24 June 2009

Stormy Weathers

One of my favorite books growing up was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a children's story about a town, Chewandswallow, where the precipitation comes in the form of food, so no one has to buy or cook any meals. Perhaps it was my ravenous appetite or my roly-poly physique, but something about the story captured my imagination. Of course, the detailed, whimsical illustrations and the fable-esque, Grandpa-telling-tales bookend structure probably had something to do with it as well.
Part of me wondered about the questions left unaddressed in the book: Doesn't the food get dirty when it falls? How do they wash it off? Don't they worry about bacteria? Does it spoil at all? Does it contain preservatives? Are there cloud butchers and chefs chopping up the animals and showering their carcasses onto the earth? Where did the sky animals come from? What do the vegetarians do? And just where is Chewandswallow? Is it in God's America, or some heathen country? Not having the answers to these questions only deepened the fable aspects of the story, making me love it all the more.

Like any good fable, the good times don't last for the town of Chewandswallow. The sky chefs and butchers, or whoever, turn against them, and the food downpours become food natural disasters. It starts off bad and slowly builds. I particularly recall the blizzard of awful sandwiches (jelly and mayonnaise?) that makes everyone sick to their stomachs. The childrens' white, ashen faces made them look like they were about to die of scurvy.

No reason is ever given for the turn in luck--it's just the way things are, a natural disaster of epic proportions. Homes are destroyed, schools close, government shuts down, and people can literally take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.

Eventually, the people of Chewandswallow must abandon their town by building sailboats out of food and venturing to a new land, where it rains and snows like normal and they have to learn to go to grocery stores and make regular pancakes and learn to come to terms with being abandoned by their food overlords.

Earlier this month, a coworker mentioned that a movie based on the book would soon be coming out. I was very excited to hear this, and quickly sought out the movie's website. The images that greeted me were not encouraging.


Who the fuck are these people? Why are they in a movie based on my beloved children's book? Why did the studio completely neglect the beauty of the book and instead choose to go with the ugliest, most godawful CGI animation possible? Why do they want to make my eyes bleed? Once again, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fills me with questions. This time, however, these questions did not deepen anything, except for my anger.

When I went to see Up, I finally bore witness to the trailer for this abomination. At first, I had no idea it was even for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, because the trailer begins not with a town, and not with a naturally occurring situation, but with a character shoehorned in where he does not belong, scrambling to provide mouth breathing studio executives with a safe, cliche arc that will take the story through the exact same paces everyone has seen approximately 50,000 times.

You know what this is? This is that parody on a sketch comedy show, where they do the bit about Hollywood infantilizing and dumbing down great literature to make it palatable for the unwashed masses. Except it's for real. And as much I should be inured to this kind of thing, it still breaks my heart.

Please, Hollywood. You can have your Scooby-Doo and do what you like to him. Go ahead and let Michael Bay continue to make incoherence out of the Transformers. Put G.I. Joe into accelerator suits and shoot missiles up his ass, and let Ridley Scott turn Rich Uncle Pennybags into an action hero by filming him with a dozen different frame rates. I don't care about those things, because they were all about selling bullshit to children in the first place, and not very good to begin with.

But this is different. This is Cloudy with a Chance of Goddamn Meatballs.

They came first for The Cat in the Hat, and I didn't speak up because I didn't read Seuss. Then they came for The Polar Express, and I didn't speak up because I didn't read Van Allsburg. Then they came for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and by that time no one was left to speak up...

Right after that trailer, I had to sit through the one for G-Force. It made me feel even worse, despite the presence of Zach Galifianakis and Will Arnett.

This felt like another parody, only this time it's one of those fake movies you see in the background of a Hollywood satire. The contempt for the audience is palpable in this trailer; I'm somewhat surprised they didn't openly title it Piece of Shit: The Movie (the sequel could be called Piece of Shit: Second Flush). I think what puts me off is that the trailer takes itself (almost) completely seriously in the opening portion. You'd think they'd start off a trailer about guinea pig spies with broader comedy to say "See? We know it's fucking stupid! But it's going to be fun anyway!" But they don't seem concerned about easing audiences into a patently ludicrous concept. And why should they? We made Wild Hogs gross more than $100 million.

