Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Numbers courtesty BoxOfficeMojo.com

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Muppet Semiotics

Went to see the new Disney film The Muppets with my sister's family, at a kid-heavy Saturday afternoon matinee, no less. Sort of a mixed reaction: Adults loved it, and some of a certain age got teary-eyed at the end. Most of the older kids loved it, but some of the younger tots (like my youngest niece and the seat-kicking little squealer sitting right behind me) got bored at the one-third point and started a noisy rebellion.  I thought it was very clever and entertaining (all I ask for in a movie, really)-- but there was a weirdness about the whole affair that lingered after the tag-less credits.

The Muppets is a bildungsroman with two main characters: Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter, who is a muppet. We see their relationship develop in a series of childhood flashbacks, Gary growing to adult size while Walter remains about 2' tall. We never see their parents fully onscreen-- but we see enough of them to know they are both human. So the movie's context is set up: sentient beings made of stuffing and felt are treated as fully normal, fellow people.

This context is expanded as Gary and Walter discover what has become of the famous muppets as the years have passed since their show faded from our collective memory (and even syndication): The principals have all moved on with their lives. Kermit lives alone in a moldering Bel Air mansion among mementos of his former fame, attended to by a hilariously antiquated 80s-era robot (my favorite new character, as I'm a bit of an 80s robot myself). Miss Piggy runs a magazine, Gonzo has become a manufacturing magnate, and Fozzie is barely hanging on fronting a muppet cover band in Reno. In other words, this elaboration shows that muppets have exact same aspirations, failings and material needs as any nominal human being.

(There is a very brief but philosophically jarring shot in the film where the camera pans over the picture-covered walls of Kermit's abandoned studio office. Among all the publicity stills of long-past "Muppet Show" guest stars is a 8x10 glossy of Kermit and Jim Henson. This is what I'd call a "meta-meta-moment:" even in the self-referential world of this film, it is an image of a concept that cannot be parsed.)

Walter, though raised in human society, is fascinated by the muppets, and it is made obvious as the story unfolds that he will eventually fully accept his muppet-ness and be folded into the troupe. Really, the main plot arc hinges on his acceptance a a "real" muppet: His brother Gary cannot fully become a man and consummate his relationship with his long, long, long-standing girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, about a radiant as she was in Enchanted) until Walter has moved on and no longer needs his protection and companionship.

But what is a muppet?

In intrinsic reality, we all know what they are: puppets, animated and voiced by human performers. Bur this definition is unavailable in The Muppets, so we have to move on to the movie's in-universe definition: A muppet is a special sort of sentient being, an analog of a flesh-and-blood being (frog, pig, chicken, etc.) or an abstract "monster" (Animal, Gonzo, etc.).

But how are they "special?" This can be uncovered by flipping over the definition again. Substitute "celebrated entertainer" for "muppet" in the subtext and it all makes sense. The muppets, once-celebrated entertainers who have fallen into obscurity or non-showbiz professions, are shown to be incomplete unless they are entertainers and being celebrated for doing so.

The major story arc for all these characters is their collective effort to put on one last show to save their old, abandoned studio from development. But if you think about it, this effort makes no sense. In the first act we see that ALL the muppets have moved on-- they have abandoned their old studio themselves, as their audience vanished over time. The only way this can be made logical is as they re-discover that their only definition is as entertainers, and cannot fully exist any other way.

This definition applies to novice-muppet Walter as well. He cannot really become a member of the muppet troupe until he finds his unique talent-- which he eventually, and surprisingly, does. The point is hammered home again: it's not enough to be made of felt and have little stick arms. Walter has to have a solid, show-stopping act. He becomes a celebrated entertainer.

The Muppet franchise has not always been part of the Disney universe: They were acquired in 2004 and The Muppets Studio LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary. A lot of Disney's offerings (especially at cable-TV level) have a strange self-referential obsession with showbiz (High School Musical, "Hannah Montana," etc.). The original 1970s "Muppet Show" has always been a show about a show, but the franchise's new run through the Disney echo filter has transformed it into a perfect ouroboros: A movie about a movie about a show about a show, featuring muppet performers who yearn to be muppet performers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Numbers courtesy boxofficemojo.com

Monday, November 21, 2011

More First Movies Ever

Here are a few more first movies, culled from the Facebook responses to that last post about first movies:

David (California): Where's Poppa? I was five. Nightmares.

