The Princess Bride: Life Lessons, Optimism and the Pit of Despair

On a sidenote: I read that Mandy Patinkin, when he was filming the big swordfight, imagined he was doing battle with the exact form of cancer that killed his father in 1972, which is probably why his acting is so evocative. The line ‘I want my Father, you son of a bitch’ is one of the few in cinema that ALWAYS gives me chills, every time I see the movie. It’s a small moment with huge meaning– Inigo doesn’t rail at the unfairness of losing his father or bitch about it endlessly in some terrible monologue, he just came up with a plan and that single line is the only indicator of the massive sadness he carried with him ever since his world was destroyed.

Everyone knows, or at least knows OF, the Princess Bride. How you feel about it is an entirely different matter, since it’s the kind of charming, straightforward and well-told story in which anyone can find something to like. Finding something to NOT like about it is the kind of thing that kills conversation at a party, tantamount to saying you’re an advocate of dog-fighting or the industrial use of kittens and baby ducks.

'I'm sorry, I cant' hear you over the sound of Westley screaming in anguish. Or, you know, me being awesome.'

To analyze the film is to make a careful truce with oneself about just how objective one can be. Film analysis is an inherently subjective medium–after all, the effects of a film, all the time, money, and most of all creative coordination that go into it are a multi-step process that can’t be reproduced, a fact that studios bank on. Anyone can make a movie, but what are the chances of two filmmakers and their actors and crew making the SAME movie, and having them come out the exact same? Thus is film, like food, an art rather than a science.

Which is a boring way to introduce the fact that most people on earth who have seen the movie like it, and those who haven’t probably would. I’m sure if you showed it in a theater in Shenzen with a decent translator, barring significant cultural and political barriers, most notable of which is the Chinese notion of saving and losing face,  there would be at least some level of appreciation for it.They’d get down to the fight scenes, if only because fight scenes without wires would probably be fascinating and new.

Is the film a crowd-pleaser? Yup. But crowd-pleasing is not always a bad thing. Humans on an evolutionary level enjoy fats in their diet–they are necessary to sustain movement and chemical functions since they are an energy source. If you give a health nut something with fat in it, but don’t tell them there’s fat in it, chances are their brain will tell them ‘you like this!’ on some level, even if they have trained themselves to be turned off to fats. Fats are necessary for survival, especially for hunter-gatherers like primates. Humans on another evolutionary level enjoy swordfights, stories about true love, witty dialogue, monsters, revenge, watching attractive people do things, and feeling smart. There’s no shame in appreciating something that other people appreciate–one thing I have come to loathe these days is the false-elitism of also falsely-jaded pop cultural enthusiasts. Anyone with an opinion and a scathing vocabulary will convince themselves why liking something is wrong and that everyone else is somehow a lesser being for not recognizing the speaker’s innate genius because the movie in question had cheap effects or dated stunts.

But I digress. Part of enjoying a movie you’ve seen before is remembering who you were then, and the experiences ancillary to the actual film.

Vizzini is happy to be anywhere, except a land war in Asia.

My mother, my Aunt Linda and I saw the film at the Cross County 8 theater in West Palm Beach, a theater in a mall that would become a decrepit, half-abandoned shithole I would work at in my teens, where weekday matinee showings were mostly attended by homeless people and prostitutes turning tricks. I remember going home from that fateful showing and telling my Father some of the best jokes, about Inigo urging the Man in Black to hurry up so he can kill him and the Man In Black countering with ‘This isn’t as easy as it looks, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t distract me.’ I used to recreate the swordfights in my backyard with sticks, and when speaking in front of a crowd I ALWAYS have a moment where I imagine I’ll hear that old crone shouting ‘Boo! Boo! Booooooo!’

An observation I read on the IMDB pointed out that Count Rugen visits five wounds on Inigo Montoya, and that when Inigo is exacting his revenge in the climactic swordfight scene, he visits the same five wounds– but no more than that. It’s an interesting observation, and an extremely good character study: a man who has dedicated his life to revenge gives exactly as he got, no more, and since Count Rugen is the most important person in Count Rugen’s life, Inigo kills him. But there’s something I’d like to posit beyond that observation on the 5 wounds–Inigo received the exact same five wounds as he gave the count–two on the face, one in the shoulder, one in the arm, and one in the stomach. He gave Rugen these same wounds – and Rugen died. This is an interesting point because since Inigo ostensibly dedicated his life to finding and killing Rugen, he really shouldn’t have lived past that moment, but he does. Since Inigo has put his life on hold in order to avenge his Father, he has other things he might probably like to do. Open a fencing school, take up piracy (the movie’s suggestion), hell, just take a vacation where he isn’t on the hunt for a six-fingered man. Some day I’d like to make a list of movies that could qualify as Great Movies for Secular Humanists, and this one is definitely going on the list.

