Funny Ha Ha (2002)

First paragraph of a review that I posted last year:

“If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.”

My assigned movie, “Funny Ha Ha,” would be perhaps the first film in the mumblecore genre. Did I read something somewhere about how frequently, for some mysterious reason, the first in a genre is also the best? Homer, Milton, and Cervantes were mentioned. Could this be true of FHH? Is it the purest, as well as the first, mumblecore expression of newly-adult American modern life on the hoof, before the mumblecore melodrama of Mutual Appreciation or the variations on a theme in “LOL” or the psychological depth of The Puffy Chair? A question to keep in mind as I watch.

Haven’t heard much from the mumblecore community lately. What’s the buzz? What’s the buzz around saying what’s the buzz? Stephen Holden called Baghead a mumblecore movie – comedy/horror mumblecore? Are movies like In Search of a Midnight Kiss moving mumblecore into some new merged genre? Was Old Joy really mumblecore, as it’s often listed; some genre morphing might have already taken place in that one. Andrew Bujalski, who wrote, directed, and starred in FHH, hasn’t made a feature film in years; he’s done some acting but not made any movies. Kate Dollenmayer, who plays Marnie, the lead in FHH, appeared in Bujalski’s next film and then disappeared behind the camera. There’s an album with her name on it; otherwise, she’s light on the google.

FHH caught me in one of my watching-the-last-half-of-the-movie-first phases. I’ve recently finished Rules of the Game and War, Inc. that way. Watching those two films backwards helped them, in my estimation. I’m guessing in advance that watching “Funny Ha Ha,” starting at the 45-minute mark, will not harm my enjoyment of the film and may help it. But we’ll see.

Fooey! Now I’ve slipped up and taken a peek at the first few paragraphs of A.O. Scott’s FHH review in the NYT, wherein he tells us that the film is about a young woman’s fruitless search for a little love and meaning in her life. Why did I read that? So now why should I bother dropping into the middle of the movie, already knowing that? The adventure and mystery are ruined. Feh. But I’ll do it anyway. So. There Marnie is, passed out in a car. Now she stays with a girlfriend and her girlfriend goes on a job interview. Oops, Marnie is the girlfriend, not the drunk in the car. Confusion. Good. That’s how I like it to be. No harm done reading a little A.O. Scott. Meanwhile, the theme of the movie is made clear in minutes, middle start or not, once I’ve got Marnie in my sights. Perhaps my initial excitement was a little attenuated, but now I’m involved, so onward!

Marnie is wearing a T-shirt from a Newton grammar school. Newton is an upscale community in the Boston suburbs. Always made me think of fig newtons, not Isaac. I seem to remember a mall there, back in the 60s, out on Commonwealth Avenue. Bujalski was born in Boston. A good place to locate a movie about the just-graduated and I speak as one who swam in that social sea after college for a couple of years. Youth, out of school at last. FHH is the pure unvarnished article. The essence of mumblecore. Absolute minimum script, or so it appears onscreen. The meta experience identical to the dramatic experience; that is, there are two layers working here, carrying the same message: (a) level one, the young woman moving along through her first adult life structure while (b) level two, the actors live their lives for us by acting onscreen, so that, for this viewer at least, the element in FHH most profoundly moving is the sight of these twentysomethings struggling with their craft, new adult members of society, now with the responsibility of paying rent and negotiating car insurance (no small task in Massachusetts!), with the need to discover meaning in the challenges that they face and in their responses to those challenges. Not the characters, you understand, but the actors themselves. A reviewer comments “The semi-improvised performances seem so natural that it is tempting to confuse the actors with their characters,” but the point is that these performances highlight the actors not as the characters they portray but as individuals working – that is, acting. Or am I just being fooled into thinking that I’m seeing the actors, not the characters, because of Bujalski’s style? But no. I know nothing about the actors; perhaps they have something in common with their characters, perhaps not. There is a signature cadence in untrained improvisation, with its small pauses not heard in everyday conversation, neither conversation between those who know each other nor that between strangers, tiny pauses born of the actor’s interior monolog, pauses which replace the verbal overlaps and gaps found in everyday talk. So that as we watch, the actors think about their lines, or the direction just provided offscreen, or the act of acting, anything but the less conscious social drivers propelling the rest of us day-to-day in casual conversation. Each actor steps into the frame with an ineffable sense of innocence, usually with an embarrassed grin, and speaks, and we understand that here onscreen are living reminders of already-came-of-age, struggling with dialog as an instantiated metaphor for the whole all-of-it struggle involved in becoming an adult. I find this evocative in the extreme, a spiritual supermagnet pulling me back to that same time in my own life, with all the memories, nostalgia, speculations, and regrets attendant to it – a time in my own life when I’m more than ripe for that to happen. Could I, would I, do better a second time around? That question forms the emotional core of the movie for my demographic; the same thing happens when we watch our own children in their twenties. Where else can you get that in cinema? Not in The Incredible Hulk, that’s for sure.

