Saturday, December 23, 2006

CRAMMIN': DENNIS ANSWERS PROF. JENNINGS MILTON-FREE, UNIVERSE-EXPANDING MIDTERM



Professor Jennings's students avert their eyes from his intense, slightly bloodshot stare as he demands yet another answer to the Milton-Free, Universe Expanding Holiday Midterm. (SLIFR readers may recognize the kid the front row with the blue sweater as none other than frequent commenter and best-friend-to-the-blog-host, none other than Blaaagh himself!)

As for taking this test, whose idea was this? I'm tired already...

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

Gee, there was a period about two weeks when, if I’d answered this question then, I might have looked a lot more like a cinephile instead of a yahoo who gets dragged to the arthouse occasionally by his wife. But timing is, if not everything, then just as revealing as anything else when it comes to these questions, so here are my true confessions:

The last movie I saw in the theater: Just got back from seeing Stephen Frears’ The Queen with my dear wife. Why? Because we both hoped we’d see some good acting. And it was a rare occasion for us both to go out together, sans beautiful girls, especially on a weeknight, to catch something we both have wanted to see for some time. Though I struggled to stay awake during the last half hour, I can’t blame that on the film, which was a marvel of empathy that still manages, as my wife observes, to never let anyone wriggle entirely off the hook—not Tony Blair, not Elizabeth, not even Diana. I haven’t decided whether I would vote for her myself or not, but I cannot imagine anyone else but Helen Mirren walking out of the Kodak Theater this February with that Best Actress statuette. And now I’d really like to get ahold of The Deal, a 2003 film Frears made with The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan, also starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, which, to hear tell, serves as a sort of a groundwork-laying part one to 2006’s Oscar-friendly consideration of the relevance of British royalty in the modern U.K.

Last Friday night, I undertook the annual present wrapping chore as I usually do, in front of a movie or two. My perennial favorite for the past six or seven years has been Cabin Boy, but I decided to give this undisputed classic a rest this year, and as there was a ridiculous amount of wrapping to do I undertook a double feature. The first, Lucky Number Slevin, was a lukewarm, too-clever-by-half post-Tarantino bash that I saw mainly on the strength of the good notices I remember reading regarding Lucy Liu’s performance. She’s a beauty, and very appealing as a coroner who befriends the oddly placid Slevin (Josh Hartnett), a guy with a broken nose misidentified by two rival gangsters as someone who owes them a whole lot of money and who doesn’t seem to mind much this potentially lethal bit of mistaken identity. But Lucy Liu’s charms couldn’t, for me, keep this thriller afloat long enough to save it from drowning in its own lack of urgency. It’s one of those movie where, as each level of deception is revealed, as each person’s true identity is revealed, all the air keeps getting pushed out in favor of that vacuum-sealed quality (all the better to keep out believability) so prized by the screenwriter Jason Smilovic, who clearly worships too fervently at the altar of The Usual Suspects.

However, the second feature, which was the last movie I saw on DVD:, saved Wrap Night from being a total bummer. Its name? Beerfest. Why Beerfest? Well, I had a free rental coupon and figured that it was possible the movie might be moderately amusing, based on the enthsiasm of some of the reviews I remember reading last August. But I would have never guessed at the high quality, as well as the high quantity, of dumb (but never mean-spirited) laughs to be found in this paean to gross overindulgence in all things brewski. It takes a while to get into gear, but once the Wolfhouse brothers (propreitors of Shitzengiggles, a stateside bar and grill) end up in Germany for Oktoberfest and discover an underground society built around a hard-core beer-drinking competition, the laughs flow like a tawny ale from a giant keg with only the occasional air bubble. Once the leader of the evil German squad of quaffers, who will taunt our boys right into the final competition, is revealed to be Jurgen Prochnow, and the ultimate test of man and liver to be slugging down a half-gallon of suds out of a calf-and-foot-shaped container called (of course) Das Boot, I knew I was squarely on the movie’s side and reasonably sure it wouldn’t betray the good will it had earned. It didn’t, and it just got funnier, with stellar cameos from Cloris Leachman, revisiting Frau Blucher territory as the boys’ slightly demented grandmother, and Monique as the nurse hired to care for her who turns out to have a very naughty secret. Beerfest is silly comedy of a high order; I only wish I hadn’t missed it on that double bill with Jackass Number Two at the drive-in earlier this year.

