DON’T THINK TWICE (2016, dir. Mike Birbiglia)

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(Left to right: Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Mike Birbiglia, Tami Sagher)

Something funny about Don’t Think Twice: in an era when so many  seemingly scripted comedies utilize improvisation (and to *varying* degrees), writer/director/actor Mike Birbiglia has made a quite good scripted comedy that’s about an improv comedy troupe. Or, yes it’s about an improv group, and it’s about what happens to the group’s solidarity when one member (Keegan-Michael Key) says “yes, but” in order to go big-time and leave his mates behind who in all likelihood will languish in art-for-art’s-sake obscurity.

This insider showbiz scenario could have easily been played for nudge, nugde, wink, wink satire– which could’ve been tiresome– but Birbiglia grounds and elaborates it in a bittersweet, rueful, multifaceted manner. The result is not just a movie about envy but a humane portrayal of those who either don’t quite get what it takes to go far and/or have what it takes but have become so immune to failure that they fear success. As most movies about showbiz or the arts are about people who have succeeded or are succeeding, Don’t Think Twice is a rarity of its kind that might make some younger, wannabe artists change their priorities or raise their defenses (as well as inspire some to take an improv class.)

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Gethard

If people aren’t familiar with Key, Gillian Jacobs or even Birbiglia, then this movie will convert some to become fans of them as actors. But for me the stand-out revelation is Chris Gethard as Bill. As Gethard is an improv performer and teacher who has come very close to becoming a bona fide success in real life, he’s basically playing a version of himself in DTT but as I’m of the belief that an actor playing themselves can be the hardest thing to do, especially when it’s less-than-flattering and hits close to home. I don’t mean to sound backhanded because Gethard is very good here. He plays Bill in a low-key, natural and open way that conveys the characters’ struggles better than any of his cast mates. (Also, he has many killer lines during the improv comedy scenes.)

The only thing that doesn’t quite hit the mark is Birbiglia’s filmmaking chops. It’s as though he made most of his best decisions in pre-production than he did when shooting the movie. For instance: many ensemble scenes play as though they were shot but not necessarily blocked in any notable way, and the choice to film the improv performance scenes with a Steadicam as though the viewer is one of the performers on stage is a neat idea that is executed in a fairly monotonous way. So DDT isn’t nowhere near as cinematic as what Woody Allen could do in his prime or even what Louis CK does on his TV show Louie. Nevertheless, he captures some great moments (like when the rest of the improv group grimly watch Key’s performance debut on a show not unlike Saturday Night Live) and he has chops as an actor’s director.

<In a Gene Shalit voice> So think once about seeing… Don’t Think Twice.

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016, dir. Paul Feig)

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Left to right: Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kirsten Wiig and Leslie Jones, doing what makes them feel good: busting.

My young niece got into the original Ghostbusters when she was three, which is around the same age that I got into the movie. And way before this new movie was announced I had a phone conversation with her in which she asked me, “why aren’t there any girl Ghostbusters?” “I don’t know. That’s a fair question,” was my answer. Starting at that moment, I wanted there to be “girl Ghostbusters” for her sake.

So I was happy when a female-driven version of Ghostbusters became a reality just for the sheer principle of the thing. Even if the movie turned out to be subpar, I thought, my niece would be able to better identify in and participate with the same franchise that I engaged with as a boy. It could be an instance of both handing something off to a younger generation and feeling like there was a little more gender equality in the world.

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I’ve kept this in mind as the transparently sexist backlash against the movie’s existence has raged on in the hearts and minds of many online trolls. For almost every veiled or not-so-veiled misogynistic comment that has been flung at the movie that I’ve come across—and at this point “I’m not sexist it’s just that the trailer sucked” gets automatically translated into my mind as “I hate you, mom! I won’t stop playing with my Ghostbusters action figures and do my chores!”—I’ve thought about my niece and other girls like her getting their own version of a pop cultural phenomenon that has been virtually exclusive to boys/men. It turns out that, according to a profile article at Vulture, this is the reason why Paul Feig made the movie: “I wanted for little girls to be able to see themselves up on the screen,” he said.

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Feig (left) with original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman

Well now I’ve seen the new movie and I’m of two minds about it. It’s entertaining, looks great and the lead actresses are quite likable. But it lacks the original’s deadpan demeanor that counterbalanced its absurd premise; in place of dry humor is an earnestness from its four leads that can be charming but doesn’t ground any ridiculousness in an audience-friendly, “we’re well aware of how crazy this is” way. Also, the movie is so eager to get its heroines up-and-running that it foregoes steady, cumulative story development in order to get to some action-packed supernatural mayhem quicker.

But these things could be indicative of Feig’s main objective, which is to make the movie fun and empowering for girls. Is there anything empowering about dry, winking sarcasm? No, not really, so that was dropped. (Also, I think audiences unfairly have a lower tolerance for sarcastic women then for sarcastic men but that’s for a separate conversation.) And does a movie depend upon sensible plotting or story development to be fun for kids/girls? Again, not really. I certainly didn’t care or appreciate how the first half of the original Ghostbusters is about the vicissitudes of starting-up a business when I was a tot.

So the two issues I have with the movie ultimately seem to be in service of Feig’s goal to make the franchise inclusive for little girls like my niece, which ultimately moots my qualms. Sure, there are some ultra-convenient things that happen in the story, but dissecting those things takes a certain type of detail-sweating seriousness that feels inappropriate to a franchise that’s about people capturing and containing ghosts with nuclear accelerators on their back as if they were exterminators or animal control services. This has always been silly, fun stuff, and treating it as an unimpeachable sacred cow feels beside the point.

