Nicolas Cage outrunning one of many explosions in Con Air
Every now and then, I really enjoy watching a big, dumb, noisy Hollywood action film. They’re like big bowls of movie ice cream with all the toppings: totally irresistible and more than a little silly. Fun as they are, one would not want one’s entire cinematic intake to be made up of American action movies any more than one would want to eat nothing but ice cream sundaes.
For no reason at all, I recently pulled from the shelf my Blu-ray (you read that right) of Simon West’s 1997 film Con Air. It is as over-the-top and explodey as I remember. Big and silly and utterly nonsensical, Con Air is fun to the max. I don’t care about its politics or its plodding stupidity or the impossibility of most of the physics it depicts. Con Air is actually kind of a great movie because it is so relentlessly, willfully entertaining.
Probably the chief reason that Con Air is so entertaining is that it is so very blunt. What I mean is that the film is the antithesis of ambiguous. Viewers need not wonder about the outcomes of any of its events, or about why its characters behave as they do. Events, characters and rationales in Con Air are always thoroughly clear and the opposite of multivalent. Few actions in the film can be read in more than one way, and that’s by design. In fact, Con Air is a two-hour exercise in narrowing down meanings of every possible type.
I grew up in the early, glory years of cable television and remember its many late-night forbidden fruits. In the early 1980s, the cable company would send out printed guides that detailed all the movies to be shown that month. Each capsule description ended with a series of letters that were likely cryptic to the uninitiated. “V, SL, N,” for instance, indicated that a movie featured Violence, Strong Language and Nudity.
It was so thoughtful of the cable company to let us young boys know which movies had all the N. Saved us a lot of work.
Zapped! (1982), which I watched again last week after 30 years, is one of the quintessential “skinemax” films of the era. I remembered it as being a nonstop nudity-fest, but that didn’t turn out to be quite the case. I found myself surprised by its relatively moderate levels of N, as well as by several other things about the film.
I’m not sure why I elected to watch Zapped! I noticed it had been added to Netflix’s streaming service, and I guess I was feeling nostalgic. My wife seemed puzzled but went along with my suggestion. She’s a good sport.
A preposterous shot of the making of Swordfish from Los Angeles Plays Itself
I keep an ancient, oft-updated file on my computer called “Movies to See.” It’s a long list that grows more rapidly than it contracts, though many of its entries have been deleted over the years. Every time I think I’m reasonably cinematically literate, I learn about some new film — or even a whole new subgenre — that I’d never even heard of before. It’s both inspiring and disheartening. When I am ever going to get to all of these?
I was quite surprised when, a few months ago, Netflix suggested for me a title that had been on my list for over a decade.Los Angeles Plays Itselfis a cinema essay by filmmaker/critic Thom Andersen; for years, the clusterfuck we call “American copyright law” had made the film unusually difficult to see. That’s because Los Angeles Plays Itself consists largely of clips from other films. Though Andersen’s film includes a fair amount of new footage that he created, the bulk of the movie’s imagery comes from other movies; indeed, that’s the whole point of his film.
I’m a longtime and unabashed admirer of Robert Rodriguez, who has been a polarizing figure in American film since he (and I think it’s fair to use the cliché in this case) burst on the scene with El Mariachi, his famously low-budget feature-film debut. I love his stylistic brashness, his willingness to both abide by and invert genre conventions, and his ability to bounce back and forth between “big” Hollywood films and more personal projects.
Even when Rodriguez’s films are less than great, they’re always — and I mean always — visually inventive and exciting. I happen to think Sin City is a great film, but even if you disagree, you can’t deny its visual originality and boldness. I’m equally fond of Rodriguez’s more straightforward genre exercises, such as Spy Kids and The Faculty, both of which demonstrate a deep grasp of genre conventions as well as a playful willingness to bend them. Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse, certainly showed that he understands genre more profoundly than does his codirector, Quentin Tarantino.
I may spend a lot of time watching and thinking about old movies, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the allures of modern-day television. Though I probably didn’t watch its third season in as much of a binge as did such avid fans as, say, President Barack Obama, I am now officially up to date with Netflix’s hit show “House of Cards.” (Season three of the show premiered less than a month ago, on February 27. That still seems pretty current to me, so this column contains no spoilers.)
