As those of you who read these columns reguarly know, I was in Florida last week—in large part to bring a long-lost (well, sort of) friend who hadn’t seen a new movie since probably the early 1990s into the 21st century of films. I discussed the choices—and potential choices—a column back, so it seems only reasonable to bring everyone up to date and how the experiment went, and for that matter, what each of us learned from it. I may have gone there in quasi-teacher mode, but I left having made a few discoveries of my own.
I can’t say that I learned that I’m not overly fond of Florida, since that was something I had pretty well figured out when I was first dragged there in 1960—and spent the next 40 years having the notion reinforced. (I will undoubtedly end up spending my dotage there playing canasta and shuffleboard. I believe that’s called cosmic justice.) I had thought, however, that I’d picked a reasonably seasonable time to make this trek. Memory told me—no, memory lied to me—that this was a time of year when the weather was almost pleasant enough to make you understand how people were hornswoggled into thinking the place was habitable. Naturally, I arrived on the scene just in time to experience the hottest October in 20 years.
I know you’re thinking this is the modern age and that everything is air conditioned. And you would not be wrong in those thoughts—at least in a theoretical sense. But during the hours when I wasn’t out at my friend John’s place, I stayed with my mother—a woman who actually likes the climate. Oh, yes, she does have air conditioning. She simply doesn’t believe in it quite enough for my taste. This resulted in an ongoing thermostat duel. In that curious passive-aggressive manner that is known only to mothers and sons neither of us ever addressed the issue, mind you. We merely waited till the other wasn’t looking and adjusted the temperature.
Meteorological observations to one side, the point of the trip was to reconnect with John after a physical gap of more than 20 years and a loss of all communication for about 17 years. We’d originally met in 1969 when we were both 14 years old, but were no more than casual acquaintances till spring break in 1970 when what was intended to be a single night’s sleepover (do kids still do that?) turned into spending the entire week together. We were soon as close as—or closer than—brothers and remained so for a very long time even after we were no longer in the same town. (Long distance charges that probably paid for some corporate bozo’s retirement attest to this.)
It was a relationship that was grounded in two basic things—movies and the Beatles. John was fascinated by how much I knew about movies—and that I watched all these old movies that he knew nothing about—and I was fascinated by his seemingly bottomless knowledge of the Beatles. Occasionally the two things overlapped. In fact, the first movie we ever watched together was Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). I doubt if prior to that John knew that Lester had helmed A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). (At 15 I doubt he had a very clear notion of what a director was or did.) And since this was 1970, that also accounts for those five trips to see Let It Be.
With this as background, it’s hardly surprising that movies should form the basis for our first encounter in so many years—and even less surprising that one of those films was going to be Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007). After all, it’s probably close to impossible to understand just exactly where I am in life without taking into account that I’ve spent the new century absorbed in movies—specifically in current movies. And trying to get a handle on that when your entire impression of those movies has been formed by TV trailers that reduce the image of the modern era to lowest common denominator exploding movies would be impossible—unless you merely choose to believe that I’ve taken leave of my senses.
The use of movies also provided a nice buffer just in case we descended into uncomfortable awkward silence after all this time. That seemed unlikely since we’d been talking on the phone for about four months. Plus, there had never been a meeting between us where 30 seconds didn’t find us acting as if we’d seen each other the day before. But you never know—certainly not after 20-odd years. When we’d last spent time together we were in our 30s. Now we’re eligible for the ten percent discount at Long John Silver’s and getting mailings from AARP that tactlessly begin with “Dear Senior Citizen.” As it turned out we needn’t have worried—the old 30 second rule still applied—but it was nice to have the buffer had it proved otherwise.
One very much unknown factor in all this was the level of John’s stamina. We had five evenings at our disposal, but that represented more concentrated socializing than he’d done in years. In the end, we managed to pull off all five and squeeze seven movies into those encounters. It didn’t worked out exactly as planned, though. I did take all the movies that were batted around in this column week before last, and I took some others as alternates. The initial selections sometimes gave way to going with titles that just seemed better fits at the moment, and in two cases—Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008) and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007)—the choices were based on length. Their shorter running times allowed them to be added as second features when a little extra time was available.
The final list came down to (in this order) Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Across the Universe, Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Be Kind Rewind, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited. No, it’s not by the numbers, but it turned out to be a good set, I think. I truly regretted the omissions of my one 1990s choice, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998), and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). However, that’s just how it played out.
