Friday, March 27, 2020

The Three-Night-Five-Ratings-Points-Palm-Exploding-Heart Technique

For as much as there have been thousands of words written in regard to the lifetime of hours that Quentin Tarantino has spent in a cinema seat, there should also be a significant amount of discussion about how many hours in his youth were spent with television, and his ability to distinguish and appreciate the details unique to that medium that would otherwise be in conflict with the theatrical experience. In multiple interviews, when discussing laudable moments of actors, he has frequently cited guest star roles on television on an equal level of praise as film appearances. His occasional forays into directing for TV, helming episodes of "E.R." and "C.S.I.," resulted in strong ratings and are cited as standouts of those series. And his recent blockbuster ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD spends more time addressing how it has been television rather than the movies that has made and could break Rick Dalton's career, as well as provide shaky foundation for the Manson acolytes' violent behavior. Most importantly, over-the-air television contributed to the budding cineaste's education long before VHS tapes and video stores were a viable option. In a 1992 interview with Michel Ciment & Hubert Niogret, he stated, "I just watched TV in my childhood all the time...during the weekend in Los Angeles, these old movies constantly played on TV all day long..."

Thus it's an irony that while his catalog has enjoyed plenty of cable and on-demand play, only one of Tarantino's feature films has ever been aired on free broadcast TV. Granted, the amount of language and violence contained within any of his stories would be a nightmare for the average editor trying to create an edition suitable for the FCC; when Miramax and Disney prepared such a cut in 1997 for a first-run barter syndication premiere, the Los Angeles Times' news story headline literally asked, "PULP on TV?" Their reedit eliminated most of the curse words, several lines of dialogue, and even eliminated The Gimp as a character, using strategic cropping of the 2.35 image to keep him offscreen. Not an optimum way to watch one of the most important films of a decade, to be sure. The whole situation likely was a love/hate moment for Tarantino - on one hand, appreciating seeing his own movie on TV the same way he consumed movies for years, but also having to see it severely altered the same way Jackie Gleason may have reacted to seeing himself confoundingly scream, "Scum bum," with someone else's voice in the 1979 NBC network premiere of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

A year ago, a slow ripple of shock made its way through several fandoms when Netflix began airing an expanded edition of Tarantino's 70mm epic THE HATEFUL EIGHT, broken into 4 episodes of roughly 50 minutes each. Talking to SlashFilm after its stealth debut, he detailed how the platform approached him about this alternate idea, and why he accepted. "[I] thought, wow, that’s really intriguing. I mean, the movie exists as a movie, but if I were to use all the footage we shot, and see if I could put it together in episode form, I was game to give that a shot....We didn’t re-edit the whole thing from scratch, but we did a whole lot of re-editing, and it plays differently...It has a different feeling that I actually really like a lot. And there was [already] a literary aspect to the film anyway, so it definitely has this 'chapters unfolding' quality." He further elaborated, "Well if you like the movie, the movie is a movie, and I worked really hard [on it]. So even if I come out with a version that has more stuff in it, that doesn’t invalidate the first version...But now if you’ve seen that, and you like that, and you want more, this version gives you more…and it gives you more in a slightly different format...if you’re just watching it like a chapter at a [time], which is basically 50 minutes at a time, then you’re able to absorb it. And in a fun way, you’re able to look at it slightly differently. Do you want to keep watching it? You can, but you don’t have to. Each episode ends it an emotional place and you’re also able to see the whole original narrative complexity of the whole piece." Naturally, the question was raised if his other films would be revisited in a similar fashion, and while there were frequent musings that ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD could see an expanded episodic revision in the future, he stated that, "in the case of KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, KILL BILL is the one movie I’ve made where everything I shot is in the movie..."

More than one critic observed the similarity between this reconfiguration, and the 1977 NBC presentation of THE GODFATHER SAGA. Seeking additional revenue to fund his expansive APOCALYPSE NOW, Francis Ford Coppola made a deal with Paramount and the network to create this hybrid blend of his two Academy Award-winning films, reedited in chronological order by editor Barry Malkin, and also including scenes that had been removed from each film. The four-night event was a ratings smash, and even drew rave reviews from those who had not cared for the theatrical editions: TV Guide's Judith Crist, who had panned THE GODFATHER in New York magazine saying, "The film is as ‘good’ as the novel; essentially immoral and therefore far more dangerous," said of the reconstructed miniseries, "[It's] a knockout...a brilliant editing job by Barry Malkin...he has come up with a gangster-oriented 'ROOTS'...the 'charms' of the Corleone family have been de-emphasized; we have instead a chronological study of the blood bond of the Mafia and, most particularly, of the father-to-son or don-to-heir transmission of character." The four-night event was a ratings smash, with NBC re-airing it in 1980, and holding onto the rights until 1987. Variations of this linear version were created for home video and other cable channels; more recently, AMC aired a slightly more violent edition in HD in 2012, and HBO offered a full-strength R-level edit for streaming in 2016. Generally all fans of Coppola's films, in direct rebuke to Crist, will always caution the first-timer to watch each GODFATHER film as its own separate film experience, but after that is done, many also enjoy the alternate miniseries option, and Paramount's multiple solicitations of such are testament to its enduring appeal.

