Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Life's like a movie, write your own ending: An appreciation of The Muppet Movie

Last week I watched The Muppet Movie – the 1970s classic of iconic songs and gloriously corny jokes – at the Dryden Theatre.

The timing of this screening now seems more poignant after learning that Jim Henson died 26 years ago yesterday. In fact, three of the five main Muppet performers are now gone, and so are the vast majority of the 1970s celebrity cameos in this film. To quote a Far Side cartoon, “We’re getting’ old, Jake.”

The Muppet Movie is one of my favorite films and another influence on Saberfrog, and seeing it on the big screen in 35mm was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. I don’t remember watching this film a huge number of times on video, but I don’t think I needed to, so deep was its influence.

I know that this film taught me the concept of puns and wordplay, since I needed the double meanings of “fork in the road” and “drinks are on the house” explained to me. It’s the earliest depiction of a romantic date that I can remember seeing as a kid. I also think that the scene where Rowlf the Dog discusses the joys of solitary bachelorhood made an impression on me – it’s the spoken intro to a musical duet with Kermit, so it was included on the soundtrack LP and was thus the dialogue I was able to hear repeatedly in the days before we had a VCR.

I have long credited/blamed (delete as appropriate) the influence of Star Wars in inspiring my younger self to become a filmmaker. But The Muppet Movie now seems like a more obvious influence, since it is explicitly the story of a backwoods boy going on a cross-country journey to enter show business. Although Kermit’s initial goal seems to be to become a performer, when Kermit actually reaches Hollywood he is shown directing a film based on his own experiences.

(This emphasis on filmmaking rather than performing seems to be further emphasized in the film’s wraparound story of the Muppets gathering at a Hollywood screening room to watch the completed film. It’s now striking to me that the very first shot of the movie is the sculpture above the studio entrance, showing a stereotypical Hollywood director balancing the world on his fingertip.)

Kermit’s saga begins when a wandering Hollywood agent (played by Dom DeLuise) overhears Kermit happily singing and playing the now-famous song “Rainbow Connection”, and thus encourages Kermit to go to Hollywood to audition. Our hero’s journey seems to be influenced by The Wizard of Oz (with its similarly-themed song “Over the Rainbow”) and I couldn’t help but notice something that both films share with Henson’s later film The Dark Crystal: The protagonist sets off alone, with no mentor or allies or safety net, and must build a family of comrades over the course of the adventure.

At first, Kermit experiences the Joseph Campbell-approved Refusal of the Call. But what seems to finally motivate Kermit to set off on this journey is the thought of making “millions of people happy”.

Rewatching this film as an adult, the innocence of that goal really hit me. Kermit is pursuing the selfless goal of being an entertainer, rather than the arguably deeper, but more self-centered, goal of being an artist. And when the villainous businessman Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) wants to exploit Kermit’s talents, Kermit ultimately confronts him by explaining that – unlike Hopper – Kermit is pursuing a goal that “gets better the more people you share it with.” So under this wacky, whimsical, light-hearted comedy is a theme about the importance of friendship and community, something that the more calculating Hopper lacks.

My earliest filmmaking efforts were motivated purely by the desire to entertain. But by the time I was old enough to go to film school, there was a growing cynicism and a growing backlash against Hollywood blockbusters, and against the very idea of “entertainment”. Anger, disgruntlement and ennui had become more fashionable. Entertainment was for stupid, shallow people who couldn’t accept the reality that everything was awful. And anyone who didn’t get with that program was made to feel like a sheep or a sellout.

I tried to resist that mentality for a long time. But in recent years I have observed mainstream commercial films becoming more formulaic, and more reliant on existing properties rather than springing from the imagination of a visionary like Jim Henson. I’ve also gotten bummed out by the constant din of Internet culture, where the most hostile and close-minded people so often seem to have the power to overpower every discussion.

I have recoiled against all this by overdosing on screenings of experimental films – they may be confusing or disturbing or sometimes even dull, but they stem from the subconscious of someone who is determined to walk his or her own solitary path, regardless of what other people think.

So rewatching The Muppet Movie as an adult was like coming home after waging a long and difficult war. It didn’t reduce me to tears (as I thought it might), but I had to sit in my car for a little while after the screening. I had to process what I had seen. I had to dwell on the difference between what I originally learned from that film as a child, and what kind of adult I have become.

