Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Problems, Big and Insignificant.

I think I should begin by offering a disclaimer: the majority of my friends (meaning people I hang out with) are younger than me. I don’t know how this came to be, but I think I can remember when it happened. Around 2008, I was living with my girlfriend (now wife) in a cozy apartment on Margaret Street in Binghamton, New York. The ceilings were high, the backyard tiny, and the utilities taken care of by our landlord. I was hanging out with my high school friends at the time, each from the previous year’s graduating class. My friend Steve moved to Syracuse with my brother, while my friend Justin and I hung back. This essentially left him as my lone source of platonic companionship. He got married, had a kid and our time together dwindled quite unsurprisingly. This led to me meeting two friends from a band that I had played shows with about a year before. They essentially threw shows and parties at their dilapidated house on Chapin Street, only a fifteen minute bike ride from my apartment. If I always seem to come back to “the music scene”, it’s because indigenous art has pulled me out of many funks, and in this case it stalled obsolescence.

I cherish these friendships, even as I’m made fully aware of the desperation that upholding them ensues. Put simply, I sometimes can’t keep up. Just last Sunday I was invited to go “gorge jumping” in Ithaca, an invitation I had to decline for various dad reasons. At 32, I absorb vitality however and whenever I can though my wild days are waning swiftly. In this way I can relate to a lot of the awkward pandering and embarrassment endured by Josh and Cornelia in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. Like Tara and me, they have their snug dull existence shaken up by pesky youngsters, only in Baumbach’s world everyone eventually becomes full-fledged villains. This misanthropic turn of events is more in step with his early films where bitter/tetchy middle-aged/upper class white rascals stare down their noses at everyone brave enough to step in front of their peripheral vision with nothing resolved and no lessons learned. This movie is kinder, more in line with his previous Frances Ha, which finds him looking benevolently upon the same type of young soul that his latest gazes at with an indignant leer. This works for the first half of the movie because the japing isn’t exclusive to the youth but the movie unfortunately wanders into the ethics-in-documentary-territory where characters reveal their true colors and the movie loses much of the whatever pleasure and insight it had to begin with.  

Of course, while watching the movie Tara and I laughed uncomfortably at Josh’s unfortunate style and social decisions while part of me wondered if she was really just relating too much to the material. There is devious montage where Baumbach swiftly chronicles the divergences between the old and the young; the Roku vs. the VCR, typewriter vs. computer, etc. The basic idea being that younger people are finding uses for the things old people threw away hoping they will somehow mature them beyond their years whilst old people lap up the convenient technology being hurdled at the young in hopes that it will hinder aging. As I said before I’m not opposed to absorbing vitality, and being from Binghamton, which is second in America for both obesity and depression, I approach spots like the ones filmed in gentrified Brooklyn with a mixture of horror and shame. On one hand, these bastards are just a shallow/entitled scourge driving out the indigenous population and wearing matching uniforms to better identify friends and foes. They are the non-conformists who think that by shunning convention they aren’t actually conformists. And we squares are bitter about their very existence, mostly because we’ve settled into our tedious ruts but partly because their style is so fucking stupid. So I find myself in the city quite often, usually in the anodyne hotbeds, and have the nerve to return home feeling disgruntled and disgraced in many of the same ways that Josh is. I can see how this annoys Tara, but I’m not entirely ashamed of my pathetic self. While I’m not eager to wear a fedora or don wingtips without socks, I’m also not willing to capitulate myself to the ways of the Twilight Zone. I’m going to travel, and by gum I’ll sop up whatever cool rites I please, regardless of whether or not they stay or matter.

While We’re Young ends with an image that’s supposed to leave our ill-fated couple at an age assimilation conundrum. It ponders the parental path of least resistance and its emotional value in this modern hopeless age, all of these trivial problems dwarfed when side by side with Abderrahmane Sissako’s magnificent Timbuktu. In this movie, which I have frequently called a masterpiece with little to no reluctance, Jihadists infiltrate and occupy the West African city with foreseen tragic results. Timbuktu has dealt with the scary realities of Sharia law since 2012 so the events have chilling reality. Mauritania born Sissako spent most of his life in Mali, thus he undoubtedly bared witness to a passive way of life being interrupted and sent on a slow decline towards complete religious rule as well as all of the suffocating repercussions therein.

