Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Year 7, Day 227 - 8/15/15 - Movie #2,121

BEFORE: It turns out I'll watch just about any narrative film, but I seem to be a lot pickier when it comes to documentary - the subject has to interest me, which is why I'll watch this film about a famous chess player, and not "Back on Board", a documentary about Greg Louganis getting back into the world of diving.  I like chess, I've played chess, but diving and swimming don't interest me at all.  Plus, Louganis seems like a relatively nice and together guy, and he doesn't fit with my theme this week of egotistical jerks.  But Bobby Fischer?  I can work with his story.  

I caught on a bit too late to TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" programming - where they're highlighting a different star in a 24-hour block each day this month.  I did manage to add pick up two Ann-Margret films that should help with February's romance chain, and I did finally get copies of the two Marx Brothers films I watched online (plus I added two more, "The Cocoanuts" and "The Big Store") but I missed out on early August's featured stars, like Fred Astaire.  I know I should watch those classic Astaire/Rogers films, but honestly dancing interests me about as much as diving.  I'll catch them next time around - because there are about a dozen films from 2013 and 2014 running that I want to add to the watchlist, and I can't let the list get any bigger.

THE PLOT: A documentary exploring the tragic and bizarre life of the late chess master Bobby Fischer.

AFTER: So I find myself today, back at the intersection of genius and madness - (see also, Vincent Van Gogh and, umm, Steve Jobs?).  There's so much I don't know about Bobby Fischer, really all I knew going into this was that he was once world chess champion, and then there was some controversy where he proved himself to be a difficult person to get along with.  Did he fit the technical definition of insanity, or was it all a ploy to win games?  Does chess drive people a little cuckoo, or do only offbeat people devote their lives to moving pieces around on a board?  

I'm sure people can get obsessive about any mental game or activity - the documentaries "Wordplay", "Spellbound" and "Word Wars" all show that it's possible to take crossword puzzles, spelling bees and Scrabble way too seriously.  But chess is a serious game to begin with - nobody really plays it for fun any more, it's war on a game board, and during the Cold War, Russia had the best players and Bobby Fischer seemed like the only American who had a chance against them.  (I'm guessing China's got the best players now, but I don't really know for sure.)  

Fischer was home-schooled - scratch that, he was left alone by his mother for most of his teen years, so he was self-home-schooled.  Thousands of hours spent studying chess, leading him to Grandmaster status by the age of 15, and the U.S. Championship by age 20.  The footage of him on a game show ("I've Got a Secret"?) depicts him as rather normal, although he was already front-page news at the time, and agreed to appear on the show in exchange for tickets to Russia so he could compete against the Moscow Chess Club.   

Everything seemed to be going well - a Mike Wallace profile even showed him training like a real athlete, since physical endurance was required for matches that could last for 12 hours or longer.  This guy was the original cross-trainer (but how was he at chess boxing?) and even wanted to do special exercises to enhance his grip, just to have a stronger handshake to intimidate his Soviet opponents.  

The documentary failed to mention that Bobby protested the World Chess Championship in 1963, accusing the Russians of drawing their matches with each other, so they'd have more energy for their other opponents, especially him.  Something similar happened with badminton in the last Olympics, if I remember correctly - and athletes should never be encouraged to lose or draw in order to advance.  He must have been right, because the format was changed to a single-elimination knockout after that.  Perhaps this is where Fischer started to feel that he was bigger than the rules, or smarter than the people putting tournaments together, and from there it's a short leap to believing that the rules didn't apply to him.  

Some time after that, he sat out a U.S. Championship, because he didn't believe the prize money was big enough.  And then, after becoming world champion by beating Boris Spassky, he refused to defend his title for similar reasons - he had three demands related to the format, two of which were unacceptable to the organizers.  This would be like a boxer refusing to defend his title unless he got to determine the number of rounds, the purse amount and the hiring of his friends as the judges.  Karpov became the new chess champion by default due to Fischer's demands.  

So the man who many say was the world's greatest chess player was champion for just three years, lost by not showing up, and then became a recluse.  No one heard much from him publicly until the World Trade Center attack in 2001, which he used as an excuse to slam the U.S. government and make anti-Semitic remarks.  Some say that he felt abandoned by his mother, who was both Jewish and a Communist, thus explaining his hatred of Soviets and Jews, and he was still mad at the U.S. for having him arrested after he played Spassky in a rematch, violating a trade embargo against Yugoslavia.  

I can't help but see similarities here to Tim Treadwell's rant against the U.S. Parks Service - both openly defied the rules, and when you do that, you have to live with the consequences.  Fischer was forced to live as a fugitive, was detained in Japan, and eventually granted asylum in Iceland.  Hey, I guess if sitting inside studying chess and ranting about Jews is your thing, you can do that just about anywhere. Not much is known about Fischer's personal life or time spent out of the public eye, and the film fails to mention his relationships with women in Japan and the Philippines, even the young woman who lured him out of retirement doesn't get much screen time.  So it seems like a bit of an incomplete portrait, choosing to focus more on his chess matches - admittedly the most interesting aspect of his life, though.

As a former student of the game, I would have also liked to have seen more about the technical moves, but I understand that not everyone knows what a knight fork or a skewer are.  People still study his moves from the 1972 Championship against Spassky, especially Game 6 with its bold, innovative play that seemed to come out of nowhere - but even then, with his assertions of excessive noise from the TV cameras, or the Russians use of radiation to throw him off his game, you could see that the wheels were starting to come off of his wagon. 

Starring Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky, Susan Polgar, Gudmundir Thorarinsson, Larry Evans, with cameos from Henry Kissinger, Dick Cavett, Tony Randall.  

