Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jerry Maguire, Part 1.

Something happened last year, and I'm not entirely sure how.

My friend Jeramy (@JeramyWainwrigh) is a huge Tom Cruise fan, and early on in the summer he started talking about his rewatch of all of the Mission Impossible films. His mission was to watch the series over before the new movie, Rogue Nation, was released. Jeramy's genuine enthusiasm and insights stuck with me, because the Mission Impossible films were ones I remembered enjoying, but not having that strong of feelings about.

Because, Tom Cruise.

In late January 2013, I went to see Django Unchained with a friend. We were both beyond excited to finally see Tarantino's new movie, which had opened almost a month before, on Christmas Day. Cancelled and rearranged plans finally found us at a midday screening, happy and anxious for what would unfold over the next three hours. In the interest of telling a more compact story, I'll simply say that because of a technical issue, they didn't show Django that day. We understood and weren't that disappointed, especially after the theater a) refunded our money, b) gave us free passes for another time, and c) told us we were welcome to go see something else, free of charge, since we had made the trip to the theater. Ruling out movies that had already started or were starting in the too-distant future, we ended up in the auditorium a few minutes before Jack Reacher began. Neither one of us was enthused about the choice, but as I mentioned: free.

If you're looking for summer reading, how about Ruthless?
My distaste for Cruise bloomed somewhere around the Scientology promo video and the couch-jumping on Oprah and his general overexposure of that time. I became unable to see him as anything other than Tom Cruise, Scientologist and Movie Star. That bias completely ruined Jack Reacher, which my friend and I mocked, whispering to one another in the mostly empty theater, figuring out the plot soon after it was explained. (The presence of Jai Courtney didn't help matters either.) So: as recently as 2013, Cruise was little more than a punch line to me.

(Full disclosure - I did see and enjoy MI3, and Ghost Protocol. Maybe because their over-the-top beauty and jacked-up stunts suited the persona? I don't know. They both worked for me in a big way, especially MI3.)

Despite the odds and inspired by Jeramy's enjoyment, I decided to rewatch all of the Mission Impossible films last summer before seeing Rouge Nation. It was fun, and somewhere in there I felt myself thinking, plainly, "Tom Cruise has been in a lot of movies. A lot of movies I haven't seen. I'd like to watch some more Tom Cruise movies."

I've wanted to undertake a project as massive as watching all of an actor's work for a while, but it seemed too daunting. Example: I've been working on The Coen Project for well over a year (where I've been watching all of the films they've directed, in an effort to educate myself), and I still have a handful of films to get through. ("Get through," because... I'm not loving every single one? "Get through," because... I don't really...get...a lot of them? Admitting that fills me with dread, because the Coens are so loved and revered, and that's what the project was about, really. Trying to see the big picture[s] and find out for myself what the appeals are. The Coen Project will eventually get its own post, but this post ain't it.)

But as a regular person who enjoys movies, I had already seen a ton of Cruise's films in my life. A Few Good Men, Top Gun, Interview With The Vampire; these were American classics. I thought I could fill in the gaps with what I'd missed, rewatch the ones I'd seen, and finally have a completist accomplishment under my belt.

That's how Cruise Summer was born.

It's no longer summer, though, and I'm not finished with the task. But the whole thing will be a post of its own when finished, so this post ain't that post either.

This post is about Jerry MaFuckingGuire.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hard Core Logo.

Hard Core Logo was the first DVD I ever bought.

I had already seen the movie numerous times on VHS, rented and renewed from the Blockbuster in my college town, because the good video store, the indie video store, had lost their copy.

I watched it by myself in my tiny on-campus apartment bedroom, late afternoon creeping into evening. When it was over, I took a few minutes to gather my thoughts and then did a few things, in rapid succession: I rewound the tape, I hit play, I watched the movie all over again.

(The only other movie I've done that with, before or since, was Adam Wingard's The Guest.)

When Hard Core Logo was over the second time, I emerged from my room to a quiet and dark living room. With four roommates and their significant others usually around, this was rare. And eerie. I felt as though I was moving through a fog, dazed and stunned, certain moments of the movie replaying themselves in my mind. What did I just watch? All I wanted to do was talk about it, and no one was around.

I called my boyfriend, who lived two apartments away. I made us dinner and we ate in my room, plates balanced on our legs, and I rewound the tape and hit play again.

"Holy shit," he said, as the credits started. "You watched that three times? Today?"

I nodded.


I remember thinking my answer was too corny to say out loud, so I shrugged. I should have said what I was thinking.

I was looking for answers.

"I think you need to get out of this room," he told me.

We spent the rest of the night with friends, the lot of them playing a drinking game with homemade sake and Iron Chef. It was boisterous and high-spirited, and I felt miles away.

