Ask The A.V. Club - April 3, 2008
Stop Washing Them Away
This is one of those "do you remember something obscure" questions. Sometime in the mid-'90s I caught a badass little music video which opened with some indie-ish band arguing with producers. The band request just a simple "band plays in a room" video, the producers finally acquiesce and film the band against a plain blue background and then proceed to add a lot of cheap post-production effects, to hilarious effect. For some reason (probably just confusing the "blue" thing) I thought it was The Bluetones, but I've scoured them on YouTube and found nothing. It's probably something really obvious, am I exposing my ignorance here?
Josh Modell still loves David Cross and trusts his choices:
The video you're remembering is pretty clearly Superchunk's "Watery Hands," starring the band (naturally) along with "the best directors in the business," played by David Cross and Janeane Garofalo. The band explains that they just want a simple performance video, but Cross and Garofalo construct a CGI nightmare that makes The Cars' "You Might Think" look subtle in comparison. It's pretty awesome. Check it out for yourself, and don't be scared of Cross' naked ass!
Unsuccessful 2: Him Again
What was the first-ever movie sequel?
Noel Murray is back, and this time it's personal
Because of the proliferation of movie serials in cinema's formative years—and the loss of so many of those early films—this is a hard one to answer definitively, Clete. The most common answer is 1916's The Fall Of A Nation, Thomas Dixon's unsuccessful (and no longer available) follow-up to D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation. But Louis Feuillade's 10-part serial Les Vampires pre-dates The Fall Of A Nation by a year, and depending on how you define "sequel," you could easily count nearly any silent comedy or adventure two-reeler as a sequel if it shares the same basic characters and themes as an earlier film.
Fritz Lang was one of the first filmmakers to do sequels up proper, with carefully ordered two-parters like 1919's Spiders, Part 1: The Golden Lake and 1920's Spiders, Part 2: The Diamond Ship. Once the sound era rolled around, the franchises came thick on the ground in Hollywood: the Thin Man series, the Dr. Kildare series, The Falcon, The Whistler, The Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie, Ma & Pa Kettle, et cetera. The tradition of numbering sequels with Roman and Arabic numerals began in the '70s, first with The Godfather, Part II, and then The French Connection II and Jaws 2.
Now here's a better question: What will be the last-ever movie sequel? My money's on The Hottie And The Nottie 2: Hottier And Nottier.
A Matter Of Taste
After reading your review of The Counterfeiters, I noticed a rather odd criticism A.V. Clubwriters tend to give Holocaust films, namely that they are too polite. The Counterfeiters review used the word "respectful" as a pejorative term, while your write-up of The Pianist uses the term "middlebrow tastefulness" to describe the quality of Holocaust movies at large. What I have to ask is this: What exactly do you mean when you use words like "somber," "tasteful" and "respectful" as an insult, especially when you are dealing with as solemn a subject as the Holocaust? Using cynical language like that to describe Holocaust films makes it sound like A.V. Club critics believe depictions of the Holocaust have grown cheap and manipulative, and that any new film would require some new stylistic twist. But is that possible without being grossly inappropriate? And, more importantly, just because the ground has been covered, does that mean new films should stay away from the subject? To summarize, A.V. Club What's your beef with Holocaust movies?
Tasha Robinson defends her review:
I think you're overstating the case when you say I was insulting The Counterfeiters by calling it "respectful," Matt, and you're putting your own words into our mouths when you say we complained that those films were "somber" or "polite." Obviously, we'd prefer films dealing with gigantic historical tragedies be respectful rather than tasteless or tacky or dismissive. The full phrase in question in the Counterfeiters review was, "[the film] tackles the subject in the usual time-approved, respectful ways," which wasn't meant to be pejorative so much as descriptive, alerting potential viewers that they were about to see some much-covered territory handled in ways that they'd likely seen before. Which was meant to let them decide for themselves whether they wanted to see the film, based on their personal tastes and their familiarity with the subject matter and the genre.
For me, the big problem for me with The Counterfeiters wasn't that it was respectful, it was that it was, as I said later in the review, melodramatic, unsubtle, and clichéd. (Similarly, Scott's review of The Pianist doesn't just complain that it's middlebrow; he also says it's stylistically impersonal, artless, and ordinary.) But both of us complained in our reviews that the material was too familiar, which leads into the rest of your question. Should filmmakers stop making films about the Holocaust? Of course not, any more than they should stop making films about people entering or leaving relationships. Just because an area has been repeatedly covered doesn't mean there's no fresh, compelling way to tackle it. And even if there were no new stories to tell about any given topic, new viewers are born every day. I guarantee you that there's someone out there who'd never seen a Holocaust film before either The Pianist or The Counterfeiters, and they were probably deeply moved as a result, in ways that Scott and I weren't. Does that make us cynical? Possibly, but it also makes us experienced, and I for one am more interested in a review from a critic that can unsentimentally compare a new film to the existing body of similar work.