--Where's Poppa? (also titled Going Ape, D. Carl Reiner, 1970) is one of the films I remember (along with Slap Shot, Mother, Jugs and Speed and Blue Collar) playing over and over and over on Home Box Office back in the early converter-box days. And young David was driven to bad dreams by the edited, "happy ending" version of this film-- the original version (which is intact on the DVD) has the darkest, most twisted ending of any comedy since Dr. Strangelove.

Toby (California): Yellow Submarine. At age five I thought the Blue Meanies were super cool.

Chris (Washington State): The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Caroline (California): I have a terrible memory of a Western where a stagecoach with a set of four white horses went over a cliff. It drove me screaming and crying from the theater. But the first full-length one I really remember was Help! at the drive-in. Wore my footie PJs.

Lynn (California): Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the first movie I saw at a drive-in (with my parents). Not sure if that was the first one ever although it might be.

Marianne (California): I was the youngest of four... who the hell knows? As the youngest, my family fed me memories just to shut me up. Half of my memories actually happened to another sibling, not me. As an example, I was told that I had nightmares after seeing Darby O'Gill and the Little People. But it turns out that was Rebecca.

-- Which is quite an insight. Memory is a mercurial, hit-or-miss thing before age 5. They can be constructed out of disparate experiences or influenced by hearsay. Makes sense that a lot of what we "remember" are actually things told to us by older relatives from which we have stitched together into real-seeming, but fake, memories.

Which is why that first remembered film is important-- it establishes a time when you can coherently remember anything. It has been remarked on over and over by smarter folks than me that movies are a shared dream, and the conventions of cinema's image-based storytelling has evolved over the decades to ever better fit into the deeper parts of perception, to seem more and more like a dream or a set of real memories. Where do we leave off and movie-based memories begin? How much of our personality is borrowed wholesale from the media we consume? What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?

The developed ability in childhood to stitch together a received narrative into something you replay half a lifetime later says quite a lot about the power of cinema and remarkable qualities of the human mind.

And finally, the antidote to the charm of the "first movie ever" memory:

Cova Lee (California) Fantasia… It's still on my all-time most hated list! That would a hatred stemming from the psychological torture of being forced to sit through the most boring movie ever made more times than I can count! The last time being my 12th birthday with a bunch of my friends… so not cool because Grease was playing in the theatre next door and of course my father caught us trying to sneak into that instead!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Abby's First Movie Redux

(This is a re-edited posting from the Box Office Weekly Podcast site from around March 2008. I just recovered an old hard drive with a bunch of these articles-- the online versions are gone, down some Australian memory hole. I'm republishing this one, and one other that I think is totally worth revisiting. --S)

Last weekend my niece Abigail reached a milestone in her young life-- she was taken to her first movie.

This event is a sort of maturity marker for parents-- To take a very young child to a theatres makes some basic assumptions: Will he or she sit still for two hours? Will he or she understand, or at least uncomprehendingly enjoy, the movie? Does he or she know that you have to use your quiet, whisper voice? Well, these SHOULD be the criteria for taking small children to movies: Anyone who has attended a popular film lately must believe, as I do, that there must be some sort of terrible babysitter shortage.

According to her mommy Abigail, who is two years and nine months old, passed with flying colors, enjoying Horton Hears a Who! (d. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, 2008) in a matinee screening.

I had an opportunity to drop by Abigail's place, where she consented to a brief interview about her cinematic experience. She is just as cute as a bug's ear, my niece.

UNCLE SKOT: Abigail?
ABIGAIL: What, unka?
US: Did you see a movie?
A: Uh huh.
US: What did you see?
A: Um. Horton.
US: What's Horton?
A: Elephant.
ABIGAIL'S MOMMY: What do the Whos say, Abigail? (note: They say "We are here!")
A: Help! Help!
US: Do you want to go to the movies again?
A: I want to go to Africa.
(Abigail begins a new conversation with her imaginary friend Michelle, effectively ending the interview.)

It brought back something of a special event for everyone: That first movie. Really, you were taken you your first film before the age of four you don't really remember it. Long-lasting memories are tied into brain developments that occur about age four or so, so even if you have scraps of vivid memories your brain didn't have a good filing system in place. Still, that first movie one can remember seeing was special.

I dropped a few emails into the ether, asking people the first film they and got a surprising variety of answers. Actually, most of the first movie experiences were Disney movies, which is not surprising at all: In the pre-home video days they constantly re-released their features, two a year by average.

