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I love entertainment...

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      • Pacific Rim Movie Review : Pathetically Grim
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        Pacific Rim Movie Review : Pathetically Grim

        Pacific Rim is a Guillermo del Toro film. Let me say that again because it’s little a hard to believe. Pacific Rim is a Guillermo del Toro film. The first time I saw the promo of this film, I said to myself it’s going to be...

      • 5/5 (1 votes)
      • Interstellar
        5/5 (1 votes)

        Nolan’s "Interstellar," about astronauts traveling to the other end of the galaxy to find a new home to
        replace humanity’s despoiled home-world, is frantically busy and earsplittingly
        loud. It uses booming music to jack...

      • San Andreas
        5/5 (1 votes)
        San Andreas

        In a match between a supremely catastrophic California
        earthquake and the former wrestling star turned movie action hero Dwayne
        Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock, aptly enough here I guess, although he’s not thusly
        credited), who are you going to bet...

        • Entertainer

          Thumb david crosby remember my name

          A.J. Eaton’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name” was one of the most acclaimed hits at Sundance this year, and I recall what a critic friend told me about the reaction to the film he saw there. “Millennials seemed to love it,” he said with a note of amazement in his voice.

          His surprise was understandable. Viewers too young to remember the ‘60s have spent their lives so inundated with the mythology of that decade that it’s easy to imagine them reacting to any new evocation of it with a reflexive yawn and roll of the eyes. That “David Crosby: Remember My Name” proves to be such a notable exception to that rule owes, I think, to a felicitous paradox: While the documentary does conjure up the whole sex-drugs-rock ’n’ roll ethos of that fabled time with great flair and pungency, it also movingly probes the hazards and costs of the overindulgence and self-deceptions the era’s lures often entailed. In essence, it serves up the myth and a necessary corrective to it simultaneously.

          That this blend comes across so powerfully on screen has a lot to do with David Crosby’s complicated charisma. I’ve been interested in—and in many cases, a fan of—Crosby’s work since the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” first hit my teenage eardrums way back when. But if Crosby’s musical gifts were always clear enough, his personality was more muddled, a mix of charm and boorishness, cockiness and annoying self-infatuation. Onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, he embarrassed his fellow Byrds by haranguing the audience with a lengthy spiel about the assassination of President Kennedy. Not long after, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman fired him from the band because Crosby had become, as McGuinn put it, “insufferable.” (In another recent doc, “Echoes from the Canyon,” Crosby explains his firing by saying simply, with a rueful smile, “I was an asshole.”)

          Eaton’s film, which might’ve been titled “The Asshole in Winter,” gives us a Crosby who in many ways is unreformed and unreconstructed, but also, in his late 70s, is reflective enough to be his own harshest critic. And whatever you think of the guy’s character, he is one helluva raconteur. The film is built on a series of interviews, some conducted by Eaton, others by producer Cameron Crowe, who was all of 16 when he first interviewed Crosby for Rolling Stone. These interviews, which were intended to be “brutally honest,” may be the best I’ve ever seen in a rock doc. Partly that’s due to how intelligent and incisive the questions are. But it’s also due to Crosby’s eloquence and willingness to bare his soul to the closest examination.

          The son of cinematographer Floyd Crosby, whose credits include “Tabu” and “High Noon,” Crosby was Hollywood-centric from the get-go, and seemed ready for the rush of fame and pop-music innovation that erupted in Los Angeles following the Beatles’ arrival in 1964. Alongside contemporaries like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds turned out a series of distinctive, groundbreaking hit singles that made them cultural icons and wealthy celebrities in very short order. Crosby’s trademarks, established early on, were his pristine vocal harmonies and unusual guitar tunings.

          Not long after his ejection from the Byrds, he was harmonizing one day with friend Stephen Stills, late of Buffalo Springfield, when a visitor from England, Graham Nash of the Hollies, arrived. What happened next became legend: The third time through the song they were singing, Nash added his high harmonies to the other two voices, and, as Crosby recalls, it took about 40 seconds for the three men to realize that they had hit musical gold.

          Within months, Crosby, Stills and Nash had a smash debut album and, playing only their second live gig, were one of the hits of the Woodstock music festival. Some hailed them as America’s answer to the Beatles, but of course there was a big difference between the two groups: While the Beatles labored and bonded in early obscurity, CSN came out of the box labeled a “supergroup” and had the super-sized egos to prove it. Once Neil Young was added to the band, the stage was set for a decades-long drama in which strong friendships and creative collaborations were regularly interrupted by fights, recriminations and breakups.

          The music, though, sometimes made the turmoil worth it. Our present White House occupant notwithstanding, I don’t think any public event has ever angered me as much as the killing of college students at Kent State in 1970, and hearing Young’s searing anthem “Ohio”—as Crosby angrily points at photos of soldiers who were not indicted for the slayings—again brought tears of rage to my eyes. The disc has been called the greatest protest record ever made.

          To turn from the rock ’n’ roll to the sex and drugs, Crosby’s life contained such a superabundance of both that he probably deserves his own entry—make that two entries—in the Guinness Book of World Records. About his numerous hookups and affairs he sounds especially self-critical and regretful, saying that he was selfish and never loved well enough. At least Joni Mitchell, whom he discovered singing in a Miami bar and introduced to the music world, was able to give him a suitable comeuppance, by singing a song that announced their breakup. The woman who seems to preoccupy him most, though, was his girlfriend Christine Hinton, who was killed in a car crash at age 21, leaving Crosby with an emotional wound that still appears to haunt him.

          As for the drugs: he did them, and they nearly did him in. The combination of heroin and cocaine made him a hopeless, helpless addict, a bind from which he was released only by a stint in prison in 1986. He supposedly has been clean since then, though his years of high living left him with a host of health problems: he’s had a liver transplant, has eight stents in his heart, etc. Though he now has a happy home life with longtime wife Jan and a bunch of dogs and horses, and recently has had a creative surge working with a group of young musicians, the shadow of mortality hangs over Crosby, and no doubt contributes to the sense in this film that his efforts to get at the truths of his life have a certain urgency to them.

          There’s something a bit strange about this ultimately, though. From one angle, “David Crosby: Remember My Name” (the title nods to his great 1971 debut album If Only I Could Remember My Name) has the shape of a tale of redemption: Crosby comes to terms with his life and reconciles with those he’s wronged. But that’s not how it turns out. Near the end of the film, he reveals that none of the guys he’s been closest to creatively—Stills, Nash, Young and McGuinn—will speak to him, due to outrages he’s committed against them, some very recently. What outrages? That the film doesn’t tell us must be counted a flaw. (Those interested in this should consult David Browne’s excellent new book Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.) But it’s virtually the only flaw in a work that is otherwise an exemplary piece of documentary filmmaking.

          By: Godfrey Cheshire
          Posted: July 18, 2019, 2:17 pm

        • Thumb muppet guys talking   dave goelz

          “You could get lost in a sky like that,” marvels Gonzo (Dave Goelz) in James Frawley’s 1979 classic, “The Muppet Movie.” He and his friends have become halted in their journey toward pursuing stardom in Hollywood, forcing them to spend the night around a campfire perched in the middle of nowhere. As Kermit (Jim Henson) and the gang hang their heads in sorrow, Gonzo’s gaze remains skyward, prompting him to sing one of the many masterful songs on the soundtrack penned by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. 

          Every bit as wistful and profound as the film’s most iconic number, “Rainbow Connection,” Gonzo’s bittersweet ballad, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” not only illuminates the depths of the character’s soul—pondering where he truly belongs—but also echoes the innermost feelings of the man who performed him. In the end credit roll, Goelz is the only major puppeteer credited among the Muppet designers, since that was the job for which he was originally hired full-time by Henson just five years prior. The 1976 debut of “The Muppet Show” marked Goelz’s promotion to principal performer with his role as Gonzo, the furry blue misfit who grew to become one of the most beloved and versatile of all the Muppet creations. 

          Four decades after its theatrical debut, the Muppets’ first big screen vehicle hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm, hilarity, wonder or poignance. In his enthusiastic review on “Sneak Previews,” Roger Ebert hailed the technological breakthrough of Kermit riding a bicycle as “one of the great moments in cinema,” likening it to the first time Jolson sang or Garbo laughed. Though the life Henson and his team brought to their ingeniously designed creatures is the very definition of movie magic, it is its underlying humanity that has made it resonate so deeply throughout the subsequent generations. 

          In Frank Oz’s sublime documentary, “Muppet Guys Talking,” released exclusively online last year, Goelz joined four of his longtime colleagues, including the late Jerry Nelson (a.k.a. Gonzo’s fondest fowl, Camilla), for an unforgettable conversation about what made working with Henson such a liberating and life-altering experience. Now the late Muppet creator’s daughter, Lisa Henson, is executive producing an enormously ambitious ten-part series that serves as a prequel to her father’s stunning 1982 fantasy, “The Dark Crystal.” Goelz will be among the all-star cast in “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” which arrives on Netflix at the end of next month.

          With “The Muppet Movie” returning to theaters on July 25th & 30th in honor of its 40th anniversary, courtesy of Fathom Events, Goelz spoke at length with about the spiritual and philosophical power of the Muppets, his excitement about revisiting the world of “The Dark Crystal,” and why Brian Henson’s 1992 holiday perennial, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” is his favorite Muppet picture, while sharing a wealth of priceless stories in between. 

          Your observation in “Muppet Guys Talking” that the Muppets celebrate “the degree to which we are all lost” caused the word “lost” to leap out at me every time it’s mentioned in “The Muppet Movie” upon revisiting it, from the running gag about Hare Krishna to the fact that Zoot can’t remember his own name. 

          I was certainly lost at the time. I was just beginning as a puppeteer, and I found myself in the thick of Hollywood working with legends. My colleagues were also legends to me, and I was like, “I don’t even have a right to be here. What am I doing in the middle of this crowd?”

          Did that feeling of being an outsider inform your approach to playing characters like Gonzo, particularly when he sings “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”?

          It probably did inform my characters. I think it’s true for all performers that each character comes from a part of yourself. You just isolate that part, amplify it and then try to make it lovable, and in my case, that’s what I tried to do. All credit for that song has to go to Paul Williams because he started working on it when he was writing music for the movie. It was a speculative song that he wrote because he related to Gonzo. Paul saw Gonzo as a flightless bird, and that struck him as poignant somehow. When we started making the movie, I was told that Paul had written the most amazing song for Gonzo, and that they would be writing it into the film. He played it for me, and it was just a profound, lovely song. It didn’t have an on-the-nose meaning, but it touched on universal themes like old friends who’ve just met. It’s one of my favorite scenes in my whole career, and that’s just because Paul felt it and wrote it.

          Was this the first glimmer of Gonzo’s soulfulness? 

          It may have been the earliest. The same year that “The Muppet Movie” was released, there was an episode of “The Muppet Show” where Gonzo decided to leave his friends and go to New Delhi to become a movie star. That was intended by Jim and the writers to be a serious moment, and it scared me. I was afraid to perform it because I was escaping into these characters in this funny, absurd world, and to actually do something that would take true pathos was frightening to me. It felt like it was too revelatory, and I was very uncertain when we recorded it. 

          That episode, along with Paul’s song, were the beginning of Gonzo’s soulful side, and it took many years to fully bloom, which happened on “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Jerry Juhl had Gonzo play Charles Dickens and I got to read that incredible narrative prose. That’s been the most exciting arc for Gonzo over the years. He started out as insecure, then he became crazy and bombastic and excited about everything, and then he became soulful. What a role like that gives you as a performer is a collection of moods to play. You can have Gonzo be any of those three things now because they’ve all been developed. 

          Your ability to move Gonzo’s eyelids plays an essential role in conveying his various emotions, an upgrade from the original puppet with eyes fixed in a sad expression. 

          That’s right. After the first season of “The Muppet Show,” they were really after me to bring more energy to Gonzo—more excitement and passion for his stupid acts—and I said, “Well, it’s really hard because he looks so downcast.” Incorporating a new eye mechanism solved that problem, and the actual mechanism that I built was a copy of the one that was used for Big Bird. It’s a linkage between the two eyes. You move one eyelid, and the other eyelid moves through a mechanical linkage. It’s a fork with a prong riding in the center of the fork, and in looking at the Big Bird mechanism, it made me realize that I could use the same concept for Gonzo. 

          The access of their eyelid movement is not parallel. It doesn’t run through both eyes, it’s angled so that their eyes open to the sides, so I literally just built the same kind of mechanism for Gonzo because it was exactly what was needed. At some point, we did a fan convention for the 25th anniversary of “The Muppet Show.” Gonzo was on “The Today Show” with Kermit and Maria Shriver, and the mechanism failed. When I tried to open the eyes, only one of them opened and it created this crazy expression right on air. Kermit noticed this and said, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”, and it turned out to be a really funny moment. I contended that the Muppets still look good after all these years because they continue to have work done. 

          I imagine many of your most inspired on camera moments are the result of improv.

          Oh yeah. [laughs] It has to be done with a certain amount of looseness. 

          When I interviewed Austin Pendleton last year, he told me that James Frawley was operating at a different level of intensity than the other Muppeteers.

          Jim Frawley was just from a different culture. He had done “The Monkees” on television, among other things, and he did a great job on the movie, though but I didn’t get to know him closely. Jim was producing, so I think he had a lot of say in how the movie was shot. That kept our tone on track. From my point of view, it was exciting to be working in sunshine after a couple years in rainy London. That was enough for all of us. We were just so happy to be out there in Los Angeles, driving around in the sunshine, so the set was very friendly. It was a nice crew.

          Among the film’s multitude of guest stars, whom would you cite as the most memorable? 

