[Last weekend, while en route to Abu Dhabi, my good friend Jeremy swung by my cold-water Chicago flat. After a lengthy Indian-wrestling match, we headed downtown to the AMC River East 21, where we caught a screening of Duncan Jones’s latest film, Source Code. Two hours later, expelled into the brisk April evening, we hunkered down at the nearest Applebee’s and, after ordering multiple appetizers and pitchers of Stella Artois, recorded the following conversation.]
A D: Jeremy, did you like Source Code?
Jeremy: It didn’t offend me.
That’s high praise. I can envision it emblazoned across the film’s poster (which is hideous and which did offend me).
The title is pretty bad, too—generic and irrelevant (even within the film).
Can we think of a better one right now?
Vidal Sassoon Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Eight Minutes? The New Me? Everything’s Going to be Okay? Untitled Duncan Jones Project? I prefer any of those …
Eight Minutes is the Serbian title. (The Romanian one appears to be Identity Transfer.)
I think the Serbs win this one, then.
Two points to the Serbs. … Despite its lackluster advertising campaign, it’s been doing well, financially.
I’m glad. Look, “inoffensive” is high praise. Given that most Hollywood films do offend me.
Duck, you sucker.
I guess I should note that I’m defining “Hollywood” as a style or mindset or series of assumptions, not a city of origin.
An export. And you should also probably clarify that you mean “most contemporary Hollywood films.”
I probably should.
But you won’t.
Why should I? You did it for me.
Because even Hollywood’s no longer Hollywood these days.
In my spare time I am working on a chart demonstrating that the weakness of the industry since 1969 varies in inverse proportion to the number of minutes Elliott Gould spends on screen.
Do people remember that he was a film actor? I’d bet most folks today think of him as Ross and Monica’s father.
Those names mean nothing to me.
You know, on Friends.
Ross was played by David Schwimmer, Monica by Courtney Cox.
Your erudition never ceases to amaze me.
I’ve been watching Friends recently. While at the gym; I watch it while on the elliptical machine.
Hence all your ellipses? … I think you like TV more than I do.
I probably do, at the moment. After not having watched it for over a decade, I find my interest renewed.
“You, are, sleeping. You do not want to believe.”
Everybody’s clever nowadays.
Everybody’s happy nowadays.
But what do I get? Why can’t I touch it? Something’s gone wrong again …
You get boredom. And I don’t really like television; I’m just curious about it, for now.
Like me and girls?
… For one thing: Justin [our friend] has correctly observed that television is the most popular narrative medium today—meaning, it’s the most popular medium that’s centrally organized around narrative.
I’m sorry, did I say Elliot Gould? I meant Terry-Thomas. Are sitcoms all that narrative, really?
Some are, some aren’t. But I’m sure you see Justin’s point.
I suppose, as a generalization, I will cede this point to Justin.
One point to Justin, then.
He’s murdering us in the posture and U.S. capitols categories.
A person isn’t safe anywhere these days.
Least of all on the Metra, if Duncan Jones is to be believed.
And Lord knows most movies these days no longer rely on plot (Hollywood films are rarely dominantly narrative anymore).
They are rarely even movies. Though I know that’s a bit sentimental-essentialist of me, and perhaps nonsensical.
Essentially, sentimentally nonsensical. But, no, I agree with you; today’s films often strike me more as concepts for films than films. Which is perhaps a product of the “thirty-second pitch”: “Zombies vs. dinosaurs. In space!”
I’ve gotten into the habit of saying, when I see a film that I respect—even if I don’t like it, approve of it, whathaveyou—that “it’s a real movie.” By which I mean, you know, “with direction, art design, lighting, camerawork, editing, actors giving performances, an aesthetic commitment.”
So is Source Code a real movie, then, in your estimation?
Yes. When you told me about it just the other day.
Let me tell you again (and this time I won’t misquote it).
Now that you mention it, I did think it unlikely that Allen would have called Hollywood “a blazing collection of sitar-soaked funkadelia and tripped-out tabla beats.”
That was Woody Alien. Rather, James Bell asked Allen why his films don’t have more of an audience in the States, given that Allen’s influences are just as American as they are European (Bell cites Preston Surges and the Marx Brothers). Allen replies:
I think those kinds of films are gone—they’re history. Films from that era and with that sophistication—Sturges, who you mentioned, and also I was a great fan of Ernst Lubitsch—they don’t resonate with most audiences in the United States. We have an audience—and it is an intelligent audience—that is more technological.