Hmm...perhaps I should embrace G-Force as an utterly cynical ploy to exploit people's indifference to their cultural consumption. Perhaps it's really a bitter, devastating satire. Let us hope...for that is all we have...

22 June 2009

"I have just met you, and I love you."

Anyone interested in the art of the narrative must see Up. Of course, anyone interested in great art, or just a good time, should already be making it a point to watch every single one of Pixar's movies, but I digress.

I probably wouldn't include Up among the best films that studio has created - it feels like a minor work, a fun and entertaining romp that is over with too quickly, and one that remains somewhat shallow despite weighty themes (although perhaps that is an argument in the film's favor). But it manages to pack in a lot of emotion, especially in the much heralded prologue, which establishes who Carl, the main character, is and why we care about him. As a sequence, it's a masterpiece, one that effectively lays the groundwork for the rest of the story and provides it with the foundation it desperately needs.

The sequence opens with a newsreel about the exploits of an adventurer named Charles Muntz at South America's Paradise Falls. A boy watches this and clearly is a big fan of Charles Muntz. As he plays later, he encounters a girl equally enamored, and she takes him into her explorers' club. They make plans to visit Paradise Falls themselves. Then a dialogue free montage shows their growing up, their marriage, their lives together, the inevitable delay of the Paradise Falls trip, the revelation that they can't have children, and her eventual death at a relatively ripe old age.

Cheery stuff, right? What this sequence manages to do is tell a very simple story in an incredibly effective way. It's the territory that Pixar probably does best - elemental stories that instantly strike some kind of primitive, emotional chord within even the most bestial hearts. Think of Marlin at the beginning of Finding Nemo, cradling the one surviving egg that will become his son, WALL-E dancing by himself, or Anton Ego flashing back to his childhood in Ratatouille. These are basic stories that don't need words.

Pixar takes them and imbues them with engaging characters and wonderful visuals, helped along with a fantastic score (in this case provided by Michael Giacchino, who is quickly becoming this generation's John Williams). They seem to be one of the few studios left that can do classic Hollywood storytelling well anymore, and their films can effectively serve as a cultural palate cleanser - this is what works in its purest form.

Stick around after the opening sequence, because the rest of the movie is pretty good too, and the call backs to that opening will always leave you attempting to choke back sobs. And then there's the visual poetry - these guys do things that are simply staggering. My favorite shot happens during Carl's initial lift-off: A little girl is in her bedroom. The balloons lifting Carl's house appears in the window behind her, and the sunlight streaming through them causes their colors to paint her walls. She looks around in surprise, then turns to see his house moving past her window. Again, there's that elemental storytelling, done extremely well. It could easily be cut, yet it fills the movie with a sense of wonder and awe. It's almost as if, after an interruption from the real world, we are reentering the 1930s childhood fantasy land the movie opened with.

How does someone even dream up a shot like that? See this movie, creatives, and be inspired.

18 June 2009

"A do-it-yourself kind of thing!"

In this post, I will be discussing the plots of Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There will be copious amounts of spoilers spewing forth like Peckinpah squibs. If you haven't seen these films, then go home and get watching.

For the rest of you...

As far as tone, plot, and themes, Vertigo and Les Diaboliques (I will not say its name without the definite article) are very similar, and there's a good reason for that: They're both based on novels by Boileau-Narcejac, a French team that cranked out mid-century detective novels. These two guys are a big reason why those films are so good, but they're also the reason why the films are, in my opinion, flawed.

