same thing!]) – all of this is its own paradoxically comprehensive simplemindedness, an idiocy that is so nuanced that it can be explored to the end of time, so long as Hollywood keeps churning out garbage (it will) and (again) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on.

And when I say ‘the spirit’ of On Cinema, I mean the fact that so much of the universe exists outside of the official, ABSO-produced, Adult Swim-distributed show. It exists on Twitter, on Facebook, in casual conversation, anywhere that fans are creatively engaging with it. This isn’t secondary, tertiary, or in any way supplementary material. This is what literally powers the show, not economically but CREATIVELY. On Cinema is not a barricaded world of sleek production values and big stars that we worship from afar. It intakes all the gangrenous refuse of American Culture, the cultural product we consume (and how and why we consume it), and vomits it up as comedy. And because the rest of us are wallowing in the same filth, we are freely invited to join in this regurgitative process. Tim and Gregg are not heaven’s gatekeepers, but the hosts of a house party in hell to which all are admitted, so long as we acknowledge that life as it is lived in this country – defined by pop culture, reflected in Hollywood blockbusters, set to the tune of derivative prog rock, corralled into hiveminded fandoms, role-modeled according to the fratbro mentality of right-wing action heroes, and discontinued as a result of serial neglect – is nothing if not a kind of perdition unto itself. But as long as we’re able to recognize it together and collaborate in the satirical process, then at least we’ll die laughing, our teeth flecked with kernels, and hopefully a popcorn classic playing somewhere in the background.

Color Me Depressed

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Howdy folks. Too much time has transpired since my last missive. No resource is more abundant, none quicker to slide through your fingers than Time, like the Ozymandian sands that flood the Western landscape of my cinema-drenched brain. That brain took a beating these last few months. I won’t bore you with too many of the details. Let’s just say that I’ve spent my life ingesting cultural product at a high velocity, absorbing plot points and conflicts and feelings and ideas and abstractions as the remote experiences of fictional characters, all while cozied up in my middle class whitebread problem-free linear-careerism where none of those things really had to be viscerally experienced. But, y’know, they do have to be experienced – the storm-door of your mind won’t stay bolted shut forever – and as of last October I experienced them with a vengeance. I held existentialism in the palm of my hand and felt its melon-rind texture, while depression chained me to the ocean floor and the water pressure asphyxiated all sense of happiness and stability and day-to-day perceptual neutrality. It was pretty fucked.

During this time, movies lost their luster. I mean, what’s the point? “Ah yes, another movie under my belt! My Allan Dwan expertise is through the roof! This is important and totally of value to my mental health!” How to prioritize the kinda consumption I’d built so much of my life on when actually grappling with what finally felt like Reality for the first time in my fucking life? But my aversion to cinema was also Fear of Cinema. It would be self-deception to frame the issue in terms of cinephile self-loathing – whereby watching movies is frivolous, for shut-ins, and all that rigmarole – and ignore the harsher truth engraving the underside of the coin. That being that actually engaging with cinema – where it’s not for checklist cred or mired in ally-watch offhandedness or fossil fuel for hobby-horse habituation – is impossibly stimulating. Depression destocked the armory of my mind, leaving it volatile, vulnerable, like an untended herd of cattle at the onset of a thunderstorm. And if I let cinema into my head – really and truly into it, where its equal parts nebulous and expressive appendages could burrow into my scarily impressionable brain – then what kind of chemical reaction might ensue? Or, to strip my prose of its floridity a bit, would I lose my mind? Would I get terrifying ideas, make frightful associations, exacerbate my depression, lose my grip on the reality I really and truly and desperately needed to reclaim?

That question is not a rhetorical one, and I’ll leave it unanswered for now.

