April 25, 2011

Aural pleasure

Tired of what's on your iPod? Craving something new for your boring workdays or commute? If you meet that criteria AND consider yourself a fan of classic Hollywood, then I have a solution for you.

Having exhausted my music library while working at my data entry job, I thought I'd try to find some old-timey radio shows streaming online. The results fall into two basic categories - narrative shows and variety. The narrative shows can be a lot of fun too (frequently adaptation of popular movies, often with the original stars), but today I'm really into a variety show called Command Performance.

It appears to have been a wartime show that ran in the 40s, and was transmitted directly to troops overseas. There was no regular host - the hosts and guests were "nominated" every week by the requests of servicemen (although a small batch of usual suspects tended to dominate hosting duties). The roster of talent is a who's who of the era - Crosby, Hope, Garland, Sinatra, Bogart, Bacall, you name it. Although some of the humor hasn't aged so well, it's surprising how much of it has. It's great to hear these stars letting loose and ripping on each other - I learned, for instance, that Frank Sinatra's small build was a source of great amusement among his peers (seriously, every episode he was on was a merciless assault on his manliness).  Even though the shows are scripted, the constant teasing, giggling, and in-jokes of the stars makes you feel like a fly on the wall at a Hollywood party.

Listen in here or here, or download episodes via iTunes.  (Note: some of the shows seem to consist almost entirely of musical performances, so you may have to shuffle around a bit.)

This discovery has definitely brightened my Monday. And if that wasn't enough, apparently one of their special episodes was an hourlong musical adaptation of Dick Tracy! Enjoy!

April 7, 2011

Does the communal aspect of moviegoing really matter?

There is no doubt or disagreement that movies are best viewed on the big screen. If you present people with the option to view a film any way they choose, if all methods were equally priced and equally convenient then the theater would win out every time. Even all the kids watching movies on their iWhatsits wouldn't argue that point. Unfortunately, however, the iWhatsits - along with various other forms of digital and personal media - are killing off movie theaters, as every critic and blogger is quick to note.

But many are also quick to note (Manohla Dargis, most recently) that the death of theaters doesn't just extend to the physical structures containing large screens, but the communal viewing experience. We're watching movies sequestered away in our homes, or on tiny screens that only one person can view at a time. Many articles cite this phenomenon as the biggest casualty in the shift away from traditional moviegoing. I am alone, then, in wondering why it's such a big tragedy?

Dargis' article spells out in numerous ways how audiences are becoming fragmented, but doesn't really explain why that's a bad thing. She boasts that she spent two hours waiting in the cold to see Raging Bull with other eager beavers, but doesn't really articulate why or if that made the viewing experience better. I watched Raging Bull by myself on DVD and it was still fantastic. Ultimately, she just comes off as scared and resentful that times are changing.

The biggest argument in favor of communal viewing is shared emotions, which I don't entirely disagree with. However, there are really only some genres that benefit. Comedies obviously receive a boost when a whole crowd is laughing along, and some shrieks and gasps might enhance a horror flick. But that's about it, and even then an audience doesn't always improve the experience. I've seen comedies where the jokes weren't connecting with anyone in the audience but me, and the silence surrounding my laughter was stifling. Similarly, an excessively vocal viewer can deflate the tension in a suspenseful film.

But what about drama? Documentary? Mystery? Isn't the best you can hope for that people just shut up and you forget that they're present? The whole notion that you're, like, sharing an emotional mindspace or whatever is a bit new-agey for me. How often in a theater are you really existing in that mindspace instead of thinking "wow, that's incredibly sad" or "LOLZ" or "so it's a dream WITHIN a dream?!" The best case scenario, at least in my opinion, is that the film is absorbing enough that you forget everything else.

People can be assholes at the theater. Even in the earliest days of cinema, moviegoers had to contend with women's ornate headpieces. Those days are gone, but we still have talkers, texters, shushers, hecklers, chewers, coughers, latecomers, indiscriminate laughers, crazy homeless yellers, and crying/screaming children. And let's not forget the occasional patron who stabs people with a meat thermometer. The odds are really stacked against you when you enter a theater, and yet most people manage to behave themselves. But are they really adding anything to your experience? Would an empty matinee showing be less enjoyable than a packed evening one, even one packed with perfectly behaved viewers?

I've had many solo or intimate viewing experiences that I wouldn't trade for the world. I watched the entire five and a half hour TV version of Ingmar Bergman's contemplative Fanny and Alexander with my boyfriend in our gloriously quiet apartment. I've watched comedies with a handful of friends that share my exact comedic wavelength. I've helped my boyfriend plan around his then-roommates' schedules so we could watch certain films in a sacred zone free of interruption. I've watched some kooky and/or culty films alone or with my boyfriend, knowing full well that the mysterious spells they cast would have been violently obliterated by nonstop seizures of laughter from audience members who interpret anything slightly off as riotously funny. Some films need room to breathe, and a packed house can suffocate it.