Now this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have any implicit politics in its subtext, which Matt Zoller Seitz has addressed better than I could. For example, SPOILERS there’s an interesting plot point where these female Ghostbuster receive a de facto, unsanctioned form of recognition whereas the original Ghostbusters got to become openly famous. This gums up the works of this new movie from a storytelling perspective—really, that would happen in this age of social media?– but it’s an interesting commentary on how women’s contributions to society often go unacknowledged while men get unabated credit. [1] END SPOILERS

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Yet back to the idea that this movie’s primary artistic purpose is to pass a franchise down to a younger, more gender-balanced audience: yes, there are a lot of callbacks to the original movies, and yes, one could cynically view the movie’s existence as another example of a Hollywood studio building/maintaining franchises for long-term profits but failing to foster more original ideas. But these things don’t really factor into how a kid thinks. They didn’t factor into my thinking when I was kid who once thrilled to Ghostbusters II, a movie that I now see as intrinsically flawed. (See my first footnote.) And, unless you’re an adamant, unflinching ultra-Conservative or Men’s Right’s Activist that I don’t agree with, the new movie isn’t ideologically egregious.

So my reaction to this new Ghostbusters is similar to my reaction to the most recent Star Wars: it’s not for me. But I don’t mean that in a dismissive, derogatory way; I mean that as a grown adult who enjoys media from any era but doesn’t really care to be personally nostalgic and wants younger people to feel like they have their own versions of things. I don’t need to relive my childhood ad nauseam like so many seem to have a protective need to do; I had mine and it was nice but it’s gone and that’s how it’s supposed to work.

What I’m interested in is talking to my niece about this new Ghostbusters. I hope she likes it, feels recognized and gets some inspiration from it.[2] That is what matters to me.

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[1] Then again, this plot development from a storytelling perspective isn’t even half as problematic as how the Ghostbusters became shunned between the original and its sequel despite the fact that they saved New York City and the world, which was done to setup a story that just rehashed the first movie’s. And by evidence of one moment that occurs at the end of this new movie, it seems that Feig is intent not to let that happen in another prospective Ghostbusters movie.

[2] Having said all that: I did feel a slight buzz from my past self as I watched Melissa McCarthy, Kirsten Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones wrangled ghosts with laser beams.

 

GATES OF HEAVEN (1978, dir. Errol Morris)

(Source: CriterionForum.org)
Calvin Harbert and pet mourners in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org)

Mandy was a part-Husky, part-wolf dog that my family had when I was growing up, and she died by euthanasia at the vet. Two days before her passing, she collapsed while I was walking her. Her liver and kidneys conked out and it was decided by my parents to put her down mercifully.

This happened when I was teen and, honestly, I didn’t have a Lassie-and-Timmy relationship with Mandy. But I was fond of her, and it was startling as a middle-class suburban kid unaccustomed with mortality to witness her downturn.

When she faded out of her last living moment, a radio at the vet happened to be playing Queen’s magnum opus song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And she didn’t die during that song’s wind-down, which would have been most appropriate. She passed away during the song’s bombastic, campy, A cappella, “Galileo/Figaro” mid-section. Looking back, it was kind of absurd.

Then again, it was also appropriate, because there’s something strange about pet ownership. Through chance and convenience, humans have domesticated animals that could theoretically kill or harm us. Likewise, our survival doesn’t require us to be in concert with any animal. Yet still, we have pets and we benefit from them. Also, the absurdity of pet ownership has the potential to remind us of the absurdity of existence. Sure, this sounds nihilistic, but there isn’t a discernible reason or explanation as to why life is really here on Earth. Yet still, we are here and we benefit, struggle, and shuffle off this mortal coil, just as any animal does. Having pets only italicizes this fact of life.

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Errol Morris. (Source: BleedingCool.com)

The recent Criterion Collection video release of Errol Morris’s debut documentary feature film Gates of Heaven[1] features a 2014 interview with Morris in which he addresses a common complaint that some viewers have made against the film: that he was making fun of the people in it, individuals who were associated with two Northern California based pet cemeteries in the late 1970s, one started by Floyd McClure that failed and another started by the Harberts family that prospered:

“There was always trouble with GoH… I got so tired of defending myself. At a certain point I would just say, ‘yes I am ridiculing all of them and so what.’ But there’s a simpler answer.   Probably a more forgiving answer, at least to me. I love the absurd, okay? I fess up. I– love– the absurd. I like the ridiculous. I like the hopeless and the hapless. To love the absurdity of people is not to ridicule them. It is to embrace on some level how desperate life is for each and every one of us. Including [Morris points to himself] me. If the thought is for a moment that I see myself on a pedestal, some kind of elevated position with respect to these people I put in my films: not so. It’s just not so.”

Yet, even if Morris has clarified his intentions with the film there’s still the question as to why, or how, people have interpreted the film to be a deliberate or backhanded lampooning of real-life individuals.

While watching GoH, it’s evident that it’s a work of exacting intelligence that happens to be about common, sometimes downtrodden people. While Morris hadn’t developed his “Interrortron” camera set-up for interviews at this point in his career, he still eschewed both traditional and contemporary modes of documentary filmmaking by adhering to a self-imposed, restrained mode of representation that’s comparable to Yasujiro Ozu’s rigid and formal style of filmmaking.

Interview Screenshots. Clockwise from top: Florence Rasmussen, Catharine Halbert, anonymous interviewee, Floyd McClure. (Source: Criterion.com.)
Interview Screenshots. Clockwise from top: Florence Rasmussen, Catharine Halbert, anonymous interviewee, Floyd McClure. (Source: Criterion.com.)

