Okay, let’s talk about movies. I love movies.
About two years ago, I saw a blurb in Time or Newsweek to the effect that the average household buys about 16 DVDs a year. At the time, I’d owned a DVD player for about three years, yet my personal collection of DVD movies numbered an anemic five. Sixteen struck me as just plain indiscriminate. At least until I polled some fellow home-theater enthusiasts and found that, among them, that wasn’t an atypical haul for a month. Remember, though, these are the same guys (and, trust me, they’re mostly all guys) who'd plunk down the price of compact car for a mack-daddy TV the size of, well, a compact car. Not really a reasonable standard to emulate. Still, I felt like a dilettante.
Now, Lovely Wife, a.k.a. the exchequer of the treasury, enjoys movies every bit as much as I do. But hers is a more evanescent approach. She simply doesn’t see the point of owning or collecting films, even though every once in a while, she’ll get a serious jones for A Room with a View or The Last of the Mohicans or, weirdly, The Bourne Identity. (It’s actually not that weird if you know LW, which you almost certainly don’t. More on that later.) Supporting and accommodating spouse that she is, LW nevertheless indulges and abides—with the caveat that I don’t just go snapping up every movie with a couple memorable lines. In other words, I need a list. Not just any list, but an official tally, a registry, if you will, of archive-worthy flicks. But basically, if it’s on the list and on sale—and the baby has new shoes or, y’know, food or whatever, I usually get the go-ahead. (Except lately not so much, on account of the moving and transitory quarters, etc.)
Anyway, along with the list, I figured I ought to come up with a sort of rationale to make my list seem more credible and less willy-nilly. It goes something like this: At a minimum, it has to be entertaining and somewhat intellectually engaging. It should be a tale well told. Funny is good; howlingly, pants-pissing funny is better. Bonus points if it’s all that and part of a larger association with a happy time in my life. A first date, say. Or a fifth date where things were really, um, promising.
One more note: (seriously, if you can’t hang, you’ve got a scroll bar, right?) I’m definitely not a completist. Except maybe for Arrested Development. But that has more to do with the genuine brilliance of every minute of every episode than some perverse OCD-driven need to have not only the whole enchilada but the whole enchilada collection.
What was I saying? Not a completist, per se. Right. So, while there are several directors I can get behind (Soderberg, David Lean, The Coens, Barry Sonnenfeld, Michael Mann), few if any of them are represented more than once; none more than twice. Same thing with actors and crew. I pay attention to those things and they have an influence, but, while I’m sure everything Sven Nyquist has D.P.’d looks sensational and has important visual subtext, that alone doesn’t quite rise to the level, yanamsayin?. The one exception is Pixar. So far, they’re batting 1.000. Those guys could do an 88-minute adaptation of the San Jose, CA, phone book and it’d be smart, funny, alive with color and brilliant detail and mind-blowing LFE. It would appeal to everyone from toddlers to octogenarians. And it would probably feature the voice talents of John Ratzenberger.
All of which is a now windy way of saying that I have not only an actual list but have given some actual thought to what’s on it.
“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? You’re lookin’ at him.”
On the surface, it’s the subject matter, pure and simple. Test pilots and astronauts, cocksure swagger and feats of derring-do. There’s something about the tropes and the time period that appeal to me on a primal, visceral level. This movie made me want to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery 100 times more than Top Gun or any other aviation-themed pretender because, rather than a string of supersonic, testosterriffic set pieces, it’s got genuine cinematic substance. The characters (based on historic figures) are at once real and mythic. And it’s pro-American as all giddy-up, without ever pandering to jingoism.
The more I watch it, the more I realize that it’s not a perfect film. A few of its defects— the treatment of Grissom’s hatch-blowing, chief among them—become more glaring with time. But it doesn’t knock it off the top of the pyramid. Because it’s not an historic document; it’s a myth, doing what all great myths going back to Homer do. It informs. It inspires. But mostly it entertains the hell out of me.
