Thursday, July 30, 2009


You know you’re living in a city where denial of reality and acceptance of the absurd are the main ingredients in the cocktail everyone seems to be sipping when you can, as I did last night, spend 10 minutes watching a crack local TV meteorologist try to convince the audience, herself, and the befuddled anchors nodding at her shtick nearby that the dropping of temperatures from 98 degrees to 92 degrees constitutes a cooling trend that we all oughta be thankful for. Won’t it be great to finally be able to turn off that AC?! We really needed a break after all that heat earlier in the week!

This is, of course, the same tightly-knit, Live Mega Doppler 7000-addicted band of crack TV meteorologists, operating in that same city of absurd denial, that builds whole news hours around the first drop of rain— “Why are you sitting here watching ‘StormWatch 2009’, dear viewer, when you ought to be in your garage stocking survival supplies and building that ark?!”—and attaches animated icicles to numbers on the seven-day forecast when the temps threaten to dip down to 60 degrees.

I wish it weren’t true, but the fact is, there is no real escape from the heat, not when running the AC for three or four hours an evening gets you a several-hundred-dollar monthly electricity bill, and not when you live in a city of sun worshippers presided over by a media for which the myth of an always-temperate and blue-sky-beautiful Southern California is one that must be perpetuated at all costs.

Which is why horror movies are such a good ticket during the summer months—a really good summer screamer, like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, can give you the kind of deep-seated chills that go way beyond the cooling of the skin provided by central air. And bless your soon-to-be-rotted soul if you can get your claws on one that happens to be set in a wintry environment, thus inviting the visual component to conspire with the narrative to bring your body temperature down to grave-worthy levels. Movies like The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983)-- David Cronenberg does seem to have a way with the desolate chill of winter-- The Thing (versions 1951 and 1982), the climax of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), one particularly icy moment involving Lew Ayres from Damien: Omen II (1978), Let the Right One In (2008) and last summer’s woefully underappreciated The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) are all excellent examples of how to use a frozen landscape to accentuate and inform a sense of dread and fear.

Some of you may also remember an ABC Movie of the Week entitled A Cold Night’s Death, directed by Jerrold Freeman and starring Robert Culp and Eli Wallach as two scientists air-lifted to a remote Arctic research station who find the facility strangely abandoned, a group of research monkeys in a near-frozen state, and lots of indicators that something has not gone according to plan. This TV-movie occupies a special place in the hearts of many of my generation’s movie genre thrill-seekers, and it’s been famously difficult to find, showing up for the occasional late-night showing when local stations still actually still ran late-show movie programming, but rarely screened since infomercials became the all-nighter’s TV anesthesia of choice. Thankfully, someone has actually posted the entire movie on YouTube, and should you choose to watch this video, you may be in for a viewing that’s even closer to your memory of seeing the movie than you thought possible. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but it looks as though whoever posted this sat in front of an old tube TV screen and shot it with a video camera. The result is an extremely eerie recreation of that staying-up-late-at-night-when-you-were-a-kid frisson of terror that was often part and parcel of catching up with scary movies on TV in the ‘70s. To whoever posted this gem, I thank you profusely, and I forgive in advance anyone who feels they must stop reading this now, shut off all the lights in the room, and make friends with the fuzzy, glowing, intermittently unstable imagery from this posting of A Cold Night’s Death.

But if you decide to continue reading, then feel free to add Jaume Collet-Serra’s spectacularly unnerving Orphan to that short list of superb wintry horror tales. Set in Connecticut during the blustery snowbound months, the movie knows how to exploit that frosty climate—a couple of its more harrowing outdoor set pieces are enhanced by the sense of fear created by the landscape feeling different, less hospitable, less inhabitable, more dangerous. As in those other movies, Orphan cannily externalizes the sense of things not being quite under control by plunging us into this environment so often associated with seasonal joy and familial closeness, where unexpected cracks in the ice can form under our feet, or vehicles can go sailing off slick roads into horrible peril, or toward unaware victims. But the chill in the air surrounding Orphan is only nominally due to its frozen setting. The movie, by means psychological and cinematic, means to put a freeze on your nerves, and that it pretty handily does is a credit to an exceedingly clever script (by David Johnson and Alex Mace) and Collet-Serra’s prodigious talent for throwing the audience’s expectations askew. He does perhaps rely on loud noises and the old "who’s standing behind the refrigerator/medicine cabinet door" trick too much, but so much else about this tale of parental entitlement and fear is so skillfully rendered and low-down effective that I was more than willing to forgive the director these relatively venial sins.

The opening sequence of Orphan will be a very telling indicator of whether you can deal with the shocks the movie has in store. A beatific and pregnant young woman named Kate (Vera Farmiga) is being wheeled into the hospital, her loving husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) by her side, presumably toward the maternity ward where her dreams of becoming a mother are about to come true. The camera hugs the beaming Kate in close-up as a nurse pushes her along, when suddenly we see a look of distress disrupt her glowing face, slowly turning her visage away from joy into a mask of confusion and agony. Kate is obviously in increasingly sharp pain, and yet the nurse never changes the deliberate pace of the wheelchair, never acknowledges the state of her patient except to offer, in a most ghostly, noncommittal tone, “We’re so sorry for your loss, dear.” Loss? Collet-Serra then gives us the first of many sudden shifts in perspective to come, as we see the nurse and patient inching across the wide-screen frame from the point of view of a detached observer from high above, leaving a trail of blood from the abruption occurring inside the woman’s uterine canal along the hospital’s incongruous white shag carpeting. Soon, Kate is strapped to a hospital bed and surrounded with masked surgeons and medical personnel who coolly, callously inform her that she has lost her baby and that an emergency C-section is about to begin. Her screams of denial and horror are met with the happy glance of her husband, himself done up in surgical gown and mask, who continues to aim his video camera at her despite the obviously horrific turn their blissful moment has taken. And he never stops shooting, not even when the nurse pulls a dead, blood-soaked fetus from Kate’s womb and sets it on her chest, a ghastly hello and goodbye rolled into one traumatic moment. At which point Kate screams and wakes up…

Speaking personally, as a father who has witnessed something as horrific, if not as garishly so, as what happens to Kate in her morbidly enhanced nightmare remembrance of profound loss, I had to fight the urge to bolt from the theater during this opening sequence. And had Collet-Serra continued to operate in this weirdly dissociative style of De Palma-tinged surgical theater of horror, who knows how much I could have/would have taken? Fortunately, the director gives us this peek into Kate’s tortured psyche as a way of grounding her psychologically and filling out Farmiga’s choices in playing the character in a way that a simple back story—and everyone here has a back story laced with tragedy—would not do nearly so completely. The movie is not, as one might reasonably expect from the prologue, a grisly freak show a la Takashi Miike, but instead a portrait of how tragedy can unravel even the most perfect-seeming of families and make them vulnerable to outside forces that will personify and exploit the interpersonal instability and mistrust that already exists. During her waking hours Kate, a musician with an alcohol problem who spends her days as a housewife after losing her teaching job at Yale, really is reeling from the stillbirth of a child. She and John, an architect who presumably designed their dazzling postmodern hillside home, channel the reaction to their trauma into a strong desire to adopt. The desperate zeal to patch this hole in their life with an older “sister” to join their two biological children, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Max (a deaf five-year-old played by the remarkable Aryana Engineer), leads them to an orphanage with a none-too-strict policy on background checks. It’s here where they meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, shockingly good), a preternaturally self-possessed nine-year-old Russian girl who dazzles the couple with her artistic ability, her sweet nature, and the pained perspective of the lost child she projects with apparent sincerity, which plays directly into the couple’s savior fantasies of providing for a child in need.

