Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Anytime Movies (Transplanted): American Graffiti

While I have a few reviews "in the works," It's as good a time as any to re-boot (actually transplant from the old movie blog) a feature I started years ago, when it was suggested I do a "Top Ten" List.

I don't like those: they're rather arbitrary; they pit films against each other, and there's always one or two that should be on the list that aren't because something better shoved it down the trash-bin.

So, I came up with this: "Anytime" Movies.

Anytime Movies are the movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again (and again!) and never tire of them. There are ten (kinda). They're not in any particular order, but the #1 movie IS the #1 movie.

What's George Lucas' best film? For most, it's probably Star Wars (I'm sure there's some poor soul out there who likes Radioland Murders). There's a lot to like about his charmingly scruffy homage to the Buck Rogers serials. But one wonders what direction his career might have gone if he hadn't felt the need to exploit that first "Star Wars" movie as much as he did. It seems the more he explained about his initial concepts the worse the movies got, and the more rich and famous they made him, the more elephantine and fossilized they became.

For me, Lucas has yet to top
American Graffiti. Made for under a million dollars and filmed mostly at night using a skeleton crew (albeit one headed by Haskell Wexler), it showed just how ingenious Lucas could be when he was strapped for cash. It has the structure and froth of a Shakespeare comedy with the values and budget of an AIP teen flick.  Seemingly aimless, American Graffiti follows four storylines of small town kids on the last night of summer before heading to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has a scholarship to a big university but is reluctant to go, and spends the night bounced around by local toughs, and diverted by his quixotic pursuit of a phantom blonde in a white Thunderbird. Steve and Laurie (Ron "Ronny" Howard and Cindy Williams) are a couple in transition. Class President and Head Cheerleader, they're the Royal Couple of the Sock-Hop. But Steve can't wait to head out of town to conquer new territory, and Laurie-still in high school-knows she'll lose him when he goes. John (Paul LeMat) is a high school drop-out and legendary hot-rodder endlessly cruising the streets of town, looking for the next race. And Terry (Charles Martin Smithlives a rich fantasy life (that's a kind way of saying he's deluded) where he can imagine himself everything that he's not.
The Village Square
Lives intersect, couples form and break apart, lies are told, misunderstandings abound (to really make it Shakespeare all you'd need is a set of twins), while the majority of kids drive endlessly in circles--not going anywhere, but hoping to, and if not tonight, there's always tomorrow. They're not going anywhere.

In the background are the constant echoes of rock n' roll pouring out of car windows and reverberating down the hallways and back-alleys, broken only by the howls and shrieks of the common thread in their lives,
Wolfman Jack. All the kids have their Wolfman myths and he acts as sage, seer, siren and Master of Ceremonies for the evening's adventures. He's also the Fool and "The Man Behind the Curtain." Ultimately the long night's journey leads to his door-step, and, in disguise, dispenses his wisdom to the seeker. 
The Siren
One thing Lucas always knew was how to make a curtain call and American Graffiti is his best. As Curt flies off to college, he is left two signs of passage: the white T-bird reappears one last time to remind him what he's giving up, while locked away in his plane, the sounds of the radio station that have buoyed and sustained all the characters throughout the night fades to static. For the first time in the film there is no music and in the silence that creates, broken only by the drone of the plane we're told the rest of the story. Terry "goes missing" in Vietnam. Steve is an insurance salesman in town. John is killed by a drunk driver. Curt's a writer in Canada. After that punch in the gut, Lucas unsentimentally hammers it home with one of the cheeriest songs in the Beach Boys catalog--"All Summer Long," dismissed earlier in the film as "surfing shit." Lucas turns the future into a sobering fate--the film is set in 1962. The next year would signal the end of the innocence of the 50's and American Graffiti is a sweet farewell to trivial concerns and living in the past.
The Knight-Mentor
Lucas has said that he based the boys on different aspects of himself in high school--the intellectual, the nerd, the sosh' and the JD. Lucas' lesson in this, and all of his work seems to be "Advance or Die." It's the lesson of Graffiti. It is certainly the basis of the story of Anakin Skywalker. So what became of Lucas? Did he follow his own advice? Well, you could say he went to the future with Star Wars, but he set it in the far-away past. Then he built an Empire of his his hometown.

