Posts in Category: 150 Films

150 Films #10: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Now, as a kid, I loved the first movie, but it seemed like kids all had Year 2000 Fever. What would the future be like? The end of Back to the Future tantalized with its flying DeLoreans, transparent neckties, and devices converting garbage into fusion energy. “Roads?” Doc Brown asks. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And that, to a nerdy kid (or maybe any kid), became the Maxell/Thrillhouse moment capping an already great movie.

In 1989, at the tender age of seven, 2000 seemed a lifetime away. Anything could happen. So when trailers for Back to the Future Part II showed up, promising a future of hoverboards, flying cars, Biff Tannen casino hotels, and Michael J. Fox in drag, it instantly became the must-see movie of a year that included Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and future 150 Films entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I didn’t get to see it right away, of course. The details are a little fuzzy in old man Bates’s head, but I have a recollection of being grounded when the movie came out. It’s possible the delay was caused by financial constraints; I had to wait for a lot of movies to get to the $1.50 second-run theatre behind the Burger King. Nevertheless, I bided my time with the Craig Shaw Gardner novelization available through the Troll Book Club.

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150 Films #11: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can tell you exactly why the year 1999 changed my life, using the popular listicle format:

  • Magnolia
  • Three Kings
  • Election
  • The Matrix
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • October Sky
  • American Beauty
  • Bowfinger
  • Dick
  • Topsy-Turvy
  • The Iron Giant
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Office Space
  • Go
  • Galaxy Quest
  • Dogma
  • Bringing Out the Dead
  • Man on the Moon
  • The Green Mile
  • The Red Violin
  • Rushmore (I’m grandfathering this in from 1998 releases, because it was barely released until 1999 and falls under the category of life-altering films I saw during this period)

Even movies I didn’t particularly like at the time—Fight Club and The Sixth Sense come to mind—sent the same messages: movies can do anything. Movies can be about anything. And this is just the list of movies that stick out from seeing during 1999 and the early part of 2000. I’ve certainly seen other 1999 movies that I’ve loved (The Insider and Summer of Sam, for example), but I saw them much later. The purpose of this list is to show the sheer number of strange, unique, inventive, “deep” movies released during this year, and how their cumulative impact put me on a new trajectory.

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150 Films #12: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

In a 1973 interview with Gene Siskel, François Truffaut famously said, “I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar movie. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” He’s not wrong. Even an ardently antiwar film, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s future 150 Films entry Paths of Glory, tends to shy away from actually making the case that war, across the board, is futile. The war in Vietnam was terrible, pointless, and monstrous, says Oliver Stone—and I agree, but would he say the same about the Civil War? Would Kubrick argue that war, itself, is the problem, or would he merely claim that bureaucracy and incompetence lead to unnecessary deaths in otherwise justifiable wars?

Until recently, I don’t think I could have called myself “pro-war” or “antiwar”; my interest in war has always had more to do with an inability to understand why wars happen, what constitutes “war” (as opposed to “police action” or “skirmish”), and whether or not they cause more harm than good (even in the case of so-called “just” wars). As we get deeper into this list, I think my stance will grow clearer. The “war films” that I admire tend to focus more on the psychological consequences of battles than the spectacle of explosions. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love action movies, I love explosions, I love combining the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate. But action movies, even ones with spectacular battles, don’t aim for the same thing as a “war movie.” Generally speaking, war movies take sides: World War II was the greatest, Vietnam was the worst, the Civil War was noble, the Hundred Years’ War was not…

The inherently political nature of war means, of course, that I inherently distrust them. As I see it, wars should only happen in clear-cut cases of self-defense. If someone attacks the U.S.—as opposed to, say, ineffectual saber-rattling by leaders playing to the cheap seats—we respond by decimating them. End of story. Political pressures encroach on that logic. If the government knew an attack was imminent, how could they let it happen? If the government didn’t know about an attack, why didn’t they? Isn’t it their job to protect us?! If a President says, “We’ve been attacked, but we won’t respond until we’ve done a thorough investigation,” he’s criticized for ineffectual leadership; yet, if he jumps on the first scraps of intelligence, we end up playing Whac-a-Mole® in the mountains of Tora Bora while the mastermind slips away to our “friend” Pakistan.

