The Fall of FilmStruck and the Failings of all our Good Intentions

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The burning of the Library of Alexandria: A reminder not to put all your eggs in one basket.

In between the sea of looming towers, I find a sense of absolute peace in the sleepy gloom of fluorescent light glancing off the marble floors. It is a greater peace than I could find on the top of any solitary 14er or in the silky ripple of wind floating across a deserted desert highway. No. Because at its essence this peace is the certainty of safety. Not safety in the physical sense –not from disease or predators or mother nature– because clearly there’s little armor that splotchy inc on drying paper could actually provide me, yet there is a sort of indescribable feeling of ease that warms me just with the knowledge of the library’s existence. The knowledge that like stars in the sky, billions upon billions of human thoughts lay tightly mashed, bound, and sewn together just a few hundred feet in every direction of me, standing forever on guard with open arms to fall back into. From the first inklings in the ancient Middle-East to Socrates to Harry Potter and everything in between, literature has carried culture and the pulsing human heart far beyond their natural expiration dates and into a world where practically any breath can be easily printed, copied, and spread to every single inch of the globe. And there comes with this a transformatively comforting sense of certainty for me: the certainty that no matter what human thought will survive until our end.

 

Therefore it should come as no surprise that wandering around the UC campus my first few days here I was immediately pulled to the main library on campus. Underneath the main pantheon structure of Doe Library, 5 stories of books wrap in a Guggenheimian fashion far into the earth below. At least the first time I went there was not a soul to be seen (unfortunately I can’t say this is still the case) so the only sound that hung in the air was the rhythmic hum of the ventilator shaft, quietly. Meanwhile, the distant aroma of well-worn paper brushed at my nose as it wasted over the vast expanse. And the books. Oh, the books. From the classics to the NYT Best-Sellers list, each forgotten drop of ink buried in the beaten and bruised covers would be enough to practically form an ocean if combined. They were countless in number and exponentially bigger than their typical 3-inch diameter betrayed. In fact, the library seemed to spit in the face of Newton and Einstein in its ability to warp space-time into a dimension of inherent immortality. My troubles were shed at the doorway.

 

I was safe.

 

I was at peace.

 

And I left without reading a single word.

 

It’s not at all that I dislike books; on the contrary, I greatly enjoy them and consider the reading of fiction and non-fiction alike to be nearly as essential to human development and survival as food or shelter. But like many others, I too often revel in ideology while neglecting to walk the walk and so I read when inspired and turn a neglectful shoulder when I am not. In my mind’s eye though, the beauty of a library is certain because the beauty of the library for me is that it exists at all. The beauty is that as long as it stands, I can potentially count on it.

 

And it is this exact same thinking that lead to the downfall of the classic/indie streaming service FilmStruck. For those that don’t know FilmStruck, owned and operated by TCM, was the Netflix for cinephiles, proudly boasting 1,200 films from the criterion collection and more than 600 other independent and foreign films. In the face of ever-decreasing diversity in films put out every year, FilmStruck was an immensely valuable and important public service.

 

And it was doomed from its inception. Completely and totally screwed. Despite the incessant pleas splashed across entertainment blogs and screamed from auteurs like Bill Hader, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright, and button-mashed from online petitioners, FilmStruck just isn’t fit to succeed in a world of humans who by their very nature struggle to go past the event horizon of ideology when they are already secure. Because let’s face it: we like the idea of preservation of history and culture, we like it because our principles tell us to like it, but by God its just not as fun as the alternative. Popcorn, Marvel, a damn good time. That’s where the money is, so the strategy of preserving less popular material by putting all the eggs into one purely capitalist basket is ridiculous. I mean think about it, if governments didn’t fund and support libraries (and if you think about it it’s an absolutely breathtaking achievement that they do), would you really pay for a subscription to a library?

Don’t get me wrong though, I am for preserving these films just as I am for reading books and maintaining libraries. There is monumental importance in the joy, pain, and lesson learned from these pictures, and just because they don’t have the same slick look and style of today does not mean they are somehow incompatible. On the contrary, so many of these movies have stories just as relevant and vital today, and to lose them would be a blow of epic proportions to our cultural and societal well-being. And Especially at a time when film studios like Disney monopolize and constrain the industry more and more, the power to produce diverse and equally deserving visions of our world is of paramount importance.

 

However being for something (as evidenced by our–uh– recent elections) is not the same thing as making that thing happen. And if we want to save these films from being nothing more than memories of the dead, we need to find alternatives to FilmStruck. I believe to do this, we first need to ask why we are bothering to preserves these films in the first place. To me, there are two main reasons: 1. The entertainment value of these films, and 2. The historical/cultural value they bring.

