January 30, 2008


Out of respect for Travis, howzabout we move further discussion of Juno, etc., out of his goodbye thread? These tangents risk trivializing what was indeed a heartfelt and courageous post.
For what it's worth, though Travis' last official review for FILM FREAK CENTRAL was The Jazz Singer, there are a few more pieces of his I haven't got around to publishing yet, so don't be surprised when his name periodically turns up at the mothersite.
Anyway, carry on. And buy our book.

January 20, 2008

The Long Goodbye

Film criticism has long been criticized for being the province of wannabes who couldn’t hack doing it. Generally speaking, this is a myth. Having had the pleasure working alongside Toronto’s crack team of film scribblers, I can say with some authority that the vast majority of them had no interest in making movies, and devote themselves with missionary zeal to the role of critic which the chose and now cherish. There are always exceptions, of course: it’s easy to see how someone could use the craft as a surrogate, as a way of doing movies without actually doing them. It’s especially easy for me to see that, actually. Because I’m one of them.

This has not been for lack of dreaming, wishing and vague attempting. I did, of course, get into film school, in the hopes of becoming the junior Martin Scorsese that my high-school mind saw as the end-all/be-all for film geekery. That somehow didn’t work out. At the time, I blamed it on my classmates, whom I heartily despised for what I saw as their epic ignorance and casual anti-intellectualism. But as my general alienation extended to most sectors of society (minus the lusty hatred), it was obvious that that couldn’t be it. My inability to compromise, my paranoid fear of everything that I couldn’t master immediately (like those machines we were supposed to be learning how to use) and my complete inability to talk about anything BEYOND movies was a big problem. Something else was wrong, the thing that had been wrong my whole life and which I couldn’t explain.

Eventually, it all fell apart. I dropped out of the production stream and went into theory, and almost didn’t graduate after failing to turn in one essay that I somehow couldn’t bring myself to write. After that, I drifted, gripped by a vast, sweeping depression that knocked me flat and filled me with fear and passivity. I got myself a shrink- a quack who never treated me beyond filling me up with drugs- and I got myself on disability, which solved the problem of dealing with getting a job. In my immediate vicinity, I had one friend whom I trusted enough to let into my life, and almost everyone else I experienced with either surface courtesy or simply shunned. I was an empty shell, and without a shred of insight into where it all went wrong or why I was the way I was.

One of the exceptions to this rule of alienation was our fearless leader, Bill Chambers. He matched me geek-for-geek in passion, commitment and disdain for the rabble who went to school with us; we had many a pub-set discussion about movies that gave me the shreds of respect I needed to get by. When we graduated, and he set up in elsewhere (He was in Oshawa, I was in the Big Smoke), he encouraged me to set up my own website just as he was setting up his. I limped along with mine, unwilling to put myself out there to the degree that it would take to grab some attention. Bill, as you know, was not like that at all. He hammered away at getting exposure for Film Freak Central, and built it into the internet empire that it is today; and he absorbed me into the fold, so that I might have a broad venue for my writing instead of the apologetic shrug with which I had put into mine.

Without FFC, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I had or the confidence to grab them: my work for Exclaim would be unthinkable, as would my forays into Reverse Shot and The House Next Door and wherever else I might have found my words. Bill single-handedly held me by the scruff of the neck as I hung over the abyss, and wasn’t letting go. I would like to say that I was always grateful for the help, but I wasn’t. The thing about powerlessness is that it tends to make you an asshole. A life of total denial makes every disagreement into a vicious affront, and every disappointment into a crushing blow; it also engenders a wicked sense of entitlement that only someone held back from participating in life can justify to oneself. Plus, film criticism was a substitute that could never give me the full gratification of saying that I was doing what I wanted to do on my own terms; and my dependency on help from the government didn’t exactly improve my outlook. Very often, I took people for what I could get, unwilling to believe I could get anything more fleeting immediate satisfactions, and this happened with Bill as it did with anyone else. I don’t know if that was self-criticism or self-exoneration, but whatever: I could be a prick.

Ten years of unsalaried work pass. My uber-quack finally does me the honour of retiring, where it’s revealed that he had diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder without telling me. This meant that I was referred to a clinic that specialized in schizophrenia- a place of dedicated, caring professionals who were uniformly puzzled by my diagnosis. Half a year goes by with the doctors trying to figure out why the hell I had been sent there, with me half-wishing I was schizophrenic just so I’d have a name for the unnamable thing that had gripped me. And after ten years on the dole, and thirty-four years of stunned incomprehension at the world around me, It was finally decreed: Travis Mackenzie Hoover has Asperger’s syndrome.

