IS MOVIE-GOING DEAD? Notes from #TheBigMovieSneak

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on March 2nd, 2014 by Jim Delaney


This is the time of year when movie bloggers have finished chiming in on our Top 10 films of the previous year, and we’re knee deep in Awards season prognostication, or pronouncing our own personal award categories. I’ve done that before and I’m sure I’ll do it again next year, but right now something else is weighing on me: in short — Is movie-going dead? Is all that was good about sitting in a darkened cinema with a crowd of strangers simply vanishing?

Here’s what put this all-in stack of chips on my shoulder: I’ve been sneaking into movies for years. Not sneaking through the door without paying, but sneaking into a second movie when the first one leaves me hungry. I fancied myself so adept at theater hopping that I must have perfected the ninja secrets of invisibility. The truth from my years of working in movie theaters is this: on my first day my new coworkers taught me that unless a theater-hopper is being disruptive, minimum wage isn’t enough to risk potentially picking a fight. I have carefully heeded that advice ever since. I plan when one movie stops and the next starts, so that I could see the entire show without disrupting the paying audience, and because any proper nerd wants to see the whole movie! Recently I have pondered whether a significant portion of paying audiences have become complacent with a theatrical experience compromised by fellow patrons who are incapable of (or unwilling to) differentiate between our cinema and their living room.TwLeadIn

Last November I set out to break my personal sneak record by seeing 6 movies in 1 day. I tweeted weeks in advance that I would be attempting this, and tagged several theater chains, daring them to catch me. In hindsight that was probably a stupid idea — God forbid anything terrible should happen in one of the tagged chain’s venues, my Tweet might have been investigated as a threat! I also decided to live-tweet throughout the day, a choice that I was conflicted about, given my hatred of cellphones in movie theaters. I sat in the back row of each screen I visited to minimize my light-casting distraction to others. This had two unexpected benefits: first, several screens had electrical outlets on the back wall where I was able to charge my phone. The second benefit stems from my habit of usually sitting in the front few rows; by sitting in back, I was better able to see how moviegoers conduct themselves.

That back row perspective put an exclamation point on my recently pondered questions. For example … Has the effort it takes to read a movie’s reviews, become aware of its pedigree, and the skill to parse its marketing to arrive at a reasonable expectation of quality been lost? Have informed viewers become outnumbered by patrons who buy a ticket to ONLY GOD FORGIVES because they thought Ryan Gosling was so sweet in THE NOTEBOOK, or Kristin Scott Thomas was so tragic in THE ENGLISH PATIENT? You’ve seen these folks, they’re the ones who walk out and demand their money back after 45 minutes of good ol’ Refn-esque sleaze and soft-spoken rage leaves them feeling liked victims of false advertizing. Never mind how little attention they paid to advertizing, reviews, and other readily available information.

The first two TwBadGpa films I saw provided perfect examples of this. Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA featured Johnnie Knoxville using impressive Oscar-nominated make-up to disguise himself as a cranky geezer on a roadtrip with his pre-teen grandson. Knoxville had done the dirty old man schtick before in skits for the JACKASS films, but this was the first time we see him carrying a whole story with unsuspecting real-world victims of his vulgar pranks. Sure enough about 20 minutes into the film, an elderly man sitting a few rows ahead of me got up and mumbled “This is fuckin’ sick” as he walked out. It is very likely he was unfamiliar with the Jackass show on MTV, and instead expected raunchy but comparatively safe entertainment,Bad-Grandpa like BAD SANTA or BAD TEACHER. Never mind that there have been three Jackass films in the past decade. The information was out there, if he cared too look, as it was for the audience with whom I saw the first movie I sneaked into.

THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB tells the true story of Ron Woodruff, a straight man who contracted AIDS in the early 1980’s and became a sort of drug runner. Woodruff transported AZT across the border from Mexico when the American Food & Drug Administration was slow to approve the medication he needed, and he did so in distribution level quantities, to subsidize his own treatment.TwDallas Matthew McConaughey delivers a career highlight performance as Woodruff, but some younger women in the audience seemed to have bought a ticket for the likable and charming McConaughey of romantic comedies. They didn’t want to see an emaciated redneck McConaughey forging a reluctant friendship with a transgender man played by Jared Leto. I can’t make this up: shortly after Woodruff began losing weight and looking gaunt, I heard these girls wondering if McConaughey’s muscular definition in MAGIC MIKE was CGI. matthew_mcconaugheyOthers in the theater asked them to be quiet numerous times, especially when they responded with homophobic slurs and giggles to Leto’s poignant character. One girl wanted to walk out within the first act; thankfully she got her way eventually, and took her friends with her.

Another chip in my stack: Have we as an audience also lost the awareness to find a theater where we are comfortable? Has it been replaced by people who hate seeing a movie in a theater full of children,TwLeadin3 and yet choose a Saturday matinee in a shopping mall theater, right between Toys-R-Us and Chuck E. Cheese? Have audiences lost the openness to live in the moment long enough to give ourselves over to the movie for 112 minutes? Are we so enthralled with the 4 inch screen in our pocket that we couldn’t conceive ignoring it for the duration of a movie? Yes, I’m aware of my hypocrisy on this particular day; more on that imminently.

