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Mandy, or Nostalgia as Cinematic Language

It's getting to be list season very soon, and while there are a bunch of movies that are in the running for my big gold belt that I have not seen yet (I'm looking at you, The Night Comes for Us), I sincerely doubt anything will knock Mandy from the throne. It's no secret that I am in the tank for this movie (wrote a glowing review of it and everything). After watching the equally mind-melting Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2011, I was excited to see what writer/director Panos Cosmatos had lined up next. My patience was rewarded with what is not only my favourite movie of the year thus far, but a surefire first-ballot entry into the Head Film Hall of Fame. There's rad bugfuck details stacked floor to ceiling, but it's also a film of cosmic sadness and great warmth (Nicolas Cage gets to be wild and tender in this).

And it looks fantastic. Cosmatos and director of photography Benjamin Loeb (Hello Destroyer, King Cobra) saturate the frame with bold colours, evocative lighting, and glorious phantasmagorical excess. The always-perceptive Evan Puschak over at The Nerdwriter released a video last week diving into the film's style by examining its use of grain as an aesthetic signifier. What has come to be an analogue fetish object in a digital age, Puschak explains, is delpoyed by Cosmatos as a tool rather than as a reference. Even though Cosmatos' pool of images is easy to parse (70s/80s Euro-trash, sci-fi paperbacks, prog rock album covers, back issues of Heavy Metal), the way he creates his visual tableux are unbound in time and inextricable from the story. “Style over substance” doesn't hold water as an argument when the two are so deeply intertwined.

I can't wait for number three.

(via The Nerdwriter)

#movies #youtube

I found a couple of orphaned capsule reviews in the Dim the House Lights archives and decided to put them here.

The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961) What you first notice is Jerry Lewis' eye. He has a gift for cock-eyed mise-en-scene, staging and blocking that feels familiar and yet is somehow... off. The second thing you notice is his pronounced goofiness, the yelling, the fodder for cheap jokes and bad impressions. Sure, this is silly as hell, but not really the work of a master. But then you get to the scene in the elevator, a comedy high-wire act, the tension and claustrophobia contorting Lewis' face as his character Morty Tashman tries to keep this whole interaction as close to a normal as he can. Then you get to the boardroom orchestra scene, as simple and as elegant a formalist gag as they come, and you realize that yes, you are indeed in the hands of a virtuoso for whom the gag is king, yes, but the craft is the crown. But the best gag is the throughline: this is literally a movie about Jerry Lewis wreaking havoc on the Hollywood machine from the inside. Self-aggrandizing, sure, but also self-deprecating: only in a system this ill-calibrated can a clown like him become a cultural force, a fitting mantle for auteurism's holy fool.

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961) Jerry Lewis' other 1961 film has a set-up not wholly dissimilar to that of a second-tier porno: a jilted college grad (Lewis) becomes celibate and gets a job at a handyman at women's boardinghouse, where he is at the beck and call of dozens of sexy ladies. The story is by far the flimsiest aspect of the film, playing second-fiddle to the real stars of the show: sumptuous colours, opulent dollhouse-like sets, and brilliant choreography. Lewis the director is in top form, trading in the claustrophobia of The Errand Boy for lush, lilting movements that tinge his work with the surreal. There are the usual Lewis shenanigans on display: mispronunciations, mugging, chaos on a set. The gags land and fall flat in roughly equal amount, but they are all executed with equal brio. After all, Lewis is not one to half-ass things. Case in point: the magnificent dance sequence he shares with dancer Sylvia Lewis (no relation), who is introduced suspended from the ceiling from a black cotton cocoon. The pair then engage in a chase/dance while Harry James and his band kind of just appear from behind a wall, decked out in white like big band angels, and just start to wail. A jewel of a film.

#movies

Zach Gage is one of my favourite game designers currently working. Calling him just a game designer feels reductive; his own chosen title of “conceptual artist” is closer to the mark. But while he's not creating a clock that plays a Super Mario Bros. speedrun at a clip of one frame per second for 25 years or a screensaver that pulls questions appended with “asking for a friend” from Twitter to bemusing/wistful effect, he's making some of the funnest, stickiest mobile games out there.

