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  • Magic and Personal Identity in Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself

    Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself recently premiered on Hulu. It is a filmed version of his stage show of the same name, which ran off-Broadway for 552 performances between 2016 and 2018. Ostensibly a magic show, its aspirations are much greater than that. As DelGaudio challenges the idea of himself as a magician, his show is structured around a much larger question about personal identity, and both the boxes we put ourselves in, as well as the boxes we let others put us in. Some things are usually lost in the filming of a live performance. Unavoidable is the loss of the immediacy and intimacy of the experience. Last year’s David Byrne’s American Utopia did an admirable job of replacing that loss in immediacy with a visual experience better than any live audience member could have had. For a one-man show like Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself, similar flourishes are employed, but the nature of the show is so deeply rooted in it being a momentary and in-person experience that it adds a peculiar gloss to everything you see. Since DelGaudio, and director Frank Oz, couldn’t replicate the real experience of seeing a performance of the show for yourself, they steer into that challenge by layering multiple performances throughout, in key moments of the show. If a volunteer is called up to the stage, you won’t just see one person’s experience of that moment, but rather five, or ten, or more, lending a little bit of a live and spontaneous vibrancy to that moment. You may not be in the room, but you’ll find your empathy triggered often by seeing the experiences and reactions of the people in the room. As we said, at first glance, In & Of Itself is a magic show. It’s on the basis of that premise, and his notoriety as an award-winning magician, that DelGaudio got people to buy tickets and come see his show. The structure of the show is broken into six sections, one for every chamber in a revolver, and each section is built around magic. The magic itself manages to be both wonderful and wholly incidental, though. Rather than the stories that DelGaudio tells merely justifying the tricks he goes on to perform, the stories are the heart of the show with the magic built around them to illuminate his themes. To delve too far into the content of the show would do a real disservice to anyone reading this that hasn’t watched it yet. But, I think there is some value in going into even your first viewing being aware of the discussion it’s trying to have around personal identity. The tag line to the stage show was “Identity is an Illusion”. What better way to defend that point than with illusions? It spoils nothing to say that one of the first images of the show is the wall of white cards in the lobby of the theater. As attendees entered, they were directed to pick a card from the wall. The cards were in two halves. The top half that said “I AM” and a bottom half that said something like “A Nurse”, or “An Optimist”, or “A Freewheeler”. The wall had many more options than there were seats in the theater, so even if the people arriving later had fewer choices, they still had options to pick from if they wanted to take the exercise seriously. In that early shot, you see people scrutinizing the wall, reading the options, seemingly wanting to pick something good, something that felt right and true to something in them. Not everyone’s experience of this exercise can be the same, but there is something deep to this choice. It means something to say to yourself and others that this is who I am; It means something that other people's choices will have an effect on who you get to say you are; It means something that your options are many, but not limitless, and that they will dwindle as time goes by. It also means something that when you enter the theater, the usher takes your card, tears it like any ordinary ticket, keeps the identity that you’ve chosen, and gives you back a card that only says “I AM”. For me, this whole exercise, from beginning to end, functions like an overture that gives you everything you need to understand the movements and themes of what you're about to see. It’s also worth noting something about the journey that DelGaudio goes through over the course of the show, too. Considering that one goes into a magic show expecting something light, and fun, and wonderous, it’s striking that DelGaudio gives the audience something more personal and challenging. He’s not merely going to talk about personal Identity as an abstract social construct, but rather use stories from his own life, stories he readily admits to not necessarily being proud of, to illustrate his points. The show wants to challenge how people see themselves, and he’s willing to make himself surprisingly vulnerable in service of that end. To say anything more, I think, would detract from the experience. It’s a genuinely impressive work that, much like people, amounts to something much greater than the sum of its parts. I strongly recommend checking it out. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Damian's Favorite Films of 2020

    Were we to reboot 2020 and try again, I would have some notes. That aside, this year was a pretty great year in film for me. Each of the first five entries on my list was the best I had seen up to that point in the year, and that experience of watching a high bar get set and then cleared, over and over again, was pretty thrilling. This was also a very good year for me in terms of being blindsided by the quality of some low-expectation projects, and first-time directors. I eagerly await the return to some sort of normalcy in terms of movie-going and movie-product but am grateful that this was anything but a lost year in terms of content. Honorable Mention: Saint Frances - Written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, the film relates the story of a woman starting a new job as a first-time nanny while recovering from an abortion, for a couple that is struggling with how hard the jump from one to two children can be for every facet of their life. Kelly O’Sullivan is great in the lead, but Ramona Edith Williams as six-year-old Frances makes the film work. One of the more compelling portrayals of child-rearing I’ve seen. This was the last film cut from my top ten list, and that says something about these kinds of lists, in that it was competing for the top of the list for a while in the weeks after I saw it. Sometimes things drop just because there isn’t time to rewatch everything. Depending on when I made the list, this spot could have just as easily gone to Mank, Boys State, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or even for an interesting moment, the surprising Bill & Ted Face the Music. #10. Buffaloed - This is the most surprising film on this list for me. In a lot of ways, it is just a light, fun comedy, but I love the bright and optimistic get-rich-quick energy that Zoey Deutch brings to her scammer-turned-debt-collector, Peg. I also like that it finds a light way to engage with how odious unregulated debt collection is, while ultimately placing it in a context of problems with the finance industry writ large. #9. Spontaneous - This odd film manages to simultaneously capture the roiling literally about-to-burst feeling of being a teenager, the perpetual low-level fear of school shootings, and the terror of living through a mysterious epidemic, but with jokes. I may be a good two decades removed from being the target demographic for this film, but it worked for me in a big way, all the way through. #8. Yes, God Yes - In terms of demographic, I am the dead center of the bullseye for this film: a religious school kid, that went through puberty at the AOL-stage of the internet era. Natalia Dyer perfectly captures that combination of the curiosity, ignorance, and embarrassment, of growing up, particularly in an environment that won’t take seriously the difference between how kids naturally are, and the boxes misguided adults will try to push them into. #7. One Night in Miami... - One would think this movie shouldn’t work because of how unlikely it would be to simultaneously cast actors who could convincingly portray Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. Not only do they pull it off here, but for all the chatter happening around the multiple actor award nominations that might come from a film like Trial of the Chicago 7, this is a film where it would be a sin if at least two of these four didn’t come away with nominations. I would be deeply surprised if Leslie Odom Jr. didn’t win for his performance as Sam Cooke. With all the deserved attention for the acting in this film, hopefully, it won’t get lost just how great a job Regina King does adapting this from the stage to the screen. Much of the film is four men talking in a room, but she takes the time to make sure we never lose a sense of the larger world and the lives this night is a part of. #6. The Assistant - When I think back to watching The Americans, most of my clearest memories are of Julia Garner’s small supporting role as Kimmy. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is that she does, but she manages to be utterly compelling without being at all showy. That matches what the film itself is trying to do because there is a more showy and sensational version of this story that could be told, but it is as effective as it is because of how natural and mundane it treats what’s going on. #5. The Vast of Night - This is the film on my list I can most readily summon the feeling I had while watching it. There is just a gripping, eerie vibe to this Twilight Zone/The Outer Limits pastiche that lingers long after it’s over. The pacing is something special, setting a rapid-fire opening walk-and-talk, that accentuates when the film does throttle things down to the anxious near-stillness of some of the conversations. Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz are great as the leads, but it really is the feeling of building, breathless tension that makes this film succeed. #4. Palm Springs - This was the first film I fell in love with this year. I went in having only seen the poster, so the premise was a surprise to me. I was happy there, thinking I was just going to get a solid one-note riff on Groundhog’s Day, but it manages to keep growing all the way through. It’s a little formulaic in terms of the structure of its story beats, but the content of those story points more than make up for it. Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons are great, but the key to how much this film succeeds is how great Cristin Milioti is. #3. Sound of Metal - There are a number of things going for this film before you even get to its story. Riz Ahmed’s performance is unreal and well deserving of all the praise that it has received. For a film so deeply enmeshed in the idea of sound in our lives, it delivers one of the best sound designs I’ve ever heard in a film, impressive for what it does technically and for how it regularly underlines and highlights Ahmed’s performance without being distracting. The story itself is wonderful, always choosing the less conventional path, while never feeling forced, and still managing to culminate in an ending that perfectly bookends with how the film began. #2. David Byrne’s American Utopia - It might be tempting to dismiss this as merely a concert film, but it is so much more. This is already the film from this year that I've rewatched the most times, and the one I expect to rewatch to most for years to come. It works on a number of levels. It helps that the songs are great, but it’s the execution of the choreography that makes everything hit as hard as it does. It doesn’t hurt that Spike Lee’s direction is the perfect complement to the staging, capturing everything from something more than just the best seat in the house point of view. I also happen to love the narrative line that Byrne draws through the piece, as well as the big chances he takes in trusting the audience to follow him through his story and embrace the more adventurous pieces he and his band perform. #1. Promising Young Woman - I cannot sufficiently praise the experience of watching this movie. While there may have been some jockeying for placement between the other films on my list, as soon as the credits rolled on this film I knew it was far and away the best that I had seen this year, and probably one of the better films I’ve ever seen. I was lucky to get to go in with a blank slate and got to experience each twist without ever being ahead of the story. The script is easily the smartest of the year and executed flawlessly. Carey Mulligan gives one of the very best performances I saw this year, surrounded by a pitch-perfect supporting cast. Our coronavirus year may have stepped a bit on the discourse this film might have been a part of had it been released at this same time last year, but its explorations of issues surrounding himpathy and misogyny will likely lend it an unfortunately timeless quality. Notable films outside my top 10: Bad Education, Babyteeth, Banana Split, Boys State, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Class Action Park, Enola Holmes, Extra Ordinary, First Cow, Howard, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mangrove, Mank, On the Rocks, Other Music, The Prom, Shithouse, Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, VHYES, The Willoughbys, Zappa Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Mystery and Bliss: David Lynch at 75

