A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #46: Post-pandemic cinema

It is July – and in many countries, cinemas are open again, albeit with some restrictions. Have our intrepid cultural baristas already been back to movie theatres – and if so, what has it been like to be back after several months? How have they coped with half a year without cinemas? How has COVID-19 affected movie theatres and cinema goers alike? And how will the cinema landscape change after the pandemic? Even if we’re looking at a summer and autumn with open movie theatres (fingers crossed!) and upcoming blockbusters like the new James Bond and Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited, often-postponed Dune, will cinema be the same? Join Alan, Julie and Matt as they discuss these and other issues concerning post-pandemic cinema!

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The Butterstumps Effect

They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Hollywood, DVD sales halfway across the world may skyrocket. This is exactly what seems to have happened with The Butterfly Effect, an Ashton Kutcher vehicle – and what is truly miraculous is that the phrase “an Ashton Kutcher vehicle” didn’t make anyone reconsider.

This film could probably be called Dude, Where’s My Past?, except that wouldn’t be quite fair. The Butterfly Effect is very different from that other vehicular Ashton Kutcher movie in that it tries to be intelligent, dark and deep. It is quite scary at first, though mainly because of cheap jump cuts and shrieking violins on the soundtrack, but it’s far less clever or tragic than it thinks it is.

The premise is intriguing, in a Twilight Zone/”Don’t think about it too much” way. College student Evan Treborn finds that he can go back in time thanks to his journals he’s been keeping since the age of 7, and he attempts to make things better for the people in his life, especially his love Kayleigh, by changing the past. Wacky hijinks ensue, of the sort that Ray Bradbury and the Simpsons got quite some mileage from – change one thing in the past, and a whole plethora of effects snowball from this change. Keep your ladylove’s dad from making kiddie porn with her when she was seven years old, and suddenly she’s not a suicidal waitress in a diner but your girlfriend and sorority chick extraordinaire – but her brother’s a murderous psycho. Stop a prank that went horribly wrong, and your chubby-yet-hunky best friend (described in one wonderful review as “Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Fabio”) is Kayleigh’s perfect lover while you’re – surprise! – mostly armless.

Perhaps if I rewrite the script…

The problem is… Actually, there is more than one problem. For one, while a film about something as fantastic as time travel cannot be realistic, it can still have some sort of internal logic. This film doesn’t. Some changes in the past have major effects on the present, others simply leave Evan in the same situation but with one or two additional scars. What makes the difference? Simply the whim of the script writers. When you realise that they’re the ones pulling the strings, for no other reason than “It’s coolest/nastiest/most tragic like this!”, you stop caring.

That is, if you cared to begin with; because, to be quite honest, there’s very little to care about in the film. Most of the characters keep changing due to Evan’s fiddling with the past, the effect being at Kayleigh 1 is a different person from Kayleigh 2 is a different person from Kayleigh 3. You know that in five to ten minutes, most of the characters will have been rewritten completely, so why should you feel any emotional attachment to them? The only person who remains halfway constant is Evan, and he’s a bit of a blank, with moments of total idiocy. I felt so detached from him that I had to suppress giggles when he woke up from his latest bout of time-travel with his hands gone and him screaming at his stumps. It just felt so phony, like the scriptwriters were saying: “Okay, he stops his mom from smoking in the past, so in the present his dick has been chewed off by rabid poodles!”

If I kill the scriptwriters in the past…

The film’s been compared to that other time-traveling weirdo tale, Donnie Darko. There are indeed some similarities, but they’re mainly superficial. Donnie Darko is less interested in its mystery/sci-fi plot, at least in the theatrical version – and that’s good, because the more prominent a labyrinthine time-travel plot is, the more apparent its almost inevitable plot holes become. Instead, Donnie Darko focuses on the characters and, in doing so, manages to become one of the sweetest films about teenage angst this side of Breakfast Club. It’s as if David Lynch and John Hughes, after a big breakfast of pancakes, pie and damn good coffee, set out to create a bitter-sweet surreal adolescent romance – and succeeded.

