“88. Recite affirmations in front of a mirror each morning. A few possibilities: ‘I am a honed killing machine.’ ‘My street fighting ability is feared by all.’ ‘My adult son respects me.'”
“[Einstein] is not known for being particularly dense.”
I get pretty excited when someone whose creative work I have long admired puts out a nice long essay, these days, because I am—and I cannot emphasize this enough—forty. Jeremy Penner, who has been the kind of historian who actively makes more history ever since I came to know him, dropped a bombshell of such an essay into my Old Reader just this week.
“Quite frankly, nobody who wasn’t an absolute fanatical follower of webcomics discourse 20 years ago has any idea what the fuck this means.”
But I am just such a one, and this filled some gaps in my understanding of the little sphere wherein I came of age. I value this kind of clear and well-founded writing so much. It’s the counterpoint to the Wesley Aptekar-Cassels quote I posted earlier today: archives may succumb, but archivists keep fighting.
In 2022 I want to work on that, and I want to finally kick off a project I’ve been threatening to undertake for years. Ready for my new blog’s inaugural 3300-word multimedia essay about Steven Soderbergh?
But two decades ago I used to host a little mini-site here for my college band with Jon, Ken and Darren. We called ourselves Short Story.
As I start to draft this post, I am basking in the confirmation bias that informs me that I am in fact good and smart for having watched almost none of the movies that were nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, because obviously what do they know. (Green Book was not one of the movies I saw.) I did see Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse, like all right-thinking humans, and I already knew they were wonderful! Who needs the Academy! Get outta here!
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): In January I watched The Bad Sleep Well because of a brief Every Frame a Painting essay about one shot in it, and then shortly thereafter I went and got this from Movie Madness because that essay has a quick bit about it in the intro, and now I want to see everything Alexander Mackendrick ever made.
This is not a movie about good people, and is honest about the way selfish men treat women; I say that as context for this clip from early in the first act, as the protagonist is starting to reveal the nature of his character. It’s one of those little scenes—almost all in a single unassuming shot—where you can turn the dialogue off and still read all the emotional beats, but it’s also visually interesting in a way that I am learning to parse out. The whole thing is an exposition dump, but my eyes never get bored! The camera’s point of focus, the actors’ blocking and business, the swing back and forth in composition between crowd scene and private scene as Sidney’s attention wavers and resolves, and the parallax and bokeh happening along the longest axis of the room—all of that works together to make it fluid, interesting and alive, even if you never notice any given element.
The story is great too, contained within a very specific situation and time that are well-explained even fifty years later, and the love I have borne for Tony Curtis ever since Some Like It Hot is rekindled. There’s a whole chapter in Mackendrick’s book On Film-Making where he just breaks down how the script for one particular scene changed between two writers, and it’s illuminating.
- Better Off Dead… (1985): Watched on a date to help fill out my Cusack filmography. Not a classic. It might have been if it were a little more self-aware: it’s sort of a refined concentrate of all the ingredients in a “throw it at the wall and see” 1980s mid-budget comedy. I did like the part where the demonic newspaper boy does a chase scene on a BMX fitted with skis, which… you see what I mean about the concentrate.
- Mission: Impossible::Fallout: (2018): My brother has never forgiven this franchise for its first outing, but I have in time come to like them. This one is very capable and polished, but it’s also the first one in the series written/directed by someone who has directed one before, and it suffers for that! I have some cockamamie theories about the elements of creative works that drive them to popularity in fanfiction, but one of them is that a given book or movie, to get people really invested, has to leave gaps. People love to fill those in, and reveal exciting new connective tissue between disparate points. Sometimes that impulse is fine. Other times, it leads to internet articles about “fan theories,” which is not fine. But worst of all is when it leads a creator to perform… SELF-FANFIC. This is not quite the same thing as self-insert fanfic, and in fact might be worse. Get outta here, self-fanfic! Anyway, that’s what this movie is too, but the part where Henry Cavill cocks his fists is good.
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001): This movie made by Joel and Ethan Coen in the style of a noir from the 50s is a lot like a noir from the 50s made in the style of Ethan and Joel Coen. I found it really interesting to watch so soon after The Sweet Smell of Success, which is about a driven fast-talker on the make and has its own propulsive forward energy, contained in a single long night. This movie is about a man who is impassive and silent to a tragic fault, and it seems to stretch out over about a year. But they share the same fundamental law: thou shalt not try to step outside one’s station, even one freaking time. This also earned a rare exemption from my own fundamental law (“thou shalt not use voiceover narration”).
- Dogtooth (2009): Hoo boy. I saw The Lobster a couple of years ago and so had some hint of what I was in for, but the darkness of The Lobster is often funny, and gains some aesthetic distance from its magical-realist setting. No one seems to be able to agree about whether Dogtooth is a black comedy or a drama, but I didn’t laugh at it, and despite the absurdist false-vocabulary central device, it felt very close to real stories of captivity and abuse. All the long takes achieve the tension they aim for, and some are even beautiful, but the camera still feels like a blunt instrument.
The Parallax View (1974): I rented this movie because I vaguely thought it was a Cold War spy-chess-game thing. I don’t know what I was thinking of, because this is actually a meandering, paranoiac conspiracy thriller with a Sprockets video in the middle. I didn’t like it.
The most interesting part is how it attempts to evoke generational fears that are different from my own. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that, by my count, every living political candidate in the United States gets murdered by lone gunmen in this movie. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any well-drawn villains with comprehensible motivations behind that.) Meanwhile, in a scene that stunned me, Warren Beatty walks directly onto a tarmac from his parked car, gets on a plane, and then buys his ticket from a flight attendant while already airborne. And it’s not like the threat of hijacking didn’t exist already! The plane gets grounded by a bomb threat! But the configuration of our panic buttons has changed.
- The Emperor’s New Groove (2000): Rewatch. Reading a little about the background of the movie made me want very much to watch The Sweatbox, and learning that its in-flight course change was “hey what if we just made a Chuck Jones cartoon?” repositioned it in my estimation. It’s still a middling to fine movie with bright spots (Eartha Kitt), but it’s also the only time we will ever what the see 90s Disney animation corps makes of a feature-length Looney Tune! I’m glad it exists for that reason.
- How to Train Your Dragon (2010):
And with that, I will temporarily leave you, because I need to post this already and I watched FIFTEEN MOVIES in February. That trend will not continue, but now I do want to see if I can get through a hundred this year. I will write about the other seven later on, but for now… “get outta here!!” ;D
Hey, I finally discovered that back in May I placed in the 2018 Lyttle Lytton contest! Specifically I placed with an entry in the Found division—just scroll down to where my name is spelled wrong. I am proud even though it’s not like I wrote anything for it. But the reason the biggest category on this old blog is called “connections” is that I still delight in plugging one thing (a bad sentence I read) into another thing (a web site I love).
And there are a lot of connections that really worked for me in this year’s list! It’s good company to be in. Not only did another Found winner pull an egregious bit from my most hated episode of one of my all-time favorite shows, but there’s an entry under the Perennials that recalls my first entry. There are bullet journal and Engagement Chicken jokes too (hi Kat). But the thing that really rang my bell was seeing a semi-vanished webcomic writer—someone I still admire—pop in with a brilliant entry, and Adam Cadre give her a wink and a nod. I don’t chase the Internet as hard as I used to, but I’m glad the cool-kid serendipity of a decade ago isn’t all gone.