RATING: 6 out of 10 sacrificed pawns

Friday, August 14, 2015

Atari: Game Over

Year 7, Day 226 - 8/14/15 - Movie #2,120

BEFORE:  This one makes the documentary cut because it lives in an area I'm quite familiar with - video-games, and urban myths.  A couple of weeks ago, the whole animation studio went out for drinks at Barcade, and because I arrived late, I wasn't included in the impromptu Ms. Pac-Man tournament.  Finally I got to play a game, and just smoked everyone's scores - everyone sort of forgot that I was the oldest one there, and that I grew up during the 1980's.  Oh, did I not mention that I've been playing this game since it was invented?  Must have slipped my mind.  (These youngsters didn't even know the strategy of parking Ms. Pac-Man in a corner, near the power pills and waiting for the ghosts to draw near - some of them just thought that you had to keep moving, no matter what.  Watch and learn, kids.)  

Tonight's film is set in Alamogordo, New Mexico - not far from where the atom bomb was first developed, as seen in "Fat Man and Little Boy". 

THE PLOT:  A crew digs up all of the old Atari 2600 game cartridges of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" that were tossed into a landfill in the 1980s.

AFTER: Werner Herzog made an appearance in this film!  For, like, a second and a half - but it counts!  I said that I'd suspend linking for the duration of the documentary chain, but it happened anyway!  It's so nice when reality falls in step with the patterns that you've established.  This film's director, Zak Penn, worked with Herzog on a documentary titled "Incident at Loch Ness", and used footage of the German director to establish his credentials - so Herzog carries over from "Grizzly Man".   

Like Zak Penn, I am fascinated by urban legends - and unfortunately, the spread of such things has only gotten worse since the internet was invented.  This technological marvel that was intended to be an accessible store house of the world's knowledge can instead allowed rumors and misinformation to be spread even more efficiently.  I guess it turns out that stupid is faster than smart - or at least it's more fantastic, which allows people to create and spread stories that seem to good to be true. 

Oh, there are still ways to research things - I've tried not to pass anything along unless I've researched it on "The Straight Dope" site or at least Wikipedia, but for most people in this fast-paced world, it's forward first, research later (or never).  The problem is, most average people can't tell the difference between fact, fiction and an "Onion" headline - one of those about the FIFA soccer scandal got mistaken for actual news earlier this year by a government official in a country where they apparently haven't invented humor yet.  And that's why I was so hesitant to believe the online stories that made the rounds in July about how all of last winter's snow had NOT melted yet in Boston and Buffalo.  When I finally had the time to research this and found it was true, every time I tried to talk about it, people said, "I know, I sent YOU that story."  Right, but you didn't research it and confirm it before forwarding it, now did you?  

So that leads to stories about the kid from the Life cereal having died from combining Pop Rocks and soda - and even when you interview the adult kid and prove he's alive, or someone eats both of those things together and lives, the legends persist.  So that brings us to the "E.T." videogame, and the rumor that millions of copies were buried in a landfill in New Mexico, because the game was so terrible and wasn't selling.  These days, people regularly list "E.T." as the worst video-game ever produced - and the party line is that the game "killed" Atari and the video-game industry as a whole.

Well, let's correct a few things, something the documentarians also set out to do - "E.T." was a simple, graphics-challenged yet frustrating Atari cartridge game, but I'm betting it wasn't THE worst game ever.  That honor should probably go to "Custer's Revenge", for a whole host of reasons.  It wasn't the first videogame tied in to a Hollywood film, either - it was predated by games based on "Tron", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Empire Strikes Back" - I remember controlling the snowspeeder to shoot down AT-AT's on the Atari 2600 at my friend's house, and that game had to have come out before "E.T." did in Christmas 1982.   

Another popular misconception - did the E.T. videogame "kill" Atari?   No one release can kill a company, any more than a bad film can kill a studio, or a bad comic-book can kill Marvel or DC - for an entertainment company to go bust, there has to be a pattern of malfeasance, or consistently bad marketing for some time.  In this case, there were corporate decisions made about the "E.T." game that had everything to do with getting it ready for the Christmas season - could the game be produced in 5 weeks?  It seems that getting it out on time may have taken precedence over making the game fun, or at least playable.

But even this leads to larger questions - if everyone tries to make the best game (or comic book, or novel, or film) they can, then why isn't everything "good"? Why aren't more things better?  Can we only recognize how good certain things are by comparing them to things that are worse?  Do we need the dark so that we can occasionally recognize the light?  If everything is subjective, then how can anything be "worse" than anything else?  Sure enough, people come forward in this film to say that the game is not so bad, although one kid says he likes it because he likes "things that are horrible."  Go away, kid, you're not helping.  

The other people say that programmer Howard Scott Warshaw did a fine job, "considering the timetable he had".  This is a bit like saying that your health is just fine, if you ignore the lung cancer.  But there's footage of Steven Spielberg, saying in an interview that the game seemed like a lot of fun - way to cross-promote, Stevie.  And while the film turned out to be an uplifting encounter between a boy and an alien (albeit a thinly-veiled Jesus metaphor), the video-game became a symbol of how frustrating life can be when your character falls into a hole every few seconds.  I suppose marketing it as "the game that your kids will stare at for hours" didn't really help.  But people bought it like crazy in Christmas 1982, and things were going fine until people tried to play the damn thing. 

