Monday, December 28, 2015

What is Allowed, Some Thoughts on "The Force Awakens"


(This post discusses the plot of "The Force Awakens" in detail)

If you are a girl who loves movies you learn a few things. You learn that you are there to help, not be the hero. Your place is clearly marked, and the consequences for stepping outside it severe. You learn that you do not speak up first. You do not rush for the captain's chair. You do not use your wits to survive. You wait to be saved. You do not ask for anything more. You learn what happens to women who ask for too much, who demand to be first. They are the villains, and they end the story dead or humiliated. There are exceptions, but they are piteously few.

And as you grow and your tastes include a fondness for sci-fi you learn how much you have to imagine yourself into the story. Because often there isn't anyone there who looks like you. You aren't even there to help most of the time. You are there to be saved. You are not the chosen one. You do not have special powers. And if you do you are refiled from character to objective. You are the prize the hero will collect after completing enough plot trials. You certainly will never revel in your abilities.There will be no space given to your trepidation discovering the hidden depths inside yourself. You matter only so much as you can help the hero look good. And there are exceptions to this too, but again they are piteously few.

This is why I had to see "The Force Awakens" for a second time. I had to be sure I had seen what was really on screen. I had to confirm Daisy Ridley's Rey was real. Because Rey speaks up. She speaks up for herself and for the little drioid BB-8 she meets when he's in the process of being stolen. She rushes for the captain's chair of the Millennium Falcon when she and Finn (John Boyega) flee the desert planet Jakku. And it's her very wits that have enabled her to survive for so long alone on a harsh world. Using her smarts to scavenge crashed ships for parts and building up a considerable mechanical acumen in process. She aches for a family that is not coming back for her, We see her struggle to finally let go of the dream of being found and move forward to claim the future in front of her. Rey does help Finn and later Poe (Oscar Isaac) but that is not the only reason she is in this story. Not by a long shot.

She is guided by voices, some she can hear clearly, some she can only sense as suggestions in the back of her mind.  She is destined for important things. And her clear terror at recognizing that is what saves her from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is the traditional male hero who hasn't had things go his way and is broken by that and can only respond in turns by tantrums and lashing out in violence. He senses Rey's importance and wants to possess it for himself. It's Rey's willingness to trust her instincts, to listen to the small still voice that lets her escape his clutches.

In the snowy woods of a planet sized weapon she and Finn face off against Ren. Ren knocks out Rey with a wave of his hand and Finn flicks Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) lightsaber to life. Earlier we had seen Rey discover the lightsaber and receive a vision the moment she touched it. But I was still so used to how stories like this usually work that I wasn't surprised to see Finn be the one to wield to it. Rey even starts to regain consciousness to witness the fight between two men. But then Finn is seriously wounded by Ren, the lightsaber knocked away into a nearby snowbank. Ren reaches for it with his Force powers, frowning that it seems to be taking so long to draw the weapon through the air to his waiting grasp. The lightsaber finally pulls loose and flies, right past him and into Rey's outstretched hand.  There is a moment of shock for them both. And then Rey raises her gaze and flicks the lightsaber on. And from that moment I had to remind myself to not forget to breathe.

I watched in dawning wonder and awe as Rey ably defended herself from Ren's killing blows. How she fought him to a standstill and was only stopped from a final reckoning by the destruction of the artificial planet they were standing on. How she got Finn to medical attention back at the Resistance base. And then there was the final scene. The scene where Rey walked to the long missing Luke and simply held out his lightsaber. And the look on Ridley's face made my heart crack into pieces. Her hope, her fear, her need for answers echoing the audience's own as the camera pulled away for the final dissolve into the credits. And as the familiar theme kicked up for the second time the weight of it hit me. I had met the character I'd been waiting nearly three decades to see in a movie like this. I felt universe get bigger as I accepted what I had been shown. This wasn't just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.

I didn't know how badly I needed to see that story.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Field Guide To Star Wars Cash Ins


"Starcrash" (1978)

Notable For: David Hasselhoff's man perm. Christopher Plummer's white hot shame being able to power entire city grids.

