A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 634 – Medium Cool

Medium Cool – November 24th, 2011

I first saw this movie as part of a film class in high school. It was the same class I watched The Rules of the Game for. The Deerhunter too, though we don’t own that one. This movie is the one that’s probably stuck with me the most. Enough that there are bits and pieces of it I still remember over a decade after last seeing it. And it’s a weird one, but well worth watching. The trouble is, it’s kind of hard to find. We had to buy it on VHS as the DVD copies were well out of our price range. We did get a mint-in-shrinkwrap copy (still sealed with its stickers and everything), but a VHS nonetheless. If you’re at all interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan, violence in media or protest culture in the 1960s in the US, you should see this.

One of the most disorienting things for me when I watch this movie now is the soundtrack. The vast majority of it is exactly as I remember from my first viewing. There is one notable exception, however, and it is so incredibly jarring that I think it bears mention. Violence and how people respond to it is a major theme of the movie. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the movie where the main character takes a date to a roller derby game where violence is a spectacle. In the original version of the movie, Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer plays over this scene. The bizarre nature of the song makes the scene feel like it’s part of a strange alternate world. It’s a slightly aggressive song in that it’s mostly shouted, but also repetitive (which is emphasized by its subject: the merry go round). In the home release? Paramount didn’t have the distribution rights for the song. So it’s replaced with the Harlem Globetrotters theme. Which, as one might think, changes the tone entirely. If you do watch this, and you find a version that doesn’t have Merry Go Round? Pull up this video and mute the damn whistling during the roller derby and play that instead.

The story is a little disjointed and I’d always wondered why, but doing a little reading up on the movie explained it. Originally Haskell Wexler went to Paramount proposing to make a movie about a boy moving to the city from Appalachia. Then the Chicago Democratic National Convention was going to be in town and Wexler shifted gears, morphing his original concept into a piece of cinema verite about media and violence and observation versus involvement and the time and place the movie was filmed in. So while we do still have a young boy – Harold – in Chicago, the story is more focused on a television cameraman named John who prides himself on never getting involved in what he films. Through the course of the film he becomes more involved in the world around him and finds out that the footage he’s been filming has been given to the FBI. After that he ends up involved with Harold’s mother, Eileen, and the movie concludes with John and Eileen in the midst of the riots during the convention, looking for Harold, who’s gone missing.

While Harold, Eileen, John and several other characters were played by actors and spoke scripted lines, they were often filmed in undressed streets and sets and the movie is chock full of documentary footage of various events and places. Wexler had a suspicion that something would happen at the convention and so did the US Army. Some of the footage in the movie was filmed during training drills for soldiers, practicing what to do in a protest riot situation, with the actor playing John present in that footage. John is a character, pretending to film, while Wexler films him, but he’s also being filmed with a bunch of soldiers who are not actors, going through training exercises that aren’t fictionalized. There’s a lot of improvisation and a lot of real people not playing roles. The movie doesn’t just follow the linear story but also goes off on tangents, bringing in bits and pieces about race, violence, class, etc. It’s very much a two hourish snapshot of Chicago in 1968.

I recently got a copy of the DVD from work and got to listen to the commentary. One actress is asked if they got along on set and she said yes, because they felt they were “there for a higher purpose” to show some sort of truth about what was going on in the world at the time, even if they themselves didn’t fully understand it. They trusted that Wexler had a view for the movie and for what he wanted to say with it. I find that to be a fascinating statement. It seems to be a sign of the times, of a sort. They all knew there was something big going on. Something important and something worth talking about and presenting to the world. But they couldn’t quite articulate it on their own, for the most part. Not that I think it’s unique to the 1960s in the US. I think it’s something that happens in every generation, whenever there is upheaval. But it also says something about this movie. It puts its time and place out there for you to see, in a combination of documentary and staged scenes, to tell what Haskell Wexler saw as the truth of it all, in its messy glory. It’s a collection of bits and pieces that form a portrait of the times. Wexler keeps the pauses and awkward moments because they provide a sort of meta filmmaking. An acknowledgement that this is fiction while at the same time pointing out just how real so much of it is.

The commentary also talks about how the movie was originally rated X, ostensibly because of nudity and language, but truly it was a “political X.” The language and the nudity (the latter of which Wexler offered to take out and the former of which they tried to compromise on) weren’t really the issue. The politics were the issue. Given that the movie not only showcased racial tension, class struggle and the riots around the convention, I’m honestly not shocked. I mean, the scene where John goes to talk to a cab driver and ends up being confronted by a group of African American men and women who want to talk about race? That scene makes me uncomfortable. And it should. It’s not meant to be a comfortable scene and it’s not meant to be a comfortable situation. That is the point. In the commentary they mention how the impassioned speech made at the end of that scene was written by Wexler, but it came through as genuine enough that other people on set, who had been improvising many of their own lines, congratulated the actor who gave the speech, thinking it was his own. It felt true to them. It felt real. And given how uncomfortable it makes me in the here and now, I would guess that the people in charge of film ratings at the time were positively terrified by its implications. And that’s not even the most dangerous of things this movie does.