Of course, Esther soon reveals a malevolent side. She orchestrates a playground accident that seriously injures a schoolyard enemy. She puts a bird out of its misery with a rock after Daniel wounds it and cannot bring himself to finish the job. She subtly threatens and emotionally blackmails little Max into assisting her in a series of increasing devilish deeds, at one point pulling a revolver on the guileless child. (“Want to play?” she coolly inquires, removing all but one bullet, spinning the chamber and pointing it at Max’s head. “Perhaps later.”) Something about Esther’s artistic abilities— her mastery of Tchaikovsky on the piano, her increasingly elaborate paintings— also suggests that someone has not provided the whole story on this cinematic descendant of evil little Patty McCormick, and the ones most skillfully holding back on the big picture are the cast and director of Orphan. Truly, if Ms. McCormick was The Bad Seed, there is increasingly little doubt that Esther is the worst.

If it seems I have spent too much time detailing the roots of the horror Collet-Serra and company have concocted, it’s because to reveal much more would be in violation of the pact this movie makes with its audience to peel back ever-escalating levels of disturbing, psychologically believable behavior by means of a surprising level of horror filmmaking craft. (Stay away from any review that wants to talk about the plot in any kind of detail.) Collet-Serra’s previous horror outing, the Dark Castle productions remake of House of Wax, was a decent effort, marred by a slew of obnoxious stock characters who seemed much more pleasant smothered under molten paraffin. As enjoyable as it was for us, it was apparently a waste of time for him, so much more accomplished is his work here. As I said before, Collet-Serra tends to overdo a certain variety of stock horror movie shocks, but he just as often adds an extra touch—an unexpected camera angle, a beat or two longer for us to twist in the wind before the anticipated jolt arrives with not quite the timing we expected—that enriches the sense of our being guided by someone who has a true knack for harvesting gooseflesh.

It also helps that Orphan features probably the best cast, top to bottom, of any horror movie in recent memory, from familiar faces to rosy-cheeked children who we’ve never seen before. Farmiga, an actress who I frequently find annoying, uses her reputation for portraying ineffectual authority figures (see The Departed) to throw us off the trail of what she has charted out for this character. She plumbs the depths of despair, all right, but there’s an unexpected strength, an exhilarating anger that surfaces in Kate which makes her resistance of Esther, and their ultimate conflict, fraught with multiple, creepy levels of resonance. She also expresses fear and horror extremely well, adding strange physical ticks and vocal hiccups to her flailing about that communicate the character’s disorientation and desperation with frightening, if ironic, assurance. Sarsgaard has a more thankless role, the disbelieving spouse who is so eager to give Esther the benefit of the doubt, against all reason it sometimes seems, that he ends up in the Compromised Position of All Compromised Positions. (How’s that for vague, spoiler hounds?) Even so, he retains a measure of sympathy because he seems genuinely conflicted between his duty to believe his wife and his duty as an adopted father. As mentioned earlier, Bennett and particularly Engineer are excellent child actors asked to go well beyond what one might think someone so young could make believable, and they achieve their goals with brilliance. There’s even room for quality character actors like CCH Pounder as an ill-fated orphanage nun and Margo Martindale, for once not being asked to play white trash, as Kate’s far-too-even-keeled therapist.

But the real praise belongs to Isabelle Fuhrmann, who will, whatever else her career holds in store (and her future does indeed look bright), forever be Esther, a child who harbors depths of foulness far deeper than we will, thanks to the clever screenplay and Fuhrmann’s prepossessed facility as an actress, ever be able to accurately guess. Speaking in a light Russian accent that turns from sing-song to deathly hollow in a twitch, Fuhrmann delivers the goods, drawing us in with misplaced sympathy even when we know we’re one step ahead of the hapless family in the story. The movie invites speculation throughout about Esther’s origins, her motivation, but as it becomes clearer and clearer that Collet-Serra and company have something up their sleeves that is far worse than what we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine, Fuhrmann rises to the occasion with a fury and a camp (as well as vamp) haughtiness that places the movie in the vicinity of one of Brian De Palma’s great sick jokes. Late in the game, when her face grows sallow and sunken and she embarks on the final stages of an inevitable course of execution, the audience realizes, with great shock and giddy satisfaction, that we weren’t as ahead of the game as we thought. Fuhrmann, so young and talented, drives home the movie’s final conceit like a stake in the audience’s collective heart, with the pitch-black glee of an instant icon of horror. All the way home from the theater, it seemed every bus kiosk was lit with her terrifying visage from the movie’s advertising campaign. But it wouldn’t have done any good to close my eyes. Esther, and Orphan, is one for nightmares.


This may come as a surprise (not really-- I just felt like being a smart-ass), but movies set in the sweltering heat can give you chills too. Especially when they’re made with the exceptional craft and sense of fun that Greg Maclean brings to Rogue (2007), a giant crocodile movie set in Australia’s forbidding Northern Territory that fuses the templates of Jaws and Friday the 13th, but ups the ante on the Jason movies by providing us with a cast of potential croc meals that we actually don’t want to see get masticated on screen. Maclean directed the notorious outback slasher pic Wolf Creek (2005), which sports a reputation cruel and gruesome enough to cause me to avoid it thus far. It may be equally well-crafted, but something tells me I can do without another torture wallow at this point. Rogue, however, is vicious, good fun, and it betrays a sly sense of humor right from the start. A cynical travel writer (Michael Vartan) stumbles into an outback bar and grill where the walls are papered with news accounts of grisly croc attacks. He’s waiting for a tour boat to take him up river, and while the friendly clerk behind the counter readies him a cup of tea, he takes a cell phone call from Chicago, which naturally gets peppered with static and drop-outs. “Really bad service here,” Vartan complains to the barely audible colleague on the other end. It’s a complaint the clerk overhears and mistakes for a comment on his demeanor and that of his establishment, which he answers by stirring a dead fly or two into the steaming teacup. This is only the first of many grim jokes the forbidding, bug-infested back country will play on this guy. The movie’s visual strategy is to reveal the beauty of the harsh Northern Country from a distance—the lush cinematography revels in a portrait of lush, untamed, eye-popping wilderness—and contrast it with the brutality of the country seen up close. (Rogue ends on a spectacular shot vaulting up out of the dangerous canyons, a reversal of the movie’s pictorial terms that accentuates the insignificance of its players in such a indifferent environment.)

Vartan eventually finds his boat, populated by an Airport’s-worth of well-drawn character actors, who manage to do much with the meager screen time they’re allotted—among them Caroline Brazier, Stephen Curry and John Jarratt, Wolf Creek’s bloodthirsty killer. They're all piloted by the boat’s tomboyish captain, played by Radha Mitchell with an earthy appeal that has heretofore eluded me in her previous performances, and eventually joined by Mitchell’s roughneck boyfriend, played by up-and-comer Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation and James Cameron’s Avatar). The boat is eventually run aground on an island mid-river, and the chilling realization that the river is tidal, meaning that the island will soon be underwater as the hour grows later, puts the characters in a race against time as well as a giant set of choppers which results in excruciating and delicious suspense. Maclean takes a crucial cue from Spielberg in playing coy with the reptile’s big reveal. The movie is nearly two-thirds complete before we ever get a glimpse of the magnitude of this monster and, even though it is a creature born largely of computer-generated imagery, it is no disappointment. The director is also sly enough to throw us off in terms of anticipating who is next on the croc’s menu, and when. Rogue makes clever use of close-ups and our familiarity with the genre’s conventions to keep us both off balance and intimately tied into the fates of its characters. You may surface at this end of this movie—a straight-to-video treat from the Weinstein’s Dimension label that is so much more satisfying than most of the movies that company successfully brought to theaters over the past few years—amazed at this lean, mean thriller’s ability to breathe life into the most rudimentary of premises. Rogue proudly wears its genre cred on its mosquito-bitten sleeves, amped by the singular thrill that only seeing a man swallowed whole by a eight-meter-long croc, bones crunching and snapping all the way down, can offer. For fans of a good monster movie well-told this is spine, and skull, and leg-cracking good news indeed, mate.


