Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fallin' on the floor for STANDING OVATION!

In one of my earliest blog entries, I dabbled on the subject of loveably misbegotten films...the TROLL 2s, the HELLO DOWN THEREs...movies that confound conventional adjectives because they don't meet the artistic or intellectual standard of "good" but deliver more genuine pleasure than most films that do reach that arbitrary measure. The bearish Dave White is bullish on this type of film, what he has branded "Awful is the New Awesome," and if you consider that said adjective literally means "full of awe," he is spot-on in that description, because audiences in the right frame of mind, myself included, indeed sit in awe, wondering if what we are witnessing on screen is really happening. And in my still-controversial gobspit on THE ROOM, I delved into the appeal further, proclaiming that an audience's true enjoyment of these movies cannot be based merely in feeling superior to them, but in fact in feeling sympathetic with them, meshing the open flaws of the film to our own life's previously best-laid plans in a moment of familial love. The message to the filmmaker is you dun goofed up, and the consequences of me watching your movie will never be the same, but I can't deny the fact that I like you, right now, I like you!"

And right now, I can't deny the fact that I am currently in the midst of a ridiculously ebullient love affair with such a film: STANDING OVATION, an independently-produced East Coast-lensed spectacle attempting to be the tweener intersection of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and "JERSEY SHORE." In a summer that has given us all manner of underwhelming and mediocre movies, and only a few legitimately brilliant ones, this shiny, scrappy, and occasionally strident film is the wild card I didn't even know I was looking for. In its short theatrical run, I have seen it twice, and if I can drag any more brave friends along while it's still onscreen, I'll return again; the as-yet unreleased DVD is as good as on my shelf when it comes out. And yes, as that preambling (and prerambling) opening paragraph indicates, most of my enjoyment is in that dreaded "meta" zone of irony that is abused so much in pop culture you could mistake it for Luka on the second floor, the kind of reaction that, to invoke legitimate irony, does get explored at one part of this movie, which concerns me a touch because I don't want any of the nice kids who worked on this film to think that I'm laughing at least not in any kind of mean way that would have easily upset me when I was their age.

Let's make this clear, STANDING OVATION is not "a movie for the whole family to enjoy" as the marketing would have you believe. The majority of families who have grown accustomed to the clean, professional, and star-laden output of Walden Media for the last decade will quickly grow impatient with the abrasively low-budgeted staging on display here. And those progressive hipster parents - the kind that decry anything associated with Disney, forbid sweets, and try to accelerate their offspring's development of righteous anger by playing Consolidated in the nursery - well they'll be downright horrified at what they see as a celebration of prefab pop and the quest for shallow stardom. So unless you live in one of those households where mom, dad, and the kids pop popcorn and sit in the living room to enjoy an evening of reading out loud from the latest issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, this movie is probably not for you.

But if, like me, you find the Monkees more interesting than the Beatles, you miss Crystal Pepsi because you liked the taste, and feel a wonderful tingle every time you hear Bela Lugosi's "Home? I have no home!" speech from BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, this is a movie made for you. In the grand tradition of THE APPLE and THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE, to paraphrase from the "Stimutacs" episode of "SEALAB 2021," STANDING OVATION is a movie that makes me feel like a koala bear hacked up a rainbow in my brain...and to me, that is a pleasant thing!

STANDING OVATION, which opened in over 600 theatres on July 16th, the day before my birthday, and plummeted to 72 matinee-only screenings in its second week, is having a hard time finding any love in the marketplace, either from published critics...

And oh, the music...generic and empty, with derivative music and lyrics consisting of nothing but baseless, idiotic self-assertion. One group sings that they're "one in a million." Another sings that they're superstars. Then a little girl sings about how she's going to be a star.
Everybody's going to be a star, and could you imagine what a nightmare it would be if everybody who wants to be a star actually became a star? You wouldn't be able to walk from your front door to the car without hordes of people following you, singing and singing and singing...
It would be a nightmare. It would be even worse than this movie. But until that dreaded day, "Standing Ovation" must hold pride of place.
– Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Standing Ovation could barely muster a golf clap from an audience. Unless you're a female senior citizen. The Kelinworth Film Production's debut flick will simply not work for anyone outside of the above mentioned and possibly a five year old. Everyone between the ages of six and sixty-five, wait for this to show on the Disney channel. In the afternoon. On Saturday. When it's raining. – Joe Belcastro, Tampa Movie Examiner

For us grinchy adults out there without children to sedate, the whole thing feels slightly less like a movie than like the filmed record of a mutiny at a juvie talent agency - Adam Markovitz, Entertainment Weekly

...or from IMDb commenters...

"Ugly kids movie...only a pedophile could love"

"Should be called 'How to Make a Narcissist.'"

"How the HECK did this get a theatrical release?"

