Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Wistfully '95: Party Girl

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa. 

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One thing I notice the older I get is how people in my age bracket and above can demonstrate a dismissive attitude toward the young. I want to be clear: I’m not talking about older people rolling their eyes at adolescent nostalgia. I’m talking about a profound inability to remember what it meant, and even more specifically, what it felt like to be young. If a young person is heedless and aimless and hell bent on sarcasm deflecting their own heedlessness and aimlessness it often seems as if adults critical of this heedlessness and aimlessness and sarcasm conveniently forget their own youthful heedlessness and aimlessness and sarcasm; like when you age it adds wisdom and subtracts confusion and suddenly they’re all Confucius and “tsk-tsk.” In other words, it’s the antithesis of empathy. If one clichĂ© is that youth is wasted on the young then perhaps wisdom is wasted on the aged who know better than you do.


“Party Girl” is the one film in my 1995 series that I did not actually see in 1995. (I caught up with the film three years later during a time when I was heavy into Parker Posey’s filmography.) That would have been difficult. Even if I knew of it at the time, which I didn’t, it was a hardcore indie, and in 1995, Des Moines, Iowa was not a bastion of indie cinema. Released on June 9, 1995, it actually premiered via the Internet six days earlier, the first official full-length Internet film premiere – like, two months before Sandra Bullock explained “The Net” to those of us who didn’t really understand it. That, of course, can make “Party Girl” feel dated, and being dated is actually its ally. This is a film that takes us back, not just to an era but to a specific time in life when Personal Fulfillment seems both idiotic and just a hair's breadth away.

I’ve had people younger than me express confusion about how so many of us carry a torch for Parker Posey and perhaps that is because you had to be there - which is to say, you had be to be around in the 90’s. Panning the film at the time for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote that Posey was “long on chutzpah and sarcasm and short on charm.” Uh, hell-o. Earth to Guthmann. It was the n.i.n.e.t.i.e.s. Get your wack-ass charm outta here cuz we ain’t having it. Chutzpah and sarcasm was what we wanted, like Alicia Silverstone in the “Cryin’” video, like Winona Ryder, like Parker effing Posey as Mary the Party Girl. The movie was set in the 80’s but I would have recognized that mid-90’s sass anywhere. She was the protagonist of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but played with the brassy Whatever-ism of D’Arcy.

The late great Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan. “As for Mary,” he writes, “her life is disorganized, yes, but the script could nevertheless organize its approach to her, so that the audience wouldn't feel as confused as she is most of the time.” These are not criticisms with which I can quibble, yet these criticisms, in their own way, enhance the film. I was confused when I finally caught up with it, marooned in my early twenties, confused beyond all get-out. And watching a character mirroring my confusion and venting in the bliss of late-night parties and moderate to occasionally extreme immaturities brought not so much a sense of comfort as relief.


Ebert contends that ultimately “the movie never pulls itself together.” Perhaps. Perhaps it never wants to pull itself together. It’s episodic; some episodes are like a more rave oriented “Caroline in the City” and others are like an after school special gone hella wrong. It flits from here to there, and sometimes back again, and sometimes somewhere else altogether. There’s an arc here, but it’s the arc of a twenty something who doesn't have it together and doesn't want to get it together but kinda does want to get it together. Maybe. And so the screenplay gives her an escape hatch in the form of her librarian job. She gets, loses it, but then decides she'll get it back again, studying to be one, to making something with her life that goes beyond parties.

Seventeen or eighteen years out here in the future her crusade for self-identity feels a little.....lacking. Like, the movie never quite takes her on the necessary journey to that point of true enlightenment. Yet true enlightenment, as anyone in their thirties and beyond can tell you, so rarely happens that early in your life. You're still scrounging, still carving out your identity, still thinking you can simply quit the party scene and then everything'll be hunky dory.

That's why an older person might look at Mary and shake his or her head. “She has no idea,” they might scoff. And she probably doesn't. And so what? “Party Girl” is all about those innocent days when you believe merely grasping something like The Dewey Decimal System can automatically engender true happiness. It can’t, of course, but I sure remember when I thought it could.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Buzzard

“Buzzard” is like a modern update of Mike Judge’s cult classic white collar satire “Office Space”, though more idiosyncratically hilarious than dry and much more disturbing. In the latter film “doing nothing” was seen as the ideal; in the former “doing nothing” is the lifestyle. And while “Office Space” might have been bleak, it still managed to carve out a happy ending, believing a kind of untraditional circumvention of a cubicle farm life could still yield solitude, whereas “Buzzard” simply descends into misanthropic madness. Here, the white collar renders nihilism.


As a temp at First Financial Bank, Marty Jackistanski (Joshua Burge) spends less time actually working than working to screw over the company for whom he temps. An early scene unfolding in one long take finds him visiting a First Financial Branch where he closes his checking account and then immediately re-opens it as a means to score the $50 being offered for new business. When asked by the personal banker where he works, Marty replies: “First Financial Bank.” If this was it, his character might be some sort of low wage hero, an exemplar of the peon sticking it to the man. He operates less from a moral code, however, than a wily self-centeredness. In conversations by phone with his mom, who forgets his birthday (“It’s ok, I forget it every year too”), he claims to have all sorts of friends. Really, he has none, unless you count co-worker Derek (Potrykus), whom Marty uses and abuses, stealing the sycophant’s Hot Pockets and even occasionally beating him up.

