Monday, August 21, 2017

The Bully, The Gay Kid and The Big Lebowski

Years ago, I was teaching high school film classes. In one particular group, I had a notorious bully, this kid who was so quick to be offended, always looking for an opportunity to thrown down his chair, assume a fighting stance and raise his fists. In the same class was a wildly flamboyant, extraordinarily out gay kid. I did not expect this class to well, did not expect these two students to mix well and I braced myself for the worst.

Well, the worst thing that happened was that I let it slip that I had not yet seen The Big Lebowski, which, at the time, had been out for a few years. The bully was outraged. The gay kid mocked me.

The, something happened. The two of them started trading lines from the movie back and forth, began to recall their favorite scenes with each other and then actually formed a unified front against me, side by side with each other, only sort of playfully berating me for not seeing the film. From what appeared, on the surface, to be some substantial differences, they bonded on common ground to fight for their cause. Of course, the alliance was irreparably shaken when the bully found out something else about the gay kid, a discussion that went something like "Okay, I get it, you're gay and all and that's cool but, vegan, WTF?"

After the events of last week, I haven't been able to stop thinking about that day in my class. I might be naive and simple-minded but it just seems like we all might be better off looking at the things we have in common rather than fixating on the things that make us different.

I'm sure that there are racists out there who like pizza, baseball and movies as much as I do. I like to think that all of us want to have a safe, comfortable place to live and raise our families.

Having a supportive community of like minded people is something to cherish but I sometimes wonder if identifying oneself in a particular way or strongly, inextricably aligning oneself with a movement, ideology or sub-culture is always an effective method of self expression.  

Someone I know recently informed me that they identify as bisexual. I wondered if this the way that I am now supposed to think of this person. To me, sexuality is only relevant to the people someone has sex with. I think of this person as smart, funny and articulate, not bisexual. Should I now be thinking, "Let's get ___ to do it, you know, that bisexual person"? Is bisexuality their brand, their identity now? I don't think so, it's not what joins us but, even though it is a difference between us, it also does not divide us. Common ground, that's what works for me, common sense.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

David Lynch Dreams of Duran Duran

There is something chilling in the way David Lynch introduces Duran Duran, the subject of his new concert film. Out of focus, in black and white, Lynch appears onscreen with the exaggerated mock enthusiasm of a carnival huckster who has been on the job for six hours. It is almost as if he is willing the film to be good by smiling wildly and exaggerating his enunciation  as he briefly mentions how excited he is to work with the band.

Originally a live webcast as part of American Express’ Unstaged campaign that matches bands with directors (The Killers/Werner Herzog, Pharrell Williams/Spike Lee, Gary Oldman/Maroon 5) to collaborate on a hybrid film and concert experience, both Lynch and Duran Duran have since gone back into their studios to, respectively, upgrade the imagery and audio for a theatrical release of the project. Ultimately, however, the result is a concert film and, like the vast majority of concert films before it, the basic foundations of the form are in place: musicians performing onstage and a director trying to find a way to recapture the concert experience and make watching them on film equal to or greater than seeing them live. 

Over the years, filmmakers and musicians have attempted to expand beyond the confines of the genre. From the “fantasy” sequences awkwardly inserted into Led Zepellin’s “The Song Remains The Same” in the ’70’s to Metallica’s more recent “Through The Never” which attempted to set a narrative film in and around a concert, directors have been looking for a way to something more with their project. Alek Keshishian’s “Madonna: Truth or Dare” not only captured the performer’s live show at the peak of her career, it was also a fascinating look at what it meant to be a celebrity in the late 20th Century. Jonathan Demme's last film was the Justin Timberlake concert documentary for Netflix but he had made numerous films about  musicians who inspired him, shooting 3 or 4 films about Neil Young, the classic Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” and, wait, really(?) what’s that… his own contribution to the Amex series “Kenny Chesney: Unstaged”

Duran Duran, still active more than 30 years after their biggest hits, seem up to the task. Never critical favorites, they seem to have accepted and matured into their roles of aging New Wavers refusing to become an oldies band. They seamlessly integrate their songs from the ’80’s and ’90’s into the mix of current material in such a way that they seem almost contemporary. Either this is a band whose sound has never changed or they have found a way to tweak the formula over the years so that a casual listener might not be able to tell if a song like their rousing final encore “Girls On Film” came out in 1984 or 2014.

Lynch, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through the project —- not that, given the parameters of the genre, he really has many options. In his first full-length feature film since the 2006 curiosity “Inland Empire,” Lynch primarily embellishes the action onstage with super-imposed surrealistic or downright silly imagery with very little rhyme or reason. 

