Blue Crush

Blue Crush (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. John Stockwell
viewed: 01/26/03

Kind of interesting watching this tepid Hollywood surf movie after watching the vibrant, autobiographical documentary of a genuine surf culture. This is perhaps especially so since Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) director Stacy Peralta suggested that his inspiration for his documentary process was that some Hollywood studio was considering filming a narrative film of their story, and he wanted to make sure that the “true” story was available. This, of course, suggests the artifice and “airbrushing” that any subject goes under before coming out as a major studio movie.

Blue Crush attempts to show Hawaiian surf culture through a story about female surfers competing on the biggest, most dangerous waves. There is a pretense at “realism,” believe it or not, in that the filmmakers truly felt as though they were “documenting” a culture in this film as well. They hired a number of Hawaiian locals and professional surfers to try and add some of the flavor of the world that they are attempting to portray. To the extent of their success or failure on this note, I would be hazarding a guess, having never been to Hawaii nor having been on a surfboard anywhere. Still, I think it would be hardly radical to suggest that this film seems clearly the more inauthentic of the two.

That said, it’s a relatively fun piece of pure confection/garbage, with lots of surf footage, girls in bikinis, and a fairly pervasive hip-hop beat. The highlight of this film for me was Sanoe Lake, one of the main trio of girl surfers (and the only one of the three who was actually a surfer before she landed the job). Sanoe has the comic relief role in the film and (perhaps therefore) seems the most real and natural thing in the film. The rest of it is almost how you would imagine it from looking at the movie poster.

I did find it interesting that this film strayed from some genre conventions (the competitive sports genre, if that is a genre) in that there were no villains or antagonists in the film. The film focuses on Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth)’s fears of the dangers of surfing as the challenge that she must overcome rather than some nasty counterpart who always competes against her. The film overplays this a bit, I would say though, and it almost seems like she doesn’t actually enjoy surfing or desire to ride the pipeline, but actually has a well-founded and pervasive fear of death.

Blade II

Blade II (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 01/29/03

The first Blade (1998) film, directed by Stephen Norrington, was a fun B-horror/action film, which featured some amusing CGI death sequences for the vampires dispatched by Blade (Wesley Snipes), the half-human, half-vampire vampire hunter. Since Blade II was directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone I had liked so well, I had some hopes that despite its rather lackluster reviews that the film would be worthwhile, maybe even another B-movie gem.

A gem it is not. A moderately satisfying B-movie it is.

The Matrix (1999), as I have mentioned before, seems to have infused its aesthetic into the action genre quite verily, and it is well on display here. The production values aren’t quite as high and some of the action seems even more ambitious, which results in some fun but cheapish looking attempts at the slick and cool that the Wachowski brothers achieved more successfully in their film. The whole production is so serious and sexy, heavy on the slick, post-Matrix leather/goth style, that there are many moments that resemble camp and feel somewhat arch.

The vampires, who are largely villains in the film’s world, have a rather fully developed cultural infrastructure, hidden and codified, underground like a criminal empire and run quite like a monarchy. The vampire elite are developing (spoiler alert) this whole genetic engineering/cloning scheme which the film clearly depicts as associated with the really, really bad guys and whose results are calamitous.

While most of the vampires are depicted as evil, or clearly as the villains, Leonor Varela, who plays the daughter of the Overlord of the vampires, turns out to be a vampire with a conscience, a “good” vampire. I wasn’t trying to make too much headway through the significance of exactly what the vampires’ social structures were meant to represent, but for some reason I feel compelled to say that Leonor Varela struck me as very attractive.

Now that this commentary has devolved to such “insights,” I will terminate it.

The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Rob Cohen
viewed: 01/27/03

This film almost already seems anachronistic. If that’s possible.

Stylized with slick, flashy editing and a soundtrack with a pumping beat, The Fast and the Furious was a surprise hit at the box office when it came out two summers ago. The film is about street racing, another youth culture movement that is both clandestine and illegal. Featuring a contemporary slew of the “hottest” cars of the period (the period being 2001, already by pop culture standards something of an anachronism), this is a cultural product with a short hipness shelf-life.

The film is fast-paced, energetic, and pretty entertaining, but it’s also cliché and clumsy. Star Vin Diesel’s key speech about the death of his father is almost hilarious, though it’s intended to posit him as emotionally tender. But it’s one of those films in which its glitzy visual flash and it’s almost campy badness merge into a “guilty pleasure” level of badness.

In this sense, despite the fact of its overall low level of mediocrity, it seems like such a product of its time that it might be a classic symbol of this quickly dating contemporary pop culture. A typical film from 2001. Not a stunning example, but a good sample of what people were going to see at the turn of the century, featuring “hip” pop aesthetic and top-of-the-line special effects of the day.

