Friday, February 9, 2024

Notes on Film: My 1994 White Whales

 by Anthony King

1994 Month is a go!

Behold! The 69th edition of Notes on Film! Twitter was all a'buzz last week with the announcement of this year's F This Movie Fest. While the fest may only last half a day, we're celebrating all month long here at FTM. Aside from discs that need to be reviewed, my plan is to watch at least one feature-length film and one short film from 1994 for every day this month. Bonus: it's a leap year, so I get to watch a 29th movie from '94! I write this column that comes out on Friday the Sunday afternoon before, so up to this the minute I began typing, I've watched four features and three shorts. While I was hoping my cinematic February would come in like a ferocious lion, it began more like a diseased, feral alley cat with three legs and one eye. It's early, though, and I have yet to give up hope.
Knowing that I have an insanely busy month ahead, I got a jump on things the day before and finally watched David Mamet's Oleanna. This was the first play I ever read – not to mention the first Mamet I ever read – and I'll never forget how I felt while his words pierced my soul. My heart was racing, a sweat broke out on my brow, and I smoked like a chimney the entire hour it took me to read it. William H. Macy (who also starred in the original stage production) plays a college professor named John. It opens with John on the phone with his wife, and in typical Mamet dialogue fashion, there is nary a full sentence uttered. My wife was watching with me and she gave up and went to the bedroom during the phone call. That's Mamet for you. Seated behind John, and waiting patiently is Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a student of John's. He hangs up the phone, thanks her for waiting, and asks what she wants. Carol's there to discuss and dispute a grade she received on a recent paper she wrote. As the film crawls along, John becomes impatient with Carol because she seems to not understand anything he's telling her. This two-hander takes place all in John's office and classroom over three separate meetings. Each meeting becomes more and more tense before a frustratingly explosive ending. It is, without a doubt, one of the most exasperating movies I've ever seen. I mean that in a good way. That is, unless you hate that sort of thing. I would then recommend you avoid Oleanna like the plague. Macy is phenomenal, at once easy to empathize with and also hate. Eisenstadt plays her character as written, which is to say infuriatingly stunted. No big surprise, though, as Mamet has never known how to write women. As far as features go, this has been the biggest hit thus far for 1994 month. You can stream Oleanna on Prime.
Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass was a nice surprise. Especially since it co-starred my boy Larry Fessenden in his first role. Lisa Bowman stars as a woman named Cozy, a bored housewife and mother whose father is a jazz drumming detective. Cozy leaves home one night and ends up at a bar where she meets Lee (Fessenden), a layabout and petty criminal who recently got kicked out of his grandma's house. Lee recently found a gun belonging to Cozy's father, who is now under investigation from Internal Affairs for losing said gun. Cozy and Lee go swimming, when Lee shows off his new hardware. Cozy takes a shot and ends up killing someone by accident. Cozy's and Lee's tryst quickly becomes a lovers-on-the-run situation with Dad on the case. It's an interesting first feature from Reichardt that shows early promise (this was the first of her films I've seen). It's a little bit Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and a lotta bit Wanda (1970). I didn't love it but it's something I will definitely go back to because I can see myself obsessing over it for the next few months. Watch River of Grass on Kanopy.
I've been watching one short per day since the beginning of the year, a goal I set for myself last year, and an unofficial goal of this year. Trans, from director Sophie E. Constantinou is a 10-minute segmented interview with Henry, a trans man. It's heartfelt yet not overly emotional, matter-of-fact yet not dry. Henry talks about the joys of finally feeling like himself, and the struggles of being a trans person. Although I consider 1994 to be the recent past (maybe I'm wrong, but I remember '94 quite well), the language Henry uses to describe his authentic self showed me the language we use today when talking about the LGBTQIA2S community is nothing new. I highly recommend it, as it's the first short ever I put on my initial discoveries list of the year. Takashi Ito's The Moon is part collage, part Brakhage, all experimental. This Letterboxd review perfectly captures Ito's short film: “It's strange to watch a film that looks impossible to make.” I also watched Carlos Carrera's animated short called El heroe, about a young woman attempting suicide in a subway station. The animation is gorgeous, which fully kept me enthralled for its five-minute runtime, but the ending almost squeezed me like a sponge. All three shorts can be found on YouTube.

