Thursday, December 30, 2010

For All of the Nought

Contrary to popular belief, it is no easier doing a Best of the Decade list than it is doing a Best of the Year list. Many think it's just a matter of plucking all your number ones and then ranking those, right? Wrong. For example, some movies I saw missed deadline for their calendar years thanks to evil release strategies (a notorious crime around the holidays), and it's too unwieldly to, say, tell everyone "Okay, you know what I said was number one? It ain't anymore - you have to shove everything down and put this new thing on top." I did that once, and after all the confusion it caused, I decided ya know, I gotta stand by the list I made that year, because that's where my head was, because THAT'S WHAT THE MAN SAID YOU HEARD WHAT HE SAID HE SAID THAT... That mindset has orphaned some great films, to be sure, and had I the same privileges Oscar voters get for early viewing I could have written a better list for that year, but I can't rewrite history. I wrote and presented those lists, right or wrong. Thus, a decade list is a chance to right the wrongs done to some modern classics. Also, not every #1 of each year constitutes the decade's best. Some calendar years yield more than one stupendous creation that just overshadow what the best of another year was. Frankly, you could almost sum up the decade's best with films just from 2007, but I'm not that lazy, although I did take two for mine. And some movies that ranked lower for a certain year rank higher when viewed in the prism of history, either by their influence on later works or repeat viewing, or even the gauntlet they throw down for the future, in the case of one of my choices. As I assembled this list, it occurred to me that many of these choices affected me in their undertones about the strength of art. Whether they are exploring the way it can provide escape from oppression, or a means to beat depression, or heal real-world suffering, or even triumph over evil, when movies are able to cleverly dramatize all the baggage which came with us to the theatre, they're doing something extremely special, and that's to be rewarded. So now, it can finally be told: THE BEST MOVIES OF THE DECADE