The Boojer, by the way, saves the juiciest scenes in the movie for himself – an excruciating dinner and a later sort-of-extended-date with Marni. Cultural extra credit: compare and contrast the boy/girl dinners in FHH and I Think I Love My Wife.

At the end of the second half, I return to reviewland and find:

A.O. Scott: “What gives this film its quiet pathos is not so much the relative bleakness of Marnie’s circumstances but the modesty of her expectations. At one point, she makes a to-do list, and its lack of ambition – spend more time outdoors, make friends with Jackie, learn to play chess – is both funny and sad.”

Carina Chocano: “Mainly, Marnie is staying afloat and trying to connect with others who are equally lost.”

Seems like I’ve seen a lot of this kind of hangdog vibe around the FHH reviews – negatives about mood and lifestyle – and I am not down with that (although I otherwise agree with the NYT and LA Times FHH review content). Perhaps having reached the top of the mountain makes it hard for Scott and Chocano to see those younger who are still way back down in the foothills. Marnie and her friends in FHH are newly-minted adults living life in that broad, spacious, undefined socioeconomicsphere found in first-world countries, a landscape where middle-class children find themselves free to roam, after emerging from college, if they happen to be situated in the middle of the startingout spectrum: neither at one end on the turf of the cinematically-ever-popular male slackers so often seen onscreen, nor the other end on that of the striving medical-school, law-school, and computer-geek proto-professionals; that is, Marnie and her friends are living the unfocused life that many of us lived in our twenties. I speak as one who stumbled off the college campus for the last time to find myself, at the age of 23, living alone in Boston, working at a job I wasn’t interested in, and looking for love after refusing to commit to marriage and being dropped by my intended, who switched to her Plan B awfully quickly, it seemed to me. The quiet pathos for my demographic didn’t happen then, it’s happening to us now, in our dotage, on the viewer’s side of the screen. Where is the pathos in Marnie’s freshness and energy and in the potential of youth, for Marnie and her friends with an open and unknowable and limitless future stretching ahead of them, or in the knowledge that Kate Dollenmayer herself has moved on into that future, or in Bujalski’s vision? Marnie’s to-do list in no way lacks ambition; is in no way funny or sad. The act of making that list metaphorizes the ambition of the young; the contents of the list highlight the innocence of youth; it’s a list drawn up by someone with all the time in the world and, interestingly, it is a list quite similar to such a one as made up by someone at the other end of life, without much time remaining.