In Timbuktu the majority of our time and empathy is reserved for a cattle herder named Kidane, his wife Satima, and their daughter Toya though we get mini-glimpses into many lives throughout. Kindane’s rural existence is relatively peaceful in contrast to his municipal neighbors. He lives with nominal dealings with the invaders until a slip in judgment renders him a criminal, requiring him to face the full extent of Sharia law, but more on that later.

The opening of the film is the image of a young gazelle being chased by the Jihadists, who are urged to not shoot it but to “wear it down,” a frighteningly clairvoyant symbol for the sorrow ahead. But while I’m certainly painting a gloomy miserable picture for you, Timbuktu isn’t as one-dimensional as all of that. The villains are villains in their livelihood alone but they aren’t completely stripped of their humanity altogether. The boss for instance, an older Libyan gent, exhibits a certain kind refinement in several instances even as he is ultimately obliged by his faith to act the part of a bully. This is a big part of the point here; that duty-bound men are dangerous in their predestined lack of options. It’s just another form of erroneous desperation, where most crimes find their impetus. Sissako isn’t excusing anyone, but in the age of such thunderous terror as we’ve seen lately many seem to prefer their villains cackling and pillaging, the lack thereof in Timbuktu sparked Mayor Jacques-Alain Bénisti to ban the film sight-unseen from the Paris suburb of Villiers-sur-Marne.

As the gang enters, they enter incompetent and fairly pitiable like most men. They find themselves bumbling straightforward tasks such as riding a motorcycle, driving standard, or even speaking clearly. Being a multilingual throng they can barely speak to each other, which is fitting considering the capricious rules they are obliged to impose. These are laws that force women to wear gloves while handling fish while covering their heads, each of these much against their will. They also require all fun activities subsist such as futbol or singing. The townsfolk mimic the latter to no consequence while the act of making music proves to be the catylist for the “justification” of violence that these otherwise inconsequential oppressors have been waiting for. The city’s tranquil pace proved a sturdier fortress to penetrate, but they eventually wore them out as forseen. From there we get a glimpse into the horrors of Sharia law from lashes, forced marriage, and a horrific image of an adulterous couple buried to their heads and stoned to death.  

----- While it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back too loudly from our comfy Western perch, it’s important to note that this type of zealous aggression isn’t exclusive to Islam, though they are certainly the current poster boys for the type of foolhardy behavior that disgruntled sociopaths that religion seems to attract. The net spreads wide and typically snatches the likes of lost men with a wearisome lack of self worth. I’m reminded of the pathetic ineffectual dopes who ruled over Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Vermont where I was forced to attend following the death of my grandmother. This creepy congregation was under the antiquated teachings of the nefarious Bob Jones, who if left to his own devices would probably enact a similar horrifying coercion had it not been for Legislative, Executive, Judiciary institutions that thankfully keep militant Christians somewhat at bay. The bottom line being that Ayaan Hirsi Ali had a point when shedding light on the intrinsic problem of religion rather than the constant insistence that it’s just a few guys “distorting” things. Similarities always seem to include the male gender and a healthy dose of anger and frustration towards their own unimportance. ------

Back to Kindane and his moment of weakness which begets similar acts; Sissako never belittles the impact of his actions and nor does either make excuses. This is, for me, where the true heart of the movie emerges. It would be good enough just as a political act but the relationship between Kindane and Toya distinctively shows how all acts of violence are inherently tragic in the pain left behind in their wake. That Timbuktu makes no distinction between the death of an apparent killer (though the act itself is very complicated) and the death of anyone else, including the innocent, is the wellspring of its luster. Kindane acknowledges as much, telling that us that death is in us from the moment we enter the world and therefore should not be feared. His only fear is what will happen to those he loves, those left helplessly behind. Without spoiling the finale, which admittedly gets a bit too frenzied, I’ll say that his final act of humility/protest is among the most beautiful humanist gestures ever put on film. I tried to describe it to several people, each time I got a big knot in my throat. Sissako ends as he began, panic stricken youngsters running aimlessly into the dunes, out of breath as the trespassers had planned. They are finally worn out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Hype-Machines Are Taking Over The World!

