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Chopping Down the Punditry

Chopping Down the Punditry

(Originally published October 5, 2007 on Criticide, as Popcorn Peter)

I have nothing against Roger Ebert.

He's a terrific writer and has a genuine affection for the cinema, but the fact that he was one of the countless suckers hoodwinked by the profoundly overstated/overhyped/overbearing auto-fellatio of Crash/Babel is reason enough to generally give his (and everyone else's) reviews the grain-of-salt treatment. That he almost uniformly adores anything that might be considered a "popcorn movie" while hate-hate-hating the justifiably creamed-upon Blue Velvet, seals the deal for this Criticassin.

Let's get one thing straight: I begrudge no man his opinion. Love or hate what you will; it's hardly my problem. Until, of course, it is.

A couple of weeks ago, Forbes Magazine announced that, due to his 70% (!) penetration into the hearts and minds of my fellow countrymen, Roger Ebert was found to be the most influential pundit in America. In other words, of all the know-it-all blowhards peddling their self-proclaimed expertise in the ubiquitous back alleys of the American media, he's the know-it-all-iest.

On the one hand, he really is an expert whose opinions are almost always thoughtfully (though by no means flawlessly) constructed. And when considered alongside his runners-up, he is certainly the least likely to debase or divide. On the other hand, it's a puzzle that someone so uncontroversial would be anointed in the Temple That Wally Built.

My concern isn't that he earned such a distinction, it's that such a distinction even exists. Beyond feeding our inner rubbernecker, punditry has no value (and remember, you read that on Criticide). Even at its most entertaining, it is a primarily humorless amusement. It is an intellectual vacuum disguised as debate, intent on shoving any remotely gray area so far up your ass as to never be seen again.

And yet, its pervasiveness in this country that I consequently recognize less and less each day has inspired a seemingly never-ending orgy of equal and opposite reactions, and a commonly held belief that we each must have not only an opinion about everything, but an extreme and provocative one at that. And not the good kind of opinion - the one born of personal experience and observation - but the kind recycled from some persuasive, and usually venomous, prattle on a cable show. We are constantly expected to pick a side in each of an ever-propogating list of grievances so that the Land Of The Free looks increasingly like a generations-long director's cut of West Side Story (minus the ballet basketball and promise of Puerto Rican tail).

The fact that this year's pontiff of pundits is someone dedicated, not to demonizing Mexicans or polarizing political parties , but to advancing an art form is somewhat heartening. So while slapping someone on the back for regularly sharing his opinions makes about as much sense as buying flowers for a hooker, at least in this case the hooker was Roger Ebert. The pundit with the heart of gold.

More Mission:Criticide

More Mission:Criticide

(Originally published July 26, 2007 on Criticide, as Popcorn Peter)

AS A MATTER OF FACT, I AM TALKING TO YOU

Back in the fall of '05, Salty, his old lady and yours truly trekked on down to the multiplex to get ourselves a helping of David Cronenberg's latest, A History Of Violence. “Well, old beans,” our self-satisfied grins seemed to say to each other in fake British accents, “Old Crony's done it again.” We took turns slapping each other on the back for knowing, even before the film started, that he wouldn't let us down. Later, as the film revealed itself to us in no uncertain terms, we sat transfixed by the genius flashing before our eyes. Over the next hour and a half, when we weren't marveling at the audacity of this cinematic masterwork, we were consumed with the thought that Viggo Mortenson now knows what Maria Bello's chuckwagon smells like*.

End titles. As we are dabbing the beads of sweat from our considerable foreheads, basking in the radiation of that post-film twilight we know so well, another theater patron yells out from a few rows back, “THAT WAS BULLSHIT!” Did he just...? Why that...! But what could we do but laugh? After all, he was much bigger than any of us. So laugh we did: up the aisles, into the lobby, out into the parking lot and beyond.

That the poor fellow was a meathead, there is no question. But, really, is he meatier of head than any of the rest of the hacks we here at Criticide have taken it upon ourselves to digitally tar and feather? Despite the stockpiles of nerve and grit with which he endowed his pronouncement, there was yet a note of humility, self-knowledge, honor even. Here was a simple man (in cartoonishly baggy clothing) simply stating his opinion. “Look,” he may as well have said, “I'm no Gene Siskel, but I know what I like.”

True dat. He is no Gene Siskel. But who is anymore? Not even Gene Siskel, that's who.

