November 12th, 2014

Movies That Make Us Feel Stupid

           There are no movies that make me feel stupid and there never have been, but I don’t believe that’s true for many people. When my extremely smart friend, Marvis, and I exited Stanley Kubrick’s disastrous last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, he seriously bemoaned, “Well, it was too smart for me.”
          “Are you kidding?” I asked. “That was the stupidest piece of shit Stanley Kubrick ever made. He, like his compatriots, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, John Ford, and many others, came to an ignoble end by co-writing, producing and directing an absolute turd for his final film, And the utter audacity of shooting the New York scenes in a studio in London is a complete failure. Others thought he blew it earlier by shooting the Battle of Hue in London for Full Metal Jacket, but I went with that—rubble is rubble—just plant a few palm trees amidst the rubble and it could be anywhere. But New York City—where Kubrick is from—has to be shot on location. Two thumbs-down. A total disaster, although Nicole Kidman looks stunning.”
          Marvis brightened up. “You mean it wasn’t me and my severe lack of education?”
          “No, my dear friend,” I replied, reassuringly, “It wasn’t your lack of education, nor any lack on your part at all. Kubrick screwed us and I want my money back.”
          If you disagree with my opinion, please read Eyes Wide Open by Frederic Raphael, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who, after trying to satisfy Kubrick for several years, was shit-canned and Kubrick himself took over to just make sure it didn’t make the slightest lick of sense.
          As I mentioned at the outset, there’s never been a movie that made me feel stupid. When I was five years old I knew that if the filmmaker didn’t get me to understand their silly story, they failed; not me. It’s the storyteller’s job to make me understand what they’re saying. I’m an open receptacle and you can put in whatever you’d like, but there’s nobody presently making movies who understands the properties of a story better than me, particularly in the God forsaken hell-hole known as Hollywood. In all honesty, I have no doubt that there are industrial videos being made about horseshit like thermodynamics and genomes and the like that I wouldn’t understand at all, but they’re not meant for me. If anybody is attempting to tell a story, I’ll get it.
          The first real attempt at making a film that could not be understood by anyone was Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s 1928 classic, Un Chien Anadalou, which I saw as a kid and immediately understood that it was not meant to be understood; it was simply a series of shocking images strung together willy-nilly based on a series of dreams that Bunuel and Dali shared with one another, which Bunuel subsequently directed in two weeks. The film was so unique, with ants devouring a hand and a straight razor slicing an eyeball in half (I saw this at the local library where I was the projectionist and chose the films), that not only were Bunuel and Dali eagerly accepted into the nascent Surrealist Movement, but when the film went on to make a lot of money, they were both unceremoniously booted out of the Surrealist Movement.
          Surrealistic filmmaking is, I believe, one of the most difficult genres to pull off, and that’s why I’ve never tried. I’m a three-act, linier, storyteller of the old school (my jailbird nickname was Ol’ Skool, as in, “Yo, Ol’ Skool, Jeop’dy on, so put on yo’ fuckin’ glasses, puts yo’ face through the bars, an’ answer the questions, just like the trained monkey you is.” When I nailed, “He wrote the Sabre Dance,” and I ejaculated, in time, before anyone else, “Who is Aram Katchaturian?” I brought the house down—I mean, the jail cell). I generally don’t go in for this lack of a storyline business, but, if done correctly, I’m a big fan.
          Well, zillions of other wannabe filmmakers have attempted Surrealism and damn near all of them have failed. Why? Because they not telling an actual story for the wrong reasons. If you know how to tell a story—and Luis Bunuel certainly did—then you decide to not tell one, you’ve made an artistic decision. However, if you don’t know how to tell a story in the first place, you’re not deciding anything; you’ve blundered into the desolate no-man’s land known as I Have No Story and I Must Scream; the hostile territory of the barbaric, moronic, storyless idiots, who do nothing but wander around blindly in circles until they finally fall down wells and latrines, to the amusement and satisfaction of those around them.
          Who other than Bunuel who just kept hitting the ball out of the Surrealist Stadium over and over again until he was in his eighties, and finally won an Oscar for his unflinching efforts, was next to finally pull off this masterful feat? Some may put forth one Federico Fellini, but I heartily disagree—Fellini always made sense, right from the beginning. Perhaps it was Ingmar Berman, but that’s not true, either; his films make perfect sense, even if the crusader is playing chess with death—he’s still on a crusade and could die at any time, or have to kill at any time, for that matter, so being on good terms with death is essential for all of his upcoming endeavors.
