Watching Best Worst Movie at the Dryden Followed by the Best Worst Movie, Troll 2

I figured it would be fun, so I went to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Best Worst Movie. It's a documentary about the "best worst movie" Troll 2 which they screened after the documentary. With anchors of cultural infamy in general, I've gone from being oblivious to being vaguely amused of to being vaguely annoyed to being downright cynical. So when I heard Troll 2 had a sort of "cult following" I was somewhat open, but deep inside, my eyes were rolling — "great, just like [surviving zombie attacks, being snarky about MySpace, Snakes on a Plane, pirates, getting on MySpace, etc.] this will be amusing but ultimately transparent."

The documentary is pretty well structured. Michael Stephenson played the role of "Joshua" in Troll 2, and as an adult, decided to revisit the making of the film and what the actors are up to. As such, it follows Dr. George Hardy, DDS — an Alabama dentist who was the one-time star of Troll 2. It lays out the case that a group of amateur and fledgling actors worked on a film by Italian director Claudio Fragasso, each having trouble figuring out the totality of the movie from the script, and further challenged by Fragasso's attention-to-detail and their inability to speak Italian (thankfully Fragasso could speak a little English). And when every single one of them finally saw the resulting product (through exactly two venues: HBO or on VHS tape video), they were aghast at just how bad it was. But — there are a small group of people who adore the sheer terribleness of the film. And as such, Dr. Hardy is a minor celebrity. Emphasis on "minor", as he's a celebrity to fans of the film and some weirdly gregarious Alabama dentist to everyone else.

Fragasso's wife Rossella Drudi co-wrote the screenplay with him. In the documentary, she says she was annoyed with her friends becoming irritating vegetarians, so she decided to have the central point be that the goblins in the film are vegetarian, resorting to transforming people into plants before eating them. (I should mention that there is a connection solely in name to Troll, and nobody in the movie utters the word "troll", always referring to the monster creatures as "goblins" instead.) Fragasso insists the film paints a portrait of American families — more so than Americans can even see.

And what is this portrait? Well basically a family from Utah decides to go on vacation by swapping houses for a month with a family in the rural town of Nilbog whom they have never met. As best I recall, they bring no provisions or luggage, save for an overnight bag or two. When they arrive, they swap keys with their aloof hosts and head in to the house. They find a feast of bizarre pastries but before they can eat them, Joshua's dead grandfather appears to him and insists they must not eat or they will die, freezing time, and giving Joshua time to formulate a distraction. Annoyed with his solution, Joshua's dad Michael (Hardy) sends him to bed early, noting (among other things) that he's "tightening [his] belt one loop so that [he doesn't] feel hunger pains", establishing the surreal scripted line that acts as the make-or-break moment when you, the viewer, decide if you're curious enough to proceed.

I cannot fathom what Fragasso was driving at with the vacation, interactions, and actions of this so-called American family. I wish I knew what I, as an American, am so blind to that my fathoming is in vain.

The movie definitely piqued my interest.  It was made with the full commitment of Fragasso who insisted on his form of perfection. The actors did their best to deliver, but between lack of skill and not being able to access the material, they tended more toward failure — although in their obliviousness, they managed to transmit Fragasso's vision. In the end, I think it is the portrait Fragasso envisioned. And that is why it has a cult following: that is is the tenacious work of one man and his wife to successfully and purely make an artistic statement.

Although I think it's predicated on one more thing. That artistic statement?: it's batshit insane. The metaphors are both ham-fisted and inaccessibly subtle (goblins turn people into vegetables to eat them — American mass-consumerism? turning humans into commodities? hatred of vegetarians? all of the above? one of the above?) Whatever Fragasso and Drudi set out to do, they may have succeeded, but the product of their work will remain an enigma forever.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work at the Little

I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I've never been much of a fan of Joan Rivers — my mom was, and I remember my parents going to see her live years ago and that they were shocked and unhappy that she swore a lot. By the sheer volume of media, I know that Rivers was on the Celebrity Apprentice, and that she gets cosmetic surgery, and that she does some kind of fashion critique at the Academy Awards. In total, I barely had any opinion of her — not her person, her acting, or her comedy.

So I went to the film about as unbiased as I could have. In general, I found it to be absolutely fascinating. It's a year-in-the-life kind of thing, edited more topically than chronologically.

I found Rivers to be generally likable and vibrant, but with a manner of living that is outside how I can imagine myself. She's a powerhouse in media — understanding it on a level that I can barely comprehend. She can somehow digest negative opinions of her and her work and continue to thrive, whereas I'd be back living in anonymity at the first sign of complaint.

