Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Hath Wiseau Wrought?

If, say, instead of the targeted buildings of 9/11, Al Queda had chosen to fly their hijacked planes into all five sold-out auditoriums of THE ROOM at the Sunset 5 this past Saturday night, Osama Bin Laden would have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bail out or buckle up, buckaroos, 'cause it's only gonna get nastier.

As alluded to a couple postings ago, and for years in general conversation with film-savvy friends, I have made my dislike and distrust of a certain "hip" midnight movie called THE ROOM abundantly clear. However, in full disclosure, I was making these maledictions without ever having watched the film, either by itself or in its "enhanced" presentation as it is currently experienced by a disturbingly increasing number of cult movie fans. Much as social worker Sandra Markowitz once observed in A THOUSAND CLOWNS, it is an obvious conflict against all professional standards as an ostensible critic of movies. I didn't like the phenomena of THE ROOM, so I tried to understand it. And now that I have seen it and understand it, I hate it even more.

But, you ask, all you sensible people and aging Gen-Xers who don't find bad movies funny anymore, what is THE ROOM? In brief, it's a very ineptly executed vanity project for mysteriously wealthy writer/director/actor Tommy Wiseau, a drama about a love triangle that, as described by British newspaper The Guardian, plays as a mix of "Tennessee Williams, Ed Wood and R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet". Shot in both digital and 35mm (and indiscriminately cutting between the two formats), with noticeable green screen superimpositions, continuity errors, and gaping plot holes, on its own, it is admittedly a rather amusing addition to the pantheon of works by delusional wunderkinds, rating somewhere above Babar Ahmed's ROYAL KILL but below John S. Rad's DANGEROUS MEN. I distinctly remember the one week in 2003 that THE ROOM was four-walled into numerous Laemmle theatres in Los Angeles; employees of the chain told me wild tales of the film's awfulness and the lack of customers for it, and that it could easily become another ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW if nurtured properly.

Sure enough, their prediction came true. Since Mr. Wiseau had enough money to keep this billboard on La Brea Blvd. for nearly four years, he definitely had enough money to continue four-walling the Sunset 5 once a month. And to humor the parade of post-Modernists willing to hand over their cash, he played along with their mocking and asserted that the film was meant to be comedy all along, despite his actors insisting that he was dead serious during the shoot. Soon, celebrities known for their poses of ironic detachment (Kristen Bell, David Cross, members of "The State") became public champions of the film, and attendance grew at the screenings over the years, to the point now where, for its monthly appearance, the movie is run on all five screens and sells all of them out before 10 pm that night. That kind of drawing power is impossible to ignore, and many of my friends over the years have taken the bait, and encouraged me to do the same.

I have always resisted until now; something has never smelled right about this whole affair. In all candor, it smells of astroturf and bullshit. I think it is safe to say that unless your name is Montgomery Brewster or Max Bialystock, there is only one kind of individual who is determined to fritter away large sums of money in such a grand fashion. And considering that Mr. Wiseau never gives a straight answer or any bonafides on his background or where his money comes from, coupled with a private investigator discovering the San Francisco locations which he claimed housed a successful fashion business in fact had no retail activity whatsoever, a major accusation comes to my mind. This accusation is Most Often Baseless, if you look at it initially. To be fair again, I admit plenty of the strange movies I enjoy have gotten direct or indirect support from shady sources. Still, I could never shake the feeling that this guy had an undocumented container in a Baltimore shipyard.

Enough character assasination of Mr. Wiseau. Let's nuke his fanbase now.

