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diskant rewind: Mild Head Injury #6

Posted: September 12th, 2008, by Simon Minter

(Originally posted April 2002)

Mild Head Injury by Simon Minter

I’ve been experiencing this strange phenomenon lately, whenever I see movies. I keep looking for evidence of the good side of humanity in celluloid situations, and find myself getting weirdly choked up at any vaguely emotional or bittersweet scenes – leaving myself thinking ‘ah, so everything’s not so bad, after all’. So, this I presume must mean I’m either experiencing movies on a different level recently, or I’ve become more hyper-sensitive to things, or I’m having some kind of emotional breakdown. I strongly suspect the latter. But fingers crossed, eh?

Example one: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), whilst ostensibly a bizarre and sharply-defined comedy, seemed to throw in a couple of moments of pure heartbreaking poignancy within the jokes, to great effect. It turned what at first I suspected of being a lightweight humourous movie into a real, deep, affecting movie, in much the same way as American Beauty was. The storyline is, on the surface, pretty basic – an aging father (named Royal Tenenbaum) tries to bring his strange family back together and at the same time repair his guilty feelings about not being a good parent for most of his life. But the collection of characters in, and related to, the family are drawn with a Coen Brothers-style eye for quirky individuality, developing the one-dimensional nature of the storyline into something more complex: the childishly naughty Royal doing his best to understand family members including a recently-widowed financial genius son who is obsessively over-protective of his two sons, whom he dresses like miniature versions of himself, a failed writer daughter with a finger missing and a secret smoking habit for 25 years, and an ex-pro tennis star son who happens to be in love with his sister. The characters could have been annoyingly over-defined if they weren’t played so well by a brilliantly understated cast including Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston and Ben Stiller. The gradual resolution of how the family all feel about eachother slowly develops through the film, and whilst nothing particularly major happens to twist or confuse the plot, the richness of the characters and their relationships sustain the movie without any problem.

Example two: Ghost World (2001), another movie in which nothing particularly major happens, also uses the development of characters and relationships to keep us interested, and also has a comic touch which makes the moments of delicate seriousness so much more effective. Based on the comic books by excellent artist Dan Clowes, the film introduces us to the lives of disaffected, sarcastic teenagers Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson), who mooch around making fun of things and killing time while they can before the pressure to act like adults proves too much. The pair finish school, and make plans to find a house to move into together, but their outlooks on life begin to seperate as Rebecca becomes more interested in getting a job and ‘growing up’ and Enid meets an older, self-doubting obsessive record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who she at firsts thinks is kind of a sad joke, but in time becomes closer and closer with. As with The Royal Tenenbaums, this could so easily have been a straightforward and melodramatic TV movie if it wasn’t for the detailed and bizarre characters throughout the film, and the absolute control with which their relationships with eachother is handled. It’s very much a film for all people – there are so many people with different kinds of hangups and supposed problems in it, that there must be somebody there you can relate to!

Examples three and four take us outside the world of English-speaking movies. La Ville est Tranquille (2000) and Christiane F (1981) both deal with heroin addiction, but in different ways. The (French) former considers a put-upon mother with a daughter whose addiction becomes gradually worse, trying to deal with it at the same time as attempting to keep her own life, finances and emotions in order, whilst the (German) latter concentrates on the personal effects of heroin, as a young girl swiftly becomes embroiled in crime and prostitution to finance her habit. What connects the two films though, is their reluctance to become ultra-serious, preachy education sorts of films. Instead, they seem to accept that yes, these characters are on heroin, or in awful situations, but look – they still have things going on in their lives, and in the lives of their family and friends. Both films have their dark moments (Christiane F more than the other), but both also seem eager to point out that perhaps there can always be hope – even the most insignificant little events can make life seem better in a twisted way (the compassionate side of the troubled main character in La Ville est Tranquille, Michele, in dealing with her daughter in the throes of heroin withdrawal), and that making mistakes does not mean that you should have to pay for them for the rest of your life (most of the characters in Christiane F spend a large amount of their time discussing how they’d like to stop taking heroin). These films never seem to want you to feel pity for the characters, but rather leave you to make up your own mind about the situations you are presented with, and to consider how you yourself might deal with these situations.

Examples five, six and seven, finally, prove that I don’t spend all my time watching movies in a state of bittersweet angst. These last three are far more entertainment-for-the-sake-of-it movies, with varying degrees of ‘entertainment’ value.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is, I think, the first movie to cover the life of average teens in the average American school, in the way that is more often remembered through John Hughes films like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. If you’ve seen either of those films (or maybe Weird Science, or Sixteen Candles), you’ll know what to expect – naive kids dealing with ‘growing up’, hassle from teachers, drugs, sex and so on. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is up there with Pretty in Pink, though, for its absolute honesty about what goes on when you’re 14 or 15, and accurate portrayal of situations from the young characters’ point of view, rather than the more ‘adult’ perspective. It’s got a great cast too, of people who’d go on to do more: Sean Penn, Judge Rheinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates… plus it’s directed by Amy Heckerling and written by Cameron Crowe, who you’ll know from the superb Clueless and quite good Almost Famous.

The Bogey Man (1980) caught my eye in the video store because of the ‘previously banned! all-time video nasty!’ type things all over the sleeve. And Cannibal Holocaust had already been rented by somebody. I love early 1980s, dumb gore-frenzy kind of horror films, and was expecting that of this film. Unfortunately it’s rather too intelligent for my liking (!), with attempts to construct a coherent storyline and deal with situations in a somewhat considered and highbrow way. That’s not to say it’s particularly original, or successful, mind – it comes off like a poor combination of Halloween and Children of the Corn, with some weird never-fully-explained thing about a mirror holding the secrets to why people keep getting killed by some mysterious evil (or something like that). But, er, “it’s got some good killings in it”.

To close, Dude Where’s My Car (2000) is, possibly, the worst film I’ve ever seen! Disappointment followed disappointment as I watched Ashton Kutcher (from That 70s Show) and Seann William Scott (American Pie) execute a badly-written script through a series of idiotic scenes which seemed to have been written and planned by a dimwit 10 year old. Seriously, I’d love to find some redeeming features about this, I mean I even enjoyed Scary Movie, for crying out loud. But it’s crap on so very many levels. And that’s the end of that.

Simon Minter

Simon joined diskant after falling on his head from a great height. A diskant legend in his own lifetime Simon has risen up the ranks through a mixture of foolhardiness and wit. When not breaking musical barriers with top pop combo Sunnyvale Noise Sub-element or releasing records in preposterously exciting packaging he relaxes by looking like Steve Albini.


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