    2021 will be a noteworthy year for David Lynch. Building on his success with the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks, he is scheduled to start production on a new limited series for Netflix this coming May. Not much is known about the project at present, but based on preliminary accounts, it looks to be a thirteen-episode series that will be titled Unrecorded Night. Also of note, not that Lynch is someone especially well known for backward-looking (though feel free to insert your own joke about backward talking), he is marking four significant milestones this year: the 35th anniversary of Blue Velvet, the 20th anniversary of Mulholland Drive, and the 15th anniversaries of both Lynch’s last film to date, Inland Empire, as well as his first book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. I’m particularly interested in looking at these four older works of Lynch’s together because of how I think they help reconcile the two radically different, and seemingly incompatible, sides that I see to his work and personality. Taken together, the three films call to mind many of the elements that people tend to associate with Lynch’s work: dark and comic surrealism, violence, sexuality, mystery, and dreams. At the same time, the David Lynch that wrote Catching the Big Fish seems to be coming at the world from a wildly different point of view. Dedicated to “his holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” Catching the Big Fish was born from Lynch’s, at that time, the 33-year practice of Transcendental Meditation, and the 2005 formation of his non-profit, The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The book is part biography and part discussion of the life of an artist, but most revelatory to me, in relation to his work, is the discussion of the view of reality that Lynch has come to through his meditation practice. Now, don’t worry if you’re concerned that this is going to be some lengthy discussion of meditation or new age mysticism. It’s only as a background to one particular idea I want to get at that I raise the subject at all. As Lynch describes it: he believes that through practices like Transcendental Meditation, a person can dive deep within themselves to access a blissful and unified field of consciousness that all life participates in and emerges from. Beyond apparent reality, there is a shared, joyful unity of consciousness. So, with that in mind, how does the person that believes this, also come to write a character like Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, or depict the nightmarish ordeal that Laura Dern’s characters undergo in Inland Empire? Lynch’s life is running on two parallel paths: one path where his foundation is exploring ways to foster bliss and peace for everyone throughout the world, and the other path where his art seems to largely depict the world antithetical to that idea. Navigating this tension has led me to recast how I think about what Lynch is trying to say with his films. Looking past more work-for-hire projects like The Elephant Man or The Straight Story, for as shocking it may have been at the time, Blue Velvet may be the most straight-forward of Lynch’s films. It’s largely a noir mystery, that explores a dark, hidden world of crime and sexuality in an otherwise hyper-idyllic suburban Americana setting. Here, we’re still mostly set in the day-to-day world, but one that is more layered than first appearances indicate. The film's opening sequence begins with an iconic, cheery shot of a white picket fence, with full-bloom roses in the foreground, and a perfect blue sky in the background. The sequence builds to a man watering his lawn and then collapsing to the ground because of a stroke. The camera pushes from the man into the grass he’s laying on, then into the gnashing bustle of insects just underground - making fairly explicit the metaphor of a hidden world beneath suburban life that the film is concerned with. Our leads are Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern), two kids who have taken it upon themselves to investigate a local woman in trouble, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Dorothy’s husband and son are being held hostage by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who is using them as leverage to force Dorothy to perform sexually for him. The choice of the name ‘Dorothy’ is no accident, as themes from The Wizard of Oz pop up frequently in Lynch’s work. Our Dorothy also finds herself unexpectedly in a strange, new world; one that she wants to find a way out of, so that she can be reunited with her family. The world that Lynch depicts in Blue Velvet is concerned with something more than just the dark underbelly of suburbia. Midway through the film, Sandy tells Jeffrey about a dream she had that is more than just a dream: In the dream, there was our world. And the world was dark because there weren’t any robins. And the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness and all of the sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means, there is trouble til the robins come. This dream factors into the conclusion of the film. Dorothy has been saved, Frank has been killed, and Jeffrey and Sandy are home. The lighting of the film has returned to the idyllic lighting of the opening, before the pan down into the dirt, as if some kind of order has now been restored. The last we see of Jeffrey and Sandy, a robin has landed on the kitchen window sill with a bug in its mouth. From there, we shift to the final shot of the film where a finally free and happy Dorthy Vallens is reunited with her son. The dream coming true, the darkness of the world being vanquished by love with the return of the Robin, shows a permeability for Lynch between the actual world and the world of dreams. On rewatching Blue Velvet, I’m regularly surprised by how close to a traditional happy ending the film has, given how grisly the events of its final act are. I don’t think of this as some kind of Hollywood cop-out on Lynch’s part to get the film made, but an actual manifestation of his philosophy. Beneath the artifice and masks, the actual world is a genuinely dark place that can suck you in if you're not careful. But, if we push through the darkness, we can find light and love on the other side. Looking at Mulholland Drive would initially seem to undermine the case that I’m making with Blue Velvet, but it’s noteworthy that the way Mulholland Drive is structured, I think you’re just seeing something like the same point being made in reverse. We begin with an opening shot of the first-person perspective of a face falling into a pillow, and we discover that the first half of the movie is the happier dream of the troubled real-world person we will go on to meet in the film's second half. We begin in light and move to darkness, but that change comes because we are returning to the actual world from the world of dreams. Each half of Mulholland Drive is about a woman in trouble, but who the troubled woman is changes between the first and second half. In the first half of the film, Betty (Naomi Watts) is a fresh-faced actress finding her first success in Hollywood, while becoming entangled in a mystery surrounding an amnesiac car crash victim, going by the name Rita (Laura Harring). In this first half, everything is lit with a cheery brightness, as everything in Betty’s life seems to be breaking her way. As Betty’s world begins to destabilize, we fall out of the dream and into the actual world. Throughout, we can now see the real-world pieces from which the dream was constructed. Naomi Watts is now playing a woman named Diane Selwyn, the woman who dreamed the first half of the movie and is now a spurned lover who pays to have the woman who left her murdered, before ultimately also taking her own life. We don’t linger on Diane’s death, though. The image we see after Diane takes her life is the glimmering translucent faces of Betty and Rita from just before the dream unraveled. In this film, we move from the lightness of the dream to the darkness of the real world, but when Diane’s earthly life has ended, what we are still left with is what has survived: Betty and Rita’s love. Now Inland Empire is a little different again in that it’s hard to pin down any reality in the film at all. The bookends of the film are a woman in crisis, sitting alone and crying in a hotel room after a sexual encounter, and three hours of film later, Laura Dern, whose identity has shifted repeatedly across the intervening story, arriving in that hotel room, and freeing that troubled woman so that she can reunite with her family. To try to explain what happens in Inland Empire is well beyond the scope of this article, but the big picture view of the story is Laura Dern, in a number of guises, trying to navigate a dreamlike world that appears to have been fragmented by infidelity and misogyny. That may just be how I see it. This is not a film that lends itself to a single objective interpretation. Your mileage may vary. Like Blue Velvet, Inland Empire is also the story of a troubled woman, in unfortunate circumstances, rescued and reunited with her family. But here the story is centered on women, with most of the cast women, and what men there are in the story, largely serving as menacing, manipulative, or passive obstacles. This film is also an even fuller expression of the idea of passing through the ordeal of the real world, and a troubled dreamworld, to reach bliss and happiness. Our un-named troubled woman is reunited with her family, like Dorothy Valens, but Laura Dern’s reward is something else. While the credits roll, we see the final form of Laura Dern’s character in an extended sequence at something like a party in some ambiguous place, with many of the female characters from the story, laughing, dancing, and singing in a free and rambunctious way while the lights strobe. We don’t have any great sense of where we are or why, but what we do have is a vibe of joy and celebration. Similar to with Inland Empire, I’m not arguing for any of this as some objectively correct interpretation of Lynch’s work. That would be a pointless exercise, most especially for someone like Lynch, but for me, this is now a framework that I can’t help but lean on when I’m looking at his work. No matter how dark the material is with which he engages, I can’t help but look for the cracks underneath everything that hints at the light below. Lynch is a realist about the ugliness of the world and a surrealist about how malleable our experience of the world can be, but I also now can’t help but see him as something of an optimist, as well. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Is it a Wonderful Life?

    It’s a Wonderful Life is both one of my favorite Christmas films, and one of my favorite films in general. Despite a disappointing response when it was released in 1946, it has become widely acknowledged as a beloved classic. That said, I do think that it is a film with some notable flaws. Structurally, I think it’s a bit of a mess. And second, I think it’s not at all clear whether it delivers on the claim that George Bailey comes to believe he has a wonderful life. On structure - this year we’ve had two noteworthy films that ably handled telling a story through flashbacks: Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7. When handled well, such a narrative can balance scenes from the past and present against one another, such that past and future events are in dialogue with one another to tell a larger story. In It’s a Wonderful Life, we begin in the present, with an alluded to crisis for an adult character we haven’t met yet, and then spend the next hour of the film in a linear flashback, all to ultimately relate a story that is half the length of the flashback. Additionally, where we inexplicably find ourselves at the beginning of the story is in space, in a conversation between angels represented by talking flickering galaxies - a bold choice of motif, considering we never return to anything like it in the rest of the film. Part of the structure of the film is somewhat explained by knowing the origin of this story. It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called: “The Greatest Gift.” The events of that story are largely similar to what is depicted in the last section of the film, while the events of the added flashback portion of the film are mostly invented or expanded to justify George Bailey’s suicidal impulse. Presumably, a film audience would accept a story about someone driving by extraordinary circumstances to contemplate suicide, but not someone merely depressed. In the short story, we meet a suicidal bank clerk named George Pratt. We never get any insight into what brings him to the bridge he’s planning to jump off of. Part of what makes the story effective is that when a stranger shows him how much worse everybody’s life would be without him, he gains in both self-worth and new purpose. One can take seriously here the state of mind that would bring someone to the plan to end their life, while believing that it might take something miraculous to shake someone from that intention, and that what George Pratt is shown is specifically relevant to the long term causes of his state of mind. George Bailey’s existential crises aren’t quite the same. Similar to George Pratt, all we know at the top of the film about the character we will come to know as George Bailey, is that he’s discouraged and suicidal. The next hour of the film is spent showing us who he is and how he got to the bridge he’s about to jump off. What we learn about him from watching him grow up in flashbacks is his central want to travel the world, kicking off the dust of small town life, and building big important things. We aren’t shown anything over the course of the movie to indicate that those dreams change as he has aged, but rather that he has been frustrated at every turn by the needs of others. In turn, we watch George give up the trip he was going to take before college, just so that he can wind up the affairs of his father's estate. He agrees to postpone college as the only way to to keep the Building and Loan open. When Harry comes back from college, George stays on at the Building and Loan so that Harry can take a promising job with his new father-in-law. George and Mary give up their honeymoon trip to stop the run on the Building and Loan, and George turns down the wildly lucrative job with Mr. Potter because of what it would mean for everyone in their town. Over the course of two decades, we watch George Bailey always put the interests of the Building and Loan, and the people of Bedford Falls, ahead of his own, and we watch the way that eats him up. What’s particularly revealing is what we see happen to George when things begin to fall apart on him, after Uncle Billy loses the bank's money. How we do anything, says something about how we do everything, and when George gets home, he lashes out at everything in his life. He yells at his wife and children, questions why they even need to have so many kids, he berates his daughter’s teacher and her husband over the phone, he destroys his small office space in the corner of the room, and the model of the