Category Archives: A Life in Film

A LIFE IN FILM #12 – BACK TO THE FUTURE

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1985: Things Have Turned Out Just Fine

BACK TO THE FUTURE (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Let’s start by acknowledging something: I don’t know that there’s a ton I can say about Back to the Future as a standalone movie that hasn’t already been said. The discourse is pretty well-developed: it’s a beloved classic for a reason; it’s a great use of the talents of Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, and Tom Wilson; the bit about Marty teaching Chuck Berry about rock and roll is pretty problematic; one joke does lean a little too hard on the idea of Huey Lewis being a super loud rock and roller; and the timing of the climactic power-the-car-with-a-lightning-bolt scene makes no damn sense, no matter how exciting the scene is.

Oh, and the collected Freudians of the world must have collectively shit their pants when this movie came out and was a hit.

Anyway, rather than focus on the specifics of Back to the Future, I wanted to use the movie to pull back and talk more widely about a commonality I’ve noticed in a whole bunch of time travel movies. This, after all, is one of the most famous of the genre, and it’s probably the one that I’ve spent the most time thinking about.

TFW you’re about to see some serious shit
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A LIFE IN FILM #11 – THIS IS SPINAL TAP

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1984: Just a Bunch of Working Stiffs

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (dir. Rob Reiner)

Moving into double digits with this project, I can see a few patterns emerging. One of these is that there are a couple of situations where I’m nervous to do the writeup. If it’s a widely-loved movie that I’m not so crazy about, I get nervous, because I feel like I really have to make my case if I’m going to be critical, or I’m going to piss people off or look like an idiot. Conversely, if it’s a movie that I absolutely love, I get nervous because I don’t want to just gush, because I can’t be objective. I might piss people off or look like an idiot.

Because yeah. I love This Is Spinal Tap. I love it more than most other movies that I’d say I love. It’s an absolute pantheon movie, one of those handful where I feel like it makes some sense to view my life through a before-I-saw-this/after-I-saw-this lens. I love music so much that sometimes it makes me wonder about my own sanity; I think I first saw This Is Spinal Tap at about the time this truth about my brain was making itself known to me. This Is Spinal Tap is magical because it manages to simultaneously be insanely funny while also encompassing a world of truth about music, especially rock music, double especially the world of rock music in the late 20th century as that artistic era started to move into its baroque phase.

How great is Nigel’s shirt, though?

Let’s not kid ourselves: music is a little absurd on several levels, if you step back and look; and so is our love for it. What is music, really? It’s air vibrating in specific patterns. That’s it. To love music is to have really strong opinions about how you want the air around you to vibrate. That, I submit, is a pretty absurd foundation on which to build.

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A LIFE IN FILM #10 – THE RIGHT STUFF

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1983: The Perils of Adaptation

THE RIGHT STUFF (dir. Philip Kaufman)

With some of these, I get very nervous about doing the actual writeup. And this is very much one of those. Because no matter how much I want to—and I want to pretty badly—I just don’t like this movie very much. And I know it’s a (partial) consensus classic, and it feels weird to go against the consensus. But I can’t help it! No matter how much other people like it, no matter how much it involves people I like, concepts I like, and adapts a book I like, I just can’t really get with The Right Stuff. I don’t hate it, but, except for some individual sequences (and maybe one of the ongoing storylines), I can’t get better than lukewarm about it.

For me, what hobbles The Right Stuff is that the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. Kaufman and William Goldman famously fought over the screenplay, with Goldman eventually leaving and washing his hands of the matter. And that unresolved fight is still present on the screen, giving us a long movie that meanders, bounces wildly in tone, and lacks focus. Goldman wanted to focus on the Mercury 7 and the patriotic hoopla around them; Kaufman wanted to focus on Chuck Yeager and the cult of tough-guy pilot machismo around him. In practice, even though Goldman bailed, we get an undercooked Mercury 7 movie stuffed inside a pretty good, tight dramatic short about Chuck Yeager. I talked a minute ago about feeling like I’m swimming against the current on this one, but I’m not completely alone; my understanding is that all of the surviving Mercury astronauts who saw the movie hated it (except for Scott Carpenter, who honestly seems like such a chill guy that he just liked everything). Conversely, Chuck Yeager supposedly loved it, but of course he would; the thing the movie most clearly succeeds at is making him look like the coolest guy who ever lived.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager; since he’s walking away from that landing, it is by the accepted definitions a good one.
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A LIFE IN FILM #9 – STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1982: I Feel Young