Finally, if it’s still hot here in Los Angeles on August 14, and God knows it most likely will be, you can check out the air-conditioning at the New Beverly Cinema, where an organization by the name of Vampire-Con will be kicking off its festival of All Things Vampire with a mini film festival devoted to cinematic bloodsucking. You’ll be able to see The Lost Boys, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in The Hunger, Stephanie Rothman’s exploitation classic The Velvet Vampire, and the one I’m most happy to see back on the big screen, Robert Quarry as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). American International’s popular foray into vampirism in modern-day Los Angeles, which jumped the gun on Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 by two years, is often crude, and its attempts to exploit its Southern California locations resulted more often in clumsy staging and slack pacing rather than documentary verisimilitude. (And it is a pretty good joke, setting a movie about night-dwelling vampires in the world capital of sun-dappled hedonism.) But the movie, despite its flaws, remains capable of delivering the jolts along with the sly (and not-so-sly) sexuality that was just beginning to be fully exploited by horror films of the time. Count Yorga (Quarry) plays host to a séance conducted in the hopes of contacting the dead mother of a young lady in attendance. Surrounded by her friends (including Michael Murphy in an early role), Yorga hypnotizes the woman ostensibly to reduce her hysterics, but uses the occasion to plan the post-hypnotic suggestion that she become his slave and do as he commands. Of course, Yorga has no good intentions by our heroine, and she soon finds herself, along with a couple of other comely young maidens, part of Yorga’s harem of the undead. When Murphy and a physician friend (played by character actor Roger Perry) discover what’s going on and set their sights on Yorga’s undoing, the movie lurches toward its satisfying finale, which remains somewhat shocking today.

Count Yorga, Vampire was a key movie for me growing up—I saw it when I was about 11 years old, and my taste of horror, while already well-established by the likes of Dark Shadows and the occasional Universal monster movie on Saturday afternoon TV, was just finding its way toward more explicit, bloody fare, as well as more explicitly eroticized takes on vampire lore. (Those scenes featuring Yorga and his slinky minions did a whole lot more than just scare me.) Yorga was an essential stepping stone toward perhaps more vital, solidly imagined tales of terror; it doesn’t have the weight of a real horror classic, but it’s still a lot of fun, even seen through the eyes of someone who has witnessed 38 years worth of horror duds and masterpieces in the interim. Quarry, however, is masterful in a part that I wish could have yielded more than just the one (very good) sequel. He trades sympathy for sheer animalistic force, upping the ante even on the number of fangs necessary to draw satisfying drink from the neck of his victims, and if his portrait lacks subtlety, it does not lack primal, visceral potency. Seeing Count Yorga, Vampire at the New Beverly will undoubtedly provide goose bumps of different varieties—the ones generated by a good horror show, to be sure, but also, for me, ones brought on by the revisiting of a key movie in my development as a true believer in all the famous monsters of filmland, one that hinted at the many possibilities I would soon discover within the telling of stories in this most mutable and flexible of genres. That chill in the air on August 14 might be the New Beverly’s air-conditioning—I hope it will be—but I look forward to allowing myself to imagine that it might also be the damp chill of the catacombs beneath Castle Yorga.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


If you’re familiar with the little “On the Marquee” shortcut on the sidebar of this blog, you probably know that throughout the year I only write about 5% of the movies I actually see. Some of that is due to how much time I can actually devote to writing, and some of it is due to sheer laziness. (I usually try to make up for these shortcomings in my year-end posts.) But whether I write about a movie or not, I try to find interesting pieces—reviews, essays, whatnot—about each title to make available at a click, whether or not those pieces represent my own point of view. (The four-star system, a bit of shorthand from which I just don’t seem to be able to fully divorce myself, takes care of that in a pinch when all else fails. Thanks, Mr. Maltin.) And one of the critics I seem to turn to most frequently in “On the Marquee” is Salon magazine’s senior film critic, Stephanie Zacharek, whose work I have admired for years, even on those occasions when we disagree, as representative of the kind of writing about movies that, by design and insistence of deadline, must understand the movie in its moment, but is also cognizant and respectful of the richness of film history, which is frequently accessed and encompassed in the work she does. She’s smart, funny, and she loves The Lady Eve. What else do you need to know? Well, if that question is more than a rhetorical one, you’ve arrived at the right post. Recently Stephanie, who through her warm and friendly demeanor has fast become one of my favorite people, agreed to sit down with me for a webcam conversation via Skype (She’s in Brooklyn, I’m in Glendale) about as many things as we could pack into a hour—growing up with the movies, meeting Pauline Kael, movies she loves to stand up for, film criticism in the age of Internet interactivity, and much, much more. At some point I forgot I was supposed to be conducting an interview and, for me, it became more of a relaxed conversation. I sincerely hope that our time, transcribed here, is as much fun for you to read as it was during the moment for the two of us. She has a standing invitation to return to these pages anytime. We start, as most stories do, at some sort of beginning. (Cue 20th Century Fox theme music.)


Dennis Cozzalio: When did the movies first become important for you?

Stephanie Zacharek: Well, I was very little. I guess the first movies I really remember watching—I would watch the Creature Feature on Saturday afternoon, stuff like that, and I would watch Monday Night at the Movies on one of the TV networks, whatever was on there. I had an older sister who was really into black-and-white classic movies—Fred Astaire and that kind of thing. And in those days—this was before videos and VCRs, ashamed and embarrassed to say—you had to stay up really late to see anything like this. Luckily, I had very permissive parents who allowed me to stay up, but who really didn’t know what I was doing half the time! (Laughing) So I’d stay up late with my sister, and sometimes by myself, or with my mom, even, and would watch these old movies.

And then when I got a little bit older—PBS used to do these series of foreign films, and when I was about 12 years old that’s when I saw Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Jules and Jim-- And that one really blew my mind—“People actually live like this?!” And for a long time I watched whatever PBS offered up. It’s funny to think that a lot of times people say, “Oh, my kids won’t watch anything with subtitles.” And as a kid myself I don’t even remember making the distinction between a movie with subtitles and one without them. But that was probably the first time I ever became conscious of them as, I don’t want to say “more than entertainment,” but I would look at these movies and realize, Okay, this is a cut above the average made-for-TV movie you’d see on the ABC Movie of the Week. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Thomasina, a Walt Disney movie about a cat with three lives or something like that who ends up using her three lives. Of course I loved it and managed to get them to take me to see it again. But it wasn’t like I came from a big movie-going family or anything like that.

DC: Did you grow up in a small town?

SZ: I grew up in Syracuse, upstate. So, no repertory house, nothing like that. I’m kind of envious of people who grew up in New York or San Francisco or Boston who had access to all this stuff, because that was definitely not the case with me. I was out in the boondocks.

DC: Me too. I suspect my parents looked at movies in much the same way yours did. My parents weren’t overly interested in them either, so it’s always been a source of curiosity for me to try and trace back and figure out where my interest in the movies came from.