There are no real attempts to imbue Marty with empathy, and yet he engenders a pittance of it anyway because, as Jerry Seinfeld once observed of his own show’s characters, “There's nothing really likable about them except that they remind you of yourself.” And if we’re not all just like Marty, most of us have, at one time or another, been a cog in this commerce machine, burned out, disenfranchised, perhaps allowing ourselves to daydream about snapping. We don’t, of course, but Marty does, and that allows our daydream to come true. And to frighteningly realize that it’s a thin line between cog and crack-up.

That crack-up happens after Marty, taking his scams too far, steals a batch of refund checks for minimal amounts from the office and signs them over to himself. His ruse exposed, he goes underground, and as he goes underground, he disappears more and more into an alternate reality. This reality manifests itself in his lo-fi invention: a Nintendo glove re-purposed as a Freddy Krueger glove, the villain of “Nightmare on Elm Street” who apparently exists as Marty’s idol. This odd fixation, however, is crucial, not tangential, especially considering that Krueger only appeared to his hapless foils in those endless spates of films in their dreams. In the real world, his powers were useless. Indeed, in Marty's own mind, he fancies himself both repressed by the whole world and unassailable for the ways in which he lashes out at this supposed repression. It’s why in the third act, when he winds up in Detroit with no plan and incapable of thinking ahead, the film feels scarily alive, like anything could happen.


Many reviewers have compared lead actor Joshua Burge to Buster Keaton, and indeed, the hangdog face is as similar as the impeccable comic timing. The attitude between the two men, however, differs in a crucial way. If Keaton’s characters were often flummoxed by the world, they still typically possessed an unswerving faith in it. Burge’s Marty, on the other hand, is both flummoxed by the world and so apathetic toward it as to feel that it owes him.

Late in the film, while on the run, Marty checks into a luxury hotel, apparently unbothered by blowing whatever little money he has, and then ordering a plate of room service spaghetti. An incredible unbroken shot ensues, wherein we watch as Marty imbibes the entire meal. It’s gluttonous; it’s also apropos. It’s a man who’s made a complete mess of his life, yet remains richly self-satisfied. No matter what he does, he can do no wrong. What could be more terrifying?

Saturday, July 04, 2015

4th of July

Happy birthday, America! And don't forget, even if you're in the midst of a massive alien invasion, there is always time for a frosty Coors Light, the Silver Bullet.



Friday, July 03, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Drivetime Opening Credits Edition

Driving. It's quintessentially American. That’s why it was the focal point of “American Graffiti.” Well, driving and music. But to “American Graffiti” driving & music was a communal activity, a way for friends (and sometimes enemies) to mingle across armrests and seat dividers. They could even mingle across lanes, shouting at one another from opposing rolled down windows. They could meet one place and drive somewhere else. They could drive aimlessly, scoop loops, here, there, everywhere, killing time because when you’re young you have all the time in the world.

That time, however, can also feel like a burden. Sometimes there’s no one to meet, no one to accompany you. Sometimes you just want to be alone anyway. Solitary moments in cars are just as frequent and romantic and worthy of cinematic documentation too. 1986's “At Close Range” has just such a sequence. In fact, it's the film's first sequence. If you've ever been a Midwestern kid on a lonely summer night itching for something to do or any other place in the world to be and therefore set sail in your automobile to just, like, get good and lost in the spaces between the road's white lines, well, this one's for you.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

All Female Top Gun

On the most recent episode of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” their patented Not My Job quiz was administered to astronaut Sunita Williams, current record-holder of total cumulative spacewalk time. In her interview with host Peter Sagal, however, she revealed her roundabout way to becoming an astronaut involved early dreams of being Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.” At which point my ears emitted joyous steam and I paused the episode to write this entire article. Because what if “Top Gun” went “Ghostbusters” and became strictly female?

Well, Andy Benoit and his legion of feeble-minded men’s rights activists would no doubt take to Twitter to say things born of only the dimmest wit, of course, but I’m not concerned about those oblivious asshats. No, I’m concerned about who would be in this “Top Gun” movie? Who would be Maverick? Who would be Goose? Who would be Ice? Who would be Slider? Who would be Viper? Who would be Jester?

Jennifer Lawrence & Amy Adams (Maverick & Goose)

Who else could our lady Maverick be but JLaw? Or, make that Nitro, seeing as how it was Lawrence’s childhood nickname and “Nitro” would look so good on a fighter pilot helmet. She’ll play by her own rules. She won’t take guff from anybody. She’ll tick off those around her even as she endears everyone else. She’ll cruise around on a motorcycle in Chanel sunglasses to the sounds of Cut Copy. The image of Jennifer Lawrence saying it’s time to buzz the tower and then emitting that classic Lawrence cackle should be enough to scream “Jonathan, bring me my green light!” in any language. Meanwhile, the estimably effervescent Adams would counter our Naval free spirit with aplomb as her level-headed RIO.

