Starman: a pedictable, trope-laden space alien slog

Working my way through my 10-DVD set of 80s movies, I decided to take a look at Starman.  All I knew about it was that Jeff Bridges was in it.  For those who don't know, he was one of the leaden men of that era, popping up in all manner of films, from Tron to Against All Odds

Anyway, I realized that Karen Allen was also in the film, and she was pretty much the archetypal Cute Girl Next Door of that era.  Alas, she doesn't really get to play to her type, and much of the film she's either lost in depression or struggling to control her mortal terror.  It's not a good look for her.

The plot is of course that Jeff Bridges is a space alien who comes to earth and assumes the form of Allen's recently departed husband.  Naturally there are language issues, cultural issues and all the other aspects of the Fish Out of Water trope that make it worth watching.  In this case, of course, we have to believe that a creature of pure energy and capable of god-like healing and destruction is completely clueless about basic social interaction because humans are weird or something.

Bridges' facial expressions, jerky motions and oddly-inflected voice are impressive, though.  It's a very different role for him, but he does it well.  The problem is that the story is weak sauce, since we've seen the "advanced race comes to earth and the government tries to kill/dissect it" several other times.

One element that really bugged me was the portrayal of the "common" humans the pair encounter.  These are terrible, completely unbelievable tropes.

For example, a pair of cops are given instructions merely to hang back and let "the feds" handle a situation, but they try to engineer an incident so they can get "their share of the headlines."

Yes, you have that right: they're going to try to create a confrontation rather than hang back because they somehow think this will result in favorable media coverage.  Sure.

Another truly awful portrayal is of a hunter who ties a dead doe to the front fender of his car without gutting it and - having done so - goes into a diner for a bite to eat.  You know, so the meat can get good an rancid or something.

A movie like this depends on the 'slice of life' scenes being good enough to carry you through the sci-fi elements and when you get served up garbage like this, the whole enterprise falls flat.

I'd rather watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which at least has a decent soundtrack.

White Nights: Another amazing 80s movie I somehow overlooked

Last week I got out yet another of the Big Box O' DVDs and this time it was 1985's White Nights.  I remember when the movie came out because I was an avid radio listener.

Funny to think of how common it was for movies to include hit pop tunes in their soundtrack.  Say You, Say Me and Separate Lives both got heavy airplay, though I wasn't sure how they related to the movie.

Anyhow, White Nights is an incredible film, one that has aged very well.  The physicality of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines is amazing.

That's something we've lost.  Time was, the expectation of a movie with dancing in it was that it would be not just professional but exemplary.  It didn't matter who was dancing, the key was that it was original and authentic.

All that's gone away.  The current age uses special effects and camera tricks for all of his physicality and this is one reason why today's movies feel so hollow.  They look gorgeous, but they have no soul, no animating spirit.

When you watch one of the dance sequences in White Nights, you're seeing a level of dedication that simply isn't valued any more. 

Dancing aside, the storyline is also timely, a necessary reminder of a time when half of the world was locked down under the Communist heel.  The Soviet Union offered free health care and guaranteed income, but only in exchange for absolute obedience.  It was not surprising that so many free spirits like Baryshnikov were compelled to flee.

There are few movies that I watch once and immediately want to rewatch.  This is one of them, and I'm looking forward to gaining a deeper appreciation for it.



The spiritual desolation of The Big Chill

It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing.  In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.

So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10.  A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it.  Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.

This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity.  For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts.  When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.

The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide.  It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.

It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.

To some extent, however, that was true.  Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition.  The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility.  The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.

The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan.  As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.

Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since.  He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.

Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film.  The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real.  I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.

That actually counts for a lot.  Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret.  This makes personal stories impossible to tell.

Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years.  For one thing, who would play the parts?  Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority. 

No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that.   One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine.  The rest are typical professionals -  doctor, lawyer, business owner.  The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship.  Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.

Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service.  He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released.  Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.

By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place.  He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide.  Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.

Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend.  It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.

Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music.  By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.

It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith.  I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.

There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words.   Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service.  These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies.  They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow.  All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.

Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith.  None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable.  The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.

It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.

Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage.  Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.