Does every new film about the Holocaust need an exciting new twist to hold our jaded interest? No, but I personally find that an awful lot of Holocaust films tend to rely on clichéd signifiers (symbolic grey skies and grey streets, sad swelling string music, etc.) and on mining the immense emotional impact of the moving sequences and images we all know from studying history. Just about everyone has seen photos of concentration-camp victims, in mass graves or in shell-shocked groups, and has (I would like to think) been justly horrified. Is all use of such images, as you put it, cheap and manipulative? No, but in cases where the filmmakers haven't made a convincing emotional connection to their central characters, their motives can certainly seem suspect.
So how do you make a Holocaust movie without getting called "familiar"? Well, last year Noel and Scott both heavily praised Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, about a Jewish woman in hiding who winds up in the Dutch Resistance, then later working for the Nazis. Noel also gave major props to Fateless, about a 14-year-old Hungarian Jew in a concentration camp. I recently saw Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 for the first time (about prisoners in a Nazi POW camp) and loved it. What do all these films have in common? Sharp filmmaking, memorable characters, and involving, unpredictable twists. In other words, about what we'd ask for in any movie, regardless of the setting. We aren't necessarily looking for a radical new approach when we walk into a historical—we're just looking for a character we haven't met before, presented in a way that makes us care, in a film that stands on its own. For me, the problem with a lot of Holocaust movies (and for that matter, a lot of war dramas in general, and for that matter, a lot of romantic comedies, and a lot of movies involving cute kids) is that they rely so much on familiar, time-tested, emotion-freighted images that they know will cause a reaction that they forget to tell their own individual, unique stories in a compelling way, and they wind up hollow at heart as a result. That may be tasteful and respectable, but it tends not to be very interesting.
It's once again time for you to see if you can answer questions we couldn't. Do any of these lost memories sound familiar? If you can identify them, comment below or email us at email@example.com.
In the early '90s, CBC used to run animated shorts between their children's morning programs on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I've been looking for the name of my favourite animation since the Internet was first invented, and have come up short. The storyline was about a man who goes to sleep and dreams up a civilization. The civilization begins primitively, then evolves through various stages until it even surpasses the civilization of the man who is sleeping. The dream civilization becomes so advanced that it realizes they are just a figment of this man's imagination. (It may have come about in a theological debate.) They realize that if the man wakes up, they will cease to exist, so they get their best scientist (who happens to be a baby flying around in his own personal hover device) to figure out what to do. The scientist builds a device that allows them to open a dimensional gate between their dream world and the dreamer's world. They cross into the "real" world, and after putting earmuffs on the sleeping man, they move him and his bed into their dream world. They have a silent parade for him through their city, then they move him somewhere (I think it may be a far-off cave) and make sure he never wakes up. If you can find the name of this cartoon, I will be so incredibly grateful.
I read this weird little sci-fi book when I was a kid. It was about a young man living in a space-faring civilization ruled by a tyrannical emperor. (It's not Star Wars.) One day the young man—along with everyone else in his age group—takes what I think was supposed to be an aptitude test. Only, truthfully, the emperor's men had developed a way of testing luck. Anyone who tested as being too lucky was spirited away and executed. Well, the men sent to kill the boy (in a million-to-one freak coincidence) are both killed by their own ray-guns backfiring.
The boy ends up joining what I remember as a loose federation of space-gypsies who teach him karate and turn out to be a massive rebellion planning the overthrow of the empire. (It's really not Star Wars.) Anyway, at the end of the book, the boy is part of the team that actually sneak past the Emperor's defenses and kill him.
Oh, and they had this teleportation technology involving windows that could be synced up to one another; walk in one and you'd walk out of the other. I seem to recall something about how the windows, when pressed together, would slide off each other without any friction whatsoever, and so they were used in some machinery in order to do away with lubrication.
I think "luck" may have been part of the title (possibly "space" as well), but I've scoured the Net and even checked the card catalog of the library system in the county where I used to live, and my search has proved utterly fruitless. Pluck this thorn from my brain?
As a kid, I remember seeing some strange children's movie or TV show where a kid winds up in some strange land and at one point has to cross over a river of eyeballs. I think the kid accidentally drops something important in the river as well. This was probably in the mid-'70s. Any ideas?
I was hoping that you could help me identify a movie or TV show I saw in the early '90s on the SCI FI Channel, though I'm fairly certain it was from the '70s or '80s. It involved a married couple, and the husband was crippled by the pain from his bones, which was preventing him from working or doing anything, really. The couple obviously had problems in dealing with this, and the husband was trying various methods of curing his bone-pain. Eventually he meets a gypsy woman who comes to his house while his wife is away and promises to cure him. The final scene in the movie is the wife coming home to find her husband on the floor of the bedroom—without his bones! He's just a pile of slimy, writhing, gurgling skin (and somehow still alive). This one has had me stumped for years, thanks!
All right, I was talking to a friend of mine at work last night about animated films, and he brings up a movie about a group of kids who have a friend who's dying of an illness, and they do all they can in their power to try to save him. Towards the end, an evil man propositions them with a choice: sacrifice their own lives by drastically increasing their ages to save their friend. I'm sorry if this is too vague, but if you've got any ideas, I'd greatly appreciate it.
Next week: Demographics, storytellers, and more. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.