Sodium Wage

The salt of any interesting civilization is mixture

Looking back on Herakles today, I find the film rather stupid and pointless

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Herakles (1962)

I’m going to be careful here because I don’t want to look at this movie with the knowledge of what was to come for Werner Herzog.

Now with that said, Herakles, in and of itself, is a silly film. For 12 minutes we watch a body-builder working out juxtaposed with images of warfare, marching women and a horrible auto racing accident. Holding all this together is some jazz music and title cards that ask questions such as ”Will he defeat the Amazons?” and ”Will he kill the Lernaean Hydra?” 

I’m sure that at the age of 20 Herzog thought he was making some sort of profound statement with this film. Fifty years later he wonders just what in the hell he was thinking. 

However, just like the character in the film, we get to watch as an artist goes through the required workout. Herzog has stated that while he does not think much of this film, he does admit that it taught him quite a bit about how to make one and the most notable lesson he must have taken away from Herakles is how to edit. 

The best edit in this film is that of a round weight slightly spinning on its bar that cuts immediately to the shoulder and arm of the body-builder. Where all the other edits try to force some sort of armchair philosophy onto the audience, this simple image of a weight juxtaposed to the muscle of a man is quite nice. I can see how Herzog wanted to say something about the mechanics of the human body and he manages to get the point across without also making fun of his subject.

Yet my biggest complaint with Herakles is that it’s not very kind to the subject. Most of the edits here seem to be saying that the character is just mindless and vain and his actions will inevitably lead to some terrible disaster. Of course this was probably not Herzog’s intention; as we now know Herzog likes to tell stories about people who have some serious issues, but in this film he’s still learning how to walk that tightrope between humorous irony and cruelty.

Another observation about Herakles is that Herzog already likes to just move the camera around. Now I’m speaking with plenty of hindsight from his later work here but Herzog loves to just grab the camera and point it at something else without any edits. I always get the feeling when watching his films that when he’s directing he’ll all of a sudden see something he wants to show on film and just point the camera at it. Any other director, even a documentary filmmaker, will either do a few takes to get such a shot right, edit out the camera movement or at least move the camera gracefully, but not Herzog.

In a way, Herzog is the most professional amateur to have ever directed films and Herakles exemplifies his roughness of style and rambling philosophizing. In some ways Herzog never advanced as a filmmaker beyond this film but, then again, I don’t get the impression from Herakles that he’s actually interested so much in the craft of movie making as he is in just telling stories.

For anyone interested in the subject matter of this film, Pumping Iron is far superior and is the film that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. Also, it is still watched to this day. Pumping Iron manages to be both engaging and fun without ever making the subjects look like fools - or, at least, lets the stars make fools of themselves without the filmmakers being overly judgmental about them.

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As an older gamer, this is how I feel about Dark Souls

I’m 38. That’s not really that old (right?) but it does put me in that group of gamers who still have clear memories of the 2600 and the NES era of gaming.

My first console was the NES when I was about 12 years old. I remember every day coming home from school, running upstairs and sitting down with Metroid, Castlevania, Metal Gear and Rygar. I spent hours, days and weeks on those games and I was pretty much consumed by them and fully immersed in their worlds.

Rygar, in particular, holds a special place in my gaming memory because not only was that game hard as hell and confusing to even know where to go (remember those top-down map sections with the caves?) but also because I was so determined to beat that game.

Anyway, one night when I was playing Rygar my family all wanted to go out to dinner to some Greek restaurant in Boston. I had no interest in spending an hour in the car to eat olives and feta because I was very near the end of the game. But off to Boston I went and so I hit pause, and left the NES on so that I wouldn’t lose all my progress.

The whole night all I could think about was “Is my NES going to be alright being on for hours?” and “I bet if I do X, I can climb that tower and get to that boss”.

Such are the thoughts of a 12 year old who has little else in life to worry about.

Those were great days to be a gamer and I’m sure little has changed for 12 year old kids today either (except they can at least save their games now - lucky bastards). Games could consume you at that age and the worst consequence you had to face for it was missing a homework assignment every so often.

Needless to say I have always been a gamer but have missed that feeling of being so passionate about a game.

As the years went on (and the systems got better), I never really got that same rush as I did when I was 12 and was struggling to beat Rygar or find my way through Metroid or get all the way through Castlevania. Sure some great games have come along that really captivated me - Okami, Half Life 2, NHL 94, Final Fantasy 9, the Mass Effect series and Silent Hill 2 - but I just assumed that as I was getting older the window for me to ever have that pure youthful gaming experience had long since past and that the best I could hope for was to just really enjoy a game.

