Monday, July 23, 2012

Empathy and Movies

I just returned from seeing Possession at my movie theater. It's an incredibly intense (and angry) movie that I've described as Cassevetes meets Lynch and a hyper-melodrama with supernatural elements as well as comparing it to Cronenberg's The Brood (for the anger) and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (for the dream/nightmare-like atmosphere)*. As you can imagine, Possession is very hard to describe and is vastly different than what the title suggests. Here's the trailer:

This is one of those movies that I can't say I enjoy, but I would recommend to any adventurous moviegoer. I've had a number of interesting conversations and it's the type of material that stays with you for a few days. The acting is pitched at near screeching levels and the entire world exists in a heightened reality that pushes the boundary of what the viewer expects from a night at the movie. It's these last elements that bring me to my discussion.

My theater is known for monthly kung fu features and monthly grindhouse shows. Possession was not shown under the heading of either of those yet the audience appears to have approached it this way. Much to my chagrin, many people come to those screenings looking to laugh at the movies and not enjoy them for what they are. At some point in movie history, people decided that bad movies could be fun if you watched them for the purpose of making fun of them (I would think Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the starting place, but I could be wrong). As someone who only seeks out movies that I think I might like (or seeks them out to have an educated opinion on something, say Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino), I think this concept is a waste of time. There's are literally thousands of good to great movies to still be seen. Why waste time on the shitty ones?

Alas, this is the culture in which we live. What started out as mocking obviously bad movies developed into audiences thinking that public spaces were a fine place to practice their wit (note to movie theater wise-asses: you're not funny). Sadly, even though we show many terrific grindhouse films (I'm not much into kung fu, but I'm told they're good), the reputation for these types of films precedes them. Audiences enter the theater with no intention of taking the movie seriously. Not only are they doing the filmmaker a disservice, but themselves because they are putting a wall up that prevents them from having an actual experience. They have no capacity to empathize.

Which brings me back to Possession. I'll be the first to admit that there are bizarre and funny touches, intentional and unintentional, but every seen between Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani is erupting with tension. I don't know how anyone could bring themselves to laugh while these character's lives are spiraling out of control along with their minds. Yet, the audience does, even during a scene in which Neill's character is beating Adjani's character. My mind was blown that people could find that funny**.

The great thing about Possession, though, which is unlike almost any other film, is that it punishes you for laughing. I don't mean to suggest it's doing this intentionally because I don't think the director, Andrzej Zulawski, expected people to laugh, but his film is so visceral and ratcheted up that he takes the viewer into uncomfortable territory. There are several scenes, including the beating, in which the audience initially saw humor but quickly became piped down. That was pleasing to see.

This experience made me realize that many of today's audiences come to watch movies with a chip on their shoulder. They go to movies on their terms, not the filmmaker's and the filmmakers have to work hard to get past the coating of snark and irony. It's disappointing that people can't let their guard down for new experiences and it's even more upsetting that their inability to keep it in the living room might ruin the experience for others. For many, unless there are massive explosions, the days of losing oneself in a movie are over.

*A coworker also posited that it's an alien invasion film, which is totally arguable.
**A friend suggested the laughter was nervous laughter, but much of it seemed more like belly laughs and not awkward titters to me. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Digging for Gold in Boxes of Baseball Cards

I was digging through my baseball cards the other day and it was quite an experience. There's the wave of nostalgia, the thrill of looking up how much certain cards are worth (almost uniformly "not much"), the discovery of a few golden nuggets (as much as it pains me, I have a Derek Jeter rookie card that is apparently worth $12 already), and the endless amount of entertainment that comes from goofy pictures, names, and trivial tidbits found on the cards. I wish I had the kind of time to go through all of my cards and dig out the highlights, but that is a daunting task and one that risks getting my complete sets out of order. The biggest thing I learned from the experience is that collecting baseball cards in the late '80s and early '90s was a terrible time to practice that hobby (apparently having a Pedro Martinez Upper Deck rookie card doesn't mean much, though I kind of want to pay the subscription fee for to get some real numbers). There is one thing I want to single out, though:
I don't know why all of my valuable collectibles are of people I can't stand*.