I’m eagerly awaiting the time and opportunity to see Heaven Only Knows, The Clouds of Sil Maria, Jauja, Eden, About Elly, and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence but otherwise will probably wait for cheaper/freer ways to check out movies like Results, While We’re Young (though without Baumbach’s name attached I would surely run from this one), Run All Night, Ex Machina, Spring, Girlhood, and 71. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t have the highest of hopes for the majority of these movies though my feelings aren’t based in anything substantial. It’s summer and I’m not as immersed in the movie year. Of course, this will change once the weather roves us into warmer places but for now I’m happy to catch em when I can. So far I have seen Blackhat, Timbuktu, It Follows, What We Do in the Shadows, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hard to be a God, and Inside/Out. Already 2015 is being written off as a dud, and I wonder how exactly a movie year’s worth is quantified. Usually the measuring stick looks a little something like this: “The best movie of this year wouldn’t even crack the top ten of the previous year.” Ok. That works fine, but not for people like myself who have just disclosed a big pile of blindspots not to mention the smaller films that many paid critics haven’t seen. Also, pretending this logic works just fine as a proper gauge, did the previous year have as many “good” films or just a couple of films you personally consider “great?” I’m not saying 2015 is good, bad, or mediocre because a: I don’t know that I prefer one or two great films to ten or eleven good ones and b: I have only seen like 2% of the movies that were officially released.

Blackhat is Michael Mann’s first official feature since Public Enemies in 2009. In between the present day and 2009 he directed one episode and served as Executive Producer of Luck, a series created by David Milch of Deadwood and NYPD Blue fame. That show of course was canceled due to the unfortunate deaths of three horses (50 were used on the show); the concerns were publically raised by PETA and that citadel of journalistic and moral reliability known as TMZ. The first two horses died during short racing scenes and the creators and everyone involved insisted that all proper precautions were taken and insisted that these things tend to happen. Then a third horse died (non-racing related) and HBO canceled the show due to public pressure and the lack of assurance that the same tragedies wouldn’t continue to happen, even under supposed maximum care. Dustin Hoffman expressed disdain for the reporting, TMZ and PETA fired back and the show ended precipitately as Milch’s Deadwood had before. I can’t really weigh in on the mess because, despite being one of those ninnies who abstains from consuming meat, I don’t particularly care for PETA and have a less conflicted abhorrence for TMZ. I also haven’t seen the show, though I’d imagine that I’ll check it out when my life slows down. None of this has anything to do with Blackhat, other than to suggest that after the financial and critical success (if we are going by the heaped standard of critical mass) of Public Enemies that Mann is in need of a little luck, himself. Again, if we are measuring a movie’s critical esteem by aggregators (and I would certainly suggest you don’t do this) as well as taking into account it’s grossing of one-tenth the projected budget and the studio’s decision to pull it from theaters after a measly twenty-one days then Blackhat is fit to be considered a failure by all populist accounts. But therein lies the catch, Mann isn’t a director to sneeze at, even when most (again, aggregated) of the world seems to do just that.  

Back in 2006 Mann directed Miami Vice, a re-envisioned film version of the famed television series that he produced in the 80s. The movie took in an estimated total gross of $163,794,509, most of this from the foreign market which wasn’t a “hit” by industry standards, though it did exceed its budget. Critically it was met with trepidation from the majority of critics, but those on the other end of the gamut went hard for it, yours truly included. Today, a mere nine years later, I daresay it’s considered a masterpiece. Many consider going against egalitarian reason tantamount to being stubborn or blind to the obvious fault supposedly inherent in his films; clumsy dialogue, “bad acting,” dilapidated/recycled plots wandering aimlessly in admittedly beautifully stylized films. The basic argument in defense, one that I thankfully have never officially had to articulate, is that the director’s command of all things visual and kinetic transcends whatever flaws may hold the thing itself down. In fact his style and atmosphere transcend whatever limitations the movie itself has. That sounds about right.