There are no devices in the film that are overtly expository let alone ideological or manipulative in tone (i.e. voiceover narration, titles indicating location/time/identification, non-diegetic music cues, and no on-screen host/s), nor is there any handheld, freewheeling camerawork that intends to capture extemporaneous moments a la the Cinema Verite documentary mode that had become a mainstay by the late 70’s. Most of the film is composed of testimonial interviews that are almost entirely shot in the same manner. Framed in a planimetric compositions, subjects address a uniformly-distanced and stationary camera that’s equipped with a fixed focal length lens while in real settings that are somehow indicative of their lifestyles. Likewise, if the camera does move, it only pans while mounted to a tripod in wide-shots that establish and survey relevant locations. It’s as if you’re observing people and things in a lab only somehow the whole world has become the laboratory.

Yet Morris’s acute point-of-view is conveyed more by how he edits the film. Segments of the testimonials are presented and arranged in a way that tells the stories of the two pet cemeteries as if they were academic or legal or financial case studies, all the while including “obligatory” yet paradoxically crucial moments that convey these peoples’ specific personalities that are inextricable to their own life situations that they’re discussing. By virtue of its structure, GoH communicates multiple, often contradictory things with a straightforward, scrupulous confidence, signifying a high degree of intelligence on the Morris’s part. It also makes the film more multivalent than if it were only really about pet cemeteries.

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Anonymous interviewee. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

Conversely, the film doesn’t give the audience any easy, clear-cut indication as to how we should feel about these individuals. Therefore, the films’ detached, matter-of-fact, somewhat cold and artful approach towards everyday people has the potential to make viewers unduly concerned, jumping to the conclusion that those represented are being subjugated by Morris’s camera eye for the sake of irony. (Also, it doesn’t help that the people in GoH are often discussing something that can carry a lot of sentimental weight: the death of pets. (“Surely, this topic should be treated with more warmth, right?”)) Similarly, there could be viewers who on some level think that the notion of treating pet-death as sacred as human-death is ridiculous but, out of a sense of wanting to be morally fair or upright, will displace their disapproval onto Morris or the film in order to let them selves off the hook.

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Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park as seen in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)
Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park as seen in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

Despite any consternation from viewers, GoH is enough of an open-text film for it to interpreted as not a work of ridicule that has a misanthropic streak a mile wide but an empathetic work of philosophical inquiry and bemusement– just as Morris views it– that matter-of-factly gets at key elements of our human experience while leaving enough room for mystery to persist.

Also, GoH has aged well because it reflects aspects of our current post-agrarian/post-industrial era in the U.S. albeit at an earlier stage. Being an animal lover who grew up on a farm, Floyd McClure strove to establish a pet cemetery in Los Altos for sentimental reasons. There were no real practical purposes behind his thwarted enterprise; he just felt a psychological and spiritual need to provide burial services for pet owners and provide an alternative to keep pet remains from being rendered, which he sees as cruel and hellish. To provide counterpoint, Morris intersperses segments of an interview with Mike Koewler, the manager of a rendering company who espouses his industry by pointing out that it can provide a service to pet owners who can’t deal with animal remains and creates industrial products. Right away, there’s a contrast between goods (Koewler) and services with no tangible value (McClure) as they relate to animal ownership.

In two separate shots, McClure v. Koewler. (Source/s: CriterionForum.org)
In two separate shots, McClure v. Koewler. (Source/s: CriterionForum.org)

Tacitly, this demonstrates how U.S. society has been changing. As our culture has become less centered around agriculture, people have less reason to see animals as things to dominate or render for practical, economic ends. In turn, this creates more possibility for people to develop humane, domestic, abstract and personal relationships with animals. (In part, this can be demonstrated through statistics that show that pet ownership and expenditures on pets have increased over time.)

Likewise, the post-industrial viability of pet-burial services is substantiated in the second half of the film. It focuses on the Harberts, the family who reburied the animal remains from McClure’s failed cemetery in their own, more successful Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa, California. Where McClure was driven by a sentimental need but defeated by economical vagaries, the Harbert clan—which includes older patriarch Cal, wife Catharine and adult sons Dan and Phil—ostensibly succeed because they adhere to a business philosophy (as well as homegrown self-help practices in Phillip’s case) while acknowledging and respecting the psychological and spiritual components of their clients’ burial needs. This implies that “feelings are nice to have” in our society but knowledge and information are “more crucial” to successful enterprises than passion, purpose or emotional need. (Note: the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park is still operational.)

Phillip Harbert. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)
Phillip Harbert. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

But superseding these cultural or economic as well as other aspects of GoH is a more basic concern that the documentary explores: mortality. In a society in which death looms less prominent because of cultural denial and increasing human life expectancy, long-time pet ownership can provide one with a palpable, bittersweet, and more recurrent reminder of how all living things die. And with that there are spiritual issues that can’t be exhausted: as a rhetorical pet mourner expresses it simply yet beautifully near the end of GoH, “there’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”[2]

Pet mourner:
Pet mourner: “it had to be something, didn’t it?” (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

So despite the austerity of GoH, it stirs feelings in me as an animal lover even while I’m on the film’s intellectual wavelength. As I divulged in the beginning of this post, I have known a pet, as well as other pets, that have passed away. Right now, my girlfriend and I have two cats, one of whom is middle-aged. And although I dread their inevitable passing over the rainbow bridge, that inevitability makes me appreciate the absurd yet humane relationship I have with them while reminding me, in an enriching way, of the limits of my own existence.

Still– this topic can touch a psychic nerve and make me weepy. For example: Morris includes a montage of stationary shots of the headstones of buried animals at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. One shot in particular made me cry when rewatching the film:

(Source: Pinterest.com)
(Source: Pinterest.com)

Am I really no different from many of the people in this documentary? If so, I don’t feel like the film has ridiculed me. Instead, it holds a mirror up.

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The film's first shot: McClure under a tree. (Source: CriterionForum.org)
The film’s first shot: McClure under a tree. (Source: CriterionForum.org)

GoH is a documentary that investigates something that seems insignificant but reveals itself to be complex and unfathomable. It’s not about pet cemeteries per se; it’s about how pet cemeteries are a prismatic subject that reflects and refracts many aspects of the human condition. And sure, these issues might seem obvious and prosaic on paper (as they might in this post), but the way they are presented and addressed is enigmatically masterful. As Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies entry for GoH, “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it.”