The rest of the film concerns itself with Atari's downfall as a company - which one on level doesn't make sense, because video gaming is a bigger industry than ever.  How did Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft eventually succeed after Atari went bust?  Somewhere, there must be a problem with being first in the marketplace - and if a company is successful, on some level, it may get too comfortable.  Not to mention that if any company achieves some level of success, suddenly there will be 8 other companies trying to beat them at their own game.  As Atari went, so did Compuserve.  So did IBM.  There's some connection there, with regards to a failure to respond to the changes in what their customers want, or perhaps the changing trends in an expanding marketplace.  As I said earlier in the week, eventually the free market takes care of things. 

But what lessons can be learned from failure, or specifically, THIS failure?   Let's take a current example, the reboot of Marvel's "Fantastic Four" as a movie franchise.  Right now the director, Josh Trank, is in trouble for sending a tweet out that claims he had a "much better" cut of the film a year ago, which will never get released.  Right - this is something Roger Corman once believed too, but if you can get a copy of his unreleased 1994 film, you'll see how off-base he was.  That was another example of making a product just to fulfill a time-table (if he hadn't made the film, the rights to the franchise would have reverted back to Marvel) and as we've seen, that's like the enemy of creativity. 

So Josh Trank is only the latest to take these super-hero characters and put his spin on them - Tim Story tried in 2005, with a film that did fine at the box office but got mixed reviews from critics - and the sequel swung for the fences and also came up short critically - so who's to blame?  The filmmakers, the critics, the audiences?  Maybe they should have shown Galactus, maybe they shouldn't have made Dr. Doom organic metal powers - maybe before monkeying around with the characters, someone should have realized that they weren't broken to begin with.  

Maybe, Josh Trank, it takes more than changing one character's race and turning a dictator into a hacker to make a story culturally relevant.  Maybe a director needs to ask himself, "But, is this a relevant story?  Does this work as a narrative?  Is this, ultimately, what the people want to see?"  And maybe those are the kind of questions that can't be answered - at the end of the day you just have to put out the best movie (or comic, or book, or video-game) that you can, and then try to stand behind it instead of disavowing it at the first whiff of failure.  Man, even Spielberg had to pimp for what he HAD to know was a crappy videogame tie-in.  

And if you manage to make a "good" film (if that even means anything), you should try and fight for it.  Who had final cut on this "Fantastic Four" picture, anyway?  If the director has final cut, he should exercise that option and make the film that he wants to make, right or wrong (umm, unless he's really, really wrong).  If the studio has final cut, then the director has no right to second-guess the studio or throw them under the bus on Twitter.  What a director should NOT do is make concessions to the studio and then try to distance himself after the fact - the making of a film consists of a thousand small decisions and a few big ones, you just have to make the best decisions you can at every juncture and then try to be happy with the final product.  

But overall, this is ridiculous - how could the Fantastic Four characters have been handled so well in the comic books by Lee and Kirby in the 1960's, and in the 1980's by people like John Byrne, and then bungled so badly on-screen?  Why are the Avengers and the X-Men doing so well as movie franchises when the F.F. is not?  Can't anyone here play this game?  It can't JUST be superhero-movie burn-out, can it?  Because we've got like, a ton of these on the horizon.  Perhaps it's just like anything else - taste is subjective, and we can only rate things by comparing them to other things - so the "Avengers" film was like lightning in a bottle, and then here comes another, similar film, and it's perceived as not as good in some way, so panic sets in.  Eventually I will see "Fantastic Four" and judge for myself, but I'm not in any great rush. 

Sometimes, after a successful Comic-Con, I might refer to myself as "King of the Nerds" - but I assure you, I'm not serious about it, it's done tongue-in-cheek.  Because when Ernest Cline, the guy who wrote the book "Ready Player One" goes to pick up his Delorean car from George R.R. Martin's house, and then drives down to Los Alamos, where they're excavating a landfill looking for old Atari games, and he decides to stop along the way at both Area 51 and the Very Large Array, I think we all know who the real king is.  Oh, and his driving companion was a life-size E.T. doll - I can't compete with that. 

Starring Zak Penn, Joe Lewandowski, Nolan Bushnell, Manny Gerard, Howard Scott Warshaw, with a cameo from Harrison Ford (last seen in "42")

RATING: 6 out of 10 Reese's Pieces

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Grizzly Man

Year 7, Day 225 - 8/13/15 - Movie #2,119

BEFORE: Why did I watch Disney's "Bears", and not their other documentaries like "African Cats" or "Chimpanzee"?  Well, I really only got "Bears" to tie in with this one - a lot of my film selection goes in pairs, because it usually takes two films to fill up a DVD, three if they're short.  But the other selection criteria for documentary week is pretty simple, it's just me asking myself, "Is this a topic that I want to learn more about?"  So as we'll see later in the week, a doc about one sports figure might make the cut, while another may not.  I knew I wanted to learn more about this news story, so "Bears" was in, and "Chimpanzee" was out.  I've only got so many slots left in 2015, and right now they're all spoken for.  

THE PLOT: A devastating and heartrending take on grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzlies in Alaska.

AFTER: Umm, yeah, spoiler alert - this guy who thought he could live peacefully among the bears and protect them ended up feeding them instead, and not in a good way.  I think I already know what my theme is going to be for the rest of this week, considering how controversial some of my chosen subjects are, I could just start each review with, "And then, there's THIS asshole..."  

Treadwell had the best intentions, I think - he meant well, and I never say that as a compliment.  He somehow got it in his head that the grizzly bears in Alaska needed to be protected, despite the fact that they live in a wildlife sanctuary.  But in his mind, the weekly government flyovers weren't enough to prevent poaching, so he decided to migrate there each summer for 13 years, pitch a tent and live among the bears and foxes.  