 

Now the entertainment aspect is the easiest. While these movies may appear as impenetrable and dull to some on the outside, there are many films that would prove absolutely absorbing even to a modern audience. Remember if Jerry Maguire can make 300 million dollars at the box office, then it’s clear that Americans might just have a more varied taste than the redundant franchises and superheroes of today would let on. Therefore it should make only perfect sense for the bottom lines of Netflix, Amazon, and co. to push a wider variety of films to attract more viewers (keep in mind these movies are often much cheaper to gain the rights to than new releases). There should be a fix here that would help keep these movies alive.

 

The more difficult aspect, unfortunately, is the historical/cultural angle.

 

To start off I believe it’s important to note just why leaning on FilmStruck preservation is such a poor idea. Taking lessons from the Lost Library of Alexandria for instance, it’s probably not particularly smart to keep everything in just one place less it go up in flames in an even more permanent way than FilmStruck. But then where should we put them? I’m honestly not sure I know the answer to that. Most of these movies aren’t just free domain titles, which means someone they’re being sold or streamed for a profit. If FilmStruck wasn’t seen as a viable moneymaker, then I don’t know if streaming many of these movies for a profit is truly possible. Building interest in the movies is possible over time and could prove quite useful; instituting film studies into the classroom like books is definitely a worthy possibility that could change cultural perception to different types of film and art in general. Whether this will be done in an American public school system that is already so poor is doubtful, but not altogether implausible. Therefore the only strategy that truly makes sense to me is the most obvious one: model it after libraries. Getting the government more involved in not only preserving copies of these worthwhile films but allowing the general public to watch them is a worthwhile cultural endeavor indeed. It’s true that some libraries already carry DVD’s of a large number of these types of movies, but it’s important to modernize in our technological age. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the government has the obligation to preserve these films for both historical and cultural reasons in the eyes of the public, and maybe even create a streaming service of their own.

 

I don’t know how plausible that is, but whatever way is ultimately the best at preserving these films, the bottom lines is this: the belief in these films is not enough. It’s nice to support the idea of culture — I mean how many totalitarian hell-holes throughout history have persecuted and choked out any ray of light in their state — but if we choose to ignore our own overabundant supply, it will be the same result in the end. That’s because art and opinions are intrinsically human things and therefore cease to exist away from us. So if we look away from them for too long and when you turn your head back they will have already been wisped away by the breeze. So if you want to save classic and alternative film, don’t just rely on a second-rate Hulu rip-off. FilmStruck is dead. But FilmStruck was never the answer. To save this art people have to act. People have to engage these films.

 

People must reject the tranquility of principled ideology, and embrace the adventure of putting those beliefs into practice. 

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Searching Succeeds by Smartly Putting Humans in the Driver-Seat

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Despite his limited workspace, John Cho shines in heartbreaking performance.

Searching’s decision to set its entire run-time in the small confines of computer and phone screens reads at the outset like a cheap gimmick. And in all honesty, there is some truth to this. The premise is a rather simple and common one: following the disappearance of his high school daughter Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn), David Kim (John Cho) will stop at nothing to find her again. Done, stamped, Liam Neeson approved. But the film’s structure provides Searching with the exceedingly easy ability to spice up the rote monotony of it all, while at the same time significantly reducing the costs associated with the elaborate set pieces and intricate production designs common in Hollywood thrillers. However, it is to directors and writer Aneesh Chagentry’s credit that Searching does not simply rest on its laurels and follow through on what one may expect to be a conceited cash grab aimed at millennials. Instead, it uses its premise as a jumping off point while it smartly layers the decisive element of technology through Hitchcockian suspense and boatloads of intricately plotted clues and red herrings: the human element.

 

And it is this personal dimension to Searching, rather than any of the banked turns and plummeting hills of which the film so adores, that remains consistently the most shocking aspect of that movie. In a heartbreaking opening scene that’s reminiscent of the famous opening of the Pixar movie Up, Searching sews together a tapestry of pixelated computer programs that trace the bitter-sweet chronicle of the Kim family as they raise their daughter Pamela. It’s a deeply moving introduction to our characters, but even more so than that it was a huge sigh of relief for myself. Unlike recent films such as Unfriended or Upgrade which exist solely to warn of the inherent dangers and evils of advanced technology, Searching immediately exuded a comfortingly modern sense of nuance which would carry on throughout its entirety.