She's constantly working on the cutting edge — heck, she's a 75-year-old woman who can still make audiences squirm in her comedy (which is nothing new: consider her joke cut from The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960's on abortion, [paraphrasing] "she had 14 appendectomies, flying back-and-forth to Puerto Rico; then she walked down the aisle in white") and she was on Celebrity Apprentice of all things. She has a well-contained big heart — generous and kind in what she cares about, but never for purposes of image (despite her claims that she will do anything for a buck).

As I watched, I came to realize Rivers was in charge of the film. I mean, obviously it was a documentary about her, but she expertly used the documentary medium as a means to advertise herself. She constantly sees herself as a brand (and rarely tips her hat to reveal that she sees herself as anything but) so this film was a way to reach another audience. I wonder if I was some part of her target audience — someone who is media-averse and human-interaction oriented. Whether I was deliberately in her cross-hairs or not, it worked for me — I'd even go see her comedy as I found myself genuinely surprised by her punch-lines, uncontrollably laughing out loud. If nothing else, the film greatly improved my opinion of Joan Rivers.

And now I've got another thing to talk with my mom about.

(even her joke cut from The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960's on abortion was more risqué than some I've heard today: (paraphrasing) "she had 14 appendectomies, flying back-and-forth to Puerto Rico; then she walked down the aisle in white")

Slumdog Millionaire at the Little

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see The Wrestler. Unfortunately, I had collected show-times from several weeks prior and didn't realize the Little changed them every week — we were a bit early as it was, and we'd have to wait about an hour. Instead, we opted to see Slumdog Millionaire.

The movie was quite good. In case you've been on a media vacation for the last 6 months, it's about a young man named Jamal who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, India. He has attained the position of serving tea at (if I remember correctly) a call center for-hire and gets his way onto the show Kaun Banega Crorepati?, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

The host of the show openly mocks his past — being a tea-server and growing up in the slums — and he is surprised that Jamal begins answering questions right. Every question, in fact. He's so surprised that he has Jamal taken to the police and interrogated. And here is where most of the film takes place: through flashback to events in his life to explain how he learned the answers.

In a way, it calls to the triviality of knowing trivia — that knowing the answers to arbitrary fact-based questions is not correlated with one's class, job, or past. Also, if someone has a wide breadth of experiences in their life, they will necessarily fare pretty well on such a contest, while those who typically excel have deliberately dedicated effort to the act of learning facts.

As the movie goes, the first act is full of the horrors of the slums, the second shows the ingenuity of Jamal, his brother, and another girl as they struggle to survive: all having lost their parents. The third act is sweet confection for the audience as it turns into a John Hughes film (his good ones in the 1980's, at least), complete with a musical montage (and with the added bonus of a Bollywood dance number over the credits).

Overall, I thought it was a good movie: enough substance to make it thought-provoking, all the while with an eye to entertainment.

Watching The Exiles with Ali at the Dryden

Ali and I went to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see The Exiles. The description given in the Eastman House calendar was tantalizing, as the film has almost never been screened for 50 years, and it documents Native Americans living in Los Angeles in the 1960's. Sprinkle in phrases like, "seamlessly mixes documentary and narrative techniques" and "deeply emotional and personal achievement", and I'm sold.

Our reaction to the film, however, was one of grand disappointment. It's an arduous film to watch full of interchangeably unlikeable, apathetic characters. In addition, the dialog was dubbed in the studio and loses all of its emotional expression in the process — in fact, according to the program notes authored by K. A. Westphal, the entire soundtrack was meticulously recreated long after shooting was completed [definitely read it for some unbelievable trivia]. In total, though, the film completely neglects the audience and instead slowly stews in its own world.

As such, the film is considered a masterpiece — in part because it deliberately rejects a serviceable narrative, and simply documents the lives of people who are essentially unremarkable jerks. As other reviewers noted, this undesirability of the characters seems to work against the cause of helping Native Americans. However, I took away the point that it was far too late — even in the 1960's — for the Native American cause. The people depicted on screen are the walking dead of a lost civilization. They drift from heartbeat to heartbeat, resigned to a purposeless fate: their entire culture having been wiped from the earth in what amounts to a mass genocide.

So in a way, I agree that it is a masterpiece. It spoke of the situation of recently-displaced Native Americans (who have been generationally displaced to boot) and what happens when you do that to someone. However, it's akin to experiencing the beauty of a sword by having someone slice your arm open with it. You can appreciate the workmanship and detail, but its true function is to cut and to kill, so what better way to truly immerse yourself in its beauty than by taking part in its primary function? The amoral, artistic side of me understands that that would be the pinnacle of sword examination, but the rest of me, well, doesn't really want to get cut.

