Sunday, June 25, 2006

Remembrance of Trash Past (un homage de Proust, or somethin')

Never read a lot of Proust. But 'Un homage de la introduction au Proust' seemed a bit long for a title, and my French is dodgy at the best of times. The picture is just here because, say what you want about his literature, the man did the whole contemplative, finger resting on the cheek in contemplation, staring into the midddle distance thing with the best of them. Really, it's best that we just move on.

Alice in NYC's post about TV has reminded me that I don't have cable. I don't really require it. I have the internet and broadband for up-to-date-news (keeping CNN was a former justification for cable) and I have been, er, acquiring feeds from various internet sources of anything that I really miss, primarily Lost episodes. Iron Chef. News Radio reruns. Home Movies. Futurama. The occasional Discovery Channel documentary (had to throw in something marginally highbrow).

I have an unfair advantage over most media-starved people in that Burton has a DVD collection that film students would kill or die for, and is more than willing to loan me anything I'm looking to see. I also have access to one of the better video rental places in Ontario, a friend behind the counter has given me free run over his staff membership so I can borrow anything free of charge.

This is a dangerous spree for a former film student who carried around Danny Peary's 'Cult Movies' all through Jr. High, getting weird looks from other students (there is a long list of reasons for that, we'll get into that never). There's going to be a interesting disconnect in the future between those old enough to remember (and there was such a time) when one could not own a favourite movie.

I was working in a video store with Burton in the summer of 1988, when sell-through titles on VHS were just taking hold. The rule of thumb at the time was that new releases were priced high ($80.00 and up for a new title) until a rental window was over, then the price would drop. Almost 20 years later (and that in itself is a frightening statistic), sell-through dominates. You can get a new DVD with bells and whistles for around 20 bucks, or wait a few weeks and find a used copy for 10 depending where you go. Sell-through isn't new, but for those who grew up in a time when you had to scrounge for obscure titles or wait for the Rep screenings, the idea that you can own something might fire off some synapses.

At the very least, access to this video store and the generosity of Burton has allowed me to see a great number of movies that I'd wanted to see for years just to figure out what all the fuss is about. A lot of them have been grave disappointments. Still more have been thrilling. And ther rest fall between the two. I have hours of material on DVD- I could watch every disc I own back to back for 24hrs a day over 2 months, and barely get through it. Even with that, the new-release or classic-release section of The Digital Bits or a good copy of The New York Times' video section still makes me covet titles more.

Burton's collection is the superlative- literally thousands of DVDs. Why keep so many? "I might want to watch them someday" is a perfectly reasonable answer. I can't match the numbers but understand the compulsion. Why go to the Bloor Cinema and stand in line on a rainy day to see Wings of Desire when you can buy the DVD and listen to Wenders warble his way through it, if you wish? And that said, I would rather like to see it on a big screen again, partially because the crisp black and white plays beautifully, and partially because its a film that is best to be locked-up with. It's a slow movie (my wife has never been able to get through it on DVD without snoozing) and you're more likely to fall into its rhythyms if you're in a theatre.

Wings of Desire is a perfect cult movie because it's hard to explain and not necessarily easy to get into.

"What's it about?"
"It's a 3hr black and white German movie about angels."
"Can you be more specific? I'm sure I've heard of hundreds of such movies..."
"Angels over Berlin. One of them wants to become mortal."
"Tired of the harp and wing set?"
"Nah. They all walk around in overcoats and scarves. He falls in love with a French acrobat."
"And what else happens?"
"Really, that's about it. They float around Berlin, listening to people's thoughts, occasionally offering spiritual guidence."
"3hrs you say?"
"Oh! And Peter Falk shows up."
"As Columbo?"
"No. As Peter Falk. But everyone calls him Columbo."
"Is he an angel?"
"No. As stated before, he's Peter Falk."
"Don't you have a copy of Die Hard somewhere, instead?"

The above description either makes you want to see Wings of Desire simply to figure out why anybody thought it was a good idea in the first place, or to watch Die Hard again. I was drawn to Peary's Cult Movies because the films all looked strange and exotic and I had no idea why they were so revered, or why they were made in the first place. Explain Eraserhead. Explain why anybody would want to see it more than once.

Or see anything more than once. You can take the high-road and say that a particular movie impresses you on artistic merit, or the low road and say that it struck you as really really cool when you were 15. That kind of appeal can work backwards later in life- I had no patience for the X-Men movies because I thought I would have loved them dearly at 12 or so. Never got into Trainspotting because I knew too many people who would have worshipped it at 19 or so.

And full disclosure - I gave into Hellboy after around 20 minutes, veering from "I'm too old for this sort of thing" to "Actually, that's pretty cool." And I worshipped Withnail & I at 19 and still today, maybe the cool factor seguing into an appreciation of a painfully funny and eventually sad mood piece.

Or maybe I need to get out more. That has been brought up on several occasions.

