Aug 13, 2014

Forever Robin To Me

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Many people will remember where they were when they heard the awful news about the passing of Robin Williams. I had just returned from walking my dog; she enjoys trotting through the grass and being pet by the small children we inevitably run into; I enjoy the moody, orange streaks of a summer sunset and the cool early-evening breezes. We both return to the house refreshed and happy. But my calm, content mood went straight south when I opened my computer to see the update about Robin.

And it is "Robin" to me, it's been "Robin" for a long time. I had the pleasure of spontaneously running into the man not once but twice when he was filming in Toronto almost a decade ago. There's a strange intimacy that happens with some actors; Robin struck me as a quiet, thoughtful person, not even half the manic personality he was onstage, but more of a deeply sensitive, feeling artist, the cute, funny boy in school who used humor as a defense mechanism. Being funny was a way of expressing the tremendous energy and imagination he carried around inside him, continually incubating new ideas while keeping watch over his latest batch of squawking hatchlings. He was tremendously playful, and tremendously feeling, and, to me at least, he was somehow always in need of a hug. Within much of his wide and varied work lay a deep sense of vulnerability, which was deeply touching, even as it was occasionally hard to watch. Perhaps that's why there was a odd sense of the familiar when we met, an immediate understanding that allowed each of us to come away from those impromptu chats gently beaming. I didn't expect or ask anything of him, and he seemed relieved I wasn't starstruck or asking him to be "zany." It was just good to be around a very talented, very real human being. I often wonder if he had a radar to pick out us sensitive souls who appreciated his playfulness and understood its humanistic, deeply vulnerable origins.

Like so many, I grew up watching Robin, on television, and then in movies. His turn as the teacher in Dead Poets Society came at a vital moment when, as a frustrated high school student, I realized there were many different styles of teaching, and the one I was being exposed to in my own English class at the time was definitely lacking. (Thankfully, I got my own version of Mr. Keating a year later.) Many times since I find myself wishing he'd done a series of poetry readings —live, online, for radio; he had a depth of feeling for words, language and music, and used them to full (sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad) effect whenever he performed. His solo voice was just as powerful and memorable as his rubbery physicality. Oh, that he had read the poetry of Shelley into a microphone, or done a live performance of Ginsberg's work. A million magical worlds lived in him and were given voice through his performances, worlds we were entranced, seduced, beguiled by. He allowed us to remember wonder, and to find our own.

Robin understood "funny" but he was keenly aware of what can lie underneath. Mrs. Doubtfire was uproariously funny (and still is, to my mind), but, like his character in The Birdcage, there's an intense hurt shot through the performance, one you can keenly sense in those sad blue eyes, and it's made repeated viewings of both movies difficult to endure. Funny! Sad! Funny! Sad! His mix of humor and drama, of light and dark, feels authentically human, and continued to be expressed in a variety of roles, with the darkness (particularly in One Hour Photo) providing a vital counterpoint to the more life-affirming material (Good Will HuntingPatch Adams) that won him mainstream awards and accolades.

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Robin's movies have, in so many ways, been markers for moments in so many lives, the "I remember whens" over the last 48 hours collected and offered like sacrifices on the alter of a disease we can name but can't quite approach. Since Monday night, I've debated with myself about posting anything on his passing, not only because I've had my own intense experiences of depression, but because I don't want to equate them with his suffering. Do I have a right to analyze, compare, or contrast? No, and neither does anyone else. Robin's depression was his own; his suicide is also his own. Impossible to condone, difficult to understand, his decision does bring into stark relief the deep, dark room many depressives (I count myself among them) move in and out of, with frustrating, sometimes exhausting regularity.

As such, it seemed important to me on a personal level not to jump on the journo-pageview-train and spew out something half-assed, half-baked, schmaltzy, trite, narcissistic, didactic, high-handed, or grief-splaining. The rush to reaction, to "thinkpiece" a tragedy, for clicks and shares and comments, makes me recoil at the perceived ethics (and unfortunate financial realities) of my chosen world. How do I bridge the need to report as a journalist with the need to think, feel, grieve, and contemplate as a human? I'm truly not sure it's possible in today's high-speed world. In many ways I'm still not sure why I'm writing this now. But having lost many people I love to depression, and having nearly succumbed myself, it seems right that perhaps shouting to the darkness will inspire something greater than words and links from the armchair-activists I've seen across social media lately. Something like acceptance, and compassion in action. As Robin himself wrote in a reddit AMA last year, "Anytime compassion can be contagious, it's a good thing." That, to me, is a contagion worth spreading, acting on, shouting about. We need it.

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It's probably selfish of me to want more from Robin in terms of work — movie performances, television appearances, those taped poetry sessions — and yet I keep wishing for them. As someone wrote on my Facebook wall Monday night, "I thought and hoped this was a terrible hoax." Robin's light reminded at least this sensitive soul I wasn't alone, that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of, that playfulness matters. Keeping these elements intact against a world filled with ugliness is difficult, sometimes painful, but I want to believe it isn't impossible. It can't be. Carpe diem, shazbot, good morning Vietnam... O Captain, my Captain. The rest is silence. Thank you, dearheart. x


Aug 10, 2014

Head & Heart & Movies & Me

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Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton's Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That's what a film festival's really for, isn't it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen's work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I'd seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

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Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor's face. Terence Mallick's The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.