The next film on my agenda was Gavin Hood‘s adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s cold-war era sci-fi classic ENDER’S GAME. This is the story of an adolescent young man named Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield, whose unique intellectual skills are dismissed and ignored by all around him. Harrison Ford plays Colonel Graff, a military recruiter who recognizes Ender’s thought process as perfectly suited to organizing battle strategies. We follow Ender through a science fiction version of FULL METAL JACKET, first surviving his training for war, and then then discovering that he is prepared to take action that the first-act version of himself would never have imagined possible.Enders-Game-10 ENDER’S GAME is a stunning looking movie that both embraces and up-ends cliches of the sci-fi and war movie genres … and yet that was not interesting enough for the guy across the aisle from me. Here I am making an effort to sit in back so the light of my tweeting phone doesn’t annoy anyone … and this guy literally takes a friggin’ iPad out of his backpack and plays a videogame anytime an action sequence ends!! Was I distracted? Hell yes! Did I say anything to him? …Thought about it, chose not to. I’m 3 movies in, I already got my $7 worth, this was experiment time. I wanted to see how long he’d actually do it. And he didn’t stop; anytime a dialogue sequence with exposition and character and nuance and story and whatnot distracted from the fiery explosions and thundering booms, out came BackpackBoy’s Game. TwEnder

The distraction of his iPad accentuated how distracted I was by my own Tweeting. Y’see my phone isn’t quite 100% — it has these annoying glitches with the U-I-O region of the keyboard. I don’t know what the problem is, but it hampered in my ability to Tweet without occasionally turning off and restarting my phone. So I’m distracted from ENDER’S GAME by BackpackBoy’s Game, and by my wanting to Tweet, and by my phone’s inability to Tweet, and next thing you know I’ve lost more screen time than I would have missed if I’d left the theater for a soda refill. I enjoyed ENDER’S GAME, though I knew that I was reaching a threshold with not only allowing myself to be distracted from movies, but with willfully contributing to my own distraction.

I recognize that I am pointing out a few bad apples and describing the whole barrel as rotten, as I’m aware that lacking audience civility exists anywhere there are audiences, but that should not excuse these same apples from souring the sauce. I’ve seen and heard it in a London stage production of Conor McPherson’s THE WEIR, where multiple patrons implored two oblivious people to stop debating which flavor went with which wrapper in their crinkly candy bag, and a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN where three elderly women swooned relentlessly over Patrick Stewart’s legs in a hospital gown. I’ve heard it in symphony halls, jazz clubs, poetry slams, and gallery performances. In my estimation it has gotten worse in direct proportion to the rise of cellphones.

The next film I went to was Steve McQueen‘s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir by John Ridley. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as New York composer and musician Solomon Northup, who was abducted twenty years before the Civil War, and whose memoir of Louisiana slavery helped fuel the northern abolitionist movement. As I Tweeted during the movie, I’ve been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, ever since his flawless lead performance anchored the equally flawless DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. I was extra sensitive to anyone not giving 12 YEARS A SLAVE due focus, this being the most serious movie in my lineup; it became the most distracting experience of the day.

It’s almost difficult to decide where to begin — but let’s go with the red herring. DF_03069.tifAs the trailers were on, a group of roughly a dozen teenaged students came in together, with a woman who I’d guess was their teacher. My immediate reaction was that these kids would talk through most of the movie, but I was only semi-right; their singular nemesis spoke more than all of them combined. And here’s where this becomes really unexpected. Remember our elderly “fuckin’ sick” gent who walked out of BAD GRANDPA? He must have been rivaling me for hopping because he showed up about 15 minutes after 12 YEARS began. Lateness, by the way, is an egregious violation of my personal code of hopper etiquette! An equally egregious violation was his frequent mumbling and “Shoosh”-ing of these kids more loudly than any noise they made. He may have well used a shotgun to silence a housefly. I was aware of their conversation, but in fairness they were whispering, and what I could hear from them were reasonable questions that related to the movie. Sure I’d prefer those questions wait until after the movie, but at least they were engaged. Bad Grandpa was paying more attention to the students than to the movie; after about 45 minutes of Solomon’s ordeal, the old fella gave up shooshing and walked out. I’d be willing to bet this guy saw 20 to 45 minutes of every movie in this theater!

Tw12yrsFrom my usual front row vantage point, this would have been the only interruption to 12 YEARS OF SLAVE, and I’d be ready to discuss my next film. But shortly after Bad Grandpa showed up, a couple came upstairs and sat a few seats away from me in the back row. They watched about 15 minutes of the film before she decided there was something else she’d rather see. Thankfully these two were not as joined at the hip as the gaggle of homophobic girls in THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. They fairly quickly agreed that she was going to another movie, and that they would meet afterwards in yet another movie. Between this couple and Bad Grandpa, I’m beginning to realize that there is nothing special about me wandering from screen to screen. It seems more people do it here than in any theater where I’ve ever worked. But wait, there’s more… right after Bad Grandpa and half of the back row couple left … a woman showed up and sat directly in front of me, I guess because none of the other 200+ available seats were just right?

That in itself was fine … until she unwrapped a full-on picnic that smelled like Chinatown via McDonalds. Yes, movie theaters hijack patrons for far more than concessions actually cost to produce. I’m well versed in the mark-up in popcorn & soda after working for three different chains, in three different markets, one of which I rose to a management level. I’m all for sneaking in a little something, but grazing from multiple smelly and noisy packages creates a multi-sensory obstacle from which no one could remain focused on any film. This perfect storm of distractions reenforced my affection for the front row. Anytime my back row neighbor or I shifted in our seats, buffet lady would shoot us a glaring stink-eye; how dare we disturb her feast?!

But I had not yet learned my lesson, because I went directly to the back row for J.C. Chandor‘s ALL IS LOST. I am a lifelong fan of Robert Redford. AlLost The first movie I ever saw more than once was THE STING; Redford taught me that, when you see a film the second time, it’s still the same story! Johnny Hooker in THE STING did not remember from my previous viewing that Lieutenant Snyder was waiting around that corner for him. Through Robert Redford I learned to dive deep into repeat viewings of movies and search for elements that I may have overlooked on first viewing. During the first half of ALL IS LOST, a story of a lone yachtsman adrift in a storm, I was not as emotionally moved as I hoped. Around the mid-point though, it revealed itself as more of an existential metaphor than a character driven story, and then I began to thoroughly dig it.