Comparing The Year of Living Dangerously with The Killing Fields

I've fallen out of the habit of cross-posting my articles from, but I think it's necessary in this case because what I wrote about The Year of Living Dangerously goes to the heart of what I didn't like about The Killing Fields.

I'm going to assume by now that you've checked out the article and move on with my critique of The Killing Fields.   The films are of course quite similar, being about the spread of Communism in Asia during the Cold War.

In fact, they films bookend Vietnam, with The Year of Living Dangerously taking place in 1965 while The Killing Fields begins in 1973.

Both center around Western journalists striving to get the truth out to the larger public.  However, the portrayal of them is profoundly different.

The journalists in Indonesia are, as I've noted, a bunch of heavy-drinking perverts.  They may be good at their craft, but they are hardly role models.

By contrast, Cambodia's press establishment is remarkably noble and altruistic, particularly Sam Waterston's Sam Schanberg.  The only hint of criticism he gets his how failed to ensure the safety of his translator/friend Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who is amazing) and reaped the benefits of the subsequent publicity.

In fact, while approving of the subject matter, I found the presentation of The Killing Fields to be heavily at odds with the facts.  I get that by 1984, there was still a lot of Nixon hate out there, but it's obvious that the production team has let it completely cloud their judgement.  Late in the film Schanberg admits that the Khmer Rouge were worse than he thought, but then tries to blame Nixon for radicalizing them!

Uh, no.  Every single time Communists take control of a country they kill off huge numbers of people. (In Spain, they couldn't even wait until they won the civil war.)

The Khmer Rouge were just really good at it.  The notion that the Communists would have been peaceful and inclusive if only those pesky Americans weren't there is nonsense on stilts.

It;s possible that his answer isn't an attempt to preach but instead shows how far removed from reality his thought process has become.  I suppose there's also implied criticism in how Schanberg sits in his comfy chair talking about mailing photos while his dear friend eats lizards and climbs over corpses.

Even understanding the difficulty of the logistics at the time, I can't wonder why Schanberg didn't go to the refugee camps and write about them personally, maybe mount a vigil for his friend there rather than rage-watching Nixon administration footage while listening to his high-fidelity stereo.

The most tone-deaf moment in the film is when Schanberg is reunited with Pran and the production team plays of all things John Lennon's "Imagine."  Seriously?!

The Khmer Rouge was the embodiment of everything in the song!   They denied God, wiped out family ties and literally made everyone live for the day, every day.  The fact that their "brotherhood of man" was a nightmare only illustrates the inevitable outcome of nihilistic fantasies.

My resulting rage stroke almost wrecked the movie for me.

I will re-watch The Killing Fields at some point, looking for greater detail.  Also, the dialog wasn't very clear in places, so I'm sure I missed things.

Even so, The Year of Living Dangerously is a much better film.  The characters are more fully developed and the moral questions are presented with greater skill and complexity.  The Killing Fields gets very preachy at times, which it doesn't need to be.  The story speaks for itself, we don't need Waterston's sermonizing to make the point for us.




A tale of Boomer evolution: Carly Simon

Back in the day, if you wanted to hear an older song, you either needed to find an "oldies" station on the radio that would play it by request, or buy it through a K-tel infomercial at 2 a.m.

Now such things are but a mouse click away, and for that reason I have a substantial library of my favorites.

However, there is a gray area in music - songs you neither love nor hate, but which nevertheless remind of of a time and place.  You're not particularly fond of them, but they are part of the soundtrack of your life.

Which brings us to Carly Simon.  I'm not a fan, don't own any of her work, but I recall hearing her music frequently as I was growing up.

I came to utterly despise the lyrics to one of her first hits, "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be," perhaps because my own experience of having divorced parents.

For those unfamiliar with the song, it is a one-sided transcript of her conversation with her future husband.  It's an interesting concept, often repeated with great effect in other works, but her take on marriage is less than flattering.

Stumbling upon it the other day, I was reminded two of my previous blog entries.  The first that came to mind was my memorial to Pat Conroy

This was because the song opens with a description of her parents' relationship, which she interprets to be cold and lonely.  However, as I pointed out in my Conroy piece, pre-Boomer parents often hid their affection for each other from their children.  For a man to openly dote on his wife (or children) was considered to be a sign of weakness.  There could be considerable tenderness in the relationship, but that tenderness was reserved for private moments.