Finally– it would be unfair to assume that Morris wasn’t moved at all by what he found. He may be cynical and, in his own words, an “anti-postmodernist postmodernist” but, surely, he doesn’t have a heart of stone.

As this clip shows: he just loves the absurd, okay?

(R.I.P. Mandy, Chewy, Aggie, Paddy, Scully, and Sparky.)

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[1] The DVD pairs GOH with Morris’s second documentary feature, Vernon, Florida.

[2] Upon rewatching GoH, I noticed that there is only one scene in it that has an onscreen animal— one where a pet owner bark-sings with her small dog in her kitchen (see the fourth image in the post.) Whether this was deliberate or not, the absence of living, onscreen animals in the film augments its themes of loss and ontology. Also, it prevents GoH’s interview subjects from seeming too sentimental, which reduces the chances of the film being interpreted as too “ridiculous”, “campy” or “derisive.”

INSIDE OUT (2015, dirs. Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)

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From left to right: Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). (Source: Rai Cultura Media.)

Well-crafted and crafty, animation studio Pixar’s new film Inside Out meets their own gold standard of excellence and manages to be something that could have been dreadful, overwrought or hokey in less adept hands. It’s a pop movie that deals with psychological concepts in an entertaining manner that’s accessible for all ages. This is no small feat, and the movie feels symptomatic of cultural sea-change in how we perceive the psyche or the field of psychology.  Yet, these aspects of Inside Out go fairly under the radar, and the fact that they’re covert only reinforces the movie’s success on its own terms. This brings to mind something the God Entity says at the end of the Futurama episode “Godfellas”: “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

Inside Out revolves around Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year old only child whose life is upset when her parents move the family from the Midwest to San Francisco for work purposes. Yet the actual protagonists are Riley’s five basic, anthropomorphized emotions that exist in and helm her mind a la’ Captain Kirk and his crew operate the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek. These emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), each physically representing and primarily behaving like the feeling that they embody (i.e. Joy is shaped like a bright star, Sadness is shaped like a teardrop.)

Through clever bits of conceptualization, the five emotions generate and process new memories that are rendered as marble-like orbs that are retained or eradicated depending on their value.  Furthermore, Riley’s mind is portrayed as a video-game-like world in which there’s a central control station that’s connected to five different islands that are components of Riley’s personality and are sustained by core emotional memories. Has the “gestalt” concept ever been cinematically presented in a manner as enjoyable as it’s presented here? Probably not. (There’s also a good argument to be made about how Inside Out is about the filmmaking process, but I feel that’s veering into Internet “fan theory” territory, a part of my mind that I don’t really wish to build-up.)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias. (Source. DesignTaxi.com)
Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias. (Source. DesignTaxi.com)

As Riley’s life changes, chaos occurs in the world, or workplace, of her mind: Sadness keeps inadvertently affecting memories, which causes Riley’s personality-islands to start decommission themselves. Then Joy, the leader of the emotions, is inadvertently ejected out of the central control station along with Sadness. So as Riley deals with a new city, home and school, Joy and Sadness journey through a fast-changing mind-world in order to find a way back to the helm. Hence, the plot is a neat metaphor for how coping with adversity isn’t always as easy as 1-2-3, especially for a kid who has yet to become equipped. It also demonstrate how “small” narrative stakes can be made to feel important and captivating, something that feels refreshing in era when too many big-budget Hollywood movies have “entire world” stakes that are paradoxically dull.

But like any person, Inside Out isn’t 100% well-adjusted. There are occasions where the Mouse Trap or Jenga-like mechanics of Riley’s mind-world seem to be driven by a need for spectacle and not by any discernible human psychology (i.e. there’s a sequence that takes place in an Abstract Thought room that doesn’t explain the concept of Abstract Thought and seems to mainly serve as an opportunity for Pixar animators to do some experimental, non-representational yet goofy animation.)  Also, the role of Disgust is almost non-existent and made me wonder why only those five human emotions were personified and what other emotions could’ve been portrayed. (Imagine Tig Notaro playing Boredom; sounds counter-intuitive, but it could have been funnier or more insightful than a character whose only real purpose is to be grossed out by things.) And this is probably just a quibble that I can’t really prove and may just be subjective, but the comedy seems to skew more on the side of often-sly-jokes-meant-for-adults than jokes-meant-for-kids, which isn’t optimal for something that’s basically meant for children.

(Source: hypable.com)
(Source: hypable.com)

Still, the movie’s many merits overshadow any perceived shortcomings. This being Pixar, the computer animation is spotless, particularly the parts that are set in the human world (when it comes to representing people, the studio has come from the Uncanny Valley moments of the first Toy Story.) And the movie is very funny, most likely a result of being punched-up by its comedic cast and script doctors (i.e. there’s a clever running gag regarding “earworms” behaving like pop-up windows on your Internet browser.) Moreover, you can’t fault the film for a lack of ambition or its ability to meet its ambitions: despite the emotional and practical complexity of Riley’s mind-world, the trickiest aspect of the narrative, exposition is dispensed as ably and lucidly as memory orbs are dispensed by the five personified human emotions.

