This is a blog about movies. It is not about climate, energy, environment, sustainability or nuclear in any way, not even peripherally. Don’t look for it, it’s not here. I wrote this principally for my own enjoyment and it’s flabby and self-indulgent. It’s not really a book review, more a book reflection. Nonetheless I hope you enjoy it too.
The name “Owen Gleiberman” has been staring at me for a couple of years, jumping out from the personalised “Pandora’s Promise” film poster that adorns my office. Imagine my delight to find myself at the launch of his new book “Movie Freak: My life watching movies” in the heart of the East Village of New York, my billet d’entrée being none other than my dear friend Robert Stone himself. It wasn’t a planned thing. Life just kind of led there and the end of the evening led me to the copies of Movie Freak waiting on the table.
“Are you a movie freak?” Owen asked me with, something approaching devilish mischief in his eye after I sought an inscription.
“I like to think so” I replied, and damn if that wasn’t an honest answer. I DO like to think so, but is it actually true? Well based on Owen’s life, described in gorgeous prose and gratifying honesty in the pages of “Movie Freak”, I’m not even close. But I’m willing to bet there is a bit of Movie Freak in all of us. Owen’s lively, honest and occasionally borderline pugilistic retelling of his life watching movies has made me want to reconnect with that little freak again.
My earliest movie memory is falling asleep in “Return of the Jedi”. I didn’t think it was boring; I was four years old, and my parents had a slightly stronger sense of parental responsibility than Owen’s did. They treated their 9 year old to Polanski’s “Rosmary’s Baby” at the drive-in. Owen must be… special. It seems he drank this in and didn’t loose sleep. My older brother lost sleep when, aged about 10, he went to overnight at a friend’s house and they watched “The Exorcist”. I remember, vividly, Jon coming home the next day. He was white as a sheet and not talking. He had nightmares for weeks and my parents were (rightly) livid. Movies can be powerful. I got that much early, and Jon’s horrible experience probably does much to explain that I was raised in a household with a pedantic adherence to the ratings guidelines!!!
Except of course when it all got too hard, which was Crocodile Dundee at the drive-in (double feature after the dreadful King Solomon’s Mines with Richard Chamberlain), rated M!!! Fortunately I was too young to grasp the cocaine and transvestism and frankly I found the g-string bathing suit on Linda Kozlowski to be more confusing than anything else (isn’t that uncomfortable?).
But in movie terms I was not raised by the drive-in like Owen. I was not really raised by the cinema either. Trips to the movies were pretty rare, mainly Cottee’s Cordial two-for-one vouchers in the school holidays (“Flight of the Navigator” anyone? “Benji Come Home”? “The Neverending Story”?)
I was raised by the VHS. This centred around the gradual accumulation of movies recorded from the television by various members of the family. They were lovingly labelled and filed away, often with aggressive instructions of “DO NOT TAPE OVER” which were mostly, not always, respected. These were the movies we watched ad nauseum or perhaps more literally, ad verbum: my siblings and I could quote The Three Amigos and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels all day long and I loved it.
Being one of the younger siblings I had the tantalising offerings of some more “mature” material that was recorded during the old-school “A.O.” (Adults Only) viewing times, like Die Hard (awesome then, awesome now) and An American Werewolf in London (“Keep clear of the moors”). I would sneak this stuff out to watch until everyone gave up policing, realised I was coping and I just watched it. Then of course there were the video store offerings of which the greatest legend in our family was probably Clue. We fell head-over-schoolshoes for this board-game based comedy, unaware we were becoming part of a cult that arose around a commercial flop. I recall convincing my school teacher to show it as the video at our school sleepover (third grade perhaps) and “flop” was exactly the term. How excruciating to sit through one of my favourite movies with a group of my peers fundamentally not-getting it. Owen Gliebermann would have been proud of my attitude whether he happens to like Clue or not: I was pretty darn sure I was right and they were wrong and my opinion was not swayed by the responses of the masses. It’s probably sheer good fortune I had not recommended Johnny Dangerously, another Heard-sibling favourite, as I would have been in the sin-bin while the teachers had to explain to a roomful of kids what “getting laid” meant and why we couldn’t finish the movie.
