Ahead on Differential

movies

When a friend asks me to recommend them a movie, I never have a title in the chamber and ready to go. Call it choice paralysis: Letterboxd, a favourite website of movie dorks like yours truly, puts the total number of movies in the world at just south of 600,000 and counting. So to help whittle down the list of candidates for my aforementioned friend that totally exists, my answer is usually another question. “Well, what kind of movies do you like?” This helps, but only a little. If my friend says they like science fiction, well, that limits the number of relevant titles to, oh, just a hair above 13,000. This new genre-specific pool is a couple of orders of magnitude smaller that Every Movie Ever Made, but hardly more manageable.

Another example: once upon a time I was on the phone with my mom, and she asked me about westerns. Specifically, she told me that my stepdad was in the mood for a western that evening, and she deferred to my so-called expertise. Surely all that film school book-learning is worth something! So I told her they should watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to some the greatest western ever made

It was the last time she asked me for a film recommendation. This was years ago. They did not like it at all, and I suspect the film's hefty runtime and rambling pace had something to do with it. Maybe I did no favours my hyping to shit out of Sergio Leone's finest hour.

I learned the hard way that helping someone sort out Movie Night is not the time for a flex. Not everyone shares your tastes and your interests, and that's cool. When you're recommending movies to people, there are always going to be swings and misses; you are, after all, two different people with two sets of cinematic pleasure centres. What I'm trying to devise here is a way to keep from striking out, so to speak, and while this method may yield precious few home runs, it'll compensate by delivering way more slap singles into the gap. Sports!

I. Is it short?

I've said it once and I'll say it again: God's runtime is 87 minutes.

I don't want to besmirch the good names of the many excellent epics and exercises in slow cinema that exist, but when I give someone what amounts to pop-culture homework, I want to be respectful of their time. It happened to me more than once that a trusted friend gave me a hearty recommendation only for me to groan at the runtime. Yes, I'm sure Sátántangó is every bit the masterpiece people say it is, but 439 minutes is a steep cliff to climb, especially when I work 5 Sátántangós a week. It doesn't even have to be that extreme: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly's 161 minutes was a deal-breaker for my mom. And you know what? I don't blame her. Two-plus hours is a lot of time to spend with something you might not like.

I think there's something psychologically inviting about a double-digit runtime. The gulf between 99 minutes and 100 minutes is vast. So for the purposes of this method, I'm going to set a runtime limit of 100 minutes. Why 100? While 100 minutes is completely arbitrary, it does fit snugly in between “just over an hour and a half” and “almost two hours.” You can stretch it to 105 if you want a clean hour and three quarters. Remember: this is a recipe, and like any recipe, you can adjust some parts to taste.

II. Is it good?

I absolutely adore the 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow. I love its fucked-up sensuousness, its hazy pacing, and its druggy synthesis of 40 years' worth of genre-film brainmelters. I would never in a million years recommend this movie to anyone unless I was 100% sure we were simpatico. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a perfect your-mileage-may-vary movie. There are movies you like that other people scratch their heads at, wondering what all the fuss is about. That's cool.

Now that we've established that something as seemingly simple as “good” is wildly subjective, let's talk about the wisdom of crowds.

Podcaster Merlin Mann has occasionally quipped on his show Reconcilable Differences, and I'm paraphrasing here, “Why would you ever want to watch a three-star movie?” Ignoring the fact that a three-star movie means something different to everyone, I'd argue that the three-star movie fulfills a very specific role in one's media diet. A three-star movie is a competent, unsurprising piece of work that neither arouses nor offends. It is built from stock parts and familiar faces. It is the perfect cure for a hangover on Sunday afternoon. It is the sweatpants of movies, and everyone owns a pair.

Small sidebar: the burden of masterpieces is very real. If you keep insisting to your friends that something is a masterpiece, there's bound to be a pushback, either explicit or implicit. There's also a strange pressure to like movies that are considered canonical, even though you may not like them at all. The fact that something is considered great might, counterintuitively, be a turn-off to some.