Speaking of meeting ambitions: it’s dicey for any filmmaker to make a movie that’s so intrinsically about emotional psychology as there’s a good chance they won’t provide a resolution that rings true or resonate with most of the audience; nevertheless, with the help of composer Michael Giacchino’s careful and effective score, Docter and Del Carmen stick the landing in this regard, which in turn makes Inside Out rich and profound family entertainment. Here’s a compassionate mainstream movie which ends up saying that emotions a) are the thing that make us most of who we are, b) need to be properly considered and maintained, and c) can be developed in a way that will make us more able to deal with life’s inevitable difficulties, and it communicates these things in a manner that does not feel prescriptive, too evident, or wrongfully simplified. Last and probably more importantly, the movie’s intent is to convey these things to parents and their children in the audience. This movie is the “spoonful of sugar” version of family therapy treatment that can be consumed by and nourish almost anyone. (I can also say that, as someone who’s currently going to therapy, Inside Out is like a psychiatry session that in-of-itself doubles as the ice cream that I tend to consume after an emotionally exhausting therapy session.)

I do not have children, so I don’t feel as though I have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to saying how kids should be raised. But I’m compelled to mention that Pete Docter got the idea for this film when he was thinking about his own eleven-year old daughter, wondering what was going on in her mind, and wanted to help and guide her, like any decent parent would. So if that bit of production trivia turns on the waterworks for you, then you’ll have a good cry at Inside Out, like I did.

EXPLORATORIUM (1974, dir. Jon Boorstin)

Sound comes first: we hear the squeaks, whirrs, clicks of a machine that creates wave patterns onto paper that’s attached to a cylinder. Then we hear a handful voices say the title of the film, which is also the name of its subject The Exploratorium, the interactive science museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Accompanied by an eerie electronic music cue, light comes next. After a partial establishing shot that pans over the structure of the museum’s ceiling, a shaft of sunlight bounces off a mirror on the roof and shines through a window. Then, it strikes another mirror and travels through a set of installed prisms. Refracted, and flaring through the camera lens, the light is projected onto an opaque wall and creates psychedelic streams of colors that could be in the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A man in silhouette (presumably Oppenheimer) goes up to and touches the colorful light. This is a demonstration of Bob Miller’s Exploratorium art piece “Sun Painting” (that doubles as a summation of motion picture experience.)

Then, in quick succession, children create shadows in a room equipped with a flashbulb and walls made out of a photosensitive material. A woman and child dance in a strobe light that chops up the visible continuity of their motion. A rotating swirl graphic is shown in close-up and we hear a man and woman talk about how staring at it is trippy. Two boys horse around in a force-perspective room that makes them look further apart than they really are.

These vignettes, as well as others that follow, represent various exhibits at The Exploratorium, or at least their effects, in a paradoxical way. On one hand, these are observational snapshots that show different aspects of the museum. On the other hand, they are documentations of exhibits that create, invoke, simulate physical phenomena that make you examine the very nature of how you see and hear the world a la’ white light going into a clear prism to create color.

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Frank's Unique View of the World
Frank Oppenheimer. (Source: Exploratorium.edu)

As a part of The Manhattan Project in the 1940s and under the leadership of his more famous older brother J. Robert, Frank Oppenheimer helped to create the atom bomb. In the 1950s, he became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee due to a passing association with the American Communist Party in the 1930s and was blacklisted from teaching at the University level. He retreated to Colorado to become a rancher and found his way back to physics by becoming a high school science teacher, which inspired him to create an educational science museum.

Oppenheimer was remarkable for his unerring optimism and lack of disillusionment. He, like many of his Manhattan Project cohorts, had profound doubts regarding the invention of nuclear arms and advocated, unsuccessfully, for their multinational control. Then he was nearly professionally ruined during the Red Scare. Nevertheless, he believed in education’s power to improve society and his teaching philosophy– which guided and allowed people to discover and understand science through their own volition—intrinsically trusted the capabilities of individuals.

Hence, The Exploratorium was designed as a series of interactive, semi-controlled, easy-to-understand and loosely organized science experiments that weren’t presented in any mandatory fashion and enabled people to discover determined principles through their own free will. In her book Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium, K.C. Cole writes, “Frank’s woods of natural phenomena would serve as a substitute—not actually teaching so much as providing a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences.”

Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)
Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)

Cole also writes, “…[The thematic thread of the museum is] a focus on perception. Since everything we know is filtered through our perceptual apparatus, all of science hinges on it one way or the other, and the subject offers a naturally interdisciplinary way of getting into almost any subject… Further, perception was an active field of science in which even fresh discoveries could be made accessible. No one entirely understands how our brains take bits of inadequate and ambiguous information and use them to compose what we take to be the real world.” [157]

By the nature of its subject—a site of spontaneous experimentation that mainly demonstrates the scientific yet abstract nature of perception—the short doubles as an experimental film of the synesthetic kind. Likewise, just as the Exploratorium is a free form museum, the film is a non-linear series of impressions that lack any traditional expository devices (i.e. voice-over narration or titles that explain everything what you’re viewing.) Beautifully photographed by Eric Saarinen and featuring excellent sound work from Peter Smokler, Peter Pilafian, Bud Grenzbach and John Wilkinson, it’s a documentary and an art film. Oppenheimer must have appreciated that Jon Boorstin’s short film isn’t prosaically “scientific” as he intended his museum to also be a place where art and science converged (i.e. Miller’s “Sun Painting”.)

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More so, this short-film resonates with me as I have a personal connection to the museum. Having grown-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents, siblings and I often visited The Exploratorium and watching Boorstin’s film evokes many memories. For instance: I can remember being a five-year old, walking down the museum’s mezzanine stairwell, stopping to see my mom ahead of me at the base of the stairs, and being aware that I was forming a memory in that moment. Not the most exciting recollection, I admit. Nonetheless, it was an early moment of cognizance that’s etched into my mind.

This experience seems to dovetail with Oppenheimer reasoning behind the Exploratorium, as Cole writes: “[it would provide] a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences [149]…”

Museum floor in 2006
The old Exploratorium. (Source: Wikipedia.)

