Friday, April 28, 2006

Inspired by The Office, Part 2

If I am in fact going to celebrate my birthday in May by going out and doing karaoke, I could use some suggestions on a spot. I know nothing about the scene. I would like it to be smoke-free. (I doubt alcohol-free exists. Even people who don’t drink like knowing that the audience is drunk.) Most of all, it is important that there is a good music selection. When they show it on television, it seems like everything is either country or elevator music. The big exceptions that recur again and again are “Respect” and “I’ve Got You Babe”. Well, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off Aretha Franklin, and no one sounds good singing “I’ve Got You Babe”, including Sonny and Cher.

Anyway, as long as we are thinking about The Office, Television Without Pity did an interview with BJ Novak (Ryan the temp), and he made a point that it is easier to show than to explain:

“I think that really good television is at a higher level than a lot of movies. I think they haven't had that big clearing house that reality TV was, where it was like, "Okay, we don't like this kind of crap that's imitating other crap that's imitating other crap. We're going to show you how people really are for two years. There'll be nothing else on the air but videos showing actual people, and then you can start again, with television imitating real life." Movies haven't had that, I guess, because you see a comedy in the theatres, and they're hitting these familiar beats that have nothing to do with real people's experience or making fun of things that are really in people's lives. And I think, you know, The Office, Earl, South Park, the shows I mentioned are kind of more based in the real rhythms of conversation and stuff. So it's actually a little harder to watch movies, working on TV.”

It really struck me, and I recounted it to a few people (that’s why I know that it is just easier to quote directly). One friend said, “So, just do nothing but documentaries for a few years?”

Well, that might not be a bad idea. This year, before May, we have already had twelve movies sneak into theaters without being screened by critics. Remakes and sequels are not always bad, but there have definitely been better periods in film history. Maybe this is why we are seeing more documentaries with mainstream success.

If nothing else, the making of a good documentary requires passion about a subject. I seem to recall reading about one film for which the makers collected over 800 hours of footage. I believe 200 hours is a little more common, but for the Metallica one it was about 1200 hours. That is a huge commitment, not just for the film time, but then you need to edit it. It doesn’t mean everyone does it well, but you can find some interesting stuff.

Here are some films that I have enjoyed in the past year or so. Oddly, I seem to have seen two films in every category, so I am going to treat them in pairs. Remember, just because I may say one is better is no reason not to see both.

Surfing: Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid

Riding Giants was the first one I saw, focusing on big wave surfing. I’m glad I saw it first because I enjoyed it, and it was great, but Step Into Liquid was so much more engaging. Riding Giants is largely historical, so there is some footage but a lot of it is interview. Step Into Liquid follows people into the surf, now, in places you might not expect. Maybe these surfers have less ego and more sense of fun. Plus, the locations and cinematography are just gorgeous. None of which is to say that Riding Giants is bad; when they ran it on TV recently I settled right back in. Still, Step Into Liquid was more exciting and also more accessible. I would like to try surfing some day; but I know I will not be looking for the big waves.

Middle East: Control Room and Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories

This one is more of a toss-up. I would say the quality of Control Room is higher, but that Inside Iraq may be more important. They are both important and both gripping.

Control Room spends a year with the Arab network Al-Jazeera. They get kind of a bad name over here. The film even shows footage of Donald Rumsfeld discounting the accuracy of some of their reports, and yet you get to see them trying to find balance and accuracy in their reporting, and you know that it is incredibly important to have a source of news over there that is not run by clerics or political leaders. You also see that despite disagreeing with the invasion, many of the staff express a great respect for America and for the Constitution. I think I would have to trust them over Rumsfeld.