Gage specializes in taking well-worn casual game mainstays (word puzzles, chess, solitaire) and twisting them in small, clever ways. Often these are simple mechanical tweaks; Really Bad Chess gives players one king and 15 other random pieces to duke it out with, while Sage Solitaire elegantly splits the difference between classic Klondike and poker. His latest game Pocket-Run Pool is his version of an arcade-style billiards game, with rotating pocket multipliers and three lives (i.e. scratches) to clear the table. As with all of Gage's work, Pocket-Run Pool is dirt-simple at first glance. But continued play will reveals a game of surprising depth; the constrained rack (10 balls instead of the usual 15) and the novel scoring system both give a new strategic angle to the kind of game I'd kill hours on in the bad old days of Windows 98. Ever since I bought it, I have found myself chaining game after game after game, and before I know it, 45 minutes have passed. That's about as good an endorsement you can give a mobile game.

#games

[NOTE: I wrote this in May, intending for it to be part of a bigger thing, but that bigger thing never happened, so here it is all by its lonesome.]

You may not be able to place Graham Gouldman's name, but you definitely know his work. Gouldman, who turned 71 on Wednesday, is the co-founder and bassist of 10cc, one of the great British bands of the 1970s. His bandmates Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the true-blue weirdos of the group, get a lot of the glory, but Gouldman's contributions shouldn't be downplayed. I mean, dude co-wrote the immortal “I'm Not in Love” and played one of my favourite bass lines of all time on the bridge.

One of the pillars of the 10cc sound is pastiche, but they weren't just lampooning or parodying pop music. They were twisting their forms and conventions into weird art-rock shapes. Doo-wop, teen tragedy ballads, 70s boogie, progressive rock, adult contemporary: you name it, 10cc warped it into something unique. In a way, they're the ancestor groups like Ween, albeit a lot less puerile and aggro. Gouldman currently tours with a skeleton of the mighty band that once was, and the group hasn't put out new material in nearly 25 years, but 10cc's initial '73-'76 run is full of treasures, and Gouldman was a core component of them.

#music

The eagle-eyed among you might remember that I made a blog a while ago praising the genius of Canadian animator Richard Williams, and I fear I'll be repeating myself in that respect over the course of this play-by-play. Williams was the animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a sly, skilful melding of film noir and cartoon slapstick. If you want to see what makes Williams's work here and elsewhere so breathtaking, I recommend watching the video linked in the blog post I referenced earlier, or even seek out the Recobbled fan cut of his never-finished magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. But if pressed to describe his work in one word, it'd be fluid. For all the movie magic employed to create a seamless live-action/cartoon world, the fluidity of the animation is the linchpin. But the animated half of the film is just, well, half the story. The other half belongs to Robert Zemeckis.

Robert Zemeckis is cursed with the gift of gimmickry. Few directors are as adept at using special effects as storytelling devices as he is, but his sturdy, Spielberg-esque directing chops are often held hostage by the whims of the effects he employs. This has sometimes led to catastrophic results, most notably his late-period uncanny valley hat trick of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But here, he directs with a unique kind of precision; he manages to make incomplete frames feel full. Zemeckis strikes a delicate balance between leaving just enough room for the toons to exist in and making the blocking overly lax. To the credits of both Zemeckis and Williams, the illusion is maintained throughout, and 30 years on still stands as the apex of this branch of mixed-media filmmaking.

