Monday, September 01, 2014

DARK SEPTEMBER, or Bright Reflections from the Past Courtesy of the New Beverly Cinema

UPDATED 9/6/14 with links to further information and reportage, including statements from Quentin Tarantino, all of which can be found at the end of this post.

"Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone" – Joni Mitchell

I sat down this morning to write about what essentially feels the end of an era, and as dramatic as that may sound to those on the outside looking in, I suppose it really is. Last evening, August 31, 2014, marked the final screening at the New Beverly Cinema to have been overseen by the theater's manager, programmer and all-around heart and soul Michael Torgan, the son of the New Beverly's original owner, the late Sherman Torgan, who died suddenly while riding his bike in Santa Monica in 2007. The elder Torgan had been running the theater on very thin margins since 1978, and when Michael took over day-to-day operations after his father's death, and after the generous financial intercession of Quentin Tarantino, there was a sense of relief that the legacy and tradition of repertory cinema as envisioned and executed by Sherman would continue.

And continue it did for seven years, until last night's screening of William Wyler's Funny Girl. Ironically, the film was shown in a brand-new 4K digital restoration, a concession undertaken by Michael to the march of progress and the marketplace meant to ensure the theater's livelihood against the reality of the dwindling availability of 35mm rentals and the ascendance of digital cinema packages (DCP) as the primary format of exhibition in this age of ever-altering modernity. As of this writing, no details regarding the facts of Michael Torgan's departure have yet emerged, though Michael did speak at last night's screening to the crowd that came out to wish him a  fond farewell. (I was not among them, unfortunately, so I cannot relate anything of what he said. I am hoping that someone will report on it soon, and when they do I will link to it here.) 

It is not hard to imagine, whether correct or not, that Tarantino might not have been happy about the digital invasion into the New Beverly, given his increasingly strident 35mm-or-bust position. And it might not have been the best strategy to purchase the equipment, given that position, without Tarantino’s approval, if that’s the way it happened. But whatever the story is, there is no escaping the fact that when the New Beverly reopens its doors in October, after a dark September, Torgan and his vision, and his sense of film history, and the things he learned about the repertory business from his dad, will no longer be in play. The first screening in October, under a new management team likely to be closely monitored by Tarantino himself, will mark the first time since 1978—36 years--  that the Torgan family will not be involved in presenting classic, contemporary and foreign films to the city of Los Angeles. I have no idea how the New Beverly will change moving forward, but it seems naïve to think that it won't, and perhaps significantly.

I heard about Michael's final evening late yesterday afternoon, far too late for me to rearrange a previous commitment, and so I wasn't among those who were able to spend last night in his company and that of the community of New Beverly faithful, the people who have made my own renewed relationship with the theater such a joy over the past eight years. So I did the only thing I could do—I conceded to my sadness, and I drank some beer, and I thought a lot about  what the New Beverly Cinema has meant to me, in the Sherman Torgan era, of course, but primarily in the Michael Torgan era.

As I wrote on Facebook yesterday, when I first heard the news, Michael has honored his dad's memory in the best way possible—by tirelessly, and sometimes not so tirelessly carrying on, in the face of changing habits of his audience and any number of other technological wrinkles in the way we watch films in the 21st century, most of which amount to a series of hurdles placed squarely between the desire to present repertory cinema for an increasingly distracted audience and actually getting asses in seats and pictures on the screen. When I think about what the continued existence of the New Beverly has meant, I think about things that have less to do with what the theater means for how we still see the movies, in a general sense, and more to do with reasons that are very selfish, very personal.

The number one thing that I will miss about Michael Torgan not tearing my ticket at the box office is that sense of community which he engendered, for which he was undoubtedly the core. As I began showing up to the theater more regularly again, beginning in 2007, and making what was happening at the New Beverly an important aspect of what I wrote about on this site, I started becoming aware of seeing the same faces every time I'd see a film there. As a result, I met a lot of people, many of whom have become good friends, and we frequently had just as good a time talking about what we’d seen in the lobby afterward as we did watching the films themselves. But even more importantly, Michael always somehow made me and my family feel so very much at home whenever we would go there, either all together or just a couple of us at a time – and we went there a lot. I took my daughter Emma there so often during the years 2009 through 2012, for everything from screwball comedies to film noir to westerns, that we not only established our own favorite seat, but Emma also drew pictures depicting the outside of the theater and the two of us standing with Michael and Julia Marchese, the theater’s director of event programming, which for several years held a place of honor at the entrance of the theater, taped to the inside window of the box office.

So as I continue to worry about that which is out of my control—the future of the New Beverly Cinema—I thought it would be at least a more positive distribution of my energy to think about my favorite moments at the theater and remember the generous vibe, the film school in a popcorn bag atmosphere that Michael Torgan, unexpectedly handed the reins in 2007, managed to cultivate there. Here then are several reasons why I’ll miss the New Beverly Cinema as it once was.

THE FIRST MOVIES I EVER SAW IN LOS ANGELES WERE…  Less than a year after I graduated from college, a friend and I ventured south from Oregon to Los Angeles with vague hopes of trying to find work in the movie business--  #1 piece of advice: Don’t try to break into the movie business during what amounts to an extended two-week vacation. Though we did manage to wrangle an audience with producer Mary Anne Fisher at the old Venice location of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (we even showed her some super-8 movies we’d made), the trip was basically a chance to screw off and see movies. And the first ones we saw were a double bill of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Eraserhead (1977) at—where else?—the New Beverly Cinema. Especially for two hayseed boys from small-town Southern Oregon, the theater had a strange, sinister run-down vibe that was, of course, exacerbated by the skeevy terror of the films themselves, and I remember being constantly aware of my surroundings, as if I seriously questioned whether we’d make it out of there alive. We did. But if you’d have told me in the spring of 1982 that I’d be taking my own daughter to see movies there some 37 years later, I might have suggested driving to the nearest hospital for an emergency vasectomy. Especially after seeing Eraserhead.

