10 Days/10 Films #6: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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I can’t really remember when I made the decision to “become a horror guy.” I guess it might have been (subconsciously) around the same time that my mother confiscated my copy of The Shining, as mentioned in a previous post. I’m not really a “horror guy” by “horror guy standards,” but I think there are a lot of horror movies that stand on their own as legitimate classics, and not just within the genre.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of these, notable and demanding acknowledgment for the boundaries it crossed, the genre-defining parameters it set, and the just plain dull and mean worldview it projects. TCM is, unfortunately, among those horror movies that today’s poorly educated and even more poorly brought-up audiences would probably snicker at if they happened to wander into a screening, but if you can properly contextualize a film in a way that allows you see past its technical limitations, it’s clear that TCM is a straight-up nasty film, with a ferocious, nihilistic message that remains one of the more true and terrifying themes that continues to endure in modern horror: there is not necessarily any “why” when it comes to evil. Mainstream audiences are often disturbed by this notion, which is reflected in the newfound popularity in horror “origin stories” that suck all mystery out of films that rely on the unknown to create fear. The potency of TCM’s game-changing ethos is revealed in reading outraged critics of the era breathlessly describing images that do not actually exist within the film, so powerful was Tobe Hooper’s well-oiled machine of menace, so refined his coaxing manipulation of our senses. A similar phenomenon occurred years earlier with the media response to the granddaddy of all slashers, Psycho (critics were certain that Hitchcock showed us images of the knife penetrating Janet Leigh’s body).

The groundbreaking nature of TCM, the fact that it’s a well-regarded Texas film, and the knowledge that it was all put together with little else than some drive, a few twisted ideas, and a camera, makes this film one of my all-time favorites. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre puts forth the idea that the world is an unknowable and terrifying place, and it’s one that resonated with me into my own creative endeavors. Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece not only inspired one of my great cinematic obsessions, it made me think that I could create things that explored and played with this idea as well, which in my mind is one of the most noble things a piece of art can do.

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10 Days/10 Films #5: Adventureland

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I’ve always thought Kristin Stewart got a bad rap. Blame Twilight, I guess, but it’s a tragedy that Adventureland, written and directed by Greg Mottola (director of the more-appreciated Superbad, along with some other notable projects) never got the credit it deserved, and I occasionally felt like kneejerk reactions to Stewart wer partially to blame.

Whatever your feelings on KStew, there’s something magnetic about her in this movie, or maybe it’s just that I connected so much to the tone and mood of this bittersweet, dreary summer story. Most of the characters in Adventureland are college-aged or close to it, but it reminded me of being a brooding high school kid, bumming around long hot summers, somehow being aware on some level of how fleeting and rosy that time in my life would seem looking back years later.

The vague and inarticulate frustrations that cushion everything in Adventureland seemed very familiar as well. Characters fumble around each other, aware of connections but afraid to explore what they mean, and so they say and do the wrong things and it’s all a grand tragedy, but Motolla somehow manages to capture the ethereal experience of being just old enough to realize you’re never going to be this carefree again, even though everything seems so important.

There’s one scene in particular that feels like Motolla and I had similar upbringings, even though he’s decades older than me. James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Em (Stewart) are the only two people swimming at a small, impromptu, semi-drunken but quiet gathering while Em’s parents are out of town. There’s no bathing suits so they go in their underwear, and talk about nothing much in particular. Nothing really happens, and it all seems very innocent, but there’s an awkward and intoxicating electricity crackling across the water. Neither really knows what to do about it.

The film continues in that fashion, for most of its runtime, with their relationship progressing in fits, starts, misunderstandings, and forced nonchalance. In the end, taking chances and being vulnerable is what wins the day, but the path there is what always makes me feel nostalgic. Adventureland more accurately captures what it’s like to achingly yearn for somebody–the way only young, aimless, frustrated people can—more accurately than other flicks with ten times the acclaim.

10 Days/10 Films #4: No Country For Old Men

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This movie is—quite literally—about as far as you can get from my experience of growing up in Dallas, but that only cements my love for what it “gets right” about Texas. That I lived for eighteen years in the same state as the events of this film, but nearly 450 miles away says it all. More than that, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Lonestar Noir is an unforgiving look at everything that makes my home state terrifying and beautiful. The vast, open landscapes are treated with just as much reverence and awe as the creeping rot underneath everything—“the dismal tide,” as one character quips. Characters are at once quiet and strong, yet weak, ruled by greed and malevolence.