This movie doesn’t shy away from showcasing the uglier sides of things. Not just the dramatic, like the riots, but the everyday ugly of poverty and prejudice and violence and sexism. The things that grind people down or put neverending pressure that ends up causing explosions. Presenting those things, putting them out there as things that exist, things that affect us, instead of ignoring them or covering them up or pretending they don’t exist? That’s dangerous. Acknowledging that things are not perfect? That’s dangerous. Of course this movie was rated X to start with. It’s not that it showed a woman’s breasts or a man’s butt or taught people any new obscenities. It’s that it showed flaws in the world we live in. Hell, that still gets people worried now. And as the movie ends we hear the crowd chanting “The whole world is watching.” And we still are.

November 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 552 – Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11 – September 3rd, 2011

I refused to watch this for the 9th 9/11/01 anniversary last year and damn sure I refuse to watch it for the 10th anniversary this year. Honestly, I believe that the people who died and the people who were injured and the lasting impact the attacks have had on our country deserve a better memorial than a sensationalist Michael Moore documentary. A week from tomorrow I plan on doing some heavy reading and thinking and I plan on watching something that has little to nothing to do with the events of ten years ago because nothing we own is really suitable and it would be cheap of us to claim that it is. This? Certainly isn’t. It’s not about 9/11. It’s about Bush. It’s all well and good to criticize the man. I’m nowhere near a fan of his. But on the anniversary, I’d rather think of the people in New York and DC and the people on the planes, not George W. Bush.

I will tell you my own experience on 9/11: We hadn’t seen the news. We hadn’t turned on the television or checked our email. We’d planned what to make for dinner and gone to the market and been confused by the huge crowds of people. Then we’d gone by our workplace and stayed there, watching the towers fall on the television in the back room. And I watched the unthinkable and felt my legs give out. I had friends who worked right there. I had friends who lived in the area. We went to my alma mater and found our friends and brought them to our apartment. We clung to each other and waited to hear from our New York and DC friends. Andy got sick. I took care of him. And one month later, when I was working in the library, I met most of my coworkers for the first time while we evacuated the building due to a bomb threat on the one month anniversary. I was not directly affected, but the long-term effects have touched me and everyone else in the country.

And that’s largely what this documentary is about. It’s not all it’s about because it’s about a whole hell of a lot of things. In fact, it’s about so many things I’m not entirely sure whether it has a single topic other than “George W. Bush sucked and 9/11 was his fault and look at all this shit that happened after!” Which is remarkably unfocused when you get down to it. It’s such a nebulous sort of concept that’s really far bigger than a two hour long movie. To be honest, I think a miniseries would have been a better forum for this sort of topic. Spend an hour on military recruiting. Spend an hour on Haliburton. Spend an hour on the ties between the Bushes and various people later shown to be inimical to the United States. Spend an hour on The War on Terror. And so on and so forth. Instead, what this movie does is hop, skip and jump from topic to topic like it’s got no solid message.

You know, this would be a far better documentary without Michael Moore’s voice. I find his delivery and his choice of words so incredibly grating it makes me want to punch him in the face. And technically speaking, he’s on my side! But within ten seconds of the start of this documentary I wanted to turn it off. Moore is a jackass and I find his ego distracting. I find the music choices grating too. They’re too self-consciously ironic. And then there are the clips of things like Dragnet. It’s the same issue I have with Moore’s script and delivery. When he’s narrating facts, he’s fine. When he’s making commentary it’s delivered in this sing-song “told you so” tone that the music echoes and then there’s lighthearted joking attitude the clips provide. It feels like he’s thumbing his nose at something. I just can’t for the life of me imagine what. It’s all just so self-satisfied, and that feels like a very strange attitude to display when talking about such a horrible event that killed so many people. And that ends up making me feel like Moore is using the tragedy without actually paying attention to it. That’s pretty gross.

And the thing is, when the documentary is showing commentary from soldiers and from people on the streets in both the US and in Iraq, when it’s interviewing people and showing news footage and the like? That tells the story Moore is aiming for far more effectively than Moore himself does. Whenever he goes adding ironic visuals or making commentary it just makes the whole thing seem like a joke. The bit where he shows horrible dated racial stereotypes for each of the “Coalition of the Willing” countries? No. Just. No. You’ve just invalidated your message. You’ve just shown your ass. Pull up your pants and walk away. Now, let’s get things straight: I hate the US PATRIOT act. I hate it professionally. The increasingly intrusive security measures at airports (by many accounts inadequately tested, ineffectual and needlessly invasive) make me more leery of flying than the hijackings did. But I was already pissed off about those. I didn’t need Michael Moore to clumsily come tell me what to think by using tactics too obnoxious for even FOX News to contemplate.

