An all-women “Lord of the Flies” reboot is a contradiction in terms

Two male directors are slated for the all-girl remake and, besides Warner Bros., few are excited

 

An all-women "Lord of the Flies" reboot is a contradiction in terms
“Lord of the Flies”(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

It was announced Wednesday that Warner Bros. will remake “Lord of the Flies” with an all-female cast directed by two men.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel will write and direct the new version, based on the original novel by Noble-prize winning author William Golding, Deadline reported.

“We want to do a very faithful but contemporized adaptation of the book, but our idea was to do it with all girls rather than boys,” Siegel told Deadline. “It is a timeless story that is especially relevant today, with the interpersonal conflicts and bullying, and the idea of children forming a society and replicating the behavior they saw in grownups before they were marooned.”

McGhee added that he hopes the spin will break “away from some of the conventions, the ways we think of boys and aggression. People still talk about the movie and the book from the standpoint of pure storytelling,” he told Deadline. “It is a great adventure story, real entertainment, but it has a lot of meaning embedded in it as well. We’ve gotten to think about this awhile as the rights were worked out, and we’re super eager to put pen to paper.”

People on Twitter were quick to point out why this concept may be inherently flawed:

[flies into frame on a broom]
the thing about lord of the flies is that it’s about systemic male violence + how it replicates
[flies away]

uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity
every 9th grader knows this
u can read about it on sparknotes https://twitter.com/deadline/status/903002462394527744 

GOOD: A female-centric Lord of the Flies!
BAD: A female-centric Lord of the Flies written by… two men.http://deadline.com/2017/08/lord-of-the-flies-scott-mcgehee-david-siegel-female-cast-warner-bros-william-golding-novel-1202158421/ 

Photo published for Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

deadline.com

Lord of the Flies, but with women, and also written and directed by two men! This couldn’t POSSIBLY miss the mark! http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/looks-like-were-getting-a-female-lord-of-the-flies-remake.html 

We’re literally living an all-male “Lord of the Flies” right now, but sure, let’s see two male writers describe how women would be worse.

As Twitter users explained, McGehee and Siegel — the creators behind the quite brilliant, quite enlightened “What Maisie Knew” — might need a refresh on the nuance of the classic novel and how women actually work together before they actually “put pen to paper.”

Yes, people will talk of “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” and the often self-destructive behaviors of women and girls in cliques both in youth and in adulthood when it comes to this remake. Yet, at its core, Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is an intensely malenarrative rooted in male group dynamics. The vocal turn-taking gambit that requires the passing of the famous “conch” and so many other aspects of the source material constitutes a sharp critique of how men and boys listen to and interact with each other both in personal and political situations. Women, as we have learned, do things very, very differently.

As writer Roxane Gay said, “An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because . . . the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women.”

Can’t bear to watch the Inauguration? Check out these political dystopian films instead

Art imitates life:

The dark and cynical “A Face in the Crowd” won’t make you feel better about politics, but at least it’s fiction

Art imitates life: Can't bear to watch the Inauguration? Check out these political dystopian films instead
“A Face in the Crowd” (Credit: Warner Bros.)

During inauguration weekend, the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is featuring a timely, cogent (and bitter) film series entitled “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election.”

Jed Rapfogel, who co-programmed the film with his colleagues, said that the series came together quickly, “It was something we did out of necessity. When Trump won, we had to mark that weekend. The films reflect the sense that a dystopic, alternate reality has come to pass.”

There are numerous films that could have been screened, but the selection of “A Face in the Crowd,” “It Happened Here,” and “Punishment Park,” as well as Robert Kramer’s “Ice,” Stan Brakhage shorts, and other titles provides AFA the opportunity to present “radical, progressive, politically-engaged films” that reflect on the current political climate.

“A Face in the Crowd,” Rapfogel noted, “came first to mind because of how its hero, Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), is a celebrity and a demagogue who rises to political power. It is relevant in so many ways.”

He continued, “‘Face’ as well as the other films in the series are going to look different now, coming at a time when we don’t have that benefit of thinking of it as dystopic. The perspective has changed, and these films are all interesting and useful in some way: How do we deal with this situation?”

For those not able to get to Anthology Film Archives, the titles reviewed below are available on DVD and/or online. Folks not wanting to watch Trump’s inauguration are urged to check out these essential classics instead.

“A Face in the Crowd”

Elia Kazan’s electrifying 1957 film, written by Budd Schulberg (who adapted his own story), is about a “gentleman loafer” (hobo) named Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith, in his debut) who becomes a media sensation when his grassroots wisdom connects with the common people. He can say anything to sway the listeners of his radio and TV shows — and he sure does. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a radio host who discovers Lonesome in an Arkansas jail. She follows him from local radio to a TV gig in Memphis and ultimately a national program in New York. Lonesome raises ad revenues and gets high ratings because he is able to guide the masses with a strong hand. However, marketer Macey (Paul McGrath) is fearful of Lonesome using TV to persuade the general public and calls the media sensation “a risk, uncooperative and unpredictable.” [Sound familiar?]

It is no surprise that Lonesome doesn’t care who he walks over as his success grows. He wants love, not respect, and soon finds work as a political consultant for a right-wing presidential candidate. TV writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) sees through Lonesome, observing, “He’s got the courage of his ignorance,” a fact that Lonesome proves when he sounds off in a hotel room to Marcia, “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep! . . . Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers . . . I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid that I am, so I gotta think for ’em . . . I’m gonna be the power behind the president . . .” Marcia’s expression can only be described as terrified at hearing his abuse of the public confidence.

“A Face in the Crowd” is dark and cynical, and the acting is as superb as the script. When Mel says at the end of the film, “We got wise to him, that’s our strength” it is a rallying cry for those who can’t endorse a Trumpian world.

“It Happened Here”

This remarkable film, made in 1965 by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, eerily feels like a documentary, it seems so real. The filmmakers came up with the idea — a “fantasy” imagining a Nazi-occupied Britain in 1944 — when they were teenagers, eventually shooting it eight years later on film stock donated by Stanley Kubrick.

