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Digressions on popular film
by Matthew Niblock
OK, some fundamental questions:
What is the better film?
American History X
If you answered American Movie followed closely
by American Pie you and I will get along just fine.
Next question. Let's say there was this explosively
talented set of brothers making rap videos. New Line Cinema gives
them some money. They make a movie. It is universally praised. It
makes money. It's an urban ghetto myth of a movie. It is playing
mostly to black crowds. But, because of the critical ravings of
Siskel, Ebert & The New York Times, you can also find it at your
occasional upscale arthouse-type place. The movie's ad campaign
said: "This is the truth. This is what really happens."
You see the movie because you see everything.
You see the movie because you want to know the truth, you want to
know what really happens. You see the movie because you know it
is an important American film. Because you are white, you see the
movie at Laemmle's Multiplex in Santa Monica, one block west of
the Third Street Promenade, in a theater packed to the rafters with
white people. There appears to be only one black person in the entire
theater and he is sitting right in front of you. The crowd is openly
& vocally rapturous about the movie. Even the black guy. You hate
the movie. In fact, you think it may very well be one of the two
or three worst films you have ever seen. You think that perhaps
Siskel, Ebert & The New York Times have completely lost their minds.
A few years later, these same brothers make another movie. It is
not a particularly important film. It is not about the "truth" or
"what really happens." It is an armed robbery caper. It is universally
panned. The critics (see above) are loathe to mention it in the
same breath as Menace II Society, the filmmakers' earlier masterpiece.
The movie tanks at the box office. You saw it twice. You loved it.
A few years later, the brothers make a documentary. About pimps.
And the street. And the life. And black people on the margins of
American society. This is an important film. It is called American
Pimp. And the question is: Can they pay you enough to see this movie?
Do I dislike important
films? No. Here is a list of some important films I like very much.
Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy,
The Graduate, Nashville, Days of Heaven, All the President's Men,
Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, The Doom Generation, Schindler's List,
Do the Right Thing, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
I would like to talk
about Hal Ashby for a few minutes. These are the films that Hal
Ashby directed in the Seventies.
Harold and Maude.
The Last Detail.
Bound for Glory.
OK? Get it?
I don't remember going to the movies much as a
kid. Usually the movies came to me. My grandfather, my dad's dad,
worked in the payroll department at Disney Studios, and somehow
had entered into a poker-and-alcohol-sweetened deal (oh them Disney
boys!) with the film vault librarian that enabled him to check out
any movie he wanted anytime. The first time I saw Pinocchio projected
on a bedsheet hanging on the dining room wall I was six.
Disney films I had plenty of, but as a family,
we didn't go to the movies that often. Oh sure, sometimes the Van
Nuys Drive-In, with seventeen cousins and a picnic basket in the
back of a pickup truck. But, those were just Disney movies anyway,
and if you were in a truck you had to park way at the back of the
drive-in by the concession stands, and all my cousins were evil
little motherfuckers who cried & screamed & peed, and really, I
would have much rather seen it on the dining room wall.
Then, you know, I got older.
I think I owned the first VCR in all the San Fernando
Valley. OK some I'm exaggerating. But not by much. I bought my VCR
in 1982, when I was sixteen. It weighed approximately 800 pounds.
It was top-loading, with 2 heads and a wired (!) remote. It cost
749 dollars. There were 3 video stores in the Valley, one in North
Hollywood, one in Panorama City, and one in Northridge. I rented
every single movie those stores had over the course of the next
year. I think I single-handedly convinced the proprietor of the
Northridge store that this business was a viable one, as he went
on to open a change of video emporiums across the Valley, that only
recently folded in the face of Blockbuster, et al. I saw every goddamn
movie ever made.
I still see every goddamn movie ever made. I can't
get enough. I don't understand it, really, and I don't care to. Also.
I'm a writer. Also, I know some people who run this independent reviews
website, and they said I could write some stuff about the movies if
I wanted to. So I did. And so I will. We'll be talking some more about
Hal Ashby. We'll be talking some more about American Movie. We'll
be talking some more about lots of stuff next time out.