I’ve been writing on this blog for about eight months now, and it’s gotten to be a real addiction. The biggest challenge that I face is making sure that what I write to feed that addiction isn’t just verbiage for verbiage’s sake, but intelligent thoughts about whatever it is I’m writing about written in an intelligent style (whatever forms that thought and style ends up taking). Honestly, I started writing this thing for an audience of one—me—as a way of flexing my muscles and creating a sense of discipline for myself regarding the craft, not simply as an online journal, and I had no reasonable expectation that anyone outside of my wife and my best friend would have any interest in reading it, and reading it regularly. But one of the unexpected bonuses of writing SLIFR has been not only developing a small but fairly regular readership, but also connecting with people who I didn’t even know existed eight months ago. It’s been a real pleasure writing back and forth with some of those people, not only on this blog, but on ones written by these new friends and others. One of those new friends, Preacher Beege, a cheerfully profane and delightful writer whose blog on motherhood and ministry could go a long way toward changing any preconceived notions you may have about being a mommy or a pastor, has posted five questions for me, which I promised I would answer on my site. So, Beege, thank you for the inquiry, and here I go:
1)Your blog is titled Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I like it, but have no idea what in the hell it means. What in the hell does it mean?
In November of 2005, I decided to try my hand at writing a blog and wanted it to somehow combine regular passages on baseball and the Dodgers, a relatively new obsession of mine (born, ironically enough, during the players’ strike of 1994 through exposure to Ken Burns’ massive historical documentary Baseball), with my lifelong love for the movies (and writing about them). So I sought to come up with a title that adequately conveyed both interests in an appealing and eye/ear-catching way. The first title that came off the top of my head was The Good, the Bad and the Dodgers, which rather uneloquently combined the title of one of my favorite movies with the name of my favorite team. But, as I kept turning it over in my head, a couple of things began nagging at me. Is the reference to the spaghetti western classic overt enough? Perhaps too overt? And when combined with “the Dodgers,” does it sound like I’m implying that the Dodgers themselves occupy some space located between “good” and “bad”? (The land of mediocrity being one many folks have already proclaimed for this team). Finally, by using simply “the Dodgers” to represent the baseball aspect of the site, was that in some way too limiting? What if I wanted to write about other teams, other aspects of the game? Would I be violating my own protocol? And perhaps most importantly, was I overthinking this whole thing? (What are the odds, huh?)
So I scrapped that title and my wife and I began trying to think of different combinations, and the best one we came up with was the title of the blog as it is today—Sergio Leone being one of my favorite directors (the man who directed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and “the infield fly rule,” a not-so-direct reference to baseball that sounded good combined with “Sergio Leone.” (FYI, the infield rule is the one that states that a batter who hits an infield fly, as called by the umpire, is automatically out if there are less than two outs and runners are on first and second base, or the bases are loaded. It serves to prevent an infielder from dropping the ball on purpose to create a double play.)
2) What was the best movie you've ever seen, and what made it the best? Was it the company, the location, the movie itself, some aspect of the film's production, the smell of stale popcorn in the air, or the way your feet stuck to the floor?
I like the way your question evokes the atmosphere of the movie theater, which is, I think, always been an underrated, or overlooked, aspect of film appreciation. There’s a whole article to be written (and God knows, I’m feeling logorrheic enough these days to give it a shot) about the best movie theaters of my moviegoing life, and the attendant smells, the feel of the wrecked-up seats, the sense that you get from a single-screen palace, one you don’t get in a stadium-seat multiplex (at least in the same way), of something special, almost mystical in the making. One of my most vivid memories of seeing movies when I was a kid was the stark terror I would be thrown into every time the lights would start to go down and the projectionist started the cartoon before the curtain opened. The Warner Brothers logo would be thrown onto that flowing, tattered red velvet, which gave the image a surreal, unstable, sinister quality and made me think, in my twisted child’s imagination, that something terrible and wonderful was about to be unleashed, that the curtains would draw back and Porky Pig would come raging off the screen and, I don’t know, stutter at me real loud until I went mad or something. It’s an indelible memory of seeing movies as a kid and being overwhelmed by the oversized grandeur that even our run-down old hometown movie house could lend to everything from The Greatest Story Ever Told to the cheesy blue-screen dynamism of the Elvis Presley race-car musical Speedway. How could I not end up a film freak?
