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Saturday, May 19, 2012

What's Old is Old Again - A Cinefile's Response to Hank B

Hank B's thoughtful and passionate blog post What's Old is Old Again (read here) got me to thinking.

Hank laments the loss of "edge" or "guts" that comes with age. He sees both manifested in aging superstars' revisiting classic rock or pop standards. He also sees it in music consumers' laziness in allegedly preferring these efforts to the raw, fresh energy of the struggling bands to whom Hank B admirably devotes so much of his time and passion. And he takes such folks as Paul McCartney (whom one could argue has nothing left to prove to anyone) to task for getting stale and playing it safe.

I agree with Hank's deeper point ---  that we all struggle with how not to get stale, and to age gracefully. And perhaps we use artists as a metaphor for our own struggle.

I have always been passionate about what was newly called in the late 1980's and early 1990's "Independent Film". I was religiously devoted to IFC and  Sundance Channel, pored over Film Comment magazine, and worshiped at the altar of the Weinstein Brothers Church of Miramax.

I vigorously and stridently took people to task for preferring typical Hollywood schlock to gritty, challenging, bold films --- films that grew out of a writer, director or even an actor's soul and vision rather than a marketing study.

I never toured the film festival circuit with the same discipline that Hank tackles the NYC nightlife. I did, however, frequent local theaters that attempted to bring "Art House" films to suburbanites, such as Montgomery Cinemas in Montgomery NJ, Doylestown's County Theater, and Easton PA's (now defunct) Cinema Paradisio. My own brush with grittiness came with the opportunity, via my wife's cousin who was in The Business, to act as an extra in a low budget independent film Falling For Grace, where I danced to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" with B.D. Wong and Margaret Cho.*

Somewhat because of marketing and the vagaries of the film business (recall that, with the best marketing, an entirely subtitled film like Life is Beautiful, or an entirely silent film like The Artist, can grab the attention of the American masses), no one has ever heard of ninety percent of those independent films of the 1990s.  But most of these films are forgotten today not because they were too edgy, but because, frankly, they were not very good movies.

They were movies full of raw, edgy energy for sure, but the appeal was often the "anti-marketing marketing" back story of the making of the film, with highlights typically along the lines of  "working outside the studio system" or "used my bar mitzvah money and maxed out my credit cards" or  "had to shoot in 2 takes tops because we didn't have permits" or "developed story through actor's improv" and so on. What often resulted was meandering dialogue, gratuitous but un-artful sexuality, and pornographically exploitive violence.

But the ten percent of those films that we do remember forced Hollywood to reinvent itself , led by what I consider to be Generation X's  Citizen Kane, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

For me, the long lasting benefit of my devoted following to now famous directors Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) , Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), and Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy), was realizing that what made their work truly engaging and energized was not simply a Zen-like "beginners mind" although that certainly played a role.  All of these filmmakers had a deep and broad knowledge of film making and a true love of films from far away decades and cultures. In interviews, when they listed their favorite movies and influences, they inspired me to delve into film history, introducing me to Kurasawa, Fellini, Truffaut, Cassavettes, Bertolluci, Antonioni, Renoir, Leone as well and a new appreciation for the directors of the 1970s -- Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino, Lumet, Spielberg, and even Don Siegal.

So are our former independent mavericks to be criticized for looking backward? I think not.

Van Sant returns to the 1970's and the birth of the gay rights movement in Milk.  Tarantino reinterprets the midnight movies in Grindhouse, and the "Guys on a Mission" war movie genre with the extraordinary Inglorious Basterds.  Linklater takes on the classic backstage drama (aided by an uncanny performance by Christian McKay as the legendary maverick director) in his excellent Me and Orson Welles. And Ang Lee has embraced the conventional western in Ride With The Devil, and subverted the same genre with Brokeback Mountain.

Even Kevin Smith ( who perhaps will never surpass Clerks and Chasing Amy), after numerous variations on the slacker romance woven through the eyes of Jay and Silent Bob (his anarchic and profane version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), takes a wild left turn with his uneven but challenging view of religious fundamentalism in his 1970's style exploitation homage Red State**.

So perhaps it is part of the artistic process of aging gracefully to dip back into one's own history, and the history of one's craft, examine the roots of one's influences, and re-interpret them anew.

Because sometimes what is old is old yet again, not because it is safe, but because it is true.

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*Due to change of director and re-shoots, I ended up on the cutting room floor. But my wife's cousin kindly burned a copy of my two scenes for me as a keepsake!

**Last year while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, I got to see a screening of Red State at Tarentino's New Beverly Cinema, followed by a Q&A with Smith, who is a skilled racounteur and was, true to the independent spirit, promoting the movie on his own dime. Alas, the Q&A was much more interesting and thought provoking than the movie itself.


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