Monday, December 28, 2009

the Cineaste Comes of Age (1987-1994)

My family had just moved into our new home in Dundalk, an eastern suburb of Baltimore City. It was late at night, and I was keeping my usual night owl hours. It was probably 1987. It could have been 1988.

I had a room in the basement, where our latest monster projection television had been placed. I came out of my room after some quality time with Mad Magazine and Pro Wrestling Illustrated to discover my younger brother sitting in front of the television, transfixed. He had the weird clunky controller on the floor in front of him, its thick cord snaking back to the cable box. He was watching channel three, a pay channel. It was a freeview weekend, and Cinemax's Friday After Dark had been discovered. Things were never the same.

Through some quirk of fate, that "freeview weekend" never ended and the wide world of pay movie channels remained open to me from mddle school into high school.

I spent many a summer and weekend night foraging through the offerings. I knew I had something good playing out in front of me when it would keep my attention into the wee hours. A Clockwork Orange blew me entirely away. Near Dark had me up until 5AM, leaving me as raw as those freewheeling southern vampires. Raising Arizona, Blue Velvet, Roger and Me, Do the Right Thing, Edward Scissorhands, Jacob's Ladder... they all rolled by, uncut films streaming into the world of a young man who was far from the arthouse. This was thanks in part to the Cinemax Vanguard programming, which was what the channel ran late at night when it wasn't busy being skinemax.

But that wasn't the only way movies were entering into my world. My family's healthy film habit was supported by Sunday post-church trips to the suburban multiplexes and our membership at the Video Attractions down the road. We were often at the rental limit, and my brother and I continually attempted to sneak films like Basic Instinct out of the store and into the basement with limited success.

You will notice once again that the physical act of going to the movie theater was not a big deal, nor was it the only way I saw a film. Still, amidst the mega-doses of Spielburgs and Robocops and Batmen, I began digging deeper, paying attention to directors, looking for envelope-pushing materials. I was unafraid of black and white, interested in foreign cinema.

As high school dawned, my social world opened up, and so did my filmic horizons. One friend to whom I am particualry endebted to for may reasons enjoyed envelope-pushing music and cinema with equal fervor. He made sure I was treated to a steady diet of Tarantino, Lynch, Bakshi, and Kubrick when we weren't playing/attending shows.

After I graduated from high school and entered college, something happened that sealed my fate. It is perhaps best summed up in cliche. For soon, there is a darkening of the screen and a pause in the vhs tape as we reach the Lost Years of the Cineaste (1995-1997). Before that, Films Viewed (December 2009).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Films Viewed (November 2009)

Good Hair
A Woman in Berlin
Disney's A Christmas Carol
The Third Generation
Coco Before Chanel
Branded to Kill
The Killer
A Real Young Girl
It is Fine. Everything is Fine!
Duck Soup
Spies Like Us
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Even Dwarfs Stated Small
Lady Vengeance
The Road
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

The Charles
The Rotunda
The Landmark Harbor East
Other (Video Americain, Suburban Multiplex)
Total: 19 films (11 in theaters)

Notes: I feel very good about this month. I feel very good indeed.

Still, there was one notable stinker among the bunch. I cannot abide the newest A Christmas Carol. It features a character that is my namesake, and holds a special place in my family's holiday traditions. An encapsulation of my opinion would be thus: the wizz-bang CGI 3D effects cannot hide a barren, threadbare retelling of a usually warm and fuzzy fable. The film fails to locate the central humanity of the story. This is an essential part of any filmed Dickens adaptation of merit. Grade: F-.

Moving on, the clear highlight of the month was attending Crispin Glover's Big Slide Show, which featured a screening of It is Fine. Everything is Fine!, the second film in the It trilogy. This was a unique evening with a gifted and eccentric artist. I would say more, but it is clear that he wishes for people to experience his films for themselves, with the director present to explain. I recommend going to this if the occasion arises.