This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that's ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

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I don't know when the divide came, or how. It's strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren't around anymore (“dead” doesn't necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they're treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don't cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don't feel seduced, I don't feel beguiled, I don't want more. Everything's too loud and everything's very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 

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Getting the movies out of one's blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I'm looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 

When I like something, it's good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it's something I grapple with. I hope I'm getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There's still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

Aug 4, 2014

Less Hype, More Enigma

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Lately I find myself less and less likely to express an unpopular opinion on the internet. Whether it's the drain on energy, or the fact I just don't have either the time or the inclination to sit and follow a long thread of comments, arguments, trolling, and insults, I find staying silent is frequently the best option. That decision has lead me to value in-person conversation more than ever, but it's also lead me to feel disenfranchised with web culture in and of itself, and lead me to only write about something when I feel really, really strongly about it, and even then, I tiptoe.

Consider this a stomp and not a tiptoe. I was initially entranced with the new trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road, the far-overdue fourth installment in the Mad Max film series. George Miller, the original filmmaker, has created a very atmospheric set-up designed to excite and enthrall. And yet, as the trailer wore on, it felt like a deliberate, well-designed set-up. I know trailers have a function: to excite, to whip up hype, to inspire passion, all of which translates into dollars. But watching Fury Road, I was entirely conscious of being manipulated, of being hyped up and purposely excited. The spiky designs, the color schemes, the fast cars... all looked like stuff I had loved long ago. As the trailer ended, all I could think of was something I read years ago: something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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The first formal essay I ever wrote was about heroism in the Mad Max movies. Typing it out on an old manual typewriter, my pre-teen brain was doing mental aerobics just thinking about all the cinematic heroes I'd seen in the past. My child-like ideas around the nature of heroism (affirmed in movies like Superman and Star Wars) came crashing down when I saw The Road Warrior. It was like nothing I'd ever seen: brutal, funny, violent, sad, action-packed, profound, with eye-catching designs, campy characters, and thrilling action sequences. There was an authenticity to it, one that I later learned sprang directly from an antipodean sensibility central to its flavor and identity. The rough-and-tumble combination of dark humor and intense violence (perhaps best manifest in the lethal boomerang of the Feral Kid), old-school action (crossbows!), and a keen longing for home (literal and figurative), combined with smart sprinklings of camp, ribald humor, and a total lack of self-consciousness gave The Road Warrior its deliciously Aussie flavor and assured its position in film history.

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Its predecessor shocked me because, for all of its futuristic trappings, Mad Max is a human drama played at the scale of an action movie. It's also an action movie that's interested in humans — our failings, our hurts, our weaknesses, and our entirely-familiar desire for revenge. It's upsetting, and yet compulsively watchable. The economy with which some scenes were shot (the burnt hand of Max's partner dropping from a sheet, the ball rolling along the road where his family is ultimately murdered) underline the simple, elegant blurring of good and bad in Miller's world. Such blurs were deeply disturbing to my young teen mind, and gave me more than a few nightmares. The contrast between Gibson's baby-faced cop and the brutality of his actions — it's a contrast which silences, awes, haunts, and disturbs; here is a man who is neither likable nor unlikeable, but simply someone trying to get by in horrible conditions, with no set goal or destination beyond getting gasoline to keep on keepin' on. The brutality of his choices reflect the brutality of his world, inner and outer. There is more than a whiff of existentialism at play here, one that strongly flavors the entire series.

The third installment in the Mad Max series was a letdown for fans, who found it too cute, too camp, too outright silly. The kids in the movie were, in retrospect, stand-ins for Ewoks in so many senses, and it was just too cute by a longshot. Still, there are certain outlandishly so-camp-they're-brilliant aspects I like about Beyond Thunderdome, particularly the fight space of the title, a surreal way of meting out justice that combines the poetry of Cirque du Soleil's high-wire acts and all the shrieking energy of a Monster Truck rally. Thirty years on, it's still tacky, odd, humorous, and very visually compelling. I only wish the sequence had been longer.

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Another aspect of Thunderdome I cherish is the presence of Tina Turner; her Aunty Entity is fierce, angry, a clear outsider made good. Sure, it was trick casting, but it wasn't some blonde, pouty-mouthed, fashionable, pretty, young model playing the role, and that meant (and still means) a lot; it was a woman who already had a career in another world and was clearly having the time of her life. With spring earrings, a knight-like metal dress (!), and a huge blonde wig, Turner's Auntie is bloodthirsty and smart; it was (is) fun watching her driving a tricked-out car at top speed through the desert. (One of my mother's best friends at the time I saw Thunderdome was a top female drag-racer; it was nice to see the smarts and energy I knew in real life so nicely translated into a character onscreen.) Turner wasn't the young, soft, cutesy girlfriend-of-anyone, but rather, smart, efficient, The Boss. It was strange to see her flirting with the enigmatic hero too, holding all the cards of power, dancing around another side of him that hadn't been revealed — and, some of us were hoping, would never be revealed. After the loss he suffered, Max is purposely never soft, never romantic; the world he lives in just doesn't allow it. While the pair came from similar places emotionally (if not experientially), each character had handled their respective tragedies in wildly different ways. They were survivors, past good and evil. Still, I will forever be grateful to Miller for not stripping Aunty of her power and turning her into a mere love interest in service to the hero.

