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The Last Blockbuster

The other night, in a bit of irony, I watched the movie The Last Blockbuster by renting it on my Apple TV. It was a cute dose of nostalgia, talking about the last remaining store of the once-mighty video rental empire, out in Bend, Oregon.

As I started writing this, I realized I already wrote an article on The Death of Blockbuster last year, and hit pretty much all of my points there. The movie covers all of this, more or less, except they get Kevin Smith, Brian Posehn, and a few others to talk about it. I think they let corporate Blockbuster off a little easy here. People need to remember that Blockbuster was essentially the Amazon of the 90s, and decimated the mom-and-pop stores with their almost monopoly and tight ties with big studios. And if you wanted to rent weirdo disgusting zombie films with a lot of skin (17-year-old me, guilty) you couldn’t find them at Blockbuster.

One other thing that resonated with me is that Bend reminds me vaguely of Longview, Washington. It’s twice as big, but it’s got the same sort of small-town main street feel, with a few loose strands of suburb hanging off of it. They both sit on a river, with lots of evergreens and the mountains in the background. The reason this is nostalgic is that in 96, 97, I was dating a woman who lived in Longview, and every weekend I’d drive into town and we had the same ritual: pick up a pizza from Papa Murphy’s, go to the video store, walk the rows of films, pick out one or two we both like, and maybe one for me. Bend in 2020 distantly reminds me of Longview in 1996, and has the same cozy, sleepy feel to it. The documentary fixates a bit on the celebrity of the shop’s owner, as the last-Blockbuster cred went viral. But in the glimpses of how the family ran the business, it really reminded me of that past era.

I also have this stupid theory I haven’t entirely fleshed out that the total lack of empathy in this country is at least partly related to the death of retail and the lack of personal relationships in media consumption. I love buying all of my music instantly, but I also feel like I was more of a human being when I would interact with a salesperson on a weekly basis in a record store, when I had a relationship with someone that involved not just handing over a credit card, but talking to a human being about my likes and their advice and suggestions. I think with the beginning of the hypermart, consumers developed this lack of empathy and low-level depression from so many choices and so much homogenization and a lack of actual retail sales people. And in a perfect storm, retailers fed directly into it. It was perfect for the retailers because it meant they depended less on expensive human labor, just the line of cashiers at the front of the mega-store (and then they experimented with getting rid of them.) But also consumers felt a need to shop more and fill that hole in their soul. Now we all click endlessly on the Buy it Now button and feel worse and worse. This might be a dumb theory (I remember 30 years ago dealing with asshole customers aplenty) but maybe it’s something I need to pick in my head a bit.

Anyway, you can find the movie’s web site here: https://www.lastblockbustermovie.com. They will sell you the DVD and allegedly will be doing a limited-edition VHS, if you happen to still have a working deck.

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general

The Death of Blockbuster

Here’s an interesting long read over at Retail Dive on the death of Blockbuster Video:

Who Really Killed Blockbuster?

A couple of interesting (to me) takeaways. First, I like that this article gives all the details other than just saying “Netflix, duh” because that’s not what happened. The thing that annoys the hell out of me in death-of-malls or death-of-<store dying this week> is that they always say it’s Amazon, and it almost never is just Amazon. (I.e. venture cap choke-out run by a fervent Ayn Rand acolyte; tax scam by REIT not paying off anymore; etc.)

Like one of the factors the article mentions that most people forget: VHS tapes were damn expensive, and that was partially hidden to the consumer. Yes, you could buy a priced-to-own copy of Wayne’s World for twenty bucks during a certain limited sales cycle. But if you’ve had the good fortune of losing a copy of Apocalypse Now from a rental place, it probably cost you eighty bucks to replace it. They ran this two-tier pricing scheme for decades, and then when DVDs came out, the studios decided to go with low daily prices across the board, plus they flooded the channel at Wal-Mart and Target with cheap five-buck releases and multi-packs of their back catalog. That’s only one of the nails in the coffin, but that’s an interesting one.

The other thing, and this came up in discussion when I posted this article on FB, is that Blockbuster wasn’t that great of a place for customers anyway. There are a lot of folks nostalgic for the Nineties who were born in like 1998 and don’t remember how crappy some of it was, and Blockbuster was a good example. Like they were borderline predatory about their late fees, and good luck if you got sent to their collections department. They drove a lot of mom-and-pop rental places out of business. And their prices weren’t always great, compared to the non-chain places.