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (dir. Nicholas Meyer)

As this project itself will tell you, I was born at the end of 1974. It’s 2024 now; you can do some math (actually, doing the math will trick you, because I was born on one of the very last days of 1974, so usually it works better if you just assume ’75. Anyway. Close enough). I suffer from Crohn’s Disease in a way that, although it responds pretty well to medication, does mean that periodically my knuckles swell up and my hands in general just kind of say “I don’t feel like doing that.” RC and I took a vacation in January of 2020 and wound up taking a lot of pictures; in those pictures, I look like I could pass for late-30s. Of course, covid kicked off right after that, and if I look in a mirror and compare it to those pre-covid pics, I see a lot more gray hair, some permabags under my eyes, and generally a guy that absolutely no one would look at and think was a day younger than 49.

In other words: a lot of time these days, I feel kinda old. Not super old, mind you. But getting there (don’t worry, I’m fine). And this, of course, just makes me love Wrath of Khan even more.

I ask you: is that the chest of an old man?

Somehow, almost all of the original-cast Trek movies are in some way about grappling with middle age or beyond (I suppose this is probably just because the cast itself was aging; just looked it up and I’m currently just a touch younger than Shatner was when he made Khan, although I’m older than he was when he was worried about being old and out of touch in Star Trek: The Motion Picture).* Of all of them, Khan always did the best at grappling with the question of middle age, probably because it nests the question into a crackling story of adventure at sea that happens to be in space. Set aside the sci-fi trappings, and Khan  is Hornblower in Space, executed extremely well.

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A LIFE IN FILM #8 – THE ROAD WARRIOR

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1981: He’s a Reasonable Man!

THE ROAD WARRIOR (dir. George Miller)

1.
Around 1940, a kid from central Iowa named Art Pille became a baseball phenomenon. He—according to family legend, at least—was invited to try out for the Cubs, but got a Luke Skywalker-style kibosh from his father, who needed him to stick around on the hog farm and help out for another season or two. Later events would make it clear that his fire for baseball didn’t go away, but any future he might have had with the Cubs got scotched by Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent entry into World War II.

Pille was drafted into the Army and trained as an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Corps. He was posted to Australia as a small part of the massive organization Douglas MacArthur was assembling to retake the Western Pacific. Stationed in Brisbane in a logistical support role, Pille had time to meet a local girl. They got married; he stuck around for a while after demobilization and played some baseball in Australia (I still have a Sydney Truck and Tractor replica hat somewhere in my basement) before they moved back to the US and started a very large family, creating a small but fervent pocket of Australian national pride in eastern Nebraska.

2.

It’s 1983. I’m sitting in Mrs. Gardner’s 3rd grade class in Blair, Nebraska, about 25 miles north of Offutt Air Force Base, which sits on the south side of Omaha. Mrs. Gardner is, for some goddamned reason, telling a room full of third graders that Offutt is the headquarters of something called the Strategic Air Command and that, if there was a war, it would be a big target for the Soviets and everything around us would get blown up. That’s a scary thing, she acknowledges, but we should also be proud to live next to such an important place. Speaking subjectively, sitting there at my desk I feel more of the scary side of that than the proud side of that.

3.

So, with all of that established, maybe you can see why I was primed for The Road Warrior to smash into my brain as the Most Important Thing Ever when I first saw it during its run of endless screenings on HBO.* An Australian movie!!! About life after nuclear war!!! Holy shit!!! Plus, and this is important, it’s the result of one of the greatest filmmakers in history fully hitting his stride. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw it—stop me if you’ve heard this one—way too young, and I’ve never stopped loving it. Between The Road Warrior and INXS, the mid 80s were a great time to have a lot of Australian pride, and I don’t care how many Crocodiles Dundee you wave in my face.

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A LIFE IN FILM #7 – THE BLUES BROTHERS

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1980: On a Mission from God

THE BLUES BROTHERS (dir. John Landis)

In general, I’m a little nervous about doing these writeups about movies I love, because if someone’s going to take the time to read one of these, I don’t want to waste their time with endless “OMG IT RULES!!!!” 1980 poses a tough challenge, though, because the obvious movie to talk about is The Blues Brothers, and it happens to be not just a movie that I love, but one that I love so much that I think some of its themes are implanted into the wiring of my head.

Luckily, I do think there’s some interesting bigger-picture stuff to talk about here. Theology, cultural identity, that kind of fun stuff.