The Trailer for "American Graffiti"--in the style of Beach Blanket movies

American Grafitti touched me two ways. I had already been inspired by Lucas' first film, THX-1138 with its inventive sound-scape, to seek out his work and the work of his sound editor Walter Murch. Grafitti was their second collaboration and pretty much sealed my fate for going into sound work. Listening to it now, it's crude and has a lot of holes and bad edits, but the innovations are just as unique 30 years later and just as inspiring. On top of that, the unglamorous portrayal of a radio disc jockey's life (yet romantic in its anonymous/omnipresent effect on a community) made me think "I could do that!" and I started my sound career spinning discs at a radio station. My last job as such was at a station with a glass window that looked out on the town's "loop." Sort of like watching American Graffiti in reverse. That was KEDO-AM in Longview, Washington--long ago bulldozed.

Wolfman Jack explains it all for you, baby!

I'd just done a "Don't Make a Scene" segment for American Graffiti and was looking forward to writing new "insights" on this film, but reading it again, no, I pretty much covered them all. Not that American Graffiti is that simple—it's just that given Lucas' skimpy out-put, there's not a lot of complexity in his ouvre. It is interesting that Lucas goes the Joseph Campbell route in this film before he actually read "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and used the "seeker's path" for the construction of Star Wars. He was already using it here and doing variations of it for the four Lucas-aspects, each with different fates (a cautionary tale, indeed). He also uses the cross-cutting on different fronts that would be his staple in the "Star Wars" films, but interestingly in his first Star Wars (A New Hope) and this film, there is no cross-cutting at the end, everyone is melded into the final story-line, buttoning everything up nice and neat. 

He wouldn't do that again.

American Graffiti
To Kill a Mockingbird
Bonus: Edge of Darkness

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: To Kill a Mockingbird

The Story: Robert Mulligan begins this scene outside a bedroom window, and returns us outside when it is done, right before "outside" forces set foot on the Finch stoop and alter the Family dynamic.

Inside and outside are two different worlds in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Inside is familial and warm. Outside, people are eccentric, and nature seems threatening. In this child's eye view of the world the trees rustle with unseen danger, their moving shadows crossing over the children like threatening wraiths. Everything seems strange and scary, what with nasty neighbors (including the mythically haunted Radley household), mad dogs appearing on the street, and economic and racial tensions in the town transforming the town-folk.

Inside, Atticus Finch is settling his children down for the night, spending quality time with them, one suspects, in a ritualistic way: the reading exercises, the presentation of familiar heirlooms, the taking of stock, and between the children the final sharing of history that mumbles down to sleep. We're in the child's world, looking in as they suspect "Boo" Radley does, moving outside to the father on the porch-swing hearing their talking of their late mother, and left alone with his own memories—the adult providing the warmth inside and the protection from the outside. One sees the toll taken. For that moment, Atticus Finch is not a paragon of virtue, but a mere human being doing the best that he can (although he might not know his son's age today), as he sits listening to his children talk themselves to sleep, an empty arm draped over the swing's back.

The Set-Up: "Maycomb was a tired, old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it." It's the end of a day towards the end of Summer, typical in some ways, but not typical in others. Jem and Jean Louise—"Scout"—Finch (Phillip Alford,Mary Badham) have found a new playmate in Charles Baker—"Folks call me 'Dill'"—Harris (John Megna), and the kids have scoped out the scary Radley place down the road, and agitated the elderly Miss Dubose. Now, after a fine meal prepared by Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) (probably with hickory nuts from Mr. Cunningham provided for legal services rendered), the kids settle down for the night, which includes some reading time with lawyer-father Atticus (Gregory Peck). None of them knows that tonight will start a series of events that will change their lives forever.