One of the things that always bugged me about Blockbuster was their family-friendly video selection. They were big on promoting mediocre big-budget movies and avoiding cult or obscure cinema. And they were incredibly vocal on not carrying anything beyond an R rating, or controversial movies. I went on a semi-boycott of Blockbuster for years because they refused to carry The Last Temptation of Christ. If you wanted obscure, it’s Not at The Block. If you need a copy of Day For Night, forget it. But they’d have plenty of copies of that new Will Smith movie.

Blockbuster was occasionally a necessary evil when I was in a small town. I really loved local rental stores that had obscure stuff, and of course you had to go to one of those places for the best horror movies. The clerks were always cool, the prices were lower, they didn’t give you as much of a hassle about membership, and sometimes you’d find weird stuff. Like there was a video place in downtown Bloomington — I wish I could remember the name. They never recycled out their old stock. Me and Larry used to go every week and find the most bizarre stuff, faded boxes that were completely forgotten. Like I remember never ever being able to find a copy of Johnny Got His Gun (probably because Metallica bought the rights to it and sat on them) and of course they had it. And I remember renting Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, the (bad) Canadian horror movie loosely based on Ed Gein, and it also had the short documentary Ed Gein: American Maniac slapped on the end of the VHS. It was a weird homemade doc consisting of blurry found footage, narrated by some dude in a basement recording on a Bell and Howell mono tape recorder stolen from an elementary school or something. It was awesome. (And it’s on YouTube!) You’d never, ever find that at Blockbuster.

That puts Blockbuster nostalgia in a weird place for me, much like Barnes and Noble. I’m a bit sad B&N is on the verge of shuttering, but back in the day, they were the chain to hate, because they pushed mom-and-pop stores out of business. (And deep analysis that I’m too lazy to do might show a story that independent booksellers were pushed out by someone else in the 80s/90s, like the rise of Ingram or the changes in book printing after NAFTA, or some damn thing.)

I visited one of the last Blockbusters in Anchorage a year and a half ago. (Yes it was the one with the Gladiator jockstrap. No, it wasn’t there yet when I visited.) It gave me a strange and sad feeling, not specifically because it was Blockbuster, but because it was a video store, period. It was all DVD, but wandering the aisles reminded me of the weekly exercise of going from A to Z on a Friday night to find what I’d watch.

That entire era is gone, replaced with a button on my TV remote that lets me scroll through thousands of titles. But something’s missing, with the lack of the Tarantino-esque clerk telling me what I really need to watch, and the tactile experience of pacing the aisles. We now have great convenience and instant access, but it is at a cost that’s hard to quantify, and it’s definitely felt by those who do remember.

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general

People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

If you haven’t bought the new David Lynch book Room to Dream, get off your ass, man. It’s good stuff. The way it works is that one chapter is straight biography by journalist Kristine McKenna, and then the next chapter is autobiography by Lynch, recalling various memories about the period covered in the previous chapter. So you have a good authoritative biography, but you also get the conversational style of DL going off on crazy tangents. 500-some pages, lots of photos, lots of text. I’m not done yet, but it has been great so far.

(I’m going to ignore all the political back-and-forth that came out of an interview he did recently. If you’re into that sort of thing, look it up. I’m not.)

The book makes me think about what films of his I’ve seen in theaters, where I was when they came out, when I discovered them on tape, etc. I’m too young to have seen Eraserhead in the theater, at least in the first run. I was looking back through old journals recently and found the one I wrote when I first saw it on tape – I got so excited about it, I wanted to go buy a film camera and make my own movie. I also remember when Lost Highway came out on video tape, I rented it and watched it over and over. I didn’t get it during most of the first viewing, and then at the very end, it clicked and was a “holy shit!” moment, and I immediately had to rewind and watch it over, and that went on all weekend. Never saw Mulholland Dr. in the theater – it came out right after 9/11, a confusing time when I don’t know what I did. Anyway.

Weird trivia – I am exactly 25 years younger than Lynch, to the day.

I should probably try to re-watch Dune this weekend, while I’m delirious from the heat.