The Lowdown: Oh Italy. Luigi Cozzi made one of the first "Star Wars" cash-ins that not only saw American theatrical release but had an in name only sequel tagged on to it. (See lower down the list.) The Emperor of the Universe and the dreaded Count Zarth Arn lock horns over the fate of the galaxy. Only the bikini clad Stella Star and her motley crew of robots and a former child evangelist can ensure that truth and freedom win the day. The film's ambitions outstrip its budget by a considerable margin making this one of the all time b movie greats.

Recommended? Oh yes.



"Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980)

Notable For: The ridiculous amount of before they were famous behind the scenes talent. Putting boobs on a spaceship.

The Lowdown: John Sayles scripts "Seven Samurai" in Space with music by James Horner. And happily, the movie is just as much fun as that sounds. A fantastic cast of familiar faces from John Saxon in Kabuki makeup to Robert Vaughn semi-reprising his role from "The Magnificent Seven" carry the story. The production design is a reminder of the charms of low budget films, as the cobbled together look of everything is perfect for a story set on remote outpost worlds. They don't make them like this anymore, and more's the pity.  

Recommended? Pour yourself a drink from your scotch and soda belt and enjoy this one.


"Message From Space" (1978)

Notable For: A Darth Vader knock-off who lives with his mom. Magic walnuts.

The Lowdown: Japan's main entry in the game. An international cast compete with the model spaceships for attention in this overstuffed adventure finally referencing "Seven Samurai" in its home country. Veteran director Kinji Fukasaku ably steers this one from running aground on it's many plot cul-de-sacs. It's ponderous. It's cheerful. And its Space Hippies wear an entire aisle's worth of plastic foliage from Michael's.

Recommended?  This one tends to divide the room. However I love every talky, over-designed minute of it.



"Starship Invasions" (1977)

Notable For: Sir Christopher Lee working the hell out of a black body stocking. Canadians being polite even when committing mass suicide.

The Lowdown: Canada gets in on the act with this dour, turtleneck festooned conglomeration of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". In a wood paneled space ship aliens cause problems that humans worry about in their wood paneled kitchens and take to their wood paneled offices to figure out what to do about it. The costumes walk the amazing line between dowdy and Sold Gold dancer. Your tolerance for this will depend greatly on if you can't get enough of those bullshit documentaries about Ancient Astronauts or The Bermuda Triangle. You can watch it on YouTube here.

Recommended? I find its tin foil banality strangely hypnotic, most are likely to be put to sleep by it.


"Escape From Galaxy 3" (1981)

Notable For: Trying to pass itself off as a sequel to the equally demented Starcrash. Excessive beard glitter.

The Lowdown: The Italian Exploitation Film Industry begins it's downward decent with this riff on both "Star Wars" and a grab bag of then current hits as diverse as "The Blue Lagoon". A princess in a star spangled swimsuit and her companion flee the dreaded, dressed like Dolemite in space, villain to an idyllic world. There they learn about kissing, and interpretative dance. A good party movie, to watch or for when you want everyone to go home I'm still not sure.

Recommended? If you have a considerably high tolerance for Italy trying to do "Star Wars" on 10 dollars, go for it.


"Flash Gordon" (1980)

Notable For: Everything. Brian Blessed in leather tap pants.

The Lowdown: Dino De Laurentiis wanted a "Star Wars" of his own and got the rights to the Flash Gordon serials George Lucas wanted but couldn't get back in the mid seventies. Director Mike Hodges unleashes a candy colored, cartoon made flesh pulp wonderland. Glam rock headdresses, brass spaceships trailing plumes of red smoke, and Timothy Dalton in Kelly green tights. All set to a rocking beat by Queen. A beloved favorite, and deservedly so.

Recommended? Yes! AH-AH!



"Hawk the Slayer" (1980)

Notable For: Letting everybody know what "Disco Morricone" sounds like. Silly String as instrument of powerful witchcraft.

The Lowdown: Often lumped in with the Sword and Sorcery boom post "Excalibur". It predates it by a year. On closer examination that you realize this English/Italian co-production is attempting to do "Star Wars" in the more budget friendly setting of Ye Olden Times. Jack Palance is on hand to wear the modified Vader helmet and deliver line readings in a meter that suggests a drag queen auditioning for Game of Thrones.