project he was working on. He’s harder on his family than he is on Uncle Billy, who lost the money that got him into this mess. He’s not just angry about being ruined. He’s angry about the entire course of his life that has brought him to this moment. The end of the film is incredibly joyous. To see someone in George Bailey, who sacrificed so much for others, be lifted up by his friends in his time of need, has a deeply heart-touching justice to it. George will probably be riding high on the love for him in that moment for quite a while. But, the only substantive change to his life is that the Building and Loan has been made whole. When George Bailey wakes up the next morning, he’ll get to clean up the mess he made of his living room office, he’ll return to the same job from which so much of his frustration stems. All of the friends who came out to help him will return to their lives, much as George will return to his. It’s worth noting how this story differs from its spiritual predecessor, A Christmas Carol. In that story, the arc of Ebenezer Scrooge is that, through empathy with the plight of others, and fear over how his own life will go, Scrooge becomes a more generous person, and we take that generosity to be the engine of his happiness. What changes for him is the thing that prevented him from being happy in the first place. We never get the idea that George Bailey’s problem, as it is with George Pratt, is that he is feels under appreciated, such that when all of his friends come to his aid, he discovers he was wrong all along. He’s surely relieved that, because of the good person he has been, the people in his life have come to his aid in his time of need, but that was not the primary engine of his frustration. The anger we see erupt from him under duress is a dissatisfaction with the dreamed of life that never came to be. At the conclusion of the film, he is saved from ruin, but he is returning to the same life that he always had. He has a better sense of just how loved he is, and now he has proof of the existence of angels - which I assume would be a life changing fact to have banging around in one’s head - but narratively the story doesn’t address or engage with our protagonist’s central conflict as it’s set up in the first hour of the film. It’s possible that my take on It’s a Wonderful Life is that it should only be a half hour long, or that the narrative needs dramatic restructuring to better connect the first hour to the film's ending. At the same time, I recognize that that’s a ridiculous position, because I still do love this movie as it is. Ultimately, despite these quibbles, I fully agree that it is and should be regarded as a classic. I happen to think it is a structurally flawed one, that doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its title, but there are worse things to be. It may not be a wonderful life, but it is still a wonderful film. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Harvey and the Infectious Kindness of Jimmy Stewart

    Harvey is a curious movie. Synopsized in a bleak literal way: it’s the story of an alcoholic middle-aged man, suffering from hallucinations, whose sister and niece are trying to have him forcibly institutionalized so they can take his house. Looked at in another way: it’s the story of a lovable eccentric and his magical sidekick, breaking the people they encounter out of their cynical ruts, through attentive loving kindness. What one is meant to feel while watching this film is this lightness of the story, but the darker currents do bubble up throughout, highlighting a moral to the film that I think deliberate: engaging the world with patience and open-heartedness can have a genuinely transformative effect on your world, the people you meet in it, and your own story. Adapted from Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, Harvey takes its title from the purported hallucination at the center of the film: a 6’ 3.5” rabbit that, seemingly, can only be seen by our protagonist: Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd. Identified throughout the film as Pooka - a benign, but mischievous fairy spirit from Celtic mythology - the film is coy about whether or not Harvey is real, or whether he can be seen by others. Even at the end of the film, when we see the motion of a swing and an opening gate, effects that we are inclined to attribute to Harvey, Elwood is the only other character present, calling into question whether we are merely now starting to see his hallucinations, too. Harvey is as real as you or I, to Elwood. To understand this movie, particularly if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth lingering on this point for a moment. The film lives and dies on how concrete and natural Jimmy Stewart is able to make Harvey, and their relationship. Stewart manages something quite special in what would ultimately be an Oscar nominated performance. Stewart never winks. Stewart doesn’t play Elwood as a man hallucinating, but commits entirely to Harvey’s reality. In a time before ubiquitous green screen acting, he makes an unseen Harvey believable in a way that lets our imagination color him into the scenes. Stewart’s performance also carries the tone of the film. Harvey has been revived a number of times over the last 70+ years. I saw it on Broadway with Jim Parsons and Carol Kane. There was a TV movie adaptation made in 1998 starring Harry Anderson. Jimmy Stewart even returned to the role in a 1972 TV movie. The latter of these two can be found on YouTube if you’re so inclined. Each of these performances, including Stewart’s own return to the role, fail to capture everything that Stewart brought to the original filmed version. There is a bit of a tightrope walk required by the role mainly because the story doesn’t shy away from Elwood being a heavy drinker, (and purportedly delusional) but the story would fall apart if he came off as too pitiable or strange for the audience to root for and identify with. By the end of the film, you need to believe that when Elwood’s sister opts not to have him institutionalized, or have his delusion chemically treated, everybody is better off with Elwood in their lives just as it is. Stewart, in my view, accomplishes this in a way that other productions haven’t, by portraying Dowd as almost a bit of a saint, or a mystic, instead of a loveable weirdo. You look past Elwood’s drinking, and the implications of Harvey, because of the charisma and light coming from Elwood when you see him interacting with others. Elwood, as Stewart first performed him, comes off like Fred Rogers or Bob Ross: patient, kind, soft-spoken, happy, and in love with life and everyone he meets. When we first meet Dowd, he’s listening to a mailman, making small talk about the day, to which Dowd says, “Oh, every day's a beautiful day,” and you believe he means it. The line reading works, not coming off at all cloying, because Dowd seems to believe it in his bones as a simple fact, not something he’s trying to project or convince others of. As I alluded to at the beginning, the story of Harvey revolves around Elwood Dowd, who has inherited his deceased mother’s home, and seemingly not inconsiderable resources. His sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, have recently come to live with him, but are embarrassed to discover that Harvey lives with Elwood as well. The precipitating incident for the film is a social gathering that Veta attempts to throw at the house while Elwood is supposed to be out for the day. The party is meant to be a sort of coming out party for young Myrtle Mae, to introduce her to the community, so that she might attract suitors, or even a husband, without the baggage of her peculiar uncle. Through happenstance, Elwood does hear about the party. He and Harvey hurry home intending to offer support to his sister and niece in their endeavors. Elwood arrives and introduces everyone at the party to Harvey, quickly clearing out all of the partygoers. For Veta, this is the final embarrassing straw, and she calls a local judge to begin the process of having her brother committed. The small scene in which Elwood hears about the party is as important for how I see the movie as most anything that comes after. Elwood has arrived at his favorite bar, “Charlie’s,” where it seems he plans to spend the day. He and Harvey take their usual seats at the bar, where they are both recognized and warmly welcomed. Elwood leaves Harvey at the bar for a moment to go say ‘hello’ to a man he recognizes at one of the tables. We’re introduced to the somewhat indigent looking Mr. Meegles, who we learn has recently been released from jail. In this encounter we first see Elwood’s boundless love, trust, and acceptance of others. Dowd is genuinely interested in how Meegles is doing, pays no mind at all to the little time he’s done, and invites him to come over to the house for dinner the next night. Mr. Meegles also helps advance the plot, because it’s him that points out to Elwood the notice in the society page of the newspaper about the party Veta is throwing that day. There is a thread of loneliness and longed for connection in Harvey that we see through a few different guises. Veta’s frustration at feeling like she can’t have people over to the house anymore; she becomes distraught when her efforts at the top of the film go awry. Myrtle Mae is also frustrated: feeling that she can’t have gentleman callers over. Mr. Meegles worries that he won’t be welcome at Elwood’s house, or anywhere, because of the time he did. These threads, and their happy resolution, feature prominently during the second half of the film as our attention focuses on the sanitarium, “Chumley’s Rest.” The action of the last half of the film turns on the farcical story point of Veta being committed to the sanitarium instead of Elwood. It’s Veta who seems distraught and talks of Harvey as if he were real, while Elwood’s enviably happy equanimity seems the very picture of sanity. There are four important characters we are introduced to at Chumley’s Rest: Dr. Chumley, Dr. Sanderson, Ms. Kelly, and Mr. Wilson. Each character has an arc that turns based on their benefiting from having met and been disarmed by the charm and kindness of Elwood Dowd. Dr. Sanderson and Ms. Kelly are the doctor and nurse on duty when Elwood is brought to Chumley’s Rest. We meet them bickering and with an unspoken past, but Elwood acts as matchmaker for them throughout the second act. Mr. Wilson is an orderly at the sanitarium, whose behavior hints at the way institutionalized patients are often manhandled to get them to behave. He softens over the course of the final act as Dowd encourages the growing relationship between him and Myrtle Mae. Dr. Chumley is the most interesting case. We meet his kind wife briefly as Elwood is leaving the sanitarium, but Dr. Chumley seems unhappy with his life. We hear Elwood recount how when Dr. Chumley later found him and Harvey at Charlie’s, they spoke over a few drinks, and Dr. Chumley became inebriated enough that he wandered off to try and hit on someone else’s date. Later, when talking with Elwood about Harvey, Chumley says if Harvey could take him anywhere, he would like to disappear for two weeks with some pretty girl, who would stroke his head and tell him what a poor little thing he was. When we last see Dr. Chumley, he’s walking back into the sanitarium, (possibly still drunk) talking in a hopeful tone to a “Harvey” of his own about this dream. Whether Dr. Chumley is actually left better off at the end of the film is hard to say, but he is certainly happier. Everyone else comes away happier for having come into contact with Elwood as well. This idea is stated fairly plainly in the most famous monologue from the play and film: Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us. Between the lines, we can infer the account of these interactions is surely colored by how Elwood sees the world, but by this point we’ve already seen his disarming way with people. Surely there are times when the people he and Harvey met were not as kindly as they are painted here, but I expect Elwood is more right than wrong. The connections he made were largely warm ones, and the ones that weren’t, were warm for him all the same. In this vein, Elwood says at one point: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ - she always called me Elwood - ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” There’s hints throughout the film that Elwood may have had a dramatic break with reality at some point after his mother died. That may have also been when his drinking started, as well. While talking to Dr. Sanderson Elwood even says, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” At some level you see a recognition in Elwood of a dramatic change having taken place, but all evidence points to it being one for the better. He is happier, the people he meets are happier, and when given the chance to have him chemically treated to return him back to whom he was before meeting Harvey, Veta realizes that she would be doing him far more harm than good. Harvey functions as a curious meditation on mental illness and happiness. What Veta has to weigh when offered the option of having her brother chemically treated is whether it’s more important to her that he be normal, or happy; does she want him to be just like everyone else, or let him stay kind and open-hearted? What is the virtue of being normal for normalcy’s sake alone? What Jimmy Stewart is able to achieve in his performance is something quite remarkable. Just looking at the facts of Dowd’s case from a detached distance, some sort of treatment seems both warranted and overdue. But, Stewart’s Dowd is clearly living his best life, and you see the believably transformative effect the kindness of his Dowd has on all of the story’s other characters. Dowd, as Stewart plays him, is more than a loveable eccentric, but a genuinely admirable role model. Dowd says to Dr. Chumley at one point: “I always have a wonderful time - wherever I am, whomever I'm with. I'm having a fine time, right here.” I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from having a bit more of that peace in their life. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Whoopi Goldberg: Secret Icon