There is something almost explicitly homoerotic in the male relationships in this film, perhaps not unlike many macho “guy” fantasies films in which male bonding is a key element of the represented culture. The film also strives to present a multi-ethnic cast, but does so in fairly stereotypical manner.

Speaking of anachronism, during the beginning of the directorial commentary track on the DVD, the 53 year old director, Rob Cohen, describes the look of the cars as “off the hook.” When a middle aged Hollywood director co-opts (or tries to co-opt) street culture and its slang that the whole thing has clearly become the unspeakably passé.

Dogtown and Z-Boys

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Stacy Peralta
viewed: 01/24/03

Dogtown and Z-Boys is a surprisingly cool documentary about the rise of modern skateboarding in and around Venice, CA during the 1970’s. Directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the subjects of Dogtown, the film offers intimate detail and suggests a strong social context for the birth of this suburban underground scene and its development.

It’s an interesting though obscure history, one that isn’t really all that old. But in light of the mass culture popularity of the X-Games and extreme sports in general, it’s interesting to see the “invention” of some of these forms. There is a sense of self-egrandizement that accompanies this film, such as treating the first time that Tony Alva caught air while pool skating as though it was the discovery of plutonium,…though for these guys, whose world is wholly comprised of skateboarding, the invention may well have been just that explosive. This highly subjective slant is part of the film’s character and charm. Narrated by Sean Penn as well as via interviews with all of the main skateboarders in their present stage of early middle age, the film is very much a document of their vision and their interpretation of events.

Peralta situates the birth of the skate culture in the fiscal, societal, and political malaise of the period and at times even suggests a social criticism embodied in the activity. While this might truly portray the subjective sensation and attitude that was the boredom-laced tinderbox of their youth, they do seem to share some marginilization that inspired the punk music scene around the same time. However, they don’t become chagrined to see the underground culture of their invention and youth co-opted and turned into a product of mass culture, which might call into question some of their “political” reads.

The time period of the 1970’s is evoked quite colorfully, perhaps in its largely incidental reference.

All in all, it was fun movie to watch and interesting piece of cultural historical minutiae.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me if You Can (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 01/18/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

Spielberg’s biopic of Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s life as a con artist extrordinaire is poppy, entertaining Hollywood fare, quite enjoyable to be honest.

The film reminded me somewhat of Ted Demme’s Blow (2001), another biographical film set in a similar period, also following an idealized hero whose greatest achievements were outside of the law. The parallels are interesting in that both Blow‘s George Jung and Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s drives are inspired by the failures of their fathers as “legitimate” American small business owners. They both maintain strong emotional connections to their fathers throughout the periods of each characters’ personal infamy, never being “judged” by them while being somehow ostracized by their mothers and by contemporary society at large.

Both characters are also ultimately captured and jailed by the society which they have operated outside of, and for both films their “outsider” qualities (excelling in illegal activities) are celebrated largely and their ultimate incarceration is viewed sympathetically. In this sense, both films critique the mainstream American culture of the period as unhip, bland, and conformist and almost advocate the exploits of their protagonists.

Demme portrayed Jung as almost a classic American capitalist, whose only major problem was that his industry was illegal. Spielberg portrays Frank Abagnale, Jr. as an opportunist who manages to subvert existing systems, in some ways showing what a sham that they are. Spielberg’s critiques are not harsh, though, as he tries to humanize the representatives of the society to which Frank is opposed, namely in the figure of Carl Hanratty.

Hanratty is as square as they come. As played by Tom Hanks, he almost resembles the Joe Friday character played by Dan Akyroyd in Dragnet (1987) (another Tom Hanks film), which lampooned the ultimate square Jack Webb. These cultural cross-connections may be tenuous, but they struck me. In many Hollywood films, the FBI agent is represented by bland, suited figures, often characterless or even “evil.” Hanratty has these bland characteristics but is also shown as sympathetic by his side-story of his divorce.

The world of the FBI, if seen mainly in their fluorescent-lit, box-like offices, represents the ultimate of conformity. It is ultimately to this world that Frank must submit himself, the ultimate punishment not being 10+ years of solitary confinement, but rather the loss of individuality and confinement within the social structure that he once made look so foolish. There is clearly a point in the film when Spielberg seems to indicate this pessimistic end for his outlaw hero.

However, ultimately, Spielberg seems to indicate that his acceptance of this life is not such a bad thing. Frank successfully applies his criminal skills to his career as an fraud consultant, and as a results lives happily ever after. The film flirts with the endorsement of a relatively subversive message only to subvert itself and uphold the society that it would seem to wish to critique.

