Sunday, January 17, 2016

Movie stories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

I recently spent a long weekend in Winnipeg (is there any other kind?) attending a conference. Winnipeg strikes me as a fairly miserable place, which makes it an excellent location for a conference. With nothing much to draw us from the hotel, we all hung out and got to know each other better, which was the whole point. You can only take so much conviviality though. I needed to get at least one movie in there, so I took a cab one afternoon to see I Spy.

Had I been in Toronto, I could have gone to see either Frida or Roger Dodger, but I was in Winnipeg, so I saw I Spy. I’ll probably remember it my whole life, just as I seem to recall almost all the movies I’ve seen on various trips. Gaudi Afternoon in Oslo, Arlington Road in Zurich, Backbeat in Paris, Liam in Madrid, and now I Spy in Winnipeg: a list forged through sheer circumstance, but seeming to me somehow coherent, forming the coordinates of some mysterious geometry.

I Spy

The theater in Winnipeg was yet another Famous Players multiplex, apparently just a few years old but already past its snazzy prime – like all those places, it’ll look awfully dated in a few years. It was pretty empty (the movie was a box-office disappointment) and I sat in the same kind of position I usually choose – four or five rows back. Nothing exceptional about any of that. Not about the movie, which is distinctly formulaic. But I enjoyed it more than would ever have been possible in Toronto, I think. Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy make a serviceable double act. The film has no social relevance whatsoever, and it’s about as surprising as the taste of Coke, but it has good pace, and an amusing recurring theme about Wilson being hampered by sub-standard spy gadgets.

Most people see movies, of course, as an outing, which as likely as not includes a drink or dinner before or after. Weekends at the Paramount, the movie may be a preamble to the nightclub. For many, it implies a rigmarole of planning – babysitters, parking, etc. I suppose the movie watching experience gains some additional contours from these surrounding logistics. Me – I usually just go to the movie, then come home. My I-Spy experience made me reflect that I may be missing out on something. If a minor variation to the routine adds some spice to I-Spy, what might be achieved through a more dramatic departure?

Anyway, the following weekend I caught up with Roger Dodger, but the movie had already been relegated to a single location – the Varsity VIP. These are the ultra-plush screening rooms at the Varsity where you pay a few dollars more for an extra-comfortable space and leg room, and where the attendants bring the popcorn and drinks right to you, to save you the walk. I don’t make any great claims for the social significance of lining up for popcorn, but something about this particular form of pampering puts me off.

Roger Dodger

Having said that, it wasn’t a bad way to see Roger Dodger. I was all by myself except for (I think) a couple of other people sitting at the back, and the resulting feeling of sealed-off privilege complemented the elegant isolation that defines the movie. Campbell Scott plays a Manhattan advertising copywriter who’s a ladies’ man – he tells his teenage nephew he gets lucky every night. The nephew is a frustrated virgin who’s turned up unexpectedly to get some pointers, and Scott takes him on a tour of the nightspots, spilling a mesmerizing torrent of snappy advice on how you get the job done; the movie has the most consistently enthralling dialogue since The Believer.

Based on what we see in the movie, Roger strikes out much more than he succeeds, but that seems truer to his real intention. He approaches his targets too directly not to be frightening – he seems to hold out the prospect of bypassing orgasm and going straight to the recrimination afterwards. The only exception is an affair with his female boss, in which he behaves like a jerk. The nephew on the other hand is beguiling in his innocence, and seems potentially capable of connecting even with two women much more worldly than he is. The contrast gives the film an efficient narrative line, but the women seem too idealized (although the skillful acting by Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkeley hides this pretty well).

The movie’s grip lies in pure self-destruction, and Scott has never seemed as much like his father George C (in desolate Hardcore mode, not the dingbat of Dr. Strangelove or the overpowering tyrant of Patton). The character could have eaten himself alive, but director Dylan Kidd spares him that, and allows him a much-criticized coda where he now visits the nephew in his school and resumes his education. It suggests that the film is ultimately less interested in exploring the implications of Roger’s behaviour than in establishing him as an icon.

If you saw it as part of a couple on a date, with your mind as much on what’s happening later that evening as on the movie itself, you could be forgiven for mistaking Roger Dodger for something of a romp. Seeing it alone, it’s unmistakably depressing. But I think that’s the better reading of it.

Far from Heaven

Fortunately, I’m not yet fated to watch quite all my movies alone. Later that same day, my wife and I met up with three friends to watch Far from Heaven. The film recreates the look and feel of a 50s suburban melodrama like All that Heaven Allows, but takes advantage of modern production freedoms to deal more explicitly with themes of race and sexuality than Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli could have imagined. Julianne Moore is the housewife who’s drawn to the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her executive husband (Dennis Quaid) is fighting his homosexuality. In some ways, it’s a rather esoteric project, willingly accepting outdated idioms and attitudes, but Haynes sustains the experiment brilliantly, investing it with almost unimaginable subtlety.

Later on we went for some beers. We talked about the movie, of course. We all liked it, and as with any group, we came at it from different angles. I knew the director Todd Haynes’ previous work, so I talked about that. I wasn’t around in the 50s, but others in the group were, and testified to the film’s verisimilitude in many respects. Our group lacked any black or gay representation, which may have held us back from having the best possible discussion about the film, but it’s not like anyone was keeping score. As in most walks of life, you send your ideas bouncing around in a good debate, and they come back that much stronger. And they stick better in the memory too.

Moral: sometimes you’re better off seeing movies alone, sometimes with other people. But the main thing is – see a movie!

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