Credit must also be given to the actors, the conduit through which an audience experiences the work, and thus the most liable to wreck the illusion. The voice cast is anchored the legendary Mel Blanc, rounded out by a murderer's row of cartoon lifers, and bolstered by the smart stunt-casting of Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit. The live-action cast had it rougher. They had to act against puppets and props and disembodied voices, and no actor had to do it more than the late, great Bob Hoskins. But the legendary English actor was no one's first choice to play Eddie Valiant, the alcoholic private dick with a distaste for toons. In fact, he wasn't even in the top 10. According to Wikipedia (a dubious source, I know, but bear with me), Harrison Ford was Zemeckis' first-round pick, followed by Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. And then Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, Charles Grodin, and Don Lane. A few of those might have worked, but there's a lot of cultural baggage that comes with casting, say, Nicholson in a movie that riffs heavily on Chinatown. Harris may have worked as well; go back and watch Knightriders for a clinic on portraying rumpled masculinity as both earnest and silly. But casting Hoskins was a coup: his blunt features, raspy voice, and boxy build make him credible as a tough noir-era gumshoe, and him standing 5-foot-4 makes the 6-foot-1 Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom look even more like a towering, ominous force than he already is.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is part of the cycle of late 80s-early 90s kids' movies with the power to traumatize. I say the following without exaggeration: Christopher Lloyd should have been on every Academy ballot for Best Supporting Actor for his work on here, and nearly everything he does in the film is nightmare fuel of the highest order. He murders an adorable cartoon shoe in cold blood in his first scene. The climax of the film, which I won't spoil here because I'd like for you to get the full effect if and when you do see it, is fucked up. I rewatched this movie shortly after my 30th birthday and I still think it's fucked up as a grown man.

Dear America was fucked up too, but in a more subtle, insidious way. The film's structure is simple: celebrities read letters home from soldiers in Vietnam over amateur video footage, presumably shot by those same soldiers. This isn't new territory for the war documentary; it isn't even new territory for writer/director/producer Bill Couturié. In 1982, Couturié co-directed Vietnam Requiem, a TV documentary made for ABC News's Closeup about the post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets that netted the Alphabet Network a Peabody Award.

Couturié's resume is full of similarly socially-conscious work, both as director and producer; he won an Oscar in 1990 as the producer of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which was about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He has continued to chronicle the effects on war on soldiers. The one major outlier in his filmography is the Matt LeBlanc-starring baseball-playing chimp movie Ed, which he directed and produced. It was a massive bomb, no one liked it, and Couturié hasn't made a fiction film since, in Hollywood or otherwise.

As with WFRR, Dear America's beating heart is its form. Having people read letters over footage they or someone like them shot is a dirt-simple and highly effective way of telling this particular story. The beginning of the film is all smiles and surf music, a parade of fresh faces blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting them in Southeast Asia. And I do mean fresh; I knew that the average age of touring soldiers in Vietnam skewed young, but I didn't know that it averaged out at 19. As the film goes on, and as the conflict keeps metastasizing, the plight of these young men grows more dire, the tone becomes more grim. The speed with which the switch flips from “patriotic naivete” to “existential hell” is whiplash-inducing.

The great Francois Truffaut once said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. Now I'm just some dude on the internet, and who the hell am I to disagree with one of the great humanists of French cinema, but I believe the opposite to be true. War is such an abhorrent concept that any depiction of it will make it look terrible. Telegeny doesn't negate evil. Often it even amplifies it. The brief scenes of combat in Dear America are harrowing, and the cumulative effect of the footage and narration is decidedly anti-war. The final pivot, a flash forward that concludes the film, is the perfect emotional crescendo, until Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA” starts playing over the end credits. Now the fact that this song, along with the also-used-herein “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, has become a kind of lazy anti-war shorthand is not this film's fault. But time hasn't been kind to on-the-nose music cues, even if they were fresh and bold once upon a time. But this is a minor gripe regarding what is overall a solid piece of work.

There's something uniquely perverse about this tournament pairing, a documentary about the horrors of war and a movie where a cartoon rabbit does pratfalls. As with the previous round, tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave both of these movies the full four stars, citing both as exemplary in the respective idioms. And as powerful and moving as Dear America is, the level of technical mastery and boundless creativity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is what puts it over the top.