It’s a mess of a documentary and I honestly believe the only reason it got the accolades that it got was because Moore is loud and has made a name for himself and that makes his stuff easy to sell to people who don’t want to go saying things themselves. But volume and attitude do not a good documentarian make. And I always feel like by criticizing him I’m betraying my own side, but I’m not. I feel he is a poor mouthpiece for the well-earned criticism of Bush and the war and the effects it’s all had. He’s alienating and smug and then when people don’t want to engage with him he can argue that they’re hiding from the truth, when really, they might as well just be hiding from him because he’s obnoxious and clearly looking for a gotcha moment. That doesn’t make for a convincing argument. That just makes for a morass of frustration.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Fahrenheit 9/11

September 3, 2011

Fahrenheit 9/11

It’s a little early, yes, but we wanted to watch this movie before September 11th so that we could quickly wash the bad taste from out mouths and go back to forgetting Michael Moore exists. I think it’s safe to say that Amanda and I have both been dreading watching this movie. It’s in our collection, so we have to watch it, but that doesn’t mean we like it. It’s sensationalist hate-mongering, and I say that from my position as one of the most politically liberal people I know. I bought it because, well, it’s the big documentary that purported to expose Bush’s incompetence in the face of the events of September 11th and I wanted to see what its argument was. Sadly it doesn’t really have an argument – it’s just speculation and hearsay that is given some gravitas from an association with one of the most dreadful events to occur in my lifetime.

As with everyone who was around ten years ago I have vivid and painful memories of September 11th 2001. My very first reaction when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center was to comment to Amanda and our friend Gary “Well, Bush got his war.” My feeling has always been that the events of September 11th saved the Bush presidency and were the best possible thing to happen to him and his allies in the Republican party. I have always felt, and this is purely speculation on my part, that if Bush and company had known about the September 11th attacks beforehand they would have every reason to allow them to go forward.

George W. Bush was a joke as a president. He desperately needed an excuse to go to war, and I’ve always known that. I very much doubt that there will ever be anything approaching hard evidence to show complicity in those attacks, though. Certainly this “documentary” is not damning evidence of any kind.

Michael Moore is not in the habit of carefully crafting a well reasoned argument or presenting evidence to support his point of view. Instead his shtick is to combine tangentially related human interest stories (such as the Oregon state trooper who works part time to monitor the coastline and is not trained to stop terrorist attacks) with sensationalist stunts (like reading the Patriot Act through a megaphone while riding through the streets of Washington in an ice cream truck.)

What frustrated me most about this movie the first time I watched it was how scattershot it is. Moore has no attention span as a film maker. He edits drunkenly from war torn Iraq to Marine recruiting in poor Chicago neighborhoods to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed – but he never stays anywhere long enough to actually build any coherent picture from these little stories. There are a lot of powerful human moments here, but they’re overshadowed by Moore’s ham-fisted attempts to wedge them into his poorly reasoned attempts to link Bush to all these atrocities. It sickens me because it’s not just manipulative – it’s using the stories of these innocent people to further Moore’s manipulations.

The infuriating thing is that I actually believe that Moore is right. George W. Bush was a terrible President with an agenda that resulted in thousands of deaths. He drove our country into the ground and lined the pockets of the ultra-rich who put him in power. This movie doesn’t do a very good job of building a case for that though, although I can tell that this is what Moore is trying to say. God dammit, Michael Moore you obnoxious self-satisfied rabble-rouser: stop agreeing with me!

September 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 476 – Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics – June 19th, 2011

The other night I found out something fascinating about my mother: She is a Green Lantern fan. This, from the woman who used to frown on comic books as beneath me. I’d known that her brother had a huge collection of Superman comics that were thrown away by my grandmother when he went off to college. And I’d known that my father collected comics when he was a kid (and also lost much of his collection when his stuff was cleaned out when he went to college). But I never really pictured my mother as a comic fan. Then when we were out to dinner with her and my father the other night we mentioned we were going to see the new Green Lantern movie and immediately she lit up, raising her fist like she had the ring on and excitedly talking about Hal Jordan. I always knew I was raised by geeks (and consider myself very lucky because of that) but I hadn’t realized I was raised by two comics geeks.

And yes, we did see Green Lantern today. I was led to believe it would suck a lot and I admit I came out of the theater smiling. Not a great movie, but I was entertained. Of course, as Andy pointed out, we have seen a lot of bad movies. A lot of bad comic book movies. Our standards have, perhaps, been affected by this project. That being said, I should also admit that I’m not much of a DC gal. Oh, I’ve got a few things I love. DC puts out some really interesting stuff and Batman holds a special place in my heart. I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books and Watchmen is, in my opinion, a work of sheer genius. But if you asked me to pick between Marvel and DC I’d have to go Marvel. I just know more Marvel characters and I know more of the Marvel universes. I blame my fascination with X-Men. Still, coming out of this documentary I was seized with an urge to pull out every DC book we own, stay up all night and re-read them.

I bought this on a whim, mostly because I really do like comic books and I thought it would be cool to see something talking about the history of an incredibly influential comic book publisher. I hadn’t heard of it before and it’s fairly recent and likely made as a promotional piece (since it’s got Ryan Reynolds narrating) so I really had no idea what to expect. What I got was a shallow but broad picture of the history of DC Comics, along with lots of interview clips, art stills and movie and tv clips. It’s nothing fancy, and it’s not going in depth into any one period in the history of the company, but it does cover a whole lot of time and a whole lot of bits and pieces of the history.

