Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watch The Skies: Empire of the Sun

When I was fourteen, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun opened at the new UA theater in my hometown of Kalamazoo. It would be a key moment in my budding, teenaged cinephilia, and I explore the film, and trace out my shifting responses to it over the last (nearly) 30 years in a new piece up at Bright Wall/Dark Room. Thanks again to the editors there for all their great work, and to Google Doodle artist Sophia Foster-Dimino for her beautiful accompanying illustration!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Super Americana: The Rocketeer 25 Years Later

"I’ve bought a ticket in a lottery, the grand prize of which amounts to this: being read in 1935."—Stendhal

Released 25 years ago this month, The Rocketeer—director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s adaptation of Dave Stevens’ acclaimed indie comic—was pitched as Disney’s second attempt (after the previous year’s equally stylized, period-set Dick Tracy) to compete with Batman, after that film stormed theaters in 1989. It had rising stars like Billy Campbell (making his film debut after gaining good notices for work on TV shows like Crime Story and Dynasty) and Jennifer Connelly; a marvelous villain portrayed by the most recent James Bond, Timothy Dalton; well-regarded character actors like Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino and William Sanderson in key supporting roles; a screenwriting team who’d just show-run a well-received adaptation of The Flash for CBS; and a director coming off the surprise hit of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. The gorgeous, painted Art Deco poster captured the look of Stevens’ comic brilliantly for longtime fans, while grabbing the eyes of those (like 18-year old me), who’d never heard of the Rocketeer in 1991, but were certainly curious to see what this flying helmeted man was all about.

But the film failed to take off that year, garnering good reviews but doomed by a summer scheduling that dropped it smack-dab between the season's two biggest hits, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2. It sunk at the box office, and only found commercial success later on home video. And yet, looking at it now, its retro optimism feels like a road-map to the future, a presaging of precisely the blend of action, wit, nostalgia and pathos that drives the Marvel blockbusters currently dominating the marketplace (released, ironically enough, through parent company Disney). Like Stendhal, resigning himself to contemporary failure in order to find posthumous glory, The Rocketeer has outlasted Costner and Ah-nuld as a model of all-ages action filmmaking.

Over at, I take a long look at the movie, its genesis, and the lasting impact of its retro vision on contemporary pop culture.  I'd be grateful if you'd give it a read, and even happier if you'd take a look at the the film-- I assure you, you won't regret getting caught up in its tailwind.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apocalypse, Then: The Bed-Sitting Room

I've long been interested in writing for the excellent online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, so I'm thrilled to be in their new "sci-fi" issue, which went online Tuesday afternoon. My piece is about Richard Lester's brilliant, bleak, and brutal 1969 apocalypse comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which pulled together several threads of sixties British satire and themes from all of Lester's previous films, and put them at the service of a vision so unrelenting in dystopic tone and imagery that it might have made Brecht reconsider alienation. My piece can be found here, but I urge you to subscribe to the whole magazine and read everything-- the folks at BW/DR are doing wonderful work that deserves your ongoing support.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I Wish U Heaven: Prince, R.I.P.

I genuinely believed I'd never have to write this blog post.

When my wife came upstairs this afternoon and told me Prince died, it didn't actually register at first: I thought of John O'Hara writing of George Gershwin's death: "I don't believe it if I don't want to." It's not an exaggeration to say I feel like a whole chunk of my universe has been ripped away-- aside from the Beatles and Miles Davis, no musician meant more to me, or did more to transform my life, than Prince. I wrote about it a couple of years ago in this blog post, which was not even about Prince, but about the comic book THE WICKED+THE DIVINE (which, I could not have known then, was going to add a Prince-like character to its pantheon of warring pop gods):

 It was a few nights ago, and while talking about pop music with my wife, I was trying to explain the impact Prince had on my teenaged self. Finally, after talking about the playfulness of his persona, the powerful contradictions in his lyrics, the energy of the music, I settled on the most expressive reason: "Prince taught me how to walk."

I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, except that I felt it very deeply: vivid visual memories of high school hallways, being sixteen, understanding that there was such a confidence to Prince's work that you literally felt it, that it transformed your body. Hundreds of songs exist about dance floors and nightclubs, but the best pop music gets under your skin everywhere, transforms the everyday into a song. It's alluring and liberating and addictive, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie get it down to their bones. When, in one of his patented end-of-the-issue essays at the back of issue two of The Wicked + The Divine, Gillen alludes to his own experience with the physicality of pop-- talking of how Hole's "Beautiful Son" made him "...walk better. I wasn't uncomfortable, but now I'm beyond comfortable. It's the first time I've felt like a shark in any waters. Whatever this is, I'm at home here, and I'm powerful here."--I smiled and nodded in recognition.