Inside Iraq is just a guy, Mike Shiley, wandering around Iraq with a camera, visiting mine sweepers, a children’s hospital, a Christian church, and various markets and gatherings, as well as spending some time with the military. There is sort of a homemade feel to it, which is only natural, and the footage is interspersed with commentary he filmed later. The commentary is a bit repetitive, because it keeps coming back to one message, but that message is a good one: Look at the other side. Stop and think about this. Those points are why I say Control Room was better made, but Inside Iraq hit me harder on a visceral level, especially when he gives updates on some of the people that he spent time with.

You should really see both. When I saw it, Inside Iraq had not gotten wide distribution (in my case, the filmmaker brought the movie to Cinema 21 and hung around for Q & A), but you can order it at Control Room should be available through normal channels.

Rock & Roll: End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Okay, I can’t be completely fair here, because the Ramones are on my personal greatest bands of all time list, and I don’t really like Metallica. I believe they are talented and good at what they do, but it is not my thing. The younger sisters love them, though, so we had to watch.

Oddly, the Ramones are the ones with a song called Psychotherapy, but Metallica is the band who gets psychotherapy, doing group sessions and rehab and working out all of the angst that led to powerful metal music, but does build tension. I am interested in psychology of course, so it was interesting on that level, but also, I really wanted them to be able to work it out. After sharing so much and having been through so much, it would be a shame if they had to split up, and even worse than a shame if you never do work out your emotional garbage. My strongest feeling, however, was deep sympathy for Kirk Hammett, the peacemaker caught in the middle. (Bob Rock too, but he would not be spending as much time with them.) For Kirk’s sake especially, I am glad that they got help. Two final thoughts on it: Megadeath is not number 2 to Metallica’s number 1, and get over it anyway, Dave Mustaine.

End of the Century was just excellent. You really get a feel for the history of the scene, and there are some great interviews. One of my other greatest bands is the Clash, and it really reminded me how much we lost when Joe Strummer died. He was so personable and well-spoken, and he’s in it because the Ramones really inspired the Clash (by saying don’t wait until you acquire more musical skill, just go for it now). Also, I feel more justified in despising the Sex Pistols after seeing it because, and I am simplifying this, they ruined the scene for others, rather than being a cornerstone of what punk should be.

I believe the movie conveys a strong anti-drug message with pretty much all footage of Dee Dee Ramone. It’s not just that he died of an overdose; it’s the decay that preceded it. And all right, I don’t even know how many brain cells he had to lose, and I don’t think he considered himself particularly good-looking before, but still, ouch.

Actually, this is a band that might have been well-advised to hire their own life coach/counselor, but I don’t care. I love them anyway.

Childhood Education: Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound

I’ve taken some ballroom dancing and I was my school spelling champion three times (I always got knocked out in district, same kid at least twice), so both spoke to me.

Spellbound has some very touching moments and some sad and scary moments. Most of the scary moments involve the parents. You get a good look at eight different families, and the differences between them are amazing as their children all head to the same place. I’m afraid there was one major irritant for me though, with this one, extreme nerd kid with a Horshack laugh. They may have spent too much time on him, but they main thing that bugged me is that in the after interview he keeps insisting that they pronounced the word he missed (banns) wrong. He thought he heard a “d” on the end. They did not pronounce it wrong. It’s on tape.

To be fair, I have had the exact same thing happen, so I understand. I missed “omnipresent” because I had never heard such a word or had any idea that it existed. I was thinking omnipotent or omniscient, and the sample sentence they used, “Some students feel like their teachers are omnipresent,” did not help at all. The word is too unfamiliar to the brain to compute. I get it. However, the professional announcer repeated the word multiple times, with witnesses and people checking for accuracy, and you just need to accept that it’s not him, it’s you.

The kids in Mad Hot Ballroom do sometimes have these attitudes where they think they know more than they do, as is normal, but instead of focusing on eight individuals, they are focusing on three classes with multiple participants, so there is less of a chance for anyone to dominate. Plus, there’s dancing, which pretty much always wins me over. Some moments I really liked are when teachers cut loose after a meeting and do their own dancing, including the electric slide, and the look of rapture on one mother’s face as she watches her child compete. It’s good stuff.