The junior movie freak in me evolved from repetition to breadth as adolescence set in. My best friend Matthew and I would haunt the local video store, often bringing home a solid weekend’s worth of viewing. Matt’s seriously darkened lounge room was our cinema, his family CRT box our screen and we hit it good and hard. We both adored Dazed and Confused without knowing (or indeed caring) that it was the Movie of the Year (well… sort of…) for the reviewer at EW. As well as getting ourselves across James Bond, we went into some occasionally weird territory like Jacob’s Ladder. There’s certainly something about watching a hallucination of a man’s wife experiencing such brutal intercourse that a horn suddenly emerges from her mouth that imprints itself on a young mind.
Yet I don’t mainly remember the movie for shock value. I remember it for the tragedy of Jacob, the disturbing serenity of the ending, and for how it introduced me to the possibility that war wounds people in ways we often can’t see. Which medium but movies lets you see that in all the terrifying confusion? Matt was a movie freak, for sure and certain and I think he remained that way. Our last conversation was about movies. It will remain our last as cancer killed him just a couple of weeks later. Owen is right: like nearly nothing else movies bind us. They are a brilliant social lubricant. Matt and I had grown apart. It was hard to see most of him again after such a long time (I didn’t see all of him as he was missing a limb thanks to that damn cancer). It’s telling that we chose to pick things up again with movies.
There was one film on the video-store shelf that frightened me so much just from the box that I never watched it. It happens to be a Gleiberman favourite, Manhunter directed by Michael Mann. I had the pleasant realisation last week that I am now 37 and can probably handle it so I grabbed it for a good night in. Yes, it’s great; taught, tight and tense. Brian Cox is a delicious Lecktor and Tom Noonan is every bit as terrifying as my 13 year-old self suspected. Does he have the creepiest hands in screen history? It’s a movie of its time rather than a timeless movie. Some of the soundtrack is jarring and overbearing and some of William Petersen’s monologues are hard to take seriously when you never really lived in a world where “son-of-a-bitch” was a serious bit of swearing. What shone for me was Kim Griest and William Petersen together. “Be careful honey”. “I will…” is such a god-awful film cliché, always overdone to the point of meaninglessness. Yet I actually believed Griest in that role; being married with kids myself it looked and felt real, not like people trying to act like it’s really serious.
As I hit University I would become more part of the machine Owen christened “Media Mike”: the seemingly en masse anointing or disparaging of art and cultural phenomenon that spreads through a society like genetically modified spores that latch onto our opinion centres and are guided by a central intelligence. I think Owen is right about Mike: he’s real, he’s endemic, he wants your children and he’s not always wrong (Like The Bends, Owen. That really IS a brilliant album). So while I was still hunting down exciting cinematic fare to the extent that I could (Go being a little-known piece from the time that Owen and I agree on for example. Human Traffic being another I loved) I was getting suckered by Mike as well. The Matrix … is it really that good? But where Owen really hit a bullseye was his take-down of The Lord of the Rings. I laughed out loud in that “funny cause it’s true” kind of way. I was a great-big fanboy for these films and I’m contented to remain one… to a point. They are a wonderful popcorn spectacle but oh my god… watching Elijah Wood and Sean Astin is like pulling teeth. Viggo Mortensen’s Aaragorn is downright wet and Bloom could have been carved from the trees of the woodland realm. McKellen brought the acting chops I remembered so well from The Scarlet Pimpernel (another recorded-from-TV, Heard family, ad verbatim classic) and Gandalf brought the gravitas, frequently interrupted by random elvish mutterings that mean nothing to anyone (at least, not anyone you would want to be stuck in a lift with). Yet we all sucked it up with absurd reverence. Sean Bean’s Boromir was about the only protagonist I remotely warmed to, whose motivations spoke to me, who’s performance moved me. And of course he was doomed to leave us at the end of act I. Dramatically speaking the rest of the film was largely crushed under the weight not of special effects but self-importance.