And neither are you, dear reader, so don't look so smug. Don't think we (me, your family, your friends, and those people you desperately need to overhear you in public restrooms and Starbucks) haven't noticed you loudly parroting sound bites from Entertainment Tonight and passing them off as your own spontaneous thoughts. In fact, we'd all love it if when asked what you thought of a movie, you'd unleash a tsunami of brevity upon your response, as did our be-backward-baseball-capped pal from paragraph two. Speak plainly. What's with the My Hairdresser Works On Brian Grazer's Wife Which Somehow Makes Me A Hollywood Insider Whose Opinion You Should Care About bit? You don't have to put on airs on my account. Don't think for a moment that, just because I am a Highly Regarded Expert/Reputed Film Snob, you ever have to feel the need to justify your retarded taste in movies to the likes of me.

If I ask your opinion, I'm probably just making conversation. Actually, I'm definitely just making conversation. I am certainly not asking because I need someone to make my mind up for me. I have Deepak Chopra for that. If I really needed someone to deconstruct the new Kevin Smith film for me – this includes you, Kevin Smith – you are probably not the person I'd go to anyway (cue Jessica Simpson). No matter what you say, I will still buy a ticket to the film in question, assuming I am so inclined. And that it tested well.

Your earnest decree that a film is “uneven” means nothing to me, primarily because the phrase itself means nothing. I'm pretty sure that not even you know what you mean when you say it. Don't bother telling me that it was poorly directed, either, when both you and I know full well that you only have a vague idea what directors do in the first place. I mean, aside from congratulating themselves on commentary tracks. And I swear to God that every time you start rattling off continuity errors I wanna put my head through a glass tabletop, William Holden style. I mean, really, who the fuck cares if the heroine's enchanted wool socks were brown in the turkish bath and blue in the bell tower? That's the wrong kind of paying attention! Oh, and nothing screams out "I'm A Twat" like alluding to bad buzz and low box office numbers to support your argument. Twat.

Sorry for turning on you, chum, but something had to be said. If you don't like a movie, ditch the song and dance and just say so. As the lug from the movie theater knows, there's nothing wrong with having an opinion; just don't try to disguise it as something loftier. At its best, criticism is much more than just tarted-up opinion. It should challenge and inspire both filmmaker and spectator, and serve only to advance the art. The only film criticism worth enduring transcends self-important posturing and evaluates the failures and successes of a film within the context of the filmmaker's intent, and is not just a play-by-play of how you would have done it were it your movie to make. Which it wasn't. Dismissive and snarky does not equal credible and well-considered. It equals bullshit.

*Lilacs?

 

The Unlikeliest Film School

The Unlikeliest Film School

When my dad's co-worker Abe suggested that our family move from our home in Anaheim Hills to Rancho Cucamonga – a town whose only claims to fame, at that point, were that Frank Zappa had lived there and Jack Benny had used its name as a frequent punchline on his TV show – he probably had no idea that he had set into motion a course for my life that has simultaneously cost me substantial sleep and rewarded me with countless personal and creative dividends. Abe, if you're out there, you're the best! The lure of Rancho Cucamonga was that my folks – who, having just welcomed into the family their fourth and final offspring, had outgrown their modest home in Anaheim Hills – could pick up a spacious four-bedroom, 3-1/2 bath upgrade for a song. And Larry Lastrapes loves songs! The only drawbacks were his new back-breaking commute and the fact that there was precious little for a ten-year-old to do in the Inland Empire of the late-70s.

Vineyards and orange groves as far as the eye could see. A smattering of strip malls and tract housing developments. One could count the nearby movie theaters on one hand, and getting to each required at least a ten-minute drive. And that was if you could find someone to take you. Perhaps because it was the first Inland Empire theater to welcome me, or because the first film I saw there was Richard Donner's hotly anticipated Superman: The Movie, my favorite theater was Montclair's Mission Drive-In. I won't go into my love of drive-ins and the despair I feel for their ongoing extinction, that's another post. Suffice it to say, that the Mission was where I saw many movies growing up, but it was as close to an art house as one could get in the Inland Empire. Then cable TV came to the rescue.

I don't remember what we had before. On... SelecTV...? Doesn't matter. I spent more time on the scrambled adult film station, waiting patiently for that rare, but not unprecedented, two minute window when the image would unscramble and stabilize into naughty porn goodness. Then one day, the Z Channel came to town and I discovered that some things are perhaps more important than watching strangers have sex in your television: Movies.