So I asked my daughter about this quiet-pathos thing, her being 23 and a recent graduate and living in Boston, all the same as Marnie; her reply: “As far as waitressing goes, I feel embarrassed about it at times, but I’ve actually made some valuable connections and now have places to stay and help finding employment if I want to go to South Carolina, Maui, Australia, or Columbia (have business cards/notes/emails from all of these people). Plus I make ok money, work with nice people, take home free food (ok, thats not completely kosher but its not like I get a salary or even hourly pay that amounts to anything after taxes). Plus, Im learning to speak Haitian Creole while simultaneously turning enemies into friends (the cooks didnt like me at first bc they assumed I was racist and told me so, but when I asked to learn their language they are suddenly happy to see me each day). So from my lowly job Im gaining: communication skills, agility training, extreme multi-tasking experience, networking opportunities, and employee benefits (that’s the free food). Sounds almost ambitious when phrased correctly. This isnt to say I dont doubt what Im doing because I do, every day, multiple times a day. I get asked time and again by my bosses, co-workers and customers “why are you here if you have a degree from an Ivy League school??” One person even went so far as to say I was being selfish because letting my parents spend all that money to send me to a good school only to “disregard” my qualifications by working in a chain restaurant was just like throwing all that tuition money in the trash. Obviously obtaining “street smarts” and trying to experience different ways of life before choosing the “purpose-driven” one is something only misfits and failures do… So what am I trying to say here? Maybe im just trying to rationalize my own current existence when in reality it is just as ambitionless and lost as Marnie’s. But maybe if the reviewers got off their NY Times and La Times high horses and really thought about what it means to EXPERIENCE and LIVE life, they might see things a wee bit differently. Or maybe not. Am I giggly all the time? as my friend Lynnea would say: “HELLS no!” But I dont think Ill look back on this period of my life and see it as a time of just “staying afloat” (my high school years on the other hand…).”

One more take on the pathos meme, quickly, before getting on with the movie: Marnie celebrates her birthday quietly. Proactive note to lugubrious reviewers: this also is not pathos. What the heck did I do on my birthdays back in Boston? Who knows? I do remember being in a laundromat at North Station on Christmas Eve one year. It was snowing. Neither the Bruins nor the Celtics were in town, so The Garden was deserted except for me and an old woman. I went back to my room and drank. I still remember that, so I guess it means something to me, but I didn’t feel pathetic at the time. I felt lonely but pretty good.

Ginormous. I’ve had that word in my head. I’m thinking that if I write it down here, maybe it will go away.

And so on to the first half of FHH.

Oh my God. Bujalski saddles Marnie with an unrequited-love jones, up front. Booge, how could you? What were you thinking? This is something a novice twenty-something filmmaker would do. Oh, right. But this is why watching War, Inc. backwards helped the movie so much; the process cut out loads of unnecessary plot points till it was too late to matter. In the same way, I was able to watch the downslope of FHH without these moulting feathers of love annoying me. Hmm. Now Marnie liplocks some dude at the twenty-eight minute mark. I would never have predicted that. Oh, no, and then she osculates again three minutes later with her married-dude friend. I’m so glad I’m coming to this at the end and not at the beginning. Why? Because in the second half she’s staring into the future without seeing beyond the walls of her room, locked in her head while her anger percolates unfelt somewhere down there lower in her body – after the drinking and smooching fail her – but I understood that, in the second half of the movie, without the presumptive romance-o-motivation of the first.

No. I’m overreacting. Belay that last paragraph. I’ve been Hollywoodpavlovianized. This is not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the last minute of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. This is random lowkey young adult semijoyless evolutionary smootching, pebbles in a pond that cause no ripples. Marnie pretends that it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and I’ll do the same. Romance is a big deal for these kids, perhaps the biggest deal. My twenties were mostly a history of bad dates. Easy to put off career issues to the next decade while getting the living part right. So Booge perforce makes use of that, but not so much that we can’t shrug when the lips meet, and then move on. But still, this series of fraught encounters with men, I don’t know; quit beating the drum, Booge. This does remind me, though, that I watched the original Forsythe Saga backward. As with Marnie and Alex in the second half of FHH, something heavy had obviously gone on between Irene and Soames, and Fleur’s life was constantly perturbed by it, but it seemed more romantic to me to not know what that something was, not to know what had happened – seemed more romantic than watching the first half and seeing whatever it was that happened actually happen. Thesis: nostalgia coupled with imagination is always stronger than dramatic invention, probably because lived experience, including the actual act of imagination, is more visceral than skoptophilia and its milder brethren.