That said, I don’t know if I could ever say what the best movie I’ve ever seen actually is. One of the great things about movies is that, despite their being set in celluloid for all time (if we’re lucky), they are remarkably fluid objets d’art. That is, our responses to them are. The degrees to which those responses can vary because of the circumstances of the viewing (was the AC in the theater functioning properly?), the viewer’s mood going in, or the simple passage of time that allows a viewer the necessary experience to be open to a movie that was closed down to them before, can make a single movie seem like a completely different entity depending on any or all of those conditions. Such fluidity makes absolutism in qualifying bests in cinema (or in any art form) a squirrely proposition at best, which is why year-end best lists or all-Time 100 lists should be taken with a grain of salt and a spirit of fun, and not as some inroad to true film scholarship or appreciation.
I can tell you about my experience with the movie I’ve considered my personal favorite since about 1981, however. I was probably not yet 16 years old when I first saw Robert Altman’s Nashville at my hometown theater in Lakeview, Oregon, and my friends and I couldn’t have hated it more. It was everything that we didn’t want from a movie—we found its rambling structure maddening and its attempts to simulate the textures of life pointless. Why would anyone want to see a scene of Ronee Blakely cutting her toenails, or of Keith Carradine disaffectedly bedding woman after woman with no dramatic payoff? And of course a 16-year-old kid from a one-horse town in Southeastern Oregon is probably not going to have too much to bring to Altman’s party anyway (I disccovered later that you do have to bring something)—my friends and I were flush from the thrills of Jaws and were still pretty sure that if Forrest J. Ackerman didn’t talk about a movie within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, why, then it just wasn’t worth discussing.
But back then, in the days before VCRs, revival theaters were still in full swing, and seeing old and new films on the University of Oregon campus was no difficult task—Eugene had one dedicated revival theater, two or three art houses and several campus organization-sponsored screenings every weekend. So, my voracious viewing habits being turned loose on a new and fertile environment, I saw as much as my brain (and my feeble checking account) would permit me to see, and eventually my best friend Bruce encouraged me to go check out Nashville with him. In that tiny little revival house (50 seats at the most) on the third floor of a tiny shopping atrium, I saw Nashville for the second time, and the auditorium was small enough that I’m sure others in attendance could hear something in my brain go “click.” All of the sudden I could understand that there was something going on here that was worth digging into, that it wasn’t just random fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, that there was a design, a purpose, an intelligence (both political and artistic) dwelling within its frames. That screening was as much of a cinematic revelation to me as any I ever had in my college days, and it spurred me on to investigate Altman’s films further.
Of course, in the course of the following year, this director, who inspired much eye-rolling on my part, especially when fellow film students would insist on referring to something as “Altmanesque,” became one of my favorites as well. So much so that by the time my senior year rolled around and the head of the film department offered a comprehensive semester on Altman, somehow, around halfway though the course, my mania for the director had gotten back to my professor, who ended up dubbing me some sort of Altman expert, a point of view bolstered by his enthusiasm for my papers on the subject of the films, and a distinction I wore proudly. (If only he knew how much I disdained Altman a mere two years previous!) When the class got around to Nashville, I made sure I saw all three screenings available to the students on the day it was presented—7:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and the main screening for the whole class at 7:00 p.m. I’d never before, and have never since, seen one movie three times in one day, particularly one as dense and detailed as Nashville, and by the time I got home that night I was exhausted, but buzzing with all the connections that were firing in my head as a result. Needless to say, I got a very good grade that semester.
I’ve seen the movie probably another 10 or so times since then, and it remains, depending on what day you catch me, either at the top, or within the top two or three, on my favorites list. And when the Nashville DVD was finally released in the year 2000, it was a special day for me not only because I could finally have a widescreen copy of the movie in my library, but also because I created the closed-caption and the English-language subtitles for that DVD. Doing that job was a mixture of pure pleasure and agony for me, because the film’s much-noted multi-layered dialogue soundtrack made discerning what dialogue was important and following a through-line that could make sense to deaf viewers, as well as those who wanted to partake in the option of following the dialogue in English in order to better catch important lines that were casually tossed into the mix, a particular challenge. But I lobbied for the job when the project came through our office and ended up doing the entire two and a half-hour movie by myself. It was a grueling, thrilling assignment to view the movie again in probably more detail than I ever had before. It was also especially gratifying when the subtitles were actually mentioned in Premiere magazine’s review of the DVD, which said that one of the best reasons to buy the DVD were the subtitles, which cast a new light and clarity on Altman’s famous overlapping dialogue.
3) Are you drawn to more big-budget studio films, or do you prefer the smaller independent films?
As Bill Murray said in that quintessential independent film from 1979, it just doesn’t matter. I’m drawn to films, whatever their size, budget or point of origin. A fair portion of the worst movies ever made are cynical Hollywood blockbusters and high-gloss Oscar bait, but, at the same time, I don’t think anyone could convince me that Jaws isn’t among the very best thrillers ever made, and you can’t get much more Hollywood blockbuster than that. Nor could you get away with describing Jaws as cynical, even though it was financed and made by a Hollywood studio that, at the time of its production, wasn’t exactly renowned for its commitment to the art of cinema.