Recommended? An acquired taste, but if you've got a soft spot for a D&D campaign used in place of a script dig in.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Holiday Treasury of My Writing This Year


On "Fury Road" and Italian Post Apocalyptic movies in particular...

How diversity in Blockbuster directors is desperately needed and "Jurassic World" is the absolute worst...


Some James Horner (RIP) scores you should give a listen to...

Remembering "Attack the Block" and who we allow to be heroic...

A look at one of the 80s most unusual and beautiful love stories...


Encountering the sacred in secular art...

The films that inspired the floor plans of "Crimson Peak's" Allerdale Hall...


The dames, broads and badass ladies of Schwarzenegger's Golden Age...

When 20th Century Fox backed the wrong horse in 1977...


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Family Plot, 1976 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)


Great directors’ late works tend to get met with a mixture of extreme defensiveness or a queasy, we don’t like to talk about that avoiding the subject. For all that a late or last work will have a cheering section, there are those that are met with “well it doesn’t tarnish what came before.” And few last films from a major director have met a chillier reception and reputation than Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. This is a shame to say the least, because it’s one of his warmest, funniest films. And shows that one of Hollywood’s most venerable directors could adapt as adroitly as he had before during his decades long career.

Family Plot’s story concerns Barbara Harris as daffy phony psychic. Bruce Dern is her quarrelsome lover and partner in crime. They hook a big fish in a wealthy woman ensconced in a Tudor style mansion belonging to a Columbo villain of the week and overflowing with bric a brac. The woman wants the pair to track down a missing heir to the family fortune. On the way home Harris and Dern argue over what to do next and nearly run over a blonde wigged Karen Black, dressed like a killer from a Gialli. She’s on her way to make a ransom pickup. She is one half  of a much more malevolent crooked couple. Her partner is William Devane playing a magnificently oily creep who wears a smile like a threat. As is the way in mystery stories these two seemingly disconnected threads will soon become dangerously entangled.



One of the biggest complaints leveled at Hitchcock’s curtain call was that it looked and played more like a TV movie than a feature from The Master of Suspense. Forgetting that Hitchcock had already done terrific work on TV, helming some of the best episodes of his own series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As well as forgetting that  the seventies were the harvest golden age of the TV movie format. Family plot is rich in details like the grubby knick knacks cluttering Harris’ shabby home. And full of interesting shots such as a crane shot of two characters playing cat and mouse through the overgrown, labyrinthine paths of a cemetery. It’s best to view Family Plot as a great chef preparing comfort food. It might just be mashed potatoes and meatloaf but it’s likely to be some of the best mashed potatoes and meatloaf you’ve ever had.

It’s also a pleasure watching Hitchcock working with a New Hollywood cast like Harris, Dern, and Black and getting rewarded with terrific performances from all involved. Harris and Dern have a magnificent, bickering chemistry. They clearly adore driving each other crazy. Black is excellent as a Femme Fatale learning her limits when the game turns to murder. And Devane is great as a sociopath all the more unnerving for be able to pass for a respectable businessman. It’s one of the most seventies thing about the picture. Everyone is a crook and working an angle. The question becomes do you take from those who can afford to lose. And Hitchcock’s sympathies lie with Dern and Harris. They’re con artists but they’re working class con artists, cooking hamburgers and having to break dates because the boss insists they have to cover a shift.



Hitchcock is also helped greatly by Ernest Lethem’s sparkling, witty script. And John Williams turns in one of his most off model scores. It’s a mix of TV movie sounds from the period, lots of horns and harpsichord, mixed with a wah-wah pedal funk track and Williams’ trademark strings and angelic choruses. Rather than reveal that Hitchcock had lost his powers Family Plot is a solid, well made mystery. The kind Hitchcock began his career with. And there are few better images to close a career on than Harris’ delicious wink to the camera. A sweet acknowledgment that movies are one of the biggest, longest con games running. And that they are irresistible fun, for audiences and directors alike.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Out of the Labyrinth: Some Thoughts on Crimson Peak and Guillermo Del Toro

(This post discusses the plot of "Crimson Peak". If you haven't seen it, do! It's great! And then come back and read this.)

