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Apocalypse Now (#110 of 7)

Summer of ‘88: Tucker: The Man and His Dream

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Tucker: The Man and His Dream</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Tucker: The Man and His Dream</em>

As you’ve no doubt noticed from the last few entries in this series, the waning days of 1988’s summer didn’t feel quite like the blockbuster season we now see extending all the way up to September. Opening on August 12, 1988, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream was the kind of prestige project you’d more likely associate with awards season. For Coppola, it is among his most personal films, not only because it spent the longest time in gestation, but because it’s the closest the filmmaker has ever come to a confessional about the professional betrayals he’d contended with in his career, and the virtues and flaws of mounting a creative collaboration.

As Coppola recounts in the DVD commentary, he had been fascinated with Tucker ever since childhood, when his father had invested in the iconoclast’s auto company. Coppola had conceived of a Tucker musical biopic while still in film school at UCLA. His initial vision was as ambitious as Tucker’s was for his automobile. In the years after the Godfather films, Coppola had attained sufficient clout, enough to invite Gene Kelly to choreograph, and to offer the lead role to actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and even Burt Reynolds. Coppola wanted composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) to score, with Singin’ in the Rain’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing the lyrics, and the collaboration produced at least one song. But this iteration of Tucker was ultimately scrapped after the failure of Coppola’s experimental One from the Heart (1982).

Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies

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Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies
Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies

With the arrival of the 20th anniversary, 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, what I’d like to convince you of is that the film watered down, significantly, the soul of the novel from which it was based (and we’re talking about a Michael Crichton page-turner for Christ’s sake). Instead of being the kind of decadent, lost-in-the-jungle, labyrinthine cinematic fever dream it could’ve been—one in which the production of the film would’ve eerily re-enacted and factually re-performed the hallucinatory chaos of what it was trying to fictionally record (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and their respective making-of docs, Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams), Spielberg’s Jurassic Park instead played it safe, and did so in a way that was slick, corporate, and patronizing to its audience. And one of the ways it punted artistically was to almost entirely purge from Crichton’s novel its heavy theorizing about chaos theory and fractals, which, in those days (the late ’80s/early ’90s), had just made its way into the intellectual mainstream. I’d like to briefly make the point that this was a grievous mistake (for the movie), because chaos theory and fractals have everything to do with scary movies, and horror and terror and the kind of man-eating monstrosities Spielberg and his team put so much goddamned time and money into making look realistic.

15 Famous Movie Psychopaths

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15 Famous Movie Psychopaths
15 Famous Movie Psychopaths

In Bruges badass Martin McDonagh returns this weekend with Seven Psychopaths, the sophomore feature from the Irish multihyphenate and a good source for onscreen nutjobs. Colin Farrell leads the cast of not-quite-sane characters, who include two dognappers played by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. Still, we’re thinking this new septet of psychos has nothing on the filmic crazies that have come before, particularly the lot we’ve assembled for this list. You could repeatedly scour cinema history and return with a new batch of lunatics every time. For now, here are 15 that linger strongly in the memory, a rogues gallery that runs the gamut from clingy patient to schizo serviceman.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Diary

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Diary</em>
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Diary</em>

Last year’s Restrepo, a documentary following a platoon of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, was marked by a series of close-ups of young soldiers. Their expressions are resigned, saddened, and a little scared. These post-deployment interviews showed us men who had seen terrible things, but the film itself mostly kept the horror in the distance. We see very little actual violence, no Taliban, and only a brief glimpse of a dead American GI. This was largely intentional, as the horror was written on their faces. At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last week, I saw Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington’s latest short, Diary, which gives us a glimpse of what they did see. It’s a document about the trauma glimpsed by a person in war, a brief but haunting view of tragedy, made up of footage Hetherington shot while traveling around the world as a war reporter and photojournalist. With the terrible news that Hetherington was killed in Libya this week, the film suddenly takes on an extra resonance. It’s the last report of a man who had seen so much tragedy and was still struggling to understand why.

Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past

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Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past
Us and Them, Then and Now: Eastwood and Milestone’s Lessons of the Past

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German veteran of World War I—published All Quiet on the Western Front (its literal translation: “Nothing New in the West”), an acclaimed anti-war novel that would go on to sell over two million copies in its first year of publication. It told the story of the war from the perspective of the average German soldier who lived and died fighting it, and it was embraced by American readers eager to empathize with their fellow men (legal and geographic borders notwithstanding). One year later, the up-and-coming director Lewis Milestone adapted the novel into a film for Universal Pictures; it would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The present day brings a companion to this (deservedly) canonized classic. In Letters from Iwo Jima, American cultural icon Clint Eastwood also examines a specific point in American history from the perspective of a former enemy. Consider for a moment the post-9/11 wounds (repeatedly rubbed raw) that continue to foster anti-“other” sentiment both within and without our national borders, and Eastwood’s decision to empathize with the former “Japoteurs” takes on an added dimension of boldness (even if such bravery is more indicative of regressive American attitudes than it is of Clint’s well-worn wisdom).

Despite their distinctly different plots, battles, and explicitly defined themes, both films critically observe the same timeless characteristics of war: the manipulation of information and swaying of national emotions by the government so as to bolster public support; the need to dehumanize one’s enemy in order to encourage battlefield aggression; the long-clichéd (however true) insights regarding our common brotherhood; and the futility that defines the act of two (or more) large groups of people trying to kill each other. Both films are infused with the sense of honor that accompanies one’s service to one’s country, but they also understand, with a weary heart, the waste that goes hand-in-hand with the carnage.

Just Beautiful

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Just Beautiful
Just Beautiful

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.