The filmed comedies ran the gamut, from perennial favorites to the unintentionally hysterical to "nice try, guys." In general, there were compelling historical dramas, free-spirited biopics, wacked-out Yazuka films, women seeking vengance, nightmare dystopias big and small, clear Oscar contenders, revealing documentaries... it is hard ot know where to begin or what to recommend, honestly.

Well, that's about it. The Charles seems to be coming up aces at the moment. Let's hope that this continues. Up next... the Cineaste Comes of Age (1987-1994).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

the Youth of the Cineaste (1976-1987)

I was born in 1976.

I mention this since the year in which you were born determines a great deal about how you encountered film in your American youth. In my case, I was born at the dawn of the summer blockbuster, which I think still imparts a soft spot in me each year for the ultra-mega summer films.

I have hazy memories of the anticipation of the opening weekend of The Empire Strikes Back, as I was firmly under Mr. Lucas' spell at that time. The tickets were purchased in advance and pinned on the bulletin board next to the lone telephone in our Bayview rowhome. Seeing that the tickets had perforations similar to the ones in my activity books, I got up on a chair stacked with phone books and tore them. I was in big trouble then, but a call to the theater confirmed that we could still get in.

Well... at any rate, I spent my childhood in Baltimore city.

I mention this as Baltimore city did not have cable television available in the standard form until some time after my family moved just over the line into Baltimore county. Outside of occasional trips across that city/county line to "see a picture" at Golden Ring Mall, the television was the main way I encountered film. I harbor no cherished memories of the film palaces of Baltimore (which were firmly in decline at the time). Sorry.

Most of my "film on television" experiences came from broadcast television via the big three networks and the UHF affiliates. There were about seven channels to choose from, with a few more available if the DC stations were coming through on that particular day.

I harbor vivid memories of Kung-Fu Theater showing and re-showing terrible transfers of sub-Shaw Brother chop sockey flicks heavily edited to fit the running time, of midnight movie programs lulling me to sleep at slumber parties which gave the same rough treatment to the Universal Horror Creature Features and their attendant parodies, of WBFF TV45 having New Year's Eve marathons of Marx Brothers films. I am fairly certain I had more fun as a kid staying up watching old movies with my family on New Year's Eve than I do today running the Mount Vernon bar gauntlet.

Our "big screen" projection television was on almost constantly as my brother and sister and I played in the basement. My dad always insisted that he wanted to be able to "see what's on the television from the kitchen", and so we always had one of these monsters somewhere in the house. Despite the "big screen," these films on television were almost always poorly transferred, leading me to believe that the 1970s in America was a murky, badly-lit, washed out time in our nation's history. This was in sharp contrast to the eye-popping, sharply colored world of the 1980's situation comedy. Diff'rnt Strokes, indeed!

Despite our lack of standard cable at the time, we did have the outlet of VHS video rental and a Pay Television channel called SuperTV, which was sort of like being able to get just HBO. I remember waiting in vain for E.T. to come out on VHS, of watching and re-watching the Star Trek, Star Wars and Superman movies we had made copies of (my father, an electrical engineer, employed the system one used for making tape copies that defeated the Macrovision copy protection system). I used to leaf through the monthly SuperTV schedule booklet, looking for things to watch, wondering about the movies being listed, having no idea about the awesomeness of Z Channel and its then-unfolding impact on the world of "film on television" on the other side of the country.

It is clear from the outset of my existence that I liked watching movies. It was a part of what my family did together. Our tastes were admittedly mainstream, with the exception perhaps of my mother's love of all things musical theater-related. Those 90 to 120 minutes we spent together were often free of bickering and fights. I remember these times fondly but dimly, and consider them formative.

To be honest, things didn't get left-of-center for me in terms of my film tastes until we moved to the county. Because then we got cable.

More on that next time, after an update of films viewed in November. Until then, this is the Charm City Cineaste, signing off...