When I was at Cal taking film classes, I had it drilled into me that there
is no replacement for seeing a movie in a real theater. Since the primary
alternative at the time was VHS, I was inclined to agree. So after I graduated
I went to movie theaters reasonably often and caught a fair number of the
well-reviewed arthouse flicks of the 1990s. I actually saw some really obscure
stuff when I moved back to Orange County for a while, since movies that played
only in New York and LA also tended to play Costa Mesa for some reason. But
since then I've pretty much given up on theaters. The rise of digital home
video coincided with my moves to places where the art theaters were inconvenient
to get to (in Washington getting to them meant dealing with Seattle traffic; in
New York it meant a long walk to the subway and the horrors that lurked therein).
By the time I got to Massachusetts, I'd been broken of the theatergoing habit,
and some bad experiences put me off theaters entirely.
So it wasn't until Jen wanted to go see Howl's Moving Castle that I got
to see what Northampton had to offer in the way of cinemathèques.
We went to the Pleasant Street Theater. This proved something of a misnomer,
as the theater was unpleasant and under the street. It was a long chute made
of bricks painted black, extending away at an oblique angle from a small screen.
There was also no air conditioning, and while the heat wasn't a problem
underground, it was pretty dank. The angle of the floor, or lack thereof,
gave patrons an excellent view of the backs of other patrons' heads. Now, to
be fair, presumably the theater above was nicer, and the managers of the
Pleasant Street Theater would probably argue that they were doing the public
a service by building their little cinematic bomb shelter because otherwise
the film showing therein would be gone from western Massachusetts entirely.
But these days that just means waiting an extra six weeks for the DVD. It
seems to me that now that most movies are viewed at home or in the back seats
of vans, if a theater wants to justify a ticket price that costs more than a
rental, it needs to offer a better experience than one can get at home: a huge
screen, no ads, unobstructed sightlines, correct projection, comfortable seats,
and an understanding that it is entirely unacceptable to converse about the film
or talk on the telephone while the movie is showing.
As for Howl's — not bad. The niftiest bit was the castle itself,
which reflected the heroes' fortunes, from a ramshackle monstrosity to a handsome
flying village to a plank on a pair of wheels. There is also an appealing scarecrow
character. Even when times get tough, he remains pretty sanguine about things.
Once again, I was impressed with just how much story these cartoons give you for your
money. There's one character who initially seems like the main villain, and so I
expected that her defeat would be quickly followed by the credits. Instead the story
takes on such epic proportions that when she's dispatched it's almost a footnote.
On the Netflix front, Jen received A Shock to the System, which I
watched and found pretty weak. It is like the quickly-canceled 1996 TV series
Profit, except whereas Profit was atmospheric and featured an
interestingly twisted protagonist who returned to his luxurious home from a
full day of corporate skullduggery and curled up to sleep in a cardboard box,
A Shock to the System is very 1980s and features an oaf. I don't know
what it is, but when the Michael Caine character showed up to his white-collar
workplace, I found it difficult to take him seriously unless he was there to
move the furniture.
Jen also got A Mighty Wind, which mercifully ran into a technical
glitch and stopped playing after half an hour. Let me put it this way. In
Ready, Okay! there is a bit in which Allen is at an Easter party
eavesdropping on conversations and finds that they're all pretty inane. At
one point he hears someone say, "So, Frank, I hear you're thinkin' about gettin'
yourself a boat." In A Mighty Wind, an entire scene would have been
built around that line. Utterly typical is a scene in which one of the Folksmen
runs into the others at a get-together and says something like, "Hey, didn't I
use to play with your kids back in the day?" You know, the sort of banter that
people regularly engage in — it's not actually funny, but it shows that
you're jovial or whatever. But here's the thing. The filmmakers seem to think
that the fact that people are engaging in unfunny banter is itself funny.
And they're wrong. It wasn't funny in Waiting for Guffman (another one
I was relieved to be released from early), it wasn't funny in Best of Show,
and it's not funny here. There is a bit in This Is Spinal Tap in which
the band is playing a military base and one of the officers is showing them around;
at one point he notes that he's let his hair grow a bit longer than is usual in the
military: "I'm getting a little shaggy myself. I'd better not stand too close to
you, people might think I'm part of the band. I'm joking, of course." Again, the
comedy is supposed to derive from the fact that his banter is falling flat.
Apparently Christopher Guest thought this was the funniest moment in the movie
because it seems as though he's made a career out of filming it again and
It's not all about the ostensible hilarity of inane chatter and awkward moments,
though. It's also a freak show. Come laugh at the big cast of weirdos! Now,
I've read debates about whether the laughter is supposed to be malicious or
affectionate, but that's beside the point. I'm just saying that there are many
other types of humor aside from "ha ha, isn't this guy weird? and her!
isn't she weird?" and most of them are superior. It's not a very rich
vein of comedy that Guest and company have staked out for themselves. My memory
tells me that This Is Spinal Tap was a funny movie; A Mighty Wind
made me start to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks on me.
