The Black Friday ceasefire
It’s 2 PM on Black Friday in the North Dartmouth Target. The parking lot is full, but then that’s the norm for this store, which acts as a major retail center for both nearby New Bedford and UMass Dartmouth students. I enter, hoping to see signs of the much hyped shopping frenzy that apparently always happens on this day. Violence and mayhem, crazed shoppers racing down the aisles to get the last 60-inch LCD television; it’d make for a great story.
Only, there was none of that. To my dismay, Target’s shelves looked exactly the same as they always did. Well, there were a few exceptions. The shoe department was largely clear, which wasn’t uncommon either. All around me, piles of items with “Sale!” and “Door buster!” signs sat unpurchased.
I sauntered over to the electronics section. Electronics and games are in high demand during the holidays, and I figured they’d be clear. To my dismay, the only games on sale (and, subsequently, the only ones sold out) were that bane of every serious gamer’s existence: shovelware, those cheaply made titles based on movies and TV shows that game developers devilishly scheme into the shopping carts of unsuspecting parents shopping for their soon-to-be-devastated kids.
Feeling a bit distraught about this, I ducked into the TV section. This had to be it. This was where the mortal combat would happen, the whirlwind of shoppers and employees wheeling giant-screen TVs out of storage. To my shock, every TV on the wall was unsold. I was speechless.
Then my senses got the better of me. These were floor models. The merchandise would be in the back. I just had to wait here, beside the cell phones, for the wheeling to begin. So I did. I eyed the smartphones in jealousy, wondering what kind of upgrade I could get on my iPhone 3g. I kept an eye down the TV corridor. Surely, someone would emerge from the back with a TV. Minutes passed. I had been anticipating seconds.
Finally, it happened. An employee named Devon stumbled out of the back with a 60-inch plasma TV on a cart. He struggled to keep it upright as he handed it off to a customer. I approached him. “Hey, is it me, or are TV’s not selling very quickly?”
“They’re not,” he replied. “Last year at this time we were completely sold out. This year, we still have a lot in stock.”
Odd. I wandered towards the exit, pondering why the North Dartmouth Target’s Black Friday was decidedly gray this year. Perhaps it was the economy. Maybe everyone got the TVs they wanted last year. Maybe there’s just nothing good on TV on Fridays. Before I exit, I buy a Snickers bar. My little contribution to Black Friday.
What could’ve been
I enjoy Cracked.com for the endless random bits of trivia it provides me. Today’s article introduced me to “The Thief and the Cobbler,” a film I best remember as “that movie that wanted to be Aladdin” that I saw the trailers for as a kid.
It turns out, it wasn’t a ripoff at all, but a 30 year labor of love that was massacred by an antsy studio. This clip shows some of what could have been:
That clip is pure drugs for an animation junkie like me. That kind of fluidity is unseen in hand-drawn animation. Stunning.
Sugar and honey
Sentimentality is a tricky business. If you layer it on too thickly, a film becomes unwatchable, like chocolate cake submerged in a thick pool of pure corn syrup. However, unlike some cynics who reject sentimentality outright, I think it can be an elevating aspect to a film when it’s done right.
I recently watched Danny Boyle’s 2004 film “Millions”. A side plot about a mean ole’ bank robber (who’s nasty in the context of a family film, and never at any point actually threatens the film’s child protagonists) is as dark as the film gets. For the most part, it’s about a wide-eyed 7-year-old who finds a large sum of money and tries to figure out how best to do good with it, all the while holding long conversations with various saints. It’s that kind of movie, and it needs to be that kind of movie to work. Boyle doesn’t half-ass this material. If we got the sense for one moment that he thought he was above this material, it’d lose all its credibility. The film seems less sentimental than it is because we’re used to sentimentality being arbitrarily smeared on.
Frank Capra is widely viewed as the king of sentimental films. What’s forgotten about him, however, is that his films usually take a very dark route to their happy endings. Take the definitive Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. If it weren’t for that legendary finale, you’d never know it’s considered the ultimate sappy movie. Themes like suicide, depression, and frustration with one’s self-worth just weren’t commonly dealt with in 1940’s films. Yes, the movie takes a sentimental turn at the end. But make no mistake, Capra earns it. The ending isn’t syrupy, but an explosion of joy. Credit, of course, must also go to Jimmy Stewart. He and Capra clearly believe in this material. If not the literal content, than the feelings it evokes. It’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking.
I enjoy AMC’s “The Walking Dead”. I also used to enjoy the comic, up to about issue #75, when its story more or less stopped moving forward. Most importantly, I see no need for these two things to be alike. TV is a visual-audio medium. It requires constant movement, which means its storytelling will inevitably be different from that of a comic book (which is completely static, with several panels per page). That also means that the plot will likely differ as well. That doesn’t bother me one bit.