Throughout the concert, the band invites several guests to the stage for a song or two. Producer/guitarist Mark Ronson gets credited as the ‘architect’ of the dazzling, extended James Bond musical tribute that serves as the intro to the Duran’s own chart-topping Bond theme song “A View To A Kill.” Later, Beth Ditto of the group Gossip, herself born in the same year the band released it’s first single, bounds onstage for a lively performance of the 1988 hit “Notorious” and gushes to the crowd “What a fucking dream” as she exits when the song is over. 

Lynch says that he had wild dreams while listening to the band’s music but, in the finished film, those dreams manifest in swirling images of dust and clouds or jagged lines the appear over and frequently obstruct the shots of the musicians. 


Employing his talented “Mullholland Drive” and “Lost Highway”  cinematographer Peter Deming (beloved by many for his acrobatic and inventive camera work in Sam Raimi’s 1982 cult classic “Evil Dead II”) the film is shot in murky black and white with fluid, elegant camera movement. By abstracting color, Lynch establishes a canvas to build upon but it also distances viewers of the film from the bands presumably more colorful stage show shot at L.A.’s Mayan Theater in 2011.

Spinning bicycle wheels appear over the band during “Rio.” Elsewhere, a parade of topless Barbie dolls with Duran Duran pasties show up. Later still, tapping spatulas and hot dogs flipping on a grill accompany “Come Undone.” For a song like their ’90’s hit “Ordinary World,” it might be reasonable to expect something extraordinary to embellish the tune but Lynch returns to a theme of industrial gears and machinery that, by this point in the film, has already worn out its welcome. For a performance of their first hit “Planet Earth,” Lynch goes with — guess what? — a spinning globe. 

In the end, “Unstaged: Duran Duran” is not going to satisfy film-lovers eager for a new David Lynch film and, even though the band shows up in fine form, it is unlikely to satisfy their fans. Let’s face it, the “Unstaged” series is a thinly veiled Amex commercial. DD singer Simon LeBon thanks the credit card giant during their curtain call and, a moment later, when he calls the director to the stage for acknowledgement, Lynch does not join them onstage, is nowhere to found and LeBon has to to awkwardly suggest that he is off doing something else — a scenario that speaks volumes about this project. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Out in the Moonlight

A filmmaker friend recently posted a question on Facebook, asking his fellow African-American friends and collaborators about supporting African-American themed films at the box office. There is an organized movement to in the African American community to encourage as many members to send a message to Hollywood by getting out and seeing African-American themed films on opening weekend. He questioned why much of the community will go out and see anything by Tyler Perry but only a few handfuls will go see Fences. I just had to chime in and ask how many of them had gone to see Moonlight. No responses!

This past weekend, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar  and Get Out, Jordan Peele’s wildly well-received social conscious horror comedy about an African-American man finding himself hunted in an affluent white suburb was number one at the box office. In three months, Moonlight has earned $25,000,000. In one weekend, Get Out earned over $30,000,000.

As far as I can tell, the perception of the public is that Get Out is not an explicitly African-American themed film, which it pretty much is because race actually factors into the plot. The film is being perceived of and marketed as a horror film, which it is. People are flocking to Get Out because people like horror movies and people are staying away from Moonlight because, with its African American and gay themes, it appeals to a niche market and, anecdotally, it appears the audiences are predominantly white.

I saw Get Out because I like horror movies. I liked it, found it rich, intelligent and provocative, all qualities that, as a film teacher, I hold up as the things filmmakers should strive for. Honestly, I felt like I should go see Moonlight because, let’s face it, as an artsy intellectual liberal,  I felt like it was the right thing to do, to expose myself to something other. What I experienced was a rich, intelligent and provocative film that moved me deeply. Get Out is entertaining and smart and I relate to nothing in it because I am neither African American or, hopefully not, racist. On the surface, Moonlight is about the experiences of a poor, gay African-American male, none of which describes me. But it is what is beneath the surface of Moonlight that got me. It is a movie by, for and about anyone who has ever felt that they don’t fit in, that they are alone in the world and that nobody gets them and to that, I raise my hand and say “Me, me, me.”

In my classes I tell students that they should aim to make smart, meaningful films but that, in reality, they could make the greatest film in the world but if it is about dough rising and it is playing in a theater also screening the latest sequel to a remake about things blowing up, very few people are going to go to their film. 

In the end, I guess what I am saying is that it is good thing that Get Out was not released the same weekend as a Tyler Perry film. No, what I am saying is that Get Out and Moonlight are both really good movies and I wish as many people would be open to seeing both. I wondered if this box office disparity is really about race or if it is simply about making movies that lots of people want to see versus making small, quiet personal statements that are only going to attract a brave few.