The focus here is mainly on Superman and Batman, which makes sense since they’re very much the most iconic characters DC has. Not only have they both been in the comics for decades upon decades, but they’ve both had numerous spinoffs and shows and movies. Wonder Woman gets a decent amount of time, but let’s face it, aside from the very recent failed series? Wonder Woman hasn’t had as much of a presence as the boys have. Which I might just be a tiny bit irked by, but that’s not this documentary’s fault. And I’ve got to say, I do like seeing how the two characters have evolved through the various time periods they’ve existed through. The documentary shows a lot of other characters too, but in each segment there’s something about Superman and something about Batman and I like how enduring those characters are.

We start out with the founding of the company and a quick look at comic books as a medium in their early days. I will give this movie credit for putting DC’s comics and characters in a historical context. There’s a lot of talk about the economic and political climate of the United States at the times when the various eras happened. It covers things like the Comics Code, but it also covers a lot of more subtle things, or things that in retrospect, thinking logically, make sense, but aren’t necessarily things one might consider when thinking about comic books. Deciding to make the characters more family friendly, giving the characters more sci-fi type origin stories, things like that. And I appreciate the context. It’s certainly more interesting to know where it all exists in history than to hear about it in a vacuum. And some of the people interviewed do admit to making mistakes, which I like. PR piece, yes, but still admitting to moments when the company wasn’t keeping up with the times or adjusting in the way they needed to.

I have this great book, The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, which has a whole pile of early comic books reprinted along with information about the writers and artists. I find comic books to be a fascinating and wonderful medium and I love seeing how they’ve changed and yet not changed over the years. Watching this movie I saw bits I was familiar with from that book, but hearing the artists and writers and various people involved with DC from various time periods, it’s all a little more engaging. Then too, the movie eventually passes through the Bronze Age of comics and into the Modern Age. We see all the things I’m currently familiar with. Books I’ve read and loved. Neil Gaiman shows up and I think he says something I love about comic books: They’re not a genre, they’re a medium.

The whole point of this documentary is to show DC in all its glory over the years. The low points and failures are there to highlight how well DC recovered from them and what brilliant idea got them going again. But I don’t really mind. There’s a whole lot of talk from the interviewees about the nature of comic books as a medium and superheroes as a trope and I think it’s an important thing to realize about the surge in comic books as an industry. It doesn’t go too much in depth into either concept, but it touches on both the nature of the medium and human nature. I would love to see something deeper and more supported not necessarily by people involved with DC but with literary critics and pop culture historians and sociologists, but this isn’t that movie. It’s about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and everything that came after them and it’s pretty transparent but I don’t mind. It’s still a fun little look at the history of the company and people who gave us those characters.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

June 19, 2011

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

A while back Amanda and I bought a big pile of movies from the husband of one of her co-workers, who buys lots of movies on e-bay and craigslist and breaks them up. Amongst the flotsam we found this title, a documentary I have never heard of before but which intrigued me. We had to have it in our collection, of course, because comic book movies are so prevalent in the movies I’ve gathered over the years. Until tonight, however, we didn’t really have any reason to watch it. Today we went to go see the new Green Lantern movie (which I didn’t hate, and which we’ll review when we buy it later this year) and so we figured that a documentary about DC would be perfect. Even better? It’s narrated by Ryan Reynolds – the star of Green Lantern.

I’m curious about where this documentary comes from. It seems clear to me that it’s part of the PR machine for DC and Warner Brothers – intended to help promote their many animated and live action movies as well as the comic books. Who was it intended for though? I never saw any mention of the movie before we came across it and I don’t think it was ever in theaters or in video stores. Perhaps it was shown on television? I honestly don’t know. The director and writer of the documentary, Mac Carter, doesn’t seem to exist as far as the internet is concerned. And yet the documentary itself is very nicely produced with some great archival footage and a bunch of interviews with current DC writers and editors, including such big names as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. They don’t just show panels from classic comic books, they have the common documentary technique of making the panels appear to have depth by cutting out the foreground elements and moving them in parallax. So some money got spent on this doc, I just can’t figure out why.

My personal experience with DC comics comes in near the end of this narrative. This movie covers everything from the very start of Superman with Action Comics #1 and goes through 2010. It covers the creation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many other DC characters as well as placing them in a historical context. It talks about how these characters took cues from what was going on in the world around them (particularly World War II) and it looks at how the comic books in turn influenced the world.

I consider myself a casual comic book fan, so most of the factoids presented here are familiar to me. Certainly things like the Comics Code Authority and the nadir of comic book quality is something every comic book fan should know about. So what I found most fun here were all the interviews, including archived interviews with Bob Kane, Alan Moore, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It’s just cool to get some of the thought process behind the writing process.

When it gets to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and all of the books in the Vertigo imprint I felt most at home. Those are all books I’m familiar with (and I own many of them.) I also really enjoyed seeing screen tests for Christopher Reeve and a couple behind the scenes shots.

I’m not sure what else to say about this movie. It’s a documentary by DC about DC intended (i suspect) to promote DC. Possibly as a tie in to Green Lantern, I’m just not sure. I had fun watching it, and it was cool to put faces to some of the names I’m so familiar with, but I’m not quite sure why it exists and why we own it. I guess as a very quick history of Detective Comics as a company it’s pretty cool. And it did make me wonder, as I often do, why there’s no big-budget Wonder Woman movie.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 428 – Wigstock: The Movie

Wigstock: The Movie – May 2nd, 2011

Tonight we watched the last episode of this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (congratulations, Raja!) and we’d saved this movie just for tonight to mark the end of the season. It’s got RuPaul in it, after all, and a huge number and wide variety of drag queens and performers and artists and everything you can imagine. I’d never seen it before and I’m so glad that I have now because it was fantastic.

