Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Desert Disc Game

This blog is devoted to the Desert Disc Game. But first, an editorial rant (please scroll down for the game if you’re not in a ranting and raving mood!):

Hollywood is in a slump.

Each week, it seems, the news is bringing us stories of declining attendance at movie theaters. Tickets sales have plummeted to more than half a billion dollars less than this time in 2004. Pundits have given numerous reasons for the decline, including the high cost of tickets and concessions, the proliferation of movie commercials and ads, frustration with impolite audiences and the complaint that movies simply aren't as good as they used to be.

I agree with all of those observations. It costs far too much to see a movie these days, and while I have no choice than to pay the price of admission, I very rarely “go all the way” with a Coke and popcorn. Sadly, it is through concessions that movie houses make their money (80% of ticket sales go back to the studios) which has forced theater chains to run advertisements. While an entertainment reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, I did a large story on this very issue and discovered that patrons, and even some theater managers, have had enough of paying to watch advertisements.

More and more, people are willing to skip the big screen in order to watch the movie on DVD in the comfort and control of their own homes. Now, there is no way that I’d rather watch a movie on even the most elaborate home theater system over watching it on the big screen. Unless…I know that the small child in the R rated film behind me won’t stop whining or kicking my chair, the guy in front of me feels the need to carry on a running commentary and the teenager beside me keeps bathing my row in bright blue light every time she checks the latest cell phone text message from her friends…then, I might see the allure.

And yet, there is something more to this than simple economics 101 and public etiquette.

Movies these days simply aren’t as good (at least not those coming out of the Hollywood juggernaut system; independent and foreign cinema is an entirely different story). Now I don’t mean they’re not as good in the way that the fundamentalist next to me in Sunday school does, though he certainly may have a point. While films these days may certainly have a sort of moral laxness about them, I am referring more to the craft itself. Artistically speaking, most of what greats us when the lights dim and the projector revs to life is, quite frankly, sub-par.

But I think it is deeper even than that. The fault, you see, rests with you and I, the average John Q. Moviegoer. (I am admittedly snobby enough to not, in fact, consider myself an average movie-goer. If you are reading this blog, feel free to include yourself in that category as well)! Hollywood feeds what the starving audience demands and so long as that audience demands trite and drivel, that is exactly what they will be forced to consume. The sad truth is, people are watching bad movies more often than good ones. Don’t believe me? Jump over to Rotten Tomatoes, a website that complies critical and lay reviews, and see what’s making the money. More often the not, the films to which the site and all of those who frequent it have given rotten rating are the very same ones that topped the weekend’s box-office. So long as movie-goers are willing to spend money on movies like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Dukes of Hazzard, and The Island (sorry, I am of the Jerry-Bruckheimer-and-Michael-Bay-should-be-deported-to-Mongolia camp) Hollywood will keep making them. A buck's a buck.

Ok, I could go on, but that’s rant enough for today.


All this sour discussion has put me in a sort of playful mood. I was recently asked to play the Desert Disc Game and I thought it might be enjoyable to pass on the fun. You know the game; if you were stranded all alone on a desert island, what ten movies would you want with you, and why?

This is of course naturally assuming that this deserted island is fortuitously stocked with a TV and a DVD player to say nothing of an electricity source. Maybe you built them out of spare parts from coconut husks and clam shells.

For the purpose of counting, and just because I don't feel like restricting myself, I'm going to count trilogies as a single package, so that my Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, counts as one film.

If you don't like that, find your own island.

Will these desert disks be on this list a decade from now? Hell, I can't even guarantee they'll be on here a week from now. Even as I look at my list, I am aghast that I have left certain films off. This isn’t the same thing, necessarily, as your top ten favorite films—just ten you’d be inclined to grab for a weekend getaway someplace, absolutely unaware that the plane in which you are going to fly will lose a propeller somewhere over a French Polynesian island chain and bury itself in a palm-shaded sand bank leaving you as the sole survivor.

