Tag Archives: movies

A new drinking game

I’ve thought up a drinking game for Oscar night, and I’d appreciate hearing from anyone else who tries it out on Feb. 26.

The roots of the game lie in previous Oscar ceremonies, where the winners of golden guys for the films Forrest Gump and No Country for Old Men managed to thank enough people to fill the Beijing phone directory, but somehow forgot to mention the names of either Winston Groom or Cormac McCarthy. You know, the guys who actually wrote the books that served as the basis for the films that made those Hollywood types so much richer.

So on Oscar night, line up your favorite alcoholic beverage, take note of the winners of awards for films based on previously published works, and take a gulp whenever the author of the work gets mentioned.

I call it “The First Drinking Game for Teetotalers,” and any day now I expect to get an endorsement from Alcoholics Anonymous.

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The legend of Sleepy Earl

He’s an elderly guy, thin as a bunch of Slim Jims joined at the ends. Very polite, very affable. He shows up for the Saturday movie nights at the bookstore, buys a snack — usually an ice cream bar or a cup of coffee — heads into the TV room, and falls asleep for the next few hours.

A couple of weekends ago, I showed a double bill of The Wages of Fear and Diabolique — two of the most suspenseful films ever made. When I walked by the side entry to the TV room. All around the room, people were staring with big round eyes, mouths slightly agape, utterly spellbound as Yves Montand tried to get a truck full of nitro around a hellishly tight switchback road. In the middle of all those rapt faces was Sleepy Earl, chin resting on his chest.

I’ve shown a lot of great movies here since the store opened, and Earl has slept through some of the best. He’s slumbered through Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien. He’s zizzed through The Conversation and The Rain People, napped through Memento and Proof, conked out for The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Pillow Book, and drowsed through The Chosen and My Son, the Fanatic.

Last night I showed House of Games and Homicide, with Earl staking out dreamland in his usual spot — corner of the viewing room, cloth-covered armchair. On his way out, Earl paused and said, “You really hit a home run with those two.” I managed not to ask how he could have known that. I’m going for epic romances next week: Out of Africa and The Way We Were. I expect that well before Robert Redford flashes his first crinkly smile, Earl will be out like a light.

Surely there’s a bluesman out there willing to immortalize Sleepy Earl in a song. If nobody steps forward, I might just have to do the job myself.

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Auld Tapes Syne


I hate to get all Grandpa Walton on you sprouts, but I really do think we should stop and spend some time thoughtfully chewing our beards over the news that the VHS format is about to join the dodo and the passenger pigeon on the dusty shelves of the Smithsonian. Talk about the end of an era!

It’s not that VHS was such a great format — it was clearly inferior to Betamax, and another reminder that quality is hardly the measure of commercial success — but as ubergeek Harry Knowles points out, that black plastic rectangle made it possible to buy and own the movies you loved, and that was no small thing. In fact, one could argue that the rise of VHS was almost as significant as the arrival of sound films in the way it transformed mass culture.

Up until the early Eighties, movies were like comets — their arrival was an event, you could only see them at certain times and in certain places, and when they were gone, that was that — until cable television became widespread, you could only hope to catch them chopped up on network TV. If you lived in an area with few theaters, you might not get to see certain flicks at all. (When the Amboy Multiplex, with its ten-count ’em-ten screens, rose from the Raritan River marshes in the early Eighties, I felt like Scrat the Squirrel glimpsing a giant acorn through the gates of heaven.) Movies lived chiefly in one’s memory, helped along by soundtrack albums and still images in magazines. When a particularly treasured film like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was given a re-release, part of the experience was seeing how the actual film held up to the way you remembered it.

Owning a single movie, let alone a library of them, was a fantasy reserved for wealthy film buffs. Now I take it for granted that I can see just about any movie I want. It’s almost funny to recall how the first video stores required you to pay for membership and access to stocks that could fit comfortably within one medium-sized room.  Now I get movies mailed to me.

The ubergeek predicts that DVD will be replaced by Blu-Ray within a much shorter span of time, which may be the case. My chief impetus for getting a DVD player in 2002 was the wish to see the new extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that Peter Jackson had produced, and it will take a similar jolt to make me shell out for another iteration of technology. I mean, I just got my first home PC in the late-Nineties and my first iPod last week, so I’m not one to stampede out the door whenever the gods of technology exercise their whims.

I do wonder, however, if this stepped-up churning of technology isn’t going to consign many films to the same semi-oblivion that existed before VHS came along. There are already plenty of movies I would love to see again that haven’t made the jump from VHS to DVD, and the replacement of Blu-Ray with some other newfangled thingamadoohickey like digital downloading will only widen that gap.