Hard Core Logo, at its most barebones, is about a punk band that reunites after a five-year break. They reassemble for a benefit show, followed by a small tour, and the film is a visual record of their time on the road.

There's a line pondered out by John Oxenberger, bass player and the only member of the band without an alias. "Joe Dick," he says, naming the lead singer, "Billy Tallent," and then, the lead guitarist, "guys who picked their own names when they were fourteen." How do middle-aged men grapple with versions of themselves they created when they were kids? What if you outgrow your ideal version of yourself? Which part of your identity is the most true, and which part do you want the world to see? Which part of you do you want the world to remember most clearly?

I was looking for answers, remember? Not just my own, but answers for the four guys who felt as real to me than any band I'd seen on tour. There is so much poetry and beauty surrounding these men, their nightmare of a tour, and the dissent that vibrates between them. It's a movie about holding yourself and your friends together even though the world is doing everything it can to take you apart.

Cut the rockstar bullshit.

Calling it a mockumentary, or a "hilarious rockumentary," as the box art does, is dismissive and insulting. It's shot in a documentary style, yes, the kind of thing that would be called "found footage" if it was released today. It's "mock" in that it's fictional, and also "mock" in that it satirical, but categorizing it is difficult. Maybe that's why in so much of the press material and write ups, including the DVD cover itself, Hard Core Logo is compared to This Is Spinal Tap. That comparison has deeply concerned me since the first time I saw it, not only because of my fanatical need for truth in movie descriptions, but because of my appreciation for the more serious aspects of the movie. It's about going broke, getting old, losing your friends, losing your way, losing your mind, and trying to figure out what your eventual legacy will be.

Both Spinal Tap and Hard Core Logo are about musicians, but that's about where the comparisons end. Tonally, they take space up at opposite ends of the spectrum - Spinal Tap keeping very cozy near the silly line, Hard Core Logo lodging itself much closer to serious and dramatic, inching over to silly only when no one is paying attention. It has moments of humor, but it's not jokey. It squeezes into the darkest corners of humor, the kind that only develops after you've known your friends for too many years and you've seen them at their worst. When those friends have seen you at your worst, your lowest, your most desperate.

"It's funny though. me.," Joe justifies. "It's funny."

The downfall of so many movies about bands is that, uh, the music sucks. Hard Core Logo avoids the trap. The music is hard, and the lyrics are simple and strong, but it's the concert performances that put the perfect frame around the whole sloppy picture. Hugh Dillion, who plays Joe Dick, isn't a stranger to the stage, having lead the rock band The Headstones on and off since 1987. (Dillon's story is a true rock and roll saga, and I encourage you to look him up, but only after you watch the movie.) He spits and snarls and steamrolls through the movie, not selling the role but being it. Never does it feel like you're watching a bunch of actors who went to rock and roll camp for a week. I mention Dillon because Joe is the pack leader, but the other actors that make up the band: Callum Keith Rennie as Billy Tallent, guitarist; John Pyper-Ferguson as Oxenberger, bassist; and Bernie Coulson, as drummer Pipefitter; are as important as any rhythm section. You'll recognize any of these guys if you've watched television in the last couple decades - Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Criminal Minds, Bones, Smallville, the CSIs, Lost, The L Word, Californication. In HCL, these character actors are leading men, and there's not a single inauthentic note in any of their performances.

Watching this movie now is like busting into a time capsule, dug out of a filthy rock club bathroom floor. Hard Core Logo is a film that exists purely in the time where it was made. There would be no plausible way for large chunks of the plot to work now, in the internet age. The short years of dead space between the release of Hard Core Logo and the popularization of social media and the lightening-fast way we each move information now, provide a bumper of distance that allows the movie to happen the way it does. As the band makes their way across Canada, there's no Twitter to check fan reactions to shows. There's no Instagram for backstage party pictures or Soundcloud to hear new music.

There's no contact.

This aspect of Hard Core Logo truly makes the movie special for me. As a teenager, I went to a lot of concerts. I wore a lot of lanyards and passed through a lot of curtains. I was lucky and determined and maybe young or cute enough, which helped me spend time with a ton of musicians I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. It was fun and games for me, because there was mystery to the people behind the music. Getting those little glimpses of the rider or pre-show rituals was unique, because I knew it wasn't being shared with three million Twitter followers. That game doesn't really exist anymore, with social media managers and artists selling VIP passes as part of the concert experience.  

Or maybe it does still exist, and I've just been out of the backstage game too long?
I'm not looking to get back in, though. I can watch Hard Core Logo again and get that little contact high whenever I'm feeling overly nostalgic.