And so, with my mighty blog and website and stuff, I set forth a demand to appeal to the audience. [And by that, I mean that I know that there are some Eastman House employees who will read this, and might consider bringing it up at a programming meeting, if the mood suits them.] My friends and I have had this kind of experience many times before: when a film is considered "great" or "important" for reasons other than how well it is appreciated by the average audience, but is noted for being altogether brilliant in its cinematic quality. I, personally, tend to enjoy these films too, but I need to be mentally prepared for them, and when I'm unprepared and end up getting blindsided, I find myself alienating the Dryden. I seek other avenues for entertainment … at least for a while. And I always end up coming back, and hopefully sooner than later.

I propose, therefore, that the Dryden begin offering "audience appreciation" films. This is different from "popcorn movies" which offer purely an experience of entertainment; rather a delineation of cinematic masterpieces that overlaps the "popcorn" genre. It's movies where the filmmakers consider the audience to be the most important part of the process.

Understandably, it's a difficult aspect to divine — after all, The Exiles had the audience at the forefront of its production as much as any other movie, and perhaps even more for respecting their knowledge and wisdom. Consider how different it is from Encounters At the End of the World, though: it's as if the audience is a cherished friend invited to explore something new and fascinating rather than colleagues already insatiably interested in the topic at hand.

Put simply, there's a difference between "cinematically important" and "enjoyable".

Make Way for Tomorrow at the Dryden

I went to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Make Way for Tomorrow. Tamara Jenkins gave a brief introduction after Jim Healy — the film was influential when she was writing her own film, The Savages. I liked her breezy, run-on way of talking and identified with "guilty writer syndrome" where rather than writing the script for The Savages, she took a break to see Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story) at a local film house, as it's on many "must-see" lists, particularly for filmmakers.

So upon watching it, she discovered it was based on a film from the 1930's: Make Way for Tomorrow (which, in turn, is based on a play and book). She and her husband sought to find a copy, and after exhausting film and video sources, they turned to eBay where they bought a VHS copy that was recorded on late-night TV, commercials-and-all. Presumably she got to see a private screening during her visit: she quipped that she has greatly enjoyed Rochester even though she's only seen it from the interior of the Dryden Theatre: she spent her time watching movies from the Eastman House archive.

Anyway, Make Way for Tomorrow was the saddest movie I ever saw. It starts out with a family of adult siblings being called to their parents' home. Their father explains that he failed to pay the mortgage and the house is being lost to foreclosure. His kids are relieved to find they have 6 months to vacate, but when they ask, he admits that the 6 months runs out in just a few days. The siblings try to accommodate their parents but all of them also try to maintain their own lives as if there were no disruption.

It's clear that all the parents (Bart and Lucy) want is to be together, but they have no means to do so on their own. Initially they're housed just a few hundred miles away on the East coast so they write letters to one another and rarely call (I guess they didn't have unlimited long distance). The siblings make a ditch effort to house their parents in the much more temperate climate of California with their sister. But when they find she is only willing to take care of Bart, they elect to put Lucy into a nursing home and send Bart alone.

The siblings are welcome their parents' meager request to spend one last day together. They spend it around New York — Bart still trying to find work to make ends meet. In lieu of dining with their children, they visit the hotel where they had their honeymoon and are welcomed by the staff. But alas, Bart's train is to leave and they get to the train station to say goodbye.

Just before Bart boards, he turns back to Lucy and says [pardon my paraphrasing], "and just in case there's a wreck or anything happens and I don't see you again, I just wanted to say that the last 50 years with you have been the best I could ever hope for." Lucy reciprocates — and it's abundantly clear that they will not ever see one another again.

I tried to explain the film to Ali when I got home but I broke down telling her about the last scenes. It's really unbelievable and deserves to be seen by many more people.

Sweeny Todd at the Cinema

Ali and I — despite her living right down the street — finally visited The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) for the first time in years. We saw Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which was one of the most gruesome musicals I've ever seen. I was actually surprised it got an "R" rating from the MPAA — admittedly, it was free of pie-fucking and nudity altogether so I guess fountains of blood sprouting from sliced necks over and over and over again is just A-OK.

Anyhow, the movie was great — such a bitter and sympathetic view of the worst that humanity can muster. I did notice that Johnny Depp seemed outclassed in singing by his lifetime-practiced co-stars; but as a non-connoisseur of Broadway musical talent, it didn't bother me nearly as much as others. And certainly an excellent choice for Valentine's Day.

As an added bonus, I was a special guest of the Cinema because their cat, Princess, decided to sleep through the movie on my coat. Apparently she wanted us to see the second feature as well because Ali eventually had to bodily move her so we could get going.