The film’s heroine is Pauline (Pauline Murray), an Irish nurse who is evacuated from the British countryside and sent to London where Nazi propaganda posters line the Thames. She decides to join the Party to be helpful by working as a nurse, only to be told by a clerk, “We don’t accept your decisions. You accept ours.” While Pauline observes that the Party has a “faintly military flavor,” National Socialism offers a new way of life, one that is “backed by the people of Britain” to outlaw Bolshevism, establish a corporate state, help solve the “Jewish problem,” and conquer unemployment with a labor front. A highly disturbing sequence in the film — one that was censored by the studio — involves Pauline participating in a discussion that claims “Jews are parasites” and they will be sent to Madagascar.

As Pauline slowly awakens to the perils of the Party, “It Happened Here” gets more intense and more alarming. A pivotal scene has Pauline meeting her friend Dr. Richard Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw), who berates her for being a Party member. She admits to being ignorant, stating, “I know as much about politics as a lamppost.” Pauline’s innocence and her desire for “law and order” contrast with Richard and his wife’s struggle for freedom, which include harboring a partisan in their apartment. Pauline may believe that resistance is futile, and she calls Richard’s activism out as a response to his guilt for doing nothing before then.

Yet Richard chides Pauline in the film’s most quotable (and prescient) line, “The appalling thing about fascism is that you’ve got to use fascist methods to get rid of it.”

The last act of “It Happened Here” gets even more frightening as it presents a funeral that looks like a Klan rally, and an extended sequence set in a medical hospital that is revealed to be performing “cleansing” operations.

The fantasy of “It Happened Here” is scarily Trumpian; this forceful drama will still cause viewers to bristle more than 50 years after it was made.

“Punishment Park”

This is Peter Watkins’ gripping (and grim) 1971 pseudo-documentary film in which the McCarran Act is invoked. The Act — which was enacted in 1950 over President Truman’s veto, and in force until the early 1970s — enables the president to declare an “internal security emergency” and “apprehend and detain persons who may cause sabotage.” In the film, groups of subversives — draft-dodgers, conscientious objectors, black militants, feminists and the like — have been apprehended and detained. They are sentenced at a tribunal where they are given two options: years in a federal penitentiary or days in “Punishment Park.”

However, Punishment Park may be worse than jail. As one fatalistic female prisoner states quite bluntly, “It’s win or die.” The park is a section of the Bear Mountain National Park in Southern California, where the criminals must walk 53 miles in the 90+ degree desert without water for three days to a designated location marked by an American flag. They must also evade capture by the police and national guardsman on call to keep the prisoners in line. If the prisoners fail to complete the course, they must serve out their sentence in federal prison, unless they die (or are killed) first.

A documentary film crew (lead by Watkins) follows the prisoners’ efforts, and also captures scenes of the law enforcement officers conducting target practice as well as the heated exchanges at the various tribunals.

In the intense, exciting courtroom scenes, non-professional actors improvise their roles as defendants. They complain about being detained for months without knowing why, are denied a “jury of their peers,” and are argumentative and combative in ways that will make every liberal viewer proud. They testify against the violence in society, the repressiveness of the government, and the immorality of war (the film makes connections to the Vietnam War and Nixon). They champion ideas of freedom, uphold moral values, and emphasize the importance of thinking for themselves. These “disruptive outbursts” are the most stirring in the film.

Watkins shrewdly intercuts the three storylines for maximum impact. A defendant’s tribunal speech about violence is juxtaposed with the military’s gun lessons, and scenes of brutality experienced by the prisoners who are running for their lives. The film may feel almost too on the nose with its messaging, but “Punishment Park” was a timely response to Kent State, the Chicago 10 Conspiracy Trial and other real-life events. That said, when a radio announcer recounts a senator resigning his position because “he refused to participate in dismantling basic freedoms and repressive legislation” (e.g., immigration reforms, stop-and-frisk measures, etc.), it’s eerily prescient of contemporary politics. How is that for art imitating life?

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

Farewell, Carrie Fisher

…a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe

Princess Leia made her a symbol, but Fisher’s writing and unapologetic wit made her real in a way no film could

Farewell, Carrie Fisher, a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe
Carrie Fisher(Credit: Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez)

Carrie Fisher is my icon. Literally. My Twitter account features graphic artist Leka’s rendering of Princess Leia with a David Bowie lightning bolt across her face, arms crossed and fixed heat gaze staring out at the world above the words “Rebel Rebel.”  To me, it represented a handy cross between two of my great loves, the Star Man and “Star Wars,” and more specifically, its princess who ruined me for all Disney princesses by teaching me that true rulers master their own destiny by saving themselves.

But it’s also meant to be a shout of creative defiance in a world increasingly set on squelching artistic rebellion, an idea linked more to the actress herself than to the character for which she’s beloved. The Imperial Senator from Alderaan may have exposed the world to Carrie Fisher, but her extraordinary writing, represented in novels such as “Surrender the Pink” and “Postcards from the Edge,” and memoirs, including “Wishful Drinking” and her latest, “The Princess Diarist,” revealed a saber-sharp wit and fearless sense of humor no one but the woman herself could accurately script.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true,” she famously wrote, “and that would be unacceptable.”

Although Fisher starred in a number of films — her debut was 1975’s “Shampoo,” and she also appeared in “The Blues Brothers,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “When Harry Met Sally” — and went on to ply her writing talents as a script doctor, Fisher is most closely associated with the image of Leia Organa in 1977’s “Star Wars.” She was 19 when she took on the role of a woman we met as a princess. Nearly four decades later, she was still playing Leia, only now as a general of the rebellion in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Where Leia Organa provided the visible pattern for girls who didn’t buy into the idea of waiting for a man’s rescue and validation, Fisher herself inspired writers to be unafraid of digging into the parts of us that ache, to give words and laughter to the universal truths that pain and circumstance can reveal. Writing her way through her life’s darker scenes, including periods marked by heartbreak, addiction and mental illness, made Fisher exist in a fundamentally raw and genuine way that no onscreen role could capture.

“If you have a life like mine, then these experiences eventually accumulate until you become known as ‘a survivor.’ This is a term that I loathe,” she wrote in 2008’s “Wishful Drinking,” which she transformed into a one-woman show and an HBO documentary.

