27 October 2010

Silver Screen Attractions

Going to see a movie in a theater can be a costly, frustrating hassle.  Even without concessions, my wife and I can blind buy a DVD for the cost of attending a screening these days.  If we like the movie, great; now we own it.  If we don't enjoy it, we can always trade it in and recoup some of the money.  Once you buy a theater ticket, that money's gone.  The best you can show for it is a ticket stub.  If you need to dash off to the bathroom (as I tend to do, thank you, Crohn's disease), there's the embarrassment of walking past people and then there's the passage of the film you miss because no one's going to pause the screening for you.  And, of course, there's always the chance that someone is going to violate the once-respected norms of attending a theatrical screening by taking a call on their cell, or texting, or carrying on a conversation with their buddy.

There's always someone, it seems, who is intent on recreating Mystery Science Theater 3000 wherever he goes.  (I say, "he" and not, "he or she" because, let's face it, women don't generally crack a lot of jokes for the benefit of an uninterested audience.)  Go to see an all-audiences movie, and there's the risk of dealing with the laissez-faire parents who believe their ticket admission included free daycare for 90 minutes.  Go to the restricted film, and there are bound to be the just-turned-16 crowd who are there to celebrate being at an R rated movie more than they're there to actually watch the movie.  And let's not even go into the 3D fad, with its stupid, expensive glasses.

It may surprise you, if you've read this far, to know that I am wholeheartedly a fan of seeing films on the big screen.  For all the cost and hassle, I maintain that the difference between seeing a movie in a theater vs. seeing it at home is akin to going on safari vs. going to the zoo.  The theater is the natural environment for films.  Movies are filmed with deliberate gags and stunts all timed to excite and tweak an audience.  Watch a comedy in silence sometime and see how much silence is actually put into the movie following key lines.  That's there so that a live audience can laugh without missing the next line.  Contrast that silence with the reaction of a live audience, where laughter begets laughter.  I've watched many a comedy both with a crowd and by myself, and there's no question that movies are funnier with other people laughing.

"Wait a minute; the movie is the same whether one person laughs or a hundred laugh," you say.  True.  Remember that bit about whether a falling tree makes a noise if no one is around to hear it?  We've always said yes, that the noise is not dependent upon an audience.  What we failed to address was what effect that falling tree has on different audiences.  For instance, if you're in the woods by yourself and a tree randomly falls down, that would be pretty damn spooky.  If, however, you're with your buddies and it falls on one of them it has the potential to be hilarious (provided no one is seriously injured).  It's not the presence of noise that matters, but rather the effect of the tree having fallen at all.

In the Louisville area, we're fortunate to have Baxter Avenue Theaters, and their biweekly midnight movie series.  You know all those concerns I listed about seeing a movie with a live audience?  Toss them all (except the part about needing to run to the bathroom during the movie).  These screenings are all of older, cult favorite films that draw dedicated fans.  No one shows up for the sake of having somewhere to be; these crowds are there for the movie.

"What's the big deal about seeing an old movie in a theater?" you ask.  Has anyone told you you ask a lot of questions?  Anyway, there are a few reasons why this is appealing.  Firstly, as I said, the theater is a film's natural environment.  Seeing a movie there is like seeing an exotic animal in the wild.  Today, there's the Great Escape Oldham 8 in LaGrange, and 15 minutes away, across the county line is Tinseltown Louisville, a Cinemark complex.  But when I grew up the nearest movie theater was Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road in Louisville, a good 40 minutes away.  Mom wasn't big on movies; she took us to animated features and things targeted at families, but she had no desire to take us to more mainstream fare.  I'd go to school and hear about classmates being taken to see Ghostbusters, and while they intrigued me, I never bothered to make a point of asking to see them because I knew it wasn't in the cards.  I finally got to see it last Saturday at Baxter, and my inner child felt like he was finally catching up with his peers twenty years later.

When the Oldham 8 opened in 1995 I couldn't have been happier.  I was old enough to go to movies on my own, and having a theater that close negated the fact I couldn't yet drive.  Many a Friday night, my friends and I would get together for the last matinee-priced showing (before 6:00), then go traipsing around LaGrange.  Often, we'd wind up back at my house after stopping off to rent some more movies, and we'd stay up all hours of the night with our mini-marathons.  We had a few that stand out even today, but by and large it was the theatrical screening earlier in the night that was the highlight of my evening.  I'd go see movies I didn't even know anything about just for the sake of seeing something new in those days.  I had no idea what to expect with Event Horizon; even without seeing it since that night I can still vividly recall most of it.  I have no doubt that I enjoyed Paranormal Activity so much last year because the audience we saw it with was completely into it.  Waves of squeamish tension would crescendo with gasps, followed by embarrassed self-conscious chuckling.

