Sunday, May 31, 2015

Oyhood, or, A Painful Adolescence. Seriously, Painful.

In the early 2000s, I fell out of love with independent cinema. Or rather, independent cinema that dealt with how shitty real life can be. In a span of five weeks, I saw HEAVEN, ROGER DODGER, FAR FROM HEAVEN, and THE HOURS, four movies that were so dour and depressing that I yelled (internally), “ENOUGH!” and began a transition into mostly going to see movies that were an escape from the misery / monotony of existence, not a reflection (or amplification) of such.

I’ll still check out some of these films when they come on Netflix or Ye Olde Cable Channels (to which I still happily subscribe). Unlike going to the theater or paying for download, there’s no commitment. If something loses me halfway through (like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK or LES MISERABLES [the latter of which lost me way earlier than halfway]), I can just stop watching, delete it from the playlist, and move on with my life.

There is one big downside to my theatrical viewing habits, in that I come to most conversations about film a year late. For someone who fancies himself kind of a pop culture pundit (I’ve actually been paid for my opinions and even spewed them on TV a few times), tardy pontification is kind of a drag.

Now (to paraphrase, um, Bill Cosby, sorry), I told you that to tell you this: I really, really hated BOYHOOD.

The other night, via Showtime, I finally got to see this much-beloved, highly celebrated 2014 slice of, uh, life. I like Richard Linklater, but this movie just didn’t call to me when it hit the multiplexes last year. And, man, were my instincts right.

Certainly, I appreciated the time and dedication that went into the project. Making a movie about a young person aging 12 years in real time is a major feat in and of itself. But that’s all it is. This felt less like a movie than it did a cinematic exercise. In fact, I kept thinking the closest thing I could compare it to was Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO (a project that was such a cinematic jerk-off it even added masturbation to the script). I get why both directors wanted to make both films. I just don’t think they needed to share either one with the public.

At the risk of sounding like a philistine, my main beef with BOYHOOD echoes that of most of its scant chorus of naysayers: nothing fucking happens.

Okay, that’s a bit reductive. Things happen. Two hours and forty-five minutes worth of things happen. But almost none of them are interesting. And most of the actual drama that does pop up disappears in the next time jump with little or no resolution. There is absolutely no narrative arc. Here’s what happens: A kid from a broken family grows up to be a kinda artsy, angsty teen. The end. Oh, should I have said, “Spoiler Alert?” Sorry.

Look, I understand the nigh-impossibility of writing a traditional three-act screenplay for a film that’s going to be shot over more than a decade. Linklater had no idea what was going to happen with his principals. Ethan Hawke (“Dad”) could’ve choked on a Magnolia cupcake and died halfway through filming. Hell, Linklater even had to beg his daughter (who plays the less important sister to the titular boy) to stick with the project when she lost interest after a few years.

But if the structure of your film prevents you from crafting a cohesive narrative, you’d damn well better come up with something more interesting than an endless litany of mostly banal (and sometimes achingly clich├ęd) “moments” (there’s a hilarious bit of mumbo jumbo in the film’s final bit of dialogue that feels like a feeble attempt to rationalize the mundanity we’ve just endured).

Certainly, this isn’t Richard Linklater’s first film that’s more talk and less rock. But I didn’t mind the relative lack of narrative in SLACKER or WAKING LIFE because at least those movies featured freaks and intellectuals mouthing some thought provoking monologues in a milieu that was somewhat less than realistic. The people who trumpet BOYHOOD as such a revelation frequently mention how much it echoes real life. Which is true… in the worst possible way. The characters are bland, there’s way too much ennui and misery, and in the end, you wonder what the hell was the point of it all?

Merely watching Ellar Coltrane age was no more of a life-affirming experience for me than noticing that the car I've had for 11 years isn't as shiny as it was when I bought it. And it’s not that I can’t relate to the navel-gazing, tortured, lovelorn, artistic lad… quite the opposite. That was me (well, sort of) when I was young. I just have zero interest in revisiting it in large part because it was horrible.

Granted, much of my antipathy towards BOYHOOD is borne out of a subjective preference for a different kind of movie. I wanna watch superheroes fighting marauding aliens or suave spies saving the world, not alcoholic professors battering their wives or an introspective teenager eating a hash cookie and howling at the desert moon.

I’m not completely averse to stories set in the real world. Linklater’s own DAZED AND CONFUSED is maybe one of my top ten movies of all time (yes, really). And while you could argue that not much happens in that movie as well, you’d be wrong. There are distinct character arcs in that film, teenagers deciding what kind of people they want to be in a script that was fun and, in its own way, moving. I cared about Randall Pink Floyd and Mitch and Mike and even Wooderson.

The bottom line for me in any film, regardless of genre, is I need to have some kind of vested interest in the characters and their actions. Spectacle isn’t enough (it’s why I loved the first AVENGERS movie and didn’t like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). And while it may lack CGI battles and explosions, BOYHOOD is still all about the spectacle. But it left me cold, utterly unmoved, the entire twelve years of it.

I just really hope Linklater’s not working on a sequel.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

DAVE!

When I was in college, I was obsessed with David Letterman.

I had first discovered the gap-toothed smart-ass on Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW, and would stay up late in high school whenever Dave was the guest host. The summer before my junior year, Letterman’s NBC morning show was like a blast of caffeine before I was addicted to the real thing. So when LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN premiered in 1982, I was an instant acolyte.

