Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallstrom, 1993)

Category: Dysfunctional family films. Americans have generally been lucky to avoid the kinds of major problems that have affected other civilizations (i.e., colonialism, potato famines, the bubonic plague). In the absence of these actual life-and-death problems, family issues have been central to our cultural output. In dysfunctional family films, such as East of Eden and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, characters are frequently racked with guilt while dealing with sick, overbearing or just mean family members. While those do seem pretty rough, I’d rather deal with that sort of thing than starve to death.

However, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has the added sadness factor of being a film about mentally challenged people. Aside from being super sad, these films, like Holocaust films, often feature actors seeking Oscars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it's an important issue that deserves attention. It’s just something that I, and Kate Winslet, noticed. Other examples of films in this genre include I Am Sam, Forrest Gump and Charly.

My familiarity with this issue: I have little personal experience with these issues. My parents are very nice, and my brother (frequent derisive blog commenter Tony Krizel) and sister (whacko environmentalist Lauren “Loafy” Krizel) are cool. We all get along quite well now. Back in high school I had your usual issues with curfews, and my parents and I often butted heads about their strict prohibition of illicit drug use in the house. But on the whole, I’d say it was nothing out of the ordinary.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Gilbert Grape lives in Endora, a place where nothing much happens. The only times the police got (sic) something to do is when Gilbert's autistic brother Arnie tries to climb up on the watertower nearby. Taking care of Arnie is mostly Gilbert's task which can be pretty demanding, at least while you are working at the local grocery store. Then one day Becky and her grandmother passes (sic) through Endora getting trouble with the car. Gilbert falls in love with Becky, but gets problems when he tries to find time for his own private life.” (I’m beginning to notice that these IMDb plot summaries often suck. I suspect this one was written by a non-native English speaker. Plus I’ve always wanted to write (sic) about something. Such a feeling of superiority.)

What I thought of the movie: It certainly has some good things going for it. Darlene Cates’s performance as the obese, housebound matriarch of the Grape family was excellent, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Arnie (for which he was Oscar-nominated; see previous theory) pretty much owns the movie. Both characters can be considered the burdens on Gilbert, alluded to in the film's title, but both actors really bring out their humanity. The film is well-shot and well-directed, and depicts Gilbert’s small-town ennui in an affecting, non-#whitegirlproblems way.

However, I can’t say that the movie completely worked for me. Most of my problems with it stemmed from the character of Becky, played by Juliette Lewis, and her romance with Gilbert. I actually liked Juliette Lewis a lot in two other films (Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives) that were released in the two years prior to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. But in this movie, she’s kind of terrible, and that torpedoed any chance of me being at all engaged by her relationship with Gilbert, which is kind of central to the plot. I know what they were getting at here: Depp is going for a kind of quiet, brooding James Dean-type thing, and Lewis is supposed to be a breath of fresh air to bring him out of his family-related despair. But Lewis’s attempt at being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl falls way short, probably because being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl requires more being interesting and less reading your lines as if you’ve just been shot by a tranquilizer gun. So that took away from the emotional impact the film might have had otherwise.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Well first let’s talk about Johnny Depp’s hair. Would you just look at that hair. That is the kind of hair that I wish I could have, that long, straight, center-parted, Tim Riggins type look. I wish I could relate to that. (Side note: Juliette Lewis's hair is shorter than Johnny Depp's in this movie. Which a) looks dumb and b) is never a good sign for a relationship.)

As we discussed yesterday, I cannot personally relate to films set in boring small towns in the Midwest. But I think this one brought home something bigger that I did relate to. The theme of escaping your family/small town and doing bigger and better things is a familiar one in American culture, from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Born to Run album to the TV series Friday Night Lights. Not coincidentally, those are three things I love more than just about anything else in the universe. (In my first post I made a list of things that made me cry. I somehow forgot to include "just about every episode of Friday Night Lights.") It is a theme that is particularly resonant to a lot of people, even those who, like me, cannot personally relate to it. And there are moments in this film where it really resonated.

Another thing I love is making fun of bad dialogue/acting (the all-time winner in this category can be found here). This happened a couple of times during this film, courtesy of a sometimes-clunky script and Juliette Freakin’ Annoying Lewis. Sitting in a cornfield gazing out at a beautiful vista with Gilbert on their first date, Becky says, “I love the sky. It’s so… limitless,” a line which Lewis somehow manages to make even more boring than it looks on the page. At the end of their first date, Gilbert says, “I had a nice time tonight,” and Becky mumbles back, “I know.” (It's been done.) So in the moments where I wasn’t feeling sad, I had some good distractions.