But the real reason I think I’m so fixated on box office and critical success as a measured by numbers and percentages is because of a recent conversation I had with a dear personal friend and burgeoning acidic professional foe. The conversation had to do with finances, specifically regarding a work of “art” that myself and some friends have been working on. At one point in the already tense conversation we had to discuss the lack of time another artistic practitioner would be able to spend working on our stuff. Time is money, literally when you are speaking about this part of the process, and in this case we were/are running just about empty. Ever the impassioned idealist he bold claimed “Fuck money! This is art man!” as though I had forgotten. Now I hate to bring the right side of the brain into the left side of the brain’s domain, but in this particular situation his words happened to embody the maddening hypocrisy that only a self proclaimed “real artist” could fool himself into believing. Only a month before he more than doubled his asking price for his services because he “wanted to own a home and didn’t want to work a real job anymore,” a bold and stupid statement that should have come back to bite him square in the ass if I had a looser tongue at that aforementioned “this is art man!” moment. The other rub was that he had the gall to assume that this person we were about to pay for his services was unworthy of the same right and dignity to name his own financial worth and expect to be compensated for his efforts. Cash rules everything around me, son.  

If I’m being somewhat obviously oblique it’s because I dearly love this person and don’t want to drag his name through the dirt (even if only one person actually reads this), though I’m surely failing for those who do even the slightest bit of research. So let me backtrack for a minute to save my own butt. I think that my friend’s notions about art and commerce are pure and right in their aim, and it’s wrong to mock his genuine belief in separating the two even if he doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to charging people for his “artistic” labor. And I hate to be that old jerk to mock idealism and claim that it has no place in art, because that’s not true. It IS art. But art also lives and breathes within the confines of crooked financial institutions, and not all who ask for money are greedy frauds destroying the sanctity of individual creation. In fact, I should also point out that this particular endeavor will likely only cost me money, money that I earn working the type of job (four hours a day and two days a week more than my friend) that my he so passionately would like to leave in the dust. I can’t blame him. Because time is money and that time I spend earning money is time away from my family. Therefore his statements pertaining to art were somewhat insulting considering the time I’ve personally spent toiling in “art” itself. It’s every artists dream to make “art” for a living, but that requires money and to avoid turning this conversation into an ouroboros I’ll make this applicable somehow to Blackhat.

What I just described was an extremely trivial micro version of the same process that undoubtedly goes into funding and creating a movie through a studio like Universal. The plot or synopsis gets floated around, rejected, revised, and eventually acquired by a bigwig somewhere. He hunts down financers who each probably get involved because they see it as a potential investment. Then people put together a cast and crew, in this case you can view each of these individuals at IMDB and count for yourself because I’m sure as shit not doing that. Bottom line, tons of people are employed and in need of direction. Now I’m aware that not all of these areas fall under the supervision of the director, but he bears a lot of the weight of the film’s respective success and/or failure. Within this complicated, expensive, and stressful structure it’s a wonder that a movie like Blackhat can even exist. This isn’t to say that it’s a perfect termite piece, completely devoid preventable blips but its skill and invention are indubitably the work of a delicate visionary. I haven’t even spoken of the plot, which was inspired by the Stuxnet computer virus which destroyed Iranian centrifuges bringing to light the notion that a digital construct could inflict physical damage. This is otherwise known as cyberwarfare and the events that set the film into beautiful kinetic motion mirror this amalgamation of digital and corporal reality. The other narrative machinations involve an imprisoned hacker employed by the Chinese and American governments to stop this criminal, his relationships with those involved, and the trademark Mann action scenes that drive one event to the next.