Twitchy, weird Aykroyd is the best Aykroyd

There’s probably no need to do a close rehash of The Blues Brothers; if you’re reading this, I assume you’ve seen it (and if you haven’t: you should!). But there are a lot of top-level things to note about it! For instance, it’s the first (and by far best) case of a Saturday Night Live bit becoming a movie. It features John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd doing maybe the best work either of them ever did. It’s about a couple of white weirdos* who love Black music, and believe they’re on a divine mission to use the power of music to save the orphanage where they were raised. It is itself a musical!

*It’s never made clear, as far as I can tell, if we’re supposed to consider them biological brothers or if they just have a sort of spiritual/musical brotherhood; maybe that doesn’t matter, and maybe that’s another point the movie’s making, intentionally or otherwise. And, of course, a couple of white guys who are trafficking so heavily in Black-coded culture referring to themselves as “brothers” is certainly a loose thread to be tugged at endlessly.

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A LIFE IN FILM #6 APOCALYPSE NOW

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1979: A Place Where Americans Go and Stuff Happens to Them

APOCALYPSE NOW (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

First off, and this is all I’m going to say on the matter: this movie represents the one situation where the music of the Doors is unambiguously good and awesome.

I’ve always assumed that this is what Dennis Hopper was like pretty much all the time

OK. With that out of the way: 1979 offered up a bumper crop of interesting, great movies! But there was always only one I was going to talk about. Apocalypse Now isn’t just a great movie, it might be the greatest American movie. It is not, however, the great Vietnam movie*; just sit with that for now, we’ll get there.

*That, obviously, is Return of the Jedi

I’m always conscious that I fully came online as a movie-watching adult with critical faculties some time in the 90s (I can peg it between the time I saw Fargo on initial release and didn’t get it at all** and when I saw it the second time, got it, and loved it). Before then, I still watched a lot of movies, of course, but for the most part they just kind of got piped into my brain un- or semi-digested. Apocalypse Now was definitely one of those. My parents had a copy as part of their enormous library of movies taped onto VHS***, and I watched it damn near constantly starting in 6th or 7th grade. I didn’t understand it at all—this is one of those movies where I was a voting adult before it really occurred to me to think about this as a movie with a plot and not just a series of cool scenes—but Young Me just *bathed* in the spectacle of this thing.

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A LIFE IN FILM #5 – NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1978: You Can’t Tell Me What To Do!!!!

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (dir. John Landis)

This shirt might be the best joke in the entire movie

A thing people love to say when they talk about movies (usually in the wider context of complaining how society is going to hell because the PC thugs/woke police/whatever is stifling us, maaaaaan) is that “this movie just couldn’t get made today.” And the thing is, that’s usually a completely useless observation. Social mores shift and culture changes. That’s natural; it’s always happened and it’s always going to happen until nature or human nature manages to kill us all off. Sure, maybe a studio wouldn’t greenlight Animal House to be shot with this script now; but at the same time, no studio would have come within 30 miles of Bottoms in 1978.

I guess my point is that the boundaries of what’s acceptable just naturally move with time, and movies move within that space. And more than that, comedies in particular exist within the specific cultural context in which they were made.* Comedy comes from breaking social norms, either shared or otherized, and those norms move with time.** Something that’s outrageous and boundary-pushing in 1955 might be completely unremarkable by 1980.

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A LIFE IN FILM #4 – SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1977: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GREAT TO BE AWESOME

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (dir. Hal Needham)

Look, I’m not about to claim the Smokey and the Bandit is a great movie. It’s not. But it’s an awesome movie, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

it’s called “fashion.” look it up.

Admittedly, “awesome” is a pretty subjective characterization, and in this case the case for awesomeness is helped a lot if you happened to be a little kid with access to cable television in the late 1970s and early 80s. And, well, guilty as charged. Bandit’s a very visceral, kinetic movie, all cool cars doing cool things and the triumvirate of Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jerry Reed* radiating charisma; you can see why kids (and the general public) loved it. It’s a sort of golden retriever, all charismatic good cheer with no gravitas and no need for any.

*My only casting beef with this movie is that I don’t think much of what Jackie Gleason does is funny, although that’s OK because he’s the antagonist and he works fine in that role. I know most people don’t agree with me on this, but on the other hand I’m not entirely alone; a friend of mine mentions that he always found Gleason actively terrifying in the role.