Another aspect of my ambivalence toward war is the moral cowardice of American politicians. I grew up with a military that picked fights like cowards, against enemies they knew they could beat, while backing away from (and often allying with) countries with abominable human rights records spitting in the face of American values. When was it ever necessary and just to use the U.S. military to secretly back Latin American coups (trading a dictator we don’t like for one we do)? Why was it just for Saudi Arabia to face no consequences for attacks perpetrated mostly by Saudis (because of what Saudis are taught to believe), or for Pakistan to face no consequences for housing the mastermind and financier of the September 11th attacks, when we blew up Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a “War on Terror”?

To me, the answer is simple: American politicians are pussies. Neo-cons, especially, have an obsession with “nation-building”—reshaping jerkwater dumps in the image of ‘Murica—but whenever we’ve had neo-cons at the helm, we’ve gone after weak countries we could beat so handily, we often did it in secret. It looks really, really bad to boldly declare we’ve sent American troops to dumps like El Salvador, Chile, and Bolivia, taking sides in their political strife. None of them did anything to us, so why were we even there? Because we want their stuff, and we want a friendly leader to sell their stuff and exploit their labor. That’s not a good enough reason to back somebody else’s war.

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150 Films #13: The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)

I’ve made a number of cracks at this essay. It turns out a film with such a brief running time and simple story asks too many profound questions. Without a heavy hand or any pompous philosophizing, the story of a man who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to keep a job he desperately needs manages to ask the following:

  • Does faith, religious or otherwise, serve any purpose or have any value?
  • How can a man with nothing deal with the consequences of a thief literally stealing his livelihood?
  • To what extent does poverty fuel desperate, criminal behavior?
  • What purpose does a criminal justice system serve when it has little interest in criminals or justice?
  • Does a man who can’t provide for his family have any purpose? (This is a bit dated but still a relevant concern for many men.)
  • How can a man who can’t provide for his family—or himself, for that matter—set a good example for his children?
  • Is one man’s desperate story any more important than anyone else’s?

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150 Films #14 & 15: The Big Lebowski (1998) / The Big Sleep (1946)

My original plan for this essay was to combine The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep, because (1) I’ve fallen behind on these essays, and (2) they share in common a pitch-perfect depiction of L.A. culture that most other L.A. movies don’t quite catch. Even sprawling, L.A.-set ensemble epics like Short Cuts or Crash or future 150 Films entry Magnolia have a tendency to make demographic separations that aren’t quite as neat in Los Angeles. The oddest and most entertaining aspect of my brief stint in L.A. was observing the elbow-rubbing of these many varied walks of life.

In The Big Lebowski, bowling brings together an inebriated hippie, a right-wing Vietnam vet, a dullard who is frequently out of his element, and a flamboyant Latin pederast. A bogus kidnapping plot ties together a wealthy wannabe-plutocrat–who, it is revealed late in the film, is far more incompetent and beholden to others’ largesse than he lets on–his porn star trophy wife, his avant-garde artist stepdaughter, a collective of German nihilists, and a shady porn kingpin and his hired goons. A misadventure involving a joyride in a beater leads to the dunce son of a famous television writer trapped in an iron lung. All this weirdness seems perfectly normal if you’ve lived in L.A. for awhile.

Lebowski, as many know, was a conscious pastiche of Raymond Chandler’s ideas, so it’s fitting that his novel The Big Sleep similarly ties together threads of humanity who, in any saner city, would be unlikely to find each other in such close proximity. It starts, like Lebowski, with a wealthy, wheelchair-bound man and a blackmail scheme. This plot brings into the wealthy Sternwood family’s orbit: the eldest daughter’s missing bootlegger husband, the drug-addled youngest daughter, a gangster club owner, a pornographer, said pornographer’s gay lover, and a handful of shady characters from all social strata. One detail contained in the book not retained for the movie is the notion that General Sternwood was a Mexican immigrant who changed his name but retains a dark complexion.

