42 after ’71 (Final Part)

Here’s the last installment of my forty-two favorite movies since 1971. (I was born in 1971 and I’m 42 years old, see…) Here are parts one, two, and three.

32. Blazing Saddles: I recently caught an episode of the Rockford Files that costarred Cleavon Little (RIP James Garner, by the way). Cleavon didn’t do a lot of television or movies, probably because no one was offering him parts as interesting as the classical roles he was doing on Broadway. Still, he often the best part of anything he was in, which in Blazing Saddles meant he was the best part of a whole lot of funny. Mel Brooks’s strategy in Blazing Saddles is to throw as much insanely funny stuff at the screen as he can and never allow the audience to breathe. (This strategy would later be adopted by the Zucker, Abrams, Zucker team for AirplaneThe Naked Gun, and Top Secret.) The movie is so quotable that you’ll spend the next decade after seeing it repeating its lines, from “It’s twue! It’s twue!” to “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives” to this, which I use whenever I see those people at the Texas border yammering about shooting immigrants:

What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.

33. Bound: Everyone has stories they’re suckers for. I’m a sucker for noir movies. I’m a sucker for gangster pictures. I’m a sucker for heists. Bound is all these, centered around a lesbian couple who navigate tricky issues of trust to liberate millions from the gangster husband of one of them. The movie has one of the sharpest seduction scenes I’ve ever seen on film (a fun twist on the “inviting the maintenance person over to fix the sink” fantasy), tons of smart dialog, and a set of lock picks so imaginative it’ll have to be continued on the next set of lock picks. See it.

34. Life of Brian: Another insanely sharp comedy, and really my favorite of the Monty Python pictures, following the life of faux Messiah Brian Cohen, son of Naughteous Maximus. From its Latin Graffiti lessons to Brian’s accidental fall into religious leadership, to his sermon to his flock to his crucifixion, the movie is a brilliant political and religious satire that we’ll still be watching in 100 years. Remember, we’re all individuals, except for that one guy.

35. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetTim Burton’s style is always memorable, even when he doesn’t have a good story backing him up. This time, he has the story, one right in his wheelhouse, and he gets all he can out of it. The movie tweaks the musical. There’s no chorus of victims singing “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, and Tobias Ragg is rewritten to be less of a simpleton, but the tale of Sweeney Todd’s well motivated but ultimately ruinous revenge odyssey is told with a shocking amount of power. Alan Rickman is a splendid Judge Turpin, and though Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter won’t make us forget Len Cariou (or George Hearn) and Angela Lansbury, they reinvent the characters for the screen in a way that reminds us that, whatever they are now, there was a time when they were something else, before life ground them up (pun intended).

36. The Dark Knight: One of my first picks for this list was the 1977 Superman movie, which I think captures the essence of why we love Superman. The Dark Knight is here to remind us, if not why we love Batman, at least why we respond to him psychologically. We’d like to believe that we could throw ourselves into combat against grotesque evil while never losing our belief in human goodness or our own moral code.  But The Dark Knight does more. It tells us what Batman would like to believe in–the hero with the face, Harvey Dent. That’s what makes Heath Ledger’s Joker role work. He ends up representing a challenge to both. That’s why this movie matters.

37. AirplaneAh, the ZAZ team! They took a script from a moderately watchable airplane thriller–Zero Hourgave it the MST3K treatment ten years before the existence of MST3K, and gave their best riffs to the actors. (Oh, and they added a disco scene from Saturday Night Fever and a beach scene from From Here To Eternity). They took anything for a laugh and modified to anything-three-to-four-times-simultaneously-for-the-sake-of-a-laugh-you’ll-have-to-watch-this-twenty-two-times-to-get-all-the-jokes. I don’t know where I’ll be when people stop laughing at this movie, but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.

38. The CandidateAn idealistic lawyer, and son of a former California governor, has a chat with a Democratic campaign manager who wants him to take on an ostensibly unbeatable senator. The campaign manager promises the lawyer that he can be his own man and say whatever he wants. The guarantee is written on the back of a matchbook: “You Lose”. The lawyer starts out doing just that, but soon, fearing general election humiliation after a disappointing primary victory, he starts trying to win. And that’s when he gradually loses himself. The Candidate is my favorite look inside a political campaign. (Yes, even The War Room comes second.) It’s smart. It’s funny, and it ends with the most important of all questions, one which campaign managers seldom answer.