I suffer for his art.

That old detachment between the famous and the fan forced a blind faith in our idols, created from our hopes that they want what's best for us - in their privacy, in their distance - something that seems as alien today as the sound of dial-up.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Get Shorty.

I have a confession to make. It's something that seems mind-boggling now, something that I rarely even remember as real.

I had a serious thing for John Travolta in high school.
Post-Pulp Fiction and pre-disastrous hairpieces, I sought out his old performances, taped his talk show interviews, and even bought a discount bin copy of his album, You Set My Dreams To Music.

I'm not going to share any of the songs because I wouldn't do that to you. We're friends.

Hold that thought.
At the same time, I interned at a magazine that was about an hour from where I lived, in a city with a downtown and a college and more shops and restaurants and coolness than my mind could process. In this haven of coolness was a "mall," only in the sense it was several stores in the same three level building, much taller than it was wide, with tin ceilings and creaky wooden floors and strange hallways that twisted into other stores just as often as they dead-ended. In this cooler-than-a-mall mall was a store called House which sold, and I remember this perfectly: "pop culture artifacts."
This was a time long before you could go online and find a Gumby lunchbox with a few clicks. There wasn't anywhere that carried Charlie's Angels silhouette posters  or Mork and Mindy ringer tshirts. In the year of our dog, 2015, the internet has made finding and purchasing almost anything a process that requires little to no thought. You go to Google, you type in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack," and ten sites come up offering you a variety of backpacks in a variety of vintages. But in 1997, seeing a TMNT backpack hanging on the wall of a store was a novelty that's probably impossible to convey to anyone born after 1990. Seeing something like that backpack was seeing an actual artifact from my childhood, that had somehow survived time and clutterphobic parents.  
Back to my Travolta crush. I bought a lot of things from House over the years, but one of my favorite purchases was a picture of him from Saturday Night Fever. Though I admitted to myself I didn't really "get" the movie, the aesthetic of it made me happy. It wasn't a vintage press glossy, but a picture printed on very thin cardboard. That pic was pinned on just about every bedroom wall I had for almost a decade. Despite looking everywhere for it, I can't find it now, so I leave you with this different picture of Tony Manero that I enjoy.

In seeking out his old performances, I also had to keep up with Travolta's new movies. I acquired my VHS copy of Get Shorty from the Columbia House movie club. Remember the mailings, with the fold out pages of stamps, each one with a different movie and code on it? You got something like twelve movies for a penny, as long as you agreed to buy x amount of movies at the "regular price" in the decided upon time frame. The regular price was of course much higher than you'd pay at the store, but the thrill of pouring over the massive selection, affixing the stamps to the order form, and getting that gigantic box of movies in the mail was something I finally succumbed to. Most of the movies in that initial batch were movies I hadn't seen yet, which makes me admire the adventurous spirit of a young girl with too much babysitting money.
This is where I start throwing the word "cool" around.
Get Shorty is coolness in film form. Look no further than the cover, all sunglasses and black clothing and crossed arms, not a toothy smile is sight. Cool is stoic. Watching Get Shorty as a teenager, I always had the feeling that it was truly a cool, grown up movie. I think it felt that way because it was an inside look at an industry I was interested in. Acting, screenwriting, producing - not the loan sharking, mob stuff. Well. I mean. Not really. Hearing Chili and Harry name check movies the way my friends and I did, that wasn't something I'd seen a lot of at that point, pre-everything-is-meta. A movie (mostly) about movies. It doesn't hurt that the script is great - funny and intricate and smart, pulled from the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel.
Watching it now I feel the same, still makes me feel cool. Seeing Get Shorty again was like getting a call from your coolest friend that you lost touch with; another pre-internet, pre-texting, so pre-Facebook phenomenon, where people would sometimes lose contact with one another, then regain said contact by using a telephone to dial a series of numbers to reach another telephone.
Get Shorty tapped into the best of Travolta at exactly the right time. Residual Danny Zuko vibes and that walk from Saturday Night Fever always gave Travolta The Cool, even when he was in the talking baby movies. In 1994, our lord and savior QT cast Travolta as Vincent Vega, arguably one of the "coolest" guys to ever Batusi. Get Shorty was the first film he made after the unexpected success of Pulp Fiction, and even though Chili Palmer is written as cool, calm, and collected, there's a grace and confidence that Travolta exudes in the part that's entirely his. It's enjoyable to watch him work, even when he's just sitting in a chair, staring someone down. It's Travolta, and therefore Chili, are intense and commanding and sexy and sly.
There's not an off note in the casting. Travolta, of course. Gene Hackman as a very dim but well-meaning producer and screenwriter, in a role that may not stand out in his incredible filmography to anyone but me. I saw this movie so many times that even now, seeing him without a goatee seems a little off for me. Danny DeVito plays it so straight, as a serious thespian that could not be farther from Frank Reynolds. Rene Russo is the female lead, and totally fine, though she's never really set my world on fire.
Get Shorty was the first movie I ever noticed Denis Farina in, and he's menacing and violent, but still has some of the funniest lines in the script. Delroy Lindo, playing a different kind of  cool, calm, and calculating; his Bo a foil to Travolta's Chili. Bo's sidekick is James Gandolfini - but can Gandolfini ever be considered a sidekick to anyone? Jon Gries, David Paymer, Jacob Vargas, Bette Midler, and Alex Rocco all have smaller, but still memorable, parts.

My introduction to Alex Rocco. That voice.
With Denis Farina, James Gandolfini, and Alex Rocco gone now, Get Shorty serves as a reminder of what talented comedic actors these tough guys were. Alex Rocco, with his single scene, brings more attitude and back story to his character than some actors can muster in a whole movie. And he's laying down the whole time. Gandolfini is largely seen and rarely heard from, but he looms next to Lindo and delivers his threats with a huge grin and the soft-spoken voice of a shy new kid in town. Farina is, as I mentioned, a totally violent and unreasonable low level gangster, who winds up riddled with one ridiculous injury after another. He sneers and snarls in a way you wouldn't expect from someone who wears so many pastels. Each of these men demands your attention for a different reason, and it's a character actor showcase.
It's difficult to make a bunch of criminal scumbags amusing; to give them heart and wit despite what their implied off-screen personas are. Then again, The Sopranos ran for how many years? So maybe it's easier than it seems. But.
No. Not really. You need all the right elements for a movie this dark and this fun to come together so well. Elmore Leonard's book, the Scott Frank (Out of Sight, The Lookout) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, Big Trouble) script, John Lurie handling the music, and that damn cast.
There's a lot of knowledge in Get Shorty - not specific to show business or the criminal life. Be straight with people. Ask for what you want. Pay people back.
Leave the sunlight in their eyes.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Anniversary Party.

Front cover.
I've always been fascinated by the line between the autobiographical and those works that just feel that way. Recollection and truth. Or recollection versus truth. It's my own favorite area to write in; the illuminated gray blue space of the last of night fading into a sunrise. For me, the middle, where it all overlaps, is where the good stuff is.

I sought out The Anniversary Party in 2002 or 2003, after reading Alan Cumming's novel, Tommy's Tale. I heard Cumming's voice in my head as I read, detailing the silly and sordid life of "it's really not autobiographical, no really, it's not" Tommy. Cumming wrote, directed, and starred in The Anniversary Party with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Close friends in real life, they casted the film with their real friends and family, shooting it on digital in less than a month. Each time I watched it, I searched for the truths within the fiction, the parts that might be real that were woven into the fiction. I assured myself there was plenty real woven into the fiction beyond the obvious, like Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline playing a married couple.

Cumming and Leigh play Joe and Sally, a couple throwing themselves an anniversary party after a tumultuous year fraught with neighborly spats, more successful friends, and a brief separation. She's an actress and he's a writer, and both are attempting to age gracefully as they internally dissolve from the stress of living and working in Hollywood. As the hours pass, the party atmosphere starts to fade as the cracks in their relationship, and the relationships of their guests, are exposed.

Friends forever.

I knew eventually, one of these movies wasn't going to be how I remembered it.

Seeing it in my early twenties, I looked at Sally and Joe as models of the adulthood I wanted to live. I wanted to write, to act, to direct - to have artistic creative success, and not just by myself. I wanted a partner who had that kind of creative drive, too. I wanted friends who I could collaborate with and celebrate those successes alongside. I wanted parties and nice view of the ocean and to have a body strong enough to pull off tricky yoga sequences. 

Watching The Anniversary Party ten years and a lifetime of reality later, it was impossible for me not to feel like Joe and Sally are mostly selfish, indulgent people with hollow connections to the ones they think they're closest to. Are you even allowed to have an anniversary party when you've been separated? Why would anyone plan a party segment that involves each guest taking a turn performing some kind of song or skit in honor of you? That sounds like one of my worst nightmares. Who brings their children to such a party and makes them sing about a marital separation? Why are these adults acting like the gift of some Ecstasy is the be-all, end-all? They can't find E on their own?

I hate that honesty only comes out after everyone swallows funtime rave drugs. It feels cheap, and now it feels dated too. Characters getting altered in order to spill their soul is almost as revolting to me as it is in real life.

