Monday, August 30, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

The Gods Must Be Crazy
first seen in New York, NY
circa 1983-84

Ms. Brooks was my sixth grade Language Arts teacher. (Do they still even have 'Language Arts' anymore?) She was the kind of teacher that, if you're lucky, you might get once during your entire childhood, from kindergarten through high school. We did the usual LA stuff - literature, grammar, etc. - but she brought an enthusiasm and originality to her class that was unprecedented in my school years to that point.

For one thing, Ms. Brooks wasn't afraid to present herself as an actual human being and not an Authority Figure. She could be authoritative when she had to be, of course - I know I never wanted to see her mad, not because she could be fearsome, which was true, but because it meant we disappointed her in some way - but she could also be crass, playful, vulnerable, compassionate and sensitive, without worrying about how she might come across. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind and encouraged us to do the same. In fact, she operated her class on the assumption that we kids - nine, ten years old or thereabouts - were intelligent and could think for ourselves. I know...

...because that's how she treated me. She saw that I was a good reader, but she also saw that I had problems with reading aloud - I'd go too fast. So one day she called on me to read a passage from our textbook, and I did, not realizing that she was secretly recording me. She had told me on several occasions in the past about my problem, but it wasn't until I was able to hear it for myself that I was able to do something about it. I have never forgotten that day and I've always done my best to speak at a more moderate pace whenever I've had to address an audience.

Ms. Brooks arranged games and contests related to classwork. During the spring semester, she held a "color war," dividing the class into three groups with color designations and staging events designed to encourage us to read and write as well as to create. (I forget if my team won or not.) One of the events was to make a "music video" (back when videos were still a new concept!) for a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" called "Read It." Each team wrote their own set of lyrics and arranged a choreographed number of some sort.

She also took us on the occasional field trip, and one of them was into Manhattan to see The Gods Must Be Crazy. I'm not 100% certain, but I think we saw it in what is now the AMC Loews 72nd Street East theater, only it probably wasn't called that back then. Looking back, this seems like a great leap of faith on Ms. Brooks' part, and again, speaks to the point made earlier about her treating us intelligently. This is a fairly simple, straightforward comedy with a lot of slapstick to it, but it also works on another level, poking fun at what we consider modern society in the Western world, and while I'm sure Ms. Brooks expected us to laugh at the funny parts, I suspect she also wanted this film to make us think as well - and that's one thing she always wanted us to do, no matter what the class lesson was. It was never merely about regurgitating facts. I think ten-year-old me might've realized there was more to Gods than mere bellylaughs, even if I couldn't quite place my finger on it. I know that it was a surprise for me to see a film that humanizes African people.

I feel remarkably lucky to have had a teacher like Ms. Brooks, because she encouraged me to not just think, but think creatively.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever
seen @ Central Park Conservancy Film Festival, Central Park, New York, NY

In watching films at outdoor venues, I've noticed a few patterns emerge:

1) The fight for space. It's one thing if you've got a blanket. A blanket clearly marks your territory; there's no mistaking it. Without one, you're kinda left to the whims of fate as far as what constitutes "your" space. I try to claim a spot a respectful distance away from any surrounding neighbors, fully aware of personal boundaries and all that, but I can't rely on other people doing the same for me. Sometimes they will, but a lot of times they won't. As a result, I'll end up doing things like stretching out or moving around in a certain way as to say, hey, this is my spot, please don't encroach on it.

And I'll try not to be aggressive about it, hoping that others will take the hint somehow, due to some subtle reading of my body language as I'm splayed out on the grass or turf or concrete, bookbag extended as far as it'll go... but it almost never works the way I want it to. And as more and people fill in the space, I have to redefine my boundaries not only according to how much space I'm willing to sacrifice and still be comfortable, but also according to who's sitting around me. Cute girls - okay. Creepy looking old dude - not okay! I dunno. Maybe I'm not claustrophobic so much as I am agoraphobic. Or maybe I'm just like Randall in Clerks: I hate people, but I love gatherings - isn't it ironic?

2) The presence of small children and animals, in particular, dogs. I used to be deathly afraid of dogs when I was much younger, but I've worked hard at developing a tolerance for them over the years. I can (grudgingly) accept the presence of dogs if you're having an outdoor screening in a big park (to a point - as you'll see). But someone needs to explain to me why you bring small children to a screening of AN R-RATED MOVIE. One of my favorite cartoonists, Ellen Forney, did a strip about how her parents once took her and her brother to an R-rated movie when they were kids (it was Saturday Night Fever, too). Her parents thought they could explain all the adult stuff, no problem, but it turned out to be way harder (and more embarrassing) than they figured.