Demme’s Jung receives no such redemption and arguably never “learns his lesson.” His last shot at redemption is upended and he is sent to prison to age and die, though the audience, I believe is meant to sympathize with this, not necessarily to agree 100% with society’s justice.

The Clash: Westway to the World

The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) DVD cover

(2000) dir. Don Letts
viewed: 01/17/03

This DVD was loaned to me by a friend at work shortly after Joe Strummer’s death. I had never heard of the film and had a hard time much information on it. I don’t know if the film ever had a proper theatrical run, though I see that it played at our local Artist’s Television Access theater in the Mission, which is why I think that it’s beginning to ring a bell.

Anyway, it was directed by Don Letts, who was a friend and follower of The Clash (as well as a member of Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’ post-Clash combo) from their earliest days. Most of the older live footage, if not all of it, was shot by Letts. A good portion of this archival material has a rough charm at best and muddy almost “bootleg” quality, a reasonable portion of which was gleaned from another Letts’ Clash documentary (included on the DVD) titled The Clash on Broadway, a film shot during a 16-day run of shows in New York City in 1981. As a document, it’s quite exciting to see the energy of the band playing in their heyday, though the quality of the sound compromises that power considerably.

The latter day interviews with the individual band members are interwoven roughly (almost clunkily), and are used to narrate the story from first-hand recollections. Strummer, clearly the intellectual of the group, offers the most profound insights and seems the strongest voice of both the group and the narrative.

I found myself comparing this film to Julien Temple’s brilliant documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, which was also released in 2000. Temple similarly had known the band in their day and had maintained a friendship with the band members, which allowed him to evoke excellent interviews from them. Temple’s film had a broader vision and a surer hand directing and editing, and as a result was an excellent film, interesting both socially and historically.

The Clash: Westway to the World is not on par with Temple’s film, though still an interesting comparison piece. A fan, or someone particularly interested in The Clash, would probably get more out of it than not. So, I enjoyed it, despite not being overly impressed with the production.

Derrida

Derrida (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Kofman
viewed: 01/13/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Having spent a semester of my life in a seminar on Jacques Derrida in graduate school in Cinema Studies, I felt some sense of obligation beyond my general interest to get out to see this documentary film about one of the most influential thinkers of our day. I would love to tell you that I have a good grasp on Derrida’s major ideas and philosophical tenets…but I tend to find myself lost often in reading his writings and only somewhat more situated in the studies class and seminars.

This film does manage to make Derrida more accessible, I think. It doesn’t probe too deeply into any of his more challenging theories (or his theories’ critics), which is probably part of why it felt more accessible. Derrida is charismatic and intensely sharp, and to see and hear the man himself in some more mundane domestic settings as well as speaking to students or interviewers manages to make him and his ideas more approachable. Derrida consistently questions the film process’ ability to “document” him in actuality (an impossibility, he would say), noting frequently the artifice that attempts to show the “naturality” of a scene, for instance.

The filmmakers followed Derrida for four years, over three continents, in the making of their film, which has a shoddy, almost non-professional charm (and the weaknesses that you would expect in such a production). The filmmakers sound like idiots at times asking him questions that he rephrases or deflects unless they are rephrased, but none worse than the BBC interviewer who asks him what he thinks about Seinfeld.

The opening of the film focuses on Derrida’s thoughts on biography, which the film utilizes as a constantly self-aware process that ekes out some interesting points, and ends with a section on the Derrida archive that was established at UC Irvine in the late 1990’s, about which Derrida wrote considerably (and which the film quotes). The film attempts to “deconstruct” itself and its subject as much as possible, addressing these issues at the forefront as much as it can.

For all its faults and shortcomings, I kind of wish that I had seen this film or something like it, even just a taped interview with Derrida, back when I studied his work. I think it offers some in-roads to him and his thought that could make the reading of his work more easy to immerse oneself in. Maybe this is even in tune with some of his notions of the oral over the written word? Maybe I just can’t get my head around it.

Either way, I enjoyed the Derrida though I thought it wasn’t such a great film.

The Good Girl

The Good Girl (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Miguel Arteta
viewed: 01/19/03

The Good Girl is a moderately weak comic drama featuring actress Jennifer Anniston as something supposedly “other” than “Jennifer Anniston,” something more of a “character.” So, in this film Anniston plays Justine, who, from her vague drawl and working class universe, is meant to represent something quite different from the characters that Anniston is more commonly known for portraying.

The film is set largely in the world of a discount store, and all of the characters seem to emanate from a lower tier of small town suburbia, located right next to the trailer park. The film’s depiction of place seemed condescending and the characters all reeked of stereotypes, the loveable but none-too-bright underclass. The film’s narrative became a little darker than I expected, and I think that the viewer was meant to connect more with Anniston’s character than I did. As a result, I didn’t know how to read the film too clearly.