The last movie I saw on the job: Over the past week I’ve had to sit through Turistas, that frothy Hostel-light confection currently leaving theaters with its tail snugly between its legs, three times. That is exactly three times too many. Why did I see this movie, which even as a unapologetic horror fan I avoided on the big screen, not once but three times? Because I was paid to. A group of typically beautiful tourists, casually exploitive and smug foreigners from the U.S.A. and the U.K. making their way through South America, dawdle around for a full hour of screen time, slowly allowing themselves, through arroagnce and plain stupidity, to get in a position to be eviscerated by a Brazilian surgeon who plans to give their organs to his poor countrymen, the ones inevitably passed in line in favor of rich gringos in need of healthy kidneys and livers. Of course, the intent is to find this doctor’s scheme, with its patina of moral outrage, horrifying. But by the time the first of these idiots finds themselves under the knife, all that first hour has done (besides bore us to tears and thwart any suspicion that this might turn out to be an actual horror movie, or at least a film with any sense of mounting dread) is get us squarely on the doctor’s side, as far as this cast is concerned, anyway. Gut ‘em all and get it over with, we’re thinking. At least then something will finally happen.

However, the movie’s director, John Stockwell (Blue Crush, Into The Blue) erases that ugly sense of identification and tips his hand right at the start of the big, gory set piece—that first liver removal— when we get a very tight close-up of a surgical blade tracing a line over the very tight abs, and around the very sexy pierced belly button, of the female victim. Even though she’s been relentlessly obnoxious for the entire film, and she’s the purveyor of one of it’s dumbest lines (“Anybody here mind if I go topless?”), that’s hardly an excuse to sexualize her needlesly long, agonizingly drawn-out evisceration. And as the doctor purrs his outraged bedside manner in her ear (yes, she’s conscious) and explains his raison d’etre, I found myself squirming and thinking two things: 1) I’m really pissed off that Stockwell staged this horrific violation like a indifferent seduction— I doubt he would have done so if the first victim had been the barmy Brit, an obnoxious male; and 2) even though this doctor has stated that he only has 12 hours to steal the kidneys and livers of all six of his unfortunate house guests, am I suppose to accept that he takes this much time to blah-blah about his righteous anger and motivation to everyone from whom he cherry-picks vital organs?

The movie, vacant and dull up to this point, trades up from the gruesomely offensive to the incoherently staged action of its final 20 minutes, even managing a stab at the kind of claustrophobic senstaion that The Descent wove so tightly into its grand scheme. In Turistas, however, the claustrophobia is just pointless. The staging of the climax in a maze of underwater caves serves only to make it harder to keep track of who’s skewering who as everything mercifully comes to an end, until you realize, as I did, that you’d long since stopped caring. Hostel at least managed to conjure a crescendo of dread underneath the hedonistic revelry of its ugly-Americans-in-Eastern-Europe setup, even if that abattoir the characters eventually found themselves in really was a narrative dead end. Turistas, however, is so cynical and indifferently constructed, its characters merely meat with mobility and certainly no minds to speak of, or to mourn, that it really does deserve the overused description “torture porn.”

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

The first names that came to mind were Robby Muller (The State of Things, Repo Man, They All Laughed, Dead Man) and Freddie Francis (Room at the Top, The Innocents, The Elephant Man, Dune, Return to Oz). But then I remembered the name of the first cinematographer whose name used to (still does) get me excited when I hear his name attached to a project-- Peter Suschitzky. Suschitzky replaced Mark Irwin as David Cronenberg’s cinematographer of choice with the icy, muted tones of Dead Ringers (1988), and has shot every one of the director’s features since (Naked Lunch, M.Butterfly, Crash, eXistenZ, Spider, A History of Violence). Suschtzky also lent his eye to the candy-colored cacophony of Mars Attacks!, John Boorman’s woefully underrated, emotionally charged Where the Heart Is and the garish visual pallete of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But I’ll always remember Suschitzky for two films in particular: the silky, lurid intensity he lent to the fevered and absurd pop fantasia of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania...







and Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back-- the insinuatingly tactile sheen of Darth Vader’s helmet; the rich, vivid, velvety dark blues and reds in front of which Luke and Vader played out their Oedipal duel; the crisp lines and seemingly endless depth-of-focus of the landscapes on the snow planet. This is the one episode of George Lucas’s space opera in which the grand emotions, the sweeping mythology and the pulp origins of its pastiche vision all get full visual realiziation, from frame one to the last, courtesy of Suschitzky’s all-seeing eye.

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?
Bo Svenson will always have a place in my heart for the borderline psychosis he brought to pro football player Joe Bob Priddy in North Dallas Forty. But he was merely a pretender as Buford Pusser, even though he got two movies and a brief TV series out of swinging that Walking Tall club. Joe Don Baker, however, also has Mitchell (MST3K and non-MST3K versions) under his Schlitz-loving beer belly-sized belt, as well as the hall-of-fame villain Molly in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick. And he’s named Joe Don. Unless we get another hulking star with a similarly ambivalent grin, booming good-old-boy voice and general physical imposition of this order whose name is Joe Bob, Mr. Baker will continue to be the man.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…)
The most recent example of an uncontrollable gasp (this one in horror) I let out during a movie is one I will try to allude to without giving away any specifics. It’s the moment during The Descent when a measure of fatal violence is doled out by a character who has been made to distrust someone based on eye-witness, but totally misinterpreted, information. For me, it’s the moment in the movie when true horror is sealed and made inescapable, no matter the presence of daylight or a familiar (ambivalent?) image of a lost love returning yet again before the end credits roll…If you missed The Descent in a theater, put that Best Buy gift card you’re going to get for Christmas to good use and pick up a wide-screen copy of it when it comes out on December 26.

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.
A free rotation between (in alphabetical order) Hollywood Boulevard (the fun and the sleaze), Sherlock Jr. (the laughs and the undiluted magic), The Stunt Man (the excitement, megalomania and paranoia) and Sunset Boulevard (the sadness, morbidity and the tainted glory).

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.
It’s gotta be M, with the bitter shock of The Big Heat a very close second, and the loopy wonder of Rancho Notorious a none-too-distant third. Many have made mention here of Woman in the Window-- I have not yet seen this one, but it sounds like I ought to remedy that in a right hasty fashion.





7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.
In a character: squirrely little Kevin Corcoran had me all sewed up as Arliss Coates, who can’t understand why Old Yeller suddenly ain’t friendly no more, and as the titular runaway who fulfills a fairly universal fantasy of boys my age in Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus.

In an actual movie: a relatively skinny, uncomfortable version of myself in National Lampoon’s Animal House.

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?
I’m tempted to say both, as they are inseparable, after all. But I’ll give the edge to Bouquet for Bertrand Blier’s Too Beautiful for You. (By the way, the rumor swirling about Bouquet being a transsexual arose during her participation in For Your Eyes Only and was just a rumor. But it was a rumor based in truth. Caroline Cossey, who began life as Barry, was among a bevy of bathing beauties glimpsed poolside during one brief sequence in the film. I remember seeing a National Enquirer headline around the time the movie was released that shouted something like “Bond Girl Really a Man!” It’s proclamations like these that probably got grocery-line readers assuming the all the shouting must be in reference to Bouquet, since she was the main Bond girl of that film. If they’d let go of the cart long enough to page through the paper, however, they might have discovered that the Enquirer, in a rare instance of truthful reportage, held the real details inside.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.
Dazed and Confused, for my money not only a perfect disillation of the experience of high school and the uncertainty of the future held by graduating students in 1976, but maybe the best movie about growing up in a small town I’ve ever seen. And in Amarcord, Fellini conjured a world based on memory that as indelible and remarkable as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.
Ray Nitschke, Head, The Longest Yard
though if my thunder hadn’t been stolen, I probably would have mentioned Kurt Thomas in Gymkhata



11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.
Ashby is a mixed bag for me. I still have never seen The Landlord, I find Harold and Maude alternately amusing and too precious by half, and Coming Home just doesn’t seem to work for me anymore. Shampoo and The Last Detail are worthy candidates, to be sure, but if I go purely by how many times I’ve seen an Ashby movie, the winner—based on numbers and artistic worth, as it turns out—is Being There (“I like to watch, Ben.”), followed by Eight Million Ways to Die, which I missed in theaters but became moderately obsessed by when it began its seemingly endless loop on HBO about a year later.