On a sidenote: I read that Mandy Patinkin, when he was filming the big swordfight, imagined he was doing battle with the exact form of cancer that killed his father in 1972, which is probably why his acting is so evocative. The line ‘I want my Father back, you son of  a bitch’ is one of the few in cinema that ALWAYS gives me chills, every time I see the movie. It’s a small moment with huge meaning– Inigo doesn’t rail at the unfairness of losing his father or bitch about it endlessly in some terrible monologue, he just came up with a plan and that single line is the only indicator of the massive sadness he carried with him ever since his world was destroyed.

Are there flaws in the film? God, yes. I’m not putting this film on a pedestal as some great example to which all should aspire (although it’d be nice if modern filmmakers paid as much attention to story, character, nuance, ANYTHING besides effects or box office), but as an example by which to be inspired.

Cary Elwes’s simple and indirect love proclamation, ‘As you wish,’ hasn’t lost its ability to melt my heart; Inigo’s plan to find the Man in Black— who might be anywhere on earth– by the end of the day still stirs the blood to action, and Buttercup’s assertion that Westley will come for her no matter what bullshit the Prince gets up to (delivered, notably, while she is wearing blue, the color of loyalty) makes me believe in love, in the ability of two people to mean something more to each other than an alternative to being alone.

There’s just so much to love. From the synth soundtrack to Chris Sarandon’s tights to Vizzini’s maxims for a long life, this is a movie that will never get old for me, or for many in my generation.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

When watching recent films, I can’t help but play armchair casting director: ‘Oo, Woody Harrelson would be great as Jody in Preacher.’ ‘Oo, X actor would be great as the Raven King in Jonathan Strange.’ ‘Oo, she’d be great as Y.’It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing, even though I’ve yet to receive a single call from Hollywood begging me for my opinion. Imagine that.

Pictured: Awesome

Seeing a great film from the past is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, a great film revitalizes the love of cinema, reinvigorates the creative process in the viewer, takes them places they’ve never been, excites the imagination. It can be an unintentional window into the past: a scene where Bogart gets a shave and meticulously looks over his reflection–smoothing his eyebrows, even admiring himself–reveals a self-consciousness that one would NEVER associate with pre-modernist cinema. We tend to think of men from the first half of the 20th as butch through and through: scoffing at self-care. We forget that going out without a hat would be considered remarkable in large cities, and without a shave or with one’s tie loose as just plain gauche.This isn’t some WASP-y ‘everything was better back then’ whitewashing either–most people, no matter their race or socioeconomic standing held themselves to a higher standard than today.

The other side of older films is that everyone’s dead.

When watching recent films, I can’t help but play armchair casting director: ‘Oo, Woody Harrelson would be great as Jody in Preacher.’ ‘Oo, X actor would be great as the Raven King in Jonathan Strange.’ ‘Oo, she’d be great as Y.’It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing, even though I’ve yet to receive a single call from Hollywood begging me for my opinion. Imagine that.

With an older film, the possibilities are over. There’s nothing more for the actors to do, because they’re done. They’ve usually done some great things, created performances or films that stand the test of time and are still taught or discussed today: indeed, this film has been an inspiration to countless directors of today, everyone from Spielberg to Joss Whedon.(Notable exceptions to this would be the Tales from the Crypt episode in which Bogie was CG’d in–which sounds like a trainwreck unless you’ve seen the episode, which was actually well-done and quite tasteful!)

Which leads me to my next point: in a truly great film like this, there’s little else going on in my head BUT the film. Sierra Madre is a brilliant, classic piece of American cinema, and it was made in an era when films were few and far between–in short, when films were meant to be watched, rather than act as a tax write-off or get a studio out of the red. I am not saying no films then were crapped out by studios or made only to make money, but the reason Sierra Madre has continued to stand the test of time is because it’s just a GREAT GODDAMN MOVIE. Films made nowadays are made with the assumption that the viewer is only half-watching–their mind is partly occupied with the film, and partly occupied with everything else going on in their lives. Sex, feelings of social, physical, economic or sexual inadequacy, subtexts, institutional prejudices, product placement: all are things modern audiences AND filmmakers distract themselves with when making a film.

Postmodernism and the search for subtext can kill a film–not that films don’t need subtextual analysis, after all, the search for truth in art is a basic human need, and will never go away. But when the guts of something are all a person considers, it can be easy to forget the original something’s form, forget its beauty and grace, forget why we fell in love with it in the first place.