SZ: Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it? I know Charlie, my husband (film critic Charles Taylor), his dad was very cool and took him to see The Godfather and things like that when Charlie was far too young to see them on his own, which is great. And I remember I went to see Saturday Night Fever with my mother because she had a crush on John Travolta. But otherwise, I really don’t know where it comes from. You find them on your own, and they stick.

DC: I remember having to work very hard to talk my mother into taking me to see Dirty Harry at a drive-in when I was 11.

(SZ laughs)

DC: But that tactic backfired on me several times. I fooled my parents into taking me to see Deliverance--

SZ: Oh, my God.

DC: “Look, Dad, they’re carrying a canoe. It’s a nature movie! This’ll be fun!” I even knew what was coming, and so I ended up sitting between them as the movie is starting and then I realize, “Oh, no. What have I done?” And they weren’t too happy with me afterward. (Both laugh) Yeah, I saw the movie, but at what price?!

SZ: The other thing that was key for me was, my mother was a secretary for Syracuse University, and they would have The New Yorker in the waiting room of the administration building. I was about 12, and she came home with big stacks of them, and I would go through them and read the cartoons, and I’d look at some of the articles but just end up thinking, this is boring! But then I started flipping to the back and I realized that they had movie reviews that were written by Pauline Kael. I knew her name because my mom used to watch The Dick Cavett Show, and occasionally when I would watch with her Pauline would be a guest, so I knew of her from there. But I started reading these reviews and I immediately loved them because I felt she was obviously this incredible writer and intellectual, I never felt like she was writing above my head. What she was doing seemed very accessible and very vivid to me. And she was writing about movies, most of which I hadn’t seen. Most of them I would not see for 10 or 20 years. But she opened up a world, in a way. Reading her made me feel like I had all this stuff waiting for me. At some point when I was older and autonomous, I could go and see this stuff for myself. That was really important to me. But that was a reading experience, not a film-watching experience, and it kind of reinforced some of these other interests in my life that were simmering.

DC: What did Pauline Kael mean to your development as a writer? Did you ever meet her?

SZ: Yeah, I did meet her, and I would say she was a friend. I knew her for the last 10 years of her life. I met her in 1990 through my husband, Charlie. I remember him talking about her and saying, “Would you like to meet her?” And of course I said, “No!” (Laughs) He kept saying, “You’ll love her, she’ll love you.” So eventually we drove out to Great Barrington to see her one day—we were living in Boston at the time—and the first thing I remember—She was a very tiny woman, and by the time I met her she was quite a bit older, so she’d probably shrunk even a little bit more. So we go to the door, and here’s this very small person peering at us from behind the screen. At the time my hair was very long, halfway down my back, kinda wild, and she said, “Oh, you have Annette O'Toole's hair!” (Laughing). That immediately put me at ease.

DC: The Pauline Kael ice-breaker.

SZ: Yeah! I was nervous, but I wasn’t really intimidated by her in that way that a lot of people talk about. After that we would see her occasionally or talk on the phone. It was a little weird meeting and getting to know this person you had been reading for years and not just respected, but sort of revered. And it was the first time in my life where I had this instance of getting to know someone as a person as well as a writer or an artist. She was very important to me, and in the time that I knew her— (Pauses) I have to say I’ve become very protective of her legacy. There were a lot of people who were friends of hers at one time, and some of them waited until after she died-- and some didn’t-- to start tearing her down. Of course, one thing that people have often said about her is, “She only liked male critics. She didn’t want to have anything to do with women.” Well, there weren’t that many women film critics, so I don’t know if that really holds water. And a lot of men ended up saying things like, “Well, you could never disagree with her. She would never allow it.” So how does that work? You couldn’t stand up to her, or you wouldn’t? It seems to me if you disagree with somebody and you don’t say so or you’re afraid to make your case, or you lose the argument every time, that’s not the other person’s fault. And because she was so incredibly brainy, you would get into conversations with her where you couldn’t argue her down. But that’s not the same as saying she wouldn’t allow you to have your own opinion. Someone not allowing you to think for yourself—

DC: Who would want to spend time with someone like that?

SZ: Exactly. And how would that even work? It’s like the Eleanor Roosevelt thing—nobody can make you a victim without your consent.

DC: The first time I saw Pauline Kael was on The Mike Douglas Show, and I remember even just as a viewer being kind of intimidated by her because she seemed so smart, she took herself seriously, but she had a sense of humor. I wasn’t used to seeing people who were that composed, so sure of themselves. Then, in college I picked up a copy of Reeling because I recognized her name, and that was all it took. I feel like an important, influential moment in my life can definitely be demarcated at the point where I first encountered that book.

SZ: She was so influential, even to those who don’t like her or consider themselves “fans.” At this point I think it’s really ridiculous that you have to be in the Kael camp or the Sarris camp. Andrew Sarris is a sweet guy and a wonderful critic—it’s just a very different approach. Maybe in the days of “Circles and Squares” you really would have to draw a line in the sand, but at this point perpetuating this feudal sensibility is ridiculous. But at the same time, that people go out of their way to tear her down now- I think it’s pointless. There are still people who think that if you were friends with her or if you were influenced by her, you’re somehow still getting your cues from her from beyond the grave.

DC: Speaking of influence, as you mentioned earlier, you’re married to a film critic. I can’t imagine that you don’t have moments when you disagree with Charlie about something.

SZ: (Laughs)

DC: How does that work for you two? I once posed the question on one of my quizzes, Is there a movie, piece of art, whatever , that should the person with whom you were having a relationship expressed great love for something you thought was a piece of crap, would that be the deal-breaker? And I’ve always wondered that about people in relationships who share a profession in which the cultivation of personal ideas about art is front and center. How does that work? Do you get into a lot of arguments about movies?

SZ: Not so much. Charlie and I share a sensibility. We often tend to like the same things, even though we often don’t like them for the same reasons. That’s one thing that has sometimes been kind of difficult during the course of our relationship and our professional lives. You always hear, “Oh, they always like the same things. Their 10-best lists are always identical.” And often I feel it’s a kind of sexist way of reacting, like saying I can’t think for myself, I take my cues from him—that always seems to be the subtext, and don’t even get me started on that. But we do disagree. For example, recently we went to the screening of Public Enemies, and because there were so many people there we couldn’t sit together. I pretty much liked the movie, aside from some misgivings. Afterward I went out to the lobby and I find Charlie, and he’s kind of fuming and he says, “Somebody needs to kick Michael Mann’s ass!” “So you didn’t like it?" And he starts explaining to me why he didn’t like it. “The camera’s all shaky, and I’m so sick of the shaky camera thing--” “I know, I’m sick of it too.” But it’s interesting—if I’m sitting with him, I can tell whether or not he’s with something. So the fact that we were sitting apart was interesting, because I really didn’t know until afterward. But at this point we’ve known each other so long, disagreements on movies are like anything else—you just talk it out: ”I think you’re full of shit,” or whatever. But the deal-breaker question is an interesting one. I do have a friend who had a girlfriend at one point, and we were out for drinks and talking, and he said, “I showed her The Lady Eve and she didn’t like it.” And I just looked at him said, “Are you sure about this girl?” (Laughs)

DC: Okay, I didn’t think I had one, but you might have uncovered one of my deal-breakers with that little anecdote.