So Owen got under my guard with that one: I was a part of the Media Mike machine. I don’t think Mike is always wrong, and I’m positive Owen couldn’t always be right (I loved Denis Leary in Suicide Kings), but at least Owen is always honest to Owen. Respect.
Of course the paradox of Media Mike and our widespread acquiesce to what we know deep down is utter shite is that a primary job of movies is to entertain. Are we not just doing ourselves a favour to let our guard down and be swept along by the experience? I have spent nearly two-years building up to Dawn of Justice, with the progression of trailers doing the job nicely. It is well-established knowledge that much of our pleasure comes from the pleasurable anticipation of pleasure itself (ask anyone who knows they will be having sex tonight), and that takes on a grand form in the group-think of Media Mike and the highly refined art of blockbuster hype. Is that bad? I don’t think so, but it’s probably good to acknowledge it and remember that that’s not all there is when it comes to movies.
So that gets a little tricky as a movie freak. Long-term exposure and consumption tends to refine one’s tastes and raise one’s demands, no matter the cultural medium. I read comics, have done since I was eight and it’s a lot harder to impress me now than it ever was. Can you take an eye as critical as Owen’s into the movies and actually enjoy yourself? Owen says yes. I’m less certain… I think there are trade-offs.
When you become a parent (as I am) it is also hard to also remain a movie freak without actually becoming a “self-indulgent dickhead”. So the same circumstance can lead one down different roads. The thinking goes like this:
“I have less time to watch movies. Therefore I should be picky”.
“I have less time to watch movies. Therefore I should let myself enjoy whatever happens”.
I have been lulled into the latter, but Movie Freak (and the fact that my kids are getting older) is nudging me right back to the former.
The fact is there is a meaningful difference between the pleasurable surrender to groupthink and Media Mike of the sake of enjoying a rollicking good time (Can’t wait for Captain America: Attack of the Drones), and watching a brilliant movie that leaves you a changed person. In recent years the tortured beast that is Australian cinema has delivered me my greatest movies. Mad Max: Fury Road is just magnificent but I hardly need to tell anyone. It’s fare like Animal Kingdom and Snowtown that really reminded me what great film-making is. You haven’t known terror until you have watched Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope Cody patiently demonstrate the unglamorous reality of scummy crims. You haven’t believed horror until you have seen Daniel Henshall’s John Bunting undertake his mundane, suburban, plain light of day crusade of depravity. Snowtown took $1.3 million at the box office. I dare say they will have spent more on Henry Cavill’s cape. I’m going to enjoy that cape, but I won’t be writing about it. I didn’t sit to watch those films hoping to elevate them to greatness. They got me there all on their own, that transcendent movie experience we yearn for.
But hey, everyone’s a critic right? Well… frankly only to the extent that everyone’s a singer. A good critic will bring more to the movie experience than you can bring yourself. They can’t tell you what to like in movies (or wine, beer or comic books). That’s the job of the individual alone and if there is any core message from Movie Freak it is that the individual should trust their response. But the good critic can help to build the sophistication of how you experience movies, enjoy them, they can develop your way of thinking about them and, should a good critic’s taste tend to align with your own, they might lead you to way more hits than misses when the lights go down. That level of engagement with the medium makes the highs higher. It’s my longstanding relationship with comics that makes Mind MGMT not only one of the best comics in print today but, for me, a pinnacle example of the medium itself. Where every blockbuster film today seems to be drawn from comics, here is a comic that is probably unfilmable. It is of the medium, and author/illustrator Matt Kindt has recognised the power of that medium and mastered it. Ironically, I suspect most folks who have never read a comic would hate it.
Movie Freak is a rollicking good read and for so, so much more than this light-hearted reflection has covered. For this minor freak it brought a welcome reminder of both what can be great about great movies and the influence of my choices in how to approach them. Trust myself more, settle less (not for less), seek great films and trust the great film-makers. Even when I wear my critic hat, that next great film will still blow it off my head as it blows my mind.