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general reviews

Solo

I’m in bachelor mode for the week because Sarah is out of town, so I decided to see Solo last night, the latest Star Wars movie. I’ve largely dropped the thread on Star Wars movies as of late. The first trilogy, of course, was a big part of my childhood. The prequels in 00 were largely garbage, and pretty much threw me. I went back and watched The Force Awakens, and it was very exciting to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen and gave a certain nostalgic jolt for me. But ultimately, I did not like it; it was a bunch of stunt casting into what was essentially a remake of the first trilogy for millennials. I didn’t see the one after that, do not care. It was the first Star Wars movie I did not see in the theaters, and I felt bad about that, but whatever.

I like the idea of the anthology films, though; films in the sandbox of the others, but different plot lines, different characters, different directors and styles. I really liked Rogue One, maybe as much as the original trilogy. It had a roughness to it, and was not as associated to the big merchandising arm of the main canon, not as wired into the usual summer blockbuster bullshit tactics. It was like when George Harrison did a solo album that had none of the baggage or bubblegum of a proper Beatles album, none of Paul McCartney’s bullshit involved. It was also more of an “adult” movie and (my own theory) had to do more with modern conflict, ala Syria, than the usual good guys wearing white against bad guys wearing black. (I guess stormtroopers wear white, whatever.)

I really do not like comic book movies, do not like Marvel movies at. all. Every Marvel movie is the same, and has the same mechanics: “we’re rebooting something we just did, and we’re going to spend half of the movie setting up the character origin, just to make the fanboys happy and/or piss off the purists to generate more buzz.” It’s like a magician who spends all their time showing you how they are going to do the trick, as if that makes them cool. It bores me. I don’t really care about comics that much, but I really don’t care about the annual Spider-Man reboot, and how they slightly change the origin story this time, or how it’s tangentially related to all the other Marvel movies written with the same exact template. So I was a little worried about that type of movie when I heard about a Han Solo origin movie.

This movie was directed by Ron Howard, but it wasn’t really “his” movie – he’s just a hired gun that was pulled in when the original co-directors shit the bed. It doesn’t feel like a Ron Howard movie, aside from stunt casting his crazy brother in one small scene. The movie goes into the origin of Han and Chewbacca and Lando and the Millennium Falcon, but there’s absolutely nothing about the Skywalkers or the force or any of that, and I wasn’t that off-put by the mechanics of that. Woody Harrelson plays Han’s smuggler mentor, but doesn’t fuck things up. The kid who played the cowboy actor in Hail Cesar plays Han, and does a decent enough job. The story is pretty straightforward, just a standard three-act adventure burn-through, pretty textbook but enjoyable.

What I liked about the movie was that it’s not overly sentimental, or cartoony, like if Lucas had been involved. It doesn’t have the wooden acting, the incredibly obvious good versus bad, and has a slight bit of the more “adult” feel that Rogue One had. It also isn’t too JJ Abrams-y, with tons of CGI and smash cut editing. I think Lucas had minimal involvement and Abrams had none, which was a big plus for me. I really like the idea of different directors doing completely different things with these films. Like I’d love to see Tarantino or someone do a spaghetti western or mobster-like Boba Fett movie.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the movie. I think the main issue is that the movie just sort of is. No high concept, no camp, no big drama, no big theatrics. It just is. It doesn’t perform well as a standalone blockbuster, and doesn’t have the power of any of the main films. And that would be fine if it was a low-budget thing, or a Showtime original. But it’s the sixth most expensive movie ever made, costing something like $275 million, and there’s no way it’s going to pull a half-billion dollars to break even. So it will have a bad legacy because of that. I’d expect it to drop out of theaters this week or next, and then there will be a hard push for VOD and home release, so maybe the completists will buy all the various box sets and they will break even. At any rate, it was a meh for me. Glad I saw it, glad I didn’t go out of my way to see it.

 

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general reviews

Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

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general reviews

City of Gold (2015)

City of Gold is a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. I’m ambivalent about the current spate of foodie-oriented TV and movies, but this was less of that and more about an interesting and quirky artist, and the real main character was the city of Los Angeles.