With many of its original exhibits intact, the museum moved from the Palace of Fine Arts to San Francisco’s Pier 15 in 2013. Even so, the Exploratorium as I knew it and as it’s portrayed in this film doesn’t really exist anymore. Yet thankfully, due to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Academy Film Archive has preserved Exploratorium and by extension the previous version of The Exploratorium. (Film and video preservation: the endeavor that maintains the time-machine a.k.a. moving image media.)

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So if Exploratorium could be seen as much a de facto experimental film as it is a documentary, and if the Exploratorium is Oppenheimer’s scientific playground that causes learning and curiosity through inadvertent means, then Boorstin’s short reminds me of what people often fail to see or acknowledge in the experimental (for lack of a better term) genre. Yes, the most accomplished or noted experimental films (and videos, for that matter) typically have strong aesthetic and theoretical underpinnings that often address or are influenced by cultural, economic, political and historical issues. And, yes, it’s not uncommon when they are visually and aurally unpleasant or abrasive.

Still from Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)
Still from Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)

Still, experimental films and videos can be adventurous, subversive, enigmatic and yes-I’ll-say-it fun. They can disclose the moving image medium’s latent possibilities, similar to how science can reveal the invisible mechanics of nature and the universe. If you’ve seen them, consider Man with a Movie Camera, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes in the Afternoon, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Scorpio Rising, Mothlight, La Jetee, Michael Snow’s Wavelength—these are all films that have the potential to open up the viewer’s mind and make them understand what cinema can do and how it can express different modes of perception. They demonstrate the power of play, just like Jon Boorstin’s short film, and just like the Exploratorium.

GOD HELP THE GIRL (2014, dir. Stuart Murdoch)

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(Source: Allmovie.com)

Twee. Twee, twee, twee, twee. TWEE. That’s the word that many use when discussing the Scottish indie-pop group Belle and Sebastian in a reductive and lazy way. Yet when evaluating the band, which is led by singer-songwriter and God Help the Girl director Stuart Murdoch, “twee” is one term you could to describe them; “pop-savvy” is another. Or “dry” or “tongue-in-cheek” are some others. You could even say that the songwriting is frequently shrewd in its depictions of human foibles (i.e. the youthful need to adopt possibly empty affectations, or the temptation to choose promiscuity over dedicated love.) Likewise, Belle and Sebastian’s music tends to be melancholic in way that’s symptomatic of someone who, from personal experience, is aware of how life can slip away and lie dormant. So a case for the band being something more-than-twee can be made to the pigeon-holers, who in all likelihood wouldn’t like God Help the Girl.

For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that GHtG isn’t a Belle and Sebastian project per se; it’s something  that began as a 2009 concept album produced by Murdoch (the concept being a series of songs about young women that are sung by female vocalists and would constitute a hypothetical musical) and has become the subject of this review: a movie musical. Yet, as the film is very much an idealized roman a clef about Belle and Sebastian’s formation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call GHtG “the Belle and Sebastian movie.”

Yet in spite of all of those potentially off-putting conceptual layers, I can say that “the Belle and Sebastian movie” is good. It avoids being like most film-debut vanity projects that famous musicians have made (i.e. inept, embarrassing, ill-advised.) and suggests that Murdoch may have a future as a feature film director.

Eve (Emily Browning) is a Glaswegian twenty-something beaut who is a singing/songwriting savant but has some disabling psychiatric conditions that force her to reside in a mental institution. Luckily, she becomes self-sufficient enough to venture out on her own and make friends with two simpatico people her own age: James (Olly Alexander), a stylishly nerdy and opinionated guitarist who aspires to be a pop music mastermind, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a bubbly gal whom James is teaching guitar. The three start band but trouble gets in the way, least of which is Eve engaging in a casual relationship with a lead-singer from another band despite James’s obvious romantic interest in her. Integrated into the narrative are musical sequences built around preexisting GHtG songs that reflect how the characters need to incorporate their pop music idealism into their reality, which can keep them grounded a little too much.

GHtG isn’t free from imperfection. Some parts are too languorous (particularly one sequence dealing with a canoeing trip), Cassie doesn’t figure much into the plot, spiritual matters (that are not unlike Murdoch’s actual ones) become a concern of the characters but remain too underdeveloped and vague to have any real importance. Some of the musical numbers feel obligatory, as if Murdoch wanted to use as many songs as possible in the movie but did so at the expense of structure. So, for a movie about characters who are sartorial to the hilt, it can feel loose, shaggy and untailored at times.

Nevertheless, GHtG is a jukebox musical from a distinct, well-curated artistic mind that has plenty of charm and panache. But the jukebox isn’t just loaded with previously recorded B+S songs. As he is clearly a devotee of 60s pop music, Murdoch also seems to be an aficionado of 60s cinema. There are moments in the film that are evoke the dance scene in Godard’s Bande a Part, or the opening of A Hard Day’s Night, or the harmonica-accompanied montages in Midnight Cowboy. Also, with by mixing real settings with a hyper-real and cinematic musicality, GHtG owes much to Jacques Demy’s cinema, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There’s even a quick gag that references The Sound of Music.

Then there’s the personal component: Eve’s health issues are analogous to Murdoch’s real-life struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome during most of his twenties. Likewise, just as Eve becomes vital through her love of music, writing songs and starting Belle and Sebastian seemed to help Murdoch recover from his illness. Yet, even though Eve’s story ultimately doesn’t line-up exactly with Murdoch’s, the belief that art, as well as the act of collaboration, can restore a person is ever-present in GHtG. While this aspect of the film might be too veiled for any viewer that is unfamiliar with Belle and Sebastian’s history, I found it to be personally resonant as someone who was sidetracked by an illness in his twenties. At times it captures how it feels to put a handicap on your expectations and dreams at an age when you really shouldn’t but have to.

