“Raising Arizona” (1987) dir./ scr. The Coen Brothers

I first became aware of the Coen Brothers when their debut film “Blood Simple” was making the rounds and creating a buzz.  I was 15 at the time and saw it at the Circle 6 in Norfolk, VA during the (then) theatrical no-man’s land between February and May of 1985.  These were the days when if you looked vaguely 17 years old, they would sell you a ticket … or not.  To be fair, even from the age of 13, I was never refused a ticket for an R-rated film.  At the time, I thought it was because I looked super-old.  In reality, I don’t think the theaters gave a s–t.  Seriously, I was able to buy a ticket for “9 1/2 Weeks” at the same theater during the same period and no one even remotely asked me if I was of age.   But I digress …

Anyway, I didn’t think much of “Blood Simple” back then.  It was interesting and weird for sure, but I left the theater thinking “Eh …”  In subsequent years, I’ve rewatched “Bood Simple” and think it’s amazing, but as a 15-year old, it didn’t do much for me.  Neither did “9 1/2 Weeks” for that matter.  But by that point, I had already seen “Deep Throat” uncut, along with several porn classics on the Playboy Channel, which … while heavily edited … were still much more explicit than the antics in the allegedly “saucy” “9 1/2 Weeks.”  But again, I digress …

Cut to the Spring of 1987.  I’m listening to NPR (the station my Mom listened to back in the day before she discovered Rush Limbaugh … another sad digression … ARRGH!) and the NPR commentators are discussing this amazingly weird film “Raising Arizona.”  I’m intrigued, but not making the connection it’s by the same people who made “Blood Simple.”  When I visited my Dad in the Washington D.C. area for Spring Break, “Raising Arizona” was the film I chose to see.  That was a great visit, because I also discovered Tower Records near George Washington University and picked up the following albums: “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “For Your Pleasure” by Roxy Music, “London Calling” by the Clash, and “The Best of Elvis Costello” during the same visit, which all changed my life in significant ways.

Anyway, back to “Raising Arizona.”  My thoughts at the time?  It was a fantastically weird aberration / revelation along the lines of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”  It was a film that … on the surface … seemed to follow traditional movie conventions, but went off the rails in several key areas.  On one level, it was one of many Yuppie “we’re having a baby” films that were popular at the time (“Baby Boom,” “She’s Having a Baby”). But it also injected some really dark 1940s-era film noir elements (kidnapping, escaped convicts) that the filmmakers kept just dark enough to keep it interesting, but always pulled back at crucial moments before the film became truly disturbing. It many ways, it was simultaneously the perfect and most perverse major studio debut for resoundingly indie filmmakers.

Watching it now, “Raising Arizona” seems simultaneously like the most perverse and perfect major studio debut for decidedly indie filmmakers.  It rides the line between conventional comedy and truly twisted cinema better than most allegedly “edgy” studio films.  And the fact that it does all of this within the confines of a then PG-13 rating seems even more bizarre. In many ways, you can see elements of the Coen Brothers’ future masterpieces, from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” here.  And oddly, unlike most Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” manages to eke out a happy ending, though not in the ways you would normally expect.  The happy ending is a dream.  And while it may be a dream, unlike the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” where the happy endings may actually be the delusions of the twisted anti-heroes, the dream ending in “Raising Arizona” seems plausible.  And that’s one of the reasons this is arguably the most beloved of the Coen Brothers’ films.

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Joe Bob Briggs commentary for the “I Spit on Your Grave” DVD/Blu-Ray

For better or worse, Roger Ebert influenced me more as a film commentator and fan than any other writer.  What I liked … and still like … about Ebert was his ability to find merit in many films other critics found disreputable, specifically those that may contain extensive sex and/or violence.  Ebert was one of the first major critics to find merit in the films of Russ Meyer at a time when Meyer was reviled as a pornographer by … pretty much everyone.  Meyer returned the favor by hiring Ebert to write the script for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” Meyer’s big-studio X-rated debut film, along with Meyer’s future films “Supervixens” and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.”

Despite this, however, Ebert could be uncharacteristically persnickety about certain controversial films that one would think he would embrace.  David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” is probably the most notorious of his slams.  But his review of the notorious 1978 rape and revenge film “I Spit on Your Grave” is almost equally famous.  Not because “I Spit on Your Grave” is a particularly good film.  But because Ebert said these things: “Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life” and also ended his review by saying “At the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”

A lot of things can influence one’s opinions of a film that have nothing to do with the film … one’s mood on the day they see the film, the venue in which once sees the film, the audience the film is seen with, etc.  However, Ebert’s fevered reaction to “I Spit on Your Grave” was particularly memorable … and strange.  Mainly because Ebert gave a good review to an equally notorious rape and revenge film of the early 1970s … Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left.”   Ebert made a point of using “Grave” as an example of the “worst of the worst” during his tirade about “slasher films” during the early 1980s.