So here’s another: what of other artistic pursuits? It’s interesting. Listening to certain music was a downright terrifying prospect, but literature attained that height of therapeutic serenity advertised by all evangelical bibliophiles. Like existentialism and depression, this too was made tangible – picture a Scandinavian hot spring, the way sunlight glints like crystal on a liquid blanket of aquamarine, and how it feels to lean your head back and stare up at the sky to refresh your numbingly straight-ahead perceptual default. And the books I read! ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, that perennial classic, gave me real perspective, reminded me that my growing pains and uncertainties and anxieties are not exclusive to me as an individual (duh) nor (more revelatory) to the century that spawned me (the fear of being exceptional is a big part of all this, as are the travails of being emotionally sensitive, neither of which I feel capable of exploring at length right now but both of which were assuaged by the original Chuck D at the height of his powers!). ‘The Great American Novel’ by Philip Roth gave me a pleasure I never thought I’d experience again (Alliteration alleviates all ailments! Who knew?), and Joan Didion gave me the itch to return to essayin’ (you are reading the result!).

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But no book was more important than ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements’ by Bob Mehr. My critical faculties are gonna fail me here….Well, look. It’s this meticulously researched tome about the band that epitomized working class Middle American depression. It’s a book about music, but it’s more about alcoholism, bipolar disorder, abusive relationships, self-destruction, the fear of success, and, uh, a lot of harrowing shit. And, I mean, you read those words and they’re just words and maybe even the stuff you expect to get out of biographies generally. Sordid backstories illustrating the dark side of success. Yeah yeah yeah, we know. But I guess the setup/punchline of great famous figure –> fucked up in some hidden unexpected curiosity-piquing buy-this-book kinda way isn’t really a factor here. Cuz Bob Mehr respects that The Replacements aren’t Great Figures, so much as a bunch of fuckups who fortuitously banded together and happened to make great, indelible, borderline primitivist musical illustrations of what it means to be a Minneapolis street urchin with no aspirations. And it’s a testament to who they were as human beings that as they became successful by any objective metric they could still attest to a fundamental aspirationlessness without giving off a whiff of hypocrisy.

If anything, the despair is the core of the story and the music practically incidental. I would recommend this to people who don’t care for music. Just think of a band as a family unit and read it like it’s Eugene O’Neill, except a rock bio. And if you’re depressed like me, then it’s empathy-as-heroin. Like obviously I Feel For These People, but their problems are not pornographed so that I could get off on any “well at least my life isn’t that fucked up” satisfaction. Nor is it some false hope that perhaps I might wield my depression in service of some great artistic achievement the way they managed to.  It’s more like: for better and for worse, the depressing aspects of human experience that produced this band have also produced me at this scary juncture in my life. No potential success is gonna redeem or cure me and no amount of despair is gonna keep me from putting one foot in front of the other and slumming through the days ahead, even if I gotta turn to substance abuse to cope.

And, well, I haven’t had to do that! Life is pretty good. I have friends, I have antidepressants, I have a therapist…and I have books! And music! And even movies! To come full circle, I did end up watching a movie, a life-changing one. And I really and truly engaged with it, at the risk of overloading my battered brain with strange new stimuli. The Landlord by Hal Ashby (listen to the commentary folks!) deconstructs the ways in which certain people (guilty as charged) compartmentalize and commodify the experiences of others, such that self-definition is a patronizing matter of measuring oneself by another’s yardstick – other people are means to an end, and that end is existential tourism. And the glorious genius of this movie is that it somehow avoids compartmentalizing and commodifying the kind of privileged fucks (again, raises hand) who are so guilty of same. And so human experience really does take on a liberating nebulousness, an ineffable empathetic mist whereby the streams of many consciences commingle.

Which is kinda the ideal?

Right?