I’ve had many triumphs and good experiences. But I’ve also had many moments of frustration, and many experiences that have left me more inclined to become closed-off and separatist.

The Muppet Movie is a reminder of the importance of optimism, innocence, and pursuing your dreams. Both “Rainbow Connection” and Gonzo’s later lament “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” have lyrics about pursuing something that is intangible or hard to explain.

The film is also a reminder that you can be irreverent without being cynical. The Muppet Movie does not shy away from depicting the hazards and pitfalls of adult life, and in fact there are some gags (such as those involving mild depictions of sexuality or alcohol use) that I suspect might upset some people if used in a kid’s film today. Doc Hopper starts out as a silly and cartoony villain, but becomes a more serious and violent threat over the course of the film.

Yet The Muppet Movie does not treat these adult-world hazards as excuses to give up or to be nihilistic. The point of the movie seems to be that idealism can and should triumph against these darker forces.

Two scenes in particular have always haunted me. One is when Kermit and friends are stranded in the desert, and Kermit wanders off alone to deal with his thoughts. He has a conversation with himself (literally – there is another Kermit that he talks to, and I needed the symbolism of this explained to me as a kid) and has to convince himself that he would have been unhappy if he hadn’t pursued this dream, and that the friends who’ve been traveling with were following the dream, not him.

The other is when (spoiler) Kermit finally reaches Hollywood and tells a studio head that he wants to be “rich and famous”. This has long struck me as an ambiguous ending, since Kermit expresses his goal more selfishly at this climax than he did at the beginning, when he simply wanted to make “millions of people happy”. The irony seems to be made more deliberate by the casting of Hollywood’s most infamous fallen angel – Orson Welles – as the studio head.

And on this viewing, I noticed that Kermit and friends essentially bully their way past the studio head’s secretary (Cloris Leachman) instead of simply going to the audition that the agent told Kermit about at the start of the movie. It’s an unexpected change of character for Kermit, especially so soon after scolding the villain for his lack of empathy.

I realize this is a G-rated family comedy whose plot is just a rough clothesline to hang gags on, and that I may be looking too hard for existential meaning in what are probably just story glitches that another script draft could have fixed. But The Muppet Movie had a huge impact on me as a kid, so it will always seem to me to be a work of Talmudic significance.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The insane film event that inspired Saberfrog

I recently read a biography of film director David Lynch, which describes some seminal moments in his life that had a direct effect on his art. One was a memory of his childhood in pleasant rural Montana, when he found a tree whose fruit was oozing blackness and covered with ants. The other was living in 1970s urban Philadelphia as a college student and witnessing crime and violence on a regular basis. These experiences had their most obvious effect on his films Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, respectively.

Reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if my own creative work was similarly impacted by a particularly vivid life experience.

I couldn't think of one at the time. But there was one, and I unexpectedly got to relive it last night.

I was once again meeting up with my fellow film nerd (and Saberfrog co-star) John Karyus for an experimental film screening, this one at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. I was on the fence about going to this one - there were other important things I could have been doing, and our seeing Matthew Barney's River of Fundament a few days earlier had left me feeling like I should maybe take a break from this sort of thing. So I wasn’t really in the mood, but I decided that one more couldn't hurt.

While we sat in the Hallwalls screening room waiting for the films to start, some old Prince songs were playing on the speakers in the recently-departed musician’s memory. Finally the music stopped and the curator stood up to introduce the films. “Sorry to stop playing Prince…” he began. “Instead we’re gonna play some prints!” I shouted back, jerking a thumb at the projectors behind us. Even at my shyest and most depressed I can never ignore an opportunity for a bad pun, but nobody laughed and the curator ignored me and continued his introduction.

The screening was a collection of old short films, including Un Chien Andalou (a well-known surrealist film by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel), and a film by Stan Vanderbeek which clearly showed his influence on Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python.

Some of these films were more interesting to me than others. Then it got to the final film. And I thought, Oh my God. It's THAT one. From the screening that will live in infamy.

* * *

When I was a kid, I would see oddball animated films and other shorts - either in school, or at a library or museum, or as filler between movies on cable. When I began making my own films, I was mainly influenced by Hollywood fantasy films and cartoons. But these strange and dreamy shorts also crept into my imagination.