Still another chip: Has the communal experience of sharing a movie with a room full of like-minded (and even not-so-like-minded) strangers, and letting that movie resonate deeply enough that you ponder it for the rest of the weekend, TwAllLost and devise some original thought of your own to drop on your coworkers come Monday morning — is that all gone? Toward the end of ALL IS LOST I fell in love with going to the movies again. If I allowed this day to do its worst, I could walk away bitter with the theatrical experience, and finally join Netflix. Instead it actually became amusing to listen to this audience vociferously scratch their head and wonder when some tired voice-over or overwrought flashback device would provide us the context to weep for Redford. Some movies rely on how much of your own mind and soul you bring to the experience; some audiences deserve to be bewildered if they arrive ill-prepared. A few at a time they walked out, and toward the end all I heard was the rusty creaking of another person’s seat, which married very well with the sound design of Redford’s slowly disintegrating vessel. Yes there were distractions in ALL IS LOST, though not as loud as in the earlier films; eventually my communal experience here whittled down to just me and the person with the creaking chair and a couple who took turns falling asleep and loudly snoring. The snoring couple, by the way, had also been in my earlier screening of THE DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB. I might have become so saturated with distraction that they barely registered.

I seriously weighed whether or not I had a sixth movie in me, given that my train might stop running before I get out of a late show … but THE COUNSELOR was right there, right when I needed it to be! And here’s where the tables turn: there were virtually no audience distractions in Cormac McCarthy‘s tale of wealthy and connected backstabbing drug dealers and partying hangers-on. There was just Javier Bardem doing his level best to keep a muddy story interesting,TwCounselor plus Cameron Diaz with the most auto-erotic moment since Cronenberg‘s CRASH, but they were not enough to counteract Ridley Scott‘s stylish looking, derivatively written, and ultimately dull film. I almost longed for a true master of audience participation to toss out some one liners to make THE COUNSELOR more interesting.

Still from The Counsellor, the new film from director Ridley ScottMy first real experience with audience participation on the level of stand-up comedy was when my Dad took my brother & me to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN at the long-gone Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I’m not opposed to all audience interruption; if you’ve got something hilarious to contribute, then please by all means let it rip, and loudly enough to share with the entire class. But no one in any of today’s agenda had anything hilarious or interesting to say, nothing on the level of the two weed-infused gents behind me in 1982.

This leads me to my final conundrum: have movies become so accessible on so many platforms that we now regard the theatrical experience as disposably as a daytime talkshow or a SuperBowl commercial? Some students in one of the top 10 film schools in the country regard attending free movie screenings as a burden. [Full disclosure: Emerson College is both my alma mater, class of ’91, and my current employer] If even those who want to be tomorrow’s filmmakers can’t be bothered with ol’ fashioned movie-going, what does that say for tomorrow’s audience?

Given that movie-going audiences are often as bland as the marketing plan driven tent-pole event movies they turn into hits, the future of the theater-going experience may be as homogenized as Hollywood and the increasingly formulaic “independent” film scene. Sadly this situation endures while one of the most ambitious and impressive American movies of 2014 barely limps from the red into the black. When I first began working with my podcast compadre Craig Jamison, he granted me carte blanche to write a guest article for his film site The GullCottage / Sandlot. I opted to examine 4 movies that were simultaneously available in theaters in via Video OnDemand after seeing all 4 both in local theaters and at home. I thoroughly expected to prefer the theatrical option, and was somewhat surprised by the results.

Happily, pockets of hope do exist, balcony though you may have to go to the fringe of the theatrical spectrum to find them. Recently I attended the 39th Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, the oldest running genre festival in the US, which concludes each year with a 24 hour marathon over Presidents’ Day weekend. The festival itself is always a pleasure, as are the dozen or so other fests I’ve attended around the country. But the ‘Thon is a horse of a different color. This is the ultimate communal experience: 500 or more nerds filling up the orchestra and balcony of the Somerville Theater for a dozen science fiction films, some classics and others yet to be discovered. I’ve seen this show a few times now, and it is always a bargain at twice the price; only about half of those who arrive at noon on Sunday make it all the way to noon on Presidents’ Day. Those who do make it are united by shared thrills and jolts and laughs and beer on tap and bottomless coffee and New England winter outside and audience participation that borders on call-and-response symbiosis with the screen. Yeah, downstairs gets to smelling a little like coffee farts, Dunkin Donuts, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but you can escape the con-funk in the chilly balcony.

It is likely that I am part of the problem. My early question about theater location may simply be something I need to accept when I go to a mainstream cinema. Aside from the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon and the Somerville Theater, I can think of several film festivals and revival and independent theaters that consistently give me hope for movie-going kind. can Any theater that still promotes a film as being presented in 35mm (or even 70mm!), and any audience who actually responds to that as a positive thing, that’s where I find my happy place. For folks who live in an area where these options are in short supply, it makes perfect sense that they would embrace home video over a movie theater; movie nerds go where other movie nerds go, where we can all respect the film and each other. Sometimes that’s in an all-night balcony, some days its on your couch with a DVR loaded with your own personal festival.

Between my initial pondering for the GullCottage/Sandlot and these recent experiences, I think it’s safe to say that I prefer the big screen theatrical experience, albeit from my semi-solitary front rows. Movie-going may not be dead, but like Our Man in ALL IS LOST, it thrives best under very particular circumstances. Now that I’ve actually tested whether or not I like dividing my attention between a movie screen and my phone, I have no intention of repeating that … unless I try to break my record and go for 7!

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My Favorite Movies of the Year … Special “30 Years Ago” Edition!

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Everywhere movie fans turn this week, they will find a Best of 2012 article. With several of the Oscar-contender crop yet to open in Boston, it feels premature for me to discuss my favorites; after all what if Zero Dark Thirty turns out to be my favorite movie of the year? I could go ahead and close the book 2012 regardless, or I could do nothing, but I’ve written too much nothing for the past few months. Or I could write about something unique and personal.

A debate has raged for years amongst cinephiles regarding whether 1939 or 1962 was the greatest year in cinema history. If you’re a nerd, there is only one answer to this question: 1982. This being the 30th Anniversary of the greatest year in movie-nerd history, it feels like a good time to review a portion of the films that made me glad to have lived through that era. When I say it was a great year for movie nerds, you may assume that I’m thinking solely of genre movies. 1982 offered great genre and non-genre movies, but it was in the area of genre movies that ’82 shaped the generation that would follow. Let’s consider not one or two but five essential sci-fi films: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Blade Runner.