39. Cabaret: My taste in musicals tends to run dark, and what could be darker than a musical set during the tumult of late Weimar Germany, as Hitler’s rise began. Liza Minnelli and Michael York star as a showgirl and a teacher of English as a Second Language, living in Berlin. At first, it seems like a haven for free spirited libertines, with the Nazi ugliness serving as discordant background noise. But over the course of the musical times change and shadows fall, impacting, in ways both subtle and terrible, the lives of this couple and their friends. I also admire Ebb and Fosse’s Chicago. But this one works on more levels.

40. Full Metal JacketI have a cousin who is said to have said that this was the movie that inspired him to join the Marines. Having seen this movie a dozen times, I can’t claim to understand that attraction, but I do love and admire the movie. The movie says to me that to survive war a soldier doesn’t just have to do terrible things, a soldier must become terrible. He must divest himself of all humane values if he’s to become what the Corps requires–an indestructible man, a man without fear. Kubrick doesn’t answer the question of what it means to live in a civilization whose survival depends on manufacturing men like this. Instead, he leaves it for us to ponder, which I’ve done even since I saw this picture.

41. Eyes Wide Shut: The critic for the Seattle PI, William Arnold, said of this movie that he didn’t really like it now, but he knew he would in 10 years. Such is often the way with Kubrick’s films. As Vincent Canby said of Kubrick’s work:

The best Kubrick films – “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon” – are always somewhat off-putting when first seen. They’re never what one has expected.

Certainly Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t what audiences were expecting. Tabloid and the lazy entertainment writers who work for them, spread all manner of rumors about the project, starring Tom Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman. One that I remember was that the couple were supposed to play psychiatrists who sleep with their patients. Some of these scribblers did notice that the movie was based on an Arthur Schnitzler novella called Traumnovelle, (literally, Dream Novel, surprise), but nobody bothered to do what I did: bop on over to the University library to read it.

I liked Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. It wasn’t the erotic screwfest the tabloids wanted. It has an orgy scene, but it’s  alternately comic or disturbing instead of sexy. The love scene between Cruise and Kidman is brief and tasteful, and the fantasy scene between Kidman’s character and the naval officer functions as motivation to Cruise’s character during his strange two-day odyssey through New York City’s weirder after hours haunts. I liked the movie’s dream-like quality. I loved meeting the strange people he met.  It’s a movie that made me wonder, and has kept me wondering, ever since.

42. Wall-ETo get here without giving a shout-out to Pixar. I couldn’t do it. And Wall-E is my favorite Pixar picture. I love its depiction of the home Wall-E makes of a desolated Earth. I love his curiosity and affection for musical numbers. (I was in a production of Hello Dolly once.) I adore EVE. I love the starship stuff and the Captain who thinks you can plant pizza. In fact, I think I’ll go watch it again. Excuse me.

Anyway, that’s it. If you like, try this exercise yourself on your own blogs or on Facebook or wherever. Link to it in comments to let the reading several know where to find it.





A Little Tease For My Side Project

Casey Raiha and I of MMIP Riffs have been busy riffing Amityville 2 (because, honestly, what other use does that film have besides target practice for two jokesters.) I’ll be talking about it a bit more as it gets closer to release in August. Until then, this little taste:

Thinking Fiction

Join my new little discussion group over at Goodreads to dig into the connections between philosophy and fiction.

Thinking Fiction

Thinking Fiction 63 members

Writers and readers come together to discuss a monthly question that examines the intersections o…

Books we’ve read

View this group on Goodreads »


How Long Do You Want Me To Be Scared?

Accorting to SlateMichael Robbins’s Slate book review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species is one of Slate‘s more circulated articles, probably because few subjects (except porn) drive traffic as much as atheist trolling. (Maybe atheist trolling porn… Excuse me, I’ve got to open a new Bluehost account.)

I’ll leave it to others to produce more comprehensive critiques of Robbins’s screed. I’ll limit myself to one aspect, the one where Robbins insists that, as a serious atheist, I should feel awful about the nonexistence of gods:

“The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists,” Hart has written, “is rereading Nietzsche.”