...or even from moviegoers themselves. In a wide release of 623 screens, STANDING OVATION's opening weekend total of $343,125 (or $551 per screen) was the worst opening since TRANSYLMANIA in December of 2009, and ranks 5th in all-time worst openings since 1982. Despite the best of booster press in its location cities of Atlantic City, Cape May County, and Delaware County, PA, as well as national talk show plugs from its producer, venerated actor James Brolin, STANDING OVATION was unable to find the family audience it aspired to. And I suspect that the kids and parents who busted their buns and boiled coffee to make this film may not be 100% thrilled to hear that one of the few large contingents that's energetically trying to support it also seems to be regarding it as a post-millenial PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

I would like to assure all parties that this is not an accurate assessment. While there are still remnants of the initial Harry & Michael Medved school of snotty dismissal mingling with the too-cool-for-school detachment dinguses (or is that dingae?) that may watch this movie to mock it, everyone I've talked to who has seen STANDING OVATION knows its faults, and openly embraces it regardless. It's a stance that maverick San Francisco film programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks calls "neo-sincerity", which he describes as as " know you can make fun of something if you want to; but, you don't really need to." It's that kind of lopsided love that fuels the cults that embrace TROLL 2, or TEEN WITCH, or any of the films that despite their perceived disposability, have somehow kept their fanbase years after their shelf life should have expired.

So sure, I could make jokes about the numerous plot threads about gambling addiction and unrequited crushes and parental absence that are introduced and then abandoned, or how the 5 Ovations are supposed to be the working-class heroes in contrast to the spoiled Wiggies yet they seem to have a budget for back-up dancers and costumes that exceeds their so-called rich rivals, or how the character of Joei Badalucci engages in stereotypes so egregious that I half-expected Joseph Columbo to rise from the grave to file a posthumous complaint from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, or that Alanna Wannabe's bratty antics are not so much adorable as more likely to inspire a response similar to Strong Bad's reaction to 'Cute Little Girl from Sit-Com Sings Patriotic Song', or the fact this story relies on so many deus ex machinae that it becomes a veritable deus ex officina...but see, those are the very things I love about the movie! Its daffy committment to what is clearly a blinkered and hyperactive 12-year-old fantasy worldview made me a little daffy too. And when left to contemplate whether to sit through the bloated emptiness of THE LAST AIRBENDER or the pained seriousness of TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE or the autopilot blandness of KNIGHT AND DAY or the calculated familiarity of THE KARATE KID...a movie like STANDING OVATION that's riddled with wrong yet smiling all the way through it is a lot more entertaining.

STANDING OVATION will never be regarded on the same level playing field as the gleaming Disney franchises to which it wants to, dare I say, Step Up. But like many determined knockoffs of bigger films (PIRANHA to JAWS, KING FRAT to ANIMAL HOUSE, LOVE AND A .45 to PULP FICTION), it is most definitely destined for cult movie status; even Brian Orndorff and Roger Moore, while both panning the film, acknowledge it's kook appeal and camp potential. There is already talk in a couple cities of reviving this in midnight screenings...when of course, the kids would be in bed and the grown-ups would have all the fun. Personally, I would love to see this become the teenybopper training film for THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW: book a theatre on Saturday mornings, let the tweener set learn how to shadow-cast and make funny callbacks, get them prepared for the sexier midnight movies when they get older. Who knows, maybe even some serious hard-partiers and ravers would still be awake from the night before to come watch as well and make it a hip destination.

Now then, in the off chance any of the kids from this movie are reading this essay:

First off, congratulations! This may not be the rave review you wanted to read in reward for your work, but what matters is you worked hard and whether people like it or hate it, you did it, and years from now you'll always be able to look back at it and think of all the fun you had. And as I am predicting, a lot of us will be watching and having fun too. Now some of you are probably also going to be looking at a decade's worth of ribbing and schoolyard taunting in the interim, so I'm hoping you've started building up a sense of humor about that. It might be cold comfort when the jokes get mean, but keep in mind that you did something big, and most people who feel like being nasty to you never will. You should read some of the rude things people said about me when I did "BEAT THE GEEKS" years ago!

And since I keep talking about this thing called "irony" and how it relates to your movie, I suggest you watch a really great documentary called BEST WORST MOVIE which was made by a former child actor about a movie he starred in, TROLL 2, that also didn't get the success or acclaim he hoped for, but earned him fans that years after the fact, are some of the best people he's ever known. I also suggest reading an essay by my friend and fellow blogger Witney Seibold about one of the other movies I compared yours to, THE APPLE, a musical that started me on my love of films like yours, and if nothing else, you can always point your friends to when they give you grief and say, "You think my movie is strange?"

Finally, I hear rumblings that you all may do a sequel. DO EET!!! Do it fast! Make it so fast we can see it this Christmas, where it will stand out in opposition to all the serious stodgy awards-season bait that will be in theatres. After all, who wants to watch another English broad in a corset suffering when STANDING OVATION II: WIGGIE WEVENGE is playing next door?

Oh yeah, and when you make that sequel, hire these boys:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Personal Super Hero, Andyman

America lost one of its best radio personalities, rock'n'roll lost one of its best champions, and most heartbreakingly, I lost one of my closest friends this past Saturday evening: DJ and music director for CD101-FM John Andrew Davis, known to close friends and music lovers alike as simply "Andyman," died from drowning during a family vacation. It's an exceptional hurt for me, because July 17 is my birthday, and this is the second time that I have lost a close friend on the heels of that date: previously, New Beverly Cinema operator Sherman Torgan died of a sudden heart attack on July 18th, 2007.