UPON RETURNING TO LOS ANGELES FOR GOOD IN 1987, the New Beverly became a favored destination for me and my best pal Bruce, as well as other friends I would quickly make. I remember a screening of Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983) during which Bruce and I discovered the one section in the middle of the auditorium from which the foul reek of stale piss was inescapable. The fact that the house was packed (Packed! On a Wednesday night! For a notorious Nicolas Roeg flop! This place must be some sort of heaven!) meant that we had to sit tight and stick our heads in our popcorn bags for any hope of relief. Avoiding that section in the future, I saw greats like Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Manhattan (1979), Red River (1948) and Ride the High Country (1962) with other friends, including the woman who would soon become my wife. And one night I faced up to one of my major bucket-list fears and bought a ticket for Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).  Like the horrific stench of stale piss, there was no escape from Pasolini’s tortured vision either. (Fear not, motif hounds—I shall return to the urine theme a bit later, though, believe it or not, in a much happier context. And by the way, just for the record, that smell has long since been vanquished from the auditorium!)

FOR TEN YEARS FROM APPROXIMATELY 1997 to 2007, I FELL OUT OF THE HABIT OF GOING TO THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA. But I had a pal at work who was becoming a regular and who was constantly encouraging me to attend the occasional Grindhouse Night with her, those special sojourns into the scurrilous world of low-rent genre cinema that would soon become a twice-monthly staple of New Beverly Tuesday nights. I was constantly begging off, having recently had two daughters of my own and experiencing firsthand the life- and scheduling-altering effects of parenthood. I’d been writing this blog for three years when she finally talked me into it. The first Grindhouse Festival, designed by Quentin Tarantino as a simultaneous homage to the trash classics he loved but also as a cross-promotional opportunity for the upcoming Grindhouse (2007) double feature, got under way in March of 2007. I seized the chance to write about the event for this site, specifically about the two double features I managed to attend-- John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) and Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and then a few weeks later Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) doubled with Richard Lerner’s Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976)-- in a piece entitled "Sex and Violence x 2: Grindhouse Report 2007." And I was off, again, and running.

IF WE’RE LUCKY, WE GET TO HAVE A HANDFUL OF GREAT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCES IN OUR MOVIEGOING LIVES, and during that stretch from 2007, when I started my habit anew, to this year, 2014, the New Beverly has afforded me seemingly more than my share. There was the night, during Edgar Wright’s second “Wright Stuff” festival, when John Landis, who replaced Wright at the last minute, hosted a screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and, to my initial horror, called me out during his introduction to talk about my experience as an extra on that film in front the whole house. (He asked if I thought he’d been a nice guy to work for, and when I answered in the positive he proclaimed, “Well, then I can reveal now that you’re the main reason for the movie’s success!”)

During that stretch I also had the chance to see several of my favorite Robert Altman films projected, including Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye. Most thrilling, however, were the exquisite prints I saw on a M*A*S*H (1970)/California Split (1974) double feature about three years ago, bested only by the chance to see Nashville (1975) again last fall, just prior to Criterion’s gorgeous Blu-ray release, after a long period of not seeing it theatrically. It was even more exciting because I saw the film with two friends who had never seen it before. And yes, we spent some time in the lobby afterwards, with Michael, talking about just how astonishing the movie remains nearly 40 years after it was released, and how even more prescient it seems in the current light of day.

I’ll never forget seeing Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) on a double feature with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) a few years ago , just weeks before Halloween. The hallucinatory brilliance of the double feature (how many more programs like this can we reasonably expect without Michael Torgan’s influence?) was capped perfectly when I made my way out into the lobby afterward, only to see Julia stumbling down the stairs from the projection booth, a dazed look on her face. When she saw me she muttered, “That’s the freakiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Did you like that?!” Equally memorable, the transcendent Sansho the Bailiff (1954; Kenji Mizoguchi), which I’d never seen before, and which unspooled in its haunted splendor before me and about 10 other paying customers on a Friday night. When I stopped to thank Michael for showing it, he could not hide his disappointment that so few patrons, even among the New Beverly faithful, seemed willing to give the movie a chance.

AND THERE WERE THE GREAT, LO-O-O-O-O-O-O-ONG SITS that made me forever grateful for the theater’s seat replacement program, in which the tiny, beat-up fold-down seats were replaced by much nicer, cushier, back-friendly  ones—with cup holders!—in 2008.  It was a real privilege to spend my first riveting and unforgettable experience with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976; Chantal Akerman) in the company of my pal Maria, on whose urging I decided to finally come to terms with this unique and brilliant film myself. 

Slighty longer than that, though considerably more action-packed, was a midnight screening of Tarantino’s own personal answer print of Inglorious Basterds (2009), hosted by the loquacious director himself, which started a half-hour late and was preceded by 45 minutes worth of WWII movie trailers also brought in by the director—which meant that the nearly three-hour feature didn’t get started until about 1:00 a.m. The usual gathering in the lobby to hash out the experience got under way at about 4:00 a.m., and I didn’t leave for home for another half-hour, remembering all the way to my car and all the way home how I used to do this sort of thing all the time in college, and it never seemed as devastating to my system, or my need for sleep, as it did in this moment. 

