Monday, December 15, 2014

112 Words about Peter Mattheissen's The Snow Leopard

I know so many people who love The Snow Leopard.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years.  Should I feel bad for not feeling the same way?  I finished it, but it was a bit of a slog for me.  Matthiessen recounts his travel to the Himalayas with zoologist George Schaller.  Matthiessen yearns to see the snow leopard.  Saunders is there to document the rutting habits of the blue sheep.  There is the outward journey and there is the inward journey.  Much discussion of Eastern Religions ensues.  It was interesting, yet not so engaging.  Yeti were discussed and I even found my mind wandering then.  That can’t be a good sign.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Post In Which I Defend Dave Grohl and Sonic Highways

Lots of backlash directed towards Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways doc on HBO.  The complaints seem to be:  
a) The Foo Fighters suck. 
    b) Dave Grohl conflates his importance in rock history by placing himself next to   those more worthy of adoration (e.g. Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen,  Buddy Guy).  

c) This documentary project is a nothing more than a cloying, self-serving attempt to sell records.

I can’t get behind the backlash.  

Though I’m not a fan of the Foo Fighters, I actually have a lot of respect for Grohl.  This is a guy who seems genuinely humbled by the success he has had.  He seems to have a clear sense of where he’s from and who were seminal influences in his life.  He seems genuinely interested in shining a light on and paying his respects to those who paved the way for his success.

What this means, is that you have a national show on HBO where a decent amount of time is spent talking about post-punk, hardcore, and the American underground scene of the mid-80s.  Why people from that scene feel a need to trash talk Grohl seems nothing short of bizarre.

I’ve only watched two episodes of the series so far, but the Chicago episode spends lots of time giving Steve Albini his props and showcasing the likes of Naked Raygun.  Let me say that again.  Naked Raygun!  Naked Raygun, a band that for all intents and purposes is a footnote in rock history, not only gets a ton of exposure on an HBO show, but they are afforded the same respect as blues legends like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.

So, why are we made at Dave Grohl? Because he’s successful?  Because he’s taken a different path over the last 20 years than a bunch of crusty old punks who didn’t have his success?  Whatever.  I don’t have a beef.  He’s making a doc about rock history and he’s doing it from the perspective of someone my age, who has a similar set of musical touchstones.  These types of big historical rock docs have always had too much of a boomer perspective for my likes, and I’m excited to see such an undertaking crystallized through a punk rock lens.

Is this doc just a fatuous sell-job for the new Foo Fighters record? Maybe.  But what do I care?  Selling records ain’t what it used to be. If this is Grohl’s way to stay relevant and move units, so be it.  Why get mad at an artists for trying a different approach to stay in the public eye.

Like I said, I’ve only seen two episodes so far.  Will they all be decent?  Who knows.  But I hear he jams with Joe Walsh at some point.  I can’t wait.  Ya dig!

Citizen Four

I’ve been fascinated by the Edward Snowden case since it broke in 2013. Snowden revealed a bevvy of NSA documents, showing the government’s far-reaching surveillance abilities.  Particularly disconcerting was the government’s ability to access phone records and internet communications. Snowden became privy to NSA documents while working for the consulting firm of Booz Hamilton. Disturbed by what he perceived as a government overstepping its bounds, Snowden turned whistleblower.  

Citizen Four, directed by Laura Poitras, documents the days leading up to Snowden’s revelations and the aftermath.  Snowden was not interested in publishing the documents WikiLeaks-style for fear that he would reveal info that would jeopardize legitimate intelligent operations and individuals involved in such operations.  Instead, Snowden contacts Poitras, whose documentary work he respected, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill.  Working as a team, they decide the best way to release the information.

Snowden is not only cognizant of the havoc his revelations will unleash, but also understands the personal risks.  Not only will he be cut-off from friends and family, but he’ll face treason charges under the auspices of the Espionage Act.  The film opens with Snowden’s cat and mouse courting of Poitras.  We see and hear a series of email exchanges.  Dribs and drabs of heavily encrypted information flow between the two.  Poitras is sucked in and the team assembles in Hong Kong, where Snowden has taken refuge, aware that Hong Kong is unlikely to extradite Snowden once his allegations are revealed.