Sally and Joe and their friends are whiny and short-sighted, and they all have more money than problems. Maybe Leigh and Cumming were ham-fistedly trying to show that money doesn't heal emotional wounds, but...we all know that already, and The Anniversary Party doesn't bring any new dishes to the potluck. I think the movie might have clicked for me when I was younger because I hadn't experienced the depth of emotions that I have now. (I originally wrote "emotional carnage," but I don't want to give the impression that I think of myself as some weathered and weary sage, travelling along the dusty road of heartbreak, loss, and lack of fulfillment.) Even though I was theoretically an adult at 20ish, I was still (partially) sweet and (kind of) innocent; not inexperienced, but untarnished by a lot of the pain and strife that life can serve up. I was in love, family was great, friends were the best, the words poured out of me every day. That's no longer the case :D and so I have a hard time accepting characters who fear speaking up about their feelings. It's difficult to accept as a conflict in a film, especially when there aren't real risks and stakes in speaking your mind. High school jock likes the less popular girl? Just tell her. Executive boss lady has feelings for her male assistant? Just tell him. Don't torture me with the hemming and hawing of should I/shouldn't I. (...unless you're Richie and Margot Tenenbaum.)

The look and feel of Anniversary Party were immediately different when I first saw it - it may have been the first shot-on-digital film I ever was aware I was watching. Now, I can say the camera works as found footage before found footage was a thing: roaming around the house and yard, weaving through party guests, lingering at the edge of groups, finding spare bedrooms and quiet spaces where people pair off to talk to each other in hushed tones. You get a visual story that's woven loosely around the party guests like a summer scarf on a fledgling actor. I still like the intimacy of the direction, even though most of the movie doesn't work for me anymore.

Most, because of that camera work. Most, because of the cast, who argue and cry and trip and kiss with ease, across the board. Cumming and Leigh are the true stars, and despite not liking their characters, I like watching both of them work with personalities they've developed together and obviously feel comfortable in. Their intimacy is natural, sweet, and sexy. I love seeing John C. Reilly acting in a semi-serious role, before he abandoned drama to model himself after Will Ferrell. Gwyneth Paltrow plays what could easily pass for a dimmer version of herself. Kevin Kline is funny and arrogant and kind of how you'd hope he'd be, if you invited him to a party at your house. Jennifer Beals is threateningly attractive, and both Denis O'Hare and John Benjamin Hickey do their thing with similarly angry characters. Parker Posey is there too, though she isn't given very much to do.  

The voyeur in me still enjoys the familiarity captured in The Anniversary Party, but the rest of me could barely stand to be around these people for the length of a movie.
Back cover.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Third post in, and I'm already breaking the rules. I like it.

I started taking classes again this year. I haven't been in any sort of academic environment in a long time, and because the classes are done in double time, the amount of hours I thought I'd spend classworking and the amount of hours I actually spent classworking were awesomely, outrageously different. My fun time movie watching got cut drastically, yeah, but... For the first time, in a very long time, I feel like I'm moving towards something on my own instead of standing on a conveyer belt sidewalk.

Because of the tiny, alternative college that I started at that had no grades and no credits (that I loved dearly, sup Hampshire!), I'm starting off my second college career taking all kinds of pre-requisites, even though I've taken higher level classes already in the same subjects. That means I started off things right with a Film 101 class.

For the final question on our final exam, we were asked to act as though our professor was an executive we were pitching the movie of our life story to. We had to breakdown all the elements: script, casting, directing, mise-en-scéne, marketing, genre and tone, soundtrack and score, everything - not just a plot breakdown, and including a high-concept pitch. It was overwhelming, because, if you know me at all you know I have an almost impossible time rating my "favorites" or making any kind of list - I'm useless when it comes to definitive answers, most of the time. I waffled a whole bunch on the final choices, but I'm happy with the movie I ended up with.  

I thought until I get my next VHS piece up, I'd share this slightly fattier version I wrote before chopping it down to turn in.

The pitch: Almost Famous, done by Harmony Korine and John Hughes.

My film would focus on all the incredible things I got to do as a teenager - write for a magazine, go on tour with bands, and interview celebrities. It would also be the story of how I accidentally bypassed a lot of quintessential teenage landmarks because I was so busy thinking about and waiting for the next step of my life.

Genre-wise, it would be a largely comedic, slice-of-life story. The narrative structure would be split into the four years of high school, each year serving as a natural act break, a lá Kristen Thompson's four-part structure (p 78). It would seemingly conclude on an optimistic note, capturing the feeling of finishing high school, looking forward to college, and believing the whole world is out there just for you. But, a final montage of registering for unavailable classes, moving in, missing family, trying to set up a landline, negotiating financial aid - all the terrible, mundane things that college was - would end the film. This darker comedic turn would fit in perfectly after the end credits. (Not to put the cart before the horse, but if a sequel was ever greenlit, it would be the darkest of comedies about college and life after dropping out of college.)

