Saturday, September 21, 2013

On the Conceptual Brilliance of Craver Nation.

It's been a year or more since White Castle launched their pseudo-social networking website, Craver Nation. At first glance, and to the uninitiated, it seemed like a colossally dumb, if not completely insane, idea. Social networking sites are ways to reconnect with, and to meet, people with common interests. They require a considerable investment of time and energy on the part of the user, and who in their right mind would devote that much energy and time into connecting with people who, for example, also likes their Big Mac with extra Mac sauce and no cheese?

But the reason why the idea isn't completely insane is that we're not talking about McDonald's. This is White Castle, the only fast food restaurant with a bonafide cult following. A cult that exists not despite, but perhaps because of, the terrible violence these burgers inflict on our digestive systems.

Which reminds me of conversation I had in high school with one of my fellow students, who partook of various illicit substances, one of which was peyote. He explained to me that the first time you take peyote, no matter who you are, you will throw up. And it will be the worst vomiting of your entire life. The second time is a little better, and the third time, a little better than that. I had trouble understanding why anyone would subject themselves to that, and then he said, it's exactly like White Castle. And that made perfect sense, because at that time I was eating White Castle about six times a week.

Now, I never tried the stuff (peyote, I mean). I never tried any stuff, because education remains the only high I need. I have a visceral dislike of drugs and alcohol, and for that reason I don't particularly enjoy stoner movies, nor do I support them by going to see them at the theater.

But I was there opening day for Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. And that's because it was White Castle. I wouldn't have gone to see Harold and Kumar Go to McDonald's, because first off, they already made that movie, it was called Mac and Me and it was terrible. But secondly, I don't care about McDonald's. There is no "McDonald's type of person", because everyone goes to McDonald's. But there are White Castle people. There are Cravers.

The movie captures this pretty well. There's a scene where an employee of another burger joint, played by Anthony Anderson, waxes rhapsodic about "those tender little White Castle burgers, with those little itty-bitty grilled onions that just explode in your mouth like flavor crystals" before flipping out because the burgers he serves just don't cut it. And people who don't know about White Castle might think that scene is exaggerating, that no one would talk that way about a fast-food burger. But I swear to God, I've heard Cravers talk like that. I've talked like that.

And though I've never been compelled to think of arson when denied my burger of choice, I have gone to pretty extreme measures at times. This is a story that people who know me have heard at least a dozen times. Of course I'm talking about The Time I Risked Getting Shot By the Secret Service to Get White Castle.

It was the summer of 2000. Election year in these United States. And Vice-President (and Democratic nominee) Al Gore was in my hometown of Dearborn, eating at Dmitri's, a Greek restaurant on Telegraph Road. Their food wasn't great (their opa was decent though) and they went out of business earlier this year. Now as it was then, my local White Castle was right smack-dab next-door.

Now, I didn't know that Gore was in town, or that he was eating at Dmitri's. All I knew at the time was that I wanted White Castle, and that traffic approaching the White Castle was down to one lane, that lane being the one farthest from that side of the street. The other three lanes of Telegraph were closed down. There were some cones, and some limousines. And standing at the Dmitri's lot were a few dudes with short haircuts, sunglasses, and black suits. (I assume there were more inside.)

There was no way to get to the White Castle. A sane person would have just went somewhere else. There was a McDonald's several blocks down. Heck, there was an Arby's just across the street. So I did a Michigan Left and pulled into the Arby's lot.

And then I made a mad sprint across Telegraph. Sometime after I got to the median one of the Secret Service guys must've seen me. As I ran across the rest of telegraph, darting between the cones and limousines, I became aware of the fact that one of them was power-walking in my direction. I poured on the speed, my body in agony.

I got to the door of the White Castle. I stopped, taking huge gasping breaths. I turned my head. The Secret Service guy had stopped moving in my direction. He let his hand wave downwards in a "just let him go" kind of motion: the kid just wants a sack of ten.

The point of all this is that White Castle isn't just a fast-food restaurant. It's a sort of nerdy hobby, like comic books and board games, that demands and rewards the same kind of investment. If anyone can make a social networking site work, it's them.

Now I have no idea if the Craver Nation site is actually any good. Thirteen years ago I was living on White Castle: at thirty-nine cents a pop, I could have a meal for two bucks and some change. Since that time, I've gotten married to a woman who is wonderful in every respect, save that the charms of Castle-fueled flatulence are hopelessly lost on her. I'm no longer a Craver, no longer the kind of person who gets up at three in the morning and says, you know what, I want to have the flux all day tomorrow, thank goodness White Castle is open twenty-four hours a day.

