Rotten Apples

Imagine a world where you could consume art and culture without corrupting influence of bad people. Folks, the future is now, thanks to the new online movie/TV database The Rotten Apples. Never again will you have to fear accidental exposure to the creative output of a Casey Affleck, a Brett Ratner, or a Jeffrey Tambor. This searchable database makes no judgments about the severity of the abuse, and draws no distinction between abusers who are alive or dead, or whether it stars Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey, or is directed by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or the late Alfred Hitchcock. It simply provides a list of the creative talent who have been accused of sexual misconduct, a link to an article outlining the allegations, and a “Fresh Apples”/”Rotten Apples” seal of dis/approval.

Even on its own dubious terms, the site is useless. Hitchcock’s harassment of Tippi Hedren renders his films “rotten,” but the films of Charlie Chaplin—whose marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey could easily be described as abusive—have “no known affiliation to anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct against them.” The same goes for Errol Flynn, another Golden Age star who serially preyed on teenagers, and Klaus Kinski, accused of rape by his daughter. Don Juan DeMarco is dinged for starring the “rotten apple” Marlon Brando (cited for improvising an assault in Last Tango in Paris without co-star Maria Schneider’s consent), but not for co-starring Johnny Depp, whose spousal abuse apparently doesn’t fall under the purview of “sexual misconduct.” Speaking of Depp, Ed Wood is “fresh” despite featuring convicted sex offender Jeffrey Jones, while Pirates of the Caribbean is “rotten” only because of co-star Geoffrey Rush’s inappropriate touching. Mel Gibson, another poster child for abusive men and unearned second-chances, does not fall under Rotten Apples’ sexual misconduct umbrella. Nor does director Bernardo Bertolucci, who conspired with Brando on Last Tango’s assault scene but apparently shares none of the blame. If you saw Salma Hayek’s New York Times op-ed about Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour during the making of Frida, you might be interested to know that the film is “rotten”… because of Geoffrey Rush. Pulp Fiction is “rotten” for John Travolta and executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, but Clerks—an acquisition that helped define the Weinsteins’ identity, and that Kevin Smith now pledges he will donate all royalties from as penance—is “fresh.” As long as we’re punishing films for the executives that financed them, why not anything made at Columbia Pictures during the reign of Harry Cohn, who used his stable of female stars as a virtual harem? Or Wonder Woman, produced by Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment and executive produced by Steven Mnuchin, now Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury? Continue reading “Rotten Apples”

Notes On Two Problematic Celebs

With the understanding that Louis C.K.’s career and legacy pale in importance to the suffering of his victims, I’ve found that conversations about him these days inevitably lead to a familiar question: is he really finished? Can he find a way back into the public’s good graces through one of his Brutally Honest™ stand-up specials? If a man as toxic as Mel Gibson can stage a comeback, why not Louis? Surely he’ll be the next example of how a rich, powerful man will skirt the consequences of his actions, right?

I’ve been wrong before, but I doubt he can recover. For one thing, unlike Mel Gibson, Louis C.K. plays himself. For another, C.K.’s brand was built on his supposed honesty: he was the Comedian Who Told Truths About Himself That Most Would Be Too Afraid To Admit™. In revealing these things, and asking his audience to identify with them, he built an unusually intimate relationship with his audience. He promised to guide you by the hand into taboo territory—often involving issues of sex and consent—and help you confront the bad ideas and impulses in the dark corners of your mind, with the tacit understanding that illuminating darkness is not the same as endorsement. A joke like “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” depends on both a shock of recognition, and our faith in C.K. that he has successfully recognized and tamed his worst impulses. His comedy ventured into dangerous and potentially painful territory, which is why C.K.’s betrayal of his audience feels like such a betrayal. Now that the trust has been broken, I don’t see how it can ever be regained. Continue reading “Notes On Two Problematic Celebs”

Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text

Every superhero needs an origin story, and Bruce Lee’s came in 1964 when, as a 24-year-old martial arts instructor in Oakland, California, he accepted a challenge to fight a rival sifu, Wong Jack Man. Lee had just opened his second Wing Chun school, but according to legend, Wong and the other local masters were offended that he taught the ancient Chinese arts to non-Chinese. Wong is said to have delivered Lee a scroll, signed by the top dogs of the San Francisco martial arts community, demanding that if he lost the fight, he must close his school and stop teaching Caucasians.

In the 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Caldwell (Lee’s widow and one of the fight’s few witnesses) remembers that “these elders arrived from San Francisco led by Wong Jack Man” at Lee’s school. She claims that Wong spent most of the fight running around the room to escape his opponent, and “it took three minutes for Bruce to get him down on the ground and say, ‘Do you give up? Do you give up?’” After the find, Caldwell found her husband sitting on the steps outside his studio, head in hands, lamenting that the fight took so long. That was the moment that Lee moved away from the “rehearsed routines” of classical martial arts and began developing Jeet Kun Do—a more fluid style often cited as a precursor to Mixed Martial Arts.