We can’t forget the genius of Deakins. No Country came out in 2007—along with two other entries on this list—and it’s widely believed that the DP split his own Oscar vote by being nominated for two movies in one round of voting (the other being The Assassination of Jesse James). Deakins holds the incredible honor of being nominated for best cinematography 9 times in the past 10 years–finally earning a win for the underappreciated Blade Runner 2049— and No Country For Old Men makes it easy to understand why. The magnificent opening shots, believe it or not, are B-roll that Deakins shot by himself in natural light, just to give the Coens an idea of what he had kicking around in his head.

The sublime opening images lay over a monologue by Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell, and it’s McCarthy’s writing, shining through in a straight-ahead adaptation by the Coens, that really brings the entire thing together, along with career performances by Jones, Brolin, and Bardem. On the surface this is a relatively straightforward hardboiled flick about a man who takes some money that doesn’t belong to him and the horrible consequences that follow, but it’s also about Sheriff Bell coming to grips with a world that seems to grow more and more brutal with each passing year, and the bleak hopelessness of trying to believe in something that gets you through “all that cold, and all that dark.”

It would be a tougher watch if it didn’t sing on every level possible. An absolute masterpiece.

10 Days/10 Films #3: The Night of the Hunter

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When I was younger, my mother was fairly strict about the content of what we watched and read (I still bristle when I remember having my brand new copy of The Shining, bought for me by my much more laissez-faire father, taken away when I was 12 or so). That’s probably why I gravitated to films steeped in darkness and horror as I grew older, but back in first grade, I often had to rely on friends to recount the plot of Aliens or Terminator 2. Remember, this was back before every household in America had high-speed Internet.

Speaking of bygone technologies, I also spent a lot of time in the school library, and one book I kept returning to again and again was this volume full of glossy photos that was basically a collection of synopses about various horror films. A lot of them were classics like Dracula or The Wolfman, but some of the more contemporary slashers were in there too (I think both Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth made appearances). Why this was stocked in an elementary school library I have no idea.

Anyway, on the more “classic” side of the book was an entry for a film I had never heard of before: The Night of the Hunter. The story of an evil, itinerant preacher/conman who finds himself stalking two small children in order to gain access to a small fortune hidden by their deceased, bank robber father. I remember being fascinated by the beautiful photograph of Robert Mitchum leaning on the fencepost, his famous tattooed knuckles flashing the words “love” and “hate.”

I wouldn’t actually see The Night of the Hunter until college. Maybe it was all the years of childhood buildup, but I found myself entranced by Mitchum’s performance, as well as the razor-sharp themes the movie put forward that seem controversial in god-fearing, capitalist America now, let alone in 1955 when it was released. Charles Laughton’s only feature as a director is also steeped in beautifully orchestrated shadows and light, clearly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, creating a sinister fable about evil and imposters that stands in stark visual contrast to more celebrated American films of the era.

The Night of the Hunter went on to influence future generations of filmmakers (see Radio Raheem’s monologue and gold knuckle-rings in the wonderful Do the Right Thing, and  famous “street lamp” shot from The Exorcist), but it remains somewhat obscure in 2018. At a recent screening, I was dismayed to hear the audience snidely chuckling through most of the film. The Night of the Hunter is one of those movies that taught me about the importance of history and taking classics on their own terms…the only way to learn anything new at all.

10 Days/10 Films #2: City of God

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City of God is another benchmark film in terms of my development as a member of the movie-going public. I’d always been into movies, courtesy of my mother (an addict who still goes to the movies weekly at the age of 69) and father (a painter and architect who once eschewed film as an inferior art form), but up to high school, my tastes had run fairly commercial and mainstream, excepting the time my mother brought me to see The Big Lebowski at age 14.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I met Jacob Sloman, who has remained a lifetime friend and collaborator. It pains me to give him the satisfaction, but Jacob was the one who opened my eyes to the rich and untapped world of global cinema, particularly the beautiful films of Brazil. It’s because of him that I even heard of films like Carandiru, Bus 174, and I’m Not Scared. But the one that always sticks out in my memory is City of God.

Vibrant, sensuous photography, a riveting story that spans years and intertwines the lives of several different characters, crackling with energy and originality, City of God was a film that showed me, even earlier than the aforementioned The Assassination of Jesse James, that movies were so much more than Hollywood. It’s a story about poverty, violence, and inequality that avoids becoming too message-laden or despondent, instead painting a richly realized landscape of Rio slums that are populated with characters who make us laugh and cheer as much as they  make us cry.

Despite its bombastic presentation, City of God is all about balance. It’s a perfectly-oiled machine that pushes and pulls its audience through a variety of different moods and tones, which perfectly reflects the complex and complicated realities of subject matter that is too-often boiled down to the sum of its parts.