Which brings us to The Aviator.
The Aviator is a biopic about Howard Hughes. The first part of the film
is about the making of Hell's Angels, Hughes's legendarily expensive 1930
war film. We see Hughes launch his fleet of biplanes and lean out of a plane with
camera in hand, nothing between him and the ground thousands of feet below, and
it's impressive and scary... but it also suggests that this is going to be a movie
about the movies, a masturbatory exercise at the best of times. I remembered that
at the end of his life Howard Hughes supposedly watched Ice Station Zebra
obsessively, and I recalled that Aviator director Martin Scorsese is known
for keeping a continuous film loop going in his living room — was that
the connection that drew him to this subject? It seemed so, as the first half of
The Aviator revolves around Hollywood and Hughes's dalliances with various
actresses. Look, here are modern stars playing old ones! Gwen Stefani as Jean
Harlow! Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn! It was starting to look more like a
parlor game than a story.
Fortunately, the second half of the movie is significantly stronger than the
first, focusing on the onset of Hughes's famous mental illness and his struggle
to overcome it at least long enough to stave off an effort by Pan Am and the
legislators in its pocket to establish a monopoly on transatlantic travel.
The scenes of Hughes at the congressional hearings are riveting and all by
themselves made me feel that the time I'd invested in the movie had been well spent.
Hughes's deterioration from eccentricity into actual madness is also interesting.
The movie stops in the late 1940s, before he started wearing Kleenex boxes as
shoes and breaking off hypodermic needles in his arms and stuff, but I guess
they had to save something for the sequel.
Howard Hughes was one of the first people I knew to be famous when I was a
little kid. (As I recall, my understanding was that the two most famous
people in the history of the world were Neil Armstrong and Alexander the Great.)
Hughes, I gathered, was the richest man who had ever lived. I guess in retrospect
that was the middle phase of his celebrity: first he was the famous filmmaker,
aviator and playboy; then he was the reclusive "richest man in the world"; and
now even people who know nothing else about him, neither his accomplishments
nor his bank balance, know him as the freakish germophobe who inspired an
episode of "The Simpsons." Michael Jackson has followed a similar arc in
his perception by the public: musician, ultra-rich eccentric, freak.
The editorial cartoons that followed Jackson's acquittal were mostly the same:
a jury box with the foreperson declaring, "We, the jury, find Michael Jackson
guilty of being really weird!" Tom Cruise has also been rapped for aberrant
behavior, be it chastising Brooke Shields or jumping on Oprah's couch. They
say that at the onset of adolescence, kids become obsessed with the question,
"Am I normal?" I guess that means that culturally we're around twelve. It
also means that, like a twelve-year-old, we have the mistaken impression that
there is some standard of "normality" to which everyone adheres except for a
few freaks and that we're terrified of being one of the few.
But Jackson and Cruise and all the other weirdos are not really all that
unusual. I mean, jumping on a couch? Most people do something stranger
than that every day. They just don't do it on television... because they
don't get to be on television. Even Jackson isn't as uniquely bizarre as
the media chorus would have us believe. It's just that, having had access
to the kind of financial resources that Howard Hughes and very few other
people have had access to, he's been able to indulge his whims more than
most people get a chance to. So, what, he had a chimp? People keep all
sorts of animals in their houses. There was a woman in the news recently
who had 488 cats, most of them dead. There was a guy on "This American
Life" who cloned himself a pet bull and continued to keep it even after it
gored him multiple times. He's had too much plastic surgery? So has my
mother. Hell, try to find someone between 20 and 35 who hasn't done something
grotesque to herself, be it plastic surgery or ramming metal spikes through
her body or injecting her dermis with rust and copper phthalocyanine. Ah,
but what about the sleepovers with the little boys? Flip through the papers
sometime and count up all the ministers and coaches and politicians who get
caught diddling children. It isn't right — but it's far, far from
Just about everyone has some quirk that would get him branded with a scarlet
A for Abnormal if anyone cared enough to pay attention. Phobias, compulsions,
eating disorders, you name it. I have more than a few of my own, ranging from
the serious (a fight-or-flight response to the smell of alcohol) to the whimsical
(a weird feeling every time I pour out a glass of water left on a counter that
I've thrown away someone's contact lenses). And that's not even counting the
things that are considered normal but actually are pretty fucking strange.
Hundreds of millions of people wear jewelry depicting an instrument of torture
(often complete with tortured human figure upon it). Hundreds of millions more
mutter to themselves and think that invisible, all-powerful creatures are
listening. Billions wear clothing even when it's broiling hot outside because
of a little voice telling them that certain parts of their bodies are obscene.
And I'm supposed to think that Howard Hughes storing his urine in milk jars is
somehow beyond the pale?
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