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Rating History

This Filthy World
22 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

The Man With the Pencil-Thin Moustache Speaks

I was thinking about it, as I was watching John Waters talk. He starts by talking about the directors who influenced him most in his own work, a subject of endless fascination. It's kind of like we're tracing the genealogy that leads to a man filming a 300-pound drag queen eating poo. (Yes, he assures us, it really was real poo. "But I'm not a sadist. It was only one take.") The fact that it traces a line through William Castle will come as no surprise to anyone who knows who the heck William Castle was. However, when he started talking about his earlier films and how he made them, I thought about a director whose name didn't come up. The simple fact is, John Waters came up from the kind of filmmaking where you, he says, drive busloads of homeless people into the woods and strip 'em down when you need naked extras. Drive the bus away, too. John Waters is who Ed Wood might have been, had Ed Wood had talent.

I think the word which springs to mind when I'm listening to him talk as himself is "droll." Here, he stands in front of an audience wearing an odd suit (black with this sort of white piping which almost looks like seam markings), just sort of talking. In theory, he is telling us the history of his own career, but very few people worth listening to are able to do that in any sort of linear fashion. And so he roves all over his internal monologue, talking about his various stars, the reactions to his movies, and essentially anything else which springs to mind. And a very strange mind it is, of course. He pauses dutifully for applause, every time he mentions the name of one of his movies, but you kind of get the feeling that he wishes they'd stop interrupting him that way so that he can get on with his stories. And they're well worth the listening, and John Waters is wonderful at the telling.

Really, John Waters has had a fascinating career. He started in the land of the Midnight Movie, that curious phenomenon where people would go see terrible, terrible movies over and over again in the dead of night (the most famous of which is [i]The Rocky Horror Picture Show[/i]), and has now actually won a Tony. [i]Hairspray[/i] started as a not-quite-mainstream movie, became a Broadway sensation, and then became a hugely mainstream movie musical which still somehow had John Travolta in a fat suit. (Waters says that Divine would have wanted to play the role herself, were she still alive, and he doesn't say if she could sing or not.) He's a fixture in a certain aspect of the world, and he's probably one of the most recognizable directors whose movies the average person doesn't ever actually watch. Even I've only seen a very few of his movies, and I'm not sure I actually want to see most of the rest of them. [i]Pink Flamingos[/i] looms ahead of me in the way [i]JFK[/i] used to, though Divine only had to eat poo, not sit through hours of it.

At least John Waters knows himself. He does have some interesting views about art, and I have to say that I do think what he does is art. Then again, I also think it's possible to have bad art. (This is not meant to be an evaluation of his work, just the nature of moviemaking over all.) He is a devoted believer in the arts in general and in education, too, and passionately devoted to his stable of actors. He speaks fondly of Patty Hearst and Traci Lords. He says he still visits Divine's grave, and he seems pleased that the fans do as well. He says he doesn't want to be a parent, but he would quite like to be an uncle, and I have to tell you, there are worse uncles for a kid to have. Oh, there are [i]better[/i] uncles for a kid to have, but I think he is a charming, genuinely kind person, and he is vocally in favour of teaching kids to find something to read. So for all he has that little pornographer's moustache (he knows that's a pornographer's moustache, right?), I would let him hang out with my kids.

It always seems weird to me that Rotten Tomatoes will let me write a review of this, which is the next thing to stand-up--let me review Eddie Izzard, which [i]is[/i] stand-up, given that they've cut the ability to review a whole bunch of other things. I mean, I'm kind of relieved; it's been a bit of a hard day, and this was the only thing I was able to make it all the way through and have something to say about. (Werner, [i]Land of Silence and Darkness[/i] is brilliant as always, but what is there to say?) However, I can't help comparing John Waters standing alone on that stage to, say, several TV shows I've watched and been unable to find. One of my best friends from back home is producing, these days--her husband, who I've known so long I don't remember meeting him, has his own IMDB page!--and she has asked me if I will review their current project, when it's done. And of course I will, would without having to have been asked. But will Rotten Tomatoes let me?

The Letter: An American Town and the Somali Invasion
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Because Community Is Now Fluid

Any influx of immigrants brings with it social and economic changes. It is simply a fact. In what we for some reason call "economically depressed" areas, those changes can be severe, and in small communities, they can be horribly complicated. Communities get set in their ways. And, of course, any large and largely homogeneous crowd of immigrants will make an easy target in Outsidership. If they wear different clothes, don't speak the language, and worship in a different place, they're an easy target. If their skin is a different colour, well, they're not really going to be able to hide.

According to the census statistics currently on Wikipedia for Lewiston, Maine, the population was slightly over one percent "African-American." Those statistics are out-of-date and were when this movie was made, because by the point at which this movie was made, Somali refugees had begun migrating there; estimates now hold that some 4000 have made their way into Lewiston, rather noticeable in a city of under 40,000 people. These were people escaping ethnic violence in Somalia of a nature more complicated than I'm really going to go into here. They came to the United States as refugees, then they found their way to Lewiston in the belief that it would be a nice place to raise their families. However, they were very much Outsiders, being black, Muslim, and immigrants, and not everyone was exactly thrilled to have them there. Then-mayor Laurier T. Raymond wrote a letter asking Somali leaders to keep their people from moving to Lewiston, because the city couldn't afford the social services and the new residents were a drain on the city's infrastructure and they were all unskilled and none of them spoke English. And things went pretty predictably from there.

The problem I have is that the movie didn't go into enough detail about the mayor's numbers. They say his figures were wrong, but elsewhere, I've read that the unemployment figures in that community are still far higher than in Lewiston at large. I absolutely agree that the mayor had no right publishing an open letter of such a nature in the paper. Certainly he could not then realistically express surprise at being called a racist. Inasmuch as there were Somali leaders with whom one might consult, it would certainly have been more tactful had he done so. It is also undeniably true that there were those using any problems Lewiston might have been having to their own advantage, and the film gives us those. People came in with their own agendas, but that's probably true on both sides. Without hard numbers, it's difficult to reach an objective opinion on the impact 4000 immigrants from [i]anywhere[/i] have had.

The inevitable white supremacist claim is that those speaking in favour of diversity mean "except for white people." However, one of the interesting discussions about the Lewiston situation is that the more conservative Somali parents are going to be losing their children in certain ways to Americanization. Indeed, I would argue that another failing of the film is its lack of any viewpoints from the average Somali. It's probably hard to talk to some of them; the film doesn't seem willing to admit it, but there are actually English-language classes required for a lot of those immigrants. However, it would be nice if it felt as though anyone were trying. Yes, a number of those Somali immigrants want very much to keep their way of life as it was, but they aren't going to be able to. Maybe the Somali culture will leave an imprint on general Lewiston culture. Doubtless it will, in fact. But do people really think the Somali culture will remain pure after more than a generation in Maine?

And that's the real issue, of course. At one point, someone specifically scoffs at the argument that, after all, they are descended from immigrants as well. However, their rejection of it is just foolish--"they're not here." In a generation, maybe two or three, the Somali immigrants to Lewiston will be not unlike the "Franco-American" people at the cultural hall where the two groups first started encountering one another. A lot of Americans still celebrate their Irish or Italian or German heritage. There's a town up north of here which makes a big deal about Scandinavian ancestry. And so forth. I have a friend who says there's no racism in Maine, which I've always found a ludicrous assertion. This film shows that to be exactly what I think it is. However, given another fifty years, the Somali "invasion" will be just one more thing for Lewiston to brag about in its varied history.

7 Up
7 Up (1964)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

A Child Until He Is Seven

To be perfectly honest, the two biggest problems here have to do with what the creators thought would be the problems facing Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century and the ones that they didn't foresee as being bigger. Out of the fourteen children, four are girls, because the rise of modern feminism didn't really begin until after this first one was made. And while racial issues would have been at the forefront in an American sampling made in 1963, even if class were considered the most important issue, the two have not been as completely entwined in the UK. Having only a single child with even a single parent who wasn't, well, a white British native was sufficient, because issues of immigration were yet to come at the level they have since done. In 1963, it was still possible to believe that class would be the driving force in British society, just as it always had been before.

To that end, the fourteen children were chosen. They were deliberately selected to show the extremes of the British class system, from the three boys introduced singing "Waltzing Matilda" in Latin and seemingly destined for Oxbridge and the same lives as their fathers to the two boys from a charity school to the boy who lived in the country and was one of only two children in his village--the other of whom was his younger brother. One of the girls was from an exclusive boarding school; all three of the others were from a primary school in the East End. The fourteen children were taken to the zoo, taken to a party, and apparently allowed to play in a construction site, the '60s being a very different time and all. They were also interviewed both about what their lives were like then and what they thought their lives would be like when they got older. Two, to my delight, wanted to be astronauts, though that was hardly an uncommon aspiration in those glory days of the space race.

To be perfectly honest, this half-hour of television by itself is not the most memorable thing going. What became important was that this was not the only documentary featuring these fourteen children. (Though not since 1977 has an installment involved all fourteen; Charles, one of the pre-preparatory boys, has refused ever since. Allegedly, he's even threatened to sue if his image keeps appearing in them.) What was important was not the documentary's predictive power, which has been so-so. What is important is it as a portrait of what life is like in (mostly) the UK every seven years. The most recent installment, [i]56 Up[/i], came out just last year, and according to what I've read, the lives have not reliably been what was expected when they were seven. Part of it, I think, is the societal changes--and part is that I don't really believe you can know at that age what life any child is going to lead, because class is only one of the factors involved in shaping any child.

I've meant to get around to this series for years. Technically, I shouldn't be here yet; it does not, after all, start with "P" or before. (Unless you go numeric, in which case I should have done it long since.) It appeared in my Netflix streaming options, and I was enchanted to discover that, while there is a lot of the series to get through (eight movies as of last year), the first section is an easily digestible half-hour. This left me with no more excuses, especially since I had only about two hours to go before midnight, and since I skipped yesterday, I would have felt guilty about skipping today as well. Getting something done, even so close to the wire, and watching a movie I'd meant to see since . . . possibly since I saw Gene and Roger review [i]35 Up[/i] or maybe even [i]28 Up[/i]. Even when I was not much older than the children in this first installment, I found the concept intriguing. I hope it gets better, but I do believe that this is something to be started at the beginning.