But I was wrong.

Dark Souls has reinvigorated me.

I am 12 again.

A lot of it has to do with the difficulty of the game. So often I’m reminded of sitting on my bedroom floor as a kid and punching the side of my bed or swearing at my tv when I got killed in a game only to pick up the controller again and try once more.

But that’s not the only reason.

There is something special about this game. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put my finger on exactly what it is about Dark Souls that has really captivated me and what I’ve come to realize is that Dark Souls is a true video Game (capital “G”).

Lemme explain that better.

Dark Souls is pure gameplay. Like Rygar and Metroid you have to do things in a very specific order, memorize every enemy pattern in every level, perform each maneuver perfectly every time, know how to use all your abilities and, of course, just keep at it.

I miss that about games. Not that all games need to be like that, mind you, but there is just something so rewarding about doing something well and doing it right and making progress to the next section. Every parry and backstab has to be done just right, every step down into the Hollow has to be perfectly coordinated or you fall to your death, every boss fight has to be taken on in a full state of gaming zen.

I’m so often reminded of my NES while playing Dark Souls - those games were incredibly difficult (either because they were designed that way or because they were poorly made) but they were also so much fun to 12 year old me. Beating those old games was an accomplishment - like surviving a digital obstacle course in the boot camp of a gaming academy.

And so here I am 24 years later feeling like a kid again. I’m back to swearing at my tv (a much nicer one these days than what I had back then) and I even occasionally feel the need to slam my fists in the couch cushions to vent all that pent up game rage.

In fact, if someone was taping me they’d probably think I was having a terrible time with this game - but they’d be wrong. The torture is amazing and I want more of it.

So to sum up, Dark Souls for me is the first pure video game I have played since I was a kid and I feel like a kid again. Yeah, I’m not as good at gaming as a 12 year old but I’ve beaten almost every boss and found nearly every secret and item in the game so far. Basically I’m savoring this experience because I never want it to end.

I want to be 12 again for as long as possible until I have to go back to being an adult once more.

I know the game has only been out a few months, but it’s officially on my best of all time list - right after Rygar which, by the way, I beat that very same night when I got back from the Greek restaurant. Though the NES had been left on for hours, it was fine.

If I had known then that nearly a quarter of a century would pass before I’d ever feel this way about gaming again I’d have never turned the NES off.

(I originally wrote this over on reddit under my old account and have made a few edits here)

Saul Bass: Quest (1984)

In 1984, the great Saul Bass directed a very unusual but visually stunning short film called Quest written by Ray Bradbury. I only found out about this because the people who were hosting the Academy Award party I attended this evening had a book on Saul Bass and as we were flipping through it there was a page devoted to the film. 

The premise of the story is that all people only live for 8 days; they are doomed to be born, age and die in just over a week. However, when a new child is born a small group decides to train him and send him out on a journey to open a gate that will slow time … somehow. 

Nothing is really explained and the film is nearly all visual with very little dialogue holding it together. Yet it’s the visuals that make this a stand out short even if the story is obtuse. Even considering this was made on a small budget and some of the effects vary in quality, overall this is quite a remarkable short filled with a ton of imagination. 

Had I Picked The Best Picture Every Year Since 1973

Considering that I have a nearly unhealthy obsession for film (I’m pretty sure I was conceived in a movie theater), I’m starting my list at 1973 because that was the year I was born. As for the list, most years I try to pick from the list of officially nominated films, but there are a few years that proved impossible.

I’ve attempted to keep the list devoted to films that would qualify for Best Picture at the Academy Awards so that leaves out a lot of foreign films or films that didn’t get proper distribution.

Lastly, I tried to pick as an Academy voter would which means not every film here is my absolute choice for best film made in all the world that year, so please keep that in mind. I can always make another list of the absolute best films since 1973, but for now I’m just keeping it to the Academy - if that makes sense.

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We're About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can't Convert to Digital.

The best job I ever had was as a projectionist at a movie theater. The first theater I worked at was at the old MetroLux 12 in Loveland - a combination of the California based Metropolitan Theater company and the Santa Fe based TransLux chain. Both companies were smaller chains but they managed to put the money together to build a massive new 12 plex and they were hiring.