My father is like this.  He is not a Boomer (being instead a War Baby) and his bearing is very stoic - which contrasts sharply with the more relaxed attitudes of his younger siblings.  

Unlike Conroy (and presumably Simon), I accept my father for who he is.  I don't demand that he emote simply to please me.

The song quickly leaves Simon's parents and then focuses on her contemporaries, who are uniformly portrayed as having miserable, jealous marriages that produce resentful children and self-loathing.

Instead, she insists, she want to learn to be "just me first, by myself."  This is one of the most pure distillations of Boomer narcissism ever put to music.

Here it is useful to reference my observation that people tend to write what they know.  Simon was raised by artists, married another artist and lived in a world of artists.  Such people are not known for emotional stability or strong interpersonal relationships.  It is a very rare thing to find a singer or actor who marries for life.

Simon's catalog of songs returns to the theme of broken relationships several times, including a particularly plaintive tune urging a spouse to reconsider adultery ("You Belong to Me").   I'm not sure what inspired it, but it's kind of a specialized genre, no?

More than a decade after her ugly picture of marriage, she reversed course and penned "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of."  This song is also half of a conversation, but instead of debating with her suitor, she is now offering advice to a married friend who has soured on her relationship.  It's basically a pep talk, and the contrast is striking.

Whereas her earlier song fretted about keeping the excitement and passion alive, here she lauds "the slow and steady fire."

To be sure, Simon's wisdom is incomplete.  She's still a conventional celebrity with all the vanity causes they typically pursue.  From my cursory glance at her biography, she remains unattached (and no longer even communicates with the father of her children, James Taylor).

There's also a cautionary tale here regarding the fleeting nature of youth.  The Boomers famously distrusted anyone over 30, and yet the youngest of them is now over 55.  (If you stretch their generation to 1969, they're still over 50.)

Boomer culture celebrated youth and rebellion and part of the richness of 80s culture was that it was the final flowering of Boomer youthfulness.

I can't help but wonder how much of our current trouble is simply a generational embrace of nihilism now that their culture of perpetual youth - complete with beauty treatments, plastic surgery and obsessive diet supplements - is failing.


Purple Rain - A movie-length music video

Though I came of age in the 1980s, I never saw Purple Rain.  It was too young to see that kind of film and when the New Wave moment had passed, I let it go.

To be sure, Prince had a storied musical career and continued to have hit songs, but arguably the height of his fame was his explosive debut upon the music scene in the mid-to-late 80s.  It was then that his sense of style, music and sheer oddness was in perfect accord with the moment.

Some time ago I bought a compilation DVD set that had several movies I liked, and also Purple Rain

I finally got around to watching it.

The first thing that struck me - and this is amusing I suppose - is how similar Prince's motorcyle was to the one my father owns from the same time period.  No, Dad's isn't purple, but it's a Honda, has the same engine and starter noise and he got a similar-shaped fairing to go along with it.  Serious nostalgia trip hearing that thing start up.

As to the film, I was immediately struck by its similarity to the Fred Astaire dance movies of the 1930s.  That is to say, the plot (such as it is) is merely a bridge to get you to the musical numbers.  Acting?  Yeah, that's not what you came to see.

In that sense, the film is outstanding, not just in the quality of the entertainment, but in capturing the moment when it was made.  Many films are obviously dated, but Purple Rain is frozen in a particular time, and it's interesting to go back and look at it.  I wonder if people to whom the 80s are as distant as the 50s are to me get the same vibe.

One additional insight I gained was new respect for Prince's towering talents.  He was a complete lunatic, but also a certified musical genius.  He was one of those rare individuals who could combine composition, musicianship, showmanship and dance into a single dynamic package. 

I have a limited tolerance for his works, but I cannot help but admire his masterpiece.

It is also a sad commentary on the current scene that no such individual who combines all of his attributes now exists.  He was always unique, but not long ago it was expected that true artists had multiple talents, not just the ability to chant obscenities into a microphone.

Thinking back to his death, I can't help but marvel that he lived as long as he did.  Such talents are usually not long for this world.

All of which is to say, I will watch Purple Rain again, not just to pick up on additional details, but to once again immerse myself in an increasingly distant and alien time.