‘Smiley Face’ with Anna Faris and John Krasinski

This is the sort of script I didn’t let students write when I worked at a film school–it’s a lazy script, with no imagination and nothing fun. Worst of all, it’s just flat out not funny. The characters are too pathetic to identify with, and Jane, as a blond skinny white girl, just reminds me how much I hate self-centered people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really hate stoner movies. There’s nothing more odious to me than the idea that a film was made with the entire purpose of entertaining a demographic whose idea of mindblowing comedy is jingling their keys or farting twice in a row. Comedy to me is a  fine art, something practiced and refined; if you don’t believe me, look at the years successful stand-up comedians spend working their way through the no-man’s-land of crappy comedy clubs until they start acting or writing. To get up and have the courage not just to try, but to bomb (and you WILL bomb, it’s going to happen at some point) is a tremendous exercise not only in learning, but in character.

Which is why this movie disappointed me so. Anna Faris has definitely paid her dues in the comedy salt mines, which is why a role like this is beneath her. Faris plays Jane, an out of work actress. After smoking her usual morning’s bowl, she accidentally eats her room mate’s pot-laced brownies before realizing she has several tasks she must complete that day: she must pay the electric bill, pay off her dealer so he doesnt’ take her furniture, and go to an acting audition–all of which are transformed into herculean tasks by the amounts of pot she’s ingested.She seems to have a background in economics, no doubt the filmmaker’s attempt to give her character some depth, but the theories she spouts just sound like what they are: lazy writing.

What follows is a meandering exercise in stoner comedy. At the audition the other actresses are meticulously dressed and coiffed–Jane is slovenly in unwashed jeans, no makeup and lank hair. Her audition is with grim casting director Jane Lynch, who is always a treat except when she’s wasted in films like these–I hope doing this movie was a way to finish paying for renovating her kitchen or something.

Krasinski enters the scene as a friend of Jane’s room mate who, due to his attraction to her (what’s not to like? the not-showering, the constant smell of pot and sweat, the directionless lifestyle) she manipulates into driving her to Venice beach so she can pay off her dealer. She manages to get Krasinski’s wallet stolen, gives the investigating office a false name, then runs away in a paranoia fit and hides in her old professor’s house. Krasinski’s character is another lazy stereotype I hate: the guy into RPGs and comics who is desperately in love with a girl because she’s the only one he can get and he has no experience with women. I AM one of those people and am here to tell you that there’s no shortage of women into sci-fi and games, if you know where to look.

There’s really no more point to discussing the rest of the movie: crazy stuff happens, Jane gets her comeuppance, and sort of learns a lesson. The film is sprinkled with actors all worth much more than this sort of film: John Cho, Danny Trejo, the aforementioned Lynch, Danny Masterson, Brian Posehn, Michael Hitchcock, the voice of Roscoe Lee Brown (the narrator from Babe) and even Carrot Top all make appearances, leading me to suspect they thought they were appearing in a film that might make an argument for the legalization of pot.

I’m all for its legalization–there are slews of reasons in its favor, such as reducing the prison population, a new source of revenue and international tourism. But none of those arguments are made by this film. The closest thing to an argument that can be made is ‘high people are mostly harmless,’ and even taht’s a stretch considering the trail of destruction Jane leaves behind. This is the sort of script I didn’t let students write when I worked at a film school–it’s a lazy script, with no imagination and nothing fun. Worst of all, it’s just flat out not funny. The characters are too pathetic to identify with, and Jane, as a blond skinny white girl, just reminds me how much I hate self-centered people.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

In another universe or dimension, Werner Herzog’s remake would have made a truly amazing horror film; in certain communities, I would hazard, the unfolding events are more terrifying than any vampire, alien or zombie.

Think about it: An unhinged, drug-addled cop with a gambling problem and a predilection for shaking down citizens for drugs, who steals from the evidence locker, terrorizes the powerless and ignores rules he doesn’t like. This character is essentially a boogieman of the ghetto, a story the disenfranchised and economically/racially oppressed tell their children to keep them from a life of crime. ‘Drop out of school, or steal a car, and Officer McDonaugh will get you!’

In one scene, McDonaugh shows up at someone’s house (I honestly don’t remember the context) and proceeds to smoke weed in the man’s bedroom with uniformed officers waiting outside. The former rambles a terrifying and unhinged theory on life, the universe and everything after sending out the other officers so he can ‘be alone’ with the frightened suspect, even offering him a hit.  The fellow is being coerced into giving up information, with the veiled threat that McDonaugh will plant the very weed he’s smoking on the man once he’s being arrested.

This plays into the general populace’s ambivalence about The Thin Blue Line: we all want to believe in Office Friendly, but movies and TV have convinced us that at their worst cops are a sadistic brotherhood who viciously protect their own, and at their best are brave men and women who secretly daydream about vigilantism after years of witnessing horror.

Perhaps that is the entire reason the film (ostensibly a remake except for the fact that Herzog insists it isn’t) is set in New Orleans, a city whose pre-Katrina police force was legendary for being the most corrupt in the United States. McDonaugh’s actions certainly have consequences, and the descending steps of his downward spiral are less news to his peers and colleagues than cuneiform. But we aren’t interested in seeing him punished for his misdeeds; after all, it’s more than clear the character’s life is punishment enough.