There are more, but these are the ones that come to mind as the most compelling. Still, I just got Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, so we will see how that goes.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Inspired by The Office

One thing that I began to notice on the cruise was that I am really remarkably average. I had always assumed I was inferior, except for my brain, but most of the things that have caused me to worry about fitting in are pretty commonplace. Whether or not that bodes well for the nation is a separate topic.

Regardless, there are still some things about me that are fairly odd, and here are some:

I cannot remember the rules to any card game beyond the durations of the game. I have played Hearts and Poker and Uno and Go Fish, but I could not teach them to anyone, or play them right now without a brief refresher. (Well, okay, I remember how to play 52 Pickup.)

I am right-handed, but I hold my pen like a left-handed person does. This may account for my poor handwriting, but this hardly matters in the computer age because I type well.

Finally, I have a fanatical obsession with bear safety. When someone mentions bears, I am likely to launch into a short lecture on it with no other provocation. I get this feeling in my stomach. It is sort of a hybrid of panic and indignation. People need to know what to do about bears!

I guess it started when I first read the Worst Case Scenario handbook, and then I saw a television special about random hiking camping problems that included but was not limited to bear attacks. In the special, one of the hikers had thrown his pack at the bear to distract it, only the bear was not distracted and took a swipe at his retreating figure. Since the backpack was no longer there as a buffer, he got tore up a bit. He lived, though, so it still could have been worse.

The problem was that conventional wisdom was wrong. The first response that a lot of people will give if you ask them what to do is to play dead. I suppose the reason that started is that most of the time the bear will not be that interested, and so will leave you alone anyway. However, if you have one of those rare aggressive bears, lying down with your eyes closed is not a great defensive position. Other common responses are throw your pack at it, which has its own risks as previously mentioned, or climbing a tree. Bears climb trees.

So, there were ideas out there that were wrong and deeply rooted, but I felt that it was silly of me to get so worked up over it. After all, how common is it to run into a bear? Except, the first two times I launched into the lectures, everyone had a bear encounter story, so that just reinforced it during the critical phase.

Why do I bring this up now? Well, The Office is a pretty funny show, and they have been doing these hilarious public service announcements during their commercials. Technically, they are mock PSAs, but the real ones I have seen lately are so stupid, it’s like they are already parodies of themselves anyway. Most of the ones given by The Office cast, in character, actually make good points, but Dwight gave one about black and brown bears that put me into lecture mode.

You can view many of the videos at the NBC site, but they don’t seem to have the bear one in there, probably due to the recent death in Tennessee. However, you can read transcripts at another site:

“When attacked by a bear, simply lie still on the ground, and cover your face and head with your hands. When the bear is finished batting you around and mauling you, contact the U.S. Forest Service”

That is bad advice. Stupid Dwight. But the others are pretty much correct. Black jellybeans are gross, it is never funny to smash cake into the bride’s face, and you should never ever tape yourself having sex. I have mixed feelings about not being ashamed to call fouls in pickup basketball, but there are probably people with whom it is necessary. Pervasive flagrant fouls can spoil the fun for everyone.

Back to bears, if you are out hiking and see a bear, start a calm retreat. That will usually be enough. If the bear is hungry, wounded, or a mother bear with cubs, the odds of attack are greater. If the bear starts to charge you, run as fast as you can and keep running. Bears are a lot faster than they look, but they can run faster uphill than downhill, so if you have the option of running downhill, go for it. Yes, that is a good way of breaking your neck, but you do what you have to do.

Internet discussions on bear safety will often focus on the best ammunition with which to shoot the bear. Most hikers and campers that I know are not armed, but if you are going that route, I suggest that you do not miss. I am also aware that some people recommend pepper spray, but I suspect that is going to be another one of those things that would only work if the bear wasn’t that interested anyway.