There's got to be a line between appreciation and nostalgia. In the early, glory days of Napster when there was a sudden free-for-all, I was amazed at both the amount of crap I was downloading (I really really wanted to hear dreadful 80's pop songs that I'd erase seconds later, just for the wave of memory) and the amount of loving care that had gone into some tracks. You'd hear pops and clicks from an obviously well-played 45 that somebody felt was important enough to share. I spent weeks trying to find the Pukka Orchestra's version of Tom Robinson's Listen to the Radio and finally found a clicky, home-mastered version (it has since been released on legit CD) that somebody, for reasons of their own, decided was worth sharing.

I erased most other such tracks because I don't need to own that nostalgia, I just wanted the mainline of either fond-memory, or all-out kitsch. I haven't heard this for years. Where was I when I heard this? Did I, in good consicence attend this concert? Why? Who was I with? WHy did I think this was a good idea, exactly? And so on. Nostalgia and heavy-duty irony fit wonderfully together. Each audience will take half of the product and claim it as their own.

I'm all one for a good mashup. It's easy to mash dialogue into an existing film. Over a decade ago, it was Apocalypse Pooh (Brando and Sheen voicing Winnie and the gang), or Blue Peanuts (Dennis Hopper making a very very disturbing Snoopy, Kyle MacLachlan doing a fairy solid Linus) and the like. Most - all - of these are juvenille and filled with cheap laughs. Which is fine. Some work better than others - the Brokeback Mountain parodies with the soulful guitar music and languid cinematography grafted onto Top Gun, Heat and Back to the Future were more subtle (and much funnier) than they sound.

(the 30 second version of Brokeback Mountain as told by bunnies manages to hit most of the touchstones of the film itself, and has a much funnier ending, wait for the last beat - their version of The Big Chill improves on the original as well, far less whining)

But there is a line between nostalgia, ironic humour, and, well, something there might not be a word for...I've just discovered that somebody in 2002 created a fan-film based on The Electric Company's traffic sign song.

Everyone has a dream, I guess.

I bought the DVD set of The Electric Company, ostensibly for my son (who will get into them in the near future), and because my wife's eyes lit up when I mentioned I'd seen the boxed set. The sight of her sitting on the couch, contentedly singing the aformentioned traffic sign song was something else (and she never really watched the show but had one of the records way back when).

I bought the set out of curiousity and I suppose some wave of nostalgia (and it was fairly cheap) - I liked the series as a kid, hadn't seen any trace of it for literally decades, and didn't expect the visceral response that I had upon viewing. It wasn't entirely pleasant, which is hard to explain. The program, if you watched it, hasn't dated as badly as you might think. It was weird then. It's still weird now.

The best way to describe it is to picture some bloodless amalgam of grammar lessons delivered with the feel of early 70's Carol Burnett Shows, or some of the earlier Saturday Night Live episodes (with Belushi, Ackroyd, and Radner during the boozy days rather than the cocaine days, Belushi notwithstanding).

The true weirdness stems from exactly how straight so much of it is played. Watching Morgan Freeman in a wetsuit, bobbing in a bowl of alphabet soup, talking to the camera about how he's trying to salvage letters is not played for laughs, not even 8yr old laughs (but damn, do I wish I had a screen-grab). It's just there, rather matter of factly, as if this sort of thing is commonplace. Somewhere, at least.

The viscera for me came from the backward-engineering of the songs into my subconscious. I knew a lot of them, but hadn't considered them for over 30 years. Hadn't known that I knew them. I was immediately brought back to when I'd watch that show on TVO or PBS, and the memory of that context and others (often as simple as lying on my living room floor, in winter, 1976) was vivid. Not negative but far too detailed for my liking. I don't need to remember what I was feeling the first time I heard Silent E (delivered by Tom Lerher, no less), and the accompanying schoolyard memories of that and other times.

Past irony, past nostalgia. There are dozens of other bits of TV from that time which would make me shudder (it was the 70's after all), but few other products would bring sense-memories, simple as they were, back to fast. Why an educational TV show? Why not? It was always on, and was always that cloud-cookoo land of looking like a grown-up TV show (the Carol Burnett vibe gets stronger as the series goes on), but without the same kind of jokes. And with information about sounds and learning and reading.

For the Buffy fans (which I've never managed to get into), one of the Electric Company creators was Joss Whedon's father. That explains Buffy's musical episode< I suppose.

There are snippets of complaint on the net that samzidat Electric Company mp3's have been removed at the request of the Sesame Workshop (one comment suggested that they never discussed the show other than to slap Cease and Desist orders on websites), which suggests that there are people out there who covet the old material. I'm amused by the set, and wonder why this bit of history is revered. The weirdness? The 70's kitch? Or just the sense (for some) of well being, having those dormant synapses fired off by almost forgotten songs.

Anyhow - for the faithful, enjoy.

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alice in newyorkland said...

Pukka Orchestra!!! Pukka Orchestra!!! Pukka Orchestra!!!

You rock!

Are we old enough to be Classic yet???

Anonymous said...

As one who has shared the journey, I still remember nights at age 12 turning the sound off on the TV with a room full of people at 2am and putting our own dialog to the show we were watching. I remember something about someone's husband swallowing a bowling ball....

Still the music evokes memories and as far as Withnail & I, it must be lived, experienced and understood.
Dead Ringers, now that one brought back teenage memories.

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