New-Age side note: Coincidence #1: Earlier in this screed I wrote a sentence using the word “evolutionary” and then I started FHH up again and watched the last ten minutes of the movie, which I hadn’t seen yet (minutes 35 to 45) and Marnie says to Alex or Alex says to Marnie, “You’re the most evolved person I know.” Coincidence #2: Later that day, I went to Blockbuster to return Get Smart (I’m rating it “j” on a scale of 1 to q) and while there I picked up The Last Request, which somebody somewhere liked a little bit, and while I was checking out, the clerk asked me how I liked Get Smart and I said, Anne Hathaway is no Barbara Feldon, and when I got home and started The Last Request, there Barbara was, in a starring role. The odds of plucking up a Barbara Feldon movie at random? Antiginormous. Coincidence #3: Marnie’s shirt has the number 18 on its back. I’m 18b. My daughter, I learned THE SAME DAY, is living in apartment #18 in her building on Concord St. Consult your Jung! These coincidental whorls in the universal fabric happened ON THE SAME DAY as Obama’s election and mean that FHH is connected to the core zeitgeist of the planet. You read it here first.

Propositions: (1) The first half of a movie is usually better than the second half when the movie is watched in normal order. (2) Watching the second half of a movie first often improves the movie. Sometimes, watching the second half is sufficient in itself. (3) Thus, perhaps whichever half you watch first is the best.

I had to ask Wilson, who assigned this movie to me, what the last two spoken lines of the last scene were. They seemed crucial in defining the mood of the movie, but mumblecore being named mumblecore for a reason, I couldn’t make out what Alex and Marnie said to each other. Fortunately, Wilson could. And those two lines bear out my contention, or so I think, that Bujalski is a deeply optimistic guy and FHH is, in the end, a celebration, not a paean. In that final scene, Marnie shows some anger, a desire to move out into the world, and a rejection of the feckless Alex. Good for her and good for a society and economy (knock on wood) where youth is able to rattle around a little. I watched a mumblecore movie made by Joe Swanberg a while back, in which the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless; Bujalski throws down some marbles in Marnie’s path, but his affection for her never lets her fall hard enough to break anything.

This film that launched a genre reminds us that being young and being old are two entirely different things. (Bujalski turned 30 this year.)

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Well, I’ve watched my first Netflix movie. It came in the mail and I tore the envelope in half to get it out. Oops.

I didn’t really feel the need for a Netflix account but I was given six-months worth as an xmas gift. It was fun to create a queue and add “Hell Ride” and “An American in Paris” and a bunch of other stuff to it. I was shocked at some of the movies NetFlix doesn’t have; I thought it had everything. Looked for Eric Rohmer movies. Thin pickins.

Anyway, how did 45 years go by with me totally ignorant of the existence of “The Fall of the Roman Empire”? Released in 1964, back in the days of Ben Hur, El Cid, and Spartacus. Produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann. Huge sets, cast of thousands, not much plot. Sort of like a Michael Bey movie, but back in the day. No CGI. Hundreds of bright yellow and red long-haired barbarian wigs.

I quit watching TV in college, except for The Man From UNCLE and Secret Agent. Did I quit going to the movies too? Hmm. I borrowed a car and took a date to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in Pasadena. The date was a bust but the movie was great. What else? I had seen some Bergman by then. Went with friends to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The L-Shaped Room at an art house we knew – where we once saw the school’s famous philosophy professor with one of his female students. Scandal. He later committed suicide, but probably not because we saw him at the cinema. Probably just thought too damn much. I saw The Immoral Mr. Teas at a nudie house in Hollywood. A bunch of us eagerly awaited the next Bond and all went to see Goldfinger in Glendale when it came out. Saw Cleopatra in Salt Lake City. So I was still going to the movies. But TFOTRE, I don’t remember.

The Netflix disk of the movie began with an Overture by Dimitri Tiomkin. By the end of the movie, three hours later, during the “exit music” (no crawl back in the day), I had the main themes stuck in my head and I liked them. But that overbearing, old-fashioned, bash-you-over-the-head orchestration, not so good. Rome! Boom! Boom! Boom! Trumpets! Dah! Dah! Daaa Dah! After watching Ben-Hur in 1957, however, I remember that I did go right out and buy the Miklos Rozsa album.