And I will also savor a talent the likes of which we will not see again.

The Crow is a profoundly Catholic movie

I have to say that the Lord of Spirits podcast is fundamentally changing how I think about everything, not just religion.

I've got a post up at comparing Deadpool and The Crow.  Both in subject and structure the two are strikingly similar, but I want to dig a little deeper into the moral aspects of The Crow. 

Previously, I always thought of it as a spiritually-tinged revenge movie with proto-emo imagery and music.  That's still true, but the broadly Catholic-influenced themes and actions really stood out to me.

From a this perspective, Brandon Lee's character isn't a ghost bent on revenge so much as a soul in Purgatory who is cleansed of sin by carrying out divine judgement on unrepentant sinners while also helping those capable of redemption to find it.  The titular crow is his guardian angel, guiding him on the path to salvation and peace.

The late Brandon Lee did a great job in this film, and one can't help but see similarities in his fate and that of his character, Eric. 

On the face of it, Eric isn't a paragon of virtue.  He's a rock and roller who has a live-in girlfriend - not exactly a poster child for the Holy Family.

And yet, he intends to marry her, proposing in the proper way.  Even the wedding dress is modest and traditional.  The date - Halloween - seems like a hipster conceit, but that means their first morning as husband and wife will be All Saints Day.

Okay, maybe I'm reaching there, but it's interesting to look at how he approaches his task.  Each one of the guilty party he approaches has the opportunity to seek mercy.  Only the pawn broker asks for it, and so he is spared (though his continued sinful behavior inevitably catches up to him).

The bag guys aren't just bad, they are objectively evil.  The witch practicing blood magic?  Yeah, that's a big call for some divine retribution there.

Finally, there's the big confrontation between Lee's character and the arch-villain, Top Dollar.  As is customary, the villain gets the upper hand and seems sure to triumph but our hero suddenly turns that tables - in this case by summoning the memories of his fiancee's suffering and giving to the bad guy all at once.

What's interesting here is that Eric does the only after Top Dollar has admitted that yes, he was ultimately responsible for the double murder.  He may as well have said mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa.

In fact, the fact that Eric is able to obtain those memories at all is another Catholic 'tell.'  Officer Albrecht stayed with Shelly throughout her ordeal - a corporal act of mercy.  Albrecht also looks after Sarah, buying her dinner when they meet, which is of course an act of charity.

Throughout the film, these moments knit together a tapestry of religious symbolism that may appear purely spiritual, but all have a basis in Catholic theology.  Note how Eric purges the heroin from Sarah's mother and then tells her to go forth and sin no more.

When the mother then tries to be 'motherly' and her daughter gives her grief, the film could take a darker turn, but Sarah chooses the path of mercy, and accepts her mother's repentance.

The final scene where the again-dying Eric sees a vision of his fiancee approaching in a luminescent white light may appear to be simply traditional good vibes, a vague spiritualism, but a Catholic would note that her ordeal had already purified her, and that she was waiting for Eric to cleanse himself of sin as well.  Having done so - offering forgiveness to some, justice to others - Eric is now able to ascend with her.

Make no mistake, the film abounds with Christian symbolism, right down to the showdown in what appears to be an abandoned cathedral.   From my view, the entire film is permeated with not just religious themes, but ones that make the most sense if one views it from the Catholic perspective.


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?

A very snowy Veterans Day

Today I will continue my tradition of playing "Taps" out at Veterans Memorial Park (that's the big monument in front of the Hall of Justice).

It's never a good performance because playing a brass instrument in the COLD is tough.  Doing it with snow flying only adds to the degree of difficulty.

Still, the forms must be observed, and I'm honored to do it.  In fact, I started playing "Taps" while a student at MSU and it never occurred to me when I was doing it back then that I'd be a career military guy.  Strange are the fates.

I encourage my fellow vets to avail themselves of some excellent deals today, and of course - thank you!

Mark Hamill and the death of fandom

My latest column is up over at Bleeding Fool.  The response has been sharply divided, which is not unexpected, but discouraging.

It seems everything in political now.  I try to keep this blog away from such things, but unless people are willing to stand up on principle - even for people they might disagree with politically - things are only going to get worse.