Plunk. The pieces finally fall into place. My narrow obsession with one subject, my series of fidgety mannerisms and “stims”, my inability to decipher social situations, my tendency to blurt things out without considering the consequences, my problems with empathy in situations that really demand it, my difficulty, my alienation: there was name, a face, and an assurance that none of this was my motherfucking fault. The syndrome wasn’t bad news, it was the key to understanding my behaviour and the behaviour of everyone around me, which before had been humiliating mysteries and which now revealed themselves to be the neurochemical luck of the draw. I wasn’t a victim of Asperger’s syndrome, I was a victim of not being told I had Asperger’s syndrome, and the information lifted my depression and shredded my fear and gave me the first proof that maybe this once-nightmarish world might not be such a bad place after all.

But recovering from 34 years of dazed uncomprehension doesn’t happen overnight. For about six months, I just sort of thought: Well. This is GREAT. Everything’s gonna be JUST FINE and I’m gonna just SIT BACK and LET IT HAPPEN without doing ANY DAMN THING at all. It was sufficient, for that first little while, just to have the burden of self-hatred lifted from me, to enjoy the idea of not judging yourself for playing with your hair until you have an embarrassing horn on your head and not doing the things everybody else does. But then I sat down with that other friend I mentioned earlier, and we talked about our relationship- part of which was the terrible burden I had placed on him as my only very close friend, using him as a conduit in social sitiations and needing his help more than could be reasonably expect. There was more to it than that, things on his side of the relationship, but it was clear that this couldn’t go on- and it was clear that I had to take the same attitude to the rest of my life. I had to expect more of myself, I had to expect more of others, and I had to be pro-active about what I wanted.

By some strange serendipity, I inherited a small amount of money recently. Not enough to change my life, but enough to get me a DV camera and a computer powerful enough to edit the footage, and it’s here that the next chapter of my life begins. I’m going to try and make something about my experience, and maybe some stuff totally unrelated- in any event, the diagnosis has finally given me the sense of emotional cause-and-effect I need to write convincingly. (As a side issue, my passionate vendetta against Canadian cinema now seems to me a resentful reaction to a film culture that took my self-hatred and powerlessness and held them up as a shining example for everyone to emulate). I’m going to put my theories into practice, and I’m going to see if I can claw my way out of the ghetto and put Aspie culture on the map. And that means I have to clear out certain distractions.

By the end of ten years criticism had sort of become a soporific drug to numb the pain. My absurd output for Exclaim- in which I signed up for some of the very worst movies ever made for lack of any better way of occupying my time- had become a convenient way of avoiding doing something substantial with my time, to give myself the illusion of activity while furiously avoiding my life. That was fine pre-diagnosis, but now it’s just getting in the way. Criticism isn’t going to stop with me- not at first, anyway- but it’s got to be curtailed. I can now only do the stuff I want to see and write about, to make room for the other things I need to do; and it has to be more occasional, meaning I have to stop anything that keeps me on a grind, that has me doing soul-deadening things I don’t want to see on a treadmill. And that means, after ten years running down that road, I am hanging up my typewriter at Film Freak Central.

There are things I’ve done here of which I’m immensely proud; there is also hackwork I’ve done half-asleep while stunned by depression. Thank you for reading and considering it all. May all of us who drink from the chalice of cinema have a long and happy life in this stupid, beautiful world, and I hope you will wish me the best. As I wish it for you. Good night, film freaks.

January 09, 2008

The Rest is Up to You: Wild at Heart

If Blue Velvet was about the similarities between romantic love without sexuality and fetishistic love without identity--the search for balance from both leading to a violent collision--then David Lynch's next film, Wild at Heart, seems to further internalize that struggle by applying it to an exploration of non-directional passion and youthful infatuation. Through its careful consideration of maddening guitar riffs and exploding matches, the film points to a yearning for identity that will burn no matter where it is applied, and in doing so questions the validity of the romance between Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). As is his usual practice, Lynch deliberately avoids any definitive explanation of his craft on Wild at Heart's DVD documentaries, and he takes a similar stance on his cast, speaking of them in only the broadest, most obvious terms: "Elvis became a key to Nic--Nic is more than that for sure, but that was a key element." A small, almost negligible example of Lynch's trust for his actors can be found in a contemporary making-of clip, as he gives Cage a simple direction of timing and finishes it off with, "...and then the rest is up to you, man." So it is--in exploring Sailor Ripley, Cage turns in a performance that becomes a self-examination and criticism of his own obsessions.