I imagine that years ago, a group of jocks and rich nerds with severe Stockholm Syndrome went to a ROCKY HORROR performance, and when it was over thought, "Gee, I really enjoy making a loudmouthed jackass of myself in a theatre, but I hate being surrounded by all these punks, faggots, and freaks. If only there was a movie where we could yell out stupid shit without having to be around these undesirables." Well, they've gotten their wish. In all my years of cult movie viewing, I have never seen cinematic cheese being devoured by so many crackers. This contingent may as well have been auditioning for NIGHT OF THE HIGH FIVE'N WHITE GUYS. Granted, you don't see that many minorities attending a ROCKY HORROR performance either...which has always baffled me some, since most of the black men I know would love to be among scantily-clad white women...but nonetheless, if I pulled a random Roomie from the crowd they could claim to have a Black friend from college or an Indian co-worker or an Asian dominatrix, but only one of the three; the average ROCKY fan knows and/or has had mad screaming sex with multiple non-white people. But lest I sound down on Caucasians in general, let me say these folks looked nothing like the average American man of beige either, toiling it out in a job they hate to pay for home and family. This was a special sampling of trust-fund trash, venture capitalists, and former sitcom boiler room gag men. Yes, that terrifying demographic feared worldwide, the Douchebag Hipster, complete with occasional unattainable Model/Actress/Designer/D.J. girlfriend. And greeting and waving to them all was their leader Mr. Wiseau, grinning like Sylvester McMonkey McBean as if promising the horde that upon exiting the cinema they would have a star marking them the Hippest of Sneetches on Los Angeles beaches. And all it would cost them was 7 bucks eaches.

Things did not get better inside the theatre. People scrambled to get into the better auditoriums, though they were promised that Mr. Wiseau would visit all of them, and then they waited for the show to start. And waited. All the while, nothing was going on - no warm-up, no announcements, they couldn't even be bothered to play the theatre's preprogrammed monthly music sampler CD. Oh sure, a few veterans yelled to the crowd asking for first-time viewers or people with beards (since the film's nominal antagonist has one), and there were some yells of "I've got spoons," "I've got a football," etc. Many of the ladies near me were already bored at the somewhat unimaginative banter. Finally, since apparently I was in the last stop auditorium, Mr. Wiseau came for his "humorous" pre-show Q&A, where he was greeted with such knee-slappers as "How many women have you had sex with," "How would you have directed UP," "Recite us some Shakespeare." I had to severely stifle the urge to stand and ask, "HOW MUCH PROFIT FROM HEROIN TRADE AND CHILD PROSTITUTION HAVE WE GULLIBLE TRENDOIDS HELPED YOU LAUNDER OVER THE LAST HALF-DECADE?" After a few minutes of this, our master of shenanigans departed and the movie began.

Now, when people compare this to ROCKY HORROR, they are essentially correct in that both experiences feature timed callbacks, ritual activity, and people in costume. The most obvious difference is that THE ROOM features no shadowcasting, i.e. actors mimicking the film events live in the theatre. Because this movie contains so many love scenes, and so many views of Mr. Wiseau's leathered posterior, I'll allow that perhaps this is an impractical idea. In keeping with the limited staging and action of the movie, there are also few uses for props and/or costumes: basically, some guys showed up in tuxedos or suits and half-heartedly tossed a football around because the characters on screen were doing so, and at moments where supposedly a painting of flatware could be seen in the shot (I never saw it), everyone threw plastic spoons. And even that gag lost steam over the course of the movie - I guess the audience suffered from mental fibromyalgia and had just plain run out of spoons. I submit that there were some funny callbacks, but you had to wade through a large amount of unimaginative blather to get to them; dull repetitions of the obvious instead of exploring and heightening the comic and verbal possibilities. Film critic Ernest Hardy once described the movie JAWBREAKER as like watching an annoying young drag queen who flubs the quips she's stolen, refuses to shut up, and thinks attitude is wit. Change the drag queen to that heterosexual breakroom bozo who manages to burn every comedy catch phrase six months past their shelf life, and you've captured the spirit of this audience. And keep in mind this has been going on for six years. Six years? And that is your A game? You guys couldn't even be bothered to buy the Rifftrax parody and borrow some jokes? A Mexican rent boy could come up here with a goat, an onion, and a Madonna album and kick your ass.