The problem is, it’s supposedly a documentary but it’s not really great as one. I’ve seen some fantastic documentaries, like Paris is Burning from a couple of weeks ago. And this lacks a little something as a documentary. Yes, it gives a decent look at the 1994 Wigstock festival in New York, but I feel like it was far more a concert movie than a documentary. Maybe it’s that I can’t help but put it up against Woodstock, since that’s the inspiration for the name of the festival and there’s definitely a ‘do what you want to do’ vibe going on among the participants and audience. Heck, one of the performers even sings Woodstock midway through the movie. It’s not nearly on the same scale, but I think it’s a fair comparison.

Unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to it as a movie. This has nothing to do with the festival itself, which appears to have been a total blast. But the movie itself is a little on the sloppy side, as if it can’t decide if it wants to showcase the performances/performers or the festival as a whole. There are a few short interview segments with a couple of performers (Mistress Formika, RuPaul and Lady Bunny in particular, plus a number of people at a wig stylist’s shop), but they’re not all identified and really only Mistress Formika goes into a whole lot of detail on drag and sexuality and the festival as a way to bring people together. In terms of the history of it all and how it came to be and the 1994 festival in particular, well, it just doesn’t touch on it that much. Which I found frustrating so long as I looked at it as a documentary.

So I had to switch gears and watch it as a performance. Instead of finding out about the festival and the people involved I had to go at it more like how I watched Pulse. It’s a spectacle and one I wasn’t present for in person. And aside from the interview segments, well, it does give a good view of the overall atmosphere of the festival. There’s the main stage, of course, where there seems to always be some sort of performance happening. But there are also the attendees, who range from totally mundane looking folks in t-shirts and jeans to folks in costume but not necessarily drag and then drag in so many different forms and levels and types it’s impossible to describe them all. Men in skirts, wigs, full drag, butch drag, big beards and fake breasts. Women in suits, dresses, wigs as big as anything the queens were wearing. It’s this fantastic mix of gender expression and sexuality and people having fun being who they want to be. There’s a great bit where they talk to an older man who looks to be like someone just passing by. Like they stopped him on the street and pointed to the drag queens and said “Hey, what do you think?” And he talks about how hey, they’re not hurting anyone so who cares? And then we pan back and he’s wearing a frilly black and white polka dotted skirt himself.

He’s somewhat of an exception though, because for the most part the shots of attendees are mostly to let them show off what they’re wearing or doing or representing. And oh, the things people put together for this festival are just amazing. Multi-tiered wigs and gigantic bouffants and dresses and costumes and it’s sort of like a big drag convention. It’s fairly clear that the audience is part of the appeal of the festival. It’s not just the acts up on stage, it’s the people strutting their stuff down on the ground as well. The attitude of the crowd is wonderful and positive and upbeat, and given the time this was filmed, in the mid-90s in New York, that’s fantastic. It’s wonderful to see.

The performances themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re everything from performance art to lip syncing to drag performers singing live to non-drag performers singing live. There’s dancing and comedy and nudity and costume changes and wigs. Wigs wigs wigs. My exposure to drag performance is limited to what can be considered fairly mainstream drag. RuPaul, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. That sort of thing. And I know that’s very limited. Just look at the balls and pageants, which have a relatively large following, and yet they’re not as much on display as the gown-and-lip-sync drag that’s probably what comes to mind for most people like myself (i.e. straight and fairly square, alas). There are whole swaths of drag culture I simply don’t know and this movie, showcasing this festival, definitely touches on them.

Despite my criticisms of this movie as being a little on the messy side in terms of its intent, I really did enjoy it. Regardless of its intent or its structure (or lack thereof), it does manage to capture the spirit and experience of the festival, at least on a small scale. There’s no way an hour and a half long movie could truly showcase the whole thing, but it does an admirable job of trying. It could perhaps have gone further in one direction or another. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of Mistress Formika talk but I also wouldn’t have minded seeing more of the performances overall. But I would call it a success simply because it made me want to go back in time and be there.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wigstock – The Movie

May 2, 2011

Wigstock: The Movie

I don’t want to review this tonight. I want to just enjoy it. Absorb it and let it wash over me. Tonight’s reunion show represents the end of another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and we’re ending it with a crazy chaotic look at the 1994 Wigstock festival. It’s a delightful combination of concert DVD and documentary that shows interviews and performances from the stage.

This movie is pure joy for the most part. Yes, it takes place in New York in the nineties at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, and it has to acknowledge that. But it is that very sense of oppression and dread that makes Wigstock so very necessary. Some of the people interviewed talk about how they just want a day of frivolity when they can dress up and forget everything else. A day when folks can let their hair down – or put it up – or cover it with an enormous crazy teased up wig.

