Ruminations About Bad Entertainment

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching TCM’s The Story of Film, a 15-hour documentary series about cinema history, as told by Irish film critic Marc Cousins. If you have the time to crank through it, I highly recommend it. The series is Film History 101 in a jar, and it’s currently hanging out on Netflix Streaming, just waiting to be binge-watched.

Anyway, I was watching one of the episodes this morning, and the subject of Fellini came up. I thought about watching La Dolce Vita for the first time, just a couple of years ago, and remembering that I hated it. It’s clearly a very well-made film, and even an important one, but I didn’t like it.

A previous episode touched upon Leni Riefenstahl, too. I’ve seen Triumph of the Will more than once, even though it is Nazi propaganda, because it’s a truly amazing piece of history and filmmaking. I don’t enjoy the film, but I feel it’s an important film to know well.

And a couple of weeks ago, Peter O’Toole passed away, and a lot of people talked about Lawrence of Arabia. I adore Lawrence of Arabia. (I’m talking Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time sort of adoration. Seriously. I LOVE IT.) However, I had to agree with a lot of the backlash noise on Twitter: Lawrence of Arabia, for all its fine qualities as a piece of filmmaking, still boils down to a story about a White Guy Savior who goes to a Brown Person Country to save the noble savages. And women are nowhere to be seen.

And I also have this deep love for some really terrible films, such as The Apple (a bizarro post-disco glam musical by Cannon Films, circa 1980) and Miami Connection (which is what happens when a Tae Kwon Do master decides to make a 1980s action movie, complete with motorcycle drug ninjas). I partly love them because of their earnest terribleness, because they have failed so spectacularly that they become a different sort of joy. (Both of those films are currently on Netflix Streaming, by the way.)

Because of the Megalist project, I watch a lot of movies I don’t particularly instinctively want to see. I wind up seeing a lot of films that are deemed good or important by other people, and I do my best to walk into each one with an open mind. Films like The Shootist with John Wayne or Tom Jones with Albert Finney would never have been selected as viewing material if I’d just randomly seen them on a shelf somewhere. I didn’t particularly fall in love with either of them, but they certainly weren’t bad, either. They just didn’t fall within my sweet spot of taste.

Where is all this going? Well, here it is: I think it’s important to experience “bad” entertainment. I’m picking on movies here, but this applies to all art and media. We live in an age where so much is available at our fingertips, and we forget that we can be incredibly selective about where we spend our time. These digital tools can winnow down our selection list to such a laser-honed, tailored machine that we can easily forget the vast ocean of ideas that fall outside of our taste zone. If we don’t wander outside of our taste zone, how to we learn about new things? How do we find the gems in the rough, the nuggets of wisdom buried under crap, the moments of unexpected joy?

You can learn a lot from media you don’t enjoy. La Dolce Vita is a good example, in my case. Like I said above, I hated the movie when I saw it, because I have a great distaste for people who find life boring… and it’s an entire movie about such people. That’s not the movie’s problem; that’s my own taste as applied to the movie. That said, La Dolce Vita has stuck with me. I keep thinking about scenes and learning from them. I’ve only seen the film once, but it keeps bringing me insight. I’ve probably thought more about that movie than 90% of the films I’ve watched since. I’d even recommend other people watch it.

You can learn a lot from media that fails. I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said you can learn more about filmmaking from a bad movie than from a good one. Watching good movies is a nearly effortless task: a movie that successfully engages with a viewer sweeps them along. A movie that fails in its efforts wears its flaws on its sleeve. Most viewers don’t notice editing until it doesn’t work. Same goes for soundtrack, foley, acting, writing, etc. Once you’ve seen how the machine breaks, it becomes more impressive to see a machine that works flawlessly.

All media is problematic in some way. There is no such thing as a perfect movie. Even a movie with an enormous budget and a great team will be limited in scope. There will never be a movie that fairly encompasses characters from all races, all walks of life, all genders, all ages, all sexual orientations, and all philosophical leanings, simply because there is only so much time, and only so many angles that can be approached without making a mess of the story. Stories, as a necessity, are exclusionary. You can improve the film industry as a whole by ensuring that a year’s output of filmmaking is more representative of diversity, but there is no way to do that in a single film. Beyond that, cultural norms change, and there certainly is a lot of filmmaking that happened before our somewhat-more-enlightened times. I’m sure future generations will likewise look back on much of our work with disgust.

You can learn a lot from problematic media. A film can be downright reprehensible and still have something to say, even if it’s just being a talking point about its particular breed of reprehensibility. Triumph of the Will makes my skin crawl, but it’s a shining example of just how seductive Nazi propaganda was. It’s important to understand that sort of thing if you’re interested in preventing such things from happening again.