There are pop artists that speak to you so deeply that it's like you've known them your whole life, that they were buried in your subconscious, and each new work is less an act of consumerism than one of self-recognition, another part of their body of work intersecting with yours, and everything moving together.


I spent the rest of the past several hours in a kind of haze, tweeting incessantly about Prince as a kind of catharsis, as if I was subconsciously building a wall of remembrance, as if sharing images and song lyrics and memories (and cross-listing and re-posting other people's similar tweets) could both expunge the confusion at his sudden death and perhaps work like a sort of seance. But mostly it's because I wanted to say something, but lacked the words (at least on first hearing the news). Talking about him, reading about him, listening to the music was and is both a gesture of mourning and a joyous act, similar to what Shawn Taylor says in this lovely piece:

Losing Phife, David Bowie, and now Prince in the same year is devastating. Not because of an unhealthy relationship to pop stars, but because art matters. It matters differently to each of us, but it matters. But out of all forms of art, music, I feel, matters the most. It can speak for you when you’re tongue tied. It can describe what you’re feeling when you can’t get your mind right to identify it. It can get you out of bed, dancing across the floor, shaking the blues from your fingertips and swaying hips. It can help you find the tears that don’t come when you need them to.

I hope to say more about Prince and his work, and what it meant to me, in the coming weeks. But for now, I just want to re-post a link to something I wrote three years ago for the late film journal Cinespect. It's called "The Curious Case of Christopher Tracy." It's nominally about his criminally underrated movie Under the Cherry Moon (and its relationship to the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby adaptation that was about to be released), but it also takes a wider view of what Prince meant in a particular cultural moment, and what his work still means to me, and it says a lot of what I would want to say in the immediate wake of his death. In particular, this part feels resonant for today:

When Christopher is killed by Issac’s thugs at the end of the film, he ascends to heaven, or at least that’s what the music tells us: The fragile acoustic ballad “Sometimes It Snows in April” offers a vision of Christopher from Tricky’s heartbroken perspective, while the appearance of the actual Prince and the Revolution on the credits, singing “Mountains” while floating in the clouds, suggests a witty play on myths of rebirth, the ending Gatsby didn’t get. Is it possible that this is also the “heaven” that Duke Ellington wrote of in his work, the code word for Harlem, with all its political and artistic possibilities for a burgeoning black artistic class, one more historical nod to the past by the director, even as his funk closes the film out in the musical future? Or has the green light moved out of the bay and across the continent? At a key moment in “Under the Cherry Moon,” Tricky sports a cowboy hat; it’s an ironic play on a key signifier of American masculinity, since Tricky is wearing it during a breakdown, but also a reminder of where Jerome Benton and Prince are from—the Midwest that Fitzgerald (himself a St. Paul native) refers to throughout “Gatsby” as “the West,” without any qualification. For Nick Carraway, it’s a space of retreat from an East he no longer wants any part of; for Fitzgerald, a space he escaped. But for Prince it remains the frontier in all senses, the center out of which stretches his endless creative horizon, where concentric circles of style, image, and history float like cherry moons. It’s Prince’s final reversal on the Fitzgerald dilemma: “to be borne back ceaselessly into the past” not as nostalgia trap or defeat, but as a postmodernist call to arms.

R.I.P., Prince.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

CIFF40: Chronic (2015)

Chronic opens with a long take, framed with the interior of a car, as we peer through a windshield at the front of a house, the driveway and lawn seen in pieces, an unidentified person seen locking the door. The shot lingers for a minute, really allowing the eye to wander, to observe the person close the front door, fumble with keys and then walk to the car. There's no cut to a close-up, no music on the soundtrack, no indication of where we are or why this moment is important. Nothing is explained or justified. It's an act of seeing, a glimpse out of time. It is banal, and it is riveting.

Introduced at the Cleveland Film Festival's March 31 afternoon screening by hospice workers from Cleveland and Ohio City, Chronic details the life of David (Tim Roth), a professional care-giver working with different patients in Southern California. I saw this film more than a week ago, loved it, and yet have delayed writing about it, for reasons I can't quite ascertain. In part I think it's due to the personal, often-difficult nature of the material, but I think a bigger reason is its tone and approach to David's story. This is a film full of long takes like the one I described above, long extended shots of space whose duration and stillness generates a paradoxical response (at least in me): the often-immobile camera's unshakeable, intense focus on what the frame has cut out of its world at a given moment lets the mind wander and observe, drift and make connections to what is unsaid, even as we observe the rich and sad detail of David's work routines. Director Michel Franco allows details to pile up (the way that David shifts a resting body in bed, how he bathes a patient, the exquisite sensation of tiny things like the smell and texture of parsley in the kitchen), and the immersion in the everyday feels vital.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

CIFF40: Translation Study: Returning Home (2015) and Notes on Blindness (2016)

What does it mean to translate that which escapes conventional language? How do films speak of silence, visualize blindness, generate empathy about subjects that might be alien to wide swaths of their audiences? Two films that played this week at the Cleveland Film Festival-- Returning Home (2015) and Notes on Blindness (2016)--offer models whose mixed success presents warnings as well as guideposts for other filmmakers.

