Sunday, August 29, 2010

Brain--er, Breathless, 50th Anniversary

The 50th Anniversary of Breathless is this year and, this being a seminal film, it was given a limited re-release so that we could all enjoy its, uh, seminal-ness.

And it surely is seminally. It's black-and-white, hand-held camera, minimal sets and cast. There hasn't been a movie this seminal since Blair Witch Project. Which of course was 40 years later. But still.

OK, here's the thing: You absolutely can see in this 1960 movie the future of the ambitious art film, a style which persists to this day, but dominated cinema more and more till the late '60s and early '70s. A lot of movie critics mourn the passing of this era, which was pretty much done in by Jaws and Star Wars.

Thing is I hate this era of cinema. Hate hate hate it!

But let me explain what this movie is about: Sociopath Michel steals a car then kills a cop who pulls him over. The editing is awfulexcuse me, seminal—to where it's really unclear what happens in this and the other semi-action scene. He then sort of sulks around, bedding some women and stealing their money, while setting his cap for Patricia, who's apparently taken by his psychotic ways.

In between ducking cops (in the least suspenseful running-from-the-cops scenes ever), Michel and Patricia have long, meaningless conversations in bed about—well, who really cares. They're not likable people. They're not even interesting.

So, I guess there's the low budget aspect of it. The handheld camera. People praise the acting, but it's as stilted as Metropolis without any of the charm, scope or aesthetic.

The Boy was meh, but then he was shocked to find out it was only 90 minutes long. "Seemed a lot longer," quoth he, and I agree. The Old Man and I enjoyed looking at the Citroens. (The Old Man had a couple when I was growing up. Great, unusual cars.)

You know, I'm not the audience for these kinds of movies. This is a movie I think, I dunno, maybe Althouse would like.

It reminded me of music school, where the professors wrote really "inaccessible" music, because if you wrote anything else, people could listen to it and compare it to what's colloquially referred to as "good music".

Worse than that, because these guys—and I'm including Jean-Luc Goddard, who directed this film—are so aware of the great art, they're paralyzed by it. In this movie, Michel idolized Humphrey Bogart, who of course starred in many noir films, which this movie weakly invokes, like a 30-year tenured professor trying to write an atonal fugue in the style of Bach.

Now, it probably is, besides first, best of breed. But unless the self-absorbed, self-indulgent, ultimately nihilistic point-of-view appeals to you, you probably would do well to avoid the subsequent decade-and-a-half of "ambitious art movies".

But, hey, that's my opinion. I could be wrong. (With apologies to Dennis Miller.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Back when I was trying to sell kids' books to publishers, waaaaay back in the '80s, the various publishers would send out rules of what not to bother sending. Tops on most of their lists? "DON'T SEND ANYTHING WITH DRAGONS."

Apparently there was a glut.

I didn't have anything with dragons but I sort of thought it was dickish.

Relevance to the movie How To Train Your Dragon? None, really, except that given this is based on a series of books released in the past decade, I guess the ban is up.

Which brings us to the latest venture from the team that brought you Lilo and Stitch. L&S is an underrated Disney film which managed to unselfconsciously break out of the mold of "young person doesn't meet societal/parental expectations and successfully forges own way in world" that dominated their 'toons since The Little Mermaid. It also used a lot of Elvis unironically.

This is the story of young Hiccup, a Norseman of some sort, who lives on an average Norseman island except for being plagued by dragons. Swarmed, even. So, the young of the village train to become dragonslayers.

Naturally, Hiccup's not really up for that. (We wouldn't have a children's story if he embraced the slaughter of dragon's wholeheartedly and was good at it, would we? Not these days!) He's more of an inventor; and he invents, essentially, a ballista. He manages to hit a dragon—the particular type of dragon so fast and destructive that no one has ever even seen one—and no one believes him.

He stumbles upon the injured beast, though, and discovers something other than the completely unrepentant destroyer of Norse villages he's been taught to believe. The subsequent relationship is...problematic.