After you’ve seen my list, why don’t you post a comment with your ten choices. (Cast Away, anyone?!) I have this theory that you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of films they cherish.

And now, my list…

1. Lawrence of Arabia:

When the word “epic” was invented for use in the English language, it was done so expressly for this film. The astonishing story of T. E. Lawrence, a British officer who leads an Arab revolt against Turkey during World War I is so well acted, so visually rich and so exquisitely scored as to guarantee it a place in the pantheon of the greatest motion pictures of all time. It also happens to be my favorite film of all time!

2. Citizen Kane:

What can be said about Citizen Kane that has not already been said? It is a masterpiece in every conceivable definition of the word. A film that is just as visually stunning, technically innovative and profoundly narrative as the day it was first shown. The story of Charles Foster Kane’s empty and agonizing rise to power is one of the greatest stories ever put to film.

3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy:

My generation’s Star Wars, LOTR is a staggering achievement. It is a swashbuckling adventure that at once transcends the genre even while reinventing it. In the same way that Tolkien wrote his masterpiece to imbue Great Britain with a sort of long lost mythology, so too are these movies bestowing that same gift upon us.

4. Dead Poet's Society:

There are certain films that get under your skin and never come out. You cannot turn them on without finding yourself profoundly moved. They change your life, subtly altering your perceptions of reality. Dead Poet's Society is one of those few films.

5. Lost in Translation:

This is an intensely personal film suffused with an exquisite emotional resonance that rings true in every frame. Lost in Translation is a painfully moving, hypnotic poem that is both sweet and sad, sardonic and funny. As a tender and layered piece of art, it is fragile, delicate, luminous, and contains so many shots of breathtaking beauty that it reenergized my faith in the magic of cinema and in the power of human connection.

6. Dark City:

Dark City owes much of its imagery to Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Metropolis and in the process, creates one of the greatest science fiction films of our time. John Murdoch awakes in a city plunged in eternal night, not knowing his identity nor why mysterious men hunt his every move. Atmospheric and textured with surprises around every corner.

7. A Man for all Seasons:

Paul Scofield is Sir Thomas More, a highly respected English statesman who would rather sacrifice his life than betray his conscience or his God in this inspirational and stirring adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play.

8. The Lion in Winter:

Peter O’Toole chews up the scenery as King Henry II and Katherine Hepburn rages as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in this film about three sons’ struggle to win their father’s favor and his crown.

9. Snow Falling on Cedars:

An exquisite film with cinematography that takes one’s breath away. The story of a small town’s trial of a Japanese man in post WWII Washington state is told with haunting flashbacks, lyrical recitation and a dazzling score. Max von Sydow takes his place beside Gregory Peck with the film’s closing arguments.

10. The Village:

Using the idea of an isolated village as a gorgeous metaphor for the dangers of control through fear, noble deception for “good,” the overriding power of myth, and the ugliness just under the veneer of a supposed utopia, The Village is one of the most misunderstood and unappreciated films of our time.

OK, your turn…

Mr. Glass

Someone at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is doing something right. Chihuly just left. Warhol is here. Whistler is coming. To explain why I’m so impressed by that, you need to understand something about Colorado Springs. The Springs is a city of over half a million people, the second largest in the state, but it doesn’t seem to realize it very often. In some sort of persistent self-flagellatory gesture, Colorado Springs still sees itself as a small town, undeserving of great art or culture. Generally, if it’s culture you’re looking for, Denver, an hour away, is where you need to look.

But not these days. Denver, eat your heart out.

Shame on Stephanie and I. We talked about going to the Chihuly exhibit for months but only got around to checking it out on the museum’s closing night, last weekend. Which actually worked out well. Well dressed crowds, a jazz band and champagne abounded. Not a bad way to see the work of a master artist whose art and name have become a veritable institution.