The line is also blurry when you consider television. Another favorite topic of bloggers these days is how we're in a TV renaissance, with content like Mad Men and Breaking Bad resembling, rivalling, and often surpassing what we can see in a theater. Where's the demand for these shows to have a communal experience? Why do we need to watch all films (even subpar ones) in a theater for the full experience, but no one questions that we're watching similarly (or more) cinematic content at home on TV? Probably because, like movies in a theater, that's just how it's always been done.

I'll keep going to the theater, because I want to see films sooner and because the presentation is better than it would be at home. I don't just dismiss the whole experience in one fell swoop - none of this "stupid kids and their Inceptions and textphones and it all costs a million dollars and I'll just stay home!" nonsense. (And by the way, all those articles saying that a night at the movies for a family of four costs more than a Porsche can suck it. Go sometime other than Saturday night at 7:00pm, find a coupon, bring your own damn food, and quit whining.) But when I strike it rich, I'm building myself my own personal Arclight and shipping in new prints every day for myself and my closest friends. You should probably start sucking up to me now, just in case.

What do you think? Is the communal aspect of moviegoing important to you?

April 1, 2011

Movie Memories: Dunston Checks In

In the last edition of Movie Memories, I teased an upcoming feature involving a very minor celebrity. And now that time has come. Get pumped.

It just so happened one day that I found myself watching Dunston Checks In, a kiddie flick detailing the escapades of a rascally orangutan and the patrons of a luxury hotel, with its star. Unfortunately I'm not referring to the monkey, but rather its child star, Eric Lloyd.

How did this come to pass?

I never went to a sleepaway camp in the traditional sense, but in the summer before my junior year of high school, I went to film camp. The knee-jerk reaction of comparing it to band camp upon first hearing the phrase is actually rather apt - it's a group of teenagers with raging hormones thrown together in a residential environment to hone a craft. It was a one-month program at Harvard where we produced several short films on 16mm, from soup to nuts. And man, it was a wild ride. I had crushes on at least four guys, at least four had crushes on me, and three of those ended up going somewhere (four if you count the guy who intermittently stalked me for years afterward). There were friends and enemies, heartbreak and rapture, celluloid and digital. I learned a lot about myself. And I learned who Eric Lloyd was.

Barely two hours after arriving at camp, buzz started to circulate that there was a celebrity in our midst. It wasn't immediately obvious, because the individual in question was known primarily as a child star, but it was soon revealed that our fellow camper was "the kid from the Santa Clause movies, y'know, the one who plays Tim Allen's son." He tried to downplay this fact in his introductions, but begrudgingly admitted that it was true. He said he was interested in being on the other side of the camera, however, and we mostly respected that and dropped the subject.

Until the last night, that is.

We were all high off the accomplishment of finishing our final projects, which we had screened earlier that day. In the final week, someone figured out that our dorm building had a "secret" basement with a huge TV and foosball table that no one had bothered to tell us about. Despite the fact that over the course of the session, the campers had sort of split into two factions (myself being one of the few people who could claim membership in both), we all came together on this joyful night. While debating how to celebrate, someone suggested that we watch Dunston Checks In. This would have been a very strange suggestion indeed, if not for the fact that we would have the unique opportunity of watching it with its star, seven years after its release. Everyone jumped at the idea - except Eric, naturally. I have to say, however, that he proved to be a tremendously good sport about the entire affair. He was actually a really nice guy, and seemed immune to the cool kid repellent I seem to have mixed into my bloodstream.

I'm not even sure why this movie was so readily available (perhaps someone had rented it just in case?), but someone got it and popped it in. Eric was planted front and center on the couch, so everyone could watch him squirm. Watching embarassing home movies is hard enough - imagine if your childhood antics and awkwardness were preserved as major theatrical releases? He really took it in stride, though. Whenever we glanced at him after a particularly groan-inducing bit, he just gave a shrug and a chuckle. We really weren't trying to humiliate him - it was more for the trippy experience of watching the screen, then turning around and seeing the same person seven years older. (Cries of "he's on the screen! he's right here!" punctuated the first third or so of the movie). He even provided behind-the-scenes commentary - we learned, for example, that costar Jason Alexander is a trained masseuse and offered massages on set. (Seinfeld fans, insert "it moved" joke here.)

So there we were, a bunch of cinema-loving teens, watching an unapologetically bad kids' movie on our last night together. Yet instead of the snarky irony that usually accompanies such occasions, the mood here was strangely warm and affectionate, possibly because we would all be parting ways the next day. It's possible that I'm just remembering it incorrectly, but it remains in my memory as a happy ending to a crazy month.