GLEN (California--where he was as a kid): Mary Poppins. I'd just turned four years old. The film was released in August of that '64, but I'm sure it was tough for mom to get the trip all organized, so we made it to the theater near the end of the film's first run. Mom and Grandma took my two sisters and I. I'm pretty sure we saw it in Burbank, but maybe San Fernando. The house must've been packed, because I remember we were in the front row. The theater seemed really fancy, wherever it was.

JOHN (California): I believe it was Snow White. I have the vaguest of memories of sitting in the theater watching it.

SUE (Great Britain): Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Other recollections are eclectic to say the least:

DANNY (Louisiana): Well, I definitely remember seeing The Poseidon Adventure in the theater.  When the ship rolled over, so did my soda! The Jungle Book was also a big early one.  Not sure if that predates Poseidon.

SCOTT (California): It’s interesting that you would ask this question today. On this morning’s show [Scott hosts a weekly radio show] we talked about the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, and I mentioned seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater when I was 4, and that’s the reason I’m so messed up now.

CHRIS (California): Dr. Doolittle.

DAEV (Arizona): Hmm… I have a vivid recollection of seeing 2001 at a drive-in, but I think Cat Ballou or Oklahoma! was the first I saw in an indoor theater, probably at a matinee.

CAMERON (Australia): I can't remember exactly but it was either Enter The Dragon (my dad taking me to the drive-in) or Star Wars!

BILL (California): I have a memory of seeing a very boring film about Bigfoot at the Capitola theater.  Searching IMDb, it may have been Bigfoot: Man or Beast?  I guess I was about six.

This last one is great-- Bigfoot was released by American National, a bottom-dwelling roadshow exhibitor like Sunn Classic Pictures used to be. They specialized in exploitation films: Chariots of the Gods, In Search of Historic Jesus, stuff like that. They released their terrible, non-factual documentaries "four-wall:" Rent movie screens (all 'four walls") in a particular TV demographic region, then blitz the local channels with lurid, overheated ads. Fast money made, they would move on to the next demographic area.

Still, it's all part of the film experience we all fell in love with. There you are, tiny in your chair, in a big dark room. The images on the screen are titanic, the colors intense, the sound loud. There is something about the act an ritual of moviegoing that makes us all kids, looking up at a world that is larger than life, larger than us.

--Skot C.

p.s. What, MY first movie? I'll never forget it: The Sand Pebbles (d. Robert Wise, 1966). What on earth was my dad thinking, dragging a four-year-old to a bloody, violent, morally ambiguous, patently adult three-hour-long film? Well, he was a former Marine, and he probably was very interested in the story of a headstrong, anti-authoritarian sailor (Steve McQueen) caught up in the turmoil of American gunboat diplomacy in 1920s China? He probably thought I'd, in the parlance of the times, "learn something." Dad would later drag me along to enjoy such family-friendly movies as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

I did learn something: I learned how beautiful and exotic the world looked when it was shot in Panavision and projected on an 80' screen. The photography for The Sand Pebbles was (and still is!) stunning, washes of blues and oranges, Chinese alleys and streets disappearing into mist. The final showdown in the Mission was a perfectly choreographed sequence (rendered in dark blues and grays by DP Joseph MacDonald), just Steve McQueen and his Browning Automatic Rifle valiantly defying his fate. On the way home, dad told me that was the kind of gun he used in the Marines (they gave the tall guys in the squad the heavy machine gun).

So I gained two things at my first movie: the beginning of an abiding passion for cinema, and a rudimentary working knowledge of mid-20th-century American military firearms. --s

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Numbers courtesy BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Where does he get those numbers from, anyway?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Weekend Box Office

The numbers come from here.

The 2011 Austin Film Festival Day-to-Day

Thursday October 20th - Flew in non-stop from San Jose, got a lift to David Miller's house from David himself.

The last time I was here in 2009, when John and I were finalists, I spent all my time in the AFF bubble, the four-block area centered on the Driskill and Stephen F. Austin hotels in the heart of downtown. This time I was lodging in South Austin, 6 miles from the action, and I had a car to use (and, unfortunately, pay to park). This situation, and the fact I had nothing in competition this year, gave me a somewhat more realistic take on things.

Didn't do much more that day than get my laminates and meet up with some nice folks for some drinks at the Driskill Bar, seated right next to where Joh, our wives and I celebrated our win two years ago. Left, had Tex-Mex with David and got too hammered make the first AFF late-night party.