I loved it in those early days, because they had a screen in the lobby, just above the ticket-taking stand, that kept looping trailers for forthcoming features.  The screen is still there, but it's been years since it's been used.  I'll never forget standing in line in 1996 and looking up to see the teaser trailer for Star Trek: First Contact.  I had to be nudged to keep walking in the line, because I was mesmerized.  It would be another three years before mainstream audiences stopped dismissing trailers as a forced irritant and began to actively seek them out (thank you, Star Wars: Episode I).

It's funny when I look at the list of movies I've seen in a theater.  Several of my all-time favorite movies aren't on that list, because I came to them after they'd had their run.  Some of those were released before my time; others were the movies my classmates got to see that I didn't.  It kills me that I've seen Meet the Fockers on a big screen, but not Lawrence of Arabia.  Thankfully, Baxter is there to give me a second chance at some of those older movies.  Two years ago, I finally got to see Dick Tracy after years of watching it on VHS and later DVD.  Last year, I got to see Batman, which I did see during its initial release.  But it's a favorite of mine, and I found there was a special little thrill in seeing it with a live audience just as into it as I was.

Which brings me to the other appeal of these midnight screenings: not only is the audience attentive and enthusiastic, but it often includes people seeing the movie for the first time.  We've taken my cousin to a handful of screenings, and there was a bit of a thrill for me to be the one to introduce her to Who Framed Roger Rabbit in a theatrical setting.  It was released seven years before she was born, so it was a rare opportunity for her to see it as I got to see it as a youth.  That same night, there was a young mother with her little girl, and while I don't know if the child had seen the movie at home or not, her mother was clearly there for the sake of sharing with her daughter a movie-going experience that she'd had years before.  It's a way to cheat the passage of time, and share the experience with a younger generation.  I hope one day my cousin will find herself reminiscing about these screenings and value the experience as much as I have.

The Sopranos DVD Special Features

This post is probably going to appear pretty random, but this is one of those instances where I'm treating the blog as a repository for trivial lists and the like that I may wish to refer to later.  You're, of course, welcome to make whatever use of this you see fit.

I love The Sopranos; enough that I even ordered HBO just to follow it in its final seasons, after getting caught up initially by ordering the DVDs from Netflix.  I was pretty underwhelmed by the DVD release special features, though.  There's a pretty comprehensive video interview of David Chase conducted by Peter Bogdanovich on the first season, but the remainder of the few supplements were brief fluff pieces (excluding, of course, twenty scattered episodic audio commentary tracks).  Here's the list:

The Complete First Season
David Chase Interview (1:17:30)
Family Life (4:12)
Meet Tony Soprano (3:30)

The Complete Second Season
The Real Deal (4:51)
A Sit-Down with the Sopranos (13:36)

The Complete Third Season
Untitled featurette (3:46)

Season Six, Part II
Making Cleaver (8:22)
The Music of The Sopranos (16:29)

Notice that seasons four, five and six part I didn't have any supplements aside from commentary tracks.  This list does not include text-based features such as lists of awards or the "previously on..." or season recap montages.

17 October 2010

From Star Trek to Jurassic Park - The Making of a Geek

In 1991, Paramount Pictures went all-out to promote not only the December release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but the 25th anniversary of the franchise in general.  During this year long celebration was when I became a Trekkie.  (Or do we prefer Trekker?  I lose track.)  I had paid no attention whatsoever to Star Trek before that year.  It didn't take me long to begin exploring not just the reruns and previous five feature films, but the comic books and novels, as well.  Those lured me into Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers stores on a biweekly basis, and I was fascinated by how many non-fiction works there were dedicated to the history of the series.  Actor memoirs, sure, but books dedicated to the behind-the-scenes aspects of producing the show; even technical manuals about the fictitious science upon which the U.S.S. Enterprise functions all offered eye-opening glimpses into this world.

Then in late November, a two hour TV special called Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Special aired and it changed my life.  Hosted by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, it traced the genesis of the series from Gene Roddenberry's "wagon train to the stars" sales all the way to an extended trailer for The Undiscovered Country, which opened 6 December.  Interviews with principle cast and crew were cut with clips from assorted episodes and the previous five feature films and while there was nothing controversial or mind-blowing to be found, I'd never seen anything quite like it.