These weren't just any movies, but neither were they stuffy and esoteric. Blockbusters. Classics. Foreign. Mainstream & otherwise. The programming was beyond eclectic and, while I couldn't have articulated this at the time, primarily focused on vision and craftsmanship. The first film I watched on the Z Channel was Billy Wilder's Fedora, which was also my first Billy Wilder film. It's all a fog now (the film has never been available on DVD – UPDATE: You can stream it here.), but it nonetheless made a huge impression. It was the first time I'd ever (legitimately) seen tits on my TV. It was the first time I saw a lot of things, period.

I watched Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles after midnight one New Years Eve, then sixteen more times over the next week. I first saw Kubrick's 2001 – still my favorite film – on a 13" black and white television in my parents' bedroom; I was completely mesmerized. I saw every James Bond film in a weeks long marathon. My dad explained to me while watching The Godfather that I had to listen to every word that was spoken, because they were all important to the plot. Every great film and filmmaker – whether popular or obscure – was represented and championed. The Z Channel magazine discussed film in a way that I hadn't experienced before. Which is to say, at all. It was like Tom Hatten on ALZ 112.

The Z Channel has a great deal to do with why I love cinema as much as I do. It appeared at precisely the right time and place in my life. It taught me how to read a film, that watching a film isn't a passive experience, that a director's intent is woven into every frame. Since I strongly believe that the most important parts of filmmaking can be learned by watching great ones, it effectively taught me how to make them. And that making them was something I really needed to do.

There has since been nothing like it on television. Just about every film they exposed me to I consider essential. While channels like Turner Classic Movies, Sundance and IFC are similar in intent, as good as they are, they are still pale imitations. Each limited in scope and fever. None of which I would describe as an experience. The Z Channel was profoundly alive. Still is.

Finding Misplaced

Finding Misplaced

“So the reason I told you that story,” said producer Scott Edinson, having just entertained me with a lengthy anecdote about one savagely misspent night in his life, “is because I thought you’d like to make a short film about it.” The fact is, I’d been juggling, obsessing over and not finishing a couple of feature-length screenplays for longer than I’d care to admit. Not only did I need a break, the itch to be behind the camera again* had been consuming me for some time. Of course, I couldn't shoot without a script, which meant more writing. And before I could write a single scene, I had to figure out what would possess a guy (other than Scott) to stay up all night trying to find his lost wallet.

With my iTunes library churning away and my new Scripped.com file patiently awaiting its christening, I rocked in my creaky vintage office chair anticipating either inspiration or a pizza delivery (whichever came first). As it often happens with my iTunes library, Talking Heads came a-calling, and as I stared absently at the barren, glowing document before me, David Byrne’s vocals jumped frantically out at me.

“You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house... this is not my beautiful wife... My god, what have I done?!”
Laura Maxwell + Greg

And from the wreckage of impossible ideals that could only exist in a culture of merciless capitalism and insatiable consumption, Misplaced and it’s floundering hero, Mickey, were born. A guy who’s spent too much of his adult life asleep at the wheel, who’s forgotten who he is and what defines happiness for him, who hates his life because he spends his time romanticizing the lives of everyone else... now there’s a guy who would flip out over losing a wallet.

By the second draft, Scott and I felt comfortable enough with the strength of the screenplay to start recruiting the small army of collaborators we would need to realize our film. We’d hoped the script would lure them, because our very modest budget wasn’t going to do it. The unorthodox schedule – nine days over four weeks – was hardly catnip, either. But to our surprise, phone calls were returned, internet postings were replied to and one draft later, we were in pre-production.

The brilliant part was that no compromises needed to be made. Last Monday, after nearly two years in the making, Misplaced was finally screened for the cast and crew that made it possible. As I watched the film with them, each scene a testament to their talent, dedication, generosity and beautiful imaginations, I was reminded that I am an incredibly fortunate person. All of the artists that gave their time, on set and in post-production, are not only terrifically gifted, they’re also genuinely good people.

Like Mickey, I know from office culture, so I don’t take for granted being in a circumstance where I actually get to choose the people I work with. I also realize that none of the people who worked on the film were obligated to choose me back. But they did, and I can’t thank them enough. It was a rare pleasure, top to bottom, and an unforgettable experience.

Quite possibly the best compliment I got during production, from a friend who visited our Venice Beach location, was that my set was the most civil and well-mannered she had ever set foot on. And she was right. While not immune to circumstantial turbulence – after all, it’s not a production day until something breaks – the making of Misplaced never suffered as a result of overblown egos or anything approaching unprofessional behavior. Everyone showed up, did their job, never complained and was cool to everyone else on set.

Everyone except Martin Lastrapes II. That guy blows.

*Ironically, I would end up spending much less time behind the camera than I'd expected. But that's another post.