How I felt after the movie ended: Pretty sad, but mainly only when I think about a couple of really distinctly sad moments in the film. (Interesting side note to consider as the blog continues: this was not only the first film so far that was not based on real events, but also the first one whose ending I did not know, more or less, before I started watching. Will this fact cause these types of movies to have a greater effect on me?)

Zaree Gliddon, a friend of the blog, requested that I indicate whether or not I cry at each film I watch, and while I have not yet full-on cried during these first three, I came the closest a couple of times during this movie. One instance was when Gilbert, at the end of his tether, hits Arnie for the first time. DiCaprio really earns it there. Arnie is an incredibly frustrating person for Gilbert and his family to deal with, but watching him stand there, bloodied and helpless, really breaks your heart. The movie really captures the difficulty of living with a mentally challenged individual, no more so than in this scene. The second was when the mother, self-conscious about her weight, reluctantly allows Gilbert to introduce her to Becky for the first time, and says, “I haven’t always been like this.” Cates’s delivery of that got me a little choked up. And then Juliette Lewis had to ruin it by opening her stupid mouth and speaking words. Goddammit.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Boys Don't Cry.

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
Category: Films about actual people who had sad lives. It’s a well-known fact that lots of people in the world have rough lives. But this isn’t just true of people in Third World countries and such. Even here in America, empirically the best country of all time, some people have it tough. Often, if they’re really sad, or if their experiences can teach us lessons about how we should live, people make films about them. Brandon Teena, the protagonist of this film, is one such person.

More specifically, we can also classify Boys Don’t Cry as a movie about LGBT issues. Unfortunately, these movies are often sad, as the LGBT community has throughout history endured harassment and discrimination that exists to this day. Other films in this genre include The Laramie Project, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk.

My familiarity with this issue: I am not gay. However, I love the gays. I love ‘em as much as any straight person I know. I have many gay friends, and I am all about gay marriage. Boys Don’t Cry is of course more specifically about a transgendered individual. While I do not personally know any transgendered individuals, I’d bet that if I did, I’d love them as much as I love the gays.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Brandon Teena is the popular new guy in a tiny Nebraska town. He hangs out with the guys, drinking, cussing, and bumper surfing, and he charms the young women, who've never met a more sensitive and considerate young man. Life is good for Brandon, now that he's one of the guys and dating hometown beauty Lana. However, he's forgotten to mention one important detail.” (Let's just note how harmless this makes the movie sound. As if the "one important detail" he's forgotten to mention is that he's actually the King of Spain or something.)

What I thought of the movie: Jeez. It’s a really well-done movie. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for portraying Brandon Teena, a role that requires her to make the audience believe that she could make everyone around her believe she was male. (Let’s note this now: the gender terminology here is tricky, and as someone who never took women’s studies or queer studies or any other such course in college, I apologize now for not being up on that. Though the person who the film is about was born Teena Brandon, to refer to him by anything other than Brandon Teena would really kind of be missing the whole point. The term Wikipedia uses is “female-to-male pre-operative transsexual,” and I’ve never gone wrong trusting Wikipedia before.)

The truly remarkable thing about Brandon Teena was his audacity (meant in the positive, Barack Obama sense of the term much more so than the “how dare you have the audacity” kind of way). The director of the film, Kimberly Peirce, has stated that what struck her most about Brandon was “the intensity of her desire to turn herself into a boy, [and] the fact that she did it with no role models.” (Thanks again, Wikipedia!) The degree to which the concept of transgender was known, let alone accepted, in 1993 was very small; the degree to which it was known in small-town Nebraska was pretty much zero. The other characters cannot understand what Brandon Teena is, nor can they comprehend or empathize with the concept of a “sexual identity crisis.” The movie really captures the desolate oppressiveness of this small town and its inhabitants. For all the conversations that he and his girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny, in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance) about leaving town, the sad fact is that, after a certain point, Brandon Teena really never had a chance to get out alive.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Based on what I knew about the film and the life of Brandon Teena, I figured I wouldn’t have too much in common with the characters here. But then I read this sentence in the aforementioned IMDb plot summary: “He hangs out with the guys, drinking, cussing, and bumper surfing, and he charms the young women, who've never met a more sensitive and considerate young man.” You’ll often find me hanging out with the bros, having a drink and a cuss, and if they mean what I think they mean by “bumper surfing,” then we’re 3-for-3 here. And I don’t even need to address the second part of that sentence. C’mon now. So that gave me some hope.

