Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #29: Forrest Gump

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Forrest Gump
(released July 1994)

Tom Hanks as the title character in Forrest Gump

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Forrest Gump establishes it's idiosyncratic sense of humor and structure right away. The simpleminded titular character, a man in his 30s, strikes up a conversation about his childhood with an African American woman while siting on a bench waiting for a bus. With naive obliviousness, he tells her he was named after a distant relative, "the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest." And then he adds a bit more biographical information: "He started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan." I'd have appreciated seeing her reaction to that because, you know, that would make some sense. But, no. Instead, the movie jumps head first into a rabbit hole of flashbacks. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is going to tell his life story to anyone who sits down next to him on that bench, whether they like it or not.

Raised in a rural part of Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, Young Forrest (played wonderfully by Michael Connor Humphreys) has to wear braces on his legs for some kind of medical condition that never gets a name -- the whole movie is going to be like that, so get used to it. The local public school principal informs Mrs. Gump (Sally Field) that Forrest has an IQ of 75 and needs to go to a special school. Forrest is "a bit on the slow side," she concedes, but her child is going to get the same education as everyone else, so she sleeps with the principal to make sure that happens. It's never clear if she has to sleep with a new administrator or teacher every year just to keep the kid enrolled, but this is not a movie that's interested in details like that anyway. This is a movie that wants you to react to the fact that Forrest overhears that business about his IQ and the sexual encounter his mother has with the principal. This is also not a movie that has any interest in telling you what happened to Forrest's father. At all. Did he die? Did he disappear? Did Mrs. Gump murder Mr. Gump, butcher the parts and feed him to the inhabitants of her boarding house? It's a mystery.

Nobody wants to have anything do with Young Forrest except a classmate named Jenny. They hang out, climb trees together and she encourages him to run fast whenever the school bullies are chasing him or pummeling him with rocks. Jenny comes from a broken home and her father sexually abuses her. But this is not a movie that's going to dwell on that for more that 30 seconds, so let's all just move on. Jenny and Forrest (somehow, miraculously) graduate high school. Jenny is college material. Forrest can run really, really fast. One day he runs through a football scrimmage and impresses the coach so much that he ends up playing football at the University of Alabama. And earning a college degree. So, let's review: IQ of 75, high school and university graduate, college football star. Do we ever see Forrest in even one classroom situation? Nope. This is not a movie that believes you need to see someone with borderline intellectual functioning, you know, struggling to comprehend something.

Forrest enlists in the Army after a recruiter asks, "Have you given any thought to your future?" He ends up in Vietnam, giving the filmmakers lots of opportunities to blow up stuff while they pack the soundtrack with some of the era's most popular songs. Forrest does take a bullet to the "but-tocks," but still fares better than everyone around him and is awarded the Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Jenny (Robin Wright) pursues her dream. "I wanna be famous. I wanna be a singer like Joan Baez." Interestingly, Joan Baez does not appear on the soundtrack. Anyway, Jenny poses for Playboy, gets a job as a topless folk singer in a dive bar where no one is interested in her voice, turns into an anti-war hippie with bad taste in men, and then falls under the spell of disco and cocaine.  Forrest and Jenny cross paths throughout the movie, interacting just long enough to for you to ascertain that he loves her and she's a sad, tragic mess with pretty good fashion sense.

Adapting a not particularly well-received book by Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth departs significantly from the source material to create something like an epic, genre-bending fusion of melodrama, comedy, reality and fantasy. As Forrest guilelessly stumbles through a tumultuous time in American history, the movie plays like a goofy ode to the latter half of the 20th century. Broken down, a significant portion of the film is made up of loose vignettes that provide excuses for the visual effects technicians to seamlessly insert Forrest into a number of preposterous scenarios -- he meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; he starts college at the same time the University of Alabama is integrated; and he appears on a talk show seated next to John Lennon. These are all awe-inspiring effects, even 20 years later, but Roth and director Robert Zemeckis don't know when to stop with the technical wizardry and historical grave robbing and just tell a story. I was amused by an early scene where Young Forrest inspires Elvis Presley to actualize his signature hip-swiveling dance moves, but I was rolling my eyes by the time Adult Forrest inadvertently motivates John Lennon to write "Imagine."