SZ: Yeah, I think that would qualify for me too. And by the way, that relationship did not last, and I knew it wouldn’t. I didn’t want to be too harsh, but—

DC: Somewhat related to that, is there a movie you feel you’ve really had to stand up for when everyone else was booing and hissing? Charlie’s piece on Showgirls really turned my head around on that movie—he was writing about it in a way that no one else seemed capable of, seemed willing to. I didn’t see the movie again for about another couple of years after I read that essay, but when I did it was literally as if I’d never seen the picture before. There was something about the way that he chose to understand that movie, how he took it seriously enough to write about the movie on the screen rather than the one everyone had already decided was so irredeemably bad, that was so unusual and gratifying. I’ve since tried to be as persuasive as he was about Showgirls, but I don’t think it’s had very much of the same effect. Is there a movie like that for you?

SZ: There are a couple. I really loved Masked and Anonymous, the Bob Dylan movie that everyone hated. That thing got universally trashed and it’s considered a fiasco, and nobody ever talks about it now. But I loved that movie. And I remember people who really should have known better coming out of it and saying, “What was that?! That didn’t make any sense! I couldn’t put it together! It wasn’t very linear!” And I kept thinking, have you ever actually listened to a Bob Dylan song? Because there’s really a lot going on in that movie, and it is a little crazy, and it does rattle your head, but, really what kind of movie do you want Bob Dylan to make? Well, I really shouldn’t ask that question, because then you get—

SZ, DC: Renaldo and Clara! (Both Laughing)

SZ: But really, what do we expect from this guy? So, Masked and Anonymous is one. Another one that I really love, which is actually not such a tough sell, I have found out, is CQ, the Roman Coppola movie. I adore that movie because it’s so affectionate. It’s one of those movies that could only have been made by the son of someone whose dad has shown them a lot of weird movies—Mario Bava, Danger: Diabolik, and all that stuff. It’s lovely and beautifully made. No one went to see it in theaters, but when it came out on DVD—When Charlie and I find DVDs really cheap, in the discount bins, five dollars or whatever, if we find something we love we’ll buy up chunks of them and give them to deserving people or people we think might like them. We did that with CQ, and I can’t remember giving it to anyone who didn’t like it. People would watch it and say, “Oh, my God, how did I miss this?” And it’s the only movie Roman Coppola has ever made, as far as I know—he’s primarily a second unit director for other people. I really feel protective of movies like that. Sometimes people can be so automatically dismissive of things. You see something on a bad day, you’re in a bad mood—

DC: That was precisely my experience with CQ. I went into it knowing that writers I respected thought pretty highly of it, and I fell asleep midway through. And I put that more on seeing it at home than anything else—the home-viewing environment is, if anything, too comfortable for me at times. I need to take myself out where I know I can’t just flop at will—I automatically feel more aware and receptive in a theater. So when I miss something at home for those reasons, I usually file that movie away and try to get back to it. I don’t want to be dismissive of a movie because it’s usually not the movie’s fault if I can’t keep my eyes open. So I’ll put CQ at the top of that list.

SZ: Maybe you should look at Speed Racer again…

DC: (Laughs) This is the part where I storm out of the interview.

SZ: (Laughs)

DC: I want to talk a little bit about the interactivity with your readers. You’re in a position as a critic where you hear a lot from people who are reading your stuff. I used to look at the comments after one of your reviews, or one of David Edelstein’s, just to gauge the reaction to what you wrote. But it has gotten to the point where I can almost predict the reaction, particularly if you’re talking about a big blockbuster summer release where many people already have so much invested in the anticipation of the movie, because of marketing or advance write-ups or whatever, that, goddamn it, it’s got to be good, and don’t tell me otherwise. "You knew you weren’t going to like it, so why did you review it?" I get the feeling if you said to your editor, “Gee, I don’t think I’m gonna like this one—"

SZ: Yeah, that would go over really well!

DC: And of course, whenever I see this kind of response to something a critic has written, I always think, why are you reading a serious critic in the first place if you’re going to be so thin-skinned
about they write? Is this attitude something you encounter often?

SZ: I encounter it a lot, but the one thing that I have come to terms with is that there’s a difference between readers and commenters. I often suspect, though this is certainly not true across the board, that those whose reactions are most outraged may have only read the deck, or the first paragraph, and no more. Some people try to engage with the ideas I’ve written about, or challenge a particular observation, but sometimes the comments are weirdly personal or along the lines of, “Oh, she never likes any action movies or comedies.” I’ve been reviewing for Salon since 1996—I could point to any number of exceptions to that kind of assertion. I don’t like to have to make that kind of distinction (about readers vs. commenters), but it’s not like the people who come to your blog who are interested in movies, interested in talking about them and having a dialogue where they want to know what you think. You draw a very specific kind of engaged reader. I’m not saying you don’t get crackpots, because there’s always going to be an element of that. But Salon is very easily accessible from Rotten Tomatoes, for one thing. I think that’s how a lot of people found The Dark Knight review. It’s less that those readers come to Salon every Friday to see what I think. It was more like they went on Rotten Tomatoes and looked for the people who didn’t like The Dark Knight, clicked on those names and came on over. I mostly tend not to read those comments, however. Sometimes I’ll read them months after the fact, just out of curiosity.

DC: Well, it’s one thing if someone is there to present an honest argument or challenge you factually, but really, so many of those kinds of comments I see are from people who are there just to pop off and see their names on the Internet.

SZ: One of the great things about writing for Salon, and this has been true since the very beginning, and I absolutely love this about it, is that people do have access to you. I know it might sound like I’m contradicting what I just said, but I realized in the late ‘90s I would write a review and, hey, people could send me an e-mail! I would get letters—some of them very nice, agree or not agree, and sometimes they wouldn’t be so nice—but sometimes they were just normal, engaged, interesting people who only wanted to be able to make their case. I felt like I had this relationship with them. And now you can’t have an online publication without having that interactive arm where people can just post their comments. And what it means is that I actually get less interaction because fewer people write to me directly. I mean, anyone can e-mail me. But I get fewer letters sent to me directly than I used to because I think people may feel posting a comment is the same thing, or maybe it’s more convenient.

DC: I love that close interaction with the readers I have, but something I don’t get much of here is that kind of interaction with people who seem as if they are actively trying not to understand your point of view.

SZ: Yeah, and the other thing is, I do hear from enough people to know that the people who are actually reading the reviews from start to finish-- and agreeing, disagreeing, it doesn’t matter which—aren’t usually the same ones that are commenting. They’re too busy with their lives. I mean one guy actually went through the archives and his criticism was, “Stephanie Zacharek likes the word ‘hangdog’ an awful lot!” And he did a search and found every time I had used the word “hangdog” in a piece going back to 1997. Maybe there were 10 or 12 instances over a period of 12 years! (Laughs). Somebody actually commented about that and said, “You have too much time on your hands,” and he responded, “It only took three minutes!” Well, even three minutes—

DC: A friend and I have been thinking about something lately, and I would like to know what you think. You, as a critic, seem to be more open, I won’t say to every silly comedy that comes around the bend, but you’ve come to the defense of a lot of silly movies that many critics and moviegoers have just tended to dismiss outright as being beneath consideration or, well, silly. I’m thinking of stuff like the Will Ferrell movies-- Anchorman, or even Land of the Lost, which I suspect I liked more than you did. But I heard people getting actively annoyed by that movie, and I’m curious as to what they expected. Do you get a sense that blatant silliness is more likely to be rejected by audiences these days?

SZ: I think you’re right. Comedy is so delicate.

DC: And maybe this is what accounts for the some of the dourness in our superhero/fantasy movies these days. We don’t take our mythologizing as seriously if there’s a detectable sense of humor involved.

SZ: Comedy is difficult to write about too. That’s another thing.

DC: It’s easy for me to just find myself repeating all the jokes and passing that off as a review. And when you try to figure out why it’s funny, that’s a real show killer.