Nicholas Cage’s performance has been widely discussed and praised; indeed, the story and other characters take a backseat to McDonaugh’s unraveling, and really aren’t missed. In one scene, a slowly closing door reveals him lying in wait for an old woman and her nurse in order to interrogate them. His eyes are wide and unblinking, his clothes and hair disheveled as he hasn’t showered, slept or eaten in days. As he menaces them from behind the door, struggling not to let the effects of the heroin he accidentally snorted get to him, while running an electric shaver over his face. Never has an act of self-maintenance seemed so menacing, so cold, and so hilarious at the same time.

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

Upon my viewing I found a monster much more terrifying than any of the paltry CG threats crowding the big screen these days. Dirty cops rank somewhere above ghosts and below flesh-eating bacteria on my ‘Nightmares’ hierarchy.

The X-Files: Season 1

There’s still lots to love about the X-files. The patter, the Lone Gunmen, the infamous red Speedo, but in my opinion, most of the good stuff is to be found when Fox and Dana are doing anything but investigating aliens. Odd, considering the show’s intent.

From the Wayback Machine

Most of my memories of the X-Files are tied to watching them in high school, a time when I was incredibly shy, worked most weekends and read way too many books about aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other forteana.

Mulder and Scully have become cultural shorthand for ‘believer’ and ‘nonbeliever’ respectively; Mulder, driven by a need to find his missing sister who be believes was abducted by aliens, and practical, pragmatic old Scully, unafraid to call bullshit on Mulder’s theories and demand proof.

Something must be said about the progressive gender politics of the show; again, Scully is clinical, fastidious, and disinclined to flights of faith or the benefit of the doubt. She stands in direct contrast to Mulder, who is prone to making Herculean leaps in logic, draw conclusions from nothing more than a hunch, run off in the middle of an investigation in order to pursue a tangential lead, or damage his own case by not following procedure. Additionally, in several episodes I was pleased to see Scully physically take down fleeing suspects or attackers, a welcome change from the lip-service feminism in most high-profile movies and TV these days.

The X-Files was the Go-To show of the 90’s; it had a healthy anti-authoritarian attitude and personified the decade’s postmodern, question-everything flavor. Conspiracy theories abounded, Big Government was out to hide everything from alien abduction to the location of car keys, aliens were probing anything remotely anus-shaped, and people didn’t have casual sex with their co-workers.

The X-Files, as horrible as it feels to say it, does not stand the test of time for me. Too often Mulder and Scully find themselves struggling to solve a situation that could be resolved with a quick Google search–certainly it’s easy to dismiss the show as dated, just check out Scully’s shoulder pads. But that’s just nitpicking– the real problem is Mulder’s utter disinterest in applying objectivity to anything they encounter. There’s keeping an open mind, and then there’s Fox Mulder, who never met a candy wrapper he couldn’t conflate into some kind of paranormal occurrence. After all, tinfoil has many, many uses amongst the ‘aliens among us’ set.

After the Bush years, I found my faith in Big Government’s ability to keep secrets from the people had waned. Why believe in a cover up about aliens when there’s so much worse out there? A year or two ago, I found a blog kept by a sharpshooter who’d been to Iraq. His assignment had been to sit on a hillside and shoot anyone who came near some metal pieces scattered in a valley down below. The metal pieces were ‘components’ intentionally scattered by the military as bait, as they are often used to create IEDs; unfortunately, they also contain copper that children collect in order to sell for scrap, to make money for their families. The sharpshooter was instructed to kill anyone who came near the parts, and kill them he did.

This isn’t the sort of thing everyone thinks of when they’re watching a TV show: ‘how well does this show reflect reality as I know it?’  Of course there’s a temporary suspension of disbelief. This is the benefit of the doubt we give when we sit down to watch anything.

The best parts of the show for me, now and always, are the Monster of the Week episodes, where Mulder and Scully take down werewolves, vampires, lake monsters, weird flesh-eating bugs, giant leeches and such. The episode ‘Beyond The Sea,’ about serial killer Luther Boggs (played by Brad Dourif, one of my actor obsessions) and the death of Scully’s father, is an episode that is so moving that it stuck with me since the first time I saw it, in 1993. The scene where Boggs is walking down the hallway to the gas chamber, and he turns away and is guided back by the officers, not fighting, not violent,  but frightened like a child and simply wanting to get away, is heartbreaking.

There’s still lots to love about the X-files. The patter, the Lone Gunmen, the infamous red Speedo, but in my opinion, most of the good stuff is to be found when Fox and Dana are doing anything but investigating aliens. Odd, considering the show’s intent.