Friday October 20th - Made several panels. One, called "A Shot of Inspiration" with Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black and Jim (Fight Club) Uhls, was quite excellent and inspirational as advertised. Another, with some dev girl from Pixar, bombed out and went to questions after only 15 minutes. After excellent BBQ at the French Legation, waited in an immense line for the AFF screening of The Rum Diary.

Bruce Robinson (L) and Johnny Depp (R)
The film itself was fairly good, though there was something definitely wrong with it. Protagonist problems, perhaps. In the Q&A afterwards Johnny Depp is nothing short of charming and clever, but writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) was reeling, sloppy, incoherently drunk. (All part of his bio, apparently). This threw off moderator Elvis Mitchell, who was snippy throughout the session. It didn't help that pinwheel-eyed Depp fans were asking questions like "I'm making a short film and I'm wondering, Johnny Depp, if you'd want to play God?" His response: "That sounds great, but… the research…" This debacle was the talk of the AFF for the rest of the weekend.

Attended a late-night party at Ruth's Chris Steak House. This was just as it was last year: A bunch of writers jammed into a room with free Dos Equis and 100dB conversational levels. Met a slick-haired fellow from Florida who made a film about an 18-year-old virgin stripper and, minutes later, a big-eyed young lady from Michigan who had a rather touching family story as a short in competition. Both these folks shot their films on Red One cameras in 2.35:1. See? Anybody can do it these days. Chatted up Lawrence Kasdan and met Thomas Jane.

Saturday, October 21st - My favorite moment came early in the morning at the Silver Valley Donut Shop on William Cannon Drive. The place was full of locals, Good Ol' Boys. As one fellow made for the door, his friend said "Have a good'un, Earl. Stay out of trouble."

Without breaking stride, Earl replied, "You can't tell me what to do! I might be fixin' to start something."

Typical Panel, Driskill Hotel Ballrooom
More panels at the AFF. John Lassiter gave a good talk about the Pixar writing process, which is diametrically opposed to the standard Hollywood process, where most producers are lawyers or agents-- which makes them spectacularly unqualified to give notes on writing, but do anyway. Takeaway quote: "Imagine taking a 747 from here to Tokyo-- and the pilot is a lawyer who 'always wanted to fly a plane.'"

Another Panel featured Rodrigo García, the son of Gabriel García Márquez. His talk was supposed to be about constructing complex characters but ended up being mostly about himself-- excluding the part about how his being a famous person's kid got him into the business in the first place.

After some fine BBQ at Stubb's with John and his Seattle posse, crashed for a few, then came back downtown that night for the Pitch Fest at the Speakeasy and late night party #2. This one was not quite as loud. Went back to South Austin and collapsed on the couch. David came back from a gig in San Saba at 2:30 a.m. and we stayed up 'til 5 talking old trucks (he has a '55 Panel, I have a '56 Panel) and finishing a bottle of Jack's.

Sunday October 22nd - Slept right through the "Hair of the Dog Brunch," the final party of the AFF weekend. After grabbing some migas at Casa Garcia (yum!) I made the afternoon panel-- "Endings: Good, Bad and Insanely Great," given by Michael Arndt. This guy wrote Little Miss Sunshine in 3 days, revised it 100+ times, and it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2006, a first for a first-time scripter. He also wrote Toy Story 3, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2010. Arndt obviously had had a lot to teach us-- and he did. By far, the best panel of the entire weekend, almost worth the steep cost of the badge.

Driving around rural Texas in a pickup
truck in the middle of the night.
After tearing up some Texas freeways in David's 1995 Chevy pickup afterwards (so I can cross 'drive a pickup in Texas' off my list of things to do) got a ride to the airport from the finest steel guitar player in all of Austin.

Overall, and excellent weekend in the finest city in Texas. Three summary observations on The 2011 Austin Film Festival:

1. It's definitely a bubble. in the Badge Zone of the AFF, you get to meet, chat up and even pitch ideas to people high up in the industry. Just remember that when you're back in the real world, you'll never get within 2 miles of these people.

2. Much easier to see said bubble when you spend a lot of time outside it. Got to visit the Broken Spoke Honky Tonk, Barton Creek Mall (for souvenirs), The Alamo Drafthouse South and got drive-thru at R. Terry's on Lamar. Out there, where the real Texas is.

3. As fun as the 2011 AFF was, it does not beat being there with a script in competition. Doesn't even come close. Still, here and there throughout the long weekend people remembered me for our 2009 win. And that felt pretty darn good. Who knows? I might be fixin' to start something.