13. WALL-E
The history of the Pixar studio seems to be taking one unusual premise after another, and making those stories succeed beyond the wildest expectations of their creators. And none could be more difficult to sell than one that begins with the ostensible end of Earth as livable planet, a non-human leading character, and almost no dialogue for at least an hour. Yet instead of the somber canticle the premise would suggest, Andrew Stanton treated us to a joyful voyage of discovery, of finding the flower in the desert, of learning that no matter how far removed one is from a point of origin, there is always the ability to start over.
Blending his post-modern skills with classic action structure, Quentin Tarantino makes the WWII movie that could never have been made in that time, but which every grunt in a foxhole or homefront girl on a factory line or expatriate in a cinema dreamed of in their mind. An epic where victory is determined not by generals in smoke-filled rooms or lucky hits dropped from planes, but the cunning and raw will of a few scrappy savages and one femme fatale. Not many filmmakers could get away with a war movie with little actual warfare, or an American-made movie that is half-subtitled from other languages, or a historical movie that blatantly disregards history, let alone all these contradictions, and make it appeal to a wide audience. The fact that he pulled it off cements Tarantino's place among the great filmmakers.
More than just a exercise in nerd culture or dating metaphors, Edgar Wright captures the nature of what it is to be young and not-completely-worldly, where you initially think yourself the hero of your own movie, where every unpleasant emotion feels like a near-death blow because you have no previous point of reference to measure it against, and where you do co-opt the language of your favorite distractions to express yourself, with a unique editing style that captures the speed and leaps of time which life seems to take in your twenties. As Bava achieved with DIABOLIK or Friedkin with TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., Wright has created a film that is both an artifact of a date and time, and a universal emotional ride that will endure after the references get older.
Not since BLUE VELVET has David Lynch found a means to blend his respect for the classical storytelling of the glamourous star vehicles he grew up on with the non-narrative impulses of mood and fantasy that he made his reputation upon. Rather than put us through the numbers and bullet points of resolving a plot, we linger in those moments of discovery, of uncertainty, of regret, until we think less about figures in a landscape or players in a play, and more about how their actions would affect us in those moments. What is "real" and what is "dream" is ultimately irrelevant, it is the emotional response it stirs in yourself that Lynch is after. And no matter the answers we have to the whos, whys, and whatevers we have seen in this filmic fever dream, all of them are right.
While it will certainly be blamed for a subsequent flood of recorded internet navel-gazing by attention-starved narcissist depressives, Jonathan Caouette's groundbreaking dissection of his mother's years of mental illness and the ultimate effect it had on his evolution, intercut with home movies and found footage, was a stunning presentation. There is a lot to do with death in this movie - of joyful spirit, of innocence, of beauty, of lucidity, the literal end of life, but most importantly, the death of pessimism. For all the tragedy that engulfs this true story, it's never depressing, glum, or pathetic; Caouette demonstrates that there will always be difficulty, but gives us the sense he has put much of that horror away for good...for all metaphorical and literal interpretations of the word "good." A grand story of taking responsibility, and artistic channeling, that demonstrates how sometimes the most universal stories are the most personal.
James Cameron took his sweet time to invent, and then use, the technological paintbox he needed to create a new universe, which in the process, is the mirror by which the often-criticized storyline might be better judged. Much as Martin Scorsese was an asthmatic child who dreamt of leaving a small home to play cowboys on the open plain, or Stephen Hawking transcended the frailty of his body to contemplate the wonder of the infinite, Cameron has not just recycled "the hero's journey," but encapsulated the notions of what drives our great dreamers, how their vision can be in sharp contrast to our outward notions. It is old-fashioned spectacle to get moviegoers off the sofa spiced with the modern capabilities of the present. Poo-poo the finished product if that is your honest opinion, but do not mock the ambition.
Similar to SCOTT PILGRIM in its graphic novel origins and young adult protagonists, Terry Zwigoff's tart comedy is definitely a much darker look at growing up. In this era where the youth seem to be jaded before their time, this film puts a human face and soul on the situation. Depicting a society where it seems everyone is either banal or aloof, we watch two best friends who, while initially bonded in their goal to beat the system, will ultimately drift apart because one learns how to make peace with the strangeness, while the other's fear of picking wrong leaves her completely disconnected. Biting but not mean, satirical but not nihilistic, this is the snapshot of a generation: if you know or are raising a cynical kid, this story has probably encapsuled their adventures.
Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for many unconventional screenplays in this decade, but this is probably the most emotionally accessible, and thus the best. And through the playful, elastic universe of director Michel Gondry, the surreal seems downright sensible. Taking off on the notion of literally eliminating someone from your mind, we see how truly difficult such a task can be, not only because we loath to lose the good memories as well as the bad, but also because that person becomes so embedded with other incidents and aspects of our psyche we feel a void if they're not around, and because we know in our heart our imprinting is such that to forget those "mistakes" would only cause us to make them over again.
As BLADE RUNNER displayed the Baby Boomer fears of a future that functions at the expense of human kindness, Alfonso Cuaron displays the similar dread of our generation. But rather than succumb to nihilism like other tired science-fiction dystopias, he fights back with faith and humor, and an immediate on-the-spot momentum that, while acted terrificly by Clive Owen, often duplicates the endorphinal rush one feels from watching "COPS" or playing first-person games like DOOM, as if we are right there living the chase instead of Owen. If the England on screen feels like a Pandora's Box of xenophobia, denial, and extinction, it must be remembered that the last item to emerge from that mythical chamber was hope.
Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund may have been working with an old screenplay trope - childhood friends living in poverty grow up into completely divergent paths of virtue and vice - but their striking opus made it feel like we were seeing it for the first time. Staged in actual slums of Rio with nonprofessionals, the film crackles with its roaming narrative, colorful characters, infectious music, and real-life urgency. Much like Jamaica's THE HARDER THEY COME, it directs the world's attention to a previously ignored microcosm that is enticing yet dangerous, and announces that they're ready to start telling their own stories instead of passively watching those of others.
Using the word "messy" as a compliment is not an ordinary thing to do, but the real-life details of the Zodiac serial killer were not ordinary and indeed very messy, and David Fincher takes that sprawl and makes it a strength. Depicting how seemingly one person was able to not only upend the security of a city, but engulf and almost ruin the lives of every person who sought to solve the crimes, Fincher crosses three decades to show the death of '60's idealism, the birth of '70's paranoia, and the growth of '80's ambivalence. We experience the weight of having to sift through promising leads and dead ends, and the frustration of knowing that some stories will never get resolved, long after they seem to have come to an end.
Equal parts storybook fantasy and Salingerian character study, Tarsem presents not just an elegant visual feast (shot in real, not computer-generated, locations) but also an emotional chamber piece about the complicated relationship between artist and public. Using the characters of stuntman, at once the most anonymous and disposable yet indispensible members of a film crew, and young immigrant farm child, at once the most eager and vulnerable consumer of the finished product, we explore themes of the pain of creation vs. lack of recognition, of how we bring our own life's perceptions to alter the initial intentions of the artist, how self-destructive impulses almost drive a creative type to alienate their most faithful supporters, and how sometimes a work of art no longer belongs to its parent but to its audience. And so, true believers, we get to the big one. The movie that ostensibly stands for all the collective emotions, possibilities, innovations, and future of film and its audience. It's a Difficult Responsibility. But as W.C. Fields said, there comes a time in everyone's life when they must take the bull by the tail and face the situation. I've made my choice, I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