One of the main focus points is how Gold is the champion of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants, largely immigrant-focused. It’s a healthy counterpoint to the current post-election culture that has swallowed the news cycle, and the doc shows several examples of how he championed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and made their business explode. An example was Meals by Genet, a restaurant in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax run by Genet Agonafer. She fled Ethiopia for LA with her young son, and struggled through the usual low-pay food service jobs. Her son, through her support, eventually grew up, went through medical school, and became a doctor. When the space on Fairfax opened, he maxed out every credit card he could find to get her restaurant going. When Gold reviewed it, she could not cook fast enough to handle all the new traffic, and now she’s flourishing because of his nod on the 101 Best Restaurants list he publishes.

There are several stories like this, where he writes about his favorite Thai food, taco trucks, Korean places, and works the Pico strip, eating at every small ethnic restaurant along its length. And that’s why I say LA is the main star here. I’m unapologetically a massive fan of Los Angeles, and wish I would have spent more time than the brief half-year I lived there in 2008. There’s some city planning porn in the doc explaining how LA has multiple city centers, and grows outward from each one. Many people — mostly those who have never spent any time there — decry this sprawl. But it’s a feature, not a bug. It means different parts of the city blossom and grow to provide different experiences for a widely diverse population.

Sure, that sprawl means unending chain restaurants. You’ll find at least 150 McDonald’s chains in LA county. But it means there are so many spaces for weird, eccentric, or authentic food. This is one of the big surprises of the city, and shown well in the film. There are big Zagat-reviewed fancy places in LA, which are all stuck in the 90s. But you can roll into a mini-mall in El Segundo and find mind-blowing food from any country or region of the world, sitting next to a cash-for-gold place.

Gold writes for the LA Times, but the movie shows his ascension through the ranks. He started at the LA Weekly as a proofreader back in the early 80s, when he was studying cello at UCLA. He moved up to music editor, then got into food. There are so many interesting intersecting paths here; he’s got the connections to the food criticism world, and you see Robert Sietsema, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, and so on. But he’s also a regular on KCRW. He was a champion of the early LA gangsta rap scene, spending time with Snoop Dogg in the studio while he recorded his first album. He played with the post-punk band Overman. He was around for the early 80s punk scene with X and the Germs. And it seems like he’s had a thumb in every little food scene within LA, from the old Jewish delis (he actually worked in Spielberg’s mom’s deli back in college) to food trucks to everything else.

One of the things I liked about the film was showing Gold, how he lived in a house filled with books on every horizontal surface, his close relationship with wife Laurie Ochoa (now entertainment editor at the Times) and his struggles with writer’s block, even though he still publishes 150,000 words a year. He’s a jovial looking guy, with long hair and always with a smile on his face, and it’s humorous to see him pecking at his Macbook at the kitchen table, then wandering off to pick up some random book and not get to a review his editor wanted yesterday. We’ve all been there, but I think the rewarding thing was to see him struggle with it and then at the last second crank out such engrossing and descriptive criticism.

The only sore spot with this film is it really, really made me want to go back to LA. Watching those long pan shots of the strip malls and restaurants of West Hollywood and Koreatown and Culver City and Sawtelle gave me such overwhelming nostalgia for the place. There are things I like about Northern California, but we don’t have city centers like that. We have downtowns surrounded by bedroom communities, and it’s just not the same. Yeah, the traffic sucks, but the traffic here sucks too, and we don’t have 350 days of sunshine a year and such an overwhelming food scene. I really wish I was back, to drive down Pico and look at everything, even if I do just end up at Norm’s at three in the morning, eating pancakes. Great film.

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general

Boxes

I recently found this excellent Jon Ronson documentary about going through the boxes that Stanley Kubrick left behind. Check it out on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/78314194. The basic gist of it is Ronson was contacted by Kubrick’s assistant for a copy of a documentary of his, and before he got a chance to catch up with him, he passed away. Later, his estate let Ronson poke around, and he found thousands and thousands of archive boxes filled with notes and photos, raw research for most of his films after 2001.

This doc is forty-five minutes of mind-blowing thing after thing, and you expect it to top out, and it gets even better. Like there’s a scene where Kubrick is going back and forth with a box company to get a better storage box with the perfect lid. A few minutes later, Ronson finds film cans containing 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Full Metal Jacket. This is after a series of memos instructing his assistant to find a cat collar with a bell to scare away with birds, but with a breakaway feature to prevent the felines from getting stuck in a tree. (This eventually had to be specifically fabricated by his team.)