Wake to Westness: WESTWARD THE WOMEN

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Westward the Women | MGM | William A. Wellman | 1951

This…this…THIS is a Western! I mean, jesus. It started out cute and fun, like “oh this is a clever idea for a Western” and “yeah, Wellman’s good for this chummy collective stuff [e.g. Wild Boys of the Road, The Lady of Burlesque, Battleground]” but this went beyond chummy into wrenching tests of character and bravery hovering above little private personal anxiety-ridden solo-stories determinedly sublimated to the collective effort! the mass journey! Wellman is so cool about capturing rock formations and dust clouds and creaky wagon wheels and even the tatteredness of pioneer garb and the battered physiognomies of his no-stars-admitted cast of women that the whole movie is pure texture, with no bold chiaroscuro compositions privileging handsome human forms against the surrounding wilderness. it’s all pain, it’s all grit, it’s all WESTNESS. And unlike most movies of this nature, there’s a very real palpable sense, by the end, of having traversed an impossible divide, of having risked it all, of having sidled along the ramparts of hell itself, so that the payoff — the matchmaking en masse and turnstile weddings, with a lot of maybe-disappointments cloaked in the quietude of maybe-discomfort that, in one perfectly timed instant, scatter to the wind while the merry men and women get to minglin’ — this payoff, weird and antiquated and progressive but most importantly gloriously deserved and smile-inducingly cathartic — THIS PAYOFF GOT ME A CRYIN’. That’s right, pardners, i said a bawlin’. It was beautiful beyond words!

Credit to the hirthological imperatives for inspiring this viewing! Yee haw!

Checkin’ in

Ahoy!

I can feel it now folks, videogames are leaving my system and I can just taste the nectar of the finer things in the back of my throat, on the tip of my tongue, and all over my flabby body. Next weekend I’m taking five days off for rest and relaxation, and I am going to go ahead and shoot myself in the foot by promising a brand new entry EVERY SINGLE DAY of that five-day span. Talk about content creation! Buzzfeed eat your heart out!

During this dismal time, I’ve had the pleasure of acquainting myself with one Roy Andersson, antiseptic Swede of misanthrilling dollhouse vignettes, mishmashed mannequin-ized men milling about mellowly monochromatic mise-en-scene, catty-cornered compositions that take tableaux to terrifically tortuous heights of haggardness! Acclamation of spiritual emaciation! Gray and beige and seashell pink, sad and soulless but also faintly comforting, an aesthetic cradle wherein desolation turns comically affectionate…it’s migratory Tati, and it rules!!!!!!!!! We even did a podcast about it!

I’m currently having the slighter pleasure of alternating between two books on film, 1) The Big Screen, David Thomson’s light gloss on canonical film history suffused with pseudo-Sontagian ruminations on Film in all its figurative iterations, and 2) Radical Hollywood, a wealth of more interesting information written from an opposite approach to style and wit. This is sinkhole prose, folks, too prickly and unpleasant to be called ‘dryly academic’ or some such descriptive. Thomson, by contrast, manages to say all the usual stuff with an impeccable flow and instinct for detour and digression that makes his text more ideal for movie neophytes than the usual Bordwell prescriptions. I dunno if I would recommend it to my enlightened readership, but it gives me faith in his more specialized writings, which I have yet to consume.

So here’s to the good life, fellas! And sorry for the inactivity. As Harry Nilsson once implored,

A Note About Ally-Watching

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Ally-Watch (‘al-ee • wah-ch) verb 1. To have a movie playing while you do something else (spreadsheeting, playing bass, or drawing in my case over the years; playing videogames, messageboarding, chatting, whatever else my internet acquaintances dismiss as “multi-tasking” in others’ cases) and afterwards to claim you “watched” that movie, even going so far as racking up 10,000+ icheckmovies “watches” and having pride in it and the attention it gets. In short: to not watch a movie, to be the opposite of a cinephile, to be as much of a wallpaper-phile or a lightbulb-phile as you are a cinephile. ~ ‘Dr. Wam’s Dictionary of Cinephilia’

You know the feeling. You return home from a long day at the office and all you wanna do is slump down on the couch and get lost in a movie…and also pay a bill or two…and download some music…and organize your shelves…and soon enough you realize that the film has been stripped of its command of your attention and demoted to something like elevator music. If films were sentient, then to be ally-watched would have to be the ultimate degradation.