Tales from the Modern Family Tree

One of the rituals I’d inevitably need to perform anytime I’d dated anyone new is to attempt to explain my family. Yeah, I know, everyone’s family is bizarre in their own way. Mine is strange on a purely mechanical level.

As one former boyfriend once exclaimed, “You don’t have a family tree. You have a family hedge!”

Let me explain…

Tree

That’s my immediate family.

What you see there are only my “siblings” (blue), my “parents” (green), my step-nephew (white square), and myself (red). I’m not kidding. Depending how you count, I either have zero, one, three, five, seven, or nine siblings. There are twelve parents, step-parents, and other assorted people strung together by various marriages / former marriages / not-marriage-but-it-pretty-much-counts-because-I’ve-spent-holidays-there-for-a-decade. There are several people on that chart I’ve never met.

I have a half-brother, a step-brother, a step-sister, a step-brother-in-law, a kinda-step-sister, a kinda-step-brother, a kinda-step-sister-in-law, and a couple other people who are step-siblings to my half-brother… so I don’t really know what to call them.

Anyway, you get the idea.


Back in the 1980s when I was a kid and my dad was a bachelor, dad went all Beautiful Mind on our family tree. I remember going into the dining room of his house and seeing the walls covered with graph paper, meticulous handwriting, pins, string, and borderline obsessive/compulsive disorder. In the days prior to the Internet, he’d managed to trace our name back to Speyer, Germany in 1248… or something like that.

At one point during those years, the two of us took a vacation out to Pennsylvania, where we attended a family reunion… of people we weren’t really related to. Well, technically, there was some common ancestor back a couple hundred years ago in Germany, but that was about it. It was still kind of interesting, though, because we were in an area of the country where Kaerchers settled the land, so everything was Kaercher: Kaercher Road, Kaercher Creek, Kaercherville.

If I ever become a true megalomaniac, I know where I’m moving.


A few years ago, I was killing time in Chicago with my friend, Ian. For whatever reason, we decided that we wanted to go see Al Capone’s grave.

So, we drove to Mount Carmel Cemetery, which really is a fascinating place: a large number of Prohibition gangsters and politicians are buried there. Giant marble memorials grow like a forest, each one trying to look more expensive than the next.

Yet, when we rolled the car up to Capone’s grave stone, I felt weird about getting out of the car to go see it. I mean, it’s weird to be a tourist at a grave site, right? It’s not like we were going to pay respects to a crime lord. We were there because we were gawking.

So, there we were, sitting in the car, gawking quietly from afar.

Then Ian said, “Why does that grave say, ‘Kercher’?”

I looked. Indeed, the neighboring grave stone to Capone’s bore an American variant of my own name. We both scrambled out of the car to check it out.

Thus, my sprawling family gave me an excuse to get out of the car and gawk at Al Capone’s deadness.

(Coda: I sent photos of that grave to my dad, who had no idea who that Kercher grave was for. It was a proud moment in my life. I stumped the ancestry nut.)

Reel Education LIVE on January 18th!

DoubleIndemnity

Once again, A Reel Education (a podcast which I co-host with Tim Wick and Jena Young) will be recording an episode LIVE at the Parkway Theater! On December 14th, you can join our live recording session, which comes with a matinee screening of Billy Wilder’s great film noir, Double Indemnity!

Not only are tickets a mere five bucks, but if you bring a friend… they get in FREE! That’s right! It’s a 2-for-1 deal where you and a buddy can enjoy the glory of Double Indemnity on the big screen for five measly dollars!

In addition, The Parkway Theater is a great venue in the heart of South Minneapolis. The theater is partnered with Pepito’s, the Mexican restaurant next door, so you can actually eat Mexican food and drink beer in the theater.

Join us! And spread the word!

A Reel Education LIVE featuring Double Indemnity

Saturday, January 18th
Intro at 1:00 PM, film at 1:15 PM. Podcast continues after the film.

The Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55417

Cinematic Oddities: Sorcerer and Wages of Fear

Wages of Fear and Sorcerer

The trucks featured in Wages of Fear (top) and Sorcerer (bottom).

Several times per year, there is a burst of complaint on the Internet, usually spurred by a studio announcing that it will remake some favorite classic or another. There is usually wailing and gnashing and lamenting that the new film will undeniably be a pale shadow of its namesake. And every time, I have to remind everyone that remakes aren’t necessarily evil.