Forrest Gump moves along briskly. It's infused with a quirky sense of humor and filled with extraordinary visuals. Tom Hanks is probably about as good as an actor could be in a role like this. Forrest views the world simply and truthfully -- Hanks nails that, conscientiously avoiding the kind of acting that would make the character pitiable. As Forrest's Vietnam platoon leader, Gary Sinese has the film's most emotionally resonant character arc -- it's heavy-handed stuff, but Sinese doesn't overplay the material. And that's the good. The bad? Alan Silvestri's swelling musical score and all those pop tunes are designed to thrash your heart and rattle every nostalgic bone in your body. Sally Field is utterly wasted as Mrs. Gump -- the character is peripheral at best and should have been fleshed out by a good character actress who might have at least tried to get the Alabama accent right; Field's star power is just distracting. The Forrest/Jenny relationship is the movie's only real through line. We're supposed to care whether they end up together or not. Hanks and Robin Wright try hard to keep us invested, but the overwhelming number of superfluous elements and historical digressions supplant the narrative.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, The Polar Express) stages some amazing "Look what we can do!" sequences. The problem is that there's just no dramatic basis for all the big moments in Roth's script. Forrest is rubbing up against all those presidents because Hollywood figured out how to convincingly insert real actors into archival footage. Forrest becomes a world champion ping pong player because Hollywood figured out how to make it look like he's hitting a ball that's not even there. All these brilliant technical advancements make Forrest Gump an achievement, not a good movie. You have to ask yourself, among other things: "Why is Forrest sitting on that bus stop bench eagerly telling his emphatically absurd life story to strangers anyway?" The movie is a goddamn epic, so what's the point? Well, it does try to make some kind of point about destiny vs. the randomness of fate, I think. But it mostly ends up suggesting that the borderline intellectual functioning meek will inherit the earth.

Stray Gay Observations:

What the hell is this movie supposed to be? Is Forrest Gump a parable? For that to be true, there needs to be some kind of discernible moral or spiritual lesson. Here's what you get: "My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." I do understand someone with an IQ of 75 mistaking that for a deep philosophical message, but the rest of us have no excuse. Really, the only things missing from Forrest Gump are talking animals. If there were talking animals, I might be able to call this story a fable. Fables typically feature some talking animals and a lesson. But even a talking animal couldn't sell that business about the box of chocolates.

During one vignette, Forrest runs back and forth across the country, from coast to coast. It takes him, to be exact, "three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours." This is really no more farfetched than anything else in the movie, except for the fact that the filmmakers not-so-subtly bestow a Christ-like quality upon Forrest around the same time. That's when I started to worry that this movie was going to end with Forrest ascending into heaven and taking a seat at the right hand of the Father.

You know those movies where a character visits someone's grave and has a heartfelt, teary-eyed conversation with a headstone? That's probably my least favorite cinematic trope of all time -- it's lazy, hackneyed and mawkish. If there are real, live human beings who go to cemeteries and spill their guts to slabs of granite, I don't want to know them. Forrest Gump does this twice -- twice! -- in the movie, and I'm not inclined to give him a pass just because he has an IQ of 75.

Forrest Gump ends around 1983, just in time for one character to be diagnosed with "a virus." They're talking about HIV, of course. It's introduced awkwardly, handled superficially and feels like a punishment -- for the character and the audience.

In the twenty years since its release, I've heard Forrest Gump described as a patriotic film and a paean to the American Dream. Jumping to either of those conclusions must take some fancy mental gymnastics. It's simply impossible for me to ignore the film's twisted central premise: Forrest Gump is the luckiest dumb bastard in the world. He succeeds at everything, accidentally and without ambition. Just about everyone else in his orbit fails, flounders or becomes a fatality (seriously, dude is like the Angel of Death). So, it's possible to read the film as a dark, dark comedy about the fickleness and mendacity of the American Dream. Or, it's possible to read it as a curious grand mockery of the American Dream. And I'd be fine with either of those scenarios because a solid, subversive skewering of the so-called American Dream should never be off limits. I just don't think the filmmakers were that clever. Forrest Gump is a tone deaf, super-sized amalgam of whimsy, bathos and tragedy.