The theater was run by a guy named Dan. Dan had worked for Metropolitan for about 15 years as a projectionist and theater manager as as their most experienced employee he was tasked with getting this new operation off the ground.

Now Dan, though he wasn’t old, was old-school. He had learned every trick about film projection from some of the old masters in California - projectionists that famous directors such as Robert Altman would require for their film screenings to studio execs. 

You see, the thing about being a projectionist is not just threading the film into the projector, flipping the on switch and watching the movie from the projection booth. Projecting a film correctly involves quite a bit of work and technical knowledge. You have to understand what format the film was shot in and how to get that image on the screen correctly. Is the film widescreen? You need to use an anomorphic lens on the projector. You also need to adjust the gate (a thin piece of sturdy metal with a rectangular hole cut in it that is the shape of the film frame). Sometimes you need to file the gate down to remove rough edges that appear over time since they get very, very hot (those projector bulbs are Xenon bulbs and are hot, bright and explode like bombs). 

A projectionist has many other duties as well. They care for the projector by maintaining its parts (most projectors have grease fittings), cleaning the lenses, adjusting the audio, adjusting the luminosity of the bulb for the best possible image, focus, sound … the list goes on.

Another thing they have to do is physically “build up” each print and building up a print is a true art. This is one of the things Dan taught me.

When a movie arrives at the theater, it comes in (usually) two film canisters containing 3 reels each. Each reel is about 20 min of the film and all 6 reels (for a standard 2 hour film) need to be spliced together and splicing a reel to another reel is what separates the good projectionists from the rest. 

The trick is that you first need to find the first frame of the film on the reel. There is always several feel of header on each reel and this header is just clear film that protects the real film and it needs to be trimmed off. If you’ve ever seen the old 5-4-3-2-1 countdowns in old films - that’s the header. Anyway, it needs to be cut off. Once you’ve found the first frame, you start counting your sprocket holes - those are the square holes on either side of a piece of 35mm film (exactly like in an old family film camera) - and make a cut after the first frame. Some frames are easier to find than others and often there is a clear separation between frames, but not always - especially on widescreen (anamorphic) prints. 

Once you’ve made your cut on the first reel you then make another cut on the reel you are going to attach it to. Once that’s done you then tape the reels together (on both sides of the print) using clear tape. A good projectionist will always keep his splicer (that’s the tool used to hold the film in place and tape it together) in good working order and the knife edge on the cutter should always be sharp and straight. However, it’s not always a perfect cut and sometimes a very small gap appears between the two frames. 

Now film moves through a projector at 24 frames per second so a 1/32 inch gap may not seem like a big deal - BUT IT IS HUGE!

First of all that gap means the sprocket holes are now just slightly out of synch and when they go through the projector the gears that grab those holes will slightly miss the holes. This will cause the image on the screen to slightly bounce or vibrate and is quite noticeable (and embarrassing).

Another problem with this gap is what it does to the audio. 

If you look at a print of a film you will see just between the left sprocket holes and the image itself a series of 2 wavy lines. These wavy lines are the stereo audio track (there are other audio formats on the print too such as DTS - a CD-ROM based sound system - that keeps its information between each sprocket hole and SDDS - a 7 channel audio format - that appears as a blue stripe on both sides of the absolute outside edge of the print and some prints - usually 70mm - have magnetic sound - like an audio cassette - embedded right on the print too. 

Anyway, if there is a gap between the frames, when the audio track passes in front of an optical reader, it converts the wavy lines into sound - much like a record player does with its needle and groove. When there is hardly any light passes through those lines there is no sound but when there is a gap the optical reader registers that as “audio full on” or a loud “POPPING” sound. 

This is also bad and even more embarrassing.

But what do you do when your splice leaves a 1/32 inch gap between frames? Well you can do a few things. You can remove your splice (if you’re smart, you’ve only taped one side of the print thus far and can tell if you’re going to have an issue) and try to force the film closer together. Since the splicer has little teeth in it that match the sprocket holes (so you can punch through your tape) you can sometimes enlarge the sprocket holes of your film to give yourself some “wiggle room” to move the frames closer together. Personally, I kept an old splicer around that had dull teeth on it for this very purpose. 

Another trick is just to use a black Sharpie to color in the thin line of space between your frames. This is what we normally did.

Now, assuming you got the tape to lay perfectly flat across both sides of the film, when it passes through the projector it will not “bounce” and the audio will not “pop”. 