To properly enjoy and embrace a so-called "bad" movie, one must approach it with a peculiar combination of ridicule and reverence. Sure, we are laughing at every bad line reading, or clumsily structured song, or cardboard set, or piece of stock footage. But because freaks like us have experienced failure all our lives - the recital where our voice cracked, the bad poetry we wrote in high school, the large romantic gesture that was cruelly unreciprocated - when we see it happen to others, for as much as we are laughing, we are also in sympathy with the doomed enterprise. There's a respect for the notion that, well, they went off and did it, and most people never do. Whether it's something flawed like ROCKY HORROR or as cheap as MANOS, HANDS OF FATE, or as batshit insane as STRANGERS IN PARADISE, we embrace and love these movies because they inspire a sense of community in us.

Unfortunately, the audience that has embraced THE ROOM does not radiate that vibe. If a typical ROCKY HORROR fan is Carrie White, the collective attending THE ROOM are the ones who poured the pig's blood on top of her. Most of them have never experienced "bad" filmmaking before, hell, I don't think they've experienced "bad" anything before. They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas. For all the fawning and cheering and "We love you Tommy" shouts, the truth is they have come solely to mock and throw stones. They will never have the balls to attempt anything similarly risky in their lives because they know exactly how their kind will treat them if it is anything less than massively successful. Mr. Wiseau doesn't care because he's already taken their money and bought guns for Chechnya. Which is why I can't particularly support him in this matter either - he's a willfully vague and sleazy character who won't admit to a single sincere moment of pain because someone might grow a conscience and not pay money to laugh at him. To paraphrase Simon Pegg in "SPACED," this is boil-in-the-bag subversion for overgrown frat boys and vintage clothing profiteers who are sitting on a stack of unopened lounge music CDs that they bought "ironically" a decade ago during the waning days of the SWINGERS phenomenon.

THE ROOM (and all of its enablers) needs to be sealed shut, bricked up, and walled over as if the last cask of Amontillado was contained within. You will never find a more wretched hive of yuppie scum and bland villainy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Papa's Delicate Conditioning

January 26th is a momentous date in my movie history. It's my father's birthday. And besides the inherent logic of Dick Cavett's maxim that if your parents didn't have children, you probably won't either, I maintain that it was through him that I picked up my all-encompassing love of the movies. In all likelihood, it goes back even further.

In Cincinnati of 1875, Hubert Heuck had turned his successful saloon on 13th & Vine into a performance space, Heuck's Opera House, and created the "Burlesque Wheel," which united a lucrative network of theatres in eight cities that guaranteed 30 weeks of work for shows and performers. He took over a neighboring beerhall on 12th & 13th in 1882 to create a new Heuck's Opera House, rechristening the previous location Peoples Theatre. Both houses hosted acts like Buffalo Bill Cody, Sarah Bernhardt, and W.C. Fields. In 1905 he opened a third location on Fountain Square near Vine named the Lyric, which became a hub for New York's Shubert Organization. Eventually by the '30's, all these locations got acquired by RKO and converted to film presentation, and like that, the Heuck family was out of show business. However, Hubert's daughter-in-law Mathilde Eisenlohr Heuck launched a longer-lasting family business in kitchen gadgets, upon her invention of the turkey lacer.

Mathilde's grandson Roger William Heuck was a youth who loved going to the movies. In the Golden Age where one could find two or three single-screen theatres on a major city thoroughfare that was a short bus ride away, he would spend a Saturday hopping from one show to the next, without any parental supervision. Long Naval voyages were always made tolerable by the nightly 16mm screening that would take place aboard ship. During his bohemian days as a starving writer in Italy, he struck up a brief friendship and patronage with silent film great Ramon Novarro. And while ultimately he would return to Ohio to run the family business and take root in suburban security, he never lost the taste for two hours' diversion.

That prime directive, had it not been in Marc Edward Heuck's (yes, I was named with the company initials) blood already, was fed to him in the formative years. I started out a TV baby, enraptured by cartoons and sitcoms, but Dad steered me to the longform narratives. My first memory of going to the movies was seeing a subtitled film with my parents at the Esquire, a pair of scenes lodging in my brain and puzzling me for years as to where they came from. In my 20's, in the course of an ordinary laserdisc rental, I would discover it was Fellini's AMARCORD; appropriately, the translation of the title is "I Remember."