However,  easily the longest and the most pleasurable of all was the opportunity I took a couple years ago to avail myself of a New Beverly pre-New Year’s tradition: a seven-hour (with bathroom break between features) double bill of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), perhaps the most devastating and thrilling of all American epics. To see it unspool in such close proximity, at full attention, was a singular thrill. I’d pulled this stunt once in the VHS days as a particularly perverse Thanksgiving treat to myself, but there’s nothing like the power of Coppola’s films unleashed in a theater, sans distractions—not even a peep from a cell phone, as I recall--  to make you appreciate their true, unforgiving power.

BUT AS GREAT EXPERIENCES IN A MOVIE THEATER GO, whether at the New Beverly or anywhere else, it’s hard to beat these three in my personal book. In April of 2008 I topped off the first of two interviews with director Joe Dante, who has always been one of my favorites, with a cornucopia of treats he offered at his first “Dante’s Inferno” Film Festival at the New Beverly. There were several highlights, of course, including Dante’s superb Matinee (1993) and his hilarious, politically astute satire The Second Civil War (1997), but nothing could possibly top the first screening in 40 years of Dante’s legendary, lunatic masterwork The Movie Orgy (1968), compiled with producer/friend Jon Davison during their college days. The screening was free thanks to the multiple rights violations within the program itself, making it illegal to charge admission, and it was packed to the gills, taking on the feel of a true underground phenomenon. More an experience than a movie, The Movie Orgy almost defies description, which as you’ll see in my piece "Joe Dante's New Beverly Movie Orgy" in no way stopped me from trying.  (This was the evening during which I was first introduced to Michael Torgan as well. A big night indeed!)

Only about six months later, it was time for another one of those “I never thought I’d ever see this” kinds of nights that the New Beverly was becoming very generous in providing. Staged in part as a tribute to actress Wendie Jo Sperber, who died in 2005 from breast cancer, and an fund- and awareness-raiser for WeSpark, the breast cancer foundation, the New Beverly staged a double bill  of epic proportions featuring Sperber and many, many others-- I Wanna Hold Your Hand! (1978) and one of my favorite films of all time, Steven Spielberg's unjustly maligned 1941 (1979), both of which were written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. (The former was also Zemeckis’ first directing gig.) The stage was packed with veterans of the Zemeckis/Gale stock company, including Gale himself, actress Nancy Allen and actor-director Perry Lang, who staged a great Q&A before 1941 that was worthy of its own DVD audio commentary track. I was especially thrilled to be able to participate in that Q&A and express my unalloyed love for both movies, but Spielberg’s in particular. In my piece "Fire at That Large Industrial Structure: A 1941 Postscript," I talk about the night, which had both an unexpected beginning and a transcendent grace note of a finish.

Those were brilliant nights to be sure, but I don't think anything could match what my friend Don Mancini and I managed to pull off two years later, just before Halloween 2010. The one and only time the name of this blog was ever attached to a movie event was this one, and it was a real honor to have had a hand in making it happen. We commandeered two nights on the New Beverly schedule for what, in our eyes at least, was a terrific double bill— Jaume Collett-Serra’s genuinely frightening Orphan (2009) coupled with Don’s very own misunderstood orphan, Seed of Chucky (2005). The first night was dedicated to the cast and crew of Orphan, including the film’s screenwriter David Leslie Johnson and the unnervingly self-possessed and talented star of the film, Esther herself, Isabelle Fuhrmann, all featured in a Q&A hosted by Don. Night two was dedicated to the spawn of Charles Lee Ray, with Don, actors Jennifer Tilly, Steve West and Debbie Lee Carrington, and producer Corey Sienega all on stage for a Q&A moderated by Face/Off screenwriter Mike Werb. It was a chance to stand up for a couple of horror movies that are much better, more frightening and, in the case of Seed more deliberately funny and satirically sharp than they are usually given credit for, and I think we took 100% advantage of the opportunity to kick-start the buffing-up of both their reputations with this event—and I got to meet (and sit down for dinner with) Jennifer Tilly! Read all about it, and see the Q&As themselves, in my piece The Seed of Chucky/Orphan Q&As."

OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS I’VE MADE MUCH IN THESE PAGES ABOUT THE NEW BEVERLY FAMILY AFFAIR, and though it might sound like a sentimental cliché it really is true, in a couple of different ways. I’ve never felt the sense of bonding over movie love as strongly anywhere else as I have at this theater, and that has everything to do with seeing the same engaged, excited faces at screening after screening, ready to soak up whatever unknown or happily familiar sights and sounds that would be spilling off the screen on any given night. And I’ve met so many people who have become an important, indispensable part of the Los Angeles filmgoing scene that I’ve been welcomed into since 2007. I introduced myself to Anne Thompson for the first time at a screening of Richard Brooks’ Wrong is Right in 2008— astoundingly, she knew about my blog already and has been an ardent supporter of my writing ever since. 

Among the other people I’ve become acquainted with at the New Beverly include fellow writers Peter Avellino, Jeremy Smith and Jen Yamato, filmmakers Brian Crewe, Joe Dante, Matt Dinan, Marion Kerr, Julia Marchese, Peter Podgursky and Edgar Wright, extraordinary and erudite film fanatics like John Damer, Marc Edward Heuck, Cathie Horlick, Jeff McMahon, Brian Quinn and producer/classic film specialist Michael Schlesinger, film archivist Ariel Schudson (my TCM Film Festival pal), as well as all-around good souls and New Bev fixtures like Corky Baines , Freddie, and of course Clu Gulager. If ever one needed and coveted a family of like-minded filmheads, this is a pretty glorious group with which to start.