Should You See It? Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thinks so. It won six Oscars -- Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture. If you want to see what state of the art visual effects looked like in 1994, Forrest Gump is worth a look. Otherwise, this movie is so calculatedly manipulative that I found myself actively disliking it at fairly regular intervals. I unequivocally hated the last thirty minutes.

Next: The Bodyguard (1992)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #28: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (released October 1974)

Gunnar Hansen as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Here's the trailer for the 40th anniversary re-release in summer 2014...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It all begins with one of those portentous opening scrolls, read aloud by the most serious-sounding dude they could find...
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Okay, three things... (1) The actual title of this movie is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's right there in the opening scroll. Since I never see chainsaw spelled as two words, I looked it up. The Oxford, Cambridge and Urban dictionaries all assured me it's just one word. Merriam-Webster says it's two words, with no explanation for their contrariness. (2) This is not based on a true story. Nope. It's just inspired by Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer and grave robber who fashioned trophies and keepsakes from bones and human skin. Writer/director Tobe Hooper added a chainsaw to the mix after spotting one while standing in line at a hardware store; Gein never used one. (3) That "idyllic summer afternoon drive" mentioned in the scroll? No. The reason these five twentysomethings are driving around rural Texas in triple-digit heat is because of news reports about vandalized graves -- Sally assembles everyone and makes her boyfriend drive his van to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere to see if her great-grandfather is still resting in peace. What's idyllic about that? That's a terrible way to spend a summer afternoon. In fact, this is like a horrific lost episode of Scooby Doo.

So, who do we have in the van? There's Sally and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin. Sally's boyfriend, Jerry, and their friends, Pam and Kirk. Hearing a lot of bad news on the radio, amateur astrologer Pam explains it to the gang: "Saturn is a bad influence. It's just a particularly bad influence now because it's in retrograde." And then they spot a hitchhiker, have five seconds of conversation about how he probably works for the local cattle slaughterhouse and decide to give him a ride, primarily to spare him from the heat. Pam's the only one with an objection to this. "Oh, he's weird-looking. No!" There's a streak of blood on his face, he's got an animal-fur man purse hanging around his neck, and he over-shares about the best way to kill a cow. Hint: You hit them on the head with a mallet. Repeatedly. Until they die. And then the hitchhiker starts waving a knife around, cutting himself and Franklin before they can throw him out of the van.

This is the hitchhiker. I mean, seriously. 
The gang stops for gas, but the twitchy attendant tells them the pumps are empty, so they head off to find the farmhouse Sally's family abandoned years ago. They find it -- dilapidated, filled with spiders, but within walking distance of another house. Kirk and Pam think maybe the owners might give them some gasoline if they ask politely enough. That turns out to be one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, of course, because the occupants are a cannibal family with an intellectually disabled, chainsaw-wielding adult son who probably can't read or write but excels at the kind of skills one might pick up working in a cattle slaughterhouse.

Here's the truth: I've been avoiding this movie for a long time. I'd even relegated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to what I like to call the That-Shit-Can-Really-Happen subgenre of horror movies. Other famous entries in this category include Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. See, I can certainly be scared by movies about haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possession or monsters, but I don't believe in any of those things. Haven't for years. Silent, savage killers like Jason or Michael Myers from the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, respectively, have been given supernatural strengths (and immortality) by the filmmakers, so I just don't find them authentic or compelling. What really freaks me out are profoundly unbalanced people with knives or chainsaws and a sickening inclination for torture and killing and doing incomprehensible things with human body parts. Because... That. Shit. Can. Happen.

Often described as a watershed moment in American horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre essentially ratchets Psycho up to 11 and perennially lands on every list of the best/scariest horror movies of all time -- usually in the top 5. Made for around $85,000 with an inexperienced cast , it endures right alongside The Exorcist (1973), an $8 million studio blockbuster with stars and state-of-the-art technical wizardry. And while both provoked media controversy, it was Chain Saw that was rejected by theaters and banned in countries all over the world. Both films break new ground in horror, so why the difference in treatment? I have a personal theory. The Exorcist and Chain Saw were released less than a year apart. Because of their R ratings, I was too young to see either without a parent or adult guardian. My sister, eleven years older than me, said, "Do you want to see The Exorcist?" I did. My mother agreed to this because it was a major studio release based on a best-selling book and she recognized some of the actors involved. What could go wrong? (Well, for one thing, I didn't sleep for three nights after I saw it.) On the other hand,  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sounds like a lurid, low-budget exploitation flick explicitly made for people with bad taste and twisted minds. Civic-minded theater owners, movie critics and mothers tend to unite in their disapproval over a thing like that.