          In those days, our guest stars tended to be very established legends. Today, we have so many celebrities that we work with all age groups, including people who just got famous as well as stars who have been around longer, but generally I’d say the guest stars we have today are much younger than the ones we had in those days. It was a narrower field of celebrities, and they tended to be legends like Bob Hope. Edgar Bergen was such a sweet man. It was a joy to have him on the show, and then to have him back in the movie. In fact, he happened to die while we were shooting, and his wife asked Jim to come speak at his memorial in Beverly Hills. A little group of us went over there and Jerry Juhl had written some nice remarks for Kermit. Jim got up and, with Kermit, said, “I just want to pay tribute to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and what they did for our people.” [laughs] It’s such a lovely line. 

          I was kind of anxious about working with Richard Pryor because I was very aware of the pain and frustration and anger in his work. But he was very businesslike when we did our little scene together. We got finished with it, he was fine and I didn’t get hurt, so that was nice. It was just such a surreal experience for me. I literally grew up five miles from the studio where we shot the movie, and five years before, I had nothing to do with any of this. I was working at a drawing board in Silicon Valley, designing logic comparators, and then five years later, we’re on the world’s most popular television show, we’re making a movie, we’ve had a stream of legends on the show and now in the movie, and I couldn’t believe it.

          The viewer is able to share in the Muppets’ surreal adventure when they break the fourth wall, inviting us to be in on their jokes and share in their epiphanies.

          Jerry Juhl wrote that screenplay and Jerry had been with Jim since almost the beginning. Jim worked with his wife Jane, at first. They weren’t even married at the time they started their career, and after she left, he brought in Jerry Juhl, followed by Don Sahlin. Don was a great puppet maker and Jerry was a puppeteer and writer. Puppeteering scared him so much that he drifted over into writing because he didn’t really want to perform anymore. Then Frank Oz came in, so the four of them were the Muppets for a long time—those four guys and a secretary. So when Jerry wrote this movie, he was really writing about the whole journey that he had watched Jim take. I loved that he did the movie that way, and I’m sure he did that with Jim’s full cooperation. It was a great way to not only express Kermit’s journey, but the one that Jim took in gathering his collaborators.

          I liked the personal quality of James Bobin’s 2011 film, “The Muppets,” in how it expressed the perspective of a longtime fan unrelated to Kermit and the gang.

          You’re correct in that the film was a love letter from someone who watched “The Muppets” as a little boy. He didn’t know the canon as well, and I don’t think it came off as well as “The Muppet Movie” by any means. I wouldn’t put them on the same level.

          Me neither. I agree with you that “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a perfect film, in part because of Gonzo’s chemistry with Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire), not only in the film, but on the uproarious commentary track.

          Muppet performers have historically formed into pairs. Jim and Frank were the originals, and their chemistry together was astonishing. If you watch Ernie and Bert segments, Ernie will say something that is a little bit provocative, and then Jim will pause, waiting for Frank to respond. They somehow were able to keep that dialogue even and trust that the other guy was going to jump in with the right thing. They never talked over each other, and it was just elegant the way that they performed. Then Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt became a duo and they had the same kind of chemistry when they did the Two-Headed Monster on “Sesame Street.” They worked together on a lot of things, and they were just natural partners. Jerry, a cool, laid-back hipster, and crazy, wild Richard Hunt somehow were able to work together. 

          So then Steve and I started to develop that, and it really came to fruition when we did “Fraggle Rock.” We realized that we could say a couple of key words to each other and know exactly what we were suggesting. We hardly had to speak, we just were on the same wavelength and had so much fun doing Wembley and Boober together. Their neuroses would mesh really nicely. One day, I was trying to have Traveling Matt come back into the Rock through the hole in Doc’s workshop, and he got his backpack stuck. I suddenly thought of how to make a funny entrance, because with Matt, clumsiness was always a factor. I always tried to find a new way for him to be clumsy, and then during the show, for him to get clumsier and clumsier to make it interesting. 

          Steve was just leaving—he was done for the day—and he was at the door when I said, “Steve, can you come back for a second?” I had asked for Matt’s legs, and all I had to say to Steve was, “I want Matt to get stuck and then get released and go over frontwards.” So Steve was there with the legs, which weren’t even attached to the body. Matt burst through, took a forward dive, his feet came over, and then he jumped up, stood on his feet and said, “I’m alright!” Steve could do that on the first take because he’s a master puppeteer, and he just knew exactly what I was thinking of. We did two takes, and then went on home. That’s the sort of chemistry that is really, really fun. I feel that now with Matt Vogel and David Rugman. Those are two of the amazing guys performing with us today. 

          Were there certain aspects of Jim that Brian emulated when directing “The Muppet Christmas Carol”?

          Well, Brian is a different guy, and all of the directors we’ve had are different from Jim. They’re just different people, but having said that, I had a lot of fun making Brian laugh on the set. It was a weird time frame because his father had recently died, and he was going to direct a feature for the first time. It had to be so hard, and he really rose to it. He did a masterful job on “Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” I just thought it was amazing. His emphasis was a little different from Jim’s. Jim’s focus was primarily visual and Brian’s was a little more on the script, so he worked a long time in ADR replacing dialogue and tweaking lines. There was much more prose for those films than what I had done with Jim, but I thought that Brian was really faithful to the spirit of the enterprise, and he made my two favorite Muppet films. “Christmas Carol” is at the top of the list, and “Treasure Island” is right underneath it.

          When I watch the cast sing “The Love We Found” at the end of “Christmas Carol,” it makes me cry every time because it feels as if they are singing about Jim and the group he brought together.

          Some of those songs certainly apply to our group. They were written for the movie, but they happen to function for our group too. I will also say that I cannot watch “Christmas Carol” without crying. I haven’t been able to do it, and I think it’s because of the fact that I can relate to the redemption story. The genius of Dickens was that he made the ghosts—this is off-the-nose writing—in such a way that you could perceive them as ghosts that come to Scrooge, or as a creation of Scrooge in his dreams. I like to see it as the latter, with Scrooge contemplating where his behavior will lead, and ultimately creating his own redemption by suddenly realizing what he was doing in the world. The dream sequences with Scrooge and the ghosts culminate with him wiping the snow off the gravestone and finding his name there. His life has played out, he’s miserable and forgotten, and he’s added nothing to the world. His dream has made that clear to him, and he wakes up determined to change everything. God, it’s just powerful and empowering, as well as a great piece of literature.

          I love how the words “chains” and “change” blend together in the “Marley & Marley” number, articulating the two options for Scrooge’s future

          Oh my god, yeah! Well that’s Paul Williams as a lyricist. He is just a brilliant, eloquent person. If you ever get the chance to see him host an event, go there because he’s so much fun to listen to. 

          The film is also remarkable in how it never allows the comedy to undermine the seriousness of the Dickens text.

          I agree, and how it works is a mystery. It’s so hard to find that balance. I’ve read that the people at the Charles Dickens Museum in London consider “The Muppet Christmas Carol” to be the best film rendition of A Christmas Carol. The only thing that I can speculate about as to why is that the injection of humor releases your guard and allows you to cry. If there’s a poignant moment and you’re not quite feeling it, or you’re not quite ready to release your emotions, when something funny happens, it sort of opens the floodgates, and the next thing you know, you’re sobbing. Maybe the way that humor was injected into the piece strengthened it.

          I was deeply moved during your “Muppet Guys Talking” interview when you observed how working with this creative group has been “a spiritual experience.”

          That thought first occurred to me at Jim’s memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was packed with five thousand people, and then there were a thousand more people outside in the rain listening to the service on speakers. The workshop had spent the whole week building hundreds and hundreds of butterflies, and they were passed out at the door where people came in, so at any given moment, there were butterflies hovering above the heads of everyone in attendance. It beautifully expressed the lightness of Jim’s spirit, and it was so moving. Every time I looked into the crowd, I was overcome. Near the end of the ceremony, all the performers were in the center of the space, and I looked out at this round window at the opposite end of the church. The window was predominantly blue, and in the emotional state of my vision, it looked like the planet. I had been working with them for 17 years, and that was the moment when I realized, “This whole thing has been a spiritual journey.”

          The fact that the rainbow at the end of “The Muppet Movie” materializes after a sudden catastrophe and is welcomed with the line, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending,” is all the more poignant in light of Henson’s passing. To me, Henson is the rainbow, and those he has touched continue to bask in the warmth of his uniting light.

          You’re so right. It’s a powerful symbol, and there are so many ways you can interpret it. One way is that when everything goes wrong, just trust in the universe. Just trust that if you keep carrying on, your luck will change. Other people could see it as someone up there looking out for us. It’s a symbol that’s just off-the-nose enough to be interpreted in many, many ways, and in art, that’s hard to do. I just love any art that has that kind of openness. It’s like an invitation for the viewer to participate.

          You also mentioned in the MGT interview that your years with the Muppets led you to have a family. Was this a result of how the work dealt with real emotions in a way that was therapeutic?

          Your question is a really good one, and you’re right. It certainly was therapeutic to me, and it led me to therapy when I was about 40. It was a very healing place to work because it enabled you to work out your own feelings. All artists speak for us, and that applies to any kind of art, whether it’s dance or painting, anything. These people are out there saying things that they are compelled to say, working out their own issues through their own material. We all have issues that are universal, so when we recognize—even unconsciously—our own issues being expressed by an artist, we find ourselves a little purged, a little relieved that our issue has gotten out there, and a lot of times, we’re not even aware of it. I think that’s what’s going on. It’s certainly what was going on for me when I was doing the work. It was allowing me the chance to express my issues, and I think that resonates with the audience in our case because there is an underpinning of philosophy in our work. People respond to it often without knowing why. 

          How does the upcoming Netflix series, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” go about capturing the essence of Henson’s artistry in the original film, which I can attest is jaw-dropping in 70mm?

          The show is benefitting from the institutional memory of how to make a fantasy like that and how to film all the characters. The original movie took five years to make, and was in the development stage for around three years. It was a process of experimentation learning how to build the characters for that movie, and then a lengthy process of building sets. Brian Froud designed everything in the movie, so it was a massive project the first time out. This time, now that we already have the Creature Shop going, they’ve built many more puppets because there are Gelflings populating the series. They did it in five months, then flew everything over to London. It was just a stunning achievement. Before the filming started, I saw all these characters under construction, and it was being done more or less the same as it was the first time. 

          The set is so impressive, as is the way that the characters are performed and shot. Alice Dinnean has burst into the stratosphere with her performance as Brea in the series. She really found her world, and did a great job. The cast also includes other performers who have come up behind us in the British world of puppeteering, and they are just unbelievable. Whereas there were only two Gelflings in the original film, the series has about 50 or 60 of them, and they come from seven different Gelfling tribes. Some of them are in caves and have bigger eyes, while others live underwater and have adaptations to help them swim, and so forth. 

          It’s a massive undertaking, of course, and Brian has designed everything in the series as well. God, it’s exciting. I should also note that director Louis Letterier and his DP, Erik Wilson, actually shot the show. These guys not only lit and directed it, but they were working handheld cameras for the entire series, so it is very dynamic. Of course, there are some crane shots and some CG work in it for things that would be hard to do in puppeteering, but most of it is handheld and in-camera. I told Lisa that Jim would be so proud with what she’s done with it.

          Your character credited as Baffi in the series resembles Fizzgig, the adorable fur ball that you played in the original film. What meaning does that character hold for you?

          Almost nothing. [laughs] It’s paradoxical. If you think about it, he has basically that one joke onscreen where he’s fluffy and cute, he rolls and he hops, and then all of a sudden, this enormous, vicious mouth appears. It’s just a sight gag, and there’s no real character development for a role like that. It’s really easy. From my standpoint, it was almost inconsequential, but I’m happy to hear that it works in the film and that audiences like it. 

          What makes Fizzgig a memorable character is the way in which you bring him so vividly to life with every quiver and snarl. That is the true magic of the Muppets. The voice is only a fragment of the performance.

          It’s the weirdest thing when people assume that, as a puppeteer, you are only responsible for the voice. People treat it as though it’s animation—somebody does the voice and somebody else animated it—but it’s not, it’s a full performance. It’s all in one. Once in a while, we change the voice afterwards so it doesn’t sound like the Muppet people. Fizzgig was a simple thing to perform, really easy and fun. I actually had more fun playing the Garthim Master because I had a lot of interior life for him. I’m not sure it comes across on the screen, but I always thought of him as an obtuse general. He’s not too bright, but he somehow became a general, and for him, I referenced my short career in the military before I became a conscientious objector. 

          The military always struck me as a cartoon, a caricature of society. It has the same hierarchy that we have in the regular world, but it was a caricature of it. When the general comes in to review the troops, you stand in formation with about 400 people, and he drives by in a jeep, standing up to look at the soldiers. I don’t know what the hell he’s supposed to be seeing, it’s just a bunch of guys standing there, but it’s a caricature of when I worked at Hewlett-Packard, and the bosses came through. Everyone gets ready—you tidy up your area, and prepare to show what you’ve been working on—and all the guys did was just walk down the corridor. It’s the same as in the military, where it’s taken to such a silly extreme. Standing up in a jeep! [laughs] I just had a lot of fun imagining that character. Of course, we always ad-libbed between takes, and we had so much fun ad-libbing with them because they were really reprehensible characters.

          The dinner that the Skeksis indulge in together is hilarious in its nauseating detail. 

          Duncan Kenworthy, our associate producer, was just off-camera winding up these little toys that he had dressed to look like crawlies, which were a delicacy for the Skeksis. They loved to catch one of the crawlies when it ran down the table so they could throw it in their mouth and eat it. I’ll never forget Duncan scurrying around, setting up crawlies and running them through the shot. When the Skeksis ate, they drooled a lot, so we had K-Y jelly dripping off their lips and teeth, and Duncan was there applying more KY to them. It was all silly, but we had a lot of fun while we were shooting. Anytime you worked on something with Jim, you had fun. 

