advice from a fake consultant

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

On Cinema And Death, Or, Another Reason I Love Costco

There is something magical about Costco.

It is magical to me that for the price of a small can of tomato sauce, they sell a giant can. That they manage to make nice things available for what others charge for ordinary things.

And then of course, there’s the hot dog.
Mr. Sinegal doesn’t know it, but we met in a previous life...more than once...and we actually had a conversation about the hot dogs one evening.

I told him that the soon-to-be-built Qwest Field would be a better place with Costco hot dog carts instead of the “normal” stadium food, and he told me that the hot dog is at the philosophical core of what he does for a living...a simple thing of high quality, a good value—and a good price.

But today’s story isn’t about really great hot dogs.
It’s about really great cinema.

To make a long story short, Costco has begun to sell the films that you were previously only able to see at film festivals...and they’re putting them in four-packs for under $20.

I’m going to recommend one of them...and then two bonus films that will round things out just nicely.

Let’s start with what is destined to become my new favorite film: Rick Stevenson’s “Expiration Date”.

The story could have been told anywhere in the West, but it’s set in and around Seattle. The story begins as a story, told by an older member of a tribe to a young man who is planning to leave the reservation and move to the white man’s world...the City.

The tale told is one of inevitable fate: a tribal member who also moved to the City for opportunity, but was accidentally killed by a milk truck on his 25th birthday. Before his death, he bore a son...and he was also accidentally killed by a milk truck on his 25th birthday.

The grandson in the story, played by Robert Guthrie, is now 24—and his birthday is only eight days away.

I will not say too much, but it is giving away no secrets to tell you that Dee Wallace Stone and Sascha Knopf give fantastic performances as his mom...and the girl he happens to meet along the way.

It’s a strange little love story that leads us down a path of toenail painting and stalking and a fountain of milk and a dog named “Roadkill”.

I have attempted to make film myself (badly), and the lesson learned was that directors make the movie when they can create a natural environment for the actors to interact—and that was accomplished to tremendous effect by Stevenson.

The performances are absolutely natural, creating a “cocoon” within which the story can unfold...and the relationships are just as real as any you would encounter in life. The actors never force the performances, instead letting the odd nature of the story create the tension that sustains the entire movie

It is an amazingly real surreal performance that even offers us a great message: if you must die, die dancing.

Which takes me back to one of my very first favorite films: Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude”.

Harold is a shy young man who just can’t seem to turn the silver spoon he was born with into a thing of comfort...which causes him to commit suicide.

A lot.

In fact, it’s so common that his mother actually cancels a hair appointment after coming in the room and finding him hanging. As she leaves she tells him: “Dinner’s at eight, Harold—and do try to be more vivacious.”

It’s apparently not easy being the son of a prominent San Francisco socialite in the 60’s, especially one obsessed with funerals and a Jaguar XKE converted into a hearse. Satire takes us into the troubles of Vietnam during the war, the practice of psychoanalysis, questions of place and privilege...and a variety of other divertissement, as his mother would say—including the one where he slices his throat, the drowning, the self-immolation, the shooting (“Harold, please...”), and the hacking off of a hand at the dinner table.

Out of all this you might never expect a love story...but we find one waiting.

The very young Harold is romantically drawn to the 79 year-old Maude, and the two characters (played by Bud Cort, he with his own story, and the inimitable Ruth Gordon) provide a perfect foil to his mother, played by Vivian Pickles.

Maude becomes the child character in the story Harold can never be...until she teaches him a bit more about himself than he knew.

The courting occurs at a number of the burial services they both frequent...and the presence of a very real suicide is the defining moment of the picture.

Once again the theme is death and dancing—and for many the soundtrack to this film was their first introduction to the music of Cat Stevens.
There is a bright line that runs directly from Voltaire to the “Harold” and “Maude” characters—the strange and unobtainable love, the misunderstandings and societal disapproval...and if you love the one, you’ll love the other.

The connection to Voltaire is made even deeper because of scenes like the long, long shot of Golden Gate National Cemetery--the thousands of military gravestones all alike, standing at eternal attention in perfect rows—while Cat Stevens’ “Why Do the Children Play” fills the mental background.

See this movie...and see if it changes your life.

A story as old as Swedes making fun of Norwegians...and vice told in Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories”. This 2003 film is a story of observers from a 1950’s Swedish efficiency institute who are dispatched to the Norwegian countryside to observe the kitchen habits of single male farmers.

The idea is for the observers to set up a platform not unlike a lifeguard tower in the corner of the kitchen, and then simply observe the subject in his use of the kitchen. Contact between the two is strictly prohibited...which is the basis of the primary story.

The movie explores questions of “city slicker versus country bumpkin”, the practicality of modern efficiency planning...and the far bigger question of which of the two character’s lives are really worth living.

All of this washed down with a big ol’ dose of 1950’s Scandanaviana—from the jazz soundtrack to the pickled herring that arrives in packages from time to time, to the fantastically campy Volvo and trailer combinations they convoy around the Norse countryside.

A big thanks to the Swedish Film Institute and the Norwegian Film Institute for funding this one (and hey, Sweden, while we’re having a moment—why hasn’t Maria Blom’s Dalecarlians yet found its way to DVD?), and even though you’ll have to search for “Kitchen Stories”, it’s very much worth the effort.

There has been a failure on my part to give credit that is truly due to the cinematographers involved in these three productions, but to be honest that would require much more space than I’ll use today; and I want to get you through this faster than I might on other days when we have much bigger stories to tell.

So that’s how we’ll end today’s story: by tying together hot dogs, dancing, death, and the magic of cinema.

Go seek out these films, and support not just some great filmmakers, but your own desire to see the world in new ways.

It will be worth it.


Wolfie said...

Thanks for the tips, I’ll certainly look out for them as they sound interesting.

fake consultant said...

it's always nice to see something...different.