    Whoopi Goldberg turns 65 years old this month and is about to celebrate with a starring role in the upcoming CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. She’ll be playing a 108 year-old woman named Mother Abagail Freemantle, who, in a world decimated by plague, leads the good people who have survived, to the place where they will make their final stand against the forces of darkness. Timely. These days, Whoopi is most widely recognized for her role as one of the hosts of The View - ABC’s daytime talk show that she has helped moderate since 2007. In some ways, The View is the ideal vehicle for her uninhibited approach to the world, but perhaps a bit lost to those who know her best from this phase of her career, is how much of an iconic figure she already was before taking this job. Whoopi is an EGOT, one of a small handful of people that has been awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. With that Oscar, she became only the second African American woman to win one, and the first to ever be nominated in both the Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories. In addition to her Oscar nominations, she was the first African American woman to host the awards show, doing so four times between 1994 and 2002. Also, she was the first African American woman, and only the fourth person overall, to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It was as a host that I first became aware of Whoopi, but it was in her role co-hosting Comic Relief with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Watching and rewatching each year’s Comic Relief was a big part of my life. For those who may not recall, Comic Relief was a fundraising event that aired on HBO at irregular intervals between the years of 1986-2006 to raise money for homelessness. Each event was structured around a deep lineup of the day’s best comics, with Whoopi, Billy, and Robin, both hosting the event and performing throughout. A number of the broadcasts are still up in full on YouTube, and although there is certainly material that hasn’t aged well, the programs are worth revisiting. There was a special alchemy to the trio of Whoopi, Robin, and Billy in their nine turns as hosts of the event. Robin and Billy were both world-class stand-up comics, but Whoopi was something more. While Billy and Robin would trade rapid fire bits, often recycling material that was already a part of their routines, Whoopi would react and improvise around them in a way that tied the three of them together, grounding what they were doing in the moment. Whoopi had come up through comedy clubs, like Billy and Robin had, working in improv troupes and doing stand-up, but her background was primarily as an actor. The 1985 one-woman show titled, "The Spook Show," that brought her to prominence was genuinely funny, but the greatest praise she received for her work was for the depth and heart she brought to the different characters she had created. An important New York Times review of an early version of the show, likened what she was doing to marrying the character work of Lily Tomlin to the realism of Richard Pryor, merging scripted and improvised content in a way that created something very special. The nature of Whoopi’s initial success helps highlight the breadth of her abilities. She created her one woman show out of necessity. An undeniable talent, she was struggling to get cast in leading roles as a Black woman. If she was going to succeed, she knew she was going to have to take an active role in creating her own opportunities. That initial show, “The Spook Show,” would be the catalyst for everything that came afterwards for her. Mitzi Shore loved what Whoopi was doing enough to give her a regular spot in The Belly Room at The Comedy Store to do her show. Mike Nichols saw her show and helped her turn it into its eponymous Broadway version. It was her show that brought her to the attention of Alice Walker, and got Whoopi in the room with Steven Spielberg to audition for The Color Purple - for which she would receive a Best Lead Actress Oscar nomination. It was for the album recording of her show that she would win her Grammy. All of this success and these accolades stem from an indefatigable drive not to be limited by how people saw her. By the time of the first Comic Relief in 1986, Whoopi was already established as a special talent. A gifted writer, a hilarious stand-up comic and improviser, as well as a lauded dramatic actor of stage and screen. Her star shined as bright then as anyone’s can, but the time since then has been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of output as Hollywood has often struggled to put her talents to work. There have been some impressive highs. She won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, and saw great commercial success in her role as Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 1 and 2 - her appearance in the second of these films would briefly make her the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Each of those roles came about more by chance than design, though. She was only cast in Ghost at the insistence of the film’s star, Patrick Swayze. Sister Act, was originally developed as a project for Bette Midler, before she passed on it. Then, when Whoopi was hired, she took an active part in remaking the role for herself by hiring Carrie Fisher to rewrite all of her dialogue. Those highs have been fairly infrequent in terms of her film work. She has gotten a chance to do good work in some of her supporting roles, but most of the lead roles she has been offered have been underwhelming. Her legacy comes largely built as a live performer. In addition to her hosting jobs on The View, Comic Relief, and the Oscars, she has returned to Broadway numerous times: most notably in a 20th anniversary run of her original stage show, and a well-reviewed turn, taking over for Nathan Lane, in the lead of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She’s also been a welcome presence on TV in frequent guest spots, and recurring roles on shows like Glee, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Her role as Guinan, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is another example of Whoopi creating her own opportunity. She was friends with cast member, Levar Burton, and she told him to see if he could let the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, know that she would love to be involved in the show in any way. She kept after Levar about this for a time, until he was able to convince the show runners that, despite her level of fame, her interest in the show was genuine. She finally got a meeting with Gene Roddenberry, where she was able to explain how important seeing the original Star Trek series had been to her as a child because, as she said it, it was the only time she ever “saw Black people in the future.” Nichelle Nichols’s role as Lt. Uhura, a smart and capable black woman, serving an integral role in the function of the Starship Enterprise, inspired her to believe in herself. Whoopi wanted to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation so that she could play that same role in inspiring other young black children. In addition to her upcoming appearance in The Stand, we may be getting an opportunity to see Whoopi revisit her role as Guinan. In one of the few happy stories this year from before TV production shut down, during an interview on The View about his return to the Star Trek universe on the show Picard, Patrick Stewart invited Whoopi to return to the show as Guinan. It was a moving moment on a number of levels: a happy surprise moment between close friends, an opportunity to return to both a role and a show that means a great deal to her, and an opportunity for her to do work worth doing. As shows begin to head back into production, here’s hoping that this is something that we’ll be able to look forward to. As glad as I am that we will see new work from Whoopi, and as happy I am for the success she continues to have, I do think it would be worthwhile for people to take another look at the many past accomplishments of her career, rather than waiting for her “in memoriam.” Whoopi Goldberg was and remains a significant figure in American stage and screen, one that created her own opportunities, and eased the way for others that followed along the trail she blazed. She ought not be forgotten. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Aaron Sorkin and Tales of Good and Bad Government

    Aaron Sorkin is enjoying a bit of a moment. Sorkin gets to witness the Netflix wide-release of his second directed film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, only a day after the HBO Max release of The West Wing quasi-reunion special (the staged theatrical production of the election themed episode ‘Hartsfield Landing,’) as a benefit for the Michelle Obama led voting rights group: When We All Vote. West Wing fans have been clamoring for a reunion almost since the show went off the air, and Sorkin’s new film is already garnering a significant amount of award buzz. Sorkin can be a bit polarizing as an auteur, trafficking in a Capra-esque idealism that is a bit out of step with the more pervasive cynicism of our times. A modern audience will accept fairytale-like stories about smart and good-hearted people where everything turns out alright in the end, but they usually need to involve lightsabers, superheroes, or singing cartoons. There is something of a shared spirit between these kinds of stories and Aaron Sorkin’s work, although he tends to set his stories in courtrooms and offices where important work is being done. Both of these recent projects share that they are stories of another time that find renewed relevance today. Sorkin specifically chose the ‘Hartsfield Landing’ episode of The West Wing, because it is a love letter to voting and the peaceful transition of power. The Trial of the Chicago 7, is a love letter of a different kind, existing somewhere on the opposite end of that spectrum. It celebrates the myriad of ways that people work to oppose and remedy government dysfunction. The centerpiece of ‘Hartsfield Landing,’ is a lightly fictionalized version of the small New Hampshire towns, like Dixville Notch, that are able to open their polls at midnight on Election Day. These towns report their results as soon as everyone has finished voting, making them one of the very first places in the nation to report results. Parallel to this story is an unfolding international crisis that hinges on voting rights in Taiwan. Throughout the episode - in a typically Sorkin extra-on-the-nose detail - President Bartlett is playing multiple literal games of chess with his staff, while waiting for the metaphorical chess moves from the Chinese government. Simultaneously, a member of his staff spends the day lobbying a couple from Hartsfield Landing to vote for Bartlett, hammering in the idea that not only does every vote matter, but it matters that every voter be heard, and be allowed to make up their own mind. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t really do subtlety or ambiguity. There is a moral to this story: voting and democracy are sacred human inventions that need to be revered and protected. Sorkin is going to find a few different entertaining ways to tell you the lesson, which will tie together at the end in an unexpected way, but you will not be left in the dark about what the lesson is and where he stands. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin is telling a story that could function as a prequel to a West Wing episode. Here is what happens when government and democracy become dysfunctional, and here is what has to happen in order to set things right again. Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 suffers, is that since Sorkin is working with actual events, he sometimes has to stretch things a bit to achieve the moral lesson and narrative arc he’s going for. There are any number of reviews and articles that can outline the ways in which this movie departs from the actual events, and importantly, there is nothing in this film remotely as egregious as the invented relationship that Sorkin used as a narrative frame for The Social Network. I’m not going to get into those differences here, as having that knowledge so fresh in mind going into watching this film detracted from my experience in a way that went away entirely upon rewatch. I would recommend going into Chicago 7 fresh, and if you are so inclined to investigate further after watching the film, there is a wonderful audiobook dramatization of the trial transcript: The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Complete Transcript. Staring, among others, Jeff Daniels and J.K. Simmons, it offers a fuller and more faithful portrait of the events of the trial. Regarding the politics of this film, Sorkin lets you clearly know who the good guys are, and allows whatever tension there is on that front to rest on whose methods and strategy are best. Our story is the protesting of the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the conspiracy trial of the organizers of those protests. Sorkin lets us know that the Vietnam War was a great wrong in need of remedy, that the protests were righteous, and that whatever faults our protagonists may have, responsibility for the violence that occurred, rests at the feet of police and government officials standing in the way of progress. Within those dynamics, Sorkin’s sympathies are least with the revolutionaries, most often siding with those characters who are doing their best to work within the system, but still willing to endorse the measures good people feel are sometimes needed in order to address injustice. Sorkin takes great pains to make sure that there are likable characters within the government, police, and the prosecution, seemingly to make clear that his problem is not with the system, per se, but the bad actors within that system. Aiding in telling this story is a truly wonderful cast, that gives Sorkin an opportunity to flash his other great skill: managing an ensemble in a way that gives everyone a chance to shine. Each of the defendants on trial is actualized in a way that lets each of the characters be unique and memorable, while everyone still feels part of the same world. Frank Langella does heroic work, making the actually clownish Judge Hoffman into a grounded and believable character. Micheal Keaton completely owns the screen for his critical few minutes in the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes the most out of the largely thankless role as the lead prosecutor. When award season rolls around, the biggest challenge may be separating out who are the lead actors and who are the supporting actors. I would expect, at least, that Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, and Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler, will get nominations. Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin is deserving and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale is a wonder. As a film, it’s well directed and edited. The opening montage is a masterclass in setup. We get character building introductions to most of the key players, we get an overview of where the war and the draft stand, we get introduced to the different factions that are organizing the protest, and all this without feeling like an info dump. Throughout the film, the same key events are seamlessly intercut from multiple perspectives and timeframes, as well as being intercut with actual 1968 footage. As a director, Sorkin has acquired himself quite capably. In terms of legacy, I expect this movie to have an interesting one. Aaron Sorkin has faithfully told an important story of protest and revolutionary figures, but one so mild-mannered that it can be used to eat up three days of a high school social studies class at the end of the semester - perhaps skipping the scene where Jerry Rubin gives a detailed lesson on how to make a Molotov cocktail. There is language and bloodshed, that you wouldn’t find in a West Wing episode, but in terms of the kinds of stories they are and how they are told, they’re two sides of the same coin. That may not be for everyone, but it happens to be exactly what I want most these days. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • The Cabin in the Woods and the Greater Good

