Saturday, July 08, 2006

The new Cahiers du Cinéma and an oil change, dude

For the film buffs, some new if occasionally glorious weirdness. On a hot afternoon, I drive out to get some gas and decide (upon seeing $1.06 per litre prices) that I really didn't need to fill up after all.
 But being bored and craving something sweet, I go into the station to buy a donut. This particular gas station has a deal with one of the video chains and is selling used DVDs.

Nothing too strange here. Gas stations have always stocked remaindered tapes or CDs (Bobcat Goldthwait once said that he was afraid his CDs would end up in a bin at a car wash somewhere, next to Abe Vigoda Live at the Hollywood Bowl). But with rental chains buying up hundreds of copies of the same title to ensure customers get the rental they want (apparently because if Tom Cruise fanatics don't get access to War of the Worlds on street date, society will dissolve) the used DVD market is hot. Fill 'er up, buy some new windshield wipers, and grab a copy of Shawn of the Dead. Hey, it works for me.

This particular station has a stack of DVDs that must have been from some store that had decided to blow out its Foreign and Art Film section. A few MGM/UA editions of Bergman, some generic French farces, and Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre. Which I bought for $4.99.

If you're cringing at the title, you're not alone. It is what it is. If you're swooning, I probably went to film school with you. And for the unitiated, My Dinner with Andre is sort of a litmus test for one's tolerence for the proverbial 'art film.' It's 2hrs of a chat between Wallace Shawn (the Sicillian in The Princess Bride for most of the world) and Andre Gregory (you'd know him to see him, most notably for having long hair and being covered in mud as John the Baptist in The Last Tempation of Christ) over dinner.

Shawn is a playwright who initially doesn't really want to have dinner with Gregory, a producer/writer/general flakey theatrical type (he brings up Grotowski's living theatre a lot, which in itself is another kind of litmus test). And oh goodness yes, Andre Gregory is a flake. It's sort of the point. He's described early in the film as having been found, sobbing inconsolably, after a screening of Bergman's Autumn Sonata . Says so much, no?

And I know of what I speak. I attended a performing arts high school, where 14yr olds walk around reading 'The Seagull' and Stanislavsky's 'An Actor Prepares' and say things like "I'm trying to have an emotional memory!" before class. I was a semi-professional actor through High School and for most of University (in that I was paid occasionally and tried to get paying gigs occasionally). I spent time in the Toronto Fringe Festival and Summerworks. I appeared (or at least was heard) in a short play performed in a pitch black room. Trust me...I am overqualified to refer to Andre Gregory's character as a flake. Talented flake, legitimate flake, perhaps even groundbreaking flake. But a rose by any other name...

Anyhoo...Roger Ebert wrote some fine criticism once upon a time. He summed up the sort of distance produced in the film better than I ever could:

The movie is not ponderous, annoyingly profound, or abstract. It is about living, and Gregory seems to have lived fully in his five years of dropping out. Shawn is the character who seems more like us. He listens, he nods eagerly, he is willing to learn, but—something holds him back. Pragmatic questions keep asking themselves. He can't buy Gregory's vision, not all the way. He'd like to, but this is a real world we have to live in, after all, and if we all danced with the druids in the forests of Poland, what would happen to the market for fortune cookies?

He revisited it in 1999, summing it up like this:

What they actually say is not really the point, I think. I made a lot of notes about Andre's theories and Wally's doubts, but this is not a logical process, it is a conversation, in which the real subject is the tone, the mood, the energy. Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee. The difference is that, in Wally's case, it's real coffee.

The litmus test here is whether or not the idea of watching two guys chat about theatre, art and life for 2hrs is something you want to deal with. Those who loathe the idea tend to get their teeth into that loathing, and really, why bother? There are hundreds of big-screen so-called blockbusters that spend millions of dollars to waste your time and insult your intelligence. Loathe them. Somebody worked harder on them. My Dinner with Andre was shot on a budget usually reserved for lunch on a Michael Bay flick, in an abandoned hotel in Virginia, by a bunch of people who thought "This could be cool." And for some, it is.

Malle brought these actors back together for Vanya on 42nd Street years later, which certainly has its admirers (rabid ones at that). But although it had a list of ingredients I should have fallen for (Chekhov, translated by Mamet, stripped-down values and straightforward drama), I've never been able to enjoy it and I can't nail down why, other than the fact that the intimacy of it makes me feel like a voyeur. I'll agree it's very good, very effective, but it belongs to Malle and his cast. It feels like a private party that I don't feel right in attending.

You could make a list of talkin' pictures if you want to get away from plot for awhile. Wayne Wang's Smoke works on those lines. Rohmer's L'ami de Mon Amie, or most Rohmer for that matter (famously summed up by Gene Hackman in Night Moves as "I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kind of like watching paint dry,", to which I've always said it's pretty paint on a nice wall). And there's always Spalding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia, and (to a lesser extent) Monster in a Box. Aim lower and get Clerks. For cartoon fans, there's Dr. Katz and Home Movies.

And, thanks to the weirdness of used DVD distribution, you might be able to pick up any of those in the gas station or convenience store of your choice. I saw the (admittedly overpraised but still pretty damn good) 2 disc Citizen Kane in a gas station in Mt. Forest, Ontario. Not a town known as a hub for cinema studies. This all strikes me as a good thing. Of course, Citizen Kane was next to Britney Spears' Crossroads, but we can't always get what we want.


Anonymous said...

Did you ever hear the one about the asshole who makes his buddy a copy of the impossible-to-find 'Withnail and I' soundtrack knowing full well that he'll be using said cassette as background music in his ongoing efforts to seduce perky, morally-flexible young women in his parent's basement? Well, it turns out that back in the days when a mash-up was something you did to... actually the term didn't exist in any incarnation in 1989 that I'm aware of... anyway, it seems our benevolent bootleg tape provider thought it would be funny to insert a rap version of the marching drill from 'Full Metal Jacket' immediately following the soothing, meloncholic sax version of Whiter Shade of Pale at the end of the tape. If it was his intent to have me bold upright, semi-naked from the shag carpet, climb over the heaving figure of 20 year old feminine sexual bliss and lunge for the tape player's stop button... well then, mission accomplished.

Thanks for the scar,


PS: nice to see you writing

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