I'm not a prude; if some parents honestly think this, then more power to 'em. But there are other issues, such as the ability of little kids to sit still and quiet during the film - especially when you're indoors. You've probably encountered that a few times. My feeling is that if you absolutely can't get a babysitter, maybe you should just stay home... or don't have kids at all...

3) Subtitles. I had this at Pier 54 and I had it last night. Don't like.

Last night I had a nice spot picked out about an hour before showtime, to the left of the screen and underneath the branches of a tree. The guy in front of me had a turned-up bike next to him, which I made sure to stay out of the way of, and other people who tried to claim a spot next to me quickly changed their minds when they saw the bike would block their view. So I was doing okay with my personal space so far. Some women to the right of me had some small dogs. They're small, they're relatively quiet - fine. Then, later on, a couple comes up behind me with TWO HUMONGOUS DOGS and park themselves behind me, apparently undeterred by the bike. That was it. I got up and moved further back. I'm only willing to tolerate so much.

Before the film, there was some stupid animated 3D short. Everyone was given old-style 3D glasses at the gate (the ones with one red and one blue lens), which made me think for a moment that they were gonna show Fever in 3D! These glasses were wrapped really tight; I was struggling to get them open without damaging the glasses, but the short was done before I could succeed, and from what I saw of it, it was nothing special.

Watching Fever with a crowd reminded me of when I saw a re-release of Grease several years ago (not the sing-along version released this year). The crowd went wild at the first appearance of John Travolta, then as now, and the dance sequences got some cheers and applause, then as now. That was nice. It's good to know movies like these still hold up.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Get Low

Get Low
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

A long time ago, I hurt someone I loved. I didn't mean to do it. Chalk it up to being young and stupid... but I did it all the same. Ever since that day, I've had to learn to live with the guilt I felt as a result, knowing that I'd lost the love of someone I treasured. Time passed. We continued with our lives, albeit separately. On a couple of occasions, I'd bump into her. She acted friendly towards me, as if she had forgiven me, but the thing is, I could not forgive myself. I didn't think myself worthy of forgiveness, and I couldn't believe she was capable of granting it.

I saw her once again this past winter, and once again, she seemed happy to see me. She insisted we stay in touch this time, and even went so far as to friend me on Facebook. I was nervous, but what could I do - say no? If this is how she wanted it, I felt like I owed her. So we e-mailed each other a bit, and then one day she asked if we could have coffee. Now I was really nervous... but again, I didn't see how I could refuse her anything. In fact, I was prepared to tell her the one thing I never got to tell her before - that I was sorry. Even if she didn't need to hear it, I needed to say it.

As it turned out, she put me completely at ease from the get-go, so much so that in the end, I didn't need to say it after all. For the first time since that day long ago, I truly felt her forgiveness and more importantly, I was able to believe in it - and to forgive myself.

Robert Duvall's character in Get Low did something bad long ago, and spent the rest of his life kicking himself over it. Ultimately he realizes he needs forgiveness as well, no matter how he tries to deny it at first, and as I watched this splendid film, I thought to myself, I know how he feels. I know what it means to beat yourself up over something for so long that it eats away at you, to the point that it affects the choices you make. At least I didn't have to wait until the end of my life before I could feel redeemed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return of the Jedi

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
first seen @ Jackson Heights Cinema, Jackson Heights, Queens, NY

So many of the theaters from my childhood are gone. It's a bit depressing sometimes, whenever I go into some of my old Queens neighborhoods, like Jackson Heights, Flushing or Bayside and see what used to be a movie theater but is now a supermarket, or a drugstore, or worse, nothing at all.

The Jackson is one of the few that's still standing. Nestled in the heart of Jackson Heights, right next to the 7 train, this was probably my favorite place to see movies as a kid. It's a simple, three-screen theater, very neighborhood, very local. It's surrounded by a mostly-Latino neighborhood where on any given day, you can smell a wide variety of exotic spices, hear lively salsa music blaring from a dozen different shops, and see as many signs in Spanish as in English, if not more. JH has been this way for as long as I can remember it: food carts on the sidewalk selling churros and arepas, cheap plastic toys hanging from storefront windows, posters in Spanish advertising concerts, and of course, the roar of the trains passing above Roosevelt Avenue on the elevated tracks.

There used to be a second, smaller theater on the other side of Roosevelt - if memory serves, I think it was called the Colony, and it only had two screens. I recall seeing The Never-Ending Story and one of the Nightmare on Elm Street films there. I'd alternate between there and the Jackson, but I always considered the Jackson to be the superior of the two.