Andyman was large in almost every sense of the adjective. First off and unavoidably, he was so in the physical sense, standing 6 foot 3, and at his heaviest, weighing nearly 400 lbs; bariatric surgery in 2005 brought him down to a comparably healthier 200. But what loomed larger than that was his personality - his smile, his voice, his gregarious manner, and his enthusiasm for great music. It is so difficult to avoid sounding like I'm making a stereotypical fat joke, but it is absolute truth to say that he was the gravitational force when he entered a room, because everyone wanted to be around him, he was a commanding presence. From his unassuming debut at the station's inception in 1991, he quickly rose to become the prominent rock'n'roll tastemaker in Columbus, not only through his promotion to music director in 1998, but through his outreach to local artists, his support of local entrepreneurs and fledgeling hockey and soccer teams, and his annual 48-hour Christmas charity event, the "Andymanathon." The latter institution, where song requests would be "bought" for donations, and numerous bands and occasional touring celebrities like Rob Schneider and Drew Carey would perform live on air as Andy staved off sleep, would raise tens of thousands of dollars for local children's charities. Later on, he even opened up his own watering hole, Andyman's Treehouse, where local musicians would play and drink, and one of the best - Quinn Fallon of the X-Rated Cowboys - even tended bar.

CD101, Andy's radio station, had a heavy burden when they started in 1991 as Columbus' first "alternative" station. Without any major conglomerate behind them, a signal that could prove troublesome in certain neighborhoods, and legions of record store cynics ready to engage in preemptive schadenfreude, it was a struggle to grab and keep an audience in a market dominated by tired familiar formatting. But they did it. While never scoring huge numbers, CD101 became a trusted brand not just locally, but nationally, both for its playlist and its continued independence; a recent TV ad campaign gleefully reminded viewers they were not affiliated with Clear Channel. And Andyman, in his position as music director, deserves the lion's share of that accomplishment. Canny but never cynical in setting the station's playlist, his musical integrity was flawless - he may not have liked every single band that the station helped break, but you instinctively knew he never had to hold his nose while spinning tracks or make a false compliment to an artist. He loved the music as much as you did, and everyone from performer to listener respected that optimism and hope. Living in what is sadly one of the single worst radio markets in America, I can say with full honesty (barring my admitted personal interest) that CD101 is the single best radio station I've listened to in my life.

Andyman began his career at roughly the same time that I graduated from Ohio State, stepped into a longtime position at the venerable Drexel Theatres, and pursued my fortune in stand-up and improv comedy. So our paths crossed early and very frequently, both professionally, such as when the Drexel would promote films at the station, and personally, since we had many of the same friends. And I cannot remember any sort of sniffing-each-other-out preamble to our friendship; it's as if we started out bear-hugging each other and kept that affection going for years thereafter. I listened to his on-air shifts, he came to my performances and my workplace. For a couple years, we even lived walking distance from each other, both of us sharing homes with other comics. Visits to the studio during his Christmas marathon. A surreptitious screening of a print of PULP FICTION a month before the movie opened. Dozens of late-night poker games and last-call bar visits. The cold spring months of 1996, when I found myself among other local comics and musicians toiling on a low-budget exploitation film called BOTTOM FEEDERS, and Andy volunteered to do a short scene where he wound up on the wrong end of a petty robbery. My life was not always a laugh-filled romp during my Columbus years, but Andy was one of the fellas who stood by me and gave me support to go forward. And much like that song that he played very often (yet somehow never became the monster hit that it should have been), I could stand there in that time and say with certainty, "Despite my fighting bitter tears / These are the very best years."

Once I left Cowtown for L.A., our contact had been somewhat more sporadic. But Andy never stopped supporting me. During my 13 minutes of fame with "BEAT THE GEEKS," he eagerly offered me the chance to tape promo bumpers for the station, a dream come true for me. In turn, I would listen to the internet feed of the station on multiple occasions, and would make long distance calls to the station during the Christmas Andymanathon to pledge money and make obscure song requests, and I would admonish everyone else in my social networking radius to do the same. We'd had a lapse in conversation for some time that had just recently been rectified thanks to Facebook, and I was looking foward to visiting with him and his family later this summer when the news came on Sunday night.

And in my departure from Columbus, many things have changed. Andy sold the Treehouse to other owners in 2008. This year, CD101 agreed to sell their frequency to Ohio State and will become CD102.5 instead. With the loss of Andy and his magic manner, it effectively means the end of an era. I'm hardly suggesting that it's all over for alternative music lovers in the city - I have full confidence that CD102.5 will proudly carry on the tradition that started almost two decades ago in a little building on the south side of town. I'm only observing that with a new dial position and a new public face in the music library, and the absence of another major signpost of his influence, it will be a different environment for the new generation that embraces the station and their music.

As such, in the tradition of the sports teams we loved to watch on poker nights, out of respect to Andy's legacy, I am retiring these T-shirts from wear, the better to have an intact artifact of that mixtape Camelot we enjoyed for so long.

It's a challenge to find the right song to send out in dedication to a voracious music lover like Andyman. After all, he exposed me and many to so many great songs and performers, there are too many to choose from to suggest who he was and what he meant to me and how I feel about his sudden departure. But as I spin the '45's in my head, I think this song is the most appropriate. Brad, and their lead singer Shawn Smith, were particular favorites of Andy's, and they performed a beautifully spare rendition of their one major single in the station's "Big Room" that was played very often instead of the album version. That recording is unfortunately not available to me, but this recent live rendition by Smith is a reasonable approximation...