That's right, friends, an autographed Barry Bonds card. I remember going down to The Hitting Machine in Lemoyne to wait for his autograph. It may be a faulty memory, but I seem to remember there being some pretty strict and prickly rules on how to conduct your interaction with him (maybe my dad can help me remember). 

The would-be librarian in me really wants to go through and catalogue my collection in a spreadsheet citing the card maker, the card number, the player, the copyright year, and how much it's worth. That sounds like a great activity to do while sitting in front of the TV watching, say, The Andy Griffith Show (which is amazing!). 

Now, if I can hold on to these cards for just another twenty to thirty years, they should really be worth something.

*The Chipper Jones Rookie card is worth over $3.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rated "R" for Smoking

Let's not mince words: smoking is stupid. It makes people smell, gives them bad breath, stained teeth, the inability to sit still for an hour, costs a ton, not even to mention the health consequences for the smoker and those around said person. I'm of the mindset that if you are a smoker in this day and age, you have a defective mind. And no, addiction isn't an excuse.

With that viewpoint out in the open, this is even stupider than smoking. First of all, I'm highly dubious of the researcher's ability to control the experiment.
But they did zero in on movies by controlling for a wide range of extenuating factors, including race, household income, school performance, parenting styles, smoking among friends and family members, and even personality traits such as rebelliousness.
How does one even begin to control the above factors? How can the researchers trust the teenager's ability to factor out those influences? I know it's an article on and designed to get readers, but it drives me crazy when really pertinent information, such as how the study was conducted, is left out.

Secondly, the only reason I ever tried smoking was because of my friends and my friends only. I know it wasn't from my dad because I always tried to stick my head discreetly out the window to the fresh air when he smoked in the care (he has since quit). While there may be some who try smoking because they see a celebrity smoke, they will continue to smoke because their peers and/or parents do the same (most likely peers). After all, how will underage kids get cigarettes if they can't legally purchase them? Perhaps through some older friends or sharing or stealing from their parents? Seems reasonable.

But what really makes this article stupid is suggesting that we rate movies "R" because people are smoking*. Should we retroactively make Casablanca "R" or Ghostbusters, which has almost non-stop smoking? It's ludicrous. As a kid, I never even noticed people smoking (seriously, go back and watch Ghostbusters. It's crazy how often people light up). It's ridiculous to think that some day under the reasons for the rating it will say "extreme gore and violence, nudity, sex, smoking." Are we going to start having kids walk around with blinders on just in case someone is lurking on the sidewalk smoking? Maybe we shouldn't even let kids outside anymore. Of course, what kids have trouble seeing "R"-rated movies these days? 

Perhaps the most shortsighted aspect of this whole thing is that by making smoking a forbidden topic, it's making it that much more enticing. "Smoking is so adult, I'm not even allowed to see it!" "If I smoke, I'll be just like the grown-ups!"

The best part is that the article contradicts itself. In one instance, we're told:
Kids under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to images of high-wattage stars smoking cigarettes on the big screen, partly because adolescents, similar to very young children, are prone to mimic behaviors they see others trying, Sargent says.
While just three paragraphs later, we get:
A second study in the same issue of Pediatrics reached a similar conclusion. That study, which looked at 8- to 10-year-old children in the Netherlands and was also coauthored by Sargent, found that 20-minute clips from a cartoon and family film depicting smoking had no measurable impact on the kids' beliefs about smoking. 
Compare your high school experience to when you were 8-10. I'd imagine there was a lot more pressure to try to be cool and I'd also bet a lot of the "cool" kids smoked. You know what? That's crazy. It wasn't other kids. It was movies that pressured everyone to try smoking. The movies are the bullies. Boycott the movies!

