May 25, 2007

Ten Years, Ten-Lists (Alex Jackson)

I was invited to speak on national radio this morning about the 30th anniversary of Star Wars and regret that I couldn't make it, as I think a lot of the reflections on this cultural milestone I've seen so far are a bit too clouded by nostalgia to see the Hiroshima-like impact it had (and continues to have) on cinema and the popular culture. I'll be the first to admit that I don't hate the Original Trilogy in and of itself, but can we stop fetishizing these movies already?

Forget all that, though. At the risk of sounding solipsistic, we've got bigger fish to fry...

FILM FREAK CENTRAL actually crossed the first-decade threshold a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to hold the announcement until I had the stamina to pay a proper tribute.

To mark this occasion, all of us here at FFC--Walter Chaw, Travis Mackenzie Hoover, Alex Jackson, Ian Pugh, and yours truly--have compiled a Top 10 list of our own devising. A new one will surface every couple of days here at the Blog, with mine, the most self-indulgent, coming last. As always, we invite you to critique these lists, suggest alternatives, and just generally do your blog thang.

First up: Alex Jackson with a subject close to my own heart. Take it away, Alex!-Bill Chambers

When this project was first announced, my initial idea was to make a list of ten middlebrow films worth going to bat for. But the more I thought about it, the more unoriginal and--in light of Walter's recent two-for-one pan of American Beauty and Forrest Gump--overly reactionary it sounded. I thought about what I really wanted to say in a Top Ten list and realized that, more than just defending the status quo, I wanted to point people to some buried treasures. The idea of compiling a list of underrated classics was also a little passé--a list of underappreciated classics from the 1980s, however, feels powerfully evocative. For the most part, I stumbled upon these films, guided by a sense of adventure, though a few were referred to me by a particularly strong review. Many were well-received at the time of their release but have since fallen out of fashion, with none retaining a particularly strong reputation. As I see it, this should be one of the focal goals of movie reviewers everywhere: to shine a little bit of light on films that have been ignored or simply forgotten.-Alex Jackson