So I no longer have the passion that would lead me to devote any of my time to a social networking website for hamburgers. When the site launched, I logged in to get a coupon for free burgers, which I never actually got around to using before it expired. In practice, the site could be a dismal failure. But conceptually? I think it's kind of brilliant.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Two Varieties of Terror Experienced During the Blackout of 2003

Ten years ago, I was at work when the power went out. That wasn't terribly disconcerting-- we had lost power in the building once before for nearly a month, and would for a few days lose it once again after. What was disconcerting, though, was that my cell phone couldn't get any reception, nor anyone else's, that it became clear that the power outage wasn't just our building but everywhere. And the fact that, at that place and time where I was, nobody knew why.

I remember feeling a little scared, especially with others thinking out-loud that perhaps it was some kind of terrorist attack. I must confess that I was never really scared of terrorists or terrorism before then. Even after the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, I didn't feel that I, personally, was unsafe or threatened. My heart went out to the victims of the attack, and I felt a great deal of sorrow for them and anger towards those that took their lives. At the same time, it felt a little distant and removed, like it happened in some far-off-place, and that it couldn't happen here. Demographically at least it seemed unlikely that Dearborn would be the target of a terrorist attack by radical Muslims.

But the blackout changed that-- it made me feel quite vulnerable and made terrorism something to fear in the now rather than in abstract. Of course it turned out to be nothing of that sort, but the feeling lingers.

Up until that summer, Mary and I had been sort-of friends for a few years. That is, we didn't hang out or anything, but when we ran into each other, we'd talk for awhile, mostly about movies. That summer I had invited her to one of my film shoots, and we started spending deliberate time together. We went to a movie together at the dollar show (Ang Lee's HULK), had gone to lunch together.

I had always had a crush on her since the first time I met her. And having spent actual social time with her that summer, that crush, which had been something casual, became deeper and stronger. Something that was deeper and stronger than anything I had ever felt or anticipated. Something that was tearing me apart.

Which was strange. I was hardly a ladies' man, but in the past, when I had a crush, I had absolutely no qualms about telling the object of my desire how I felt. I was always open and bold about it. But with Mary...

With Mary, it was a secret thing. I wanted so badly to tell her, to be open and bold, but I couldn't; the words just wouldn't come out. I was so terrified that she would say no, or stop talking to me, and I couldn't bare the thought of it. And, like I said, it was tearing me up. It was an agony. Some nights I cried. But I couldn't tell her.

Then came the blackout. The first day, like I said, my phone was out. But on the second day of the blackout, my phone was working, and as soon as it was, I called her to make sure she was okay (she was).

I didn't tell her how I felt then, but by calling I think I tipped my hand.  Two weeks later, she told me, in effect, "Tom, you have a crush on me", which was a very Mary sort of thing for her to do. I had still been too scared to tell her. The next day, though, the last day of August, I wasn't too scared to kiss her.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Snyder's Lousy MAN OF STEEL (with spoilers)

Man of Steel is not just a lousy movie; it is the lousiest Superman movie that's ever been made. Don't get me wrong: there are certainly things I liked about it. The dystopian Krypton sequence that begins the film is a film unto itself, with Russell Crowe providing a brawny, muscular, but appropriately clinical take on Jor-El. Young Clark being overwhelmed by his powers (and the film's villains having the same problem later on) is just the sort of detail I like in my superhero fiction. Lois Lane coming into Superman's circle of trust from the beginning makes a lot of sense. The performances are strong across the board (particularly Michael Shannon).

But that doesn't make it a good movie, or a good Superman movie. I mean, there were things I liked about Superman IV (well, okay, just Mariel Hemingway). But I'd rather suffer through that again before I'd submit to another whirl at Man of Steel.

I could go on a harangue about how the film completely misunderstands key elements of its central character and his mythos, but, c'mon, that's just going to sound like another comic book nerd losing his shit because Spider-Man has organic web-shooters. Things get changed, lost, and made more accessible in the act of adaptation. And that's understandable. I mean, my ideal Superman movie would have Red Kryptonite, the Bottle City of Kandor, and the Giant Fricking Key to the Fortress of Solitude. And I know that's sure as hell never going to happen. If I expected every 150 million dollar movie to adhere to my tastes and proclivities, I would never enjoy anything, ever. And I sure as heck wouldn't shell out the cash to go see a movie I didn't fully intend on enjoying.