It’s true what Marshall McLuhan said—”the medium is the message”—and the technology is the message, so you see films that are, in a certain sense, not apparently about anything. They may have silly plots, and there’s not much of a story, but they are about a technology. They are about the editing, about the special effects—that is the content of the film. And people enjoy it. They’ll say, “There wasn’t much of a story,” or, “The jokes were dumb, but I kind of enjoyed it”—and what they’re enjoying is the technology.
Your thoughts, Msr?
Hard to argue with that.
Damn straight. He really nailed it. Consider Zack Snyder, sitting down to make Sucker Punch.
He toils not, nor does he spin?
No, do try and picture it.
Load “*”, 8, 1
He’s seated in a shaded glen, a goblet of red wine near his feet. And does he, setting pen to parchment, write the story first, then see what CGI he can use to illustrate it? Or does he first dream up the imagery, then scribble out some narrative to connect those special effects? It’s clearly the latter; the green screen technology is organizing his film.
But Zardoz was a flop.
So was Sucker Punch.
Touché. But Sucker is emblematic of its present in a way that Zardoz never was. Boorman was working in a time when audiences still felt that film should first and foremost tell stories; two of the most successful films that year were Chinatown and The Godfather: Part II. But when Zardoz spoke, it was a harbinger of cinema to come.
Zardoz also was speaking only six years after the US government outlawed LSD. And we might note that Jean-Luc Godard, for example, probably organized many of his ’80s films in precisely the same way: images first, then (if necessary, or where possible) strands of narrative.
Godard’s a Special Case (and always has been).
So is Zardoz. But I know what you’re saying. “Chicks in burlesque gear fighting giant Nazi robots!” preceded everything in Sucker Punch. And everything in Sucker Punch is secondary to those elements.
Allen’s reading does explain the peculiar satisfaction that people express on buying (into) these products. While nonetheless feeling superior to a movie—exactly that: “It was so stupid [but I’ll buy it on Blu-Ray]!”—they are still fans, customers, approvers. I’ve wondered what it was audiences got out of such experiences, and this answer seems as good as any: they are being good formalists (far better than I ever could!) and enjoying all the new ways that a barely sketched, recycled plot that no one (not even the filmmakers) cares about can be “made new” (remade) with layers of fattening special effects larded on top …
The story is but icing spread thinly over the actual content of the film, which is now: What new wonder can we behold?
I suppose that even goes for the so-called comedies—the color palette, the performances, the action (and now there is a move toward including at least one major effects set piece even in smaller, less blockbustery films) are all “sweetened” by computer.
But is that so wrong?
No tool is ever wrong in itself. Save perhaps the Excessive Machine.
I didn’t see Avatar.
I envy you.
I envy you. Everyone else saw it. I should have—! I tried to—!
What happened? Divine intervention?
It was sold out. So I saw Sherlock Holmes instead.
Oh yeah? How’s he doing?
He’s looked better.
Holmes should have been retired after Jeremy Brett. I wish I could say I was named after him.
Which Jeremy were you named after instead?
Avatar did exactly what Woody described; all anyone talked about afterward (as far as I could tell) was: “The story is very stupid. But it looks great!”
That film has no value whatever, save as a bulletin: This is what can be done now.
Well, there’s value in such a bulletin, I’d argue.
There’s also value in a bullet.
He was probably quoting D. W. Griffith.
Avatar also says, sotto voce: This is how much money can be made by simply demonstrating what can be done now.
And that’s Hollywood today. But that was Hollywood yesterday, too.
I’m a little tired.
Like dear old Sherlock, you’ve looked better.
Gonna bump myself up to a fifty-percent solution. You know, have a little party. If my heart holds out.
There there. But you didn’t enjoy our trip to watch Source Code? Sitting beside me in the dark?
In fact, I did. It was good fun. It was inoffensive fun. Source Code, too. Given my usual state of mind when exiting the River East 21, that might almost count as a rave.
And, you know, I saw Béla Tarr’s The Man from London at the River East. I dote upon that movie.
Me, too. I saw it with you!
Were you there? I can remember only Tilda Swinton.
Wow. That trailer makes it look … horrible. Like your run-of-the-mill indie mediocrity. That’s probably why the New York Times went after it with daggers drawn: the trailer raised hopes that Man might be acceptable viewing for their demographic. What a letdown! (I think they really review trailers more than anything. Or press releases. Or junkets and after-parties.)