My early filmmaking got me accepted into the 1990 New York State Summer School of the Arts - or NYSSSA for short - held that summer at the University at Buffalo. As a film student, I got to make some short films on Super-8 film and to watch a variety of foreign art films and experimental films, an experience that would further cement my interest in alternative cinema.

This was a six-week adventure of a lifetime. It was my first taste of college life, and exposed me to a type of art that was more avant-garde and confrontational than anything I had ever encountered previously. It was at NYSSSA that my sheltered small-town self first saw the aforementioned Un Chien Andalou as well as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Chris Marker's La Jetee, the Scorsese films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the films of Stan Brakhage, among many others.

In among all these was a short film called T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G by Paul Sharits. This was a series of strobing images - mostly a man placing scissor blades against his tongue (as if to cut it off) and that same man having his face scratched by a woman's hand - accompanied by the endless looping sound bite "Destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy..." I don't remember the class's response to this film, but I suspect that my younger self found it annoying.

Watching all these films was the proverbial drink from a fire hose. I was fascinated by the various film screenings, lectures and field trips, but I was also frustrated that they were always mandatory, especially when they cut into the time needed to complete our own film projects. But I was an obedient kid and so I went to all of these events as instructed.

In addition to viewing films in our regular classroom, we also had guest speakers and visiting artists in a different, auditorium-sized classroom. And Paul Sharits himself was present for one of these - a screening of another of his films, called Razor Blades. This film required two projectors, showing two different film reels side by side.

Like the previous Sharits film we'd watched, Razor Blades was an epilepsy-inducing barrage of flickering images and repetitive audio. This time the imagery was much more NSFW (male genitalia in various stages of arousal, an ass being wiped with toilet paper, naked people dancing, stillborn/aborted fetuses) and the audio was a very loud, piercing, stuttering electronic tone.

The film alone would have been a lot to inflict on a captive audience of kids in their early- to mid-teens - especially back in 1990, when The Simpsons was considered controversial and rap music was still seen as a potential threat to civilization.

But on this occasion there was also a live element that pushed the whole thing to another level. Sharits had brought someone with him to the screening. I don't remember much about him (he was a black guy, possibly heavy-set, maybe wearing a big coat or sweatshirt), but I do remember that he stood down in front and yelled at the audience. So we had to cope not only with electronic noise in our ears and dongs and butts before our eyes, but with some guy heckling us at the same time.

Finally the insanity got to be too much for my classmates, who stood up and began walking out of the auditorium. At first I obeyed the edict that we were supposed to sit through every screening and lecture, but as more and more students left I finally left my seat and joined them.

On a later day - possibly the next day - there was a meeting in which the students angrily confronted the summer school's director. He seemed amused by the whole thing and kind of laughed off the outrage of his students. But it transpired that Sharits' cohort hadn't just been shouting at the audience (as I had observed) but was directing more specific verbal abuse at the female students in the audience.

* * *

That screening and its fallout gave a dark tinge to my summer in NYSSSA. Yet that particular event - and the NYSSSA experience as a whole - would grow to a mythic proportion in my memory over the years.

In the short term, it all made me jaded - I saw a lot of the same films that would be later shown in film school, ones I wasn’t always that interested in seeing again, and it made me resentful of having non-narrative styles of filmmaking forced on me by professors. But over time - and especially in recent years - I’ve become something of an experimental film junkie. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve finally matured enough to appreciate the kind of art that NYSSSA introduced me to, or if it’s just some kind of Stockholm syndrome that has made me so fiercely loyal to a genre that once caused me such torment.

My aforementioned friend John Karyus once joked that students enter film school aspiring to be the next Spielberg, and leave wanting to make a 3-hour film about grass growing. He too went to NYSSSA (in a different year, when it was held at Ithaca College), and both of us bonded in film school when we discovered we were both veterans of the same heightened experience.

We each had found it to be both inspiring and misleading. It cracked open our brains, opened our third eye, and showed us the full spectrum of wild and envelope-pushing things that art could be, while arguably steering our tastes and ambitions in a direction that was uncommercial to the point of madness. We wouldn't have missed it for the world, yet we still suspected it had warped our expectations of film and art in a potentially unproductive way. And that conflict was a major influence on Saberfrog, in which the troubled protagonist finds himself inexorably drawn back to a half-forgotten experience in college in order to make sense of his current state of mind.