Many critics consider Vertigo to be Hitchcock's masterpiece, the film that best captures what made him an auteur. I agree that it is a great movie, stuffed full of moments that make me grin and chuckle (in a good way); that being said, let me tell you about my main problem with the film, the one that prevents it from going on any list of my absolute favorites. Namely, the actual plot. Every time I watch Vertigo, and the revelations emerge, I think, "Surely there's an easier way to murder your wife." I watched Les Diaboliques recently for the first time, and, once again, as the ending was revealed, I had the exact same thought. (Perhaps foolishly, I just realized that both films center around murdering wives. I think Boileau-Narcejac had some issues, as do we all.)

In Vertigo, Tom Helmore seeks out old friend Jimmy Stewart to check up on his oddly-acting wife. As we later find out, Helmore has already killed his wife and hired Kim Novak to impersonate her, and this is who Stewart follows around. She tells him she may be possessed by the reincarnated spirit of the long-dead Carlotta Valdes (I didn't even have to look that name up, that's how many times I've seen this movie in film classes), and Stewart falls for her faux-crazy ass. Eventually, Novak flees up a bell tower, and Stewart is unable to chase after her due to his vertigo (the reason he was hired in the first place), and so does not witness Helmore chucking his wife's corpse off the top.

In Les Diaboliques, Paul Meurisse is banging both his wife (Vera Clouzot) and his mistress (Simone Signoret), and being a general dick to them and everybody else at their boarding school. Clouzot and Signoret team-up to drown the bastard in a tub and dump him in the school's pool, but when the water is drained, the body is missing. Signs suggesting Meurisse is still alive begin to appear, and Signoret flees. At the end, Clouzot freaks out when she hears her husband approaching, then sees evidence of his return. The scene culminates with her finding his corpse in a tub, which rises up out of the water. Her heart condition (noted throughout the film) kicks in, and she pitches down dead. Then Signoret reappears, and it turns out that the whole thing was a scheme by her and Meurisse to scare Clouzot to death.

In both of these movies, the bad guys seem to be going out of their way to make their schemes as complicated as possible. If I wanted to kill my-wife-with-the-bad-heart, I wouldn't go to ridiculous means to fake my death and return from the dead. I'd just encourage her to jog, or constantly reveal shocking things, or jump out of the dark and say "Boo!" And if my wife didn't have a bad heart, I wouldn't hire a completely different person to impersonate her on the off chance that that person would never feel guilty and would never confess to the crime, and I wouldn't get an acrophobic detective on the case just on the off chance that he would, eventually, be led to the exact place where I'm planning to pitch my wife's corpse off a bell tower and be prevented by his fears from reaching the top and ruining my entire intricate plan.

I would just clock her on the head and push her off a tall building. Especially if it was the 1950s, and forensics wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Yes, yes, yes - the coherence of the plots are not ultimately the point. They're meant to set up thrilling moments and scare the hell out of audiences. And they do certainly work for that purpose. And I will also acknowledge that part of the fun is trying to figure out the wickedly complex plot (this is not so much the case with Vertigo, as they spill the beans halfway through). But by the end, when you realize just how illogical it all is, and how there wouldn't be a movie if the characters weren't incredibly stupid and lucky, it sort of leaves you with a sour feeling. As much as you enjoy the ride, there's some part that says "Yeah, but..."

The best movies can take you a thrill ride and not have you questioning everything at the end. To do this, I think the plot should be propelled by characters who think like actual human beings who do not, for example make things more challenging than they would normally be (an exception might be made for mad, mad I tell you! geniuses), and it should be clear yet deep, in terms of motivation and character development. Two examples of this that immediately spring to mind are L.A Confidential and Chinatown. Both have complex plots, but they're easy enough to follow, and they wrap up neatly in the end - we know who did what and why, and their reasons are not ridiculous ("The future, Mr. Gitts, the future").

There is another tangent you could take that I wholeheartedly approve of, and that, ironically enough, goes in the opposite direction, and leaves the audience full of questions. You could leave things ambiguous, and only offer hints of what is actually going on, and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. This riles people up to no end, some in a loving way, some in a hating way, but when it's done well (Mulholland Drive, American Psycho), it can be much more satisfying than any concrete answers. That way, at least, you're not looking for any shallow excuses as to why you took your audience on a thrill ride ("It was all about murdering my wife! Yeah, that's the ticket!"), and you can just let them enjoy it the whole way through.