12) Name the first double feature you’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.
I think I’d have to go with Buster Keaton’s The General and Jackie Chan’s Project A Part 2-- the master and the student, both at the height of their physical grace and imagination.

I also like the idea put forward here earlier Lawrence of Arabia and Once Upon a Time In the West-- give ‘em their money’s worth!

In that vein, how about an opening night dusk-to-dawn butt-buster? The Dollars Trilogy plus Eastwood and director Ted Post’s underrated attempt to bring the spaghetti back to the American west in Hang ‘Em High?

And I’m thinking of the future when I imagine double-features like these:
The Confederate States of America plus co-hit The Second Civil War
Fellini Roma plus co-hit The Italian Job
Weekend plus co-hit Bananas

Boy, Jim, you may have really started something…

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?
I can see in up in neon already: The Cardinale

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?
As Marlowe, Gould…
As a movie star, Bogart (Gould could never pull off In A Lonely Place)…

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.
Again, that old free-floating rotation: the cartoon metaphysics of The Love Bug (dig Tennesee Steinmetz’s version of Herbie’s origin story), followed by the wrenching emotions of Old Yeller, the giddy slapstick of Son of Flubber (The Absent-minded Professor’s looser, goosier sequel) and the ultra-low-tech pleasures of The Island at the Top of the World, an adventure movie I was probably much too old to be as crazy about as I was when it came out. (I was 14.) I know this is heresy, especially around my house, but Mary Poppins is just a spoonful of sugar (or ten) too much for my taste—let’s just say I am not a fan of Julie Andrews.

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.
The symphony of squeaks and hisses and drips that comprise the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West

Honorable mention:

*** The first time we hear what turns out to be a far-away electrical generator in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a group of kids approach a house that sits in the midst of an open plain, we’re already squirming, primed by the movie’s title and our own spider-sense of impending doom, sure as hell that generator noise must be a saw idling. When it turns out not to be, the relief is welcome, but short-lived. A boy approaches the house and enters the front door. There’s a small foyer at the base of some stairs, and further back underneath them a large metal door. Soon there is the shocking rattle of that door sliding open, the pinging of sledgehammer connecting with skull, the screaming-- the victim’s and that of Leatherface—and the sudden rattling slide of that door back into place. After which, all is suddenly, horribly silent once again.

*** The typewriter keys hitting paper in macro close-up, All the President’s Men

17) Pink Flamingos-- yes or no?
Yes. And to second David’s notion of seeing it with someone who has never seen it before, I have a little story. One evening, while caring for a cousin who was laid out on my apartment couch with the flu, I decided to watch Pink Flamingoes while she slept. I turned the lights down low and put on my headphones, lest any of the movie’s strange sounds (“Eggs! I want eggs!”) disturb her feverish slumber. I flopped in a beanbag chair on the floor beside the couch and fired the movie up, chortling along my merry way through all manner of demented behavior playing out on my TV. Then came the birthday party scene. As I held my stomach trying to suppress loud groans and bursts of laughter, I was suddenly aware of my cousin, who was now sitting up on the couch, sporting a disheveled mop of sweaty hair and the most complete look of discombobulation on her face that I think I’ve ever witnessed. As she cried out, “What the fuck are you watching?!” I turned to her, then turned back to the TV and tried to imagine what it must have been like waking up with a 101-degree temperature and seeing the silent image of a pantsless man laying on his back, flexing his asshole with awesome rhythmical dexterity, as it cut through the darkened room and made the fever seem even worse, and much more weird. I’m not entirely sure she ever recovered from that experience. But I do know she never asked to take a sick day on my couch ever again.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.
Jerry Goldsmith, Planet of the Apes, for the rousing, dramatic and musically abstract elements Goldsmith manages to make coexist in this relatively spare and brief work (25 minutes of actual music), and for its immeasurable influence on the musical scores I’ve often improvised in my head ever since first hearing it, either during the playtime sessions with my daughters or the ones from my own youth.