I was in my mid twenties and things had fallen apart. I was floating from one crappy job to another, still living at home in the small town I'd wanted so badly to escape since I was eighteen. I had grown to hate my imagination, and my habit of day dreaming. It was a part of the rickety, prone to burning out lemon that was my brain. That my brain had betrayed me was a slight I would not forgive. I had prided myself on how much more intelligent I was than my classmates. And now mood swings and anxiety had eaten me and my future alive. I had tried so hard to make myself be the girl I kept seeing in my mind's eye and failing spectacularly. And my attention span was dissolving, I'd rent movies, the great important ones, from Netflix and return them three weeks later unwatched. The world had turned into a gray wall of indifference and a buzzing that felt like a swarm of angry hornets filling my chest every morning when I woke up. And it's in that state I went to the movies in early January of 2007.

It seems ridiculous to say a movie saved your life but Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" did. I watched it and felt seen. In Ofelia and her beautiful, tragic end I heard the message, "you are not alone." That terrible things could visit you and you could overcome them. It didn't mean the happily ever after you might have expected but you were author of your own life. You shaped the pieces into the tale they needed to be. It was if my mind was a creaky house being opened for spring. The windows thrown open and the heavy drapes replaced with gauzy curtains. It had reminded me, as so many of my favorite stories do, that all winters end.


And it's fitting that a creaky house is the center of the latest Del Toro film to take me in. "Crimson Peak" is a beautiful Gothic horror film, were the love story, stories really, at its heart are the true wellspring of the terrors inside. And there's that same shudder of recognition and relief in a seemingly purely fantastical tale in laying out a way to live. Because Mia Wasikowska's Edith Cushing is someone beautiful for abuse survivors like me.

One of the most radical and interesting touches in "Crimson Peak" is the presentation of basic decency and goodness as heroic. Edith is very much a woman of her time, in her struggles against the Victorian era's limitations on women to her own ignoring of her own misgivings when the mysterious Thomas sweeps her off her feet and takes her live across the Atlantic. She is smart and kind, and it's those very qualities that drive her to try to make her marriage work and attempt a cordial relationship with Thomas' visibly hostile sister Lucille. And it's those qualities that nearly end her life. And yet she isn't punished for trusting people. For believing that things could work out. The film firmly understands that abuse is never the fault of the victim. Nor does the film suggest that she deserves what happens to her because she should have seen the plot against her life coming.

The film even extends a measure of sympathy to her would be murderers, Thomas and Lucille. They are the sorrowful result of the abuse they suffered at the hands of their monstrous mother. Turning to incest to comfort each other and then murder to save their failing family business they are all too recognizable human monsters. They are trapped by fate and circumstance but still responsible for the choices they make when they decide to harm others. Ultimately Thomas is able to free himself from the cycle at the cost of his life. The film's most touching moment is when his spirit looks at Edith with all the love and regret for a life that could have been with her. Edith reaches out to tenderly stroke his face and he disappears into the air, free from Allerdale Hall at last. Lucille damns herself by refusing to abandon violence and we last see her black ice apparition sitting in front of the piano in the great hall , stiff backed and unforgiving for eternity.



Allerdale Hall is a terrific metaphor in itself for how keeping terrible secrets rots the self out from the inside. A hole in the mansion's roof lets in snow and dead leaves. The walls leech blood red clay from the mines underneath the house. Currents running through the vast space feel like the house itself crying out. There's a terrible knowing in that feeling. The trauma that leaves its filthy footprints over your body and psyche. Where you begin to feel a stranger to yourself. But it's only by returning to the body can taking inventory of the scars and survival begin. And you can survive with scars. Scars show you were stronger than whatever tried to harm you. Edith limps out of Allerdale Hall with a broken leg and a gash across her cheek. But she is alive. And she is the author of her story.

In the film's closing conceit we see that the novel, called Crimson Peak,  that opened the film was written by one "Edith M. Cushing."  Edith reclaims her life by writing her story down. And there is untold power in that. I own what happened to me. It is an awful belonging but it's mine. And when I write, the events become less drenched in existential dread but part of my story. Good and bad are uncomfortably close traveling companions. But it's only because winters are so terrible I notice how beautiful the flowers are in spring. I think that's a fact of life Del Toro is well versed in. And why his films, with their often terrible acts of violence and skinned wraiths, are so strangely therapeutic for me. I know the evil that can lurk behind a smile that never reaches the eyes. I need to be reminded and often that the story doesn't end there.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Small Screen Tales: Night Slaves (1970)


One of the benefits of the digital age is the flood of destined for obscurity 70s TV movies that have turned up on YouTube in decent to quite good uploads. They are some real gems among the crowd. And even on average they are solid, well told and made stories, done with a professionalism that now seems as alien to our age as the clothes.