That trailer’s IFC. A Rialto trailer it’s not.
This one is better:
Time to recut the Man from London trailer with ye-ye music on top. Wacky!
Okay, so I’m being too hard on the River East—we’ve both seen a bunch of good movies there. It’s just that the theater has become associated, in my mind, with a certain sort of—how should I put it? Obligation filmgoing?
That’s because it’s not the most wonderful place on earth. It’s like going to a mall. It is a mall.
There’s a bowling alley there, too.
And a video arcade.
Why even see a movie?
Why indeed? There are twenty-one screens, all showing the same thing.
I like how its name boasts of that fact: the River East 21.
A real estate developer, back in the middle 1990s, assured me that the coming cineplexes were good things, arguing that, with that many screens, they’d have to show foreign and art films. … No doubt he believed that. (I didn’t, even then.)
The public doesn’t understand film distribution. I barely understand it myself. People really do think that if something good comes out in Europe, Asia, anywhere, theater owners can simply reach into the ether and order a print. This is the illusion of an unconstrained, free-market global economy of film that Jonathan Rosenbaum is always, and rightly, decrying. We are “forbidden” to see so many films, without ever being told of the interdict—even films that have had enough of a festival presence to exist in English-subtitled prints, all ready and waiting for U.S. distribution
I saw a superb Japanese film at the 2004 Bangkok International Film Festival: To the Bracken Fields (Warebi no kou) (2003). I adored it (my review’s here), thought it would do well in the US. (I even interviewed its cinematographer, Shoji Ueda.)
Oh, look, mine is the only IMDb user comment. And it was never released in the US. It was never released anywhere, as near as I can tell. Well, I can name a lot of films like that, from back in my festival-going days …
And forget about all the older films that we “aren’t allowed” to see because of distribution issues, selective subtitling (to protect territories), prohibitive import pricing, and so forth—and then the films that have never made their way from VHS to disc, or from film to video in the first place …
Or that aren’t available through Netflix (the new gatekeepers) …
Don’t get me started on streaming picture quality. (And shape.)
I won’t. Shall I bring us back to the River?
O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!
I do enjoy going to Le fleuve est. It does have good sound and good projection. And I like to be reminded that, for the vast majority of Americans, the cineplex is the typical cinema-going experience. The only such experience, as far as most folks are concerned.
I meant projected.
You meant projected on film?
Do we really want to have that conversation right now? I’m starving.
Sorry. As far as obligation, there’s the flipside of Woody Allen’s analysis. Audiences, and even big snobs like me, often go to films because they feel they have, as children perhaps, bought into something or other (Tron, anyone?) that the culture has now decided wasn’t the detritus it mistook it for the first time around. So there is a loyalty … entirely misplaced.
Thank God I never bought into Tron. I knew that one was a wash when Disney cut Cindy Morgan’s sex scene.
Of course, she’s the one original cast member they didn’t ask back for the sequel.
Because Hollywood is a male-dominated industry that hates and fears women!
Speaking of which, and nothing against Daft Punk, but why the hell wasn’t Wendy Carlos involved in New Tron, in some way?
Because Hollywood is a male-dominated industry that hates and fears women!
Certainly women over thirty. (I’ll tell myself Carlos turned them down until I hear different.)
Why not tell yourself the movie was a masterpiece, while you’re telling?
I just might. … Unlike you, I liked Tron, as a child. I was bought the Disney storybook cassette. And Carlos’s soundtrack album. This was in my single digits, mind you. And so when Tron Legacy was announced … I felt, not excitement, but a sort of obligation, even though I knew I would not—could not—approve of the final product. (Rather like a family wedding, all told. Say what you like about the original Tron—
I just might.
—but its qualities and shortcomings both are simply impossible in today’s Hollywood.)
It seems enough, in this iteration of our culture, that these beloved properties are named, made current again. This requital of our childhood amours is the only real content of such a film (as well, of course, as Allen says, as the high-gloss technology used to legitimize franchises that once had to rely on homely, lovable models, bluescreen, cell animation, etc. …). We deride these sequels or adaptations for their shamelessness or shallowness at the same time as getting our money’s worth (sort of) just from seeing the properties “live” again.
Well, we should discuss Tron some other time (and on fuller stomachs). Though I sympathize. One of the most exciting days of my childhood was when my parents took my sister and me to see Willow. At a crappy bunker-style theater in the post-industrial ruin called Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Willow, you say.