 

Assigned to help David is the seasoned detective and similar single parent Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). Rarely seen at all, Vick’s icy voice serves as a voice of authoritative reason in dichotomy to David’s increasingly frantic hysteria. For as David slips farther and farther into a twisting hole of complicated Facebook friendships and melancholy social media portrayals from his daughter Pamela, the farther apart he gets from his daughter he thought he knew. Luckily Detective Vick’s experience as a single mom provides her with the adept ability to emphasize with David, and the give and take between the two allows Searching to Ponder interesting questions of parental responsibility. These conversations, in turn, are probably the most successful scenes in the entire film. Like a well-worn diary, Pamela’s technological footprint gives David a confounding look at a daughter he barely recognizes, and when things ramp up ask hard questions about the power a parent actually wields in their kid’s life. Therefore while the story is told through technology, yes, Searching is careful to use it as a tool rather than shining the limelight directly upon it. Because in the end technology is an extension of us. Neither totally good or evil, it exists as the virtual third arm of modern humans on which we project our lives. So it only makes sense to use it to analyze the human condition and not the other way round.

 

Of course, while the emotional resonance is vital, I’ve neglected so far to praise probably the most important part of what makes Searching so addicting to watch: the mystery itself. And it is to the credit of writers Chagentry and Sev Ohanian that the mystery itself is as good as it is. Intricately mapped out and thrillingly unpredictable, Searching has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull the rug out from underneath the audience at will. And while the trapped nature of the stage makes for occasionally gelatinous and suffocating moments, it’s all worth it in the end. The carefully cloistered walls of the flickering screens allow Chagentry to hammer the audience with a rapid-fire succession of plot twists and observable evidence that build a steady pace of momentum before the chips finally fall into place. And fall they do.

 

Tying these two elements together, however — the plot and heart — is easier said than done and it is a great credit to Jon Cho’s talent and charisma that David is able to transition so well between the narrator and emotionally wrecked protagonist, in turn steering the small cart. Jon Cho, who up to this point is probably best known for his more comedic turns as Harold in Harold and Kumar and Sulu in Star Trek, brings a sterling command of emotions that is somehow able to transcend the inherent limit to the role. Sullen eyes and a tragic weariness on Cho’s worn face are betrayed by fearsome outbursts of a father’s fiery love of his daughter. And the strong performance was made even more impressive considering just how little Cho could actually do, with the portrait-mode view from Facetime and the heavy reliance on voiceover leaving little creative (or physical) wriggle room. While the computer programs and texts and animations provided more visual entertainment than the similarly constrained Tom-Hardy flick, Locke, Cho’s performance still acted as a one-man show of sorts and thus needed to be really good. In fact, it was because he was so good, that I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the structure of the movie prevented him from escaping his little cage and taking on a more wide-ranging performance. Cho has the talent and looks to be a bonified A-lister and it was incomprehensible to me why no one else could see what Searching so clearly proved (in the context of Crazy Rich Asians which came out just a few weeks earlier, I think the answer is depressingly obvious).
But thankfully Searching chose Cho to star because Searching, despite what it may seem from the outside, is concerned first and foremost with making a good movie. And besides a sometimes static nature to it all, Searching’s twisty and personal journey through the electronic imprint of the human brain creates an enthralling and surprisingly poignant Friday night mystery.  

What’s the Point of Watching Movies with Friends? (Part 2): Freshman Philosophical Ramblings

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Why the hell do we do this?

This is not gonna be just another “going to the movies by yourself is underrated” hot take. It’s all too easy to catch a glance of that sentiment whizzing around, splashed in Ariel bold on the front page on any number of film connoisseur sites. That’s not to say there isn’t a benefit to watching films alone. There is, just as there are very definitive reasons to watch with others. But I believe what is far more interesting than telling you who you should or should not watch the new Marvel movie with is looking at our personal connection as humans to the movies. What makes us want to watch films with others and what makes us yearn for the isolation of an empty seat?

I never used to go to movies alone. To be fair, this was in large part because I lacked free access to money or a car for the better part of my childhood. My dad was stunned at even the notion; the idea of going to the theater alone was as nonsensical to him as the idea of me becoming a Republican. Even when I had the means to do so in later years, a pained expression of disappointment spread over his flabbergasted face when I told him of my introverted plans (though I’m sure there are worse taboo failings for a father to be disappointed about). This view was not solely self-contained to him, however, and instead reflected a widely-held belief in American society: going to the cinema is a social excursion. And so that’s what I believed without a hint doubt or apprehension. Looking for something to do on a lazy Saturday afternoon? Go watch a movie with the family. Cousins in town and nothing to do? Go watch a movie. Looking for an excuse to chill with some friends? You know the rest.

It was habit. No. It still is habit. Because even when I gained a car and money, even when I got MoviePass last year, I would tell myself over and over that I would go alone. That if I had free time I had a cultural obligation to my soul to see these movies.