“But the thing is,” she added, “that when you are a survivor, which fine, I reluctantly agree that I am — and who over 40 isn’t? — when you are a survivor, in order to be a really good one, you have to keep getting in trouble to show off your gift.”

The news of Fisher’s death at the age of 60 has shaken people on a number fronts as we take stock of the deep chomps this horrible, Satanic sociopath of a year has taken out of our lives. The loss of Fisher feels as profoundly personal as it does universal, an ugly bookend to a year marked by gigantic lights snuffing out, beginning with the death of David Bowie last January.

Bowie’s passing marked the close of a meticulously chronicled story that had countless chapters, parts and guises, one whose resonance would be felt and honored long after its creator’s departure. The artist knew he was in the last stages of succumbing to cancer, though. He carefully planned his farewell statement to the world in the form of “Blackstar,” his final album.

Fisher’s death represents the fragility of expectation.  The actress and author was known for her brash outspokenness, emphasizing the healing power humor and cleverness have over personal tragedy. And she departed suddenly, at the end of what should have been an ordinary flight home from London, where, according to Variety, she had been filming episodes of the Amazon/Channel 4 comedy “Catastrophe.”

Last week, while sailing through the clouds, she suffered a massive heart attack and spent several days on life support before dying on Tuesday morning.

From all appearances, including her final televised visit to “The Graham Norton Show” recorded while she was in Britain, Fisher seemed well and ready to get in a lot more trouble. Her appearances in upcoming “Star Wars” chapters Episode VIII and Episode IX were a given; her demise reminds us not to take anything for granted,

Until this terrible week, she even had a starring role on our short list of 2016’s joys, providing salve for a flaming sphincter of a 365-day span by confirming the fantasy so many nerd girls and boys had hoped for over the years. “Did they?” we wondered, and she let us know that yes, they did.

The actors who played Princess Leia and Han Solo (that would be Harrison Ford, for those of us living under a rock) enjoyed a torrid affair in 1976. Ford was married at the time, but bygones! The story created such delight at a time when so many of us wanted to celebrate something, anything, that very few “tsk-tsked” the revelation. Thank you for that, Carrie.

Fisher’s acceptance of Leia’s pop culture resiliency and that role’s impact on her life and career decades after her work in “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” was not merely an act of submission. In embracing Leia, Fisher also acknowledged her and her character’s role as a figure of feminist empowerment, an impact that shapes the “Star Wars” universe even now.

Had Fisher not given such an indelible performance as Leia (even before and after that awful “Return of the Jedi” gold bikini so popular on the convention cosplay circuit) we would not have gotten Daisy Ridley’s Rey as the inheritor to the Jedi line. Nor would we have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as the central hero of this season’s box office smash “Rogue One.”

The other side of that coin is that Leia’s enduring popularity forced to Fisher to turn into all the skids she encountered along the way. Between her parentage, her famously tumultuous marriage with Paul Simon, her  battles with substance abuse and her challenges living with bipolar disorder, Fisher’s life was well-chronicled by tabloids.

One might argue that she would have had to contend with paparazzi and prying even if she had never been associated with “Star Wars.” Fisher was born into a specific part that ensured her years would not be marked by privacy and quiet; she was the daughter of actress and performer Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, who died in 2010. Fisher described the duo in “Wishful Drinking” as “the Brad Pitt and the Jennifer Aniston of the last ‘50s, only slightly moreso — because they actually managed to procreate.”

“You’re not allowed to grow up with parents who are famous and then get into one of the biggest movies of all time and run around with famous people — it’s resented after a while,” Fisher observed in a 1983 Rolling Stone interview. “And I would always try to emphasize something really wrong with me, so that people wouldn’t be put off. There are a lot of epiphanies before you get to the satori, you know. And once it was proposed to me that it was all right to be like I am, I finally quit apologizing for it.”

For what? the interviewer, Carol Caldwell, asked. “For being something different. For being strong. Strength is a style. But this happens in acting a lot. If you pretend something over and over, sometimes it comes true.”

Fisher is survived by her brother, Todd Fisher, her mother and her daughter, actress Billie Lourd. Her legacy of strength, her incredible intellect, her emphasis on laughing in the face of despair and her rebelliousness survive her as well. All of that blends into our portrait of her as a heroine, both in a world that devastated by her departure, and the one that exists only in our imagination.

“Star Trek” in the age of Trump

Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever

The doomsday pessimism and defensiveness peddled by Donald Trump could use a dose of Enterprise hope and harmony

"Star Trek" in the age of Trump: Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever
(Credit: Getty/Alex Wong/CBS/Photo montage by Salon)

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission, no, wait, 50-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life for itself, to boldly remain relevant across space and time.

And it has. Especially today, in the age of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the message of “Star Trek” — openness, harmony and the spirit of exploration — feels more applicable than ever.

The unstoppable science-fiction franchise turns 50 tomorrow, with the first episode having hit NBC airwaves on Sept. 8, 1966. Over its subsequent half-century run, “Star Trek” has spanned 13 movies, including a new installment, “Star Trek Beyond,” which opened in July. There have been six TV series (a seventh comes in 2017), plus a handful of fan-created homages. The “Trek” phenomenon has also inspired Trekkers to dress in costume, collect merchandise, buy comic books, adopt the Vulcan salute “Live long and prosper” and quote lines from movies as daily parlance.

But unlike Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and their shipmates, who traveled to new worlds every week, Americans remain, like Khan, the show’s recurrent fictional villain, marooned on a somewhat hostile planet. Just as Khan was exiled to Ceti Alpha V, where he forged a new society, most of us — for the time being at least — are stuck on planet Earth. Here in 2016, our nation is engaged in its own terrestrial wars between alien-like political foes — Democrats versus Republicans, conservative Christians against Muslims, police supporters against Black Lives Matter activists, the haves battling the have-nots.

In these contentious times, the spirit of “Star Trek” still speaks to us.

What the show has always boldly declared is this: Disregard the doomsayers, those who predict our species’ demise, those who look to disharmony. Instead, the goofy, awkward optimism of the “Star Trek” franchise suggested, Aim forward into a future of cooperation and harmony.