This is wise counsel for believers and atheists alike. In Nietzsche we find the full power and terror that atheism is capable of, for Nietzsche scorned mere unbelievers, who, Hart writes,

do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Well here’s the rub: I’ve never taken any gods–be they of the “man in the sky” or the Robbins’s “ground of all being” description–seriously. I’m well aware that other people can’t help doing so. My grandmother spent her final years dying of a disease we couldn’t diagnose because she was a Christian Scientist. And I endured six years of life in Utah, a place where every aspect of life revolves around people’s belief in a man who said he used a magic stone in his hat to read golden plates. I’ve spent a lot of time around people who take their religious passions seriously. I’ve just never shared them. For as long as I can remember pondering what the universe means, I’ve thought the only real meaning it has is whatever we’ve chosen to assign to it. I’ve accepted that life is contingent and absurd, that deserve has got little to do with anything, and that when life ends, it ends. But unlike Nietzsche, or the existentialists who followed him, I see nothing frightening in this.

Does this make me a shallower atheist than Nietzsche? Maybe. Or maybe it means that having lived in a country where it had been intellectually defensible to live without gods for over two hundred years, I see fear as an overheated response to the idea of divine nonexistence. The matter puts me in mind of an exchange from Get Shorty:

Karen Flores: Weren’t you scared back there?

Chili Palmer: You bet.

Karen Flores: You don’t act like it.

Chili Palmer: Well, I was scared then, but I’m not scared now. How long do you want me to be scared?

So I don’t feel bad about the nonexistence of gods, and I feel no impulse to prove my depth to Mr. Robbins and his ilk by pretending otherwise. If you’d like to know what does bother me, I’ll tell you. It bothers me that atheists in Indonesia can be tossed into prison for saying they’re atheists on Facebook. It bothers me that gays and lesbians in Uganda are threatened with long prison sentences for merely existing. It bothers me that poor people around the world, including the US, have almost no chance of escaping poverty. It bothers me that we haven’t done enough to reform the financial industry to make credit crises less likely. It bothers me that Europe can’t get its economic shit together. It bothers me that women have to deal with rape, and with men who don’t take rape seriously. It bothers me that the US congress is so shot through with global warming deniers that we remain paralyzed in the face of the problem.  It bothers me that innocent people are falsely convicted of crimes and are forced to waste their lives behind bars. It bothers me that people are so ignorant of history and of the sciences.

(And this doesn’t even get to all the personal shit that bothers me. Take me out to dinner and I’ll talk your ear off about that.)

All these things that bother me have one thing in common: they are real problems that can be solved through human action. They are many and varied, and the solutions will require millions of us to work hard and long, but this work must be done, because no god is going to swoop in to do it for us. Knowing all the energy, mental and physical, that solving these problems will demand, I think the shallow ones are those who burn even one calorie bemoaning the nonexistence of the nonexistent.

What Should Germany Do With Mein Kampf?

Yesterday, the U.S. Holocaust museum held a Twitter chat about the impending emergence of Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf from copyright and what the former owners, the city of Munich in particular and Germany in general, ought to do now that they can no longer easily inhibit its publication.

My answer: they should let it be published.

Mein Kampf is certainly a hateful book. I had to read it in translation when I was in college for a class on modern European history, and Hitler’s rants against Jews and other races are both frequent and long. Getting through it was hard enough for that, but there was something else that made Hitler’s magnum opus an even worse slog.

Adolf Hitler was a dull-as-shit writer.

My edition of Mein Kampf was a little over 800 pages long, and there was not a witty or charming sentence, much less a page, in the bunch. Now, maybe you’d like to blame that on the translation, but according to William Shirer, SS men–fanatical Nazis, mind you–found the book equally hard reading in its native German. In Mein Kampf Hitler rambles and digresses, sometimes for entire chapters. He promises to make points that he never gets around to making. And sometimes, after twenty pages of discourse he just throws up his hands and gives up on whatever argument he was trying to advance.

Much of this was a function of the way the book was written. Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf; he dictated it, mostly to his flaky adjutant, Rudolf Hess. And though Hitler’s editors did their best, the text still feels like being trapped in a room with Hitler, a self-involved, unstable crank who’d been delivering these same dreary, hate-filled rants since 1910, when he was haranguing his roommates (and sometimes their empty chairs) in Vienna’s flophouses. From birth to the bunker, Hitler had always been tedious company, and his book is equally so.

So why the nervousness about it? I think what it comes down to is the success the Nazis had in other media in convincing both themselves and the wider world, that there was something magical about Hitler. Nazis held it as an article of faith that Hitler had preternatural powers of persuasion, and many outside Germany bought the myth as a way of explaining to themselves how the Nazis managed to achieve political success and drive a civilized nation into barbarism. Our own History Channel sometimes runs a documentary that speculates on Hitler’s occult powers and connections, and I suppose if you think that way, Hitler’s Mein Kampf becomes a kind of spell book that can infect any reader unlucky enough to gaze upon the symbols found within.

