Saturday, December 12, 2009

Portland Drivers in the Snow

I love Portland. I really do. But something was brought to my attention last night that I have to share. Having lived in Boston the past two years and in Pennsylvania my entire life before, I've weathered my fair share of winter storms. I was in PA for three of the five storms listed here. The winter before I left for Boston, Harrisburg didn't have enough money to do a quality job of clearing the streets, so they became sheets of ice (it didn't help that we mostly got ice fall instead of snow).

I'm not trying to start a pissing contest of "our weather is worse than yours," but after seeing the videos below, I couldn't help but laugh at the people who aren't used to this stuff. In Portland's defense, the city isn't built to handle much snow at all (one of the reasons I wanted to come here was to get away from the snow). This post is really for my East Coast friends, or anyone who comes from an area that gets a fair amount of snowy weather.

I know not all Portland drivers are like this and that people do stupid stuff like this all over the place. It's just way funny this way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Code of the West

The recent High Noon discussion at Sunday Screenings (I’m such a whore) reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Until the summer of 2008, I had very little use for the Western film genre. I’d seen a few Westerns that I enjoyed, but that was it. The old, classic John Ford/John Wayne films held little interest to me. Part of this is because I really don’t care for John Wayne as an actor (and less as a person the more I find out about him). Even when I as in Boston University’s Film Studies program, I was reluctant to embrace the genre, and that’s a time that I should have been the most open to new film experiences. After all, the Western was integral in the establishment of genre theory.

Anyway, on a long flight back from Australia in the aforementioned summer ‘08, I decided not to waste time sleeping and spend as many or the thirteen or so hours watching movies from their considerable selection. One of these films was Howard Hawks’ (and Arthur Rosson) Red River, which aside from the “Yee-Haw” scene referenced in City Slickers, I knew little about. However, with it starring John Wayne, I had low expectations. How wrong I was! It was the first time I’d ever been impressed by Wayne (John Ford famously stated, “I never knew the big son-of-a-bitch could act!”). Thus began an effort to catch up on many of the classic Westerns I’d missed out in. Helping things was getting the teacher’s assistant position for the John Ford/Sam Peckinpah class.

During the catching up effort, I started to notice something particularly peculiar about the way the old West operated (or at least the way it operated in film). Insulting a man’s honor is strictly verboten, but it’s ok for you and four of your buddies to beat the crap out of that same guy, whether he can defend himself or not. You can never shoot someone in the back, but can certainly sneak up on him, and once again, beat him to a pulp. There is no “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” mentality. If you get arrest a man for killing four innocent people and send him to get hanged, the criminal’s brother has every justification to seek vengeance on you for doing your job. Townsfolk are outspoken, yet spineless and ultimately content with whoever is in charge, as long as it’s not them. At least, for the most part (High Noon excluded), you know who your friends are and they’ll stick by you until the end.

There’s a ton of conflicting ideals in Western, and I think the reason I didn’t take to them a few years ago is because I was watching them in the wrong way. It’s the irrationality of the West as it’s depicted that makes the Western so interesting. The plots are all pretty similar, so you really have to dive into the nuances and the complex motives of each film. Issues of pride, honor, duty, and loyalty are constantly being addressed and challenged in very interesting ways. If you are like I once was, I highly encourage you to give the Western a second chance. My recommendation is to start with John Ford then move to Peckinpah, or Sergio Leone, who may be may favorite Western director.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Still Debasin', 20 Years Later

There are some concerts that you come back from feeling you've experienced something particularly unique and special. Seeing the Pixies last month at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom during their 20-year anniversary tour celebrating Doolittle, their second (and best) album, was one such concert for me. In the tradition of self-indulgence Nate alluded to in an earlier post, I'll narrate my experience of it below.

The night started when I took off work early and waited in line for about two hours—totally worth it, as I made it to the front row. The opening band, Black Gold, had a lot of energy but unfortunately played songs that all sounded extremely derivative, which is slightly ironic considering the band they were opening for is known especially for their originality. When Black Gold's lead singer, about twenty minutes into the half-hour set, announced, "We've got a couple more songs for you," a number of people to the left of me were very audibly dismayed with this news. He fittingly responded, "Fuck you, you fucking hecklers!", then hastily added, "I'm just fucking with you." Gotta love audience-band tension.