On a certain level, it was almost like an infomercial for Star Trek, but without anyone ever saying, "Call now!" every ten minutes.  I was surprised to learn that individual episodes of Star Trek were sold on VHS (stocked and sold at Suncoast Motion Picture Company, located in most of the malls around here), but I never expected 25th Anniversary Special to be given a home video release.  In 1992, though, it happened and I had to own it.  It was the perfect companion piece to my nascent Star Trek VHS library, and from that moment forward I have never felt complete if such a release existed and was absent from my library.

For Christmas that year, I received the Star Wars Trilogy VHS box set.  I had to own From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga.  Had to.  I couldn't very well have all six Star Trek movies accompanied by 25th Anniversary Special, and have my Star Wars box set missing its counterpart.  I found I loved From Star Wars to Jedi even more.  Everything from models being filmed to George Lucas sharing insights into how various story elements evolved was right there.  There was even a segment featuring John Williams discussing his iconic scores.  (In fairness, though, it only had three films to cover whereas the Trek special had five films and a cumulative 200 episodes to explore.)

I grew up with people who stopped watching movies the moment the end credits began to roll; I even knew some who would fast forward through the opening credits if something wasn't happening on the screen to interest them.  I was comforted by the existence of the Star Trek and Star Wars specials.  They meant that other people were interested in knowing about what went into actually making a movie, from the creative side of storytelling to the nuts and bolts of set design and costuming.  There's a segment where Mark Hamill is being fitted with his black Jedi outfit and he observes that it's a dark version of his white costume from Star Wars; it's a symbolic thing that might be obvious but at that point in my life there was something profound about realizing that such a level of thought went into the clothes people wore in movies.  I'd never paid any attention to such things; and, anyway, who was there in my world to discuss such things with, if I had paid attention?

The third in this triumvirate of behind-the-scenes specials was released in 1995: The Making of Jurassic Park, which explored everything about that film from Michael Crichton's original novel to the most recent theories in paleontology that guided the film's production design.  What I loved most about this one is that it focused even less on the actors than the other two specials I've mentioned.  No offense to actors, but by 1995 my eyes were wide open to the fact that the stars were just one component of film and I longed for a glimpse into the other, overlooked, departments responsible for creating a movie.  I was pleased to learn that Universal included this special as a bonus feature on their Jurassic Park DVD release.

Which brings us to the modern era of DVD and Blu-ray.  The last decade has seen a home video market dominated by "Two Disc Special Editions" chock full of behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary tracks and the like.  For the adolescent I was, this is a dream come true.  I know the majority of fans rarely, if ever, watch any of this stuff (except for the occasional blooper reel or alternate ending) but for someone like me it's a godsend.  I'll never be part of the movie industry; I've always had a fantasy that I could probably knock out a screenplay worth filming but I don't really believe it'll ever happen.  These behind-the-scenes specials offer an access to the medium otherwise entirely unavailable to people like me, and while many of them are fairly generic, every now and again one comes along and is genuinely fascinating.

You may also be interested in "VHS Rental Memories."  I would certainly be interested in any thoughts or experiences you might wish to share!

07 October 2010

Kentucky: Where Education Doesn't Pay the Unemployed

Back in 2002, Governor Paul Patton declared that in Kentucky, "Education Pays."  It led to the nifty graphic you see to the right, and not much more.  I won't regale you with horror stories about the Kentucky education system; you likely already know we're in the 40s on a lot of ranked lists comparing states, and that we have been for ages.  And I won't bash the system partly because it's way too complex to go into here and it's not the actual focus of this piece, and partly because several of my closest friends are teachers and I don't wish to incur their wrath.  (I can spell just fine, but I still need help with math from time to time, you know.)

Anyway, Gov. Patton was quoted as saying, "Unless people understand that an education is the way to get a good job and provide for a good quality of life, they won't take advantage of these opportunities [referring to programs like the GED and such]."  It's generic, but it sounds about right.  Education should lead to a better quality of life.  You should hone skills of reason and critical thinking; concepts that (unlike trigonometry) we all need to employ throughout every day of our lives.  More practically speaking, an education is supposed to make you more desirable as an employee.  (We all know about people being rejected for jobs as "overqualified," but again, this is not the scope of my writing today.)

What has come to my attention today is that Kentuckians who apply for unemployment benefits can be disqualified from receiving those benefits if "You are attending school (without prior approval of the Office of Employment and Training)."  It's on page 7 of Your Rights and Responsibilities While Claiming Unemployment Insurance Benefits.  Go ahead and look; I'll wait.