          No. I don’t think it was pulled off again, and this time in feature form, until 1970 when Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo, which I saw in its original midnight release in L.A. To quote Leonard Maltin, who doesn’t like this sort of thing—except when a pretentious idiot like Quentin Tarantino blunders his way into it by mistake—“Clad in black leather, a gunslinger rides through the Old West with his naked 7-year-old son in tow and guns down everyone in sight, after which he sets himself on fire. Divided into sections, with such names as Genesis, Psalms, and Apocalypse, this pretentious head-trip cult film borrows from Fellini and Leone, while employing meaningless symbolism and lots of perverse sex and violence. Overlong and overrated, though it seemed pretty cool in its day. Rafael Corkdi’s photography is striking.”
          A bit of a hypocrite there, aren’t we Mr. Maltin? “Pretentious?” “Meaningless?” “Overrated, though it seemed pretty cool in its day?” Hey, Maltin, is that positive or negative?
          As an aside, when the new Maltin book came out for 1994, he gave Pulp Fiction ***1/2 out of ****, the same as he gave The Godfather, although he gave The Godfather Part II ****, which I suppose he felt had somehow improved on the original. So I wrote him a letter asking how on earth could he say that Pulp Fiction was as good as The Godfather? He promptly replied that, “I don’t compare one film to another, I take them all individually.” I promptly shot back, “That would be true if you didn’t give them four star ratings. But the definition of ‘rate’ is the comparison of one thing to another, so therefore you are rating them. Let’s face facts, sir, you ripped the star rating system from the Michelin Guide that rated restaurant between one and five stars. Is it possible for a McDonald’s, no matter how good it is, to be a five-star restaurant? No. Pulp Fiction is not as good as anything compared to The Godfather. And why do you only give The Godfather ***1/2; what’s wrong with it? You failed to mention any flaws in your extremely positive review.” Oddly, he never wrote back.
          Anyway, Alejandro Jodorowsky tried several more times to repeat the success of El Topo, but never, in my opinion, got close. I hear his new picture is good, but I haven’t seen it yet.
          Who next? David Lynch. I remember exiting the premiere midnight screening of Eraserhead at the Nuart Theater in L.A. in 1978 and walking the several miles home with my late buddy, Rick Sandford. We were both in a daze—we’d never seen anything like it, and even though both of us were exceptionally loquacious, neither could find words to describe what we had just seen—it was too unique; too unheard of; too good for its own good. And then Mr. Lynch did it again with Blue Velvet, which I saw five times in the theater when it came out and got a headache all five times. But then he could never do it again. Sure, he made Elephant Man and Straight Story, both extremely good films, but both three-act stories. Everything else, I daresay, is crap.
          So, 1,453 words later, I arrive ever so nimbly at my point. My good buddy and business partner, Chris Dinnan, has made a film called Spoon Dog that I think stands right up there with Bunuel, Dali, Jodorowsky, and Lynch (Chris’ hero). I believe that I’ve now seen it nine times, and it’s worked nine times. Unfortunately for the world at large, Chris is keeping the film under wraps until its pending premiere at the Cannes Film Festival next March. But at each and every screening here at my house, the multiple viewers—as many as twelve—talked about Spoon Dog non-stop for at least a half-hour—all nine times! And what’s incredible to me is that no one at any of the screenings ever asked Chris, “What does it mean?” they just sat there and tried to puzzle it out on their own, each offering new possible meanings, but all knowing that Chris knew no more about the meaning of the film then they did. That’s when you know that you’ve succeeded; no one ever turned to the writer for an explanation even though they themselves couldn’t explain it. Actually, I believe there is a point and it’s clearly stated at the end, where it ought to be, but that’s just me; any line in the film might be the explanation; or none of them.
          I’ve never gotten into Cannes and I wouldn’t even consider sending any of my last five films to them. I did attempt all of the big North American festivals with my film, Running Time, and didn’t get into any of them, so by the time Cannes rolled around I had already given up.
          I’ve met David Lynch briefly several times—all at the long-defunct Carnation Restaurant on Wilshire in L.A. where he used to go to drink milkshakes and write—and I’ve also met Dean Stockwell, at length, and I never considered asking either of them what the hell Blue Velvet meant. I did ask Dean Stockwell what he thought of Greer Garson and he replied, “She was nice.” And even though he sold signed orange plastic work lights, I never barked at him, “Candy-Colored Clown!” or even thought of saying it. Some things are best left unsaid.
          Spoon Dog is a 9-minute masterpiece, and I’m extremely pleased to be the co-executive producer, and perhaps be in a position soon to have some of its glory slide off onto me. But, then again, it may very well be ignored because there are so many fake versions of it floating around, particularly in France, where two Spaniards invented it. But I have unlimited faith in the French when it comes to cinema—they know what’s real and what’s fake and, given half a chance, they’ll both notice and reward it. Sadly, neither Chris nor I can afford to attend, but I’m sure we’ll be informed in due time.

—Josh Becker

 

 

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