          After hearing the stories in “Muppet Guys Talking” about how the hot air balloon ride and the climb up the drain pipe were shot in the second Muppet movie, I am convinced that Henson’s 1981 musical, “The Great Muppet Caper,” is one of the most astonishing technical feats in cinema.

          Jim was always trying to push the art of puppetry beyond what it did before. They shot the Piggy water number in “Caper”  for at least a week. They built the swimming pool above ground on a stage, and Frank would be in there, wearing weighted shoes. There was a guy underwater with air for Frank, and there was somebody else pushing air through Piggy’s nostrils so that bubbles would come out of her nose in the underwater shots. In the “First Time it Happens” number, Jim did a wonderful swish-pan, a tilt downward on Piggy when she started to dance. It covered a cut so you saw the hand puppet of Piggy at the top, and then the camera swished downward and landed on her feet, which were really tap dancing. It allowed a real dancer to actually dance with her feet, wearing the costume of Piggy’s feet and dress. It was that simple, and the cut works brilliantly, yet another example of Jim finding a way to do something new. 

          While we were shooting the darkroom scene where Gonzo is developing the photograph, he had to reach out and focus the enlarger. Since there was no digital wire removal at that time, we tried to get the arm wire at the bottom of the frame. In this case, I really needed to reach up high, so I built a little notch in the baseboard of the enlarger, and if I worked with great precision, I could keep Gonzo’s arm wire behind the vertical shaft that was supporting the enlarger. Jim was delighted that I was able to set it up so I could move at just the right angle, preventing the viewer from seeing the arm wire. Then I could rotate the arm wire and make it look like Gonzo’s hand was focusing the enlarger. That was a little thing that I worked out onset, and Jim was so tickled. He just loved incorporating an innovative use of puppeteering.

          The driving scenes are easy to take for granted since it really appears as if the Muppets are in command of their vehicles.

          In “The Muppet Movie,” I remember the driver was tucked way back in the Studebaker. There was a place for a guy to steer from, and he was driving using a monitor, with a camera in the front nose of the Studebaker that could see ahead. He was driving from that image because he couldn’t see anything else, so we were always in danger of him smashing into something, but luckily, it didn’t happen. In “Caper,” Beauregard is driving a little Austin taxi that crashes right through the front door of the hotel. We recorded the exterior shot on a real street in London, with Jim, Frank and I on the back floor of the car. The seats had been taken out of the Austin, so we were sitting on apple boxes and moving blankets. At the wheel was a stunt driver wearing a Beauregard costume, looking out of Beauregard’s mouth. 

          The idea was that we were going to go through this door, which had maybe three inches clearance on either side. It was a balsa wood door, but it was in a building with real stone pillars on either side of it. The driver was going to hit that at about 20 miles an hour, and we were back there joking about what happens if he hits one side or the other. I think we did just one take of that, and we couldn’t see what was going on, aside from looking at monitors with our characters on them. We were just thinking, “I hope he hits it. He’s going pretty fast.” [laughs] But Jim’s luck held. Somehow he would try these things and they’d work. Gonzo’s stunt of flying with the balloons in “The Muppet Movie” was easy for me. There was a radio-controlled Gonzo hanging from the balloons, which were supported by a cable, and since we couldn’t remove the cable, we had to make it as slim as possible. I was working Gonzo’s mouth and head by radio control.

          The story of filming the opening sequence in “Caper” is especially terrifying, with the two helicopters circling Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo in the hot air balloon.

          It was crazy. We did it for a week, out in Albuquerque. One helicopter had a sling underneath it with a camera operator, and the second helicopter had Jim, Frank and I inside doing scripted dialogue. There was also a sound guy with a Nagra recorder in our helicopter, and we were working our characters in the balloon by radio control, so their heads and mouths would move as they went through the dialogue. The only trouble we got into was that the camera operator had to shoot with a long lens so that the helicopter wash wouldn’t blow the balloon away. They had to be far enough away in order to not effect the balloon, and with that long lens, there was a certain amount of vibration transmitted down from the helicopter to the cameraman’s sling that caused a lot of the shots to be unusable. But we had a great time in Albuquerque. [laughs] The altitudes were high, the margaritas were strong, every dinner was an experience, and then in the morning, we would go back up into the helicopter. 

          I like how the stakes are raised in the third Muppet movie, Frank Oz’s 1984 “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” forcing the characters to pound the pavement, rather than promptly receive rich and famous contracts upon arriving in the Big Apple.

          The overall theatrical sensibility of it, with the human characters playing that youthful naiveté, was not quite as convincing to me. I think the film is in a different category, but that said, there was a lot of innovative stuff in it. Jim directed the rats cooking in the kitchen. That was his own little sequence that he brought in, and he worked with Faz Fazakas to build the mechanisms for all those things. It was so cute and so clever. 

          But the performance part of it that I remember most was when Kermit gets separated from the gang and winds up working in an ad agency. All the frogs that he’s working with sound like impressions of Kermit, and we were teasing Jim with it, because when we’d talk to him, he’d often go, “Hmmm, I don’t know, Dave, what do you think?” So as the frogs, we exaggerated our syllables while saying, “Hmmm,” between lines. It was an extended satire of Jim’s way of speaking, and he loved it. He was like, “That’s great!” [laughs] That’s my favorite sequence in that movie because I just loved sending up Jim.

          Among your other show-stopping roles is Sir Didymus, the canine knight in Henson’s 1986 fantasy, “Labyrinth.”

          That was a weird experience. The vibe on the set was different because we had different key people on that movie, and it wasn’t as much fun on the floor. The guys who were running the set were more serious, so it didn’t allow for as much play. I played one of the Fireys, and there was a team of puppeteers performing each of those creatures. Our second unit director was very, very serious, and I had this goofy character who could turn his lower jaw off to the side. When the second AD would start counting down, he’d be like, “Okay, five, four, three,” and I would tease him by having my guy say, “I bit my cheek!” It would just break everybody up, and for us, it’s that kind of horseplay that adds energy to the scene and to everybody. It drove the AD nuts. He just hated the fact that I constantly had some little interruption just before we shot. [laughs]

          As for Didymus, I had a little team of about four other people working the character. We rehearsed that three-page scene he has at the bridge for about a week, breaking it down syllable by syllable, so that we knew exactly what everybody had to do for each line. We’re performing the character’s expressions with cables, and a lever is attached to each cable, so if Didymus has to sneer, we have to rehearse precisely when to pull the correct lever. We just worked it out, and then got comfortable with it to the point where we could ad lib too, which is true of all of those complex characters, like the Skeksis, that had four to six people operating them. You could ad lib with them after a couple of weeks. But anyway, after we were really well-rehearsed on the bridge scene, I went down to the High Street and bought a folding beach chair so I’d be comfortable when I was working. I only had so much energy and I wanted it all to go on the screen. I don’t want to devote some energy to the fact that my leg hurts because I’m kneeling on an apple box. 

          I showed up onset with the chair as well as a music stand, which had my three pages on it. I had them memorized, but I don’t trust my memory. You can get so distracted with all the other things you’re thinking about that you forget what you’re going to say. So I had everything set up, and the AD was making fun of me. He was like, “What else do you need here? How about a margarita?” But I did three takes on that little scene, all three pages done in a take each. The first take was about ninety percent good, the second take was only about ten percent good, the third take was ninety percent good, and if you add it all up, you have the whole performance. I folded up my chair and my music stand, and walked away. At the wrap party, the AD came to me and said, “I know I was teasing you, but that was really amazing. You came in, just nailed it and left.” A lot of times you’ll do ten, fifteen, twenty takes to try to get it all working, and so three takes was a big deal. I loved the fact that he came up to me and said that. 

          When I spoke with Frank Oz and Victoria Labalme about “Muppet Guys Talking,” they discussed how Jim’s philosophy and the working environment he created could be applied to so many different professions and areas of life.

          We were all hugely influenced by Jim. He had an effect on how Frank works as a director on his films. The difference between Frank directing “Muppets Take Manhattan” and directing “Muppet Guys Talking” is night and day. He was insecure on his first feature. The whole idea of placing the camera and composing shots was new to him. He had always thought about material and character interactions, and now he had to figure out where the camera goes. He was struggling with all that and having a hard time. We all hated him because he kept us after work to try to figure out how to shoot things, and now, he is the most collaborative guy as a director. With “Muppet Guys Talking,” we had weekly conference calls that we all participated in where we discussed how to create the poster and logo, how to publicize the movie and how it would be released. We all had a big part in that and Frank was just so gracious and so generous in including everybody and really benefiting from everybody’s point of view. This was the end result of Jim’s influence on Frank.

          For those who signed up for the Below Stage Pass group on the MGT site, that film has been the gift that keeps on giving, enabling Muppet fans around the world to connect with each other via Facebook.

          I think ultimately what is being spread is the ethos that Jim had, his philosophy. It’s about everybody having something to contribute. He wants everybody to win, and there’s an idealism underneath all that—the respect for diversity and the relishing in it. All of those things are really, really important and they are underneath all of our work. It influenced all of us and it changed my life profoundly. There is a spiritual component that we got from Jim through osmosis. He didn’t ever talk about it, he just did it. I was so lucky to meet that guy, and we all feel that way. Frank feels that way. Jim gave him his career as a director. 

          His worldview is the antithesis to the divided times we live in now.

          We’re aware of that and are intent on creating something relevant for the world as it is now. When “The Muppet Show” got popular, it was just after Vietnam and Nixon, and people were just so hungry for some innocence and joy, and I think we have that now, too.

          It felt entirely fitting when you and Frank played the guards of the subconscious in my favorite Pixar movie, Pete Docter’s 2015 “Inside Out,” since I’m convinced the Muppets reside within the subconscious of Pixar when they craft entertainment that appeals to all ages.

          Almost everybody who works there was inspired by the Muppets, and through CGI, they’ve found a way to do similar work. The feeling in a Pixar movie is not the same as the feeling in our movies—we have more whack jobs around—but that said, you have characters like Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story,” and there’s a lot of texture in their movies too. When we go to Pixar, we are always welcomed. They love our body of work, and we love what they’re doing as well.

          For anyone tasked with writing for the Muppets, would you say it is imperative that they study the work of Jerry Juhl and the foundation that he built for each character?

          Yes, but I think it’s very hard. It’s one thing to be a fan and love the Muppets, and it’s quite another thing to really know the canon and really know all the different characters and what their relationships are, and actually be able to write something good. Those are two different things. You can learn something without having any idea how to do it. [laughs] I cannot say enough about Jerry. He knew the Muppet canon and he knew everybody involved. He and I were very close friends and over the years, he has watched me grow as a performer and he watched me grow through therapy, change my life and really become transformed by it. It opened up my life in a huge way. He saw all of that stuff, and again, without ever talking about it, he just incorporated those things into Gonzo. He didn’t want to know too much about why he did things, he wanted it to just come to him organically. He knew enough about me to start adding the soulfulness to Gonzo.

          Jerry was just a rich pot of honey. We would have many, many dinners together because we loved food and loved cooking. He relished life and he relished teasing people—and was very subtle about it. There was only one character in “Fraggle Rock” who ever left the Rock, and that was Traveling Matt. Every week, we’d go out for half a day with a remote crew and shoot a segment. I was actually able to make suggestions for Jerry to help make the character grow. Matt began by misunderstanding things oftentimes, and after that, I added clumsiness because I thought, “It’s very hard to try to do a scene where Matt talks to a parking meter and thinks it’s alive, and make it funny.” It sounded very frustrating, so I made him to be an inept, clumsy explorer. Then I’d get further along with it and I’d say, “Jerry, how about we build denial into Matt? When he gets thrown out of a store, his postcard will say, ‘I decided to leave.’ You’ll hear his narration saying that as you see him being lifted up and thrown out of the store.” 

          He had those three flaws—intellectual, emotional and physical—and it made him so much fun to work with. I was always looking for ways to get those things in, and Jerry was a great collaborator. There was also a devious side to him. He loved tormenting me, so he would write Traveling Matt into the city dump, sitting on top of a pile of garbage. Jerry never came out to a shoot. He’d stay in his office, and I’d know that he was there typing on some other script. He’d look at his watch and say, “It’s 10:30. I bet Dave is being buried in garbage right now.” Then he’d smile to himself and go back to work. That’s how evil this guy was. [laughs] Of course, I’d have garbage piled on top of me so that Matt would be sitting on top of it. Jerry also wrote me into a chicken coop with about a dozen chickens that was maybe seven or eight feet square. I was lying down, and it smelled just awful. The cameraman was in there with me, and the two of us worked out the shot to figure out how to cover the action. It was a disgusting place to be. I went back to tell Jerry about it, and I saw the little smile on his face.

          The next week, Jerry wrote me back into the same zoo, and now I was in a small pen with a 700-pound sow. The zookeeper said, “If she starts to roll toward you, just get out or you’ll get crushed.” When Matt talks to her, you don’t know what she’s going to do. She could attack me for all I know. Then Jerry found out that I didn’t like to go on roller coasters, so guess where Traveling Matt went? On a huge roller coaster, of course, and I had to ride it thirteen times to get all the shots. I sat next to Matt with a fake arm on the seat behind him, and I had to look confident and happy, as if I were enjoying the ride, while Matt had to look terrified. That night, I came back to the studio, went up to Jerry and said, “I like roller coasters now.” [laughs] Those were the kind of pranks that would go on, and he did them in such a loving way. It was really like someone putting too much pickle relish on your hot dog.

          That reminds me of your stories about how Don Sahlin would rig explosions on your desk, causing piles of paper to fly into the air. This sort of playfulness must’ve upped your game by keeping you on your toes, ribbing each other like family members.