"Night Slaves"  was directed by veteran TV director Ted Post ( who also handled the occasional feature like "The Harrad Experiment".) The script was by Everett Chambers ("Moon of the Wolf") and Robert Specht ("Ark II") based on a novel by Jerry Sohl who had written for the original "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits", and the original "Start Trek"  (including the classic episode "The Corbomite Maneuver".)

It concerned the story of James Franciscus and Lee Grant as an unhappily married couple who go to the country after Franciscus suffers a catastrophic car accident that leaves him with a metal plate in his head. They make one of those fateful decisions to stop in a quite literally sleepy little town for the night. Franciscus wakes with a start to witness his wife and the townspeople walking in a trance to be loaded onto trucks and driven out of town. He barely has time to register this before he's startled by laughter coming from the corner of his room. An enigmatic young woman is sitting there, smiling. She leads him on a chase. She has a way of answering questions that seem to only raise more ones. The metal plate in his head is what's protecting him from whatever is affecting the rest, and he's drawn closer to her the more he struggles to find out what exactly is going on.

It's interesting to see the sixties counterculture start to affect the resolutely mainstream world of TV. There's talk of "drop outs" throughout, Franciscus proudly says he's becoming one as he ditches his cushy office job in the moments before his accident. The accident involved another car, and haunted by guilt he seeks escape. "Night Slaves" also shows a remarkable sympathy toward a marriage falling apart. Lee Grant is in love with another man, a mutual friend of the husband's. The movie is  non condemnatory, rather showing a weary acceptance that some people aren't meant to be together.

The condition of the upload strangely adds to the effect. The wan colors, save for Grant's fiery hair, give the effect of a faded paperback cover. One of those worn copies you'd see at the library or a thrift shop, take a chance on and be surprised by a surprisingly effective story. There are interesting shots peppered throughout, one of Lee Grant filmed through wildflowers in a meadow particularly staying with me. If you're looking for sci-fi off the beaten path, and have a weakness for hippie talk of leaving the physical shell behind for a higher consciousness, give this one a shot.





Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"I don't believe it...I don't believe it...."


I was in my early teens and I had the growing suspicion the world was not going to end soon. I felt great dismay at this. I had been a Jehovah's Witness all my life but after my mother's row with the organization over a family member we weren't Witnesses anymore. And in one swoop I was no longer allowed to see the kids I'd grown up with. I was left with the kids at school I had been warned repeatedly were Worldly and were bad associations who would spoil my chances of getting to hug a koala bear in paradise Earth (if the illustrations in The Watchtower were anything to go by).  I was lost, restless and looking for escape. My mother began her hunt for a new religious tradition that would eventually land her a perfectly nice new church. But I already knew organized religion and I were not going to be getting back together.

It's not that I didn't trust another denomination to produce a sense of the sacred and numinous in me. It's more that I had never, ever had that feeling in all my years of being a Witness. Jehovah's Witness' Kingdom Halls tend to be drab looking buildings. And it's an aesthetic that carries down to the faith itself. In an effort to purge itself of anything that remotely smacks of "Christendom" (read: Catholicism) Jehovah's Witnesses have carefully soaked and stripped religion of any sense of ritual, celebration, and marking of time. The pagan origins of most major Holidays, and birthday observances, meant those went right out the window. And Witnesses had no youth programs at all. Why would you bother with those things after all, when the world is ending next Tuesday? And that meant life was carefully marked by all the things you avoided doing, instead of the things you did.

I would always feel guilty about looking longingly at decorated Christmas trees. And I would feel even more guilty when we'd tour an old cathedral when traveling and I'd get a sense of reverence and of the centuries that had passed under its arches. In the immediate aftermath of leaving the Witness, or "The Truth" as insiders call it -big red flag right there-, I longed for a sense of purpose. And it came via a video store rental box.