As an engineered product it had no real reason to fail so spectacularly and thus we can only speculate, but I love to speculate so hear me out. My theory is twofold. First, it’s a victim of time and place being a deadpan melodrama lacking the playful or ironic cues that render it worthy of certain blasé throng while it’s also enough of a populist narrative product to pass over the pseudo-arthouse horde. Caught somewhere in between, it defies easy categorization. I feel like I know this intimately. Despite acknowledging what I would consider outside factors working against it, I think it’s also worth noting that it has plenty of needless flaws from internal logic, some lagging performances (in some instances including the lead), and moments of terrible dialogue. At times I thought it should have just skipped talking altogether. Mann has helped write all but one screenplay, and at times these same dialogue problems pop up in more than a few of his movies. I guess I don’t understand why he so freely gives fuel to his detractors in this way, why his films seem to handicap themselves. The second speculation would be the evil PR empire that’s setting the schema for what is talked about, hyped, and covered. This segues nicely to It Follows, which was declared an “instant horror classic” before it was released officially into theaters.

I learned of the evils of PR late in the game, and make no mistake the game is rigged. The basic idea that I got (from a PR agent working it the music industry) was that syndicates were picky as to what they would choose to cover. Obviously the music industry is far more flooded and would perhaps require a system in place to sift through the mess that comes pouring in every day. Basically he said that websites and syndicates used PR agencies as their filter; trusted “experts” sending along their client’s music and back-story for possible coverage. Basically three stories sold best, old popular bands reuniting, old popular bands forming other popular bands, and unknown bands with a crazy personal hook that would allure those who care nothing about the songs themselves. So PR agencies could charge starving bands 1k a month, claim that it’s a “crapshoot,” debut a song on Brooklyn Vegan, and call it a day. The more he talked, the more I learned, and the more dismal it got. It’s like rigged DUDE! I’m guessing the PR mafia works along the same lines in Hollywood, big bucks pay for more coverage. More clicks, more hype, more ticket sales. While we’ve established that Blackhat is duly unhip; no 80s synth, caught in genre purgatory, earnest, and starring Thor, It Folllows is readymade to enter the hype machine perpetuated zeitgeist where a new genre masterpiece is crowned every weekend to clickbaiter’s delight everywhere.

All of this is not necessarily a dig at David Robert Mitchell’s second feature length film. It’s not fair to use its success and Blackhat’s failure as a bat to beat it with. On a budget of roughly 2 million, it grossed close to 15 million domestically with its video release forthcoming and still no foreign push. Basically, it’s a megahit, albeit one whose fortune was predestined by media and critical hype. The movie has a great specter in theory, a shape shifting monster stalks slowly behind those who spread it via sexual encounters. If you spread it you delay its arrival/your death which sparks more sex. The movie starts with plenty of promise, making good on the creepiness of its concept, the highlight comes after a close-call in which Maika Monroe’s Jay barely escapes “it” while at her house. Jay sits on a swing set staring intently into the night for emerging figures, the camera embodying her stare. This ends up being the movie’s best trick, the way it forces the viewer to scrutinize open spaces, both vacant and populated, for people walking lifelessly forward. But at some point, I think I can identify the exact moment, the movie caves to modern horror clichés that you would find in the Paranormal Activity movies. And the ingenuity of the premise is basically squandered or ignored, leading me to wonder what Cronenberg could have done with it. I know this is unfair. Also, the specter’s altering appearance ensures unavoidably diminishing results. Despite this I think it’s a fine movie whose hype tempts jerks like me to underplay its strengths in the face of its hysteria.

Like Drive, You’re Next, etc. hype-fiends everywhere feel the need to recurrently declare films as a return to a forgone era of genre filmmaking rather than a nifty homage or just an arty movie with a moog on the soundtrack. This proves good for the films themselves, and I can’t speak against this as someday I hope to benefit from such obvious frenzy, but when movies like Timbuktu and Hard to be a God (both of which I hope to get to next week, along with Fury Road) fall by the wayside you have nowhere to go but to root for the demise of the PR industry.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015