13 on 25 for 2010

So it was a year ago today when I planted flag on this piece of virtual estate, telling longtime friend and wandering stranger alike that I had a foul mouth and a firm opinion on what my 13 best stretches of flickering images were from the calendar year. Since then, I've been lucky to amass lots of new readers, respect, and my fair share of fortran spitballs to the face, and I'm grateful for it all. And so it's time to do it again.

There was every reason to believe that 2010 was going to be a washout instead of a watershed. While plenty of good, solid movies were released in the first half of the year, most did not make the crucial dent in the public sphere, but those bad, sordid movies in the first half of the year, they not only dented the sphere, they nearly crushed it into a battered rhomboid. Rom-coms bereft of compelling rom or amusing com. Action epics that only provided epic fail. Dramas so dry and boring that they were easily overshadowed by one lone Bed Intruder for keeping people's attention. Shall we utter those names for one last public shaming? No, we shan't; the law I have followed from the Streets of Laredo is Speak Not of Their Name, and Their Name Will Pass On.

But then July came around, and it seemed almost instantly that things became right again. Innovation was presented. Intelligence was rewarded. You weren't encouraged to turn off your brain, but to let it fire all synapses. By the time December rolled around, yet again, I was faced with the problem that using an already indulgent baker's dozen to indicate my favorite films of the year would seem too little to capture it all. Thus reinforcing my longtime belief that no matter how many toy adaptations, brainless remakes, and rickety sequels would suggest Hollywood is finished, there will always be enough quality films to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

First, I want to give one last special Jury Prize of sorts to acknowledge the delirious pleasures of both GONE WITH THE POPE and STANDING OVATION. There's no way in this world or the next I can remotely suggest either of these as among the best films of the year, but I must say I don't think I had a bigger amount of fun and good cheer than when I saw them in the theatre multiple times, and I'm extremely happy each of these peculiar outings are finding an increasing body of fans. If you're the kind of brave soul who doesn't need stodgy things like coherent storytelling or grounded reality to enjoy a movie, you're in for a grand time if you seek these out.

So meanwhile, for the rest of you who have sensible tastes, working up the hill...

10 worthwhile films nobody saw but me:

Cemetery Junction
Four Lions
Leaves of Grass
The Slammin' Salmon
The Square
Tiny Furniture
Valhalla Rising

And now, for your viewing irritation, The Top 13 of 2010:


12. RED RIDING TRILOGY: 1974/1980/1983






6. 127 HOURS






So that's 2010. And for me, that's also the end of the Noughties. So in a few days, we'll take a look at that super-perfundo Best of the Decade.

Thank you, vocal supporter and anonymous troller alike, for taking the time to visit this here tourist trap on the information superhighway. This year of validation is a fine Christmas present for me, and I hope my thoughts have kept you similarly pleased.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Call Me Daddy..."

My longtime friend Laura Majeski, who among her real world achievements in chemical and biological science, also managed to take a previously moribund fan community for my former game show and turned into a Dadaesque Wackyland of fanfic, slashfic, and whatthefic, complete with its own language, is easily the world's biggest Robert Downey Jr. fan. Each day she presents a "Daily Gorgeous" with which to inspire the world, and she's so far amassed over 1400 images, so that's a lot of gorgeous.

Amusement aside, right now, what is not to love about Robert Downey Jr.? He's always been an irresistable presence on film, not just going back to his teen idol years but even further with tiny cameos in the early films of his father. His brief moments of screen time in POUND and the just-reissued-to-DVD GREASER'S PALACE are not only retroactively cute but unnervingly effective within the context of how he is presented. After a long period where he seemed to be mired in the swamp of addictive behavior and tabloid headlines, he has succeeded in maintaining a healthy personal life and a genial public profile without any sort of heavy-handed hairshirt wearing. And best of all, he has demonstrated an ability to be both a headlining actor that can open a movie, and a team player that will gladly take secondary roles and generously share focus with his higher-billed co-stars. 