And I would almost never go.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it when I did. The crackling fire on screen would twirl puffs of hallucinogenic smoke around me, enveloping me, melting away the outside world to draw me into a personal confrontation with the reality they created specifically for me. The first film I managed to compulsively see alone was the disaster at sea flick “Adrift” (starring Shailene Woodley). It was by no means perfect, but the orgasmic beauty of an infinite, painted ocean joined with the breathless fear and passion in the boiling pot of our protagonist’s life shredded me. I struggled to keep the Pacific Ocean itself from seeping from my narrowing eyes through most of the final act. And yet, when I walked out, the world still strutted along completely oblivious to my trauma. It was personal like reading a book, yet with the visceral imagery that only a movie can provide. There was no need to build carefully articulated talking points or views to discuss with my companions, nor was there the shared experience that undercut the direct emotions of the picture. I was alone. Free to soar through golden clouds of hope and bob up and down in the oozing tar of a vast ocean of despair. I’m not a religious person, but that kind of connection was spiritual — like a man gazing up at the intricate majesty of Vatican sculpted beauty. And it would not have been the same with others.

And yet I still remain hesitant to do this; frozen restraints gripping me in place whenever I think of eloping by my lonesome to a theater. I believe, beyond social convention, there is a reason for this. A reason that explains the very point of film as a medium.

To be a spectacle.

As artistic and transcendent as a film can be, there’s a reason it’s not a book. There is a reason movies play on the big screen. A reason their release is endowed with such cultural reverence and a reason why the people who create these pictures treated as gods. Film is first and foremost a spectacle for the masses. A great novel can be enthralling and poetic, but it can only really be personal. It can’t be read with others, and the market is so overflooded that rarely do they have the same widespread cultural touch (at least when they are originally made). As a social and now international species, we crave this sense of connectedness. In fact, even in the old days, famous authors would go on book-reading tours to give crowds of people a taste of this relatability that pours out of every crevice of society today. The advent of movies, however, created this feeling in an easily manufactured and distributed product.

The blinding aura of neon italics demanded the attention of the masses for Christ’s sake, not wandering art enthusiasts. The greatest show on earth.

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An illuminating view

And you know what, something in that sentiment actually speaks to me.

We watch movies with other people to revel together in the splendor of an incredible show. We don’t want to watch it alone because the point of it is to be bigger than a simple personal experience. So even though we sit in silence at a theater, a silence that can be as ear-piercing as it can be awkward, the emotional ties created from witnessing something bigger than ourselves, something made for the masses, build something more than the muted sum of its parts. Movies are loud, brash roller coaster rides, what fun is there in screaming alone?

Of course, that doesn’t mean all movies need to be seen with other people. There is something to be said for the personal holiness of a singular viewing experience, and oftentimes not being able to talk killed the social aspect that movies can really only play into. That’s why, as great as it was to have an excuse to hang out, on some of those fading summer nights I wish we could have just found another way. But that shared carnival of light, in the right conditions, can both allow for this necessary dialogue between humans while at the same time give them the shared experience that’s so damn magical. I made sure to note last time that I’m not a talker at movies and I try to remain true to this, but being able to watch and crack comments when watching a movie is one of the most enjoyable experiences imaginable.

I’m not all that great at meeting new people. I’m not altogether terrible at it; I’m capable of meaningful conversations and when I do form a bond with someone I often create deeply held friendships. But I sometimes don’t know entirely who I am, especially on the outside, when I first begin talking to people and this can lead to rather basic and forgetful q-and-a sessions. I suppose that’s part of growing up and will change with time, but in the meantime, it creates a nagging problem that I need to get past. In my first few months here one of the repeated bonding hangouts that is noticeably common is streaming movies together.

This has been a godsend for me.

By using the countless entertaining and personal moments from a film as a springboard, I can find pieces of my beliefs, my experiences, and myself, and connect with others. For example, “regretfully” instead of studying, I have consistently binged the first 2 seasons of Game of Thrones with new people, using it both as an enjoyable time to talk and as an undeniable shared connection. Likewise the first friend group I made originated around all of us seeing Crazy Rich Asians together. And even beyond college, I spent some of the inarguably best moments of my life and dicking around with friends while watching god-knows-what movie on tv.

So, after that overlong, rambling stream-of-conscious what in the hell is the answer to the original question: “What’s the point of watching movies with friends”? Like any good question, there is no one clear answer. No neat-and-tidy thesis statement to take away with you. Watching movies with friends can be pointless. A lazy, unimaginative mannerism of a repetitive society, where we replace genuine human connection with simply sitting next to each other as we overdose on filtered mass media garbage. And therefore it can be so much better to just watch movies alone like I fought to do so many times. But it can also be something greater. A mesmerizing emotional quilt of shared connections and talkative comradery. Something that has built the backbone for so much in my life.