Whatever happens, though, will only continue the change that began with the VHS tape. That’s where the seismic shift occurred, and everything after that is simply another aftershock and another cultural wave to ride.

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That toothsome summer

Ari reminds us all that something enormously important to pop culture and weather patterns in the Milky Way galaxy took place on June 20 of 1975. Of course I’m referring to the release of Jaws.

I didn’t get to see Jaws when it opened. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could even get into a theater to see it. Remember, sprouts, this was the pre-multiplex era when many theaters had only recently been split into two-screeners, and it was common for successful movies to stay in a theater for a few months. So I guess it must have been mid- to late-July when I managed to wedge myself into a screening at the Hyway Theater (which I’m happy to see still exists). By that point Jaws had had so much impact that Universal Pictures took out a two-page spread in the Sunday Times showing all the newspaper editorial cartoons that had played off the movie’s poster. The show was literally sold out — I got the very last ticket to be sold. the joint was packed.

Up until that night, whenever I’d seen a movie in a theater, the audience had served either as an irritant or a neutral presence. Jaws was my first theater experience in which the audience became a single entity, a great big nerve ending that Steven Spielberg played with virtuoso flair. When Chrissie met her fate out by the buoy, we all hissed through our teeth as the tension wound tighter and tighter. When the mayor erupted in rage at the way the Amity billboard had been vandalized, we all shouted with laughter. When Ben Gardner’s head came through the bottom of the boat, we all jumped. To this day I’m sure the entire building rose a foot into the air and came back down without any of us noticing.

(Dances With Mermaids, the older daughter, got her first look at Jaws a year ago. She still says, “You saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out? Wow!” the way somebody might say, “You helped Julius Caesar change the wheels on his chariot?”)

I’d actually been looking forward to the movie before the word got out. I was enough of a shark freak that when the original novel by Peter Benchley came out, I sprang for a hardcover copy. It was not a god read. I may have been an ignorant high school kid at the time, but I knew the creak of sclerotic Bestseller Writing when I heard it. All those subplots: the Mafia, Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, bleah. Nevertheless, the power of the idea was such that the book carried you along, right up to that supremely unsatisfactory Moby-Dick type ending.  

The film was directed the way the novel should have written: smart, quick on its feet, frequently quite funny and, best of all, unpredictable. Too many horror movies — and Jaws is, at bottom, a balls-to-the-wall monster movie — fall into a pattern of setup and payoff so predictable that you can set your watch to them. Not this movie. Jaws always had a joker up its sleeve. When the shocks came on, they usually went waaaay further than anyone expected — that scene with the Kittner boy is just plain mean. When the laughs came on, you were grateful for the chance to relax — which of course, meant you were about to get creamed by some new scare.

Even at the time, though, I could appreciate just how good Jaws looked as a movie. The trailer above reminded me of the scene in which Brody pages through books on sharks, and Spielberg has his cameraman light the shot so that the gory pages flicker across the lenses of Brophy’s glasses. or the way the appearance of the ocean changes in response to the story’s needs. When Chrissie runs down the beach, the water is flat and opaque, the perfect hiding place for a predator. As soon as she’s beyond the reach of help, the point of view changes and the water is now a shadowy trap in which the predator sees everything while the prey sees nothing. It’s still startling to think that this was only Spielberg’s second feature, and one made under extremely demanding conditions at that. I’ve had my problems with Spielberg’s work in the past, and his growth as an artist has been erratic, but right from the start his craftsmanship and technical expertise were beyond question.

One of the greatest things about Jaws as a film was the way it left people feeling gassed. The tension and release, always delivered in the most unexpected way, was exhilarating. You walked out of the theater jangling and charged up. For weeks afterward, whenever you encountered somebody who’d seen the flick, you automatically fell into reminiscences of some great moment. For a movie with so many intensely scary passages, Jaws was a remarkably benign movie. It plumbed some of the darkest terrors imaginable — the fear of being eaten, of dying horribly only a few yards from safety — and yet it left you feeling cleansed and caffeinated at the same time. Quite a trick. I went home from the Hyway Theater feeling lighter than air, chuckling and grinning as my legs moved twice as fast as normal. It’s a rare kind of movie that can send its viewers off with that kind of feeling.

The summer of 1975 was loaded with artistic discoveries for me. I’d just become a Bob Dylan fan, and 1975 was a great time to be following Dylan: the year started with Blood on the Tracks, the summer peaked with the official release of the Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured New England that fall and Desire appeared like magic after the New Year. Patti Smith’s debut came out a little before Christmas, and I was just starting to hear about something called punk rock I was inhaling books and music at a rapid clip, working my way through Hemingway and Hesse, and in the middle of it all there was Jaws. A great memory, and for that I have to thank Steven Spielberg.            

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