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That doesn't mean the chemistry between Tina Turner and Mel Gibson wasn't beguiling. Rather, it felt very genuine, and very adult, shot through with knowing and lived-in experience. The seventeen-year age gap didn't matter (and it still shouldn't, really). I didn't quite understand that kind of chemistry as a pre-teen, but I definitely enjoyed watching it. There was an undercurrent of knowingness between the two, past their characters, that felt genuine, and somehow, very true to the original spirit of Miller's work. When Turner and Gibson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, I didn't hesitate to buy a copy and pour over its contents. It was fascinating to learn about a big production like Beyond Thunderdome and see how it fit in with the larger Max universe of Miller's making. The Road Warrior would always have my heart, of course, and its sequel seems contrived and lightweight in retrospect, but there was something fun about the whole event-like nature of it at the time.

It's that same kind of hype (albeit on a much grander, far more endemic scale) I sense with the trailer for Fury Road, along with a heft plateful of nostalgia for an older-style brand of action film, one without comic book heroes or CGI effects. And yet, Fury Road falls into the same old popular-movie tropes, with only the window dressing to remind us that it's a Mad Max film. The intro itself, where our hero introduces himself, makes me wince; those of us who became familiar with Miller's post-apocalyptic universe through The Road Warrior didn't know (or care about) the main character's name throughout most of it — indeed, our erstwhile anti-hero barely spoke. It's hard for me to stomach the hero speaking here, let alone introducing himself; to do it in such a belabored, intentional way feels heavy-handed and more than a little manipulative. I don't want an introduction! I don't want to hear Max talking about a "world of fire and blood." Where's the enigma gone? Can we get him back please?

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From there, we're shown a number of action sequences, full of tropes that recall the original Road Warrior, but with none of its scrappy resiliency, low-budget punk glam, or hard-scrabble brutality; the scenes shot are beautiful, the cars are beautiful, the extras are beautiful, the desert is beautiful, the wispy ladies-in-white (as if there was ever any softness, ever, in the original Mad Max movies) are beautiful (they're models in real life...), the menacing baddies are beautiful, and of course, the lead is beautiful. I like Tom Hardy as an actor — he's macho, charismatic, and an eminently likable screen presence (even when he's scary) — but at this point in his career, he's a very well-known entity within the industry. He is not in the position Mel Gibson was in back in 1981 — that is, an only semi-known actor in North America, with a history of work back home. Gibson was steeped in the antipodean sensibility that I think is so central to Miller's work, and he brought no baggage or associations to the role. I must confess, I am disappointed a lesser-known, more chameleon-like Aussie/Kiwi actor wasn't cast in the lead here. I know it would be unrealistic to expect a studio to finance a Mad Max sequel in that case, and that Hardy's casting ("BANE!") means a lot in financial / box office return terms, but perhaps my disappointment with casting here is reflective of a larger disgust with the state of the industry, one where lists of popular actors with long business relationships replace the right actors with long acting resumes (and the right accents. Sorry, Tom.). The casting (Hardy's, along with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Zoe Kravitz) feels more financial than creative, though I could be entirely wrong there. I only know that what I saw set off my cinematic bullshit radar something fierce. Rather than being "blown away" by the trailer, as so many were (and as was repeatedly trumpeted by numerous media outlets), I found myself feeling the gale force winds of the hype machine, standing back, looking around, and noting how it wasn't even raining, let alone cloudy.

I know, it's an unpopular opinion, perhaps I should've stayed silent, perhaps I'm wholly guilty of an ugly, misguided nostalgia. Someone please mansplain this to me! (Kidding; please don't.) The hallmarks of the Mad Max movies are indeed in place with Fury Road, but those elements only remind me of something that changed my life and the way I perceive culture. What's more, those elements (all very Hollywood 2014: the fashionable names, the cutesy girls, the surly voiceover, the intensely loud sound mix, the fast-paced, dramatic edits) didn't endear me to the newer material, but rather, drove me away, highlighting a wedge between what I remember loving and what has changed in the wider cultural world. I can't, of course, fully and properly judge Fury Road until its release in 2015, but when I do see it next year (and I plan to), it won't be because of the gale-force hype winds shrieking at me to be TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY, but rather, a simple curiosity. I know I'm in the minority cocking an eyebrow this early in the game, but I'm willing to keep my critical mind intact; it's the least — and the best — I can do.

Something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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