This is a celebration of drag, of course. The Lady Bunny emcees a cavalcade of amazing drag acts for our delight end entertainment while the cameras roam through the crowds seeking comment and looking for folks attending the festival in their various drag. Which highlights one of the things that intruiged me most about this movie. It has so many people playing with the concepts of gender roles. There are bearded guys in wigs and dresses. There’s a fantastic interview with a nice older gentleman who talks about how it does nobody any harm for a bunch of guys to dress up in women’s clothes, and then the camera pulls back to reveal that in solidarity he’s wearing a little skirt. There are professional drag queens in full make-up. There are some people that could be men passing as women or could be trans-sexuals or could be genetic women from birth and frankly it simply doesn’t matter what their gender is because they’re just part of this whole mad party atmosphere. “Let go your preconcieved notions,” the film seems to say, “they have no place here.”

The many fantastic drag acts captured on the main stage are fascinating too. It seems that the Lady Bunny and the other organizers have made an effort to feature as wide a range of performers as they can. There are carefully choreographed lip syncing displays. There are performers who actually sing, some of whom have simply astonishing voices and range. There are camp acts like Dee-Light who are not necessarily drag in and of themselves but who are accepted by the drag world. There is a woman who sings in male drag. There are edgy concept acts like the strip tease to Mark Almond’s What Makes a Man and the simulated birth on stage (which seemed to me to be an homage to Female Trouble and the inimitable Divine.)

This was the first time that I had watched the film tonight and I was caught up in it and enjoying it so much that I didn’t take notes like I should have so that I could address specifics. There is so much amazing talent on display here that it seems unfair for me not to talk about specifics, but the truth is that I wasn’t watching it to review it tonight. I was watching it for the spectacle and the joy of it. Maybe tomorrow, while Amanda is at work, I’ll watch it again and try to be more analytical.

To be continued?

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 418 – An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth – April 22nd, 2011

I have avoided this movie since it first came out. I have avoided it very intentionally and as much as I possibly could. This is because I knew it would put me in a state of mind that I cannot really afford to be in. Much like politics, I find the environment to be an issue that makes me angry and depressed and filled with such overwhelming feelings of both dread and impotence. That’s not a good state to be in. I find it much more manageable on a small scale. Do what I can and focus on that. The big picture is overwhelming and out of my control and I can’t deal with that and keep myself emotionally stable.

Part of the problem is that I grew up with parents who are, by their natures, scientifically curious. My father started out as a chemist before he shifted to medicine. My mother was told that women couldn’t be scientists and her options were secretary, nurse or teacher. She went with teacher and taught science for over twenty years. They were talking about climate issues and the environment as early as I can remember. I vividly recall being the only one in my Girl Scout troop to attend a conservation fair we’d all planned on going to in order to earn a badge. I went because my parents both wanted to go. I took classes in environmental science. I did a summer program out on the ocean where we took samples and counted pieces of plastic found in the surface water off Cape Cod. I grew up aware of the issues Al Gore has been lecturing about. Really quite aware of them. So when I hear these things presented I’m usually struck by how little has changed in the years since my childhood and now.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A lot has changed. Ozone hole? Yeah, we’re working on that. But um. Everything else? Not so positive a change. The graphs and charts and pictures Gore uses in his slide show, which is the bulk of the documentary, are fairly damning. The whole point of his lecture and slide show are to show people just how dire the situation is. The point here is to try and counteract much of the media coverage that says that science is unclear on global warming when in fact no, it’s not. Al Gore wants to make the message that global warming is happening and it’s dangerous and it’s not going away unless things change the dominant message and I’ll be honest, this documentary and the books associated with it have definitely made an impact. Gore is a well known guy, and having him turn from the sort of political career where you run for office towards an environmental activism-based political career is something I applaud. If things are going to change on a political level, which I think they need to, then there need to be people like Gore who can get politicians listening.

Unfortunately (in some ways), I’m not a politician. So when Gore trots out his photos of glaciers now and then? I can’t act on that in a significant way. It just makes me feel sick to my stomach. When he talks about US emissions standards and the US auto industry and Kyoto? I can’t act on those either. Not in a big way. And the small ways feel like very small drops in a very large bucket. I didn’t feel educated by this documentary. I just felt like I was hearing the same things I’d been hearing my whole life. Just said by someone who can command more attention than the people I’d heard it all from before. Gore makes a good spokesman for climate issues. I didn’t need a spokesman.

I did find it interesting that there were segments of personal interest in the documentary. The film will cut away from the lecture Gore is giving to a room full of polite and probably like-minded folks and let Gore talk about his life for a bit. And I think this ties into the spokesman bit. These segments, where he talks about losing his mother to lung cancer and how his son almost died? His childhood and the area he grew up in? These are here to humanize Gore. This is a man who ran for president of the United States. He’s a big figure. So let’s bring him back down to the ground for a bit and show how he’s a regular person like everyone else. He’s lost family and had hard times and through the personal segments we hear how those things have colored how he views the world. I’ll buy that. It’s an attempt to make the audience feel like there must be moments in their own lives that they can compare Gore’s to. So that when he starts in on his conclusion, telling us all that he believes we’re capable of hope and change and fixing things, we’re all supposed to think “If he believes it and can do it, so can I!” Unfortunately, I have trouble with that.