Dr. Strangelove and Bridge on the River Kwai at the Dryden

I rushed to get to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It turned out to be quite the popular movie and it wouldn't have mattered if I hurried or not for I just ended up at the end of a long line. I also ran into Rebecca and her boyfriend, so the three of us got together for the film.

I've long enjoyed it as the blackest of the black comedies — I mean, it really doesn't get funnier than "mutually assured destruction" [perhaps save for "mutually assured self-destruction"]. The very idea that one erroneous step in the arms race and kaboom: life would be far different now than it turned out to be.

Last Wednesday I headed there (the Dryden, not nuclear apocalypse) to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. I hadn't seen it before, but Stanley Kubrick blurs the line even further between black comedy, satire, and drama. I mean, can you really do a serious movie about war — or more particularly, the logic of war? It just doesn't make any sense outside its absurd context, as if the rules of life were completely dumped topsy-turvy.

But both films really dismantle the idea of the romantic view of war as some kind of beautiful peak experience. The reality is it's bat-shit fucking crazy. It really gives me, well, strange feelings toward our troops in Iraq.

On the one hand, I genuinely dish out gratitude for their actions. I get confused as to why, exactly. I mean, I'm not glad that they're killing people. And I don't believe that what we're doing is making anything better — short-term unquestionably worse, and long-term unlikely better — at least from my broad, detached, ill-informed [thanks media, government!] view. But then for what? Perhaps that they believe — they believe so much in America that they're willing to go to a far away place where people want to kill them and stand up and say "I'm an American" and shoot anyone who tries to shoot them.

I kind of envy that kind of thinking, for it's not so simple for me. I think the Constitution was a fantastic architecture for a government, and the Bill of Rights is a stupefyingly excellent invention. But the constant attempts to leverage power — oy!, enough already! Maybe it's inevitable human behavior to abuse power, but if so, then why permit authority in the first place?

So then the jingoist asks, "so are you for America or against it?" Let me answer this way: "I am all for my version of America." The one that puts the individual at the head of the pack — not the judge or the President, but the individual. I mean, imagine the difference it would make to hear, "I'm your representative: how can I help you?" rather than "I'm your leader: do what I tell you."

I'm kind of an idealist about the whole thing. I mean, I believe that, given freedom, that people will behave well toward one another. Unfortunately, I'm up against people who believe so strongly otherwise that they will demonstrate behavior counter to my ideal for the purpose of proving it false.

But hey, that's the nature of war.

Emerging Filmmakers Program #43

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) for The Emerging Filmmakers Series. I got confirmation that The High Falls Film Festival is taking over The Rochester/High Falls International Film Festival, "Movies on a Shoestring", giving the amalgam festival a suitably clumsy title and changing from the November dates of High Falls to the May dates of the Shoestring festival. I'm concerned that the short films will get sidelined just as they are at High Falls even though I gather that this would have been Shoestring's 50th year. It would be nice if High Falls at least kept the short film screenings donations-only in the spirit of Shoestring.

Anyway, the short films tonight were quite good. It's too bad the Little puts so little effort into promoting the shows … there were barely 10 people in attendance.

A couple documentaries stood out this month. First, The Sacred Food by Jack Pettibone Riccobono was a well-done documentary about (quoting from the flyer) "the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota and the wild rice, manoomin, that they consider a sacred gift from the Creator and are trying to keep wild". It was interesting to see the response of tradition to modern issues like genetic modification. Scorza Bros by M. P. Mann was a fascinating documentary about a man who works in East Rochester as a taxidermist — for the last 60-some years — and how he accepts but can't quite reconcile that he's unwilling to kill an animal on his own.

Among the narratives, You Can Run by Jason J. CrossMySpace link was a good (althought — at times — it was poorly acted, filmed, directed, and audio-recorded) albeit a heavy-handed film about alcoholism and the dangers in ignoring your heart about it.

The show concluded with "Three Short Stories" by Sean Mullin. In the first, The 14th Morning, a soldier tries to reconcile an error in judgment on the battlefield. Next was Man is a Bridge where "a National Guard Captain spends his days guarding Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge from terrorist attacks and his nights performing stand-up comedy." It was a powerful look at a man who could easily be superficially dismissed by everyone he knows, but our god's-eye view gives us the full picture. Finally, Sadiq is about a couple American soldiers trying to transport a detainee, but one of them is trying to be fight his need to care and the other is fighting his frustration. In the end, tensions build to a head and the one soldiers tries to get the prisoner to confess to his crime — but neither understand the other's language.

All three were particularly excellent films. They were gritty, lifelike, and empathetic. Ali said that she was once again glad she came.