SZ: That’s one of the great pleasures of the movies is just to give yourself over. “This is ridiculous. Why am I laughing?” Isn’t that what you want? One of my favorite people to see a comedy with is David Edelstein, because sometimes the oddest things will get him giggling. We saw The Animal together, the Rob Schneider movie, which is totally stupid and not very good, but he started giggling at some dumb gag, and then I started giggling—Maybe it could skew your critical judgment, this kind of response, but what does that even mean, if something does or doesn’t make you laugh?

DC: You write about movies for a living, and movies are an art form that derive their effects and approaches and pleasures from the combination of all of the other arts, so obviously it takes more than just an knowledge of movies to write well about them. What do you like to read about or think about that is not related to the movies that informs your understanding of them?

SZ: Well, I was a pop music critic before I was a movie critic, and for me music is really, really hard to write about. I did it for four or five years on a freelance basis, and it became so difficult that I think I was really ready to give it up.

DC: I credit you and Charlie with turning me on to Fountains of Wayne, by the way.

SZ: Oh, I love Fountains of Wayne! Did you see That Thing You Do? Adam Schlesinger wrote the title song from that movie. I love that. It’s genius. But really, one of the reasons I loved writing about movies is that you could pull together all of these things—literature, sound, music, to an extent. You’re watching what a director is doing, where he or she is putting the camera, what’s going on with the script, the vibe and the strategy of the cinematography. There’s so much going on in movies that I think a steady diet of only movies is very bad. You have to live a life and pursue other interests, because otherwise you have nothing to hang the movies on. I can see how you could get sucked into it though—you could fill up your life just watching movies.

DC: So many film school graduates are adept with a camera, but they haven’t lived a life that they could tell through the films they make.

SZ: Exactly. And that extends to a lot of young critics, who are just all movies all the time. They’ve seen a lot of stuff—sometimes more stuff than I’ve seen. They’re very movie literate, which is great, but you really do have to make room for other things. So I do listen to music, and I read -- probably not as much as I should, but I try to keep up. You know, I really like to sew. It’s hard to find time to do it, but I make a lot of my own clothes. I don’t think it’s related to movies at all, except that I like seeing the way things go together. Fabric is flat, two-dimensional, and I love sewing it into a shape based on a pattern. There’s a lot of problem-solving, and it’s also completely nonverbal—it’s just visual and tactile.

DC: So, how is 2009 shaping up, movie-wise, in your view?

SZ: Well, I don’t think it’s been a particularly great year so far. Often I find that by May or June I have three, four, maybe five movies that might possibly go on my ten-best list. This year, maybe the Assayas movie, Summer Hours, which I think is lovely. Two Lovers, the James Gray movie which, if you missed it, is out now on DVD. Charlie was just waving it in front of my face, like, “Don’t forget this one!”

DC: What did you think of Tyson?

SZ: I haven’t seen Tyson yet, but I really need to. That movie has gotten a lot of interesting and varied reactions. Oh, and The International!

DC: Yeah! I liked that one too. There’s a good example of a movie that seems to have fallen victim to advance received wisdom about it being bad.

SZ: It opened the Berlin Film Festival, and I was there, and the buzz on it was very weird. A lot of the European critics didn’t like it, and I think the sense of it was that Tom Tykwer was this German director of great promise, and he had sort of let people down by making a movie that was too Hollywood. So the American critics in Berlin kind of followed suit because the Americans don’t want to be seen as unsophisticated. Everyone was saying things like, “Oh, The International wasn’t that good,” and I couldn’t believe they didn’t see how subtle it was and how beautiful it was to look at. I found one Italian critic who felt the same way about it that I did, and we kind of clung together and developed these theories about why- I mean, he said he felt European critics just simply thought it was too American. I love going to festivals, and the Berlin Film Festival is particularly lovely, but you are in this world of critics where these professionals become afraid to render a dissenting opinion. There’s a very strong sense that everybody kind of decides what the good movies are—

DC: And that generalized sense of a movie’s worth does filter down to not only critics and executives at festivals, but it also factors into the way the movie is perceived when it’s finally released in the marketplace.

SZ: It’s true, because those of us who don’t go to the festivals look at the festival coverage and make conscious or subconscious note that, oh, this one didn’t get such great notices at Cannes or wherever. I don’t go to that many festivals myself, but since I have been going I’ve learned to take those initial festival reports and roundups with a grain of salt in most cases, because it’s hard not to be affected by your colleagues. Part of that is because it’s a social atmosphere and you are talking and exchanging ideas, and because you don’t have much time you may say to someone, “Have you seen anything good?” And they’ll tell you, “Oh, see Ten Canoes, or see this little Romanian movie.” So in a way you need to have that interaction with other critics, even though it can be a double-edged sword.

DC: It would seem that a lot of it might also come down to your own confidence in your ability to assess things for yourself rather than get swept up in whatever groupthink might be going on. With my blog, I don’t have time to write about everything or see everything, so the ones I usually gravitate toward writing about are the ones that may be overlooked in the shadow of the latest blockbuster, or maybe I have an alternate point of view from the consensus. I’m not trying to be consciously contrarian, and there are plenty of times when I find myself squarely amongst the pack, but I think it’s a worthy challenge to try to consider why my view might be so different from the majority on a given movie. That’s what’s more interesting to me.

SZ: And also more interesting to read.

DC: I hope so. If it’s well-written, then maybe there’s a reason to read another article about Up, or whatever it might be. Okay, time to start wrapping this up.

SZ: Yes, it’s almost the cocktail hour! (Laughs)

DC: Indeed! Okay, what would be in your movie hall of fame?

SZ: The Lady Eve. The Apu Trilogy. The Rules of the Game. Um, the Godfather movies.

DC: Even Part III?

SZ: No, no, no. When I say the Godfather movies, Part III does not exist. (Laughs). The Wild Bunch. Um… (Pauses and makes hissing sound while considering other titles).

DC: Oh, I thought you were recommending Sssssss!, the snake movie with Strother Martin and Dirk Benedict!

SZ (Laughs) No, not that!

DC: I like that movie!

SZ: Let me see. Also something by Brian De Palma, probably Casualties of War.

DC: Finally, given the events of the past week, do you have any thoughts, as a former music critic or just as an appreciator of pop music, about Michael Jackson? (Jackson died the day before this interview was recorded.)

SZ: Four or five days ago, I just happened to be thinking about “Billie Jean.” I hadn’t heard it in a while, and somehow it got back into my head. My God, what a fabulous, frightening song, you know? And really, I feel like Michael Jackson is somebody we lost long ago. Mourning him at this point is— This is awful to say, but it’s kind of like an afterthought, because I, and so many of us, had to give up on him so long ago. Many times over the years I’d see a film clip of him when he was with the Jackson 5ive, or-- Off the Wall is actually my favorite Michael Jackson period. But when he was little, singing “I Want You Back” or something, I would just look at that face and start to cry. You have this incredible, beautiful kid with an incredible voice and amazing talent as a dancer, even just as a little guy. He was really a born entertainer, but I guess it’s kind of a curse to be a born entertainer in a case like that.

DC: What I find difficult in watching the tributes and people’s attempts to deal with what it is that he meant to them is that so much of it—I mean, to follow the media and the general way the wind has been blowing over the past several years, three or four days ago Michael Jackson was a freak, and now today he’s a saint. There’s an uncomfortable air of sanctimony, especially in the media coverage, after all that’s been written and said. It’s not that I want to wallow in the horrible stuff in this moment. I think I’m just looking for more of an acknowledgment of his complexity.

