The Human Factor

The Summer Movies

(Warning: spoilers throughout)

In 2008, Tony Stark made his film debut, and in 2019, he died. Both events feel symbolic. His debut heralded a new era in American cinema: the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe was quickly acquired by the Walt Disney Company, which, under the leadership of CEO Bob Iger, developed a strategy to invest in “event-level” films based on recognizable intellectual property. In the ensuing decade, Disney also bought Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, and began plundering its own vault for a series of remakes. Now, as Tony shuffles off this mortal coil (at least until he is reincarnated as a younger, cheaper actor) his work is complete: Disney owns most of 2019’s few certifiable blockbusters, and its beleaguered rivals are all trying and failing to replicate the business model. Continue reading “The Human Factor”

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie — Film of the Century

In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), Tim (Tim Heidecker) and Eric (Eric Wareheim) accept a job as managers of a shopping mall because a TV commercial promised they would “make a billion dollars” if they did so. The commercial was not accurate. The S’Wallow Valley Mall is a garbage-strewn wasteland where the few remaining businesses coexist with squatters and wild animals, and where the owner (Will Ferrell) wards off suicide by watching Top Gun on loop.

None of the businesses would survive in a more successful mall, least of all Reggie’s, which sells recycled toilet paper (as in, previously used). Tim and Eric, now self-styled marketing gurus, meet the eponymous owner and inform him that his business will soon be closing. Reggie is heartbroken (“It’s been in my family for years…”), but he desolately accepts their offer to become a janitor, because what else is he going to do? During the meeting, Tim takes a liking to Reggie’s young son, Jeffrey, and invites him to tour the mall: “I can teach you a little bit about what it’s like to be a businessman around here. What it’s like to be a real man. What it’s like to be a real successful businessman.” Within about a minute, Tim has declared himself Jeffrey’s new father, and Reggie has become “Uncle Reg.” Reggie accepts this, because what else is he going to do? The scene is scored to twinkly piano music, as if it were heartwarming.

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Exclusive Cannes Coverage!

The way to do the Cannes Film Festival is the way Roger Ebert did it: on the Chicago Sun-Times’ dime, with his wife in tow, enjoying pleasant interviews on the Croisette before shuffling off to the world premieres of Apocalypse Now or In the Realm of the Senses at night. His Cannes memoir Two Weeks in the Mid-Day Sun (in my opinion, the best non-Russ Meyer thing he ever wrote) paints an evocative picture of the festival as a fortnight of cinematic ecstasy: a place where Jean-Luc Godard signs a deal on a napkin to make King Lear with Menahem Golan; where salesmen like Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter hype up schlocky movies in the marketplace a block away from the Palais; and where Pulitizer-winning critic Roger Ebert gets turned away from a sold-out Henry Jaglom movie until Jaglom invites him to sit next to him in the aisle. Imagine such a thing… a sold-out Henry Jaglom movie! That’s how deep cinephilia runs in Cannes!

The Nitrate Picture Show

The first movie I remember seeing projected digitally was the forgotten George Clooney comedy Leatherheads (2008) at Toronto’s AMC (now Cineplex) Yonge & Dundas. The theatre was new, and promoted as the city’s first screening venue with “all digital presentation.” I remember almost nothing about the movie except for the projection, which was bright, sharp, and clear. There were no scratches whatsoever—the image was perfect. I confess: I liked it.

Now that 35mm presentations are increasingly rare events limited to a few major cities, I sometimes forget that they were once common as blades of grass, and that film ran through a projector when I attended matinees of the disposable likes of Clerks II, Rush Hour 3, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I also forget how collecting DVDs conditioned me to want nothing less than Crystal-Clear Sound and Picture Quality. On that front, I guess, the Leatherheads screening delivered, but the changes over the 11 years since have sometimes seemed like a long punishment for my positive reaction.

In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar would almost singlehandedly shift theatres from film to digital. The sea change has had a few advantages: on the production end, more kinds of people can make more kinds of movies for cheaper, and on the distribution end, it’s now financially viable for my local multiplex to play Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy for a week. A big disadvantage is that there’s not much special about seeing a digital file of Master Z with a small audience at a shoebox multiplex auditorium compared to seeing the same movie at home on VOD. Most people may not be fully conscious of the switch from film to digital, but I believe that on some level we all know that there was once a certain weight and depth to the projected image and that is no longer there, and that its absence has made moviegoing a less urgent activity for anything except huge blockbusters.

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The Cinema of 2019

When I was a younger man, I felt a bizarre sense of obligation to keep up with current cinema. Young people are still trying to define their identities, and I guess I wanted to be The Guy Who Knows About Movies. So I invested a lot of money and evenings into being part of “the conversation” about what seemed to be the important movies of the day: summer blockbusters, Oscar contenders, movies that Ebert gave four stars, etc. Incredibly, there was once a time when I felt it necessary to go see The Da Vinci Code, a movie I knew I would hate. Even worse, three years later I felt it necessary to see the sequel.

