Monday, August 31, 2009

Four years later, still a heck of a job.

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed this weekend. A lot of good things have happened in New Orleans since then. A lot of bad things have happened too. As usual, I have plenty I could say on the subject, but I’m just going to link to the short story that’s thus far my definitive statement on it.

Six weeks after Katrina, I bought a ticket on the first Amtrak train into New Orleans since the storm. I spent a week talking to survivors and witnessing the devastation. Most of the hardest-hit parts of the city were still off-limits to visitors, but what I saw was plenty disturbing. I started writing this piece on my train ride back to Chicago after reading an article in the Times-Picayune about two women campaigning to get their mother’s remains released from a morgue. It was the most difficult thing I ever wrote, and it’s miles away from my usual style and tone, but in a lot of respects I think it may be my best work.

So then, all of that said, here’s “St. Gabriel’s Morgue.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Requiem for a wasteland" or "There's cheese in them thar hills"

From the steaming jungle of Fitzcarraldo to the snowy wasteland of Fargo, an impressive shooting location has been a vital element of many a classic movie. Great locations have also been responsible for classing up any number of unremarkable movies. Just look at the countless no-budget Westerns shot in Arizona’s monument valley and the mountain country of Italy. It’s a perfectly logical train of thought: If the best we can offer our audience is Lee Van Cleef shooting it out with badly dubbed Italian extras, we may as well give them something nice to look at in the background.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve always had a soft spot for filmmakers who lacked the budget or the motivation to move out of their own backyard. I’m talking about movies shot in my all-time favorite location: the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m a biased Midwestern boy who’s partial to verdant pastures and green, rolling valleys. I’ve seen quite a few places and still rank Western Wisconsin among the loveliest I’ve laid eyes on. That said, I’ve also been to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles. They’re not without their charms, but there is very little about the arid hills outside of Los Angeles that I would describe as especially scenic or beautiful. And yet, countless directors of the ‘50s and ‘60s dragged their barely paid crews and barely verbal actors out to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles time and time again. Guys like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon were such regulars out in those hills that the local woodland creatures started following them around, Snow White-style. (Though in Gordon’s case, the animals may just have been angling for future starring roles.)

Obviously, the major benefit to shooting in these hills was cost-effectiveness. They’re close enough to Hollywood that budget-minded directors could shoot all their location shots in one afternoon and be home in time for happy hour without burning so much as a full tank of gas. If you were shooting a cheap drive-in feature focused on bikers, monsters, hippies, aliens or any combination thereof, those grungy hills offered everything you needed. Also, they covered enough ground that nobody was likely to hassle you about permits and other such trivialities.

It’s also a relatively versatile landscape. The tall grass, sparse forests and rocky slopes and occasional creek beds are actually fairly distinctive, but they make a barely passable substitute for just about any terrain. I’ve seen those hills stand in for everything from prehistoric worlds to post-apocalyptic landscapes, to varying degrees of believability. (Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson hilariously pointed out “the famous Illinois Mountains” in Gordon’s Beginning of the End.) They’re like a mediocre impressionist – you never forget it’s him doing the voices, but you can at least sort of tell what he’s going for.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new cheapie shot out in that terrain. I suspect that has a lot to do with the rise of affordable filmmaking tools and the decline of in-theater sleaze. Today, just about any upstart with a digital video camera and a limited distribution model can crank out a straight-to-DVD monster movie full of digitally rendered effects and backgrounds. Shooting in one’s own backyard is easier than ever, and industry competition has gotten so heated that making a legit film in California is often an expensive proposition, even in the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

In a way, that’s a shame, because it feels like we’ve lost an important element of low-budget filmmaking. But it also makes me kind of happy to know that this terrain will be forever tied to a specific age and a distinctive kind of movie. Hiking through Topanga Canyon a couple of summers ago made me feel like I was part of some zero-budget film shoot. At every bend in the path, I half expected to be set upon by acid-crazed bikers, cheaply costumed monsters or scantily clad space women. But the genres and budgets that facilitated those characters faded away as Hollywood passed on to a different age. Perhaps it’s best that the sweaty, rocky, gorgeously unremarkable landscape they called home is relegated to the same fate.

- Ira Brooker

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Talking (and talking and talking) 'bout my generation" or "A lot of people hate this hat."

I'm starting to suspect that I never had any generationally appropriate idols.

Having already written arms-length obituaries for Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, I once again find myself faced with the death of an undeniably important artist whose work never grabbed me the way it was apparently supposed to. The films of John Hughes defined the cinematic experience for many of my agemates, the first generation to grow up in front of the VCR. Many of my friends can quote his screenplays for The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles more or less verbatim. Had I seen any of those movies at the time, perhaps I could too.