On the other hand, the American independent film movement has not exactly panned out as a pure phenomenon sparked solely by creativity. While independent film has produced some significant works in the past 20 years, like Do the Right Thing, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and Down by Law (and movies I think far more highly of, such as The Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko, 25th Hour and Jackie Brown), it has also given birth to its own set of cliches. These usually involve overly moist coming-of-age stories (see the career of Sundance Film Festival prize-winner Edward Burns) or stories of familial reconciliation garnished with hipster signifiers and ungainly quirkiness (Pieces of April, et al.), endless cannibalization of what has come before (including, but not limited to, excessive bowing at the altar of Quentin Tarantino, quite the fine young cannibal himself), fatal self-awareness (see the career of self-made Sundance legend Robert Rodriguez) and the birth of the Miramax monster.
If Sundance ever stood for the opportunity for a filmmaker’s self-expression, it stands twice as much now simply as a high profile event at which Young Hollywood falls all over itself to be seen, as well as for that old standard, a springboard to a high-paying career in which nine out of 10 “winners” subsume whatever unique voice they and their work had in the beginning in order to get the chance to work in Hollywood and churn out the same kind of crap they ostensibly were resisting by participating in Sundance in the first place. And judging by a large percentage of recent Sundance offerings, the independent sensibility and the Hollywood sensibility aren’t that far removed from each other anymore anyway.
The best movies I’ve seen so far this year have been a three-hour documentary shot on video and comprised entirely of a narrator speaking over movie clips dubbed off of VHS tapes of highly varying quality, a thrillingly elastic action comedy that serves as a raucous Cuisinart-style summing-up of a popular genre, another low-budget video documentary that has a lot to say about greed and self-interest in American sports and pop culture. Yet the mainstream comedy Wedding Crashers and the none-too-inexpensive Batman Begins are both likely to be near the top of my list too, come end of the year. I don’t see how I could take film and film appreciation seriously and not have interests that were all over the map. Imagine learning to read and then deciding to limit yourself to Barbara Cartland novels, or Tolstoy, or Emeril Lagasse cookbooks, or Betty and Veronica; imagine honing your craft as an fisherman and throwing back everything that wasn’t a 30-pound steelhead. Pauline Kael once wrote that a varied background of interests served seeing, really seeing films well, because that varied background inevitably reflected and informed the very nature of film itself as a conglomeration and intensification of all the popular arts—literature, performance, painting, photography, even journalism. So I cherish the fact that as I get older my fields of interest in film, writing, sports, seem to be expanding, both forward toward the new (lots of Asian and Middle Eastern cinema that I have yet to really plow into) and back into the past (Turner Classic Movies on cable TV, and the Criterion Collection and Warner Home Video DVD box sets from their classics library have been a constantly renewing film school and have helped me fill in a lot of the holes in my ever-evolving film education).
4) Oscars: good judge of Hollywood's talent, or just a night to sit and make fun of people's clothes?
Every year at my house a small group of friends get together to follow the Academy Awards and tabulate the office Oscar pool, which I coordinate. After 18 years of getting this contest together, I finally won it myself last year, a sweet victory for me in a rare year when my own pick for best picture of the year, Million Dollar Baby, happily coincided with Oscar’s. But the Academy’s track record as an indicator of good taste and lasting quality in films and performances is pretty shoddy—not too many film buffs, critics, or everyday viewers will tell you that they hold up films like Gandhi, Braveheart or Ordinary People as enduring classics or even movies that have the power to remain close to their hearts. However, some of the movies those titles bested for the Oscar crown—Steven Spielberg’s E.T.- The Extra-terrestrial, George Miller’s transcendent Babe, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (a movie I’m not exactly in love with) and David Lynch’s powerful adaptation of The Elephant Man-- are exactly the kinds of films that audiences and critics have turned into classics.
The Oscars, no matter how much they scream and shout otherwise, are a popular election, and as we’ve seen in recent years popular elections are no guarantor that the quality will rise to the top. Actors and directors routinely win awards for political reasons, or because they’ve amassed a body of work that truly was award-worthy and the voting body, to make up for lost opportunities, eventually coalesces and awards them for late-career performances (see Paul Newman and Al Pacino) that aren’t a sliver as good as the good stuff. And the Academy doesn’t even release the numbers on the actual voting, so it’s entirely possible that Sir Richard Attenborough’s terrifically dull biography of the great advocate of nonviolent resistance could have won the award for Best Picture because one more vote was cast for facile consciousness-raising rather than support for a universally admired, and hugely popular, sentimental science fiction story about a little lost alien and the boy who finds him. At least we know that it really only takes about 30% of eligible voters in this country to elect a president.
