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Posts in: May 2017

150 Films #18: Boogie Nights (1997)

I came late (so to speak) to the Boogie Nights party. When it came out, I was in high school; naturally, a movie about ’70s porn and a dude with a huge dick was only mentioned in hushed tones, followed by a lot of giggling. I should mention, this was a time and place when getting into an R-rated movie was not difficult for a kid. It was commonplace for parents to bring their kids to the movies, buy them the tickets, and then go off and do their own thing. (This behavior operated on the assumption that the box office cashiers cared enough not to sell movie tickets to kids under 17, which also tended to be untrue.)

And yet, a film so overtly about pornography raised eyebrows. Theatres were a little more on edge about selling tickets to a kid; parents were a lot more reluctant to buy their kids tickets and abandon them to enjoy a literal orgy of sex and drugs. The few classmates who claimed to have seen this taboo film made it sound like a sort of demented, perverse comedy, glorifying the Golden Age of pornography and its participants. Even then, while I was naïve about many things, I knew about the drugs, coercion, and misogyny endemic in pornography, and so a movie that sounded like it would celebrate and/or make light of this behavior did not appeal to me.

Then followed my enduring love-hate relationship with the film’s producer/writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson. By 1999, I was deeply enough into movies that I had to go see future 150 Films entry Magnolia—based primarily on Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic recommendation—which I found alternately thrilling and irritating, fascinating and incoherent, building to a climax that simultaneously left me enthralled and disappointed. I recall seeing the movie with my friend, Rachel, and I can still see the “What the FUCK?!” look on her face when that damn frog rain started, a look I surely matched. But what did it amount to? I’ll get into this more in my eventual essay on Magnolia, but I have a different reaction to it every time I see it.

Every Anderson movie has in common excellent performances (even from actors not known for excellence) and bravura technical accomplishments that make them “compulsively watchable,” if not exactly good. I’ve always found Anderson’s major weakness is in the storytelling, not the filmmaking. Individual scenes of great power never quite hang together as well as they might, and nearly always build to an ending that makes one say, “That’s it?!” I’m never sure if this is a byproduct of poor storytelling, or if it’s a deliberate challenge to the viewers: “I know what I’m saying here, but you gotta figure it out for yourself.” With some of his films, like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I’m engrossed enough and moved enough to accept the challenge. With others, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Master, I’m kinda like, “Fuuuuck this.”

After There Will Be Blood, I went back and saw his debut, Hard Eight (which I liked quite a bit, as it actually tells a complete story), but I still skipped over Boogie Nights. Again, I had it in my mind that this was a movie that glorified pornography, and with Anderson’s penchant for muddy character arcs and ambiguous endings, I didn’t want to waste time on a movie I’d probably hate.

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150 Films #19: The Breakfast Club (1985)

It’s going to be weird to turn a movie that’s wall-to-wall whiteys into a conversation about race, but it’s what came to mind when watching The Breakfast Club again. Strip away the jokes and the teen angst, and what remains is a story about communication and understanding among “cliques” that would not otherwise interact. As Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) describes them in his essay, you have “a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” jammed into a room together for an entire day.

I can’t tell you at what age I first saw this movie, but considering the sheer number of F bombs dropped by characters, the answer is probably “too young.” The nice thing about my parents was their policy of not hiding adult-oriented (or teen-oriented) entertainment from us, as long as they watched it with us and discussed its subject matter and themes. I might be the only kid on Earth who saw Basic Instinct at the tender of 11, as a family event. “I heard it’s a great psychological thriller,” I recall my mom saying when they brought the tape home from Blockbuster. So there we sat, in the dark living room, as I got a surprising introduction to ice-pick murders, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. I remember nothing about any discussion of the movie, but the image of Sharon Stone appearing fully nude in front of a window is pretty well ingrained in my memory.

Um… What was I talking about again? Right, seeing The Breakfast Club at a young age may have formed the first piece in a general theory about bigotry. It’s common knowledge that, in this country, urban centers tend to favor social liberalism, while rural areas do not. I’ve always thought that had to do with urban centers cramming a panoply of people into a relatively small area, and exposure to so many people—so many of them different from you—helps to erode stereotypes and create mutual understanding, a sort of common ground. When you live near, go to school with, and/or work alongside people of all different backgrounds, they stop being scary “others” and turn into…just people. And if people are just people, then why should they be denied rights like marriage or access to education and polls? While I’d never exactly call any large city a social Utopia—so-called “hypersegregation” ain’t exactly an endorsement of social liberalism—it seems to follow that, for many, “exposure” is key for overcoming prejudices.