After about 5 years, he started videotaping himself, narrating everything he did, his opinions on what each bear should be named, and challenging himself to get closer to the bears, convinced that he spoke their language in a sense, and with calm commands he could, most of the time, get them to back away.  But here's the thing - he must have known that someday, eventually, there would be a bear that didn't get the memo about how to deal with him.  

Spending time alone in the wilderness is fine - but if you spend too much time there, you might go a little loopy.  Talking to yourself, or to a camera, can help - but if you're off-balanced to begin with, the overall outlook is not good.  Treadwell seemed like he was narrating a TV show or a movie that would never get made - in a way, he's part of this generation that's convinced that everything they do or say is important (it's not) so we have selfie-sticks and people on YouTube reviewing different snack cakes and too many reality shows about people who hunt ducks or work at pawn shops.  

Director Werner Herzog had the task of taking this guy's hundreds of hours of footage and cutting them down to an essential portrait - it's another maddening process of asking oneself what to leave in, and what to leave out.  Should Treadwell's vitriolic rant against specific members of the U.S. Park Service be included?  What about footage of his mysterious companion, whose presence is only confirmed by the use of a handheld camera that had to be operated by someone?   How much information do we need from the pilot who found his body?  And most importantly, what about the audio footage recorded during the fatal bear attack?  

Thankfully, Herzog chose discretion - but he also brought his German sensibility to analyzing Treadwell's actions and mindset.  Where Treadwell saw a peaceful meadow with grazing grizzlies, Herzog pointed out the potential for murder.  One man saw order in the "maze", the other saw only chaos.  This probably made it easier for him to interview bear experts and park service agents who pointed out everything that Treadwell did wrong by living among the bears as he did.  Besides the obvious danger, there are long-term effects by getting bears accustomed to having humans around - they'll be more likely to trust the next group of poachers that come around, so Treadwell was probably doing more harm than good.  

Herzog also saw Treadwell's annual return to Katmai National Park each summer as a rejection of human society.  Treadwell had already changed his name (he was born Timothy Dexter) and had told all of his actor friends in L.A. that he was from a small town in Australia (he was born on Long Island) and from many of his conversations aimed at the bears, he didn't seem to have much luck with women. While his effeminate voice and calm demeanor might lead one to suspect he was gay, he notably said that "life would have been easier if I were gay".  That might sound definitive, but it also seems like the kind of thing a closeted gay man might say.  But he also credited the bears with giving him a reason to live, and a reason to stop drinking - he had essentially assigned them the role of his "higher power" that they recommend in the 12-step programs.  

Here's what I know about bears - they're nature's perfect eating machines.  A few years back, FOX-TV ran a special called "Man vs. Beast" - they put people up against animals in a series of challenges, like having an Olympic runner try to out-race a zebra.  They got the world hot-dog eating champion (at the time), Takeru Kobayashi, to challenge a Kodiak bear at - what else? - eating hot dogs.  It was no contest, the bear shoveled 10 hot dogs at a time into its mouth with its giant paws, finished the pile that had been laid in front of it, then turned to Kobayashi and roared.  I swear, if the bear hadn't been inside a cage, he might have tried to eat his Japanese competitor, who was himself stuffed with tasty hot dogs. 

So there are mixed feelings about Treadwell, and this film demonstrates them by interviewing both his friends and ex-lovers, and people who think he got what he deserved.  I think what bothered me more than his actions were his unnecessary words - I can't stand people who ramble on without really saying anything.  Yesterday I heard someone in an elevator say "We could paint the room a color."  Well, of course you're going to paint it a color, it's going to be SOME color after you paint it, so you only really have to say, "We could paint the room."  Then she said, "They're going to replace the windows we have now."  Again, you don't need to say those last few words, since they can't replace windows you DON'T have, so just say, "They're going to replace the windows" - the rest is implied. 

Treadwell's monologues are filled with unnecessary verbiage - like saying "wild wilderness" or, "It's September 2000 and this is Expedition 2000, where I'm on an expedition in the year of 2000 to protect the bears.  They really need protection, so that's what I'm here to do on Expedition 2000."  Every repeated word is like a knife in my skull, and he would do multiple takes like this, just to get it "right".  For whom?  I can only imagine that a bear wanted to eat this guy, just to shut him up.  

Starring Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Jewel Palovak, Warren Queeney.

RATING: 5 out of 10 bandannas

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Year 7, Day 224 - 8/12/15 - Movie #2,118

BEFORE: Continuing with the nature theme, another relatively short film tonight (78 min.), and I assure you, there is something like a plan here, which should be a bit more evident after tomorrow's film.

THE PLOT:  A documentary that follows an Alaskan bear family as its young cubs are taught life's most important lessons.

AFTER: Just last night, I was ranting about Disney-funded documentaries, and now here is one.  This one's rated "G", so that should prevent anyone from renting this, expecting to see a film about large, hairy gay men.

Nope, just the animal kind of bears here.  The film opens with them waking up from hibernation - a mother and two cubs.  Right off the bat, I'm confused - were the cubs born over the winter, or during the winter?  Since this film is so kid-friendly, any references to reproduction seem to have been redacted, for fear they might lead to children asking complicated questions that parents aren't ready to answer yet.  Drinking milk from mama cub is OK, but don't talk about birth or mating.  Even a horny large male bear chasing a female is rebuffed - God forbid we see on film what happens if he catches her. 