It is his two hit movies of this year onto which I would like to put the deeper vision today, especially since most would say claim there is not much depth to them upon the first viewing. But upon some stewing, together they make an interesting statement about him and this stage of his life. Seeing how his father cheekily credited himself as Robert Downey Sr. (A Prince), it is readily apparent that this Son of A Prince is quite ready to become a King.

While most people who watched IRON MAN 2 this past summer enjoyed it and forgot about it, since it didn't have quite the impact of the first installment nor ratcheted up the stakes of its ongoing story like THE DARK KNIGHT, some took note of various themes presented in the film. Obviously, there is the ongoing linkage to upcoming Marvel-produced films, with introductions to characters and elements to be featured in THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and THE AVENGERS. And Tony Stark's inventor father Howard and his "Stark Expo" diorama (not to mention the pencil moustache used by actor John Slattery) certainly made many people think of Walt Disney, including my blogger friend Carla Regina at Popspiracy, especially ironic as during production of the film Disney spent a fortune to purchase the Marvel Comics empire. But what few seem to have paid attention to is what is likely a very personal convergence of themes for Downey - the notion of surpassing your parent's success.

Tony Stark, in both films, spends much time pressured by the shadow of his late father, and feeling that at best he was an afterthought, that he was treated as more like a corporate successor to the company and not so much as a son. It is what fuels his hedonism, his workaholic and alcoholic tendencies, though he still feels that he won't live up to the legacy. But in the archival footage of Howard Stark left to him by Nick Fury, Howard directly addresses Tony posthumously to not just assure him of his love, or to profess his confidence in his son's talent, but to suggest he is counting on Tony to use the means of science that are not available in Howard's lifetime to overtake him. In short, his father actively believes and hopes that his son will become more successful than him.

Similarly, Robert Downey Jr. has had a trying relationship with his own father. While they have collaborated frequently, with the younger appearing in seven of the elder's features (albeit three in childhood), he has also held him responsible for introducing him to the drugs that fueled his longtime substance addiction, and it stands to reason that financing for those latter-day films (Sr. has not directed a narrative feature since 1997's HUGO POOL) was contingent upon getting his services, suggesting an uneven dynamic. The stage manager on my former TV show was a longtime employee of Chuck Barris, and told us of an occasion when, during the making of THE GONG SHOW MOVIE, on which Barris collaborated with Downey Sr., he was asked to spend a Saturday morning helping a teenaged Downey Jr. move out of his father's house after a particularly large quarrel. As such, one can imagine Robert taking extra notice as a struggling son of a large-looming father playing the struggling son of a large-looming father, and through that making peace with the fact that yes, he has surpassed his predecessor in the public sphere, and that it is not only acceptable, but the deep-seated wishes of his parent.

Moving on to this past November's DUE DATE, the mixed receptions this film has received from critics and viewers alike indicate that in all likelihood, the majority of people who have seen this film have not caught on to what this movie is really about. Most have dismissed it as a wannabe-meaner rehash of John Hughes' legitimate masterpiece PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES, merely because both films involve two fractious strangers traveling cross-country to meet a deadline with the main character being an orderly type forced to endure a more slovenly companion. But while the older film is concerned with getting past outward appearances to find mutual compassion, the latter film has a different angle, one that, admittedly, does not fully make itself known up front; it took me nearly to the end before it hit me.

I find it odd that WB released DUE DATE just after its bland and formulaic "sudden-parenting" comedy LIFE AS WE KNOW IT, because this film is in fact the smarter, cleverer, and funnier primer on that concept. Consider that Downey's Peter Highman is in a rush to reach the West Coast in order to be present for the birth of his first child, yet his mannerisms - impatience (especially with other children), prim sarcasm, trying to turn things his way with money, and an instinct to abandon problems - indicate that he is not an ideal candidate for fatherhood. Zach Galifianakis' Ethan Chase, meanwhile, is traveling West to disburse the ashes of his dead father, and exhibits the traits of what we would traditionally call a manchild - blind adherence to institutional rules, need for immediate gratification, indulgence of a pet, asking dozens of random questions, imprudent behavior, low common denominator taste, wild mood swings, and a comical yet sincere attachment to his deceased parent.