From the very beginning there was never any question about Moulin Rouge! making the cut and I’m glad we started out with it—in part because it justified my having goaded John into going ahead with his plans to break down and buy a large-ish widescreen television before we undertook this bout of movie watching. By the time we’d hit the ten minute mark, John was commenting that he’d never have been able to appreciate the look of the film on his old TV. The truth is that he’d never have been able to even understand what it’s supposed to look like.
From my own perspective, Luhrmann’s film is where I truly sat up and took notice of modern film. Yes, it’s more than a little grounded in films of the past. Stylistically, Moulin Rouge! owes a lot to Ken Russell’s 1970s output, and in fact bears a strong resemblance to a more accessible, more viewer-friendly Lisztomania (1975). As individual components, the various approaches Luhrmann uses—the aggressive editing, the deliberate anachronisms, the absorption of pop culture into the fabric of the film, the hyper stylization—are not new. Taken as a whole, the blend of those elements result in something unique that feels startling and fresh and alive to the possibilities of movie making in a way that you rarely experience.
It’s also a film with a deep core of sadness and longing for something that has passed and seems to be lost. And that pervasive feeling blends with a vague sense of something strangely sinister. This is a dark movie—literally and figuratively—where the beautiful sits side by side with the grotesque, where the flash and color carries a hint of desperation. It serves as both a celebration of a lost era in its allegorical image of the 1960s and as a critique of the era’s shortcomings, silliness and dangers. But in the end, it makes you miss even those downsides. To say that John was favorably impressed is perhaps understating the case, since it went straight to his “movies I need to buy” list. I’ll be interested to see what subsequent viewings reveal to him.
I suppose the following night’s choice of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes across as one of the odder choices—especially since it wasn’t even mentioned in the original column, though I did mention Mitchell in passing. We have my daughter to thank for its inclusion, since she expressed some dismay that it wasn’t included. So I took it along and since it felt right for the second evening, we gave it a go. Maybe that feeling came from the fact that both of us have always had an appreciation for juxtaposing very different things, and it’s hard to get more different than Moulin Rouge! and Hedwig. It’s a complete turn from heavily-produced spectacle to a film with a low-budget, hand-crafted feeling. Oddly enough, I think they complement each other—if only in the fact that they’re both essentially romantic works that critique romanticism.
Hedwig, however, is—at least for me—not a film that can be processed in one sitting. I remember seeing it when it came out and being very favorably impressed by it. I gave it the full five stars, but it wasn’t until a second viewing when it came out on DVD that I was completely blown away by the film. I think this is in large part due to the film’s “freak out” ending where reality and fantasy collide in a way that completely ignores conventional narrative film. Seeing the last section of the film—in essence, the last three songs—a second time, it became one of the most emotionally devastating things I’d ever seen. It still works that way. I teared up when I ran it in Florida and I did it again two nights ago when I was getting frame-grabs for this column. That’s staying power.
How did it go over? Very positively, though not as positively as Moulin Rouge!, which isn’t surprising since that’s more of an immediate attention grabber. I’m glad it was included, though, because it’s a prime example of what is best about independent film—and, in many ways, independent film is a key component to 21st century filmmaking. I also suspect this is a movie that will grow in John’s estimation upon reflection and subsequent viewings. And, no, he didn’t spot Miriam Shor’s drag king performance until the very end.
That brings us to Across the Universe—a film that was a given because of the Beatles connection. And that was a double-edged sword. I’ve known Beatle fans who embraced the film completely and I’ve known those who bristle at the idea of anyone other than Beatles ever performing these songs. In this case, however, I knew that my audience was musically savvy enough—especially when it comes to the Beatles—to catch the fact that the songs were being used in a respectful manner by people who knew the originals down to the last note. I also suspected he would appreciate the fact that no attempt was made to do utterly superfluous covers that tried to sound like the Beatles. I was right, but I was also amused by the similarity of his response to that of filmmaker Don Mancini when I took him to see the film back in 2007. Both were sold on the film at the very same moment—T.V. Carpio’s performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” When it finished, Don leaned over to me and said, “That was just brilliant.” John’s reaction was identical even to the wording. Yes, it went on his “to buy” list without question.
It was at this point that an irony struck John—the realization that he’d watched and liked three musicals, when, in fact, he thought of himself as someone who doesn’t like musicals. I found this to be a peculiar notion to be espoused by someone whose DVD changer seemed to permanently contain A Hard Day’s Night and Help!—and who I knew liked Tommy (1975) and the Marx Brothers and The Ruling Class (1972). Of course, what he really meant was he doesn’t like a type of musical. He hadn’t, in fact, really thought of these films as musicals. Musicals, to him, meant Rodgers and Hammerstein and fare like Oklahoma and South Pacific—an aversion which I not only understand, but share. His rethinking the term may have been the most interesting aspect of the week.