Part of the problem I have is in how Gore presents his hopeful argument. The things Gore likens the environmental struggle to are things like women’s suffrage and slavery and segregation and the Berlin Wall. And I take issue with the wording he uses there. He claims that the American public said “Of course women should get the vote!” No. That’s not really how it happened. Politicians didn’t see one march or parade and go “Oh of course!” It was a nasty and bloody struggle, and I can speak about it because I’ve studied it in depth. We’re talking about a fight that took years and involved things like an effigy of the president being burned outside the White House. We’re talking women being beaten by police in the streets just for marching peacefully. And that’s not even touching on slavery or Berlin. These were not lightbulb over the head moments. These were not things that the American people were made aware of and instantly decided to fix. These were long and drawn out fights. It is such a misrepresentation it made me scream at the television “NO!” I couldn’t hold it in. It will not be easy, just as his comparisons were not easy.

As a science fiction fan I spend much of my time letting my imagination explore possible futures. Some of those futures are post-apocalyptic. Plagues, bombs, meteors, alien invasion, what have you. And in those cases the population of the Earth is often severely lessened, as is the level of technology and industry. Things might eventually get better, but it took an apocalyptic event to bring that about. There’s a very concrete sense of starting from scratch. And I like post-apocalyptic fiction, but then I like things like Star Trek too. If pressed, I’d have to say I prefer things like Star Trek. Where we figured it all out and somehow got our shit together and fixed things before we broke them so bad we couldn’t go back. And I like them because they represent the future I would love to have. The future I wish I could believe in. And I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to believe that the people with the power to change the big things will do so and will do so in a timely enough fashion. It is thoroughly depressing.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

An Inconvenient Truth

April 22, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth

Happy Earth Day fellow Earthians. This year we decided to watch a decidedly Earth-friendly movie that we had been postponing because it’s frankly a kind of heavy movie about issues we have little influence over. I’ve watched it before (it was of those movies I watched over the course of several lunch breaks at Blockbuster when it first came out) but Amanda has never had the heart to watch it because she knew just how depressing it would be.

This is, of course, the first ever Oscar winning Powerpoint presentation. (Okay, technically not Powerpoint – he uses Apple’s Keynote and not Microsoft’s Powerpoint.) Environmentalist, entrepreneur, and politician Al Gore (better known for his many guest appearances on Futurama) makes the case here that human society is destroying the planet we inhabit. That if we continue to live as we have been living the place we inhabit will become inimical to human life.

There’s really not much movie here to review. We see Al showing his very well produced slide show interspersed with more personal introspection on his own personal journey. He talks about his family, growing up on a farm, nearly losing his son, and his political career. It’s a sort of strange juxtaposition of cerebral thought provoking lecture and humanising autobiography. It seems odd that in the midst of this heartfelt plea to save the very Earth itself Al takes the time to try and talk about his own personal experiences. I think it must be because Al himself is a strange juxtaposition of politician and activist. He still has that desire for public acceptance and validation that must necessarily be part of any politician’s personality and it’s mixed with his role as a serious minded environmentalist with a mission.

When I watch this movie it’s not for Al Gore though. It’s for his message. I consider myself an environmentalist. I consider myself in touch with the planet, for all that I have sequestered myself indoors for most of my adult life and spend more time in video games than in the woods. I still believe that as stuarts of the planet we have a responsibility to keep it green. Not so much for future generations, since I don’t particularly intend to spawn any, but out of a simple love for the planet and out of fond memories of hiking in the Sierra mountains in my youth.

On the other hand there’s a fatalist side of me that says we have passed the point of no return and that massive environmental change is inevitable at this point. I still make a concerted effort to be green and conserve where I can, but it sometimes seems to me that the powers that be care more about lining their pockets than about saving the hundreds of thousands of lives that will be imperiled by the environmental changes that are already well under way. I don’t think that any sane person will be able to deny that global warming is a simple fact of life in the coming decades. Already summers are becoming more and more excruciatingly hot. There’s more moisture in the warm air which has resulted in ridiculous amounts of snowfall in the northeast part of the US where we live this last winter. How long is it before the surface of the planet becomes so inhospitable to human life that we all retreat indoors or underground? It’s like living in a very slow moving disaster movie.

My immediate reaction on first seeing this movie was to replace all the lightbulbs in our apartment, over the course of a couple months, with compact fluorescents. We use reusable bags when we shop for groceries. I have begun to buy LED lightbulbs as well – expensive as they are – because they use one hundredth of the power of old incandescent bulbs. I’d say that by volume about two thirds of our garbage is separated to be recycled. I have promised myself that my next car will be either a hybrid or an all electric car. I will eagerly pay more for electricity generated by the Cape Wind project if it ever gets constructed. My dearest wish is to live off the grid in a self sufficient manner, generating my own electricity from solar and wind power – though that’s pretty much a daydream and not a realistic goal.

So, yes, I do believe that we as humans are having an impact on the planet. I’m not convinced that there’s anything that can be done to stop it, but I’m willing to try. If only more people felt as I do, but it seems that they do not.