In short, the road trip and the comedy therein is designed not to explore traditional male bonding, but to present expectant father Peter with almost every nightmare scenario that his future child could conjure up, and see how he will deal with it. From small things like annoying conversations, bad judgment calls, and unrealistic career goals, to legitimately giant messes like misstatements that get them kicked off a plane, and wrecking their rental car, Ethan is not only testing Peter's mettle for enduring disaster, but his capacity for forgiveness and understanding, the qualities that he is going to need in order to be a good father. The surprise revelation that Ethan serves near the end, which could easily be the last straw for their relationship, reminded me of a story I once read in the L.A. Times about an adopted child so fearful of being rejected by the family that took her in that she would often commit increasingly dangerous acts, as a "test" to see if they would still keep her or give her back to the state; while his character is not consciously pursuing the same goals with Peter, there is still the fearful undertone of, "Will you still love me if I tell you..." in his manner. Having lost his real father, and obviously so socially maladept that he has few friends, Peter is the sensible adult that at this moment of loneliness Ethan desperately wants to cling to. And in turn, Ethan is hardly the person Peter would ever want to be around, but as he spends more time with him, despite the exasperation he feels at his every blunder, he does develop a sense of responsibility and protection for him.

Again, this role likely holds some special meaning for Downey on both ends of the parental spectrum. He became a father at age 28 to Indio Downey, and it was early in Indio's childhood that his substance abuse began to reach crisis levels, to the point where his first wife Deborah Falconer left him and suspended access to their son in 2001. From all public appearances today, the two men now enjoy a healthy relationship. As such, between the years of bad behavior, and his period of rehabilitation and healing behavior, Downey had a large reservoir to draw from to shape a character like Peter, who begins the movie thinking first of his own needs and of children in the abstract, and through harsh adversity learns to take care of others and provide patience and forgiveness, things that Downey in his troubled years desperately sought. 

Not many people in the world, let alone in show business, are able to make the turnaround in their lives and personal fortune that Robert Downey Jr. has achieved. So there is a little extra pleasure in seeing him not only prosper, but take those low points and use them in the creation of great entertainment. Perhaps that's why he has reached this all-time-high of moviegoing affection, and will certainly maintain it for a long time to come; if he can go from punchline to paragon, there's no reason any of us can't either.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kristine DeBell and Living Next Door to Alice

A prologue: 

In 2006, I was invited by the now-defunct label Subversive Cinema to work on special features for a highly-anticipated DVD release of the legendary 1976 adult musical adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. A difficult task, since many in the cast worked under pseudonyms, director Bud Townsend had died years before, and most importantly, the star of the film had not been heard from publicly in many years. Therefore, this essay was written for inclusion on the DVD as an attempt to speak on her behalf, say what I think she would say, and start tipping the balance the other way against the years of scandal talk. I long hoped that she would read this and privately say that yes, I nailed it, somebody understands, thus making any sort of public statement from her unnecessary anyway. 

Unfortunately, when the disc was ready for market, Subversive was out of money and closing its doors for good, so the essay was omitted from the release. In honor of her birthday this day, I am finally making it publicly available here... 

If one believes, as the Jesuits say, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," then it is not too far-fetched to say that soon after, give me a significant celebrity crush of that child, and I will give you the woman he will search for as a man. 

"Let’s say it was the moondust 
That drifted down from heaven 
That sparkled on your shoulders 
And nestled in your eyes" 
– Terry Black 

When I was ten years old, my worldview would be irrevocably changed through the act of my father taking me to see Ivan Reitman’s MEATBALLS, the compromise film for tweeners ready to get away from kiddie fare and parents who could not in good conscience take their children to watch ANIMAL HOUSE. By the time that movie was over, I would elevate Bill Murray to the iconic level of cool my father likely held for Steve McQueen, and I would harbor enormously unrealistic expectations of summer camp for the remainder of my childhood. But while I had to respect Bill for focusing his romantic pursuits on the butch counselor played by Kate Lynch, my youthful affections were zeroed in on the next most prominent female at the camp, A.L., as portrayed by Kristine DeBell.

You remember A.L., don’t you? The energetic C.I.T. with the blond hair and the freckles and the husky voice? Still one of only four people in recorded history who could sport long socks with Dr. Scholl sandals and make it look fashionable? She and Wheels were the hottest couple last summer, but it was uncertain they would rekindle their romance again. Can you summon back that memory now? Remember when you heard her voice break with misty joy as, bless him, Wheels remembered their anniversary? That smile bloomed on her face and you were melting with happiness for her, weren’t you? If you were a boy like me, you promised yourself right then and there you were going to do the same thing for your girlfriend…once you were old enough to have one, of course. Much like a future generation of young women would aspire to a boyfriend like John Cusack’s immortal Lloyd Dobler in SAY ANYTHING, many boys like me hoped they’d meet a girl like Kristine’s A.L. 

