November 27, 2009

Holy Crap, Lois

I've already said my piece about Seth MacFarlane on the mothersite--and there'll be more to come--but considering the brief debates that have surrounded "Family Guy" 'round these parts, I thought I'd mention a few properties that beat the show at its own game, and by that I mean the unexpected injections of popular culture nonsense and assaults on good taste, narrative, and audience expectations. True that they're not in a televised half-hour format, but they all go to a similar well, and revisit it often enough to recall the "Family Guy" ethos--and while the Internet series aren't always successful, they never fail to approach the concept from different angles. (Seriously, have you seen "The Cleveland Show"? Talk about business as usual.) For your consideration:

1. Just to set a little precedent, how about
The Dover Boys at Pimento University, or the Rivals of Roquefort Hall--Chuck Jones' once-infamous experiment with limited animation, and almost certainly his silliest effort. Now that the Looney Tunes have all but disappeared from the public consciousness, I tend to recoil at the thought that history will remember Duck Amuck, What's Opera, Doc?, and precious little else--but this cartoon, completely devoid of funny animals, stands alongside the best of them. (One of Mel Blanc's best performances, too--even when screaming at the top of his lungs, he's in complete control of Dan Backslide.) Not to mention that it's a sterling example of how to keep pop culture reference-parodies fresh after almost seventy years: as a launching point, not an anchor. Would it be fair to say that this gem has since absorbed the Rover Boys novels?

2. 5-Second Films. One film, five seconds long (not counting the opening and closing titles), posted on the front page every weekday. They've got hundreds of films in their archives. It's a reasonable mixture of masterpieces and clunkers, but the one aspect they all share is that each film's world doesn't begin and end with the gag itself--the implications of these punchlines are always on the table. Not to mention all the little touches--I love how the father's newspaper splits in half in the first video.

There are plenty more must-sees, but here are a few off-site links so I don't clutter up the blog too much--may I also suggest The Merry Prankster, Obscure Moments in History, Floyd's Truck Show '97, Magic Show Volunteer, Don't Thinko de Mayo, and Johnny Quickdeath Goes Scissorjogging.

3. SMBC Theater, a collection of skits from the creator of webcomic "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal." Unsurprisingly, the series has a very "gag-a-day" feel to it, and it's having some trouble finding its cinematic footing when three or four panels would probably do the job a little better. Still, they're definitely going places, and you have to respect a new twist on the old "Superman sex" and "God's roommate" tropes. A little context goes a long way.

4. weebls-stuff, or more specifically the songs that tend to go viral and burrow their way into your brain. You may recall that the first video here, "Badgers," became an Internet meme on its own accord, but beyond their general randomness, there's something hypnotic about how unrepentantly bizarre they are. I suggest you watch them in fullscreen--but you should head over to the site itself, where you can watch the cartoons in fullscreen and on an infinite loop; they really become sensory experiences after a while.

November 01, 2009

The Cone of Boondock Shame

Over at THE FLICK FILOSOPHER, MaryAnn Johanson asks a rather interesting question in regards to simultaneous fan-wanks This Is It and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day--"Is it a cop-out to say that a movie is 'for the fans'?" It's one of those questions you dismiss with an automatic "Of course it is," but naturally it deserves a deeper analysis.

Let me just say this first. The Boondock Saints II blows. It's very nearly the same film as the first one, complete with slow motion
, homophobic insecurity and LOTS AND LOTS OF SCREAMING--even Clifton Collins Jr. (a rising star if ever there was one) is basically limited to a rehash of the long-dead David Della Rocco character. The only thing that's noticeably different is a rather laughable attempt to mimic The Godfather Part II, with the MacManuses' father playing the role of Vito Corleone. As if the series had the character strength to warrant a backstory, or the smarts to support a mythology. But the fact that it blows should be fairly self-evident, no? It's about as self-evident as year-end consideration for This Is It should be laughable, but we're working at the mercy of cult audiences.

The other day, I was talking to a few critics with whom I attended the All Saints Day screening in Boston. It was apparently the first public screening of the film, and the fans were out in full force, along with renowned tool Troy Duffy and his principal cast.
(I will admit that sitting two rows behind Billy Connolly was a bizarre experience.) The standing ovations and the fawning Q&A session were a tough pill to swallow--I nearly choked on my tongue when Duffy responded to the requisite request for young-filmmaker advice with "be talented"--but you have to expect that. A strict retread is "a fanboy's dream," as one patron called it, and it's impossible to argue with that. But, as one critic eventually concluded, "It wasn't made for us." Okay--there's the unavoidable fact that everyone else assumes we're so far removed from movie love that we constitute a completely different genus of human being. But more to the point, he was talking about the age difference between his colleagues and the fans.