Sure, if you’re gold-shirted officer Kirk, you get to sleep with wayward crew and alien species from time to time. If his bedroom shenanigans were a bit self-serving, didn’t that amorous touch also foster interspecies understanding? By and large, he came in peace.

This fall as the presidential race hits warp speed, “Star Trek” still offers a vision of how we could and should be. (Depending on which Romulans or Changelings you speak to, Hillary Clinton is either one of the gold-shirted good guys or a nefarious Orion slave girl bent on revenge; Trump is either a warmongering Klingon or a disposable Redshirt who doesn’t survive the episode.)

“Star Trek” first launched during a time of great unrest: the 1960s. The ground war in Vietnam had been launched in an effort to stop Communist expansion in Asia. On the homefront, racial tensions flared and violence erupted. Fears about overpopulation and environmental destruction haunted Americans. Yet here was a show whose multiracial, multiethnic, multinational and, yes, multispecies crew worked together. From Spock to Uhura, Chekov to Sulu, “Star Trek” proposed a melting pot of humans, male and female, white and black, Asian and Russian — and even Vulcan — who all work together toward a common goal. In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the diverse crew even included a robot, Data, and a member of a onetime enemy species, the Klingon Worf.

That mission was the exploration of space, “the final frontier,” in the spirit of knowledge and science.

This vision is a powerful counter to Trump’s demagoguery, which places the problems of our country at the feet of “bad people” from foreign lands, who have darker skin, who practice alien customs and who, we are told, mean us harm. For Trump and the supporters he engages, our differences aren’t outweighed by what we share. Trump’s vision of the future depends on having enemies to attack — Hillary Clinton, Mexican immigrants, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. What would make America great again, in his mind, is more mistrust and taller walls.

This hive mind-like approach is not unlike that of the cybernetic Borg of “Star Trek” who want to assimilate every foreigner they encounter.

Imagine a son or daughter of an undocumented immigrant on Trump’s crew. That’s not the galaxy Trump that lives in. Perhaps in an alternative universe, he might embrace these ideals, and the legions of white nationalist, neo-reactionary, alt-right nativists might be less afraid of “the other.” But until we invent a way to travel through a wormhole — or send Trump and his ilk through one — making his supporters feel less paranoid and less likely to blame anyone but themselves for their problems isn’t going happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, walls keep rising between African-Americans and police, veterans and civilians, Wal-Mart workers and billionaires.

We must remember the immortal words of Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

The four-year mission of the U.S.S. Trump could not be more opposed than the original five-year “Star Trek” mission of cooperation, adventure and hope.

Let us hope that it is Trump who is the alien species, not those of us who believe in science, exploration and a peaceful universe. After all, you can’t build a wall in space.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached atethangilsdorf.com and onTwitter.

“Liquid Sky”: This glam early-’80s sci-fi masterpiece that predicted the AIDS crisis could disappear forever

The influential film’s original stock is deteriorating, right when it should be poised for a revival

"Liquid Sky": This glam early-'80s sci-fi masterpiece that predicted the AIDS crisis could disappear forever

A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

Unlike Ridley Scott’s film, “Liquid Sky” was shot through with a kind of self-deprecating, New York Jewish humor. A rumpled, hapless professor (the lanky Otto von Wehnherr) is on the trail of the alien spacecraft and bumbles his way through the jaded world, where few believe or even care that there might be visitors feeding on the heat of human sexual climax. They’re fixated on their next score, or on Chinese take out.

The film, released in the summer of ’82 at media-heavy film festivals, beginning in Montreal, quickly became a minor sensation. This was the height of the second British cultural invasion (Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran) which was of a piece with Carlilse’s androgyny and gear. It played at the Waverly Theater in New York City for about four years and Carlisle became a star, posing in and out of male drag for (warning: link NSFW) one of Playboy’s strangest photo shoots.

Carlisle briefly moved to Hollywood and got an agent, but was confused that the only parts offered to her were supporting roles in films like “Crocodile Dundee.” She returned to New York somewhat broken. “I went into psychoanalysis.” By then, Rock Hudson had announced he had AIDS and the disease was soon a household world. Carlisle didn’t feel responsible for her and Tsukerman’s vision, but it haunted her nonetheless.

“I went to school to become an art therapist to help people who were dying,” she said. “I actually was so moved by it I changed my life. I said, I have to do something other than pursue acting.”

However, neither Carlisle nor Tsukerman let go of Margaret. Carlisle wrote a novel based on her character and Tsukerman began piecing together material designed to document the making of the film, whose status as both a prescient New York story and a fashion touchstone has grown over the years (a Liquid Sky boutique on Manhattan’s Lafayette Street operated for a while). The soundtrack by the un-trained Tsukerman — loud, atonal but funky — inspired the more abrasive elements of the Electroclash movement of the late ’90s.

Innovative and influential as it is, one would assume that Liquid Sky is in the queue to become part of the permanent collection of the Criterion Editions or even MOMA, but in reality the original 35 mm film stock is decaying. “We need money,” Carlisle says. Tsukerman is racing time to raise the funds to restore the film, planning both a crowdfunding endeavor and completion on the documentary. Meanwhile there’s a sequel in the works — its working title is  “Vagina Warriors.”

“We’re writing the script,” says Tsukerman. “We’ve stayed friends.” Carlisle is guarded about the story, but will say, “Margaret comes back and she changes other women.”

Meanwhile, in an age where society is exploring the nature of gender more rapidly than ever in history, a film like “Liquid Sky” certainly deserves a second life. “I hear it a lot,” says Carlisle. “People say that it changed their life. Especially people who were marginalized. They felt like they were not understood by anyone and then they saw this film and said. ‘Oh, no, there’s more like me out there.”

Marc Spitz is the author of “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” (Da Capo Press). Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz.

“Steve Jobs,” portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce

When we abandon the arts, this is what’s left 

"Steve Jobs," portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce
Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” (Credit: Universal Pictures)

The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.

The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.

The likening of tech savants to artists goes back at least as far as Richard Florida’s books about the creative class, but it picked up energy with the 2011 death of Jobs, who was hailed as a job creator by Republican politicians and mystic genius by many others. You see this same impulse in the opening of Jonah Lehrer’s now-discredited book “Imagine,” which compared the inventor of the Swiffer (which “continues to dominate the post-mop market”) with William James and Bob Dylan.