This is a great story, because it encapsulates everything that makes Lee an icon: his skill, his self-confidence, his iconoclastic approach to martial arts, his impossible perfectionism, his transcendence of national and racial barriers. It’s also one of those famous stories that begins to fall apart if you think about it for even half a second. Would Lee really have bet his livelihood on a fight? How many martial arts instructors in Chinatown would actually sign such an ultimatum? How much moral or legal authority would they have had? Was Lee really the only person teaching martial arts to non-Asians in San Francisco? Were the martial arts really such closely-guarded secrets in 1964? If the fight only took three minutes, why did it so deeply rattle Lee? For his part, Wong Jack Man (retired from teaching and still alive) claims that Lee simply offered an open challenge at a Chinatown movie theatre, and Wong decided to take him up on the offer. He also claims that he won the fight—or, if not “won,” then at least kept Lee going for 20 or 25 minutes. Continue reading “Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text”

Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre

In summer 2007, between my high-school graduation and my enrolment at the University of Toronto, my parents relocated from Etobicoke to Kitchener, about 90 minutes from downtown Toronto. The move had been a long time coming: Dad changed careers when I was in the tenth grade, and commuted an hour to Kitchener every day to avoid the trauma of making me switch schools. Once high school was over, however, nothing was tying them to the Toronto suburbs. In retrospect, the move was a no-brainer: Dad is now a five-minute drive from the office, and my parents spared themselves the possible indignity of clinging to an old home out of sentimental reasons. Even so, I spent a lot of summer 2007 mourning the loss of the house where I spent most of my life; disdaining a city that I knee-jerk dismissed as a poor-man’s Toronto; and moping through the four whole weeks I had to wait before I could again self-identify as a Torontonian.

One way I passed the time in August 2007 was by riding my bike to the nearest multiplex—the now-defunct Fairway Theatre—and seeing whatever garbage was playing during the late-summer dumping period. The Fairway Theatre was demolished a few years later and a Cineplex megaplex was erected a few blocks away, but I miss the Fairway for its five-dollar Tuesdays and its dumpy, pinball-machine-in-the-lobby vibe. As luck would have it, the films of August 2007 combined mediocrity with nostalgia in a way that seemed tailor-made for me in this emotionally vulnerable month of my life. The next summer, Iron Man would usher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Dark Knight would become the quintessential “Smart Blockbuster™”, so I daresay that the late-summer 2007 slate even has a certain wistful end-of-an-era quality if you squint hard enough. Continue reading “Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre”

Something Weird Video: An Appreciation

Now that physical media is almost dead, it has also entered its golden age. Since the only people still paying money for Blu-Rays are insane collectors like myself, companies like Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, 88 Films, Synapse, and Blue Underground have to work extra-hard for our limited entertainment dollars, releasing cult oddities in deluxe, extras-packed editions. We now live in a world where Taboo exists on Blu-Ray “scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original vault elements” and featuring four audio commentaries, an archival interview with star Kay Parker, and a gallery of promotional images. Taking a page from the Criterion playbook, Vinegar Syndrome builds anticipation for their monthly announcements, commissions artful cover designs, cultivates a subscriber base that orders monthly packages, and offers semiannual 50% off sales. Not a day goes by that I don’t get excited knowing that their releases of Joe Sarno’s Red Roses of Passion and Gerard Damiano’s Throat: 12 Years After will be on my shelf within the next month.172267_front

It’s a good time to be a trash-cinema consumer, and in this context, I’m overjoyed to see Something Weird Video—the grand poobah of all weirdo home-video companies—reclaim its rightful place at the top of the heap. Friends, I am now the proud owner of The Zodiac Killer (1971), the first of a projected series of tricked-out Blu-Rays made possible by the good folks at the American Genre Film Archive, who have acquired Something Weird’s enormous archive. Bat Pussy (1973), which may very well be the worst porno film of all time, will arrive on Blu-Ray in October, featuring “a new 2k scan from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print.” A 4k restoration of Ed Wood’s The Violent Years (1956) will follow.

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Notes on Revisiting “Breathless”

I’ve probably seen Breathless five or six times, but not much in the last few years, so I was lured to revisit it two weeks ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox by the prospect of a 35mm print. It was an invigorating experience. Even familiar movies tend to ossify in one’s mind, reduced to a series of still images—most famously in this case, Jean-Paul Belmondo (in a fedora, smoking a cigarette) and Jean Seberg (in a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt) walking along on the Champs Élysées. But on this viewing, the biggest surprise was just how alive it is.

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Notes Towards a Personal Blockbuster Video Canon

In the spring of 1993, at Westway and Royal York Rd. on the border of Etobicoke and York, a gas station was demolished and a new construction project started. Every day, as my mom drove me past, we monitored the progress. First came the off-white stucco walls… then the floor-to-ceiling windows… then the bright blue roof… Finally, when I saw that ticket-stub-shaped sign, bearing the glorious words “BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO®,” I knew my life had changed. That’s a pretty pathetic-sounding thing to say, but when you’re a small child, your world is limited, and my family’s Friday night visits to Blockbuster became the centrepiece of my weekend. I used to savour every moment, carefully considering every video in every aisle before eventually settling on one of the same handful of movies.

Continue reading “Notes Towards a Personal Blockbuster Video Canon”