In the 10 most active years of her currently dormant career, the appearance of Kristine DeBell in a film or television show was a welcome occasion. Like many actresses of the modern age, Kristine got her start as one of the fresh faces of the hot-button Ford Modeling Agency, but unlike the glamorous but intimidating and off-limits appearance of the other famous alumni, she always radiated friendliness and approachability. For boys like me in a pubescent state of confusion, with voices and confidence always ready to crack, Kristine drew us in because she struck as not only pretty, but kind; the type of girl who wouldn’t laugh in your face after you stumbled over your initial request for a date. Perhaps this was a hindrance in terms of acting versatility, relegating her to a series of roles as girlfriends or friends of girlfriends, but it was also a gift because in those roles, she embodied what the average viewer at home was seeking in their own friendships. Whether she was a bored call girl who’d sooner watch The Beatles on TV in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, or barely concealing her awe at daredevil boyfriend Jackie Chan in BATTLE CREEK BRAWL, or tempting genial Judge Harry Stone with rock star life in a beloved "NIGHT COURT" episode, you didn’t so much think you were watching an actress in a role, as you imagined you were looking at somebody like you living in extraordinary circumstance. Kristine was definitely the Girl Next Door, in all the high notes a pop songwriter could conjure up. 

"you take the words I say and make them mean 
everything they don’t baby you’re obscene 
you don’t listen you don’t hear 
you’re blinded by the fear that surrounds you" 
-- Sam Phillips 

Paradoxically, it is this enormous audience goodwill that has rarely been given credit to, yet has certainly contributed to the longevity of, the 800-lb mushroom of Kristine DeBell’s career, her starring role and debut in the 1976 loose musical adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, one of those films like Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, where the public at large is more familiar with the mythos surrounding the movie than the movie itself. So much misconception has grown over the decades since its release that in most circumstance, it is not even regarded as a movie, but as a punch line to a joke, or a skeleton in a closet, something to be suppressed rather than discussed. A Film That Dare Not Speak Its Name. 

Thus, this is as good an occasion as any to set details straight. Yes, ALICE was conceived as a film that would have sex as its point of focus. In the maverick period of filmmaking that arose from the creation of the MPAA and the demise of local censorship boards, many mainstream films had sex and all of its possibilities as their main topic, including Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, Hal Ashby’s SHAMPOO, and Ted Post’s THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT. And yes, ALICE was released in theatres with an X rating. Again, nothing unusual for the time: X ratings, merely denoting content not suitable for minors, appeared on films from all the major studios, including THE DAMNED, TROPIC OF CANCER, POUND, and the 1969 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

Thus the question must be asked as to why there is still a stigma attached to ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DeBell’s performance, when other works and actors that demonstrate a similar candor do not carry one? Why is it that one can rent HENRY & JUNE, another movie carrying an equivalent adults-only rating of NC-17, among all the other films in the drama section, yet one must go through the tavern doors or the beaded curtain to get a copy of ALICE, provided the video store even offers it? And most annoyingly, why is it when you Google actresses who have also given performances of sexual honesty, such as Chloe Sevigny or Kerry Fox, the initial links simply use the word "actress," but if you Google Kristine DeBell, you will be inundated with links perpetuating the highly incorrect and downright rude description "porno star?"

The likely reason for why ALICE IN WONDERLAND inspires nervous reactions to this day is quite troubling. American actress Margo Stilley, who stars in British director Michael Winterbottom’s controversial relationship drama 9 SONGS, provides a concise analysis:

"I suppose coming from a background that tells you, 'Sex is bad, sex is bad, you're going to hell, sex is bad,' and then seeing on the news that the president is having an affair, it's not really put in a good light...What I find in films I see is that sex is always a turning point in action, someone's cheating on someone, or someone dies. It's always the kids having sex in horror films that die. And I didn't like that. And in the sexually explicit films I've seen like [Nagisa Oshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, where the heroine emasculates her lover], they're crazy, people don't do that, it's not normal!"


While a blanket statement, the sentiment definitely applies to the performances given by Fox in INTIMACY and Sevigny in THE BROWN BUNNY. Both films' presentation of coupling is at best somber, and ultimately brings the protagonists no happiness; indeed it only furthers their respective sad endings. By contrast, Alice’s encounters during her surrealistic journey may often bewilder or intimidate her, but they prove to be fun. The message is disappointing: if you feature real sex but frame it in pathos, you have an art film, but if you feature real sex and frame it in pleasure, you have a porno film. 
And for all its frankness, ALICE cannot be classified as pornography, though it is almost always grouped with it in the minds of fans and foes alike. The understated tone of the adjective "enjoyable" in my previous paragraph is intentional, because it demonstrates the clear division between the former’s portrayal of lovemaking and the unrealistic notions on display in the latter. In pornography, every man is the best lover in the world, every woman is loudly satisfied, and regardless of what clothesline plot is introduced, the sex has no context or motivation; it exists solely to be filmed and viewed. 