KILL BILL has always held a special place to me in the Tarantino canon, because even though it has been described by its creator as a story that exists in a stylized "movie world" as opposed to the slightly more realish "Tarantinoverse," (to borrow from its originally intended male lead Warren Beatty, it is DICK TRACY versus BULWORTH) it's that stylization that speaks to me as a early film devotee. I can't really point to one single moment or screening from my childhood that pounded in the Golden Spike to make me a lifelong obsessive, but somewhere in 1976 the switch flipped and I started poring over Friday newspaper ads and drawing studio logos in my notebook. And as all this was developing in parents had a very acrimonious divorce, an event that put a wedge between my mother and I that's never fully healed. Like, I call her every Sunday and check up on her and pray for her health, but as Nick Nolte softly growled in THE PRINCE OF TIDES, she's done a lot to piss me off, and I don't know when my parents began their war against each other - but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children. In those early months when my dad moved out of the house, and they were hashing out property divisions and visitation access, in some ways, I can understand how she would have identified with The Bride: feeling like her true love and all their friends had abandoned her and left her for dead, and her in turn making sure they would viscerally know her pain long after everyone else had ostensibly moved on. And yes, I know she loved me, in her own Conroy-esque hardness, and would have fought against anyone who tried to keep me from her. But I won't associate her with The Bride. For starters, she would not have appreciated the significance of falling asleep with SHOGUN ASSASSIN playing in the background. While she found my found my film addiction cute, she never took it seriously - she kept referring to it with the "H" word, and if you've ever heard someone use that word to describe the only thing that gives you elevation and a sense of purpose in the world, then you know why it's an epithet. More importantly, The Bride, even in her righteous fury, exercised an enormous amount of nuance in how she regarded her ostensible enemies list, and everyone else that was in the path; my mom was much more binary in her thinking. Basically, middle school was me devouring TV, teaching myself how movies work, and trying not to stir up more trouble between the folks so I could have some peace. And while I had a rollicking time watching KILL BILL as an adult, I would have downright plotzed if such a film existed in my tweens.

The rub is that if KILL BILL had existed in my tweens, I would have had no way to see it at the cinema. Definitely neither of my parents would have taken me: my mom can't even abide the word "damn" in her presence, and my father, who to his credit loved INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and ONCE UPON A TIME  IN HOLLYWOOD, wasn't a fan of "low" culture. Even with the rise of cable and videocassettes, it would have been too hard to sneak something like that past them. And I did not yet have any cool friends or relatives who could drive and were willing to take me to movies like it. So, yes, I would have to wait until some ridiculous edited version showed up on one of the Big 3 in prime time, or if I was lucky, on the local pre-Fox independent station where they often got uncut 16mm prints and sometimes ran them in the late night hours. Sure, it would have been sanitized and full of commercials and not the high-octane experience I deserved, but in light of my options then, I would have been satiated. I knew there'd be opportunity to see the "real" thing when I was older and on my own.

Thus, as an enthusiastic fan, an incurable collector of movies in multiple edits and formats, an empath to the less-digitally-advanced, and a hopeless nostalgic for the era before media overload where there was a thrill of catching movies on free analog television, with the broadcast to millions at once and the pageantry of the network intros, much like the alternate history proposed by ONCE UPON A TIME..., I have envisioned my own divergent timeline:

It's 2007. To shake up the February "Sweeps Week" programming, and in anticipation of the highly-touted GRINDHOUSE, NBC approaches Disney's now-brothersless Miramax, and expresses their interest in having the network television premiere of KILL BILL. In the retro spirit of the drive-in double feature that has yet to open in theatres, they're even going to revert to the old '70s "Big N" logo and their old "THE BIG EVENT" imprimatur to promote it. However, rather than simply air KILL BILL VOL. 1 one night and KILL BILL VOL. 2 a following night, they make the unusual proposal to present the unified story over three nights as a miniseries!  Their argument is that VOL 2 is too long to air in one night anyway, this will allow them to sell more commercial time for this unique premiere, and besides, they're not going to completely yield the schedule over because there's no way they're giving up those sweet hour-long ratings that "DEAL OR NO DEAL" and "TO CATCH A PREDATOR" have been delivering. Bucking conventional wisdom, Tarantino and Disney agree to the proposition, and thus comes...

The terrific art repurposed here is by Joshua Budich, see it in full color at his website!

In order to accommodate this three-evening structure, and agreeing in this fantasy that most but not all of the inherent carnage will be allowed to remain in the film and still be acceptable to run on the public airwaves opposite "7TH HEAVEN," "TWO AND A HALF MEN," and "DANCING WITH THE STARS," there will indeed be some radical rearrangement of the scenes. Indeed, the whole chaptering of the film will be different than any theatrical presentation.

I can already hear thousands of Hattori Hanzo swords being unsheathed at this point, ready to cut me down for speaking this kind of heretical idea in public. As your admittedly hubristic correspondent, I often anticipate, and indeed encourage you from time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you're unconvinced that a particular opinion I've espoused is the wisest, tell me so, but allow me to convince you and I promise you right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo. Now, back to our program.

If you think very deeply about the emotional arc of the film, while there are five people on The Bride's kill list, there are three characters that are of the most paramount significance in her quest for bloody satisfaction. So, each evening's installment allows those three confrontations to be their respective climax. Remember the quote regarding the segmenting of THE HATEFUL EIGHT: "a slightly different format...a chapter at a [time]...look at it slightly differently...Each episode ends it an emotional place." 

This was something already understood in the theatrical releases. We see The Bride fight Vernita Green first even though she is second on the kill list. Why? Because the O-Ren fight is a larger battle in all senses, there's no way to top it, so Volume 1 has to end shortly after it's done. But it's going to be a while to get to that point, so in order for the captive cinema audience to not be left like Milhouse van Houten waiting for Itchy & Scratchy to get to the explosives factory, you get to see The Bride in action early in another nicely-staged fight, and once that's done, now you're ready to learn how she came back from a bullet in the prologue. It's like Ed Sullivan in 1964 knowing that the teens in his studio are chomping at the bit to see The Beatles, so it's better to let them go up front and then promise they'll come back later than make them wait through Topo Gigio and get restless.  A TV miniseries, conversely, can be a little more deliberate with allocating story elements. "TWIN PEAKS" opens with Laura Palmer found dead, the viewer is willing to start meeting all the suspects because they know something important's going to happen later.

So, here is how the story would play out under the auspices of the Sheinhardt Wig Company:

Night 1: ROAR

The episode opens as V1 does, with its ShawScope and Astro Dater teases, the black-and-white prologue of The Bride in her "final" moments as Bill sends her off with a gunshot, and the mournful "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" credit sequence. However, after that, the broadcast goes directly into "The Blood-Spattered Bride," which now becomes Chapter One, and everything from there unfolds as it did in the V1 theatrical edition, albeit with each subsequent chapter within ("The O-Rigin of O-Ren," "The MAN from OKINAWA," and "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves") being bumped up a digit. The teases of V2 from the end of V1, which were not included in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, are retained, but Bill's cliffhanger final line is not uttered at the end of the episode, to help further the surprises to come later on.