In voiceover, Anniston’s character, Justine, narrates the events of the film, and though the viewer is meant to sympathize with her to some degree, director Miguel Arteta seems to keep some distance from her too, enough to allow the audience to laugh “at her” rather than purely to sympathize “with her.” I would say that the film has an almost schizophrenic approach to its main characters. I never got a clean read on Justine or Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), whether they were sympathetic or just plain “dumb.” And when Justine’s actions late in the film seem to turn sinister, I really felt confused.

The film has some pretty funny parts to it, but I didn’t really think that as a whole it was very good movie. And clearly, I didn’t seem to understand some of its intended significance.

Lovely and Amazing

Lovely and Amazing (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Nicole Holofcener
viewed: 01/11/03

Has film studies finally designated the “chick flick” as a genre? I mean, outside of the melodrama or other genres that have been classified as “women’s films” (I attempt to ask this question without inflecting them as much as possible) can it be classified as genre? Not that I am trying to start logging all of the necessary pieces to describe such a style or genre…I must admit that I do not see too many flicks that would fall into this speculative catergory anyway. Actually, if I had realized that this film was so aptly classified as such, I might have thought twice about renting it. but that is me…fulfilling a male stereotype.

Lovely and Amazing follows three sisters and their mother through a series of comic traumas that occur, pivoting around their mother’s botched plastic surgery experience. Its black comedy largely and it willingly roams into some “uncomfortable” themes. The characters largely are neurotic and verge heavily at times on the unlikeable, though I am not sure how unlikeable they are meant to be versus how unlikeable they seem.

The youngest sister, Annie (Raven Goodwin), is an eight-year-old adopted child, who, unlike the rest of the family, is African American. Director Nicole Holofcener posits Annie, who is somewhat overweight and quite a bit sassy, as potentially the only one of the family who is not completely neurotic.

The film is quite funny at points, and fairly all over the place covering so many characters and their multitudes of issues. In the end, I don’t know what Holofcener really thinks of her characters. They all suffer some major undoing based on their actions, which vary from a somewhat self-serving selflessness to a sympathetic statutory rape. Holofcener seems to undercut her characters’ sympathetic qualities, perhaps rendering them merely “pathetic”(?) It almost seems intentional, though its hard to say. Either way, the film’s characters’ love/hate relationship with themselves is thus passed on to the viewer…this viewer in particular.

And that ambivalence is directed also to the film itself. My sense is that at some level, that was the anticipated response, but who knows?

Eleanor liked it better than me, though I think she would agree about most of the rest of what I said.

Jesus’ Son

Jesus’ Son (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Alison Maclean
viewed: 01/08/03

I suppose with a title like Jesus’ Son, I shouldn’t have been overly surprised by a certain Christian subtext that this film contained, a subtext that wasn’t buried too deeply below the surface, at that. It didn’t strike me as overly pedantic or anything, but it actually has made me ponder really what this film is communicating and regarding its title as a potential site of signification,…but I am not too certain.

The story is narrated in partially broken flashbacks by a young man, who is often referred to as “Fuckhead” due to his knack for screwing things up, and follows him through his mishap-ridden life. Though it’s never explicitly indicated, it might not be too outrageous to assume that the title of the film refers to him in some way.

At different points in the film, Billy Crudup, who is very endearing as “Fuckhead,” discusses death with Jehovah’s Witnesses, gets splashed with holy water by Catholics as he leaves an abortion clinic, and develops a voyeuristic relationship with a gospel-singing Mennonite woman. The latter of these incidents has a somewhat transformative effect on him and is a site of a somewhat “magical” incident. Throughout the film, his character seems tuned into some sort of Christian spirituality, but out of touch with how to access it, much as he is out of touch with his ability to keep his life from falling apart.

Though the film’s tone tends toward a sort of sweet melancholy, it’s hardly pessimistic. This might also be tied to the film’s religious themes. In many ways, I think that the film’s meaning is intended to be fairly open for interpretation, which is maybe why its hard to get a specific read on it. Ultimately, the film does seem to pivot on “Fuckhead”‘s redemption and transformation by some type of religious epiphany. Though it is a less dogmatic, almost uninflected sort of spiritual experience, it does seem clearly a Christian (though perhaps non-denominational) one, since it is the main “spirituality” represented in the film.

The film is quite funny at many points and enjoyable. It’s a good American independent film, in my opinion. It might be an interesting companion piece/point-of-contrast with Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998) in its good-hearted, misguided sort of protagonist or Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) for its milieu.