Also, there is simply no comparison between the character writing and the acting in the two movies. The protagonists in Donnie Darko live and breathe, while their equivalents in The Butterfly Effect are mere puppets on strings controlled by a puppeteer who is moderately competent at best. And Ashton Kutcher does a very good “bland twentysomething”, but there’s more acting talent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s left buttock than in all of Kutcher.

P.S.: One of the first pics that came up when I Googled “butterfly effect” looking for images was one of the Olson twins topless, with flimsy foil butterflies over their nipples. By god, I wish I could go back in time to keep myself from seeing that…

Super Coen Bros.

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is special to me, for two reasons: For one thing, it was the first time I went out to the cinema with the woman who ended up sharing my life and my DVDs. (Yes, the ideal date movie contains scenes of people being put through wood chippers. No wonder we only got together nine years later…) The second reason is somewhat less romantic, or weird and worrying, depending on what your ideal date movie is: Fargo was my first Coen Brothers movie. Afterwards, I worked my way through Blood Simple (perhaps the Coens’ darkest film, in more than one way), The Big Lebowski (which I thought somewhat amusing at first but have come to love), Barton Fink (the greatest David Lynch movie that Lynch never made, and proof that the face of evil is Dan Tanner’s face) and so on.

Evil John Goodman (flanked by John Turturro)

I’ve never seen Raising Arizona, and after Intolerable Cruelty I decided to give The Ladykillers a miss. Intolerable Cruelty had roughly two good scenes, namely one of the funniest, most unexpected deaths in recent movie history (an honour it shares with another George Clooney film, Out of Sight), and Clooney’s speech on the power of love at the divorce attorneys’ convention, followed by the obligatory ‘slow clap’ (which I read as ‘snow clap’ when Roger Ebert first mentioned it, and it made perfect sense to me). The last Coen Brothers film I liked was The Man Who Wasn’t There.

So what was wrong with Intolerable Cruelty? I think it’s mainly this: the Coens populate their cinematic landscape with characters that are essentially postmodern cartoons. There’s no such thing as a naturalistic Coen character. Even the more sedate protagonists – Marge Gunderson, Doris and Ed Crane – are caricatures. Their character features are exaggerated for comic effect. However, and this is what distinguishes a good Coen film from a bad one, at least in my opinion, these protagonists are deeply human caricatures. Jerry Lundegard (perhaps my favourite performance in a Coen movie, and my favourite performance by William H. Macy) is both as much of a cartoon as Wyle E. Coyote and hilariously, tragically human. He is observed with a subtlety that requires repeat viewings to fully appreciate. Consider the scene where he comes home to find that his wife has been kidnapped (as planned by him), and he practices what to say to his father-in-law, trying to get the words and intonation just right, and then is flummoxed when he dials Wade’s number and is immediately put on hold. Or his growing frustration when Marge Gunderson interviews him a second time.

Even in one of their most cartoonish films, The Big Lebowski, there’s something deeply human about the characters, so that when Donnie dies of a heart attack, it’s funny, but it’s also moving. You accept the Dude and Walter as cartoons, yet at the same time they’re real. And that’s how I tell a good Coen Brothers movie from a bad one – when they manage to maintain that tension. But enough of this Monday morning pretentiousness; I want to leave you with what may be my favourite scene from The Big Lebowski.


P.S.: I hope you noticed how neatly I segued from my last blog entry, which I called a mere filler, to today’s topic. That’s planning for you – almost like Lost. They’re not making things up as they go along either! (Nor do they kill of characters if the actor has a run-in with the police for one reason or another. It’s all planned!)

But is it what you would call ‘series acting’?