Since the point of this exercise is to create a high-floor approach to recommendations, I've decided to set the minimum “quality” threshold for this method of recommendation at an average rating of 3/5 on Letterboxd. As with the runtime, you can adjust this threshold as needed. If a large spread of people think something is at least “good,” it makes for a solid baseline of agreeability.

III. Is it secret?

I deliberately wanted to avoid the word “obscure” for this section because of the film-snob vibe that word can connote, but we do want to privilege movie that are underseen. Why? The 6,000-ish films that make up the 1% of the most popular films on Earth are in the cultural ether. Your Aunt Brenda probably knows that Parasite (741,000+ ratings on Letterboxd at time of writing) exists already in some capacity. So for that reason, this method caps popularity at 10,000 ratings on Letterboxd. Why 10,000? Again, arbitrary. Plus, it looks good next to “100 minutes.”

If I really wanted to commit to using Parasite as my yardstick, having my popularity cap be 1% of the people who've seen the most popular film on Letterboxd has a bit of poetry to it, but honestly, I just like big round numbers. Plus, it's not inconceivable that Parasite cracks a million ratings at some point future. But this method is more about vibes than stats, and other movies with ~10,000 ratings fit the vibe I'm going for: something about as seen as John Boorman's Point Blank or Walter Hill's The Driver.

Part of recommending a film to someone is making the effort of combing the stacks for them, not just the shelves in the front. This may or may not be true for the specific person coming to you for a recommendation, but for our purposes, you're just playing the odds. My strawman cinephile, whether they've seen Pulp Fiction or not, very likely has heard of it. There's a good chance they'll get there by themselves, since the 1% or movies are the ones we tend to absorb by cultural osmosis anyways (how many people get to Kubrick through The Simpsons, or Scarface through hip hop). They've probably heard of every Quentin Tarantino film. As much as I love those movies, I don't think QT needs the help. People can and do get there by themselves. Miami Blues needs the help. Deep Cover does too (even though, at 107 minutes, it falls just a bit outside the purview of this post).

Plus who doesn't love a diamond in the rough? Nothing beats having a new favourite thing that you didn't even know existed the day before. By using this method, hopefully you'll find some hidden gems of your own. Here's a list of 20 of them to get you started.

#movies

The Big Board.

You know how I know I have great friends? Because they didn't mind being conned into doing another one of these movie drafts.

Last time, we drafted movies from 2009. This time, in honour of my birthday, we drafted movies from my birth year, 1988.

A refresher of the rules:

  • The movie's year of released had to be listed as 1988 on IMDb
  • At the end of the draft, each player must have one movie from each of these seven categories
    • Blockbuster (for this one, movies with >$100m adjusted domestic gross were eligible for this category)
    • Drama
    • Action/Comedy
    • Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror
    • Animated/Foreign Language
    • Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake
    • Wild Card (any film can be a Wild Card)

As is tradition, the draft order was set randomly and picks were made serpentine-style. At the end of the night, here's what our six teams looked like.

  • Person A: Die Hard, The Last Temptation of Christ, Grave of the Fireflies, Bull Durham, Vampire's Kiss, The Thin Blue Line, The Blob
  • Person B: Rain Man, Police Story 2, They Live, The Accused, Willow, Dragons Forever, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  • Person C: My Neighbor Totoro, A Fish Called Wanda, Coming to America, Dead Ringers, Dangerous Liaisons, Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, The Vanishing
  • Person D: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Land Before Time, Bloodsport, Stand and Deliver, Midnight Run, Dead Heat, The Dead Pool
  • Person E: Beetlejuice, The Naked Gun, Cinema Paradiso, Beaches, Child's Play, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Crocodile Dundee II
  • Person F: Mississippi Burning, Akira, Big, Young Guns, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, Red Heat

First things first: everyone brought their A game. This was a much closer draft than the last one. People learned from their biffs in the first one, developed boards and strategies, and the result was a killer performance overall.