There’s so much wrong with thinking about Oscar as an arbiter of taste that it’s embarrassing on those not-so-rare occasions when I find myself getting caught up in the drama and suspense and the righteous indignation over a favorite movie’s losses. Oscar night is loads of fun, though, as a people-watching exercise, and the past two years have highlighted some stunning appearances by Kate Winslet, Sophie Okonedo, Sandra Oh and Shoreh Aghdashloo that have kept the males at our party riveted. And it’s also fascinating to listen to Joan Rivers botch simple facts about the people she’s interviewing on the red carpet, and sometimes even admit that she has no idea who they are or what they’re there for. These are the sideshows that make Oscar night as much of a rich tradition in my house as anything else. But I don’t take Oscar’s word for anything when it comes to whether or not a movie is really any good.
5) When you are feeling just all depleted and wiped out, where do you go to renew and refresh and recreate yourself?
I feel depleted and wiped out a lot these days— being a working husband and father of two daughters, ages five and three, has taxed my energies, physical, creative and emphathetic, in ways that I find amazing with the passing of each new day. But therein also lies my renewal. I’ve been really running myself out on a very thin string over the last few months, especially as I try to take advantage of the creative spark this blog has provided and keep up on the heavy workload at the place where I actually get paid to type. So keeping myself fresh and alive and engaged for my girls (all three of them) is a very important goal for me. And my oldest, once very Daddy-centric, has in the past year or so shifted very emphatically to the Mom side of the equation, a development that has affected me more than I ever thought it would. So it really surprised me when the five-year-old asked if she could go grocery shopping with me this past Saturday. Of course I said yes, and for two hours we roamed the aisles, laughed, talked in ways that I’ve always dreamed of talking with a child of mine, and she gladly helped me in any way she could, pulling items off the shelves and putting them in our cart, and offering helpful suggestions regarding potential purchases (most of which she was very understanding about when I politely declined). I realized about halfway through our chore that I was having the most unexpected good time with her at Vons, of all places, and I was so impressed with how helpful she was being that I finally just stopped the cart, picked her up in my arms and told her very sincerely how I’d always wanted to be able to speak to my child and know that she was really hearing me, that she had something to offer in return, and that she really wanted to be with me. There I was, in the frozen pizza aisle, getting all blubbery with my beautiful daughter, and all of the sudden I felt that rush of renewal, of energy that I could be turned right back around and given to her and her sister in ways which I might not even be aware. I finally collected myself and we resumed our shopping. And as we rounded the corner and headed toward Dairy, my little girl walked up beside me, casually put her arm around my waist and continued walking, silently taking in the bounty of cottage cheese and eggs and 2% milk. If there could ever be a claim for heaven in a supermarket, I found it that day. That’s the best kind of rejuvenation for me, knowing that I’m doing the best I can and that somehow it seems to be working for those I love the most.
On perhaps a more superficial level, I find that arriving a couple hours early for an evening baseball game at Dodger Stadium and just drinking in the atmosphere does wonders for my spirit. (It doesn’t hurt if the Dodgers win either). I commented earlier this season to a friend who was with me at one such game that I felt, at moments like this, Dodger Stadium was maybe the best place on Earth. He laughed, but I wasn’t kidding.
And I can always find the comfort, challenge and stimulation, both intellectual and emotional, that I need by watching a really good movie, either in a theater or, more frequently these days, on DVD. Movies, sometimes even ones that aren’t necessarily all that good, can be transportive for me in ways that are clear and obvious, but also sometimes intangible and difficult to articulate. There is still mystery in them to me, and navigating within the mystery, and excitement and wonder, and frustration and contradictory emotions, of those images and sounds all butted up together in fascinating and often revealing ways is a way of relaxing and “shutting down” for me that, if all works well, really isn’t shutting down at all. It’s a form of reengaging when I might feel like doing the exact opposite. I feel lucky that movies can do that for me.
Beege, thanks for the great questions. I’m so sorry for not being concise and economical in my answers, but that’s usually not my style anyway, as much as some have suggested that it should be. I only hope that I didn’t drive you or anyone else to boredom, or distraction, or to a video game or a porn site, anything that’s more interesting than listening to me blather on, and I thank you for the opportunity to engage the subjects and, in the process, find something worth writing about. Here’s another question for you, a movie question for the self–confessed Entertainment Weekly subscriber (I am too, and I’m not too happy about it— but that’s another longwinded story):
What have you seen lately? Anything really good?