One of the first things I read in class was "Thinking In Pictures," by John Sayles. One of the things he said in that essay has really resonated with me, and it was, "if storytelling has a positive function, it's to put us in touch with other people's lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we'll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience (p 179)." It's the movies about relationships, conflict, struggle - just living as a human with complex emotions - that have always had the greatest impact on me, and that's why I would want to create that kind of film. My story is suited for something small and emotionally intimate. It's that simplicity that made me think of The Way, Way Back, co-written/co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. I want their tenderness and silliness conveyed in my film. Because they have such a gentle, authentic touch, I think they would be the perfect guys to give an almost surreal account of high school real truth and depth.

Composed of mostly medium shots, the camera acts as another person in the room. An observer. No artsy upside-down takes or extreme close-ups; no crane work. The editing for the film would be straightforward, but with self-awareness. It would have a realistic tone and look - think The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, or The Way, Way Back. This realism would need to be consistent, whether the scene took place in a school hallway; on a tour bus or backstage at a concert; or in the office of my magazine employer. Even the "flashy" scenes are kept toned down.

The movie would need to look and feel like late 90s, but not in a kitschy way. There may be a mention of Dawson's Creek or President Clinton, but references aren't shoehorned in or visually loud, like the costuming in Clueless. This is where the cinematography and mise-en-scéne would be especially important. Think of Scream, Can't Hardly Wait, or 10 Things I Hate About You. All take place in the late 90s, and that's what our sets and costumes would convey. I wore a lot of jeans and hoodies in high school, but I also always had glitter around my eyes. That's a small but important detail that only a mid-to-late 90s movie would have.

The two actresses I liked best to cast as me, Melanie Lynskey or Mary Elizabeth Winstead, would be too old to play a high school student. We would have to find a younger actor that embodies the talents and characteristics of Lynskey and Winstead. Mystery Girl would be an unknown woman, able to look about seventeen, a pale brunette who additionally looks comfortable in her size 14/16/18 skin. MG would win the part due to her ability to convey giddy joy in one scene and professionalism greater than her age would suggest in the next; paired with her laid-back, honest acting style. She's not Method - she's one of the great pretenders. The script is even-keeled, and there's not many big breakdowns or arguments, so MG's challenge is to keep her character compelling while conveying a plain girl who took a few chances and got some lucky breaks. I would take first crack at the screenplay, but I would love to share writing credit with Rash and Faxon, for their comedic input and structural experience.

The soundtrack would be songs that were popular from 1995 - 1999, when I was in high school. Mostly alternative rock, skewed towards the bands/celebs I was writing about: Ben Folds Five, Train, something from the Chasing Amy soundtrack. Enough time has passed since the late 90s that music from that era would work as powerful nostalgia; perfect for setting a scene, serving as filler, creating continuity, or adding emotional meaning. They are all functions that Prince explains music can serve in a film (pgs 157 - 159).

The marketing budget would be miniscule, because this would be an indie movie handled by a small distributer. No intentional "hype," though early critics would tout MG as an actor to watch. The film would play the festival circuit first, and positive word-of-mouth on social media would do a fair amount of legwork to get people to seek it out, both in its small art house run, or later, in their own homes. Though it wouldn't exactly achieve cult status, the movie eventually finds its place in history as a well-loved if under-seen film. If it ended up as the kind of movie that a small group of people are exceptionally passionate about, I'd be very happy. Ideally, the kind of film that you can't believe your friend hasn't seen, so you make them watch it with you right then and there.
What would yours look like?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Troop Beverly Hills, after.

When you're watching a movie you haven't seen in years, but one you've seen so many times before, it's strange what sticks with you and what you forget. I hadn't laid eyes on Troop Beverly Hills in ten years, at least, but I remember certain lines and inflections so clearly, while completely blanking out on complete scenes and sequences. The opening credit sequence is one of those things I lost to time. Now, I can appreciate the fact that it was drawn by John Kricfalusi; his pin-up styled Phyllis running around as The Beach Boys play over the animation.
The cartoon is a perfect introduction to the silliness and the chaos that follows, especially because nearly every scene of the movie looks like a cartoon. It's bright, it's broad, and garish in a way that screams late '80s, but somehow avoids being assaultive on the eyes like some other flicks of the period. (Cool World, '92, I'm looking at you.) Troop Beverly Hills is all soft pastels, sun-drenched storefronts, and manicured lawns. If you want to see excess and decadence boiled down lavishly, Phyllis' outfits are one of the most fun parts of the experience. From my notes: "Phyllis looks like a live-action Strawberry Shortcake."
Human petit four.
Phyllis Nefler (Shelly Long) is our heroine, a Beverly Hills housewife in the midst of a divorce from Freddy, "The Muffler Man" Nefler, played by Craig T. Nelson. They have a daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis), who is cautiously excited that her mom has decided to take over leader duties for her Wilderness Girl troop. Phyllis' shortcomings are quickly made clear - she doesn't follow through with things, she's spoiled, she has "no skills." Freddy says those exact words to her less than ten minutes into the movie, in a argument/exposition scene that's seriously heavy duty for a comedy directed at pre-teens. It's one of the most realistic and plain scenes Troop Beverly Hills has, though - it's an argument about money and lost potential, and what happens when the person you married isn't the person you end up married to.