And on a beautiful summer day! I can’t imagine myself today agreeing to go. (I’d probably suggest that we go for a walk instead.)
Wow, you can actually watch the whole film online here. And on a beautiful summer day!
It is a time of dread, for my charisma attribute roll has yielded a mere 8.
I actually never played AD&D—at least, not until I got to college. (I didn’t have any friends before that.)
And I stopped before college. I think that’s one point to me.
(Curses! They’re slaughtering me!) And I lose a point: my friendless twelve-year-old self enjoyed the Willow-in-a-bunker experience immensely; indeed, it might have been the push that made me the full-fledged fantasy fan that the culture had been grooming me to be.
I guess I really had a thing for unicorns.
Don’t worry, sometimes a unicorn is just a unicorn.
I should hope not!
If Bass/Rankin hadn’t added those damn America songs to The Last Unicorn, I’d still be pretty fond of that one myself. I hope someone somewhere can’t sleep nights over that decision …
US distributors also fiddled with The NeverEnding Story.
I’ve yet to catch the uncut, German version of the film. I’m dying to see the scene where Atreyu and the Nichts argue to a standstill over the validity of Heidegger’s distinction between “formal intuition” and “form of intuition” in his interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Anyway, I can remember feeling—even as late as the late 1990s—the excitement (or at least the hype) that certain movie franchises bring with them. “There’s a new Batman sequel, haven’t you heard? Aren’t you going to go see it on opening day?” Joel Schumacher, bless his production design-loving heart, taught me that I needn’t.
That’s the lesson we all should be learning. To put away childish things. Meanwhile, have you seen this?
He’s lying! That secret Brechtian—
—or Super Skrull—he knows full well what he was doing!
Let him apologize for 8MM. See, the culture doesn’t even care what cinematic crimes you commit, so long as you aren’t committing them upon a beloved franchise …
Ain’t that the truth. Even in the early 2000s, I found myself struggling with this phenomenon. “All the other writing grad students are going to see X-Men 2 (sorry: X2) at midnight. I don’t want to go with them, but I suppose I have to.” So I’d set about ruining the experience for everyone. (I was a real sweetheart.)
The endemic poor taste of writing grad students is a whole other conversation. Garbage in, garbage out, as I believe Diogenes said.
You mean Bob Dylan. I saw Renaldo and Clara at the River East 21!
No, not really. And even if I had, it would have been part of a festival.
So should we count film festival programming that we saw at that theater?
No, we probably shouldn’t. So strike Tsai’s Visage from my list.
Struck. Stricken. And even after The Man from London, my mood wasn’t so great when I came stumbling out of the theater mall, into the night …
It’s a desolate part of town. Despite Fox & Obel beckoning, one block East.
Was it open back in them days?
Truly a pity. A coffee and an almond croissant might have helped. Though it was ’round about midnight.
My favorite thing about seeing movies at the River East—besides the fact that I can easily walk there, and catch a matinee after my morning writing class—is that I can buy fruit and coffee and scones at Fox & Obel before the show.
Are you getting product-placement money for this?
Fox & Obel’s a wonder, folks! Chicago’s premier gourmet market, built around the love of great food and the people who are passionate about everything they create, every day.
We should have gone there today, in fact. Our tater skins are taking forever to arrive.
That’s because you keep trying to interest the waitress in Nth Man.
What, waitresses don’t like ninjas? Ultimate ninjas?
Dear Mildred is the exception that proves the rule.
Yes, I saw Shoot ‘Em Up there, too. With you.
I can remember only Monica Bellucci. (How embarrassing!)
Imagine how I feel. Besides the zaftig Ms. Bellucci, Shoot was mainly distinguished by being more interesting than Eastern Promises, which I’d seen earlier that day. (That film’s tattoo scene notwithstanding … sorry, Mr. Cronenberg.)
I missed that screening, for some reason (probably school).
I’m not leaving without my tater skins. … What did you think of Broken Blossoms?
Do I have to think something? What I think of Broken Blossoms is that I liked Limits of Control a lot. For what that’s worth.
In this economy? Not much.
I’m sorry, what movie were we talking about again?
You mean that Incredible Hulk TV movie he guest starred in, yes?
Let’s pretend for the moment that I do.
Now you’re talking!
[To be continued in Part 2, where we talk more in depth about Source Code, as well as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (We'll post it next Monday.)]
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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
- Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
- Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
- Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
- Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
- The Tree of Life
- Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
- X-Men: First Class