I had picked it out because it had a spaceship on the cover, and I liked "Star Wars". And I watched, with an increasing sense of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, as a a great mystery unfolded. Strange lights were flickering across the sky, a group of WWII planes lost decades ago are found in Mexico, an Indianapolis lineman can't stop creating images of a strange tower. And in the middle of the Gobi Desert a cargo ship is found, the people documenting it taking an understandable moment to stare in incredulity before recording it.



And I forgot it was "just" a movie. I entered into it, crouched behind the scrub grass, holding my breath as the ships came in for a landing at Devil's Tower. And John Williams' score, a perfect blend of the magisterial and the fragile sense of wonder wound around my cells and made them light up like the Mothership as it returned to the sky. I cried when Truffaut signed to the alien and it signed back and I felt so happy and alive as the credits rolled. I reveled in what I'd just seen. None of it was "real" and yet it's not that I didn't care, rather it's that I saw stories, good stories, great stories, have a deeper truth and reality of their own. And that it did not diminish movies' power to know they were the result of many different people pooling their skills to create worlds out of sound stages, costumes and matte paintings. Rather it spoke of the medium at its best, that when everything came together the viewer could be transported and changed. That secular art could be sacred too.

I had longed so much for a sense of the numinous and I'd found it at last. In the shivers that ran up my spine as the people looked into the cockpits of the empty planes and found their late forties calendars and photos in pristine condition. In the host of hands pointed up when asked where the music they were singing came from. I spent the next several weeks staring intently at the night sky, wondering if someone was looking back. I couldn't help but notice that instead of the Jehovah's Witness fixation on Armageddon here was a story with the message that great change was coming from the heavens, and it didn't want to destroy, it wanted to talk. It's worth remembering the original meaning of "apocalypse", which is the sense of a veil being lifted and a revelation of new knowledge. I had changed, I now knew things I didn't before.



And I knew I could never return to the gray twilight of going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall, going out in service, going to assemblies and patiently waiting for that apocalypse that was just, no really, we mean it this time, around the corner. It set me on the path of the addicting process of seeing a great film for the first time. That sensation of a hole being blown through my mind and my worldview.  The sunlight streaming through the rubble and peeking through it to find in wonder that the world had gotten bigger, more mysterious. That feeling was there in everything from the phantasmagoria of "The Red Shoes" to the endless green jungles of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God". It's why I have no patience for the most tiresome type of non believer who feels it's very, very important to sneer that it's just a "myth" or "fairy tale". Forgetting that myths and fairy tales are the bedrock of humanity, the stories we tell to make sense of the chaos. Just because it's a trick doesn't mean it's not magic. Some people find that sense of awe in religion, I found it in art. Movies are my church and I watch them in faith, hope, and charity that the next one will change my life.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Remember."


So this is how it goes. I'm twelve and watching TV in my Dad's apartment. It doesn't feel weird referring to my "Dad's apartment." And that is my great guilty secret, I'm incredibly relieved my parents got divorced. I change the channel, a group of people are looking worried on the bridge of a spaceship.

"Ooh, that's Wrath of Khan, leave it here, it's a really good one," my father says. Thankful it's not a Western I'll have sit through I obey. And that's how I first see one of my favorite films. My father tells me about Star Trek and Leonard Nimoy. We eat chopped steak sandwiches and watch The Enterprise play cat and mouse with The Reliant in the beautiful lilac, peach and cobalt clouds of a nebula. And when Spock's first question after sacrificing himself to save everyone is "Ship...out of danger?" I start rubbing my nose hard to keep from crying. I'm making a determined effort to stop being my thin skinned, starts bawling at the drop of the hat self. My father squeezes my shoulder, "It's okay, he comes back in the next one."

And that's what I associate the most with those years, watching movies. Renting them from video stories around town. Renting them from the library. My mother is woman who considers "shut up" a curse word, my father rents me "The Terminator". And as much as I want to scream when my father puts me in the middle by unloading on me everything that went wrong with his childhood and his marriage I just have to think of watching "The Long, Hot Summer" or "The Godfather" with him and I let it go. But it gets harder to let it go as the years go by. And I begin to put up walls, and not answer the phone when I know it's him.