They might even get a chance to use their brains. They may not want to, but they will.

15 June 2009

Theatrical Combat

An unfortunate altercation occurred whilst I was in taking in the otherwise enjoyable theatrical event that was The Hangover. Said incident took place toward the expository side of the moving picture, and thus the momentum of the piece was not terribly run off course, and began to build again shortly after peace fell upon the hushed crowd.

Wait, wait....Let me try to put that another way: Saw Hangover. Some dude in the audience got jacked in the face. In the face.

It happened during the introduction of Bradley Cooper's character, in the beginning of the movie, but the audience apparently retained their curiosity throughout the rest of the film because as the credits rolled, those closest to the action underwent interrogation. From what I overheard then, and from what I saw of the actual incident, I was able to piece together a rough timeline of events.

As everyone was seating, a middle-aged man was moving to his seat with a container filled with pop (or "soda" as it is also known). He accidentally spilled some of this "soda" on the shirt of someone in the same aisle, someone perhaps younger, who was perhaps wearing a yellow shirt (it was dark, I couldn't be sure). The older man presumably apologized (I was unable to confirm or deny), but the younger man was unable to let the matter go. The older man eventually became defensive, and informed the younger man that he should "lay off."

This happened about five to six rows in front of me. I did not hear any of this back and forth, and did not know there was any tension in the air. It was the Loew's theater in Lincoln Square, not a place typically known for its gritty streets and rampant gang fights, and I did not go in anticipating to see a show unrelated to the movie. So it was a surprise when I watched the younger man stand up shuffle a few feet over, and soundly punch the older man on the upper forehead.

Much to their credit, the people in the rows immediately behind these two men instantly sprang into action. Many of them stood up and gave a collective "Hey!" Then the younger man punched the older man a second time, and the group gave another "Hey!," managing to imbue it with an offended, "Didn't you hear what I said?" tone. The younger man stopped punching, and left the theater. A couple of women volunteered for clean-up duties, calling out for Security, ordering people to fetch ice for the injured party (who soon after left the theater) and crying out for someone to Stop that guy! when the younger man amscrayed.

Sidenote: I think women are more likely to jump up and get into the face of an aggressive person than men are. It doesn't matter if they know the people fighting, they will go right up to the instigator and rip him a new one, usually verbally, sometimes physically. I've witnessed it on a few occasions, and have a theory as to why it occurs. One could argue that it's a maternal instinct that runs stronger in some, or perhaps a need for organization and cleanliness more commonly attributed to women. And perhaps there is some of that base-DNA, primate-level reasoning to it. But my theory is much simpler; I think it's because women can be reasonably certain that they're not going to get jacked in the face as well. If a man steps in, he becomes another target; if a woman steps in, both guys are probably going to knock it off for fear of hitting a woman, and they likely won't turn against her with their fists. We're taught not to hit women, after all, and most of our society enforces it quite stringently as one of those taboos worse than drug dealing and firebombing. Perhaps it's pre-feminist, gentlemanly bullshit, but there it is--even men (and it's always a man) who will randomly punch someone in the face will not typically raise their hands to a woman (not in public, at least). Of course, some people aren't so level headed, so there's still plenty of risk involved with stepping up, no matter your gender.

I don't know if the younger man was caught, and what the fall out from the altercation, if any, was. As everyone in the back rows started asking What was going on? I had the urge to laugh--at the audience's reaction, at my own callousness (because I wanted everyone to sit down and go back to watching the movie), at the pure insanity of it all. Other people as callous as I voiced their own suggestions for turning back to the movie, and we did, soon falling back into its rhythms.

It is a good movie, by the way, for all the reasons you've read in reviews. I would only like to note that Todd Phillips is one of those comedic directors who seems to give a shit what his films look like. I thought the movie, on a pure cinematography basis, looked damn good, with crisp lighting and a richness to its film stock. Other reviewers disagreed with me, but I think they're just being willfully blind to the great work of the film's director of photography, Lawrence Sher.