Who knows where the storm will take us
Who knows when the pain will break us
When will all the G's be given
Another chance to live in freedom

So gather around
And see what the day brings
And see what makes you laugh
And see what makes you sing
And never, nevermind
The thing that people say
You'll never go away
You'll never go away

John Andrew Davis – RIP AndyMan – We’ll Miss You

First photo courtesy of Eric Broz; second photo courtesy of Gator Dave West. These photos are the property of their respective photographers and are used in the hope of forgiveness in lieu of permission.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Somewhere the Fox is Crying

Imagine that you agree to go out on a blind date. You meet up with the person, and you hit it off with them really well. You go to a great restaurant, and the food is good, and the conversation is sparkling, and you have so much in common, and you're off to a great start. Your energy is up, so you both go out to a club, and the drinks are tasty and you've got chemistry on the dance floor, and you're looking at each other and you're really feeling that attraction and you just want it to keep going. So you end up at their place, and your endorphins are pumping, and they go to the bathroom while you start getting undressed, and you can't hold your excitement any further so you open the door on them...and they're on the floor shooting heroin.

No matter how much fun you were having, how well you were connecting, the bloom is immediately off the rose, and your memories of that night are going to be tainted.

That is what it's like to see a 2/3 great movie that is slaughtered by a terrible ending. TRUE BELIEVER, WEDDING CRASHERS, SHOWGIRLS...I'm sure you have a few movie dates of your own that took an irreparable wrong turn. And that is, sadly, why I cannot in good conscience recommend Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. It was one of my eagerly-anticipated movies of the summer, and is now my biggest disappointment of the summer.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT starts off as an extremely engaging and pleasant story that blends the traditional dramatics about teenage children becoming adults with fresh reinvention about what constitutes a modern family. In this case, it is Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is making the leap to womanhood with her impending move to college, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) trying to figure out who he is. They are children of a decade-plus strong lesbian couple, Joni birthed from Nic (Annette Bening), Laser from Jules (Julianne Moore), both sharing the same sperm donor. And it is the identity of that person that underage Laser begs the initially hesitant (but legally adult) Joni to request to have revealed, and to keep secret from their doting but somewhat overbearing mothers. Nic and Jules, meanwhile, are themselves a generally happy couple content with the status quo, but do have some issues to deal with, not only with the impending departure of their firstborn from the nest, but with longstanding personality clashes that are often ignored but never forgotten in a long-term relationship: Nic is a workaholic doctor with a controlling streak and tends to always drink one glass of wine too many, while Jules feels starved for attention, yearns to have a business of her own and not be "kept," and wonders if she is still attractive to Nic or just an item of familiar comfort.

Joni and Laser discover their donor father is an affable (though sometimes cocky) restauranteur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who, in scenes depicting his life before the revelation, we learn operates a small farm to supply his restaurant, and is quite handy with the younger women who work for him. Upon meeting them, Paul is rather happy to learn that part of his biology has helped create two nice, hard-working kids. Laser is not quite as enamored with learning about his dad as he'd thought, but Joni grows fond of him and his self-sustained lifestyle, and Paul proceeds to make himself available to them with enthusiasm. Eventually, the mothers find out that the kids have made contact, and reluctantly agree to have him over for dinner.

The majority of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is terrific, depicting five smart, intelligent, good-hearted people just trying to muddle through life and each other. When there are scenes of tension, such as Nic's often steely resistance to liking Paul's company and influence, they don't come across as cheap drama but as natural push and pull, especially in the midst of what the primary story is supposed to be, the push and pull between child and parent as the former becomes their own person with their own values and beliefs. Cholodenko does a great job showing the adults warts and all, how Nic's impulses can be both protective and smothering, how Jules can be both ambitious and flighty, how Paul can be both smug and insightful. And the movie also suggests that while both mothers have clearly done a fine job raising their kids, it doesn't hurt to have a father figure in the picture; Laser has a bullying friend whom his moms repeatedly try to counsel him about, but it isn't until after Paul notices his boorish behavior as well that Laser decides to split with him (though of course beforehand he criticizes Paul for making a judgment after one meeting), while Joni has resisted trying to become romantic with a platonic male friend, perhaps wanting the similar comfort of the familiar that her moms have, but considers taking things up a step by observing the take-the-risk behavior of Paul.

And then THIS happened (of course there are spoilers)...

Paul, trying to help Jules with her nascent gardening business, hires her to start with his own back yard, and Jules grows to enjoy the fact that Paul takes her ideas seriously where Nic tended to be dismissive, and more importantly, that he offers her the positivity and compliments that she feels she has been missing from Nic. While it is supposed to be a surprise turn in the story, anyone who has seen the trailer knows that after this meeting of the minds, Jules and Paul end up having a sexual affair. Though Paul is set up as the hound dog of the movie, it is Jules who makes the first move on Paul, and when they attempt to stop after one encounter, it is her who starts it up again. Paul in turn has no interest in the stereotype of "turning" a lesbian straight, he reciprocates because he genuinely likes her, and perhaps because no matter how unorthodox the circumstance, they are the parents of a child they both adore. Paul goes on to break up with the younger woman he's had a "benefits" arrangement with because he is thinking seriously about being with a woman his own age and becoming a non-absentee father to his children.