John Williams, 1941, for its sheer exuberance and inventiveness.

Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in the West, for it being the perfect encapsulation of everything a movie score can be—experimental, soaringly romantic, cruel, incessant, haunting and bottomlessly beautiful.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?
I think Naomi Watts is a much more interesting Ann Darrow than Fay Wray. And though they are quite different beasts, I love Jackson’s version of King Kong unashamedly, while at the same time realizing the 1933 version is an unreplaceable treasure. But I’m kind of surprised no one has yet written in Jessica Lange for this question.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?
Not anymore. I’ve met too many smart people and read too many smart critics who have different tastes than mine and/or great reasons for holding dear the things they hold dear, and I’ve learned that respecting those differences and enjoying the discussions and the work those critics produce is much more valuable than worrying about whether or not our favorites line up. I’m with you, TLRHB. Although if someone tried to tell me Turistas was the film of the year, I might have to just walk away.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.
How about a nod to the changing landscape of movie technology and create a separate category for Best Videography to coexist alongside Best Cinematography, which would retain its historical association with recognizing achievement in the use of film, a far different medium. I think this kind of recognition might encourage, at least in the beginning, a more thoughtful use of this technology, whether it is to invoke the kind of grungy, grainy disorientation that David Lynch embraces in Inland Empire, or to inspire directors to use the more mobile format to more accurately replicate the tones and textures of film more affordably. I’m thinking of the goal here as being something like what Robert Altman, with videographers Andrew Dunn and Ed Lachmann, did with the visually stunning The Company and, more subtly perhaps, A Prairie Home Companion. It wasn’t until sittting through the end credits a second time that I even realized that Altman had used high-def video for Prairie. I saw pristine projection of that movie twice and would have sworn it was film. This is an achievement distinct too from what Michael Mann currently uses the format for—the discovery of the various levels and textures unavailable to film to reveal in the hidden information in the nightscapes of Los Angeles (Collateral) and Miami Vice. So there are three different ways, not even including the more purely functional DYI-aesthetic of most indie features, in which video has already found to expressively flower on the big screen. That, to me, seems worthy of attention, if we can believe for a second that the Oscars are dedicated in any way to the art of film. (I know, I know… You can stop giggling now…)

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.
With no shame, and in the conviction that it is a serious, smart movie, Showgirls, with Starship Troopers a close second.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?
Juxtapose images and sounds and behavior in such a way as to illuminate (when they’re on their game) aspects of and perspectives on the human condition that fulfill its potential as an art form. I would suggest that this happens more often that we admit, if we accept that not every movie has to be a fully realized work of art to have art in it. And it can create a sense of excitement—visceral, emotional, psychological—that is entirely distinct from any other art form, even as it employs elements from just about every one of them.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?
Albert Finney. I saw him on stage in London with Tom Courtenay in Art, and I was completely floored. And unless I’m mistaken, Peter Ustinov might have been Poirot more times, but, by God, he wasn’t in Miller’s Crossing.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

That spectacular Universal airplane logo gets my top vote (though I couldn’t find a picture of it to save my life). I’m also very partial to some that have already been mentioned, including Toho and 20th Century Fox (with Cinemascope), as well as the whooshing, blurry-edged lettering that marks the introduction of a release from Rogue Pictures (Shaun of the Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, Seed of Chucky, Jet Li’s Fearless and Unleashed). I even like the clean, uncluttered design of the new The Weinstein Company logo (but I mostly like the spare music underneath it).

And no mention of studio logos could pass by without mentioning the MGM lion, a great, classic image. I also love what Robert Altman did with it. Altman was known for the eye-catching, often self-conscious title sequences of his films (try this one from Brewster McCloud). But as far as I can recall, he only ever messed with the studio logo in front of the movie once. It was for his raunchy teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs, and I couldn’t resist presenting it for you. Here’s Altman’s MGM lion announcing to the few who saw it that this would be an MGM movie like no other:



26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.
Reeling, Pauline Kael, Cult Movies, Danny Peary.