The earnestness is there throughout the whole movie, which was a new observation for me. I remembered Phyllis being kind of haphazard, spoiled like a housewife on a reality show might be. But watching her now, she's not even close to that archetype. Phyllis is a mom who's trying very hard to be a part of her daughter's life, to involve herself in something that means a lot to Hannah, and as the movie goes on, a woman who struggles to find the determination to follow through.
Catered camping in fur.
Phyllis has trouble with the "wilderness" part of the Wilderness Girls, but she's creative, and is able to lead the girls using the means that are available to her - an outdoor concert and a celebrity fashion show (if you consider Pia Zadora and Dr. Joyce Brothers celebrities) to sell cookies, developing both jewelry appraisal and a divorce court patches, and inventing a backpack that allows you to stow away a sizeable chunk of your wardrobe. "Just because you're out in the woods," she tells the crowd, "it's not excuse not to look your best." While I totally disagree with the sentiment, I appreciate the hard work, even if she and the girls are laughed out of the craft day event for it.
It's cookie time, it's cookie time, it's cook-ie time.
One of the first to laugh is Tori Spelling, playing a Redfeather, the humorless subset of Wilderness Girls that wear red feathers in their headwear and generally act like dicks to everyone. All the pushback and difficulties Phyllis and the girls come up against are cooked up by Velda Plendor, a Redfeather co-leader and higher up on the Wilderness Girls Southern California chapter. Velda describes herself as "a mother, a widow, an ex-Army nurse, but first and foremost, a Wilderness Girl." She's as plain as Phyllis is glamorous, a sourpuss and poor sport whose distaste for Phyllis is never really explained. Yes, she clearly views Phyllis from the outside as spoiled, shallow, and too pretty for her own good, but Velda orchestrates some events are mean and straight up dangerous in hopes of disbanding the troop. She lacks everything that a good Wilderness Girl should embody (oh irony of ironies!), and is completely blind to her shortcomings in true cartoonish villain fashion. There's no redemptive story arc for her. She's a jerk for no reason. Betty Thomas sneers and scoffs and makes Velda's vitriol seem as terrible to me now as it did when I was ten. She's got a dart board with Phyllis' face on it, for fuck's sake.
Velda in a sensible frock and Phyllis in my favorite pastel wonder.
Phyllis' efforts eventually get the girls to the Wilderness Jamboree, the Troop Beverly Hills version of the championship game.  The wild is impossible to escape this time, and the movie really leads up to the big moral lesson taught at the jamboree: doing the right thing isn't always easy, but it's always worth it. Awr. I wouldn't call it a story of redemption exactly, because Phyllis never struggles to come back from anything more serious than being overly enthusiastic about shopping. But the kindness and care that she shows for people throughout teach slightly more subtle lessons: be nice to people. Look out for each other. Be true to yourself and it'll be okay. All a little after school special, maybe, but good messages for young girls to hear and see. Troop Beverly Hills was a "girl power" movie before the popularization of the term. The movie is absent of any young love storylines. There are no Outdoorsy Boys on the other side of a lake, no panty raids, no first kisses by campfires. The only men of note are the father's of the Wilderness Girls; the other dudes are bit parts all and used basically as props for Phyllis and Annie, her eventual co-leader, to fawn over.