The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)

So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?

The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.

While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.

Cold War funding supported culture even more directly – Eisenhower sent Louis Armstrong overseas – and television stations and magazines considered the dissemination of the arts part of what they did. Maria Callas, Thelonious Monk, and Leonard Bernstein showed up not just in small-circulation specialty publications but on the cover of Time magazine.

For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.

Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.

How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.

In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?

So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?

Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.

The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash.He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”

“The Yes Men Are Revolting”

Anti-capitalist pranksters face their own midlife crisis — and find hope

Family life threatens the fearlessly dorky culture-jam duo — and defense lobbyists dance for a renewable future

“The Yes Men Are Revolting”: Anti-capitalist pranksters face their own midlife crisis -- and find hope
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno in “The Yes Men Are Revolting” (Credit: The Orchard)

I have nothing but love – well, let’s say almost nothing – for the Yes Men, the pair of activists, performance artists and culture-jammers who have repeatedly proved that it’s impossible to go too far in making fun of capitalist greed. These are the guys who have staged several of the most epic attention-getting pranks in recent political history, including driving down Dow Chemical’s stock price by staging a press conference to announce that Dow was taking full responsibility for the 1984 disaster that killed nearly 4,000 people in Bhopal, India, and would spend up to $12 billion on medical care, environmental cleanup and related research.

As with the Yes Men’s other most effective actions, the key to the Dow ventriloquism lay in stretching plausibility not quite to the breaking point – is it dimly conceivable that a multinational chemical corporation might actually behave like a responsible global citizen? – and also in engaging the latent or defunct moral compass buried within the most cynical mainstream journalist. As we see in their wistful, episodic and occasionally solipsistic new movie, “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” the activists known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (whose honest-to-God real names turn out to be Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, respectively) more recently punked the entire Washington press corps into believing that the United States Chamber of Commerce would “go green” and support limits on carbon emissions. (In fact, the chamber subsequently did shift its position on climate change, although not quite to that extent.)

Not every Yes Men stunt pays off in the same way, as their movie (directed by the Yes Men and Laura Nix) disarmingly reveals. Andy and Mike’s brilliant scheme to donate a “polar bear” to the Amsterdam zoo, on behalf of an Arctic drilling partnership between Shell and the Russian company Gazprom, comes off like a failed high school prank, which is always an inherent danger with these guys. I’m not sure anybody bought the 2006 Yes Men announcement that the WTO would reintroduce slavery in Africa, rebranded as “full private stewardry of labor,” or ExxonMobil’s 2007 plan to develop “Vivoleum,” crude oil made from the flesh of people who died because of climate change. (I’m also not sure those were in acceptable taste.) And their supposed Halliburton product called the SurvivaBall – “designed to protect the corporate manager no matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way” – well, OK, that actually did fool people at first. And then Andy and Mike proceeded to beat the joke to death, well past the point of Dada or absurdism into pure silliness.

The great strength and great weakness of the Yes Men, not to put too fine a point on it, is that they’re a couple of dorks. Their props, costumes and supporting materials are invariably crude – but they are sincere and unafraid, or at least unafraid enough to brazen it out. In the contemporary media universe those qualities can take you a long way. They exploit the audience’s willingness to suspend its disbelief, which is an especially strong impulse among supposedly savvy or sophisticated audiences. When you see Andy wiggling himself into a ridiculous wig to pose as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, toward the end of “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” you’re like: How embarrassing! Why would anyone do something so unbelievably dumb? And a couple of hours later he has a bunch of retired military officers, defense contractors and lobbyists doing a bogus “Native American circle dance” to celebrate a fictitious new government plan to convert the U.S. economy to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. (A plan that would in fact produce millions of jobs, lower healthcare costs and set us free from foreign oil, to say nothing of the effects on global climate.) Mike wore the stupid wig but did not actually pretend to be Moniz. In case you’re wondering about the representational politics, the circle dance was the work of Tito Ybarra, a comedian and singer from the Ojibwe nation.

That dopey, sweet and surprisingly hopeful spectacle makes the perfect sendoff for a film that sometimes feels shapeless and self-involved but in its best moments tries to engage the Yes Men’s fans in a new and more reflective mode. Tensions between Mike/Vamos, a married heterosexual who is increasingly focused on family life (he even moves to Scotland, his wife’s homeland, for the superior public services), and Andy/Servin, a gay man whose activism gets in the way of steady relationships, come to the fore, and there’s a bit too much “Will the band get back together?” in this film. Still, it’s pretty ballsy for the two of them to confront their passive-aggressive behavior toward each other so directly: Andy apparently never congratulated Mike on the birth of his two kids, and Mike springs the birth of his third sprog on Andy (via Skype) just before the latter is hosting a fake Shell corporate party in Seattle, complete with beer-spewing fake Arctic oil rig.

Aging does take a toll, on anti-capitalist spoofers as on the rest of us, and there are also moments of revelatory courage in “The Yes Men Are Revolting” where you have to thank the pantheon of goddesses for these guys and their bravery. When the duo are invited to Uganda by an intrepid local climate activist — who will later impersonate a Ugandan government minister in a Yes Men press conference — Andy realizes he has to come out to his hosts and discuss that nation’s notorious anti-homosexuality laws. It goes OK, all things considered, including his chaste simulation of gay sex involving a pair of beer bottles. And the point of the circle dance at last year’s Homeland Security Conference was not just to make fun of a bunch of suit-wearing defense industry Republicans. In fact, if anything the point was to demonstrate their basic humanity and good intentions: The Yes Men believe, in spite of what we are told all day every day about the nature of American society and politics, that most ordinary people are not stupid or monstrous and can be persuaded to make reasonable choices. It would be great if they were right about that, wouldn’t it? But I’m getting a SurvivaBall just to be on the safe side.

“The Yes Men Are Revolting” opens this week in Denver, Eugene, Ore., Houston, Long Beach, Calif., New York, Port Orchard, Wash., Santa Fe, N.M., and Seattle. It opens June 19 in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Modesto, Calif., New Orleans, Phoenix, San Jose, Calif., Washington, Cobourg, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio; June 26 in Dallas and Quebec City, Canada; June 27 in Hilo, Hawaii; and June 29 in Lubbock, Texas, with more cities to follow. It’s also available from iTunes and Vimeo on Demand.