When my parents got divorced, my Friday night and Saturday afternoon visits with him would often entail going out to the movies. My palate was wonderfully expanded; as I once stated in an opening boast on that game show, I asked him one afternoon to take me to Disney's DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, instead he took me to STAR WARS. (GENIUS!) My school-induced Catholic paranoia was gradually dissipated thanks to his lassez-faire attitude on taking me to R-rated fare. And in a refreshing divergence from the conventional wisdom, he was not satisfied going to the same theatre; we would go all over the city to see stuff. Of course, in the late '70's, there was still a healthy amount of neighborhood theatres and a smaller number of multiplexes, and some of the traveling impetus would be to accomodate other friends of his who would join us. But the fact remains that I was able to visit many beautiful venues - the Carousel, the Valley, the Ambassador, the 20th Century, the Westwood, the Kenwood, the Hyde Park, the Mt. Healthy drive-in - that are gone, and I'm the richer to have those memories, especially since there are still others from my past - the Alpha, the Mt. Adams, the Studio, and a dozen drive-ins - that I can only constantly wonder about. To this day, I continue to carry that spirit of adventure, sometimes driving an hour or more to see an exclusive run or a surviving single screen facility.

The one minor drawback of our moviegoing is that my father was not interested in exploitation or lowbrow fare, aside from the occasional slob comedy like STRIPES. So sadly, I would never be able to take in the almost annual triple bill of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, and DON'T OPEN THE WINDOW that would blast the drive-ins, or any of the other horror and action outings that have now become bread-and-butter in my household, in lieu of actual bread and/or butter. But he was an early VCR adopter and cable subscriber, so to an extent, I was able to start perusing that stuff on my own. While he did intervene in my attempt to tape an ON-TV broadcast of a softcore edit of TRASHI with Lisa DeLeeuw, on other occasions, so long as he didn't have to watch, I was free to freak myself out, and any other poor suckers who entered the home. Ask certain members of the Roger Bacon class of 1987, and they may admit to still having trauma from my 17th birthday party and their first unprepared look at Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR.

Another important nugget of my upbringing was that on his own, my father took in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW 'round 1980, and was so blown away by the outrageous behavior and the catchy score he bought me the soundtrack album and a mini-poster for Christmas that year, and Dammit Janet if I didn't start memorizing those songs top to bottom. It wouldn't be until two years later that I finally got to see the movie, and by then midnight was already too late for him - my cousin David Beran took me instead. But the subtle message underneath this small gesture was that in a time where it was still a topic of fear and myth, my father was not hung up about gay people or unusual sexual expression, and he felt neither should I. And that's done wonders for my self-esteem, ways of representing myself, and my worldview, not to mention that I received early initiation into a community of kinks and kooks that as recently as last Saturday night has always made me welcome.

As I left home to become an adult, Dad finally had enough of trying to tilt at Wal-Mart windmills with turkey lacers, and began gradually phasing out all ties to the factory, to the point where today any family connection to the M.E. Heuck Company is in name only. While his cousin John Morrison would find himself back in the old Heuck business of sorts, forming the coalition that would save and rehab Clifton's Esquire theatre, Dad decided to explore another realm of the family tree, and follow the example of his great grand uncle John Henry Twachtman, and take up impressionist oil painting. He had always decorated the house for years with classic art; now he began to make it himself. And he's very good: The American Impressionist Society chose this painting, "Fog Lifting on Dollar Island," to be part of their 9th Annual National Exhibit at the CODA Gallery in Palm Beach back in November 2008.