10. Wish You Were Here (1987, David Leland)
When it was first on Showtime, my dad recorded Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure for me and caught the end credits of this film, which depicted a British street performer dancing on the boardwalk. I watched this for years before my curiosity got the better of me and I did a reverse-lookup of the title on the Internet Movie Database using the name of one of the cast members. The picture is a breezy but bittersweet coming-of-age story about a sassy teenage girl who rebels against her deadening working-class existence with sex and becomes pregnant by the town's middle-aged projectionist--a friend, as it happens, of her judgmental and overbearing father. Wish You Were Here is very funny, very peppy, and very brutal in a way that doesn't cancel out the funny or the peppy.
9. Pixote (1981, Hector Babenco)
It's a little fatty and drags in spots, but who can forget that glue-huffing sequence with little Pixote? Or the last shot at the train tracks? Or the iconic kiss with the prostitute? The fattiness is necessary, in a sense. Given a little room to breathe, sensational material becomes natural, normal, and real. Walter accurately labelled City of God "Quentin Tarantino's Schindler's List." One need only refer back to Pixote for that film's good doppelgänger.
8. Children of the Corn (1984, Fritz Kiersch)
I've been an advocate for Children of the Corn for a while now. To be honest, the script is pretty bad; the dialogue is filled with howlers; there's the it's-just-a-dream-cliché and the woman who gets out of the car when her man told her not to cliché; and everything ends with a big explosion to help out the guys cutting the TV spots. But there's something in the air. Low-budget horror had a different feel in the early-'80s; Children of the Corn lacks the slick sheen you encounter even in films like House of the Dead. This thing is sparse, quiet, and deadening. And it plays on our fears of the Bible Belt very powerfully, more so than any movie I've yet seen. I find Children of the Corn to be much more frightening than Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I think that can be traced back to the fact that the monsters here are all children. If they're children, what they're doing can't be dismissed as the happenings of one lone band of psychos. It has to run deeper.
7. Life Lessons (1989, Martin Scorsese)
It's the first segment of the prestigious anthology New York Stories and is unfortunately the only thing of real value in that film. Life Lessons is as good as anything in the Scorsese canon. I may be revealing my inexperience in saying so, but a sequence where artist Nick Nolte paints on his canvas through a series of rapid dissolves so that it looks like there are several of him working at the same time has to be one of the freshest uses of the cinematic medium I have ever seen. This is a true master at work.
6. Made in Britain (1982, Alan Clarke)
I know that Alan Clarke has gotten a lot of love around these parts and apparently those serious about film have known about him for years. I heard a little bit about Made in Britain from Roger Ebert's near-pan of American History X and from interviews with Gummo director Harmony Korine, who cites Clarke as a major influence. But to be honest, I wasn't really aware of the guy until FFC reviewed a box set of his work. Made in Britain is one of the great juvenile delinquent movies. The script (by David Leland, the writer-director of Wish You Were Here) is brilliant in making the protagonist (Tim Roth) a neo-Nazi. That single decision renders him more morally ambiguous than the working-class heroes who populate a film like Brassed Off and yet more sympathetic than the rebels-without-a-cause who populate our more class-unconscious American films. It's darkly funny, too; I love the moment where the mentally-retarded black kid who gets in trouble because he always follows the crowd participates in a hate crime with Roth.
5. The Mosquito Coast (1986, Peter Weir)
A very recent discovery for me and I kind of want to get the word out. All the materials seem to be there: a literate script by Paul Schrader; icy, dispassionate direction by Peter Weir; and a flashy but brilliant performance by Harrison Ford. Yet the film never quite caught on like it should've. Believe it or not, the cult that's formed around it on video consists largely of teenage girls lusting after Ford's co-star River Phoenix! The Mosquito Coast has two of my favourite ideas for a movie: the intellectual who argues himself outside of the human race, and the teenage boy who gradually realizes that his father, who had been the centre of the universe as he knows it, is batshit insane. The film is about nothing less than a failed god figure, a notion that has the precisely right blend of the romantic and the cynical. Plus, check out the cameo by the great Butterfly McQueen!
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984, Michael Radford)
It's the rare film adaptation of a classic novel that does the source material justice, and quite surprisingly most who've seen it tend to agree. If only more people would see it! The filmmakers appear to have read the book and understood Orwell's thesis that the key to maintaining the totalitarian government is in keeping everybody perpetually miserable. The film is wonderfully grungy and hauntingly ugly--and with the great John Hurt as Winston Smith, it avoids making heroes of the patently anti-heroic. Embarrassingly, the story remains topical today. The idea that we shouldn't criticize our government in a time of war is regularly presented sans irony by talk-show pundits who fail to understand that if we don't criticize our government in a time of war, the government can forgo ever being criticized by always being at war!
3. Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)
Other than maybe home movies shot in Super8, I don't believe there is anything I love more in a movie than lip-synching. I never saw the Dennis Potter miniseries this is based on, but from the sounds of things the miniseries likes its characters whereas the feature film (also scripted by Potter) despises them--it really doesn't paint a very optimistic picture of human nature. Pennies from Heaven is sort of an anti-musical, a subversive take on the polluted gender dynamics that populated the Busby Berkeley and Fred and Ginger musicals of the 1930s. When a heart-shaped iris wipe closes out what is unquestionably the rape of Bernadette Peters, the entire genre is violated along with her. This is a work of pure cinema with a heart that is four sizes too small. It uses sarcasm and escapism as a weapon and is nothing short of a masterpiece of audience abuse.
2. Parents (1989, Bob Balaban)
Like The Mosquito Coast, Parents is a film about a kid who discovers that his mother and father, the centre of his universe, are nuts. In fact, they're cannibals--but the movie is also about incest, in a disguised form. It sexualizes cannibalism and Mom and Dad want their boy to be a cannibal like them. Moreover, it's about the fear of disappointing your parents. The kid doesn't overtly reject his parents' values; he's just a kid, he doesn't know what's going on. This important fact helps raise the film above the level of an easy attack on 1950s suburbia and into some sort of gonzo, left-of-centre masterpiece.
1. Christiane F. (1981, Uli Edel)
The titular Christiane F. is a fifteen-year old girl in Berlin who is a huge David Bowie fan, and to fit in with the older and more sophisticated crowd she tries heroin. (Or "H" as they like to refer to it.) The film is perhaps the most brutal Afterschool Special ever made. Once she's addicted, Christiane gives handjobs to older men to support her habit. She and her boyfriend decide they're going to go cold turkey and fight over one last fix to keep themselves going. We see her nude, vomiting, going through withdrawal, and yet, not only does the actress portraying Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) actually look fifteen, but the film is also told through a teenager's sensibility: it's naïve, romantic, and a little bit stupid. It even ends with Bowie's "Heroes"! The tone clashes with the images that we're seeing and that seems to be precisely the point. Christiane F. is so authentic from an emotional standpoint that it's jarring and difficult to take.
I also recommend Paperhouse (1988, Bernard Rose), The Monster Squad (1987, Fred Dekker), Alice (1988, Jan Svankmajer), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Joseph Zito), The Race for the Double Helix (1987, Mick Jackson), Talk Radio (1988, Oliver Stone), Mother's Day (1980, Charles Kaufman), Night of the Comet (1984, Thom Eberhardt), Personal Services (1987, Terry Jones), and, with some measure of guilt, My Demon Lover (1987, Charlie Loventhal).