Martin + This = Greg

Martin + This = Greg

My name is Martin Lastrapes and, through no fault of my own, I am Greg’s youngest brother.  Greg is currently hard at work wrapping up his forthcoming short film, Misplaced, and fearing his rabid readership—which, I believe has reached a solid baker’s dozen at this point—would become even more apathetic than they already are, he asked me to pinch hit for him. Those of you who are fans of Greg (and, let’s face it, how couldn’t you be with his endless reel of commercial jingles that “almost” went final) know that he has made some pretty terrific short films over the last ten years or so.  I say “terrific,” because I have appeared in nearly all of them.  Of course, were it up to Greg, you wouldn’t know that.

He likes to refer to me as his Clint Howard, who, as you may know, is the brother of Academy-Award winning director, Ron Howard.  Clint appears in all of his brother’s films as something of a novelty.  I, on the other hand, appear in Greg’s films in the capacity of thankless pedestal.

Greg has been shamelessly exploiting my talents since 2001, when he ventured into his first truly ambitious endeavor, Razamazoo, a pilot for an adult kid's show that he co-wrote with Eric Donald and Lee Barron.

Look at me: dressed in a blue gorilla outfit, caked in makeup, an ungodly supply of chemicals in my hair.  Greg’s true stroke of genius was in the script for the above scene, as it was about three lines long.  I believe it read something like this: “Dress Martin as a blue gorilla.  Give him no dialogue.  Let’s just see him try to be brilliant now!

Soon thereafter, in 2002, we made It Starts With Feet.

Because we wrote the script together, I gave myself a well-deserved meaty role, playing a man with a vaguely-British accent and inferior vision.  Greg, of course, did his best to throw a wet blanket over my performance, claiming he didn’t have adequate equipment before conveniently burying this film in his “vault.”

Then there was The Anson Brophy Show in 2004. I was playing the title role of Anson Brophy, but, it turns out, the joke was on me.  Greg only intended this film to be a supplemental piece used for the promotion of his musical sitcom, Two Balls & a Chain.  Well, it turned out the joke was on him, as The Anson Brophy Show was as close as Two Balls & a Chain ever came to being realized—and I really love Glee.

If you’re wondering where my antagonism towards Greg stems from, well it began in 2006, the same year he filmed Why is Zak Schaffer Making the Great American Rock Album? For years I’d been telling Greg about my idea to film a faux-documentary where I’d star as a talented musician named Zak Schaffer who was finishing up his debut album, only to be riddled with anxiety at the prospect of finally sending his music off into the world.  All the while, as he discouraged me from pursuing this project myself, Greg was out searching for an actual musician named Zak Schaffer who really was finishing his first album.  And, boy oh boy, it certainly was convenient that this was the first film in five years that I didn’t make an appearance in

Of course, Greg tried to make amends by throwing me a bone in 2007’s Paulette Breaks Up, "letting" me reprise my role as Anson Brophy. But, as I should’ve suspected, the joke was on me yet again, as I simply appeared in the background on a television.  Yet another example of Greg trying to mute my overwhelming talent.

And then there was the silent period. Where did Greg go? What was he doing? Well, unlike John Lennon's lost weekend, he wasn't having sexual relations with May Pang. And, unlike Jesus's lost years between Christmas and Easter, he wasn't off learning how to be a carpenter for 30 years. No, I'll tell you exactly where Greg was: He was out trying to prove he could successfully make a film without me!

Well, I think his track record speaks for itself, as four years later he finally did complete a new film, which he calls Misplaced. And—guess what?!—I’m in it.

Am I the star?  Oh, goodness no.  I’ll give you three guesses who stars in Misplaced, so long as all three guesses start with “G.”  Even if I loved the film—which I do—I would never give Greg the pleasure of knowing it. I would, however, be happy to point out to him that the film succeeds primarily on the efforts of a tireless, selfless and exceedingly talented crew of collaborators.

Soon you'll have a chance to see Misplaced yourself, as it will be eventually coming to a film festival near you. And when you do see it, don't be surprised to find that Greg has, once again, tried to bury me with a minimum of screen time and dialogue. But don’t worry, I’ll do my usual job of carrying Greg through yet another film, letting him collect all the accolades, so long as all thirteen of his readers know precisely where the credit belongs.

