Tuesday, August 27, 2013

21st Century Moviegoing

At a recent press conference, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted the major
 studios are doomed to crash if they continue bankrolling gargantuan summer blockbusters. They see ticket prices going as high as $150!  Thus the question is raised: Why bother going at all these days?

First of all, tickets are expensive enough, but concessions are another story.  I know theaters depend on concessions to make profits, but the prices amount to outright theft. And theaters already charge higher rates for films shown in IMAX and 3D.  But if I had to choose between watching Ironman 3 or Jaws 3-D - I'll go with Jaws 3-D anytime.

Manners and politeness are another casualty of digital age.  I've witnessed some maddening behaviors in the movie house: people taking off their shoes, treating the place like they own it, cellphones and texting, pretentious commentaries from self-appointed film experts (I'm not sure who's worse 16 years olds or middle aged couples).   During Looper,  a husband spent the whole movie translating the plot to his clueless wife.  

So, why bother going?  
Who wants to brave all the rudeness and sense of entitlement? These days one can easily watch movies at home without all the distractions. I grew up during the heyday of the VHS boom when a video stores appeared on every block.  If you couldn't go you could always wait for it to come out on video. Those with the means can create their own "home theaters." 

Cultural commentators used to pontificate on the movie theater as the church of the 20th century.  In many respects, that's true.  Where all else could people of varying backgrounds come together and share a common experience for two hours?  Not many.  The power of cinema is its ability to allow a spectator to feel all sorts of things.  When you're in the theater you cannot stop the movie or hit the pause button.  Nope, you pay the money and sacrifice a few hours of your life to sit in the dark to experience something oddly familiar and new.

A NY Times article celebrated the Midnight showing as a truly unique theater experience. Fans of a franchise can gather at the midnight premier and enjoy their film with others who share their passion for a particular series.  In a midnight screening of Star Trek: Into Darkness I attended, the crowd sat in silent reverence for the entire film.  Only the die-hards will head to the theater at Midnight on a Thursday.  And what's better than being alone together with friends?

Recently, I experienced the drawbacks of home viewing.  Watching a DVD of Dr. Zhivago at home left me cold.  These days, with all the distractions around us, it's almost impossible to sit through a three hour movie. So, what happens?  You watch the film in segments.  Movies, unlike books, are designed to be experienced in one sitting. Sometime I need to make a list of films I want to see on the big screen.  Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey would top my list.

So, how can the movie going experience be salvaged?  For starters, it would be nice to see more revivals of classic films on the big screen and I don't just mean the classics, but b-movie classics as well (like Jaws 3-D).  Maybe we need another Roger Corman to gather young talent and allow them to make quality films on a limited budget (so many crucial filmmakers got their start with Corman's American International including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich to mention a few. Or let's see what some of the most skillful directors today can do on a limited budget.  No matter what happens theaters will endure because the experience remains truly unique.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: 11/22/63 By Stephen King

Stephen King's 11/22/63 begins with an intriguing premise: What would America look like if JFK had lived?  Would history have taken a different course? The question has long haunted the baby boom generation who lived through the agony of Vietnam.  Many believe America never recovered from that awful day in Dallas.  Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK added more fuel to the fire by suggesting the assassination amounted to nothing less than a military coup d'etat.  King's novel, like most of his long fiction, hits some rough spots in the middle, but recovered as it moved towards a gripping climax.

Jake Epping, the tale's protagonist, teaches High School English.  As a character, Jake's an all around good guy who finds himself caught in extraordinary circumstances.  When his friend Al, who owns the local diner, introduces him to a time portal, he convinces Jake to travel back in time to save Kennedy from Oswald (the time portal always goes back to October 1958).  He quickly learns the travails of time travel and the dangerous consequences of meddling in past events (the butterfly effect).  Even when Jake tries to prevent the murder of his friend's family he learns nature will resist in the most uncanny ways.

The first half of the novel allows King to revisit some familiar territory as returns to Derry, Maine, the locale of of his well known novel It (Jake even interacts with some characters from that story).  King does a great job of illustrating some subtle differences between the 1950s and 2000s. But the novel doesn't romanticize the past either, as Jake witnesses firsthand the shame of segregation and racism.  Also, post-war America remained painfully close minded about the place of women in society.  Women were expected to bear the humiliation of bad marriages and their presence in the workplace remained strictly in a servile capacity.

When the setting shifts to Texas the novel loses some steam. Jake finds a teaching job in a small town outside of Dallas and falls in love with the kindly school librarian, Sadie.  Sadie's a bit too good to be true at times, but she adds some poignancy to the tragic arc of Jake's story. When he plays detective the novel gets caught up in trivial details surrounding Oswald's life in Dallas.  Epping follows Oswald to learn if he acted alone or was the "patsy" of a much larger conspiracy.  Another novel, Libra by Don Delillo, handles Oswald's tale in a far more effective way by portraying him as an ignorant kid exploited by a nefarious intelligence community.  In 11/22/63, he's a hateful, one dimensional drone.

Despite the meandering lead up to the climax, the final 150 pages are tension filled and thought provoking.  Without revealing too much, there is something to be said for avoiding hero worship when it comes to Kennedy.  In King's version of time travel, every decision made, no matter how mundane, will have consequences.  And when you start changing major events in history things can quickly spiral out of control.

Fans of King's fiction will find much in common with his 1979 novel, The Dead Zone, in which the protagonist suffers a brain injury. After coming out of a coma he has the power to see into the future.  In time, he learns a man destined to become President will trigger a nuclear war.  The story asks, Would such knowledge justify murder? The David Cronenberg starring Christopher Walken stands as one of the best adaptations of a King novel.

From a historical standpoint, King challenges his audience to be wary of nostalgia.  Yes, an exhaustive list of challenges loom for 21st century America.  We are reminded of those constantly.  At the risk of sounding too optimistic, it is useful to think of the progress America has made in the past 50 years - and to consider how things could always be way, way worse. In other words, don't let anyone tell you live in a time of decline and moral erosion - those arguments always stem from false premises and a selective memory. Instead, remember Kennedy by living up to his words "ask not what you're country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Heartless Bastards Live - August 4, 2013

Don't be misled by their name: this band has heart.  Erika Wennerstrom, the band's lead singer and songwriter, has a powerful and versatile rock and roll voice.  At the Greaves Concert Center within Northern Kentucky  University, coming off a performance at Lollapolozza in Chicago the night before, the bastards played two sets for a hometown crowd.  The majority of their songs came from their past two albums, The Mountain (2009) and Arrow (2012).

Each band member made a separate entrance: Dave Colvin gave a drum solo, then bass player Jesse Elbaugh added a bass riff, then some lead guitar from Mark Nathan, and finally Erika taking over on lead vocals as they played their hit single "Parted Ways."  Other excellent moments included a song about Dayton, "Skin and Bones," old school rock in "Got to Have Rock and Roll," and the bluesy rock of "Sway."

Heartless Bastard's sound often gets compared with the classic rock of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Faces, and Tom Petty.  Their music encompasses folk-rock, country, blues, and elements of punk. A no nonsense stage presence conveys one thing: they are all about the music.  On Arrow, there's a Western influence as well with songs evoking the West of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, especially on "The Arrow that Killed the Beast." Their recent output has gone for a more epic sound evoking the grandeur of America.

These days, despite all the choices of music available, the power of rock continues to endure. Heartless Bastards would be at home in almost any era.  Their straight up rock and roll and unpretentious stage presence will win over any crowd.  Their best work is yet to come.