And then the stationery. Stanley used to hoard it. Paper, notebooks, pens, inks, drafting supplies. His assistant said he could probably start a stationery nostalgia museum. He would spend hours at a shop, always paying in cash so nobody would ask questions.

I have a huge stationery problem now. For years, I’ve been buying these Moleskine notebooks and go through one every year or so, writing a page or two a day. Last winter, I got some Field Notes notebooks, at a shop in the Public Market in Milwaukee. They were the ones for the state fair series, for Wisconsin, which had a certain kitsch value to me, and I’ve been keeping one in my pocket when I go to lunch, so I can jot down ideas.

Because I heard Draplin do his sphiel on Maron’s podcast, I decided to subscribe to Field Notes. You pay a lump sum and get a package four times a year, with whatever cool limited edition books they just came out with. They’re also good about shoving a bunch of extra stuff in there, discontinued booklets and pens and stickers and whatnot. It’s all made in Chicago, well-designed, and has a weird addictive quality to it.

The only problem is, I’m now sitting on two dozen blank notebooks, and only using a few of them a year. And I still have the urge to buy more every time I see their web site. There’s something so collectible about them, and there’s also this feeling of “I’m a writer, I need to write, this is justifiable” and it isn’t, but I will keep subscribing and buying the shit.

I had this problem when I was a kid. There was this store called Stationer’s in downtown Elkhart, and they sold absolutely every kind of pen, pencil, paper, and business supply. It obviously doesn’t exist anymore – big-box office supply stores barely operate anymore. But back when I was 12 or 13 and playing D&D, they had every kind of graph and hex paper imaginable, along with special erasers and felt-tip markers and anything else you needed as a dungeon master.

And I studied drafting earnestly as a teenager, thinking I would go to college and become a draftsman or architect. These were the days of actual paper-based drafting: t-squares, big tables, protractors and scale rulers. That meant supplies galore: wooden 6H and 2H and HB pencils with points you carefully filed down by hand; kneaded erasers; dust-it powder; metal erasing shields; fine-tipped ink pens; translucent sheets of paper. We got the first CAD systems toward the end of my high school drafting career, PS/2s with digital tablets, running VersaCAD. But those tactile supplies — I hoarded that shit, bought as much as I could, somehow holding some psychological connection between having the most stuff versus being able to do a good job.

The Kubrick thing makes me wish I had more space to collect this garbage, a thought that would freak out my wife. But now that we’re in a digital age, the hoarding has gone to my hard drive. I have sets of folders filled with old PDFs, scanned photos, saved web pages, text files. I like the idea that Kubrick spent every day, hours and hours sifting through this stuff assembled by assistants, looking for the next idea, doing pre-production on films that never got shot. As I fret over what’s next, I often think I need to do this, forget about rushing out the next book that nobody will read, and spend a decade looking at photos and researching things out.

Anyway, great documentary – go check it out on Vimeo, before it vanishes.

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general reviews

Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s new film is titled Everybody Wants Some!! (two exclamation marks.) It’s vaguely named after the Van Halen song, but it’s a movie about going to college to play baseball in 1980. It’s sort of a Dazed and Confused of college, or at least that’s how it’s being sold.

I love Linklater and his films, but I felt this one fell flat. He’s a director that’s much more about moments than plot, and that’s fine. But his plotless movies generally have some device that links together all of the moments, and there wasn’t anything like that here. For example, the movie Boyhood had the scaffolding or gimmick of it being shot over twelve years; Slacker had the idea of leaving one scene on a character and moving to another as you wandered around Austin over the course of a day. This one vaguely had the idea of the first weekend before college, but that’s about it.

The story is pretty straightforward: a guy goes to a Texas college in the fall of 1980 to play baseball. Girls in shorts, bonging beer off the deck of the old house, bunch of jocks living together, etc. The cast of characters on the baseball team: the 5-tool all-american; the dumb type-a guy; the weirdo stoner talking about Carl Sagan; the token black guy, etc. There’s the beautiful non-jock artsy chick the baseball player falls in love with. The coach says no alcohol in the house, smash-cut to scene of keg stands and riding a mattress down the stairs through a wall of empties. You know the drill.