          You’re absolutely right, and it does make the work better. Having visitors in the studio makes the work better. If there are kids there, we always go over and talk to them as the characters. We’ll shut off the cameras between takes, and get a dialogue going with them. It’s about making an immersive environment where everybody in the room feels like they are participating, and they are. Jim would take suggestions from anybody in the studio. The janitor or the prop man could stop Jim and say, “Hey, I have an idea. What if Fozzie did this?” And Jim would always stop, listen, consider it carefully and have a conversation about it. Then he’d decide whether to use the idea or not, but the person felt included. If Jim thought it was a good idea, he would use it, and so everybody in the room was invested. I think that feeling gets on the screen. 

          What’s weird is that among the people who work on the “Muppet Show” characters for Disney, only two of us actually worked with Jim. The others were kids at home watching us, but that underlying philosophy that I always talk about soaked through the screen and became infused in them. They come in so respectful of the body of work, and they are highly protective of the characters. They are totally committed to making sure that the characters are respected and portrayed faithfully. I think that’s another bit of evidence of Jim’s reach and his influence on people. Some little kid sitting at home gets that it’s about more than just being funny. 

          Well, I can honestly say, Dave, that interviewing you, Frank and Victoria has been the thrill of my professional life. I cannot thank you and your colleagues enough for keeping Jim’s spirit alive. 

          Matt, I want to thank you too because this has been a lot of fun for me, and I can feel your appreciation for all this. It’s been a great chance to remember Jim and remember the joy of all this work we’ve done. I know that I relish the process by which we work and I can tell that you do too. I will be savoring this conversation.

          “The Muppet Movie” will be on over 700 screens courtesy of Fathom Events on Thursday, July 25th, and Tuesday, July 30th. For tickets and showtimes, click here. “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” will premiere on Netflix on Friday, August 30th, and “Muppet Guys Talking” is available for purchase on its official site.

          By: Matt Fagerholm
          Posted: July 17, 2019, 2:29 pm

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          It’s bizarre how national cinema can feel so insulated, even if it’s happening only next door. Like learning from my Montreal friends about the miracles of bagged milk, my time at Fantasia gave me more of a look into the films of Canadian director Bruce McDonald, and his frequent collaborator, Nova Scotia’s own Stephen McHattie. The two made genre hit “Pontypool,” but when I heard the other films McDonald had made—all met with big applause from the packed-screening audience on Sunday night—I felt like I had been dropped into another dimension, and also that I had a film blindspot that needed immediate fixing. Nonetheless, I was happy to become an instant fan of both McDonald and McHattie when getting swooped away by “Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland,” a hitman story that is extremely my kind of genre picture, down to the music that inspired it.  

          Like a Canadian “You Were Never Really Here,” Stephen McHattie plays both a Chet Baker-inspired trumpeter and also a hitman named Johnny, the two lives converging in twisty, fascinating plot that involves Johnny trying to rescue young sex traffic victims from a massive, gauche wedding that the trumpet player is set to perform at. Unpredictable and lovely from start to finish, it's a gripping mini-odyssey that never loses its sense of humor, and culminates in a big action scene built around a haunting rendition of Eurythmics' “I Saved the World Today,” which McHattie croons with an incredible tenderness. 

          Fitting, then, that the movie plays like a Chet Baker ballad about a hitman, moving through its story at a pace that keeps the notes in tact, and feels to be very select with when it wants to either make a point, or just sit back and play it cool. There are dreamy flourishes, sure, like a larger-than-usual performance from Henry Rollins as a sex trafficker named Hercules, a bombastic Juliette Lewis as a wedding organizer, and a literal vampire groom played by Tómas Lemarquis. But as much as the story is called “Dreamland,” it’s much more about dream logic, where a grounded narrative unfolds with details that simply are not questioned. One of the film’s most beguiling features is that it has a cohesive vision that is sincere to all of its parts, piling on the literal and metaphorical and painting a bizarre world in the process. 

          The script by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler is in fact, a lot like “You Were Never Really Here,” but McDonald never makes it too maudlin, and punches up the darkness of the tale of a melancholy hero with humor, coincidences, and general absurdities—obtaining a cut-off pinky is a running joke, but also one of its reoccurring gritty visuals. Any time the movie has McHattie playing opposite himself the story is particularly great, and it’s the kind of movie that can go darker with its disturbing content because it is so funny, and vice versa. 

          Worthy of a massive audience outside of Canada, this movie is one hell of a vehicle for McHattie, whose performance is just as broken as those of Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s twice aforementioned movie, or even Liam Neeson in the ways he’s played the similar role. McHattie (in both roles) imbues the movie with his own cool, displaying a great deal of wisdom and soul in his collected line-reading and moments of reflection. Along with McDonald’s soundscape, it all makes for an exhilarating take on the hitman movie, where violence is not a cynical reliance but a poetic expression in the larger narrative scope, and where style jazzes up a log-line that only sounds like you’ve seen it before. 


          The Fantasia audience got to celebrate McHattie with a very special screening of a film from the actor’s career—“Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby,” a 1976 TV movie sequel to the Roman Polanski horror classic, in which Patty Duke stars as the Mia Farrow character, and eponymous sassy character actor Ruth Gordon is a curmudgeonly Satanist grandmother, natch. The film was notably directed by Sam O’Steen, who previously edited “The Graduate.” And McHattie starred in this movie as Rosemary’s baby Adrien, having been taken away from his mother early into the story and raised by his aunt. Presented on film by a print from Fantasia co-director Mitch Davis, it’s not one that many have seen—including McHattie, who stated to the attendees that he had never seen the film in full until that night. 

          Connoisseurs of bad movies will likely find this misconceived project a worthwhile hunt, especially given its strange period details (imagining Adrien as a ‘60s hippie rocker despite the ‘70s setting) and the manner in which the story pushes a plot along through sequences that can generously be called anti-horror. In one part, Duke is taken out of the story early, as she gets on a bus, and the doors close before her little devil boy (a toddler at the time) can get on with her. But then, the bus drives away, and she can’t get off! Duke runs to the back of the bus window and bangs on it, screaming for her baby, and finally goes to the driver to make them stop the bus—only to realize … there is no driver! 

          Such goofs in the story come sporadically, like anytime Gordon is on-screen and getting sassy about Adrien’s Satanic situation like a character dropped in from a “Rosemary’s Baby” parody. McHattie delivers a striking emotional performance in a junky picture, given fleeting moments to show a wounded psyche within the story’s absurd plot—if any actor could make it visceral that would feel truly conflicted about being a vessel for the devil, I now understand that it would be McHattie. 


          Speaking about the film after, McHattie painted an image of this project coming together by people who knew exactly what it was, including himself, who laughed when asked if he had to audition for the part. 

          And when some inquired about how he felt about “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” within the scope of his career, McHattie stated with a wink and a smile, “It’s amazing what you can survive.” 

          By: Nick Allen
          Posted: July 17, 2019, 5:49 pm

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          We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the July issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. The above art is by Brianna Ashby.

          You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here.

          On August 6, 2011, Los Angeles State Historic Park played host to HARD, a music festival featuring acts such as Holy Ghost! and Duck Sauce. A 42-page slideshow available in LA Weekly’s web archives depicts crowds of sweaty, beaming, beautiful young people dressed outlandishly in fishnets and pasties, Egyptian pharaohs’ headdresses, lacy corsets with short shorts, and mock warpaint as far as the eye can see. Following the festival, there was a secret afterparty promoted earlier that day in the lifestyle blog Scenestar.

          The next day, August 7, The Los Angeles Times ran a story on a young unarmed schizophrenic man—described variously as a “red-haired, guitar-playing man who was clearly troubled,” a “mild-mannered drifter,” and “a somewhat familiar street person”—who had recently been beaten to death by as many as six police officers. In the story, the victim’s father described his confusion over the police response—based on video and eyewitness accounts, he believed his son was visibly distressed and posed no threat. “They’re people,” the grieving father said of Los Angeles’ mentally ill homeless population. “They’re human beings.” He vowed to pursue answers no matter how high up the LAPD chain of command he had to go, acknowledging, “I know I’ll have a breakdown at some point. It’s coming...But not now. I can’t stop.”

          On August 8, Scenestar announced that Green Day would be performing a secret show the following Thursday. In a subsequent review available in OC Weekly’s web archives, a staff critic would note, “It may not be 1994 anymore,” but reported that between songs, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong proclaimed, “To reminisce is to die.” 

          It could be that none of this is worth noting. It could be that none of this is significant. But I believe that it is. 


          When we meet Sam (Andrew Garfield), the protagonist of Under the Silver Lake, he is lingering in a daze, alone in a crowd, assaulted on all sides by the idle chatter of the beautiful young people who surround him, staring with unnatural intensity at a pair of young women absorbed in inaudible discussion. Soon, we will find Sam holed up on the balcony of the East LA apartment from which he’s on the verge of being evicted, on the phone with his mother, spinning lies about a job he doesn’t have, chain smoking, and spying on his neighbors through binoculars.

          Sam is the kind of man who came to Los Angeles with dreams—and expectations—of becoming someone important, even if he can’t quite articulate what extraordinary qualities he’s meant to possess. Now, believing he’s living the “bad version of the life [I was] supposed to have,” he’s become the kind of man who can be found in one of the few Los Angeles bars that start serving at 6 a.m., the kind of man who will curse out the homeless for daring to ask for change, the kind of man prone to bursts of explosive and excessive violence against those physically weaker, the kind of man who spends months tracking and analyzing the pattern of Vanna White’s onscreen glances in search of an encoded secret message being passed between elite members of the global ruling class. 

          From his hurried speech to his distractibility to his casual sex with virtual strangers to his elaborate paranoia, Sam’s every behavior suggests he is in the grip of a mental health crisis—based on these symptoms alone, Sam would ably meet the DSM-5 criteria for a manic psychosis. At the story’s outset, he already believes, as he will spit so quickly and passionately it’s hard to keep up, that “there are people out there…more powerful and wealthier than us, that are communicating things, and seeing things in the world that are meant for only them and not for us.”

          And once his glamorous neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), vanishes on the day they were meant to consummate their acquaintance, Sam becomes obsessively focused on his theory that her fate, and now his own, are linked to a vast and deadly conspiracy that’s solvable only by scrutinizing the specific pop culture ephemera with which he surrounds himself. It’s a classic delusional framework, right down to the inflated self-esteem necessary to believe that you—despite lacking any evident training or skill—are the only person alive equipped to untangle a sprawling web of villainy.


          Complicating things slightly, of course, is the fact that Sam is correct. The mystery of Sarah’s abruptly vacant apartment unravels with psychedelic force into a byzantine mass of incident and intrigue that grows only more outlandishly fanciful until culminating with Sam’s discovery of a death cult of billionaires aided by their consigliere The Homeless King in their plan to each be entombed alive alongside three young brides to await their ascension to an enlightened plane of existence. And wouldn’t you know it—the coordinates to this nefarious cabal’s base of operations, the final keys to bring the whole plot to the surface, were encrypted all along in the pages of Sam’s 23-year-old copy of Nintendo Power magazine. 

          Conventional wisdom would suggest that manic psychotic paranoias tend to be unfounded. But not everyone is as desperately hollow as Sam. Not everyone is able to stoke the burning wreckage of all their dreams and intentions until the flame is powerful enough to reorder the very fabric of their universe in alignment with their delusion.


          In trying to sell someone on the merits of Under the Silver Lake[1], I tend to fall back on the same phrase:

          “It’s a movie that’s having a nervous breakdown.”

          Of course, plenty of stories center around characters in psychic crisis, and plenty of those dabble in surrealism to literalize that interior experience. What sets David Robert Mitchell’s third feature apart from these psychosis narratives, however, is the camera’s eye, which seems to function as an active and independent agent in the film, one that’s often in tangible, even dissociative, distress. In early scenes, the camera moves with the sort of frantic, hyper-focused gaze that typifies the experience of mania. But as the story unspools, that gaze will drift into reveries, turning its focus away from Sam during a conversation to examine a tree’s canopy, or scurrying across the floor in an animalistic frenzy while Sam has a casual chat. By the climax, the film’s observing eye begins losing time, with the editing growing choppy to the point of cutting off conversations mid-sentence, compressing whole sequences into just a few jagged shards.


          This stylization notwithstanding, Under the Silver Lake does open in a world that operates roughly within the bounds of conventional realism. But once Sam chooses to follow a white Volkswagen Rabbit to Purgatory (or at least a secret rooftop party by that name), the story sidesteps verisimilitude never to return. Codes appear with mounting frequency and density while any casual acquaintance Sam runs across becomes an essential link in the chain that leads him to the improbably neat resolution of a fringe religion of industry titans. Rather than be transported to a fantastical parallel world, Sam finds his natural world reassembling itself to suit his needs until he’s following a mystical coyote to a chance encounter with a femme fatale who possesses a decoder that can unite and unlock the cultural detritus in Sam’s mind—all of this and more treated with utter straight-faced credulity.

          The more frantic Sam grows, the more frantic the world around him becomes, as though he possesses the agency and power of a Chuck Jones character who might tear or crumple the paper onto which he’s being drawn, a man whose interiority is so powerful he can exert that lunatic power over the very material reality of his environment.


          In the wake of its ignominious and muted wide release in April 2019[2], Under the Silver Lake has often been referred to as a new entry in the familiar category of shaggy postmodern LA noirs dense with red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs that ultimately lead nowhere in particular, a subgenre ranging from the apparently irrelevant identity of the chauffeur’s murderer in The Big Sleep to the deliberate anticlimax of The Big Lebowski[3].

          These comparisons, however, neglect one fairly significant factor: Under the Silver Lake resolves with uncanny precision and harmony, revealing that no scrap of evidence, however seemingly tangential, was a true dead end. If a postmodern noir denies its audience traditional resolution in order to provoke and disturb, then Under the Silver Lake, with its no-thread-left-dangling (well, maybe one, but we’ll get to that) storytelling, must be one of the rare post-postmodern noirs.