Naturally, their affair is revealed, and for the sake of drama, it is revealed to all the characters through confrontation and eavesdropping. And naturally, I expected there would be the requisite depictions of shunning and bitterness among the characters, and some sort of showdown between Nic and Paul over the infidelity. And most of that is handled even-handedly: for example, we see frostiness between Nic and Jules as Jules takes residency on the sofa, but in a later scene when Joni comes home drunk and sasses Nic, Jules steps up and scolds Joni for disrespecting her mother. Thus it seemed plausible that Paul would get a similar moment of defensive respect as well.

On the eve of Joni's departure for college, Paul comes to the house to apologize to her before she leaves. Joni is still angry, and expresses her disapointment in him for not being a better person. Good moment. Then Nic appears, and gives him the kiss-off speech, sneering that he is nothing but a sperm donor and an interloper, and that if he wants a family, he can go somewhere else and make his own. Paul, knowing he is in the wrong, says nothing in his defense, and leaves. Effective moment. But it is not only the last time we see him in the film, it is the last time he even comes into play. Nobody speaks of him or for him, to defend or castigate him; he is completely excommunicated, as if he was never there. All that remains in the film is that Jules makes an emotional flowery speech about the difficulty of marriage (while neglecting to admit that the infidelity was her friggin' idea, not his), everyone cries, Joni goes to college, the end.

I felt betrayed. I certainly did not want some sort of pat happy ending where everyone becomes one big lovey extended family, but the harsh, punishing tone of this ending was totally at odds with the humanistic ebb and flow that preceded it. Not to mention that the movie spends all this time suggesting that people can be right and wrong at the same time, and disagreement is part of being your own person, but then turns around and has everyone unite under Nic while she makes an autocratic decision. The more interesting scene would have been to, say, have Joni mirror Jules from earlier, and stand up to her mother and ask her not to speak to her father that way, that while navigating her own anger for Paul, acknowledge that he should be respected, which Nic has refused to do for the entire movie. Or for Jules to say that she's just as to blame as him for the affair, and that his love for the kids should not be dismissed.

Or more importantly, for the filmmaker to have one last scene with him, back in his old life the next day, or days thereafter, musing on what he had and what he lost, weighing the emotions of it all. The film has carried an omniscient p.o.v. to this point, and even if Paul is effectively gone from the kids' story there's no reason why we can't see his aftermath, especially since we've been allowed to see his life pre-fatherhood.

But no. The children and the director unite in casting out the man-whore from the tribal circle, and rendering him He Who Must Not Be Named.

Lisa Cholodenko is a lesbian, and I do not believe for a second she has any problems with men or fathers, or is in any way some sort of hoary stereotypical "man-hating dyke." I am sure all she intended was to make a compelling drama about everyday mixed-up people and how sometimes they connect and sometimes they clash. At one moment in the film, Jules suggests Nic has offered up an opinion that she is not even concious of knowing she had. And by choosing to present the last image of Paul as humiliated and mute, tarred-and-feathered as if he were a predatory child molestor, Cholodenko is somewhat culpable of that same unconcious communication as well, providing a resolution teetering dangerously close to a freshman-year level mentality of casual misandry. L.A. Weekly critic Ella Taylor praises this moment in her review by stating, "it says something about the mainstreaming of gay culture when a man is turned away from the front door of a lesbian home not because he's straight or because he's a man, but because his heedlessness has threatened the integrity of a family, and a marriage." I'm sorry to sound like a broken record, but what about the heedlessness of the parent who initiated the problem in the first place? Jules gets off lightly with a few nights on the couch and a couple curt conversations.

For that matter, what about the heedlessness of the children? Consider something for a moment: Paul did not hunt this family down and ask to be included. He had a reasonably happy life running his business and having short-term flings and thinking about family only as an abstract. But his children asked to meet him, they sought him out. And being a decent type, he took an interest in their lives and made himself available. And they took him up on it. Then, when he met their mothers, he sought to help out by giving Jules a job she wanted to do. And Jules accepted it. At no time is Paul ever depicted as being overbearing, forcing his company upon the family unit, or making any demands upon them. Yes, Paul committed a big mistake by sleeping with Jules and he certainly deserves to suffer the consequences of that choice, as does Jules when the kids look at her askance for days. But Jules gets to make her speech and he gets nothing? His worst sin is that in a moment of weakness, he said yes to a married woman who wanted to have sex with him. The woman who also happens to be the mother of a child he loves. And now these children, who plucked his name from the file cabinet, who wanted him to be in their lives, now suddenly just turn their heads and kick him to the curb because he's inconvenient and because their Alpha Mom said so? Talk about fucking selfish! Paul started out a happy bachelor, but fatherhood has now left him even more alone than he had been when the movie first started. These kids have ruined this man's life!

By these editorial choices, Cholodenko has thus failed to live up to the spirit of understanding that she promised in the build-up to this resolution, the notion that loving people work through conflict. If we are to honestly believe that this family would have been better off without ever knowing Paul, then she should have presented more bad personality traits in him to make him a credible threat. Again, I don't have a problem with the family writing him off: when Nic bellows "Get your own family," she's right. He didn't spend 18 years dealing with the teething and the pooping and the schooling, Nic and Jules did; that renders them real parents. Providing sperm no more makes you a dad than stuffing feathers in your ass makes you a chicken. But in a world where men who are much more than sperm donors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to show an interest in their children, Cholodenko has presnted us a model of patient, concerned late-term parenthood in Paul, and even if he doesn't deserve this family, he at least deserves the dignity of a good onscreen cry when he loses them.