When it was time for the Pixies to take the stage, a huge screen behind the stage started playing a seven-minute montage of scenes from the 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou, the topic of the first song off Doolittle, "Debaser". Scenes of breast-fondling and bovine eye-slicing set to some creepy ambient music put everyone in the right mood. The Pixies appeared as soon as the film ended, and the roar from the crowd, which had already been pretty loud from all the anticipatory yelling, got really deafening. They first played some B-sides, then dove into Doolittle and played the entire album straight through. Here's a video of them performing "Debaser" that night (note the gaggle of photographers in front of the stage):

Besides some minor vocal variations, the performed songs sounded exactly as they do on the album. Kim Deal provided some brief, amusing banter in between songs (like announcing at what point in the set the songs would have reached the end of Side 1 on the vinyl record), but the band was pretty focused on just playing the songs, which suited everyone just fine.  The performance put on by Deal, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering was flawless and intense from start to finish. They came back on for two encores, during which the fog machine produced so much fog that, at one point, I could barely see the hands in front of me for several minutes.

Also, that screen behind them displayed some of the most bizarre and disturbing imagery I've seen at a concert. At times, it was a bit distracting, since the images were often interesting enough to simply watch by themselves. Regardless, it was an added bonus for an audience that probably would have been thrilled if the Pixies had come on stage and just talked about tax returns for 90 minutes.

And I think that's the main reason why the concert was such a great experience: the reaction from the fans, both young and old(er), was so ecstatic and personal. Granted, I can't say I've been at a concert where everybody was booing; the audience members were there because they wanted to be there, after all. But because the Pixies are alternative-rock legends, coupled with the fact that they put on such a thrilling show playing such good songs, the night had a distinctive feel to it. There was an almost surreal feeling of connectedness with the band, like no time had passed since the late 1980s and now (not that as a child I had any idea who they were back then, of course). Hard to put it into words, but maybe others have felt this with established bands they really like.

Speaking of which—when/where/what was the best (or one of the best) concert(s) you've been to? I'd love to hear other's experiences.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Top Film for Each Year of My Life – 2002

About A Boy

“No. No, you're not a bad mother. You're just a barking lunatic.”

2002 was a weird year for movies for me. Not since my ’88 entry have a felt less attached to my number one movie for the year. As I look over the rest of my top ten, I really don’t see any options I’d be happier about. Certainly, Punch-Drunk Love is great and Das Experiment is insane in all the best ways, but I’ve never felt compelled to watch them repeatedly. Even the great Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, has the feeling that I already know as much as possible about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so I don’t need to revisit it much. That leaves me with About a Boy, which is an immensely enjoyable film.

Largely, I’m not a fan of Hugh Grant. It’s not that I don’t like him or his performances; I just don’t think he chooses particularly interesting roles. However, he plays slightly off-type, here, and it’s particularly refreshing. He’s smug and shallow and a delight to watch. He’s the buddy/romantic comedy (because it really is both of those genres) equivalent of an antihero. For many people, I’m sure this is how they thought Grant was in real life.

Here, I must confess to being a Nick Hornby enthusiast. I’ve read nearly all of his books and, with one exception, loved them all. The man knows how to write. With strong source material, it would have been difficult to screw up an adaptation. What’s remarkable is that many believe the Weitz’ brothers (one of whom, Chris, directed the most recent Twilight film) surpassed the source material. I’m not so sure about that, but it definitely doesn’t feel as dated as elements of the novel.

Much like High Fidelity, the film rises above its genre and actually has something to say about life. Both films use some form of narration, which I typically dislike, but it fits right in with Hornby’s writing style. Especially since so many of Hornby’s best passages are inner monologues and would feel forced trying to turn them into dialogue.

I’d say my only issue with About a Boy is that it goes the heavily trafficked route of having a performance as the grand finale for which Grant has to run out on stage to help save the night. It mostly works in the film, but I’m sick and tired of movies with set pieces like these (perhaps there will be a blog about it one day). Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as grating as the similar scene in Little Miss Sunshine.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy. His voice perfectly compliments the tone of the film. (Oddly, whenever I think of Nick Hornby and music, I always think of Danny Boyle and music).

Unfortunately, 2002 wasn’t a scintillating film year, though I’ve yet to see Sex y Lucia and Y Tu Mama Tambien, which could challenge the top spot. Until then, no one ever said the best movie of the year couldn’t simply be the most enjoyable.