          Nobody could deny that Mitchell intentionally utilizes and revises noir tropes—along with the occasional cinematographic flourish, the score is an overt pastiche of the Bernard Herrmann school of composing, implying that Sam’s perspective is heavily filtered through the classic films that seem to be perpetually playing on any available television—and Sam does function as a sort of dirtbag riff on the classic noir gumshoe, with his trials roughly mapping the archetypal journey of the bedraggled private dick beset at all times by missteps and misfortune. Much like Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, Sam loses his car (though in this case it’s impounded over late payments after being defaced with a cartoon penis) and suffers calamitous injury (though in this case it’s a skunk spray of such intense force that he spends the remainder of the story physically repelling those he encounters), but more significantly, Sam serves as a funhouse reflection of the existential state of the noir protagonist, a figure often characterized as a bleak and sardonic womanizing functional alcoholic. They’re qualities that certainly apply to Sam—the key difference being that Sam is devoid of the charisma that obscures and excuses these behaviors in a typical detective. Like one of those “realistic” renderings of a cartoon character that exposes a beloved figure for the grotesque nightmare it would be in real life, Sam is the noir detective made realistically toxic.


          If Under the Silver Lake does provide a rich avenue for comparison with its LA noir forebears, it’s in the ways that Mitchell puts his film in conversation with the city’s prior cinematic depictions. In his landmark 2003 feature-length video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, film theorist Thom Andersen identifies two different modes of use for a cinematic Los Angeles: the city can be either a character, or a subject. While the city’s specific culture has served as a character in LA stories for a century, Andersen believes it wasn’t until the mass disillusionment of the 1970s that Hollywood attained sufficient self-awareness to view the city’s culture as a potential storytelling subject, one with enough accrued meaning and significance to merit cinematic analysis.

          Rather than choosing a lane of either character or subject for his use of Los Angeles, David Robert Mitchell fuses the two modes, characterizing the city as a surreal playground teeming with desperate dreamers—most often women—striving towards recognition and acceptance, while simultaneously analyzing it as a demonic force intent on sacrificing these innocents to the avarice of rich and powerful men. 

          Andersen identifies another dichotomy within the filmic landscape of Los Angeles, classifying directors who come to LA[4] as transplants before taking up the city as a subject as either high-tourist or low-tourist. High-tourist directors, in Andersen’s estimation, paint the city with affection and generosity of spirit, while low-tourist directors tend to depict it at best as anonymously bleak, and at worst as craven and vile. 

          David Robert Mitchell, born and raised in the Detroit suburbs in the 1970s and transplanted to LA after the 2010 release of his acclaimed microbudget indie debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, would almost certainly be best slotted into the low-tourist category[5]. Rather than take aim at the city’s corrupt institutions, however, Under the Silver Lake sets its sights on the surreal cultural geography of Los Angeles at the dawn of the millennium’s second decade. Mitchell paints his LA as an uncanny landscape populated by willfully eccentric young people[6] cultivating outlandish personal brands while chasing their bites at the apple of “influencer” status. It’s a world where dreamlike images—in each of her appearances, the character identified as “Actress” (Riki Lindhome) is wearing a different incongruously cartoonish outfit, in one case a dirndl and in another an eroticized nurse’s uniform—are revealed to be routine features of the LA lifestyle; “it’s for a role,” she says, no further explanation required.


          It’s this offhand comfort with the bizarre that makes it so difficult, for both Sam and the audience, to make sense of some of the story’s most notable flourishes. When a figure significant to Sarah’s disappearance is perpetually dressed in a cheap pirate’s costume, it’s impossible to discern whether this garb is meaningful—in 21st century Los Angeles, it’s equally plausible that this costume could be a job requirement, a personal branding affectation, or a sign of deviant lunacy[7]. 

          This is the culture, one that somehow combines all the most alienating aspects of the uncanny, the surreal, and the absurd[8], into which David Robert Mitchell found himself immersed in the summer of 2011, a man in his mid-30s adrift in a city that prizes glamorous youth, at the far edge of an America gasping in the waning days of Obama’s first term and the attendant hope hangover, the end of the recession and the dawn of Occupy Wall Street, the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death and the earliest rumblings of Donald Trump’s birtherism campaign. As he absorbed all this and more, “there was a feeling...of a shadow rising,” Mitchell would later observe to MUBI Notebook’s Annabel Brady-Brown, “and it’s nightmarish.”


          And so, in an addled and supersaturated headspace he has since described as “obsessed…a near crazed state,” he began work on the screenplay that would become Under the Silver Lake. “It was a little intense,” he said later. “Drinking way too much coffee. My wife was like, ‘You’re a little bit crazy right now.’” 

          This intensity of emotion—not to mention the self-described hypergraphia—is evident in the heightened style of Under the Silver Lake. And as the story unfolds, its observing eye becoming increasingly frenzied, the script seems to develop a sort of emergent self-awareness, as though the story itself possesses an independent consciousness that allows it to warp when convenient or necessary. And nowhere is this narrative agency more evident than in the tendency for tertiary characters to bubble to the surface in order to comment directly and excessively upon the story’s thematic underpinnings, rendering any potential subtext as throbbing neon text. 

          Most notable among these figures is the character identified as “Bar Buddy” (Topher Grace), who seems to exist for no other purpose than to overexplain the story’s themes and significance. In one appearance, as Sam complains of burnout, Bar Buddy tells him, “Our little monkey brains, they’re not comfortable knowing that they’re all interlinked and routed together now in some kind of all-knowing alien mind-hive, and that shit is a straight-up cesspool for delusion, for fear.” Later, as he watches Sam attempt to codebreak lyrics to a pop song (an effort that will naturally, yield the instructions that Sam will use to make contact with The Homeless King and discover the first of the death cult’s subterranean bunkers), Bar Buddy observes of the modern world, “we crave mystery ‘cuz there’s none left.” Where so many artists might leave these notions as subtext, providing an opportunity for the audience to form their own connections and experience the satisfaction of connecting story threads, Under the Silver Lake seems to immunize itself against analysis and so wall itself off from external meddling—if the story analyzes itself in real time, then any prospective commentary will be necessarily redundant (analyzing the story’s self-analysis, however, remains rich and fertile ground for discussion—or so I hope).

          This tendency for over-explanation reaches its apotheosis in Sam’s encounter with the character identified as “Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb), an impossibly old, malevolent crone who professes to have written every hit single of the 20th century from “Earth Angel” to “Where Is My Mind?,” and even implies he may have ghostwritten compositions for Johann Sebastian Bach. Serving as a fever dream avatar of all the contemptuous greed that powers the global entertainment complex, Songwriter makes literal all of Sam’s amorphous anxieties, sneering, “Everything that you hoped for, that you dreamed about being a part of, is a fabrication. Your art, your writing, your culture, is the shell of other men’s ambitions.” This last sentence is jeered directly into the camera, and so directly at the viewer.


          This story’s hyper-indulgent lack of subtlety is, at least to my mind, one of its most notable charms. But in these flourishes, the film seems to evince a sense of anxiety as to its own integrity. By Scotchgarding itself against commentary through over-obviousness—say, by giving Sam a literal white Rabbit to follow—the film ensures that nobody could accuse it of attempting subtlety, and so any unsubtlety must be excused as a feature rather than a bug. Once again, this feverish story seems to be just as much in crisis as its protagonist, leaving its observing eye as an invisible co-protagonist, one powered by the headspace of a creator overdosing on his cultural moment, probing the Southern California summer of 2011 with the same deranged intensity as Sam himself. 


           It could be worth noting that I experienced a manic psychosis in the summer of 2011. It could also be worth noting that subsequent to this, I chose a line of work that involves obsessively studying cultural objects, scrutinizing these works in search of meaning and significance, sometimes even creating order where there may be none if it serves my own needs. 

          Or it could be that this is not significant. But I suspect that it is.


          Following a secret solo show by a member of Jesus & the Brides of Dracula[9], a performance held in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery[10], Sam follows a young performance artist credited as “Balloon Girl” (Grace Van Patten) to the subterranean Crypt Club for a dance party she describes as “Old Music Night.” In a sequence shot with fish-eyed, heart-racing adrenaline, Sam flings his body around with wild abandon as he sings along to the music of his youth, the only partygoer[11] who can recall the release of Norman Cook’s “Brimful of Asha” remix, the only one who knows all the words to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”


          This latter song is one of the few needle-drops conspicuously included in Mitchell’s shooting script, where 11 lines of Michael Stipe’s lyrics are quoted directly, and Sam’s body language is compared explicitly to Stipe’s. And if, as Sam’s friend Allen[12] (Jimmi Simpson) has told him moments before his descent into the crypt, “There’s a message in the music,” it seems to me it could be worth considering the meaning and significance of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” 

          The song’s generally agreed-upon meaning and significance comes from a quote attributed to Stipe attesting that it’s sung from the perspective of “a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out.” But the song is fraught with pockets of additional code and symbol, a web that’s unusually knotted even for a band whose lyrics often rival “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for density of reference and “Ballad of a Thin Man” for obliquity.

          For one thing, the title words are not enigmatic nonsense, but rather a specific reference to an incident eight years prior to the song’s release when a disturbed young man shouted them after attacking news anchor Dan Rather on the street. According to various accounts, this young man believed himself to be a time traveling secret agent whose brain was being implanted with encoded messages from the NBC network. For another, Stipe sings in the second verse that “withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,” and while the comment resonates with the defensive posture of a depressive and isolationist mind like Sam’s, the phrase originated in Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” a pack of cards that evolved from a prior pack called “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts,” both of which encourage an approach to problem-solving based on attacking issues from unique and unexpected angles. In the song, the phrase is attributed to an unidentified “Richard,” an allusion to filmmaker Richard Linklater, who spoke the words in his 1990 breakthrough feature Slacker, a film that portrays Gen-X America as a mosaic of paranoids, schizoids, and conspiracy theorists, their synapses fried by the culture of pre-millennial society, a film in which one character, identified as “Has Faith in Groups” (Sarah Harmon), accuses another, identified as “Based on Authoritative Sources” (Robert Pierson), of pulling “in these things from the shit you read…just [pasting] together these bits and pieces…I’m beginning to suspect there’s nothing really in there.” 

          It could be that none of this is worth noting. I suspect that it is, but I’m also open to the possibility that the specific choice of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is significant only for its use in dividing Sam from his fellow revelers, as Mitchell writes in his unusually novelistic screenplay, “by age and the ever shifting tectonic plates of pop culture” but united for a few blissful moments by “the heavily tremoloed chords–using their power to remain unique and alive.” 


          On the social news aggregator Reddit, there is a community (or subreddit) in which commenters—or redditors—attempt to identify and decode the innumerable riddles they see in Under the Silver Lake. It’s an unusually active and impassioned fandom considering how far under the cultural radar the film has flown thus far, with redditors engaged in a vigorous ongoing investigation into what they perceive to be an interlocking series of onscreen codes and ciphers that may ultimately correspond to mysterious geographic coordinates. Parallel to this overarching investigation, redditors will note and solve tangential codes (one redditor has noticed that an extra in the opening scene wears a T-shirt bearing the likenesses of various animals, and determined that the names of these animals correspond to the words “Beware the Dog Killer”—more on that in a few minutes) or develop their own hunches, ranging from the inane (another redditor has developed the fan theory that Under the Silver Lake works as a sequel to Scooby Doo in which Sam represents a traumatized Shaggy reeling from Scooby’s death) to the profound (still another redditor has noted that the central pairing of Sam and Sarah corresponds to the Buddhist concept of Saṃsāra, the notion that existence is a cycle of endless transformations and rebirths, a concept resonant not only with the ultimate billionaire death cult but also with Sam’s passionate Nirvana fandom). The redditors have a sense of humor about their quest—they’ll laugh at the idea that the contents of an unflushed onscreen toilet might correspond to symbols in the hobo code, a series of hieroglyphs that’s been used since the early 20th century to pass messages between American itinerants—and then they’ll go ahead and try to decode it anyway. It’s worth a try, and with Google never more than a pocket away, they can identify and crack codes at speeds unthinkable even a few decades ago.


          In 1966, when literary theorist Kenneth Burke attempted the (somewhat grandiose) task of defining humanity, he opened with an assertion: “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal.” And though we often think of a symbol as a single, unambiguously cryptic unit—be it a typographic character or a thematically weighted object in a story—virtually every communication we receive in our daily life can be considered a symbol worthy of interpretation. From an ambiguous facial expression to a passive-aggressive note, we are buffeted at all times by signals that require sorting, organizing, and deductive reasoning. In an era of global high-speed Wi-Fi, the 24-hour news cycle, and a perpetual stream of tweets, we are presented with more symbols in an hour than we could comfortably process in a day—“Our world,” as the character identified as “Comic Man” (Patrick Fischler) tells Sam[13], “is filled with codes, pacts, user agreements, and subliminal messages.” And in the 21st century, when a simple text message might be responded to with words, a cryptic emoji, or an ironic GIF, mental burnout isn’t just a risk, it’s all but universally accepted as the price of existence.

          Where in a pre-internet world, Sam might have been able to deduce the meaning of a crucial clue—the acronym NPM—using the power of reasoning, with Google at his disposal, he can bypass his own hunches and tap straight into a theoretically bottomless pool of knowledge. Yet rather than providing clarity, Google instead buries him in noise with no signal to be found—the reference site lists 29 potential meanings for NPM, from Network Power Model to NASDAQ Private Market to National Poetry Month. Nintendo Power magazine is notably not among the results. In outsourcing our problem-solving duties to the churning digital sea, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box, releasing the howling chaos of an unmitigated flow of data and disinformation.