From TFOTRE’s first scene, it was clearly a movie that could no longer be made, outside of China anyway. Too expensive. Too many extras. Too much everything. Since I didn’t know the movie at all, I assumed in advance that it was a B-list sword-and-sandals epic, or worse. But no. The first scene, at dawn, on the ramparts of a… a… a castle-like, fortress-like residence for Caesar on the German border, real dawn with a real sun, real weather, real top-of-the-line movie stars. Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Steven Boyd standing around in costume, pretending to run the Roman Empire, with Sophia Loren hovering in the background looking glamorous. I was in condescending mode, but a little uncertain when I saw those beautiful 70mm shadows and torch flames. Starting off at a high pitch with the thousand-year empire at its furthest stretch, but Guinness weak and Mason worried and barbarians at the gates, TFOTRE is the kind of movie that just invites critics to go off:

“A mammoth and murky accumulation of Holly-wooden heroics and history have been bulldozed into a movie by Samuel Bronston and his director, Anthony Mann, in “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which opened last night at the DeMille. So massive and incoherent is it, so loaded with Technicolored spectacles, tableaus and military melees that have no real meaning or emotional pull, that you’re likely to have the feeling after sitting through its more than three hours (not counting time out for intermission), that the Roman Empire has fallen on you.” Bosley Crowther (dean of the NYT reviewers for almost 30 years).

Doesn’t “accumulation” take a singular verb? Otherwise, that’s the mode I was in, Crowther mode, watching, but no, holding back a little in honor of this being my first Netflix. Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius and Sophia Loren as his daughter. Says it all? Christopher Plummer as the wicked emperor Commodus one year before he transmogrified into Captain Von Trapp, behaving here, yes, like a commode. Nice to know he’s still working today. Steven Boyd, fresh from his chariot race with Charlton Heston, has another one here with Plummer. Meant to be hair-raising, the action sequence played out like a Keystone Cops scene and made me laugh a lot. Spoiler: this time, Boyd survives. (When I see chariots, I’m reminded that they were invented back when the newly domesticated horse wasn’t big enough and strong enough to carry a human. Once the horse could do the job, the chariot began to look a little silly.) [down below: star wars] James Mason is tortured by barbarians but does not scream; ten years removed from Captain Nemo and two years from Humbert Humbert, instead of screaming he acts, acts like a guy who would like to scream but senses that its more dramatic not to.

As the movie continued at its stately pace, I discovered that I was content to just settle back and enjoy this unexpected visit to a movie that might have popped out of a time capsule. As when Blues Brothers 2000 came out: my son hated it, but I was ready for more Blues Brothers, wanted more Blues Brothers, any Blues Brothers, and I watched BB2000 just grateful that someone had made it who seemed to care. Ditto for those BSG features that appear from time to time. Now I wanted old-fashioned epic and Anthony Mann and Bronston were giving it to me, Crowther be damned.

And there were moments in TFOTRE. A senate debate in the second half, culminating in a stirring James Mason oration. A battle in Armenia, in which thousands of extras and hundreds of horses ran this way and that. Russell Crowe’s Gladiator with Joaquin Phoenix replacing Plummer in the nutty Commodus role and Richard Harris taking the place of Guinness, was fine, but those CGI Coliseum crowds… not so much.

And TFOTRE, unlike, say, The Robe or Quo Vadis, possesses a dark spirit, a downer vibe almost noir, a pagan tenor, not some cheesy Christian eyes-toward-heaven mood, as befits its title. In fact, the producers later speculated that it bombed so badly at the box office because of the mood of the country when it opened. JFK had been assassinated and moviegoers wanted Mary Poppins, not a movie with a weird frantic ending that channeled Fellini’s Satyricon and caused me to wonder if, just possibly, the movie would not be fitted out with the standard happy ending required by Hollywood – Bronston worked outside the Hollywood system – and ended with a deep-voiced narrator intoning “And that was the beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire,” raining on the parade even though Boyd dispatched the commode and plucked Sophia from her burning stake.