In this incarnation, the initial two-hour installment becomes even more focused on The Bride's recovery, and her appointment with O-Ren Ishii. Even though it would ostensibly be easier to find and kill Vernita and Budd first, since they don't command a literal army like O-Ren does, The Bride has chosen this path precisely because if she can take out a now world-famous criminal warlord, it's mostly downhill from there. It'll put a little more fear into the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. And most importantly, besides Bill, O-Ren is the squad member that she loved most. It is why she is given an entire chapter for her backstory - O-Ren's rise from trauma to a level of untouchability to rival Bill himself is something The Bride respects. It is also why, after having the kind of friendship where they finished each others sentences, it hurts the hardest that she willingly agreed to betray her. By decimating all of her lackeys, to the point where they must fight one to one, O-Ren will now have to respect what damage she did to her former friend. And by killing someone she still carries fondness for, The Bride will be better prepared for her confrontation with Bill.

Night 2: RAMPAGE

The episode opens with a reprise of The Bride's trunkside warning to Sofie Fatale, then after fading to black on "They'll all be as dead as O-Ren," goes straight into "2," the chapter which previously opened V1 but has now been moved here to start this evening's installment, making it Chapter Five. That is followed by the "We deserve to die" conversation between Bill and Budd, and the remainder unfolds as it did in the V2 theatrical edition, up to the finish of the "Elle and I" chapter, upon which the episode ends.

By delaying the prologue and chapter which would otherwise open the theatrical version of V2, this installment is all about delivering retribution to the remaining members of the Squad, but most importantly to Elle. If O-Ren was The Bride's best friend, Elle is her worst enemy and emotional antithesis. Besides her general misanthropy, Elle particularly fumes over the fact that she is always in the shadow of The Bride, as a fellow student of Pai Mei, as the rebound girl for Bill's affections. The only reason she even utters a single sentence of respect for The Bride, saying that she deserved better than Budd getting a lucky ambush on her, is because she knows the only witness to that statement will soon be dead. Elle knows that no matter how skilled and fearsome she is, she will always be compared to The Bride, and The Bride knows Elle's been starving for her head before she showed up at the church. Vernita and Budd certainly put up a significant challenge, but Elle as the anti-Bride is the climax to this group vendetta, and closing the night's broadcast on the finish to their feud is a clean breaking point to stop and breathe before the final showdown.

Night 3: REVENGE

The episode opens with The Bride's driver's seat address which previously opened V2, followed by the chapter "Massacre at Two Pines," and then going into the final chapter "Face to Face." Again, when watching in a theatrical setting, the Massacre is put at the front of V2 so that it is always in the back of your mind as the Vipers are dispatched and the march to meeting Bill advances, but in a TV setting, reshuffling to put the final episode entirely on the fall and finish of The Bride and Bill's relationship fulfills the same concept as the HATEFUL EIGHT Netflix edition, to look at the story slightly differently and put it in its own emotional space. And in these final two hours, concentrating all their history together and estranged, when all the secrets Bill and The Bride hid from each other come out on the table, it's a conclusion that, while perhaps forgone at the start, the TV audience would still excitedly anticipate the way they did Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph hooking up in "THE THORN BIRDS," which, oddly enough had its ABC network premiere on Tarantino's birthday, March 27, 1983.

Which is as good a time as any to break for some commercials from that broadcast date. Even fight master Pai Mei himself would agree with Sheer Elegance's proposition that nothing beats a great pair of legs.

No, if this alternate 2007 had happened, it would not be any proper way to discover KILL BILL for the first time viewer. It would have at best been an interesting experiment like THE GODFATHER SAGA or THE HATEFUL EIGHT series, or at worst a mutation excoriated by fans yet still coveted by tape traders and torrentors alongside NBC's two-night stretch re-edit of EARTHQUAKE in 1976.
But that's the thing with artists of any discipline - it's not enough to behold the perfectly assembled watch, there's always the desire to look at its parts and attempt to assemble it another way...

So happy birthday to Mr. Tarantino, one of the best watchmakers in the business.

And here's to any sheltered child today who doesn't have cool parents and/or easy access to cinemas or streaming or DVDs, that is still fending for themselves with what constitutes "free" TV: may they find something that, even in a family-friendly edit, blows their mind and spurs their own creative fancy.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Pass Me the Product Nineteen

After four years of ass-kicking, 2019 somehow finally served the impression things were improving. Or maybe that was a delusion brought on by all the buffeting; The New Cruelty is ongoing, to be sure. But it felt better all the same, and you gotta get your serotonin where ya can.

I hit 50 this year. It's still a little weird to reckon with. In fifth grade, 50 was old to me. And seeing that I'm still devouring the art and culture that I relished in fifth grade, it's hard not to sometimes wonder if I'm not really just a child on stilts and a long coat. Also considering that there's another deadass generation gap that's causing multiple stresses among the people, I feel a constantly increasing kinship with that forgotten Prince Don Fabrizio Cabrera in believing that I belong to an unlucky generation, astride between two worlds and ill-at-ease in both.

"That's why God made the movies..."

The highest honor I received this year, frankly the highest in many years, was a most unique form of cinematic immortality. After years of evolving from exuberant fan to thoughtful chronicler to trusted correspondent for his treasured cinema, my trajectory with Quentin Tarantino brought me (or, specifically, my Persian housewife hands) to a small but significant amount of screen time in his magnum opus ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, appropriately brandishing a reel of film and threading it into a projector, placing me in the august company of Jack Webb wielding a hammer or Dario Argento garrotting a dayplayer. I'd just as soon not go into the specifics of how my lovely knuckles made it into one of the most hotly debated films of the year in this forum. Maybe if you see me in person and buy me a boilermaker, I'll tell the tale.

Big thanks to Joon Kim for the screengrabs!

Naturally, since I had a literal hand in this epic production, I must respectfully render it ineligible for my list. I can, however, give it my Jury Prize, and proclaim without prejudice that in a similar manner which his Sundance '92 friend and colleague Allison Anders explored in GRACE OF MY HEART, it's a swarming swooning speculative fiction about artists in a time and place that may well have only existed in the minds of people moved by the movies, along with romantic fools like me. As I documented for the New Beverly, I could see the joists and the plumbing erected before the house opened to the public, and I am pleased that so many have come to visit it. But yeah, having bragging rights to a few flash frames therein feels great too.