If you grew up watching Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. on video, you may not recognize what a juggernaut it was for theatrical audiences. Not only did it usurp the #1 box office champ spot held for 5 years by Star Wars, it took 11 years before Spielberg himself knocked E.T. from his perch. No one was prepared for how popular a simple film about a boy helping a stranded alien find his way home could be. One might expect that after the runaway success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys that E.T. dolls would be in toy stores a month before the movie opened. This did not happen, and when the first doll finally arrived, it was proportionately all wrong. E.T.’s stubby legs were made as lanky as his elongated arms, and his face was more pudgy and cute. When my Mom and I saw that inaccurate doll at Macy’s in Manhattan, a sales lady told us they were flying off the shelves. Kids embraced a substandard toy because it was the only option available. 15 years before throngs of high school girls saw Titanic multiple times to cry together, kids from 8 to 80 cried together with E.T., keeping it in theaters for a year. That was not a typo. Once upon a time when a good movie could last 3 or 4 months in theaters, E.T. played on some screens for an entire year. There was even an ad campaign in spring 1983: “After one year, E.T. is going home!” How does a movie last that long? We needed it. The Gordon Gekko ’80’s were years away, we were still trapped in the Patrick Hale ’80’s. We needed something new and different. We want to believe in magic and care about someone pure and innocent. This “poor bastid who looks like he crawled outta the sea and forget to go back in,” as my Grandma Delaney described him, fit that bill perfectly. I saw E.T. several times with friends, but my strongest memory is seeing it on two consecutive nights with my dad, The Fats. We had taken a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. There wasn’t much to do after dinner, especially in a hotel where the only TV was in the lobby, so both nights we went to see E.T. in the one movie theater in town. The first night was like any other movie night. The second night, The Fats had a few extra drinks with dinner, and introduced this pastoral small town bijou to the Times Square tradition of audience participation. No one told him to shut up or complained to management. They were too busy laughing. A few other folks even joined in, with everyone falling silent during the finale. When it was over, a few dozen emotionally exhausted people stood under the marquee with tear-stained eyes and laughing smiles, taking in a magical summer night that would have made Ray Bradbury feel right at home. Show me another movie that folks could laugh with, and then laugh at, and bond with strangers after sharing.

If you’ve seen Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek II then you don’t need me to tell you that it is one of the most meticulously crafted genre movies ever made. This was an all too seldom case of the big studio development system doing its job properly, by finding the right people for the movie, and trusting them to do their jobs. Personally I was a fan of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, but many found it too cerebral, or just plain boring. Star Trek II was produced for less than one third of the first movie’s budget, and was a bigger hit, because the story appealed to both core and passive fans. Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew do battle with a villain from their past who hijacks a scientific experiment with the intention of using it as a weapon. There was a more compelling tie to the original series than the first film offered to the core fans, and there were themes of family and aging (and ol’ fashioned revenge) that proved more accessible for passive fans than the 2001-esque existential quandary of the first film. I saw it on a rainy opening weekend with my brother Ed and my Mom. The theater was so full that we had trouble finding three seats together. Ed and Mom sat toward the back and I joined some classmates way up front. This may be the hardest I ever heard Ed cheer for a movie, and I was on the opposite end of the theater from him! He wasn’t alone; a moment during the ship battle in the Mutara Nebula is to this day the loudest I’ve ever heard an audience erupt in applause. Was there anything groundbreaking here? Not so much. It was just a conspiracy of cool, the likeness of which no other sequel had ever aspired, let alone achieved. There is not one thing you can change that would make Star Trek II a better movie; for the film they were making, this was as good as it gets.

Steven Lisberger‘s Tron was only a modest success at the time, perhaps partly due to its being considerably ahead of its time. Science fiction films had given us tales of people shrunken to Gulliver proportions, and further, but Tron was a distinctly ’80’s vision of this story. Jeff Bridges plays a videogame designer whose crowning achievement is stolen from him. When he tries to recover his game, he becomes sucked inside the world of his own creation. A few years after the arcade game Space Invaders ignited the competitive spirit of legions of kids, in the summer that Pac Man and Donkey Kong battled for gamer supremacy, Tron took us more deeply into that world than we’d imagined. The impact of this film is felt more with each passing blockbuster videogame; we have not been able to journey inside a computer as Tron suggested, but we have figured out how to surround a gamer with the game. Comparing contemporary video games to watching Tron in the summer of ’82 is an experience similar to considering your smartphone while watching Mr. Spock use a tricorder on a classic Star Trek episode. In what was a first for me, I read the script for Tron (purchased for $10 at a Star Trek convention) before seeing the movie. When you read Steven Lisberger’s script, you realize the immense imagination that went into the production. As a kid familiar with Atari 2600 and arcade games, I drew from a narrow visual reference as I read the script. The story is all in the writing, but the film’s scope needed to be conjured by people truly capable of seeing the future. This was my first experience reading a script by a director, where you can see that they had the full film in their head, even if it is not all on the page. The perfect creative storm of the uniquely qualified production designer Syd Mead and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos pulling out all stops on Lisberger’s story created a world without precedent, a world every kid wanted to visit. None of us actually thought we could be zapped inside a video game, but damn if we didn’t spend that entire summer in the local arcade, hoping that it could happen. OK, not the entire summer; we needed some time for the movies!

