it’s always sexier when you do it in public

Blogger Buddy Rick over at Stop the Planet of the Apes- I Want to Get Off! wrote an inspirational post about his favorite experiences seeing movies in the theater. Nowadays when you go and your shoes are stuck to the floor and half the place is lit up from kids texting on cell phones, and several rows are holding dissertations on what they did at the mall today, and someone is translating the movie into another language for their mom*, we rarely have good memories of movie theaters. But Rick inspired me to think of my best movie theater memories, and here they are, in no particular order. Except I’ll probably save the best for last, so you finish it. Or maybe I’ll put it in the middle, so you don’t skip to the end. Ha! Whatever will you do, but read the whole damn thing?

To Sir With Love
I saw this with Firecracker in Bryant Park in Manhattan during their summer film Mondays. Before the screen was filled with Sydney Poitier’s manly dignity, and contrasted him with poor white cockney kids, they showed two Warner Brothers film shorts, including one that had some horribly racist ’40s-era caricatures of African jungle tribesmen. The crowd was silent. Being a Looney Tunes fan, I’d seen it before and knew what was coming, and didn’t think it was one of the better cartoons like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, that is worth watching despite its caricatures. But it was the perfect, banal counterpart to the groundbreaking film that would suggest romance between a young white student and her black teacher. In 20 short years, how things had changed. Even hateful dreck like Tokio Jokio deserves to be preserved. We tend to assume things were always better in the past, and if we let the bad parts fade into obscurity, we’ll begin to believe it. Contrast this with when I saw Blazing Saddles for the Warner Brothers 75th Anniversary film festival at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis, when scads of people walked out, stunned and offended at the use of the “N-word,” even though it remains one of the most poignant spoofs and skewerings of American racial relations as of 1976. That festival also led me to seeing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and many other classics on the big screen for the first time. I wish there were more revival theaters, but around here I think we just have The Film Forum.

Aliens, 70mm
This was one of many films I saw at a now forgotten revival cinema in the Twin Cities of St.Paul & Minneapolis when I lived there. This is one of my favorite action films, and I don’t think I saw it in theaters when it came out- I was a broke high school student! I probably shoplifted the VHS tape. So seeing it in glorious 70mm was a revelation. They also showed the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which re-spurred my interest in the band and David Byrne. The theater was old and decrepit, the seats were painful, but it was a great way to spend a night with some friends, since the place was huge and never filled up.

The Big One
This is Michael Moore’s most forgotten film, but one of his best. It’s not as scathing, but before The Corporation, this was one of the best documentaries on how multinational corporations essentially serve no one- not even their stockholders, as boards and CEOs run rampant- and how they squeeze tax amnesty out of communities in trade for jobs that eventually are outsourced elsewhere. Now, I don’t hate all corporations but for the last 20 years they’ve been incredibly short-sighted, and the country has suffered for it. In this one, Moore shames Nike CEO Phil Knight into buying computers for Flint, Michigan schools if Moore will split the bill. This viewing was memorable because I got to meet Mike. We haven’t always agreed- I had an email spat with him when he was making Bowling for Columbine– but this is one of his funniest and even-keeled films. This was at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, an art and revival theater that spoiled me. The best I’ve got in New Jersey is the Clairidge, a Landmark theater. The Oak showed movies as varied as Shaolin Temple 3 with Jet Li, one of the best ’80s kung fu movies. We saw a midnight show there and the crowd went wild. Even when I saw these movies in NYC’s Chinatown back in the day- usually Jackie Chan’s prime stuff like SuperCop and Armor of God– the crowd was usually quiet, so it wasn’t as exciting. This was one time I didn’t mind the cheering. Hell it was subtitled anyway!

The Answer Man
The premiere of this movie in Monmouth was followed by an interview with one of its stars, my cousin Lou Taylor Pucci. The movie unfortunately didn’t get a wide release, but is available on NetFlix, DVD and cable now. It stars Jeff Daniels as a reclusive blockbuster novelist who hasn’t written in years. It’s not a perfect film, but an enjoyable mix of drama, romance and comedy. The audience was gracious and it was great to see my cousin interview by older film snob types who loved his performance.