 

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“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

 

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“River’s Edge”: The darkest teen film of all time

“River’s Edge” understood ’80s kids — and what they’d do to combat that horrible feeling of emptiness

"River's Edge": The darkest teen film of all time

Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed Daniel Waters, screenwriter of the enduring and dark teen comedy and media satire “Heathers” for the book (“Twee”) I was researching at the time. The conversation was genial and funny, and I could tell he was what we used to call at my old employer Spin magazine a “quote machine.” Soon, the subject got around to films of the late American auteur John Hughes, particularly his iconic high school trilogy of “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and “Pretty in Pink” (the 1986 romantic comedy that he wrote but did not direct). “I felt like Hughes was trying to coddle teenagers and almost suck up to them, idealize them,” Waters said, with almost no fear of reprisal from the many millions who hold these films (and Ferris Bueller … and even, to paraphrase Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale,” minor Hughes efforts like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “She’s Having a Baby,” dear), “[With ‘Heathers’) I was more of a terrorist coming after John Hughes. What drove me nuts about the Hughes moves was the third act was always something about how bad adults were. When you grow up your heart dies. Hey, your heart dies when you’re 12!”

One could make an argument for Waters’ “Heathers” (directed as a gauzy, occasionally surrealist morality play by Michael Lehmann) as the darkest teen film of all time. The humor is pitch-black, there’s a body count, a monocle, corn nuts and an utter excoriation of clueless boomers who wonder, as the supremely camp Paul Lynde did a quarter of a century earlier in the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie,” what (in fuck) is the matter with kids today?

But it’s not. Not even close, when compared with a film that preceded it by only three years, the Neal Jimenez-penned, Tim Hunter-directed 1986 drama “River’s Edge,” which is released this month on DVD after years of being difficult to find for home viewing. No other film captures more accurately what it’s like to be dead inside during the end of the Cold War, the height of MTV and the invasion of concerned but impotent parents. “River’s Edge” was the one film that seemed to understand that it wasn’t the rap music, heavy metal music or even drugs that made ’80s kids, it was … nothing. As in the feeling of searching your soul for what you should feel and finding it empty, and slowly, horrifyingly getting used to it to the point that at least one, maybe more of us, will do anything, even commit murder, in order to combat that horrible void. I didn’t want to kill anyone or even myself, but I wanted to disappear, or at least be frozen and wake up in art school in the early ’90s, when bands like Nirvana gave that feeling a voice, and a few anthems.



There’s a lot of Nirvana in “River’s Edge.” Most “what’s the matter with kids today?” films have their juvenile delinquents in some kind of drag: black leather jackets (“Blackboard Jungle,” “The Wild One”) or spiked hair and safety pins and pet rats (“Suburbia,” “Next Stop, Nowhere,” aka “the Punk Rock Quincy episode”). But the kids in “River’s Edge” dress in ripped jeans and T-shirts and chunky, shapeless sweaters. It’s sexless (the only sex scene takes place under a shitty maroon sleeping bag with bullfrogs croaking in the distance and a dead body being simultaneously disposed of not too far off). “The thing about a shark,” Robert Shaw famously observed during the “USS Indianapolis” speech in 1975’s “Jaws” just before all hell breaks loose, “is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… till he bites ya.” The kids who populate “River’s Edge,” Keanu Reeves’ Mike, Ione Skye’s Clarissa, Daniel Roebuck’s Samson, etc., don’t seem to be living, buzzed on sixers, many of which they must steal from a harried liquor store cashier (the great, recently late Taylor Negron), as they’re underage. Until they bite you. It’s hard to capture boredom on film without boring an audience (Richard Linklater’s “Suburbia,” for one, tries and fails). What keeps viewers of “River’s Edge” on, well, edge is the sense that these black-eyed, dead creatures in inside-out heavy metal tees (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, even the band logos are muted) is that they might bite. It’s a sickening feeling and you cannot turn away.

The first thing we see is a preteen kid, Tim (Josh Miller), a juvenile delinquent fast in the making, with an earring, holding an actual doll. We notice, with a little required deduction as he barely reacts, that he is staring across the river at a murderer and his naked, blue-ing victim, while holding the doll he stole from his sister: All four have doll eyes, the corpse (Danyi Deats’ Jamie), the killer (Roebuck) and the doll, which Miller casually drops into the river despite knowing well it’s his little sister’s security object and probably best friend. We are soon with Jamie and Samson after the crime has been committed. Samson is smoking. Despite the occasional feral howl that he knows nobody will hear (except Tim, which is the same thing), it feels like some kind of test for the audience. How much apathy can we weather? How many dead eyes can we stare back at? This is, of course, a testament to the young cast, all of them brilliant and committed (it can’t be easy to portray those bored soulless, can it? You want to react, you want to break). Jamie, a stunned look on her face, lies there, in the cold, also a committed actress, and there is simply nothing like this in any other teen film, or even a teen-populated horror film. Horror films, as the “Scream” franchise would soon remind us, have rules. I wanted to enter the screen, like Jeff Daniels’ genial explorer in Woody Allen’s charming comedy from the previous year, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and cover her body somehow. But Hunter forces us to look, which could not be easy for him as an artist, and must have been a challenge for him to ask it of his young cast. In his review, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “The difference is that the film feels a horror that the teenagers apparently did not.”

“Where’s Jamie?” Samson’s crew asks once he leaves the crime scene (for more beer).

“I killed her,” he says.