Dan, my old boss, used to check our work when we built up our prints. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fight Club, there is a scene where Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden) is working in a theater and he points out the “cigar burns” (watch the movie if you have no idea what I’m talking about). These round “cigar burns” have been in use since the early days of film when projectionists would have to manually switch reels during a showing. Now this method went out of favor years ago as all prints are built up as one giant reel (like a cassette tape) but those burns are still on every print and anyone who has ever worked as a projectionist can spot them EVERY SINGLE TIME IN EVERY SINGLE MOVIE EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF ALL HUMAN EXISTENCE :)

The trick to passing Dan’s test was that when he saw the cigar burns, we knew the splice was about to come up and he’d wait to see if the splice went through the projector with any fuss or not. 

Needless to say we all took great pride in Dan nodding his head in approval if all went well.

So, why am I telling you all this? (and believe me, I could go on about a WHOLE lot more). Well because being a projectionist is now a thing of the past. It’s a lost art form. Theaters have gone digital now and they have no use for a projectionist anymore. There is nobody in the booth (and in some cases there isn’t even a booth) to make sure your film is being shown correctly. Nobody to check the audio or the brightness of the screen or the quality of the experience. 

But why should you care? Progress marches on and old technology can’t last forever, right?

Wrong. 

Film is an art. Somebody at one point had to hold a camera (and lights and booms) and actually film a movie. Even with digital cameras, there is still a hands on necessity to making a movie. People made the movie and people need to show the movie. 

When a digital projector is used there is no way to adjust the experience to the auditorium the film is being shown in. All auditoriums are unique - they have unique acoustics (which can change by the hour depending on humidity, heat and the number of people in the auditorium). The auditorium may also have less than ideal lighting conditions that require a real human being to adjust the luminosity of the projector so that you can see those really dark scenes. In short, there is no human involved in presenting the work of another person. It’s become mechanical and is the reason why so many people complain about the quality of theater presentations lately. 

Then again, I’m old-school and I love film so I am biased. I have nothing against digital technology - I think it’s great - but I am sad that the art of theater projection is nearly gone. Film is such an important part of our culture - especially here in America - that to lose pieces of that heritage, is to lose a part of the experience. Instead of a film (a piece of art) we now have a product. Instead of humans presenting art in the best possible way for other humans to enjoy - we now have a computer. 

But that’s not why we have art. Film is, even the worst of it, art. Art is what makes us human. When Michelangelo put paint to plaster, he created some of the greatest examples of human creativity in celebration of man’s place in the order of the universe (or, at least the Catholic church and the Medici family, but I digress). His art was meant to be seen in person in buildings that were either designed to take advantage of his creative genius or were suited to best exploit the architecture. The human factor was always the central element. Beethoven understood this, same with Tolstoy and same with Kubrick, Kurosawa, Malick, Spielberg and even Michael Bay.

Now I’m not saying we need to go back to 1990’s technology and keep 35mm prints and projectors. But what I am trying to say is that when you remove talented individuals from the creative process, when you automate certain professions, you lose the very spark - the light - that gives the art life. 

I’ll close by saying that the novelty of working in a movie theater never wore off. I loved (and still do love) Friday nights when a new movie would open and all the families, film-buffs and teenagers would line up en-masse to see the latest film. I love that excitement, the anticipation and the spectacle of the theater. The way I felt as a 4 year old lined up outside the theater with a thousand other people to see Star Wars is still the same way I feel when I go see a mid-day matinee of whatever is new this week. 

Being a projectionist allowed me to share that love and care with an audience in hope that they would appreciate the art of film the way I do. After all, seeing a movie is supposed to be fun but a computer can’t help you with that. Only a human can.

Long live film.

Todd Hido, Lyonel Feininger and me

Riding a bike into work at 3am everyday can be pretty tedious (and cold). Usually I’m listening to a podcast on my iPod, but someday’s I’m just not in the mood for that so I ride in silence. Most of the time I’m not really able to look up at the night sky since there are too many street lights blinding out the stars or trees blocking the view, but there is one thing I do like to look at - people’s houses.

Now before you start thinking I’m some kind of voyeur, it’s not that at all. I’m talking about the houses themselves - the architecture. Houses look different at night, somehow - the best way to describe it is that they look empty since at that time of night there aren’t any lights on in the windows. In one subdivision I ride through, there are just endless similar looking houses all lined up and tidy with a nice car parked out front, but everything is dark. It’s kinda eerie, actually.