And as I stated earlier, Michael and the New Beverly always found a way to make my family feel as though the place was our second home. One evening we found ourselves on the way home from the Westside and my youngest daughter Nonie, as often happens to young kids, was seized by an urgent need to take a whiz. We just happened to be passing the theater on Beverly Boulevard, so I whipped around, pulled in front of the theater and asked if she could use the pottie. While I waited for her to finish, I talked with some of the staff and Michael even gave Nonie a hot dog for the ride home. Try pulling that off at your local AMC mall-tiplex. (See how I returned to that urine motif? Told you I would.)

BUT FOR US THE FAMILY CONNECTION GOES DEEPER than the well-timed availability of the ladies’ room. Round about 2008 I began making a concerted effort to encourage my kids’ interest in classic films, and the New Beverly played a hugely important role in that time and aspect of their young lives. As a dad hoping to instill reverence and love for all sorts of movies in his kids, the theater provided an opportunity that was just too rich and varied to pass up. I started them both off with a kiddie Halloween matinee of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and we were off to the races. Nonie joined us on occasion, but more often it was Emma accompanying me for a wide variety of great double features, including Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953), during which she cultivated a short-lived Jack Elam impersonation,  Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Christmas in July, (1940), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), from which Nonie’s popular head shot was cultivated, Modern Times (1936) and The General (1926), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and  Coogan’s Bluff (1968), and other great movies like Ace in the Hole (1950), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

Emma had a personal revelation with the hilarity of the Marx Brothers when I took her to see a double feature of Duck Soup (1933) and Animal Crackers (1931)—I wrote about it in a piece entitled "Duck Soup-- Funniest Movie Ever?", and another one when director Rian Johnson, working on a theme of cons in the movies, introduced her to the ostensibly strange but beautifully modulated double bill of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen  (1988). (I thanked Johnson, and received a nice response back, in a post entitled "An Open Letter to Rian Johnson".)

And we had a great time together as a family for two Halloweens running, with me dressing up in totally white vampire egghead mode the first year for The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941), and then the next year working a subtle variation on the bald, totally red-headed Satan, Nonie as his unaccountably lovely daughter/minion, for a double feature of Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Them! (1954). The second year’s bonus is that we entered the New Beverly Halloween Costume Contest, judged by the audience and emcee Joe Dante, and Nonie and I kicked ass, taking first prize, a pass card worth 16 free admissions! It was worth the Karen Silkwood-style Lava soap scrub-down I had to endure to get myself clean when we finally made it home.

But Michael and the New Beverly saved the best for a couple of birthday celebrations. For my 50th birthday in 2010, Michael generously offered to let me program the double feature to be shown on my birthday date that year, and the pairing I chose—You Only Live Twice (1967), my favorite of all the Bond movies, alongside Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the third in the Michael Caine/Harry Palmer series, which I’d never seen projected, was the perfect combination. 

And earlier that same year, through Michael’s seemingly endless generosity, we threw Emma’s 10th birthday party in the theater on a rainy Saturday morning, with a magician, free popcorn and sodas, pizzas hauled over from Domino’s by Michael and myself, and a screening of Emma’s movie choice, Cats and Dogs (2001). To this day I can’t think of this party and how much it meant to me and my family without getting emotionally overwhelmed. We carved out a one-of-a-kind memory for my movie-crazy daughter that day, and I will be forever in Michael’s debt for facilitating such an amazing experience for her. You can read all about it in my post entitled "Wanna Be the Daughter of Dracula..."

So after 36 years of the New Beverly Cinema under the tutelage and guidance of the Torgan family, I’m left with these sweet memories—yours are certainly different, but just as plentiful— an ache in my heart for what has passed, and trepidation for what form the theater will take, what function it will fulfill in the Los Angeles movie community when it reopens in October. I don’t hold out much realistic hope that Michael will continue in the repertory theater game—he’s made his mark, and I wouldn’t begrudge him or be at all surprised if he takes this opportunity to make a new path for himself. I just hope he sleeps well, knowing what he and his family have meant to those who hold the movies dear. To paraphrase and reposition the words of one Steve Judd, played by Joel McCrea at the end of a movie I first saw at the New Beverly Cinema, Michael Torgan deserves to rest easy and know that, once and for all, he can most certainly leave this house justified.

Thanks, Michael, for everything.

(Some photos courtesy of Ariel Schudson)


Monday, August 18, 2014


Is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood "one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century?" Possibly. A.O. Scott of the New York Times certainly thinks so. Is it one of the best movies ever made, as a friend of mine gushed only moments after having just seen it on its opening weekend? Who knows? We usually let 40 or 50 years pass before we start talking of such things. Do such declarations even matter at this point, the film having been alive in the American marketplace only just over a month? Probably not, unless you’re in the business of predicting the Oscars. But both remarks seem to be indicative of the sort of rush to hyperbole Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan spoke of when addressing his own shrug of a response to the movie. I am not for a minute suggesting either response is in any way insincere or disingenuous, just perhaps a little too well-suited for a culture that wants even a sprawling, uniquely expressed film like Boyhood to be packaged in neat, digestible bites.

Unfortunately, in his Los Angeles Times article Turan remained maddeningly coy about the details of his dissenting opinion on Boyhood, and far more articulate about the less interesting topic of standing alone in the critical community against the stiff wind of near-unanimous praise. His most cogent commentary about the film was the suggestion that much of the praise being heaped on Boyhood might be partially explained by a critic’s desire to validate his/her own practice. "We yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces," Turan wrote, "perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful." This may be true on occasion, for critics and for viewers, though it is surprising to hear Turan calling into question the veracity of other people’s responses, however much more comfy-chair is his tone than the one Armond White took in skewering the film’s "think-alike idolators," especially after Turan essentially refuses to elaborate meaningfully on the foundations for his own dissatisfaction.