George Miller‘s The Road Warrior was originally released in Australia as Mad Max 2 in 1981. While Miller’s original Mad Max had been successful in Australia and elsewhere around the world, it was mostly relegated to drive-ins and grindhouse dives in the U.S. and Canada. The Road Warrior featured Mel Gibson as an ex-highway cop who becomes a guardian to an outpost of survivors of a nuclear war. The retitling distanced The Road Warrior enough from its source that it seemed especially refreshing to American critics, who embraced the action and gritty tone of this film above just about any other adventure that year. There was even a re-release in January ’83 to give it an extra push during awards season. That push resulted in The Road Warrior winning Best Foreign Film from the L.A. Film Critics Association. From the opening montage sequence, I realized I was in a different world with The Road Warrior. I had seen montage in other films, and recognized some of the images of war and socio-political unrest here, but I had never seen montage so precisely evocative. As my movie education progressed, I understood that this sequence could be traced back to Eisenstein, but at the time, this was all new to me. By juxtaposing those famous images with scenes from the first Mad Max film, we see both how the world at large and Max Rockatansky himself came to such a desolate existence. I like Mad Max, but I remain in awe of the opening sequence in The Road Warrior; it is some of the finest editing in a trilogy known for its kinetic editing style. Max helped me define my idea of heroism and bravery. I grew up with Batman and Superman, but Max was something different. Rocky Balboa was my closest comparison, refusing to stay down even as his coach Mickey implores him to let Apollo Creed win their exhibition bout. In later years I learned this was a staple of spaghetti westerns, but Max was one of my earliest experiences with an anti-hero. I had never seen a hero get his ass kicked like Max, and had never seen a hero keep coming back, more for the benefit of others than himself.

The science fiction film from 1982 that has had the most extensive path from obscurity to quintessence would have to be Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. Harrison Ford plays a burned out detective tasked with hunting down 5 cyborgs in 2019 Los Angeles. It barely broke even at the box office, and was largely overlooked by all but the nerdiest of movie goers, but among those nerds it resonated deeply and quickly. Blade Runner is likely the film about which more has been written, studied, and derived from than any other, sci-fi or otherwise, from this year. The impact was seen most clearly in the production design of movies that followed, from Brazil and Batman to Dark City and The Matrix, plus a litany of anime films. Blade Runner‘s grungy and rain-slicked production design, by the way, was created by the same man who made Tron glow in the dark. There is more to this film though; artificial intelligence with this sort of character complexity existed in novels, but never on screen before Blade Runner. Before Bishop and Lt. Cmdr. Data, before Andrew Martin and David, Blade Runner introduced us to the full spectrum of the notion of a robot becoming sentient. The Replicants were fearsome and fearful, vengeful and noble, in short: they had soul. A few days after I first saw Blade Runner, I met up with the friends I saw it with at my school’s football field, waiting for or town’s 4th of July fireworks. I recall being stunned that I was alone in loving this movie. Everyone else liked it, but like most of the nation at the time, they were more focused on E.T. This was my first experience with being certain that I had witnessed something amazing and transformative, even if no one else around me recognized it. I had just seen the first movie that ever made me cry for a villain.

When you look back at what critics dismissed as Big Dumb Summer Fun, you might be surprised by how it stacks up to contemporary Big Dumb Summer Fun. We definitely had some crap, every generation gets their fair share, but most of ’82’s Big Dumb Summer Fun was comparatively impressive. Sequels were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are now. Among that handful of sequels were the aforementioned Star Trek II and Road Warrior, and the aforementioned Rocky Balboa battling for his title against Mr. T in Rocky III. Mr. T’s electrifying debut made him an overnight star, and a hero to kids, which is all the more impressive given that he played the antagonist. Later in the fall, Sylvester Stallone would introduce us to the beginning of his other notorious franchise with the tight as a drum action thriller First Blood. We also had Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th 3-D, one of the most successful ventures of the brief 3-D revival of the early ’80’s, and William Shatner showing his comedic chops in Airplane II: The Sequel.

Aside from sequels, movies adapted from comicbooks have also become inevitable in recent years, but 1982 only gave us two … and a half: Wes Craven‘s Swamp Thing and John MiliusConan The Barbarian. George A. Romero and Stephen King also gave us their homage to Max & William Gaines’ EC Comics in Creepshow. If you’re only going to have three comicbook related films, this is a strong collection: all three were dismissed as lurid and violent goofiness, but all were deceptively well made. Roger Ebert not only fawned over Swamp Thing during is initial review with Gene Siskel on their PBS show Sneak Previews, he revisited it later that year during a special episode focused on hidden gems that audiences might have let slip by. Conan the Barbarian kept comicbook fans happy, though it was occasionally derided by devotees of the Robert E. Howard pulp novels that inspired both the comics and the movies. A film aficionado’s reaction might be that Conan’s Hyborian Age is also a perfect canvas for Milius to explore his warrior poet ethos. A movie nerd’s reaction is that Conan the Barbarian is a perfect movie to blaze up a joint and have a few laughs. The Fats took Ed & I to see Conan at the long gone Rivoli Theater on Broadway. Aside from loving the movie, this was also my first encounter with the grindhouse audience participation that made my dad so popular during E.T. in Cooperstown. Much as I loved Conan, it still cracks me up at inappropriate moments, anytime I recall the disciples of Cheech & Chong who sat behind us in the Rivoli. Creepshow, which Ed & I saw with The Fats rather than spending Thanksgiving at the kids’ table with my Mom’s family, is that rare movie that absolutely lives up to its tagline: The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Being Scared!

Horror was as well represented in 1982 as comicbook films, though two of the finest were remakes. Paul Schrader remade Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 Cat People with Nastassja Kinski and John Carpenter remade Howard Hawks‘ 1951 The Thing with Kurt Russell. Considering these films together could trigger an interesting debate about sexuality in horror films. Schrader’s Cat People does not amp up the sexiness of the earlier film simply by showing more skin, he blurs the line between human and animal sexuality when his characters encounter their transformations. Tawdry sexy marketing? Maybe, but this also helped this were-cat movie stand apart from a crop of pretty good werewolf movies in the preceding year. In his adaptation of The Thing, Carpenter chose to do away with the love interest of Hawks’ film, adhering more closely to the original John W. Campbell pulp story. To this day, Carpenter cites this as a mistake, which he feels hurt The Thing at the box office. Success is guaranteed neither by making a film chastened like Carpenter’s nor steamy like Schrader’s. Though I dig both immensely, both barely covered their production cost. The most successful horror film of 1982 is probably also the scariest PG-rated film ever made: Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist. Watch Poltergeist again, and you will find it like a book you can’t put down; its pace entices you with what could have been a standard family drama. By the time the supernatural element is introduced, you are already as engaged in the well being of this family as you would have been with the Jarretts or the Kramers.