The photograph above is by a photographer named Todd Hido and he seems to have a similar fascination as myself. Hido seems to have made a career out of this sort of thing. Many of his pictures are really good and they capture the same mood I feel when riding past endless dark houses at 3am. 

Of course Hido isn’t necessarily doing anything new here. Lyonel Feininger, the famed Bauhaus artist also dabbled in photography (though he isn’t well known for it). During the 1930’s, Feininger started playing around with a camera and liked taking snapshots of scenes at night too, including shots of the Bauhaus itself. Of course he wasn’t a professional photographer, he just dabbled in it, but he was an artist who knew how to capture a mood in his art. 

So, on long, cold nights when I have to peddle my ass into work for another long shift, I can comfort myself knowing I’m at least seeing the same world that Hido and Feininger have seen - a slightly hidden world that exists when everyone else is sleeping.

Tree Line

When I was studying photography I was once given an assignment that required me to find a way to present a subject from an unusual point of view. The lesson was to teach me to look at objects and people not as what they are but what they could be. To make a long story short, I struggled with the project. I think I must have walked around for weeks looking at buildings and staircases trying to imagine a new way to photograph them but I never had an eye for it. I think I wound up taking a picture of my knees or feet and flipping the print upside down.

But even though this was not my strong point, the idea always stayed with me and I’ve always been jealous of photographers who can compose an image of what would normally be an ordinary object and present it in a new way.

This tradition in art, called trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”) has a very long history. Examples of it date back to Greek and Roman times where murals painted in homes gave the illusion of a larger space or three-dimensions. In another example “of an oft-told ancient Greek story concerns a contest between two renowned painters. Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) produced a still life painting so convincing, that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the painted grapes. He then asked his rival, Parrhasius, to pull back a pair of very tattered curtains in order to judge the painting behind them. Parrhasius won the contest, as his painting was of the curtains themselves.”

Another example would be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where the figures seem to be descending directly from heaven.

Of course these days tricking the audience into thinking what they are seeing is real is no trick at all. 3D cameras, PhotoShop and CG technology makes it all too easy, but there are still artists who push the envelope of trompe l’oeil and use the technique to get us to think about the relationship between the real and the unreal or to play with our conceptions about perspective.

The photo here is by Zander Olsen as part of his Tree Line series. Shot around England and Whales, they at first sort of fun and whimsical but I like what they are implying at a deeper level too.

As someone who loves history and science, the series reminds me of what an archaeologist might deal with when digging up an old site. I imagine as they strip away layer after layer of sediment coming across an old Greek ruin that has been hidden from view for thousands of years. Millions of people may have walked over that very spot without ever knowing that right below their feet was once the site of a royal palace or township long forgotten.

The photos remind me that we are connected to the horizons of the future and the past and that we live in an ever-changing “middle period”.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010, Netflix Instant).

Uncle Boonme opens with the scene of a water buffalo tied to a lone little tree. At first the beast seems fine with its prediciment but soon realizes it can easily snap the rope and wander off. Now free, the buffalo trots for awhile and seems to be enjoying its new found freedom but when it enters a darkened forest it just comes to a stop. Here the buffalo is surrounded by many, many trees and doesn’t know what to do or where to go. Before it had been tied to just one small tree and all its needs were being met by its owner. Yet now it is encircled by every tree - a jungle of vines and tangles all jumbled up among each other whose roots intermingle and to an outsider would almost seem as if it were one large living organism. The buffalo, though not really scared, is just not really able to go on any further and so it allows its human master to lead it back out of the forest to presumably be tied up again.

This opening scene is possibly the visual keys we need to understand what we are about to experience. Thai mythology, karma, reincarnation, the magical - these are all elements the film is dealing with.

Uncle Boonme, the titular character, is dying and he has done and seen things in his past that he believes have led a termional kidney disease. He claims that it is karma that has made him ill, karma for killing the communists during an unspecified war and that his body has been infected with death itself. Boonme must now rely on modern medicine and other people to help him live and he has to navigate the world of the living to make peace with his death and his situation. Boonme has to be led back out of the jungle just like the buffalo.

One evening during dinner he is visited by the ghosts of his wife and his lost son who has become some sort of wild, ape-like creature. In any other film this would be a major dramatic moment, but here the ghosts just appear and nobody seems too put out by it as if this is a common occurance. Later in the film, Boonme talks about a dream he once had where in the future time travelers are shown their lives projected onto a movie screen. Once their lives have been given a linear narrative they just simply disappear like ghosts.