Also, did anyone else catch that visual Casino reference? I think I was the only one in the theater who laughed.

The fight incident brought up my past encounters of theatrical combat, none of which I was much involved in, thank Christ, but that ended up shading my memories of the movies they happened during. I cannot watch them without thinking of the incidents, for better or for worse, and if for some reason the movies are brought up, I don't think of my favorite moments, but the time I was nearly beaten to death.

There haven't been many of them, largely because I now consciously avoid the type of crowds where hot-heads are likely to show up--premiere weekends when the theaters fill with mentally awkward teenagers and other dumbasses who have something to prove. I don't avoid these crowds because I'm afraid of getting my head stomped, I avoid them because these people are usually unable to shut the fuck up, get off their goddamn phone, and watch the fucking movie. But it has been a nice side benefit.

Way back in 2001, I was watching the original The Fast and the Furious (you know, the one with "The" in the title) when some kind of fight broke out far above us in the back rows. I don't remember the details because I wasn't paying attention to them. There was some yelling and swearing, followed by security kicking somebody out and the rest of the theater clapping.

Much more dangerous was when I went to see Superbad with a friend of mine in Union Square. Four or five guys were sitting directly behind us dressed in matching outfits of armsleeve tattoos, low riding khaki shorts, polo shirts, and sideways pointing hats: a set of droogs for the frat-tard era. They were more generally annoying during the showing, making pointless "jokes" that failed to rise to even the level of your common heckler. Then, during the obligatory serious part where the friends argue so they can reconcile later, one of them shouted "BO-RING!" As one, everyone in the theater turned around and went "Shhh!" My friend, who was sitting right in front of them, ended his "Shhh!" with "Shut the fuck up." I heard the guy ask one of his friends "Did I deserve a 'Shut the fuck up?'" The friend gave him a negatory.

Ohhh, shit, I thought. I could see where this was going. On the commentary track for the "Gone" episode of "Spaced" (the best episode), the creators mention the sense young men have for the likelihood that another young man will indulge in a bit of the old ultraviolence, and modulating their actions based on it. As usual, they are quite astute, and I could feel that sense blaring in my head like a car alarm.

Throughout the rest of the movie, I could hear them mumbling between themselves. It was the sort of thing where you couldn't make out the exact words, but you knew it was bad, and you knew they were going to start something after the showing. I was able to focus somewhat on the movie, but another part of me was wondering if my buddy noticed them as well, and what the best way to vacate the theater would be, and if there was some chance of us staying to see if there would be anything after the credits.

When the movie was over, we shuffled out. My friend somehow got ahead of me in the crowd, and I watched the droogs silently surround him. They seemed to have no interest in me, and I briefly flirted with the idea of walking away and moseying home without a care in the world. Unfortunately, my much-lamented senses of "honor" and "loyalty" kicked in, and so I followed them out into the lobby.

There, I saw the group on all sides of my friend, saying something to him and pointing at his chest with gusto. He had his hands up in a placatory gesture, but I doubted it was enough for them. A security guard was standing beside the group, perhaps not realizing its capacity for violence, or perhaps not caring. But he gave me an outlet for escape.

I walked up to him and gestured to the group and said that they were bothering us, had been very rude during the movie, and were now making threats. I tried to keep my voice steady, but as usual I suck at conflict, and thought I detected its dire need to crack and waver like a pubescent. But I kept my mouth flapping. They turned on me and asked "Oh were we? Really?" in that snotty and sarcastic tone, and I said "Yes, yes indeed" or something close to it. The security guard did not give a shit about us one way or the other, and just wanted us to take it somewhere else. He started pushing the droogs toward the exit, while my friend and I managed to avoid the dragnet. As they were shuffled out, they yelled at us that they would be waiting for us outside.