It can be all of these things and it can be none of them. But in the end, alone or with friends, there are worse ways to spend your time than watching a movie.

The Existential Masterpiece that is “Heathers”

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Christian Slater and Winona Ryder star as Bonny and Clyde duo Jason and Veronica

 

Heathers: 27 years is, quite obviously, a tad late for a movie review. Having the review, just the 5th on this blog, be a philosophical analysis of 80’s teen comedy Heathers is also painfully random and most definitely not a good way to build a strong reader base going forward. Nevertheless, while I needlessly procrastinated finishing the second half of my last post (or doing something actually worthwhile like, oh I don’t know, homework), a friend of mine convinced me to watch the movie Heathers with her and I knew instantly I had to write about it. To her, the movie (and the subsequent musical adaptations) had earned an almost religiously fanatical devotion, and her incessant habit of quoting every line before it was spoken had echoes of a priest reading scripture. So par for the course, it was only natural that she needed to spread its good word to the masses.

I was always going to be an easy convert.

80s parodies, from Airplane and Naked Gun to This is Spinal Tap and UHF are far and away my favorite comedies (and movies in general) ever made. Their eagerness and sharpened ability to tear through the realities of American life come off just as fresh today as they did back then. And while they never managed to hit terribly close to home, classic high school comedies like Clueless and Mean girls (the two most obvious comparisons my lazy-ass was willing to come up with), offered adorably farfetched daydreams of the social Serengeti of school in an undeniably entertaining manner.

 

And yet, I was never prepared for Heathers.

 

As it turns out, Heathers is not in the same ballpark as any of its contemporaries. In fact, it isn’t even playing the same sport. The level of ambition was simply unparalleled.  While other contemporary films had funny scripts, Heather’s screenplay (written by Daniel Watters) is an uproariously funny poetic opera; a neverending onslaught of quotable lines are intricately sewn together in an utterly spectacular commentary on humanity and modern society. But as much as it may sound like the Casablanca of the 80s, Heathers has none of the same romantic or practical sensibilities. Other teen films of the time were revolutionary for their portrayals of the modern high school reality, yet they always seemed to mix their satire in with an endearingly nascent sense of general optimism and heroism. Heathers pulls no punches. It is a macabre carnival of selfishness, evil, death, and twisted reality. And it is with this latter note that it becomes, and I say this with 100% certainty, a near-perfect existential masterpiece.

Like many a high school teens, the world of Veronica Sawyer (played by a very young Winona Ryder) is not right. She sold her soul to gain “popularity” and now hates her plastic reality — primarily, her 3 friends all named Heather (or as she describes them “a bunch of swatch-dogs and diet-cokeheads.”).

Luckily, the solution to all her problems comes in the form of rebel bad-boy Jason Dean. Christian Slater was reportedly considered for the role of Heath Ledger’s Joker and he shows why here, his slow midwestern drawl dripping with disturbed malice as he etches his mark in cinematic villain history.

After his anti-establishment swagger peaks Veronica’s interest at school, the two instantly form a relationship. And Jason, by happenstance, has the solution to all of Veronica’s problems. After a particularly rough fight with the abusive ringleader of the Heathers, Jason tricks Veronica into giving drain cleaner to her. To cover up, Veronica forges a suicide note which quickly creates cancerous repercussions that soon consume the small town. 

Thus begins a pitch-black drive through an exaggerated yet recognizable version of our own reality. Inspired by classic existentialist fare, an abundance of warped views, redundancies, and death work to create a chaotic and revolting sense of confusion that emphasizes the hollow nature of suburban existence.

Basically, it’s Waiting For Godot but with a lot more death.

Murder and rape fill the movie to the brim, but somehow nary a tear is ever shed for the victims. To the audience, their demises are presented just as jokes, and to the characters of Heathers, they don’t even register enough to reach that level. They are simply plot points that happen, only mattering in the gluttony of personal consequences they bring with them and touching none of the entire selfish cast of characters in a more empathetic way. They are an opportunity to advance socially for a Heather, a chance for a teacher to show-off her “new-age healing” powers, or just a brief TV News headline for the masses. Why this is, Heather argues, is just as nauseating today as it was then. For instance, in one pair of over-the-top scenes that had me seriously questioning whether to laugh or be petrified in terror, Veronica has a near identical word-for-word conversation with her parents. Yet in the latter scene, Veronica’s mother puts a poisonous spin on an age-old question, cheerfully asking “How was your first day at school after Heather’s suicide?”. The death simply wasn’t personal, so in this urbane existence, there was no need to care. 