And then came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—the film I was actually most concerned. Considering that you already know that we later ran The Darjeeling Limited (making Anderson the only director to make the grade twice), it’s probably obvious that it went over OK. This is to say that he responded to the deadpan humor, the strange emotional resonance and the almost inexplicable manner in which Anderson uses pop/rock songs that oughtn’t fit that somehow do. (Really, what does David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”—a song about being deserted by your gay lover—have to do with the ending of this movie? And yet what song could possibly work nearly so well?)
At the same time—and here we’ll jump ahead to The Darjeeling Limited as well—Anderson proved the most perplexing of the mix to him. The latter in particular verged on the impenetrable in the sense of “where is this going.” Of course, the answer is that it isn’t going anywhere in a strict sense, yet it goes exactly where it needs to in a broader sense. The problem to some degree stems from not only the high regard in which I hold Anderson’s work, but the high regard expressed by readers who commented. This, it seems, resulted in him having expectations that Anderson’s films are heavier than they are in a traditional sense. Personally, I think they’re quite heavy enough in terms of emotional resonance, but John was looking for something else that isn’t in them. Now, where that takes him after he digests the realization of what they are rather than what they’re not is something that time will determine.
On the other hand, the playful nature of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind pretty completely captivated him. I approached this one with some trepidation, simply because it is—on the surface—such a slight film that could come across as no more than lightly likable. Now, for me, that changes if you start looking at it on its deeper levels concerning what it says about the magic of movies and the power of the communal experience of movies. I don’t know if he actually got there consciously, but I know he did intuitively. His summation that it’s an idea “that shouldn’t work at all and yet somehow does” tells me that.
It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t love Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, though I found out after the fact that he certainly wasn’t expecting to. Nothing about the premise appealed to him and he’s not overfond of the Indian setting in itself. I’d have probably insisted even if we’d started off with me knowing these things. After all, I’ve seen how the film works with an audience. His immediate reaction at the ending was, “There’s no way you can’t like that movie.” (Well, I could find him a few people who disagree, but that’s always going to be true.)
The hindsight on the film—from talking about it by phone days later—is that it’s the one that seems to have become most indelibly imprinted on his mind. This has, not surprisingly perhaps, caused him to wonder if maybe he isn’t just a “sentimental sucker.” And maybe he is and maybe we both are and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Again, I’m waiting for a second viewing response, because Slumdog is a movie where the immensity of detail and the patterning of its structure just isn’t going to be obvious in a single viewing.
For myself, there was one overriding realization in seeing these seven movies in close succession. It started with me telling him that prior to Moulin Rouge! I’d never cared for Nicole Kidman—and adding that I could pinpoint the exact moment that that changed. It’s in her reaction shot to Ewan McGregor singing “Your Song” when she finally really hears him. I was suddenly hooked. And then I realized something about all of these films—something I’ve tried to convey in my choice of pictures for this column, and something that’s actually a little surprising.
All of the seven films are made by filmmakers who can only be called stylists. They are not working in a realistic form. All these are extremely stylized movies that are awash in the vocabulary of filmmaking for its own sake. This isn’t surprising to me, because I have an admitted and unregenerate penchant for stylization. Naturally, that would be reflected in my choices. But there’s something else. These are also films made by people with a deep sense of humanity and a love for humanity—and above all perhaps a love for and a trust in the human face.
No matter how flashy these movies may be in terms of filmmaking and no matter how different they are in the style of filmmaking, they all aim for—and achieve—their emotional power from the expressiveness of the faces of their characters. Whether we’re talking about the epic sweep of Moulin Rouge! or the relatively restrained approach of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so much of the emotional resonance comes from the faces in the films—and not always those of just the main characters. Seeing them en masse like this really drove that point home. It is, I think, what holds these films in place on the human level, and it’s something I’ll be more mindful of in the future.
Is this the end of the experiment? Not in the least. This is only the first chapter. It was, in some respects, a bit of overload for John, who isn’t used to seeing so much new material in such a short space of time. In fact, he said he isn’t sure he’d ever seen seven movies in five days before. Of course, I hadn’t thought of that because I’ve become accustomed to often seeing that many films in a couple days. (I’ll have seen six movies I’ve never seen before this weekend’s out.) It will undoubtedly take John some time to really assimilate all this—and probably to keep it from running together—but when he’s ready and when we can work it out again, there’s no doubt that there’s more to come.