27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any “spoilers” in your answer.)
Planet of the Apes, for informing everything that came before it, for being emotionally devastating, and for making sense, and Kind Hearts and Coronets for the sickening rush of realizing the degree to which you’ve empathized with a sociopathic murderer, including desperately wanting him to get away with his crimes, only to see that prospect crumble at the last second— this killer’s brazen attempt at posterity will ensure his execution.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.
As I look over his credits, I realize I’m sadly lacking in experience with Truffaut films, especially the later ones. I’m tempted to say The Wild Child or The Story of Adele H., but I’ll go with Shoot the Piano Player, the first one I ever saw, the movie that I think of first when I think of Francois Truffaut.

I like Thom McGregor’s rather allusive answer too. Cheeky! Those count, dammit!

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?
I like Claire Danes as a concept, but outside of My So-Called Life and Little Women, she’s done little else in my eyes to fulfill her promise. And her association with that Baz Luhrmann travesty is a big black shiner on her credibility, as far as I’m concerned. So I’ll choose Olivia Hussey, for Juliet, but also because the very next movie she made after Black Christmas was another one for Franco Zefferelli-- Jesus of Nazareth, in which she played the Virgin Mary. Holy versatility!

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.
I’ll start with the runner-up. I was at a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc at the John Anson Ford Theater here in Los Angeles several years ago, waiting in line to use the men’s room. A guy emerged from the facility and walked passed me, and the person waiting behind me nudged my shoulder and made a comment along the lines of, “Did you see the look on that guy’s face when he came out? I wonder what the hell went on in there!” I chuckled and turned around to acknowledge the stranger’s vaguely scatological good humor. It was Rod Steiger.

The winner: I was a first-term freshman trying to squeak out at least a 3.0 GPA my first time at bat at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1977. Unfortunately, for my study habits, I also got a job as a recurring extra, a member of the Delta house, on National Lampoon’s Animal House, which was filmed in Eugene that same autumn. For me, being on the set, coming straight from the dull-drums of high school in Southern Oregon, was like some kind of movie paradise. There were so many actors on the set who were familiar to me. I even discovered a strange thread that ran through the cast—Donald Sutherland (Prof. Jennings), John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Verna Bloom (Mrs. Wormer), even Tim Matheson (Otter), all had worked with Clint Eastwood. (Imagine the questions a doughy, green kid thought to ask them…) But Animal House was being filmed just as Saturday Night Live was hitting its stride, and rumors floated around campus before filming actually began that the movie was to star Chevy Chase, Dan Akyroyd and John Belushi. What 17-year-old wouldn’t want to get involved with that, or at least hang around filming locations as much as possible? Well, Belushi was the only one who was actually cast, and the first time I saw him walking down 13th Street in front of the halfway house that served as the exterior of the Delta manse, I honestly couldn’t believe my good fortune. Spotting Belushi on the set was as easy as turning around—he was everywhere, as yet completely unfazed by encroaching fame (or the heinous influence of cocaine) and as approachable as any wide-eyed extra. I remember one afternoon, killing time between takes in the Sigma Nu recreation room, sitting on the floor with Belushi, his wife Judith and about 15 other extras, watching Taxi Driver (my first time) on something called HBO.