Usually I ally-watch movies that are better left unwatched in the first place, and that I am only erecting as temporary animated wallpaper as part of some vainglorious completism mission. Enter The F.B.I. Story, which now occupies a precious spreadsheet cell of my vaunted Jimmy Stewart checklist even though all I know to say about it now is that Jimmy’s nothing performance is as wooden as J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid pecker must have been while Convulsin’ with Tolson.

Or there’s the time when I checked out Selznick/Cromwell’s superb 1937 adventure yarn The Prisoner of Zenda, the DVD of which was accompanied by MGM/Richard Thorpe’s execrable 1952 remake, a truly garbage film. The original’s continental crispness is undercut by a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to Technicolor and a typically arid turn by Stewart Granger, MGM’s most snoozeworthy leading man since Robert Taylor. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was hitting up ‘An American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser while Granger and the gang fenced their way into oblivion.

However, there are tragic instances where the movie I’m ally-watching is actually good. It’s shameful to admit, but I do fall victim to ally-watching at its most base and narcissistic and number-crunch-compulsory. This past week, I ally-watched Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Clint Eastwood’s Bird, both evidently fine films whose ‘newness’ (i.e. the state of being made after the 1960s) rankled my attention span and drove me to the message board cesspool that I call home. There’s just something about how easy and breezy and free-form and clip-clop these movies are, jumping around in time and cross-cutting like it’s a game of hopscotch that is anathema to my Old Soul, which is used to the intimate staging and rigorous camera set-ups of olden times. None of this is a slight against those movies, but rather a blistering indictment of my long-gestating prejudice in favor of Classicism. It’s absolutely disgraceful that I did these movies the disservice of pretending to halfway watch them, as if they are — again — sentient beings with whom I’m making empty small-talk under the guise of genuine dialogue.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t get sucked in by select passages or that I missed the general thrust of these films. Philip Seymour Hoffman in mid-jizz, Dylan Baker doing his damnedest to coax out his son’s abeyant puberty, the jazz club house-lights in lustrous inscription on Forest Whitaker’s sweat-dampened forehead — these bits ‘n pieces are gonna stick with me for a while, for better (Eastwood) and for worse (Solondz). But at the end of the day, I let these films down. I let myself down. Only the spreadsheets walked away happy.

I vow to be a better moviegoer in the future, dear readers. Please have mercy on my cinephile soul. (that goes for you too, Tom)

Cruisin’ for a Labruisin’

“From the film crit cartel’s most cretinous hack,

The straw that broke the camel’s back” — Keats

“Labuza lavishes lousy, lopsided, illegible logorrhea on illustrious celluloid luminaries while leeching off the lionized legacies of like-minded lunatics and laboring over lengthy lackluster lists” — unknown

This shill for charlatanism has plagued film criticism with writing too execrable to warrant the usual charges – of insipidness, redundancy, inscrutability. No, Labuza sinks lower. This is regurgitative writing that unthinkingly intakes every cumbersome vestige of an already bankrupt auteurism, digests them into bilious slop, and acid-refluxes the whole vile mess into syntactically diseased landfills of rancid prose – frayed word salads bereft of garnish that no health-conscious reader would think to consume. The average shitty writer – especially one that writes for any one of the milquetoast online publications that count Labuza as a regular contributor – knows, at the very least, the basic nuts and bolts of constructing a sentence. Subject-verb agreement. Keeping your tense straight. Just the basics. Well, Labuza apparently pole-vaulted over all of these grade-school fundamentals and crashed right into academia’s Ivory Tower. No other illustration of white privilege is necessary, folks.  This is, after all, the charisma cavity whose pipsqueak parroting of broadcaster-speak landed him the Internet’s #1 film podcast, a platform for inflicting feeble, dry-throated live-readings of his own hideous reviews on guests whose feats of endurance are apparently compensated by the officious fanboy reverence they get in return. A sick dynamic, indeed. The cinephilia-industrial complex is as corrupted as any of the others, and Labuza is its beaming poster boy.