I think part of the reason this didn’t resonate was there wasn’t much depth or feel to any of the moments presented. In a movie like Boyhood, you come out of it knowing much more about the character Mason and his transformation, not only because of the depth covered over the years, but because of his interaction with “real” characters like his mom and dad, also going through their own transformation. There was very little of that here, of the jump from high school to pseudo-adulthood, to being away from parents and on your own, surrounded by other people in the same predicament. There was a token amount of coverage on this, discussion about how all the jocks (and the theater people) were the best of the best at their schools, got to start in sports or were cast in the lead parts every time, and now were competing with the best of the best from every school in the state and beyond. But this was just mentioned, skimmed, and I didn’t feel much out of it.

The nostalgia trip was also much more incomplete. There were a few old cars, a few references to old music, some people in period-correct clothes, a walk through the quad with a “Carter ’80” booth, and so on. But it seemed like Hollywood central casting, and a very quickly assembled version of a “hey, remember 1980” without much grit or substance to it. And the soundtrack, which everyone raves about, was painfully bad for me. It was the most generic of 1980 greatest hits, and not much as far as deep cuts could go. Throw together “Urgent,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Whip It,” and fucking “My Sharona,” which is like the scratch music you’d use in a trailer about a teen comedy before you picked the real music. Also, there were attempts to graft on the completely different scenes of the the era, like the characters were wandering across a backlot and went through the different sets, like the chase scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Hey, it’s a disco! It’s a country bar! It’s a punk squat! It’s a weird art party! I am guessing there would not be as much scene-crossing in collegiate Texas, and this was an example of taking on too much.

Another big reason this didn’t resonate with me is that I personally didn’t experience any of this in college. I know Linklater actually did go to school to play ball, but my experience was completely different. I went to high school in a jock-centric world, and when I got to college and moved in the artsy-fartsy dorm, the view of jocks was “well, we don’t have to deal with that shit anymore.” And the idea of party montages of mud-wrestling bikini-wearing coeds over a song by The Knack was something from bad eighties movies about college, not reality. This movie was less about the college experience and more about nostalgia for Animal House and every other movie of its ilk.

I hate to be so critical of the movie. I love Linklater’s work, and I’m the asshole that wrote an overly long nostalgic book about college. But this one didn’t work out for me.

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reviews

Bridge of Spies

When I was a kid, maybe ten or so, I got a book at the school book fair called Is James Bond Dead? Great Spy Stories. It was a little 64-page book with an illustration at the start of each chapter, about various true spy tales, such as the story of Mata Hari, and Operation Mincemeat, where the allies planted a body of a dead “spy” with false information on the D-Day invasion for the Axis to “capture.” But one of the stories that stuck in my head was that of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy during the Cold War, who hid microdots in hollow nickels and planted them in dead drops all over Manhattan, while posing as a painter and ham radio enthusiast. He was captured, prosecuted, and later exchanged for Frances Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.

I’ve fallen down the Abel k-hole a few times, as well as all things black-op spy plane related, and apparently so has Hollywood. Bridge of Spies is a Spielberg-produced Tom Hanks film, written by British relative newcomer Matt Charman, and punched up by the Coen brothers. The movie ties together three (or four) stories with one pivotal event.

First, there’s the Abel story, told in a vintage late-50s New York (which was partly filmed in my old hood of Astoria, which doubles for nearly everything these days.) The other leg is Francis Gary Powers, the secret overflights with spy planes, and his capture. It’s joined together by lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) who was first asked to defend Abel in his espionage case, but who later brokered the hostage exchange, which took place in East/West Germany. A side story involves Frederic Pryor, an American economics student who was captured by East Berlin and held on suspicion of espionage, who was also released with Powers.

The movie itself is a predictable and lukewarm meander through the usual tropes of spy stuff and “let’s be like Mad Men” throwback nostalgia. The Donovan kids are shown duck and cover films in school and cry accordingly; everyone reacts to those goddamn reds who want to nuke us, and so on. There are attempts at chuckles thrown in, making the film something your mother-in-law will enjoy, but ultimately making it a whitewashed PG-13 maybe-historical drama, and not a dark thriller. The Germany sets look like a Hollywood backlot that was used for a Band of Brothers shoot, with the Nazi flags hastily replaced with GDR black, red, and gold. It’s not badly done, but it’s not excellent, either.