So, what makes a masterpiece? As Sam Adams points out in a very thoughtful piece on the effect of the film’s welcoming within the critical community, masterpieces are not the result of a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. They are instead the result of careful scrutiny which, in the spirit of Linklater’s film, is only possible with the passage of time. "Criticisms, and the extent to which they illuminate the fascinating imperfections beneath those masterpieces’ surface," Adams writes, "only make them stronger." To that end, part of the journey into the culture undertaken by Boyhood, a movie which expresses the elusiveness of time and experience in a way quite unlike just about any other movie which has addressed the subject, is yet to come—that’d be the part which happens in our heads and our hearts as the movie takes hold of our imaginations and becomes a milestone in our experience as viewers or, of course, fails to do so.

I saw Boyhood the day before yesterday, and I’ve never been happier to not have to turn around and crank out 750 words on a deadline about a movie. Frankly, two days later, I’m still a whole lot more overwhelmed by it than I thought I would be. Any words of mine regarding the movie’s marvelous qualities of sociological, ethnographic, psychological and, of course, temporal consciousness would likely be superficial and add nothing to the general chorus of hosannas that have already been expressed far more eloquently. Nothing I could say about the movie’s central structuring conceit would likely be any more illuminating than what you’ve likely already read— the movie is an almost-documentary observation of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a strictly fictional character, filmed over 12 years, his years from age six to 18 compressed into a way of seeing and experiencing life that would be difficult for anyone to believe could work as fully well in the viewing as it does. (Linklater’s pitch meetings to the money men must have had Orson Welles and Robert Altman saluting from beyond the grave.)

Even so, it is a remarkable thing to witness the evolution of this dreamy boy child (we first see him staring at clouds, then sitting between his house and a fence, whiling away his days doing nothing) into a slightly underachieving young man, his sleepy eyelids in constant battle with the alertness, the size of the eyes themselves. It’s fascinating to watch him learn to react (and recede from reaction) as his friends and family try to fashion him into something he barely seems interested in; to experience how he holds our interest even if we may occasionally feel the urge to shake him into something like a less complacent state of being; and to see his own personal way of processing the world, of taking it in and appreciating it for what it is, take shape, find expression.

Even the movie’s flirtation with heavy-handed melodrama, particularly in regard to Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and her continuing misfortunes with men, don’t feel so egregious or miscalculated in light of the screenplay’s lithe sidestepping past the various opportunities to indulge in obvious emotional manipulation—possible affairs, possible pregnancy, possible unexpected tragedy—the story might seem to afford. Arquette is given the remarkable opportunity to live and breathe the sort of woman who might, in many other films, be merely a receptacle for the fears and the frustrations of the protagonist, or those of the director. But as Wesley Morris points out in his review of the film, one of the remarkable things about Linklater’s Boyhood is how much welcome room it makes for Arquettte’s singularly poignant portrait of single motherhood.

The film marks the passage of time in the faces of its actors, of course, but also through the way it indicates, without a jarring jump-cut sensibility, how Olivia (Patricia Arquette) extricates herself from the influence of her abusive, alcoholic husbands (the second one entirely off-screen); how the landscape of her countenance, changing in its way right along with her son’s, illustrates her deepening concern and love; by the telling presence of technology, of how Game Boy screens and televisions morph into computers and smartphones and, of course, the unseen grid of social media; of the political landscape of Texas after the turn of the century; and by the deft massaging of all these elements into scenes that don’t seem edited as much as molded together.

And perhaps most of all, I appreciate how the movie affords us the glimpse into the evolution of Mason Jr.’s dad, Mason (Ethan Hawke), who in his first scenes registers as a callow slacker who naturally tries too hard to ingratiate himself into his role as a weekend dad, who tries too hard to hold on to the signifiers of his youth as badges of personal honor. As time dissolves on, Mason trades his bitchin’ GTO—the car his son perhaps none too secretly covets—for a minivan and a new family to ride in it and, as a result of the accumulation of experience and, no doubt, marrying into a family of Texas Christians, becomes a more conservative version of himself than he would have ever allowed to be possible. (At one point his daughter Samantha—played with equal parts grace and lack of experience in front of a camera by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei—worries that her dad might be becoming one of those "God people," and all he can do is glance back at his wife and newborn baby with a shrug and a chuckle.) A great indicator of the movie’s own state of grace is that it never tries to score points off the path Mason Sr. has ended up taking, but instead accepts him and the unstated conflict between his past and current versions in much the same way it does Mason Sr.’s in-laws, who aren’t demonized for presenting the younger Mason with a personalized Bible and a 20-gauge shotgun as birthday presents.

But as Mason Sr. ages into the sort of gravitas that allows him a true connection with his son, as one experienced adult, with the lines on his face to prove it, to an emerging one, so too does Hawke, whose own aging on screen is every bit as rewarding in its emergent hardiness and solidity as Coltrane’s. I don’t know that Hawke has ever been as effective, as affecting, in any role—and that includes the three Before pictures he co-wrote and starred in for Linklater and with Julie Delpy—as he is in his final scene with Mason Jr., assessing his own life and his shortcomings, and even the meaning of an improvised life, in the presence of this young man who’s about to step out on his own and start making his own mistakes. The weight Hawke brings to the part, combined with the way Linklater has allowed us to see them grow together, gives the moment a clarity and heartbreaking believability that just isn’t accessible to more conventional portraits of parents and their children, and throws into relief how much Boyhood becomes as much about what it means to bring up a child as it is about being one.