Friends who saw the movie with me have stated that the movie suggests hope for reconciliation between Joni and Paul, because as she packs for college the morning after the fight, she chooses to take a gardening hat that he gave to her during one of their visits; i.e., she's not totally throwing away all reminders of him. However, I missed this detail, and I don't fully buy it, primarily because Jules is clearly depicted as also owning a similar style of gardening hat; as such, it could just as easily have been hers and not Paul's that gets taken to school. Moreover, even if my friends are right and the former scenario is what Cholodenko wants us to take home, that Joni will find room to forgive Paul by holding this totem of his, it is executed so quickly and so poorly that if an eagle-eyed moviewatcher like me can miss it, in all likelihood most of the audience will miss it as well. If she really wants us to believe their relationship will improve, the symbolism needed to be bigger; not hit-with-a-shovel obvious, just a little larger. But since the gesture is that small, it's just as likely that it doesn't actually exist.

I thought of foxes twice while watching this movie. Most obviously, when the story takes its turn into fluid sexuality, I was reminded of the stately (if often-maligned) Mark Rydell film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's THE FOX, where Keir Dullea is, for all practical purposes, a literal fox in the henhouse, coming between the long but somewhat stale relationship between Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis. Gay and straight audiences alike I'm sure are grateful that Cholodenko's film does not take the dark demoralizing turn that Rydell's film did at its end, but I still had to wonder: must all films involving a triangle of gay and straight people end with someone destroyed? I guess in this film, Cholodenko does believe so. Perhaps despite his well-meaning nature, Paul is The Fox, who preys upon chickens because it is in his nature to do so.

And then I thought about one of the most important foxes in literary history, whose encounter with a wandering young monarch has sat at my bedside since I was a child, and still sits there today. A story that Nic and Jules very likely read to Joni and Laser when they were very young:

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

Over the course of an otherwise sweet movie, Joni and Laser found a fox named Paul, and engaged in a rite by which they established ties and made each other unique from the hundreds of anonymous adults and children in the world. And Paul grew to become very happy whenever he knew he would be in their presence. But then when words led to misunderstandings, the children coldly withdrew from the rite. And the director of this movie suggests that they are allowed to shirk any responsibility for the fox whom they have tamed.

And that is a clear indication that the kids are NOT all right.

8/7/10 UPDATE:

A recent posting today by Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere reveals that movie critic Scott Feinberg recently obtained an earlier draft of the script from March 2009 which features a different version of Jules' showstopper speech, one that does offer a vigorous defense of Paul, and an altered ending in which on their way to drop Joni at college, Joni requests a stop to visit with Paul and mend fences with him. Theories abound as to why this superior ending was altered to the terrible one we have now, most suggesting that audiences demand that infidelity be punished somehow, and that the filmmakers accomodated this kind of outdated puritanism. If this is true, I am even more disappointed in Lisa Cholodenko for going against her original instincts.

It's still not all right.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Battle of the Embatted Rock Stars

This post is respectfully and rockingly dedicated to my friend and former high school crush, Anjali 'the Queen B' McGuire on her birthday. Her love of music is as strong as my love of film, we're both champions of the new but love to remind people of back in the day, and it was our mutual love for a certain 1984 epic and its star which made us friends...and which inspired this essay...

At a recent revival screening of Albert Magnoli's PURPLE RAIN, I was remarking at what a lightning-strike it was for me upon seeing it as a 14-year-old - from my cousin and I having to pay off adult patrons to buy us tickets since the Showcase Cinemas Springdale was carding heavily that night, to viewing one gripping and diverse performance by Prince after another, to even the closing credits which repeats a taste of every song heard in the movie to remind you what a great show you just saw - and how after that recent screening, while the thrill was not quite the same, the pleasure still held up.

Of course, as I am about to flip the digits and turn 41, I've seen many more movies, and I've seen the essential storyline of PURPLE RAIN repeated. Granted, it's a structure that existed long before Prince and Magnoli used it, and in the case of biopics for Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, it's a structure that has been lived by dozens of real artists. But in Roderick Heath's excellent retrospective essay on PURPLE RAIN, he provides the bullet points for the four other movies I'm specifically thinking of, in that they all "borrow the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration."

This is not to say that these other movies that are on my mind are derivative exercises in hackery. In fact, they are all excellent. Each in their own manner demonstrate one of the oldest adages of music - it's the singer, not the song. So rather than review them in a standard fashion - since I'm essentially saying they're all great - I'm looking at them with a sort of scorecard, how they approach those tropes mentioned by Heath and illustrate them in diverse fashion. And we'll begin with one that had a good jump on Prince and Magnoli by four years, also made by Warner Brothers, which would have been a perfect co-feature were they still interested in double billing in the '80's...