This month I’m also listening to at least one album released in 1994 per day. Here are the first six:
Dinosaur Jr., Without a Sound – Very good
Digable Planets, Blowout Comb – Good
Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star – Bad
Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dulcinea – Great
Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – Good
Lagwagon, Trashed – Very good
Finally, this week's topic is born out of finally watching two films I vividly remember begging my parents to let me see in 1994. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Stephen Hopkins' Blown Away came out when I was 12 years old. I understand why Mom and Dad wouldn't let me see NBK, but Blown Away? That shit would have been pre-teen Anthony's favorite movie! Unfortunately, neither film captured me like I hoped they would. Granted, I've had 30 years to build both films up to impossibly unattainable heights, which is neither fair to the film or me, yet here we are. NBK is terrible. It's a product of its time, which isn't to say that's always a bad thing. I described it on Twitter as a self-bukkake of a film. While every single performance varies from good to great, Tommy Lee Jones absolutely stole the movie as the warden. The man is old now. Has been this entire millennium. So we don't get these types of unhinged performances any more. TLJ in NBK makes Juliette Lewis in NBK look like a mute nun. He's the only reason I never shut it off. It was a terrible way to officially kick off 1994 month.
On day two I finally watched Blown Away. Since Roger Ebert was our syndicated movie critic I remember reading his review and being disappointed. “How could anyone not love a movie about a mad bomber?!?!” Well, I wasn't necessarily... blown away... either. But – and this is shouted from the rooftops – Blown Away is a three-star (out of five) star movie if there ever was one. When it's good, it's incredible. But when it's bad, I want to put my shoe through our TV. The good outweighs the bad, though. I think. Once again, TLJ is off his rocker here. Sure his accent is terrible (if not offensively bad), but my god this is his movie. Without knowing any production history, and as much as I adore Jeff Bridges, Hopkins should've taken his star by the collar of his shirt and growled, “STOP. WITH. THE ACCENT.” It's there. It's not there. Then it's back and it's completely different. There's barely enough room for two bad accents (TLJ and Father Bridges). Every time Forrest Whitaker spoke, I found myself constantly asking, “You sure you didn't want another take, Stephen?” And the editing was appalling. I'm just going to assume studio interference for most of the bad in the movie. Because where the filmed shined brightest was the direction by Hopkins. Particularly the Rube Goldberg bomb on the boat at the end. The way Hopkins filmed every aspect of that was breathtaking.
So here I am thinking about movies I wanted to see since I was a kid but haven't yet. Speaking specifically of 1994, there are half a dozen, in particular, I desperately wanted to see when I was 12 but for one reason or another didn't then and haven't since. Ed Wood. This was my friend Brent's favorite movie. He quoted it endlessly. We even sat down to watch it one day after school but then his sister walked in and she became my girlfriend. Airheads. I remember seeing a TV spot and my parents saying how stupid it looked. Encino Man (1992) was one of my favorite movies, and I loved that SNL cast, yet I still don't know if The Lone Rangers get signed or not. I don't know why but I wanted to see Spike Lee's Crooklyn that summer. I'd never seen any Joint, but I knew who Spike was from Knicks games (they were my team) and the Jordan commercials. Still, it was the big N.O. From my parents. The funny thing is I remember begging them every time we went to the video store to rent Bebe's Kids (1992) and them saying it was too inappropriate. For god's sake, I saw Lethal Weapon (1987), Robocop (1987), and Die Hard (1988) as new releases on VHS! Bebe's Kids and Crooklyn were inappropriate for an 11- and 12-year-old, but shooting some guy in the dick was totally fine for a six-year-old.
Continuing the theme of “white kid wants to watch black movies” there's Above the Rim. I loved hip-hop and basketball and this seemed like a dream come true. Once again, I was denied. The funny thing is, though, that we entered a contest in 1994 at our local grocery store and ended up winning a CD player (our first) and the chance to go to one of the radio stations and pick out a bunch of cassettes and CDs. The tapes they had were a bunch of promo singles, and the lone CD they had was the Above the Rim soundtrack. You wouldn't believe how excited I was. Two years prior, at 10 years old, I went to our Sam Goody and somehow was allowed to purchase Dr. Dre's The Chronic. I never got a chance to listen to it because my parents made me return it as soon as I got home (Dad also gave the poor teenage clerk an earful). At twelve I now owned the AtR soundtrack featuring tracks from Warren G and Nate Dogg, The Dogg Pound, Tupac, and The Lady of Rage. I played that disc until it could play no more. Yet I still haven't seen the film. From black to white: Wolf. I was 12, I was into horror, I loved Jack Nicholson. But Mom and Dad said no. I'll let this one slide because I can't imagine 12-year-old me enjoying it. Finally, The River Wild. Like Blown Away, this seemed like it could've easily become my favorite movie. This wasn't a case of the parents denying me pleasure. This was just one of those things where I didn't see it. At the time I really only knew Kevin Bacon, and really only just from the trailers for She's Having a Baby on our VHS of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and He Said, She Said from our VHS of The Last Crusade. Now I look at The River Wild and think, “Gosh I really enjoy Bacon and Streep, but HOLY SHIT DAVID STRATHAIRN!”

This month I’m going to watch tons of movies from the year I was in sixth and seventh grade. My best friends were Matt Harmon and Ricky Jones. We played with pogs, collected baseball and basketball cards, and watched tons of movies. But not these six. This 1994 month, though, these six will be mine.

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