I love Quentin Tarantino’s films. I think he is brilliant. In an industry where the term “artist” is thrown around way too casually, Tarantino is a genuine artist. Too often people confuse “craftsman” with “artist.” Tom Hooper is a craftsman. Tim Burton is an artist. Danny Boyle is a craftsman. Tarantino is an artist. An artist is anyone who makes a unique piece of work that conjures a world no one else can duplicate. People may try to copy artists but their works just come off as pale imitations.
Have said that, I don’t believe Tarantino will ever win the coveted Best Director Oscar (the true label of conventional cinema greatness) and here’s why:
1) HIS MOVIES ARE TOO SUCCESSFUL
Too much success tends to breed resentment amongst fellow directors. Ask Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The Color Purple). Ask Ron Howard (Cocoon, Apollo 13). They both had to endure slights and absent nominations for obviously superior work until they finally “paid their dues” and won. Christopher Nolan is going through this right now.
2) HIS FILM INSPIRATIONS ARE TOO LOW BROW
Gangster movies, martial arts movies, Blaxploitation flicks, 1970s drive in movies, B-war movies, Italian horror, and spaghetti westerns. While such films were popular in their time, they were not considered Oscar winning subject matter then and neither are Tarantino’s variations on them now.
James Cameron finally earned his Oscar by switching from popcorn movie subject matter (The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies) to something more serious like Titanic. Ditto with Spielberg and Schindler's List. Ditto for Ron Howard who finally scored with the true-life drama A Beautiful Mind.
3) HIS MOVIES ARE FUNNY WHEN THEY SHOULDN’T BEFilmwonk
More specifically, he finds humor in uncomfortable situations. His films are funny when they should be serious and serious when they should be funny. This makes some viewers (usually older, usually Academy members) uncomfortable. People don’t vote for films that make them uncomfortable.
4) HIS SUBJECTS STRIKE NERVES & MAKE PEOPLE SQUIRM
He likes to make films about things we’d rather not talk about: slavery, race relations, the Holocaust. He used that N-word in Django. He makes them because he wants us to reexamine our thoughts on them. People often don’t like to have their viewpoints questioned. They don’t like to reexamine things. They want to be entertained.
5) HIS MOVIES ARE TOO VIOLENT
Whether it is families getting machine gunned by Nazis or slaves being made to fight to the death, Tarantino’s films draw out the violence. He rubs our nose in it until we get the bloody point. Many people don’t like that. I’ve seen people walk out of Tarantino’s movies rather than endure such scenes. People don’t vote for films they walk out on.
6) HE IS TOO CAVALIER WITH HISTORY
Oscar likes its films to stick close to the facts with minor liberties taken here and there. Whether it is reimagining the ending of World War II or depicting the Ku Klux Klan years before it was formed, Tarantino often disregards historical facts for contemporary audience wish fulfillment. This works if someone is already cognizant of history but many of his admirers are historically ignorant. They actually believe this is how it was.
7) HE IS MORE FAMOUS THAN HIS MOVIESCelebrity Review
Ask Alfred Hitchcock. Ask Cecil B. DeMille. Anytime the public is more aware of the filmmaker than the films, the filmmaker doesn’t win.
8) HOLLYWOOD DOESN’T HONOR SELF-REFLEXIVE MOVIES
Ask David Lynch. Ask Ken Russell. Ask Michelangelo Antonioni. Academy voters like their dramas straight like Gandhi or Dances With Wolves or The King’s Speech. Serious yet safe. They don’t like films that question their genres or their subject matter or their audiences’ prejudices.
9) HOLLYWOOD DOESN’T REWARD ENFANT TERRIBLES
Ask Orson Welles. Ask Charlie Chaplin. Ask Peter Bogdanovich. Filmmakers who prove themselves masters of the medium at a young age do not win no matter how old they get. It’s the Salieris’ way of getting back at the Mozarts. And there are a lot more Salieris in the world than Mozarts. Getting nominated is as close as they will get.
10. HE HAS ALREADY WON
Welles won Best Original Screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941). Hitchcock took Best Picture for Rebecca (1940) – even though the statue actually went to producer David O. Selznick. That became the reasoning in later years for not voting for them. Tarantino has already won Best Original Screenplay twice for Pulp Fiction (1994) and Django Unchained (2012). The Academy can pat themselves on the back and move on. Maybe some day he’ll eventually get an Academy Honorary Award like Robert Altman or Jean-Luc Godard. But no Best Director
What do you think?