          It’s easy to feel skeptical perusing the Under the Silver Lake subreddit—the notion that David Robert Mitchell intentionally encoded layers upon layers of specific and meaningful messages into every level of his film from plot to set design strains credulity nearly to the breaking point. But personally, I absolutely believe there are rich undercurrents of symbol and significance within the film—I just suspect that rather than intricate knots dropped like bread crumbs for the viewer to untangle, the vast majority of those currents are the explosive and surreal articulations of an overwhelmed psyche. If this film represents—and embodies—a mind in crisis, a story generated in a burst of semi-automatic writing, then it would stand to reason that this mind could have snatched connections and images from the subconscious depths with such intuitive swiftness that the film’s symbols could well operate on something closer to dream logic, a concept map with a distinct unifying order but one best interpreted on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. Dreams often feature objects and images worth considering, but chasing down a schematic interpretation (like, say, those provided by the 1986 reference volume The Dreamer’s Dictionary, which dictates that dreaming of a fierce dog is a warning to be wary of untrustworthy acquaintances) is likely to send you barking up the wrong tree.

          It’s comforting to imagine that all the idiosyncrasies and contradictions in our favorite art could be solvable, that every answer could be obtained with just the right amount of effort or force. We want the world to operate on a familiar sense of order. It can be so distressing to recognize, and so difficult to accept, that the rhyme and reason to the things that matter to us may actually run on currencies far stranger than anything we can conceive of.


          If one thread in the mystery at the heart of Under the Silver Lake is most often cited as a red herring, it must be The Owl’s Kiss, the name given to a nude woman[14] who commits nocturnal assassinations wearing the taxidermied face of an owl. Initially a paranoid conjecture made by Comic Man, she will soon appear in the flesh to murder him for unidentified reasons, later briefly menacing Sam at home before vanishing from the story never to be spoken of again, Mitchell’s equivalent of the chauffeur’s unsolvable murder in The Big Sleep. Our only hint of the potential significance of The Owl’s Kiss comes packed within the pages of Comic Man’s conspiracy theory zine, where he writes of his suspicion that “she may be a member of a longstanding American cult with origins in trade and finance.”


          Comic Man’s theory is partially derived from what he perceives to be subliminal owl imagery hidden on U.S. currency, but he fails to mention the other prevailing significance of the owl to the real-life cult of power: as the symbol of Bohemian Grove, the mysterious and clandestine society of (male) global power brokers that meets annually in the woods near Sonoma at a location so private it’s omitted from any map of the region. Much like Under the Silver Lake’s billionaire death cult, whose compound is redacted on satellite imagery of Los Angeles, whatever goes on at Bohemian Grove—most famously an extravagant ritual centering on the burning of an effigy before a massive owl statue—is not of the general public’s concern.

          One of the few detailed eyewitness reports to emerge from Bohemian Grove comes courtesy of British journalist Jon Ronson, whose book Them: Adventures with Extremists profiles prominent figures united by their belief in, as Ronson puts it in his introduction, “an internationalist Western conspiracy conducted by a tiny, secretive elite, whose ultimate aim is to destroy all opposition, implement a planetary takeover, and establish themselves as a World Government.” Ronson’s book climaxes with a convoluted clandestine mission to Northern California where he manages to sneak into Bohemian Grove in hopes of witnessing what many—including Alex Jones, who accompanies Ronson on his mission[15]—believe to be demonic cult rituals. 

          Ronson manages to witness the effigy burned before the owl, which he characterizes—along with the rest of the Bohemian Grove rituals he observes—as an overgrown fraternity pageant enacted by men looking to leave behind their world-shaping responsibilities and indulge in a few days of cathartic jackassery. Alex Jones, on the other hand, sees the rituals as “bizarre Luciferian garbage” enacted by “the people who make the movies our children watch. They’re at the top bringing all that stuff down on us.” 

          This difference in interpretation can be traced to the fairly significant X-factor that Jon Ronson is not a bellowing conspiracy theorist who seems viciously mentally unstable, and Alex Jones is. But anyone who’s fallen down the digital rabbithole of facts and theories about Bohemian Grove and its role in the planning of events as significant as the Manhattan Project can attest to the semi-illicit charge that comes with envisioning this shadowy coterie meeting in the woods to orchestrate the events that define history. Belief in conspiracies can serve a paradoxical psychological function—even as they provide evidence that we’re powerless, they lend a sense of stability to an unstable universe. Our lives can so often feel chaotic and insignificant, and as you sense yourself tumbling out of control—out of the life you believed you were supposed to have—it’s comforting to point at a mysterious and powerful force manipulating your destiny. You may be no better off, but at least you have a symbol to rail against, and thus remove any obligation to feel responsible for your own lot in life.


          The one figure in Under the Silver Lake who most embodies a sense of misplaced blame for his own misfortunes turns his aggressions not against those in power but against the most innocent figures imaginable. Yes, it’s time at last to talk about The Dog Killer.


          This culprit of a spree of canine homicides running beneath the surface of the plot—the one classic literary symbol in Under the Silver Lake, the one plot element that exists solely to draw attention towards the story’s themes and meaning, the only ambiguity to go untouched by the story’s anxious over-explainers—is, we learn in Comic Man’s conspiracy zine, most likely acting in tribute to an aspiring silent comedy star of the early 20th century. Faced with the impossibility of achieving his dreams, this would-be Chaplin directed his energy towards a festering jealousy of trained showbiz dogs, displacing all of his disappointments and failures onto these creatures that he believed to have taken the glory that was rightfully his. Finally, after declaring that “No one will ever be happy here until all the dogs are dead,” the failed star took his own life, achieving belated notoriety for inspiring the present-day rampage by the unidentified Dog Killer.

          No matter what anyone—or any redditor—might argue, it’s impossible based solely on textual evidence to know the Dog Killer’s identity for sure. There is ample evidence to suggest that Sam is, as many believe, the culprit, whether consciously or in some sort of dissociative fugue. But with the mass of contradictory clues—Sam carries dog biscuits in his pockets for reasons that, along with his past history with and feeling towards dogs, change depending on who’s asking—and total absence of anything resembling a smoking gun, there’s simply not enough evidence to make an armchair conviction. This plot thread is, in the truest sense of the term, a shaggy dog story.

          And so The Dog Killer must be read as a symbol for all the entitled and enraged dreamers—and specifically, we might infer, the male ones—who came to Los Angeles with a chip on their shoulder and allowed that chip to rot into debilitation rather than work to reconcile their own shortcomings. It’s a cynical metaphor at the heart of a film that often feels weighted towards the cynical, if not the outright nihilistic[16]. But it’s this cynicism, at least by the reckoning of Thom Andersen, that lies at the heart of the modern Los Angeles film. “Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our times,” he states towards the end of Los Angeles Plays Itself. And so, he claims, the modern Los Angeles film, giving up the present for lost, turns its attention to the past, telling period tales that allow the opportunity to examine a glamorous time gone by, one that may well never have even existed, and search for the original sin, the moment that Los Angeles, and so America, lost its way.


          Under the Silver Lake is a period piece, produced at over a half decade’s remove from the world it depicts, and released into a world that sometimes feels so removed it may as well be another dimension. But unlike his clear forebear, 1974’s Chinatown, which looked almost half a century into the past in search of the moment paradise was lost, David Robert Mitchell wrote his story from within the eye of the storm. Perhaps he felt his feet perfectly straddling the fault line between the last spasms of Edenic hope and the great rising shadows. Perhaps he had the foresight, whether conscious or not, to bottle that feeling, capturing a roiling and screeching epochal frenzy with all the phantasmagoric explosiveness of a lucid nightmare. 

          “Good intentions are futile.” Or so, Andersen claims, goes the moral of the modern Los Angeles story. “It’s better not to know.” It’s better to remain blind to the forces operating just beyond your grasp, whether they use and abuse you, or, perhaps even worse, regard you with cold indifference. It’s better to be one of those sweaty, beaming, beautiful young faces, dancing and dreaming, happy and oblivious, remaining, at least for tonight, unique and alive.

          | |


          [1] It’s often a difficult task; few films in recent memory have inspired such visceral and widespread revulsion, and even fewer have indulged themselves in quite this level of gaudy excess on every dimension from a baroque production design that can evoke Fellini one moment and Jodorowsky the next to a runtime of nearly 2 1/2 hours.

          [2] Mitchell completed the screenplay in 2012, but put it aside as an unfeasible second feature. Following the massive success of his sophomore effort, 2014’s low-budget teen horror flick It Follows, boutique indie distributor A24 acquired Under the Silver Lake in May 2016, five months before the start of principal photography and two years before its premiere at Cannes in 2018, setting a wide release date for one month following the festival. Two weeks before that scheduled date, A24 pushed the release back nearly half a year to December 2018. One month before that rescheduled release, A24 again pushed the release back, this time to April 2019, finally releasing it on VOD and in only a handful of theaters. The distributor has, of course, been cagy on their reasoning, and so whether this was a fiendish conspiracy to sabotage the film or a skittish distributor having no idea what to do with a product that proved more divisive than they initially expected can be left to the theorists.

          [3] Comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s own SoCal noir-fantasia, the Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, were perhaps inevitable given that film’s recency, as well as the comparable plot engine of a vanished object of the protagonist’s affection. On the foundational levels of tone, style, and story, however, the films bear little similarity—if anything, Mitchell’s film could be compared to Pynchon’s frenzied and farcical 1966 postmodern mystery The Crying of Lot 49, but even then, both Pynchon and Mitchell are focused so intently on the specific anxieties of their time and place that any resemblance is largely surface-level.

          [4] Andersen, a staunch defender of his city against what he believes to be decades of municipal character assassination by the film industry, abhors this abbreviation, considering it a diminutive denigration invented and sustained by the movies and emblematic of a self-loathing instinct fostered by Hollywood (itself another term, in his view, used to hold the entertainment industry above the majority of workaday citizens—“the rest of us,” he says of the industry’s preferred perspective on the apparently 97% of Angelinos who work outside show business, “simply don’t exist.”)

          [5] One factor may potentially complicate this categorization: Andersen believes that a realistic geographical rendering is among the greatest of virtues in a Los Angeles film, and Mitchell’s geographic specificity in the screenplay for Under the Silver Lake verges on the obsessive—where most writers would place Sam at a gas station near Griffith Park, Mitchell specifies that Sam is “in the parking lot of the 76 gas station near Hillhurst and Los Feliz.” This compulsion to pay tribute to LA’s most quotidian features while castigating its overarching qualities is among the most compelling contradictions in Mitchell’s portrait of his adopted city.

          [6] Virtually all of them white—Under the Silver Lake features only a handful of characters of color, and almost none of them have particular bearing on the story. Whether this is a pointed choice by Mitchell or a blind spot is unclear, but in either case, the optics are suboptimal.

          [7] This detached adoption of outmoded archetypal costumes extends, as well, to the young (white) man Sam encounters smoking a joint in a cemetery while wearing an ostentatious war bonnet, an item that evokes a kitsch reappropriation of passé cultural hallmarks. But rather than evincing an arch affect, the man’s overt casualness seems to suggest a stance so utterly devoid of irony it might go beyond post-irony to post-post-irony, if such an advanced level of aesthetic philosophy is even conceivable by the human mind.

          [8] Mitchell is not above the occasional broad satirical jab, such as the reference to a celebrity producer who makes blockbusters based on household cleaning products, or the 12-year-old girl cited as “the first woman to write, produce, direct and sound design her own network sitcom.” While these cartoonish premises might sound like the stuff of Saturday Night Live, they also deftly anchor the story’s absurdist worldview in 2011’s cultural geography, when the third Transformers installment grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and auteurist sitcom Louie captured the TV zeitgeist (the fact that this beloved series was later revealed to be built on the foundation of its creator’s assaults upon and subsequent suppression of women dovetails eerily with Mitchell’s thematic concerns, a particularly painful example of the screenplay’s unconscious prescience in capturing its time and place).

          [9] Among the film’s most notable recurring images is that of a trio of sexually alluring women—along with the Brides of Dracula, there’s Sarah’s fondness for the 1953 Technicolor comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, as well as her prominently displayed trio of dolls modeled after the film’s stars, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Bacall, and the trio of “Shooting Stars,” starlets who moonlight as escorts, quite literally selling the dream of the jailbait celebrity, who drift through the story as key supporting players. All these early instances, of course, foreshadow the eventual reveal of the three brides each billionaire will be entombed alongside. Notably, one of these trios is identified in the credits by proper name, though these names are never spoken aloud and the three have only a few minutes of combined screen time—Troy, Fannie, and Mae (Zosia Mamet, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, and Laura-Leigh), whose white Rabbit Sam tails, are ultimately revealed as the three brides of Final Man (Don McManus), the billionaire who delivers the climactic info-dump. It seems quite likely worth noting that two of the scant named characters (more on that in a minute) share those names with a prominent mortgage lender, and this significance is already being debated by the diligent redditors systematically decoding the film (more on that in a few minutes).

          [10] Later, Sam will black out and awaken the following day beneath the grave of Janet Gaynor, references to whom recur throughout the film while serving no direct plot function. It could be worth noting that while Gaynor attained dizzying fame at dizzying speed in the 1920s, she never intended to seek Hollywood stardom, and was strong-armed into the profession by her stepfather. It could be that this is not significant, but in a film so dense with references to young women being taken advantage of by venal men, I suspect that it is.

          [11] In the screenplay, Mitchell identifies Sam’s age as 33. And with the story set specifically in (as Mitchell told MUBI Notebook) “a nightmare version…[of] summer 2011,” this would make Sam’s birth year around 1978.

