Friday, March 20, 2015

Worth Mentioning - What a Beautiful Way to Die

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody looks at early films from Linklater and Carpenter.

SLACKER (1991)

Writer/director Richard Linklater's first feature, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, was a no budget DIY indie which just followed a character played by Linklater through the paces of his life. A large portion of the film involved the character traveling around the country, from Texas to Montana and back again, riding on trains and buses.

Slacker, Linklater's second feature, begins with him riding on another bus.

This bus takes Linklater into Austin, Texas, where he catches a cab. During his cab ride, Slacker begins to differentiate itself from It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which had very sparse dialogue. Here, Linklater rambles on about a concept that came to him in a dream, an idea that every time you make a choice between different options, alternate realities spin off from that moment in which you choose the various different options. For example, when he arrived at the bus station, he considered not taking a cab, so there would now be another reality in which he didn't take the cab.

The cab ride ends without the driver saying a word, Linklater gets out and starts walking down the sidewalk... And that's when Slacker fully pulls away from its predecessor and becomes its own unique experience. Linklater witnesses a hit and run, and while he and others are dealing with that, the camera pulls back down the street until we see the car that hit the pedestrian park at an apartment building. We follow the driver long enough to see that the hit and run was not an accident, and as police take the driver away, the camera's attention turns to a pair of bystanders discussing what happened.

The film then follows one of those bystanders on his way, moves on to following a girl who passes him into a coffee shop, we get a look at some of the patrons, then follow two of them back out into the city... And so it goes for its 100 minute running time, the camera moving around Austin from character to character, focusing on individuals for just a few minutes (or less) at a time before moving on to someone else. There is no plot, it's a "day in the life" piece that gives us glimpses into the lives of many people over the course of this day.

We come into contact with all sorts of intriguing characters over the course of the film. Most of them are very educated, very eccentric, and very artistic, and their conversations are almost always interesting. If you don't like one, another is soon on the way. The one most prominently featured in promotional materials is a young woman trying to sell what she claims is a legit Madonna pap smear. My favorite character is a conspiracy theorist who claims that most of what you see in old sci-fi movies is actually truth. People have been on the moon since the '50s, on Mars since 1962, and other planets are being colonized by lobotomized slaves.

There's a really humorous sequence that begins with a woman who apparently has psychic abilities telling her friend, "The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight." The happy-go-lucky guy who then walks past them proceeds to have a streak of bad luck and odd interactions.

Made on a budget of just around $23,000, Slacker is a wonderful experiment and a fascinating examination of its time and place. A lot of the people we encounter could only have been found in a city like Austin, perhaps only in Austin and only at this specific moment.

Slacker also hit at just the right time, as this little indie became Linklater's breakthrough, the film that launched a successful career which most recently resulted in Linklater and his film Boyhood being nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture. Being such a small production that was so well received and led to so much success for its creator, Slacker is also a film that has been an inspiration to legions of aspiring filmmakers since its release more than twenty years ago, myself included.

DARK STAR (1974)

Armed with a budget of around $60,000, University of Southern California film students John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, men who would have films like Halloween and Alien on their filmographies by the end of the decade, embarked on making a science fiction feature film in a horse stable-turned-sound stage on university property.

There are shades of O'Bannon's Alien future in the film he and Carpenter crafted, as it centers on a group of blue collar workers for whom space travel is just a menial slog. This crew has been cruising the far reaches of space for twenty years by the time we join them, blasting unstable planets apart with artificially intelligent thermostellar bombs. Their ship is a total junker; machinery has been malfunctioning, explosions have destroyed some areas, they're out of toilet paper, there's a radiation leak and their request for shielding his been denied. Their Commander has even been killed by an electrical issue during hyperdrive.

A monstrous alien, a clawed creature portrayed by a beachball, gets loose on this ship as well, causing grief for crew member Pinback, who is played by O'Bannon and is my favorite character in the film. He's a good-natured fellow who wants to fix things up and lift his cohorts' spirits, but they're always brushing him off. Pinback isn't even supposed to be on this ship, his presence there is an accident.

However, the biggest threat for the crew comes when the drudgery of their existence is disrupted by a thermostellar bomb that is stuck in the bomb bay and counting down to detonation.

Carpenter and O'Bannon may be best known for making darker, more serious films, but Carpenter often includes a good amount of humor in his movies, and O'Bannon's 1985 film The Return of the Living Dead is hilarious. Their sense of humor can be traced right back to their first movie, as Dark Star is an absurd comedy full of dryly funny moments.

The movie feels a little too dry at times, the boredom of the characters is palpable, but it's still an enjoyable watch and quite an impressive feat for a pair of college students.

One person who was impressed by Carpenter and O'Bannon's work was The Blob producer Jack H. Harris, who purchased the distribution rights and funded some additional shooting so the initial 68 minute cut could be expanded to a more marketable 83 minutes. The filmmakers weren't so happy with the new cut of the movie and butted heads with Harris, but he got their movie out there (somewhat to their embarrassment, because its student film roots show through) and got their careers started.

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