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An 80’s high school comedy transcends time as an Existential work of art? You bet ya!

While these reactions are obviously exaggerated, their origin is an unnerving kernel of truth in the faults of humanity that shines crimson red throughout the picture: faults that stem from the constant unseen battle between the individual and the masses. That’s why a high school setting, in all its awkward Lord of the Flies Glory, is so effective as a microcosm to study society as a whole. To the people involved each excruciatingly small detail of their life matters personally, but to the outside we see only amorphous blogs of geeks, popular kids, jocks, and administrators mixing and bouncing off each other in an eternal dance. For example, while we clearly empathize with the abused group of surviving Heathers, they instantly take up the evil mantle of the dead Heather in their fight for power over the school. Thus by naming them all Heather, screenwriter Daniel Watters highlights their potential to be absolutely identical in the grand scheme of things.

Therefore, as Jason explains in one scene, why should it matter if a bully like Heather dies. She was undoubtedly a negative influence on society, so why should her death matter in the grand scheme of things? In a society such as this one where the concept of the individual is completely absent, her death doesn’t matter. Heathers even goes so far as to make this point literally: in one particularly ominous instance, Jason repeatedly addresses his father as his son and gets addressed like he was the dad. Like Rosencrantz confusing himself with Guildenstern, people in this film simply seem to forget who they are.

However cynical as Heathers can seem at times though, it smartly pushes back against this purely negative outlook. Instead, Heathers argues, people like Veronica can find meaning in life by overcoming their selfish pursuit of power, and instead, learn to find solace in maintaining friendships and caring about the hurting. Because as much as Heathers is a warning about the all too available paths to selfishness in one’s hearts, it is a plea to value others and the time we share with them. A plea to maintain that important friendship, or give a hand to the downtrodden. As one defining statement from a character from Heathers goes “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make”. This sounds an awful lot like Albert Camus’ perennial question: “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” But thankfully, as long as that cup of coffee is shared with a friend, Heathers chooses the latter.

What’s the Point of Watching Movies with Friends? (Part 1): Drowning in Chicken Burritos and Dismay

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A “tragic” story of loss.

By far one of the greatest benefits of my local theater growing up was its close proximity to what was essentially large, open-aired food court. Composed primarily of fast-casual chains, none of the food was particularly revolutionary (or cheap). Yet to middle-class suburbanites with cash to spare like ourselves, the consistency of well-regulated mediocrity tapped into the beating heart of our essence and we simply couldn’t get enough.

Before going to a movie, we’d congregate like a cult of locusts around the mall and swarm on whatever met our fancy for that evening. For me (and most of us), that tended to be a burrito from Chipotle. Overstuffed with a smore-gus-board of Mexican culinary staples, from the sizzling and oh so juicy meats and beans to the snap of fiery spices and freshly sliced vegetables, and all topped off with just a sprinkle of Ecoli. It was definitely worth at least 7 of the 9 dollars I ended up paying for it. Besides just the trivial taste factor though, it carried the unparalleled benefit of its transportability. Neatly wrapped in shimmer tin foil it was of little contest to carry and eat it anywhere, but most importantly the theater itself. Now the movie was obviously the main event, but my habit of eating Chipotle during the show forced the two into an often indistinguishable symbiotic “Salsa” (oof).

I don’t remember what we were watching that night. In fact, don’t really remember much about the night at all. Per usual, my friends and I grabbed food from the mall and walked over to the theater. Then, I’m sure, we watched whatever mediocre flick happened to be playing before floating away together into the haze of another fun yet indistinguishable summer hang-out.

But it is what happened in the middle that I will never forget.

Immediately after taking our seats, the whole lot of us began acting as we always did: wisecracking jokes and playing crude verbal tennis. Nothing to truly offend the people around us, mind you we were older enough at this time that most of us to various degrees had developed something resembling a filter. But of course, a mass of high school boys isn’t exactly going to sound like a library. Now it’s important to note for this story that the movie had not yet started. In fact, not even the previews had begun. Instead, it was Maria Menounos’ voice that echoed around the auditorium, bringing with it the sweet sound of endless advertisements. The calm before the storm.

Maybe I was being particularly “rambunctious” compared to my smiling gang. Or perhaps it was just a matter of proximity. But just like that the man sitting in front of me whipped back and locked his cold, callous eyes with me.

And the world turned cold.

I still see the ghostly figure to this day. Sickly white skin painted the muscular outline of a balding-man closely reminiscent of the stereotypical Aryan prisoner. A pair of menacing caverns of darkness stared back at me, slicing cold icicles into my motionless soul. He screamed in ferocious whispers, berating me for the disrespect we showed by talking and even threatened to call management.