SZ: You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, right? But I feel like when anyone dies, it’s more respectful to consider the whole of the person. I remember going on the Graceland tour 20 or so years ago, and these glassy-eyed girls would be leading you through the mansion telling you all about Elvis’s life--I’m a big Elvis fan, by the way—and they finally get to the end and they would say, (sing-songy falsetto) “Elvis died of a heart attack.” Well, no, actually he died on the crapper. He was messed up toward the end. He had this very difficult, complicated life. And I think they probably thought it was disrespectful to acknowledge that the guy had any problems or idiosyncrasies… but that’s what makes Elvis Elvis-- a human being and a deity, you know, God and man. (Laughs) That might sound cracked, but we do make these people larger than life.

DC: And the way we deal with that aspect of their legacy is the way we should deal with anything that affects us from an artistic perspective. If you only focus on the warm fuzzies, you’re missing so much more of the total picture of what an artist, or a song, or a film can mean. And when you get to read a good writer, like you, you’re reading someone who’s willing to engage with the uncomfortable stuff too. Maybe that annoys some people when you write about popular cinema, but that’s what gets me on your side, your ability to peel the movie back and really look at it, whether it’s The Dark Knight or Summer Hours or Transporter 3.

SZ: Part of it too is that movies have gotten so strange now—there is, I find, less attention to craftsmanship. A lot of filmmakers are making these big budget movies, and they don’t even know where to put the camera—a lot of hand-held camera shaking all over the place. Put it on a tripod for a while.

DC: That was an interesting point in your review of The Hurt Locker, this resistance to what I’ll call classical filmmaking and letting the camera be an observer, putting it in the right spot to amplify what’s going on. I think Kathryn Bigelow is a brilliant filmmaker, but I wanted a little less of the you-are-there jittery camerawork and more shaping of sequences that were more likely to stay in my head visually.

SZ: I was tough on her, and I did like the movie a lot. I would have been more complimentary, I think, had the movie been made by just a random joe. But because it was her, and she is somebody who knows what she’s doing—I mean, it’s actually a pleasure to write about someone who knows what’s she doing, ‘cause then you can look and find certain things like, “Oh, stealing from Paul Mazursky! No, no, no!” (Laughs). But my thing is, at this point I’m just looking for something that’s alive on the screen. Give me something that has some energy to it—and real energy, not just fast cutting. Or even something as relatively simple as making a woman look beautiful, or lighting someone in a certain way, so much of that seems to have been lost. You just have to grab pleasure wherever you can get it.

DC: When I took my daughter to see The Lady Eve, there was a shot of Barbara Stanwyck early on and she turned to me and said, “Is she real? Does she really look like that?”

SZ (laughing): That’s great!

DC: I got a real kick out of imagining her mentally comparing the way Barbara Stanwyck looked and was photographed in that movie to the way actors are shot in the movies she’s more used to seeing.

SZ: Because cinematographers then would set lighting up very meticulously, and you would have to be on your mark. So the woman would be lit and placed so carefully and if she moved the effect might be lost, but if she sat or stood still she would seem to be the most beautiful, radiant creature. Same with men too. Someone like Cary Grant is beautiful to begin with, but part of it was the skill of DPs and the lighting guys and the director knowing what he wants. I wish more young filmmakers would rediscover and explore more classical filmmaking technique. I don’t want every movie to be like that, but it would be nice to see them screw the camera into a tripod every once in a while. (Both laugh). See what that’s like! Just try it!


Thursday, July 23, 2009


What a week to be a Dodger fan. Scratch that-- what a week to be a baseball fan. It’s a game that carries with it so much baggage—dramatic, metaphorical, historical, emotional, associative, and a hundred more “ics” and “als” and “ives” that I haven’t mentioned. My wife asked me recently how I can stand to follow the game as closely as I do, investing so much of the way I look at life day to day in the fortunes of my favorite team and the various ups, downs and sideways of the game. I didn’t have a ready answer, because baseball can be so agonizing, so frustrating, so befuddling. And who could put into tidy words why they would voluntarily endure so much gnashing of teeth over the course of several months in spring, summer and fall, especially if, as has been the case with the Dodgers since I began following them seriously in 1994, your team is constantly snake-bit, a monument to mediocrity, or worse? Of course, with the devastating lows, and the steady thrum of the middle ground “meh,” come the occasional highs too—Steve Finley, arms lifted high, as his walk-off grand slam carried the 2004 Dodgers into the division championship; a perfect bunt, or a streaking rocket, hugging the third base line by a millimeter; the balletic beauty of an impossible grab by a shortstop, or the slender threading of the needle to complete a lightning fast double play around the horn; four home runs to even the score in the ninth against one of the best closers in the game, and a walk-off homer in the 10th to win it. The game is indeed like life—if it were all good, or all bad, we’d likely be driven mad with pleasure or frustration. The bumps and curves and changes of course are there to keep us interested, motivated, striving and hoping for better days and the wisdom to appreciate them when they come.

The week began by revisiting one of the most perversely entertaining homages to baseball ever put on film, found sparking off inside Walter Hill’s day-glo (or should that be nite-brite) action picture The Warriors (1979). The packed house at the New Beverly, gathered for the 30th anniversary of the movie, whooped and hollered and listened attentively as James Remar (Ajax), David Harris (Cochise) and Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Merci) held the stage for over an hour reliving precious memories of being on the set and fielding questions from rabid film fans, some of whom dressed like their favorite gangs from the movie. (I thought the house was going to come down on my head when I asked the cast what feelings they had, given their emotional connection, and the audience’s, to the original movie, about Tony Scott’s impending remake.) The movie still holds up very nicely after the passage of 30 years, which have done little to dilute its energy and quite a lot to highlight the fantastical, heightened distance from reality that was always there for the discernment, if one wasn’t otherwise occupied getting all balled up about the hoopla over the responsibility, or lack thereof, of the movie’s violence. And for many, the highlight of this vivid, visceral punch-out of a movie has always been the Warriors, bopping their way across hostile turf and fending off attacks by gangs who mistakenly hold them responsible for the murder of a high-profile criminal organizer, and their run-in with the Baseball Furies. The Furies, inspired by equal parts KISS and Murderer’s Row (they sport Yankees-style pinstripes that clash mightily with grotesquely designed full facial makeup), come out swinging and eventually get their maples and ashes kicked when the Warriors get hold of a few bats of their own. It’s a spectacularly choreographed scene (and it’s probably even topped by a later battle in a subway restroom with that preppie gang on skates), and I would have never guessed that, as electric as that scene is, it would be only the modest starting point of a week of baseball highlights that would just get better and better.

As I indicated earlier on my “On the Marquee” sidebar, the average baseball fan might well see Timothy Marx’s Bluetopia: The L.A. Dodgers Movie (2009) as little more than a puff piece designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a team they probably care less about than one of Major League Baseball’s 29 other franchises, and if they were feeling generous they might find enough to enjoy—including some moments spent with Vin Scully—to justify spending 90 minutes with this movie. And even Dodger fans, those of a inking to examine the darker shades of Dodger Blue, might hanker for a more hard-hitting documentary that gets after some of the issues that haunted the team during at least the first half of its semicentennial year—further tensions between veterans and younger players, the pressure of heightened expectations in the wake of the hiring of ex-Yankee manager Joe Torre, and the team’s perennial albatross, a mediocre offensive line-up. There are undoubtedly plenty of moments, and plenty of storylines, that have been left on the cutting room floor. But Marx’s pruning clears enough of a path toward the movie’s real theme—the team’s relationship with its ethnically and economically diverse fan base—that those who count themselves among the Dodger faithful are likely to be very forgiving toward the movie’s tendency toward sentiment and breathless testimony. Personally, I watched Bluetopia through a constant well of tears, fully cognizant of all the holes along the way that Marx has left to my own abilities as a viewer and a fan to fill in, but swept up in the emotional pull that the team has on me, a pull that the movie replicates with its own passion and its own desire to represent, with respect and accuracy, the experience of a diverse group of Dodger fans over the course of a suddenly thrilling, ultimately heartbreaking season.