I had Die Hard as the first movie off the board, so Person A was 100% justified in taking it first. The rest of their draft is very good; The Thin Blue Line was a great wild card pick, and The Blob is a criminally underrated film and also a great last-round pick. There were rumblings among the Committee that Vampire's Kiss was ineligible because it was only released wide in 1989, but the rules clearly state that the year used to determine the validity of a pick the the year listed on IMDb, which in the case of Vampire's Kiss is, in fact, 1988, since it premiered at Cannes that year. Nice try, anonymous GM!

Could B have gotten Rain Man later? Probably. But, as with Avatar in the 2009 draft, it's hard to argue with the reasoning: this movie was an Oscar juggernaut (four wins, including Best Picture) and the highest-grossing film of 1988. Could they have gotten Police Story 2 later? Again, probably, but I see the reasoning. Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake is always going to be thin, so getting in early is a good move. It also allowed B to score mad style points by having a Jackie Chan double feature on their roster when they picked Sammo Hung's Dragons Forever, which wasn't even on my radar.

C came in hot out of the gate, capitalizing on My Neighbor Totoro, which was 2nd overall in my mock draft, falling to third. C picked crowdpleasers with surgical precision in the first five rounds. But dear reader, I have never been as floored or flabbergasted by a pick than when C took a fucking Gundam movie in the sixth round. It was the right place to have a complete and total curveball, and it just knocked me square on my ass. Char's Counterattack wasn't even in the same galaxy as my board, and I have no choice but to respect the move. Getting the Dutch thriller The Vanishing in the last round as a wild card is quite the coup, too.

D's board has strong “weekend at Dad's” vibes. Dad really likes action movies with manly men committing grievous acts of bodily harm against one another, using their guns, their fists, or both. But there are a couple of tapes there for the kids, too. As far as draft strategy goes, getting Midnight Run in the fifth round is fucking highway robbery. How did stay on the table that long. I can't be sure, but I have a theory: most of the GMs in the draft are under 30, no one has cable, and Midnight Run isn't streaming anywhere. A perfect storm for generating a high-value pick.

I think E had a solid draft right up until the end. As I mentioned before, Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake is always going to be a thin category, but surely even horror programmers like Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers or Phantasm II were higher value than the second Crocodile Dundee movie. By their own admission, Crocodile Dundee II was “smooth-brain viewing,” but so's some of that horror schlock I just mentioned. Beaches I get, but Crocodile Dundee II I don't. My suspicion is they wanted to keep it real and only pick movies they've seen, but by their own admission, they've seen “like 100 movies,” so maybe hatedrafting a shitty sequel is a viable way of doing things.

F fooled me. I though they biffed it completely when they drafted Hellraiser II as their SF/F/Horror pick. I even asked them if they were sure. They assured me they knew what they were doing. They did: F went completely off-board and picked the gleefully crass Return of the Killer Tomatoes as their sequel, which while not the steal of the evening (that would be Midnight Run at #28), it was the pick that caused the most hootin' and hollerin'. I don't think F had the best draft, but on the strength of that move and picking Red Heat because like hell we were going to draft an 80s movie year and have no Arnold Schwarzenegger films, they may have had the most fun one.

After the secret ballots were tallied, A and D were declared joint winners. But what do you think? Who won? Who lost?

Here are ten we left on the table:

  • Frantic
  • Hairspray
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space
  • Married to the Mob
  • Mystic Pizza
  • Oliver and Company
  • Scrooged
  • Twins
  • Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
  • Working Girl

#movies #moviedraft

The final board.

Inspired by the fine folks at the Ringer's Big Picture podcast, I somehow convinced my friends to indulge me and participate in what is likely the dorkiest group activity I have ever suggested: a movie draft.

The goal is simple: create your best possible team of seven movies. There are only two rules: all movies bust the listed as a movie released in the year or the draft (in this case, 2009) on the Internet Movie Database, and by the end of the draft, you need to have one movie in each of the following seven categories:

  • Blockbuster (domestic gross >$100 million)
  • Drama
  • Action/Comedy
  • Science fiction/Fantasy/Horror
  • Animated/Foreign Language
  • Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake
  • Wild Card (any movie can be a Wild Card)

Armed with nothing but their wits, our movie GMs duked it out and picked their movies serpentine-style, as is tradition. Here were the results:

  • Person A: Avatar, Orphan, The Hangover, The Road, Fast & Furious, Dogtooth, Whip It
  • Person B: Star Trek, Coraline, I Love You, Man, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Antichrist, Brothers, Up in the Air
  • Person C: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Law Abiding Citizen, Sherlock Holmes, Jennifer's Body, Black Dynamite, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Princess and the Frog
  • Person D: Inglourious Basterds, Drag Me to Hell, Fantastic Mr. Fox, In the Loop, A Serious Man, Valhalla Rising, Universal Soldier: Regeneration
  • Person E: Up, Watchmen, Taken1, Zombieland, The Final Destination, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Brüno
  • Person F: District 9, Moon, Crank: High Voltage, Dead Snow, Pandorum, Daybreakers, Redline

Now it's time for me to put on my Mel Kiper hat and break down these drafts.

I think A's only real faux-pas was taking Avatar first. I understand the reasoning: it's the highest-grossing movie of all time, just sitting there. But I don't think this movie has fans. Like, Titanic has fans. Other juggernauts have fans. I don't think I've heard anyone talk about Avatar after that awards season. My point is this: I think A could have gotten Avatar in the third round. With everything else on the board, this was not the way to go. I will note that the rest of their draft is very good: picking up The Hangover in the third was good value, Fast & Furious was as good a sequel there was, and Orphan is a movie that continues to be slept on. If A hadn't picked Avatar first, they probably would have won.

B said they were making their first pick with their heart, and I can't blame them. The Abrahms Star Trek was going to get taken eventually, and they wanted it, so they took it. Now, is that sound draft strategy? Maybe, given that the other people drafting, yours truly incuded, are total fucking nerds. I had Star Trek as a second-round pick, but then again, what do I know. I do know this: B made zero bad picks, including a sneaky/clever Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake pick with Brothers (though I would have slotted Bad Lieutenant there to free up the way-more-open Drama category). All in all, if I'm programming a day of TV, I want B's roster, but I'm making sure to bury Antichrist, a movie I was too chickenshit to finish, deep into the overnight.

I have no clue what the fuck C was doing. The writing was on the wall when they drafted the sixth Harry Potter joint (a) third overall, (b) as their blockbuster when the sequels were already thin. And then they drafted Law Abiding Citizen, a diet Death Wish joint I didn't even consider for my mock list2, in the Top 10. What the fuck. From this point on, C started to get their shit together. After some deliberation, the Committee accepted that Sherlock Holmes qualifies as a reboot, which was a great morale booster for C after being clowed on mercilessly by yours truly for their first two picks. C then followed that up with three more solid picks, four if you're among those who like Parnassus. I wouldn't know, I haven't seen it, and funnily enough, neither has C. Their draft was like watching a kid ride a bike with no training wheels for the first time: an immediate faceplant followed by tenous, tear-streaked wobbling around the block.

D was given a gift, and that was being able to pick Inglourious Basterds fourth overall. I could have sworn this would have been off the board within the first two picks. Shows you what I know. Was D able to capitalize on the best film of 2009 falling into his lap? Well... that's hard to say. Taking Drag Me to Hell ninth overall seems way early for a movie not all that many people seem to like or even remember, but A Serious Man is great value for a fifth-rounder. For better or worse, I think D was playing a different game than everybody else. It's not that the picks were bad, per se. Their picks were too inside-baseball, too eager to play the knowing video store clerk. What exactly are you gunning for if you pick fucking Valhalla Rising and a Universal Soldier movie made in the 21st century? That's not playing to win, that's playing for yourself.