A few films featuring military characters were amongst the year’s memorable dramas. The other surprising success story of the year besides E.T. was An Officer & A Gentleman. This love story between Navy aviator Richard Gere and smalltown girl Debra Winger took several weeks of word of mouth promotion before it hit #1 in its 6th week of release. Most movies are headed for second run theaters by then, but An Officer & A Gentleman spent most of Fall ’82 vying with E.T. for the #1 spot. I can’t speak for what drew everyone else to it, but I’ll tell you why it hit me like lightning: until then, every movie I’d seen that included nudity or sex made me eager to grow up so I could experience that for myself. This was the first movie I’d ever seen that showed me the responsibility that comes with, and the damage that can come from, relationships if they are not properly cared for.

Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot was monumental to filmgoers in general and to me personally. This intense submarine drama achieved what would have previously seemed impossible: it made us despair for WW2 German sailors, and recognize their positions as pawns to a Fuehrer they come to reject. It also made me grow up and start giving subtitled movies a chance. Lastly Clint Eastwood took a rare turn away from westerns and cop movies to play an Air Force pilot in Firefox. This cold war espionage thriller was based on the first of four novels. Had it been more successful, it would have been cool to see Clint reprise this shell-shocked character, but Firefox got lost in the same flood that swept up Blade Runner and The Thing.

Aside from stories of men in uniform, 1982 was a helluva year for drama in general. The most game changing, generation defining performances in the acting profession since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire came via Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Ben Kinglsey in Gandhi. Before these two performances an actor could get away with playing another nationality or ethnicity as long as they were charismatic. No longer; after Streep and Kingsley in ’82, an actor will be taken to task if they cannot pull off a convincing accent as well as an emotionally compelling performance. Traditionally outstanding performances in exceptional films, like Jessica Lange in Frances, Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing, or the ensemble from That Championship Season were not enough to be rewarded by Oscar voters that year. Not that this would make them any less compelling, and worthy of your attention, if you have not yet seen them.

A comedy-drama for which I have a soft spot, and which seems to have been utterly forgotten, was David S. Ward‘s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It was not the most faithful adaptation; it is more an adaptation of Steinbeck’s sequel Sweet Thursday, using Cannery Row as backstory. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, just different from its source, and still more faithful than many novel adaptations. The perennially cool Nick Nolte plays an over the hill baseball pitcher who becomes smitten with Debra Winger, the new lady in town, who takes up living and working in a brothel in Depression era Monterey, CA.

1982 was also a strong year for comedy. Despite Jessica Lange losing her Oscar nomination for her dramatic leading role in Frances, her supporting role in Tootsie provided her first Oscar win, and made her the sixth (currently of thirteen) actors to be nominated twice in the same year. Tootsie was loved by most, but reviled by a few, who were upset by Dustin Hoffman‘s character cross-dressing. This was not the only comedy of the year to address gender identity issues, or as some in my homophobic adolescent circle called them, “movies that make you gay.” Deathtrap gave us Michael Caine wondering aloud if Christopher Reeve was gay, as well as a magnificently underplayed answer delivered later in the film. This answer came as no surprise; I had already seen the Ira Levin’s play of Deathtrap on Broadway with my family. Victor Victoria was a surprise. Blake Edwards‘ masterful farce featured Julie Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman, and James Garner as her suitor, who can’t tell if his affection for her means he is gay. Everything about this movie was so rambunctiously playful and positive that it made me begin to question whether I should be taking my queues about gay people from family and friends who don’t actually know any gay people.

John Lithgow’s former football player going through a sex change in The World According To Garp was another well drawn character and fully realized performance that introduced me a larger world than I’d see in standard drama. One of the most successful comedies of ’82 was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, featuring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in an adaptation of the Broadway musical. If I had any doubt that the information I was receiving about gay people, cross-dressers, prostitutes or anyone else not on the straight-n-narrow, I need look no further than Porky’s. My male peers were as ignorant about women as the chumps in this guilty pleasure skin-fest, which put their advice in proper perspective, and made me begin reading between the lines on movies a lot more closely.

One of my favorite comedic actors, Richard Pryor, had a great year in ’82. He released best performance film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which also remains the best stand-up comedy film I’ve ever seen. He also delivered one of his finest performances hitting both comedic and tragic notes, as a Vietnam veteran trying to rejoin society after being held for 5 years as a prisoner of war, in the underrated Some Kind of Hero. Anyone who thinks of Lois Lane when they think of Margot Kidder will be impressed by the understated range she shows opposite Pryor as well. Personally I’m not a fan of The Toy, but I’m in the minority; this was one of the most successful films in Pryor’s career.

This was also a year for breakout comedic performances. Eddie Murphy single-handedly turned 48 Hrs from a violent crime drama to an action comedy. Ron Howard shed his apple pie image by directing the year’s third bordello-set comedy Night Shift, featuring his Happy Days partner Henry Winkler and an energetic new lad named Michael Keaton. Though he’d already delivered dramatically the year before with Taps, Sean Penn proved that he was equally adept at comedy with one of the iconic performances of the decade in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A cast of actors with supporting credits in TV movies-of-the-week (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember M.O.W.’s!) was turned by Barry Levinson into the most memorable ensemble of the year in the prototype for his Baltimore films, Diner. Making her feature debut in John Huston‘s extravagantly budgeted Annie, Aileen Quinn was hyped as a rising star in celeb magazines, but she chose a different path with her education.