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A LIFE IN FILM #3 – LOGAN’S RUN

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1976: WHAT CAME AFTER

Logan’s Run (dir. Michael Anderson)

Oh, Logan’s Run; a perfectly sort-of-adequate movie that accidentally serves as a very useful point of comparison to talk about another movie that came out 11 months later.

Logan’s Run is one of those—maybe the archetypal—70s science fiction movies that is basically one metaphorical idea running along on a wing and a prayer. It’s about a future utopia where the population is kept to a manageable size by killing people at their 30th birthday. That’s the kind of thing that works pretty well as a reference (“this fuckin’ bar feels like Logan’s Run!!) but doesn’t really make for all that meaty a movie. It interestingly shares with Zardoz a general theme of “ok, so you say we could have a wonderful society through technology, but what kind of sacrifices would we have to make for that, Mr. Technophile???” and then, even more than Zardoz, stumbles on the question of how to make a gripping story out of that. It’s sort of a Kilgore Trout story that managed to escape out into the real world and get made into a movie.

Keith Phipps notes that Loganplays at times like the film is consciously trying to serve as the source for many future parodies of 1970s science fiction,” and that feels about right; chunks of the movie’s weird take on future hedonism even turn up in Demolition Man (and boy is that a movie I didn’t expect to keep turning up in these writeups). Big chunks of it were shot in a mall and look like it; other parts of it are so stagebound that they look like episodes of original-series Star Trek (which, to be clear: no beef for a 1960s TV show to look cheap; major beef for a 1970s feature film to look that cheap).

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A LIFE IN FILM #2: BARRY LYNDON

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1975: A SHITHEEL’S PROGRESS

Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

For about 25 years, Lyndon’s been the Kubrick movie that I was gonna check out some day. The double-barreled impetus of my needing a 1975 movie that wasn’t Jaws* and the death of Ryan O’Neal meant that now was finally the time. So last night I sat down and fired it up. And: holy shit was that fun!

The *real* star of Barry Lyndon, and a couple of people. I’m biased because that dog looks like my dog with a slight color correction, but I think the noble canine stoicism here is one of the funniest things in the movie.

*the original plan was to use Jaws as a vehicle to talk about the business of movies, the modern blockbuster era, and the weird way that these material concerns can get left out of talking about movies, but you know what? There’s plenty of that talk out there.

I knew Lyndon was a long period piece starring Ryan O’Neal as a cad making his way through 18th century Europe; that always sounded dreadfully dull and un-Kubrickian. What I didn’t count on was that the movie would be three hours of sharp, ridiculous humor, or that O’Neal—whose screen presence I normally don’t like at all, always expecting something like this—is perfectly cast here as an empty, unlikable shitheel. I absolutely did not expect a movie whose closest thematic relatives were The Talented Mr. Ripley and Parasite.

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A LIFE IN FILM #1: ZARDOZ

ABOUT THE PROJECT:

I’ve had the itch lately to get back into the writing/blogging game, but couldn’t find an angle. I’ve also been thinking a lot about movies lately as (maybe until pretty recently) the great unifying American artform (not in the sense that all movies are American, but in the sense that for about the last hundred years at least, movies are one of the dominant ways that Americans as a body interact with art). But there’s enough writing and talking about movies already, I thought, listening to a podcast that’s essentially a game show of movie rankings; who needs any more?

But then it hit me that the magical thing about all art is that it sort of has multiple existences—the single, standalone objective work on its own in a vacuum, and then the subjective experience when an individual person actually encounters it. And maybe my subjective encounters with movies are worth writing about.

So: I’m gonna do the full subjective journey, picking a movie that came out in each year of my life and writing about it. I imagine these’ll go all over the place in terms of approach, polish, and length. With this many entries to write (I’ve been alive a lot of years), variety’s the only way to keep it going.

SO LET’S GET ROLLING

1974: THE BIG SWINGS OF ZARDOZ

Zardoz (dir. John Boorman)

I was originally going to write about Blazing Saddles for 1974, because it was a profoundly formative movie for me, thanks to my parents’ insanely lax standards for what I could watch when I was a kid; but I remembered that I already wrote about it at some length in terms of it being a surprising example of postmodernism.

So instead, let’s talk about Zardoz.

Zardoz has served as a punchline as long as I’ve been aware of it. And I get it, I do. People tend to experience the movie first through pictures of Sean Connery in costume and yeah, it’s a ridiculous costume. The movie’s full of preposterous over-the-top moments, like when the room full of anhedonic future lotus-eaters are shocked by a boner. There’s a giant stone head that floats around the countryside vomiting guns and shouting about the penis.

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