Friday, April 8, 2016

CIFF40: Virtual Realities: Notes on "PERSPECTIVES"

1.  A woman waits nervously in the pool-house of a desert complex, the space stretching around and above her like an endlessly reflective Escher piece, as she talks to a strange companion on the other side of the room, and one's eye darts around to make sure nothing is missed; a train blows across the river like it's 1895, and suddenly erupts into a hail of bats; ghosts make sudden appearances in a 360-degree space; the ineffability of love and the sensation of blindness are made three-dimensional. Your blue hand reaches out for a lens that slips your grasp, the 7 deadly sins are given a humorous multi-media spin, you walk through Walden, and a Japanese internment camp life is made vivid.

2. There are dozens of CIFF films screened each day in the Tower City Cinemas multiplex; go upstairs to the multi-level mall's second floor, and you'll find a different kind of cinematic future. "Perspectives," billed by the Cleveland International Film Festival as "An interactive/immersive exhibition/expo/experience" offers 10 virtual reality films (viewed via headset goggles and earphones, ideally in one of the room's plush egg chairs), six interactive media sites (on desktop computers), a demonstration of a new interactive virtual reality headset from, and an interactive big-screen program that lets visitors toggle around the history of the Fest. It's free with admission (visitors receive three tokens for different experiences when they enter the room), and just opened yesterday. It's running through the end of the Fest on Sunday, and I'd highly recommend making it a part of your visit: I've loved a lot of films at CIFF this year, but the "Perspectives" experience might be the most fun I've had yet.

3. I sampled two of the VR films and one of the interactive multi-media sites with my three tokens (a complete listing of available experiences can be found at the "Perspectives" link above; participants can make multiple trips to the room to sample everything, if they like). "Evolution of Verse," a four-minute VR film by Chris Milk and, transforms the imagery one might associate with a desktop screen-saver (water, sky, mountains) into something kinetic and eerie; the immersive, 360-degree space never stops moving, and as one's eye goes back and forth, a new gathering of objects (light streams, animals, an intensely creepy, Kubrickian baby) suddenly appears in one's peripheral vision. It transforms a bucolic space into something both suspenseful and cathartic.

 This play with space and suspense is even more effective in "The Visitor," a seven-minute VR movie from James Kaelan, Eve Cohen, and Blessing Yen (in collaboration with BRIGHT IDEAS and Seed&Spark), whose vertiginous play with both visuals and sound makes the style of the film its substance: a woman waits in the room for the force that she fears, but the real panic is the viewer's, as he or she constantly scans across the depth of the room to keep up with the conversation, and make sure nothing is missed. "The Visitor" takes the literal, "this-movie-is-happening-on-your-head" nature of VR technology to get at the way any good horror piece is about the symbiotic relationship between what's happening on screen, and what's happening in the viewer's mind.

"Good Luck Soup Interactive" is a companion piece to the film of the same name playing in the Fest. I have not had a chance to see the feature yet, but the interactive experience is compelling, drawing on a variety of audio recordings, still photos, newspaper stories, and film/video footage to archive the experiences of Japanese internment survivors and their families over the last 75 years. In addition to the 7 primary stories of the program, there are functions for uploading your own stories, and for sharing the program via Twitter and Facebook, in order to extend the web of remembrance. 

4. Alongside the various digital experiences is what the volunteers wittily noted was a more "analog" one: the sticky board on one wall of the room that they called "Storyboard," which let Festival-goers write down their favorite CIFF experiences. Its a nice way extending the communal spaces of the Fest (and perhaps allowing you to thank the tireless volunteers, who were extremely helpful, and even smiled in the face of two particularly passive-aggressive Boomer attendees who yelled, "This isn't a perfect experience!!" to a twenty-something man behind the VR counter. It's true, dears-- perfection will escape us as long as you two are here). But it also works as a reminder that the entire Festival is an "interactive" experience, a deft blend of the human and the cinematic into a "virtual reality" of choice, chance, movement, and revelation.