This section of the film is fascinating.  The film’s subjects are strangers, undertaking a damning project, rife with danger.  Watching the group strategizing is a fascinating process.  Once the documents are leaked, Snowden is forced underground and his journey takes him from Hong Kong to Moscow.  From this point on we rarely see Snowden, most of his communication now coming in the form of encrypted emails. Snowden’s disappearance certainly has a chilling effect.  He’s at the center of the storm, yet is effectively silenced by his precarious political standing.  He’s granted asylum in Moscow, but that asylum seems tenuous at best. 

The Snowden story is fascinating on many levels.  As digital citizens, I think it’s important that we are aware of who has access to our communications. I think it’s important that we understand our conversations are not private.  We live in a digital age where we live so much of our lives on-line. I have a middle schooler. My son and his friends will live their entire lives sharing information on-line.  Their digital footprint will be huge.  What will these intrusions on privacy mean to them?  

One of the central concerns at the core of the case is whether we should be willing to give up some of our civil liberties for increased safety against terrorism. The film certainly addresses this, but if I had a complaint about the movie, it’s that due to the film’s vérité nature, Citizen Four is sometimes hard to read.  Clearly Poitras, along with Snowden, believe that the government’s surveillance and obfuscation of justice is detrimental to free speech, and that has far-reaching, negative implications.  That critique was clear to me, but I don’t know if that critique will hit home to those who might be skeptical to this line of thinking.  

Any filmmaker that takes on a controversial subject should be aware that their film has skeptics. Presumably you want to win over those skeptics, get them to change their opinions on a hot-button issue. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. Many people watching this doc are probably anti-Snowden, anti-whistleblower, and fear terrorist attacks to the point that they would be willing to give up a certain level of privacy to prevent future attacks.  I’m not sure Citizen Four’s approach is enough to get them to change their opinions.  I return to my middle-schooler.  He’s not doing anything treasonous on-line.  Why should he care if the government has access to his email?  What are they going to find out?  That he’s mad at his math teacher?  I walked into Citizen Four thinking that this film would need to be required viewing for any young person navigating today’s digital landscape.  But I’m not sure that your average teen would be able to fully understand the socio-political critique. I wanted Citizen Four to have the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.  Direct and chilling.  Citizen Four doesn’t quite deliver in that way.  That’s not how it’s designed, but I wish it had been.

Still, it’s a must see.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman, Leviathan, The Big Screen

There’s nothing like seeing an amazing moving.  Nothing like sitting in a dark theater, immersed into another world.  Images, sounds and words, pushing you farther and farther back in your seat.  Or pulling you to the front of your seat.  Someone’s visions burning bright. Seeing that brilliance unfold before you.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing some mediocre piece of crap.  How many people did it take to make that?

Last week I saw two great films.  Two in one week, that’s pretty good.  Renews your faith in the cinema.

Birdman.  Brilliant.  The Writing. The Camerawork. The Acting. The Score.  A drum score!!!! Wow. Who would have thought of that?  The acting! Everyone is talking about Michael Keaton.  He’s great.  Deserving of all the praise. But how about Edward Norton? Steals the show. The camerawork is insane.  It’s no gimmick.  It creates a dizzying universe, a world spiraling out of control.  Camerawork that throws caution to the wind, necessitates fearless performances from the actors.   A universe where editing won’t save you or hide subpar moments.  The writing.  I was letting out the occasional belly laugh…while the rest of the audience remained silent.  So many great lines.  One of the best films ever about artistic ambition and artistic insecurity.  Mamet-esque. Altman-esque. PT Andersen-esque. Gilliam-esque.

I worry about a world without theaters.  A world where we only see movies on our tvs and our devices.  Some movies need a big screen, better allowing you to sink deep into the images.  On the small screen it’s too easy to get distracted, especially if the movie is slow or challenging.  In the theater, you’re not going anywhere.  You’re not checking your phone. You’re not logging onto IMDB to see who that bit player is, or what the running time of the movie is, or what the reviewers are saying.  You’re in the theater. You have no choice but to surrender. 

