Thursday, February 14, 2008

Movies watched, January 27 to February 8, 2008

Death Race 2000, Paul Bartel, 1975
I first became aware of this movie through the video game that it (loosely) provided the basis for, which is available for play at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens—I strongly recommend the trip. One of the first arcade games that inspired a great deal of controversy and parental outcry for its violent content, it was eventually banned, and few units were ever made. The violent content, by the way, is really more in theory, as the graphics are pretty simple—no blood or guts, just stick figures you have to run down, with little gravestones popping up in their places.

Death Race 2000 the movie is a black comedy from Paul Bartel (see Eating Raoul and Rock and Roll High School, in which he co-stars with Warhol actress Mary Woronov, who also appears in this one as driver Calamity Jane) about a transcontinental road race wherein the more pedestrians the drivers mow down, the more points they score. The extremely cheerful announcer (apparently modeled after Howard Cosell), explains that “women are still worth ten points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under twelve now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” When the first points of the race are scored, he laments, “too bad the guy was only 38; just two years older, and he’d have been worth three times the points!”

While the nation seems to embrace this tradition (safely from their homes, that is), there is a resistance movement forming that is morally opposed to this rampant disregard for human life. Their techniques for sabotaging the race include blowing up the drivers, resembling a Death Race Carrie Nation.

Produced by the legendary Roger Corman, the original treatment was reportedly much more serious in tone, and, as Corman put it, “kind of vile”—which I can certainly imagine. He decided the story would be more appropriate as a comedy, and called for a rewrite—and I’m glad he did, because this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen recently.

Helvetica, Gary Hustwit, 2007
This documentary opened my eyes to the ubiquitousness of Helvetica, pointing out all the places it appears, from street signs and subway stations, to advertisements, to legal documents. It shows up nearly everywhere, quietly communicating, and one never really notices it—which means it’s doing its job successfully. The other day I drove through a town where the street signs featured an oddly decorative typeface, which, while readable, was immediately noticeable—an issue that was still fresh in my mind after recently viewing this documentary.

I’d always wondered how one creates a new typeface, and so I enjoyed seeing a few of the initial steps one takes in order to do so—starting with certain letters that are representative of the rest of the alphabet’s characters, determining whether or not to use serifs, and so on. It made me want to do a few experiments of my own in this regard.

The film also explores different schools of design—some people embrace Helvetica, viewing it as clean and refreshing (one commentator particularly loves it, gushingly comparing it to an oasis in the desert), while others see it as institutional, inhuman, and boring, rebelling against it by developing unconventional, handwritten typefaces. (Though perhaps impractical in the long run, I love that one of the commentators laid out a magazine article in Zapf Dingbats because he didn’t like the article and felt it wasn’t worth reading.) While Helvetica can certainly serve its purpose, I think it’s nice to experiment with other, more interesting types of lettering—it just depends on the purpose of the text. In all, for a movie about a font, Helvetica is actually pretty fascinating and thought-provoking.

Confessions of a Superhero, Matthew Ogens, 2007

This documentary follows the lives of four superhero impersonators who make their living by hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard and trying to get people to pose for a picture with them for tips. There’s an unwritten code of etiquette for these people that some follow, while some don’t. (Actually, it’s not all that “unwritten,” as the police are watching them to ensure that they follow the rules.) Basically, they can’t harass people—they’re not allowed to solicit photos, nor can they force anyone to pay them if they don’t want to (but boy does “Marilyn Monroe” get upset when people don’t tip.)

This motley cast of characters claims to all be aspiring actors, but the likelihood of their finding real acting work seems unlikely. They come from varied backgrounds, but they’re all pretty desperate—lost souls futilely striving for fame that never comes. Wonder Woman is an impulsive and unrealistic teenage girl who moved to Hollywood on a whim—she decided to move to California and was on a plane the next day, with no work prospects, no contacts, and nowhere to live. In a similarly rash and not-too-well-thought-out decision, she married a guy several weeks after meeting him; when they stop getting along she seems surprised.

The Hulk was homeless for a long time and his teeth are kind of fucked up (this may or may not be a result of his homelessness though), but in the end he does actually get a call to be in a movie (which is indeed listed as a credit in IMDB). Not exactly an Oscar-winning role, but nonetheless not a bad start.