While “I Spit on Your Grave” is not a great film, it’s not completely without merit.  Hearing Joe Bob Briggs’s commentary on the “I Spit on Your Grave” DVD/Blu-Ray is one of the greatest critical counterpoints of all-time.  Briggs goes through the film scene by scene … counteracting all accusations that this is a film made from the point of view of the vile male rapists and that the film actually follows lock-step with the arguments of some of the more radical feminist voices of the day (i.e. Andrea Dworkin).  It should be pointed out the original title of this film was called “Day of the Woman.”

Look, I’m not about to recommend “I Spit on Your Grave.”  Whatever merits the film does have do not balance out the sheer unpleasantness of much of the film.  Despite his arguments for the film’s merits, Briggs does point out the many inept decisions director Meir Zarchi makes.  “I Spit on Your Grave” is not a good film.  But it’s not worthless.  And Briggs’s wonderfully insightful … and irreverent … commentary makes this very clear.  And it’s one of the best and most entertaining DVD / Blu-Ray commentary tracks of all-time.

For the record, I’m including a link to Ebert’s review here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/i-spit-on-your-grave-1980

Best Moviegoing Memories of the Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk, VA

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During my review of the documentary “The Rep,” I mentioned that some of my favorite moviegoing memories from my youth and young adulthood took place at the Naro Expanded Cinema, a repertory theater in Norfolk, VA. I thought I would recount a few of them here:

1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
The very first film I saw at the Naro. After having been to the Naro several times, my Mom took my brother and me to see this revival of “2001” in a 70mm 6-track stereo print during the summer of 1981. At the time, I was weaned on “Star Wars,” so I wasn’t as impressed with “2001” as I would become in later years. But I still remember being impressed with the realism Kubrick conveyed in this vision of space travel. Fortunately, I got to see it several years later in another 70mm revival in Washington D.C. when I was more ready for it and was … finally … bowled over.

2. “North by Northwest” (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Another one my Mom dragged me to because she thought it would be good for me. Initially, being 12-years old or so, I groaned over seeing an “older” unrated film that would have no profanity, nudity or graphic violence. These reservations were instantly dispelled once I realized how much fun this movie was … one that combined action, suspense, comedy, and … yes … sex in a brilliantly sophisticated package. To this day, Eva Marie Saint’s character is still one of the smartiest, sexiest, most complex action heroines of all time. And Cary Grant … as Robert Evans once said, Grant had more grace walking backwards than everyone else had walking forwards.

3. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
I had already seen this multiple times before seeing it at the Naro on a double-bill with “Poltergeist” during the summer of 1983. But … what I remember the most is the glorious stereo soundtrack that the Naro properly showcased. When Indy cracked his whip in the streets of Cairo, I heard the sound of the whip start behind my head, carry through the speakers surrounding the sides, and then exploding upfront. The single most impressive display of filmic sound design I’ve ever experienced. Thanks, Naro!

4. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
The Naro was THE best place to see “Rocky Horror” because back when I first saw it around 1985 or so, the theater owners allowed the audience to go absolutely bats–t crazy. The only rule was that you couldn’t throw anything at the screen. Otherwise, anything went. I’ve since heard things have changed, but that’s OK. Seriously, you don’t want to trash such a wonderful place to see a movie … but it was really really fun.  Especially on Halloween.

5. “Stop Making Sense” (1984) dir. Jonathan Demme
This classic concert film featuring the Talking Heads was nice to see on a huge screen with a booming, bass heavy sound. What was especially cool was the fact that so many people in the audience were taken with the music that they started dancing in front of the screen … which prompted the film to stop until people sat down. This happened at least 8-9 times before the film could finally end.

6. “Suburbia” (1983) dir. Penelope Spheeris
One of the best moviegoing memories from my youth was seeing Penelope Spheeris’s punk melodrama “Suburbia’ in a packed midnight screening at the Naro in 1985 (with an audience full of mohawks and trenchcoats) with a good friend of mine and my friend’s Dad, who attended the screening with us since me and my friend were not legally able to drive.  The audience went completely nuts at the beginning of the film, when the wild dog attacks a toddler (one of the worst mannequin substitutes I’ve ever seen in any idiom), which isn’t funny, but kind of is in the context of the film and the audience.  My friend’s Dad (who, at the time, was roughly about my age now) took the film in stride, enjoyed himself, and later compared the film to “Rebel Without a Cause” on the ride home, which he highly recommended to us.  While I later saw “Rebel” and thought it a much superior film, I have a really soft spot in my heart for “Suburbia.”

7. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I was fortunate enough to see “Blue Velvet” on its original theatrical run when I was one of three paying customers in the audience.  I’m so grateful for this particular experience, because I was able to accept Lynch’s vision the way it was originally intended … an unironic (but not unfunny), highly disturbing nightmare.  When I saw it at the Naro a few months later, the place was packed.  Unfortunately, it was packed with hipsters already predisposed to laugh at everything.  While I remember having a great time that night when I saw it in a packed theater, in retrospect, I also remember being a little pissed that they were treating it all as a big joke.  Again, the film is not unfunny … but it’s not a smug post-modern jokefest.  That night I learned that there’s a danger in thinking you’re smarter than the material you’re watching … especially before you’ve actually seen it.

8.  “Husbands and Wives” (1992) dir. Woody Allen

I remember seeing this at the Naro in early 1993 during a particularly dark period in my life as the second half of a double-bill with another film I don’t remember.  I distinctly remember the Allen film hitting me right between the eyes.  Yes, I remember laughing a lot, but I also remember being completely shattered at the end of it.  One of the most brutally cynical views of marriage and relationships ever created.  It’s no wonder this was filmed and edited during the height of Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s relationship “issues.” I think I skipped the invitation to have a beer after the film that night.

9. “Pink Flamingoes” (1972) dir. John Waters
The very last film I saw at the Naro … and I saw this during the film’s 25th anniversary revival in 1997.  I had seen the film more than a few times on video before and while I thought it was funny, I thought other Waters films (specifically, “Female Trouble” and “Polyester”) were much better.  However, seeing “Pink Flamingoes” in a theater brought a new dimension that I had never considered before … collective embarrassment.   Seeing this film with a paying audience on a huge screen made a lot of “Flamingo’s” notorious scenes seem way dirtier … and funnier.   One of the few times I remember actually convulsing in embarrassed laughter during a theater screening … while turning several shades of red.  Seriously, that s–t hurt!  But it was a lot of fun!

“In Dreams” – Roy Orbison (as used in “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch)

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Here’s the infamous scene where Dean Stockwell’s whacked-out Ben character lip-syncs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” while Dennis Hopper’s equally insane Frank Booth looks on in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Stockwell allegedly came up with Ben’s “look” by reading Lynch’s script and imagining what kind of person Frank would consistently praise as being “suave.” I love the way that the otherwise aggro Frank gets very emotional while watching Ben’s performance and then about 1:14 in, abruptly starts having a psychotic break. Two brilliantly weird performances in a masterpiece of a film. I’ll watch this scene 1,000 more times than have to endure one more scene of some movie character singing Motown tunes into a hairbrush.  And would someone please send me that smoking jacket that Ben wears?

“Mysteries of Love” – Julee Cruise

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When David Lynch was making his 1986 film “Blue Velvet,” he wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s famous cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” for his film. As great as this cover is, Lynch could not afford the rights to use it based on the limited budget he was given to make “Blue Velvet.” So, Lynch used composer Angelo Badalamenti’s and vocalist Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love” instead. The song was effectively used in the film, especially during the scene where Jeffrey (played by Kyle Maclaughlin) kisses Sandy (played by Laura Dern) for the first time and then during the end credits.

“Wild at Heart” (1990) dir. David Lynch

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When you create a film that many people consider to be a masterpiece and a lasting contribution to the art of film (in director David Lynch’s case, it was 1986’s “Blue Velvet”), it’s a fool’s errand deciding what you’re going to do for an encore.

Some directors scale back and do something more modest (i.e. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” Barry Levinson’s “Avalon”). Some directors create the epic they’ve always wanted to make, oftentimes with varying results: from great (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, PT Anderson’s “Magnolia”) to severely flawed (Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900”) to catastrophic (Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”).

Still others decide to make a film that is a depository for every weird idea they’ve ever had, for every f–ked-up notion they’ve ever wanted to put into a film but couldn’t before, and are making this film because this is the one time they can possibly get away with it. These films are typically ones that you probably hate on first viewing, but may grow to like, even love. The best examples of this are Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud” (his follow-up to “MASH”), The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (their follow-up to “Fargo”), and David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.”

“Wild at Heart” came with big expectations and actually won the Palme d’Or at 1990’s Cannes Film Festival (to a cavalcade of boos, allegedly led by Roger Ebert). I had huge expectations for “Wild at Heart,” not only because it was Lynch’s new film, but had Nicolas Cage (when he was only starring in cult movies), Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Dern, and Willem Dafoe, all favorite actors of mine.

My initial reaction? Supreme disappointment, almost anger. The film was as violent and disturbing as “Blue Velvet,” but I thought Lynch trying way too hard to live up to some reputation as some Fellini-esque boogeyman and was just being freaky and weird for the sake of being freaky and weird. I thought it was calculated and crass, a Troma film for art houses.