But we know a great deal about the real source of Hitler’s charisma. There’s no mystery. It came not from magical rune powers, Hitler’s internal stores of dark greatness, or from his skilled team of spin doctors, but rather from that 42% of German voters, agonized by political paralysis and economic collapse, whose yearning for simple solutions and autocratic saviors motivated them to reimagine a bizarre, raving Austrian corporal as a God. Few of these 1933 voters ever read Mein Kampf, which is probably a big reason why so many of them were comfortable seeing him as someone they could trust with their futures.

So I think Germans should read Mein Kampf when it comes outThey should wade through Hitler’s long, tangled sentences and reams of racist imbecilities, pausing to think “My great-grandparents thought this guy was Germany’s savior?!?” Maybe it’ll inspire them to ponder, as we all should, the value of our wish for saviors. It’s gotten our species into no end of trouble.

42 after ’71 (Part 3)


As those who’ve read the previous two parts of this post know, I’m talking about my 42 favorite films since my birth year, 1971. These aren’t in any particular order. They’re all winners.

21. Schindler’s List: Steven Spielberg had a great career going as a maker of hits, going all the way back to his early TV-movie classic, Duel. He could have rested on that, but instead he decided to stretch and capture a part of the Holocaust. To tell his story, Spielberg found both the perfect point of view characters–Oskar Schindler (a con man who becomes a hero), and Amon Goeth (a functionary who descends into homicidal madness)–and the perfect actors to play them, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. With them he tells the story of a man who, through wit and cunning, manages to preserve a small amount of humanity in the midst of mass slaughter. As Roger Ebert put it in his Great Movies review of Schindler’s List:

“Schindler’s List” gives us information about how parts of the Holocaust operated, but does not explain it, because it is inexplicable that men could practice genocide. Or so we want to believe. In fact, genocide is a commonplace in human history, and is happening right now in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The United States was colonized through a policy of genocide against native peoples. Religion and race are markers that we use to hate one another, and unless we can get beyond them, we must concede we are potential executioners. The power of Spielberg’s film is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.

22. RanMan is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.” These are the words of the Fool in this, Akira Kurosawa’s version of King Lear. Ran is a story of an old man trying to control a world that’s moving past him, and receiving nothing but heartbreak for his trouble. Time, Shakespeare’s prime enemy, must punish him, just as time was punishing Kurosawa. Before he made the film, he’d lost most of his eyesight, and the Japanese film industry had no interest in financing his movies anymore. Fortunately, there were members of the young generation who treated Kurosawa more kindly than Lord Ichimonji’s sons treat him in Ran. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped him secure the financing to make this $12 million masterpiece.

23. This Is Spinal TapFor whatever reason, mainly that there are a lot of movies in the world and omissions are inevitable, I didn’t see This Is Spinal Tap until I was well into my 30s, though I knew of it thanks to the constant references to it in other media. I’ve since seen the picture about twenty times, and each time I find new reasons to laugh. Rob Reiner’s fallen on the movie industry equivalent of hard times since he made the execrable North, but This Is Spinal Tap was the beginning of a really great decade for him behind the camera.

24. My Dinner With AndreSomething that tickles me: while Andre Gregory is condemning electric blankets for separating us from our environment, he’s actually wearing one under the table to stay warm on set. It’s wrong to think of this as hypocrisy. Gregory and Shawn are not really themselves but characters who are comically artistic renderings of aspects of themselves. What emerges is a funny, exasperating, engaging conversation that isn’t real, but it ought to be.

25. Being There: Often the source of profundity in life is not the person who speaks, but the person who listens. It is this phenomenon that turns Chance, the Gardener (Peter Sellers) into Chauncey Gardener. Chance is a simpleton who knows the world only from the garden he’s tended and the television he’s watched in his spare time, yet the wealthy and powerful first convince themselves that he’s brilliant, then transform his strange little sayings about gardening into political and philosophical ideas. Peter Sellers is brilliant as the oblivious Chance, who lives inside a joke that he can’t understand much less laugh at.

Roger Ebert used the last image of the film, Chance walking on water, as a challenge to film students. What does the image mean? It means Chance can walk on water. Why? Because we’ve all decided he can.