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150 Films #20: Breaking Away (1979)

Yeah, this movie is fucking great.

I first saw it in college. Funny story, when I took Screenwriting II in college—a course where we were to write a feature screenplay over the course of the semester—I had what I would regard as a shitty instructor. For the first session or two, we discussed and pitched ideas. After that, the three-hour class session was devoted to watching movies. Now, as a very mild defense of this tactic, he did expect us to get particular things out of each of his selections: The Godfather was all about character, My Bodyguard (yes, I watched this in a screenwriting class) was about structure, and so on. As I recall, Breaking Away was supposed to be about different ways of looking at conflict.

(Fun postscript: I accidentally ratted out this technique to my mentor, who was one of the heads of the screenwriting department. After watching a few movies, our class literally turned into a weekly 10-minute one-on-one meeting with the instructor, who made it increasingly clear each week that he’d only read our first 10 pages and was not reading the new material we were supposed to submit each week. With me, every single “meeting” went the same way: “You know your characters, so it’s great. Just keep it up.” I was not happy with the lack of substantive feedback, but at least he liked what I was doing. One of my friends in the class kept getting the same negative feedback, all based on her first 10 pages; she would push back with specific questions about what she’d done wrong, and he couldn’t answer. It boiled over when he told her she’d get a C for the semester, and she reported him for being sucky. I recall her asking me to write a letter of support for the notion that he wasn’t actually reading our screenplays.)

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150 Films #21: Brick (2006)

Part of the point of this project is to ask the question, “How has time changed my opinion of these films?” After 20 films, I’m surprised to find only two have been Sells. In point of fact, just my memory of re-watching these movies for this project made me think at least five were on the Sell list, so that’s pretty weird.

However, Brick is the first movie I’ve looked at again and literally asked the question, “Why did I like this in the first place?” With my other two Sells—The Apartment and Being John Malkovich—I know exactly why I loved them, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of why I no longer do. Brick, on the other hand…

“Terrible” is too strong a word, but almost from the beginning, I felt two things very strongly: the subject matter is too dark, but most of the characters are too “indie quirky”—extremely annoying. I love the premise of “high school film noir,” which is perhaps the first piece of evidence to explain why I loved this movie. Outsized emotions was a common feature of Golden Age films, so even the grit and violence of classic film noir don’t diminish its heightened drama. In the modern world, where else would one find such high emotion than high school? When I say the subject matter is “too dark,” I mean this movie doesn’t deal in a typical teenage story. It centers around a murdered girl and a brick of heroin. Yes, high school kids use and sell heroin. Yes, high school kids murder each other. But that’s not a conventional teenager’s story, so the mash-up itself is not quite convincing.

Neither is the language. It doesn’t bother me that these characters speak in machine-gun rhythms; it’s that writer/director Rian Johnson’s bizarre, made-up patois doesn’t sound like a film noir character any more than it sounds like teenagers. The prose is too purple and cutesy, and when combined with the goofy characters (at times intentionally comical, but mostly just annoying), it’s just… None of it works for me.

Sure, the passing of time changes things. My visceral reaction to The Apartment came from its romanticizing “White Knight Syndrome”; there’s some of that here, too, in that Brick‘s plot focuses on the efforts of a young man to rescue a fucked-up girl he’s in love with (but who doesn’t love him back). I wonder, though, if the main issue here is how fresh a film like this felt in 2006. Three years before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 book that both popularized and ruined mash-ups, this felt new and vibrant. Unlike the previous year’s Sin City, Brick was not so slavish about aping the look and tone; instead, he used the style—dense plotting and rapid dialogue—to tell a crime story about kids. It was also not as tongue-in-cheek or overtly comedic as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another noir homage; nor as dour as A History of Violence, nor as classical as Match Point.

At the time, it felt smart, vibrant, and new. Now? To me, at least, it feels like a calling card that looks pretty good visually and brims with ideas and emotion—but it tries way, way too hard without quite succeeding.

Keep or Sell? Sell

Up Next: Bridesmaids (2011)

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