The history isn’t horribly mangled, although it is very compressed. There’s great on-ground footage of the U-2 in the hanger, ala a training/introduction montage that teach us all about the high-altitude spy plane, but the film squishes the timeline so it appears Powers is shot down on the plane’s maiden flight. In reality, there was a long test period at Groom Lake (aka Area 51) with three pilot deaths, and 23 missions over five years prior to Powers and the May 1960 shootdown. Abel’s timeline is similarly compressed; no facts are greatly changed or even omitted, but Abel was arrested in 1957 and didn’t get released until 1962. The film makes the five-year saga seem like a couple of months of time.

I didn’t know anything about Donovan prior to seeing the film, so it’s interesting to read about him. The Pryor thing is also an odd footnote that I knew almost nothing about. It’s also difficult to find anything describing his involvement or arrest. Pretty much any mention of him is the same single sentence wedged into discussion of the exchange, and I can’t tell what he really did to get arrested, if there was any backstory at all. Maybe there’s some Stasi paperwork on this (that got shredded, probably.) Given the situation, it would not be unfathomable that someone from the CIA pulled him aside in a cafe and told him to snap a few pictures of a building for a few bucks. Or it was a wrong place/wrong time thing. Who knows.

I liked the film in that it was an endless stream of things I later read about. It’s very easy for me to take off from the various points on this and read about the Stasi, the Prior situation, East Berlin, the Glienicke Bridge, U-2 planes, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Area 51 — the list is endless.

(An interesting sidenote: the movie mostly wrote out the involvement of Milan Miskovsky, the CIA agent who was largely instrumental to the exchange. After retirement, Miskovsky was appointed to lead an investigation about the 1967 Detroit riot for the Kerner Commission. He interviewed MLK and other leaders, and wrote a report concluding the US was transitioning into two societies that were greatly unequal, which is an interesting deep-dive if you’re up for reading about civil liberties in the sixties.)

I didn’t like the Spielberg-ization of the movie, though. The film was agonizingly long (141 minutes) and meandered and shuffled through the plot slowly. There were places where he chose to smash-cut between the subplots at a fast clip, but too many other places where he vegetated and made the movie an hour too long. Hanks had a weird Bosom Buddies comedy slant to his character, which didn’t help. And the general sterility of the experience soured it for me. If the Schindler’s List Spielberg, or even the Munich Spielberg direct this, it would have held my interest a bit more. Instead, we got Catch Me If You Can Spielberg, which was meh for me.

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general

Linklater, Benning

I’ve recently fallen down a frantic rabbit hole of youtube searches and article reading involving director James Benning, a pioneer in experimental, narrative-less film.  Richard Linklater mentioned him in the director’s commentary for It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which is a movie I’ve been obsessed with for a bit.  That movie is an essentially narrative-less film, and I’ve written about it earlier, but I was interested in his influences, and if there were other similar films, which led me to Benning.

This searching has pulled me in deep, because interviews with Benning are fascinating.  And I’m also about 80% sure my father-in-law probably knows him, because they’re both from Milwaukee and both came up through the draft resistance and civil rights movements in the 60s, and my FiL worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum and seems to know everybody.  It’s been hard to actually track down any of Benning’s work, because it’s not really on DVD, and you pretty much have to catch it at a museum.  There are bits of it online, but not entire movies.  But there are lots of interviews knocking around, and they are all good reads.

Here’s a snippet from one that particularly moved me, at least from the standpoint of this no-plot windmill I’ve been chasing:

*** from http://www.moviemag.org/2014/06/interview-james-benning/
You work with very small budgets – what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

A lot of people want to make narrative films and my advice would be to not do that. I don’t really like films very much. But I like using film as a way of saying things. I’m not interested in drama that’s contrived. I don’t like acting. My advice would be very strange – but just don’t make another “good” film, there are too many good films! Produce a film that’s going to make us question cinema itself and expand its language. Make us think about our own lives and the context of our lives in the world.
***

There’s a very good documentary that just came out called Double Play, about Linklater’s relationship with Benning, how they’re friends and it riffs off of both of their work a bit. It’s on Amazon and maybe iTunes.  I watched it last week, and it’s worth checking out, particularly as a retrospective of all of Linklater’s work and how it’s interconnected.

That said, I’m in the middle of plotting a book, so maybe it didn’t stick.  But I have about 40K words into the next iteration of Atmospheres, or whatever it may be, so there’s more in the pipeline.