Wargames
This was the first movie I remember seeing alone, in 1983. I walked to the Franklin Theater or rode my bike; more likely my Mom dropped me off. It remains one of my favorites, with its vaguely electronic, harmonica-infused score that gives it a touch of melancholy. The video screen of WOPR, the defense computer playing a game that NORAD interprets as a real Russian attack, is my current desktop background. Matthew Broderick sure has had one hell of a career since he appeared as a computer nerd in this one. He’s been Ferris Bueller, and perhaps my favorite, a hapless teacher in Election. He and John Cusack have mirrored my life with their roles, though Broderick is a few years older than me. Watching this movie on the big screen cemented the magic of movies to me and lead to a long life of enjoyment, losing myself in their fantasy world. The earliest movie I remember seeing in theaters with my parents is Star Wars; I distinctly remember my Dad patting me and telling me it was okay when Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru were barbecued by stormtroopers. Despite that, I still count Raiders of the Lost Ark as my favorite film of all time. Pulp adventure with lots of fun and winks at the audience. It’s pure entertainment.

Poltergeist
This was the first scary movie I saw without my Mom’s permission. I was 11 and sneaked in with my older neighbor Ruben. I paid 90 cents, and nearly shit my pants when they pull that rope that Carole Anne is supposed to be on the other end of, and a gigantic, rotting human skull comes out of the closet and roars at you. I still adore this movie as one of the greatest haunt films ever made, alongside The Haunting and The Changeling. Sure, this one is more about effects and scares than creepiness, but tell me that scene with the kitchen chairs arranging themselves isn’t effective! We practically had this matinee to ourselves, which was good, because I think we screamed like little girls the entire time.

The Empire Strikes Back

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
This is the first movie I took a girlfriend too. Rebecca liked scary movies like this and Child’s Play, and I liked her burrowing into my side in terror as Freddy clawed someone, or Chucky knifed some poor bastard in the spine. Maybe that’s why crappy, jump-scare horror films still make money these days? The last horror flick I went to see was the awful Haunting in Connecticut, and I don’t think I heard one scream. Do girls text to their boyfriend OMG Im skeert nowadays? The theater was packed, and we were deathly silent. This wasn’t the pure murderous horror of the first Freddy film, but it was before his snappy one-liners took over. I still enjoy this one for what it is, and found the way he stalks the troubled teens in this one to be pretty clever.


Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny
This is the first movie I went to see with my wife to be, Firecracker. It was supposed to be Borat, but we ended up seeing that separately with friends. We’ve seen dozens and dozens of movies since, from Blade Runner: The Final Cut at the Ziegfeld, to me sitting through (and liking) The Jane Austen Book Club. Really, it’s pretty cute. I drew the line at the Sex and the City movies. The show is short, and I couldn’t take 90 to 150 minutes of Sarah Jessica Parker. It would like the Ludovico Treatment. I don’t remember much about this movie. I remember the Sasquatch, and the battle with the Devil, and lots of cameos by those such as Ronny James Dio, may he rest in peace.

So, what are your most memorable movie theater experiences?

*(actually happened to me, during The Departed)

© 2010 Tommy Salami

The Answer Man – Sneak Preview

Last night I got to see a screening of The Answer Man starring Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham and Lou Taylor Pucci at a meeting of the Film Symposium. This enjoyable movie about a curmudgeonly reclusive author of a best-selling spiritual self-help book premiered at Sundance under the less appealing title of Arlen Faber, the name of the author, played by Jeff Daniels. The new title suits the film better. It’s the first feature by writer-director John Hindman, and what a first film it is.
Arlen Faber is the author of “Me and God,” a book in which he asked God many questions during a troubled time in his life and recorded the answers. But he never appeared publicly, and as the book skyrocketed through the charts and became part of popular culture 20 years ago, his silence and reclusiveness only made him more of an epic figure. Part Kahlil Ghibran, part J.D. Salinger, his book became a cottage industry while he was never heard from again. Now it is 20 years later, and his agent wants him to write a foreward for the anniversary edition.

Our introduction to Arlen is perfect. We see a collage of book covers, articles, magazines, and newspapers detailing the backstory while “Mr. Pitiful” by Matt Costa plays. The legend of Arlen Faber is built, and comes crashing down with feet of clay as the mailman rings the doorbell insistently. We immediately know that “the answer man” has his own problems, and holing up in his apartment and ignoring his legions of fans is not a symptom of enlightenment or genius. It’s such a great scene that I’m not going to ruin it for you.

The author hides in a tony Philly neighborhood where Elizabeth (Lauren Graham, “The Gilmore Girls”) has opened her chiropractor’s office, and fresh outta rehab Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci, Thumbsucker) runs a floundering bookstore. After Arlen throws his back out- and is such an ass to his agent that she leaves him writhing in pain- he is forced to crawl to Elizabeth’s office. She works her healing touch on him, and her charms affect him as well. He has a reason to leave the house and seek human contact.