But still, a lot of literary and comic book fans are hellbent on the concept of “loyalty”, which I usually interpret as “carbon copying the source material”. “The Walking Dead” fandom is chalk full of this type of opinion, fans who cannot abide by the show introducing new characters, keeping characters who were supposed to be long dead alive, etc. I, personally, have never understood the mindset. If a book is great, why the hell do you want a watered-down attempt at replicating it on screen, which is fundamentally impossible? To me, the filmmaker’s lone obligation is to tell a good story. Whether they stick closely to the source material or diverge from it drastically is up to them.
I still remember some of the fanboy caterwauling about the changes Peter Jackson made to the story of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”, moving the beginning of the book (Boromir’s death) to the end of the “Fellowship of the Ring” movie, and making a much bigger deal out of the Siege at Helm’s Deep than it was in the book. Never mind that “The Two Towers” reads, not as a standalone work, but like what it is: a giant middle section of a very long story. It it was, it was unfilmable. Jackson did what he had to do to make a movie out of a book that had no business being one. Not to mention, in doing so he made my single favorite battle scene in the movies.
That’s not to say that more or less direct adaptations can’t work. The Coen brothers stayed loyal to Cormac McCarthy’s source material with “No Country for Old Men.” But then, that book is less reliant on McCarthy’s prose, and more built around the actions of a decidedly cinematic character (Anton Chigur). I’m a big fan of Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” and the Frank Miller comics it was based on. However, Miller’s comics are an exercise in pure style over any sort of substance. Rodriguez took a visual work and made it more so, using Miller’s comics as storyboards. The story was so spare in Miller’s comics that it barely mattered at all. The stories were rehashed film-noir cliches (a genre that already relies heavily on tropes). They acted as vehicles for Miller’s immense visual creativity. The challenge was getting the look and tone right; those were integral to the comic’s success, not the story.
There’s a lot of consternation about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”. He wants to use 3D. He’s Baz Luhrmann, director of “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet”. How the hell can he make a loyal adaptation of this classic book, one of my favorites of all time? Well, truth is, I don’t really care how loyal it is, plot-wise (though, given the reputation of the material, I doubt he’ll diverge too much). As long as he doesn’t have a 3D shot of Gatsby reaching for the green light into the audience, I’m good.
The aging process
It’s fairly common for critics and movie buffs alike to refer to a film as dated. Sometimes it’s a kindly euphemism for criticizing a cheesy or quaint film that is widely considered above reproach (High Noon, for example). Other times, a movie’s story or setting is, shall we say, not exactly with the modern times (I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch “Birth of a Nation”).
What is it, though, for a movie to truly become dated? For it to fall flat where its contemporaries still shine in our eyes? Watching Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” yesterday, I found a good example of that. “The Last House on the Left” is often cited as one of the most frightening films of the 1970’s. Watching it, I felt alternately bored or repulsed. Not disturbed, but repelled by rape scenes that carried on for the sake of themselves. I know that Craven was trying to make a film that depicted evil uncompromisingly. However, I don’t think he succeeded. It’s like a comedian who defends offensive humor by saying it was just a joke. Fine. Fair enough. The joke might still suck.
Beyond that, the film’s “thrill” scenes fell flat. It didn’t help that they were intercut with cheesy attempts at comedy and odd musical choices that threw off the film’s atmosphere, which is such a vital aspect of horror films. There were only two scenes that chilled me in the sense a horror film should; the end of Phyllis’s attempted escape, and Mari’s death (a devastating scene with more emotional impact than anything else in the film).
But what makes “The Last House on the Left” dated, as opposed to just a mediocre horror film? Well, it’s important to think about the time when this film was made. The 70’s were the heyday of exploitation films. These were cheaply made films loaded with gore and nudity. Their influence is present in “Last House”, which opens with a topless scene that seems gratuitous, but was par for the course in the genre. Craven turns the tables on the genre by making his villains believably evil, as opposed to just vehicles of violence and mayhem. However, his film resides within the genre; it doesn’t transcend it.
“Last House” pales in comparison to the great horror films of the 1970’s that sprung out of the exploitation genre, such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Those films are exercises in dread and terror, not violence and exploitation. They called the bluff of exploitation audiences in a way that “Last House” didn’t; they removed traditional exploitation elements and replaced them with beginning-to-end fright. Their sensory appeal keeps them fresh and scary. “Last House” deserves credit for attempting to make a movie out of an exploitation film. Attempting, however, is not the same as succeeding.