Emily Blunt & Keira Knightley (Iceman & Slider)

Yes, yes, you got me. This is on account of my debilitating anglophilia as much as anything; my chance to see Blunt & Keira as a pair of cocky, too-cool-for-school Brits firing off dry witticisms who win the Top Gun Trophy. (And for whom I'm secretly rooting, a la Ice & Slider.) And so what? THIS IS MY MOVIE. NOT YOURS. Also, if you think it's weird to drop a pair of Englishwomen into America's Naval Fighter Weapons School...did you see “Spy”? Half of our country's defense system is apparently English.

Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon (Viper & Jester)

Davis: “Tell me, if you had to go into battle, would you want her with you?”
Sarandon: “I don't know. I just don’t know.”

Rooney Mara (Sundown)

I mean, why not?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Inadvertent Aerial Transcendence

In an interview with Oliver MacMahon regarding “Runoff”, director Kimberly Levin talks about the way in which she and her filmmaking team pulled off the all-important recurring shots of a bi-plane dusting crops. She explained they needed several takes from a trio of set-ups, yet had no way to communicate with the pilot whose plane only held enough fuel for forty-five minutes, a blip of time in movie-making land. Still, they made it work, and Levin reverently deemed it “forty-five minutes of serendipity.” It made me think of another shot in a different film involving a plane.

Michael Mann, I suspect, is anti-serendipity. He has been termed a good many things in his quality-laden filmmaking career but one label that often seems to apply above all others is this: meticulous. He is finicky in his craft to the point of extreme notoriety. There is an oft-repeated claim, such as here by the esteemed Matt Zoller Seitz, that on “The Insider” Mann re-shot an entire scene because he didn’t care for the actor’s tie. It’s that sorta meticulousness. Like, you’re surprised to find out he didn’t invent a time machine to film “Last of the Mohicans” in 1757, space-time continuum be damned because authenticity matters more and the Fort William Henry needed to be the Fort William Henry.

“Miami Vice” might have been Mann at both his most meticulous and his most maddeningly out of control. His budget spiraled and his shooting schedule mushroomed as he sought to achieve his vision, causing divisiveness among the crew and cast, even making its star, Jamie Foxx, take his ball and briefly go home. A crew member quoted by Slate for a story involving the torturous process was quoted as saying how the film “was being written essentially by Michael on the fly. … That kind of indecision becomes a systemic thing. It’s hard, at the last minute, to make deals with vendors, rent a plane, to close down a freeway.” Rent a plane. Ah yes.

There’s a sequence in the film wherein our main characters, deep undercover, are transporting drugs up from South America and into Miami aboard a plane. To do so, they “pancake”, as Mann tells us on the film’s director’s commentary, by bringing their plane so close to another plane in mid-air that it looks like one aircraft on radar. It’s a snappy little sequence. None of it, though, compares to its capping shot, that of the plane, soaring above the Floridian swampy marsh and toward a horizon consumed by an immense and immaculately splendiferous thunderhead, an image that has nothing to do with anything, really, but is so elementally staggering the only proper response is breathless adoration. It’s a shot founded on the Zen principle that if one were to dissect it then it would cease to be Zen.


So, how did Mann render this shot? Did he have a copy of the weather forecast, a camera locked and loaded and a plane and pilot at the ready for a moment when a rainstorm might unleash? Did he just fly around and around for hours, waiting, hoping, and re-fueling mid-flight? Did he manipulate the atmosphere with some sort of weather machine he built from scratch in his basement? He’s Michael Mann! He must have found a way to bend nature to his will. Or, for once, were the circumstances of majestic cinema beyond his control?

If you don’t remember the artwork for Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 “Hungry Heart” single it featured The Boss himself with a just-kicking-it look on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Behind him, to the left, is a woman propped up on a bike as she leans into a phone booth, making a call. Her back is to the camera. We can’t see her face. Her identity is a mystery. At least, it was a mystery. That woman, Annmarie Solimini Adderley, it was revealed in a story for The Coaster Online that did the investigative work, had no idea she was being photographed or even any idea Bruce was there. It just happened. It’s accidentally iconic.

On the “Miami Vice” director’s commentary, Mann offers no comment on the shot. It glides by unmentioned. And so I like to think that maybe there’s nothing for him to say. Maybe those thunderheads were the cinematic equivalent of Annmarie Solimini Adderley, in the right place at the right time. Maybe even the meticulous Michael Mann, stickler of sticklers, can occasionally be the recipient of a few minutes of serendipity.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Runoff



Kimberly Levin's debut feature film, "Runoff", about a family under threat and featuring a marvel of an intense lead performance from Joanne Kelly opened last week. I adored it and whole-heartedly recommend it. It has a few third act problems but never mind those; its emotions are always full throttle and on point. I reviewed it for Slant Magazine. You can read that review here. Then try to catch the film by any means necessary.