          [12] As I have alluded to, only 8 characters out of the film’s 65 credited roles are identified by proper name—there are Sam and Sarah, billionaire cultist Jefferson Sevence and his daughter Millicent, Troy, Fannie, and Mae, and finally Allen—while the remaining characters, even those with whom Sam shares a close relationship, are identified by titles like “Topless Bird Woman” and “Handsome Man.” The fact that two of the most egregiously unnamed characters are Sam’s two sexual partners—in addition to Sam’s devoted friend-with-benefits “Actress,” there’s “Ex” (Summer Bishil), a model whose watchful gaze from a contact lens billboard silently judges Los Angeles’ iniquity like a modern T.J. Eckleburg (this could be significant, or it could not be worth noting)—has contributed to the film’s accusations of misogyny from some viewers. Mitchell, for his part, does not deny that Sam and his peers have an unhealthy perspective on women—“The character is…struggling with feelings of misogyny,” the director told Vulture’s Lane Brown. “That’s a core element of what this movie is about…for people to imagine that we’re celebrating it is just disappointing.” Mitchell does often compare Sam, both in the screenplay and in interviews, to characters like Travis Bickle and Ethan Edwards, violently unstable avengers who nevertheless operate on a strict personal code as they attempt to protect the purity of innocent young women, though the question of whether this is the observing eye’s perspective on Sam or his own self-image can be a bit fuzzy. (The screenplay also implicitly places Mario, with his eternal quest to rescue a princess from a monster, in the same category as Bickle and Edwards, a suggestion too dense to unpack even within a footnote).

          [13] In a conversation that takes place beneath a wall adorned with Comic Man’s collection of celebrity death masks, which he deems so significant that he considers starting a family just so he has someone to pass them on to—in addition to exposing the conspiracies of the paved paradise once called Edendale, this man sees his sole worth to be as a steward of the flame of Hollywood’s past glory. As Thom Andersen notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, “although Los Angeles is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant note in the city’s image of itself.”

          [14] The actress portraying The Owl’s Kiss is not identified in the film’s credits, nor in any official press materials, and while the subreddit has entertained various theories as to which character may secretly double as this eroticized cryptid (“I think the blond girl who is fuking [sic] with Sam is the owl girl,” writes one redditor, presumably referring to Actress), various enigmatic posts on the social media profiles of actress Karen Nitsche suggest she is the true performer.

          [15] When Ronson published his book in 2002, Jones’ notoriety was generally limited to the fringes of Austin society. Still, even a decade before InfoWars attained national infamy, Ronson’s use of Jones as a source of hapless comic relief is a notable and unfortunate misstep.

          [16] This nihilistic bent is particularly notable in the defiantly ambiguous final scene, in which Sam finally vacates his apartment and watches from afar with detached bemusement as his landlord enters the abandoned space to find a hobo code symbol spray-painted on the wall, Sam’s expression shifting mercurially between bemusement and defiance as his landlord throws what can only be described as a conniption fit. The scene is pointedly open to interpretation, but my personal belief is that Sam is embracing his homeless status, one Mitchell has previously associated with servitude to the billionaire death cult. My personal belief is that Sam now offers himself up to the villainous machinations he’s powerless against, choosing a life of service as a preferable alternative to a life of futile resistance. Of course, it could well be that my personal belief is not significant.

          By: The Editors
          Posted: July 16, 2019, 2:20 pm

          • Entertainer
            Entertainer published a blog post Japan Cuts 2019 Preview

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            Somewhere along the way, avant punk filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto became one of modern Japanese cinema’s elder statesmen. This is especially funny if you know Tsukamoto as the filmmaker behind “Tetsuo: The Iron Man,” the unwashed and unstable 1988 cyberpunk milestone. Tsukamoto recently earned acclaim for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (he plays Mokichi, one of the two Japanese natives who have converted to Christianity and are subsequently tortured), as well as strong reviews at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where his sweaty “jidaigeki”/samurai psycho-drama “Killing” debuted.

            And next week, Tsukamoto will be celebrated at Japan Society, where he will receive the Cut Above Award at their annual “Japan Cuts” program. This prize might look strange coming from any other American cultural institution, mostly because Tsukamoto’s movies have only been released in America via boutique DVD labels and/or cult-friendly film festivals. But Japan Society has long championed Tsukamoto’s films, and not just semi-stately titles like “Fires on the Plain,” a remake of the searing 1959 anti-war drama. In addition to an already sold out screening of “Killing,” Japan Society will also screen “Bullet Ballet,” Tsukamoto’s gutting, grimy take on the everything-is-connected melodrama; “Bullet Ballet,” which was personally selected by Tsukamoto, previously screened at Japan Society in 2006 as part of their “Against the Tide: Rebels and Mavericks in Contemporary Japanese Film” series.

            The juxtaposition of these two films is striking given their mutual focus on personal trauma and sexual violence. Both “Killing” and “Bullet Ballet” are about reality as it’s experienced by characters who feel trapped in the interminable present. These movies sound like dripping water, grating steel, and heavy breathing. They’re more about what you’re having difficulty seeing than what you can clearly survey: Tsukamoto’s nervous hand-held camera often lurches with his camera operators’ movements as they try to keep up with his shell-shocked antiheroes.

            Both movies are worth seeing, but I especially recommend “Killing,” which sometimes feels like Tsukamoto’s answer to Clint Eastwood’ “Unforgiven,” another late-career gem that (somewhat) demystifies period-fiction romanticism. “Killing” is also weirdly reminiscent of “The Last House on the Left,” a furious anti-war/anti-violence/anti-status quo howl of rage from 1972, written and directed by a very young Wes Craven. If nothing else, “Killing” proves that Tsukamoto doesn’t know how to ease into old age.


            Many of the best movies at this year’s program are similarly concerned with the past as it’s felt and understood today. I was especially taken with “Red Snow,” a woozy, melancholic pot-boiler about a decades-old cold case (the disappearance of a young boy) set in an exurban, snow-covered part of Northern Japan. I didn’t expect to be so impressed by “Red Snow,” but was still pulled in by its gauzy ambience and clear-eyed focus on the emotional rut that the missing boy’s grieving older brother finds himself in as he tries to get closure from the accused (and acquitted) kidnapper’s daughter.  “Red Snow” has all of the elements of a good airport thriller, but is generally more about mood than plot. There are images of implied/repressed violence in this movie that I’m sure will stay with me for a while to come.

            I was also bowled over by the “Experimental Spotlight: Handmade Cinema” short films program, the best of which are about how Japanese artists re-imagine the past through their work. I was especially impressed by a trio of collage-centric shorts: “Living in the Story,” a visually dynamic tribute to Japanese-American photographer Patrick Nagatani and his stunning anti-nuclear-movement photo-collages; “100PercentElectrical,” which basically re-arranges a teenager’s vacation photos (taken in Thailand, and collected on an Instagram-style app) into a disorienting virtual space that looks like a cross between a labyrinth and a house of cards (Imagine a trippier version of the old Windows maze screensaver, and you’re in the ballpark); and “Dawn of Ape,” a thrilling blast of abstract shapes and primary colors that’s presented to viewers as the first movie made by apes to be ever seen by human movigoers. These shorts are a great way to work up an appetite for the rest of this year’s strong “Japan Cuts” slate.

            Case in point: I highly recommend “The Chaplain,” a quietly unsettling chamber drama that follows a shy, but determined priest (recently deceased character actor Osugi Ren) as he tries to comfort and bond with some death row inmates. “The Chaplain” is a rare lead role for Ren, who supplies a warm presence to a number of great Japanese genre movies, like “Cure,” “Audition,” and “Fireworks.” Here, Ren serves as an emotional lightning rod for “The Chaplain” simply by actively listening and sensitively responding to a rotating cast of lost souls, some of whom are more lucid than others. Much of the dialogue in “The Chaplain” is consummately restrained, though there are some brief, effective speeches. Still, “The Chaplain” is not a movie that tells you what it’s about so much as an impressionistic portrait of a self-appointed community leader who’s struggling to understand what his faith means to him and his charges.


            “Demolition Girl,” a stirring coming-of-age story, is also impressive for its frank and unsentimental portrayal of everyday teenage heartbreak and anxiety. Writer/director Genta Matsugami and his co-writer Yoshitaka Kasui pay special attention to the dead air and sheer anti-climactic impact of a few key moments in the life of Cocoa (Aya Kitai), a high school senior who stars in above-the-clothes fetish porn (mostly involving her feet) in order to make enough money to go to college.

            Matsugami and Kasui’s sensitivity is especially striking since much of the success of “Demolition Girl” depends on our response to Cocoa’s deadbeat dad and burnout brother, who are both human enough to be unpleasantly selfish and basically sympathetic. These guys are just as real and solid as Cocoa’s two girl friends: she knows that they love her, but also doesn’t feel she can trust them enough to talk about her money problems or her oppressive home-life. Matsugami and Kasui’s sympathetic depiction of Cocoa’s world often brought to mind Hirokazu Kore’eda’s domestic dramas (especially “Still Walking” and “Shoplifters”), and always in a good way.

            I was also pleasantly surprised by “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers,” a newly restored 1985 backstage musical that follows the rise and fall of the title characters, a pop duo who are thrown together for the sake of marketing, as they tell their story through a series of fizzy, music-video-style set pieces. Cult film buffs may flock to “Stardust Brothers” because of a handful of surreal musical numbers, like the one where the Stardust Brothers compare fame to a waking nightmare that they can’t wake up from (complete with shambling zombies and a bizarre animated sequence). But this movie is more new wave than punk rock, so the characters’ concerns with selling out are matched by their drive to be recognized as “sexy” and talented pop artists. I may have to rewatch this one ASAP given the warm reception it’s bound to receive at Japan Society, a great venue for movie screenings given their spacious auditorium and well-cultivated audience. “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is a quintessential “Japan Cuts” title: it will surprise and disarm you even if you think you know where it’s going.




            By: Simon Abrams
            Posted: July 16, 2019, 2:27 pm

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            The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) has announced that it will present the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) with their We Are Inclusion Award during the 20th Annual NALIP Media Summit, July 25-28, in Hollywood.

            For the past two years, NALIP has put a laser focus on encouraging diversity in Hollywood through its #WeAreInclusion campaign. That work is why NALIP has chosen to honor AAFCA. In a letter, NALIP Executive Director Ben Lopez noted that the honor, to be accepted by AAFCA co-founder and CEO Gil Robertson, recognizes “the cross-cultural impact [AAFCA] has had on emerging filmmakers of color” as well as Robertson’s visionary leadership to “distribute inspirational content, build an impactful membership, and hold dynamic events advancing diverse creatives.”


            The mission of inclusion is a passionate one for AAFCA and Robertson and, in that work, NALIP has also been an ally. “It’s such a privilege to receive this award from NALIP on behalf of AAFCA,” said Robertson. “NALIP’s Executive Director Ben Lopez is a great compatriot and friend to both me and AAFCA overall. Both our organizations share common values in championing greater inclusion in the Hollywood community. AAFCA has partnered with NALIP on many initiatives. AAFCA wholeheartedly believes in the #weareinclusion vision and are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with NALIP to realize that vision.”

            Robertson will accept the award Sunday, July 28, at The Montalbán Theatre, named for pioneering Mexican actor and inclusion advocate Ricardo Montalbán, best known as Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, whose career spanned seven decades and included an Emmy and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. 

            For more information on the 20th Annual NALIP Media Summit specifically and AAFCA overall, visit and

            By: The Editors
            Posted: July 16, 2019, 3:13 pm

            • Entertainer

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              Jesse Eisenberg had two films play on back to back nights at Fantasia this year: On Thursday night, there was a screening of Riley Stearns' dark comedy “The Art of Self-Defense,” which our own Christy Lemire gave three stars. On Friday night, however, Fantasia audiences saw an Eisenberg-led movie that had only previously played Critics’ Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Eisenberg was not in Montreal for either movie, as he was in New York City promoting Stearns’ film. But he did record a video greeting for the sold-out Fantasia crowd, saying that he loves Montreal for being a lovely, interesting, diverse place. And then he warned us that we were about to see a “fever dream” about a place that was the exact opposite. 

              Eisenberg was, of course, not wrong. “Vivarium” is an unflappably cynical but audacious parable about living in the suburbs, presented as an existential crisis this side of “The Twilight Zone.” Eisenberg stars in this debut from promising madman Lorcan Finnegan alongside Imogen Poots, and together they create a wild emotional experience out of the film’s main premise—a married couple tour a massive home development out in the suburbs called Yonder, where every house as far as the eye can see is the same two-floor boxy design, painted in a lifeless green. Clouds are not floating in the air so much as placed there, and the properties are all neatly segmented, even though there's no neighbors. On the inside, everything is perfect and drab: in the most disturbing detail, the painting over the bed in the main bedroom is merely an image of the bedroom itself.

              Led there by a robotic and alarmingly smiley real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris), Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Eisenberg) try to leave the development, but the development isn’t so much labyrinthine as never-ending. Their car eventually runs out of gas, and the couple realizes they are trapped. This is their life now. Without the script outright saying it, this story starts to work through its opinion that such a lifestyle is not meant to inspire people, but contain them. Nature is a key motif in the beginning (the opening credits show the life cycle of the cuckoo bird in particular) and that echoes throughout the movie as Tom and Gemma are in place that has no wind in the air, and their way of “survival” within this sandbox is informed by what they have learned from the real world. 

              Working from a script by Garret Shanley (who shares story credit with Finnegan), there is a lot to toy with, and it’s important to note that this movie becomes more than just ripping on the easy target of the suburbs, a life choice that people (many happily, it seems) choose. With fascinating performances by Poots and Eisenberg, they become our surrogates into this bonkers experience, and we learn about this unsettling world with them. Through their chemistry, the film expands to toy with ideas of gender roles—what a man and a woman do in the home—and family, especially as they soon open a box outside their new home, and are told they if they raise the baby, they can leave. It's all a horrific context to make you value what sense of life comes with art, freedom, and diversity; the spell that "Vivarium" casts is in how it makes you think about what makes your life full, all while being immersed in the oppressive emptiness of Yonder.  