Instead, it's all about the quest for food - if mama bear Sky doesn't eat 90 pounds of salmon in a summer, she could stop producing milk for her cubs.  But instead of going to the shore where the bears are awaiting the first salmon to head up-river, she takes her cubs to some mud flats, where they dig for clams, and another spot where they turn up rocks to find eels.  In both cases, the fare is described as not being anything close to salmon, either in taste or quantity - so WHY does she go there?  A little more scientific explanation would be helpful here.

Instead, we get the narrator trying to say what the little cubs might say, if they could talk - really simple stuff like "Hey, ma, look at me!" and "Hey, my claw is stuck in this clam!"  I know this is geared for kids, but that's still no reason to talk down to the audience.  I think kids could handle some bears that could put together more adult imaginary sentences.  

I think you walk a fine line when you start anthropomorphizing animals - admittedly, my wife and I do it all the time, we each can have a conversation with our cat, since we take turns providing the cat's voice for the other end of the talk.  This gives our cat some personality, though he can be a real imaginary asshole sometimes - but he's just funnier that way.  But it's a bit arrogant to say that after watching these bears, we understand what is typical parental concern, and what is just basic instinct.

I do appreciate that the film didn't shy away that since food in Alaska can be scarce, bear cubs could be eaten by wolves, or even adult male bears.  In bear culture there's apparently no moral reasoning against cannibalism - at some point, all meat is just meat.   But why eat bear cub when you can eat salmon?  Delicious, raw, stupid salmon that follows the urge to swim upstream to lay eggs - provided it doesn't jump up over a waterfall and right into a bear's mouth, that is.  

It hardly seems fair - a bear that learns the right place to stand doesn't even need to chase a fish - but don't hate the player, hate the game.  Circle of life and all that.  And that's the real money shot of the film, finding that bear that knows JUST where to position himself.  But lest you start to think that bears are really intelligent - how come they can't remember where the best salmon pond is - why is it such a hardship to find it again?  

Plus, there's a 2-week walk from their dens in the mountains to the shore - why don't they build there dens closer to the shore so they don't have to walk as far?  Instead of defending her bear cubs from the grey wolf, why doesn't Sky kill and eat the wolf, if she's so hungry? 

Starring the voice of John C. Reilly (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy")

RATING: 4 out of 10 hollow logs

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Year 7, Day 223 - 8/11/15 - Movie #2,117

BEFORE: From the macrocosm that is New York to the microcosm that is a field of insects.  

Another short-ish film tonight, which is fine for the documentary chain, and because I needed to spend a few hours de-cluttering the living room.  It turns out that after a few months of working part-time, a spouse tends to ask what you do all day, and wonder why some of your time can't be devoted to straightening up the house.  Hey, maybe I'll spot some dust mites that were made famous by being in this film...

THE PLOT:  A documentary on insect life in meadows and ponds.

AFTER: While I was sorting my DVDs the other day I came across the film "Oceans", which I realized was not on my list - but I'm about 50% sure I watched that as I was recording it, so no last-minute addition to the documentary chain.  I got a different sense of deja vu from watching "Microcosmos", but I think it comes from my mother making me watch so many similar nature shows on PBS when I was a kid, and when she controlled the remote, the TV dial stayed on that channel most of the time.  

It's too bad my lead-out from the documentary chain has been set, because suddenly I'm seeing how I could have paired this with "Ant-Man", or even that un-linkable Muppet film, "Kermit's Swamp Years".  Ah, well, I'm saving those last Muppet films for late in the year - and I haven't felt the urgency to run out and see "Ant-Man", or that new "Fantastic Four" film that looks like it's going to bomb.

Insects, right, I came here to talk about insects.  Shot in incredible close-up, with some kind of powerful tiny microphones (Is that a thing? Oh, right, they're called "bugs" too...) we get to hear bees that sound like jet engines, dueling beetles, and an underwater spider that grabs air from the surface so he can put himself in a bubble, though I'm not sure why.  They filmed this in a swamp in France, so I can't say I'm familiar with all of the European customs.  If you ask that French spider why he stays under the water in a bubble, he'll probably act all arrogant and suggest that you're stupid for not doing it yourself. 

A common problem with nature documentaries is the temptation to do whatever is necessary to get the shot, thus tampering with reality and not just letting the animals (or insects) be themselves.  There's definitely a fake shot here to show a bee in flight's POV, because I'm pretty sure you can't put a GoPro on a bumblebee - not yet, anyway.  

You know how everyone thinks that lemmings jump off cliffs?  It's totally not true, it was made up for a short story in 1951, and then appeared in a Disney documentary called "White Wilderness" in the late 1950's, and people still tend to believe it - lemmings do migrate in large groups, and sometimes they try to cross rivers together, causing some of them to drown if the river is too wide, but mass suicide?  No, they don't do that.  Let's stop using them as a metaphor, OK?  

There wasn't a ton of narration in this film, which was good because it allows you to draw your own conclusions about what goes on in the insect world - any thoughts or feelings the insects might be having, and who knows if they do, are those that the viewer can impart on them.  But it's also bad, because there's not much information about exactly what the insects are doing - somewhere there's got to be a middle-ground with the right amount of narration, where the facts are imparted, without conclusions being drawn about what it all means.

There's just no way my wife would ever watch this film - she hates to see insects on TV, she'd have to leave the room.  We did have a spider last year that was making a daily web on our porch, (yes, I know that a spider is not an insect, it's an arachnid) and she only learned to accept it once I pointed out that it was probably catching flies and mosquitos that were trying to get into our house.  This year a spider was building a web each night that stretched between her car and our front steps, and she hated to have to drive off each morning and destroy its web.  Eventually the web fell on to her car and she gave the spider a ride to the bank parking lot, where she had to knock it off from her car with a snow brush.  In a few weeks when the spider makes it back to our house, it's going to be very mad at her.  