    [Immediate Spoilers for The Cabin in the Woods] During the Q&A after an early screening of The Cabin in the Woods, someone asked the director, Drew Goddard, if there were any plans for a sequel. Goddard, surprised, reportedly asked if the questioner had actually watched the movie. The ending of The Cabin in the Woods isn’t meant to be ambiguous. We are to understand that not only are we seeing the end for all of our protagonists and antagonists, but the end of all human life on earth, seemingly forever. That ending on its own is something unusual; that this ending comes at the choosing of our protagonists is something stranger still; and that this ending is meant to be something of a victory is strangest of all. Yes, the end of all mankind comes at the gargantuan hand of the old gods, but only because our protagonists cannot abide the price that would have had to be paid to avert it. There are two ethical thought experiments that have been talked and written to death in recent years which apply here. The first, and more ubiquitous, is Philippa Foot’s trolley problem. Imagine a runaway trolley/train heading down a set of tracks, hurtling towards five men working on the tracks, completely unaware of the train and certain to be hit and killed. From your position, you can do nothing to stop this train, but you can switch the trolley to a different track, one where only one person would be certain of death. While not certain, robust empirical research of this thought experiment indicates that the majority of people who hear about this dilemma believe they would be inclined to flip the switch, sacrificing one life to save five, or they would be inclined to think that someone who flipped the switch was doing the right thing. The flip-side of this thought experiment involves knowing of the certain and imminent death of five individuals, and then choosing a bystander to sacrifice in order to save the five. In one version, this involves harvesting the organs of one healthy person to save the lives of five terminally ill patients. In another, there is no switch to be pulled, and the only way to save the five is to push one person in front of the trolly before it reaches the five. In these sorts of thought experiments, the math of the cost in human lives is the same, but the overwhelming majority of respondents in those more active scenarios are opposed to taking action. It’s hard to pinpoint the nature of the difference between these two categories of thought experiments, but in the first we can tell ourselves we are choosing to save five lives, and a downstream byproduct of that choice is that the trolley will still kill someone. In the other examples, we are actively choosing a person to kill, and the byproduct of that will be to save five lives. Our protagonists and antagonists in The Cabin in the Woods are on opposite sides of this divide. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), Hadley (Bradley Whitford), and the rest of the team in the control room have made the calculation that actively sacrificing four to five human beings to save the lives of 7 billion people is the moral thing to do. The team in the control room is often presented as comic and unserious, but at the loss of the first life they solemnly intone the words required by the ritual: “This we offer in humility and fear, for the blessed peace of your eternal slumber. As it ever was.” Despite surface appearances, they take their work, the ritual, and the stakes of their failure seriously, and are clear that what they are doing is a moral necessity in circumstances they are trying to make the best of. Conversely, Dana (Kristen Connolly), the last of the sacrificial victims and archetypal horror movie final girl that the ritual requires, eventually makes the decision that there is nothing in this world that would make her kill her friend, Marty (Fran Kranz), who had repeatedly saved her life; it would not be worth the life of everyone else on earth, nor would it be worth either her or Marty’s lives as their immediate demise is also assured as a consequence of her choice. While she briefly struggles to get to this choice, and does entertain the idea of killing Marty, she is confident when she does decide, that what she is doing is a moral necessity in circumstances she is trying to make the best of. The film makes clear what the fallout of Dana’s decision will be, and that the film is on Dana’s side. At the same time, neither the team in the control room, nor the legion of horrific monsters are exactly cast as villains either. The monsters do what monsters do, and the team in the control room is doing what they feel they must in service of a righteous cause. A fairly nihilistic position is defended earlier in the film by Marty. “Society is binding. It’s filling in the cracks with concrete. Everything is filed or recorded. Blogged, right? Chips in our kids’ heads so they won’t get lost. Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chickenshit to let it.” Part of this ironically juxtaposes with the literal manipulation and surveillance the kids are going to be under by Sitterson, Hadley, and their team; but taken literally, Marty has already broached the idea that the world and humanity are neither saveable nor worth saving. In the final moments of the film, the moral crux of the story is made plain in the confrontation between Dana, Marty, and The Director (Sigourney Weaver). The Director says: “It’s our task to placate the ancient ones, as it’s yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us, and let us get it over with.” To which Marty replies, “Maybe that’s the way it should be if you’ve got to kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change.” One could see how what seems required might look differently looked at from each vantage point. To the director, this seems as straightforward as the trolley problem - sacrifice this one stranger’s life to save the lives of 7 billion people. For Dana, the math is the same, but it’s not some stranger she needs to sacrifice. Rather, it’s a good friend who had saved her from an attacking werewolf mere moments before. Whether they should or not is an open question, but our moral concern does shift when it comes to our loved ones. For Marty, the question hits closest to home as he is being asked to sacrifice himself for the greater good. The Director says as much to him, “We’re talking about the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet. Including you. You can die with them. Or you can die for them.” We admire those who sacrifice themselves for others, (think the death of Spock in Wrath of Khan) but we admire it because it’s supererogatory: going above and beyond what is morally required. We generally don’t demand of anyone that they must sacrifice themselves for others. Marty doesn’t sacrifice himself for the world, Dana ultimately cannot bring herself to kill him, and the Director is killed by her own monster before she can kill Marty herself. In the last moments, Dana and Marty apologize to one another for their circumstances: “I’m sorry I almost shot you,” Dana says, and “I’m sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world,” Marty replies. There is still time at this point for them to change their minds, but they’re not going to. Passing a joint between them, Dana says, “You were right. Humanity. Time to give someone else a chance.” This is the choice they’ve made. Humanity let what they’ve been through, and so much more, happen to them, therefore humanity is not worth saving. This is the greater good they believe in and the film is on their side. Taking apart the ending like this makes me more sympathetic to that questioner on the Q & A asking about a sequel. I understand Dana and Marty’s decision. The ending is honest and true to the characters. The Old God’s hand erupting out of the ground, blacking out the screen, followed by the fierce Nine Inch Nails musical cue is a deeply satisfying ending in the moment. Yet, the message underneath that ending makes me want something more. I do love The Cabin in the Woods, and structurally I’m hard pressed to find a thing I would change about it. Part of me wants a continuation of the story where humanity is redeemed, but what we get and what we want are often at odds. I regret the nihilism at its core, but I love The Cabin in the Woods for the film that it is. Even if given the opportunity to sacrifice this film, perhaps to save the world from extinction at the hands of the old gods, I’m not sure I would do it. Sorry folks; sometimes them’s the breaks. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Rocky Boulevard: Sunset Boulevard at 70

    There are numerous ways that a classic movie can echo through time. We can see the ripple effects of innovations in technique or storytelling show up in later films; we can watch compelling stories that are told over and over again; we can see moments that are so iconic that they are copied and parodied relentlessly, while still other movies can be both so distinct, yet familiar, that they bubble to mind in similar moments in other films while you’re watching them. There’s a sense in which the story you may be watching can’t help but get entangled in your mind with your own experiences, or with all of the other stories you’ve ever heard. It’s something like this last idea I experienced recently while watching Billy Wilder’s film, Sunset Boulevard for its 70th Anniversary. I have seen the film a few times, and enough of it is always simmering in the background of pop culture that it has never faded from my memory entirely, but one scene unlocked the film for me in a peculiar way on my most recent viewing. Our protagonist in Sunset Boulevard is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter trying to evade creditors from repossessing his car. Eventually, quite literally evading the would-be repo men in a high speed chase, Gillis manages to escape them for a time by hiding out in the driveway, and then the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion after a tire on his car blows out. While watching this scene develop - Gillis becomes aware of the mansion attached to the driveway he pulled into, and begins to explore the grounds of the property - I unexpectedly thought of a similar scene at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The context is different, but our protagonists there, Janet Weiss and Brad Majors, seek help at a dark looking mansion after the tire of their car blows out. The thought is fleeting, and might have gone right out of my head had the next few scenes not prompted similar connections. Right away, Gillis meets the enigmatic majordomo of the house, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), in a manner not entirely dissimilar from when Brad and Janet meet Riff Raff - at least that’s how I saw it once primed to see things that way. Once I began actively looking for parallels, they came pretty easily. One of the more overtly odd elements of Sunset Boulevard is that when Gillis arrives, he is initially only let in because Max thinks that he is there to handle the arrangements of burying a dead pet chimpanzee. Later that evening, after Gillis is given a room for the night, he watches a somber procession as that chimp is carried in a white child’s coffin to be buried in the backyard garden. This was especially noteworthy to me at this point because coffins feature prominently twice in Rocky Horror: First, also right as Brad and Janet are arriving at the house, a skeleton falls out of a coffin to start the song The Time Warp; and second, in the dinner sequence where everyone eating discovers that the table they have been eating at was actually a coffin containing the remains of Eddie - who was also something of a dead pet. Where the parallels grow the strongest for me are where they might perhaps be least expected. I don’t know if I’m the first person to argue that Norma Desmond and Dr. Frank N. Furter are characters cut from the same cloth, but now that I have seen these similarities, they are so clear to me that I don’t imagine I could ever unsee them. Both Norma and Frank are commanding, self-possessed divas that draw people into their orbit like a cult leader. Both are fixated on films and figures of a bygone era - heroines like Fay Wray and classic sci-fi movies for Frank; silent movies and their stars like herself, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks for Norma. Both have assiduously crafted an image of themselves they want to protect and project, but one that we watch unravel by the end of each film. We meet both characters in the act of creation - Norma having