I got that out of the way, in brief, because I think it’s an interesting facet of both stories. But as I rewatched the movies, back to back, I realized very quickly that they both make an even more important point as it pertains to my development as a human person, an aspect I touched on in essays about Above the Law and All the President’s Men: the importance of the truth. Of course, the way each film manages to get at the truth—operating as extensions of its central characters—is very different, but I would say the reason they’re both equally satisfying, in their different ways, is because of my desire for truth and justice in a world that often lacks either.

Alphabetically, I know I should start out talking about The Big Lebowski, but autobiographically, it doesn’t quite work. I came to Chandler earlier, and if I’m being honest, the first few times I saw The Big Lebowski, I didn’t like it at all. I dismissed it as a stoner comedy that had the same sort of languid, borderline-incoherent rhythm of talking to a stoned person. I admired the Coens for pulling that off in a film, but I didn’t actually enjoy it. It wasn’t until the cult audience started to build, and the numerous times I was subjected to it during film school, that I began to appreciate how well the Coens manage to combine a pitch-perfect Chandler narrative with ’90s L.A. culture and a dash of stoner ambling.

So let me start with The Big Sleep and my general love of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s indelible, incorruptible investigator. The Marlowe of the books is slightly different from the Marlowe of the film version of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s backstory very simply explains who he is: a former insurance investigator and D.A.’s office investigator, repeatedly fired for insubordination before striking out on his own. The major difference in the film version is that he is catnip to women, a strange addition that I have to assume came at Warner Brothers’ insistence–in their first starring vehicle together, director Howard Hawks had to make it believable that short, middle-aged, not-very-hunky Humphrey Bogart could land Lauren Bacall, a bombshell less than half his age.

Many actors have played the role of Marlowe over the years. Chandler’s personal choice for the role was Dick Powell, who played him in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet. I still can’t fathom this choice; Powell is fine, but if we’re talking the definitive 1940s star to play the definitive 1940s detective, it has to be Bogart. Bogart’s persona nails the wise-ass, takes-no-shit dialogue better than just about anyone, and he’s one of a very small number of actors who can project being both the toughest and smartest guy in the room at any given time. (Powers Boothe, who played Marlowe for a short-lived HBO series, is the only other actor who has come close to nailing the role.)

So while it’s a little goofy that Hawks adds cartoonish sex appeal to Bogart’s Marlowe, The Big Sleep remains just about the best adaptation of any of Chandler’s books, for two major reasons: first, Bogart’s performance captures Marlowe’s integrity and persistence, and secondly, Hawks’s direction captures Chandler’s frequent descriptions of the tedium of investigation, making it clear that the exciting parts of the story are the exception rather than the rule.

Throughout the film, characters try to push Marlowe away from the truth. Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), especially, telegraphs to Marlowe that he knows plenty, but he wants Marlowe to stop digging into the truth. The closer Marlowe gets to the truth, the more danger he faces; most of the time, that’s the only way he knows he’s on the right track. And he just keeps going, no matter how dangerous the job gets, until he’s solved the case. Once he makes a commitment to his client, as long as he believes they themselves aren’t criminals and he keeps getting paid, Marlowe can’t be flattered or tricked, bought or intimidated, or otherwise dissuaded from uncovering the truth.

In much the same way, but for very different reasons, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) can’t be dissuaded from uncovering the truth. The Coens have to do a lot of heavy lifting—which they do quite deftly—to put an apathetic slacker into the role of a man who wants the truth. It starts with a soiled rug, continues with a “ringer” provided by his friend Walter (John Goodman), and keeps going until The Dude has uncovered a truth that will clear his own name and rid him of the weirdos that keep attacking him. But for The Dude, the search for the truth also has to do with justice: thanks to Walter’s switch with his ringer, The Dude fears that actions forced upon him might have led to a woman’s death.