So I’m biased. But, like many great pop songs and albums, this movie is an expressive work that depends on specific personal biases that its audience may have in order to achieve its emotional intent. So if you’re someone who never felt and acted upon the need to fashion your life in an artful way in order to cope with the everyday, or if you’re someone who doesn’t know first-hand that all of the youthful privilege and promise in the world can be undone by premature inevitabilities, or even if you just don’t like Belle and Sebastian, then GHtG may not be your cup of “twee.” Then again, if it is something that might be in your wheelhouse, you could find it precious in the best and most meaningful sense of the word.

Likely to be my pick for most-underrated-despite-its-flaws movie of the year.

PILLOW TALK (1959, dir. Michael Gordon)

(Source: MovieArt.com)
(Source: MovieArt.com)

As they are about humorous, convoluted and un/likely courtships, Romantic Comedies also often function as lifestyle fantasies. This feature of the genre was a knowing, blatantly stated component of David Wain’s recent Rom-Com spoof They Came Together: in the film, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are modern day New Yorkers who live picture-perfect existences in spacious apartments but never seem to have any money issues (and this is downright odd in Poehler’s case as she runs a candy shop that gets no customers.) And it goes as far back as the 1930s and 40’s: films like It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve have upper-class protagonists for whom the audience could vicariously experience the high-life.

Landing somewhere between Hollywood’s Golden Age and the present moment, 1959’s Pillow Talk is a successful mid-century romantic comedy that most definitely works as a lifestyle fantasy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson star as Jan and Brad, apartment neighbors who have to share a party phone line, and that causes them to get on each other’s nerves. Jan is a smart, independent yet single interior decorator; Brad is a bachelor songwriter with an possibly-overactive love life. And while the audience knows from the start that these two should get together as Day and Hudson share a preternatural chemistry, Jan and Brad’s eventual union is prolonged through complication for the sake of comedy (most of which is still funny.) Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter co-star respectively as Jonathan, Brad’s rich friend as well as Jan’s other suitor, and Alma, Jan’s drunk house-keeper and confidant. And, of course, the film is set in New York and Jan and Brad’s way of life is consistently and contemporaneously posh.

PillowTalkOpeningTitle


While Pillow Talk could seem old-fashioned or retroactive to modern viewers—its entire plot does hinge on a long gone aspect of telecommunication technology, after all—it becomes something else when understood within its historical context: a transitional film. For the talent involved, it was a Hudson’s first time in a comedy and Day’s first time playing an autonomous and sexualized woman. From an industrial angle, Pillow Talk’s sexually suggestive nature was a product of the loosening of onscreen moral standards in the 50’s that was primarily caused by an influx of postwar European cinema to American theaters and director Otto Preminger’s successful attempts to defy the Production Code by means of mature-content films like The Moon is Blue and Anatomy of a Murder. In a wider sense, the film’s sexual innuendo reflects the shifting mores of American society that would set-up the sexual revolution of the 60’s. Even if the film seems tame by today’s standards, it gently pushed the envelope in an acceptable and entertaining manner that rode the line so well that one audience member could interpret it as wholesome while another could interpret it as a movie about two people who really should boink each other.[1]

While its story is generic, Pillow Talk is distinguished by its visual style, which is more vibrant, dynamic and complex than the milquetoast appearance of most recent rom-coms. The film’s widescreen cinematography– which involves many novel-for-its-time split-screen shots that were accomplished through optical effects—and its elaborate, colorful and gleaming mise en scene work in tandem to present a fun, idealized version of 1950s urban life. Yet while the film’s aesthetic still pops on a surface level, it subliminally demonstrates that, while Jan and Brad’s lives may seem perfect, their hearts and identities are in a jumbled flux that to some extent has been caused by the Modern Era.

For the sake of being demonstrable, here’s a mosaic of all the split screen shots, which includes one screen-in-screen shot, from Pillow Talk (click to enlarge):[2]

PillowTalkMosaic


The way that this nifty technique breaks up the frame in order to present the battle-of-the-sexes conflict between Jan and Brad while maintaining an important story component (Jan and Brad only really interact via phone in the first two thirds of the film) is pretty self-evident. Similarly, it symbolizes the communication gap that they’ll have to bridge so that they can get together by the end. And while the technique can be hit-and-miss in other films, it works well here because it creates simultaneity between Day and Hudson as performers, which establishes their essential chemistry even though their characters won’t really interact with or see each other until the film’s half-hour mark. It’s also attests to how, although each side of these scenes must have been shot separately and non-continuously, the rapport between Day and Hudson was so strong that it transcended the limitations of space and time even as Pillow Talk was being filmed, let alone watched.

Furthermore, the split-screen technique creates an effect that’s somewhere between Modernistic and Post-Modern. It divides the image into smaller geometric shapes, thereby making the basic form of the widescreen, CinemaScope frame more apparent, and it overtly collapses space and time. At the same time, it turns the image into a living panel of a romance comic book, and an ironic one to boot. Intentional or not, there’s something “Pop Art” about this usage of split-screen.

But the mise en scene works in a more subtle way. Many if not all of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood feature depth cues that give an illusion of dimensionality to the film image’s intrinsic flatness, and these cues were often accomplished through formulated and theatrical stagings of people, physical action and things (also known as “blocking” or “blocking for the camera.”) And in the hands of more talented storytellers and image-makers, staging was a means to create compositions for the camera that could portray or convey a film’s intangible elements (i.e. theme, conflict, psychology.)

MirrorShots


Pillow Talk has no shortage of this technique. If you look at the two screen-captures above, they’re both from separate moments in which both Jan and Brad each realize things that are conveyed through internal monologue voice-overs. Obviously, showing a subject looking into a mirror by means of an angled shot doubles a depth cue, so these shots are solid examples of how cinematography and mise en scene can be combined to enhance a visual. Likewise, these shots are in-camera “split-screen” shots that mimic the film’s actual split-screen shots. Yet, each shot symbolize the dual-nature of both characters (a dual persona does figure very much into the plot) and telegraphs their arcs in which they will stumble upon self-discovery. And in the case of the Doris Day shot, it also represents her doubts about foregoing any romance in order to fulfill her idea of being a modern woman.