The Jackson has two generic, no-frills screening rooms and one auditorium-sized room that, to a ten-year-old me, was the coolest place to see a movie in. It's designed like an old-school movie palace, with curtains, decorative columns running along the sides, carpeting, fancy light fixtures on the walls, and I believe there's even a small chandelier. There's a center aisle and two side aisles. The seats are comfortable enough. I used to envision this room as being much bigger as a kid, but of course, I was smaller then. I remember coming back here as a grown-up to see The Lion King and I was shocked at how much smaller everything was.

The Jackson always had matinee showings (and, to my knowledge, still does). The box office is to the far right as you enter, and the tickets they give you are simple, generic colored tickets like you'd get at a carnival. The concession stand is to the left as you enter the main lobby and to the rear are bathrooms (which have a slanted floor as you enter, which I always thought was odd), and video games - always an important element in any theater, especially to a video game junkie like I was growing up.

There were better theaters than the Jackson, even back then, but this place always felt like home to me, in a way. Maybe it was a combination of things: being a short bus ride from where I lived, being right next to the subway if I wanted to go to Flushing, being a convenient place for my best friend Jerry and me to go to, since he lived not too far away in Corona, being relatively cheap (back when movies were still relatively cheap) - and just having cool movies playing all the time.

The Jackson was where I saw Return of the Jedi - the first movie I ever saw on my own, without my parents. I remember my father driving me there and dropping me off, and I was plenty excited about finally being old enough to go to a movie by myself. My older sister Lynne had already seen it, of course, and she told me about it. I recall that she liked the Ewoks, and when she described them to me she made them sound more exciting than they actually were. (I think she even had a 45 of that Ewok song that somehow became a hit single!) I didn't loathe the Ewoks; in fact, I liked the whole movie. Star Wars in general, though, never left the same impact on me as a child than it did others of my generation. Can't say why.

I still go to the Jackson every now and then. In recent years, I've seen Live Free or Die Hard and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe there. An interesting concession to the changing times is the Spanish subtitles they offer now. Still, it's surprising how very little the place has changed. It's hung on for so long when so many other, similar neighborhood theaters in northern Queens have fallen by the wayside. The Jackson is a tangible link to my childhood that still remains - and I hope it'll stay that way.

Does Lucas have the right to alter Star Wars?
The Disney/Lucas deal from a Trekkie's POV
5 times Trek and Wars have crossed paths
5 hopes I have for Star Wars Episode VII

Friday, August 20, 2010

Top Hat

Top Hat
seen @ Ortine Cafe (backyard), Brooklyn NY

Once I got into a debate with my friend Pam over who was a better dancer: Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. I voted Astaire, she voted Kelly, and we kinda went around and around arguing the merits of each. In truth, it's a question that can have no "right" answer. It's like comparing Ted Williams to Joe DiMaggio: you can't go wrong either way.

Of course, being a child of the 80s, I grew up wanting to dance like Michael Jackson. I was in sixth grade when he did the Moonwalk for the first time, and for weeks I tried to do it too. I remember thinking at one point that doing it well depended on what kind of shoes you wore, then thinking that it depended on what kind of floor you did it on. There were times I thought I came close to getting it, but I never did.

The only popular dance I remember doing was the Vogue. Madonna's "Vogue" was big the year of my high school prom, and that was the one dance that even me and my nerdy art-school friends could do - and we did! I never mastered the Macarena, even though 10-year-olds at summer camp did (I was a CIT by then). Can moshing be considered a dance? I never had any problem with that, though don't ask me to try it now. The last time I was in a pit was at a show at some dive bar in the East Village a few years ago and my sides nearly split in two!

Getting back to Fred Astaire, though. I have absolutely nothing against Gene Kelly, and I can watch him all day long too - but for me, I dig Astaire for his class and style, the way he looks in a tuxedo, and especially the chemistry between him and Ginger Rogers. When they perform "Cheek to Cheek" in this movie, notice how the rest of the world falls away after awhile, and eventually it's just the two of them. It's such a sublime moment, such a blissful expression of love and happiness, that it makes you understand why movie musicals were so popular once.

I can't recall the last time I saw a film in a cafe before, much less the backyard of one. This may be the first time. I didn't realize it was a cafe with a wait staff at first; after taking a table in the backyard, I went back inside, not realizing the waitress had already come to my table with a menu. I hadn't planned on having a big sit-down dinner, especially since I had eaten before I came here, so I just ordered a couple of sides: sausages and toast. The Ortine apparently hosts free movie screenings all the time, and I got a free dish of popcorn made with some kind of pepper that really set my mouth on fire!