written the screenplay for her comeback film, Salome; and Frank, with the man he brings to life, Rocky. As Frank literally makes a man out of Rocky, Norma remakes Gillis into the image of what she thinks a man should be: outfitting him in fine clothes and jewelry, training him to be responsive to her needs. As Frank traps Brad and Janet, preventing them from ever making the phone call to get their car repaired, Norma allows the repo men to take Gillis’ car so that he can’t leave. Both Norma and Frank begin to fall apart over jealousy: Norma when Gillis seems to fall for Nancy - the woman he’s been secretly writing a screenplay with - and he tries to move out, and Frank when he catches Janet and Rocky together in the lab. Both stories are bookended by a narrator telling the story of a tragedy, and both stories end with a gun and swimming pool - Frank and Rocky being shot with a ray gun by Riff Raff and falling into the swimming pool, while Norma shoots Gillis as he’s trying to leave, causing him to stumble into the swimming pool that we see him being fished out of at the top of the film. What we’re talking about is something different from mere allusion. Another film having an anniversary this month is John Waters’ 2000 film Cecil B. Demented. That film explicitly recreates the famous closing line from Sunset Boulevard in its own finale, but just as reference for reference’s sake. The connection between those two films goes no further than this one allusion. Rocky Horror is itself a movie deeply steeped in reference and allusion, but very specifically working with a toolbox of classic sci-fi and horror films. To extend beyond that universe to deliberately reference a film like Sunset Boulevard would seem to be muddying and undermining to its project to a degree, so no deliberate reference seems intended. It’s in this sense that I think the connection between Sunset Boulevard and The Rocky Horror Picture Show is better understood in terms of the echoes of folklore and storytelling that can arise spontaneously from shared human experience, or the incidental ways that past culture can unconsciously seep into present culture in ways we aren’t aware of. I have no reason to believe, and I have found no evidence so far, that Richard O’Brien had Sunset Boulevard at all in mind when writing Rocky Horror, but having grown up in a world in which it existed, and deliberately referencing material that was made around the same time, the cross-pollination that we see between these two radically different films begins to make some sense. For example, Gillis shares a similar story arc to Brad and Janet, in that they each find themselves walking willingly into their situation. They begin to feel themselves trapped once they are there (which they are), they start to become more open and receptive to the positive parts of what’s happening to them, and then they almost immediately come to deeply regret everything about the experience as someone they care about is drawn into the situation trying to save them - Dr. Scott in the case of Brad and Janet, and Nancy in the case of Gillis. How much we read into the parallels here is interesting, because now we are dipping into what are considered more universal tropes of storytelling. Countless stories follow an identical arc to this one. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses the shared symbolic grammar that all stories share. It’s in this sense that I think the connection between Sunset Boulevard and Rocky Horror are most salient. Like two pieces from different puzzles that happen to fit together, it doesn’t make much sense that these stories share as much in common as they do. They are two radically different works in terms of tone, content, and intention. Neither is striving to convey some great shared moral or truth. What they have in common is being stories, that, however heightened they may be, are rooted in human emotion and experience, and happen to be created from many of the same ingredients. It’s a happy accident that they can be connected in the way that they’ve become for me, and it’s a small bonus that these connections have genuinely changed how I see these characters and their stories. The part of this that I find most interesting is not the forward-looking sense in which my having seen Sunset Boulevard informs my experience of the later Rocky Horror, but rather the backward looking way in which a film released 25 years later has irreversibly changed my experience of watching the film that came before it, and makes me look forward to the potential further evolutions to my experience of this film that are yet to come. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Meaning and Mortality: Joe Versus the Volcano at 30

    Released 30 years ago, Joe Versus the Volcano is the first of the three romantic comedies that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made together. Their next two films: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, would both be Nora Ephron-helmed romantic comedies that are now widely regarded as classics. Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano is something quite different. Shanley, a NYC playwright and screenwriter, directs his first film here off the success of his Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the 1987 film, Moonstruck. For a romantic comedy, what Shanley has made is a fascinating meditation on the relationship between life, meaning, and death. Masked in absurdity and overt silliness, it is subtle just how thorough a taxonomy of this interrelation we are given by the film. At the outset, we meet our lead, Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who has seemingly given up on life from a fear of death; we go on to see him liberated when the uncertainty around his death is removed, and he is told just how little time he has left. We see Joe afraid, confronted with imminent demise in the middle of a treacherous storm; we see him resigned, but grateful, taking care of someone else while hopelessly adrift at sea; we see him walk bravely to his death at the mouth of the volcano; and we see him again at the end of the film, adrift at sea, but now with equanimity for whatever may come next, and ready to share the journey with someone else. At every moment in the film, Joe’s death is always looming in the background, though the details around it may shift as the story unfolds. What changes is a profound difference in Joe’s relationship to his death, that allows him to live the life he has remaining. Quite a trick for a film about a guy who volunteers to jump into a volcano. In an impressive opening sequence, Shanley paints a hellish portrait of dead-end office life and the workaday world. There is a shot in the first few minutes of the film that is almost the inverse of the iconic scene from The Shawshank Redemption: Tim Robbins standing in the rain, arms outstretched towards the sky, completely free. Here, it is Joe, trudging into work, shoulder to shoulder with his fellow damned, along a grim and gray industrial landscape, having stepped in an ankle deep puddle for the second time, throwing his arms in much the same pose, but demonstrating abject hopelessness and helplessness in the face of his dismal circumstances. The capstone to this scene is a shot of a single flower poking through a crack in the pavement, surrounded by the stepping feet falling all around it, until it is finally crushed under someone’s shoe. Joe works for a medical supply company, American Panascope. We don’t know everything they make, but the two products that we are shown are rectal probes and petroleum jelly. Joe works in a windowless office, under flickering fluorescent lights. His job is to mail out promotional catalogues to potential customers, but since his boss doesn’t trust him to restock those catalogs himself, he currently has almost nothing left to send. We are only introduced to two of Joe’s coworkers at the office. There is his boss, Mr. Waturi, played by Dan Hedaya, who we hear as Joe makes his way to his desk to start his day. Mr. Waturi is at a desk in the middle of the office, loudly talking on the phone, having an interminable conversation that consists only in angrily asking different versions of the same question over and over again. Joe’s other coworker we meet is DeDe, the first of the three characters played by Meg Ryan. DeDe is a little sickly like Joe, but generally seems content and accepting of her lot in life. She enjoys her job for what it is and cares enough to check on Joe after he sits down. Since Joe is always sick, though, she doesn’t have much of a baseline to compare him to. Joe’s brief escape for the day is a trip to the doctor’s office. We hard cut from him rubbing his eyes at his desk, to him rubbing his eyes again in a dismal fluorescent lit waiting room, where he is waiting for Dr. Ellison. When the doctor is ready, the change is a bit like Dorthy walking from her black & white house into technicolor Oz. Dr. Ellison’s office is all rich mahogany, with tidy book-lined shelves and sunlight filtering in through the window. Dr. Ellison himself, played by Robert Stack, is the first healthy looking person we’ve seen in the film. Dr. Ellison tells Joe some good news and some bad news. Having run an exhaustive battery of tests, they’ve found that all of the many symptoms Joe has been complaining of were psychosomatic. It appears that Joe is a hypochondriac. Insinuated is that Joe felt better in his previous life as a firefighter, but the symptoms that made him leave that job were his body’s response to the dangers of fighting fires. It turns out that he is in almost perfect health. The bad news is that through all of the exhaustive testing, they uncovered something else. Joe has a rare neurological condition called a brain cloud. A brain cloud is a terminal, but otherwise symptom free condition. Joe will experience no ill effects except that one day, within the next few months, his brain will suddenly shut down and he will die. Joe leaves Dr. Ellison’s office in a bit of a haze. Outside on the street, though, he encounters someone walking their dog and Joe starts to come alive. He heads back to work, full of life. On the way in he comes across that flower from the opening that was stepped on and he coaxes it back to standing again. He loudly quits his job, unloading on Mr. Waturi everything he’s thought of him all along, and on his way out the door for the last time, he asks DeDe out for dinner that night. Yes, Joe is dying, but he has decided to live in the meantime. Dinner with DeDe goes great, she’s enamored with the newly full of life Joe, but she freaks out and leaves once he tells her that he only has a few months left to live. She likes him, but his situation is more than she’s willing to sign up for at the moment. She returns to her life, the one that Joe just left, and he is left to think about how he will spend the days he has left. An answer arrives at his house the next morning in the form of Samuel Graynamore, a businessman played with just the right amount of impish whimsy by Lloyd Bridges. Graynamore has learned about Joe’s circumstances. He knows that Joe is dying, that he used to be a heroic firefighter, and that he is now faced with figuring out what to do with his final days. Graynamore has a proposal for him. Graynamore’s superconductor business depends upon him working out a deal with the Waponi, the natives indiginous to the island Waponi Woo, which happens to be rich in Bubaru, the mineral that Graynamore needs for his superconductors. There is only one thing that the Waponi want, and Graynamore would like Joe to help him help them. All he needs Joe to do is jump into a volcano. The Waponi people believe that the volcano on their island needs to be appeased with a voluntary human sacrifice every one hundred years. Understandably, none of the Waponi people want to jump into the volcano themselves. If Graynamore can find a volunteer, the Waponi will grant him the mineral rights to the island. If Joe will be the volunteer he needs, Graynamore will help him live out his last days like a king - providing a lavishly equipped cruise to the island where the Waponi people will greet him as a savior. For lack of anything better to do, Joe agrees. If nothing else, it should be an adventure. Armed with Graynamore’s credit cards, Joe equips himself in New York City for his trip. He hires a limousine and chauffeur, Marshall (Ossie Davis), who helps him get what he needs. Marshall takes the idea seriously that “clothes make the man,” and Joe is slowly transformed over the course of the day. Now armed with fine clothes, a fresh haircut, and four high-end waterproof steamer trunks, Joe boards a plane to Los Angeles. Upon arrival, he is picked up by Graynamore’s daughter, Angelica, the second of the three roles played by Meg Ryan. In their short time together, Joe and Angelica bond, but it’s clear that Angelica is troubled. An inverse to DeDe, Angelica has every opportunity available to her, living comfortably off of her father’s money, but she is sadly discontent with her lot. Here, it is Joe that opts not to pursue her, not wanting to take advantage of someone so obviously lost. Angelica drops Joe off at the docks where he will board Graynamore’s ship, the Tweedledee. For the journey, the ship will be captained by Graynamore’s other daughter, Patricia, the third character played by Meg Ryan. Patricia is meant to be wholly herself, in contrast to both DeDe and Angelica. Assertive, confident, brave, and only begrudgingly doing her father the favor of leading this trip in exchange for ownership of the Tweedledee when the ordeal is over. The trip doesn’t go well. The ship is hit by a terrible storm, getting struck by lightning, and sinks, with everyone but Joe and Patrica still onboard. Joe rescues Patricia and manages to improvise a raft by roping his steamer trunks together, but she is unconscious and remains that way for days. He nurses her, keeping her shaded from the sun with an umbrella, gives her capfuls of water from his canteen as his own health deteriorates. After days at sea, delirious from dehydration and sunstroke, he thanks the moon for his life, and passes out. He wakes up, revived by a now conscious Patricia who has been nursing him. Shortly after, they are spotted and rescued by the natives of Waponi Woo. Before getting into the next part of the plot, there is something worth addressing. The