Anonymous said...

How about the musical version of Little Shop Of Horrors from 1986? (If you ever think about posting a review of that, Bill, I'd be very interested in reading it.)

Jason said...

If you're gonna champion a 1980's Fred Dekker film, I'd say you're better off going with Night of the Creeps. It's a lot more fun, sad to say, than Monster Squad actually is. Which is a real shame, since a) Monster Squad has such a fucking awesome premise, and b) I used to love it as a kid. Oh well.

Night of the Creeps, though, is a lot more original in both its story and execution. Plus, it has something to say about teenage sexual repression and living with/as schoolyard stereotypes. What does Squad have beyond one "Awesomely Bad 80's Music Montage" scene, and giving Stephen Sommers the idea for Van Helsing (or his career, actually)?

Also, I'd give Creeps higher marks than it's bastard step-child, Slither, which is only cool due to Nathan Fillion being there.

Patrick Pricken said...

Congratulations, FFC!

This morning, there was a bit about Wu-Shu on the telly, and the host said, »Never heard of Wu-Shu? Well, geeks will know it. In the first Star Wars, Ray Park based his moves on that fighting style. And that was thirty years ago.«

Yep. 1999, thirty years ago.

Off-Topic: Regarding your review of Forrest Gump, I gather you know The Forrest Gump Morality Massacre, where it is argued that Leatherface is a more moral character than Gump?

Also, I just stumbled over the mock trailer for United 300, which is one of the rare fake trailers which are actually really good.

And now I'll read Alex's list. I'm already prepared to shake my head. With that, ornsauan!

DaveA said...

Hm, Christiane F. ... nice choice for #1, though it's certainly not underappreciated here in Germany. I think almost everyone in my generation (i.e. born around '70) has seen it; the book was also hugely popular. I recently catched it on TV and was surprised as to how well it still works. I think especially the first half is amazingly shot, capturing perfectly the morbid charme of Berlin in the 80s.
Oh, and congrats FFC! Keep up the great work.

permazorch said...

Thanks for the writing, Alex. Most delectable and easy to stand behind, except for, of course, the Corn. Maybe if I re-watched it today, I'd get a charge out of more of its content than, "He wants you too, Malachi!" Having viewed it on the big screen, in my mid-teens, I found it a sad & foul waste of a pretty good Stephen King story.

patrick pricken: Thanks for the Gump linkage, but, United300? Meh.

Anonymous said...

Svankmajer's Alice, nice. I adore that movie.

Kyle said...

When I saw 1997-2007 load on the page, I anticipated not the announcement of a number of lists celebrating FFC's tenth anniversary of existence but rather, interpreting it as numbers of a tombstone, the announcement of FFC's imminent destruction. I am, to say the least, relieved.

Alex Jackson said...

If you're gonna champion a 1980's Fred Dekker film, I'd say you're better off going with Night of the Creeps. It's a lot more fun, sad to say, than Monster Squad actually is. Which is a real shame, since a) Monster Squad has such a fucking awesome premise, and b) I used to love it as a kid. Oh well.

Night of the Creeps, though, is a lot more original in both its story and execution. Plus, it has something to say about teenage sexual repression and living with/as schoolyard stereotypes. What does Squad have beyond one "Awesomely Bad 80's Music Montage" scene, and giving Stephen Sommers the idea for Van Helsing (or his career, actually)?

Actually Jason, I was a big fan of both films when I was a kid and saw them both again not too long ago and I still prefer The Monster Squad.