26. The Silence of the LambsIn my upcoming riff on Amityville 2, I call Dino De Laurentiis “the Eurotrash Roger Corman”. Funnily enough, both Corman and De Laurentiis left fingerprints on the Hannibal Lecter stories. DiLaurentiis had made Manhunter with Michael Mann in the 1980s, but it made almost no money, so D. let Corman take The Silence of the Lambs for the change in Corman’s couch. What did Corman do? He brought in one of his proteges, Jonathan Demme, who took Ted Tally’s script, cast smartly, shot brilliantly, and produced one of the finest thrillers ever made. Afterwards De Laurentiis smelled money and used his power to make sequels. Crummy, crummy, crummy sequels.

Advantage: Corman.

27. JFK: Does Oliver Stone know who killed John Kennedy and why? I doubt it. But for me, that’s not the point. This is a movie less about the specifics of the case than for how the assassination and its aftermath served as symbols for our changing feelings about our government and each other. The film is told from inside Jim Garrison’s head, as he first envisions the assassination much as the Warren Commission would have wanted, then slowly drifts through the collection of fact, spin, and fantasy until another version of the tale solidifies in his mind. Is it true? Probably not. But, I’m told, that’s how the period felt for many people who lived through it. Black and white switched places so many times in the 1960s. It was a paranoid time, yes; but there really were people plotting against us for their own purposes. (see Nixon, Richard) We’d come out of World War II telling ourselves that we were all in this together. The Kennedy assassination was the beginning of the feeling that we all really weren’t. Because it captures this feeling so well, and because it’s so astonishingly well made, I admire JFK.

28. Goodfellas: I love both The Godfather and Goodfellas, but I love them differently. I love The Godfather as a meditation on corruption and power, and the impossibility of balancing love of family with the demands of The Family. I love Goodfellas as an exploration of one man’s dangerous, thrilling addiction to the criminal life. Henry Hill loves crime. Even more than crime itself, he loves what crime can get him: clothes, cars, trips, the best tables, the best shows, the best of everything. True, one of his partners could kill him any minute for any reason, but for Henry Hill it still beats working a day job and having to stand in line for a table. It’s a perverted version of the American dream, but the way Henry Hill explains it makes it easy to understand.

Also, we have this movie to thank for the wonder that is The Sopranos, so thanks Marty.

29. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I considered putting Being John Malkovich on this list, because I liked that Spike Jonze film a lot too, but this is better. It’s a terrific tale of our relationship to our own memories, and on how even the most painful of them, the ones we would most want to excise, shape us. It’s also funny, wonderfully acted, and touching. The only memory I’d like to erase is of seeing it, so I could see it for the first time again.

30. Before Sunrise: I admire all three of Richard Linklater’s tales of Celine and Jesse, but this is my favorite. I suppose the main reason for this is personal: I’m the same age as the two charactersI identified strongly with Jesse when I was 23 and first saw this film, and though nothing like what happened to Jesse had happened to me by that time, it’s the sort of day I thought I could have had if I’d ever made it to Vienna.  Watching the later films stings, even though I like them, because its aging characters make me feel mortal. (Yes, I’ve seen Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in other pictures, and I’ve noticed their aging, but I feel it in Before Sunset and Before Midnight.)

So while I love the entire trilogy, the first movie is the one I most like to revisit.

31. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Growing up, this was my favorite movie. I’ve seen it over one hundred times. I’ve memorized both the theatrical cut and director’s cut versions. (Test me sometime.)  I used to have it on the same videotape as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thanks to a quirk in the recording, the end credits of Raiders faded perfectly into the opening music cue and Paramount logo for Star Trek II, which I felt said something about the relationship of past and future. Yes, teenagers can be ridiculous. Still, my taste for Star Trek II wasn’t ridiculous. Nicholas Meyer took what he found interesting about Star Trek and in doing so, reshaped it. He took advantage of the fact that his characters were aging, using it to give tremendous weight to the movie’s moments. Spock’s death in the film is so powerful not just because it’s a well crafted and timed scene, but because we feel the weight of the–at the time of release–15 years that Spock had been a part of all of our lives. In 100 years, much of Star Trek may well be forgotten (and some of it deservedly so), but not this part of it.

Next. The final 11: Homicidal barbers, fake saviors, and robots run amuck.

(Check out parts one and two.)