depiction of the Waponi people firmly places this film as a product of a different time. The Waponi are a broad caricature of Pacific Island peoples, played for laughs by white actors - most notably Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane. The mismatch is deliberate, and seemingly without intended malice, but it would go too far to say that it was, or even could be, self-aware enough to be exculpatory. The depiction is clearly intended to be akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said it was racist and crossed a line. Patricia and Joe are brought ashore. Again, somewhat reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy et al first arrive in Oz, they are both taken to be primped and pampered ahead of the feast that night. When the time comes, Joe is ready to jump into the volcano, but Patricia wants to talk him out of it. They’ve bonded, they love each other, but as Joe says, the timing stinks. Patricia talks him into letting the chief marry them before he leaps, and then, once married, she takes his hand and they leap into the volcano together. A blast of hot air and smoke erupts out of the volcano, carrying them both up and out of the volcano, entirely clear of the island, dumping them both in the ocean. They watch in disbelief as the island begins to sink. Their circumstances dawn on them both in different ways. Each is thrilled to be alive, but Joe is focused on their treading water in the middle of the ocean, while Patricia is confident that things will ultimately work out. On cue, Joe’s trunks emerge from the ocean and we quickly cut to them both back on their tied together trunk raft. The problem remains that Joe still has his “brain cloud.” While discussing it, though, Joe mentions Dr. Ellison, to which Patricia realizes that Joe has been set up. Dr. Ellison works for her father. He doesn’t have any other patients. He was clearly tasked with the job of finding a sucker to jump into a volcano for her father, and he succeeded. For a moment, while realizing he’s been duped, Joe starts to lapse back into his hypochondriac ways, but Patricia pulls him back, reminding him how great he has felt up until now, and that they now have a life to look forward to together. This is what they are musing on as their raft sails towards the horizon. To some degree, the relationship at the center of this film is a bit besides the point, or at least not what it seems at first glance. While Meg Ryan is in the whole film, it is noteworthy that we don't meet Patricia until halfway through the story, and that she spends a significant portion of the later half of the movie unconscious. The trappings of this film are that it's a romantic comedy, but the heart of the film is Joe's evolving relationship with death, death concretized in the form of the volcano. At the end, it is Patricia's hand he's holding, but each of her characters along the way, as well as Marshall, are part of what got him to this point, where he is able to stand at the volcano's edge and take his leap. Even more importantly, they are all part of what gets him to the place where he can float off into the horizon with tranquil acceptance for whatever might come next. Death comes for all of us in the end, and it will ultimately come for everyone in our lives. That everything ends is part of what imparts shape and meaning to the things that do happen, and the lives that people lead. Having a healthy perspective on that blunt truth is essential to being able to live any kind of a good life. At the same time, the fear that Joe has of death as a firefighter wasn't wrong. We can't help but accept that there is an unavoidable tension in the idea that death is simultaneously necessary, inevitable, and also bad. Joe's fear of death was appropriate, just carried too far, so far that he found himself living a life not worth living. His response to his terminal diagnosis improves the quality of his life, but here he carries things too far as well. The fact that he has grown so accepting of death that he is able to happily and bravely jump into a volcano isn't a great outcome for him either, considering he isn't actually sick at all. It's dumb luck that he and Patricia are saved. It's only once the two of them are dumped into the ocean that Joe exhibits his healthiest attitude towards death. He is appropriately concerned about their dire circumstances, but they have each other, and they will face whatever is to come with equanimity, neither rushing towards nor from death, taking what pleasure they can in whatever time they have left. Joe Versus the Volcano is a useful film to me at the moment - less as a romantic comedy than as a fairy tale, with a clear moral about how we ought to live. The film opens with: "Once upon a time.." and closes with: "They lived happily ever after..." The happily ever after is an odd touch because we leave Joe and Patricia lost at sea, but there is something to the idea that we can live happily until whenever our “ever after” might come. That idea is some comfort to me in uncertain times like these. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • The Apartment: Cynicism & the Rom-Com

    One of the comforting elements of romantic comedies is that they tend to telegraph what they’re about early on. I can't think of an instance where, after some last minute plot twist, I suddenly discovered I had been watching a rom-com all along. The audience is meant to be looped in on what kind of story we are watching from the beginning. We are meant to pick up early which two characters we are going to watch end up together. They're the ones in the poster. They're the two lovelorn characters we’re introduced to early in the first act; they’re the cute ones. Maintaining some kind of tension in a rom-com is challenging when the audience already knows the broad strokes of how the story is going to end. Some adversity to the couple’s pairing needs to be introduced, but the obstacles can’t be anything that would tarnish the characters for us. Egregious moral failings or sincere betrayal by one of the characters would invariably sully the ending for us. Shakespeare leaned heavily on misunderstanding to achieve tension in his comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is made to think that his betrothed, Hero, has been unfaithful to him on the eve of their wedding, but the truth comes out in the nick of time and all is well. The misunderstanding aside, Hero and Claudio are largely unchanged over the course of the play. They meet, they fall in love quickly, and ultimately wind up together. Neither of them have much of an arc, as such. The more interesting tension in that play is between Beatrice and Benedick: two characters who misunderstand both themselves and one another. Each is deeply cynical about the other, and about love in general. So, when they begin to come together, you actually experience some surprise and see some character growth on their parts. Their cynicism is the primary obstacle to be overcome, but we don’t hold it against them. While cynicism is never admirable, it is always understandable. Cynicism - in the colloquial sense of the word - can play a useful role in the structure of romantic comedies. Cynicism about love, about marriage, about fidelity, about the world, is always believable because there is plenty in this world we could be cynical about. We also, as the knowing audience for a romantic comedy, are primed to accept love conquering that cynicism in a way we might be more skeptical of in our day to day lives. I mention all of this because I think cynicism serves a fascinating role in Billy Wilder's 1960 film, The Apartment. Wilder has chosen to tell a love story, but he does so from a perspective that quietly comes off deeply cynical about love, marriage, and fidelity. In truth, the film may have some of the darkest subtext of any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. None of this is overt, mind you. In terms of tone, the film does feel lighthearted, (as a romantic comedy should) but it doesn’t take that much scrutiny for the themes I have in mind to become apparent. That Wilder tells this kind of story in the way that he does, lends force to how we feel when our romantic leads ultimately transcend the cynical world he has fashioned in order to wind up together. The film begins with a voice-over from C.C. Baxter, one of the 8,042,783 people living in NYC, and one of the 31,259 employees of Consolidated Life of NY. Baxter works: "On the 18th floor. Ordinary policy department. Premium Accounting division. Section W. Desk 861." Baxter is a small cog in a company so large that the start and end times for the workday are staggered by floor to avoid overwhelming the elevators. The hook to the film is that Baxter is a bachelor living alone in an apartment near New York's Central Park, who, through circumstances he is a bit mystified by himself, has found himself allowing his apartment to be used by a number of the men working above him at Consolidated Life as a place for them to meet their mistresses. We learn that Baxter had initially believed these men, when they said they were only looking for a place to change, or such, after work. But, by the time we meet him in the story, Baxter is fully aware of what the men are doing, and even facilitates their trysts while feeling helpless to say 'no' to superiors that control his future with the company. Our window into Baxter’s life and orbit begins as he is standing on the street outside his apartment, waiting for Mr. Kirkeby and his date to be finished for the evening. As Mr. Kirkeby and his date are heading out we hear the following exchange: Mr. Kirkeby: “Where do you live?” Sylvia: “I told you, with my mother.” Mr. Kirkeby: “Well, where does she live?” Sylvia: “179th Street in the Bronx.” Mr. Kirkeby: “Alright, I’ll take you to the subway.” Sylvia: “Like hell you will; you’ll buy me a cab.” Mr. Kirkeby: “Why do all you dames have to live in the Bronx?” Sylvia: “You mean you bring other girls up here?” Mr. Kirkeby: “Certainly not. I’m a happily married man.” This exchange is fairly representative of the men that Baxter is enabling: married men, secretly dating numerous women, while feigning devotion to the woman they happen to be with at the time, and doing everything in their power to protect their respectability in public. The film is coy about what the men are doing with their dates while they are in Baxter’s apartment, but we can presume something more than hand-holding. Once Mr. Kirkeby and his date move along, we proceed inside where Baxter sets about cleaning up the remnants of Mr. Kirkeby’s evening and making himself a comparatively drab frozen dinner to eat in front of the TV. That same evening, shortly after getting into bed, Baxter is roused by a phone call from Mr. Dobisch, who got lucky at a nearby bar, (with a woman that is clearly intended to be a fairly mean-spirited caricature of Marilyn Monroe) and needs Baxter to clear out of his apartment for a while. What little fight Baxter puts up wilts as Mr. Dobisch makes clear that he won’t be speaking so glowingly about Baxter to Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) in Personnel if Baxter doesn’t continue to play along. Baxter caves and ends up spending most of the evening on a park bench waiting to go home. Jack Lemmon threads the needle on C.C. Baxter as a character that gets regularly pushed around by the men using his apartment, but without portraying him as so meek or charmless that he stops being believable as a romantic lead. The scenario Baxter finds himself in is interesting, though, because of how deeply it bakes ubiquitous infidelity into the world of the film, and how at ease Baxter is with his role in that infidelity. Baxter exhibits no moral qualms about what he is enabling. He is beleaguered by the logistics involved, and managing his neighbors’ misperceptions of him as a lothario - having a different girl up to his apartment every night - but he seems not to struggle at all with the moral implications of what he’s helping these men do to their wives. Dominos rapidly fall for Baxter at work after his night sleeping in the park. In the morning, as Baxter is arriving at the office, we’re introduced to elevator girl Fran Kubelik, (Shirley MacClaine) who Baxter and many of the men in the office are infatuated with. As written, Fran could be taken as a fairly straightforward “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” but Shirley MacLaine manages to wring quite a bit more depth out of the role than that. She is undoubtedly defined for us in the film through her relationships to Baxter and Mr. Sheldrake, and her brother-in-law, and the other men in the office who lust after her, but we do get glimpses of a genuine inner life to the character. Shirley MacLaine would get an Oscar nomination for her performance, in part because of how genuine and rich she was able to make Ms. Kubelik beyond what was written on the page. Fran is presented to us through a male prism, but her love and pain are real in a way that transcends merely servicing the male characters’ story arcs. Once at his desk, Baxter is summoned to see Mr. Sheldrake in Personnel. He takes a triumphant ride up to Sheldrake’s office in Ms. Kubelik elevator, certain of his imminent promotion. His rude awakening is a joy, as no one plays rising comic panic like Jack Lemmon. In Mr. Sheldrake's office, Baxter is put through the wringer. He sits down, certain that the positive reviews he has received from the men using his apartment has secured him a promotion. He is briefly pleased to discover that Sheldrake did receive all of the glowing praise, but is crestfallen to discover that Sheldrake had seen through it immediately. For a tortured moment, Sheldrake lets Baxter think that he is about to call the vice squad on Baxter and these other men. At the height of Baxter's panic, Sheldrake reveals that what he actually wants is to use Baxter's apartment for himself. Baxter is relieved. What's one more bad apple? It seems he is still in line for a promotion. He even gains the confidence to ask Ms. Kubelik out for a date that night, to which she agrees. This puts all of the pieces of the story into place. Of course, we discover, it is Fran that Sheldrake wants to bring to Baxter's apartment. In an emotional scene in the back corner of a Chinese restaurant, we learn that they had just had a fling over the summer, while Sheldrake's