*I'm going to avoid the discussion of how pointless the rating system is because it's infuriating to think about.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Peanuts Death Trip of 2012

Loyal readers may recall that while I was home for Christmas this past year, I spent hours digging through all of my junk to prioritize what I wanted to keep, throw out, and donate. It turns out that Andrea and I were able to buy a house before July even with the new baby in tow, but my parents would not be driving my stuff to me. Since they are incredible people (and probably just as excited to get the stuff out of the house I was to get it), they shipped the boxes to me, labeled "A" to "AA" (that's right, the number of boxes went past "Z." If only the letter "peeb" was officially recognized [see image below for example], then they could have stayed in the alphabet proper).
Special thanks to Rob Ribera for the image!
It's taken a few weeks, but the house is finally in a state where I feel comfortable introducing new clutter (I swear, there will be pictures coming!) to the space. I'd already dug out all of my books because the first priority in any home is displaying everything that shows what great taste you have (so books, movies, and records and to do this, I had to build shelves). The excitement of rediscovery was amazing. Baseball cards! NES and all of my games! Old stuffed animals! Nearly everything made the cross-country journey without incident. Except...

My mom is big on gifting collectibles. I have a ton of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein figures from Sideshow Toys (still in the box!), loads of Simpsons miscellany, and almost as much Peanuts-related paraphernalia. Well, formerly almost as much. Like I said, not much broke on the trip, but if something did break, it was Peanuts. The first thing I noticed was Franklin's head rolling around at the top of a box. I knew this to belonged to the "Heroes" scene (which can be seen here. I have no idea if the seller will get the asking price.) Upon further exploration of the box, which also featured a tiny broken Linus snow globe (there were sparkles everywhere!), I found, wrapped in newspaper, the shattered remains of the rest of the gang.
Even in death, the celebrate.
In another box, I found a picture frame that featured figures Charlie Brown and Snoopy on either side, except only their feet were still attached. Of course, all of the broken stuff was glass or ceramic and probably got knocked around a bit even with the careful packing (though why none of my other glass possessions broke is anyone's guess). I held out hope for my foot tall sculpture of Charlie Brown pitching. My dad has a similar sculpture in his home of Linus waiting in a pumpkin patch for, who else, The Great Pumpkin. These sculptures are large and heavy and seemingly sturdy. Sadly, even though he was packed amongst stuffed animals, Charlie Brown didn't make it unscathed:
Charlie is doing his best Jim Abbott.
All the rest went into the trash, but I think I can mostly salvage the big sculpture. Given that I'm immensely attached to stuff, I'm pretty broken up about this (see what I did there?), but I guess it's more space for some other trinkets.

And that, friends, is the story of the Peanuts Death Trip of 2012.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Innocent Walk Nearly Turns to Cat Murder

I almost killed the cat today and would have, without remorse, if not for the inevitable glares of disapproval and Andrea's likely emotional wreckage. I present to you a completely biased tale after which you can decide if my emotions were just.

There are few perfect moments during my day that allow an activity other than holding, changing, or feeding Oliver. Generally, those occasions are used to address my needs, such as eating and pooping* (probably too much info, but this is destroying my poop schedule). However, at around 10 AM, one of those moments arose. Swiftly, I took action. We're going on a walk! Ollie, myself, and Shasta** (who was outside at the time).

I went to the garage to put Ollie in the stroller and hit the garage door button and up it went (as it does) and in came Roxy, the cat that almost died. She scurried past as I was strapping Ollie into the stroller. My instinct were right: no signs of a struggle or fussing. I got his "Wubbanub" from the car (a pacifier with a stuffed elephant attached), for added peace security and grabbed the portable garage door device I keep with my bike. All this time, Roxy is inspecting the newly installed cat door that goes into the house. Standing just outside of the garage, I hit the appropriate button and Roxy bolts, spooked by the sound (which is ridiculous because the who mechanism is surprisingly quiet). In no time she is standing outside with myself, the boy, and Shasta. This is a problem because she will follow us on the entire walk. Not only would this limit where we could go (no crossing the busy street), but she has been known to take detours into unknown territory and lose site of the walkers leading to a game of Hide and Seek I wasn't prepared to play with a ticking time-bomb of tears and wailing in the stroller.