As with many older fellows, Dad isn't as motivated to do the kind of trekking to the movies like we used to do. He's got a house on a hill and a beautiful downtown view and a bigger-than-sod-it-all widescreen TV, so between a nice sunset, a Netflix subscription, and Fox News, why ever leave the house? Not that there's many of our old haunts left anyhow. But when I come home to visit, I always make a game effort to get him out to something with an audience; I've taken him to KING KONG and THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, and he's enjoyed them. And I bring a stack of DVDs that I'm pretty sure he wouldn't seek out on his own. Sometimes the choices click, sometimes, eh, not so much. But it's always a good and simple pleasure to sit down to a movie with your dad.

Well, Big Rog, you're 71 today. The Lyric and the Opera House are flatland now, Peoples Theatre is now a pizza parlour run by nuns, which must give a good atheist like you a chuckle. But flip those digits around, and you get 17. Having picked up the cinema bug from you, I think you'll agree that when we watch a great movie, we feel as excited as a young buck ready to explore the world; it makes us feel like 17 again. And it happens to be your favorite song too.

Psst! Got some money burning a hole in your pocket? Go to and buy a painting! Sure he loves my endearments, but that don't pay the bills!

Monday, January 18, 2010

High Moments of Low Culture for Noughts

While I'm still one of those cranky contrarians who counts years from 1 to 10 and not 0 to 9, and thus resisting a Best of Decade list, since everyone else is musing on the last 10 years and the best and worst of it, I gotta throw a few shekels into the conversation.

A couple weeks back, David Wain, a frustratingly hot-and-cold type responsible for both the brilliant DIGGERS and ROLE MODELS, and the absolutely reprehensible WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, decided to indulge his weakness for predictably tired snark by posting his "Middle 10 Neither Best Nor Worst Movies of the Decade". Get it? They're the most mediocre! No, they're not even the most mediocre, because they're in the middle! And once again, fish are dumped into a barrel and fired at with tommy guns, because God and Godard decree that middlebrow entertainment is a capital crime, and those rubes in fly-over country must be ridiculed for even enjoying it. Apparently to Wain and his progeny, ironic detachment is valued in the same measurements most men apply to penis size.

But to give Insipid Caesar what is his, his list did provoke me to consider that elusive median of pleasure and the time I spent with it in the past ten years. I'm not talking about "comfort food" movies per se, because to me comfort food still involves home cooking, i.e. a degree of personal style and achievement. No, we are in the realm of fast food and empty calories here. Stuff that isn't quite good enough to merit serious acclaim, not bad enough to receive my angriest rebuke, and that overall, I consumed with enthusiasm, time and again. Because in my movie regimen, there's been Porterhouse steak, there's been crisp spicy vegetables, there's been large overstuffed club sandwiches with home fries...and then, as those geniuses at 7-Eleven know so well, sometimes you just need a dog. Not some gourmet concoction from the hipster truck-du-jour, or the scarred and charred soldier from the home grill, not even Frank Zappa's beloved Burnt Weeny Sandwich. No, that lonesome brown tube that's been rolling on the silver rods since half-past-who's-watching-the-clock.

So, without ranking since this is all about the middle, here are a few of the best of the ordinary, the benchwarmers that made waiting for the big-ticket players better than bearable:

Teen sex comedies may not have been around as long as there's been teen sex, or not even as long as when the cops stopped shining flashlights in parked cars, but the cliches surely feel like they've been around that long: jocks are stupid, nerds are desperate, and nobody seems to have any outside interests beyond the next lay. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe gave teenagers dignity, but they focused on Really Deep Thoughts of love and the future, and put a sanctity to the sex act. Back in 1999 (talk about fudging that decade timeline, huh?), the Weitz brothers had no illusions about their modern-day wild rumpus, calling it "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love." But the film that resulted, and the two theatrically-released sequels that followed, sent a subtle message amidst all the shenanigans: Good kids like to fuck. It is possible to be smart, hard-working, have good moral character and a bright future and still enjoy hot, clumsy sex that doesn't result in anything more troubling than a bruised ego. And every few years later, in the dying days of summer, a visit with this gang was always a welcome opportunity. I've chosen not to watch any of the made-for-DVD "presentations" so as to not tarnish my memory, but I won't slag on them sight unseen; far be it from me to deny good guys like Eugene Levy and the Sherminator a paycheck.