wife and family were away in the country. Despite all of the assurances from him that he would leave his wife, their relationship ended right when his family came back to the city. Fran meets Sheldrake ahead of her date with Baxter, but just to tell him that she doesn't want to see him. Sheldrake replies that he wanted to see her to tell her he has spoken to his lawyer about drawing up the paperwork for his divorce. It will take some time, but he has begun the process of leaving his wife. Fran initially begs off. She doesn't believe him; she didn't ask him to leave his wife, she still has another date that night. But, she loves him, and leaves with him. Sheldrake gets Fran; Baxter gets a promotion and his own office. He was hurt getting stood up by Ms. Kubelik, but tells her he understands. This is how things stand for a time, but the story takes an oddly dark turn on Christmas Eve. At the office Christmas party, Ms. Kubelik finds out from Sheldrake’s drunken secretary that she is just one in a long line of Mr. Sheldrake's mistresses. Baxter finds Ms. Kubelik as she’s recovering from this bad news, and he surreptitiously discovers in speaking with her that she is who Mr. Sheldrake has been taking to his apartment. That evening, Ms. Kubelik tells Sheldrake what she's learned, and he makes a cursory effort to patch things up before giving her $100 as a Christmas gift and running to catch his train home to his family. Baxter spends the evening out at a bar - drinking and killing time while waiting until Mr. Sheldrake and Ms. Kubelik are finished with his apartment for the evening. Baxter gets picked up by a married woman, Mrs. MacDougall, who’s looking for company on Christmas while her husband is in jail. Baxter decides that he might as well take her back to his apartment like everybody else does. When he gets there, he sobers up real quick, discovering that Ms. Kubelik has taken all of the sleeping pills in his cabinet in an attempt to end her life. These are not your typical rom-com plot twists, to say the least. Baxter and the doctor next door, Dr. Dreyfus, are able to rouse Ms. Kubelik, and Baxter is charged by the doctor with the task of keeping an eye on Ms. Kubelik for a couple of days to insure she recovers and doesn't make another attempt. There is a brief scare when returning from the grocery store where Baxter is alerted to a smell of gas coming from his apartment, but he finds that Ms. Kubelik had turned on his stove without lighting the burner. This setup is what gives Baxter and Ms. Kubelik a chance to bond. They play cards, they eat together, and they talk. To commiserate with her, he shares that he had planned to shoot himself over a girl once, but was thankfully saved at the last minute by happenstance, and eventually got over the girl. We do see them start to grow closer, but their time together is cut short by the arrival of Ms. Kubelik’s brother-in-law, looking to bring his missing sister-in-law home. This next plot point is not made at all plain: before Fran tells her brother-in-law why she needed a doctor and had to have her stomach pumped, (because she took too many sleeping pills) he seems to be briefly under the impression that she may have gotten an abortion. He doesn’t like the truth much better and punches Baxter out before leaving with Fran. Baxter returns to work sporting a sizable black eye, now working as an assistant to Mr. Sheldrake, but he quits when Sheldrake asks him once again for the key to his apartment. That night, at the same Chinese restaurant for New Year’s Eve, Sheldrake tells Fran what Baxter did. She realizes she’s with the wrong person and runs to Baxter’s apartment to find him. As she’s about to knock on the door, we hear a shot ring out. For a brief moment, while Fran pounds on the door, we’re allowed to consider the possibility that Baxter took his own life, but he opens the door with a freshly foaming bottle of champagne in his hand. Relief. Baxter and Ms. Kubelik wind up together, making plans for their future, dealing out a hand of cards as the credits roll. We leave the film believing that Baxter and Ms. Kubelik will be fine, and our cynical world has been conquered for a time. This is the comfort of romantic comedy, abandoning cynicism for a love-conquers-all happy ending. A cynical audience would note that aside from Dr. Dreyfus and his wife, every relationship we’ve seen in the film has been an unfaithful one. Every man was fooling around behind his wife’s back, and every woman was, or had been, knowingly seeing a married man. Ms. Kubelik was willing to break up M.r Sheldrake’s marriage, and Baxter was all set to go home with Mrs. MacDougall. There is every reason to be skeptical of what the future holds for Baxter and Ms. Kubelik, and The Apartment is aware of that, having just shown us that world. But, it also welcomes us in setting cynicism and skepticism aside to share in the happiness of the new couple. As we mentioned at the beginning, cynicism can help serve as a point of tension in a romantic comedy, but conversely, what a rom-com can also offer us as an audience is an opportunity to reject cynicism. Not to blindly and naively pretend that people and the world are better than they are, but to take a good look at the world as The Apartment shows it to us, and choose to trust that, despite it all, Baxter and Kubelik will be fine. Engaging honestly with the cynical view of things can offer us a chance to recognize that while there are Mr. Sheldrakes, Mr. Kirkebys, and Mr. Dobischs in the world, not everyone is like them, and sometimes, for the right two people, things really can turn out alright. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Brewster’s Millions: 35th Anniversary

    The 1985 film, Brewster’s Millions, begins with an opening scrawl that reads: “This is the story of Montgomery Brewster, a relief pitcher in the minor leagues of life, who got handed the American Dream...on a very hot plate.” This movie was an old favorite during my childhood. It does hold up in many ways, but having just recently rewatched it for the first time in twenty years, what I was most struck by was this framing of the story as a tale of the “American Dream.” There is a fantastical element to the story of someone being plucked from obscurity for a grand adventure, but it says something that this depiction of the American Dream consists solely in the joy of winning and spending a great deal of money. Simply having money is the dream here, rather than building a fortune through work, or using a fortune to further some other noble end, or even using financial security to achieve other more fulfilling life goals. What was a little dispiriting to realize is that for many - both in the era the film was made and now - this film captures the American Dream exactly. Richard Pryor plays Montgomery Brewster, an aging minor league ballplayer who learns that a previously unknown great uncle has left him a convoluted inheritance. Not unlike a game show, Brewster is made an offer by the executors of his great uncle’s estate. He has the option of pocketing a million dollars with no strings attached, or taking a chance to receive $300 million. The catch is that in order for Brewster to receive the $300 million, he will first have to squander $30 million in 30 days. There are restrictions on how Brewster can spend the money to insure that he wastes it, along with a requirement that he tells no one why he’s doing what he’s doing. By midnight of the last day of the month, Brewster needs to be completely penniless in order to win his full inheritance. As a story, this is an old one. Based on the 1902 novel of the same name, this is the seventh American film adaptation of this story. There have also been 3 additional Indian film adaptations. From version to version, many of the details of the plot change, but the core of the story is always our protagonist having to fritter away a small fortune in order to win a much larger one, without being able to tell anyone why they are doing it. To have been adapted so many times, suggests there must be something deeply resonant to this premise, which is part of what I was troubled by on this rewatch. Our Brewster accepts the challenge to win the $300 million quickly and easily - so easily that it makes one wonder at including a choice in the narrative at all. Ostensibly, the lesson Brewster is supposed to take from this experience, - stated explicitly by his great uncle in his video will - is to learn to value money through becoming sick of spending it. How seriously the film takes this lesson is hard to tell, as Brewster is never established as having any sort of pre-existing issue being irresponsible with money. The lesson is presented as a rationale for why the great uncle is issuing the challenge, but it’s never brought home in the course of the film as a lesson for Brewster or the audience to learn. In one sense, Brewster’s real antagonist in the film is the clock: can he spend the money in the time allotted? The token opposition to him in that goal are the two lawyers at the law firm managing his great uncle’s estate. They want to see Brewster fail so they can retain control of the estate’s assets. In this effort they will enlist one of the junior lawyers at their firm, Warren Cox, to withhold some of Brewster’s money in order to surprise him at the last minute. At the outset, Warren is briefly portrayed as an upstanding figure, engaged to be married to the equally upstanding accountant assigned to help Brewster manage his financial records, Angela Drake. Warren’s character may be the one in the film that has a true arc, in that he transitions from being a moral figure to becoming a willing criminal, though a goodly part of that transition happens before he’s even finished with his first scene - as he immediately compromises a stated principle against drinking alcohol when he is offered a five-inch thick stack of cash as a charitable donation from Brewster. Warren shows us something of the corrupting power of money, but it happens so quickly you might miss it. Angela Drake’s job is to track Brewster’s expenses. Unbeknownst to her, the purpose of this is to verify that Brewster is complying with the stipulations of the will. Her role in the story is to be the virtuous figure, cajoling Brewster for not doing more good with his money, yet falling for him anyway despite his never actually doing anything especially good with his money. Brewster is aided in his task by his personal catcher and only friend, Spike Nolan, played wonderfully by John Candy. As soon as Brewster comes out of the meeting where he learns of his inheritance, Brewster hires Spike at a massive salary to help him with his investments. The small character development that Spike has in the film is a move from enthusiastically supporting his friend’s spending, to trying to intervene before his friend fritters his inheritance away. Angela Davis, also slowly comes to help Brewster over the course of the film, proving to be instrumental in foiling Warren’s plot against Brewster at the last minute. The central joke of the story is that Brewster takes great pains to squander his money, but keeps getting foiled by unexpected success. When he gambles, he hits on all his long shot bets and his seemingly terrible investments all happen to turn an immediate profit. He does manage to sink a bunch of money putting on a vanity exhibition game between his old minor league team and the NY Yankees. This digression is one of the actual moments of character development for Brewster, as he discovers and briefly has to contend with not being quite as good a pitcher as he believed himself to be. The winning strategy Brewster finally hits on to most effectively waste his money is the most cynical part of the movie. Brewster decides to run for office, but as the office itself would count as an asset, he runs to lose with a nihilistic campaign to get ‘None of the Above’ elected mayor of NYC. The premise of Brewster’s mayoral campaign is that both candidates are corrupt, so the voters should opt for ‘None of the Above’. But the film isn’t interested in whether either of the candidates actually are corrupt. It's just taken as a given that politicians are inherently corrupt and Brewster proceeds from that assumption. Our happy ending on this plot line is that Brewster successfully nullifies the election. It doesn’t take much imagination to draw the throughline from this kind of cynical thinking to many of the gravest problems of the modern world. The conclusion of the movie comes quickly. Brewster learns that he was betrayed by Warren. He punches Warren, who threatens to sue Brewster for everything he’s about to not have. This gives Brewster the opening to use the remaining money Warren has surprised him with to retain Angela as his lawyer in any legal case Warren might bring, getting a receipt for legal services from her right as the clock strikes midnight. Brewster wins his full inheritance. He gets the girl - though it’s unclear why that happens; he punches out his rival, and then walks off screen with no indication that he’s grown or learned anything from the experience at all. Behold the American Dream! Despite the tone of everything above, I find I still enjoy the film, but I feel a little bad about that. Director Walter Hill, recently coming off of his success on 48 Hours, keeps the story moving at a brisk and interesting pace. This is the only pure comedy that Hill ever directed, in an otherwise long career as an action film director, and fittingly for this film in particular, he readily admits he only did Brewster’s Millions for the money. The casting of the movie is great. John Candy brightens every scene that he’s in. Stephen Collins brings more emotional range to Warren Cox than seems present on the page. And Richard Pryor is a true joy throughout the film. It is a genuine pleasure to see Pryor’s Montgomery Brewster succeed, with the shame of it being how hollow that success is upon examination. Brewster’s Millions is worth revisiting. It’s well made and enjoyable throughout as a story. In terms of message, it is an interesting time capsule of American values in the 1980’s, as well as providing a reference point to the degree to which those same values of shallow consumerism still loom large in American culture today. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

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