Artist: Jonah Levin
Played by real-life artist? Paul Simon (who also wrote the screenplay)
Status within the film: Former great, playing to increasingly smaller crowds, finding his style losing favor to modern rock trends.
Romance: Not much. Losing his wife (Blair Brown) to divorce, gets some attention from younger fan (Mare Winningham) and record exec's wife (Joan Hackett).
Troubled family? Has a young son he loves but has seen so little of him, he senses continued absence will doom their relationship. Wife intuits Jonah loves performance and his former celebrity more than any person in his life.
Crisis point: Blowhard record exec (Rip Torn) and hotshot producer (Lou Reed) think they can get one more hit single out of him, but Jonah is displeased by the additions to his song.
And the problems become songs: childhood ambitions - "Late in the Evening; insecurity - "One Trick Pony"; false bravado - "Ace in the Hole"; parental disconnect - "God Bless the Absentee"; loneliness - "How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns"
Does the artist overcome adversity? Jonah hints at quitting the road for his family, seals his place in obscurity by destroying the master tape of his comeback single.
Moral of the story: Your personal legacy is more important than your artistic one, particularly if in order to maintain an artistic legacy, you must be something you are not.
Autobiographical mirrors? Simon was constantly haunted by '60's success with Art Garfunkel, clashed frequently with Columbia exec Walter Yetnikoff, was only finding sporadic radio airplay and record sales at the time of the film and soundtrack release, and did divorce the mother of his first child Harper. Thankfully, has not retired.
A good review to learn more: Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog


Artist: The Kid
Played by real-life artist? Prince
Status within the film: Respected but idiosyncratic local musician, whose work is not as widely accepted as the more accessible dance anthems of his main rival (Morris Day).
Romance: Easily woos new girl in town Appolonia (Patricia Kotero), though jealousy and possessiveness constantly threaten their relationship, especially when she yearns to perform.
Troubled family? The Kid's failed musician father (Clarence Williams III) constantly beats his mother (Olga Karlatos), and occasionally The Kid as well, and in turn he is already copying the patterns through his go-it-alone attitude, his sullen dealings with bandmates, and in physical abuse of Appolonia.
Crisis point: Personal bad behavior has alienated him from his band and his girl, and jeopardizes his standing at his home club. After his father attempts suicide, it is clear he will fall down the same path of despair unless a change is made.
And the problems become songs: jealousy - "The Beautiful Ones"; internal conflict - "When Doves Cry"; scorning rebuke - "Darling Nikki"; contrition - "Purple Rain"
Does the artist overcome adversity? It would appear so. His make-or-break performance involves blending his bandmates' composition with one of his father's, thus spiritually reaching out to others and allowing himself to be publicly vulnerable. Eliminating his previous distancing tools wins his audience over and gets Appolonia's forgiveness, and his performance displays a new element: pleasure.
Moral of the story: No matter how talented you are, you can't go it alone. And no matter what you think history has lain out for you, you can be your own person.
Autobiographical mirrors? Prince's parents did have an acrimonious divorce, his relationship with his father taking ups and downs until his death. Same for his relationships with lovers and collaborators, though hardly as dramatic as the events in the film. Filmed in Prince's regular Minneapolis haunts. Aside from Williams and Karlatos, all cast were non-professionals, most from Prince's side projects or local music scenesters. Scripted "bad" reactions to concert performances likely inspired by mixed reception he received opening for the Rolling Stones in early '80's.
A good review to learn more: Roderick Heath at the Ferdy on Films blog


Artist: Hedwig (nee Hansel) Schmidt
Played by real-life artist? John Cameron Mitchell, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, based on his off-Broadway play; songs by Stephen Trask, who appears as member of Hedwig's band
Status within the film: "Internationally ignored song stylist barely standing," Hedwig and her band perform in chain restaurants and other tiny venues, shadowing successful rock star Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), whom Hedwig claims stole all her material.
Romance: As a young man in East Berlin, submitted to a poorly-executed sex change to marry an U.S. soldier and move to America, only to be abandoned by him. Later met Tommy when he was a confused teenager, only to see him run away (with the songs she wrote for him) when he learns of Hedwig's original gender. Currently involved with bandmate Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), whom she berates and dominates by withholding his passport.
Troubled family? Quite. As a boy, Hansel is molested by his G.I. father; in turn, his mother (Alberta Watson) flees with him to East Berlin, where she misguidedly encourages a philosophy of weakness that leads to Hedwig's passive-agression in her adult life.
Crisis point: Hedwig's pursuit of Tommy to force a confrontation/admission is draining the band's finances. Her refusal to allow Yitzhak to pursue an outside gig sours the working environment further. Finally, while prostituting herself to make extra money, Hedwig finally meets up with Tommy again...
And the problems become songs: searching for 'your other half' - "The Origin of Love"; failed sex change - "Angry Inch"; living as a woman - "Wig in a Box"; isolation - "Wicked Little Town"; reconciliation - "Midnight Radio"
Does the artist overcome adversity? While Hedwig gets vindication through Tommy's admission of theft and love, it is actually through letting go of Yitzhak that she finds peace.
Moral of the story: Identity and attraction can be fluid. And in some lives, you cannot force another to be your "other half;" the only person who can "complete" you is yourself.
Autobiographical mirrors? Actor/writer Mitchell was an Army brat who as a child was often babysat by a German woman who had been divorced by an American soldier and moonlighted as a prostitute. Tommy Gnosis' character also carries some of Mitchell's teenage attributes. Both Mitchell and songwriter Trask were fans of the gender-bending traits of '70's glam rockers like David Bowie.
A good review to learn more: Roger Ebert at Chicago Sun-Times