My friend and I went back inside the theater to see if there was anything after the credits, and I heard them shout to the security guard "They're going back in!" But apparently he didn't mind, because no one stopped us. There was nothing, and we walked back out and looked at each other. I was starting to get a sense of impending doom - if they're waiting for us outside, how are we going to get out? I saw a side exit and suggested we take it. On our way down the stairs, we wondered if they would perhaps think of that, and be waiting for us on the other side of the doors. Our speed increased, and when we emerged into the August night, he hailed a cab, and I sped down 14th Street and turned up onto Fifth Avenue, not stopping until I reached Grand Central.

That's it as far as my own experiences go (so far). If you have your own stories of theater ruckuses, please share it in the comments. While real life violence sucks, stories about it are pretty cool, and will provide us all with endless entertainment.

08 June 2009

Best Worst Movie Matchup: Troll 2 vs. The Room

This summer, Alex Riviello of CHUD.com will be hosting free horror movie screenings on the first Sunday of every month at Hell Gate Social here in Astoria. Funsanity is guaranteed for all, and if you live in the New York area, I highly recommend you turn up. Booze + horror + a chance to win a free DVD = A great time, every time. I haven't seen next month's selection, Razorback, but I've heard good things.

The program was kicked off tonight with Troll 2, which is one of those films some people describe as "the worst movie ever made." In fact, its lead actor, Michael Stephenson, made a documentary about the film's production and its reception called Best Worst Movie (another one I haven't seen, but it's gotten a very positive response at every festival it's played at, and I'm eager to watch it). It was on that basis that I went to tonight's screening, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Way back in high school, in the before time, I would periodically watch bad movies with my friends just to see how bad they were, and merrily rip on them. These movies did not have to be legendarily bad - Wild Wild West fit the bill - but the worse it was, the better. This phase did not last long - it could not survive against Battlefield Earth, which is, to date, the only film that gave me a headache while watching it.

However, once in a while a film comes along that truly is entertainingly bad, so awful it transforms into a larf, and I will damn my principles and watch it with glee. This sort of film is much rarer than fans of bad movies would care to admit, but they are out there. Troll 2 is definitely one. It is a completely inept piece of work, blundering in just about every aspect of film production. If you have not seen it, and you enjoy laughing at other people trying and failing, then I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Troll 2 has been ragged on as one of the worst movies ever made for a while now, and with Best Worst Movie on the horizon, it's gaining new momentum. It will have to build up quite a bit to overcome the lead held by another sublimely shitty movie, The Room, the cult of which has recently exploded thanks to increased mainstream media attention. But the question remains: Which film is better? Er, that it is to say, which film is worse, thereby making it better to watch? That is, which film is better in a bad way?

You know what I'm getting at.

I've seen both films now (The Room several wonderful times) and so I come to weigh in on this era-defining debate. And my conclusion is: The Room wins it in a walk. In saying this, I do not mean to belittle Troll 2 in any way. It is, by all reasonable measurements, pretty fucking bad. But The Room, somehow, displays an even higher level of incompetence.

For example, all of Troll 2 is filmed on the same stock, and all of it is in focus. Also, the plot of Troll 2 does have some sort of a shading of logic, however tenuous. What happens may be stupid, odd, and thoroughly ridiculous, but we can follow along without any trouble. There are even a couple of jump scares in Troll 2 that, if one were completely looking in another direction and happened to glance at the screen at the very moment the jump happened, might have a chance of actually working, maybe.

None of this is true of The Room; it lacks even the primitive competency that Troll 2 exhibits. But there are more factors at play, and what truly gives The Room the upper hand is that it's a drama. At heart, it's a deeply personal film made by some kind of auteur attempting to express something, whereas Troll 2 is a cheaply made horror film created purely for the money. You watch Troll 2 and laugh. You watch The Room and laugh, but you also have a sick fascination, and a tendency to ask "Is this real?" and "Oh, dear God, no," and "Holy fuck, why are they doing this to me?" It has an earnestness that renders as creepiness onscreen.