But the real story came one afternoon when I went begrudgingly to the set, after having had to practically beg for a special time to take a midterm that was in conflict with a shooting time that I couldn’t miss. My professor was kind enough to give me another opportunity to take the test, so I brought my books to the set, knowing that there would certainly be at least two or three extended periods in between takes that I could use to get away and study. Just after lunch, sure that I wouldn’t be needed for at least another hour, I informed the casting assistant that I was going to go study outside. Since filming was concentrating that day indoors, I found my way to a displaced couch which was sitting out near the front steps of the house. And no one but the occasional grip was anywhere near, a great chance for some peace and quiet. I sat down on the couch and was there for five or ten minutes, I suppose, when out of the corner of my eye I saw someone approach the couch and flop down on the other end of it. I tried to keep my eyes on my book, but eventually I gave in to the primal impulses of social behavior and looked up to acknowledge the person who was taking up some of what I considered my personal space. It was John Belushi. I immediately realized how dry my mouth was when I tried to say something, anything, and only a loud smecking sound came out. Perhaps sensing that I was a bit nervous, he began asking me about my studies, where I came from, how I was enjoying school—small talk, really, but coming from someone whom I already considered a cultural hero of sorts, it sounded plenty big to me. I even mustered up enough composure to ask him what enduring his schedule was like-- during filming, Belushi would be on the set in Eugene Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then at the end of the third day he would fly back to New York, crash-write and rehearse Saturday Night Live, perform the show that weekend, then be on a flight back to Eugene on Sunday. Naturally, he was pretty exhausted by the whole thing. (Some have suggested that his abuse of cocaine had its roots in trying to keep up with this brutal back-and-forth, but I certainly couldn’t say I saw any evidence of it.) It was clear that Belushi, like me, was looking for a place to get away from the bustle of the day’s shoot, if only for a moment, and he chose to sit next to me to spend that down time.

Before he got up to return to the (barely) controlled chaos, he even told me a dirty joke. I’ll tell it to you (and those who don’t appreciate a filthy, borderline sexist joke can probably skip this last part—I won’t be any more offended than I was by the joke itself): Guy goes to see a doctor. He says, “Doc, it’s really weird. I’m having very odd symptoms. Don’t get me wrong—I feel great, but look at me—I look awful!” The doctor sizes him up for a second, then gets up from his stool, pulls out a large leather-bound volume from his shelf and begins to page through it. He stops briefly at one entry: “No, that’s ‘feels bad, looks bad.’” He turns a few more pages, stops, considers the text, then says, “No, that’s ‘looks good, feels bad.’ Hmm.” The doctor, determined to get a handle on the patient’s problem, turns a few more pages. Again he stops, and this time his eyes light up: “’Feels good, looks bad’! That’s it!” The patient sits up and asks, “What is it, Doc? You’ve figured out what my problem is?” The doctor happily responds, “Why, yes, Mr. Johnson! According to Grey’s Anatomy, you are a vagina!”

And that’s my John Belushi story. Sorry for the joke.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?
2001 would be a reasonable guess, given its prominence when I was a kid learning to love movies, although I was probably just a year or two too young at the time I saw it to register just how much it was demanding of its audience. I was willing and able, as a young science fiction fan, to skate on the imagery alone, though I do remember piecing together enough of an idea of what transpired in the movie to satisfy myself and lend it some sense. (Boy, would I love to revisit those observations!)
I first gained a sense of what directors could do— or at least the differences that became apparent when one director was placed directly up against another— through Warner Brothers cartoons. It was in watching these seven-minute films, directed by Chuck Jones, or Friz Freleng, or Robert McKimson, or Bob Clampett, that I became aware of how an individual could imprint himself on something as formula-driven as a Road Runner cartoon, through timing, graphic continuity, pacing, repetition and use of sound. It soon became clear to me what a Chuck Jones felt like as opposed to a Friz Freleng, and I began to develop my own preferences within this canon.

But the true revelation came to me when, after having familiarized myself with these cartoons, on TV as well as (when I was lucky enough) before a feature film, I saw Bugs Bunny in “Bully for Bugs”, directed by Chuck Jones, as the opening act before Planet of the Apes, in 1969 at my local drive-in. Jones’ brilliant slapstick had already primed my receptors for what were my first awakenings of a directorial vision, or process. But seeing it juxtaposed with Franklin J. Schaffner’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s book (which I had read), and seeing the various ways the book was altered or, more importantly, how various elements of the story that were familiar from the book were interpreted through Schaffner’s camera, it dawned on me that a film was itself an imagining, an interpretation of experience, of a story. Just as Chuck Jones’ Road Runner was, in significant ways, different than one imagined by Robert McKimson, I recognized that this was the way Franklin Schaffner (I doubt I knew his name when I was nine) wanted to tell this particular story. I realized parallels between the way he used relative silence, as Taylor makes his way from the wreckage of the ship at the beginning of the film, and the way it was sometimes used by the cartoon directors, as a prelude of cacophony or other varied madness. And the way the movie built toward its conclusion, and the way the camera slowly revealed it, and the way Charlton Heston sold it on screen, was catnip to my taste and sensibility.