Long Live Viejo! (1945-2010)

Long Live Viejo! (1945-2010)

I just received the very sad news that Adam "Viejo" Palenik, Jr. – best friend of my Uncle Mando – passed away peacefully in his sleep over the weekend. I will be forever grateful to him for sharing himself so generously in my documentary short, Uncle Mando Mojo Man, and for being such a great friend to my Uncle Mando for so many years. Uncle Mando got the news as he was waiting to meet up with him for a trip to the junkyard to search for used car parts (and whatever other treasures they might have unearthed). He was so stunned that he continued waiting for him even after getting the news. When I spoke with him on the phone Sunday night, he was in better spirits and visiting with Viejo's girlfriend, Opal. "You know me, Bird, I believe in Mother Goose and the Easter Bunny, so I believe he's still with me. But I do miss him."

Opal chimed in, "My van misses him, too."

"He loved that van!" Uncle Mando let fly his trademark belly laugh, "We were just a couple of junkyard dogs. Now it's down to just the one junkyard dog."

I'll miss him, too. As a humble tribute, I've posted here a photo I took of him and some outtakes from the short film. His good nature and great sense of humor is evident in every frame.

Rest in peace, Viejo.

A Kinship with Wood

The Vortex Comes

The Reaper

I Believe It

That Kind of Gal

Mission: Criticide

Mission: Criticide

In 2007, Eric Donald started a blog called Criticide (as in the killing of criticism), dedicated to calling out those film critics, past and present, whose reviews were less than partial, unfair or just plain nasty. I designed the site in eyeball-assaulting primary colors and contributed regularly as the criticassin Popcorn Peter. Here's a post I called:

Crystal Ballbreaker

In what may be the most concise bit of foreshadowing in the long history of storytelling, Kirk Douglas speaks the following opening line in Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole:

CHARLIE TATUM (to tow truck driver):
 Wait here.

Neat! For those of you as yet unfamiliar with this terrific movie, I'll spare you the gory details and leave you to realize for yourself that you will never be nearly so clever if you live three times longer than Mr. Wilder's ninety-six years. This long-lost nitrate nugget stands as one of his greatest achievements, right up there with stepping aside and letting hubris ultimately give Pauline Kael the dressing down she so richly deserved. The man was a class act.

This is why Billy Wilder will be remembered long after every copy of Pauline Kael's short-sighted review of Ace In The Hole has been recycled as paper plates. The broad's undeniable flare for writing notwithstanding, her fatal weakness as a critic was a comprehensive lack of vision and a stubborn resistance to the notion that anyone other than her goes to movies.

Her tongue was as sharp as Dorothy Parker's, yet somehow girthier and mad butch. I'll be honest, it's impossible to put down one of her voluminous indulgences until you've blasted through at least half of it in a single sitting. If only her mama had hipped her to the fact that the cinema doesn't exist just for her, or her generation, or right now or next Thursday afternoon. It exists for all time and for all the humanity contained therein, and the greatest of film artists intuitively understand this. Most film critics, on the other hand, can see no farther than next Memorial Day. Herr Kael was no exception:

Billy Wilder produced and directed this box-office failure right after Sunset Boulevard and just before Stalag 17. Some people have tried to claim some sort of satirical brilliance for it, but it's really just nasty, in a sociologically pushy way.

Let's face it, menopause can be rough. Still, Billy Wilder was hardly responsible for the cobwebs on her ovaries, so who's being nasty here? Sociologically pushy? This from a woman who gave a glowing review to Altman's Nashville months before it was even finished? She'd accused Wilder on more than one occasion of being overly cynical and mean-spirited, but one need look no further than his art collection to know what rubbish that characterization is (full disclosure: I've never seen his art collection). Wilder - who himself began as a newsaperman - only happened to foresee what the future ultimately held for American journalism, that's all. Crack a dictionary, dead lady, that's not cynicism; it's soothsaying.

And anyway, if Billy Wilder was so cynical, why is his work universally embraced by each succeeding generation of filmgoers and shamelessly cribbed by anyone that's ever picked up a camera? Of course, Pauline Baby's confrontational, self-absorbed, nose-thumbingly snotty (but in no way cynical) style has itself brow-beaten its way into the lexicon of contemporary culture, but the timelessness of America's Top Model has yet to be determined.

I got my just-released DVD of Ace In The Hole in the mail a couple days ago and watching it again just as the Crandall Brothers Coal Mine Circus came into town, frankly, made my taint hairs stand on end (as did the predictably beautiful new Criterion Collection print, except in a sexier way). Remember what I said about Mr. Wilder's prescience? Well, let's just say that the rescuers in the film also used the drill-from-the-top approach now being employed by the coal mine rescuers in Utah, with what will unquestionably be identical results.

Increased circulation.