My response to the man, of course, was most eloquent and quickly diffused the situation: “Dude, the trailers haven’t even started yet!”.

Yeah. That went over great.

The lecture had been tinged with a deranged undertone (can you really expect any different) and there was a deeply unsettling menace radiating from the man, but none of it at all foreshadowed what came next.

Like the chest burster-from Alien, a hand, his hand, suddenly sliced through the air before smashing into my still warm burrito. The hand impaled the burrito and pressed hard against my chess. A mixture of Mexican food bleed onto the floor, as any illusion of restraint from the man disappeared in the blink of an eye. I tried to save face with a small sardonic smirk, but make no mistake: I was frozen to my very core. Evidently, the man did not appreciate my impudently carved mask. He finished his fearsome rant by tossing my mushed burrito to the ground. Bits of chicken and rice flew in a serene arch through the air and rained down upon the dim floor below. Then the man, mercifully, sulked back around and left me to bathe in my indescribable shock.

But my burrito- my lovely, tasty burrito- was no more.

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Like I said, a tragic story of loss. A story of burrito loss.

The man turned around sometime later to apologize for his outburst before suddenly getting up and leaving midway through the movie. I must admit after recent theater shootings in the news I was definitely (but not at all rightfully) on edge for the next half hour. But thankfully he vanished into the night, never to be seen by me again. In truth, I still feel bad for the man. He was obviously sick, and despite the obstacles our country’s healthcare system provides I hope he gets the help he needs. And while I’ll still laugh about the incident with my friends today, it is nothing but a joke now. A meme. Not some scarring assault. But nevertheless, something did strike me hard that night and leave a mark: the sinking disappointment that I would no longer be allowed to crack jokes or observations with my friends for the rest of the movie.

I try not to be a talker during movies. Truly. I can’t stand people that are. But what in God’s name is the purpose of watching a movie with other people, especially a mediocre one,  if we have to be stone-cold statues the entire time? I don’t just mean talking loudly, of course, that’s infuriating to sit next to. But even whispering. Even breathing emotions into our company’s ears gives the experience a purpose.

What’s the point otherwise?

And indeed I have wondered exactly this to this very day. So many hangouts either culminating in or more often originating for, the purpose of watching a movie together. And yet, despite the rare garbage dump which allowed us the opportunity to turn into the shadows from “Midnight Science Theater 3000”, watching a movie was a silent experience. Like a less holy version of Synagogue. No doubt it gave us a reason to hang out, but all too often that was its main purpose. Sure there’s the element of shared experience, and for the film geeks in our group, it gave something to analyze and debate for hours together. But more so the lack of conversation blasted my ears, and the movie felt like the mandatory commercial break for our hangout. The price of admission for getting to enjoy each other’s company.

So what’s the point of it all? Why in our film culture in America, is everything so precipitated on dead silent theaters being a social experience?

(Part 2 will be released soon.)

The Allure of the Emmys

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The golden trophy rewarded for the pop-culture friendly TV shows.

The transition to college brings many substantial changes with it, but by far one of the biggest ones is a general feeling of disconnect. “Disconnect from what?” you might ask, but of course the question does not have one simple answer. Living on campus you deal with the reality of your campus life. Classes, clubs, dining halls, social interactions, and studying become your life. That’s of course not to say there’s no contact with the outside world. On the contrary, the news is still accessible and phones and email give one the easy ability, of course, to keep in touch with friends and family far away. And yet there is still that feeling, that nagging feeling, like the one I’m sure many have felt on a boat slowly drifting across the horizon. College is a place of purgatory, seemingly separated by sheer cliffs on each side from the golden normalcy of a suburban childhood and the towering mountains of a successful adulthood. Therefore when I saw the news alert that the Emmys had begun, I jumped for the first time in over a month of college to watch live TV.

Be it the Emmys, Oscars, Tonys, Golden Globes, or whatever other knockoff events Hollywood could stuff a few celebs into, my family and I would watch these events with a religious dedication growing up. The pie in the sky high-rises of the American dream roped us in with spectacular showmanship and shared experience: “Hey I saw that movie!” or “Hey I know that actor” were all it really took to be swept off your feet and pulled to the shining rafters. Even when I had no knowledge of the movies or actors present, there was always something so safe about grown-ups talking so damn elegantly.

They were professionals, and by god, they looked the part.

So when that alert danced across my screen I instantly found the excuse I needed to procrastinate on my homework. It was sentimentality, awe, comedy, and the certainty of adult success all rolled into a couple hours.