The backyard is small, and as a result there were maybe 10-12 people there total. Most of them knew each other, so there was more than a little bit of talking, between themselves and to the waitresses when they came and went. Top Hat has a silly, trifling plot (I mean that affectionately) that's easy to follow, so the talking didn't bother me. If this were, say, a Hitchcock film instead, I might feel differently. I hope this won't be a issue if I choose to return to the Ortine, which I suspect I will. It is a very nice place.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)
seen @ Pier 54, Hudson River Park, New York NY

To fully write about what Star Trek has meant to me would take a considerably long time... so I'll attempt to be concise.

I remember watching classic Trek marathons on TV as a kid, but then I also watched similar marathons for shows like The Twilight Zone and The Honeymooners. (God, how I miss watching those marathons...) I think classic Trek came across to me at the time as fun but cheesy, at least in comparison to The Twilight Zone, which I liked more. So when Star Trek: The Next Generation came on, I didn't pay it any mind at first.

In college (early 90s), I went to see Star Trek VI on opening night with my friend Pete and some other guys. It was their idea; I didn't object, but neither was I as excited about it as they were. We had to sit in the fourth or fifth row because the theater was packed. As it turned out, I liked the movie more than I thought I would. Now, I don't recall if I had changed my mind about TNG and started watching it before or after seeing Star Trek VI, but I do know that the movie made me more interested in Trek in general, so I immersed myself deeper into it.

I slowly gained a deeper appreciation for Trek. I looked beyond the bargain-basement sets, primitive special effects and somewhat high-strung acting (to put it nicely) of the original series and found a sincere attempt to tell stories relevant to modern life and culture, with a strong emphasis on characterization. The behind-the-scenes stories intrigued me too: the struggle to keep it on the air, the fandom, the life of creator Gene Roddenberry. Mostly, though, it was the inclusiveness, and the overall sense of hope and optimism, that appealed to me most. Trek makes you believe a better tomorrow is not only possible, but that you will have a place in it. This carried over into TNG and Deep Space Nine, the latter of which may have been somewhat darker in its themes, but by that point in my life I developed a greater desire for more sophisticated storytelling.

I saw J.J. Abrams' re-imagining of classic Trek when it initially came out last year, and while there are fundamental story problems in this film I find difficult to overlook, I like that he, a non-Trekkie, strove to stay true to the characters and the themes while providing a fresh spin on them.

Pier 54 is an outdoor venue. The last time I came here was a couple of weeks ago for Julie & Julia. I saw Trek with my friend Reid. I don't think I like this location much. They inundate you with useless free crap at the door (well, not entirely useless - last night we got tote bags and I used mine to sit on), they provide free popcorn but they're stingy with it, they leave the DVD subtitles on during the movie and the noise from the passing party boats playing music at high volume is a distraction.

The weather was against us for most of the day; it was mostly cloudy with intermittent drops of rain that somehow managed to not become a drizzle, much less a downpour. At least we got to see a stunning sunset.

After the movie, Reid and I wandered around looking for a dollar pizza joint still open, couldn't find one, and ended up at a regular overpriced one. I didn't get home until after two in the morning.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek TNG: The Best of Both Worlds
The Captains
Mixtape movies: The Trek captains volume

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Die Hard

Die Hard
first seen in Bayside, Queens, NY
summer 1988

I was a day camp counselor in the summer of 1988, working at a YMCA in northern Queens. I spent many prior summers as a lowly camper at various day camps and a couple as a counselor-in-training. Being a CIT was great - you had a degree of authority over campers which you could use to bully them into submission, yet at the same time you didn't have the more "grown-up" responsibilities of a full-fledged counselor.

My older sister was a camp counselor for a bunch of years and the kids all loved her. I, on the other hand, was a perpetual troublemaker as a camper, which was probably embarrassing for her until she grew out of day camps. Still, I was eager to ascend the ranks, as it were, if for no other reason than to finally be the boss for a change.

The YMCA camp I went to that summer was a bit unusual in that it had two locations used simultaneously: one in Bayside and one in Flushing. We'd go to the latter for swimming lessons since they had a bigger facility. It was a short bus ride away. The rest of the time we were in Bayside, right across the street from a park.

I wish I could remember more about the other counselors. I have this vague, generalized impression of them, along with a few memories here and there. For example, I remember one of them, a girl, was a huge Cure fan. The first time I heard "Just Like Heaven" was from her singing it. Regardless, I know I must have been friendly enough with them to go to the movie theater at the mall down the street after camp one day, to see this new action flick starring the guy from TV's Moonlighting.