During my freshman year of college, my roommate was a very studious fella who made sure he was in bed by 11pm every night. My priorities were slightly different. I was determined to never miss an episode of LATE NIGHT. At 12:30 AM, every night, I would turn on the little black and white TV that lived on a stool at the foot of my bed, turn down both the volume and the contrast as low as possible, and lie with my face as close to the screen as possible in order to not disturb my far more industrious roommate. Of course, my frequent bursts of laughter meant there was a fair amount of rustling and huffing coming from the other side of the room.

from BEAT COMICS #2, 1986
I loved Letterman so much so that I audiotaped segments from the program. Hours and hours and hours of monologues, remote segments, and guest spots filled over 30 volumes of Maxell 90 minute cassettes called DAVE! (emphasis on the exclamation point).

When I bought a VCR, the recording shifted to compiling video segments. To this day, I’ve got blurry old VHS tapes of Dave showing off his record collection, sparring with Harvey Pekar, playing with gravity, bantering with Paul Shaffer, pestering people on the street (either himself or via Larry “Bud” Melman), interrupting THE TODAY SHOW, celebrating Christmas with his (fake) family, cringing awkwardly at Pee Wee Herman, mocking small town news, enraging Chris “Guy Under the Seats” Elliott, and reading viewer mail (although, sadly, never one of the literally dozens of letters I sent in myself).

I was a faithful LATE NIGHT viewer through Dave’s entire tenure. During the so-called Late Shift Wars, it was no contest whose side I chose. Not that I disliked Jay Leno… believe it or not, kiddies, back in the 1980s, Leno was one of the best stand up comedians working, particularly when he’d appear with Letterman as his foil. Leno was angry and smart and (hardest to imagine now) cynical about practically every aspect of American culture.

But Letterman was the heir apparent to Johnny Carson. Taking inspiration from Carson, Steve Allen, and other comedians who were always a few steps ahead of both their guests and the audience, Dave evolved into the best talk show host on the tube. Being a fan of Letterman didn’t just make you feel like you were one of the coolest kids in the room, but also—even better—one of the smartest.

When Dave moved to CBS, I tuned in for a little while, but as so often happens when things become institutions, I grew to take David Letterman for granted, and eventually moved on (to THE DAILY SHOW and THE COLBERT REPORT). I’d watch a show every once in a while (mostly if for a guest I wanted to see), but for the most part, David Letterman was a part of my television viewing past.

Even after he announced his retirement, I was far more invested in what was to come after Dave left than the end of his run. I consider Stephen Colbert a freakin’ genius, a true renaissance talent, and (despite mourning the end of the indispensible COLBERT REPORT), I got very excited about the prospect of what he might do with the entrenched late night talk show format.

Sadly, I am not a fan of the program that replaced COLBERT on Comedy Central. I was skeptical that THE DAILY SHOW’s Larry Wilmore could carry an entire program on his own, but gave THE NIGHTLY SHOW more than a shot. Saddled with a forced format (ohhh, that “Keep it 100” thing is the worst), middling guests, and (as evidenced by their frequent appearances on the overstuffed panel segment of the show) a way too young and unfunny writing staff, the already awkward Wilmore chuckled his way through way too many weak shows to warrant a spot on my DVR.

And so I decided to go back and give Dave my attention as he wound down his 33 years on the air. And holy shit, I wish I’d have tuned in sooner. Granted, these last weeks have been loaded with A-list guests (even if some of them have been more self-serving [Tom Hanks] or just rambling drunk [Bill Murray]), but the monologues have been great, the musical guests—well, some of them have been good—and the retrospective pieces (Fun with a Car Phone) reminded me why I fell in love with Letterman in the first place.

I am, in case these blogs haven’t made it obvious, a bit of a nostalgic. Like Kim Kardashian is a bit of a narcissist. The end of LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN has unleashed a flood of memories of how much I worshiped the man and his show (See above for a rambling sycophantic piece I included in the second issue of my self-published BEAT COMICS in 1986). It’s also filled me with regret that I took him for granted and practically ignored him during his years at CBS. But the difference between the ‘80s and now is that even though I don’t have any homemade recordings of LATE SHOW, at least I can make up for lost time via YouTube.

Still, despite the endless odes to Dave’s genius from fans and contemporaries, and a reign that lasted longer than Johnny Carson’s, his retirement can’t carry the weight that it deserves, due simply to the changing landscape of television. Today, not only are there scads of late night talk shows, most of them are hosted by guys who traffic in the same kind of rebellious snark that Letterman defined. We just have to remember that they all learned it from the master.

The final episode of LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN played out pretty much as I expected, if not exactly what I’d hoped. There were plenty of laughs (most of them at the expense of the host). But there was a marked lack of emotion and sentimentality. At least until the montage that ran over Foo Fighters’ playing “Everlong” (Dave’s favorite song). As images from both the NBC and CBS shows sped by, I found myself remembering the jokes that accompanied the stills (Eddie Murphy commenting on a blimp that had nested between his legs: “Actually, that is about right”), and, predictably, tearing up as I reflected on another part of my life when nobody in pop culture meant more to me than Dave Letterman.

But maybe this classic bit from LATE NIGHT sums it up better than I can.



So, long Dave. Thanks for everything. Okay, Stephen. You’re up.

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POSTSCRIPT: A few hours after I posted this, I was checking out other post-show requiems online and discovered that on Tuesday night, Jimmy Kimmel (a few years younger than I, but just as obsessed) showed a clip from this same After School Special parody. Some things stick with ya.