And I meanwhile happily award a Runaway Jury Prize to Steven Knight's questionable but unforgettable mystery SERENITY. The less said about its daffy surprises, the better, but I'll sum up that if Strong Bad decided to follow up the Dangeresque series by writing an erotic thriller, it would be an awful lot like SERENITY.

(typing) "Get ye fish."

(processing) "You cannot get ye fish."

(typing) "No, for real, print me out a million dollar bill, man. Dot exe."

And then here will be some sort of convoluted wordplay or pun which introduces you to The Top 13 of 2019:

 12. US


“Curation, at its best, is not just how you like something, which is the most dangerous place to go, but what the music means to the band, what it means to the fans, and whether it should be part of how someone first connects [with the artist]."

-- Gary Stewart, February 10, 1957 – April 11, 2019

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The New Normal of NEXT LEVEL

Roughly nine years ago, I stumbled across a great glorious cinematic What-in-the-Sam-Hill called STANDING OVATION, which I described as the tweener intersection of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and "JERSEY SHORE." I happily say that I have a fondness for films aimed at the grade school set, decades after they stopped being relevant to my existence, because more often than not I can imagine how li'l Mark (before he started spelling his name with a "c" instead of a "k" just to be difficult) would have reacted to them. Look, many of you have probably revisited the movies of your childhood and determined that they don't really hold up, but more often than not they still make you smile because you're remembering the wide-eyed hope of that earlier time. All I'm doing different is viewing such modern-day trifles through a theoretical fog of memory instead of an actual one.

So when I started seeing the advertising for another Pre-Adolescent Performing Arts Saga called NEXT LEVEL, naturally I was intrigued, being that ever since that previous jolt of kooky endorphins, I've been chasing that cotton-candy dragon for years since. I made the drive to attend one of the few theatrical playdates the movie has been granted - apparently the release is so small a theatre count or opening weekend gross could not be obtained from Box Office Mojo - and sure enough, I was the only person at my screening. For all I know, I may have been the only person in attendance for the whole day's worth of shows. To my mild disappointment, I was not treated to the same delirious array of plot turns and aesthetic decisions that made STANDING OVATION one-of-a-kind. Those looking for the next OOGIELOVES or THE IDENTICAL are thus duly warned. But, to my warm-hearted pleasure, I found just enough grace notes at play that I felt it worth expending space at this moribund blog to discuss them.

My close friend and esteemed colleague William Bibbiani, who was one of the few people to also take the time to meet this movie halfway and write a review for it, served up a thumbs-down pan for The Wrap that was nonetheless fair-minded, friendly, and respectful. His largest issue with the movie appears to be its lack of plausibility and stakes-worthy conflict, stating that, "the film’s production values [undermine] the story at every turn." On his Critically Acclaimed podcast with Witney Seibold, he further addressed that though it would be churlish to take issue with teenagers of limited acting experience and range performing as such, the experience of watching the film felt akin to being the parent of one of the kids who feels compelled to stay and watch the proceedings even though rooting interest dissipated shortly after their particular fave already did their number. Which is pretty much how my own father felt when he came to watch the big show at the performing arts camps he sent me to for my middle school years, not to mention how my friends felt about coming to see me during my open-mic stand-up years. (Plot twist: they didn't, and I wound up performing to the empty room that resulted after the audience members who came to see their friends split when their five minutes was up. But I digress) Much like me, he was hoping for a different kind of "camp" movie.

Bibbs has cogently assessed why he does not recommend it. I am not here about simply gainsaying his points, suffice to say that, in keeping with the principle coined by programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks as "neo-sincerity," what took him out of the movie never troubled me. Low production value? Sending me to Days of Creation cost my dad plenty, and their facilities were definitely not Camp Mohawk posh. The songs and choreography are so-so? Would it be better if Tommy French from SMILE were to have been in charge and turned a nice bunch of high school kids into Vegas showgirls? And, dude, it's not that Cindy turned on the house lights during Kelly's number, it's that her jerk move cut the power to her backing music and threw off the act. Didn't you ever have to solve the mystery of "The music stopped, and the lady died" when you were in middle school? But hey, consistency is a hobgoblin of small minds. And speaking of HOBGOBLINS...naah, we'll table that movie for now. The point is, he's already lain out what doesn't work. I've come to say here's what does work, DO MORE OF THAT!

The element that director Alyssa Goodman and screenwriter Byron Kavanagh bring to NEXT LEVEL which I believe help transcend it's outwardly ragged issues is how it quietly upends and thwarts the gender tropes that would normally be de rigeur in a PAPAS (yes, I am going to make that acronym happen). Press materials have openly name-checked MEAN GIRLS as an influence, though what I kept thinking of as I was watching was Jessica Bendinger's underappreciated directorial debut STICK IT, in how the ongoing theme is that shoehorning a young woman's desire to hone a talent into a winner-take-all environment will either curdle their personality or drain all joy from that pursuit, or both. Modern movies like to talk a good game of girl power and cooperation, but it's rare you see something where the lead is doing her damnedest to not be an Alpha in her group...and succeeds. It also keenly addresses that even if you outwardly eschew competition, it's often still ingrained in your thoughts. A particularly striking moment is when, after a boys versus girls dodgeball game, Kelly, the maverick who doesn't care about winning, initially resents that Hayden, the boy who likes her, effectively let her win; she considers it condescending that he didn't bring his A game. But Hayden points out that yeah, he could have flung the ball hard and beaned her, but then she'd be in pain and probably not in the mood to spend more time with him, and she agrees. Later, when Cindy pulls a boilerplate make-the-girl-jealous-with a hug scam, Hayden describes what happened and Kelly recognizes that Cindy's obsessed with manipulating people and bam, it's resolved. The contrivances of most teen stories are cut short here. It's refreshing that all the boys in this movie for once are not presented as antagonists or chaos agents, but just benign diversions. When they first appear, disrupting an initial rehearsal, they flat out say they heard the song and dance happening and liked it and wanted to watch, and after some chiding, are allowed to. When they acquiesce to their makeover bet payoff with the girls, none of them seem embarrassed or even that anxious to get it off, much to the chagrin of their female coach. Heck, the d.j.'s at the closing night celebration are girls. And the fact that at the end it is suggested that hey, why not allow boys in this arts camp as well, frankly I laughed heartily at that because after decades of having to sit through dozens of movies where "girls can do this too" is the moral, turnabout is fair play and overdue.