There are elements to The Dude’s character, and Bridges’s performance, that add several shades of nuance that often go ignored by even the most ardent critics and fans. For all the running gags about White Russians and smoking joints and repeating others’ dialogue as if it’s an original thought, The Dude is neither a stupid man—evidenced by his acerbic wit, his ability to cut through others’ bullshit and get at the truth, and his alleged writing of the Port Huron statement—nor an unfeeling man. The Coens understood a mere goof-off slacker stoner couldn’t fit into a Chandler-esque narrative without tapping into those feelings; The Dude needs a reason to care about finding the truth.

The masterstroke, though, is the Coens’ recognition that Marlowe learns more from bad guys tipping their hands than from actual investigation. Sure, Marlowe’s investigations tend to lead him to the wrong place at the right time—but moreso than any physical evidence, it’s the people he encounters, often in the form of threats, beatings, or attempted bribes—that let Marlowe know he’s on the right track. So The Dude gets harassed by Jackie Treehorn’s (Ben Gazzara) goons, beaten by Maude Lebowski’s (Julianne Moore) thugs, harassed by the German nihilists and their marmot, harassed again by Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, and so on—it’s these characters, who believe The Dude knows more than he does about everything that’s going on, who keep bringing The Dude into the story. It’s their forceful behavior that, ironically, allows The Dude to put all the pieces together and unravel his own role in a sort of goofy conspiracy. More than anything, the Coens managed to make a film anchored by a passive character, and it actually works!

In the end, though, neither The Big Lebowski nor The Big Sleep would succeed nearly as well if they didn’t have characters who want the truth. In one case, an incorruptible man has devoted his life to uncovering it; in the other, a goofball slacker needs to know he and his idiot friend didn’t cause the death of a mostly innocent woman. Soon enough, we’ll encounter some films in which the truth is either never discovered, or it’s more devastating than believing the lie. “The truth hurts,” they say, and that can be true a great deal of the time, but I’ve never understood why people would rather live in ignorance—or worse, with a lie. The truth may hurt, but the active refusal to know it destroys.

Then again, they also say “the truth will out,” and that’s a lie. One reason I love Chandler is that he places Marlowe in a world, similar to our own, bereft of anyone who will seek the truth no matter the cost: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, political, whatever… And then, at the center of that sad world stands a lone hero who makes anyone reading hope for the day that there are more people like him than like everyone else. In a weird way, I feel the same about The Dude. Like The Stranger (Sam Elliott), I take comfort in knowing he’s out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners. He’s less outwardly heroic, less clearly motivated to do the right thing, and if he has any sort of code of ethics, it would not in any way resemble a man like Marlowe’s. Yet, he exists in the same plane of awful people willing to look past the truth and prop up their own delusions: those they want others to believe, and those they want to believe themselves. The Dude himself numbs the world with drugs and alcohol, but when push literally comes to shove, he will step up and do what’s right.

That, sadly, is a rarity.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Keep or Sell? Keep

The Big Sleep (1946)

Keep or Sell? Keep

Next Up: Blood Simple (1984)

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150 Films #16: Blood Simple (1984)

As a preamble, let me just discuss the year-long gap between reviews. It began, as so many things do, with fear. Only 10% of the way through this project, it began to occur to me that I’d already started to repeat myself. I examined my shelf of wonders, at the films that lay ahead, and thought I like a lot of movies with similar themes, similar stories, in similar genres, at times by the same filmmakers—and I like all of these films for roughly similar reasons.

When I decided to combine The Big Lebowski with The Big Sleep and talk about their protagonists’ shared moral codes and interest in the truth above all things. This will be a recurring theme in many 150 Films selections, and it won’t be the only recurring theme. I worried less about boring readers through repetition—one advantage of having no readers is that nobody will get bored—than boring myself. I thought of different modes of attack—for instance, grouping the movies by five and doing a single essay on the whole group—and then started to get overwhelmed by this entirely self-imposed project.