Think about this for a moment.  You're applying for unemployment benefits.  Does that suggest that things are going swimmingly for you?  Who bases his or her enrollment in school around the expectation of becoming abruptly unemployed?  No wonder Kentucky rates so poorly in both education and employment: our government actively discourages Kentuckians from trying to do the right thing for themselves.

04 October 2010

"Composed" by Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash
Date of Publication: 10 August 2010
Cover Price: $26.95
245 Pages

If you're familiar with my reading habits at all, you know that the memoir is my favorite sub-genre.  I don't care to follow celebrity gossip or anything so vapid.  But when a human being, of any background, really takes the time to put pen to paper and explore the depths of his or her soul--and then courageously offers to share those unflinching reflections--that, to me, is the single most powerful kind of written work there is.

Art is a small world, and I have learned in recent years that you don't even need to be an artist to see how true this statement is.  To wit, earlier this year, I read James Lipton's Inside Inside (review here), in which the famed host of Inside the Actors Studio regales readers with remembrances of Lee Strasburg and "The Work," as well as a nearly parallel book-within-the-book exploration about the loss of a parent.  Rosanne Cash, as I learned from reading Composed, dabbled with "The Work" at the Lee Strasburg Institute herself once and the whole world knows about the nature of her family's losses in recent years.  Just a few nights ago, while failing to fall asleep, I played an audio recording of Anton Chekhov's short story, "The Bet," which apparently Cash's devoted husband John Leventhal read to her during her convalescence following brain surgery.  So even if Rosanne Cash didn't generously respond to more than half of my tweets on a regular basis, I would have felt a more personal connection to Composed than I might otherwise have found.

Her writing style is mostly chronological, though each passage tends to be brought up to the present.  For instance, after concluding a thoroughly engaging account of her early 20s spent in London, we are informed about the most recent status of principle friends mentioned.  (Incidentally, that entire passage would make for a greatly amusing sitcom if she's ever inclined to allow it to be developed.)  Moving back and forth through time is not an issue here; Cash's thoughts are thematic and very well organized; at no point did I feel I needed a flow chart to keep up with her life.

There is a particularly charming passage near the end in which she recounts a winter visit to Falkland in Scotland, to which her lineage can be traced.  I needn't have ever read that to recognize the Scottish heritage; her emotional frailty and the persistence of the Impostor Syndrome are all too familiar to me.  Thankfully, unlike me, she's found the necessary self-confidence to craft an impressive body of work to date.  And, how's this for an added measure of oddity: whilst finishing the final pages a little while ago, she tweeted from a break while taping an episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, himself not only Scottish but the author of another engaging and touching memoir (American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot).

It's strange, to actually write about your own life.  I'm a nobody, and even I've felt that paradoxical feeling of either exploring an almost sacred honesty about oneself and feeling like the whole thing is an exercise in narcissism.  Cash deftly avoids the latter, and when she breaks up transcripts of the eulogies she delivered for her parents and stepmother with descriptions of the outfits she elected to wear to each funeral, it does not reek of Sex and the City-style vanity, but feels instead like what I suspect it was to her at the time: something entirely unrelated to which she could tether herself.  Each of us remembers some of the most trivial details about our most trying experiences, and rather than make Cash appear to be a material girl, it actually further humanizes that heart-breaking passage.

The recurring theme for Cash--aside from music--is the sea.  She discusses numerous key events in her life either beginning or culminating with water.  I couldn't help but remember this past Labor Day weekend, when a teenage boy drowned in our neighborhood lake.  I drove by the lake late that night and it simultaneously incensed and reassured me to see how perfectly calm the lake was at that point.  My own uncle drowned in his teens, years before I was born, and I've seen my family's dysfunctional ways of coping all my life.  Reading Cash's personal connections with the water resonated with me on that level, though I doubt--and in most regards hope--that most readers won't identify so vividly.

Don't come to Composed, or Rosanne Cash herself, looking for titillating anecdotes about the countless names she could drop.  If that's all you seek, then move on and find some other source to feed your craving.  You won't find here the kinds of things that other authors have exploited for ages, but what you will find is something truly special: a writer who has found a way to craft her memoir as a genuine work of art.

[One last note: I know from following the author on Twitter that she has a fierce fondness for libraries.  Owing as much to that as to my being broke, the copy I have read was checked out from my local library branch.  I fully intend to purchase--new--a hardback copy for myself as soon as the budget permits, and in the meantime I hope that it is sufficient that I will have an overdue fee to pay when I return the book tomorrow.]