Speaking of which, if I understood the point of the movie correctly, Marcus Aurelius had a master plan by which he would ensure peace in the Empire by co-opting the barbarians along its borders, but Commodus reversed this and initiated the beginning of the fall by aggravating all the tribes. But in fact the Empire did spendĀ  a subsequent years following this very policy, which eventually transmogrified the Empire into the later collection of kingdoms that it became. “The light of the world has gone out,” someone says in the movie at the death of Aurilius in 180 A.D., but it was actually St. Jerome in 410 A.D., at the fall of Rome to Alaric, being quoted. So where did the culpability for the fall lie? Will Durant (is he still known, or has he become unknown?) was on the payroll and flipped out when Commodus was given a father other than Marcus Aurelius in the script – ironic since Commodus was in fact the first Roman emperor born under the purple. Bronston explained to Durant that movie plots and history are two different things.

Later, as I was listening to the commentary track and watching the “Making Of” short, I began feeling sorry for everyone involved in the project. So much money – $20 million spent in Spain back when that meant something, especially in a poorish country. Bronston, who had an arrangement with Franco, went out into the countryside and build the second-largest set ever (at the time, at least. I forget which was the largest – feel free to comment). No relying on matte and special effects. Seven months, 1,100 construction workers, 400 art students, 27 major structures. Later, they tore it all down again – insurance costs. All for a movie that the critics would make fun of. Just seems sad. 1,500 horses. Say what you will about CGI, a live horse is still a live horse.

Sophia Loren was paid a million dollars, the second woman to make that much, after Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Cleopatra finally made its money back, but not TFOTRE. Loren was glamorous and Loren in every shot, but as with the rest of the movie, snark bait. Omar Sherif – no mustache. He looked different.

Real landscapes, real buildings, real human beings. I have nothing against CGI, mind you. Just watched Mutant Chronicles (2009). At least 98.5% CGI. (How does John Malkovitch show up in a movie like this, if even for a single scene? Friend of the producer? Needed a little payday? Did he just want to say, when asked why he wasn’t leaving Earth to save himself, “The absence of gravity interferes with my digestion.”?

Come to think of it, most of the interest in Mutant Chronicles comes from the 1.5% non-CGI: Ron Perlman looks more normal when he’s Hellboy than when he’s wearing his own face. World War I and coal-burning vertical-flight aircraft and “1,000 gold talents!” in 2700 A.D.; some things just don’t change. “Every age builds on the bones of the age before.” Spoken as the stars are literally walking on the bones of the age before; guess it’s true. Devon Aoki looking like some little mutant Christina Ricci.

Some random quotes I jotted down as I watched. Thought maybe they just seemed great because I was high, but I dunno. I still like them the morning after.

“Here’s your Get Out of Hell Free card.”

“You didn’t receive the sacrament?” “I wasn’t hungry.”

“She’s a single mother with 61 kills.”

“When I told him that we wouldn’t be coming back, he just smiled.”

“You can f**k a lot of people. You can only die once.”

“What does it say?” “Abandon all hope, mother-f**ker.”

“What do you believe in?” “I don’t get paid to believe. I get paid to f**k s**t up.”

The perfect team to fight mutants: a Nazi, a monk, a mercenary, a ninja, a female master swordsperson, a beautiful woman also expert with a sword, who doesn’t speak for years until she shouts, “Watch out!” just in time, a black guy, and a Mexican with a very big gun.

But back to TFOTRE and reality. During filming, an unexpected snow storm swept in, biggest in 50 years. The crew kept shooting, making for several scenes of great, cold, dark beauty. The funeral of Marcus Aurelius in particular I could watch over and over. A strange, wailing soldiers’ chorus. No music, thank God, just the sound of the snow and the torches in the wind.

Almost forgot: After laughing at the chariot race, I went back and watched it again with the commentary turned on. Never mind its call-backs to Ben-Hur. The commentariasts said that the race, which took place in the woods, was the inspiration for the air-scooter (whatever those things were) race in the woods in Star Wars, so I had another laugh at that, though I also felt sorry for the commentariasts for saying it.

All for a turkey. You know that the 400 art students who worked on Rome and the Roman Senate brought their families to the show when it opened, pointing out their work as Plummer made his way up the incline in his chariot. All razed to the ground afterwards. This effort, this work, this experience, must be a metaphor for something or other – Life, or the struggle to create, or something that in the end, or so says the metaphor, rewards our plans and projects with… with… well, I hate to say it, but with snark. God snark, I guess.