But, like so many other vestiges of the 1980s, my family managed to avoid most of the Hughes oeuvre. By the time I got around to watching the abovementioned holy trinity, I was a jaded college kid unable to see the charm in the broad stereotypes and thinly drawn caricatures my classmates grew up regarding as family. Yes, I could pick out certain moments of charm, but by and large I saw these films as dull mélanges of stilted dialogue and unlikely characterization. (Seriously, has anyone ever responded to marijuana the way Emilio Estevez does in The Breakfast Club?)

So yeah, when the topic of John Hughes comes up, I’ve always been that one contrarian jerk in the group who derides your taste and bespoils your cherished childhood memories. But even I can admit that the man had some real talent. As a writer, he penned an awful lot of crap, but he was also responsible for some damned hilarious scenes, particularly in those Vacation movies. And there are even a couple of his directorial efforts* that I hold as dearly as the rest of you – one perhaps even more so.

The first, obviously, is Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. This is the one instance where I believe Hughes’ vision of teenage life rings mostly true. There’s plenty of shaky material here, mostly involving Principal Rooney’s slapsticky pursuit of Ferris (though Jeffrey Jones does a good job with the role). Even Matthew Broderick’s smirky charm would likely wear thin if not for the support of the movie’s true hero: Alan Ruck. I can’t think of many characters who more accurately embodied the exquisite angst of teendom than Ruck’s Cameron. Whereas most American films from this era and genre come off hopelessly dated today, Ruck’s is a performance that actually improves as I get older. The look on Cameron’s face before he plunges into the pool has more to say about youth and melancholy than all the speechifying The Breakfast Club could muster, and I give Hughes credit both for creating the character and coaxing a career-defining performance out of his young second lead.

And speaking of career-defining, let’s talk about Hughes’ work with John Candy. Although I like Ferris, it’s Hughes’ two Candy vehicles that stand up best for me. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is almost a no-brainer: put a manic John Candy and an uptight Steve Martin in close quarters and watch the hilarity ensue. It’s a straightforward, personality-driven comedy that’s one of the few Hughes films to capture the verve of his writing in the Vacation movies. I remember liking it a lot, though I haven’t seen it in at least a decade.

But for me, the definitive Hughes film will always be Uncle Buck, a film that went considerably darker than Hughes or post-SCTV Candy had ever gone. No, it’s not a great movie, and a lot of the flaws are Hughes’ fault (Macauley Culkin’s unbearably overwritten role, for instance). But it’s also the rare Hughes’ film to occasionally drop the shiny veneer and let a bit of grime through. Candy’s Buck may be a lovable loser, but there’s no avoiding the fact that he really is a loser through and through. He’s essentially Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie (another keen Hughes creation) cast as the lead rather than just the comic relief. No other film role better utilized John Candy’s entire skill set, and he predictably turns in a powerhouse performance. Buck runs the gamut of affability, vulnerability, gregariousness, slovenliness and gluttony, with a previously seldom-seen streak of genuine malevolence mixed in. Hughes provided Candy with the part that gave us a great indication of what the big man could have done if he’d ever been allowed out of the Funny Fat Guy ghetto. If Candy hadn’t died so young, Uncle Buck suggests he might have flourished in this age of smart showcases for guys like Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about the other John, the one who’s been such a constant puzzle to me. This is a man whose writing brought out the best in John Candy, Alan Ruck and Chevy Chase and yielded some of the most memorable comedy scenes of the 1980s. On the other hand, his work on offal like the Home Alone movies and worthless remakes like Flubber and 101 Dalmations also contributed to many of the worst aspects of Hollywood in the ‘90s. He’s an unmistakable influence on many movies I really dig, from Mean Girls to Superbad (possibly my favorite film of the current decade). He also, however, opened the door for directors like Allan Moyle (whose dreadful Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records are basically Hughes films made somehow even less subtle) and Hughes’ greatest protégé, the odious Chris Columbus.

I suppose that any artist will be judged primarily by his finest work, and John Hughes at his best created some iconic material that made a huge impact on a generation. It’s not his fault that most of that work never really connected with me, or that it did connect with a lot of people who made poor future use of it. Heck, if nothing else, he brought me the indelible image of John Candy leering downward, chomping a stogie, wearing a bad hat and wielding a power drill.

Still, if we’re talking ‘80s teen movies, I’ll take Heaven Help Us any old day.

* Possibly important note: I’ve still never seen Weird Science. Maybe that would be the one to win me over.