But there's a reason Chain Saw is recognized as a classic today: it's good. Sure, I could quibble about that deceptive and wholly unnecessary opening scroll, but it's the only real misstep. Writer and director Tobe Hooper relies more on atmosphere and tension than gore -- from the sounds of a shovel breaking dirt, crackling bones and disembodied radio voices to the sights of skeletal remains, meat hooks and a man in a homemade mask of human skin. It may take a solid 30 minutes for the first death to happen, but that time is never wasted -- the characters are sketched out enough for you to care about their fates and the dread becomes palpable. Hooper draws unexpectedly strong performances from his cast of unknowns, too, particularly Marilyn Burns as Sally. Once that chainsaw starts buzzing away, Burns goes from desperate woman to abject terror personified. She may actually be the Meryl Streep of scream queens.

I also want to talk about Tobe Hooper's script because it's so much smarter than it ever had to be with a title like that. He's written his doomed characters as ordinary and unlucky, not horny and stupid. The chainsaw-wielding "Leatherface" is one of the most iconic killers in history, but Hooper gives him no supernatural or superhuman characteristics -- he's obviously an intellectually disabled young adult who's been taught to butcher people by a deeply depraved and impoverished family. His human skin mask looks like the bizarre craft project of an untalented child. Amidst all the gruesome mayhem, Hooper pulls back just long enough to give the audience a quiet moment alone with Leatherface. It's hard not to think, "This poor creature has probably never had any sense of right or wrong." You're still terrified, but it's almost as if Hooper is saying, "Come on, I dare you not to feel some pity for this guy."

When I reviewed Pink Flamingos (1972) for this series, I acknowledged that while it's an assertively disgusting film, I really admired writer/director John Waters for his unapologetic attitude and the perseverance it must have taken to get his vision on screen. I feel similarly about first-time writer/director Tobe Hooper here. Waters and Hooper excelled at defiantly transgressive, anarchic filmmaking. The difference, for me, is that Hooper is a better storyteller and a better filmmaker. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deceptively simple, absolutely harrowing and most giddily sick, but I'd be willing to defend it as a near-masterpiece that absolutely earned its place in New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent film collection. Can you name another movie that starts out as straight-up horror and fluidly pivots into an astonishingly dark comedy?

Stray Gay Observations:

Somewhere in the United States, a cannibal family is shopping at Walmart right now. I'm convinced of it.

Naturally, I noticed the costumes. Lots of bell bottom pants, a fashion trend that bridged the 1960s and '70s, then reappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, Cher has been around long enough to both popularize the style and refuse to have anything to do with its rebirth.

Think about this: how often do you hear male characters scream in a movie? Very rarely, and usually for comic effect. In Chain Saw, one on the guys is abruptly confronted by the man in the human skin mask. He has the single most natural male scream I've ever heard in a film. And it's not funny.

Now, I'm going to show you a picture of William Vail, the actor who plays Kirk. I'm just showing you this because he's hot. His death was particularly unsettling for me because he's hot. And no, I don't think you needed a spoiler alert about that; massacre is right there in the title. Vail made four movies and then became a set decorator.

William Vail (far right) as Kirk. Far too cute to be a chainsaw massacre victim.

You probably won't believe this, but Marilyn Burns was found dead in her Houston home the same day I watched this movie. She was 65. When I read the news online, I immediately thought, "Wow, that's eerie." And then I found out she was born in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Burns earned a Bachelor's degree in Drama from the University of Texas at Austin in 1971. She made about a dozen films, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, shot in the summer of 1973, was her first film role. In a 2013 interview, Burns said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that almost 40 years later I would be talking about it."

Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty -- a manic, bloody mess by the end of the movie.

Originally, the house used in the film was located in Round Rock, Texas. In 1998, it was cut up into little pieces... um, sections... and transported to Kingsland, Texas. It was put back together and renovated into a restaurant. Because, you know, that's the kind of thing we do in America.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Restaurant
(Actually, as of this writing it's called Grand Central Cafe.)