As revitalizing, multifaceted, and superlative as Inside/Out truly is it’s carrying a lot recycled Pixar narrative components, mostly from the studio’s firstborn franchise which has earned an estimated $1,956,823,883 at the worldwide box office alone (with those numbers you could hardly blame them for sticking to a formula). Like Toy Story it also features a control freak whose love for her child/master sets the conflict in motion. The conflict similarly involves two opposing characters getting lost thanks to the aforementioned control freak’s stifling inability to allocate tasks equally to all five primary emotions (which also include anger, disgust, fear, and sadness – which happens to be the journey companion to the control freak aka “joy”) which in the case of Toy Story is more a matter of jealousy whereas Joy’s motivations seem to stem primarily from genuine misguided motherly love. I suppose it’s weird that your own emotions could look upon you as a parent would, but in the case of “Joy” it makes sense that her relationship with Riley is one of nurturing and protection. The incredible journey of self-discovery has served the company well critically and financially (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Up…… pretty much every Pixar movie) so it’s not necessarily groundbreaking in its narrative catalyst and end goal. Inside/Out is about a power struggle for the mind and heart of a twelve year old girl named Riley who gets her first taste of disillusionment when her family uproots and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Having faced a similar seemingly life-shattering move myself at around the same age, I can attest that Pete Doctor and company hone in on some accurate mild-calamities that could potentially set the kind of major personality changes into motion that are depicted here. My family moved when I was eleven from our childhood home in Brackney, Pennsylvania to Williston, Vermont leaving behind friends, family, the house I spent all of my years up to that point in, and a school that I had just felt comfortable going to on a daily basis. The move was terrible initially thanks to the first wave of kids I met in my new school, all jerks, and the house that we moved into which had significantly less forest and backyard. Now call me a spoiled kid who needed a good lesson in adaptability but there is more to a move than the physical changes it presents. The area I moved into in Vermont was dense with former love children turned lawyer/insurance-salesman/politician, albeit each still listening to The Grateful Dead though gravitating naturally towards travesties like Phish. Many of their kids were the probable consequence of their wealth and lack of backbone. Spoiled rich kids of former hippies make fantastic bullies, impervious to consequence and far more vicious in intent. Of course I’m generalizing and my generalizations are coming from a hallowed place of deep bitterness and resentment where a fair share of “personality islands” fell in its wake. And while my life had never been controlled by joy to the extent of Riley’s, I certainly discovered an increase in blue orbs in my core memory stash.

I remember that particular time being tough between my father and me for various reasons. I only remembered them from my own point of view but conversations later revealed that he too was at a harsh juncture due to the loss of his mother the year before. Since I’m filtering this personal history lesson through Inside/Out’s fictional conscious mind headquarters and beyond I’ll point out that what would be my dad’s “parent island” had recently fallen along with undoubted other pillars of his personality which caused him to turn to one of those hallowed cherished/hated pillars of the real world, in this case to the detriment of my entire family. If we were bouncing back to my young perspective, I saw a person that I once cared for fall apart so to speak. I didn’t realize the impact my attitude had on him during this dark period, but nevertheless I saw his choice of solitude as a betrayal to the friendship we used to enjoy. I only bring this up because Riley’s sense of betrayal is similar though her parents are characteristically brighter than what I knew. Her parents are kinder and more observant to their daughters hurting, but their uncharacteristic neglect along with a brief moment of impatience from the otherwise well-tempered father (though honestly his reaction was nothing more than the straw that broke the camel’s back) represent the proof that Riley’s world of old was officially fading away. For me, the heart of the movie beats in the real world even as it’s being watched by the feigned creations that dominate most of the screen time. Pixar has a knack for landing the emotional apogees with serene command, and the moment in this movie is as good as the histrionic drool would suggest.    