Another point made by some of Boyhood’s detractors, as pointed out in Sam Adams’ essay, is that much of the praise heaped upon the movie is the result of progressive, white, male film critics seeing themselves in or projecting themselves onto the character of Mason, a strange thought considering the gender and race of some of the movie’s strongest and most articulate supporters. Much to my relief, Linklater’s Boyhood is not my boyhood. I didn’t spend time, nor did I feel encouraged to spend time ticking off all the ways in which Mason’s story stood in for that of all (white) boys—it’s not a portrayal that is designed to invite easy, superficial comparisons that will reassure or otherwise validate a certain demographic and its experiences. (Okay, I did occasionally thumb through the Sears-Roebuck catalog for its erotic qualities.) And the near universal positive response to the movie might be a clue that Linklater’s intent, to fashion an unusual way for audiences to experience a life, a bit of time caught in a bottle, is pushing its way past more routine expectations, that Boyhood might be built on the much more simple desire to look back fondly and say, "Yeah, that’s me."

I love how Linklater lets the movie sprawl and find its own shape outside of prescribed methods of editing, how he allows it to trickle through the timeline and make room for the sorts of detail that would get sifted out of a more strictly and traditionally dramatic approach. Nothing much beyond the course of everyday experience happens in Boyhood—the movie has also been criticized in some quarters for not being dramatic enough, for being a too generalized portraiture of growing up. Yet the movie captures with alarming sensitivity the way youth, and the way people move through it toward maturity, makes each decision seem momentous, important, far-reaching, when precisely the opposite may be true. I just had one of those conversations with my own daughter, who is beginning high school this year, and I was fascinated to watch the little flickers of conflict and understanding and confusion dance across her face as we considered together this new phase in her life. The sort of moment we had during that talk was the sort I found reflected back at me in Mason’s tentative, increasingly curious conversations with his parents, the sort of personal connection, the coalescing of a movie’s worth of these sorts of observations— which might end up on the cutting room floor in a more conventionally mounted production—that brought Boyhood into a deeper realm for me.

Somewhere during the second hour of Boyhood I began to register the sense of being alive to the movie in a way that hasn’t happened very often in my experience with movies, and for much of the back half of the film I felt near tears, though I wouldn’t have been able to say why—it was certainly not due to any sort of manipulative tactics Linklater or his actors were employing. I remained in this sort of heightened state of awareness as Mason moved through anticipating college, experiencing the joys and disappointments of his first serious romance, graduating high school and taking the first steps out into a larger, scarier world full of possible achievement and just as possible failure, onto the precipice of his first fully realized philosophy of where his life has brought him, into young adulthood. As the movie ended, I sighed with a sense of relief, satisfied that I'd been able to see Linklater’s vision through, that I had been properly moved by the movie’s emotional and psychological achievement, that my own resistance to the film, perhaps brought on in part as a reaction to the boatload of celebration that greeted its release, had been overtaken by genuine appreciation for it. I sat back and laid my head on my wife’s shoulder and, perhaps sensing something was up, she asked me if I was okay. At that point I burst into uncontrollable sobs, from which it took a while to make a recovery. I’ve felt somewhat overwhelmed by the movie since, and only after a couple of days did I feel like I even wanted to try to think about what was happening underneath my reaction.
Tears are, in my experience, a very unreliable way in which to gauge the merit of a movie, or of any work of art-- any hack can push the right buttons and make someone in the audience cry, and you can often find yourself blubbering at something even as you’re kicking yourself for falling for an emotional ruse. But what I began to sense in the second half of the movie, the reason I was beginning to feel so raw, came to a head during the scene between Mason and his dad in the club. As they talked, I remember thinking to myself, "This is what’s it is like." The thought came not as a way of validating Linklater’s approach to realism. I was thinking to myself, this is what it’s like to have a son. At which point I realized the nature of the gift the movie was in the process of giving me, in its sensitivity to character, of course, but also through the structure which allows us the privilege of seeing a time-compressed portrait of a life being lived, a person being changed, a journey toward the unknown, toward pain, fulfillment, toward death. In Boyhood I was being given a chance to feel what it might have been like to live life with my own son, Charlie, who was stillborn on August 11, 1997 and buried on this day 17 years ago. Watching this movie, I felt I had access to insight into the companionship and connection a father has with his son, the way they relate, the way they bristle against each other, the way they test each other, the way they can ease into each other’s company. It was splendid, unexpected, and way more than I was prepared to handle in the moment. And if I ever have the chance to congratulate Richard Linklater on his movie, it will be in the context of being grateful for him having created an opportunity for me to experience, in a particular fashion, something I never thought I would.

Is Boyhood the greatest movie ever made, an enduring masterpiece? Who cares? Its sublime everyday poetry, its generosity, its empathy, its curiosity, its window onto the true fleetingness and intangibility of time, these are the qualities that actually mean something. Boyhood is extraordinary right now. When we’re older and grayer and ostensibly wiser, there will still be plenty of time to discuss matters of greatness.


Friday, August 15, 2014


As you may have noticed, things have been somewhat quiet on the SLIFR University campus this past school year. How quiet? Well, the last quiz had a timely Christmas theme, and almost nine months later Yours Truly, headmaster of all he surveys here at our little learning boutique, still hasn’t submitted his own answers to it. (I’d promise to rectify that soon, but it’s more likely to take me until this coming Christmas to get those answers together—which isn’t a bad idea for a holiday post, now is it?) It may seem like the SLIFR U staff has been on vacation, but it’s not exactly true. But yes, despite how it may look, our hardy educators have been bunkered down in offices, conference rooms and the moldy basement of the SLIFR U cafeteria trying to come up with new ways to invigorate academic endeavors and reinvent learning for the few dedicated, loyal students who still care to park their carcasses in the lecture halls of this storied institution.