* * *

I forgot some of the details of that infamous 1990 screening, including the name of that particular Sharits film, and who the hell that guy was doing the yelling. I assumed he was a performance artist of some kind.

After Sharits' T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was shown recently at Visual Studies Workshop, I briefly described the dual-projector Sharits film to programmer Tara Nelson and asked if she knew the name of it, and she guessed that it might have been a different film called Shutter Interface. So when this latest screening at Hallwalls include a Sharits film called Razor Blades in its lineup, I did not know for certain whether it would be one that I would recognize.

But almost as soon as Razor Blades began, I recognized the phallic imagery and throbbing audio. Oh shit, I thought.

Even if I had never seen this film before, it would still have been an intense experience. The flickering imagery was as blinding as ever, and that soundtrack - with the piercing staccato tones laid over a deep bass - made me feel like an airline passenger as his sinuses repressurized during landing. I was bopping my head furiously during the film.

But the autobiographical element made it even more psychedelic. Imagine actually reliving one of the major emotional peaks of your life - your first kiss, a bad breakup, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one. I felt that I was inside one of my own memories, something that I thought never happened in real life, only in stories like A Christmas Carol and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I was seeing a rare film that I hadn’t seen in almost 26 years, and it was still as mindwarping as ever. And because it was from the University at Buffalo’s collection, it was probably the very same print!

When the film ended, I turned to John and excitedly told him that this was the film I’d been telling him about for years, the one I’d seen back in 1990. A woman behind us overheard our conversation and joined in. She had been one of the directors of NYSSSA that year, and had been present when that crazy screening happened.

She told me that the guy yelling at the audience was somebody Sharits had just picked up off the street! And at that screening he had been telling the female viewers things like “I want to touch your p***y”. She added that there were phone calls home to parents the very next day, and that one of the consequences was that NYSSSA stopped accepting students in their early- or pre-teens. She also said that students stole knives from the cafeteria so that they would be armed for the next time Paul Sharits made an appearance, but I wasn’t sure if she was joking about that or not.

She told me all this in a sheepish tone of “yeah, we made sure nothing like that ever happened again.” But I was elated. Not only had I partly relived one of the most intense and inexplicable episodes of my life, but I’d just had the details corroborated and completed by someone else who had been there! I had no choice but to yell out “This is the greatest day of my life!” and thus make an even bigger fool of myself after the screening than I did with my failed pun before it.

To think I almost didn’t go to this screening, when it felt as if it had been prepared specifically with me in mind.

* * *

There’s a semi-recent David Lynch quote that made laugh. I haven’t been able to find the exact quote online, so I may be paraphrasing, but I believe he said “Words … they add nothing.”

I have described to you an intense nonverbal experience I have had, so that a record of it will remain even if I forget it or am no longer around to describe it. But I don’t know whether I have succeeded in making you feel its importance.

And now it is a story told in words, rather than a feeling. Is that better? Is that worse? I don’t know. But art is about communication, and I have tried to communicate my experience to you. And that, ultimately, is all that an artist can do.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Knocked for six: My reaction to Matthew Barney's River of Fundament

Yesterday I went to the George Eastman Museum with my friend John Karyus for a screening of River of Fundament, a six-hour experimental film by conceptual artist Matthew Barney.

I knew going in that this one would be an ordeal, not least for its monstrous length (with two intermissions dividing it into three parts) and because Barney is best known to film buffs for his 5-part Cremaster cycle, which I've never seen but which is notorious for being bizarre and "challenging" to sit through.

A bit of Googling (and looking at the description in the Eastman Museum's bimonthly program guide) suggests that this is all an opera loosely adapted from the Norman Mailer novel Ancient Evenings, and that Mailer (played by various actors in caked-dirt makeup) reincarnates three times over the course of the film. But this and other nuances were unknown to me during the screening. I can only report on what I saw:

The first of River of Fundament's three sections revolves around a funeral reception for Mailer. This reception is attended by real-life celebrities such as Salman Rushdie, Fran Leibowitz, Elaine Stritch, and the spirit of Mailer himself. Paul Giamatti plays the representation of an Egyptian god named Ptah-Nem-Hotep.