So… I put off the next post. And put it off, and put it off, until I more or less forgot about it. I started writing paleo food reviews as a stopgap while I regrouped, and then I stopped writing those. And then I forgot about them, too, and as is often the case with this blog, it took a back burner to other priorities. Lately, though, I’ve found myself doing nothing instead of focusing on other priorities, so I’m back, because at least this is something. I can flex my writing muscles and my critical analysis muscles, give myself an excuse to watch movies that were once (and might still be) meaningful to me, and have an outlet to ramble about myself until I get something better going.

Oh, and self-promotion. Nobody reads this blog, and I don’t know how to get them to, but it’s here. As I try to get something real going with my writing, I can point people to this place because I don’t want strangers on my Facebook friends list, and after trying to get into Twitter to boost my “social media” profile, I found I’m more of a passive observer than an active participant. So this is it. My place.

Finally, that nebulous thought solidified over the past few weeks: this is my place. I don’t need to overwhelm myself with some bullshit I chose to do. I don’t need to wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph if I have little to say because I’ve said it all before. These reviews could be one sentence long if I want them to be. Nobody’s paying me or grading me on my content, and if someone were to do either, that would be their nightmare, not mine. With that glorious sense of freedom restored, I’ve decided to resurrect this project, those paleo reviews, and maybe even—gasp!!—some of those cranky posts about politics, religion, and how much I like Ayn Rand. The events of the past few months have given me a metric ass-tonne to complain about, so why am I ranting in private? Why am I not trying to pick fights against Sean Spicer or the morons in the “Antifa” movement? Isn’t that how people boost their social media profiles?

It sure is! But first, let me talk briefly about a great, great film called Blood Simple.

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150 Films #17: Boiler Room (2000)

I’m a big fan of Oliver Stone’s early films, but I have to admit I never much liked Wall Street, arguably his most popular and enduring movie. Stone, especially in this period, was big on turning American stories into the stuff of myths. Platoon made Vietnam into something like The Iliad, and Wall Street turned the coke-fueled trading of the ’80s into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with deliberate allusions to Frank Capra’s work. It turned what could have been a story of complicated motives and shitty behavior into a generic tale of good versus evil. If Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) early seduction by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), followed by his redemption after the scales fall from his eyes, qualifies as moral complexity, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather watch Capra than Capra with cocaine.

Boiler Room, an underrated film about the corruption of the high-stakes financial world, could almost be considered a superior remake of Stone’s 1987 film. In fact, I’d wager it’s underrated (to the point of being largely forgotten) because of its deliberate similarities. However, where the stories overlap, writer/director Ben Younger improves everywhere Stone goes wrong.

Let’s start with the hero, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi). In his running voiceover narration, Seth makes no bones about his goal: he wants to make the most money through the least effort. When we first meet him, he’s dropped out of college and makes ends meet by running an illegal casino for his ex-classmates. This establishes the first of many parallels between gambling and stock trading; more importantly, it establishes Seth as a character who lacks the gee-whiz naïveté of Bud Fox. He doesn’t immediately know J.T. Marlin is a boiler room (or chop shop), but he knows something’s wrong pretty early on—and doesn’t care. Even when he pieces together how the company illegally makes money, he keeps going with it until it’s clear he only has one option: throw them under the bus to save his own ass.

In Wall Street, Bud regains his moral compass when he discovers Gekko’s plans will leave his own father (Martin Sheen) unemployed and without a pension. Personal stakes thus established, Bud uses his Wall Street knowledge to double-cross Gekko. In contrast, Seth doesn’t have much interest in impressing his bosses; he wants to impress his father, a cantankerous judge (played with prickly aplomb by Ron Rifkin). Seth’s moment of clarity has very little to do with righteous morality; it’s about the twin cannons of going to prison and losing his father forever.

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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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