In one of the more fantastical scenes in the film, a princess who longs to be beautiful but is rather quite plain, swims with a catfish in a dark forest pond. The catfish sees her as beautiful and begins to make love to her. Enraptured, she gives up all the material belongings that are supposed to make her more beautiful in the eyes of men, drops them in the pond and gives into life itself and the pure ecstasy of just being alive.

Though the film deals with some “big questions” it never makes much of a fuss about them. They are just presented as is and we are left to make sense of them as we wish. Even the final scene where two characters see themselves from outside their own bodies does not seem out of the ordinary to anyone. There is no notion of time, past, present or future - it’s all the same.

Boonme has a floating, lyrical quality and that fits the themes the director is trying to explore. Maybe life, like this film, really is just a floating, lyrical journey and perhaps we only make it complicated when we try to make sense of it.

Meek’s Cutoff

"Meek’s Cutoff" (Kelly Reichardt, 2010 - Netflix Streaming)

The first “rule” you teach a young writer is that you should always start your story at the beginning and end it at the end. This may seem like axiomatic advice, but often young writers want to cram as much detail and back story into their work because they have not yet learned the craft of writing. However, good writing is difficult and often requires a lot of editing to pare down the text into something that actually resembles a story. Too much exposition is boring or, at least, unnecessary to the story at hand. Every detail, line of dialogue and scene must work to serve the story - anything else should be cut.

The second “rule” young writers are confronted with is that once you know the rules you can then break them.

Meek’s Cutoff is a master-class in the second “rule”.

Meek’s Cutoff is set in covered wagon times in the American west (Oregon country) and follows the travails of three families, a guide named Meek and eventually a Native American from the Cayuse people. These are the facts of the film and they are not in dispute.

However, we are told nothing as to how these three families came to be settlers, where they came from or even what they hope to find when they reach their destination. The film drops us into the story as the small band is already far into their journey and already lost in the vast expanse of the American west.

The opening shot, and this is where writing students should take note, is that of a river or, more importantly, water. Water and the life it provides are the ultimate stakes that drive this film. Everything depends on these characters finding water be it their relationships to each other or the decisions they make in the course of the film.

The premise of finding water seems straight forward enough too, however, Meek’s Cutoff turns a fairly simple premise into high-art.

Meek’s Cutoff film mostly deals with the women of the group. The women wash the clothes, tend to the animals, collect kindling and do the cooking. The men - well, the men “lead” the group. Yet we do not get the point of view of the men here, we only see what the women must deal with. In fact even the dialogue of the men is muted as if we are hearing it from several yards away while the women stand back and must accept what the men decide. In fact we can barely hear the dialogue of the men most times unless they are telling stories of bravado or are complaining.

For an audience this inability to even hear many of the male characters dialogue could be frustrating, but it makes sense here. By not knowing what the “plan” is, we are forced to see the point of view of the women and this pulls us into their plight. The women here are mostly powerless and their fate is in the hands of their husbands and, more dramatically, in Meek, a rough and untrustworthy guide.

Yet the search for water changes the dynamic of the group over the course of the film and the main character, Emily Tetherow, begins making the most important decision of who to trust, Meek or a captured Cayuse Indian. Their lives all depend on this decision and all other decisions are secondary.

This leads us to the end of the film. I won’t give it away here, but suffice it to say that the film ends much as it begins and is the source of great confusion and controversy. Needless to say, many people will be confused or even angry with how Meek’s Cutoff ends, but to end the film any other way would miss the point of the entire story.

An old saying goes that water has no memory but it leaves its mark. So too do the characters of Meek’s Cutoff and, more importantly, the real settlers who traveled a thousand miles across the open, untamed American west. We do not know the names of most of those settlers and their stories have been mostly forgotten, but they left their mark the way a tiny stream will one day carve a canyon.

My Dinner With Andre

Continuing my exploration of films I’ve never seen before, today I sat down and watched “My Dinner With Andre" (Louis Malle, 1981) on Hulu Plus streaming.

At first glance it would seem that this story is more suited for the stage than for film. We have, after all, a story of two men having a hour and a half long conversation over dinner. Nothing else happens in the film - it’s all dialogue.

However, the choice to turn this project into a film is an inspired one. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (who play Wally and Andre respectively, but not necessarily playing themselves), over the course of the film, are basically grappling with the meaning of life.