To this end, we welcome a new addition to the well of knowledge from which so many have drank, filled their heads and moved on. (And probably continued to drink, just not from our metaphorical well, but whatever…) His name is Professor Dewey Finn, and he will be joining our esteemed music department. Though Professor Finn is not exactly a proper professor, he did insist we address him as such as a condition of his accepting employment here, so we have done so, however reluctantly. (The heavily tenured head of the department, Dr. Anton Phibes, has registered the most empathic resistance to this idea, and though he has been civilized in his objections so far, per his history Dr. Phibes has been instructed by our legal advisors to approach Prof. Finn with caution and respect in any future encounters.) Professor Finn hopes to stimulate your brains with a strange mélange of questions with little purpose or focus beyond his own amusement, a strategy he hopes will serve him well as he shepherds the rock division of our musical studies here at the university this year.
As part of his introductory duties, Professor Finn has devised a brand-new quiz in that spirit with which to ring in the new school year, and you see it before you now— he calls it his very own Ostentatiously Odd, Scholastically Scattershot Back-to-School (Of Rock?) Movie Quiz—which should warm you up for the rest of the adventures in movie education that await you as the calendar enters is autumn/winter phase. The notes on this quiz are the same as always: You may provide links to your answers if you have your own blog or Web site, but if you enter your answers in the comments field, please copy and paste the questions along with your answers so readers may more easily reference the context of your answers. Also, Professor Finn is very much like the rest of our staff in that, while he will certainly accept short, to-the-point answers, he is much more entertained and enlightened by an answer that isn’t afraid to err on the side of the verbose. So feel free to let loose your logorrheic tendencies here!
So, without any further hesitation, let’s jump right in. Pencils at the ready, back straight, eyes forward. You may begin!
1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you’d most like
     to see get the HARD DAY’S NIGHT or HEAD treatment

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

5) Favorite Robin Williams performance

6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema

8) Favorite movie about growing up

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question
     submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie
       (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie
       character that you’ve heeded in real life

15) Favorite movie about learning

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but,
       for one reason or another, never made. These could be
       projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at
      one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached--
      and your "version" of the film might be the one with that
      lost director, for example (question submitted by
      Brian Doan, class of 2007)

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor

19) Favorite chase scene

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like
        proselytizing about right now

21) Favorite movie about high school

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the
       upcoming awards season

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been
       a movie star

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie

27) Favorite odd couple

28) Flicker or Zeroville?

29) Favorite movie about college

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite
        underappreciated performance

31) Favorite movie about parenting

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with
       which you are well familiar

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the
       contemporary performer who most evokes their

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted
       by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)


Monday, August 11, 2014


One of the pleasures of revisiting movies we loved as kids can be in seeing how much richness the passage of time and our own experience brings to how we live and breathe the vision of the filmmaker, or the lives of characters that may be as familiar to us as members of our own families. Of course, it doesn’t always work this way—sometimes on return engagements the stuff which turned us on as young viewers is revealed to be crass or manipulative or otherwise false in ways we couldn’t have recognized without the benefit of a little maturity. But every now and then we get lucky and a movie that meant something to us when we were younger and just beginning to understand the world through more empathetic eyes turns out to be one that honors the passions and joys and disappointments of everyday life, one which retains its emotional resonance while rewarding the years spent thinking about it with richer perspective on its characters.

I recently went on a multiple-day cycling trip with some friends, and one of the ways I got myself prepared for the adventure was to revisit Breaking Away (1979). While perhaps not specifically a movie “about” cycling, Breaking Away is certainly steeped in the expressive capacity the sport has for its principal protagonist, a young Bloomington, Indiana townie named Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), whose inarticulate yearning to travel a path other than the one laid for him by his blue-collar dad (Paul Dooley) coalesces through his love for Italian culture, particularly the world of Italian cycling. Naturally, it was Dave’s story, Dave’s yearning, that made the movie reverberate for me when I first saw it as a 19-year-old college junior. I was quickly approaching a crossroads of my own, and I understood not only Dave’s desire to be transported somewhere beyond the limits of his small-town upbringing, but also his closed-off relationship with his dad, whose comic hostility and intolerance toward Dave’s passions seemed impenetrable. (Mr. Stoller reminded me not only of my dad, but the dad of a close friend as well.)

I saw myself in Dave, of course, despite the fact that I was not at all athletic as a young man. But even when I first encountered the movie it was clear that Breaking Away, guided by Peter Yates’ clear-eyed, no-nonsense direction, had a way with subtly spreading its sympathies across generational boundaries. In 1979 we were still five or so years away from the invasion of John Hughes, a writer-director so eager to burrow his way into the hearts of minds of the youth market that there’s barely an adult character in his oeuvre who isn’t either a tone-deaf dunderhead or cripplingly dependent on the sympathies of the kids surrounding them, all of whose worries and fears and immature yammering always carry more weight than those of Hughes’ numb, defeated, clueless grownups. And at first glance Dooley’s characterization seems to flirt with the sort of narrow-minded blowhard-iness that would become a staple of Hughes’ never-trust-anyone-over-30 (except Hughes, of course) philosophy.