His enormous collection of self-help and spiritual books makes him collide with Kris, who doesn’t want them, but Arlen refuses to take no for an answer. Eventually they find common needs and work out a bargain- Kris will get advice, but only if he takes books. Kris needs advice; his father is supportive but a devout alcoholic. Elizabeth has her own issues, but doesn’t ask Arlen for help. He tells her who he is, but she’s never read his book. She’s so overprotective of her 7-year old son Alex that he wears a 5-point racing harness in her enormous Volvo wagon and must subside on a vegan diet. As soon as he’s out of the car, she inhales a cigarette.

Arlen begins to lose his writer’s block and burst forth with epiphanies that put his new friends at ease. But they feel like empty platitudes to us. And the movie knows it, which is what makes it deviate from what we expect in a feel-good movie of this type. Arlen’s selfishness is just one obstacle. He’s a funny bastard, but he is a bastard. But when he’s good, he is good. He spends a lot of time with Alex, who is having trouble at school, and his scene with the teacher is a classic. He says what we’d all say if we weren’t programmed not to. We’ve bought in, and challenging our expectations is frightening. Not to Arlen. He has nothing to lose, and that freedom is only one aspect of his character. When we learn the root of his reclusion and misanthropy, it isn’t a plot device, but makes us think perhaps we could all speak to God, like he supposedly did.

Arlen, Kris and Elizabeth may not solve all their problems in this movie, but they identify them, the first and often hardest step. Their small discoveries are believable and feel right. The movie does have a flaw or two- it ends a bit abruptly, but in retrospect perhaps that is the right way. We saw three people crawl out into the daylight, three characters we enjoyed spending time with: sarcastic, wounded Kris, who manages to slog on despite massive challenges; Liz who wants to protect Alex, whose father abandoned them, from any future pain; and Arlen himself, who touched the lives of millions of strangers but can’t do it on a personal level.

Jeff Daniels has done comedy, and drama such as the excellent The Squid and the Whale; now he proves that he can do both. Lauren Graham channels Amy Adams a bit, but makes Elizabeth her own. And Lou Taylor Pucci plays something completely new from his career of innocent young men coming of age, such as in Thumbsucker and The Go-Getter, or the abused victims in Personal Velocity and Empire Falls. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Kat Denning (The 40-Year Old Virgin) have smaller roles that work perfectly, and Tony Hale (Buster from Arrested Development) is utterly hilarious as the persistent postman. And Max Antisell, playing young Alex in his first screen role, is what a child actor should be- utterly believable.
The movie has been compared to As Good As It Gets for its portrayal of a lovable bastard who collides with other damaged people who find that they might not be able to fix themselves, but may be able to patch each other up a little. I found The Answer Man to be more realistic and a bit more cynical, in a good way. There are no magic cures, and love isn’t going to cure your OCD overnight. “As Good” is very enjoyable, but you can see its slip showing a lot as it dances around the room. Answer Man does have any clear answers, and it knows it; it isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t bullshit you. After all, it’s about a bullshitter, and you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. That’s what made it work for me. It didn’t have scorn or sneers for any belief, but made it clear that if some “made up” philosophy or insights gets you through the night, that isn’t harmful in itself. The divine springs from within, when someone genuinely wants to help someone else. That’s what I got from it. Maybe I should write a book.

The Answer Man opens in limited release on July 24th; it is still listed on IMDb under it’s Sundance title of Arlen Faber, which has wisely been altered. This is one of the best movies to come out of Sundance recently, because it doesn’t feel like a Sundance film. I laughed a hell of a lot, and I was impressed with this movie throughout. Go see it this summer, you won’t regret it.

Lou Taylor Pucci was interviewed after the film, and spoke about the difficulties of method acting- Jeff Daniels was very in-character, and they only briefly connected because they both own RV’s. Lou himself finds becoming a character difficult himself- he had 5 roles in 6 months last year, and said it was tough remembering his own personal likes and dislikes, after running the gamut. It reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I This Time?” Lou grew up in Keansburg, New Jersey, not far from where the screening took place. To keep things honest, Lou is my cousin, but I try to be as objective as possible. For example, I wouldn’t give a good review to the abysmal 50 Pills– which even he’ll tell you to avoid.

Giving my cousin the finger. Gotta keep ’em humble.

Lou’s starred in many independent films such as The Go-Getter (full review), Thumbsucker (for which he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), The Chumscrubber, Fast Food Nation, Southland Tales, Personal Velocity and in HBO’s Empire Falls. This looks to be a breakout year with the release of The Answer Man, and four other films- The Horsemen with Dennis Quaid, Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the virus thriller Carriers, that was seeking distribution but will probably come out now in the wake of swine flu, but it probably just missed that boat.