The second section revolved around a car and its gold-straitjacketed occupant plummeting off a bridge and then later being recovered as two female police investigators holler strange music at the spectacle. One of the two women is an elfin character with big blue eyes, and her face - contorted with emotion and streaming with saliva as she howls at the water - is the image that stuck with me the most. This second section was my favorite, despite its use of the hated experimental-film fakeout of fading out to black and fading out the audio - creating the deception that it was over - only to fade right back up again.

I've already kind of forgotten the third part, though I believe this was also the section in which actors portrayed the mythic conflict between the Egyptian gods Set and Horus, mediated by the father-god Ra (a conflict also depicted in the underrated recent action film Gods of Egypt). I do remember that near the end Ellen Burstyn gives a deathbed speech about the cyclical nature of birth and death. For me this scene stood out in a film that was otherwise reluctant to spell out its theme or point too clearly.

River of Fundament should probably be regarded as a modern-art installation or performance, rather than a film per se. Like much controversial modern art it is scatalogical - there are plenty of shots of human orifices and the things that can pass into or out of them. Reoccurring images include a pig roast (which slowly becomes more decayed over the course of the film) and the disemboweling of a dead cow, either to remove a stillborn calf or to allow a male character (Mailer's ghost if I remember) to crawl inside it.

Most of the film is urban and industrial in its imagery - a crane spectacularly destroys a car, a fist-fight breaks out between two men in a warehouse, etc. For this reason, the nature imagery (trees, fish, etc.) that occurs late in the third section was a huge relief to me. No matter how self-consciously icky the subject matter gets, the 4K digital photography is gorgeous, the music and sound design is hypnotic, and the overall austere tone is impressive.

I've run the gamut of emotions on experimental films, from resenting them as a self-indulgent waste of the audience's time to cherishing them as a refreshing break from conformity. As Hollywood movies become slicker and more dependent on pre-sold properties, I've become more indulgent of experimental films that at least seem to come from someone's own unique view of the world. But for me, watching this was the experimental-film equivalent of reaching the proverbial end of the Internet.

My past enjoyment of experimental films has been on the grounds that they are essentially underground and personal (like poetry or punk music) and I'm mainly used to seeing older, analog entries in the genre, shown on grainy 16mm in a college classroom or hole-in-the-wall art gallery. Yet this is a massive epic featuring celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal, with large and complex crowd scenes (such as one involving steel workers dealing with molten metal) that I'm told were performances staged for the public while being filmed for inclusion in this piece. The film's main set seems to have been built on a floating barge, housing both the dinner party above and a flooded basement below.

My friend John loved it, was only occasionally bored by it, and saw it as proof that one can still make truly weird or shocking movies. My response was more mixed. I was bored for longer sections of it than he was, and I was less sure what value to derive from it all.

After sleeping on it, I suppose the film's most obvious message is that decay and disorder - not to mention death - are natural aspects of life that we cannot and should not ignore. Part of me finds this deep, yet another part of me questions the value of this insight. Surely there is greater survival value in postponing death, and avoiding disease and decay, rather than dwelling on them?

This might seem like a tangent, but I once read an interview with Woody Allen in which he discussed his enjoyment of old Fred Astaire musicals. He said that Ingmar Bergman (an arthouse filmmaker he admires) is grappling with weighty issues you know cannot be solved, whereas Astaire offers at least temporary satisfaction and happiness.

Similarly, there's currently a lot of nostalgia for the comedies and action films of the 1980s, even among viewers who weren't alive when they were made. I recently rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in years, and also watched Critters for the first time. Seeing these, it occurs to me that 1980s popcorn movies are about characters with achievable goals - get the girl, kill the monster, win the big race, etc. - unlike the more acclaimed films of other eras that are about a more nebulous search for identity and meaning.

The core appeal of this has become more clear to me. I still believe that conformity should be resisted, not just obeyed. And yet the older I get, and the more our existence is defined by social interconnection, the less sure I am of the value of wandering further and further away from the herd.

What good does it do to ingest (or create) a difficult work like River of Fundament, if doing so just leaves you even more removed from the masses who haven't? As the modern economy demands us to be ruthlessly practical with our scant resources, how does one justify the time or expense of making, let alone seeing, something so strange and user-unfriendly? What is the reason to be the audience for - or a maker of - experimental art?

I guess it's simply to see what will happen. To see what can be learned, or experienced. To see what the limits are, and where they are.