In anything but a breakout performance, Peter O’Toole earned his 7th Oscar nomination for My Favorite Year. In my favorite performance of his career, and my favorite comedy of 1982, Steve Martin cracked wise with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Better Davis in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This deliciously conceived story, and impeccably edited and designed production, is the ultimate valentine to anyone who loves film noir mysteries and gangster movies.

As I mentioned earlier, 1982 was not without its fair share of crap, like the blight on the resume of the underrated Charles Bronson that was Death Wish 2. Somehow, even the crap then was more fun than the crap now. We had vulgar medieval fun like the blades-n-boobs fest The Sword & The Sorcerer and Don Coscarelli’s blatant rip-off of Excalibur, Conan, and the Dungeons & Dragons Handbook The Beastmaster. There was also Larry Cohen‘s Q: The Winged Serpent, which is memorable if for no other reason than that they fired live rounds from an automatic rifle on top of New York’s Chrysler Building. I guess they were counting on the bullets landing safely in the East River. The wacky part is they were firing at nothing; the monster was stop-motion animated in during post-production. Q took the term “guerilla filmmaking” to an absurd extreme. Garry Marshall‘s parody of daytime TV soaps Young Doctors In Love was an even guiltier pleasure comedy than Porky’s,i.e. it is just as vulgar, and even more dumb, but I still dig it. Hands down the biggest pile of crap in ’82 has to be MegaForce. If you ever want to see how little you can buy for $20M, or what a movie about elite commandos by way of discoland would resemble, check out MegaForce.

High art, low art, and no art aside, 1982 also gave us two of the most genre defying oddities ever produced by a major studio: Pink Floyd: The Wall and The Dark Crystal. If you can figure out which paragraph above either of these films would have belonged in, you’re a more decisive fan than I am. In a year full of surprises, a year full of movies that have inspired a myriad of imitators, Pink Floyd’s descent into paranoia and Jim Henson‘s philosophical adventure were such singular experiences that no one has attempted to copy them. There were also movies that I was too young to see at the time, but came to appreciate later: István Szabó‘s Faust-themed Nazi drama Mephisto and Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s wonderfully unpredictable thriller Diva opened in 1981, in Germany and France respectively, but opened in the U.S. in 1982. It take until just a few months ago before I finally saw Jack Nicholson in one of his lesser known performances in Tony Richardson‘s initially X-rated police thriller The Border. Jack plays a Texas border officer surrounded by corruption and racism, and conflicted by gnawing compassion for those he arrests. Two things immediately struck me about The Border. First if it were released today, times and tastes have changed enough that it would be rated R, and second that it would probably be even more controversial. It didn’t cause much of a stir when it was released, because the X-rating limited the theaters that would show it, and thus greatly limited its audience. With illegal immigration no less a hot-button issue today than it was thirty years ago, this film reaching a wider R-rated audience would elicit some entertaining and frustrating polarized debate. Three decades later, I am still engaged by and learning from the films of 1982.

I used to think that if I ever wrote an autobiography, it would be titled Godzilla Eats Junior Mints, following a gullible moment when The Fats took Ed & I to see Midway when I was 6. After taking a glance at these films, I think an equally viable title might be All I Really Need To Know I Learned In The Movies When I Was Twelve.

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BLADE RUNNER: The Final Cut (1982/2007)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on July 26th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Friday, January 25, 2008.

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joe Turkel and M. Emmet Walsh, featuring a score by the mad Greek, Vangelis.

Los Angeles, 2019: Androids, herein called Replicants, have taken the place of humans performing hazardous occupations. Among those occupations is the colonization of space. Four replicants mutiny in space, return to Los Angeles seeking their creator, and leave a path of violence in their quest. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burnt out detective who specializes in hunting down rogue androids, leaves his own pretty grim wake trying to keep the mutineers from their goal.

While BLADE RUNNER is stylistically the most fully realized dystopian nightmare sci-fi movie this side of METROPOLIS (1927), its story is pure Film Noir. It took me several viewings to get past the stunning visuals and understand that Deckard is following up real clues like a proper detective, and not merely stumbling from cool action moment to cooler action moment. After I noticed that, I started noticing other colorful subtleties (like the fact that Deckard is an alcoholic) that a lesser movie that didn’t trust its audience would have beaten them over the head with.

Why are we watching this, haven’t we all seen it already? I missed this new Ridley “Final Cut” when it played at The Landmark last November, and I dunno about you guys, but my TV at home is nowhere near as big as the one in the 8North conference room. If this version contains differences from the 1982 Theatrical and 1992 Director’s Cut versions, I want to be able to spot them on the best screen available! If you’ve wondered whether this new DVD is worth buying, come check it out.

It’ll finish Wednesday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 7.26.11
I tend to prefer movies that attempt multiple levels, even if they are not entirely successful on all of them, to movies that attempt and succeed on only one level. BLADE RUNNER is a favorite among science fiction movies plus it resonates as an existential quest film. In addition to this being one of my favorite film noir detective movies it is, at least in my estimation, the quintessential Los Angeles movie. This movie fires on all burners and the end result is delicious.

I was fortunate enough to be born within the wake of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY where suddenly it was no longer enough for science fiction movies to simply be about robots and rayguns. Movies like SILENT RUNNING and LOGAN’S RUN and Charlton Heston’s trilogy of doom (PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN) used science fiction as a framework to explore political instability, environmental degradation and nuclear annihilation. Though STAR WARS proved that it was more profitable to turn that frown upside down, this did not spell the end of future fear; 1982 blessed us with THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER. BLADE RUNNER envisioned a future of of haves and have-nots where a few live in fantastic opulence, like Replicant creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and the rest exist in squalor.

This is a cautionary tale at its most pointed; virtually every promise of a “brighter tomorrow” is balanced by a glimpse at the failure of that promise. Replicants are not the only technology having the reverse effect of their intended design. Plumes of fire shoot into a permanently sooty sky as a by-product of generating the power necessary to run the city’s massive high rises. Modern conveniences in Deckard’s home, including a lightning fast elevator and voice activated amenities, do not make the place any less of a dump. Sure there are flying cars, but seemingly few for a city this crowded; most are exclusively for police surveillance.