I went into this movie wanting to like it. And ultimately, what I didn't like about it-- the things that made it lousy-- had little to do with how they adapted the character, but how they failed to deliver on the premises of their adaptation.

Time and again, characters in the film talk about how the "S" stands for hope. How Superman represents hope. How he must, should, and can inspire the people of Earth to be better than they are. And that is, at its core, a big part of what Superman is about. They pay a lot of lip-service to this concept.

But that's all it is. Nothing Superman does in the film is particularly inspiring or hopeful. Mostly he punches the bad guys through buildings and gas stations, causing massive explosions.

And boy, are there explosions. There is devastation and property damage and implied carnage on a scale that I've never before seen in a superhero movie. A death toll is never given, but let's not kid ourselves: probably thousands of people die during the film's last climactic seven-and-a-half hours of buildings toppling over. It's a very dark, unsettling, disturbing vision. And actually it kind of makes sense.

It makes sense because superheroes, and that goes double for superhero movies, are products of their times, Zeitgeist with a capital Z (the same goes for zombies, but that's an essay for another time). It makes sense to dramatize the things we're afraid of, and to reflect the times in the film. It sets up a world that desperately needs inspiration. That needs hope. That needs Superman. And I think the filmmakers were acutely aware of this.

I like the idea a lot, and was ready to respond it. Unfortunately, as I said, he doesn't really do anything other than punch the bad guys and crash through buildings. At least until the end, when (spoiler alert) he snaps Zod's neck and then cries about it. I'm not going to get into everything that's completely wrong, from a true-meaning-of-Superman perspective, with this scene (again, trying to keep my inner comics-nerd at bay). But taking the film on its own terms, this act wouldn't inspire anything other than terror and distrust.

The Superman of Man of Steel is a really terrifying and alien thing. The film plays up this angle, that people will be scared of him and that it will take time for people to trust him and thus be inspired. But it sets it up in such a way where the onus is on the character, by his actions, to overcome those fears. Instead all of his actions simply confirm them.

Nor do we see what would be the logical extension of the inspiration premise: that is, seeing the people of Earth following in his example. In fact, the closest thing we get is a scene in which Perry White and another Daily Planet reporter try to save a third trapped under a pile of rubble. It's a very good scene, and there's a lovely quiet moment in which White holds the trapped woman's hand as they wait for what they assume will be their end. But it's a scene that says something about the basic decency of Perry White, and of people in general.

I would say perhaps that that scene even refutes the premise that people need Superman to give them hope. The movie as a whole seems to refute the premise that we could be inspired by anything so alien. There is no denouement to suggest otherwise.

The conclusion we are given is committed to putting the last bits of mythology in place. The closing minutes are focused so intensely and myopically on Superman, on Clark Kent, and not on the impact, if any, he has had on our world. This might be part of my problem with the film as a whole. The Donner Superman, the first half of which might be the closest thing we'll ever get to a perfect Superman movie, was bigger than the character. It had room for many things, people, and wonders within its epic sweep. This film by contrast feels quite small, and there's no room for wonder in its dusty dark world. No room, in fact, for hope.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Rappaport and Carney

I've been lucky enough to see two of Mark Rappaport's films, both of them years ago on VHS, and I have been eagerly awaiting the day that I could see more of them. As anyone who is reading this is no doubt aware, that day at the very least seems very far off due to Ray Carney's possession of the materials Rappaport needs to make them available to stream online. I don't have much to say about this that hasn't already been said, but the situation is so morally repugnant to me that I feel compelled to say it anyway: Rappaport made the films. He absolutely has the right to them, and to make some kind of living off of them. It is abhorrent to claim otherwise.

I would stop there, but in the interest of full disclosure, I present the following:  It was Carney who introduced me to Rappaport's work. Ray Carney introduced me to a lot of artists I wouldn't have heard of otherwise, including some contemporaries whom I consider friends. For a time, I considered Ray a friend, and we corresponded often. Much of that correspondence, I was to find later, he put on his website. Had I known it'd be public I'd probably have sounded less like a mewling little sycophant most of the time, which doesn't speak well for the person I was at that time.

When his website was "shut down" (it's still there, just not updated) some years back, Ray suddenly stopped responding to my emails. I knew from mutual internet-acquaintances, all of them much more successful and "established-ish" filmmakers than Mary and myself, that he still checked his email, still responded to them, etc. But he just stopped talking to me. It felt like that since he didn't have a website to post my letters on, that since he lacked a forum with which to post my embarrassingly effusive praise, he didn't have any further use for me. I was sore about that for a while. I got over it. I haven't heard from him in years.