The winner: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

#movies #1988ebertcup

I don't watch a ton of television. I'll catch the news every now and again, and I try to keep up with wrestling, and that about sums it up. I am about as far removed from the TV monoculture as a media-literate person can get. If you were to count on your fingers the total number of episodes of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Westworld I have seen, you'd be staring at a couple of balled fists. Don't get it twisted: my TV set does see it's fair share of action. It's just that movies and YouTube and Twitch make up most of my televisual diet.

Except for when I'm unemployed.

Over the last few years, there have been four great spikes in my consumption of TV shows, three of which coincide with periods of unemployment. The odd show out is Bob's Burgers; I watched seasons 1-7 this past January while I was still employed. My intention was to just catch up with the later episodes I hadn't seen yet (i.e. everything after season 3), but I rewatched “Human Flesh” and fell in love with the show all over again. Be careful if you binge-watch Bob's Burgers because you might be compelled to triumphantly proclaim that “farts are liberty,” much to the confusion and disgust of your friends.

My first proper Funemployment Binge was in the spring of 2013, when I watched the first six seasons of Futurama. Pound for pound, episode for episode, this may be favourite Matt Groening project. It doesn't have the dizzying highs or long shadow of The Simpsons (then again, what does?), but I think its batting average over seven seasons is higher than The Simpsons's over 29. In fact, I'd put seasons 2-4 of Futurama up against pretty much any three-season run of TV I can think of in terms of banger density. The four movies that comprise season 5 are pretty fun, and season 6 had it's moments, but it's just as well that Futurama ended when it did. I'll say this, though: almost 20 years on and Christopher Tyng's theme song still slaps.

The second Funemployment Binge was weird. I was on medical leave due to work-related burnout and managed to warp my sleep schedule pretty badly. So rather than toss and turn in vain until dawn, I plowed through all the episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants available on Netflix Canada (i.e. seasons 7-8). The vibrancy and ebullience and casual absurdity of the show was a nice mental salve. And as far as I can tell it's still one of the great shows in its weight class in terms of sustained quality and overall longevity. I mean, Pokémon certainly didn't do stuff like splice footage of noted cult TV show Fishing with John into one of its episodes as a gag.

My current Funemployment Binge might be the strangest one. Breaking with tradition, I started watching a live-action show rather than a cartoon (although it's silly enough that it might as well be), and it's also the first of these shows where I wasn't alive when its pilot aired. That's right, y'all, I am currently three and a half seasons deep into binge-watching Night Court.

Man, that theme song is a jam. I'd be lying if I said that hearing that tune multiple times in a row wasn't a key factor in my brain choosing to binge this particular show. But it was by no means the only thing: star Harry Anderson had just passed away, I was reminded that Desert Bus for Hope used the theme song as a gag two years running, and it's by far and away the show in that titanic mid-80s NBC lineup I had the least familiarity with.

So for a 30-plus-year-old sitcom, Night Court holds up rather well. Turns out warmth and goofiness don't really go out of style. Come to think of it, warmth and goofiness are the running threads between all four of the shows I mentioned here. Maybe I'm just removed from the TV monoculture because a lot of it is bitter and dark.

So I'm due for another one of these binges in 2020 or 2021. I wonder what my weird TV bliss will have me watch. Maybe 2020 is the year I really get into MASH or something.

#television

AFE l-r: David Gborie, Sean Jordan, Ian Karmel. Photo: Luke DaMommio.

I like a lot of podcasts, but there's a select few whose release I actively anticipate week after week. And at the top of the heap with the Podcast Championship Belt around its waist is All Fantasy Eveyrything, a HeadGum comedy show hosted by Ian Karmel. The concept is simple: Karmel (who you might recognize from his stand-up, his work on Chelsea Lately, or his current gig at The Late Late Show with James Corden) and a rotating panel of guests pick their favourite representatives of a given subject (usually pop culture or food) over the course of a five-round fantasy draft. Shows are dominated by jokes, tangents, and enthusiastic endorsements and/or defences of picks.