I feel guilty about this, and then I'm able to put up walls around that too. But all that falls away when my sister  and I take him to see "Star Trek" in 2009. A film even its abominable sequel won't let me be objective about. Because all I'll remember is the look of sheer delight on my father's face during it. The grin that lit the theater when the end credits music started with a version of The Original Series' theme. It's only later do I realize how important that moment was. When it hits me that was the last movie I saw with my father before he got sick. Before the long, slow decline in various convalescent homes began.

When my father enters the convalescent home is when the terrible waiting begins. I feel guilty about leaving town even though my mother tells me it's the right thing to do. I call my father, not as often as I should. He starts to have trouble remembering that I'm no longer in North Carolina, I call him less unable to bear it. And then I get the call from my mother that it's time to come home. It's Time. And then an even more terrible month of waiting happens. It happens in February, an awful, awful month of gray empty trees and worn brown soil crusted over with dirty ice. There is no catharsis when he dies. Just a terrible emptiness and sensation of walking underwater that lasts for months.

I go back home. Numb, angry that not only did I lose my father, Leonard Nimoy died a week later. That the universe owed me at least Mister Spock still being around. Knowing that the universe could not care less what I think it owes me. Adjusting to the new normal begins. I do well some days, others I just want to sit on the couch with a blanket around my shoulders. I'm frightened by how I've lost any sense of time. Days bleed into each other, I'm not sure if a memory that skitters across my mind happened three days or three years ago. But the dirty ice melts into green grass, and the trees around the deck start to fill out with leaves again. And in July I notice the AFI Silver is playing "Wrath of Khan" in revival.

It's a warm balmy night as my boyfriend and I walk from the car to the theater. I've half joked to him that I'll probably start bawling when Spock dies. And I'm secretly hoping I'm not joking. I've cried in front of him perhaps twice. I have gotten so good at not crying at the drop of the hat that I don't cry at all. We buy our tickets and go in. The shiny chrome and black of the Art Deco interior comforts me along with the pinprick I'm starting to accept as a constant companion that this is yet another thing I won't ever be able to share with my father. We go into the theater and find our seats.

From the moment the deep blacks of the star field shimmer on the big screen I'm transfixed. Sometimes I'm watching the acting, sometimes I'm watching the directing. Other times I'm paying attention to the sound design, or noticing the choices the screenwriter made. I'm paying attention to everything my father taught me to pay attention to. He taught me movies were too wonderful to just passively digest and forget, that at their best they became like old friends you checked in with to see how they're doing.

And it hits me over and over. That without my father I wouldn't be sitting in this theater right now. And it's a double edged sword of realization. That the fraught nature of our relationship made me eager to flee. Yet he was the one person that I could truly be myself around. He shaped my cavernous appetite for movies, for art, for life. And just when it feels like my life is taking the shape and purpose I would be proud to tell him about, he's gone. He sacrificed so much for me and I'll never get to tell him thank you. And so when Spock asks "Ship...out of danger?" I finally put my head in my hands and cry. I cry for just how not at all alright it is. I cry for how it's never quite going to be alright again. I cry for Spock, for Leonard Nimoy, for James Horner and his beautiful music playing over the scene. I cry for how many things get lost, how lost is the natural terminus of all things. And my boyfriend is sitting next to me, not sure whether to leave me be or comfort me, he puts his arm around me and draws me close. And that makes me cry harder because one day he'll be lost too. And so will I.

I want stop but I can't, I shouldn't, it feels like poison slowly draining out of me. A pair of little boys sitting behind me worriedly ask their father "Is she okay?" And I smile a little underneath my tears. The funeral scene is ending and I'm down to just a few drops left. I feel like I'm floating. I begin to come back to myself as the wonderful end title music starts. I feel a bone deep ache at hearing Nimoy recite The Original Series' opening narration. But I'm happy the audience I saw it with was clearly loving it. I'm even happier about the two little boys who kept peppering their father with excited, whispered questions throughout. If things are to be lost, it follows that they have to be found first. And that is the question I wrestle with everyday, will I allow myself the hurt of letting myself be found?