Should You See It? To my surprise, I liked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a lot. I've probably seen a couple of hundred horror movies in my life, but this one has a visceral edge and a striking aural intensity that really works your nerves. You'll recognize so many familiar tropes here -- the creepy hitchhiker, the crazy old man with an opaque warning about evil in the world, the masked slayer and the lone survivor, otherwise known as the Final Girl. This is pretty much the movie that invented them all 40 years ago, and it's been ripped off in every way since then. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has spawned sequels, remakes and reboots -- six to be exact -- and I'm not interested in seeing a single one of them because I imagine the only things they have to offer are increasingly sophisticated special effects and bigger body counts. This is not a movie that needed a do-over. They got it right the first time.

Next: Forrest Gump (1994)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 5

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my ass crack. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! Volume 5 in this series features earworms from Hercules & Love Affair with John Grant, Jungle, and The Gaslight Anthem.

Hercules & Love Affair. Formed in 2004, Hercules & Love Affair is a collaborative disco-house project from DJ Andy Butler that features a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists. Yup, there's disco in Butler's DNA, but the sound is a unique and ambitious revival. He also co-wrote my favorite dancefloor hit of 2008, "Blind." Website is here.

DJ Andy Butler, the sexy ginger beast behind Hercules & Love Affair
First job: DJing at a leather bar in Denver

Song & Video -- "I Try to Talk to You" featuring John Grant. Butler got a surprise when he collaborated with gay singer/songwriter John Grant on the song lyrics. Butler recalls: "He tackled the story of becoming HIV-positive, and while I mentioned to him that he did not need to go there if he was not comfortable, in that beautifully punky, spirited and courageous way he has about him, he told me that was what the song was going to be about. What came of it is an elegant song featuring John singing and playing his heart out." Serious and haunting, yes, but also a shimmering dance track. The evocative video depicts two men engaged in a lover's quarrel -- all done through an enthralling interpretive dance.

John Grant and Andy Butler
To read an excellent article about these guys, go here.

The two producers behind this London band, J (Josh Lloyd Watson) and T (Tom McFarland), have done a good job of remaining deliberately mysterious about themselves and the musicians making the music. Essentially, they have no public image because they decline to be photographed for interviews. And thus far, the band hasn't even appeared in their own videos -- it's just dancers. But the buzz about their live appearances has been good and the modern revivalist funk sound is atmospheric and pretty groovy. Check out their website here.

These are the musicians that show up for Jungle's live shows, mostly. Sometimes there are more.
I can't find all their names. And believe me, I tried to get the name of the hot guy in the Cubs jacket.

Song & Video: "Busy Earnin'" --  It's a perfect blending of electro funk and a bright, soulful falsetto with a relatable message. Skipping narrative, the video features a dozen diverse dancers in a big white room. It's all intricate, kick-ass choreography with plenty of attitude. How do you make a perfect dance video? Skip the obnoxious quick cuts and place the emphasis on the dancing.

The Gaslight Anthem. These New Jersey rockers came together in 2006. Their sound has evolved from punk to something a little more accessible perhaps, but the lyrics and Brian Fallon's lead vocals are consistently heartfelt. Their fifth album, Get Hurt, arrives this summer. Frontman Fallon promises a "completely different vibe," and recently told British music journalism publication NME this: "You get a realization at some point in your career that whatever it is you do, you can no longer continue to do it. You just realize you can't put out the same records forever."

The Gaslight Anthem
Left to right: Alex Levine, Brian Fallon, Benny Horowitz & Alex Rosamilia 

Song & Video: "Get Hurt" --  According to Fallon (via Rolling Stone), "The song itself is similar to the feeling of a wreck you see coming, but long past the point you can avoid it." And that "completely different vibe" he was talking about is not hyperbole. This is more mellow than what the band is known for, but Fallon's voice is as a raw and passionate as ever. The video places the band in a simple barroom setting surrounded by melancholy patrons who suddenly become interpretive dancers when the chorus kicks in. Sublime song + silly concept = something plenty watchable.

Wanna see more music in this series? Check out volume 1 here, volume 2 here, volume 3 here and volume 4 here. Enjoy!