              “Vivarium” holds many surprises and equally messed-up images to make it a rich script, even though it has little plot. So it flags in some points whenever it feels like style over substance, yet the incredible world building detail (sharply blending practical set work and green screen) turns out to be just the beginning. The film builds its creepy world not just with disturbing visuals but the questions they inspire, and is bound to inspire vastly different reactions in turn. Through focused storytelling, expansive imagination and some calibrated madness, "Vivarium" becomes a wild ride within the confines of a nightmarish lifestyle. 


              Fantasia hosted the world premiere for the latest "Critters" movie, making it the first feature from the franchise since 1992. This one is called “Critters Attack!”, which isn't a title for this unabashedly C-movie indulgence but also the log line, and the entire script. The film will be available on Blu-ray on July 23, but you'll wish you could watch it on a rented VHS tape 25 years ago.  

              You might also wish it was just a mixtape of Critters killing, since anything that doesn't feel like fan service is rest of it is pure padding. Tashiana Washington tries, though, to give some heart, playing a hard working sushi delivery person named Drea, who wants to get into the college that her recently deceased mom had to leave after getting pregnant at a young age. Drea eventually gets a job as a babysitter for a school administrator, which puts her in the care of two younger kids, including her brother. Before the four of them come across the beloved, ravenous hair space beasts and their carnage, they find a big-eyed, white animal alone in the woods. It’s a critter, but this one is fluffier and white, and because it has eyelashes, they gender it and name it Bianca. It’s that type of nostalgia (conjuring memories of Greta the Gremlin and her lipstick) that this movie falls back on. 

              “Critters Attack!” works on the most basic of expectations, to see critters bound around like kickballs and at times feast on limbs of unlucky adults. The puppeteers, the blood splatter-ers, and SFX artists are the main heroes here. Every now and then a little amusement trickles out in the festivities from seeing a hapless sap get preyed upon and turned into a meal, or to see a critter burst into green gloop. Within the movie’s tonal limits, it can’t get especially nasty and its humor is plain bad, but with a project like this, it's the little things. 

              Later in the night after having witnessed "Critters Attack!", I was having a brief chat with a director on a stairwell. He expressed regret that he didn't see the new "Critters," having chosen to catch another film instead. “Do the critters roll up in a giant, hairy ball?” He asked in so many words. Oh, you bet they do. Dee Wallace shows up, too, locked and loaded as a critter exterminator. Sometimes, it's "Dee Wallace Attacks!" 

              By: Nick Allen
              Posted: July 15, 2019, 1:25 am

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              “If the Sixties and early Seventies were, at least in part, periods of disillusionment, the late Seventies and Eighties brought a process of re-illusionment. Its agent was Ronald Reagan. His mandate wasn’t simply to restore America’s economy and sense of military superiority but also, even more crucially, its innocence.” - J. Hoberman, Make My Day

              In September 1980, the eve of the first term election of Ronald Reagan, J. Hoberman published, in the Village Voice, a jaundiced critique of the former actor. “Reagan made a successful career out of establishing the ‘likeability’ of his two-dimensional image,” Hoberman began. “He spent three decades practicing a form of hoodoo—the Dr. Strange-like projection of his ectoplasmic form—over radio, in the movies, and on TV. The package may be shopworn, but the historian must stand in awe of its prophetic vision.”

              Few American film critics have rivaled Hoberman in his range, versatility and expertise. As a critic at the Voice, his acute and remarkable insights touched all sides, encompassing though hardly limited to the American experimental and underground cinema, Bruce Lee and blaxploitation titles, French New Wave and most significantly, the furtive history of Jewish and Eastern European cinema.

              The Reagan era was Hoberman’s true metier. As Hollywood colonized the world, perfecting the blockbuster and monopolizing markets, Hoberman dissected their deeper meanings and political implications through the key works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Robert Zemeckis’ “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” for instance, suggests “the last efflorescence of Spielbergism—that is, the process by which the subversively self-reflexive practice of the French New Wave was recuperated in the service of building bigger, better, and blander entertainment machines.”

              The movies, the politics, the Reagan persona, are the subject of Hoberman’s enthralling new cultural history, Make My Day, the concluding work of a trilogy that began with The Dream Life, about the 1960s,  and continued with An Army of Phantoms, about film noir, the Cold War and the blacklist. 

              The new book, Hoberman writes in the introduction, “is not a work of film criticism. Nor is it strictly speaking a history. I see it rather as a chronicle in which political events and Hollywood movies are folded into each other to illuminate what, writing in 1960, [Norman] Mailer termed America’s ‘dream life.’ Consequently I have discussed many movies that I dislike, often at some length, and omitted or minimized some that I admire.”

              The view is typically kaleidoscopic, limited not just to Reagan’s years as president though his emergence as a political force. It begins with Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and a fascinating interplay of Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and ends with John Carpenter’s bleak and corrosive “They Live.” During a recent phone interview from his home in New York, J. Hoberman talked about Reagan, movies and the dream life.

              This feels like a culminating text for you, a book that you have been destined to write. Both Vulgar Modernism and The Dream Life, conclude with chapters about Reagan.

              That’s true. I don’t know if I was destined to write it, but I felt like I had to. It was really the culmination of two previous books, “The Dream Life” and “Army of Phantoms.”

              You allude to Arthur Kroker’s quotation of society as a mirror of television. Reagan also inverted the normal dynamic so that the invasion of Grenada is the equivalent of his Rambo, his policies recast revisionist fantasy. 

              Reagan was so immersed in the Hollywood worldview or the imperatives of Hollywood entertainment that he could project these scenarios out into the world. He did a great job with it. I don’t think Grenada is remembered today, but it was a huge hit then. 

              You talk about, in movies like “Back to the Future” or “Blue Velvet,” about the superimposition of the Fifties over the Eighties. For all the cultural conformity of the Eisenhower period, we had great directors like Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich who were saying far more damning things about the culture and country, Fuller especially in taking on American racism.

              That’s a very good point. When I refer to the Fifties, I mean the imaginary Fifties, “Happy Days.” The actual Fifties, especially in the first half, were very different, very anxious and scary. Regan didn’t create nostalgia for an imaginary Fifties. It already existed. “American Graffiti” put that into play. He did promote an imaginary past and that is the Fifties that is superimposed over the Eighties.


              Speaking of Fuller, Reagan was really damaging to film culture because his ideology pervaded industry practices. As Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out, ownership superseded authorship, and it had terrible consequences, I am thinking of the example of Paramount with “White Dog,” or Warner Brothers on the original cuts of “Once Upon a Time in America” or “Swing Shift.”

              By his very existence, Reagan promoted a kind of old-fashioned view of Hollywood. The studios lost a lot of power in the Fifties, and that created opportunities for somebody like Sam Fuller, and in general for other genre director with social interests like Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel, in some ways. In the Sixties, the system itself began to fall apart and that was really great for movies. In the latter half of the Sixties into the first part of the Seventies, you had an American New Wave, where confusion reigned and authorship challenged ownership. 

              There was a tremendous reaction to that. “Jaws” is the handy culprit and also “Star Wars,” but those are very much author films, so there’s a paradox. As Reagan reorganized American politics so Hollywood reorganized itself, having discovered the significance of the blockbuster, and what would later be called convergence culture. All movies would aspire to not only being tremendous hits on their first weekends, but to spin off sequels and all sorts of ancillary merchandise.

              I think it’s one of the great achievements of the book to expose the fallacy of the Hollywood liberal orthodoxy. Reagan movies are not just reactionary, but protecting and preserving of the status quo.

              That is true of entertainment in general and certainly of Hollywood, except for a very few periods. One was the Sixties, when the industry was in crisis, and you have all of these movies that are pessimistic, disruptive or subversive. The only other period is the Depression before the Production Code, although you could also say the whole film noir tendency that starts during World War II and continues into the Cold War is also oppositional. It’s certainly pessimistic. It goes against the enforced optimism of Hollywood. By the Eighties, you can’t have a movie that doesn’t just have a happy ending, but an insanely affirmative ending. “Rocky” becomes the template for what a Hollywood movie should be. 

              I never realized until reading the book you were at Berkeley during Reagan’s first term as governor of California. 

              I was there in the summer of 1968 and again during the summer of 1969.

              How much did that experience shape your feelings and attitudes about him?

              Completely. I disliked him, but after 1968 I really hated him. Before I didn’t have any sense of him, or who he was. I don’t think I ever saw him in the movies.

              Not even “The Killers.”

              I saw “The Killers” after I was in Berkeley. The whole experience was eye-opening. As governor Reagan had targeted students, longhairs, people like me who were rioting every night on Telegraph Avenue. It was quite something. You could not but be swept up in them—it seemed like a life and death thing. I loathed Reagan. He was horrible. In June 1969, I saw “The Killers,” and I wasn’t expecting to see Reagan. I went to see it because it was a Don Siegel film, at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a revelation. To me, it didn’t even seem like he was acting. I thought he was somehow playing himself—a very naive response to the movie. 

              Still, forever after, even when he developed this other persona after being president of being this chuckling, avuncular and kindly old guy who people loved I would think, to quote a movie, “you may be a one-eyed Jack in this town but I’ve seen the other side of your face.” The real Reagan was in “The Killers.”

              Dave Kehr is another critic you allude to a lot in the book, and he made a great point about the defining characteristic of Reagan era films in his capsule of “Top Gun,” the suppression of individuality in order to become a team player.

              Actually “Top Gun” promotes a kind Uber individualism. There can only be one “Top Gun.” Even though he is a member of the team, a supporter of the status quo, he is No. 1. That is something that was promoted throughout the Reagan period. Rambo wins the Vietnam War. Arnold rules. Reagan himself would be the exemplar of that.

              It’s interesting as well to track the different stylistic and thematic ideas that you pursue throughout the trilogy, but also your other work. “Eraserhead” is probably the key film in Midnight Movies, and “Blue Velvet” probably the defining work of this book.

              There are certainly a handful of movies that were produced in Hollywood or close to Hollywood that to me are great films. “The King of Comedy” is one, so is “Videodrome,” even though it was made outside Hollywood. “Ishtar” looks better and better. There are some other movies that I see as being Eighties movies being turned inside out. “Gremlins” would be an example of that, and also “Aliens” and “RoboCop.” There aren’t all that many.

              Make My Day doesn’t deal with independent films, that was something that was going outside the margins. I wrote about them in the Voice, but they’re not the subject of this book. 

              The three books reflect so much of your sensibility and what has driven you, as a critic, writer, historian and teacher, the last four decades. I was curious, with this book or any of the books, do you struggle sometimes in reconciling how much of yourself to put into them.

              I definitely did with Make My Day. It was the hardest for me to write. All of them are different. For Army of Phantoms, I did a tremendous amount of research, and I was learning things all the time. It was very exciting. The Dream Life was pure pleasure, enabling me to revisit my youth (I was born in 1949) and think about it. 

              However, I lived through Reagan as an adult, not just an adult a professional film critic. I saw all of these movies including many I didn’t much care for. It’s not like my opinion of these movies (or Reagan for that matter) changed while I was working on the book. In the other books, I relied quite a bit on contemporary film criticism to examine what people were saying about the movies. I had the advantage to check how things were reviewed in the Daily Worker in the Forties and Fifties, and the underground press in the Sixties. In the Eighties, those publications barely existed but I was writing. So I used certain of my own pieces of writing that I felt held up and were symptomatic of the times.

              I quote plenty of other people too. I was always looking for critics like Richard Grenier or John Podhoretz who were ideological. But because I added my own voice, Make My Day is more personal than the earlier books.

              We have seen the disruptive and devastating repercussions of technology, demographics and market forces with media, the alternative weeklies and now foreign language and specialized cinema, I was curious how you think your own work has been changed by the internet.

              In some ways, the internet put me out of a job. I got laid off from the Voice because they were retrenching. There were other reasons too. I was very active in the union, part of the struggle against the way the paper was being downsized. So I am no longer a regular film critic although I continue to write on movies. Initially I thought I would never write just for online publication. That lasted about a month. I quickly learned that by and large online was what there was. A lot of what I write now is just online. It never seems as significant to me as something in print but that is my nostalgia. The internet happened, and it gives and it takes away.

              When I started reading you in the Eighties, I always marveled at the contextual layering of your reviews. Even in the analog era, you seemed to have an astonishing recall for facts at your command.

              Well, History and English were my two favorite subjects at school. I had a natural curiosity about things that happened in the past and a good memory for that stuff. As I think back on the other books that I have done, Bridge of Light, the book I wrote on Yiddish films really is a history, that is a history using film as its subject. Probably that method affected my subsequent work. For that matter, Midnight Movies was a book that was about a historical period. Writing about the cults films of the Seventies, Jonathan [Rosenbaum] and I were aware of the historical baggage they carried.

              Exactly, Ben Barenholtz, who just passed away, I was aware of him, but until reading Midnight Movies, I had no idea of how crucial a figure he was in the New American Cinema. 

              We spent a lot of time talking to him. Shortly thereafter, he discovered Guy Maddin and also the Coen Brothers. His career was in an upward arc but his prior promotion of “El Topo” and “Pink Flamingos” and “Eraserhead,” really makes him in some respects the central figure of that whole midnight movie tendency. 

              Perhaps the fitting irony is that Reagan’s two terms as president were more or less bookended by “Heaven’s Gate and “Ishtar,” two films ridiculed for their overreach, hubris and the financial damage they caused. “Heaven’s Gate” now has the imprimatur of Criterion boxed set. As you pointed out recently in The New York Times, the critical thinking about “Ishtar” is also much more appreciative. Their reputations have eclipsed Reagan’s.

              Among some people. The book’s last chapter, I draw attention to the fact that when Reagan left office he was regarded as a good guy but hardly a great president—let alone the greatest president since Lincoln, which seems to be an article of faith in the Republican Party. So we have to deal with that part of the Reagan movie also—his imaginary, posthumous political career. 

              Get your copy of Make My Day here.

              By: Patrick Z. McGavin
              Posted: July 15, 2019, 1:38 pm


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