Which bring me to Leviathan.  A doc.  On a fishing boat. Poetic. Experimental. Vérité. No interviews.  Nary a word.  Just beautiful visuals. Abstract visuals. Very long shots. Very, very long shots. Long shots that are hard to read.  Water on the lens. Distorting the images.  Lots of sound.  An industrial score. A mechanical score.  Cold. Menacing.  Brutality on the sea.  A critique? A reflection of life as it is?  However you interpret it, I found it fascinating. Energetic. Daring.  Would I have lasted through the first shot, had I been watching it on tv, at home?  I’m not sure. But in the darkened theater, on the big screen, I was mesmerized.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Charles Willeford's I Was Looking For A Street

I love books set in the LA of the 1920s and 1930s.  I love hobo tales.  Charles Willeford’s I Was Looking For a Street falls right into that wheelhouse.  That said, I liked I Was Looking for A Street well enough, but I didn’t love it.  It’s a memoir of Willeford’s childhood years.  Orphaned by parents who succumbed to TB, Willeford was raised by his grandmother. Because times were tight, he spent much time at a school for boys when she couldn’t afford to keep him.  His reminiscence of weekend visits with his grandmother are particularly sweet and touching.  Though he was close to his grandma, the Depression took a toll on the family and Willeford, at the ripe old age of 14, lit out to the rail yards to tramp across the Southwest to make his own way.

Street contains a hint of Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue.  There’s a hint of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win.  Willeford’s writing is spare.  He doesn’t dress up the prose.  But, alas, there’s something light and surface level to the tale.  The book, which clocks in at 150 pages, feels like an anecdote rather than a fully realized memoir.  There are potent incidents, yet they don’t build in a wholly satisfying fashion.  I Was Looking For A Street is an easy read and an enjoyable read, but it left me wanting more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

Black Snow is one of those books that is easy to read but hard to pick up.  You know the type.  Fun, light, well-written, but for some reason you’re just not sucked in.  You look at it sitting on the nightstand, beckoning you, but you just groan and waste a little more time checking Facebook or hustling up another Words With Friends game.  Black Snow is a farce by Mikhail Bulgakov, writer of the brilliant The Master and Margarita and Heart of a DogBlack Snow is a fictionalized account of Bulgakov’s attempt to adapt his novel The White Guard for the stage at the Moscow Art Theater.  It’s clear that his experience was frustrating.  There are some funny parts, but it’s so absurd, and so many characters flit in and out of its pages, that it’s hard to care too much about the travails of Bulgakov’s alter ego Maxudov.  Without a doubt Bulgakov has many scores to settle, but perhaps the 1920s microscene squabbles of the Russian theater world don’t have the impact they should in 2014.  Bulgakov’s biggest target in Black Snow is none other than theater great Konstantin Stanislavski.  There’s something exciting about this feud and Bulgakov is merciless, treating Stanislavski like a fool. At the end of day, I wish Black Snow was more biting, but somehow it just seems silly. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty

Roger Corman is a legend of the cinema.  Corman started his career in the early 50s and is still active today.  Along the way he has managed to direct and produce hundreds of films, rarely losing a dime on any of them.  They were cheapies, they were B movies, they were exploitation, they were direct-to-video.  Monster movies, biker movies, and women-in-prison movies were just some of the genres Corman dabbled in during his heyday. The films had great names (A Bucket of Blood, She Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Angels), they had eye-popping posters, and the films always had great tag lines: “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man—or to him,” boldly declares the poster from The Big Doll House starring Pam Grier.  

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie is an oral history of the Corman universe.  It’s a fun peek into the world of shoestring production, told by those who lived to tell the tale. 