I like good acting. Not Oscar-winning acting, which I often think is mainly a case of “who’s best at manipulating the audience?”. That sort of acting tends to feel acutely self-aware, to the extent that I sit there, watching it, being painfully aware of the acting. (And I usually groan when someone says that this or that actor isn’t actually very good because he’s only got two facial expressions. Being able to produce a number of different grimaces doesn’t make for good acting. Watch Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others for a beautiful example of acting, based pretty much on the most subtle variations of one facial expression.) 

Ulrich Mühe

Strangely enough, TV series don’t necessarily need good acting to work. Of course, atrocious acting is as painful to watch in series as it is in movies, but limited actors can still work extremely well on television. The good thing about series in this respect is that after a season or so, deeply mediocre actors become the characters. Look at Jonathan Frakes who played Will Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Definitely not a good actor by any standards, and most people would hesitate even to call him mediocre; but by season 3, he was Will Riker. Any wobbles in the performance could be attributed to the character – “Ah, it’s Riker being full of himself! It’s Riker being nervous at meeting the Axitraxian ambassador! It’s Riker having had too much cheese before going to bed!” And somehow, by season 5 or 6 good old Jonathan felt comfortable enough in the part to stretch himself and surprise me with an actual good performance (!) in an episode called “Frames of Mind”.

Watching those HBO series I keep harping on about – The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under – I am constantly amazed at the high quality of acting. Thinking back to the series I watched, and loved, as a kid and as an adolescent, though… Most of them had fairly mediocre actors, for instance David Duchovny (although he does make for a great transvestite!). Yet somehow I never felt I was watching Duchovny being mediocre. I very quickly forgot about Duchovny and was simply watching Fox Mulder.

David “Nobody’s perfect” Duchovny

For me, Lost has that very same quality. Some of the acting in Lost is good – Terry O’Quinn comes to mind, for instance. But if you look at it critically, most of it is hackneyed character work. If the series is still remembered in ten, twenty years, it won’t be for the acting. And yet… Half an hour into the pilot, and I bought the characters. I don’t know whether that is a quality of the writing, or the directing, or simply a case of the actors being close enough to the characters not to have to act too much. Perhaps it’s also just chemistry between the cast members. I don’t know. But I know that it’s the characters I keep coming back for – even if Jack is a whiny bitch, Charlie is even more annoying than he was as a hobbit (Pippin at least had the benefit of a Scottish accent – here we’ve got Desmond for that), and Nikki and Paolo deserve a horrible death (preferably something out of E.A. Poe). (Note: We haven’t seen any episodes past “Every Man For Himself” in season 3.)

Two final comments for today: 1) Why is it that the Deadwood women keep ending up on the island? I’m waiting for Alma and Jewel to turn up… 2) Was it very noticeable this was a bit of a filler blog entry? If so, I apologise – and promise that tomorrow’s episode will be better. (In that respect, perhaps my blog is a bit like Lost: a long mid-season slump, but the “huh?!”-inducing revelations at the end of the season will keep all of you coming back. Mwhaha.)

It’s opera, doc! With guns! And harmonicas!

Just a quick post to complement my “Hello world!” entry. Me and my ladylove just watched Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I’d forgotten just how much Leone indulges in the sheer, unapologetic over-the-top grandiosity of his movie. The style’s so easily recognisable and even more easily parodied, it shouldn’t work… but it does. Boy, does it work. It’s archetypical, operatic, and oh-so-watchable. If you have time (and have seen the film before – I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you otherwise), check out this video, containing the entire showdown:

Leone’s way of building up tension until it’s almost unbearable, and then releasing it in short bursts of violence, is masterful. I’ll definitely have to get my girl to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with me one of those days…

(Having said all this, though, I must say that Leone’s sexual politics, in this film but even more in Once Upon a Time in America, are pretty hard to swallow these days. I mean, check out this quote: “You know what? If I was you, I’d go down there and give those boys a drink. Can’t imagine how happy it makes a man to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it.” Yeah, right. The guys out there in the sand have worked hard, so they’ve earned the right to paw you. Sure, no prob…)