The scene with the caterpillars reminded me of the summers when I was a kid, and New England got invaded by the gypsy moths.  Those caterpillars ate everything in sight, and home supply stores kept running out of the traps and the goo you were supposed to spread on tree trunks so they couldn't climb up to the leaves.  Parents kept encouraging kids to go outside and step on all the caterpillars they could find, but I remember that being a really disgusting pastime. 

Starring the voice of Kristin Scott Thomas (last seen in "Random Hearts")

RATING: 4 out of 10 mating dragonflies

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Vanishing City

Year 7, Day 222 - 8/10/15 - Movie #2,116

BEFORE:  I had a lot going on this weekend, from watching Jon Stewart's farewell to "The Daily Show", which ran long, to catching the finale of "True Detective", which also ran long.  So it's quite fortuitous that the next documentary on my list is just 50 minutes long.  It's co-directed by a friend of mine, Jennifer Senko, and I've been trying to get around to watching it for a few years now.  Finally, after contributing to her Kickstarter campaign for her upcoming film "The Brainwashing of My Dad", I received a copy as a gift for my donation, so I was finally able to schedule it in my line-up. 

THE PLOT: Issues of class formation, land use, rezoning decisions and the upheaval of longstanding neighborhoods combine to provide a critical look into the deeply rooted policies of one of the world's most iconic cities.

AFTER: Boy, what a great scheduler I am - this was a great way to stay on a theme, since the film about Banksy touched on a few related issues like gentrification, the demise of certain NYC neighborhoods (Willets Pt. in Queens features prominently in both films!) - of course, that was from a graffiti-related point of view, but I think it's still a fantastic coincidence. 

Highest compliment - I watched this film, shot mostly in the "talking heads" style, with a number of NYC officials and residents talking about urban development and tax loopholes, and I did NOT fall asleep.  I can't say that about "Lust for Life" or "My Kid Could Paint That" or several other recent films that stopped being interested with 10 or 15 minutes to go - forcing me to scan to the place I dozed off the next morning and finish the damn things.

Here's the issue: a couple of decades ago, NYC went through one of their semi-frequent fiscal crises (they seem to happen about every 20 years, but no one ever figures out how to predict them or react to them) and the powers that be started giving tax breaks to developers willing to turn run-down lots into high-rise buildings, thinking of the need for all the new New Yorkers to have places to live, and how much more it would benefit the city to have living, working taxpapers there instead of a pop-up flea market that only appears on alternate Sundays.

Around the same time, the global marketplace proved that it was economically beneficial for companies like American Express or Citibank to move their operations to Third World locations, such as India or Wyoming.  So the government of NYC chose to bend over backwards and offer tax breaks as incentives to keep those companies from moving their headquarters out of town.  And then, when other companies saw what breaks THOSE companies were getting, they pretended to also be considering moving, just to get the same tax breaks.

Fast forward a bit, and the city came up with another "great" solution to make sure there was affordable housing available - they'd rezone everything and permit new developments to take place, and again offer tax breaks to new developments that agreed to set aside a certain percentage of units for affordable housing.  Problem is, nobody could seem to agree on what that percentage should be, or what the word "affordable" really means.

What you end up with, after all this legal maneuvering and all these backroom deals, is a tax code that's applied rather un-uniformly to the city as a whole.  And any tax breaks over HERE mean that some other people have to pick up the slack over THERE.  Otherwise, we'll end up with another city financial crisis, and that's what the whole messed-up plan was supposed to prevent in the first place.

There's also this thing called "eminent domain", which gives the city power to purchase property for needed things like highways, hospitals and such, but in recent years has given way to NYC buying up buildings in certain neighborhoods, and selling them back to developers with bigger and better plans, because the government thinks it knows better about what types of buildings go where, instead of letting the free market work this all out - in Willets Point, some unattractive but successful iron works companies were about to be replaced by a more attractive but less essential convention center + hotel complex, and any time the city expresses an opinion over how land should be used that disagrees with the opinions of actual residents, yeah, there's bound to be some conflict.

Are we losing some of the things that make NYC great?  Yeah, probably - but change is about the only thing that's really constant, in the end.  How many times have people bemoaned the loss of their favorite restaurant or coffee shop?  (Or record stores and book stores, remember them?)  How many
people are still upset over Times Square, how it's all so commercial and corporate now, and all the porno theaters and head shops are gone?  And don't get me started on places like CBGB's or The Bottom Line...

My parents always used to think they were cursed, it seemed like every time they liked a restaurant and started going there regularly, it would close.  I then had to explain capitalism to my mother, pointing out that they were probably the customers who helped the place stay in business as long as it did (this was in suburban Massachusetts, not NYC, but the principle is similar.)  It sucks when you can no longer go to your favorite restaurant and get that sandwich you like, but you have to just remind yourself that it's just the free market taking care of itself.

I used to own a condominium in Brooklyn, and the building had J-51 status, meaning that there were no property taxes assessed for the first 10 years after the initial sale, and I (with my first wife) was the original owner.  J-51 was a tax status given to developers who had taken over abandoned properties to convert them into livable units - and this was a building clearly aimed at people with middle-class incomes, the cheapest unit sold for $105K, with a 5K down payment and a ridiculously low monthly common charge. 