Most don’t believe him but Layne (Crispin Glover, top billed but unmistakenly launching his freak phase, only a year after playing Michael J. Fox’s bumbling dad in the blockbuster “Back to the Future”). Layne sees the event, the tragedy, as both fait accompli (“You’re gonna bring her back? It’s done!” he squeals in a reedy, wired voice) and a life-changing (and -saving) break in the day-in, day-out living hell; a kind of moral test. He believes Samson, he rallies around Samson, and he tries to motivate his crew to do the same. The corpse is a gift to Layne and Layne returns the favor by pledging his loyalty. He can’t help stifling a smile when he is led to the site. “This is unreal! Completely unreal. It’s like some movie, you know?” Layne enters the movie, doing a reverse “Purple Rose …” Even Samson doesn’t want in. He wants out … of the world, and yet he becomes strangely proud when he displays the body to his group of friends, who borrow a red pickup truck to end their suspicion that they are being jerked around. Most of them instantly recoil at the site of the corpse (still naked!) and cannot get back to the torpor (arcades, sex, beer) quickly enough. Only Reeves’ Mike is conflicted and contemplates going to the cops. Similar terrain was covered in the hit “Stand By Me,” which was released the same year. “You guys wanna see a dead body?” Jerry O’Connell’s Vern asks his pals River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton, but they are clearly spooked and remain so into adulthood (as the narrator, Richard Dreyfuss, attests). The kids of this bumfuck town go about their bumfuck business, sleeping through class, hating their non-bio broken-home inhabitants (“Motherfucker, food eater!” Reeves yells at the slob who’s moved in with his mom). They’re not stupid. They’re just … unequipped for reality that does not repeat on a loop, sun up and sun down. Layne, in his makeup, watch cap, black clothes and muscle car is the only one among them who wants to feel “like Starsky and Hutch!”

“River’s Edge” is based, loosely, on reality. In late 1981, a 16-year-old student, Anthony Broussard, from Milpitas High School, near San Jose, California, led a group of his friends and his 8-year-old brother into the hills to see the barely clothed body of the 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad, whom he’d strangled days before. “Then instead of reporting the body of their dead school chum to the police,” reporter Claire Spiegel wrotein her coverage of the case, “they went back to class or the local pinball arcade. One went home and fell asleep listening to the radio.” She added, “Their surprising apathy toward murder bothered even hardened homicide detectives.”

Jimenez, then a college student in Santa Clara, California, read about the events and was inspired to begin working on a story based on this behavior. In the age of “Serial,” it’s hard not to see “River’s Edge” as prescient, and when I listened to the podcast last year, I thought a lot about the film. But its power comes not from reality, but from its craft: the script, the performances and the cinematography by David Lynch collaborator Frederick Elmes, who shot “Blue Velvet,” another milestone ’86 release. The beauty of the exteriors (the grainy opening, the murky drink, the perfect blue and shadows when Layne half-heartedly disposes of the body in it) make the ugliness of the behavior all the more disturbing.

Director Tim Hunter knew his way around a “youth gone fucked up” film by ’86. He was the co-writer of “Over the Edge,” known mostly as the film debut of then 14-year-old Matt Dillon who utters the pull-away line, “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” Loaded with excellent power pop (Cheap Trick’s “Downed,” and “Surrender,” especially), Dillon and his J.D. friends spoil the planned suburban community of “New Granada” on their dirt bikes, shooting off fireworks and BB guns. Dillon starred in Hunter’s directing debut, 1982’s “Tex,” based on a book by go-to wild, but sensitive, youth writer S.E. Hinton. Who knows why he didn’t appear in “River’s Edge.” Maybe it was too easy to see the heart beating under his flannel. Even Judd Nelson’s John Bender has a heart under his, and at the end of John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood,” Ice Cube’s scowling gang member Doughboy has a monologue that provides evidence that he’s got a big one. (“Turned on the TV this morning. Had this shit on about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places, where foreigners live and all. Started thinking, man. Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”)

The parents of New Granada are pretty pissed that their utopia has been vandalized and rally in protest, but the boomers of “River’s Edge” don’t even have the fight in them. There’s no Ms. Fleming from “Heathers” among them. Nobody will call when the shuttle lands. “Fuck you, man,” one of them rages in vain at his class. “You don’t give a damn! I don’t give a damn! No one in this classroom gives a damn that she’s dead. It gives us a chance to feel superior.” “Are we being tested on this shit?” a student asks. Even the media don’t really care. And if the kids themselves are apathetic (“I don’t give a fuck about you and I don’t give a fuck about your laws,” Samson tells Negron’s clerk before brandishing a gun), the new generation cares even less. Not even teenagers; they smoke weed, pack heat and drive big gas guzzlers they can barely see out of, when not speeding through nowheresville on their bikes or shooting trapped crayfish in a barrel, literally. Full disclosure: I was friendly with Josh Miller in Hollywood in the early ’90s. For a time, he was going to star in and produce a pretty decent screenplay I’d co-written, which eventually fell through. In person he was sweet, generous and caring, but I always, always looked at him sideways because he was also … Tim, who utters the following line: “Go get your numchucks and your dad’s car. I know where we can get a gun.”

There’s irony and black humor in “River’s Edge.” I don’t want to portray it as some kind of Fassbender-ish downer, 90 minutes of misery. Samson promises to read Dr. Seuss to his incapacitated aunt. And there’s, of course, Layne, who doesn’t even seem to realize that nearly every line out of his mouth is absolutely ridiculous (which makes him beyond endearing, sociopath that he likely is). When he is rewarded his sixer for chucking the corpse in the river, he complains, “You’d think I’d at least rate Michelob.” I wonder why Reeves became a star (this is only his second film, after a small part in the Rob Lowe hockey drama “Youngblood”) and Ione Skye, more briefly a sought after actress. Perhaps because his albeit belated actions make him as close to a hero as the film has … discounting, of course, Feck.

You know you are dealing with a dark film when its only true beating heart belongs to a crippled biker, weed dealer and fugitive murderer who is in love with a blow-up doll, having blown the head off his previous paramour. Feck lives alone. Feck, at the behest of Layne, briefly hides Samson. And, realizing he is dealing with a soulless and dangerous generation, Feck does what dozens of teachers and parents cannot, and will not do. He reacts. Perhaps it’s a testament to his skill, but Dennis Hopper the man looks genuinely heartbroken at what’s happened to the youth he fought so hard to liberate with his “Easy Rider.” In the midst of a glorious comeback (he’d appear in “Blue Velvet” and receive an Oscar nomination for the basketball film “Hoosiers”). It’s Feck that Samson finally opens up to (“She was dead there in front of me and I felt so fucking alive”). We don’t know why Feck shot his ex, but we do know that he maintains that he loved her. He sees none of that emotion, no emotion at all, in Samson. “I’m dead now,” Samson says. “They’re gonna fry me for sure.” Thanks to Feck, they won’t get the chance.

