June 20, 2010

Catching up on a lost cinematic childhood

I will begin by saying that I was NOT raised Mormon, or any other religion that forbids its followers from viewing or otherwise experiencing certain media. What does that have to do with anything? Well, it might be your first assumption when I reveal the surprising list of films I did not see growing up.

If it was a classic loved by children and young adults from the 80s (or thereabouts), I almost certainly missed it. Back to the Future. The Star Wars trilogy. Ghostbusters. Honestly, I don't know what happened. Your parents are your first source of pop culture influence, and my parents couldn't care less about it. They never prevented me from seeing anything (within reason, of course), but they never encouraged me to watch anything either. (It was the same with music - I don't think I was even exposed to the Beatles until high school, and I had to seek them out.) The lone exceptions were the time that my mom held me hostage when I was home sick and made me watch The Sound of Music, and the fact that my dad often tried to convince me and my sister to watch violent action movies on TV with him. Not even good action movies, either - but drab, explodey ones with the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (I seem to recall one where Lundgren freaks out anytime he sees anything white?). I didn't get great movie exposure from friends either. So suddenly I found myself as a college student who hadn't seem some of the most beloved films of my own generation.

I feel pretty good about my standing with the film history/film snob canon, but I'd be remiss to dismiss its popular cousin. So, under the guidance of my boyfriend (who had a normal childhood), and a contribution from a similarly-normal ex, I sought to rectify this situation. It's strange and a bit sad to experience this films solely as an adult, but frankly, I'm not sure how much I would have liked a lot of them when I was younger. The best jokes would have gone over my head, and anything remotely unnerving would have scarred me for life (I'm still a relative wimp, but I once ran away screaming from slightly ominous segment on "Sesame Street," to give you an idea). Plus, I'm free from the constraints of nostalgia, or even nostalgia's nameless relative wherein I didn't even particularly love something as a kid but I'm still unable to evaluate it objectively. (For me, that's The Wizard of Oz. I don't even know if I liked it, but it's just the goddamn Wizard of Oz!).

So here is my progress so far. I have viewed all of these films for the first time at age 20 or older.

Alien (1979)
Wow. Wow wow wow. Can you believe that this film is over 30 years old? I can't. The set and prop design and special effects haven't aged a day, and the cast maintains a pitch-perfect sense of tense restraint. The suspense is orchestrated beautifully, and I didn't see the twists coming at all (maybe I was just lucky enough to avoid hearing about them). Definitely something that darling little girls don't typically see, but all the boys did and I owed it to myself as a film fan. I'm not naturally predisposed to sci-fi/horror, but this one won me over hook, line, and sinker.

Aliens (1986)
So remember everything I liked about the original? Well, remove that, and you end up with Aliens. I've detailed my troubled relationship with James Cameron already, and this is no exception. I understand that it's an action movie instead of sci-fi or horror, but it wasn't really working for me on that level either. Sure, there are impressive moments, but I was bummed that Cameron traded the sterile, futuristic environment for something resembling a flashy 80s music video. A lot of the compositions felt frenzied and cluttered, and almost all the characters (Ripley excluded) were goofy 80s stereotypes. Ripley's ascension to heroine was of course fantastic, but we all agree that Newt is annoying and lame. I know she needs to be there for the maternal themes, but how awesome would it have been if Ripley just kept saving her lesser male comrades? Also, I felt an overwhelming sense that they were trying to disguise a lack of actual aliens. The "don't show the monster" approach can be effective in low-budget, atmospheric horror, but it just seems pathetic in an action blockbuster.

Back to the Future (1985)
Most of the time, the three-act structure seems like a drag - "oh, now it's time for the low point!", etc. But it was not originally intended to weigh films down, but to give them life, and sometimes there are films that execute it so perfectly that they freakin sparkle. BTTF is a well-oiled machine that glides along without so much as a hiccup. Everything works, be it Michael J. Fox's boyish charm, the quaint world of the 1950s, the lovably insane Doc Brown, the incalculable menace of Biff, or the thrill of a ride in a souped-up DeLorean. It's good clean fun that never takes itself too seriously. It's a shame I didn't see this as a kid, but as you can see, it's never too late!