Another element that may seem incredulous to some but felt effective to me is the virtual lack of adult supervision in this story. Aside from the hapless camp director, there are no other adult males ever seen. And beyond some early comic relief with Cindy's enabling mother, a disheartening audio exchange between Becky and her pushy stage mom, and the one moment with the boys' basketball camp coach, no adult women either, Even the ostensible visiting mentor Jasmine Joel is herself just reaching college age, though she does have some lessons to impart. Thus, we are spared any kind of tired "the grown-ups have the answers" lecturing; the girls in effect are recognizing and solving their own problems. As FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH director Amy Heckerling once observed, "I hate parents. Parents open a whole box of stuff I [don’t] want to get into. I just [want] to say ‘Here’s the world of kids in their own universe.'" And in a film that is almost exclusively going to be viewed by the Tiger Beat set, agency and self-determination are good skills to depict.

I'll further throw in to say that I enjoyed how while there is a declared prize to be won within the story, it is deliberately undercut to the point of becoming an anticlimax. There's a nice resolution between Cindy and Kelly that dovetails to the earlier exchange between Kelly and Hayden, where the girls debate whether, if they had not been at loggerheads, the award win would have been different, and then decide it would have been the same because their essential temperaments for achievement have always been different, and there's more contentment from having good company. Even in an uplifting kids movie, one is risking massive mockery to go for a "the real prize was the friends we made along the way" ending. Seeing as how Kelly, in an earlier gloomy moment, assumes that her botched performance will shortly become a meme, and in real life all these eager young performers already have an internet presence, everyone involved in this film are aware that the snark brigade is always waiting. So woot to them for believing that sometimes if you leave girls to their own devices, they won't go LORD OF THE FLIES on each other; for the viewers about to start high school, that's reassuring. And for some of us arrested adolescents as well.

While NEXT LEVEL is not a strong enough movie to hold much interest for anyone who isn't a teenage girl or their sitter for the night, if you do find yourself watching it in such circumstance...your roommate absconded with your copy of the original HAIRSPRAY, and CAMP with Anna Kendrick got pulled from streaming, and you don't think your young charge is ready for Coco's breakdown in FAME, you will see a world where girls are valued, boys aren't toxic, and in a time of your life where it feels like Everything is Everything, it's possible to lower the stakes and find calm. Bibbs is right in that I won't likely remember any of the song or dance numbers that were supposed to be the big draw. But I will remember that I had a good time, and that's worth something too.

(P.S.: Thank you for the post-credit blooper reel. Since most indie movies don't get physical media releases anymore, I sometimes worry that little bonuses like this may fall by the wayside. Why should Marvel fans get all the cookies?)

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

One May Make It as Long as One is Full from What One Eight

2015 kicked my ass. 2016 kicked everybody's ass. 2017 discovered our collective asses were numb from all the kicking, so a series of sucker punches, rope burns, paper cuts, and other attacks ensued. 2018 continued the the war. Like advertising copy from the trailer of a Russ Meyer classic, it was a haymaking, belly-busting, karate-chopping, judo-flipping, fight to end them all! Slashing, tackling, gouging, hacking, flipping, belting, smashing, and blasting! Muscle to muscle, bone to bone! The prize: Life itself.

And for now, the prize is retained.

Oh, speaking of prizes, while this year reached an all-time personal low in theatrical viewings overall, I am gratified that at the very least, I can bring back the auxilary awards that have been long dormant during The (Continuing) New Cruelty.

When I was associated with a certain flagship theatre of a well-respected national chain of art cinemas, I was lucky enough to befriend the energetic writer/director Sacha Gervasi, who had brought his enormously moving and still-vital documentary ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL! to my workplace. In the decade since that first meeting, I have had the pleasure of keeping company with him on multiple occasions. How many to be precise? Modesty forbids. And during that decade, I was frequently regaled with the wild and illuminating story of how, as a young journalist, he found himself an active participant in the final days of counterculture artist turned cult actor Herve Villechaize, and his longstanding desire to turn it into a film despite its less-than-commercial prospects. This year, he made it happen, and I am happy to give it a reinvigorated Jury Prize. MY DINNER WITH HERVE, much like a previous Jury Prize winner of mine INCOMPRESA, meshes fact and fiction to deliver an emotional truth about a real person whose legend has too often superseded his reality. It's kind, empathetic, mordantly funny, and proof that if you have a seemingly untenable dream, like a biopic about the world's most famous dwarf (or of being a successful heavy metal artist in your '50s), there can be a reward to spending the time and toil to make it a reality.

And after spending the last few years bereft of witnessing a truly singular, guileless, and completely daft theatrical experience, it is with enormous pleasure that I can revive my "Runaway Jury" Prize for Douglas Burke's SURFER: TEEN CONFRONTS FEAR. Very few people would think that accumulated home videos of surfing travels, new age Christian spiritualism, after-hours access to an acting school, a dead beached whale, and a reluctant child actor could be woven into a feature film, but first-time director Burke, moonlighting from his day job as a physics professor, grabbed a GoPro and an editing program and decided why not. I sit through plenty of respectable films that have that scene you know is the Oscar Speech, so when I behold Burke going nonstop for 10 minutes on Biblical parables and water creatures without taking a breath, I have to salute that level of commitment. The fine genre screenwriter Simon Barrett had this succinct observation: "I have mixed feelings about SURFER. On one hand, it is a fine film about surfing and receiving poetic life advice from the ghost of a semi-comatose covert assassin who has been temporarily resurrected as squid meat. On the other, it has no talking cat in it." Look, sometimes you get to drink 30 year-aged Scotch from a posh reserve, sometimes you grab a cold beer from the pony keg. But every so often a Freddie Quell comes into your life and mixes you a concoction that is some unholy mix of lighter fluid, clam juice, and Shasta, and it's the most memorable drink you've had in years. And a cinematic life without that kind of jolt, well that's living in an iron maiden of pain,boy!