Wally is a humanist, he’s (mostly) content in the modern world with all its amenities but Andre, his friend who he’s actually been avoiding for years, is a dreamer, a new-age kind of guy - a hold over from the 1960’s. Andre spends the first half of the film talking about his wild adventures in Tibet, the Sahara and Scotland. Andre has had visions in churches, lived in Poland with a group of people who can’t speak English and was “buried alive” on Long Island during a Halloween performance.

Andre, on the other hand, is more grounded. He has bills to pay, believes he’s genuinely a good person and is feeling a little irritated that life hasn’t turned out as well as he had hoped. He finds comfort in the things he chooses to do. He makes to-do lists and likes crossing things off that list. He enjoys reading a book about Charlton Heston and a cold cup of coffee in the morning (sans dead cockroach).

Why this works so well as a film is that what is happening on screen between these two characters is so at odds with what went into making this film (or any film for that matter). Films are calculated affairs requiring a lot of money, a lot of people, a lot of planning and a lot of hard work. Yet on screen there is magic. Through the cold efficiency of movie making with all its technology and processes, something of a transformation happens on screen. When Andre says that he once saw a Fawn (the mythical animal, not a baby deer) or a blue monster in a church with poppies growing out of its toenails, it makes an odd sort of sense and seems to be a metaphor for the process of creativity.

Perhaps this is why the famed director Louis Malle demanded to be part of the production of this film. Only a true creative genius would be able to put all the scientific pieces in place (a camera, the lights, the audio equipment) and turn all of that into pure magic. Yet if you were to ask Malle (or Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory) at what point does cold-hard reality become something spiritual they would never be able to give you an answer. Nobody could. That’s the magic of film and art as a whole.

At the end of the film (and this is not a spoiler), Wally is in a cab going home and is reminiscing about all the places outside the cab window that reminds him of his youth - an ice cream parlor, a place where his father bought a suit - but he is separated from those events not only by time but also just by the glass window of the NY taxicab. There is a real and quite definable separation between the real world and the spiritual, but it’s as transparent as a sheet of glass. To make sense of this, all Wally can do is go home and tell his girlfriend about his dinner with Andre and share with her a moment of togetherness - which is the only thing that the movie can agree on is real. How we decide to connect is another story.

The Wages of Fear

Just watched “The Wages of Fear” (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953) for the first time last night (Hulu Plus streaming).

In 1948, John Huston directed a famous film titled “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and all while watching Clouzot’s film, I kept drawing parallels between the two - opposite parallels. While both films are about greed and down on their luck men desperate for a chance at a better life, Houston takes the negative tract and explores how ruthless men will be towards each other and ends his film with an almost puritan ethic of "they got what was coming to them". In all, Houston’s film is very American which is ironic in a way because Clouzot’s film was criticized as being anti-American.

Clouzot has a much more agnostic point of view concerning greed and desperate men. The men in The Wages of Fear are far from perfect, but they share a bond and recognize their common humanity. They know they are working for a greedy corporation (here it is a fictional American oil company named SOC) that is just using them as expendable labor. Though the film begins with many of them looking to gain the advantage over each other, through the course of the film they come to rely on each other, share their dreams with each other and expose their failings and weaknesses to each other. They know they could die at any moment and though they are never overtly philosophical about their situation, they recognize how fleeting their lives are and some of them even revel in that realization.

This is quite a devastating film.

First of all, the tension of watching the two trucks loaded precariously with nitroglycerin as they slowly wind their way through mountain passes (or, in one case, at top speed over a wash-boarded road) is palpable. You just never know what the next moment is going to bring, but you know danger is around every corner and over every bump. And the film carries this tension all the way through. Very few films have ever pulled this off (in fact, only Spielberg’s “Duel" comes to mind off the top of my head) but I wish more directors would explore this technique because it is breathless. Even though I started watching this film a little too late at night and was somewhat tired to start, I could not take my eyes off the screen.

Finally, unlike “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Wages of Fear” plays closer to our own times and seems more relevant. With economies faltering and people becoming more and more desperate for some financial security, the price we pay for a chance to get ahead not only rises, but also seems quite silly.

In the end, when all is said and done, what is more important - a quick but dangerous dollar or the closeness of the human bond? Perhaps what we are seeing in the world today as common citizens rise up against oppressive regimes and corporate malfeasance is perfectly distilled in two and a half hours in this classic film from over half a century ago - the only thing that matters is life itself and how well we choose to enjoy it.