8 MILE (2002)

Artist: Jimmy B-Rabbit
Played by real-life artist? Eminem
Status within the film: Aspiring rap artist working to build a reputation and following. Has a group of friends who believe in him, but otherwise don't seem to have much ambition beyond day-to-day diversions.
Romance: Has broken off previous relationship with pregnant babysitter of his little sister (Taryn Manning), but provides her with material support. Initiates new relationship with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a fellow factory worker, but it unfolds more as a mutual convenience than a passionate attraction.
Troubled family? Left to move in with his family in a trailer park, his alcoholic mother (Kim Basinger) has taken up with an abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon) not much older than Jimmy himself. In turn, her lax parenting effectively makes him the primary caretaker of his beloved pre-teen sister.
Crisis point: Jimmy has constantly run afoul of his primary rap rivals, a collective known as "Leaders of the Free World." After Jimmy catches a fair-weather friend having sex with Alex, the friend in turn facilitates a beating on Jimmy at his home by the rap crew. Between his rivals' goading, his mother's selfishness, and his hardscrabble job status, he wonders if he will ever move forward.
And the problems become songs: Most times his frustrations are expressed in improvised rap challenges at the local hosting club. The theme song, "Lose Yourself," effectively channels all the running emotional elements of the story.
Does the artist overcome adversity? Jimmy wins a decisive rap-off with the head of the "Leaders," by ackwnowledging all his faults and calling out the false posturing of his rival. But Jimmy refuses to celebrate his win, instead going right back to his humdrum job that night, indicating that he has his own plan, and there's still hard work ahead of him.
Moral of the story: The individual must believe in their own worth as an artist to persuade others of the same, and be ready to strike out alone if his support group cannot commit to the process. And while art can be a release for the challenges of life, it does not automatically make the drudgery go away.
Autobiographical mirrors? Story is set in the impoverished Detroit milleu where Eminem first established his reputation. Eminem's conflicts with both his mother and the mother of his daughter are well-documented in the press and in his rap songs; if anything, this movie presents a less-dysfunctional dynamic than actually experienced.
A good review to learn more: Stephanie Zacharek at Salon

Now, while the final movie is based on a true story, the protagonist is not a well-known figure like most other musicians who have had biopics; many people I have spoken to who have seen the film were unaware of the movie's factual basis. As such, it has the dramatic impact and surprise of any one of the arguable roman a clef films already detailed, so I am including it in this rundown.

CONTROL (2007)

Artist: Ian Curtis
Played by real-life artist? No; Sam Riley is merely an actor portraying Curtis. However, Riley and his co-stars do their own singing, and crucial attention was paid to Curtis' mannerisms, as detailed here:
Status within the film: In 1976, working days as a civil servant in the drab English suburb Macclesfield, Ian and his friends are inspired to start a band called Joy Division after a Sex Pistols performance in the otherwise moribund city.
Romance: Married to his teenage sweetheart Deborah (Samantha Morton), with whom he has a daughter, Ian neglects his wife as his band work increases, and begins a chaste but emotional affair with a Belgian journalist, Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Troubled family? Curtis, like many working class teens of the '70's, feels he married too young, yet also feels responsible for providing for the wife and child he is not emotionally ready to deal with. In addition, he has been diagnosed with epilepsy, an affliction not as well-understood then as in the present-day, which if made known to his employers, could cost him his menial but necessary day job.
Crisis point: Deborah has learned of his affair with Annik and moves out of their home. While the band is getting popular, no one is getting rich from the work. Ian's epilepsy has gotten worse, causing him to be unable to perform for long stretches of time; at one gig, he asks a friend to step in, but nasty crowd reaction to him drives Ian to attempt to sing, yet barely finishes one song before collapsing. He begins to see that for them to have real success, they must tour, but he lacks the health to commit to it. He begins to feel like he has been predestined for ruin.
And the problems become songs: working-class demands - "Dead Souls"; life disappointments - "Candidate"; witnessing the struggles of a fellow epileptic client - "She's Lost Control"; relationship strife - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; pleading for understanding - "Atmosphere"
Does the artist overcome adversity? No. Estranged from his wife, guilt-ridden over his mistress, and aware that his frequent seizures will surely ruin the band's impending American tour (and their chance for world success), Curtis commits suicide at the age of 23.
Moral of the story: Art can provide a creative release for life's pressures, but it cannot always overcome one's personal demons. Indeed, sometimes the pressure of success can intensify them. But when the work is moving enough, it can live on long after its creator has left the world.
Autobiographical mirrors? Bulk of the movie is based on the memoir by Curtis' widow Deborah Curtis Touching from a Distance. Director Anton Corbijn had photographed and filmed the band during their existence, thus having memory of the band and a point of reference. Some band members note that details have been altered for dramatic impact, but admit that it is emotionally truthful to the events of the time.
A good review to learn more: Karina Longworth at SpoutBlog

Final assessment: if the song is strong, it will live long. It's up to the singer to back it up or let it stand alone.

And in the end, if it inspires an emotion or creative impulse in us, it was worth it.