Scout(reading): "I had two cats... which I brought ashore... on my first raft. And I had a dog."
Scout: Atticus, do you think Boo Radley ever really comes and looks in my window at night? Jem says he does. This afternoon when we were over by their house...
Atticus: Scout...I told you and Jem to leave those poor people alone. I want you to stay away from their house...and stop tormenting them.
Scout: Yes, sir.
Atticus: That's all the reading for tonight, honey. It's getting late.
Scout: What time is it?
Atticus: 8:30.
Scout: May I see your watch?
Scout: "To Atticus, my beloved husband." Atticus, Jem says this watch is gonna belong to him someday.
Atticus: That's right.
Scout: Why?
Atticus: Well... it's customary... for the boy to have his father's watch.
Scout: What are you gonna give me?
Atticus: I don't know that I have much else of value that belongs to me.
Atticus: But there's a pearl necklace, there's a ring that belonged to your mother. I put them away, and they're to be yours.
Atticus: Good night, Scout.
Scout: Good night.
Atticus: Good night, Jem.
Jem: Good night.
Scout: Jem?
Jem: Yes?
Scout: How old was I when Mama died?
Jem: Two.
Scout: How old were you?
Jem: Six.
Scout: Old as I am now?
Jem: Mm-hmm.
Scout: Was Mama pretty?
Jem: Mm-hmm.
Scout: Was Mama nice?
Jem: Mm-hmm.
Scout: Did you love her?
Jem: Yes.
Scout: Did I love her?
Jem: Mm-hmm.
Scout: Do you miss her?

To Kill a Mockingbird

Words by Harper Lee and Horton Foote

Pictures by Russell Harlan and Robert Mulligan

To Kill a Mockingbird is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

While playing Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck bonded with the child-actors playing his children, especially Mary Badham—the youngest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award—and maintained that friendship until the day he died.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Particle Fever

The Stuff That Dreams (And Everything) Are Made of
The Unknown Known

One of my heroes in film-making and life is Walter Murch.  His past work as a sound designer directly influenced my decision to go into that field and his work as an editor and all-around renaissance man has expanded my understanding of film and its possibilities to move the emotions through its mechanisms.  For the past couple of years, he's been working on a documentary about the Cern super-collider with documentarian Mark Levinson.  The result, Particle Fever, is one of the better documentaries about science—and hard science—that has been produced in many years.

It concerns the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, designed to accelerate and collide two proton particle beams with the intention of seeing what would happen—what the resulting collision would produce, then analyze it in the hopes of finding an essential bonding agent in the sub-strata of molecules, the Higgs-Boson, the so-called "God particle."  "So-called" because that is the media term for the Higgs-Boson, a way of reducing large complicated ideas to the level of imbecility for mass-consumption.  Higgs-Boson is merely a theoretic idea for what should be there, but its properties are unknown, and only by the detection of the energy it generates in these insane collisions can we known what's supposed to be there could be (like the astronomers who calculated unseen bodies by the gravitational effect they had on the seen).

Culled from 500 hours of footage during the construction (where the delicate fitting of huge components is sped up so we can see its movement, turning the humans into skittering insects), interviews with theorists and scientists alike, many via Skype, and during the operations that buzz like Mission Control at a lunar launch—only geekier—and extraordinary graphics by the firm MK12, Particle Fever is, itself, an amazing undertaking from the sheer volume of material used to tell a story of such complexity and intricacy, while still giving the big picture a sense of wonder and the results a certain irony.  There's a lot of technical jargon being tossed about, but the stories of the individual theorists and experiment technicians are personal and involving, a combination of deep thought and and deep feeling, of lifetimes dedicated to theory coming to fruition...or for naught...and of careers ending over the findings, but the work never stopping. 

The Universe keeps expanding, after all.  Why shouldn't the process of understanding it?