Meanwhile, I will also take a moment to acknowledge the good work of an organization that I otherwise have many many many problems with: Netflix. I still view them as the perpetual spoiled rich kid with a short attention span who continually decides they want something, eliminates every obstacle in their path to get it, and then decides they don't want it anymore. And yes, they have made it possible for passion projects that studios refused to find a supportive home...for a little while, anyhow. But for every THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND or SHIRKERS that is given a boost, there are literally dozens of other original films that, if they don't immediately start trending on Twitter, get buried in the algorithm and forgotten, without any sort of alternate availability such as physical media or theatrical repertory, with only the vague memory or google-fu skills of hardened film fans to actually use that search window to see if it's still on the site. So, for those of you who missed them on the first go, I offer this:

Five Worthwhile Films on Netflix Nobody Saw But Me:

The American Meme
Jewel's Catch One
Roxanne Roxanne

And finally, as I stated earlier, theatregoing became an even bigger casualty in this year of eating lunch from the Dollar General and kissing pennies from the ridiculous because the sensible aren't hiring. I missed A LOT of important movies this season, so if you don't see your fave rave here, it's probably not because I'm being some sort of ornery contrarian. I mean, I am an ornery contrarian in regular practice, but let's use that blame when it's deserved. At this point, I now have so many asterisks to my lists, they look like censored cursing in a comic strip. But when I did make it into a cinema, these were the moments that carried me through the nights I had to focus on so-called real-world matters. Bearing no influence from Cambridge Analytica, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, or Sal Hepatica, The Top 13 of 2018*:














"We need a witness to our lives… [someone] saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.'"

Photo Credit:Walt Disney Studios, via Alamy

 -- Audrey Wells,  January 25, 1960 - October 4, 2018

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fernand Raynaud and His Role in Amusing Myself

Your first favorite comedy recording is one of the milestones of your childhood; it may not fully define the expanse or range of what you find funny as you grow older, but it presents the root elements that made you laugh all those years ago, and probably still hooks you today when you search for a moment’s distraction.

I spent the first few years of my life in a melange of languages. My mother, newly transplanted to America from years in Naples, Italy, switched between French and Italian on alternate days, believing it would help continue communication between myself and her non-English speaking parents, who had also moved stateside to be closer to me. My father just kept speaking English. I have no memory of what transpired, but according to him, after a stretch of this, I stopped speaking completely for almost six months, and then just as abruptly, started up again. Therapists they took me to then could not agree on whether being immersed in multiple tongues was helping me or confusing me – a debate which continues today – so once I inexplicably ended the vocal standoff, the decision was made to pare down to just French and English at home. So while I had previously (and adorably) been able to muscle up to a barista on a cruise liner and say, “Uno cappucino, subito!” before the age of four, what Italian I learned faded away, my French stayed conversational though I would never fully master writing it or nail that eternal aigue versus grave divide, and I learned to speak the flat unaffected English of any other child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Nonetheless, my first comedy memory was impacted by that multilingual setting. My mother had brought with her a collection of comedy 45s by a French comedian named Fernand Raynaud. And one in particular I somehow gravitated to, playing it as constantly as most growing kids played their Disney storybook record, and ultimately memorizing the sketch. Well, technically, memorizing it as onomatopoeiatically possible, since between skips in the record and the high speed slang of the delivery, I never fully understood all the actual words being said. But my determination to recite it at the drop of a hat definitely made for some initial amusement at family gatherings. Then, for various reasons practical and personal, this obsession became just a curious historical anecdote as I discovered Monty Python, George Carlin, the Second City, and other English-language comedy.

Trying to describe the appeal of a foreign-language comedian whose prime came before the internet offered global interconnectivity is not quite as difficult as dancing about architecture, but it’s still a bit of a challenge. With that Magilla Gorilla in the room, I’ll give it a try.

Fernand Raynaud’s comedy was driven by storytelling, reciting events and sketches using exaggerated voices and facial expressions, usually building to one big payoff, kind of a French equivalent of Jerry Clower. And since some of his sketches became quite popular, he would also effectively be an ancestor of that genre which “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” would mercilessly brand for eternity as, “The Kings of Catchphrase Comedy.” Raynaud was in fact often derided by some comedy fans for this appeal, which was at odds with another popular French comedian of the day, Raymond Devos, who was perceived as way more literate. Writer François Beaune described the divide through the words of a woman he encountered in 2011:

Fernand Raynaud, really, he was already cheesy back then...When I was young, there were only two comedians: Fernand Raynaud and Raymond Devos. In my cultivated, bourgeois family, we loved Devos. [Raynaud’s] interminable croissant gag...[he] was for the proles, Devos was for the nerds. There were still real class distinctions.”

Raynaud’s affinity was indeed for working class characters, and their daily toil against the indignities of job, home, and other people. This was likely inspired from his upbringing in Oradou, a suburb of Clermont-Ferrand, dominated by Michelin’s tire factory, where his father worked as a foreman. He left school at 15, and lived a nomadic, knockaround life into his 20s, working a multitude of jobs, doing military service in Berlin during WWII, and losing two of his fingers in an undefined accident. When he began regularly performing in Parisian cabarets and television in the mid-’50s, he performed material inspired by the personalities he had encountered through his travels, most often sporting a battered hat and long coat. As Beaune observed, “The characters of Fernand Raynaud are beautiful and complex creatures: the sister, the switchboard operator, the customs officer, the [brat]...No stereotypes. Fernand possessed the art of portraiture, the art of observing, of transcribing without exaggerating, of sketching reality.”