I lived there for 11 years, and never paid a dime in property tax - as the treasurer for the building, I was in the habit of filing a protest of the city's annual assessment, because there was a women's shelter across the street - the theory was that if we kept protesting, when the taxes did get phased in, it would be at a lower rate.  In retrospect I do feel a little guilty for using the shelter as an excuse to protest the city's assessors, but if I was doing something untoward, NYC merely had to ignore the protest or disallow any re-evaluation of the property.

But that's my point - I wasn't thinking of any long-term consequences, or who had to make up the slack if none of the owners in my building, especially me, had to pay property tax.  People tend to make financial decisions in merely their own best interest. Now, the issue in this film is not related to J-51, it's more about a loophole called 421A, but I think the overall argument is the same.  If it hadn't have been for J-51, that developer might never have taken over that abandoned property, and it would still be lying fallow.  If not for 421A, it's quite possible that developers wouldn't be building any "affordable" housing at all, and then, where would we be?  People would still get displaced from their homes, but at an even faster rate.

But, at some point, doesn't the law of supply and demand kick in, meaning that the price of things eventually settles out to a (semi-)reasonable rate?  If greedy landlords keep raising rents, one would hope that they would reach some kind of limit, some rent that people aren't willing to pay, and thus they'd realize that no one wants to live in their high-priced buildings, so maybe they should bring the price down a bit?  No one thinks of the communal effect of renting an apartment with high rent, though - or gets together en masse to boycott a building where the rents are too high.

The problem now, as I see it, is hipsters (isn't it always?) - and entitlement.  Entitlement is that feeling that someone should have what the next guy has, plus a little bit more.  So there will always be someone in their 20's who's got rich parents, who doesn't balk at paying high rents because either Daddy will pay it, or he knows four friends willing to share the space with him and keep his own rent down.  And I guarantee you that said rich douchebag doesn't think for a SECOND about who lived in the apartment before it was converted to a luxury duplex loft, or where those people are now. 

Look, everyone wants the best for their kids - but that doesn't mean that you have to go out and buy it for them, or pay their rent.  They're never going to learn the value of things if they don't get a job, stop playing shitty guitar music at the cafe at nights and start paying their own way.  Think it through - what's going to happen when they're senior citizens themselves, and their parents are deceased, and they can't even collect social security, because they never paid into the system?  They'll be old and homeless and begging for money.  So it's called "tough love", and it starts, like, yesterday.

Here's how my own living situation in NYC has progressed - dorm room, summer sublet, shared apartment in Queens, my own apartment in Brooklyn, the condo in Park Slope, and then my current house in Queens.  That progression took about 25 years - were some of the places terrible?  Of course they were, but that gave me an incentive to find something better.  My advice to anyone paying high rent is to try and scrape together a down payment on owning SOME property, even if it's not a great one, because if you can live there for a few years you've got an OK chance of selling it for more than the original asking price, and you can upgrade.  But as a tenant, you don't have nearly as much power as a property owner does.  If your landlord wants to raze the property and sell the lot to a developer, or convert the building to luxury condos, he's got that right.  All he has to do is just NOT renew your lease.

Some of the folks depicted in this film had lived in their East Village apartments for 30 years, and even though it was a shame that they had to move, they fought a four-year legal battle only to find out that since they weren't property owners, they had no rights to stay in the building if the landlord wanted to convert.  When your legal argument falls back on things like squatter's rights, or the simple "But that's not the way I want things to be!" you're pretty much dead in the water.  And if these people can no longer afford to live in Manhattan, again, on one level it's just the free market taking care of itself.

I'd love to see an update on the issues raised by this film, now that we have a mayor who doesn't resemble "Mr. Monopoly" and maybe, just maybe, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way, in favor of the common man and not mega-corporations.  That is, unless our new mayor is so focused on silly issues like carriage horses, as well as important ones like racial bias in police operations, to focus on people being forced out of their homes by mega-developers.

The best example of the way that development has gone in NYC over the last few years is probably the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn.  A developer named Bruce Ratner (I don't trust anyone with that name, whether they're in real estate or filmmaking) wanted to build a new sports complex/residential facility in downtown Brooklyn as a new home for the New Jersey Nets, and this eminent domain policy was used to buy up the buildings that were in the way.  Naturally the people who lived there at the time weren't happy about being made to leave - those that stayed had to endure months in a wasteland, where there was very little police presence at night.  The last few holdouts were well compensated, though - my wife and I believe that when someone comes to the door offering you money to move that equals twice what your building is worth, your only two questions should be, "Where do I sign?" and "What day would you like us to be somewhere else?"

But once the lawsuits were filed and dismissed, and Ratner's company got the go-ahead to build their new basketball stadium/high-rise, the recession hit in 2009.  It was pretty funny to see the building stuck in mid-construction for a while - OK, it was funny until you thought about the people who got displaced so that a building could be half-built.  But again, eventually the free market takes care of itself, and if the thing really deserves to be completed, someone will find a way.

If there's a problem or inequality caused by the tax code, then someone needs to change the tax code (which is the point of the film) but that's not going to be easy when the people who own the most property are also major contributors to most political campaigns, or in some cases, are the candidates themselves.  Hey, it's Trump's world now, we all just live in it.

RATING: 5 out of 10 city planners

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Banksy Does New York

Year 7, Day 221 - 8/9/15 - Movie #2,115

BEFORE: OK, I've made a decision, based on the fact that I re-added up my numbers for the rest of 2015, and it turns out I've got one film too many in the line-up.  And checking out the links between films, it seems like most of the time-travel films don't connect to anything else, or even to each other.  So, because a few of those films seem to focus on romance, I'm going to move them, and two very romance-oriented films connected to them, to next February.  I therefore need to plug that new 6-film hole with 5 more films, so I'm going to add two documentaries this week, and then 3 more films to the pre-Halloween chain.  That gives me an 85-film plan that will take me to the end of the year, and the 2016 chain is completely up in the air.  If I want to make both chains any better at this point, I'd need to scrap all the links and rebuild them from scratch, a time-consuming, maddening process - one that could be completely obsolete a month from now, so why bother?