Generally speaking though, I had little to go on here. I grew up in Oceanside, New York, on Long Island, and while I was a bit of a nerd in my younger years, the worst thing that ever really happened was if someone wrote a really catty LiveJournal entry about me. I can recall many weekends sitting around with friends at someone’s house, bored, and constantly hearing the phrase, “there’s nothing to do here.” Compared to Falls City, Nebraska, where the film takes place, my hometown was like the Vegas Strip. All the characters do is drink beer, the aforementioned bumper surfing (a MUCH more dangerous activity than what I was thinking), drink more beer, and act homophobic. At least in Oceanside we had bowling.

How I felt after the movie ended: Pretty depressed. I’d say more depressed than yesterday. (Maybe this is because Wladyslaw Szpilman survives his ordeal? Something to think about.) I knew going in that Brandon Teena was raped and murdered, but that did not make watching the last half hour of the film any easier. It’s terrible, terrible stuff. Added to which is the fact that I will never be able to watch Hilary Swank or Peter Sarsgaard (who plays John Lotter, one of the men who raped and murdered Brandon Teena) in anything ever again without thinking of this movie. Oof.

And yet... maybe this makes me a bad person, but there is an element of gratefulness that comes with watching a movie like this. Namely, that I have never had to deal with anything as bad as Brandon Teena did in his tragically short life. Of course, right behind that emotion comes the guilt for thinking that in the first place. So it's a balancing act at this point.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Pianist.

The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)

[Note that will probably be applicable to every post I write: Let me note that there are some SPOILERS (I think there’s a law that that word has to be in capital letters on all blogs) herein. But seriously though, for this movie it’s basically just one thing that anyone who knows any basic information about it would generally kind of know. Like, I knew it before I watched it. And plus, this movie came out in 2002. Whatever.]

[Also, keep commenting with suggestions of stuff to watch! I appreciate all suggestions/other comments.]
Category: Holocaust film. I figure, why not start at the top? The Holocaust is widely regarded as the saddest thing to ever have happened. Countless books, films, other works of art, even entire museums have been created solely for the purpose of trying to comprehend this tragedy. The apotheosis of the Holocaust film genre is widely regarded to be Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Other notable examples include Sophie’s Choice, Life is Beautiful, and Jerry Lewis’s never-released (but by all accounts wildly inappropriate) The Day the Clown Cried.

My familiarity with this issue: I am not Jewish, and my family was not directly affected by the Holocaust. But I paid attention in history class, I have seen Schindler’s List, and I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I’m up on it.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “The true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman who, in the 1930s, was known as the most accomplished piano player in all of Poland, if not Europe. At the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Szpilman becomes subject to the anti-Jewish laws imposed by the conquering Germans.”

What I thought of the movie: It was really quite good. Adrien Brody was terrific, well-deserving of the Oscar that people only really remember now because he made out with Halle Berry while accepting it. (Roman Polanski also won an Oscar for the film, although apparently he didn’t show up to accept it? Rude.) The movie is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but it didn’t feel that way. A lot of stuff happens to this guy. I can’t say that I’ll watch it again anytime soon, but I think it’s well-worth people’s time.

I really only have Schindler’s List to go on as a point of comparison for this film, and while they’re both great, they’re also quite different. The character of Oskar Schindler (eventually at least) is an active, heroic figure, directly responsible for saving the lives of over a thousand people. Szpilman, however, is not particularly heroic at all. He's certainly not anti-heroic, but he's a more passive character. The film is about how he survives, moving from place to place, depending on others to bring him food and keep him hidden. He has opportunities to join the underground resistance, but declines, focusing rather on staying alive until the war ends. The movie depicts him realistically and never lionizes him. In my view, this makes Szpilman an extremely interesting, relatable character. Which leads us to…

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Fun fact: I play the piano. Like Adrien Brody, I am quite skinny, and we have both been described as “weirdly handsome” (that statement is at least half-true). So for a movie about a guy who experienced the Holocaust, I had a few things in common going into it.

I started to change my tune a bit about two minutes into the movie. The first scene is Szpilman playing a piece by Chopin (I used to play a TON of Chopin. SO MANY SIMILARITIES!) in a Warsaw radio station. He hears an explosion in the distance, but keeps playing. Another explosion rattles the building, knocking him off balance; a third explosion breaks the glass of the studio he’s in, and causes some debris from the ceiling to fall on top of him, and still he keeps playing. The radio engineer/producer guys are waving at him from the next room to stop and get the hell out of the building, and HE KEEPS PLAYING. WHAT. That is some serious commitment right there. I did not share this commitment to my piano playing. One time while I was practicing in the house, our cat brushed past my feet. Startled, I leapt up and ran screaming to my room, where I hid for the better part of the next hour.