But … I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. I saw it again at college a few months later and liked it a little more. When I was home that summer, I rented it on video and grew to appreciate it even more. By the end of the summer, I was a fan, but still thought it was a much lesser work than “Blue Velvet” and “Eraserhead.”

Over the years, I’ve grown to like it a lot more and now see it as a transitional film for Lynch as an artist. Kind of a movie he had to get out of his system, before he really let his freak flag fly with “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.,” arguably his masterpiece even more than “Blue Velvet.” (I like “Blue Velvet” more, but think “Mulholland Dr.” is one of the most complex and brilliant films ever made).

This is not to belittle “Wild at Heart”. As I’ve said earlier, I’ve grown to appreciate and even love this film. Yes, it’s oftentimes weird for the sake of being weird. Yes, it’s patently (and I believe intentionally) ridiculous in many scenes, but if you’re in a mood to be rocked silly with graphic sex, violence, vulgarity, and insanity, it can be a lot of fun. Definitely not for prudes.

“Crying” from the 2001 film “Mulholland Drive” dir. David Lynch

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The emotional highlight from David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece “Mulholland Drive,” this is a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” sung entirely in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio… and it’s devastating within the context of the film.  “Blue Velvet” is my favorite Lynch film, but I have to admit that “Mulholland Drive” may actually be his best, a movie that never ceases to astonish me with its depth and meaning.

“Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

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The esteemed British film journal “Sight and Sound” recently released their once-every-10-years international critics and directors poll of the greatest movies ever made. They have their idea of the greatest films ever made and I have mine. So, whether you like it or not, I will be including essays on my 10 favorite films of all time. These are not necessarily the 10 best films of all time, just the 10 that made the biggest impact on me personally. These are not necessarily in order:

10. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I have an interesting history with David Lynch. Back when I was growing up, I heard about his first movie “Eraserhead” through the bi-monthly bulletin that the local arthouse put out and was consistently intrigued by the poster with Jack Nance with the weird hair. When “The Elephant Man” came out in 1980, it was the first movie I remember seeing that made me cry. I actually saw Lynch’s legendary big-budget sci-fi bomb “Dune” (1984) twice in the theater and loved it (even though, I was clearly in the minority at the time).

So, when I heard about “Blue Velvet” in the fall of 1986 and all the notoriety it had re: its dark violence and sexuality, I was very intrigued. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out in my hometown until November 1986 and it was likely only a fill-in feature until the Christmas blockbusters came out on Thanksgiving weekend. I was only one of three patrons in a theater that had a capacity for 500. And from the moment the curtains opened and the credits rolled over the blue velvet fabric, I was hooked. It was the perfect setting for seeing this film. I got completely sucked into Lynch’s nightmare that unfolded in front of me. I laughed in a few spots, but for the most part, I was positively frightened and mesmerized throughout. I walked out of the theater in a daze, convinced I had seen the greatest movie ever made.

I saw it a few months later at the local arthouse that used to show “Eraserhead.” Only this time, the place was packed, unfortunately with hipster d–kheads who laughed hysterically throughout the entire film. Yes, there are funny moments in the film and yes, because I was an insecure 17-year old, I laughed along with the audience. But I really cherish being able to see “Blue Velvet” that first time in a nearly empty audience and accept it non-ironically.

The scene I included here is one of the scenes I remember the hipsters losing their s–t over. And on the surface, you can see why because it totally seems completely dorky. However, as David Lynch noted to British film critic Mark Kermode when Kermode asked him about this scene.

“We all have this thing where we want to be very cool and when you see something like this, really kind of embarrassing, the tendency is to laugh, so that you are saying out loud that ‘This is embarrassing and not cool!’ and you’re hip to the scene. But we also always know that when we’re alone with this person that we’re falling in love with, we do say goofy things, but we don’t have a problem with it. It’s so beau-ti-ful. and the other person’s so forgiving of these beautiful, loving, goofy things. So there’s a lot of this swimming in this scene. A the same time, there’s something to that scene, a truth to it, in my book.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself and I have to admit when I watched this scene in a nearly empty theater, I took this scene at face value and seriously got sucked into Laura Dern’s character’s description of her dream and, like Kyle MacLachlan’s character admitted, thought it was pretty “neat.”

“Song to the Siren” – This Mortal Coil

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Arguably, the most famous cover of Tim Buckley’s most famous song. Director David Lynch apparently wanted to use this for “Blue Velvet,” but because he couldn’t afford the rights had to make do with the Angelo Badalamenti-Julee Cruise song “Mysteries of Love” (not a bad substitute by any means, in my opinion). Lynch eventually got to use this in 1996’s “Lost Highway” and it also appeared in director Peter Jackson’s 2009 film adaptation of “The Lovely Bones.” Comedian Patton Oswalt made mention of this during his famous KFC Famous Bowls routine.