The Wizard of Oz — the one with Judy Garland and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — is a remake. The Maltese Falcon — the one with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre — is a remake. A Bug’s Life, The Magnificent Seven, and Battle Beyond the Stars are all loose remakes of the same movie. Hell, Star Wars wouldn’t exist without Hidden Fortress. Alfred Hitchcock even remade his own films.

The reason remakes have a bad reputation is because they are often produced as marketing tools first and films later: a remake often enters a theater with automatic name recognition. However, sometimes, the right talent gets involved, and the result is a second movie that is decent in its own right.

Today, I’ll talk about a great pair of movies: The Wages of Fear (1953) and Sorcerer (1977).

The Wages of Fear has long been one of my favorite films. It’s a French thriller from one of my favorite directors of all time, Henri-Georges Clouzot (who is also the guy behind Diabolique (1955)). The film is a master class in creating and maintaining tension: it picks a strong, simple premise, and then milks every possible bead of sweat out of it. The entire point of the movie is white-knuckle tension.

The Wages of Fear begins in a poor South American village, where four men of different nationalities are down on their luck. Their luck turns when an oil well ignites, and the only way to extinguish the fire and cap the well is to blow it up with nitroglycerin. Since the stash of incredibly volatile nitroglycerin is on the other side of the mountains, the oil company offers top dollar to anyone who is willing to drive two trucks full of nitro over crumbling roads to the oil fire. The four foreigners take the job. The rest of the film involves these four guys driving veeeeeerrrrry sloooooooowwwwly.

The description may not seem like much, but you’d be amazed how much cinematic mileage (heh) you can get out of two very carefully-driven trucks. On the surface, the film is very simple, but the inner workings are like that of a Swiss watch: delicate, intricate, and perfectly timed.

Given that The Wages of Fear makes the best of a slow burn of tension, you’d naturally think that a 1970′s American remake would break the hell out of everything that makes it work, right?

Well.

Once upon a time, there was this youngish director named William Friedkin. He directed some stuff in the late 1960s, but his fame erupted when he directed a 1971 thriller called The French Connection. His next film was something called The Exorcist, which terrified the pants off of pretty much everybody. His follow-up to The Exorcist was to be a straight-up remake of The Wages of Fear.

The production of Sorcerer is somewhat legendary for being expensive and problematic. A single scene, involving a truck crossing a bridge, took over three months to shoot and ate up a huge portion of the film’s budget. Then, once the film was completed, it had the misfortune to be released on June 24, 1977 — a couple of weeks after a movie called Star Wars. Sorcerer flopped horribly and vanished.

Yet Sorcerer is pretty great in its own right. I had my own doubts before seeing it myself, since it couldn’t possibly reach for The Wages of Fear, right? But I loved the hell out of Sorcerer. Part of the reason I love it is this: Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear share the exact same plot, but use different tactics to tell the same story. They are wonderful companions to each other.

The Wages of Fear wrests its tension out of its premise. It sets up its characters with great efficiency, and then BOOM, we are in the mountains with the trucks. Sorcerer, instead, uses half of its running time establishing its characters. By the time we reach the bit with the trucks, we are invested in the safety of the drivers.

Sorcerer also wins points for being grimier and feeling larger in scope than the previous film. It also helps that one of the drivers in Sorcerer is Jaws-era Roy Scheider, who I find immensely watchable.

I also like the ending of Sorcerer better than the ending of The Wages of Fear. Both endings have the same tone, and each film has the right ending for the story it is telling, but the ending of Sorcerer is more satisfying.

If you have seen only one or neither film before, I encourage you to see both out. These films stand as proof that remakes can actually be a worthwhile endeavors.

A Reel Education LIVE on December 14th!

Vertigo

Once again, A Reel Education (a podcast which I co-host with Tim Wick and Jena Young) will be recording an episode LIVE at the Parkway Theater! On December 14th, you can join our live recording session, which comes with a matinee screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s brain-twisting thriller, Vertigo! That’s right: Jena liked our last Hitchcock outing so much that we couldn’t resist giving her more!

Not only are tickets a mere five bucks, but if you bring a friend… they get in FREE! That’s right! It’s a 2-for-1 deal where you and a buddy can enjoy the glory of Vertigo on the big screen for five measly dollars!

In addition, The Parkway Theater is a great venue in the heart of South Minneapolis. The theater is partnered with Pepito’s, the Mexican restaurant next door, so you can actually eat Mexican food and drink beer in the theater.

Join us! And spread the word!

A Reel Education LIVE featuring Vertigo

Saturday, December 14th
Intro at 1:00 PM, film at 1:15 PM. Podcast continues after the film.

The Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55417