10 days/10 films #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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I saw this movie by myself on a dreary autumn afternoon in 2007, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. The screening was something I had experienced only a few times before or since: one of those trips to the movies where you can tell, minutes in, that you’re watching something important and life-changing.

I believe I went to a party that night, and couldn’t stop talking about the movie. Roger Deakins wasn’t a name that I knew well at the time, but I knew the images he crafted for the screen were sublime. Earth-shatteringly beautiful paintings that were somehow very quietly powerful at the same time. But how the movie looked was only a sliver of what had grabbed me. The way the film advances, leisurely and reflective, like a long walk that you have all to yourself, was electrifying. That a film about one of America’s most infamous outlaws (that’s really about so much more) could be so lyrical and moody, gently insistent in what it was trying to say concerning legends, legacies, the transient, elusive nature of time and glory, was a revelation.

What’s so satisfying about The Assassination of Jesse James is how it manages to succeed in the face of conventional wisdom about what a Western–or any movie for that matter–should be. It’s long, the final runtime a staggering two hours and forty minutes. It’s framed by a voiceover narration that seems like a big no-no, but inexplicably works. You can count the number of gunfights and on-screen deaths on one hand. Perhaps most notably, the drama and action are almost solely contained within the fluctuating relationship between Bob Ford and Jesse James, which is somehow mesmerizing even though the title of the movie leaves no room for doubt as to the story’s conclusion.

It’s essentially a film that proves how impactful and resonant art can be when it is demanding and respectful of its audience, and I’ve spent much of my movie-going life chasing after other films like it.

Anthony Bourdain

It always takes me a while to process things, and I’d like to pretend this leads me to think about things a lot before I say them, but that “virtue” only really extends to writing—and is propped up by laziness.

Anthony Bourdain has come and gone, having apparently hanged himself in a hotel room in the middle of shooting new episodes of his incredible CNN Travel/Culture series, Parts Unknown. He left behind no note or explanation, or if he did, it hasn’t been made available to the public.

There’s been no shortage of tributes to Bourdain since then, from chefs, writers, activists…the list goes on. I’m adding nothing particularly new and insightful to that list, but as I’ve been re-watching some of his work, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus proclaiming that what Anthony Bourdain dedicated his life to was nothing short of radical compassion.

Make no mistakes—the author of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, the host of Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and The Layover had a brand, one that was rooted in a certain type of swaggering machismo and irreverent cool that can sometimes grate. His output was possessed with a certain opinionated authority that can turn some people off, especially as we collectively lurch towards a society in which we question exactly how many cool, swaggering straight white dudes we need in the cultural conversation.

However those critiques of Bourdain’s brand do nothing to dampen the aching desire for connection and compassion that underscores all of Bourdain’s creative output, and one that is realized most purely in Parts Unknown. The strength of the show lies not just unearthing the little-known or unseen, but in Bourdain’s understated deference to people who are different to him.

Watch episodes in which Bourdain travels to the Congo, Houston, Myanmar, Los Angeles, Chicago. The common thread is the method by which the host seeks to interact with members of a community that is not his own: one possessed by curiosity, empathy, kindness, and humility. The manners extended to his hosts do not feel like a matter of decorum, they feel genuine. Wherever Bourdain goes, he asks questions, sits back, listens, and offers gratitude. He is pointedly aware of his status as a guest, an attitude that would be refreshing to find in any world traveler, let alone one propped up by status and fortune.

Even setting that graciousness aside, the entire premise of Bourdain’s oeuvre was rooted in the radical notion that we all have something to offer one another, and that we all have an obligation to seek out and understand one another. He celebrated differences as well as common bonds. He strove to highlight what it was about this world that is so beautiful, in spite of all the strife, turmoil, sorrow, and conflict.

Why Bourdain chose to end his life is, at this point, a matter of speculation. Given his past history with substance abuse and depression, his political leanings, and the overall state of the world—something Bourdain was probably even more hyper aware of than most—I can’t help but wonder if he, having reached the age of 61 with a lifetime of achievement, found the looming threat of fascism too much to take. It could be something else entirely, but his choice is certainly something of a blow to people who admired him for being uncompromising in his goals and values in a world that seems to be pulling away from them.

We all need to take heart and remember Anthony Bourdain not just for who he was and what he did, but what he stood for. The feelings he conjured up in people were extraordinary, and that collective yearning for connection, adventure, understanding, and mystery are what drew us all to his aura and his work. We shouldn’t forget that, even as we mourn our loss. What Bourdain did was rare, but it doesn’t have to be.