They're not the funniest collective in the business. They'll never have the brains of Monty Python, or the brazenness of the Kids in the Hall, or the depth of Judd Apatow's extended company. Their movies are silly and predictable at best, uneven and sloppy at their worst. But syrup bottles on the table: while I saw tighter comedies like TROPIC THUNDER or SUPERBAD only once in theatres, I went to see BEERFEST three times, dragging a first-time viewer with me each visit. And if SUPER TROOPERS is on cable, you'll stay a while and revisit it; you or someone you know still giggles a little when the word "shenanigans" is used. Their newest movie, THE SLAMMIN' SALMON is again, not the most clever or polished comedy out there, but I laughed a lot. Ambition and danger are important to the evolution of good comedy, but never underestimate the simplicity of a funny line reading or a bonk on the head. Broken Lizard truly is good enough to fuck your mother.

Again, to give propers to Mr. Wain, it's not difficult to make a competent but forgettable movie. To fling poo at Michael Bay, it's not difficult either to make an incompetent but forgettable movie. But to have the absolute lack of restraint, shame, guile, or sense to make a movie that is both incompetent and unforgettable, something that if its name is uttered it brings a secret guilty smile to your face because you strangely respected the effort but enjoyed the chaotic disaster even that is an achievement! Genial author and critic Alonso Duralde likes to call this "So Bad They're Brilliant." The equally jovial Dave White prefers the mantle "Awful is the New Awesome." The subversive geniuses at L.A.'s CineFamily even devote a monthly series to this notion calling it "HOLY FUCKING SHIT!" And there was an abundance of This Fucking Shit like no other these years. Whether it was the late John S. Rad damning the hardship of meshing incongruent storylines shot 20 years apart in DANGEROUS MEN, or the mysterious (and possibly pseudonymous) "Mark Region" making an MRI machine out of cardboard and offering copiers you could use in AFTER LAST SEASON, or the Ed Woodian manipulation of emotionally and/or literally dead actors in ROYAL KILL...oh what the hell, I'll tip the hat to that emblem of PoMo douchebaggery gone berserk THE ROOM...peculiar people with a dream and a four-wall contract made deliciously distasteful fusion cuisine in an otherwise bland food court of film.

As the new century began, while there was no shortage of action adventure and big shit exploding, there was a noticeable lack of Greco-Roman Crud-Out-of-Beating in theatre auditoriums; the dependable mid-card manly-man programmer was being cast aside for higher-priced main eventers, and thus to answer Paula Cole, all the cowboys went straight to DVD. But while Wesley Snipes burned money, reputation, and weed and Steven Segal seemed to spend more time in the restaurant than the gym, the Muscles from Brussels was using his time in purgatory to quietly and steadily become a better actor, usually with the help of a director as half-mad as himself (Ringo Lam, IN HELL) or with a solid co-star as his antagonist (Stephen Rea, UNTIL DEATH). His hard work paid off with a miraculous return to theatres in the mythbusting JCVD, where an initial comic self-deprecation turned to a legitimately moving drama about humiliation and redemption, complete with a ballsy fourth-wall-breaking confession.

And speaking of breaking walls, bones, and appliances, a bald brawny bloke who was already proving to be a game ensemble player in SNATCH and THE ITALIAN JOB can thank the French for putting him in a shiny car and a sharp suit and making him a name-above-the-title kinda guy. THE TRANSPORTER begat two sequels, and THE BANK JOB, and DEATH RACE, and CRANK. Patton Oswalt was one of the first to openly declare himself as "gay-tham for Statham", and yes homo, I'm in that uncampy camp as well. So much so I can forgive being tortured by the worst film of 2009, CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE; what's a relationship that can't survive a big blunder?