I've spoken briefly about the show elsewhere: I recommended the “Treats” episode once upon a time in a Medium post nobody read. Everything I said there still stands. Nothing beats friends having a podcast because you can't fake that kind of warmth and camaraderie (it's also, as some have pointed out, a competitive advantage). And the format is unique in that it enables everyone involved to get granular and dorky about what they like, which is 100% my jam.

The most recent episode, the excellently-titled “Songs That, When They Come On, You’re Like 90% Ready to Fight Someone” is kind of atypical. It starts off with an extended shout out to the fanbase for helping a fellow AFE listener in Indiana pay for a new wheelchair. It's all quite touching and very, very heartening. Now, Karmel refers to himself and regular guests/fan favourites David Gborie (who has one of the best laughs in podcasting) and Sean Jordan (South Dakota's greatest cultural ambassador) as the Good Vibes Gang, and it's a title they earn. They cultivate them on the show, and they foster them among the fanbase. Their joy is completely devoid of irony. They have introduced me to some ridiculously funny individuals (shout out to “Hawaiian Getaway” Zak Toscani, “Sugar” Shane Torres, Nicole Dyer, Eliza Skinner, Amy Miller, and Mike Mulloy). All Fantasy Everything is a net positive in my day-to-day, and a hilarious, ebullient bright spot in my podcast feed. Long may they run.

And while I'm at it, here are my top five songs that, when they come on, I'm like 90% ready to fight someone:

Actually the first four would all make great ring entrance songs too.

#podcasts #music

The Cosmic Baseball Association was one of my more esoteric online haunts when I was a teenager. I spent a good chunk of time in the late 1990s and early 2000s acting as the Coover-esque commissioner of dozens of fantasy sports leagues of my own creation. Not fantasy sports in the common sense, with drafts and real players and silly team names. But leagues cut from whole cloth, seasons simulated with the roll of a die, or the throw of a dart (shout out to long-departed Emergency League!, a similarly cosmic baseball darts league whose players were, among other, cartoons and creatures of myth).

The CBA (whose web site is still gloriously Web 1.0) is the heady, literary version of the ledger-and-graph paper operations I ran in my youth. It's the brainchild of Andrew Lampert, who created the league during the 1981 MLB players' strike because of his “rising dissatisfaction with reality baseball.”

Major League Baseball was corrupt and ubiquitous greed had soured the sport; but not its myths. These myths buried in a myriad of traditions became the inspiration for the creation of “cosmic baseball.” [x]

Professional sport has deep lore, and baseball's, America's game, is especially potent. When you divorce the mechanics of the sport from reality, what you're left with is a new medium through which stories are told. When you plug in the detritus of culture through this unique storytelling device, poetry emerges. Sure, it might just be a goof that The Twilight Zone beat Black Mirror 5-4 in a exhibition game this past February. But it's fun to think of in a, erm, cosmic sense: maybe we've already been here before, our hang-ups and obsessions and fears the same as they were last time we were under the thumb of Armageddon. It's for this same reason I'm incredibly fond of Jon Bois' work: statistics become poetry. Advanced metrics, box scores and spreadsheets invite new ways to think about the world beyond the stadium.

Last week, the CBA played its annual Jack Kerouac Memorial Game, this time pitting key figures in the writer's life against some of his characters. In addition to the roster and boxscore, the game's page is sprinkled with links to articles and interview, both fondly remembering the man and decrying his work as misogynistic piddle. In true CBA style, the components are laid bare. The story is ours to weave. Per the game's intro:

Kerouac's work does not often gel with feminist philosophy. But Kerouac might claim that he wrote in the service of women...that he was a woeful womanizer in service to a Dulcinea whom he saw in every Tristessa, Esperanza, Laura, Joan, Judie, Edie, Ruth, Helen, et. al.

Or maybe Jack, once known as Ti Jean, was just a guilty boy in need of motherly love? This game was supposed to reveal what happened to Kerouac after he went on the road looking for the bed the Buddha slept on. When he returned...& got off the road...he slept tight with the Virgin Mary.