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
Because it is slicky & sexy & scary. Because it plays over the end credits of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
Last month, my 16-year-old son decided it was time for one of those rituals of growing up: going to a movie by himself. He seemed right on schedule. I was 17 when I went to my first movie alone. My mother took me to the Showcase Cinemas in Bloomfield Hills, MI. She saw SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (1979) starring Alan Alda & Ellen Burstyn (rated PG). I saw ALIEN (1979) (rated R). Ben wanted to see a movie alone. We decided to go to the multiplex. My wife & I chose OBLIVION with Tom Cruise (rated PG-13). Ben wanted to see THE EVIL DEAD remake (rated R).Wikipedia
Like most teenagers, Ben had seen several R rated films at home (all subject to our approval). EVIL DEAD looked violent but no worse than, say, VHS (2012) that I’d watched with him six months earlier. When we got to the theater, I would buy the tickets for both movies and we’d be fine. I could not remember the last time I’d seen a theater enforce the R rating to any movie.
We arrived at the multiplex. Ben & Betsy went to get the popcorn. I went to get the tickets. Ahead of me in line were a father and two teenagers. He wanted two tickets to EVIL DEAD and a ticket for something else. “Who’s gonna see EVIL DEAD?” the middle-aged cashier asked. He pointed to the two teens. The cashier shook her head. “One of the people seeing EVIL DEAD has to be 17.”
Just as I realized what was going on – that they were enforcing the R rating -- she waved them aside and looked at me. “Can I help you?” she asked with all the sympathy of a lunch room monitor.Entertainment Weekly
“Two tickets for OBLIVION and one for EVIL DEAD.” I said.
Her eyes narrowed. “Who’s seeing EVIL DEAD?”
I held up my hand. Yep, lying to a theater cashier. Taking one for my son. I got the tickets and we headed to the usher station. We’d present the tickets together and we’d all be in. Ben could go to his theater. We would head off to OBLIVION.
The usher studied our tickets. “OBLIVION is seating right now but EVIL DEAD won’t be seating for about 15 minutes.”
The scenario flashed through my mind. Ben left alone in the lobby and then busted when he tried to get in when EVIL DEAD seated. That was no good.
We opted to wait. My wife rejoined us from the concession counter. We retreated to the lounge to figure out our next move. Huddled over our popcorn, we conspired a new plan. (Naturally, the theater manager decided this was the perfect time to come empty all the trash cans in the lounge. Was he onto us???). Holy cow, I was 16 again!
My wife came up with the new plan. She’d buy another EVIL DEAD ticket from the ticket kiosk. I’d go in with Ben. She’d go to OBLIVION. I’d walk Ben to EVIL DEAD. Once he was there, I’d go to OBLIVION.
Unfortunately, while we were conspiring, the theater moved the usher station. Instead of one in the lobby there were now two stations: one leading out of the lobby to the left where EVIL DEAD and the other movies played and the other leading to OBLIVION on the right. I was going to have to pass through the one station then come back out and pass through the other one. Oh well. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!
My wife headed to OBLIVION on the right. We went off to EVIL DEAD on the left. Looking good. Until we got in the EVIL DEAD theater. We were the only ones in there! I instantly feared leaving Ben alone. If he were the only one in the theater when the usher came in 20 minutes into the film to see if anyone was there (they turn off the film if no one is there). I could see the usher seeing Ben alone. Asking his age. Cue DRAGNET theme.
I thought about texting my wife but discovered that neither Ben nor I had our phones on us. Mine was back in the car. Ben assured me he would be fine. I decided to go (four customers entered just after I left).
Easy peazy. Walking back to the lobby, I just had to blend in with the crowd in the lobby and head off to OBLIVION. As I passed by the usher station, the perky blonde usher waved at me. “Hi again!” she chimed. Great! She remembered me.
No problem. Blend into the crowd and you’ll be fine. Only I discovered there WAS no crowd in the lobby. Just one couple and me. The ushers were waving and chatting with each other across the lobby.
I rolled my eyes. I left the theater to get my phone from the car. Only when I got out there did I discover that I had not left my phone in the car. I had left it back HOME. I could only laugh and shake my head. I’d gone from seeing one movie to seeing another to maybe seeing no film.