The lights go up, the crowd files out, I stay in my seat until the music and credits are finished. My boyfriend squeezes my hand and we walk to the little cafe in the lobby to sit down. It feels like I've been excavated from my grief, the silt of confusion and sorrow brushed away. I'm part of the human movie again, trying to remember my lines and steeling myself for my invariable exit. It's awful. It's wonderful. I can feel my heart red in my chest as big as the room at the moment in my affection for my boyfriend, our audience, this theater, and everyone in it. Things get lost, so very lost. But things are always, always in the process of being found. I found myself again at the AFI Silver. I think that's just right. I kiss my boyfriend on the cheek and ask him to get me a Cherry Coke from the snack bar. I want to have a drink before our next movie starts.




Monday, September 14, 2015

When The Force Is Finally With You


I get it. I truly do. I fully understand if you cannot bear to hear, see, or speak the words "Star Wars" again. I fully understand how the unstoppable juggernaut that is the promotional push for "The Force Awakens" feels less like ballyhoo for a movie and more like a Biblical judgement out of Revelation. I get how exhausting it is. And how mordantly hilarious all this hype is going to turn out to be if the film is a swing and a miss like the calamitous prequels. And yet.

I thought I was out. I really did. I thought I didn't care anymore about "Star Wars" and I would go see "The Force Awakens" out of mild curiosity and not be bothered by it's quality or lack thereof. But my determined efforts to not to take any interest began to dangerously weaken when I saw a Star Destroyer lying in ruins in a strange desert landscape in the second trailer. My indifference was nearly fatally routed when they got Drew Struzan out of retirement to do the poser art. Death of pretending not to care was officially declared when I saw John Boyega holding a light saber. And all throughout, I couldn't deny how much it moved me to finally see girls and women included in the promotion.

It's one of those little things that means a whole hell of a lot to see yourself, or a younger version of yourself, in something you loved. To not have to crane your neck or squint or pretend, "well maybe there could be a lot of girl characters we just don't see." My earliest attempt at writing fanfic at the age of twelve, thankfully lost to the mists of time, was creating a plucky teen who rode shotgun with Han and helped out as much as she got into trouble. I remember that she always wore red, and I remember I ultimately couldn't decide what to do with her. I thought about making her a Jedi but I didn't because it didn't feel like Jedis were something girls could be. But at the least in my mind that made one more major female part besides Princess Leia. Leia was a great character, but watching the films growing up I couldn't help but wish for more. And at school Star Wars was strictly boy stuff. I had no interest in Barbies and wanted stories about girls who were brave, girls who flew space ships, girls who could summon and control powerful space magic.

My introduction to the original trilogy was on home video so I was greatly excited that "The Phantom Menace" would be my first "Star Wars" film in a theater. Well it was...disappointing to put it mildly. Natalie Portman's performance appearing embalmed by her makeup and dozens of costume changes, showing none of Carrie Fisher's wonderful spark in nearly rebelling against the script. And the pulpy energy of the originals was completely gone. But at least there were female Jedis this time. Who we never spent anytime with. And then were killed off wordlessly in "Revenge of the Sith". I suppose I could have consoled myself with the Expanded Universe novels. To their credit they were overflowing with female characters. But there was a feeling they didn't really "count" as canon. A feeling confirmed when Disney bought Lucasfilm and promptly banished them to the phantom zone of the used bookstore and licensed it's own line of tie-in novels. And so I thought the twin suns had set on my affection for a universe set a long time ago, in a a galaxy far, far, away.

And then things like this started happening:



And this:



And this too:
And I didn't know what it would do to me, to finally see girls who love "Star Wars" included in the run up to "The Force Awakens". It's smart business to be sure, but then again just because something is smart business doesn't mean Hollywood will give up its deeply held misconceptions on who watches certain types of movies. But it feels wonderful to feel counted, it feels wonderful to not be treated as an afterthought, a begrudging "well your money is as good as any I suppose." To see lots of women characters in the "The Force Awakens", as heroes, as villains, as leads and supporting parts. And especially to see young girls have a place in the fandom. To be told you can be brave, and you can fly on the wings of your imagination to a story that has a place waiting for you. Because that's the thing, female fans of "Star Wars" have always been here, it's our galaxy too. And now, there is a generation of girls being explicitly told how much it is their galaxy, and how very welcome they are to drop by whenever they like. It's heartening to say the least. And I can only hope they get a movie worthy of their dreams.