There’s also the scene in which Jan and Brad encounter each other in-person for the first time while on separate dates in a nightclub. Initially, they sit back-to-back and unbeknownst in parallel booths. (See below.) This is another visual dichotomization that plays-up the irony of situation.

NightclubScene1


There’s an adjacent wall-mirror that gives more compositional depth to the shots while creating visual triangulations between Day, Hudson and one of their mirror images (see below.) This gives the scene a slight tension that draws attention away from its coincidental and fairly absurd nature.[3]

NightclubParallel


Likewise, in the two medium shots, the real image of Jan or Brad blocks out the mirror image of Brad or Jan’s inconsequential dates (Tony (Nick Adams) and Marie (Julia Meade)), which implicitly does what the plot is about to do: disregard them after they’ve served their narrative purpose. And symbolically, it parallels what Jan and Brad do in this scene: as she’s on a date, she is adopting a different, more fetching persona, and he adopts the Texan persona of Rex Stetson in order to seduce Jan without having her learn his true identity. It’s a clever means of representing the dualism of the characters without being too obvious.

Moreover, the mise en scene is stylized according to a specific and well-known aesthetic that’s in the midst of a comeback. As Deborah Sorensen explains in “Bachelor Modern: Mid-Century Style in American Film”: “Looking at film from this time period, one can see that it is almost exclusively single men and women who are associated with mid-century modern design. Dozens of films from the 1950s and ‘60s feature independent men and women living in modern environments… [and] it is the exuberant Pillow Talk that encapsulates the variety of mid-century modern styles available to both men and women—from Tony Randall’s sleekly modular office, to Hudson’s wood-paneled but electronically-controlled bachelor pad, to Doris Day’s pastel paradise of an apartment.”

MidCenturyInteriors
(Left to right: Randall’s office, Hudson’s bachelor pad, Day’s apartment) (Click to enlarge)

Along these lines, it’s advantageous to the film that Jan is an interior decorator as it gives the almost-too-perfect mid century look of Pillow Talk an internal logic. And as Sorensen stated, the aesthetic defines the characters and their statuses but, as it has an emphasis on literal compartmentalization, it also reflects Jan and Brad’s psychological compartmentalization, which sustains the nature of their private lives. In other words: even if their lives are sleek, chic and functional, they may be a little too empty, like their apartments.

Speaking of interior decoration: there’s a moment early in the film in which Jan directs some movers as they install a painting in Jonathan’s office. At first the place the painting horizontally but Jan corrects them and they turn it 90 degrees to properly situate the artwork. (See below, click to enlarge.)

ModernArtGag


Next to someone snidely saying, “my kid could paint that”, this minor gag is joke that’s been made often enough about Modern art. Nevertheless, it could be viewed as another visual metaphor for the events of the story: at first everything seems right in Jan and Brad’s stylish lives but– as they have modern identities that are relativistic and can allow for some non-compromising re-orientation—a topsy turvy readjustment will happen for romantic harmony in order for to occur.

The film’s final plot pivot is another example of how décor can be a storytelling tool. Jan angrily rejects Brad after finding out that he posed as Rex Stetson, but Brad has genuinely fallen for her and wants to win her over. So he seeks her services as an interior decorator and she accepts the job out of professional duty but enacts her revenge by decorating his apartment in an ostentatiously tacky manner. (See below.) Livid, Brad bursts into Jan’s place, picks her up, carries her through the streets, brings her to his apartment and vent his anger. While doing so, he admits his devotion to her, which wins her over and leads to them finally coming together.

BradsRedoneApartment


Admittedly, the gender politics of this climatic sequence could be seen as iffy and overly heteronormative. But it bears mentioning that this whole final sequence allows Jan to get her licks in and level the playing field before she and Brad become a true couple, thereby letting Jan retain her independence and point-of-view while allowing romance to enter her life. But it wouldn’t have worked if the set-decoration of Brad’s redone apartment hadn’t been so wonderfully awful or contradictory to the film’s other decors. Hell hath no fury like an interior decorator’s scorn.

While all of this analysis of Pillow Talk may seem too serious, I’m well aware that the movie is meant to entertain. And it should be mentioned that the film’s screenplay– accredited to Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene—is a model of romantic comedy screenwriting that could still be emulated to great effect by current comedy writers. For instance: almost every one-liner or gag that “buttons” a scene still hits its mark.

Still, Pillow Talk’s imaginative cinematography and mise en scene augment the film’s story with cultural and narrative subtext, thereby imbuing it with a good amount of substance even as it fizzes and pops. And what is that subtext? A way of life is on the verge of something new.

Change may cause anxiety, but it has to happen, either on a micro, personal level, or on a grander, cultural scale. And although Pillow Talk is only about two people getting together after some silly, complicated and anxiety-fueled hijinks, it’s fitting that it was released three months before the start of the 60’s, a decade in which seismic socio-political shifts would happen in America. Under the film’s candy-coated surface, something big brews, and that must play into its long-lasting appeal.

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[1] For the sake of transparency, I’d like to note that most of the contextualization in this paragraph has been paraphrased from the informative “Back in Bed with Pillow Talk” featurette that is on the most recent DVD release of Pillow Talk.

[2] This mosaic excludes a screen capture of the opening credits sequence that is very much a split-screen shot. But, as you may have noticed, that screen capture is the second image of this post.

[3] An unspoken rule of screenwriting is that a screen-story can/should only have one illogical coincidence that somehow benefits characters. Wisely, Pillow Talk’s screenwriters, who won an Oscar for the film, used-up their “big coincidence allowance” on a very integral plot point. Hence, the Oscar win.