For the third night in a row, I'm focused on the intersection between art and truth - I know, I know, if I'm going to learn about Banksy and graffiti art, I really need to watch the 2010 documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop", but I don't have a copy of that.  I'll check the TV listings, but I don't think anyone is running it.  Maybe I'll follow up with that one later. 

THE PLOT:  Documentary chronicling the famed street artist's "31 works of art in 31 days" in New York city.

AFTER: I went into this one knowing almost nothing about Banksy, other than the fact that he's a graffiti artist.  I must have been busy in October 2013, because I didn't even know that he came to New York City, where I live.  Considering New York Comic-Con takes place in October, that must be the reason, because it seems like he got his share of press.  He did a different piece of "street art" every day for a month - this is a process I can get behind.  The locations were teased on his web-site and twitter feeds, turning the whole thing into some kind of artistic hipster scavenger hunt.  It's a game, I get it - but who has time to run around the city looking for art?  Doesn't anybody have a job any more? 

It seems like the artist didn't take himself too seriously, because there was an audio track released for each piece from this "Better Out Than In" series, something akin to a museum's guided audio tour, which was often self-deprecating and read by a narrator who didn't even seem to know how to pronounce the artist's name.  (This seems to be a constant problem, as the artist's fans and even the news anchors depicted in this film often say "Bansky" or "Banksky")  

Sometimes the art was just a made-up quote, or the name of something with "The Musical" added after it, in a poke at Broadway.  Sometimes it was stencil art spray-painted on the side of a building (a process called "cheating" in the artist's audio-track.  Once in a while, it was 3-D art like a Sphinx made out of bricks, or a moving installation like a truck full of cute animal puppets that would get parked outside of meat markets.  OK, subversive art, I like where he's going with that.  

No one can seem to agree on what a piece of Banksy art is worth, and perhaps that's part of the joke.  When art is also graffiti, nearly everything is subjective - at what point does vandalism become art?  If anyone besides Banksy spray-painted that, it would be worthless, so how much of a painting's value is based on the name of the artist alone?  And if his art is worth so much, why is he leaving it lying around, instead of selling it in a gallery?  One day he even hired a man to sell his spray-painted canvases from a stand on the street, and some people just bought them on a whim, not realizing they'd purchased something for $60 that could easily fetch thousands at an auction.  

Next question - who does street art "belong" to?  The artist, the viewer, or the person who owns the building?  There were some cases where landlords painted over the graffiti within a couple hours (really, you can't knock a building owner for being responsible - if you don't paint over a tag right away, you'll have a whole wall full of graffiti by the end of the day) and some cases where the art was protected, even defended from the public.  But by using the social media and by setting up this wild month-long chase around the city, clearly Banksy realizes that his art would be nothing without people to look at it. 

What Banksy (and his people, whoever they are) created here was essentially street theater - everyone became part of it.  If you painted over the art, you became part of the show.  If you traveled around NYC to see it, you became part of the show.  Heck, if you loaded the art in a truck and brought it to a gallery, you became part of the show.  I can't imagine more of a connection between an artist and his fans - even that guy who built all those fabric gates in Central Park years ago wishes he had this kind of connection with people.  And yet Banksy remains safely, defiantly anonymous.  

Occasionally the messages seemed a bit strong - by including footage of Jihadists in his web-messages, or using classified footage from a Baghdad airstrike, he risked turning off more Americans than he turned on.  And even the best use of Banksy art during this month - buying a piece of landscape art from the Housing Works thrift store, adding Banksy art to it, and then re-donating it to the store - seemed a little off-message when the added art turned out to be a Nazi officer, sitting on a bench, gazing into the sunset.  The store was able to auction the art for thousands of dollars, raising money for the homeless, but I imagined Banksy somewhere, obnoxiously yelling like Bill Murray at the end of "Scrooged" - "You're hungry?  Here, have a SANDWICH! I GET it now!"  

Whether you regard Banksy as a modern-day Picasso or as just another vandal, I've seen his ilk before - someone who wants to be famous but also remain anonymous.  Remember the Residents?  They're a band that has been around since the late 1960's, but they've always performed wearing giant eyeballs over their heads, or similar masks.  In the late 1980's I worked as a P.A. on a documentary about them, that was where I met Penn & Teller face to face.  Naturally, on a film set you get to know everybody, and there were a couple of guys floating around who I didn't recognize.  Since I drove the production van, the director asked me to give one of them a ride home, and what I didn't know at the time was that he was probably one of the Residents himself.  The director (more or less) confirmed this the next day - and for years it's just been one of those "I know something you don't know..." things that keeps me going.  Once you see behind the curtain, you're in on the joke and you also want to close the curtain behind you so the next guy can't come in.  So I understand the cult that's surrounding this Banksy guy, helping to protect his identity.  

The Residents have managed to put out dozens of albums, perform live hundreds of times, and yet nobody knows their real names for sure.  If anyone is asked the question flat out, that person will then deny he's in the band.  Together with Banksy, this might be as close as we get in the real world to having superheroes.  While the Residents may never have achieved mass appeal, it seems like that might have been a side-effect of keeping their private lives private.  Banksy, you've been warned.

RATING: 6 out of 10 sheets of plexiglass