As ne'er-do-well Sailor, the influence of Elvis Presley on Cage is finally, completely, obviously unavoidable. He speaks in that familiar drawl and shoots karate moves at the air, given an introduction almost identical to that of Elvis' character in Jailhouse Rock, Vince Everett: killing a man in the heat of the moment and convicted of manslaughter. It strikes me as significant that Everett's two acts of violence in Jailhouse Rock should involve physical representations of music (punching his manslaughter victim against a jukebox; smashing his guitar to frighten a customer who is interrupting his performance at a nightclub), because they emphasize that Everett/Presley is at his most brazenly energetic when music is involved--a passion that eventually brings him fame and love. Cage seems to recognize this, and through the double-edged inspiration from Presley that defines character and actor, he establishes Sailor as a man suffering from the opposite problem; a man who feels too much looking for somewhere to pour his feelings, living in the shadow of an icon. It's an idea that dictates the manslaughter that sends Sailor to the pokey at the opening of the film: we are told that Sailor
loves Lula, but you can't see that love when he brutally beats hired killer Bobby Lee Lemon (Gregg Dandridge) to death as she screams his name, terrified--nor when he points a blood-stained finger at Lula's mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd).

Sailor's attempt to locate his passion, his identity, is further exemplified by his painfully obvious attempts to convince others of his complexity. Once he is released from prison, he begins to recite a rehearsed mantra about his snakeskin jacket (the property of Cage, written into the script at his request) and how it "represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom." He says this again after a punk at the local nightclub makes the mistake of grinding against Lula during a strobe-lit dance sequence, which ends abruptly when Sailor silences the room with a wave of his hand. Beginning with this Fonzie-like act, you're never quite sure how much of Sailor/Cage is a put-on. He now delivers the Elvis accent in a sweaty growl, offering this guy the option to apologize and walk away but already burning with a resolution to kick his ass. Once the punk insults the jacket, you know that it's over; it's almost a relief when he smacks the guy down with minimal incident, as we're already kind of scared to learn what else this man is capable of when his fragile self-image is questioned. But then comes his rendition of "Love Me," an even stickier moment in which Sailor/Cage attempts to emulate Presley down to every little vocal quirk--later in the film, while traveling through New Orleans, he will recite the first verse with precisely the same inflection. Just what is his self-image? Does he see Lula as an extension of it? Is there really anything to Sailor himself?

Like Eraserhead's Henry Spencer or Blue Velvet's Jeffrey Beaumont, Sailor is the closest approximation to the viewer in Lynch's world, thrown into a bizarre realm of the subconscious only to find that he himself is not as normal as he once thought--his superficial adulation consumes him in such a way that he attempts to pawn himself off as detached and superior. When Lula tells a story about her schizophrenic cousin Dell (Crispin Glover, of course), Sailor/Cage stares directly at us through the fourth wall, as if quietly looking for sympathy from somewhere outside of this weird world; note that Sailor's own stories (a weird, bawdy sex tale; the sad fate of his parents) attempt to throw him into a role of blamelessness. This nonplussed façade is a cornerstone of Cage's performance, a sometimes-conscious avoidance tactic that attempts to anything that could associate Sailor with his frightening surroundings through New Orleans and Big Tuna: his latent rage (after several short-fused bursts of anger, Sailor's accusatory finger at Marietta is revealed to be a carefully considered, slow-burn "don't fuck with me"), his uncertainty (a sex scene between Sailor and Lula is interrupted by a brief, contemplative pause between thrusts) and his fear (his wonderfully frantic, impossibly athletic dance number at Lula's frenzied behest--after searching the car radio for a broadcast that doesn't involve murder or rape). He belongs here, but he's trying so hard to deny it. Dern's response to Cage is an interesting one--a victim of incest, Lula seems slightly more aware of what the world is capable of (being the one to declare that the world is "wild at heart and weird on top"), but attempts to imitate his suave indifference while exposing her faults more readily, particularly when her man is involved. Does she believe that Sailor is her messiah, or is she humoring him?
The little tics in Sailor/Cage's own self-crafted personality only accentuate when Sailor meets Willem Dafoe's sleazy Bobby Peru, who confronts him with a can't-miss plan to rob a local feed store after he sexually assaults Lula. As they discuss this over a round of drinks, listen to Sailor/Cage's voice as he pieces together that Lula has told Bobby that she's pregnant--slowly feeling the birth of a hangover, struggling to maintain his superficial demeanor. He has an inkling that this creep has done something to her, but he seems more concerned that he could not extract that information himself (she had to write it down for him); that his failure to do so will adversely affect his manhood in the eyes of others. Once the robbery is revealed to be a botched murder plot and Sailor is face-down in the dirt, the gentlemanly accent has completely disappeared, replaced by a frightened quiver that approaches Cage's own timid squeezebox from Peggy Sue Got Married.