Fortunately, the percentage of bear encounters that turn fatal is way less than one percent, but it can happen. Don’t let it be because you took bad advice.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Casting Call

First off, I must say that no more than half an hour after my last posting, it occurred to me, “Hey, I bet the original Brat Pack was rounded out by Kiefer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland.” It wasn’t a matter of just remembering something after you no longer need it (famous instances for me being Joyce Kilmer, Toni Morrison, and the Missoula Flood), but the research actually led to my answer.

In the Wikipedia entry for the Brat Pack, it lists various movies and the presence of The Lost Boys was bugging me. Why, I was thinking, because Jami Gertz had a bit part in Sixteen Candles? Because Kiefer was in both Young Guns movies with Emilio? And then I remembered that he has a famous father and it made good sense. Sorting through young and pretty people can be so confusing.

Less young and pretty, but also less annoying, one key advantage of being in the Frat Pack is that you get pretty steady work. One person or another is always starting a new project, and buddies tend to get pulled in. If you can’t get in good with them, though, you should try getting in good with a casting director.

Casting is a really important job. I would say that the best non-documentary movie I saw last year was Batman Begins. The production values were good, pacing was tight, good script, and a mostly excellent cast. After all, how can you go wrong with Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson? Easy! You cast Katie Holmes as the love interest. It could have been worse, because it was a relatively small part and she did not have a lot to do. Still, she sucked the life out of two scenes, and one was at the very end, dulling what should have been a much stronger impression.

I think one of the most impressive casting jobs I have ever seen has been Angels in the Outfield, cast by Pam Dixon. Naturally, I first watched it for O.B. Babbs, and at the time I just thought of it as a cute film. Watching it a few years later, however, whoa, there were a lot of newly familiar faces.

Before we discuss the casting, I am going to digress and vent on a pet peeve of mine. When Roger tells Knox to have Hemmerling pinch hit, Knox objects that Hemmerling couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. That’s an insult for pitchers, not hitters! It makes no sense! Okay, I feel better getting that out. Back to casting.

Now, the three leads probably don’t count. I would guess that Danny Glover, Tony Danza, and Christopher Lloyd all probably had something along the lines of three-picture deals with Disney, where their involvement was set up from the get-go. But after that, whom do we have? Oscar winner Brenda Fricker, future Oscar winner Adrien Brody, and future heartthrob Matthew McConaughey.

In addition, you have some really solid but less famous actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt became pretty well known through Third Rock from the Sun. Now he seems to be focusing on independent films, but his acting has received consistently positive reviews. Neal McDonough may not be seeing his series getting renewed, but again he is getting critical acclaim for his work, and that does not happen to everyone who works with the Rock.

Then of course we have Dermot Mulroney, who I already think was somewhat known, but for such a small and unsympathetic role as Roger’s father he was so sympathetic to me.

There are others, not quite as well known perhaps, but working steadily, which is a really good sign. I would like to see Stoney Jackson and Tony Longo get more recognition, but often for an actor just working enough so that you don't have to wait tables to survive is success.

Looking over Pam’s IMDB credits, she does seem to have a knack of picking up actors and using them before they really catch the public’s attention. I’m impressed at the talent that went into what was probably never destined to be anything other than a small family film. The only really comparable achievement that comes to mind is Coming to America, cast by Jackie Burch. However, most of that cast is more known for ensemble television shows (Eriq LaSalle for ER, Vondie Curtis Hall for Chicago Hope, and Shari Headley for All My Children), where you don’t get as well known, so the one who stands out most is Samuel L. Jackson. Incidentally, Jackie Burch cast Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, bringing us back to the beginning.

So, I will return to Batman Begins, and say that before I saw it, they showed a preview for The Dukes of Hazzard, which did not seem like an at all auspicious beginning. I remember thinking, You could not pay me to watch that. I realize now, that’s not really true. I could use some extra money, and I think for forty dollars or more, I would watch it. But I’d be thinking about other movies.