Netflix, of course, has been leading the battle to upend the way we watch TV, releasing all of the episodes of its original programs in roughly annual, single-season bursts. Fans of “House of Cards,” like me, may now watch it at as rapid or as pokey a clip as they wish, and I must say that this is a liberating experience. The act of waiting a week for a show’s next episode already seems like an antiquated one, yanked kicking and screaming from an era in which “primetime” still meant something.
Gary Busey, Jodie Foster and Robbie Robertson in Carny
In high school, I developed the habit of watching movies as I drifted off to sleep. After I’d watched my evening film (or two, or three) and could hold back sleep no longer, I’d find yet another film on some cable channel, turn the volume down to “just barely audible” and lie down. Within minutes, I’d usually fall asleep, leaving it to my mother to turn off the TV in the morning.
I carried that habit into graduate school, and remember that one night, just before falling asleep, I caught the briefest snippet of the 1980 film Carny. As a longtime admirer of the Band, I was surprised, even in my drowsy state, to see Robbie Robertson acting in the film, as I didn’t realize that he’d appeared in anything besides The Last Waltz. I mentioned the film to a cinephile friend later, and he told me that the movie was well worth my time.
When I was a kid, the public library in my hometown would occasionally hold movie nights for its young patrons. The friendly local librarians would bust out a 16mm projector and thread up kid-friendly movies — usually feature-length cartoons, with a smattering of G-rated live-action movies. I have a fairly clear memory of having a good-natured popcorn fight with a friend during a screening of the dull-even-for-kids Condorman, a now-obscure, clumsy attempt by Disney to make a superhero movie for kids. (During the film’s original release in 1980, the Baskin-Robbins across the street from the library sold “Condorman Crunch,” quite possibly the single lamest movie tie-in product of all time.)
For whatever reason, the librarians who programmed this kiddie film series had a taste for movies that combined animation and live action. It was at the library that I developed a love for Pete’s Dragon — a remake of which, holy crap, is apparently being released next year. My first exposure to Disney’s notorious Song of the South certainly took place in that same room.
One of the challenges in teaching film history is convincing undergraduate students that filmmakers of decades and even centuries past were not mere rubes. I suppose that the members of every generation think those of previous generations were nowhere near as sophisticated or savvy or clever as they are. I’ve found this attitude to be particularly prevalent among modern film students, perhaps because they feel they are at an advantage for having heretofore inconceivable digital access to much of the world’s film history.
I savor the irony, then, of including, below, an embedded YouTube video of the pioneering avant-garde film "Tomatos Another Day." Made in 1930, at the dawn of the sound era, the film is, above all, a modern text: highly referential, self-reflexive, self-aware, imbued with the playful spirit of a text that does not take itself too seriously.
I have a complicated relationship with the music of Billy Squier.
For better or worse, I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio, so my youthful musical diet consisted of “Fly Like an Eagle” sandwiches and “Stairway to Heaven” blue-plate specials. At the time, I thought it was the Best Music Ever; since then, my musical tastes have diversified tremendously, and I return only very rarely to the kind of stuff that dominates the classic-rock airwaves. (Seriously, guys: Your songs have remained the same, as it were, for three-plus decades. Time to shake up the playlists a bit.)
Now and then, though, I’ll still listen to Billy Squier. Back when I was listening to classic-rock radio, Squier’s tunes — mostly the several big hits from his still-terrific 1981 album Don’t Say No — showed up with some frequency, as, I gather, they still do today. I’ve always considered Squier to be a cut above most of the other “arena rock” performers with whom he is often grouped: Styx, Bad Company, Boston. His music rocks a little harder; he has a fine ear for melody; he’s got that distinctive, plaintive voice; he’s a hell of a guitarist.
Last week, I experienced an unprecedented and utterly joyous moment of cinematic serendipity. By pure chance, I stumbled across a little oddball jewel of a film on Netflix — a film that, I think, must somehow have been made with me in mind. I am this film’s ideal spectator. Phase IV is one of my new favorite movies.
Netflix gets a lot of flak for having too shallow a library in its streaming service, but, in my opinion, this criticism is inaccurate. Netflix has a gigantic library; it’s its search feature that’s crappy. Subscribers’ Netflix home screens are presorted by viewer preference, and highlight only several dozen titles in a small handful of categories. Though it’s difficult to find hard numbers, the Netflix catalog clearly runs deep, and certainly offers the widest array of titles of any of the major online streaming services. Yet it’s nearly impossible to get past the small number of “Recommended For You” titles. How to access Netflix’s “deep tracks”?