And I guess all of this talk of milestones has me thinking about my earlier experiences with movies. I’ve rambled on and bragged that my early days were benevolently stacked with classic cinema, the kind of education a lot of cinephiles discover much later and with much more debt. But I tend to highlight this time through an ill-at-ease modern susceptibility, meaning I cherry pick experiences/films that make me look cool. In actuality, the majority of auteur approved classics were introduced to my brother and me around the age of twelve, where I can specifically remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia and On the Waterfront as well as Rio Bravo and the Ford westerns and more obscure 50s movies that had their time in the sun thanks to revivals and reevaluations. Before that point my dad ---- who was compelled by the third person of the Godhead to keep our minds’ away from all things filthy from the filth-friendly 80s and 90s (unsuccessfully thanks to my grandparents and their cable/satellite dish) --- did a good job of easing our inattentive eyes/minds towards the likes of classic comedy teams, cartoons, Harryhausen/O’Brien monster flicks, and preapproved/taped off of television modern movies. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a brief walk down my since clouded (filthy things) memory lane to what I might consider to be seminal core memory cinematic building blocks.

My first confirmed movie theater experience was in 1988 during Walt Disney’s Bambi re-release. I saw it at the Tioga theater in Owego, New York which is still standing in its same location. I don’t remember much about the experience though I was told by my mother that she had a hard time keeping me in my seat, as we were right near the aisle. I instead have two other memories from this trip. First, we stopped at a fast food joint and got happy meals containing characters from the movie, my brother got the coveted Thumper toy and I got Friend Owl, as voiced by Will Wright who also acted in They Live By Night, Adam’s Rib, Johnny Guitar, and about 221 other credits including television appearances. The other memory from that evening involved a car accident where I remember children bloodied and hurt being assisted by my father until the ambulance arrived. Surprisingly it didn’t rattle me as much as I would think it would rattle a five-year-old unfamiliar with this type of hurt. Then again, by the age of five I had received stitches and a hodgepodge of injury-related trips to the doctor and E.R. so maybe my grit for gore was formed in those clumsy developmental years. Later, I would receive the Bambi VHS in 1989; it’s first time released in that format. I still have the tape though I couldn’t tell you if my current reaction to it would be more in line with Manny. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

Another vital moment in my projected baptism was my first experience with Abbott and Costello, which was also, to the best of my knowledge, a: the first time I ever popped in a VHS tape, b: the first time I had seen a monster onscreen, c: the first time I had seen a comedy outside of cartoons. The movie was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and it was taped by my neighbor Fran who had the capability of recording a triple feature thanks to his dual-speed/long play VHS recorder and his cable-box which caught Uncle Ted’s Monstermania airing of Meet Frankenstein, Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Meet the Mummy on MVIA. Ted was born Edwin L. Raub, in 1921. He served as radio operator during WWII at both the storming of Normandy and Operation Market Garden, where he earned a couple of Purple Hearts and got severe burns on both hands thanks to an explosion involving gasoline can. During his recovery he started learning card tricks where he would entertain other injured soldiers which in turn led to a vocation “to perform for churches, and then I worked clubs, resorts, every mall in Northeastern Pennsylvania, shopping centers, store promotions and private parties." From there he tweaked his magic show to cater to scatterbrained children, smuggling in an anti-drug/alcohol message fit for Regan era youth, performing up to 500 times a year, perfecting his craft, and eventually taking those talents to the now-near-extinct profession of horror host (perhaps a later post should be dedicated to this). He even employed the walking/breathing scab known as Bill O’Reilly as writer for the show. Predictably the two didn’t get along and O’Reilly, true to his loathsome form, spread the word on Raub’s supposed alcoholism which was refuted by several people including his daughter.

This type of senseless libeling became Bill’s stock and trade, a vocation that has earned him an estimated net worth $85 million riling up knuckle-dragging neoconservative bigots about invisible phony threats from “the other.” Uncle Ted and Nefu Ned deserved better, but that’s neither here nor there. As for that VHS, I think I was initially more enamored with the red fez and the disorderly mustache than the movies themselves for the first few viewings though my long relationship with Bud and Lou lived on. It became an ongoing birthday/Christmas tradition to receive a tape from the duo, the first being Buck Privates from my grandmother. By the time I went to college I owned damn near their entire oeuvre, which I packed into a box and would watch when I got homesick. Rio Rita became a favorite amongst my friends and I, though Meet the Invisible Man worked just fine. One of my most cherished Bud and Lou memories came when I worked at Vestal Nursing Center, a job charitably given to me and sustained by my landlord, who also happened to be my friend Lisa’s, dad. We (my brother and bandmates Steve and Travis as well as our traveling companion, Nate) dropped out of college to tour and write music. We would spend up to nine months a year on the road, before the days of social media oversaturated the “market” making the “get in van” mentality less endearing and more likely to sink you before you ever float.