This movie is five years old now. I’d be curious to see what updates Al has made to his presentation in that time. I wonder if he plans to make a sequel? Inconvenient Truth II: Truthier Electric Boogaloo.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , | 1 Comment

Movie 415 – Bush’s Brain

Bush’s Brain – April 19th, 2011

Why, oh why do we own this? Apparently it’s because one of Andy’s former staff members and a suggestion he made. The thing is, when someone tells Andy “Hey, you should see this movie” he doesn’t rent it or look into it. He finds a copy and buys it. This is why we have the collection we have and this is why we own this movie. It’s definitely not my taste. I like to keep my political views to myself. It’s a work thing, and I could go into detail about public librarianship and why I keep my mouth shut most of the time but it would take up this whole review. Suffice it to say that I have some very strong feelings about politics and political parties and policies and so on and so forth, but I tend not to share them.

And I admit, part of that? Is because politics make me angry. Really angry. So angry I stop being able to express myself coherently. To be honest, I feel like I’ve got very little in the way of control over how anything in this country goes. I can vote. I can write letters. But I’m not a politician and I don’t want to be one and my workplace does require a certain amount of public neutrality. And I firmly stand behind the ideals of my job, but it does make for some frustration. So one might think that in my private life, when I don’t have to be so careful, I would appreciate a documentary that’s a series of attacks on a political figure I dislike, right? Wrong. It just makes me all the more frustrated. Watching this doesn’t change the amount of power I have. It doesn’t put me in a different position or give me anything useful to do about him or people like him. And let’s face it, I didn’t need a documentary to tell me that many politicians do shady, scummy, underhanded things to get ahead. That some of them go beyond what’s considered the norm? Not a shock here.

Really, it makes me feel much like how Michael Moore makes me feel. Sure, make your arguments, but you’re making them to the wrong audience. I highly doubt that anyone who likes Rove would watch this and have their minds blown and do a 180 on the man. I mean, it makes me dislike him more, but I didn’t go in with a positive opinion of him anyhow. He always struck me as an incredibly intelligent and ruthless man with a boatload of privilege. But this documentary is preaching to the choir and doing so with a whole lot of talk and rumor and very little fact. Aside from some excerpts of a letter Rove sent the authors of the book this documentary is based on when he go a copy of the manuscript (and I do wonder if this was made as a rebuttal to his rebuttal to the book) it’s mostly got a lot of interviews with people Rove worked with or worked against or both. It’s got interviews from a variety of politicians and journalists and really, aside from some specific events and items like ads he put together or election dates? It’s opinion.

“Can I definitively tell you Karl Rove did this or that? No.” So says one of the interviewees here when talking about the Texas gubernatorial race between George W. Bush and Ann Richards. And that, I think, sums up so many of the interviews this documentary is based on. It’s a lot of people speculating and making assumptions and you know what? That makes me angry. It makes me angry because I don’t like Rove and I think there are plenty of reasons not to like him. But this documentary is going about it in such gossipy ways. It makes a poor case for the accusations they’re leveling against him and that makes it that much harder to claim that said accusations have any foundation. It’s so damn frustrating and it makes me angry. Just like everything political.

And then on top of it all, for the last twenty minutes or so of the movie there’s an extended piece about a Marine named Fred Pokorney who died in battle and we sat there waiting for it to involve Rove somehow. We floated ideas about friendly fire cover-ups and the like, but no. Sad as it is, it’s not really anything to do directly with Rove. It’s one in far too many stories of soldiers who haven’t come home and never will. And I can see what the filmmakers were trying to say here, blaming the war on George W. Bush’s presidency and therefore on Rove since the whole point of the documentary is to claim that Rove put Bush in the White House. But the closest connection they could actually manage was Pokorney’s family saying they don’t think politicians care about the soldiers who’ve died, juxtaposed against Rove giving a speech where he states that every individual matters. It’s a tenuous connection at best and really, its major impact should come from the Rove connection to Bush.

The trouble with that connection is that the movie spends so little time on it. We hear plenty about Rove’s early years and apparently dubious campaign methods (I say apparently because quite a few of them are supposition, not evidence-supported fact) but when it comes to George W. Bush? Well, there is some time spent there on how Rove got to know Bush, but his actual role in the White House and actions and all? The lack of in-depth reporting is pretty sad. What comes across the most is more personality than anything else. The description of Rove as so clever he could shut you down with a swift quip puts me in mind of nothing so much as the queens of last night’s movie, reading their opponents and throwing shade. But I doubt Rove has ever vogued and unfortunately none of the folks in last night’s movie had the opportunities he’s had. If it turned out that he had then perhaps I’d have actually learned something from this movie.

I asked Andy if he’d watched this yet when we grabbed it tonight and he admitted that he’d only made it through about twenty minutes before having to turn it off. I asked why and he said it was “heavy handed”. I had no idea. It’s even got that scare music used in the worst sorts of negative political ads, which, considering the subject, would seem to me to be either a very poor choice or some badly played irony. Andy further admitted to me that he’d never have put this in again if we hadn’t been doing this project. And yet he never got rid of it. He disliked it and couldn’t get through it but it’s still taking up shelf space. I am so confused by that, so we’re going to make a list of movies we’re ditching as soon as the project is over. And this and Death Proof are the first inductees.

April 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment