Summer Vacation

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall August 31, 2009 at 1:10AM

Summer Vacation
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Home at last, and while I have been busy getting my personal and professional shit together (and not achieving very much on either front), I haven't been able to sneak away for a moment of cinematic respite from the real world. Clearly, I need a break; when not throwing up in my own mouth while tracking the "health-care debate", I've been ticking the days off of my calendar until one of those yahoos carrying loaded firearms to a Presidential appearance decides to go all Charles Guiteau and send this country into another horrific domestic spiral. You can feel the violence coming in the air, can't you? Seeing those guns and then watching the remembrances of Ted Kennedy in the wake of his death this past week, it all feels incredibly eerie, as if real time was stretching into its cinematic form, everything slowing down, rhyming, as we see the collision coming and are helpless to stop it.

The nation seems exhausted and broken this summer.

I can't bear to look anymore. I literally pains me to watch this country turn into an ironic punchline, a place where the opperessors use the tropes of the victimization they created to sell themselves as the oppressed. Watching thousands of middle-class suckers align themselves against their own best interests, using the issue of universal healthcare to draw comparisons between Obama and Adolff Hitler (mindboggling) would be tragic if it wasn't so empty and cruel, obvious and shrill. Only in America could we use the issue of giving health insurance to the lower middle class, an action being implemented by a democratically elected President and Congress and draw comparisons to the Reichstag Fire Decree (not that these people even know enough about history to be specific).

As the lies about "death panels" and "mandatory abortion" spread like swine flu (or at least spread like the rumors of mass graves being prepard for the impending swine flu epidemic), I am still reeling in the wake of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a women's reproductive healthcare provider in Wichita, KS. That such a horrific act simply cycled through the news without much analysis is the type of blindness that kicked this summer off, and so we come full circle to this weekend's protests in Bellevue, NE against Dr. LeRoy Carhart . In the linked article, which CNN had the balls to title "Protests to focus on 60,000 abortion doctor", my favorite quote comes from Operation Rescue President Troy Newman, who downplays Dr. Tiller's death and discourages violence against Dr. Carhart by saying "I vehemently disagreed with what Mr. Tiller did, as well as all abortionists for what they do. But they're still human beings, and they deserve due process." As if what these doctors do was illegal, as if a trial were required. Due process.

I can't anymore. I just can't.

I spent the last two plus weeks with family, celebrating a wedding in between stays on Lake Michigan. The entire time, I felt a little beseiged by my own thoughts, completely unable to relax, to, well, vacate. I remain completely wound up in knots, anxious and full of dread. Usually, a trip home signals a bit of nostalgia, a desire to think back on happier, more innocent times and remember who I was when summers felt carefree, when I didn't worry so much. Strangely, while that didn't happen when I was home, it came rushing back this week as I took in Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas' terrific 5-part video essay The Evolution Of The Modern Blockbuster over at The L Magazine.

The piece focuses on two summers that have particular resonance for me; 1984, which was the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years (aka "the summer of Purple Rain" in my neck of the woods), and 1989, the summer just after I graduated from high school. After watching all five episodes, I'm still not sure how the modern blockbuster evolved from the Aradillas' thesis; I'm not even sure what his thesis is, other than to use the films of the day to capture the mood of those particular times (I much prefer the title in the film itself, A Tale Of Two Summers). But after bearing the news that John Hughes had died on the first day of my summer vacation, it was profoundly moving to remember the summer of Sixteen Candles like that, and even more so to think about the cultural shift from Sixteen Candles to Heathers, and from Heathers to today. Looking back at these movies hurts a little bit now, especially in such a hot and hostile summer, especially with the certainty of my teenage years nothing more than an embarassing memory. But the films, more specifically the language of these films, stay with me as a sort of formative text running through my head, never constant but always there.

I remember thinking about Heathers when Matthew Shepard was killed , about that line "I love my dead gay son," which had always made me laugh not because of the juvenile prejudice it implied on the surface but because, in Jessie Helms and Ronald Regan's America, those words were the precise articulation of everything the conservative, grown-up world didn't understand about compassion. For me, the death of Matthew Shepard was the perfect culmination of what that line implied, that false understanding and permissive hostility. Or the argument between Neil and his father in Dead Poet's Society, when Neil has been caught performing as Puck in the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and his father turns and hisses "You made a liar out of me, Neil!," which is a phrase I still unconsciously use in an ironic way when I recognize my own self-centeredness in a given situation. And there's Say Anything, a movie that I always found slightly off-kilter, mostly because of Ione Skye and John Mahoney's performances, which lacked the realistic, lived-in quality of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler and his moments in the film; Lloyd felt very real and true when set against the sterility of the Court's world. Aside from Diane being pretty and nice, why would he want into that boring family? Why would she have a moment's hesitation about leaving it? Joe lies, Diane...

Of course, the two movies that stand out, up and beyond all of the films in this essay, are Spike Lee's amazing Do The Right Thing, and Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, which make up the heart of 1989: Part I (embedded below), which I saw a couple of weeks apart at the end of the August, just before my first year of college began. Both films were crucial for me in laying out the concerns of a punishing culture, from racial tensions undercutting class solidarity to sexual dysfunction based on voyeuristic, detached consumption. Interesting to think of both directors, each of them passionate amateurs at the time, and how much of each of these films captures the feeling of the D.I.Y. ethos of that time (and what their work has been since); it was the era of scene-based alternative rock and hip-hop and both were political, meaningful and engaged in a struggle against the good times greed holding sway. But these films are also great movies; there is a formal ambition in Do The Right Thing (one that Aradillas properly defines as "theatrical") and in sex, lies and videotape that seems absent from most low-budget, "independent" films being made now. There are exceptions, but fewer movies seem to be drawn from that same lineage, to propose a textural, visceral sensation of craft and meaning. I miss that desperately in current film, that sense of voice that arrives when a script, visual strategy (those low-angles shots in Do The Right Thing still pop, don't they?) and performances work in concert to deliver thrills.

These films, alongside the work of Jim Jarmusch and others, stood as a testament to the collaborative blossoming of popular forms (film/music/literature) that defined my generation. When I think about the American D.I.Y ethos of that time, I clearly get sentimental. This brand of filmmaking would flourish for the next seven years and give us films like Slacker and Metropolitan before reaching its apotheosis in Todd Haynes' 1995 Safe. The year before Haynes unleashed his masterpiece, the film culture I knew and loved was already collapsing under the weight of Pulp Fiction; Quentin Tarantino single-handedly changed the culture of independent film (through no fault of his own), launching the mini-major, star-driven, stylized, quirk-riddled, obscure pop culture referencing, money and marketing film business that exists today, one that may soon collapse itself as everyone goes smaller, viral and video. Cinema transformed into canapé, audiences into isolated lists of unique vistors, preferences stored, y'know, in case you might want to buy something in the future.

Ah, memories. Simpler times always seem less so when you're living them.

1984: Part I

1984: Part II

1989: Part I

1989: Part II

1989: Part III

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