Most of the girls in the troop are defined by a single characteristic, but their dedication to one another and their friendship as a whole matters more than their narrow definitions. Jenny Lewis' Hannah really just wants her mom and dad to get back together; understandable but unrealistic. I find Tessa insufferable, because everything out of her mouth is psychobabble. From my notes: "Everything out of Tessa's mouth makes me want to deck her." That's her thing, she's in therapy because her parents are divorced and throws the terms back solemnly at everyone around her. Tiffany is a money-conscious redhead with a plastic surgeon father who's happy to bribe her to get things done - also not my favorite. I love the Chica character that Carla Gugino plays, because her asshole behavior is ultimately explained and hopefully alters how you view her. Lily, who is virtually silent, is the daughter of a dictator and wears sunglasses all the time - of course I think she's cool.
Lily, killing it in Ray Bans.
A few other things. Phyllis smokes like a chimney, and Evian is referenced and seen no less than five times. Her idea of a bender is to drink something like 13 bottles of it, which are scattered around her neat bedroom in an effort to make it look, well, like a bender. Hannah's home gym has a full size balance beam in it, something I was and continue to be envious of to this day. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cameos as himself. Jo Marie Payton, the mother from Family Matters, drops the first curse of the movie as the woman who runs the Wilderness Girl uniform shop. ("Are you sure you're Wilderness Girls? We're not selling this shit for no masquerade parties.") Lily earns an International Affairs patch for teaching the rest of the troop to "launder money and crush a revolution."

I'm happy I started the project with this movie, even though I know they're not all going to turn out as well. From my notes: "Five minutes and it already feels like I put on a well-worn hoodie." Troop Beverly Hills suffers from some corniness, and it's dated, but it absolutely lived up to the expectations I had.
Faded front cover.
Back cover.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Troop Beverly Hills, before.

I was a Girl Scout. I say this to friends sometime, and the looks of disbelief on their faces are payoff enough for the confession. It's the same kind of look I get when I tell them I was a cheerleader - another story for another time.  I'm not a camper, or a hiker, not particularly crafty or involved with my community,  either. Maybe these traits have just gotten stronger with age, but maybe something about my three years as a scout permanently altered the reality of who I'd grow up to be: an indoor gal.

I got involved with the Girl Scouts older than most girls, at nine or ten, so I got to start as a Junior. The troop I entered had started together as Brownies, the classification for younger girls, so the troop was fairly well-established before I showed up. I don't have any Mean Girl stories, luckily the majority of the girls were great; the worst was a "snob" and incidentally, a neighbor, so sometimes our moms carpooled us to the dim church basement where we had weekly meetings. From 6:30 to 8 we would practice tying knots, learn how to take a pulse, sing songs, and on one particularly memorable day, paint plaster Christmas ornaments. I still have mine. I also still have my vest. 

Despite what the patches might suggest, I never built a fire, or tied a knot outside that basement. I definitely never slept in a tent or drank from a canteen. The single "camp out" I remember was at Camp Bonnie Brae, a Girl Scout sanctioned camp that was about an hour from our homes. We didn't even sleep in cabins, instead, the whole troop spread their sleeping bags on the floor of the Big House, a high-ceilinged meeting place and dining hall. It was like a semi-rustic slumber party. When they shut the lights, all the bats that lived in the rafters started swooping down and fluttering around, which made everyone scream, which made our fearless leaders leave the lights on for the entire night. No one slept a wink. It was a far cry from the tents and bonfires and smores I had reluctantly hoped for. I mean, roasted marshmallows are great, but really, having a toilet to pee in was way more interesting to me than an authentic camping experience. Even at the age of nine.

I wish I remembered the first time I saw Troop Beverly Hills, but the initial viewing is replaced with the massive amount of times I watched it after that. Like a visualization exercise, I think I stared at the movie so much in hope that some of the fun and frivolity of Troop Beverly Hills would carry over to my own lackluster group. My own leaders, while sweet and well-meaning, were dowdy and dull. Phyllis Nefler of Troop Beverly Hills was glamorous to the point of absurdity, with a sharp sense of humor and mischief. I was envious of the personally tailored Wildness Girl outfits displayed through the movie too, a far cry from the boxy yet somehow snug kelly green vest and skirt I was forced to wear. The girls had a patch presentation ceremony on a yacht, ours were handed to us at the end of our meetings, with instructions that our moms should sew them onto our vests by next week. They choreographed a concert on Rodeo Drive to sell cookies, we stood outside a supermarket with a rickety card table stacked high with cookie boxes, none of us wanting to ask strangers to patronize us. Though we did get a very Saved by the Bell looking cookie patch one year.

On the rewatch, I'm especially curious to see young Carla Gugino . Last week while watching Californication, she showed up and I thought, "oh, Carla Gugino." Novel. But in my internal review of her filmography - Sin City, Watchmen, Spy Kids - it was the Troop Beverly Hills bell that rang the loudest. She's had a long and varied career, obviously, but in my heart she'll always be the bratty Wilderness Girl.

I love her.
2014 is the 25 year anniversary of Troop Beverly Hills, and I worry that watching it again after all this time is going to tarnish the sequined memories I have. I'm sure it's going to seem cheesy now, but I'm hoping that as I watch, I spend more time smiling than rolling my eyes.