This contrivance is not on display here. Alice's journey parallels that of her literary counterpart, full of discoveries and adventures that, while interesting, ultimately do not suit her. Her fantasy ends with her finding happiness in conventional monogamy with her true love. If there was ever a message that clearly contradicted the "anything goes best" mentality of pornography, it is this ending. To say ALICE is the same as any number of coarsely-titled productions in the video store back room because they both involve sexual behavior is as ludicrous as saying that a bottle of Veuve Clicquot is the same as a hip flask of Thunderbird because they both contain wine. 

"Alice, the world is full of ugly things, that you can't change 
Pretend it's not that way, it's my idea of faith 
You can blow it off and say there's good in nearly everyone 
Just give them all a chance 
Alice, give them all a chance" -- Ben Folds 

Enough time has been spent discussing the unfounded negative perceptions about ALICE. Better to talk about the goodness of the film, that which has kept it an audience favorite for nearly 30 years. Many elements helped it make the crucial crossover to movie lovers like myself not normally inclined to watch anything of a racy nature – the audacious premise, the catchy songs, the corny jokes, and, through wordplay and irreverence, its surprising faithfulness to the ridiculous nature of Carroll’s original work.

And most importantly, what has drawn and continues to draw viewers is the overwhelming likeability of Kristine DeBell as its star. Kristine is such a nice, kind presence that in the manner that I quickly invested in her happiness during my first viewing of MEATBALLS, proper adults (and probably the occasional high schooler who sneaked a look on cable when the folks were asleep) have found themselves genuinely interested in watching her, as Alice, make her clumsy journey into libidinous liberation. Because she is a nice girl, we can’t feel a detached lust like we could if it were some stereotypical "porno actress." Instead, we identify with her, just as we would in all her roles that would follow later on. Since she is the embodiment of the girl we want to love or to become, her journey is our journey, her sexual awkwardness mirrors our own awkward first discoveries. It’s that spirit that makes the movie something that inspires a grin instead of a leer. Maybe you came for the naughty stuff, but you stayed for the smiles. This jovial attitude was not missed by critics of the time:

"[Its] most pleasant surprise is its star, Kristine DeBell, who projects such a freshness and naivete that she charms us even in scenes where some rather alarming things are going on. I think she has a future in the movies...there's an openness to her expression, a directness to her acting, that's genuinely appealing...She looks just like the healthy blond with wide-set eyes and Toni curls that sat across the aisle in high school -- or should have." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


"Playmate Kristine DeBell, a most engaging cutie, manages the wide-eyed wistfulness as deftly as she executes the [specifically sexual] scenes." –Richard Corliss, Time Magazine


Thus, contrary to the prevailing notions that DeBell was able to have a successful career "despite" her appearance in ALICE, indeed it can and should be argued that her performance is so fetching, she was too good an actress to not move on to better things. And for 10 great years to follow, all of us were able to see Kristine return again and again and radiate that winsome charm. 

"I don't why she's leaving, or where she's gonna go, 
I guess she's got her reasons but I just don't wanna know, 
'Cause for twenty four years I've been living next door to Alice." 
-- Mike Chapman, Nicky Chinn 

Kristine DeBell has never publicly commented about her experience making ALICE IN WONDERLAND. As long as the media irresponsibly continue to throw around loaded terms like "porno star" to describe her, and discussion of the film is monopolized by the raincoat contingent who leave comments at the IMDb so crude you want to wash their keyboards with soap, she probably will continue not to speak about it. Perhaps the aforementioned Margo Stilley, who has also advanced to plenty of mainstream roles from appearing in 9 SONGS, has a viable hypothesis for Kristine’s mindset at the film’s creation:

"I wanted to make a film about something I really believe in, which is to show sex in a very positive light, as a very important piece of everyday life and a very important piece of a relationship, whether it's successful or unsuccessful...This is a nice thing, it's fun, everyone does it...and when it's someone you're in love with, it's great."