Batman mirrors the character of Batman in that he’s kind of a psychopath. Dark and violent, this Batman has some deep-seated anger issues as well. He claims to have been involved with the mob and to have killed a man, but this seems rather doubtful—I’d peg him as more of a compulsive liar with a temper than a hitman.

Superman is by far the strangest one of the four. A kind of sheriff for the impersonators, he prides himself on following a strong moral code, policing others when they stray from his righteous path. He claims his mother was the actress Sandy Dennis (see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but Dennis’ relatives say she didn’t have a son. And if it were true, couldn’t he simply reach out to some of his mother’s more prominent friends for a helpful contact in the business? Even more suspiciously, he says that when his mother was alive she wanted him to get into acting but he wasn’t interested at the time because he wanted to do professional lawncare (a little bizarre, if you ask me). Not to mention that, unlike the other superheroes, he’s obsessed with his super-identity. He wears the costume when he’s not working, and his apartment is filled with collectibles—he eerily even resembles Christopher Reeve a little bit.

This is ultimately a pretty sad story—none of these people are very likely to score any acting gigs beyond the one they’re already doing. And yet hundreds—maybe thousands, I don’t really know the actual statistics—of people like them flock to Hollywood every year to pursue their acting careers. I guess I just don’t understand their self-assurance and optimism, because the prospects look pretty grim to me. But it makes for a good story, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with following your dreams (ugh that sounds so sappy) despite how impractical they are.

Oddly enough, there’s another documentary on Hollywood Boulevard impersonators in the works from Dave Markey, director of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, and various other gems. Maybe he should have conferred a bit with Ogen—hopefully it won’t be too repetitive, focusing on its own unique content.

The Last Detail, Hal Ashby, 1973
Two surly, self-proclaimed “badass” navy men are assigned the “shit detail” of escorting an 18 year old former Seaman named Larry Meadows from their naval base to a prison in Portsmouth. His crime: stealing $40 from his commanding officer’s wife’s favorite charity box, for which he is sentenced to eight years in jail. At the beginning, Larry (played by a young Randy Quaid in a serious role—I almost can’t stop picturing cousin Eddie from the National Lampoon movies, which I imagine has severely pigeonholed him) is oddly bland and pathetic, almost as though he refuses to allow himself any feelings or opinions. Though he says he’s angered by “injustice,” he doesn’t seem to feel that he has been wronged in this situation (they were just doing their job!). Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) takes pity on him and vows to show him a good time, the last one he’ll have for a long while. Throughout the course of the movie, they begin to teach him how to live, which may do more harm than good, as now he knows what’s at stake. He’s finally tasted the exhilarating freedom of what life can bring, but it’s about to be taken away from him. The pain in his eyes as he stares longingly at the first naked female body he’s ever seen—yes, it’s a prostitute—is intensely palpable. The poor bastard has squandered his youth, and now he actually knows it—pretty heartbreaking stuff.

Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007
This film adaptation of the two Persepolis graphic novels looks remarkably like the comic, which I think is much stronger and more visually compelling than a live-action version would have been. I don’t really have too much more to say about this one—it was entertaining but as is so often the case, the books are better.

First Person, Errol Morris, 2000
Technically not a movie, but a criminally short-lived television series from acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, which basically consists of 18 mini-documentaries in which he interviews a person via a TV monitor with his head on the screen. This is a great format for Morris, an opportunity for him to explore all the subjects he finds fascinating yet nonetheless might not warrant a feature-length film.

These shorts contain all the components of Morris’ films: his distinctive use of music, slow motion reenactments, and clips of old movies, as well as similar themes and subject matter, from crime scenes, to people with strange fixations, to, quite simply, strange and intriguing stories. We meet the guy who fired Thomas McIlvane, the infamous postal worker who returned to murder his co-workers after being let go, the woman who falls in love with serial killers (wittily titled “The Killer Inside Me”), a lawyer for the mob, a former game show contestant who continues to write to the show claiming that his losing question was flawed (this same man is also obsessed with high school and impersonated a high school senior at various schools around the country until he was 27 years old), a bartender who believes he may be the smartest man in the world, and so on. I only wish there were more than 18 episodes.

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