What changed, the movies or me? Nowadays I’m a grown adult with a full-time job, so my evening hours are precious and the Oscars are not a valid reason to spend them watching The Shape of Water. I’m more conscious of the fact that the medium has a rich 120+ year history to explore, and I also happen to think that Tarantino is right that digital projection is just “TV in public.” Movies are typically better with an audience, I suppose, but given a choice between trekking out in winter to see The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for $14 or watching the same movie curled up on a couch with a sweetie, the choice is clear.

Are movies getting worse? Sometimes I hear people say that “there’s no such thing as a bad year for movies—you’re just seeing the wrong movies.” Maybe this is true, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way when three or four franchises dominate the conversation, and it’s tiring to pan for gold on Netflix. I could spout some clichés about the endless resuscitation of stale brands, and in fact, maybe I should, because I believe these clichés to be true. (Every Hero Has a Genesis! Catch Sonic the Hedgehog, coming November 8 to theatres everywhere!). The Disney-Fox merger will consign another huge chunk of film history to The Disney Vault®, and will foster more of the toxic fan-culture that Disney will pretend to disavow but weaponize when it needs to (“Hey guys, Bart Simpson here! If your congressman wants to stop me from having adventures with Iron Man, tell him to EAT MY SHORTS!”). So yes, I do feel malaise about the current cinema. I sense malaise in the movies, too. In these troubled times, even most of the good ones feel a little exhausted.

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Revisiting Monty Python

In 1997, John Cleese and Michael Palin took over a segment of Saturday Night Live to reprise the most famous five minutes of British comedy of all time. First performed on a 1969 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Dead Parrot Sketch centres on an argument between a disgruntled customer (Cleese) and a shifty pet-shop owner (Palin) over whether or not a parrot is, in fact, dead. The absurd sketch sees Palin steadfastly denying the obvious, even after Cleese points out that the parrot was nailed to its perch, climaxing with Cleese’s verbal aria: “He’s not pinin’, he’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace…”

The sketch has been endlessly reprised in stage shows, albums, and “Best Of” specials, and was quoted by no less than Margaret Thatcher in a 1990 speech (she said of Liberal Democrats, “this is an ex-party”). Describing the SNL rehearsal in his published diaries, Palin wrote, “A small group of people … gather around the set with something uncomfortably close to reverence on their faces as they watch us work it through.”

The next day, Cleese and Palin performed the sketch to SNL’s studio audience. It bombed.

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from this, I suppose it is a familiar one about how comedy is inseparable from context. Maybe there is also a lesson somewhere here that is specific to Monty Python, a sainted comedy brand that has nevertheless become so plundered and rehashed that the actual reasons for its sainthood can seem a little distant. There are two Monty Pythons: a team of restless innovators who sought to break down the conventions of whichever medium they tackled; and a Rolling Stones of comedy who sell and re-sell a catalog of quotable sketches. One Monty Python eschewed catchphrases and inside-jokes; the other trades on them. Both Monty Pythons are partially responsible for the group’s success, but they work at cross-purposes.

In recent years, the easiest way to see Monty Python has been chopped-up into component parts on YouTube. This month, however, most of the Python catalogue was released on Netflix (April 15 in Canada and the U.K., with the U.S. to follow shortly). The essential works are four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1975), and the films Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) (plus 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, already available). The Netflix offerings also include two hourlong specials for German television (the first of which is performed entirely in phonetic German), various documentaries and live performances, and a bevy of compilations: Monty Python’s Personal Best, Monty Python’s Best Bits (Mostly), Parrot Sketch Not Included, and so on. If you watch everything, you’ll see “The Lumberjack Song” at least eight times, including once in German. I’m glad the people will have an opportunity to rediscover the group at its best, but I’m also sorry that they’ll also have to wade through a lot more.

When I remember Monty Python, I tend to boil it down to 20-or-so standout moments: the Spanish Inquisition, “Nudge Nudge,” the Black Knight, the Argument Clinic, the Ministry of Silly Walks, and so forth. The more Python becomes a series of catchphrases, the more it seems like a dusty relic from your Boomer dad’s youth, or something to be stuffed and mounted in some Museum of Comedy. But whenever I sit down and watch a whole episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I see something different: a stream-of-consciousness comic laboratory where sketches dissolve into each other, and where highbrow satire and dense, complicated wordplay coexist with absurdism and sheer crudity. In advance of the Netflix dump, I’ve been pulling a lot of my old Python DVDs off the shelf, and have been happy to rediscover a show that is living, breathing, and constantly surprising.

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Notes on David Letterman’s Netflix Show

This best and worst thing about My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman is that it features its host genuinely trying to be a good person. In the interview with Barack Obama that launched this monthly Netflix talk show, Letterman says, “My son in 20 years will say to me, ‘Wait a minute, you knew this was a problem and you didn’t do anything about it?’ And I apply that to all manner of circumstances in life and in the world.” Since Letterman’s departure from CBS in 2015, he has hosted an episode of the climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously about India’s investment in solar energy, appeared alongside Jon Stewart and Obama at a USO event, and badmouthed his former TV guest Donald Trump in a slew of interviews. Now, his first major project since The Late Show sees him mostly forgoing comedy to celebrate the good works of notable people. Continue reading “Notes on David Letterman’s Netflix Show”