I slipped off my jacket and threw it in the car. I walked back into the theater. Through the lobby. I walked up to the usher on the right. I presented my OBLIVION ticket. And in I went. “Enjoy the show,” She told me as I passed by.
OBLIVION was just starting as I entered the theater. My wife sat in the row by the entrance. “What happened?” she asked as I sat down beside her. “I’ll tell you after the movie.”
I could only shake my head. I didn’t have this much trouble sneaking into IT’S NOT THE SIZE THAT COUNTS when I was really 16!!!!!!
Things have been kind of quiet around here this week. Only because I have a number of real world deadlines taking up my time. However, I have a bunch of things getting ready to be put up. So check back soon!!!!!
SNEAK PEEK BELOW
Remember Time After Time (1979)
Walt Disney's EPCOT
and Much, Much More!!!!!!!!!!
**1/2 - Wait for DVD
There isn't a lot to say about THE HANGOVER PART III. If you liked the first two, you'll like this one. If you didn't think the first two were all that funny, you'll think the same thing here.
If you thought Adam (Zach Galifianakis) was a delusional, self-involved prick in the first two, you'll still think that here (the early scenes where he causes two deaths will reconfirm this). If you find that character quirky and funny, you will again here.
If you think Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms can do so much better than this, you'll find yourself imagining that they are thinking the same thing throughout this film. They have both moved on to major stardom and appear to be as engaged with this plot as two actors running out the life of a contract. Even Galifianakis seems bored at times. Some times he seems in character; some times he just stands around. He lacks the frenetic, ad libbing energy of the first two.
The movie is not without its moments. John Goodman makes a fine villain. Chow (Ken Jeong) livens things up every time he appears. The scene where they have to break into a home is funny. Same for when the guys have to break into Caesar's Palace. I'm finding the BRIDESMAIDS persona Melissa McCarthy now plays in all her comedies (I like her when she plays other types) is best served in small doses (the trailer of THE HEAT before the movie confirms this for me) and the dosage is just about right here.
The scenes in Vegas had their moments though when I found myself paying more attention to what hotels were in the background than what was happening in the foreground, I realized how little involved I was with the film.
If you're thinking if I were any character in this movie I would be Stu (Ed Helms), you'd be wrong. I would be Chow. OK, OK, just yanking your chain. These kinds of movies bring out the Stu in me, especially when I start asking myself why the characters are doing what they're doing. Or why the characters themselves never start asking these questions.
The movie does manage to come full circle in the end. The characters grow up and move on into adulthood - just like the actors themselves are now ready to move on from THE HANGOVER to better things. Director Todd Phillips manages to bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion for its fans.
But throughout most of the film, I couldn't help thinking.......I haven't heard so little laughter in a movie theater since GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989).
Definitely stay when the end credits roll. The best scene happens then. I wish the rest of the movie had been played at that level.
Part I of this series discussed seeing The Great Gatsby on a Friday night in the Spring of 1974. On Saturday night, I saw American Graffiti. The next day was Sunday.
My family woke up ready to travel back home from Charleston, WV to Weirton, WV. The travel time home was 5 hours and uneventful. We arrived back at the house in late afternoon, unpacked, and had a light dinner. Sitting around the table, Mom asked what we wanted to do that night. Dad, half-joking, said, “How about a movie?” We laughed and said yes.
Dad suggested The Sting. He’d already seen it in Charleston and said it was very funny. We drove across the river to Steubenville, OH where The Sting was playing at the General Cinema on the edge of town.
As mentioned in the previous columns, America in the early 1970s was on a big nostalgia kick. Yes, we were looking back fondly at the 1950s but hit shows like The Waltons had us looking back warmly at the 1930s as well. The Sting fit this mood perfectly. It also had buzz because it reunited the team from the megahit Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969): Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill.
From the very opening the movie had me hooked. I learned from The Sting how to grab an audience’s attention even before the movie started. Hill’s use of the old Universal logo and to start the theme, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” right under it, perfectly established the mood of the film. The storybook page turning quality of the credits established this as a bit of a fairy tale.
This was my second Redford movie in 3 days and I was becoming a big fan. He seemed a little old for the role of Johnny Hooker but his intensity in the role won me over. I’d never seen Newman do comedy before. He was very good. Ditto Robert Shaw who made a very believably threatening villain, Doyle Lonnegan.