But Steve Tesich’s screenplay is smart enough to lay the groundwork for a tentative meeting of minds between Dave and his dad, and for moments that allow audiences to see Mr. Stoller as something other than a comic gargoyle, someone capable of remembering what it was like to be young and hopeful about the future. At age 19 I was relieved when the cracks in Dooley’s defensiveness toward his son began to appear. But probably because my tenuous relationship with my own dad was still far from resolved I was never fully able to rid myself of the sense that Mr. Stoller was a man who would continue to try to exercise his will and his pent-up rage over further signs of his son’s increasing independence. It remained for me, as a young man operating without the benefit of empathy for other perspectives, a movie whose primary concern was Dave.

In seeing Breaking Away as an adult, however, it’s striking to me that, with all due respect and reverence to Barbara Barrie, whose blend of compassion and stern sympathy as Mrs. Stoller has always seemed a perfect conjuring of weary yet warm motherhood, this is a movie about sons and fathers. And the plural is appropriate, because there are four friends (the title of another Steve Tesich-penned film) in the picture whose dads, in absentia from the movie and, in some cases, from their lives, remain influential, for better and worse.

Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has a dad and mom who have moved away to Chicago in search of better employment prospects. But instead of feeling abandoned Moocher, fueled by his relatively sunny disposition, forges ahead, perhaps with his dad as an example. He’s got a girlfriend whom he wants to marry, and he keeps looking for work himself, though not too ambitiously. Moocher seems to have seized the opportunity, since his parents are no longer around, to feel out what it’s like to be truly independent.

Mike (Dennis Quaid), the disillusioned ex-jock, never speaks of his dad—we presume he’s dead, or perhaps he abandoned his family at some point. But he’s got a father figure to push against in the personage of his older brother (John Ashton), who not only has the advantage of age in the relationship, but he’s also a town police officer, one who occasionally, if reluctantly, has to assert his authority over Mike and his pals.

The likably sarcastic Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the only other one of the three with a dad who lives in Bloomington, but as he memorably recounts to Dave, it’s a father-son relationship built predominantly on the elder’s apparently only parenting skill—the doling out of sympathy during moments of failure. (“It’s okay, Cyril. I understand.”) During the celebration of the team’s unlikely victory in the Little 500, it’s the absence of Cyril’s dad that provides one of the movie’s most piercing moments—as Dave celebrates with his parents, Moocher hugs his now-wife, and even as Mike jumps up and down and hollers with his brother, Cyril can only look on, a wistful mixture of happiness and disappointment on his face, wishing that his dad were there to see him in a moment of success and provide him an opportunity to express a rare burst of exhilaration. It’s a moment notable for the subtly with which Stern plays it, but also for the way Yates almost glides past it, as if to stay longer with it might be seen as some sort of intrusion.

The key to unlocking the mystery of Mr. Stoller turns out to be not just the father-son scenes between him and Dave (“You’re not a Cutter. I’m a Cutter!”), but those involving Mr. and Mrs. Stoller, when the husband is eased by his wife into a better understanding of the son’s behavior, which Dad finds confounding. Tesich and Yates display laudable patience and intuitive storytelling intelligence in allowing the movie these moments during which wife and husband can relate to each other as people with a shared past, as human beings, not authority figures—just one more way the movie elevates itself above what would become John Hughes’ cheap bag of tricks. It’s in these moments that Mr. Stoller is tenderized toward his son, thus making sure the audience registers that Mr. Stoller’s understanding has been awakened before his enthusiastic embrace of Dave’s performance in the bike race, that his son’s athletic success is not the sole reason why the father has made newfound room for him in his overtaxed heart. What we once may have mistaken for hostility and intolerance on Mr. Stoller’s part can now more easily be seen as confusion over his son’s sympathies, his sense of being threatened by not being able to connect with his son’s interests, and most certainly an elder Cutter’s fear of being left behind to watch his son forge the sort of future he never could.

Breaking Away continues to hold a fascination for me because of the way it accommodates seeing both Dave and his dad from each other’s point of view. We are most certainly more on Dave’s side emotionally, but with a little time it has become easier for me to appreciate Dave’s adoption of his Italian persona, particularly as it plays into the deception of Katarina (Robin Douglass), his would-be amore, as less a comic conceit and more of an expression of his own insecurity and desperation. (And it is a little creepy too, which is, I’m sure, how his dad sees it.) And now that I’m a grownup it’s easier to identify with the frustrations Mr. Stoller must feel about the avenues not taken during his life, about not being able to continue doing what he feels he did best to provide for his family, about how even that trade—stonecutting--  has become increasingly irrelevant now that all the space for new buildings, not to mention rocks in the quarries, have been used to build places like the local university, places built for people other than people like himself.

But now I also see the younger and the older Stoller at the end of Breaking Away and I’m reminded of something else. Seventeen years ago today my wife and I lost our son Charlie, and perhaps it’s this hole in my heart, which will never be filled, that speaks up most profoundly to me when I watch the movie today. It’s because Tesich and Yates, and Dooley and Christopher, have crafted such a believable and moving portrait of a father and a son, in conflict and in togetherness, that I continue to take from the movie an understanding of the way a young man—myself-- feels his way into the world, and the way a distant father—my own dad, maybe?-- feels his way toward his son. But I also see faint echoes of my own life, the one not taken (or allowed), as a father to a son who likely would have wanted to go his own way as well, and a glimpse at some of the ways I could have risen to the occasion, or fallen beneath it. The memory of Charlie echoes in my soul constantly, never more so than on this day, of course, but also strongly whenever I encounter a truthful and uncompromising portrait of a father and son relationship on screen. It’s what I’m hoping for from Boyhood. But until I see that, Charlie and I will always have Breaking Away.


Friday, August 08, 2014



I film hanno mai visto una tale bellezza prima o dopo?