But perhaps also, there is ultimately no need for Kristine to tell the story, because her life has virtually mirrored the film. It is not difficult to fathom that much like Alice, she came into the film’s production somewhat naive, had a good time while it lasted, but chose for the better to leave it all behind. Those of us who have been her fans have no doubt that, just as she sang in one of her stand-out numbers from ALICE, she settled down and got married and moved to a house with a white picket fence filled with kids and a little (erf-erf) puppy. And as that child who was so pleased to see her character beam on the movie screen is now me, grown-up, I can continue to be glad in the belief that the real woman has also found her happy ending. 

An epilogue: 

In the years since I wrote this essay, I did finally make contact with Kristine DeBell. After a long time out to raise a family, she is in the process of reviving her dormant career. I am very privileged to call her a good friend. She has read what I wrote, and I am posting it with her approval. Thus it gives me extra pleasure that I can share my essay with you as a birthday present to her. 

Happy Birthday, A.L., and thank you for the moondust.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the Border of Nod

When my parents divorced, I essentially had the same custody arrangement from I was 7 years old until I moved out of Cincinnati and went to college: I visited my dad on Tuesday nights, spent Friday nights with him, came back to my mom's on Saturday at 6 prompt. Any variations had to be cleared with her in advance, and had better be good to get her to agree to it.

By high school, both my parents had cable, but my dad sprung for the pay channels. So on Friday nights at my dad's house, if I wasn't lucky enough to find out about a party, which was often, I stayed up late, kept the volume low so as not to keep my dad up, and either watched movies, or kept the VCR on pause to tape my favorite videos of the day, maybe a snippet of a sitcom rerun, or a particularly good trailer on the Viewer's Choice preview channel (at the time, they ran real trailers instead of the crappy short promos they would eventually create to push the pay-per-view movies). Also, for a long while, WGN in Chicago would run an hour-long "TWILIGHT ZONE" episode at 1:30 a.m., followed by a half-hour episode at 2:30 a.m., and I would try to stay up for those. It was on a typical Friday night that I first stumbled across my decades-long obsession, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS, on USA Network's "NIGHT FLIGHT" program.

Amidst all of this, something I strangely remember with much fondness would be the nights that I would temporarily zonk out in front of the TV and reawaken, sometimes after 3 a.m. If I was watching those "TWILIGHT ZONE" reruns, in my netherzone of consciousness and sleep, I created intriguing "new" episodes in my head from the snippets of visual and audio that I could recall. Or marvel at some of the truly bizarre programs or movies that were on that late, because back then there really was a difference; not like now when the same informercials run on every channel. I instinctively knew after 3 I should really be in bed, especially if I wanted to be up at an hour that my father would not berate me for being a lazy sod for waking up at, but on those nights I was discovering the alternate world of the middle of the night. Dubbed Eurotrash sex comedies on Showtime After Hours. "RAT PATROL" reruns. Joe Franklin.

I had a room upstairs that was not wired for cable, but I did have a component stereo. So I would turn on the radio, again low enough not to wake anyone, and sleep with it on. And again, in dreams I conjured up incredible music videos for the songs that filled my sleep. A slow-motion Sam Peckinpah massacre scored to Lionel Richie's "Hello." Heavy petting with an unrequited high-school crush atop a bank of washing machines in a junkyard to Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around."

As an arrested adolescent now who often sees strands of daylight by the time I go to bed, I miss that time of innocence and forbidden pleasure. I try sleeping with my TV or a CD playing sometimes, but it's not the same like it was before.

This past night as I drove home from a late night gathering, "Wishing" by A Flock of Seagulls came on the radio. I had seen the video many times when ths song was first released, but it was on one of those Friday night 3 a.m. reawakenings that I really "watched" the video and "got" the song and it became truly beloved. I think it was the earnest juxtapositions of computers and isolation and space and the great void by journeyman director and frequent Seagulls collaborator Tony Van Den Ende with those simple lyrics of longing that resonated. It was the middle of the night, I was by myself, and my similarly earnest and simple self identified with feeling like being alone in the middle of nowhere, gazing at eternity.

As a jittery Christian, I aspire to an afterlife and reincarnation, and that my life's work will be exemplary enough to reach that ascended state. As a pragmatic realist, I prepare for the likelihood that there is nothing after death; at best, maybe the electrodes in my brain will go a little while longer after my body conks and it will be like one last, good dream.

But in either case, it would be nice if I could know that one day, I will be 15 again, taking the pieces of the pop culture that intrigue me, and creating my own visions around them as I had before. I wouldn't spend my life just wishing...