The other thing that struck me was the brilliance of David S. Ward’s screenplay. You could tell from the get go that this was a well-told story. A playful story that warned in the opening scenes us that we had better pay attention and keep on our toes. Not everything was as it seemed. That the audience was being played just as much as the con men’s marks. And yet it was all done with such a good-hearted tone that we knew nothing fundamentally bad would happen.
The Sting introduced us to the world of con men and “The Big Con” (something that actually existed then). Like Pixar’s films, Another world that exists right under our nose but which we rarely ever cross paths with. This was the first trickster script I’d encountered.
The movie dripped with nostalgia as it brilliantly brought the Depression era to life. Robert Surtees cinematography, Henry Bumstead’s production design, Edith Head’s costumes perfectly set the mood. In a decade when location shooting became the preferred norm, The Sting was one of the last films of the era to be shot entirely on the Universal lot (except for 3 days filming in Chicago) and yet it still feels like the real thing.
Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin tunes, while not historically right (Joplin’s music was written 30 years before the Depression) is “right”. The music proved so popular that The Entertainer” dominated Top 40 radio that spring along with the novelty hit, Ray Stevens’ “The Streak.”
I enjoyed the subtle misdirection of George Roy Hill’s directing. Most of the clues and truths of what is really going on are plainly in sight if you know what to look for. William Reynolds’ slight of hand editing contributes to that as well as his use of old time wipes and irises.
Even as an 11 year old I could sense Ward’s screenplay was a masterpiece of construction. The fact that Hill and Ward gave each sequence a title (The Set Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, The Sting) made me understand structure more. I began to sense there was an Act I, Act II, and Act III to telling a story. I also appreciated his use of Depression-era slang in the dialogue which gave this a real sense of time and place.
The supporting cast were all superb: Harold Gould, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Jack Kehoe, Dana Elcar, Robert Earl Jones. A young Sally Kirkland plays the burlesque dancer at the beginning. And a tip of the hat as well to Dimitra Arliss as the diner waitress who helps Redford out of a jam and ends up in bed with him (exactly where most American women wanted to be with Redford that year).
Everything came together in a slam-bang conclusion and then the movie was out.
Once again, the audience applauded. The Sting may not be a great movie but it is a great entertainment and often times that is an achievement in and of itself.
All three movies I saw that weekend had a lasting effect on me. Gatsby taught me how to tell a story through camera movement and composition. Graffiti taught me how to tell a story through sound and editing. The Sting taught me the value of a great script and a well-told, well-structured story. All three films demonstrated how music, production design, and cinematography could work together to pull a viewer into a world whether it be 1925 Long Island, 1962 small town California, or 1936 Chicago. All three films taught me the value of proper casting whether they be stars or unknowns.
I came out of that weekend loving Robert Redford, wanting to learn more about how movies were made, and wanting to start making movies myself. Wanting to share how those movies made me feel. Soon after, I started writing scripts.
3 days. 3 great movies. It remains the most influential weekend of my life.
My mother, Dorothy Jane Rothrock, passed away on this day back in 2002. She was 69 and had been fighting lung cancer since the previous September. Why she got it remains a mystery. Mom never smoked a day in her life. Cause doesn’t really matter anyway. She got it. It got her.
Most people, rightly, associate September 11, 2001 with the major events in New York and Washington DC and in a field in rural Pennsylvania. But, on a personal level, that was also the day when my mother, who had been feeling poorly all summer, found out the results of her tests and the “C” word entered our family. An operation was scheduled to remove part of her lung and then see where we stood. Mom lived alone in Florida. My parents had divorced two decades earlier.
I was going to head south to be there but Mom, because of 9/11, was adamant that I not fly. I agreed and drove down by myself (a journey worth a blog in itself). The operation went well. Mom did several weeks of chemo. The doctors sounded hopeful. Things looked promising. She started rehab to get her strength back. We spent Easter with her and made plans to have her up near us for the summer so she could have daily family contact.
But the cancer didn’t stay away and in early May the doctors told us there was no hope. My sister moved Mom up to her home in Minnesota. We gathered. We shared. We took care of her. We said our goodbyes. She got to see the ultra-sound of nephew Chris’ coming child who would be Mom’s first great-grandchild.
Mom and I had so many opportunities to have that “last conversation” – which we took advantage of -- that when it came time for our actual last talk, we just laughed because we had already said everything important we had to say. I recall that we just spoke of how much we loved each other, how much we were proud to be mother and son, respectively. Mom and I had spoken much of what she wanted done with her stuff and I promised to take care of everything. No worries.