Once Sailor is released from prison and retrieved by Lula five years later, Cage takes an interesting turn, slowly building his character up from his humble stance and back to his ivory tower of cool. At first gentle and smiling at the sight of his son Pace, he sees an opportunity to resuscitate his personality when his presence forces Lula to collapse into an emotional heap. Quickly determining that he must leave this situation with cinematic bravado to keep his image intact, Sailor/Cage does his best to separate himself from the situation--offering dispassionate, forget-me kisses to Lula and Pace (along with a quote from a Cisco Kid flick) and slowly walking off as if expecting the film to end here, in a Shane-like fashion. Lacking the heartbroken self-loathing of H. I. McDunnough's would-be departure in Raising Arizona, his demeanor brings into question how much he really loves Lula (or, at least, how much he thinks he loves her), so consumed with his symbols of individuality that he can't see anything else. But we continue on, following Sailor as he runs into a gang dressed similarly to the man he assaulted at the nightclub; he pulls a cigarette from the carton with his teeth, takes a long drag, and casually dismisses his assailants: "What d'you faggots want?" It seems phony, the moment that Sailor/Cage completely submits to his media-driven swagger--and it's immediately followed by the moment that the crowd beats the shit out of him.
A hallucinatory encounter with The Wizard of Oz's Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) humbles Sailor/Cage again, a voice-crack in his own claim that he is "wild at heart" repeating the mere hint of that scared little boy underneath. He staggers to his feet, apologizing and thanking his assailants as that familiar good ol' boy--but then, for a moment, he breaks free of those pretensions, screaming Lula's name to the heavens through his busted nose and making an uncharacteristically hasty exit to find her. With his ego deflated, he finally realizes that he does love Lula because she knows that there's more to him than what he projects, and she has forced him to understand it as well. Cage's subsequent rendition of "Love Me Tender" (Sailor's marriage proposal) is a beautifully imperfect scene, the most genuine moment of undying love in the whole picture--the performance of the song shaking uncomfortably between Elvis imitation and that other personality that we the audience never formally meet. But you eventually realize that this is how Cage has been playing Sailor the whole time, only now allowing Sailor to understand that the images that we try to impress upon others still speak volumes about ourselves. It would have been a cheat to abandon Elvis altogether, because the very fact of this scene demonstrates that "E" is still a big part of who he is. There's no changing who Sailor is, or what comprises his personality; the snakeskin jacket is intact, the pretensions are still there, but we can still sense the "eureka" moment of self-understanding. It somehow brings the plastic-fantastic musical Grease to mind and, if it had been an honest film, how it would have ended like Wild at Heart*: with a loving affirmation that you are who you are--a fucked-up alchemic blend of your idols, influences, and emotions.

* Seven years before Face/Off, the directly contradictive themes of Grease and Wild at Heart (including the treatment of nostalgia for the same approximate era) presented their own little rendition of Travolta versus Cage which, however indirectly, would similarly question the nature and structure of identity and subvert the knee-jerk concepts of "good" and "bad." Consider dark, deadly Sailor Ripley (Cage/Troy)--who finally realizes who he is in totality thanks to his girlfriend's love--and place him against the sanitized good guy Danny Zuko (Travolta/Archer), prepared to make superficial changes to his lifestyle but abandoning them when his girl appears willing to (more permanently) conform to his own comfortable parameters of reality with no questions asked.

January 03, 2008

In Case You Missed It...

So our Top 10 of 2007 piece is up, just in case your eyes glazed over that piddly link on the mothersite. Because I missed a few key titles, not 100% invested in my picks, but then I never consider these lists to be definitive, anyway; there's always more to see, and there are always sleepers you underestimate at the time. Something Walter and I have been toying with is redoing old Top 10s, not for the sake of revisionism (these new lists wouldn't replace the originals), but more as an experiment to see how tastes and perceptions change with age and experience.

Anyway, even if I'm conjuring a shitstorm in soliciting your feedback: have at it.

And don't forget to buy our book, easily the best one we published in December. All kidding aside, if you ask biased me, it's worth it for the LaBute intro and Walter's review of Silent Hill alone. Anyone here have it yet?