I’d been primed by the Warners bunch to an understanding of how an individual could shape a cartoon, but that was with ink and paint—materials that I knew had to be manipulated in order to take anything like the shape they did on screen. But when I saw Planet of the Apes and realized that movies were doing the same thing, only with coordinated shapes and sets and actors, figures in three-dimensional reality, that’s when the possibilities of what a movie could do really began to take off in my head.

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That's it for me. But don't think that's the end of Professor Jennings's quiz. Oh, no! Keep those answers coming in, and after the turn of the new year I'll go through and highlight my favorite responses from what has been a real bumper crop of great, thoughtful and often hilarious responses. Thanks so much for participating! As always, this has been a lot of fun and a great way to lead into the holidays. Look for a special Christmas post on Monday. Until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

11 comments:

Bemis said...

Great answers, Dennis. I have to agree about the videography award -I don't see the point of trying to replicate celluloid with DV, but I love when it's pushed into new, unexplored directions. By the way, you can find that Mitchell poster by Googling "Joe Don Baker Mitchell." Happy holidays!

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I'm an idiot: Bouquet all the way!

Brian said...

Great answers to perhaps your best quiz yet, Dennis. I could have picked Peter Suschitzky and "Best Videographer" myself, if I'd thought of them. And I love all your stories, especially the one that makes up your answer to #31. (And if you're this big a fan of the Planet of the Apes score, I strongly urge you to check out my choice for #18: Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes if you haven't yet, as there are some striking similarities).

And I'll check out National Lampoon's Animal House. Can you believe I've never seen it before?

Brian said...

Although, I have to say I wish I hadn't read Belushi's joke. The story of his telling it was great, but I hope I don't remember the joke itself every time I think of Belushi from now on.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Brian: I know what you mean. I hestitated over whether to tell it or not. But I did because I have such a bad, bad memories for jokes or funny bits from movies, and I've always been struck by how clearly I remember that one, not because I thought it was particularly brilliant. Of course, I'm sure I laughed as he told it to me...

And I've seen Woman in the Dunes several times-- I don't know why it didn't occur to me the similarities between those scores.

Merry Christmas, my friend!

Benaiah said...

My mom calls me Joe Bob as a pet name. She does it to my dad (Bill Bob) and the family mechanic too (Kim Bob). Unfortunately I don't have a hulking physique, unless you count my exploding belt after the holidays.

blaaagh said...

Yikes! That photo of me...funny how all the other people in that picture have aged since the movie was made, and I've stayed the same, only not as dorky (haha).

I also tried to tell the John Belushi joke to a few people, and instantly realized how unfunny it is, at least when I tell it, as opposed to when Belushi told it. Still, it does seem to be typical of the hostility the SNL crew often demonstrated toward women in those days. Nevertheless, even that sour joke can't spoil the charm of your great chatting-with-Belushi-over-homework story.

andyhorbal said...

Beerfest! Cheers, sir! And while we're drinking, a toast to Jerry Goldsmith...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Cheers right back at ya, sir! I was rereading answers yesterday and was reminded that you were also a proud Beerfest viewer, and twice too! My brow suddenly felt much higher! :)

Paul C. said...

Just thought of you today when I caught the throbbingly awesome PRIVILEGE at a Secret Cinema screening. It's really gorgeous to look at, and a look at the end credits reveal why- the DP was none other than the great Suschitzky himself! The shame is that it's never been released in any video format, but if you ever get a chance to catch it on the big screen, sprint, don't mosey.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Privilege. I don't think I've ever heard of it, but I just read about it on IMDb. Sounds like pretty intriguing time capsule stuff. Was this built around a Peter Watkins revival or something? Thanks for the Suschitzky note. Now the name of the movie will stick in my head as one to look for.