I had to fly home. I knew I would not see her again. We got the call two days later that she was gone.
Losing a parent is not something you “get over”. You just learn to live with it. You never “get over” missing them. The hardest part was the first couple of months when I found yourself reaching for the phone to call and tell her something that had just happened. One time, I even had the phone in my hand and started dialing her number before I remembered and put it back in its cradle.
There are days when you feel sad and you don’t really know why. You just know you don’t feel like doing anything. You vacantly sit not thinking about much and then realize more time has passed than you thought. I realized that must be what everyone calls “grief”. And as time goes on, those days happen less and less. Eventually, they happen hardly at all. But the feelings are there.
And life will give us closure if we look for it. Mom’s first great-grandchild was born on September 12, 2002. She would have been proud of him. Of all of us.
Godspeed, Mom. You are still missed.
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
You Are So Beautiful by Joe Cocker
Because it was one of Mom's favorite songs. Because it is true of all of us.
We are our own personal time machine traveling daily from the past into the future. We revisit the past via our memories and the movies and photos of times gone by. We catch a glimpse of the future in the same way. What we do with the present is up to us.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by time. Stories about time. Stories about time travel. Stories about the past. Stories about the future. I have not really been much interested in stories set in the present day unless their characters are preoccupied by events from the past or contemplating the future.
My favorite episode of Lost In Space involved the Robinson family traveling back in time to Earth 1947 (“Visit to a Hostile Planet”). My favorite episode of Star Trek (“City On the Edge of Forever”) found Kirk and Spock back in America of the 1930s.
And don’t get me started on The Time Tunnel or Voyagers!.
Between Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, Sherwood Schwartz created a one season sitcom called It’s About Time about two astronauts who accidentally get trapped back in cave man days. The theme song still runs through my head at the oddest times.
Why has it been that way? Perhaps because I have always viewed time as something precious to be thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps because my family moved frequently during my childhood (I lived in 5 different cities in 3 different states before I turned 18) and I lived in dread fear of my father walking in the door and announcing we were moving again. By the time I became a teenager, I resisted making friends. I didn’t really see the point as it seemed just a matter of time (there’s that word again) before we would move and I would have to face the heartbreak of losing friends and starting all over. I just didn't want the pain.
I eventually relaxed that stance and by the time I was in high school I had a group of good friends and my first girlfriend. I knew I was in one of the best times of my life (certainly the best up until then). I didn’t fear moving as much but I also knew we could move at anytime. So I took to remembering everything: as many of the moments, as many of the funny bits, as many of the good lines as I could. It was like I turned on a video recorder in my head and it is still going 30 years later.
That is one of the reasons I became a writer. Because I wanted to remember everything. Because I knew that no time we live in can last forever. Because I wanted to write it down for the times when I would not have these friends, these relatives, these significant others around me. I wanted these moments on paper when they no longer have me. And to pass it down through time.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) was one of the best and wisest movies last year. Toward the end, main character Charlie observed:
“There are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17. I know these will all be stories some day. And our pictures will become old photographs. We'll all become somebody's mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening, I am here....You are alive, and….you're listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”
We are our own personal time machine traveling daily from the past into the future. We revisit the past via our memories and the movies and photos of times gone by. We catch a glimpse of the future in the same way.
What we do with the present is up to us.
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
"It's All Been Done" by Barenaked Ladies
Because it reminds me of time. Because I think we run into the same people over and over from lifetime to lifetime. It reminds me that we shall see each other again.
I know lots of people are excited about J.J. Abrams’ latest Star Trek movie opening today but I don’t care about it at all. Don’t get me wrong. The original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation are two Hall of Fame TV series but the movies have always been hit and miss for me, the best being Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The Next Generation movies seemed half-hearted as if the cast really wanted to be somewhere else. And I am one of the few people who disliked J.J. Abrams’ reboot 4 years ago.
This generation of filmmakers seems obsessed with starting old stories from scratch again as if the older versions no longer existed (probably the subject of a future blog). Problem is I am not really interested in seeing something I’ve seen before start all over again. I would rather see something new or see an established franchise keep moving forward and not just reliving its youth over and over (Hello, Superman, Spider Man, Star Trek). For me, Star Trek is a closed book that I have finished reading. I have no interested in starting it all over again.