Another way The Room's dramatic nature gives it an edge is that its outlandishness arises from everyday situations. In Troll 2, goblins (despite the title) kill people by turning them into plants and eating them. Even if it were a good movie, we still know we're going to see something fucked up and out of the ordinary, and go in anticipating it. The Room, on the other hand, is about a guy whose fiancee is cheating on him. Hey, that shit happens in regular life, as do the other situations depicted in the film: drug dealers demanding money, friends playing football, women getting breast cancer, people having sex in homes they don't own, etc. These things should be relatable to anyone watching, yet The Room manages to warp them into surrealistic horrorshows where you begin to question your own sanity. In this, The Room becomes an even greater horror movie than Troll 2 can ever hope to be, hell, than even The Goddamn Exorcist can hope to be.

The Room has one more ace up its sleeve, the element that draws all these things together. I write, of course, about its creator, Mr. Tommy Wiseau. Some friends of mine once described him as looking like "a lizard man wearing a human suit," particularly in his nauseatingly frequent love scenes. This is true, but even beyond that, Mr. Wiseau has an alien factor to him that draws our attention. In his performance, he is honest and upfront, in terms of his emotions, and yet a bizarre mystery we are dying to unravel, in terms of his country of origin, his thought process, his background. Brilliant in Context repeat offender Anthony E. Griffin once told me that Mr. Wiseau is the best actor in the film because he's always real and natural. I think there's a lot of truth to that, and a good explanation of why he has become some kind of star.

Despite my preference for The Room, I consider both films to be excellent, in their own way, and well worth the watching. I would not be ashamed to own either, and urge you to seek them out if you have not done so already. Preferably with a big bag of popcorn, a refrigerator stocked with beer, and a group of smartass friends.

05 June 2009

Morning Announcements

Good morning, readers.

We have a couple of brief announcements before today's Words of Wisdom. First of all, we would like to congratulate the truly independent film Fairview Street on winning Best Feature Film at the Muskegon Film Festival. The black and white, noir-influenced drama was written and directed by Michael McCallum, with a gifted young actor by the name of Justin Muschong appearing in the small yet pivotal and memorable role of Craig Trask. We recommend that one and all purchase the DVD for watching at home, or remain alert for future festival showings of Fairview Street.

In related news, Mr. McCallum will be holding a fundraiser to complete his second feature film, Handlebar, a criminal comedy with a dynamic cast. If you are in the Lansing, Michigan area on Sunday, June 14th, please report to Brannigan Brothers at or around 6:00 pm for good beer, good food, good friends, and, uh...good times.

Also related, Mr. Muschong's short film, The Last Time We Met, created in collaboration with local actor phenom Chris Kapcia, was awarded Best Director at The Sparrow 3 Cubed Film Festival last week. The Last Time We Met, in the words of the completely impartial filmmaker Anthony E. Griffin, has "more story, character and heart than other films 100 times as long." Watch the newly released director's cut, different only in that it has end credits, today.

With that, we now ask you to provide your attention to today's Words of Wisdom.

[General feedback. Random popping noises.]

Ahem. Thank you, Walter. Hello, readers. This is Justin Muschong here to give you some thoughts on making the most out of your day.

Recently, my short film, The Last Time We Met, competed in a film festival. I'm sure you heard all about it. One of my best friends, an Internet warrior who goes by many noms de guerre, created a blog post providing his honest thoughts on my opponents' films. Most of them he found lacking, and did not couch his language or opinions in any way. Somewhat regrettably, and yet also somewhat hilariously, these disparaged filmmakers discovered his words on their films, and offered him some feedback of their own.

The incident led me to consider the feedback I myself have been provided my entire life, and I realized that, at every moment, I have been fortunate enough to have friends and family who are not in the least way sheepish about ripping into anything I create. You see, many people, upon witnessing a work of art created by someone they know, will blindly say "I loved it" or "It was very interesting," or "You did a great job," no matter how much of an unbearable abomination it was to sit through. I have never had this, at least not from anyone whose opinion I trust or care about. Rather, I am constantly confronted by their upfront, honest, unflinching comments. It's been hell on my ego, perhaps, but it's also made me a stronger writer and filmmaker in every way.