Corman’s longevity was a result of having a finger on the pulse of what would sell, as well as his ability to expertly navigate the changing landscape of cinema.  He knew how to produce B movie fodder for double bills and drive-ins in the 50s.  He saw a market for biker films and psychedelic films during the rise of the counter culture in the 60s.  Once Hollywood started making his kind of sci-fi and monster movies, but with huge budgets  (Star Wars, Jaws), he knew he had to reposition himself.  He became one of the first producers to take advantage of the nascent VHS market, making straight-to-video exploitation in the 80s.  He also got in on the ground floor, selling films to cable providers in the early stages of that market. Most recently he has been working directly with cable networks like Syfy looking for low-budget, genre-specific productions.  Piranhaconda, anyone?

However, Corman’s biggest contribution to cinema may be what is referred to as the “University of Corman” or “The Roger Corman School of Filmmaking”.  Corman had a keen eye for evaluating, or perhaps exploiting, talent. He routinely gave young film students an opportunity to write, direct, and act in feature length films.  In the 50s and 60s, the Hollywood system was hard to crack unless you had connections. If you were willing to work hard, work smart, and work cheap, Corman was willing to work with you, and he opened his studio doors to a bevy of passionate young folks wanting to break into the film biz. Luminaries who cut their teeth on Corman productions include Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorcesse, James Cameron, Penelope Spheeris, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne to name just a few.

Crab Monsters weaves together the stories of all of these major players and then some.  It’s a loving tribute from Hollywood hot shots who openly admit that they owe much of their success to the opportunities that Corman gave them, and from how much they learned under Corman’s tutelage.  Also touching was the general consensus that once these youngsters got a couple of productions under their belt, Corman actually encouraged them to leave and head on to better projects with bigger budgets.  Corman was under no illusion about the kind of work he was making. That said, what makes so many of the Corman productions rise above base levels of exploitation is that those making the films were giving it their all, because they knew the value of the opportunity they were being given. 

Though Corman’s films were exploitation and gratuitously breast heavy, Corman opened the doors for women as well.  Says Gale Anne Hurd (producer Aliens, The Terminator, Walking Dead), “At the time, he was the only person in Hollywood who would ask a woman coming in for a job as an executive assistant, ‘Ultimately, what kind of career path do you want to take?’ I didn’t think there was a career path! It hadn’t occurred to me.  And I said, ‘Roger, I’d like follow in your footsteps and be a producer.’ And he said, ‘Tremendous!’”  Many of the women and men interviewed for Crab Monsters attest to the fact that the number of women on Corman productions from directors to writers to producers to crew exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the Hollywood system.

Also of interest is that in the 70s Corman started distributing European art house fare in America.  Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman made it to the theaters courtesy of Corman’s support.  Corman liked the films, and the ever savvy businessman in him realized that there was money to be made.

Crab Monsters is beautifully laid out with hundreds of pages of photos, posters and graphic goodies befitting Corman’s oeuvre.  Needless to say, the book is filled with fantastic anecdotes.  Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite Corman productions.  Sylvester Stallone tells a great story about straying from the script and inserting his own dialogue into Death Race, confident that he could get away with it because he knew the production was too cheap to do second takes. Stallone then credits that experience with building up his confidence to write the Rocky script.  

Corman, too, was willing to improvise in his own way.  Alan Arkush (director of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School) relates a great anecdote about Cockfighter.  The film was one of the few Corman bombs.  The opening weekend was a disaster, but Corman was undaunted.  Says Arkush, “We were on the phone with Roger and he’s saying, ‘You know the scene where Warren Oates leans back and closes his eyes? Cut in some naked nurses and some car crashes like he’s dreaming of that.’ We thought he was kidding.” Corman was not.

Ron Howard does a great job summing up Corman’s low-budget but loving ways. “I was fighting with Roger at one point on Grand Theft Auto, trying to get a few more extras in our climactic demolition-derby scene in the stands.  Everyone was supposed to be rioting.  And he wouldn’t give me more than forty-five extras.  The grandstand was supposed to seat a thousand people.  And we talked about cheating the angles.  But I kept begging for more.  And finally he just put his hand on my shoulder in a very paternal sort of way and smiled and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to give you any more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’” 

And that’s why you’ve got to love Roger Corman.