So, fellow junk food junkies, who would you like to add to the roster? This is hardly complete. I already know I'm going to get flamed for not including, say, the chitlin cinema of Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes (never seen one, can't pass judgment), and sorry to say the whole Asian horror thing kinda wore out its welcome hence the latter's absence here. So how about some more tips on where to get some hot juicy nitrates and preservatives?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You Better Watch Out for a Football Hero

To mark today's DVD release of THE WRESTLER screenwriter Robert Siegel's directorial debut, BIG FAN, rather than write just a standard review of the film (in brief, I loved it), what I would really like to do is make some bullet point comparisons to another film which to me is its solid spiritual cousin.

In many interviews for the film, both Siegel and star Patton Oswalt mention their deep appreciation for character-driven dramas of the '70's and how they informed the creation of this film. That was a period where you could make a movie involving a somewhat unpalatable protagonist and yet maintain audience interest and curiosity, without having to provide sympathetic backstory or contrived redemption. Oswalt's performance as the impoverished, put-upon football fan Paul Aufiero is right at home in that template. However, while the most likely spiritual cousin people would summon up would be Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, a character ironically himself informed by John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS, both of them archetypical God's Lonely Men, there is actually a more appropriate subset personality that is Paul's true doppelganger.

What separates Paul from Travis, or for that matter the Travis-inspired protagonists of his creator Paul Schrader (Richard Gere in AMERICAN GIGOLO, Willem Dafoe in LIGHT SLEEPER), is that these are men who are missing that certain something they think will complete them, and spend their lives awkwardly trying to find it. Paul Aufiero, on the contrary, has found that something - love of football and the New York Giants - and just wants to be left alone to enjoy it, but so-called "normal" society disapproves and robs him of that small pleasure, and he retaliates with dangerous behavior. In 1980, writer/director Lewis Jackson presented a similar misfit named Harry Stadling, played by former "SESAME STREET" alumnus Brandon Maggart, whose singular obsession is not football but Christmas, in the darkly comic horror film YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, better known to most fans as CHRISTMAS EVIL.

Both Paul and Harry are working class moaxes in the Eastern Tri-State area, Paul a garage attendant, Harry working in a toy factory, living in squalor with few friends and the scorn of their families. Their free time is completely devoted to their life's work: Paul watches his Giants on TV and scripts what he feels will be witty banter for his favorite radio sports program, Harry collects Christmas tchotchkes and keeps a big book on who the good and bad children are in his neighborhood. For the initial setup of each story, these men are content with their otherwise humble lot in life. Patton Oswalt observed that Paul is a character who fears change - he only likes one team, one topping on pizza, and one kind of soda. However, it could also be said that rather than fearing change, Paul craves simplicity: he has his mantras, why is there a need for any alternates. Same for Harry, especially since he identifies so much with a man who practices simple justice - good kids get toys, bad kids get bad things.

We are allowed some backstory with Harry - watching his mother engage in foreplay with "Santa Claus" as a child, i.e. disrespecting what the holiday represents to the faithful, has made him determined to keep Christmas sacred. Meanwhile we don't know how Paul reached his plateau, but the presence of a nattering mother and the absence of a father suggest a climate of emotional castration where his retreat into football lore allows him to feel like an alpha male. And the viewer can see seeds of how these characters will lose touch with propriety: Harry has already taken to spooking "bad" children through stalking their homes, and Paul makes an ill-informed decision to follow his favorite player one night.

Harry's break with reality is more abstract, based in anger at fellow employees who abuse his generosity, discovering his company's charity toy drive is just a p.r. front and no toys will actually go to poor children, his deteriorating relationship with his brother, and his general observation that no one is properly judging right and wrong as his beloved Saint is charged with doing. Paul suffers an even greater fall: through the machinations of his greedy brother, hectoring mother, and a constant radio antagonist called Philadelphia Phil, both he and his beloved Giants hit bottom - they lose games, Paul loses his radio outlet. Both men are told these measures are for their own good, to force them to live in the real world, a place that has no charm for them. And thus they make their stand to get their private paradise back.