On the long list of “things that are true about my life that I did not need to watch a movie to reaffirm,” the phrase, “I would not have fared well during the Holocaust” is near the top. My core values in life are cowardice, fear, and diabetes. But as mentioned earlier, I could almost relate to Szpilman. He did a lot of hiding. Of course, I could not have dealt with the lack of food and entertainment that Szpilman had to go through.

How I felt after the movie ended: All joking aside, The Pianist is a tough movie to watch. Some of the scenes in it are nearly unwatchable, particularly when Szpilman is unwillingly separated from his family as they are being sent away to a concentration camp. Furthermore, Polanski does not reveal the fate of Szpilman’s parents, sisters and brother, who are present throughout much of the first hour of the movie. That was very sad.

The semi-spoiler I alluded to earlier is that Szpilman does, in fact, survive (the film was based on his memoirs). So, yeah, the movie is two-and-a-half hours of pretty much wall-to-wall terrible depressing stuff, but! It’s got a happy ending! Hey now. Still, I’m still pretty depressed now, a couple of hours after finishing the film. (Note: this depression may also be due to the cloudy weather, and the fact that FOX has just canceled Lone Star. It’s hard to isolate the variables here.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Manifesto.

My name is John Krizel, and I consider myself to be an appropriately happy person. I have a loving family, great friends, and the ability to generally avoid thinking about the deep existential questions that have haunted human beings throughout the centuries. Like, how lame it is that everyone will eventually die, and such.

I believe that, for someone of my age and socioeconomic status, I have seen my share of movies and TV shows, listened to my share of music, and read my share of books. I’d say I’m well educated, well mediated, and up on the popular culture. (What’s the deal with this Justin Bieber kid anyway?) Like most people my age, my choices of what to consume generally skew toward things that are not-terribly-depressing. For every Breaking Bad in my TV diet, there’s a Community or SportsCenter or Jersey Shore to make it all better at the end of the day.

But what effect does this avoidance of more depressing media have on my daily life? Am I willfully refusing to confront the grim realities of my existence, and if so, might not I become a more enlightened, self-aware individual if I changed? And, most importantly, how will this affect my sense of humor/facility with the ladies? To address the question, I have started this blog/social experiment.

1)  For the next [I have no idea for how long I will write this blog], I will make every effort to only watch movies that could be described as “sad,” “depressing,” “tragic,” “lachrymose,” and/or “bummertown USA.” I’ll be focusing on movies over other media because they’re easier to consume and write about in a fairly short amount of time. I reserve the right to throw in the odd book or TV special every now and again.
2)  I will also make every effort to avoid lighter movies/shows/music/books. Let’s not go crazy here; I won’t run screaming from the room if someone flips on The Office. But I’ll do my best.
3)  I will write about the films I watch in this blog, and how the experiment is affecting my daily happiness.

I do this because I am genuinely curious about the relationship between what entertainment we choose to consume and how we feel. Will watching only depressing films make me depressed? More socially aware? Less fun to be around (if such a thing is possible)? Only time will tell.

So what kind of movies are we talking about here? I’m thinking really, really heavy, bleak, depressing stuff. Holocaust movies, movies about other genocides, war movies, war-related-amputee movies, movies about poverty and addiction and immigration and other Important Social Issues. But I’m also not opposed to girlier stuff. Tearjerkers and such. 
[Quick aside: here is a list of ten movies/TV episodes that have brought me to tears of either joy or sadness:

1)        It’s a Wonderful Life
2)        Toy Story 3, Up, WALL-E, basically every recent Pixar (except, like, Cars)
3)        Home Alone
4)        You’ve Got Mail (BRINKLEYYYYY)
5)        A Muppet Christmas Carol
6)        The Lost finale
7)        The last Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien
8)        Jim and Pam’s wedding on The Office
9)        Homeward Bound
10)      Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco
 I make no apologies for this list.]

So. In this blog, I hope to evoke just how sad each film makes me, and what, if any, cumulative effect this project will have on my life as I forge ahead. I will begin tomorrow with Roman Polanski’s 2002 Holocaust drama The Pianist, featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Adrien Brody. I’ll continue on a semi-regular basis that will likely grow more infrequent if/when I get a job.

To do this, I need the help of all of you out there in BlogLand. I have some good ideas of what films to watch, but I can’t do it all on my own. Comment with your suggestions. Comment to tell me what a dumb idea this is. Comment however you like! I’d appreciate it. Let the sadness begin.