Probably the best representation of Raynaud’s skill for social observation and wresting comedy from a repeated phrase is his well-remembered sketch, “J’ m’amuse.” In a set up that serves as a scarily prescient prediction of modern-day corporate doublespeak, a factory boss calls an impromptu meeting of all his employees to inform them that starting immediately, “to boost morale,” no one is allowed to even say that they are laboring or doing a job, they must say, “I’m enjoying myself.” There are predictably tired and grouchy recitations of the new euphemism by the unlucky grunts who are put on the spot to test the new rule, but the sketch reaches its full potential as the boss grills a supply clerk about his role in the factory, and the clerk keeps repeating the “I’m enjoying myself” maxim, demonstrating the clear absurdity of this directive, to a perfect conclusion:

SUPPLY CLERK: I think I’ll be enjoying myself here for another fifteen years, until my retirement, tell you what!

THE BOSS: And after that, what will you do?

SUPPLY CLERK: Well then after that? I'll go to work!

The sketch that I had memorized as a five-year-old was “Bourreau d’enfants,” which literally translates as “Executioner of Children” but would probably be better understood as simply “Child Abuser.” Raynaud alternately narrates and acts out the chaos of a dyspeptic father trying to get his intransigent son to eat his dinner, and the yelling between them leads the neighbors to constantly scream the title catchphrase. Perhaps, to modern listeners, that's a grim-sounding scenario for a lighthearted comedy routine, especially to be re-recited by a child like me back then. However, speaking as a former child, that's a scenario likely relatable to any parent, or neighbor to a parent for that matter; as the late Rahn Ramey observed, if you’ve never thought about killing your kids, that’s because your kids don’t live with you. Revisiting and translating it for this article yielded fresh insight that I obviously lacked back then. For example, there is a third character in the sketch, the father’s mother-in-law who vainly tries to mediate the dispute. Which leads me to the question, where is the actual mother during this dinner? I rather suspect the fact that Raynaud chose to dramatize a grandparent rather than the maternal parent was perhaps meant to hint that mother was off working a night job! 

A reasonably faithful translation of the French audio is provided in small print below:

FATHER: Toto, eat your soup.

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it. Tonight, I don’t want to eat my soup.

FATHER: Eat it right away, Toto. Otherwise I will see it as my paternal obligation to serve you, with deep regret, a lovely pair of slaps to your face.

TOTO: Ohh...oh how unhappy I must be...all this crazy slapping when I don’t want to eat things I don’t like...Oh, I’ve had it...what I life I lead…

FATHER: Stop your crying, Toto, or otherwise I will give you such a slap, you'll know why you're crying.

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Seriously, you’re not going to rile up the neighborhood because you don’t want to eat your soup, no? Eat it this instant!

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it. Tonight I decided that I won’t eat my soup.

FATHER: Oh like that you decided?

TOTO: Yes, that’s what I decided.

FATHER: Well, you’re going to eat it.

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it.

FATHER: Yes, you will eat it!

TOTO: {wailing}

MOTHER IN LAW: It seems to me, my son-in-law, that for the education of your son, it would certainly be preferable at the moment, would it not, especially at this time that we live in…

FATHER: You, “mother,” give me a break. If you’re not happy here, I’ll show you the door.

MOTHER IN LAW: This I thought I’d never see; my children, throwing me in the street.

TOTO: That’s papa, he wants to throw us in the street. {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Stop your screaming! I’m not going to play along with this drama! What do you want to eat since you don’t want to eat your soup?

TOTO: What would I like? I would like...a sausage.

FATHER: You’d eat a sausage?

TOTO: Tonight I’d definitely eat a sausage.

FATHER: Well, you’re not going to eat a sausage because you are going to eat your soup right this minute.

TOTO: No, I’ll eat a sausage.

FATHER: No, you won’t eat it.

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

The father goes downstairs at top speed, he rouses the butcher after they've closed for the night, and he returns with a sausage.

FATHER: There. Happy? You’ll give me a moment’s peace now?

TOTO: {wailing}

FATHER: What are you going on about now, what do you want?

TOTO: I want you to have a piece before me.

FATHER: That I eat a sausage? After I’ve already had my jam? Never, you hear.

TOTO: Uh-huh. I know you want to poison me, then.

FATHER: No, but you’re crazy. Yes, completely. I don’t want to poison you.

TOTO: Then eat a piece!

FATHER: No, I won’t eat it!

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Be quiet, you! I swear to you, I’ll eat your darned piece of sausage. And after that you’ll give me peace. (mouth full) Because, first attention...I’ll show you out the door, you hear? So don’t make your faces at me. You’ll be eating your sausage with your school teachers. (swallow) There! Are you happy? I ate your piece of sausage!

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: How can this be? You didn’t want to eat your soup, you didn’t eat it. You wanted me to bring you a sausage and I brought it. You wanted me to eat a piece, and I ate it. And you’re still whining? Why?

TOTO: You ate the piece that I wanted!

Thinking back to that very distant time of my childhood, where memory is often difficult to recover, I am inclined to believe that while I liked the laughs I was getting for regurgitating the routine, I was probably first drawn to it and ultimately embraced it because with the highs and lows of the dialogue between the sketch's father and son, it was almost like memorizing a favorite song. Maybe it was less about the subject matter and more the melody of the French being spoken itself that drew me in.

Similarly, to really get in a zone to write this piece, I mainlined easily two dozen or more monologues and sketches of Raynaud's, some of which I was able to suss out meaning from with my pidgin understanding of French, some that I did not but instead simply listened to, indeed, as if they were musical compositions. And while I've got a definite bias because I'm trying to sell the validity of my subject to the reader, I did feel a definite and immediate sense of comfort listening to his patter at length, the kind of easy feeling decades of "A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION" audiences have likely felt. I have not yet gone so far as to listen to an equal amount of his ersatz rivals Raymond Devos or Colouche or Fernandel, but I'm open to that idea, depending on how much response I get for this initial foray. But I digress.

At the height of his fame in the ‘60s, doing TV and movies in France, and taking his stage act to London, Canada, and Africa, Raynaud was now in a paradoxical position. His success meant he could take his children on holidays his hard-laboring father could not, but they would often have to cut their visits short due to being besieged by fans. Also, the high demand for his performances led to being subject to higher taxes, which he could only feasibly pay off by working even more than he already was. His son Pascal recounted in a 2003 interview that he tried to balance all these conflicting forces as best he could: “Even when he was traveling 400 kilometers away, he drove all night to get home and sleep at home...It bothered him not to have the life of the simple man.” However, he would allow himself one major indulgence that would be in stark contrast to his working-class roots: after being served with a tax bill of 300,000 francs, he spent an equivalent amount on a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Finally, to hold onto more of his income and ease his work schedule, Raynaud moved his residence to Nouméa, on the peninsula of New Caledonia, just out of reach of the revenuers.