Ode to Joe Flaherty

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SCTV is the archaeopteryx of 20th century comedy, a transitional fossil that emerged at the back-alley nexus of America’s flea-market mediascape circa 1980. Its cast – the softer-hearted Canadian loners to SNL’s slick ‘n’ savvy envoys of Rockefeller Center – built a comedic universe from inside the black box of television, rewiring its circuitry into satiric overload. This was sketch comedy as an intuitive burlesque of the entertainment industry in its gargantuan totality — as a layered cake with commerce as the icing and hubris as the base. SCTV’s effortless hilarity generates from the never-ending free-for-all among conflicting interests – ambitious producers, avaricious advertisers, unimpressed audiences, egocentric stars. The immutable law that all of these people utterly loathe one another is the lynchpin of SCTV’s genius.

The chief architect of Second City Television is one Joe Flaherty, whose total lack of recognition in comparison to his fellow alumni will forever stand as a blemish on the historical record and an indictment of cool kid comedy taste all throughout the hipsterverse. Flaherty is an emblem of the old school, an irascible Irish schtick-loving broad-strokes comic presence whose ability to make anything funny puts him in a league with the WC Fieldses and Laurel & Hardys of the world. With Flaherty you get the sense that no practice or planning – no guesswork, false starts, or fine-tuning – played any role in incubating his virtuosity. He is an absolute value on comedy’s proverbial measurement scale.

Flaherty was SCTV’s elder statesman, the lone consistent cast-member across all of the show’s many iterations. Seemingly devoid of even modest career ambitions, Flaherty probably could have nurtured SCTV’s creative vision for decades had network support not eroded or fellow cast-members not moved on to more profitable ventures. The series was like a child to him, the only conceivable outlet for his prodigious sense of humor. Based on stray DVD supplements and cast-and-crew interviews, Flaherty appears to have had the most idiosyncratic repository of ‘stuff he liked,’ a late-night TV omnivore with Zontar and the Rat Pack and the Godfather movies freely drifting through his media-saturated brain. And given the series’ non-existent standards of what might pass for acceptable, audience-friendly televisual content, these loose scraps of cultural connoisseurship blossomed into symphonic lampoons that transcend the usual strictures of parody to become comedy at its most ineffable.

These awe-inspiring sketches were not rooted in the gimmicky manipulation of a variable or two within an established formula, but rather the sublimation of the parodied work into an already immersive world where slapstick coils around satire and unique, artfully sketched characters bend any and all absorbed material to their manic will. Flaherty tends to anchor these ambitious, multivalent mega-sketches disproportionately, in large part because his characters often form the bedrocks of SCTV’s many lushly furnished sub-environments. The network’s day-to-day operations orbit around Flaherty’s Guy Caballero, a devilish cross-breed of curmudgeonly late 40s Lionel Barrymore and shifty Panama smooth-talker. From afro-coiffed friend-to-the-stars talk-show host Sammy Maudlin spawns the series’ most durable recurring sketch, an all-purpose skewering of showbiz and its not-so-happy family of fragile egos. And out of these two milieus emerge glorious blurred-vision parodies of The Godfather and Ocean’s Eleven respectively, with Melonville’s competitive cable TV marketplace freely integrated into the Corleone crime saga and Maudlin & co. finding seamless reflection in the star-powered passive-aggression among the archaically hip Rat Packers. The latter sketch in particular is a cataclysm of metatextuality, with Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy), William B. Williams (John Candy), and the rest of the gang somehow playing themselves in a late fifties context without any indication that they are acting in a movie to be aired on the very network that televises the Maudlin show in the first place. SCTV consistently frazzles the brain with these free-roaming sprees of interconnective lunacy while also machine-gun-firing from the most diversified comedic arsenal that television has ever known.