“River’s Edge” doesn’t end in a trial, but rather a quiet, plain, sparse church funeral and a bit of long-absent dignity returned to the victim. It somehow relieves the viewer. Sanity, as it is, has been restored. No one would call it a feel-good ending but somehow, strangely, bloodily, perversely, love wins in the end. “There was no hope for him. There was no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He didn’t feel a thing. I at least loved [mine],” Feck explains. “I cared for her.”

Released in May of ’87 in limited theaters, the movie quickly made a mark with critics, if not audiences, and began to amass a loyal cult of viewers who appreciated its unique and revolutionary qualities. It beat out Jonathan Demme’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” the acclaimed Spalding Gray monologue film, at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as John Huston’s final film, “The Dead.” And while far from a box office hit, it effortlessly set a precedent for films about teens. They no longer had to be either good or evil or anything at all. They didn’t have to dress or look like James Dean or Droogs or get off in any way on their heroism and their villainy. “River’s Edge” made all that seem quaint. It’s a singular film that foresaw the ’90s and freed the cinema teen to be a loser … baby.

How movies embraced Hinduism (without you even noticing)

Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars … is he really a Hindu?
Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars … is he really a Hindu?

When the film’s astronaut hero (Matthew McConaughey), declares that the mysterious and all-knowing “they” who created a wormhole near Saturn through which he travels to save mankind – dissolving his sense of material reality in the process – are in fact “us”, he is simply repeating the central notion of the Upanishads, India’s oldest philosophical texts. These hold that individual human minds are merely brief reflections within a cosmic one.

McConaughey’s character doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk. So, the multidimensional tesseract – that endlessly reflective prism he finds himself in as he comes to this realisation, and in which he views life from every perspective – is the film’s expression of Indra’s net, the Hindu metaphor which depicts the universe as an eternal web of existence spun by the king of the gods, each of its intersections adorned with an infinitely sided jewel, every one continually reflecting the others.

 Of course, Hollywood’s eager embrace of Buddhism, yoga and other esoteric Indian systems is not new. David Lynch is an outspoken exponent of transcendental meditation, Richard Gere follows the Dalai Lama and Julia Roberts affirmed her Hinduism in the wake of Eat, Pray, Love – a movie that tells the tale of a modern American woman’s journey towards peace through Indian spiritual practises that grossed over $200m (£128.6m). Hinduism can get the tills ringing even when it urges parsimony.

Nolan has long been a devout subscriber to the cause. A director famed for being able to get a multimillion dollar project off the ground with only his own name as collateral, he clearly knows the value of pre-existing brands such as Hinduism. His breakthrough hit, Memento, had Guy Pearce as an amnesiac whose unreliable consciousness is the faulty lens through which we see the story of a murder, told both in chronological and reverse order. This notion of distrusting individual reality and looking beyond it for truth was extended in Nolan’s Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of “psychonauts” on a heist deep within the recesses of a billionaire’s mind – a spiralling adventure of dreams within dreams in which the laws of nature increasingly bend and warp – before finding its purest expression in Interstellar.

Interstellar … spiritual journey?

Interstellar … spiritual journey? Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Legendary Pictures

“Look at the first Matrix movie,” says producer Peter Rader. “It’s a yogic movie. It says that this world is an illusion. It’s about maya – that if we can cut through the illusions and connect with something larger we can do all sorts of things. Neo achieves the abilities of the advanced yogis [Paramahansa] Yogananda described, who can defy the laws of normal reality.”

Rader’s latest movie, a documentary about Yogananda, who was among the first gurus to bring Indian mysticism to North America in the 1920s, has been a sleeper hit in the US. The film documents how influential Hindu philosophy is in American culture, with contributions from the likes of the yoga-devoted hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “There’s a big pent-up demand,” thinks Rader. “There are a lot of closet spiritualists who are meditating, doing yoga, reading books and thinking about a bigger reality. And now they can come out and say, ‘Yes, I’m into this.’ Steve Jobs read Yogananda’s book once a year. He bequeathed a copy of it to everyone who attended his memorial. It helped inspire him to develop products like the iPad.”

But before Nolan, before the Matrix, before, even, the iPad, there was Star Wars. It was the film, with its cosmic scale and theme of a transcendental “force” that confers superhuman powers on those who can align with it, which opened up mainstream American culture to Indian esotericism more than anything else. George Lucas was influenced by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose work A Hero With a Thousand Faces traced the narrative arc common to all mythic heroes that Luke Skywalker would embark upon. Campbell himself lived by his Upanishadic mantra “follow your bliss”, which he derived from the Sanskrit termsat-chit-ananda.

The Matrix.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto/Allstar

“The word sat means being,” said Campbell. “Chit means consciousness. Anandameans bliss or rapture. I thought, ‘I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not. I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not, but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being’.” His mantra was the paradigm for Skywalker’s own realisation of the force, the sense of peace, purpose and power gained once he allowed himself to accept and unify with it. “If you follow your bliss,” thought Campbell, “you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

As his mastery of the force neared its peak, Skywalker comes perilously close to taking Vader’s sinister path. With this, Star Wars established the principle in Hollywood of superheroes having to overcome an inner darkness while battling an external enemy, and finding an enlightenment in the process. Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies – in which a tortured protagonist struggles as much not to become his nemesis as to defeat it – have introduced a whole new generation to the Indian god-myths and the teachings of yoga that emphasise the priority of one’s internal journey while facing the challenges of the outside world. Next year, even younger recruits to the cause will feel the force of the new JJ Abrams’ Star Wars movie.

“Spirituality is the open-secret,” says Rader. “A lot of people know that if we quieten down we can tap into a deeper power. And the movies that tap into that, like Star Wars and Interstellar, are hugely popular. Audiences know what the film is telling them, they have a sense that this story is working on a deeper level. It’s telling them that there’s more to life than just the ordinary. That there’s something much bigger, and they’re a part of it.”

A philosophy to which many are keen to subscribe is what makes religions successful. Movies, too.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/25/movies-embraced-hinduism?CMP=fb_gu