So how was it? Basically what I was expecting actually. Many of the jokes were lame and of course, it ran a couple hours too long, but that taste of pompous entertainment awards truly delivered. The music and booming announcers voicers waltzed effortlessly around my ears, and I let myself be carried by golden statues to the overproduced world of my dreams. In fact, I even knew some of the winners! The Good Place was ignored again of course but The Marvelous Miss Maisel and Barry are both definitely worth checking out (streaming on Amazon Prime and HBO respectively).

While of course not the perfect event my memory always cracks it up to be, the allure of the Emmys was completely on display for me this time. For a night I was safe in the certainty that my previous life did not simply end the day I left, and that the future, however uncertain, was still just one overlong display of glorious possibilities waiting to happen.

“Hereditary” Adds Yet Another Strong Addition to the Recent Horror Revolution, but Ultimately it’s Just Not That Scary

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Tony Collete is absolutely horrifying in her starring role, yet Hereditary lacks the same scary zeal.

Hereditary:

Tell Jason he can finally rest easy. The horror genre has roared back to relevance in recent years and by god, it just might be better than ever.

After decades of nothing but simply unwatchable low-level shlock overflowing with horny teenagers poked full of holes and gruesome gorings of the “mostly” innocent in near-pornographic ways, recent years have seen the rise of a number of indie flicks that for the first time in history actually seek to achieve something that resembles cinematic virtue. Hereditary is the newest film to seek this higher calling, and yet while its metaphorical musings and high production quality definitely raise it above the trash of the past there’s just one thing I just can’t get past.

It simply wasn’t that scary.

Of course, fear is inherently subjective and no doubt many have and will find Hereditary to be nothing sort of bone-chilling. However, compared to the level it could have attained it feels nothing short of a technically beautiful swing and a miss. And it’s not alone. From The Witch to It Follows, Get Out, and It Comes at Night, numerous recent “quality horror” films are all well-made in their own right, and yet they lack the nightmarish punch of an “Exorcist” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. Films that grasped the neck of America with cold, bony hands and strangled until the blood ran cold. It’s not just the new scary art pics that lack this power. As fantastically blood-curdling a ride The Conjuring and moments from its sequels are, they too have lacked the power to truly transcend a gasping theater. It’s fair, I think then, to wonder just what a truly transcendently haunting horror movie would look like in the age we live in – the age where nothing unseen stays that way for very long.

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Where are the horror icons of today?

For whatever hereditary lacks in scare factor though, director and screenwriter Ari Aster does a commendable job managing to craft a darkly compelling tale of family and the sins we inherit from our parents. Following the death of the Graham family’s grandmother (an odd and abusive figure who is obviously not sorely missed), the remaining family members are put through a grossly twisted ordeal as they struggle to fight a mysterious darkness while maintaining their own shreds of sanity. While the first two-thirds are often lacking of traditional scares, the film’s exploration’s of loss and mental illness are often profoundly well done and carry the movie well beyond what could reasonably be expected of them. Likewise, stunningly traumatizing performances across the ensemble but most memorably from star Tony Collete (the mother) and Alex Wolf (the son) will be seared into your eyes for days to come. In fact, these elements transform what could have been a frozen slog into a consuming movie.

But yet again, the lack of true terror stunts any greater ambitions.

Besides for the few shockingly effective moments that terror you from your seat and stuff you face first into nightmarious left-turns, too much does the first hour and a half rely on an all too lazy “slow burn” (a common buzzword in horror nowadays which simply means not scary). The lack of a present threat or the occasional jumpscare aren’t condemning in their own right, but they’re sorely missed here. And as much as they may seek to be a reliant homage to movies like “Rosemary’s Baby”, the ghostly whispers of Hereditary’s villainous forces ultimately come off as just plain boring; a repetitive archetypal antagonist that simply has no place in horror movies of today.

Of course, that’s not to say nothing in Hereditary put me on edge. On the contrary, when Hereditary finally decides to stop sleepwalking in the final half hour it put on a tour-de-force of heart-stopping terror. Petrifying, tragic performances dance satanically with well earned nightmarish portraits and a truly terrifying use of color contrast. In fact, if the entire movie could have run at this pace I may just be raving about a true return to terror.

But it didn’t and I’m not.

Because in the end as well made as recent horror movies like Hereditary have been on a technical level, and no doubt Hereditary is a “good” movie, that missing element of horror still binds them to the muddied grave that they so desperately seek to crawl out. In 1931 Dr. Frankenstein famously screamed “It’s alive!” as his monstrous creation jolted awake. Just like that freakish creature, the corpse of the horror genre has been miraculously stitched back together and forced onto the wide eyes of a petrified public.

Now if it could just be half as scary.

B-