It is rare that an existential quest is handled as directly as it is in BLADE RUNNER. Films where human characters confront their perception of their deity or search for meaning in their life tend to be ponderous, what supporters would call deliberately paced, and detractors dismiss as tedious or boring. The search of the Replicants, led by Nietzcshian superman Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is somewhat less complicated in that they know where they were manufactured. They only need to find their chief designer, the aforementioned Dr. Tyrell. Deckard’s hardboiled voiceover in the original theatrical release explains that Batty and his crew simply want the same answers the rest of us want from life. Where human characters questioning their existence struggle to define the questions they wish to pose to their chosen higher power, the Replicants have precisely defined questions, but face the task of locating the intellect who designed their minds to find their answers.

***SPOILER: Please skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** A debate has raged among fans as to whether Rick Deckard himself is a Replicant. In Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the novel on which BLADE RUNNER was based, Deckard is revealed to be artifical. Ridley Scott has been cagey over the years, but his answer tends to support Dick’s novel. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer prefer to believe that Deckard is human. Such a conflict of ideologies could have wrecked the story, and allegedly did cause considerable tension between Scott and Ford, but I think it makes for a better film. Since nothing is implicitly revealed as to Deckhard’s humanity, his own spiritual identity becomes a more gnawing mystery than that of the known Replicants. The Replicants may hunt, fight, and kill their way to their maker. Deckard continues to search for the vocabulary to even question his existence, or else quiet his soul with that great melodramatic indicator of human weakness and suffering: booze.

Deckard’s alcoholism is one of the time honored traits of a Film Noir antihero but it also humanizes him compared to his virtually flawless Replicant opponents. Deckard is not one of the MAD MEN drinkers who make viewers nostalgic for frequently slurred-speaking, occasionally falling-down drunks, who barely manage to do their jobs. He is more the alcoholic typified by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY; return home from work? Pour a drink. Saying goodbye? One for the road. Shot a Replicant woman in the back on a crowded street? Don’t bother phoning it in promptly like a good cop, go buy a bottle first. The very notion that the hero cop is, in his own warped way, as twisted as those he pursues makes BLADE RUNNER stand shoulder to shoulder with other 80’s noir like Kasdan’s BODY HEAT or Eastwood’s TIGHTROPE.

The production and costume design take their cues from film noir of the late 1930’s to 1950’s. Before exaggerated shoulder pads became a staple of power suits for executive women in the mid 80’s, Sean Young sported classic Joan Crawford hair and Lauren Bacall / Katherine Hepburn style as a Replicant so perfectly constructed that she does not know she is artificial. The smudged makeup, spiked hair and fetish clothing of the renegade Replicants suggests a trajectory where the L.A. punk scene, pioneered by The Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys during BLADE RUNNER’S late 70’s early 80’s development, had continued to spawn among an angry proletariat. Beneath Roy Batty’s punk surface we find an unexpected collision of two noir archetypes: the cold and calculating villain, and the wronged man seeking revenge. While Batty toggles between punk and noir, existential and visceral, everything about Rick Deckard’s world clings wholeheartedly to noir ethos. His shadowy Frank Llyod Wright tiled apartment, the dilapidated Blade Runner department (filmed in the Art Deco former splendor of L.A.’s Union Station), and the easy going unguarded racism of Deckard’s boss Captain Bryant belie the unsupressable decay of those clinging to a buttoned up 1950’s normalcy.

The finale of BLADE RUNNER plays out within the Bradbury Building, a downtown L.A. icon that has been featured in noir classics from D.O.A. to CHINATOWN as well as multiple episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS. The Bradbury has such a signature look and name that its mere inclusion becomes shorthand for the world we have entered. When I saw BLADE RUNNER in Westport, CT on opening weekend, you could spot the true sci-fi fans in the audience by who reacted when Captain Bryant informs Deckard to continue his investigation “at the Bradbury apartments.” I had not yet visited Los Angeles, didn’t know this was a real building, nor do I expect most of the audience did either. We simply took it as an invocation of sci-fi saint Ray Bradbury. As much as a nod to Ray elicits credibility in the fantasy realm of the incredible, it also enables the film to establish its L.A. reputation, Ray’s position being as solid as Chandler’s in the pantheon of L.A. writers. The very use of the Bradbury building and its name confirms that this is not New York or Chicago, San Francisco or Off-World, this is the City of the Angels.

BLADE RUNNER is a like a snow-globe representation of the past, present and future of Los Angeles, violently shaken so that 100 years of the city collide at once. Past Los Angeles is referenced via architecture and a shared history with film noir, with the present acknowledged by massive neon advertising for Atari, RCA, and Pan-Am, which in 1982 seemed like corporations capable of global dominance. The future of Los Angeles is evinced by more than Replicants and flying cars, more than electronic music and punk rock fashion. No less than the language of the people has evolved. Early in the film we were introduced to what Deckard’s voiceover in the original cut described as “city speak, gutter talk. A mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” I remember thinking this prediction of racial and ethnic mingling must strike your average Klansmen as the scariest vision of the future any movie has ever created. In 2019 there is no Chinatown or South Central or Beverly Hills, no Boyle Heights or Koreatown or Little Tokyo; every community has overflowed its banks such that the language of Los Angeles encompasses elements of every ethnicity.

BLADE RUNNER is most often regarded as science fiction, but as with the sociological implications within METROPOLIS or the spiritual secrets of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, science fiction provides the foundation on which the rest of this experience was built. Is it an existential quandary with gunplay? A pulp mystery with a Kraftwerk style groove? One of the eight million stories in the cybernetic city? It hits me differently each time I revisit it. The one constant is that the words “Blade Runner” have become as loaded as the name “Bradbury” was in 1982, summoning immeasurably more than a film that was coldly received by critics and ticket buyers, to stand for the the kind of story for which you are not prepared but should have seen coming.

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