Here's footage from that dreaded premiere:

Being the youngest guy in a room full of critics has its problems. Paramount in this instance being that The Boondock Saints was made for me--or, at least, who I was whe
n it first started making the dormitory rounds a few short years into the decade. I was a fan. Not a t-shirt-and-bobblehead kind of fan, mind, but enough of a fan to consider it a minor masterpiece and regularly quote the film alongside my chums as a college freshman. I had read Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns by then, so I knew the attempts at profundity were bullshit. But what did that matter? When you're still obsessed with high-school cool, given license to curse with impunity and generally act like a moron, that kind of hyperactive gangland nonsense seems like everything that a movie can and should represent at that precise moment in time. Like everything else of such dubious worth, you grow out of it: The Boondock Saints loses its charm when you stop calling your friends "fags" and you start looking at Tarantino films for understanding instead of a cinematic circle jerk. That's something Duffy never seemed to learn in ten years (ten years!) of legal strife, Hollywood drama, and a documentary dedicated to his psychotic paranoia--the non-stop stream of gay jokes only yield for a few unpleasant dips into racist territory, and he even finds the time to orchestrate one of his fantasy shoot-outs as a grainy '70s exploitation flick! Good to know that he doesn't understand Grindhouse any better than he understood Pulp Fiction.

But for as much as I can tell you that The Boondock Saints represents a phase, it's still an embarrassing yearbook photo for yours truly. The new film definitely opened a few wounds: I knew all the characters, I got all of the in-jokes, and I cringed a little every time I realized that I used to think of them as height of wit. What else does that say about who I was at that time? The other thing is that I've been writing film criticism in one form or another for about ten years now, and taking a brief tour through old reviews is jarring, to say the least. That "minor masterpiece" line actually comes directly from an old three-sentence review of the original film, while I was devouring Leonard Maltin's capsulettes by the pound and wanted to see how well I could write in the same format. Three-and-a-half stars, somehow. I've written a few other pieces about the movie since then... and as I watched more films and read more criticism... the star rating steadily dropped with each successive run through it. Maybe it's appropriate that All Saints Day has arrived a full ten years after the first film, simply because it becomes a pretty harsh reminder of where you've been--and you have to wonder whether you've really evolved since then. What did I not get about Pulp Fiction, or The Godfather or The Dark Knight Returns, to have a piece of crap like The Boondock Saints strike such a chord? How far back into the past would I have to travel to see myself feeling the same way about this sequel?

The worst part about All Saints Day is the threat that it will be embraced by modern college freshmen as emotionally devastating, just as the original film was mistaken for being hip, original, and a contender in the debate on vigilantism.
It's a little sad that Duffy has closed himself off to all but a select few as they pass through a revolving door of taste, but I think we all saw that one coming. Read this interview with him at CINEMATICAL, linked from the FILOSOPHER, for more unsurprising detritus. Yeah, yeah, critics don't know nothin', they'll never understand what the fans understand--but, speaking as someone who thought he understood, how does a more discerning eye make my opinion of both films invalid? If you consider yourself too far out of his "target demographic" for your opinion to matter, you end up playing right into his hands. And I have to freakin' know--are there really any fans of The Boondock Saints who stick around ten, even five, years after they first saw it? How many films do you have to watch, and how many times do you have to watch them, before you can tell tinsel from gold?

This whole discussion can go both ways, of course, in the sense that you're sometimes surprised by where your tastes fall when you take in as much material as possible. A few months ago, I sat down to watch Ghostbusters for the first time in years, and I found it shallow, feckless, and irritating. My problem is that I'm only a Bill Murray fan when he's on a reasonable leash; give Venkman a straw hat and bamboo cane and it would have made no difference to me. Knowing that I kinda hated Ghostbusters made me feel miserable for the rest of that day--it was like I had stepped on a kitten. Nostalgic weltschmerz? Blockbuster disillusionment? Sure. But then there's the threat that people will shut down some future conversation: "Oh, of course dude hated The Boondock Saints. Dude even hated Ghostbusters!" Well, at least dude knows there's a gulf of difference between those two films. Ghostbusters rubs me the wrong way, but The Boondock Saints is just ugly posturing. And, despite rumors to the contrary, cinematic entertainment doesn't come in one flavor.

Another point: I understand that there are instances when you shouldn't outright abandon certain media and properties under a strict social mandate of maturity. Video games are a prime example, aren't they? When time allows, I still play video games--sometimes for fun, sometimes in want of a good intellectual challenge--and I've come across a few older titles that I believe established the medium as a legitimate art form. That's a discussion for another day, but I will say this right now--I've long considered Ebert a bit of a troll on the subject, but for as much time as he's spent winding up gamers with his "architecture" and "life hours" rhetoric, he's gotten plenty of "NO U" retorts that only add fuel to his fire. So what's his motive there? Is he daring the industry and its constituents to buckle down, get to work and prove him wrong? Artistic maturation is inherently tailored to posing and accepting challenges against a standard of thought, no matter how you're supposed to feel at a given moment. What survives ten years down the road? What falters? It's a never-ending process. When you get right down to it, it's why I'm in this business.

Anyway, O'John already covered "shameful ethical stances" on the blog a while back, and "guilty pleasures" are al
ways a popular topic. Let's talk about skeletons in your closet. Are there any films (or books, or plays, et cetera) that you're embarrassed to admit you liked once upon a time? No cheating--we all liked shitty things when we were uncritical children. That's just part of the education, so "Groovie Goolies" would hardly represent the Mark of Cain for anyone. I mean the properties that had a memorable, unironic impact while you considered yourself someone with a working understanding of metaphor, narrative, allegory and all that good stuff.


Also, in case you didn't see the alert on the mothersite, The Film Freak Central 2009 Superannual is currently on sale at Amazon. Just don't forget that it's still available directly from our publisher, Lulu. You'd best pick one up, because that is one quality tome, right there. (I'll go ahead and say that Walter's review of Tropic Thunder may very well be definitive.)