So what AM I looking forward to seeing this summer?
The rousing conclusion to the romantic trilogy begun with Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). I can’t wait. And I hope Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy still make another in 9 years time. Richard Linklater is one of America’s most underrated filmmakers.
Has Brit Marling & Ellen Page and I like the story.
Sounds like an interesting take on THE LOTTERY and probably has things to say about our country and its notions of law & order in this day and time. And it has Ethan Hawke. I'm in.
THE BLING RING
Sofia Coppola is another of my favorite contemporary directors. I have loved all her films. And this one has a cool true story. Not to mention Emma Watson.
Because I see everything by Pixar. And I've forgiven them for the mediocrity of Brave (2012). Wreck-It Ralph (2012) should have won the Oscar.
Because I loved Ronald Maxwell’s Gettysburg (1994). This is his next installment after the mediocre Gods and Generals (2003).
THE LONE RANGER
Had tons of production problems but I’m hoping the team that brought us the Pirates of the Caribbean series can recapture the magic, despite Johnny Depp once again playing in white face.
THE WAY, WAY BACK
Supposed to be really, really good. And I’m a Steve Carrell fan.
Because it’s about the Indianapolis 500. Need I say more?
Sounds like an interesting horror film. And I’ve been a Patrick Wilson fan since Phantom of the Opera (2004).
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE
Didn’t like the first one but this one has Eva Green. The Dreamers (2003), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Casino Royale (2006). Need I say more?
UPDATE: This has now been pushed back to March 2014. Oh well.
I’ve been a Kristen Bell fan since Veronica Mars. This sounds like an interesting change of pace for her.
Trailer looks cool. With George Clooney & Sandra Bullock.
Because it is about time travel. And it is Richard Curtis who does romance and romantic comedy with the best of them.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Because it has a bunch of actors I really like: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard. And the previews look like home movies of my family reunions.
SAVING MR. BANKS
I’m a Disney nut and this is about the making of Mary Poppins. I can’t quite see Tom Hanks as Walt Disney (Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling would be better) but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m one of the few people who adored John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo (2004).
What are you looking forward to?
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
"Working For The Weekend" by Loverboy
Because it is the perfect "driving home from work on a Friday afternoon" song. Because it is Friday night. And we just got paid. Enough said.
Last week, Part I of this series discussed seeing The Great Gatsby on Friday night in the Spring of 1974. The next day was Saturday. My family spent the day looking at homes in Charleston to buy. The only thing I remember about the places we looked at is that none of them turned out to be the house we bought. After dinner, we decided to go to the movies again. This time, Dad would join us.
I don’t remember how we decided to see American Graffiti (1973). I suspect it was because our new favorite TV sitcom was Happy Days, an affectionate look back at the 1950s, and we thought Graffiti had been its inspiration. This turned out to be wrong but it’s easy to see why we thought so. Both starred Ron Howard. Both featured teenagers hanging at a drive in diner. And both had a streetwise tough: Fonzie in Happy Days/John Milner in Graffiti.
We drove downtown to the Plaza East twin screen theater. The first thing I remember about the theater was that we had a full house. Every seat taken. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with a full house. Graffiti was already a huge hit and some were seeing it again. The movie started and, just like Gatsby the night before, I found myself transported away but this time to a hot summer night in 1962 (and really was there much difference between the 1950s and 1962? The Beatles, JFK’s assassination, and Vietnam had yet to happen).
The first thing that jumped out at me was the soundtrack. It sounded as if we were listening to the greatest AM radio station ever. They even had the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack playing the tunes. This was the first time a movie used rock and roll tunes for the musical soundtrack and the choice of songs perfectly captured the mood of the scenes. I loved how the camera movement and the editing matched the rise and fall of the songs. The girls. The dancing. The humor. The fast cars. This was an exhilarating movie to watch.
Like any kid I loved the notion of staying out all night and these characters got to do that. Of the four male leads , I was most drawn to Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), the reserved and bookish grad heading off to college the next day. In my heart of hearts though I knew I was Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the geek (or baby brother) who is always hanging around the group. Never quite accepted but never quite rejected either.
As the film progressed I found myself connecting more and more with Curt. Like him, I was soon going to be uprooted and leave town. Leaving friends behind and starting over again in a new town and meeting new people. It was scary and I could understand why the characters would fear it.