Raynaud never did make inroads into the United States, but strangely enough, some of his material did.

It’s not known who precisely was the Francophile on the writing staff of the 1971-1977 Children’s Television Workshop educational series “THE ELECTRIC COMPANY,” but two of Reynaud’s sketches were repurposed, without credit, into animated segments for the show. The segments were done by the late Jerry Lieberman, whose studio would later create logo treatments for Nickelodeon and Turner Broadcasting and the animated portions of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” video.

The first sketch really needs no introduction, suffice to say that the animated version pares down what was a wordy 6 minute monologue into a tight playlet.

The other, “Deux croissants,” mentioned earlier in this essay, became the “Sweet Roll” segment, which proved so popular, it was restaged in live action with Hattie Winston and Jim Boyd in a later season. While the ingredients change, the principle is the same: a clueless customer continues to request the one menu item an increasingly flustered server tells him is not available. Raynaud’s original finishes with a third character, another diner who castigates the customer for annoying the server, stating that had it been them taking the order, they would have used the non-existent croissants to smack him in the face. The “ELECTRIC COMPANY” version just ends with the server running to the kitchen screaming. In the 2006 book SMARTBOMB by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, another variation was attributed to computer game developer Will Wright, who described it as a “Zen” joke, with no acknowledgment to its previous telling by Raynaud or the TV series.

Now, it is entirely possible that, befitting the old “music hall” style of narrative comedy he practiced, maybe Raynaud was not in fact the original author of those sketches. For example, another of Raynaud’s recordings, “Le tailleur,” is essentially a variation of what has circulated since American vaudeville as “The Suit Joke.” ("Oh, that poor man!" "Yes, but what a perfect suit!") And It’s the Plumber” has been attributed to both American comic Buddy Hackett and UK comic Duggie Brown, though finding a concrete date of telling it has so far proved elusive, thus it is possible Raynaud told it first. 

But getting back to the prime point, while one shared sketch could be attributed to coincidence and public domain status, the fact that two sketches widely associated with Raynaud -- even packaged together on the same 45 -- got restaged on the same TV show suggests that some wily bilingual was taking notes from his act.

And of course, when I was a comedy-devouring child, I wasn’t about joke theft. I was just surprised that somehow that sketch from one of my mother’s 45s made it to one of my favorite TV shows. And we all had a laugh about it, back at that age when laughing in my mother’s presence came much more naturally than it would once I got older.

In the fall of 1973, the 47-year-old Raynaud was ready to step away. He had booked a benefit performance for factory workers in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand on September 28th, and intended to hold a press conference before the show with the mayor to announce his retirement. He had specifically chosen this location and occasion for personal symbolism, having previously encapsulated his feelings for the city in 1970: "When, coming from Paris, after Aigueperse, on the blue road, I see the Puy de Dome, and after that, passing by Riom, built in Volvic stone, I see [the sign] ‘Clermont-Ferrand, 14 kilometers,’ my heart beats stronger. I am affected as a lover who will return to a beloved woman."

As writer Jean-Baptiste Ledys wrote this past January, “In this declaration of love that Fernand Raynaud made for Clermont-Ferrand...the comedian did not know that he described the road on which he would die.”

Running late for his press conference, Raynaud’s Silver Shadow, chosen this day because his preferred traveling car had been stolen two days before, that piquant prize which he had jokingly described to his friends as “an assassin,” went out of control after the Aigueperse curve, hit a livestock trailer, and continued for 80 meters until crashing into the wall of the Cheix-sur-Morge cemetery, killing him instantly.

La Montagne, one of the French publications waiting for him at the press conference that never happened, later declared in a headline: “For the first time, Fernand made us cry.”

Raynaud’s most beloved monologue was called simply, “Hereux.” Within the flexibility of French, it can mean “Happy,” but also the more sober reading, “Content.” In his monologue, he portrays a road worker, talking about his unassuming but also unstressful daily life, and contrasting it with the dissatisfied feelings of the relatives he reluctantly meets with once a year, repeating the word “Hereux” frequently. When one of his relatives, a philosopher, challenges him to prove how he can be so content with his lot in life, another relative, a doctor, stands up for him, saying, “Have you ever seen a road worker go on strike?”

“Hereux” would become his best known catch phrase. When tabloids reported on his tax disputes and other domestic troubles, they always invoked it with a question mark. When his sketches were published in a 1975 book, and when actor Jean Rochefort staged a Hal-Holbrook-as-Mark-Twain-style tribute to Raynaud in 2004, performing his classic scenes and songs to packed audiences, it was used as the title. And most importantly, it is the word on his headstone in Saint-Germain-des-Fosses, the municipality in central France where he vacationed in childhood. 

In August of 2010, filmmaker and Academy Award winner Claude Lelouch offered this personal memory of Raynaud:

"I knew him well, he was one of those people who really made me laugh...I remember an evening spent at a friend's house who had very, very beautiful paintings, and had a very beautiful Picasso. Fernand had advised him to put it in the bathroom because, he said, this is where we have time to appreciate [things] every day. The masterpieces, we should put them in the bathroom, where we have time to look at them, [otherwise] in the living room we pass them by...He was a very astonishing person and it is true that he was constantly [concerned about] the truth; I had a little talk with him, and he said, 'If there is not one whiff of truth in my sketch, it won't hold the road.'"

And perhaps, without me knowing it, that was the seed planted in me from that first comedy record. Truth. One kid recognizing how bratty behavior can sound amusing, especially when you clumsily recount it to the grownups instead of committing it yourself. One adult recognizing how when you try to futz with or manipulate what truth is only makes you look more stupid. And all the time in between, finding those real things that would indeed make one content, if not completely happy.

So I think I can say truthfully that I really went to work in enjoying myself for you all.