Now, of course, the rest of the cast are likewise geniuses, and the aforementioned sketches are unthinkable without them. The contention of this essay is two-fold, that 1) Flaherty was the first among equals and that 2) the disparity between talent and recognition that has been an issue for every SCTV cast member has hit him the hardest. The younger cast-members seemed to more easily find points of entry into the mainstream, while Flaherty – who had the temperament of a gruff old-timer as early as his thirties – seems to have just missed the cutoff for mass appeal. He, more so than the rest of the cast, fully occupies SCTV’s irreplicable netherworld where groundbreaking post-modernist satire piggybacks on an outmoded, borderline Vaudevillian comedy cache of pratfalls and spit-takes and base ethnic stereotypes. You get the sense that most of these latter anachronisms – so integral to the unique grin-plastering pleasure of SCTV – flowed predominantly from Flaherty.

Take, for example, Flaherty’s roster of impersonations, more diversified than that of any other cast member and casting a wider net over the history of 20th century entertainment. Just for starters: Gregory Peck, Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Alistair Cooke, Charlton Heston, William F. Buckley, Jack Klugman, and Salvador Dali. Flaherty transplanted these cultural icons, upright leading men, arbiters of erudition from their usual perches of respectability to the gaudy, vulgar, revolving-door TV culture of the 1980s. So here’s Gregory Peck as Travis Bickle lockjaw-ing De Niro’s psychotically playful mirror soliloquy into deep-throated, gear-grinding oblivion. And here’s the perennially civilized Alistair Cooke getting in on the ground floor of producer Johnny La Rue’s (Candy) Z-grade Playboy Channel knockoff, Friday Night Pajama Party. Or William F. Buckley cheating at football in a garish ratings bid that pits the PBS stars against one another in Herculean tests of athletic ability. Or a short-tempered Kirk Douglas as the most ill-fitting guest on Brooke Shields’ saucy new talk show. This is just a meager sampling of such glorious hybridizations that Flaherty routinely orchestrated. Not that Catherine O’Hara did not pull off similar feats with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, or Dave Thomas with Bob Hope and Walter Cronkite, or Andrea Martin with Lorna (/Liza) Minnelli and Barbra Streisand…but the volume and frequency of what Flaherty did with impressions is unmatched.

And then there are his characters, his one-offs, the unthinkable ideas that only the bravest of comedians would possibly entertain. Vic Arpeggio: Private Eye, a parody of an almost unseen John Cassavetes television program called Johnny Staccato, starring a vintage Flaherty sleazebag named Vic Hedges, who had previously run for mayor after a hit role in Polynesiantown. If any of this isn’t bonkers enough, by the time Vic Arpeggio rolled out its second installment, Flaherty had the bright idea to cross-parody his little riff on cheap, black-and-white detective dramas with John Howard Griffin’s ‘Black Like Me,’ an idea so appalling that only Flaherty could have dreamed it up. And Rome, Italian Style, the Italian film parody to end all Italian film parodies, which has a low-brow blast with the easy targets of bad dubbing and voluptuous women and moralizing priests while also ascending into a wickedly on-point skewering of Federico Fellini’s brand of misogynistic surrealism.  There’s the ingenious evolution of news anchor Floyd Robertson from a model of professionalism and straight-man foil for co-anchor Earl Camembert’s habitual incompetence to an embittered alcoholic who dresses up as the pathetic late-night kid’s show host Count Floyd (“scaaaaary stuff kids!”) to help pay the bills.

To continue any further would be to enter an inescapable vortex of indulgent fanboy effusion. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself, and I entreat all readers of Rio Bravado, whoever you are, to seek out Second City Television and to really follow it through from at least the beginning of the NBC years onward. Famous faces like John Candy’s or Rick Moranis’s may jump out at you at first, but over time you’ll start to recognize the ubiquity of Joe Flaherty, to my mind one of the funniest people who has ever lived.