The best bits:
- The “What Gus is sayin…” scene, wherein a dust-up about inappropriate off-duty behavior turns into a locker-room crucible of team-building, thanks to the laconic insights of Capt. Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom.
Glenn: “I’m talkin’ about keeping our pants zipped and our wicks dry around here!”
(Much mayhem ensues.)
Grissom: “Hey! You got it all wrong. The issue here ain’t pussy; the issue here is monkey!”
Cooper: “What Gus is sayin’ is that we got to stick together on this thing.”
- The scene where the seven coalesce into a real all-for-one-and-one-for-all unit after Glenn’s flight is scrubbed and his wife, Annie, (who stutters) doesn’t feel quite up to hosting L.B.J. and the TV networks in her living room, thankyouverymuch.
NASA suit to JG when he won’t play ball: “I’m thinking of changing the order of assignments.”
Carpenter, et al.: “Yeah? Who you gonna get?”
Badass and pure balls.
- The montage that cuts between the Sally Rand fan dance for the for the Mercury Seven at their
hoedown and a solitary Yeager stalling an F-104 Starfighter at the edge of space. We go from the seven exchanging knowing nods and glances to Yeager’s bird plummeting in a flat spin through a few dozen thousand feet before he punches out over the desert. As his engineer sidekick, Jack Ridley, rides out to find him, the driver of the crash truck spots a glimmer on the horizon and a lone silhouette ambling toward them, square jaw clenching a wad of Beeman’s. Houston
Driver: “Sir, is that a man?”
Ridley: “Yeah, you goddam right it is!”
I’m not really doing these justice. In the context of the film, they’re just great, great moments. A real testament to how adroitly Philip Kaufmann was able to bring Tom Wolfe’s book to life.
Ostensible reason for owning it:
Quite simply, the apotheosis of Mel Brooks’ oeuvre, the most pure and complete of his parodies. Everything about it just works. Not least because it was done before he started retreading fart jokes from Blazing Saddles. (Yeah, History of the World, Part I, I’m lookin’ at you.)
Real, if latter-day, reason for owing it:
Besides the genius of the writing and the pitch-perfect, over-the-top performances, YF now enjoys a whole new level of life imitating art. Since the coming of the man-cub, this has taken on vast realms of significance as an allegory of new parenthood. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley might have had that in mind all along; if she didn’t, Gene Wilder almost certainly did. There are just too many parallels between the movie and the first two years of life with a new baby in the house for it not to be so.
I actually have this grand (sweetly naïve) plan to intercut footage from the movie with home video the baby’s various firsts—bath, halting steps, grunting stabs at communication, singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to a theatre full of skeptics that become an angry, vegetable-throwing mob—to illustrate my point.
This, of course, will have to wait until I have a spare week or two, what with the feeding/clothing/bathing /rearing responsibilities that come with neo-papadom (and which, come to think of it, are not reflected in the film) taking all my time. Hell, I’m lucky if I get a shower most days. So look for a rough cut around, say late 2025, when the man-cub heads off to college.
So that’s, what—two down, twenty-something to go?
For now, then, here’s the rest of the list, in rough order and not entirely complete, with the semi-solemn pledge that future installments will be a bit less garrulous. What can I tell you? I have a reputation a ‘wordy fuck’ to live up to.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Defending Your Life*
Glengarry Glen Ross
A Room with a View
The Empire Strikes Back
The Princess Bride
Out of Sight
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Men In Black*
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid*
The Last of the Mohicans*
Monty Python’s Life of Brian*
To Kill a Mockingbird*
The Thin Man*
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
* Don’t yet own, but hope to remedy that shortly.
The very attentive (or “unemployed”) among you will note that this list doesn’t entirely jive with the one in my profile. Them’s the breaks, I guess. That list is more of a random sampling, not nearly so, ahem, well thought-out as this one.