This is a fast-paced, sometimes funny, nice-looking film. It walks the line between too cute, too much Kumbaya, and brutal fairly facilely. In that sense, much like Lilo & Stitch, where Stitch was both cute and a destructive monster, but far less cute. (There is a real villain in the peace, and it's fairly unapologetic in its scariness.)

Jay Baruchel (best known to me as the skinny kid in Million Dollar Baby) plays the skinny Hiccup while America Ferrara plays his jealous peer, Astrid. Astrid is one of those now clichéd overachieving girls who just wants to kill some dragons and is increasingly pissed off by Hiccup's strange increasing facility with them.

Supporting characters include Gerard Butler, as Hiccup's predictably not-understanding father (speaking of clichés, didn't we just see James Caan do this in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs?); Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill (kinda sorta doing Jack Black) as the skinny and fat kid vikings—though at least they made Jonah Hill the skinny(-er) one and Mintz-Plasse the fat one; Kirsten Wiig as the twin of—

Wait. Do you care? Does anyone? Why do they keep putting celebrities in animated films when a professional voice actor is probably going to be better (and way cheaper)?

Are you people actually lining up to see How To Train Your Dragon because Gerard Butler was so hot in 300? What the hell is wrong with you?

Or is it just some Hollywood trend?

I hope it's the latter. I get why actors like the voice gigs. No makeup, no costume, just hamming it up in front of a bunch of A/V geeks who are probably all starstruck.

Anyway, the movie was a hit with everyone, from the Old Man, to The Boy—who didn't expect to like it—to both the Flower and the Barbarienne. And me. It's a solid piece of work. Rewatchable. The Old Man objected to the cuteness of the main dragon, and I could see his point. The dragons were all a hair too cute for me.

Curiously, he preferred Shrek 4, but he's a definite outlier in that regard.

Interesting side-note: We saw this back in mid-June at the bargain theater and it's still playing there. That's a good sign.

Best Valedictorian Speech Ever?

I was impressed enough to believe this was a fake, but I found the YouTube of Erica Goldson reading it at her graduation.

YouTube here.

Coxsackie-Athens Valedictorian Speech 2010

Here I Stand

Erica Goldson

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” 
The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” 
Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Shrek 4: It's A Wonderful Strife

It's always good to remember that It's A Wonderful Life isn't a comedy. It's got a lot of funny parts to it—laugh out loud funny, even—but it's essentially a dark, existential drama by its very nature: A man so overwhelmed that he considers his existence to be a negative to the world. The brooding darkness is essential to the plot.

OK, most of us don't have to worry about this much. But those of us making kiddie movies based on It's A Wonderful Life would do well to keep it in mind.

Which brings us to Shrek 4: The Final (Thank, God!) Chapter.

This time around, Shrek signs a deal with Rumplestiltskin (filling in for the Devil) to get one day away from his shrieking brood (triplets). The catch is, he has to give up one day to get it.

That day (unwittingly) being the day of his birth. (This is sort of awkward if you think about it, since Shrek has no parents even worth referencing once in the previous three movies.) And so, Shrek finds himself in Pottersville, in the form of Rumplestiltskin's witch-laden kingdom, where there's an ongoing war between the trolls (led by Fiona) and said witches.

It's not bad. The Barb liked it. The Flower thought it was okay, as did the Boy. The Old Man liked it quite a bit (more than he would How To Train Your Dragon). But it is dark.

I mean, literally. For all the advanced CGI and what-not, the bulk of the movie seems to take place at night. And some place full of ogres.

Yeah, that's one place where the movie really falls down: It's A Wonderful Life shows us Bedford Falls, all the places and people who later change due to no George Baily, and despite having three movies behind it, the Far, Far Away of this movie doesn't manage to invoke any fraction of that kind of resonance.

Which is kind of a shame, since you could have seen Lord Farquat and the evil Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming, and all the other baddies vanquished in the previous films. The setting was always a gag throwaway, but it seems like they could have made some callbacks.

Then again, maybe they did, and I just missed them.

Anyway, this is one of those movies where I'm probably the only one who cares one way or another about stuff like that. The kids liked it, forgot it quickly, and we moved on to the next summer film.