A Christmas Story (1983)
My reason for not seeing this one as a kid is simple: it's about Christmas. Being raised Jewish, Christmas was just that stupid day that I never got to be a part of, so I didn't feel compelled to participate in any of its cinematic traditions (even though many are good films in their own right). But when I watched the movie a couple of years ago, I realized that it's something that even a surly Scientologist could enjoy. The depictions of a wacky family transcend all generations and religions. I might even go so far as to say that it's the perfect holiday movie - it has the same theme as all of them (family and loved ones are what matters most at Christmastime) but wrapped in a twisted, sweet-and-sour package that includes scary Santas, f-bombs, leg lamps, BB guns, and a Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The introspective voiceover also keeps the proceedings from getting too treacly. Pity I didn't catch any TV showings of it when I was little, but I have many Christmases to come.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)
As I wrote in a previous post about "dumb comedy", don't let the title here fool you - this is a smartly-executed flick. A testament to its comedy is the fact that the things I laughed at the most had much more to do with the actors' delivery than the actual lines. Some of the more scatological gags weren't really my scene, but Carrey and Daniels play off each other with such impeccable timing that I'm not really sure how you couldn't dig this one.

Ghostbusters (1984)
In a word: yay! I was lucky enough to see it in a theater, even, no doubt filled with people who loved it in their youth. I realized that I was primarily familiar with Bill Murray's "serious" work, so it was great to see him play freewheeling and silly while still maintaining a deadpan edge (the rest of the gang is great too, of course). I think a trap that many comedies run into (particularly in the 80s) is that they try either too little or too much to make you laugh. Too little when they expect you to find the most basic of premises and situations funny, and too much when they're really straining for yuks. Ghostbusters hits the sweet spot, though - a pleasant and zany ride with demented supernatural elements (giant marshmallow man?!).

Jurassic Park (1993)
Action or effects-driven movies can often be like softcore porn: you have to sit through the silly talky parts to get to the good stuff. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaur sequences, particularly the T-Rex chase in the rain, are stunning. But the characters and everything else fall flat. Am I asking too much when I want my popcorn movies to be consistently entertaining? I don't think so, because those movies do exist. I also have trouble with the notion that an insanely brilliant scientist would put GIANT AGGRESSIVE CARNIVOROUS BEASTS in his park, when a park full of herbivorous dinosaurs would earn him just as much money and acclaim.

Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The problem with some sci-fi/action films that are intended as franchises (or that just end up being one) is that the first one has to go through the motions of establishing the world and the character histories. Sometimes this can be fun ("I was bitten by a radioactive spider and now weird things are happening!"), but even at its best, it's typically more fun in the sequels when you can take everything you've established and just play. Thus, I found Empire to be much more enjoyable, because it could build on the somewhat dull foundations of the original. Han was more charming, Luke more heroic, Vader more villainous, the situations more dire, the Force stronger...you name it. The first one seemed to be more about "look at these crazy planets and creatures I made up!". The prevailing theory is just that Lucas is a weak director. Who knows. For me, Empire offered some genuine thrills, which I just found to be lacking in the first. I have yet to see Return of the Jedi - look for that in a future installment!

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
I have rarely felt James Cameron movies to be anything more than vehicles for technological innovation. If he was in charge of the special effects and left the writing and directing to someone else, I think the final product would be infinitely better. The Terminator films at least have an interesting premise that Cameron cooked up himself, but he struggles to carry it. Even if he did do it first, the fact that the world must be saved by a helpless-looking and unlikely candidate is unbearably cliched by now. The goofiness of the doctors and cops who don't believe Sarah Connor is over the top, Edward Furlong is annoying, some of the effects are distractingly bad (which would be fine if others weren't amazing - clearly there are capable people working on this, and it's the disparity that's the problem), and it's a little troubling to see Sarah fall for what might be nothing more than the most elaborate pick-up attempt of all time. The presence of Ahnuld makes for automatic camp, and I wish they had given in to that lighter tone more instead of making these films the deadly-serious affair that they are.  

That's it for now, but I still have to see Die Hard, the Indiana Jones films, Return of the Jedi and any or all Bond films, at least.

What childhood classics did you catch up on later? How did they stack up?

1 comment:

DGB said...

Wow...I really dig this post.

For a second there I was afraid you were going to say you didn't think the structure of BTTF worked. It is one of the best structured screenplays in movie history. There isn't a scrap of story that's wasted.

I had the same experience with Christmas Story too. Always seemed to miss it and my non-Jewish friends refused to watch it after the holidays.

My other watched when I was a grownup movie was Willy Wonka. It freaked me out as a kid. Less so as an adult.