I can’t say I related to the women characters. Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) was too young. Debbie (Candy Clark) was not my type (too Sandra Dee). Laurie (Cindy Williams) reminded me too much of my mother. She even had Mom’s haircut. And there was something in the way she and Steve talked that reminded me too much of my own (now divorced) parents. Having said that, their slow dance at the sock hop remains one of my favorite movie scenes. In less than a minute, we completely understand their relationship and it doesn’t hurt that they are dancing to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”.
I preferred Curt’s pursuit of the blonde in the T-bird (Suzanne Somers). His never say die efforts to find her brings him eventually to the local radio station and meeting Wolfman Jack for real. It made me wonder. Would I ever have a girlfriend? Would any girl ever be interested in guy like me? Especially the kind of girl who drove a T-bird?
And I really related to Wolfman’s advice to Curt about life. It seemed he was speaking to me. Life was about hanging on and letting go. It was about dreams and having the courage to keep reaching out for them whatever it takes. And realizing that, most often, those women in the T-Birds follow close behind.
I liked how the closing title cards let us know what happened to the guys and brought the audience back down to earth. (And even then I thought it odd not to learn what happened to the girls). The movie seemed to perfectly capture that moment before life changed for both the characters and the country. When the end credits rolled, the audience hooted and applauded.
American Graffiti forever changed the use of music in film. It changed how stories were told (multiple storylines happening at once). When I watch it, It still takes me back to 1962 and that night I first saw it in 1974.
Years later when I wrote my first good screenplay, I based it on a special time in my own life (summer job between high school and college). I used period pop and rock tunes just like Graffiti. And I even called it American Kids in honor of both Graffiti and the John Mellencamp song, “Jack & Diane” (which I used in the script). Like Jack & Diane, the kids in Graffiti are just “American kids doing the best that they can.”
For me, it remains the Citizen Kane of the coming of age genre, and one of the Movies That Changed My Life.
NEXT THURSDAY: MY GREATEST MOVIE WEEKEND CONCLUDES
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
"Class of `57" by The Statler Brothers
Because it reminds me of Graffiti. Because it takes me back to my own high school class.
I don’t have a brother. I have two older sisters. But today is the birthday of two guys I consider to be unofficial brothers, my cousin Terry and my oldest friend in the world, Joe.www.ideachampion.com
Today, I want to highlight Terry: the older brother I never had. I’m not sure why but when we were kids, Terry took me under his wing and made it a point of exposing me to all kinds of things regarding life and the movies.
On his bedroom walls he had a King Kong poster that used to scared me at night when the lights were off, a Humphrey Bogart poster from Casablanca and a W.C. Fields poster with the quote: “Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.”
When we visited his house, Terry used to grab me and sit me down and say things like, “You need to watch this movie.” “You need to read this book.” When he started acting in community theater, he took me along and I used to hang out doing minor things with the crew while they rehearsed. He exposed me to sophistication and bawdy humor, to classic movies and European cool. Terry single-handedly turned me on to:
Acquire (board game)
Around the World In 80 Days
Clue (board game)
Cruising with the top down
Drive In Movies
Edgar Allan Poe
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
Going to the Beach
Grand Prix racing
Herbie Goes Bananas
I Love Lucy
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Laurel & Hardy
Masterpiece (board game)
Mille Bornes (card game)
Mr. President (board game)
My Fair Lady
1776 (the movie, not the year)
Sunset Blvd (the street, not the movie)
The Addams Family
The Adventures of Superman
The Bozo Show
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Great Escape
The Guns of Navarone
The Maltese Falcon
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The Marx Brothers
The Mickey Mouse Club
The Wild Wild West
War and Peace (the Russian movie)
World War II
You Bet Your Life
I am sure I am missing a few but you get the idea.
I remember seeing him play a perfect Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He made a funny Barnaby in The Matchmaker. He wrote the funniest spec screenplay I’ve ever read, Joseph the Carpenter.
Because he wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a writer.
I would definitely not be the man I am today if not for him. And my life would be a lot sadder if I’d never been exposed to the things he shared. So thank you, Terry.
And Happy Birthday, cousin!
FAVORITE MOVIE MOMENT
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) meet again in Casablanca (1943)
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
You Belong To Me by Jason Wade
Because it reminds me of Casablanca and far off places. Bogart, Bacall, and the 1940s. Because I love this version from Shrek (2001).