Anyway, touring at that rate can drain whatever savings you had rather quickly, especially when your van breaks down and you are already forking out personal funds for gas when well-meaning crust punks only provide $20 for your tank before a seven hour trip up the Cali coast. As taxing as these situations would be, I was as happy as I’ve ever been, cut loose and free until reality officially set in once we pulled back into our hometown of Binghamton, homeless. My brother and I were officially cut loose thanks to our decision to bail on a higher education to pursue something as foreign to our father as punk music (note: we weren’t punk unfortunately, more like a watered down post-hardcore/emo hybrid). This left us without a home and so quick calls were made and we were allowed to squat at our aforementioned future landlord’s vacant rental house. He felt bad for us and wound up letting us stay there for four years, getting us all jobs with him at the nursing home, where our docile and gracious boss Bob would let us come and go as we pleased. Our basic job was damage control meaning painting, plastering, fixing call-bells, cleaning, etc. When painting I would have to make sure the resident would be out of the room for multiple reasons (paint fumes, space, and dust). Before that however I would find dings and plaster them. This process would allow me time to chat with the residents, who all seemed to like me. One particular lady, whose name I don’t remember, talked about her early days with her since-deceased husband. She talked about dates in that day and somehow she brought up Abbott and Costello which immediately sparked conversation about our shared interest. She spoke about the audience reactions in that day, the loud laughter and the eager anticipation to return to the theater for their next movie. It made sense, considering their box office ascendancy in the forties. And that was about the extent of our conversation, one of many that helped me learn better manners and listening skills.

Abbott and Costello aside, I also remember that my dad asked Fran to tape a few more monster movies for us. The other triple feature was The Blob (1958), King Kong (33), and Son of Kong (33). I watched King Kong so many times that it began to suddenly fast forward on its own. This happened to several tapes including the ones my dad received from my grandmother. I remember TNT’s Monstervision which gave us The Giant Behemoth (59), It Came From Beneath the Sea (55), and The Lost Continent (68) which disturbed me in ways I hadn’t known at that point. My dad also purchased VHS tapes to cater to my love for monsters, my pride and joy being the beloved union of Godzilla and King Kong in 1962, brought to us by Ishiro Honda. I can still taste the red berry juice, smell the giant octopus, and remember cheering with my brother as Kong turned Godzilla into a weight throw. Justin rooted for the lizard and I for the ape. We would watch everything together from Swiss Family Robinson to Dean and Jerry/Danny Kaye/Laurel and Hardy to Star Wars. So my movie life at the age of 5 and 6 was, as I said before, compartmentalized between monsters, funny men, and cartoons. Modern movies were a treat, usually preceding the classics but that’s another talk for another day. Of course all of this movie watching had to contest with my toys, the woods, my bike, and television shows which frankly worked better for me. I remember Denis the Menice, Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pirates of Dark Water, Denver the Last Dinosaur, and Darkwing Duck. Do you remember Dino-Riders or Battle Beasts? How about Rush’n Attack from Konami, an obvious cash-in on Milius’ paranoid WWIII turd. What about Tecmo Super Bowl or Ghosts and Goblins? While most kids were shooting ducks, Justin and I were playing Wild Gunman. These were the days when I believed that springs had seaweed that would grab your leg and pull you to the bottom. I also believed that if you got punched upwards in the nose your nose bone would poke your brain and kill you. Augh the good old days, never to return but preserved snuggly in my core memory while I try and live in the present, which means sharing space with blasé whippersnappers who prefer overhyped glum rubbish like True Detective to awww shucks entertainment like Inside/Out. I suppose you now know which ring I’m throwing my hat in.