Night of the Creeps strikes me as just too smart ass and glib. The key scene for me is when the cat jumps out at the coed and she screams, relieved that it was only the cat. Then she realizes that her cat has been made into a zombie! Pretty clever I guess, but overly self-congratulatory. And I hate the throw-away mention of Plan 9 from Outer Space in the beginning.

You might forget that The Monster Squad has that little kid write a letter to the army in crayon with the salutation "Dear Army Guys". At the end of the movie after the Monster Squad kills all the monsters, the army rolls into town. Stunned they ask who these kids are. The leader walks up to him and says, "We're the Monster Squad". Among the greatest movie endings ever!

What I really like about Monster Squad is how the Mummy, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are meant to be very serious threats like they are in an actual horror movie. That's a meaningful juxtaposition with the sillier kiddy-friendly aspects of 80s suburbia.

The movie's still funny, but there is a soulfulness that I find lacking in the spoofy Night of the Creeps.

Todd said...

I'm glad to see Parents mentioned and highly too. Who knew Bob Balaban had it in him to take on a not too thinly veiled Lynchian portrayel of suburban orgies and child abuse. Randy Quaid is terryfying and the subplot involving Michael and his new neighbor handles the naivity and wonder of sex among children with great care set against the trauma inflicted by his parents.

It holds up surprisingly well for all it's amatuer props and 80's style heavy-handed commentary (Toxico!)

Anonymous said...

I've always meant to watch 1984, I'm not sure why I never have. Last I saw, the entire movie was available on google videos.

Kenneth said...

Out of curiosity, what would the middlebrow list hav consisted of?

Jason said...

See, Alex, I had the exact opposite happen to me. I went to a Creeps/Squad double feature last October, and I remember the crowd giving Creeps a very warm welcome - laughing and carrying on all the way through - and then being very sedate throughout Squad. This was a crowd of young 20-somethings, like myself, probably going to relive childhood memories of Monster Squad, like myself, and getting shocked into silence. And not reverential silence either.

I'm also gonna have to disagree with you on the whole "serious threat" thing. I'll give you that it treats Dracula as a credible threat (albeit one with one of the campiest evil plots this side of Marvel Comics) and shows interest in Frankenstein's Monster, but it completely marginalizes the other monsters. Heck, The Creature From The Black Lagoon does what? Lift a box, steal some twinkies, and get shot by the Fat Kid (named "Fat Kid")? The film could almost be summarized as "Typical 80's Aryan Youth plus Frankenstein have to fight Dracula and some other asshole monsters what crowd up the margin."

The ending is kinda funny, but seems naive now. It's got this kind of "Who needs the military? We can handle it ourselves" flippancy to it. I see this kind of 80's-brand kiddie innocence as a watered-down version of our 80's-era arrogance/cultural hatred, and it seems kind of striking that this is what we were being fed as children.

To be fair, that was also the first time I saw Night of the Creeps, and it may have just hit me better, since I didn't have any childhood delusions to crush. I'll also probably give Squad another try when it comes out on DVD at the end of the year, and see if it plays better on the small screen than on the silver screen. If not, then we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Bemis said...

I love seeing Wish You Were Here, Parents and The Monster Squad mentioned, Alex. But My Demon Lover? As Big George Drakoulious would say, terrible's what it is.

Joe Valdez said...

Any Top Ten list where Martin Scorsese barely edges Children of the Corn has my attention. Great stuff, Bill. Thanks for giving me much in the way of rental ideas!

The Mosquito Coast is feloniously underrated.

Alex Jackson said...

Out of curiosity, what would the middlebrow list hav consisted of?

I somehow missed this question. You probably would have seen my defense of Rain Man, Apollo 13 and To Kill a Mockingbird.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

What, no love for *the* great underappreciated film of the '80s, Alex Cox's WALKER? I know it's hard to get on DVD, but it's so very, very worth it...

Dennis said...

Hey Alex, what are your thoughts on Sleepaway Camp? It seems like your kinda movie.

Alex Jackson said...

Hey Alex, what are your thoughts on Sleepaway Camp? It seems like your kinda movie.

I think this thread is dead, but this deserves an answer.

I like Sleepaway Camp. It kind of became an inside-joke with my family; I even stole the pre-title coda when I made my short Hieronymous Bosch's Heck. It's a lot funnier than Wet Hot American Summer that's for damn sure. Never saw any of the sequels though.

Anonymous said...

1. Christiane F. (1981, Uli Edel):