Some minor spoilers here
What is particularly interesting about these men's quests for retribution is that they are offered a moment where they could find sanctuary and redemption. During Harry's bipolar Christmas Eve rampage dressed up as Santa Claus, he stumbles into a random party of strangers where he is eagerly welcomed: the parents bring out their children to meet him, he is given rich food and drink, pretty ladies dance with him. Paul travels to an out-of-town sports bar in Philadelphia Eagles makeup to find and confront his on-air nemesis Phil, and though Phil is indeed every bit the crass blowhard in person as on the show, he is also genial to Paul during their initial meet: he buys him beers, gives him bro-hugs during touchdowns. Indeed, all the Eagles fans greet the stranger Paul with open arms. Away from the persecutors who know them too well, Harry and Paul could easily start over and become accepted by new people and escape from their pain. But in their minds, they both have tasks that must be completed. Christmas and the Giants are ultimately more important to them than their own lives, and they are willing to pay that price.

YOU BETTER WATCH OUT/CHRISTMAS EVIL suffered from poor distribution and bootlegging for many years, until iconic director John Waters proclaimed it his favorite Christmas movie and helped create a climate for its creator Jackson to reclaim it and put it on DVD. As such, it is unlikely that it ever had any direct influence on any of the talent involved with BIG FAN, though I would be pleasantly surprised and somewhat not surprised if either Siegel or Oswalt were to acknowledge it. Both films are terrific character studies with mordant humor and legitimate pathos, and even if you hate both the holidays and pro sports, they are required viewing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"The boatman has heard, it has bound him..."

Among the many reasons why I have championed Nickelodeon's short-lived "THE ADVENTURES OF PETE & PETE" as not merely a fun artifact of the early '90's but possibly one of the best family sitcoms in modern history is its understanding of the importance of small moments in a growing child's life. Much as the more heralded Judd Apatow's "FREAKS AND GEEKS" understood that a teenager's great moment was not necessarily taking the Homecoming Queen to prom but just mustering the nerve to ask any girl to go in the first place regardless of her reply, Chris Vicardi and Will McRobb knew that things we gloss over as grown-ups (especially if we have joined the ranks of the International Adult Conspiracy) are quite significant in our pre-teens.

A prime example of this is the first-season episode "A Hard Day's Pete." Little Pete Wrigley, who like most middle-schoolers is more interested in grosseries and gossip than art, starts a typical morning furiously biking to school to avoid being late. But on his ride, he hears a garage band playing a song, and for reasons unknown, it stops him cold and he must sit there and listen...

Little Pete has experienced an important rite of passage: his first favorite song. He doesn't even know its name or who sang it, but it's been immediately branded on his soul. And if he doesn't find out how to find the song again, it will be heartbreak on a grand scale, a loss equivalent to Mr. Bernstein's lament for the girl with the white parasol. What can be worse than to know that you loved something, and not even be able to summon up the means to remember or describe it?

A favorite song is one of the most important things we acquire in our lives. Sure, there are thousands of songs we can load into a player that will elevate us, make us happy or melancholic, take us back to an earlier time or help us see a possible future. But at some moment of our lives, we discover That Song.

And how is That Song different from all other songs? It just is. A deity enveloped in chords found you at a pivotal moment and you saw each other.

Consider John Peel, a man literally responsible for exposing over a thousand songs to millions of grateful listeners like a flesh-and-blood iPod. Even a man with such an expansive palate knew in his heart That Song, what captured in verse and guitar his soul, and would accompany him to his final rest.

Maybe your mother sang it to you just as you were forming words in bed. Maybe it told you to put that knife away and just have a good night's sleep instead.

Or, like me...maybe you were not yet in double didn't know about sex but you did know of pretty girls and how wonderful it was to be around saw the adult world for both its hedonistic promise and its boring loved Top 40 radio and your 45's so much you dreamed of owning a real jukebox...and one night you stayed up past your bedtime to watch "DON KIRSHNER'S ROCK CONCERT" (or was it maybe "THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL"?), and somehow you missed the announcement of who was performing next, and you saw a blonde lorelei sing a deceptively upbeat tale of romance gone bad...

You knew you would die if you never heard that song again. And today, you know you want to hear that song one last time before you die.