The movie interweaves talking heads footage of Scully and other Dodger broadcasters, Frank and Jamie McCourt, Tommy Lasorda and several players with the stories of several devoted Dodger fans: a (fan)atical owner of a tattoo shop that specializes in Dodger ink, who eventually applies his talents to the shoulder of center fielder Matt Kemp; a group of septuagenarian ladies who kvetch from their seats in the left field pavilion and end up at a charity bowling match cooing over the likes of rookie Clayton Kershaw, Brad Penny and James Loney; a man and his son who pride themselves on being the first to arrive in the ball park and who make a habit of snatching up batting practice balls that lay uncollected in the pavilions before the crowd arrives; and a woman stricken with cancer who hopes only to survive long enough to see the Dodgers make the playoffs. It’s admittedly a strategy that plays best to the sentimental streak in any baseball fan, but if you are a Dodger follower that streak will widen considerably while watching this movie. The tears of happiness that were constantly brimming and distorting the picture on my TV spilled over in earnest many times as the movie gave over to the honest emotion and excitement it documents within the confines of Dodger Stadium. One favorite moment—- old Internet friend Jon Weisman’s encounter with Vin Scully in the press box, which he succinctly and aptly summarizes by admitting (and this is probably slightly paraphrased) that “there’s no rational way to express what this moment means to me.” From the Opening Day flyover, to the surprise addition of Manny Ramirez, to the giddy highs of an NLDS sweep of the Chicago Cubs, to the thudding disappointment at the hands of Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies while knocking on the door of the 2008 World Series, Jon’s comments wisely sum up the heart of a Dodger fan (at least this one), as well as the emotional effect of Bluetopia. It’s enough to make one hope against all hope that Timothy Marx has a camera crew rolling on this season too. The sequel might be even more satisfying.

Not that there’s been much of interest going on in Chavez Ravine this season, right? Wednesday, July 22. I saw the first 45 minutes or so of the game on Fox Sports West, enough to see Andre Ethier’s home run, the one that evened the score, 1-1. It was Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Night, and the game was sold out, fans wanting to get their soon-to-be-valuable souvenir. The bobblehead would be as close as they’d get to the slugger though, because Manny was not in the Wednesday night lineup, taking the night off with a sore hand after getting hit by a pitch the previous night. Joe Torre had said Ramirez would be available for pinch hitting, but who among us wanted to think about the last-ditch scenario, one probably built around a slowly depleting bench, that would require the services of the bruised superstar? Despite my desire to stay tuned, it was a Wednesday night, I was reminded, and so I gave way to my daughters’ one weekly TV addiction (at least until Star Wars: Clone Wars starts its new season) and allowed them to turn on Wipeout, an action-packed game show featuring lots of (mostly overweight) people getting drenched in mud, stumbling, falling and getting back up again as they pinball through an obstacle course designed for maximum difficulty and humiliation. (I was otherwise occupied, but not too successfully-- just try writing in the same room while this show plays to its most squealing and hyperactive demographic.)

The surprises and delights of Wipeout having been revealed and spent at 9:00 p.m., I turned back to the Dodger game just in time to notice the game was now tied a 2-2. With one out in the sixth, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo walked James Loney and Matt Kemp, then Russell Martin singled to left to load the bases. Arroyo was sitting tight with Mark Loretta gearing up in the Dodger dugout. But when manager Dusty Baker noticed dreadlocks stirring in the Dodger dugout he had a change of heart. Baker replaced Arroyo with reliever Nick Masset, thinking Arroyo, having just packed the house, might not have enough left to face Ramirez, who was suddenly headed toward the batter’s box, without so much as a single warm-up. I turned to my oldest daughter, who came back into the living room after brushing he teeth, and I said, as I frequently do when Manny comes up, “Watch this. He’s gonna hit a home run.” I didn’t really believe that he would; I was just saying it to pique her interest. But he did. Swinging at the first pitch he saw, he drove a streaking line drive right over left field and into—where else—the field-level section along the Dodger bullpen that was this season dubbed (except for a brief 50-game hiatus) Mannywood. On Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Night. A night on which he was not scheduled to play. This makes all that Roy Hobbs-Robert Redford bullshit look even sillier, but if someone would have scripted the events of last night’s game, none of us could have believed that either. Charlie Steiner went nuts on the Dodger Radio Network, but as is his brilliant ken, Vin Scully called the trail of the ball and then let the deafening crowd, which did not even begin to subside until the second Manny curtain call at the end of the inning, tell the rest of the story.

As he whooped it up in the dugout with his disbelieving teammates (“I was in awe," Kemp said. "He's amazing, man. I can't really explain him. I've never seen somebody who can go up there, no warm-ups or nothing, and just go hit. I need at least a couple of swings."), one camera caught a shot of Kemp walking up to Ramirez, tapping him on the forehead, and stepping back to watch the superstar who plays the game with the personality, for good and ill, like a 12-year-old kid begin to nod his head up and down in imitation of the bobblehead of which he was so obviously proud. To those who expected (demanded) that Dodger fans boo or otherwise ostracize this guy, who accuse Dodger fans of hypocrisy because they will not hold his feet to the fire in the way they did those of Barry Bonds, I offer the simple evidence of this kind of way of relating to his teammates, and to his fans, that marks the difference between Ramirez and the likes of Bonds. Ramirez may not have adequately apologized to fans for his violation of the MLB drug policy and subsequent 50-game suspension, but he has owned up to his culpability—unlike Bonds, hated by fans, reporters and insiders alike, who has arrogantly denied ever using any performance-enhancing substance, all mountain ranges of evidence to the contrary. Unless I’m mistaken, Ramirez did not contest his punishment but instead served it in exactly the fashion prescribed by the commissioner’s office. In societal terms, the man has paid his dues. Will Bonds ever pay his? In my eye, Manny Ramirez apologizes to his fans by energizing the clubhouse, relating to his teammates, and then plating up and batting like a maniac, as if those 50 games were instead a mere 50 seconds over a speed bump. All the Bill Plaschkes on earth (and thank Zeus there is only one) cannot make me feel guilty for thrilling to a moment like the one we witnessed Wednesday night. I wish I could have been at the stadium. But even though I wasn’t, I was there. And I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last great moment of this Dodger season. Twenty-seven games over .500, three games ahead of the nearest team in the majors (the Yankees) for best record overall. Will Roy Halladay end up here, or in Philadelphia? This is why we love baseball. When even the lows are fascinating just for love of the game, how much more exhilarating then are the highs.

Oh, yeah, and tonight Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game for Obama’s White Sox.

Here’s the peerless Jon Weisman not just once, not just twice, but three times on what some are calling the most memorable moment at Dodger Stadium since that guy Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate in ’88. And this was a midseason game!

Here’s what the Grand Slam looked like from out near Mannywood.

Here’s the story on an upcoming commemorative poster in honor of last night’s great moment.

And here’s where you can buy Bluetopia online.

Up next: Richard Linklater's new documentary, Inning by Inning: Portrait of a Coach