To this day I can rarely recall having a better time at the movies. Aside from the movie itself, which was (and remains) breathtakingly awesome, I loved watching it with my friends. This was one of, if not the first, "grown-up" movie I saw as part of a group. I'm pretty sure I was concerned about whether or not I'd be able to get into an R-rated film, but I always looked older than I actually was as a teenager, and besides, no one at the box office checked our IDs. We were all so into the film, right until the end, when McClane finally meets Al face-to-face on the street after beating the bad guys, and then one more bad guy pops up out of nowhere and Al shoots him. We were all yelling "Al! Al! Al! Al!"

These days I mostly go to the movies by myself. Whenever I do go with friends, it's usually a small group, one or two other people. With the right movie, though, and with a bunch of your pals around you... there's nothing quite like that feeling.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
seen @ Film Forum, New York NY

I took eight years of art school, learning whatever I could about how to be a better artist. I haven't been able to make a living with my art (yet), but I'd always felt that a formal education was a necessary requirement towards that goal. In subsequent years, I met artists who were self-taught, and some of them were just as good, if not more so, than those who went to school for it. As a result, every now and then I'd wonder how much I really needed all those classes.

Visual art always appealed to me, even from a young age. As I got older, though, I found myself interested in other art forms - writing, acting, music - and I was kinda pulled in different directions, eager to try out other stuff. Eventually, though, I always returned to visual art. My devotion to it may not have been as strong as that of others - I realize that. But if that was the case, what would the path of my development had been without art school, since I was so busy exploring other media?

How much of art is instinctual and how much is acquired knowledge? Basquiat never set out to be a fine artist; someone just looked at his graffiti and said hey, you should be an artist - so he did. He had no formal training, yet his paintings eventually became the toast of the town. I always considered myself a commercial artist, so perhaps the parallels are different - I never aspired to be a fine artist - but still, it's bewildering to me how these things happen.

I saw this film with Vija, one of my oldest and dearest friends. After the film I posed the instinct-versus-education question to her, and she pointed out how, in Basquiat's case at least, he came onto the art scene at just the right time (the late 70s), when there was an explosion of artistic creativity in New York from multiple angles - and the movie does make that clear. Plus she's old enough to remember what this was like.

Vija's a fine artist, and she has this kind of support group of like-minded artist friends. Their work is quite different from mine, but I've found common ground with them. We get together every so often and share ideas and each other's art. Lately I've been trying to nudge Vija into possibly doing a group project of some kind. She seems receptive, but I'm not sure about everyone else yet.

We were accompanied to the movie by Soonae, a woman who's also in the group. Vija's BF Franz was supposed to come too, but he arrived late and ended up waiting in the lobby for the rest of us. Afterwards we all wandered around Soho and Chinatown looking for a place to eat, settling on a place on Mott Street. I had kung pao chicken.

I like the Forum but their seats are tiny. If I can't sit on the aisle I'm gonna have problems.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
seen @ Tony Dapolito Recreation Center (rooftop), New York NY


Sometimes it bothers me when people laugh at stuff in old movies that isn't supposed to be funny. I realize modern audiences don't look at them the same way as they did back then. The style of acting, the writing, the music and the way it's used, the general look - practically nobody makes movies the same way anymore. I get that. But sometimes, if it's a good enough film, I just wanna get caught up in the story and not think too much about that. I hadn't seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a long time. It still holds up - and the small audience I saw it with loved it as well. But there were a few moments in this 1956 film that were meant to be serious that this 2010 audience laughed at, and it bugged me after awhile because I was so into the story.

This was the second time I'd seen a movie at this venue. The first time was last month when I saw All About Eve. Watching a movie on the roof of a building sounds awesome until you realize that you're only three stories up. Still, as outdoor movie watching goes, it beats contending with the unwashed masses at Bryant Park in the summer. I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail there this year. I hadn't realized that they now close off the center lawn and make you wait in line to get inside (while checking your bags, natch - this being the new paranoid New York), so I watched the movie from the walkway at the "rear" end, the side closest to the library, heading towards Fifth Avenue. Too many people on top of each other scrambling for the tiniest space. I don't think I'm claustrophobic but maybe I am a little. I dunno.

All I know is that outdoor venues like this are hard for me to be completely comfortable in. That's why I liked watching Body Snatchers here: fewer people, plus actual chairs! I brought my own chair to Bryant Park for Grail, but that had padding. The chairs here were regular metal ones without padding, which meant a lot of adjusting back and forth in order to stay comfortable. At one point some dude arrived almost a half hour into the film (and why do that if you've already missed such a big chunk?) and sat in front of me, but fortunately the seat next to him was empty, so I just leaned to my right and that turned out to be more comfortable.

This was also the first night that felt noticeably chilly to me. Summer's almost over.