Woeful womanizer or degenerate misogynist? This memorial game doesn't say. [x]

For what it's worth, Kerouac and his peers beat the characters 8-5. Make of that what you will.

(Source: Cosmic Baseball Association)

#sport

Back in 2014, one of my favourite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote and article for the late, great website Grantland called “The American Band Championship Belt,” in which he anoints a series of groups as the one that towered the highest of all over a series of reigns stretching back to 1964 (inaugural title holders: the Beach Boys).

Now, you may or may not agree with the methodology or ever the titleholders. I mean, sure, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an “and the” band, but their output transcends their generic moniker and they'd have easily fit in between Talking Heads and R.E.M. And according to at least one person in my office, it was offensive to give Guns N' Roses the belt for four years when Public Enemy was still on the table. But ultimately this is just a fun thought exercise, a way to think about the evolution of popular music through the years.

The last title holders were the Black Keys, whose run started in 2011 and ended when the article was published. Seeing as how Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney haven't put out a record as the Black Keys since then, I think it's safe to say they've vacated the title. But who shall step up and take the mantle? Now, it stands to reason, but what follows is just my own continuation of this lineage, an opinion free from the shackles of rightness and wrongness. That said...

Run the Jewels (36303319652) Photo: The Come Up Show

Run the Jewels, 2015-17

Key music: Run the Jewels 2 (2014), Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

The pairing seems obvious in hindsight. That it took Killer Mike and El-P, two indie rap titans who had been putting in creative, acclaimed work as solo artists since the early 00s, until 20-goddamn-13 to record their first full album together is kind of surprising. What isn't surprising is how great the records they've made as Run the Jewels are; all three so far have been powder kegs of tag-team hip hop fury. If anything, the get this belt because their partnership is so fecund. They bring out the absolute best in each other as performers, and they've been conquering the world, and the charts, since. The title is theirs to hoist here because their records slay, their urgency is timely, and their indie spirit is undimmed.

Photo: Julio Enriquez

The War on Drugs, 2018-

Key music: A Deeper Understanding (2017)

I admit this is kind of a wishful thinking pick. Right now, Run the Jewels are busy touring arenas and being awesome, and I can't imagine any future work is going to dull their prior highs. But I feel like I need to reward the War on Drugs for not only putting out one of the great records of 2017 in A Deeper Understanding after three years in the woods, but for putting a rock record out in the “rock is dead” era that both critics, fans, and the public at large rallied around and embraced. I don't know what this says about the rock music idiom. Maybe Adam Granduciel is onto something. Maybe the way forward is to look back and pick apart the forms of yesteryear and re-examine what makes them work on a technical and emotional level. Or maybe the idea of the world-dominating rock band is just going the way of the dog. As Hyden said at the end of his article:

The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list.

And that six years has now become 10.

#music

In a bit of Oscar night counter-programming, I rewatched Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time in a few years in preparation for the next Ebert Cup match. Spoiler alert, it holds up extrmeemly well. Even 30 years on, it's still an astonishing piece of work, not just as a funny-page pulp-noir, but in the way the animated and live-action worlds meld so seamlessly in a pre-CGI world.

Key to that fusion of worlds is the work of legendary animation director Richard Williams. By 1988, he was already a legend in the field, winning an Oscar in 1972 for his adaptation of A Christmas Carol. By 1989, his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit netted him not only two more statuettes, but a production deal with Warner to help finish his long-gestating magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. That particular story doesn't end well: Thief ends up being wrested from Williams' hands, and a compromized version dies an unmourned death in theatres, while his original cut becomes one of animation's great cause celebres.

That saga cemented Williams' status as a legend, but this video by Andrew Saladino of the Royal Ocean Film Society gets to the nuts and bolts of what makes Williams an all-timer. The short of it: it's all about the way his characters move through space. Dust off that VHS copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and watch that opening cartoon again. Notice how fluidly the perspective shifts, how the camera glides and warps the space. That's the work of a true master of the form.

(via YouTube/The Royal Ocean Film Society)

#movies #animation #richardwilliams