Collecting her was easier than expected and I raised the garage door about three feet, tossed her inside, and closed it right away only to have her scamper out Indiana Jones-style (though she lost her hat). This annoyed me because now she knew my intentions and planned on making catching her far more difficult. I went after her, Shasta in tow, but Ollie in the driveway, but she kept running away. I figured that if I scared her away far enough, she might now follow. But she did. I was going to have to catch her.

Fortunately, she became bold when she thought she was going on a walk with us and she passed right by me. Moving faster than than Roxy ever dreamed possible, I swooped down and grabbed her. My only option was to put her in the house through the front door which was locked. With Shasta's leash in one hand, Roxy in the other, and the boy in his stroller on the sidewalk, I tried to make my way back to the house and get my keys from my pocket. Simultaneously, Shasta and Roxy rebelled. Shasta didn't want to return to the house and planted, an action the led to her collar pulling off over her head. Roxy did he version of the death roll that alligators are so famous for and squirmed her way out of my grasp. Now both of my pets were loose.

At least dogs listen. Wrangling Roxy was even worse. Not only had I tried to get her inside, but I'd added stress to her life. She wasn't about to trust me. I put Shasta's leash on the around the fence and followed Roxy into the neighbors yard while in the back of my mind I pictured someone sneaking up and taking off with Ollie (who I moved from the sidewalk back to the driveway). For some reason, Roxy though she could hide beside a bush and not INside and once again, with ungodly speed, I caught her. Two hands wrapped around Roxy. No amount of struggling or clawing would keep me from getting her in the house. Or so I thought.

Turns out, cats are insane. She didn't swipe at me much, but her freakout was enough that I couldn't get my keys from my pockets and unlock the door without dropping her. In an instant, though, I had her pinned to the ground... You know how in horror movies when people can't seem to remember how to use keys during times of great stress? How absurd it all seems? Well, it's true. For the life of me, I could not contend with opening a door and holding a pissed off cat down at the same time. I can only hope no one walked by or was watching from their window to see this bizarre seen unfolding.

At last, success! I literally bowled Roxy across the floor as far from the door as possible so she had no chance of getting back out. By this point, I was hot, sweaty, and pissed. It was ten minutes from when I put Ollie in the stroller and wouldn't you know it, three houses into the walk and he starts to cry. I try to power through it, but no Wubbanub would sate him. Shasta stopped for what I assumed was to sniff some garbage and I pulled her past leaving her no recourse but to walk and poop (sorry Shasta!) and for the first time since I was about 13, I didn't clean up the dog poop because Ollie was in tantrum mode. Instead, I picked him up and walked him back to the house, all the while thinking about how I want to kill Roxy for ruining my perfect moment.

We returned home and I wanted Roxy OUT of the house. I didn't want to see her because who knows what I'd do if I did. She was understandably freaked out and propped the door open so he exit would be as simple as possible. But instead of heading out the door, she retreated into the house. This action infuriated me and no amount of herding led her to the door. In fact, she hid amongst our mixing bowls in a cupboard to foolishly made too much noise. She ran to Ollie's room and I followed her in and shut the door. Trapped. She tried hiding behind the Pack 'n' Play, but I moved it. She tried leaping past me, but the door was shut. I grabbed her, squeezed her hard (seriously, I can't believe he ribs are intact after all the struggling) and I threw her into the yard (again, hope the neighbors weren't watching this crazy new guy toss his cat).

Roxy didn't come inside the rest of the day until Andrea and I returned from her parents', but I saw her around the yard, so I knew she didn't run away. After all of that, the first thing she did when we both got inside was sit on my lap. There's literally nothing I can do to make her leave me alone. I hate cats.

*Interestingly, the very same needs Ollie needs me to address. So basically my day consists of finding a way to put food in one end and dealing with it coming out the other.
** I can't stress enough how badly I feel about the lack of walks Shasta gets to go on these days. She was used to one a day at the old place. Now she's lucky for two a week.