Dale Chihuly is the most famous glass artist in the world. For decades, he has crafted some of the most fascinating pieces to grace the world’s greatest art museums. After losing one of his eyes in a car accident in the late 70s, Chihuly realized he no longer had the depth perception necessary to handle the molten glass himself. Instead of giving up his art, he revolutionized the idea of community art, conceptualizing, overseeing and participating in each project but employing a team of skilled artisans to do the handiwork.

Chihuly's designs are deeply influenced by the sea, resembling, as one critic called them, “wild, oversized sea anemones or patches of coral reefs that might exist in some marine version of Alice's Wonderland.” Vibrant, abstract forms of colorful blown glass have become Chihuly's trademark, and his personality parallels his work in its flamboyance.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out some of these graceful and whimsical images from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Click on the images for a larger size.

Monday, August 08, 2005

"Let us talk about the death of kings..."

We don't necessarily choose the people we come to respect, to admire, to emulate. Most of the time something in us sees something of greatness in them and it cries out to be replicated. It is a bond that steers emotion and defies reason.

I have always had such a bond with Peter Jennings.

Peter Jennings died today. It was the cancer. He was only 67.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Surprised by Shatner

So Capt. Kirk and I were having a chat one day… Well, it wasn’t really a private conversation. More like a Q&A session at a Star Trek convention, but it felt intimate. Just me, Bill Shatner, and a few thousand close friends.

I was commenting on his portrayal of his swashbuckling alter-ego and inquiring as to the paradigm shift, I perceived, in his character between films four and five. I was polite, but anyone paying close attention could tell it was not a change of which I appreciated or approved. Shatner rattled off something about polling and marketing data and said the audience responded well to the added humor in the Star Trek films so the studio kept adding more. In my mind, one of my greatest cinematic heroes had been reduced to little more than a clown and I was pissed. Not that I could stay that way for long. Concluding his remarks, Shatner commented that he wished we’d had that conversation a few months earlier so it could have been included in his autobiography.

Truth is, comedy is all the pop-culture icon seems to do these days. And it’s not that he’s not funny. He is. He’s appeared most recently in the Miss Congeniality films, was nominated for an Emmy for his role as The Big Giant Head on Third Rock From the Sun and won last year for his role as a demented lawyer on Boston Public.

That said, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me last week when I discovered that William Shatner had released an album. No, no, not that album—another album! In the late 60s, he recorded an LP entitled “The Transformed Man,” which is widely considered a camp classic today, though Shatner never intended it that way. His version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was abysmal. His rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was voted as the worst massacre of a Beatles song ever.

And so, when I heard he’d release another CD entitled, “Has Been,” my reaction was, “Oh no! Didn’t he learn his lesson the first time?” Gingerly inserting the CD into my car’s CD player, I grimaced, preparing for what I was sure would be a reaction of both embarrassment and mockery.

Instead, I was surprised by Shatner.

It doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s quite good. Really.

“Has Been” is not a singing CD in the traditional sense, but, like much of his first attempt, Shatner’s contribution is much more of a sing-songy oral recitation, more like a dramatic reading. The truth is, Shatner can’t sing and he knows it.

One endearing thing about William Shatner is that he’s never taken himself too seriously (except during the shooting of the original Trek series, when, by all accounts, his massive ego earned him the disgust of most all his fellow cast members). This self-deprecating, even self-parodying aspect of his personality lends itself well to his comedy and adds a brilliant buoyancy to the CD.

Perhaps the best indication, not only of the CD’s quality, but also of the enthusiasm behind it are those people involved behind the scenes. “Has Been” was produced and arranged by the delightfully one-of-a-kind, Ben Folds, who actually brainstormed the idea of doing an album with Shatner in the first place. Numerous other artists from Joe Jackson, Brad Paisley and Nick Hornby to the luminous Aimee Mann lent their talents and voices. Remarking on the recording experience, Folds said, “If I thought that there were heaps of artists who were willing to be as honest, vulnerable, creative and as trusting with their producer as William Shatner has been with me, I’d just be a producer.”