After round two, I was terrified of E's board. Boom, Up. Boom, Watchmen. Two clean chalk picks, in the right categories and everything. Then, a crack in the armor. E picked Taken third, which snuck by the Committee even though it was an invalid pick. Taken would have been another ruthlessly efficient pick had the year of release been correct. Zombieland, good value as a fourth-rounder. But then, the wheels started coming off the war machine: E took The Final Destination as a horror film, which is a more egriegous, more costly version of B's Bad Lieutenant play. At this point in the draft, even okay sequels and reboots were at a premium, while there were still some pretty decent SF/F/H choices on the board. Starting with round five, E didn't so much shoot themselves in the foot as much as empty the whole clip into it. By taking The Final Destination, they fucked themselved into Underworld 3. And Brüno? Well, that's a movie I really don't like. I don't like that schtick. I kind of wish E would have gone for a troll pick instead.

F's board is the one I have the least context for. I think they took Moon at the exact right point, and for my money, I think Crank 2 was the highest-value sequel in play. Smart, small-ball drafting. Then F started balling out and proceeded to fill their board with three mid-budget European genre movies and topped it off with a dollop of high-octane weeb content. And you know what? I respect it. This was the game D was trying to play, but with no pretense. No critic's picks, no Film Twitter touchstones, just slightly-under-the-radar idiosyncrasy. I don't think F won, but they earned my respect as a GM. And much in the same way that I would take B's roster to program a day of TV, if I were tasked with programming a Midnight Madness-style card for a festival, F's roster is the one I want in my corner.

What do you think? Who won this thing?

1 This pick was voided by the Committee because, while it was released in America in 2009, the film is in fact listed as being a 2008 film on IMDb. Tough titties.

2 If this movie would have been made in 1994, it would be awesome.

#movies #moviedraft

I'm with you up until, like, number seven

I found this in my desk at work and I guarantee you this list is different now.

#movies #lists

The GOAT, talking shit

I am back in the swing of things at work, which is great for my livelihood but not so good for my writing. Thankfully, I love writing lists, and since it was both Hayao Miyazaki's birthday (happy 80th to the GOAT) and just another day on the internet (nerds having opinions about Wes Anderson, yours truly included), I wrote up some lists. I love making lists. And I hope you love reading (or arguing with, whichever suits your fancy) them.

Wes Anderson, Ranked

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel. It took me a long time to admit to myself that not only is it my favourite, but that it's a five-star film.

  2. Moonrise Kingdom. Maybe I just like the cute/funny Wes movies rather than the sad ones.

  3. Rushmore. The first one I saw. For a kid from the sticks, the movies Wes makes might has well have been set on Mars, but that was part of the appeal. What wasn't alien was kick-ass rock music, crushes on people I had no business having crushes on, and, in retrospect, being an annoying precocious asswipe.

  4. The Royal Tenenbaums. Bet you 20 bucks this goes up two spots on rewatch.

  5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. See above. Might resonate with me more now that I'm over 30.

  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox. Can't help but feel I lowballed this on the first go.

  7. Bottle Rocket. Wes's first is his least quintessential, but I love how shaggy it is. Come back to us, Owen Wilson, all is forgiven.

  8. Isle of Dogs. Uh, well... the dogs are cute? The sushi prep scene is cool? Strong weeb vibes coming off this one.

  9. The Darjeeling Limited. Man, I don't want to talk about this one, this one's kinda of rough. I think it's the only complete misfire in the run.

Top 10 (Paul Thomas,Paul W.S.,Wes) Anderson Films

  1. Boogie Nights. It's not the Great American Novel if there's no dick and no cocaine.

  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel.

  3. Inherent Vice. Up in smoke.

  4. There Will Be Blood. I'm starting to suspect that PTA is attracted to these widescreen American tragedies with mad barons and charlatans and shit in them.

  5. Moonrise Kingdom.

  6. The Master. This is what Joaquin should have gotten his Oscar for. Either this or You Were Never Really Here.

  7. Phantom Thread. Motherfucker really went and named his character "Woodcock," huh.

  8. Rushmore.

  9. The Royal Tenenbaums.

  10. Event Horizon. Hell is outer space.

Hayao Miyazaki: A Tier List

  • N/A: Porco Rosso, Ponyo. I'll get to them eventually, I swear.

  • D tier: Hayao Miyazaki has never made anything less than good and to claim otherwise would be heresy of the highest order.

  • C tier: Castle in the Sky. As with any of these lists, this is subjective, but this is the only one that doesn't, you know, move me.

  • B tier: The Castle of Caglisotro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle. The first one is really fun heist movie, and Howl might be Miyazaki's most phantasmagorical film, and yes, I'm aware Spirited Away is a thing.

  • A tier: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises. I especially like The Wind Rises, because it's the most politically complex film of the bunch. What does it mean when the thing you love is turned into something that brings hell on Earth?

  • S tier: My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke. Two perfect films, what can I say. Two very different way of communing with nature. Sometimes it comes to you softly, and sometimes it comes to you with a vengeance. Plus Totoro is south of God's Runtime, which as we all know, is 87 minutes.

#movies #lists #listsoflists

Last night I watched Jodie Mack's excellent Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (elevator pitch: experimental stop-motion documentary about the rise and fall of a poster shop run by the director's mom and the history of the poster as cultural object, all set to a charming lo-fi rewrite of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). I got to thinking about the decontextualization and recontextualization of pop imagery, of posters as contemporary icons; the Scarface posters used in Dusty Snacks of Mom mean something very different than a Scarface poster on a dorm room wall. The movie destroys the image and warps the soundtrack to shed light on both not as works of art, but as commodities.

Which got me thinking about Ways of Seeing. The 1972 BBC series hosted by John Berger is nearly 50 years old, but has lost none of its freshness and power. Having posters front of mind while rewatching it proved resonant. In the second episode, Berger breaks down the tradition of the classical nude, whose subjects Berger says “seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” The same can be applied to cheesecake posters. The fourth and final episode concerns the imagery of advertising (which is what poster is, ultimately, extending the tendrils of brand awareness one dorm wall at a time), whose chief purpose is, in Berger's words, manufacturing glamour.

blog_20200104

Says Berger in the preamble to the final episode:

Where do they exist, these fabulous rewards and objects and people? Where do they belong to? Here, there, or nowhere? They come with us everywhere. We take them away in our minds. We see them in our dreams.

#tv #movies #criticism

Between putting out great in-depth videos about interpersonal beefing and hosting the work of the brilliant Jon Bois, SB Nation currently runs one of my favourite YouTube channels. Their Rewinder series, which contextualizes seismic moments in sports history, is consistently entertaining and informative (episodes include the 2008 Wimbledon men's final, the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and, uh, Mark Sanchez's butt fumble). It's great stuff even if you're sports-agnostic.

This time around, in the spirit of April Fools' Day, SB Nation writer Seth Rosenthal does a deep kayfabe dive on Michael Jordan's climactic game-winning dunk from the 1996 blockbuster Space Jam (a movie I 100% wore out the tape of as a nine-year-old). High points include a critique of the players the Nerdlucks stole skills from (no Shaq? no Hakeem?), a reconsidering of Marvin the Martian's alleged impartiality as referee, and the folding of real-life events into the machinations of Space Jam's deeply silly, deeply crass plot. Rosenthal is a good writer, so good in fact that at several points in the video I forgot that it was a goof.

Come on and slam

This video actually pairs up nicely with an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Blank Check with Griffin and David, where they discuss Space Jam in depth as the dumbfounding cultural artifact that it is.

Also... Michael Jordan kind of looks like a wax sculpture of Michael Jordan on this poster.

(via SB Nation on YouTube)

#youtube #movies #sports

The man, the myth, the legend

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Roger Ebert, one of my film-crit heroes, died six years ago today. I owe Roger more than I care to admit. He was the first person I encountered who looked at movies as art objects. He wrote with warmth, clarity, and respect for the medium. He was smart and persuasive even when I disagreed with his conclusions (and seriously, if you're not locking horns with your heroes on a semi-regular basis, what the hell are you even doing?). He taught me to trust my gut. His work will always be a resource and an inspiration to me.

I really, really miss having him around.

#movies #obit

Harry Brewis (YouTube codename Hbomberguy), better known as of late for his “Donkey Kong Says Trans Rights” charity stream, has a deep library of good video essays about pseudoscience (he's not down with it), woke brands (he's also not down with it), and VHS tapes (he's down with it). And his latest one is a 45-minute reflection on the 1986 feature-length toy commercial The Transformers: The Movie, aka The One Where Optimus Prime Dies.

Brewis juxtaposes the light, sugary Saturday morning antics of the TV show (which, I insist on repeating, was a glorified toy commercial) to the darker, more nihilistic tone of the movie. He calls it the point in his life where he realized that all things die. It's not exactly a close reading, but it gets to the heart of why this movie is so beloved people or a certain demographic without chalking it up to pure capitalistic cynicism or multimedia brand loyalty.

There's a prevailing sentiment that nostalgia should be looked at with deep suspicion or even outright hostility. I do get that. At the risk of making outlandish statements that I can't possibly back up, nostalgia has poisoned the pop culture landscape. It's why we're stuck in an ongoing cycle of regurgitated IPs spearheaded by warring monopolies, or why grown men who bequeath sacred cow status to a fart comedy where Dan Aykroyd gets a blowie from a ghost derail actual-ass human lives with cries of “cooties!” Nostalgia is a tempest that provides its own teapot, only now that teapot is the internet, and we all have to live inside of it.

But nostalgia is also a useful lens through which to view the artifacts of our past. This is how Brewis frames The Transformers: The Movie: a not-great film that shines brightest when it leans into a kind of optimist philosophy, where “the power of leadership and hope and unwarranted positivity in a dark universe has successfully vanquished the pessimistic nihilism that encroaches upon us all when bad things happen in our lives.” Galaxy brain shit maybe, but still a fun, thoughtful, emotionally-engaging trip through the cultural detritus of the 80s. Also any excuse to jam arena-cheese titan Stan Bush or force of good in the universe “Weird Al” Yankovic is right on by me.

Speaking of Yankovic, Brewis's journey with The Transformers: The Movie mirrors mine with UHF. It was one of the first DVDs I ever owned and I played the shit out of it. I thought of it as little more than a series of goofy pop culture riffs that 0% of my peers got. Which obviously it still is. Now, a lot of those jokes haven't aged well (is there an actor who got a rawer deal in the 1980s than Gedde Watanabe?), but I still love this movie because there's a community-minded anti-establishment streak to it. Goofiness for the common good. Daring to be stupid, if you will.

#movies #youtube

Poster for Dark Star

The first hint is right there in the poster copy: “The Spaced Out Odyssey.” The photo beneath the tagline, of a body on ice with electrodes affixed to its face, would normally evoke chills. But in context, we understand that a face frozen in a rictus of dulled pain visually rhymes with what being gacked out on primo bud looks like.

Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, premiered on 30 March 1974 at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition. At the risk of being glib, it plays like a stoner Alien (not surprising since O'Bannon strip-mined Dark Star for parts for his Alien script), similarly concerned with the existential tedium of being a working stiff on the final frontier. But it is above all else Carpenter's weed-dad opus, a heady, rambling, pseudo-philosophical cosmic yarn about mental entropy that for no short amount of time prioritizes a slapstick set piece featuring an alien that looks suspiciously like a beach ball. This movie would slot in nicely on a shelf next to Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS or a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There isn't really much competition for Dark Star's weed-dad title belt in Carpenter's oeuvre; after his debut, his movies almost immediately became leaner, sharper, and more sinister. The only real challenger for the crown is They Live, with its EC Comics-indebted anti-authoritarian, anti-consumerist sci-fi phantasmagoria. And if there's two things weed dads hate, it's the Man and how the Man tells 'em what to do, man. But there's too much ire and fury in They Live for it to be Carpenter's weed-daddest movie. The key moment of political discourse in They Live is Roddy Piper beating the dogshit out of Keith David so he can make him wear his false consciousness-obliterating sunglasses. The key moment of political discourse in Dark Star is when a Bill Ward-looking motherfucker raps with a bomb about phenomenology to keep it from exploding. Far out.

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