The very first script I ever wrote was a Western, the same glorified variation on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that just about every post-pubescent male envisions at one time or another. The second script, however, was a comedy about college, a slice-of-life, "into the night" film about the various adventures of a group of friends, largely cribbed off the stories of other people and one or two of my own experiences and/or inventions. When it was completed, I eagerly saved it onto multiple floppy disks (yes, it was that long ago) and gave each of my closest friends a copy and awaited their thoughts. This was a film I wanted to make so, so badly, and I did not want to waste any time in doing so.

Most of them never read it. Those who did, shrugged. One piece of criticism I remember particularly well was that, despite the young, ostensibly knowledgable characters, there weren't a lot of pop culture references in it (pop culture references being, at the time, just about the hippest fucking thing on the planet). Following this debacle, I more or less abandoned the script. But I did not give up on writing. I vowed to become better, to create something that would knock them all on their asses. Although I did stop sharing my scripts with so large a group of people.

Less than a year later, I began working on a film project with a friend of mine - a film that would actually get made. I wrote a script for this and then, based on additional ideas and feedback from another party, I wrote a second draft that was an entirely different film, and was the version we would go on to shoot. I shared both versions with one of my best friends and, for some reason unfathomable to me today, my mother. Once again, they shrugged, stating that they liked the first version better, although it still wasn't that great, and the feeling they got was that it was the work of someone who would one day write something great, but this was not it.

Not even my own mother would blow smoke up my ass.

There is a third instance that sticks out in my mind. A short film I wrote and acted in was shown in public in Lansing. I was there, and the feedback and audience response was positive, and we even got some attention from the local media. Then, in private, I showed the film to friends and family. The feedback this time was mostly negative. My parents pointed out that, in my scene, they could tell I wanted to laugh despite the seriousness of it. My friends found the whole thing too melodramatic. My brother dismissed the film altogether, not bothering to make any finer distinctions within the whole (I probably shouldn't have shown it to him after a night at the bar).

In telling you this, I don't want you to feel sorry for me. Rather, I want you to be envious. The people I am closest to refuse to coddle me, and because of that, I have been forced to constantly improve and get better at just about everything. Part of this wasn't my choice - I feel some sort of sick craving to write and create, and no matter how much disparagement my creations will suffer, I must continue to crank them out. Why not share them with people who will punch them in the gut? But, as I prefer it when people enjoy my work in one way or another, I have learned to accept and listen to good criticism, and to make changes as necessary. The more criticism I hear, the more I anticipate others' reactions, and the better my first drafts get.

How do I know what is good criticism and what is bad? It's a feeling. Good criticism has a familiarity to it - the critic is finding things I knew weren't quite right, or that felt off to me, and he or she is confirming my suspicions. Other times, they point things out that I didn't realize or think about, and yet I can see where they are coming from, and can agree (sometimes this is good, like when they find a theme you had no idea was there, but will gladly take credit for anyway).

Over time, I've learned to build something of a protective shell around my inner gut instincts. When making a film, or writing a script, I know what I like, and I know what I want, and there's something in me that says "This is right, and people will respond to it." Of course, not everybody is going to agree, and no matter how broad or mainstream you make the final product, there will still be someone shitting all over it. That's fine. It's a matter of recognizing what works for you and what doesn't, and good criticism can highlight the differences between the two, and help you get closer to the former.

My shell might be too built up, though. Recently, my mother was talking to me about The Last Time We Met. She said, as gently as possible for her, that perhaps we could make a couple of editing changes that would make it clearer that my character committed suicide. I said no and left it at that. I understand where she's coming from, and I acknowledge that the film is a bit oblique. But I also think that is one of its strengths, and making it any more obvious will shatter its tenuous tone. My gut says "It's fine the way it is."

Also, I'm stubborn. Fuck y'all.

Make it a great day. Or not. The choice...is yours.