One of the most extraordinary things about the CD is its ability to jump back and forth between moments of hilarious comedy and moments of profound drama and still balance a depth you would never expect or anticipate. One poetic reading, in particular, which describes Shatner’s true life experience of coming home to find his wife drowned in their pool is devastating:

She was underwater
In the shadows
The water was still and so was she
I dove in with so little breath
In truth I knew
I was too late for death
Is this what death looks like?
My love was supposed to protect her
It didn't

Some of the songs are dark and almost painful to listen to. In “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” Shatner deals with his own insecurities and the plaguing voices that whisper that he’s never been good enough, never pleased anyone, never made a difference. “That’s Me Trying” tells the painful story of an attempted family reconciliation long after it’s too late:

I know I haven't been the very best of dads
I'll hold my hand up there
The reason that I'm writing is that I'd like for us to meet
Get a little daughter dad action going soon
We can put things behind us
Eat some pizza, drink some beer
You still see your sister Emily?
Bring her, too

Years of silence
Not enough.
Who could blame us giving up?
Above the quiet there's a buzz
That's me trying

Other songs are lighthearted and wacky. “Common People” is an eminently singable story about a rich girl slumming it in college. “You’ll Have Time” insists we “live life like you're gonna die because I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're gonna.” The album’s title track, “Has Been” is a playful, spaghetti western romp in which Shatner considers the thought that he may be washed out even though it’s the last thing he feels. The funniest and wittiest song, by far, is a hilarious rant with Henry Rollins that is also a legitimate piece of societal criticism, entitled, “I Can't Get Behind That”:

ROLLINS: Eat quickly. Drive faster. Make more money now! I can't get behind that.
BILL: My kids say: He said to me, and I'm like... and he's like... and she's like...
ROLLINS: It's all... He's all... She's all...
BILL: I can't get behind that kind of like, English!
BILL: I can't understand why the price of gas suddenly rises when oil goes up...
ROLLINS: ...but takes months to go down long after oil falls!
BILL: I can't get behind any of that!
BILL: I can't get behind the gods who are more vengeful, angry, and dangerous if you don't believe in them!
ROLLINS: Why can't all these gods just get along? I mean, they're omnipotent and omnipresent, what's the problem?
BILL: What's the problem?
BILL: What about the men who say 'Do as I do. Believe in what I say, for your own good, or I'll kill you!' I can't get behind that!
ROLLINS: I can't get behind that! Everybody knows everything about all of us!
BILL: That's too much knowledge!
BOTH: I can't get behind that!
BILL: Yeah! And what about student drivers using my streets to learn? If you learn to play the drums you got to go to a studio! Go to a parking lot, for God's sake! Why are you jeopardizing my life? I can't get behind a student driver!
ROLLINS: I can't behind a driver who drives like a student driver! If you're going to drive an urban assault vehicle then get off the phone and keep your eyes on the road!
BILL: I can't get behind so-called singers that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking—
how easy is that? Well, maybe I could get behind that!

The song that impacted me and the hero-worship I’ve very consciously dragged into my adulthood to most, was “Real”:

I have saved the world in the movies
So naturally there's folks who think I must know what to do
But just because you've seen me on your TV
Doesn't mean I'm any more enlightened than you

I'd love to help the world and all its problems
But I'm an entertainer, and that's all
So the next time there's an asteroid or a natural disaster
I'm flattered that you thought of me
But I'm not the one to call
And while there's a part of me
In that guy you've seen
Up there on that screen
I am so much more
And I wish I knew the things you think I do
I would change this world for sure
But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel
Sorry to disappoint you
But I'm real

The surprise record of the year, “Has Been” is an odd recipe of surprisingly pop-driven, lyrically potent songs. Shatner mixes a healthy amount of introspective self-awareness with a just a dollop of self-mockery and then combines it all with plenty of raw vulnerability to create an effect that is unexpectedly touching, extremely entertaining, and unlike anything else out there. Shatner's delivery is world-weary and boozy-suave yet thoroughly impassioned. Sure, it's hammed up in places, but this time, Shatner is in on the joke.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus