Let’s get make one thing clear, though. Martin Scorsese shouldn’t have to defend his suggestion that contemporary superhero movies aren’t “art.” (They’re not. They’re entertainment.) The attacks on his status as a supposed senile guardian of cinema is patently absurd. He’s one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema and one of the art form’s most sincere champions. But that doesn’t mean he wants to influence *your* taste in movies. He wants to make a point about how far the business has strayed.
If you want a picture of where we are as a cinematic (content?) culture, read Martin Scorsese’s Opinion in the New York Times and the longer form analysis in Ben Fritz’s The Big Picture, which is equal parts hopeful and horrifying. Fritz uses the Sony email hack to take a peek behind the contemporary Hollywood decision-making process — which has more to do with potential profits from China and mass merchandising than it does with making good movies.
Hollywood — now built for China.
In highlighting the decline of the mid-budget movie in Hollywood, Ben Fritz stopped short of making one point that I thought was staring us in the face the whole time. Fritz described the failure of Sony’s mid-budget star vehicles that contributed to their decline as a profitable film studio. (Most of them starred Will Smith.) He didn’t pass any value judgments, however, and that speaks directly to something Scorsese said in his New York Times Opinion.
And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.
Audiences miss the boat on certain movies. They always have. Whether it’s poor marketing, poor release timing, poor titles — quality has never equalled box office performance. That said, I believe recent audiences have been conditioned by the decided lack of quality in these mid-budget studio offerings. Excellent mid-budget slickly-produced entertainment like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2016) failed to find their deserving audiences, but can you blame audiences from being wary of buying a ticket for After Earth (2013)? Consider the kinds of movies we were watching at the box office 30 years ago and ask yourself if these would ever get made today.
If you didn’t see THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) it might be because studios failed to adequately recognize the value of the product. Or you hate fun.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that as Hollywood has further distanced itself from a system of centralized artistic control — the producer or the director — it’s failed to deliver a consistent mid-budget product. Ben Fritz paints a picture of a system catering to the whims of its ego-driven stars rather than the filmmakers themselves. Fritz’s list of failures — with only a few exceptions — consists of objectively bad movies. It represents an industry that’s so afraid of short term losses it refuses to cede control to anyone but its biggest stars — as if Adam Sandler or Will Smith would carry the torch to a brighter future.
Between studio risk aversion and a crippling stream of abysmal star vehicles, fewer mid-budget movies were produced. The ones that did see the light of day drove the existing audience to TV and Netflix and Amazon Prime where they could find content driven by the kind of creative vision that once fueled a large portion of mainstream cinema. It’s an anti-communal version of the cinema Scorsese’s recalling with fondness and pure nostalgia. So when Martin Scorsese says he’s filled with “terrible sadness” about the state of our modern moviegoing culture, he’s not just posturing as a holier-than-thou artist. He’s looking back on his midnight trip to see Psycho and recognizing that that experience may have become extinct.
Watching STRANGER THINGS at home on your couch is nice, but are you going to remember that experience 60 years from now?
Scorsese goes out of his way to say Marvel movies just aren’t for him. Martin Scorsese also wants you to know that there’s other beautiful, imaginative, engaging cinema out there that has nothing to do with men in tights and/or capes — and those movies are in danger of disappearing from the mainstream entirely. That’s the crisis here — not that one of our greatest filmmakers doesn’t care about Captain America.
Movies provide a home even when home is absent… or merely displaced.
After I moved from a small farming community outside Kalamazoo, MI to Detroit, MI in August of 1990, I began the tradition of going to a movie on my birthday. This became a yearly ritual for a couple of reasons. The easy answer was that for the first time, we lived mere minutes away from a theater. Hitting up a last-minute movie finally wasn’t an ordeal.
That little farm community in southwest Michigan resided 20 minutes from the nearest theater, a single-screen second-run movie house in Paw Paw. Detroit, meanwhile, offered theaters around every corner. It felt that way to me, anyway. I lived within walking distance of the Woods 6 on Mack Ave. and slightly beyond walking distance to the mall multiplex in Harper Woods. Most immediately, however, the tradition began in 1990 because — to borrow some fresh lines from the Prince of Bel-Air — my whole world got flip turned upside down.
In my first weeks attending this new Grosse Pointe prep-school, I wasn’t just known as “the new kid.” That would have been blissfully prosaic because I just wanted to disappear. Instead I was known as “the new kid… from Kalamazoo who lived in a motel.” Kids wouldn’t know my name, but they knew my place of origin and current, unfortunate residence. Yes, my parents and I lived in a motel. I had danishes and orange juice every morning from the motel bar/restaurant. I supposed I should just be grateful it wasn’t a Continental Breakfast. After this motel, we would move into a rectory for another month before our legitimate home was made ready for inhabitance. (Remind me to tell you the story about the time a woman started screaming at my mom using all sorts of colorful holier-than-thou language outside the church because she assumed we were the priest’s mistress and illegitimate son. Actually, I guess I just did.)
Back to that very prestigious private school in Grosse Pointe. I got in, despite my humble origins, because my dad knew someone who knew someone and apparently I aced the entrance exam. Gargantuan white columns, marble steps, and blue-bloods in pastel shirts graced with ponies as far as the eye could see. We certainly didn’t have prep-school kind of money — it wasn’t until later that I recognized the sacrifices my parents made so I could go to a school that didn’t have shootings. (My dad managed the Detroit Zoo and therefore had to live within the city limits). At the Detroit Public School I would have attended, gunmen walked in off the street and starting shooting kids in the hallway in 1992.
Suffice to say, with my 12th birthday falling on September 13th, 1990, only the second week into my new school nightmare, I felt completely and totally alone. Every day for at least a week, I begged not to go to school and cried in the car at drop-off. I was not, as they say, “pulling it together” exactly, but my mother knew how difficult the whole move had been for me. I’d even been excited about it. I desperately wanted to live in a real city and leave Marcellus (population around 2000) in my rear-view, but the overall experience had been more inviting in theory.
I came home that birthday Thursday and my mom told me to pick a movie from the paper. (Darkman, obviously.) I’d never been exposed to such spontaneity! Such flaunting of the expected homework duties! For those 100 minutes tucked away in a darkened theater, I was exactly where I needed to be. I can’t say that the movie fixed all that ailed me, because I was, after all, now 12 years old. Everything seems broken at 12, no matter where or who you are, but that movie put me in the right direction. Each subsequent day seemed a little bit brighter than the one before.
The theater had always been my safe space and when I was younger, it really didn’t matter what was in theaters — there were always marginally comfortable seats and popcorn and light and shadow projected onto a big silver screen. The tradition of the birthday movie endured without interruption until 2004 — after a 2003 birthday movie finally broke my spirits.
In celebration of this tradition, I’ve ranked every one of my birthday movies from 1990 until 2003. It’s entirely solipsistic (but it’s my birthday and I can wax nostalgic if I want to) and the listed movies are really only connected because of their general mid-September release dates — but then again, this list will still seem more relevant than whatever Buzzfeed slopped on the table today like Tuesday’s green bean casserole.
Going to the theater isn’t just a frivolous activity. The theatrical experience provides a respite from anything and everything that prevents you from enjoying your current lot in life. For just a moment, the rest of the world melts away and all that’s left are those flickering images projected three-stories high. Especially in 2019 with our constant connectivity, there are so few respites from the everyday cacophony. Embrace the experience as the curation of mental health. Even the worst movies (especially the worst movies?) contribute to the necessary understanding that this too shall pass, but there will always be another movie.
14. Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)
Right out of college, I wrote movie reviews for a tabloid publication in Atlanta. As the newest movie critic in a team of three, I often received the worst assignments and no assignment during this tenure was worse than a press screening of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever on my birthday. Among the dozens of reviews I wrote for InSite Magazine, it stands as my only “F” graded film. When anyone asks about the worst film I’ve ever seen, my mind immediately recalls this torturous experience. Roger Ebert thought so, too.
13. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Thanks to Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, this, the movie that broke the birthday tradition didn’t even rank as the worst. Allow me to set this scene. For months I’d looked forward to the release of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. My love of El Mariachi and Desperado fueled all kinds of desperation for this movie. My wife and I had just moved to Cambridge, MA. In the move, we’d lost some shelves or shelving brackets — honestly I have no idea what we needed anymore. The movers screwed up and we were in need of some pieces to pieces of furniture. The store at which we needed to procure said components was somewhere near Braintree, MA. The plan: we’d hit up the store and then head to the theater to catch OUATIM because birthday movie. Our Mapquest-printed directions got us lost on our way to the furniture store and then we couldn’t find the theater. We stopped to ask three or four different people who gave us contradictory directions. We missed the movie, returned home, ate Thai food, and went to a late show around Cambridge. The food stunk (we never at there again) and the movie lacked any of the showmanship or tone of its predecessors. The whole day turned out to be a fracas I’ll never forget. How could this movie have been so bad?
This Jerry Bruckheimer-produced thriller about a Pittsburgh hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) who becomes afflicted with a stigmata after getting her hands on a cursed rosary gave me the giggles in 1999 and I’m entirely confused about how it earned $50million in domestic box office. I got shushed for laughing at the “serious” bits about Catholicism and I still worry about the people who try to appreciate this film without irony.
10. Maximum Risk (1996)
Jean-Claude Van Damme made a fine living releasing movies in September during the 1990s. Maximum Risk co-starred Species‘s Natasha Henstridge and fell at the tail end of peak-JCVD actioners. Directed by Hong Kong action maestro Ringo Lam, Maximum Risk delivered on a few gonzo set-pieces, but relied too much on car chases and not enough on the physical prowess of the Muscles from Brussels.
9. Doc Hollywood (1991)
Amiable+ Michael J. Fox rom-com-dram in which the titular Doc is headed to Beverly Hills to become a plastic surgeon for the stars but finds himself waylaid in rural North Carolina when his Porsche swerves to avoid a car and hits a fence. I expected more laughs out of this movie at 13, but while I was disappointed in the moment, I grew to enjoy the film more on home video once I didn’t feel like the victim of a vicious bait-and-switch.
8. Rounders (1998)
Janet Maslin called John Dahl’s Rounders “mischievously entertaining” and I can’t do better than that in a short blurb. In 1998 we were on the cusp of the fairly bizarre poker boom. Everyone tried to play poker and the television broadcast poker, shows about poker, celebrity poker tournaments. Matt Damon and Edward Norton brought solid poker faces, but it’s really Malkovich’s movie. Even in a supporting role as Teddy KGB, he steals the show.
7. The Game (1997)
People love The Game. I love Michael Douglas and David Fincher, but I just don’t love The Game. I saw this during the first month of my first semester in college. Again I struggled with identity in a foreign land, aka Atlanta. I dragged friends in my hall to all manner of movies during Freshman year. If I’m not mistaken The Game was the first such off-campus sojourns via public bus transportation. Though I’m not convinced that the tangled machinations of Fincher’s plot hold up upon repeat viewings, I remember vividly that The Game, like that first birthday movie seven years prior, helped establish steps toward normalcy as I started to explore the city and realize that life still existed outside the campus bubble.
6. Timecop (1994)
High-concept time-traveling Jean-Claude Van Damme might be the best Jean-Claude Van Damme. Plus Mia Sara! That this movie isn’t more highly ranked on this list speaks to the quality and lasting appeal of my other birthday movies rather than any particular failing on Timecop‘s part. I would return to see this one more time in theater.
5. Almost Famous (2000)
I was not able to attend Almost Famous on my birthday night, but managed a trip during the following weekend. The film was still in limited release and I put a hold on my birthday movie trip because I was absolutely 100% positive that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous would speak to me in the same way that Say Anything… had caused me to model my teenage personality around Lloyd Dobbler. I was not wrong, but the movie required some gestation. I came to love Almost Famous, which explains, perhaps, why it ranks merely 5th on the birthday movies countdown. That original theatrical experience doesn’t resonate like any of the Top 4.
4. Hackers (1995)
I challenge anyone to name a movie that is more 90s than Hackers. Electronic music. Wall-to-wall computer jargon and computer-generated representations of bits and bytes flowing through the tunnels of technology. Johnny Lee Miller. The clothes. The hair. The sunglasses. The swimming pool on the roof. Still, real hackers love Hackers, so I feel like that’s a legit seal of approval.Hackers remains one of the purest cinematic experience of my life, a movie so rooted in artificiality that the experience of plugging into the movie severs connection with the outside world. Hackers might not a great movie, but it is pure joy, pure nonsense, pure escapism. What more could I want on the day I turned 17?
3. Darkman (1990)
September 13th, 1990. The movie that provided a measure of belonging in my strange new world was, fittingly, a Sam Raimi superhero movie about a scarred and bandaged man who gains super-human abilities alongside psychotic episodes. Could have been me, minus the bandages and special abilities. It was the ultimate outsider-looking-in movie. Having failed to acquire the rights to adapt The Shadow, Sam Raimi (also, famously, a Michigander) developed a new superhero based on themes and images culled from the Universal horror movies.
It was Raimi’s first big-budget Hollywood feature after working for a decade on the furthest fringes of the independent landscape. I believed at the time that Raimi must have felt alien, just like me, taking that Hollywood plunge into a big budget $16 million action movie. For a short time, Darkman became the most important movie in my life — and no small part of it was because I identified with the film and the filmmaker and already had an original Evil Dead poster on my wall.
2. Sneakers (1992)
If you saw Sneakers in the theater in 1992, you shared a singular experience with dozens of other humans. I can almost 100% guarantee that no one walked out of Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) caper comedy feeling blue. It’s the kind of twisty movie that entertains so thoroughly that you’re unwilling or unable to see where the story will go next. I’d forgotten that this had been a birthday movie until I put together the pieces of this list. I don’t know if I should write that off as the failings of memory or a result of watching this VHS on a loop.
1. True Romance (1993)
Movies didn’t look like this, talk like this, or sound like this in 1993. Quentin Tarantino’s voice filtered through Tony Scott’s lens. True Romance represents an extraordinary confluence of style and substance. It also took just the right actors at just the right time to bring True Romance to life. Beyond Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette and the unworldly Gary Oldman villainy, the cast list reads like an All-Star cast of the mid-90s. Even though Reservoir Dogs had initiated a tonal shift, True Romance brought that independent spirit to big budget entertainment. It’s easy to point to Pulp Fiction as a movie that changed the course of cinema — but True Romance opened the gates. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh and offbeat as it did in 1993.
In July of 2002, Tom Hanks sat next to me at a round table in the conference hall of the Ritz-Carlton Chicago and talked about the particular demands of acting in comedies versus dramas. I asked this question because I’d been assigned the story, but I wasn’t especially interested in his response. It was, after all, being recorded on cassette tape. I could transcribe it all on the plane back home. Naturally he’d focused on the rewards of acting in dramatic fare (the specifics elude me all these years later) and the opportunity to act opposite Paul Newman. He said all the things he needed to say because Tom Hanks was (and still is, as far as I know) the consummate professional Hollywood actor.
Part of that consummate professionalism required him to promote his current film and say glowing, positive, effervescent things about Road to Perdition. The last thing anyone expected him to say was that this gig was merely the culmination of his master plan to create a gleaming, golden coffee table with Oscar-statue legs for his sitting room. Tom Hanks punched his time card like a pro; I had amateur stenciled across my forehead. I hoped I’d get to ask a second question before getting sandbagged by everyone else’s agenda.
Little did I know I was about to get sandbagged by my own agenda. I’d written for InSite Magazine for almost a year at this point. My editor took the choice assignments while I reviewed the latest Not Another Teen Movie or Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Just a couple months earlier, my editor had handed me my first talent interview because, he said to the best of my recollection, “I handled bad movies with the respect they deserved.” I still have no idea if that was an actual compliment. As a 23-year-old writer who believed quite highly in himself and pined for any shred of (due) enthusiasm over my writing, I stitched that merit badge on my canvas messenger bag.
The interview? Quite predictably I’d been tasked with discussing a C-grade movie, albeit with a notable commodity. Fresh off Rushmore Jason Schwartzman made a pond dredge teen movie called Slackers. In case the “pond dredge” comment wasn’t leading enough, I’ll say it plain: Slackers stunk. When he made a joke about my Gap jacket, I’d been so focused on obscuring how much I hated the film that I failed to come up with any rebuttal.
I still regret the zinger I never made. I replace the tags so not to intimidate my interview subjects with the posh lifestyle of a tabloid-format journalist. Maybe not the ultimate burn, but still better than a nervous laugh that surely betrayed the fact that I took his crack about “having that same jacket” seriously for an embarrassing number of seconds. Welcome to the business, you’ve just been roasted by a snarky actor two years your junior. I just wanted to conduct the interview and vacate the hotel suite before someone faxed him my D-grade review. It also wouldn’t be the last time I regretted questions or thoughts left unsaid in an interview.
Determined to not repeat past failures, failed to hear the entirety of Mr. Hanks’ response before firing off a second question, or rather a leading statement, which was really the question I’d been dying to ask all along. I said, “I actually consider it a shame that you’ve turned your attention away from comedy because I consider Joe Versus the Volcano the most important movie you’ve made.”
He paused, befuddled perhaps, and regarded this petulant whippersnapper (as I’m sure Tom Hanks’ internal monologue uses words like “whippersnapper”) with some sense of dismay and concern, brow furrowed at a gently sloping 45-degree angle. Was I confused? Impaired? Should security be called? Who was I to suggest that some silly movie he made way back in 1990 was better than award bait like Philadelphia, better than Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump, better even than the movie we’d all just watched, which was the most impactful movie in the history of cinema for the duration of this particular gladhand? Surely I’d prefer to assuage his ego about his latest most important accomplishment.
Ultimately, he laughed and thanked me for the sentiment, but did not specifically address my claim about Joe Versus the Volcano before others around the table began lobbing their favorite comedies like holy hand grenades from the trenches, making sure the actor had duly noted each of their picks, all of which seemed like an entire career ago. Someone mentioned Splash and Bachelor Party. Big came up. One of the guys even dropped The Man with One Red Shoe. I’d love to recast the table with at least one woman (because equal opportunity memoirism matters) so we’ll say this hypothetical woman mentioned Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs because The ‘burbs is also terminally underrated and this fictional ‘she’ would have had the good sense to make mention of it.
Nobody else, however, corroborated or acknowledged my Joe Versus the Volcano sentiment.
As our time with the actor ended, and as Mr. Hanks stood to move on to the next table, I asked him to sign my Road to Perdition pressbook. I’d never asked anything of any of the dozen celebrities I’d interviewed. These were just men and women doing their jobs who also happened to be household names. We were just doing ours. Some of us even got paid for it, but nobody knew our names. All of the other on-screen talent I’d interviewed had duly reinforced their celebrity status. Lists of things that couldn’t be asked, warnings about certain lines of questioning, untimely entrances and unusual water concoctions in pitchers provided by personal staffmembers.
Tom Hanks fulfilled every fantasy about Tom Hanks — cordial and friendly and inclusive. He happily signed my pressbook and all others at the table. He treated each of us like old friends and then abruptly exited our lives. Yet he never calls. He never writes.
On my flight home I began to transcribe the interview and I finally stepped out from behind the glow of conversing with Tom Hanks. I recognized how deftly he’d sidestepped my comment about Joe Versus the Volcano by responding modestly and without haste, thereby inviting others to chime in and dilute the precision of the question. A diabolical counterattack. His lack of displayed ego, coupled with the enthusiasm of the gathered round table allowed my Joe Versus the Volcano comment to dissipate without a trace, much like the movie itself in March of 1990.
If Tom Hanks didn’t see beyond the lackluster box office numbers, the confused moviegoing masses, and the unshakable scarlet “B” for bomb; what hope did anyone else have? Did he not think as highly of it as I’d assumed? Who else out there saw Joe Versus the Volcano for what it really was? Surely he could see that the real bomb wasn’t Joe Versus the Volcano at all, but The Bonfire of the Vanities, which kindly supplanted Joe as the headlining disaster on Mr. Hanks’ resume.
My mind raced with all the questions I didn’t ask, that I couldn’t ask. If only I’d had ten minutes to clarify his stance on this very important issue. I’d ask him about John Patrick Shanley’s script, about working with him as a first time director. How the chemistry between he and Meg Ryan eventually gave birth to the mega-hit Sleepless in Seattle. Did they see the eccentric beauty on the pages of the script? The novelty of philosophy? What registered with audiences beyond the jokes and face-value absurdity of a tribe of Celtic/Jewish/Roman/South Pacific islanders obsessed with orange soda and governed by Abe Vigoda needing a willing sacrifice to the Great Woo?
Alas, Joe Versus the Volcano remains an underseen gem that seems to just keep carrying on in the margins of film appreciation. To call it a cult film feels rather anomalous. Joe Versus the Volcano was a $25million Hollywood production fronted by two of 1990’s biggest stars that one and a half times recouped its budget, but it still can’t shake that stigma of failure.
The term “cult” has typically been reserved for films such as Eraserhead, Repo Man, Donnie Darko, weird movies, beyond the fringe movies, movies that evaded commercial acceptance because they shunned mass appeal in favor of some sort of eccentric or singular vision – be it a failed artistic enterprise or misunderstood genius. The term encompasses massive misfires that have come to be enjoyed ironically and films that took a circuitous route to find a small, but devoted fanbase. Rarely does the term “cult” find assignation on a big budget mainstream semi-success mislabeled a bust. It was viewed by a great many and still written off as an ephemeral trifle. Vincent Canby, the longtime critic for the New York Times likened its misfire to that of Howard the Duck and called it “theoretically comic” and a “mixture of comedy, fantasy and mock-dirge.” He wasn’t alone in that sentiment.
Joe went to work. Joe hated every minute of it. His only escape from this circle of hell was the recognition of his own imminent death. The acknowledgment of his own mortality grants Joe Banks a second chance at life. The most damning thing about Joe Versus the Volcano was that it just wasn’t what anyone expected because it wasn’t really like anything we’d ever seen. The film’s marketing embraced the rom-commy coupling of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan because they didn’t know how to construct a marketing campaign that sold anything but the reputation of its stars.
It looked like puerile comedy. Many critics likewise called it a simplistic oddity or a trifle. I’ve always been unable to fully grasp how so many critics seemed to have watched a completely different film. Now, having written about film on and off for the last twenty years, I understand more fully how something so stunningly original could slip through the cracks and become misunderstood. Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1990, but the critical consensus still imposed its will upon the box office, leading all of its witnesses to the same conclusion.
Would a trifle of a film dare to examine commercialism, the soul-crushing burdens of adulthood? Could a “flat” film deftly champion spiritualism while undermining organized religion? It astounds me that a movie with so much individualism and eccentricity could be read as having nothing interesting to say. Joe Versus the Volcano wasn’t a silly romantic comedy as advertised in the trailer, as expected by everyone that walked into the theater; it was a darkly comic fable about the value of agnosticism, about using the awareness of mortality as raison d’être.
These misconceptions have hindered the film’s rediscovery more than any other factor. “Odd,” “bizarre,” “weird” – these are terms that pique a cinephile’s curiosity about movies on the fringe. Terms like “trite” or “flat” or worst of all, “boring” sentence a film to the very real cinematic purgatory reserved for something like that Matthew Broderick vehicle Out on a Limb from 1992. (Stephen Holden correctly called it “frantically unfunny.”) The ripples from which stopped being felt the minute that VHS tape disappeared from the New Release section of your video store. It slipped into total obscurity not because it was unfunny, but because it wasn’t incompetent and/or bold enough in its failure to warrant curiosity.
It’s a very real possibility that John Patrick Shanley’s film could never have found success. For years I bemoaned the film’s reception and how it likely derailed Shanley’s film career. After all, we want these daring writers and filmmakers to be rewarded for their efforts. These films mean something special to us, so why shouldn’t they duly reward their creators? But what if John Patrick Shanley never anticipated or even craved commercial success? In comments about his experience in Hollywood, the playwright has suggested that the filmmaking gig was not an ideal match for his personality. He called the moviemaking industry “antithetical” to his nature and seemed more than happy to abandon it and return to writing and directing for the stage – a situation that the perceived failure of Joe Versus the Volcano surely expedited.
In a perfect world, our favorite films make billions of dollars, and studios give people like John Patrick Shanley unlimited budgets to make any film they want in perpetuity. Shanley’s Academy Award for writing Moonstruck, allowed him to make Joe Versus the Volcano, an eccentric passion project. And just like that his meteoric and circuitous career trajectory from playwright to failed Amblin Entertainment-backed auteur and back to playwright had been completed in a little under three years.
Alas, it is and forever will be the way of the world. When movies dare to be something beyond expectation, they risk commercial failure. Great movies often, however, eventually find their audience. Many people forget that John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner were both box office disasters before they became certifiable classics of their respective genres. Their only mistake was appearing in theaters the week after Spielberg released E.T.
Carpenter and Scott eventually found their audience, but I can’t necessarily say the same about Joe Versus the Volcano. Unlike those films, Joe wasn’t merely obscured by an unfortunate release date. While the specter of Pretty Woman looms large in the Joe Versus the Volcano story, I can’t actually blame the film’s relative obscurity on a Julia Roberts’ starmaking vehicle (although I desperately want to).
In the end, perhaps a comedy rooted so deeply in the philosophy of our very existence could never have hoped for anything but adoration from the cult of a few impassioned fans.
Joe Versus the Volcano opened the 2012 Ebertfest. That might even surprise the most devoted fans of the film. Roger Ebert had been one of film’s earliest champions. He wrote in advance of Joe’s screening “I continue to believe it deserves greater recognition, and cannot understand why I gave it 3.5 stars instead of 4.” Great films need champions and certain great films need even more championing.
This isn’t a call to right the egregious wrongs of a prior generation of moviegoers – this is a suggestion that Joe Versus the Volcano has something important to convey to all of us and maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place if everyone had a copy of the movie of their shelf and took to heart the message contained within.
Yes. Joe Versus the Volcano deserves consideration alongside such quirky cinematic classics like Harvey or The Princess Bride. I believe this in my bone marrow. I also have to consider whether widespread notoriety or acceptance benefits every movie. Does Joe Versus the Volcano mean so much to me because it’s not widely considered a classic? How would my perception of the film change if everyone believed, as I do, that it’s a near-perfect modern masterpiece? Compare it to the aforementioned The Princess Bride, which is similarly quirky and magical and funny, but broadly consumable, whereas Joe dares to analyze the human condition.
Assessing what makes Joe Versus the Volcano unique requires an evaluation about how we feel about life and death and religion and our ability to affect change – not exactly comfort viewing if you peel apart the film’s whimsical external layers. To those unwilling to take that plunge with Joe to appease the Great Woo, it makes perfect sense that the film would seem like trite entertainment. Joe Versus the Volcano has never been more relevant than it is today, but is a modern re-evaluation even possible when mainstream audiences seem more intent than ever to insulate themselves from meaning?
Some movies become cult films because they can’t be anything else. Does the art of being a cult film have more to do with the ways in which they connect so viscerally with a small percentage of people? Maybe Joe’s greatest purpose was this connection – this major importance to a minor few. I decided it was important to find out by digging into John Patrick Shanley’s philosophy, to consider the reasons that certain people connect to the film so deeply and analyzing how my own affection has changed and evolved with my own greater perspective accumulated during the last 30 years.
James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
I’ve been thinking about the war on physical media lately. And usually that’s trouble. I’ve been writing blog posts based on Netflix DVD arrivals. These are posts I’d have written normally, but because I feel indebted to physical media in some capacity I make sure to point out that I held the movie I watched in my hand before placing it in my region-free Blu-ray player and viewing it on my television.
I can’t help but think that they’re mocking me, however, with that ‘Nice choice!” crack. I see you Netflix. I know what you’re doing. I’ll see your smarmy judgment and order the movie on SwapaDVD.com. I’ve got extra credits I can spare on statement purchases. I’m not bluffing! Here’s proof.
Still, I couldn’t have recalled that information on my own. The Lake House came as a bit of shock. I would have guessed Series 2 of Red Dwarf, something that would have predated 2006.
Red Dwarf is something you should rent, maybe from Netflix.
As I was saying before The Lake House derailed logical thought (as it tends to do because it’s about a magic mailbox!), I’ve been thinking about the necessity of physical media in this digital age. How the shifting methods of viewing movies have ushered in a world where otherwise sane humans find it perfectly normal to watch entire movies on their phone… when they’re not even on an airplane or at the gym! They choose this method.
The war on physical media is part of a systemic degradation of the film viewing experience — from the cheapening of theatrical exhibition to the general unavailability of films made before 2000 on streaming media. (FilmStruck excepted, of course.)
Dozens of streaming services have popped up, hooking viewers with the promise of unlimited entertainment at their fingertips. Netflix streaming, in fact, would probably have to stand up as the most prominent perpetuator of this myth. And the “everything available all the time” promise of streaming is indeed a myth. You could subscribe to every service imaginable — Netflix, FilmStruck, Shudder, HBOGo, Hulu, etc, etc. — and still barely scratch the service.
Check out the info graphic below and see if you can come out of that experience sober.
The demise of the brick and mortar video store (likely by the hand of Netflix DVD delivery, so that’s a little slice of irony for this meditation) has left a kind of void for moviewatchers of a certain age, those of us old enough to remember the unlimited possibility of the video store.
Seattle’s still-thriving Scarecrow Video, a hero in the war on physical media
Streaming services, by and large, require pre-existing notions from viewers. Netflix streaming likes to tell us “Because you watched Glow,” here are twenty other Netflix shows you’ll want to watch. It’s the algorithmic replacement for “Gene’s picks” at our local video store, only Gene didn’t have a financial stake in the number of eyes that watched Weekend at Bernie’s II. Gene placed Weekend at Bernie’s II on that shelf because he liked Weekend at Bernie’s II. Full stop.
When I walked into my local video store, I often didn’t have any idea what I wanted to rent. Sure I had ideas, but I certainly couldn’t guarantee any of those dreams would be in stock. You had no idea what kind of movie would walk out of that video store with you. I browsed the new releases and then wandered the shelves. Some of my most profoundly affecting movie experiences happened as a result of chance rentals.
My first viewing of Suspiria, for example, was inspired by an impulse viewing after seeing the VHS cover at my video store. I rented movies based on VHS covers. I rented movies because “how the hell did this get made?” and because I was there, and they were there, and because what else was I going to do?
Gene’s still alright by me, also a hero in the war on physical media.
It was the golden age of discovery, the video store culture, Gene’s picks, chatting up folks who worked as local programmers, tossing rarities on TV/VCR combos behind the counter. It was the age of absurd home video artwork slapped on top of low-budget, direct-to-video offerings clamoring for your attention. We’ve lost all this and for a not insignificant number of movie fans, the near extinction of the local video store felt like a death in the family.
(A vivid memory is the week my wife and I became obsessed with Freaks & Geeks right when it hit first DVD and trying three different video stores to find the third disc because there was a “short wait” from Netflix. I will not wait, thank you very much!)
The “Long Wait” and “Very Long Wait” clocks are indeed very distressing.
The Future of Physical Media
Mail-to-home DVD services might have been the beginning of the end of mom-and-pop video, but it wasn’t until the proliferation of streaming services that people decided, once and for all, that it was just easier to stay in their pajamas and watch whatever was digitally available — whatever the gatekeepers chose to make available at that particular moment in time.
Some of this gatekeeping took place during the video store-era when Blockbuster made it store policy to not stock unrated or NC-17 films to preserve their family-friendly pretense. This resulted in a de facto censorship practice that prevented many innocent films from finding an audience, undermined the relevance of NC-17 and unfairly discriminated against non-pornographic sexual content. But I digress.
The common and wrongheaded idea that the method of watching movies is not important has made life for physical media increasingly difficult in 2018. The quality of streaming differs wildly and is based on factors far outside the control of the original filmmakers. Pixellation, compressed audio. When studios determine that it’s fiscally prudent to eliminate physical media based on your closely tracked digital moviewatching habits, DVDs will go the way of the Laserdisc.
Go ahead. Watch that on your phone. I’m sure it’s the same experience.
I don’t intend to state the obvious, but some people need to hear it, The impact of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 on your phone is not the same was viewing it in 70mm on an IMAX screen. People have said this very thing to me. My argument isn’t based on opinion. It’s 100% fact that your emotional and psychological proximity to the screen is less distant when there are no distractions and the screen extends beyond your standard field of vision. You can say you’ve watched a movie on your phone, but you won’t have felt that film. You won’t have identified with that film on any level beyond the activity of holding your phone and being a click away from your next Snapchat session.
As far as home video is concerned, physical media such as DVDs and Blu-rays and UHDs provide the best experience and broadest catalog of available films. Due to the nature of film rights and distribution, no streaming service could ever compare. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy how streaming can supplement my ever-increasing home library, but it will never be my main source of entertainment. My stand in the war on physical media will end when you pry these cases out of my cold dead hands.
A slice of my library.
This is why it’s still important to support physical media in all of its forms, whether its through a Netflix DVD-by-mail service, by renting locally (if you’re lucky enough to have such a store still available to you) or by purchasing new Blu-rays and DVDs from distributors that give a goddamn. Special mention goes out to the fine folks at Criterion, Warner Archive, Kino Lorber, Twilight Time, Olive Films, Arrow, Shout Factory, and Mondo Macabro and Eureka and Indicator in the UK among many others who still restore and release important films for purchase.
I can have this beloved copy of Little Murders (1971). I can hold it in my hand and put it on my shelf to view whenever the need arises. (Side note: Watch Alan Arkin’s Little Murders.)
So even though I wish Netflix expanded their available catalog (it stops well short of including releases from many of the above-mentioned niche distributors), it’s still a service worth supporting because they are, by sending out thousands of little red envelopes, fighting on the side of good in the war on physical media.
James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, whichhas thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad
For those that haven’t been exposed to the Ramsay oeuvre, I’ll give you quick rundown of the fundamentals. Low-budget amalgamations of violence, gore, ancient curses, atmosphere, monsters, voodoo, skin and (always obscured) sexuality, and traditional Bollywood musical numbers. Until one has seen a Ramsay film, a Western viewer likely will not understand how all these pieces fit together. Even though I’d been aware of the Ramsays as filmmakers, I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion of a Bollywood horror film. And then I watched Veerana for my Halloween Horror Challenge last October.
The Ramsays were a family of filmmakers that discovered an untapped niche in the Indian film industry. Until the early 1970’s when the Ramsay’s conquered the market, no one in India made horror films. Despite their financial success, they met both cultural and market-driven barriers to widespread acceptance. Conservative viewers condemned their risqué output, and operating as independents outside the Bollywood system caused friction within the traditional chain of release. As a result, the Ramsays peddled their spook films to areas outside major metropolitan areas. Over the years their films became events, celebrated entertainment for the masses, but they also never gained the respect bestowed upon successful filmmakers.
Scene from Purana Mandir (1984) directed by Shyam Ramsay, Tulsi Ramsay
Before viewing Veerana, I knew the Ramsays only by reputation. India’s version of Hammer Horror. In as much as that rings true (they Ramsays modeled themselves after Hammer studios) it also sells their enterprise short. Using Hammer as inspiration they created culturally specific horror films that defined a generation.
Don’t Disturb the Dead breathes life into the Ramsay’s global reputation by focusing on the way the filmmaking collective assembled an internal team of directors, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, set designers and shot full-length feature films on shoestring budgets and cultural limitations.
As my exposure to Bollywood is limited, the names and places that Dasgupta spouts as reference points for the Indian film industry models of success and failure wash over me. At first I spent time looking up each name, but this grew tiresome and I soon left explanation to authorial context. As a comprehensive history, Dasgupta relies on familial anecdotes and therefore fails to convey a concrete sense of history. Many stories are undermined by the hazy or conflicting recollections among the surviving Ramsays. In many ways this seems fitting coming from an industry that even into the 1980’s believed that cinema was merely a transient form of entertainment. The lack of preservation has left us only with storytellers.
The English-as-Second-Language translation of Don’t Disturb the Dead could be viewed as a detriment as well. The narrative descriptions sometimes feel clipped from amateurish imdb.com synopses. Take for example the following description of the film Darwaza (1978):
“Let’s go over the story, though it’s more more fun – obviously – watching it; if nothing else, for the atmospherics of fear, the sheer spookiness of it, the effect of the hand-held camera sneaking up on you, which is something Gangu uses is many of the films very smartly. Ye, the screaming Ramsay leading ladies are all there somewhere, and so are some random bits, but it’s a taut screenplay, all of it leading somewhere, and, before the end, there are a number of questions that remain, which keep you hooked. And spooked.”
Long segments of interview with some of the Ramsay brothers appear unedited and these, translated into English, also offer some simple charms where translation has made an earnest attempt to turn Indian idioms into proper English. I made a point to mark a quote from Arjun Ramsay (editor): “You can’t only add chili in your food – thoda khatta, thoda meetha (a little salt, a little sugar) … and we did what we did and the aim was that the audience liked it.”
The structure of the book allows for an occasionally maddening centripetal nature. Don’t Disturb the Dead highlights the different parts of the production team, but as Dasgupta begins each segment he takes us back through the Ramsay filmography as it serves the topic. Rather than going film to film and organizing his thoughts chronologically, he continually circles back. While this allows each of the brothers to get a moment in his spotlight throughout the production chain, it also creates a Back to the Future-esque branching timeline for someone unfamiliar with the films and Bollywood players that float through the Ramsay’s story. From his perspective, this serves a specific end: the movies themselves stand as a testament to the family that made them and the stories they told and shared. Readers will note a specific, culturally-ascribed attitude difference toward the actresses in their films and the women in their family, but we must view these through an appropriate lens.
The Ramsay family of filmmakers. Standing: Arjun, Kiran, Kumar, Gangu, Keshu; Sitting: Tulsi, F.U., Shyam
While not an especially exhaustive discussion of the films themselves (I did just read an encyclopedic textbook about every Univeral horror film), Don’t Disturb the Dead paints a specific picture of familial devotion and the closed-circuit nature of the Indian film industry. Little scholarship has been devoted to the Ramsays, and their films remain underseen curiosities in the West. I would be shocked if someone read the introduction to this book and wasn’t at least curious enough to check out a Ramsay movie… or at least a clip.
If Dasgupta manages to expand the Ramsay’s audience and finds a few more fans in the West, he’s done his job. Even though the movies will look rather cheap and more than a little silly to our eyes, there’s talent and devotion to the craft behind these escapades that welcomes sincere and ironic enjoyment in equal measure.
Luckily, the films are now available on YouTube for our enjoyment. Here’s the film that jumpstarted my curiosity in the Ramsays.
Each night in Los Angeles, I fell asleep listening to Julie Byrne’s excellent new record Not Even Happiness. The number of songs I’d hear each night decreased until, upon the third and final night, I finished nary a song. Did I even press play? If an album plays when no one lays awake to hear it…
That’s what the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival does to you – if you’re doing it right, it stretches you beyond the point of human exhaustion. Wring every ounce of blood from that gracious movie stone. It tests you. It brings you to the point of breaking. You’re tired physically – good luck getting on with a total of 8 hours of sleep over two nights. You’re drained mentally – after seven feature length films in one day, you exit that midnight screening of Zardoz beating your chest, yelling “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!?”
Even though this test of endurance takes place once a year, each subsequent festival conditions you for the next. Sleep deprivation. Survival techniques. Making due with irregular and insubstantial sustenance. Remembering to pack emergency nut clusters.
At the 2017 TCM Film Festival I dozed off during only one film – High Anxiety – and survived both midnight screenings with nary a cat nap. I’ve found that a late afternoon lunch supplemented with a little popcorn adequately nourishes the sedentary moviewatcher without inducing the midnight groggies. Which is precisely why I found this whole Egyptian popcorn strike so unsettling.
When asked about the case of the disappeared popcorn, Egyptian staff could only cite the prepared statement that the theater had just been renovated. Popcorn – that apparent defiler of classic cinemas – had become corna non grata. Only packaged items could be sold. You could only buy a packaged bag of popcorn. What brand of heinous trickery is this?
But back to the movie thing.
Each of the past two years, I’ve composed a letter to family and friends regarding my experience at the festival. The first time it happened organically while I waited for my departing flight to board. Last year I still had new feelings to enhance my original thoughts. This year? Meh. I’m running on instinct and repetition. I’m two days removed from the festival and rather well rested, having taken the afternoon flight home on Sunday to save myself the horrors of the red eye with a layover in San Francisco. So now, with sound mind, and a headful of clarity, let’s compose an obligatory message that lacks the bleary-eyed delirium of years past. Just imagine it on a really nice stationery to class it up a little bit. (more…)