Is, in the end, class the driving force in the difference among British children? Was it then? I don't think so. Whether it's because of the half-hour length or because it didn't fit the proposed narrative, there are details left out. We hear nothing about Symon's absentee black father, at least nothing that I heard. We do not learn that the reason John was able to remain in expensive schools was that his mother (widowed two years after this installment) worked hard and that he got a scholarship to Oxford--though that, presumably, is more of a problem with the installments dealing with those periods. In fact, we hardly know anything about the parents, except that Bruce misses his father a great deal. I am no expert, of course, but I do think those parents, absentee and otherwise, have an influence on their children--possibly as great or greater than the influence of class. However, the various children are shown almost in a vacuum, as if all of Britain will be raising them together.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I looked all this stuff up on Wikipedia the other day; I don't remember why. My whole life, I'd known at least vaguely of who Patty Hearst was. I'd seen that picture, that famous picture, many, many times. I'd read the old [i]Doonesbury[/i] strips on the subject. I'd laughed hugely at her portrayal of Wanda's Mom in [i]Cry-Baby[/i]. And, eventually, I pieced together at least some of the story. As much of the story as most people know, I guess, and more than most people my age, almost certainly. But until a couple of weeks ago, I honestly had no idea why the group that kidnapped her was called the Symbionese Liberation Army. In my head, I vaguely paralelled it with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a looming presence of my politically-aware childhood. I was never sure, however, what group the Symbionese were. (For the curious, it's a word invented by Donald DeFreeze, the group's original leader, based on the word "symbiosis.")

This documentary really starts with the first major action of the SLA, the assassination of Oakland school superintendent Dr. Marcus Foster and wounding of his deputy, Robert Blackburn. Two SLA members went to prison for this shooting. Following that, on 4 February, 1974, the SLA kidnapped heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. The SLA told the family that they would free her if the imprisoned members were released, which of course the family could not do. Then, they demanded that the family distribute enormous amounts of food to the poor, a program that didn't really work. Eventually, the tapes that they released from Patty had her declaring her rejection of her family and society and her taking the new name Tania. It was after this that she took part in the Hibernia Bank robbery, the group's most famous activity. Later, five SLA members (including DeFreeze) were killed as part of a firefight in Los Angeles. Eventually, Hearst was captured, tried, and convicted for her role in the Hibernia Bank robbery. She later had her sentence commuted by Jimmy Carter and was pardoned by Bill Clinton.

The film takes essentially no stance on Hearst's claims that she was brainwashed by the SLA. While her story is used as a frame to hold the story together and her name features prominently in one of the titles under which this was released, there is little detail about Hearst herself mentioned. The details of the SLA's activities rate more mention. Hearst is not among those former SLA members interviewed, though I doubt she would have agreed to be so if asked. There is, at the end, a brief shot of a young, clean-cut Patty Hearst beaming at the camera after her commutation; this, I think, serves to remind us that no other member of the organization received such favourable treatment--though Russell Little, one of two men convicted in the Foster murder, was eventually acquitted in a retrial in 1981. He [i]is[/i] one of the ones interviewed.

Groups like this frustrate me. They put so much effort into their bank robberies and their gun stockpiling. In fact, it was impulsive shoplifting on the part of member William Harris that indirectly caused the deaths of DeFreeze, Nancy Ling Perry, Angela Atwood, Willie Wolfe (after whom Stephen King named his infamous rabid dog--his [i]nom de guerre[/i] was Cujo), and Patricia Soltysik. The sequence of events is hard to follow and harder to believe, but it's true. Yes, the SLA got some poor people in California fed, but since the food distribution was poorly organized, the distribution in one area led to violence and all of it was shut down. Other than that, I am curious as to what anyone thinks they accomplished. The only member most people can name these days is Patty Hearst, and she has long since rejected their values if she ever really espoused them in the first place. Surely that effort could have been put to better use elsewhere.

If Hearst has never shown real remorse about her crimes, it's hard to consider the others to have done so, either. In the disc's special features, there is footage from the Sacramento courthouse where four of the SLA members pleaded guilty to the murder of bank teller Myrna Opsahl, killed in the Crocker Bank robbery, where Hearst allegedly drove the getaway car. William Harris expressed the opinion that putting him in prison wouldn't solve anything--possibly true--and that it was a great hardship on his family, even comparing it briefly to the hardship Opsahl's family suffered upon her death. It's really horrible. Even if they do feel remorse, none of them went out of their way to ensure that they would make amends to the family for it.

Apollo 11: A Night to Remember
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Apollo Coverage: The BBC Version

You know, I've already been grumbling lately about how screwed up the site's database can be. It's hard to find this out, because the search function is lousy, but the site doesn't appear to want to let you review [i]Life[/i], the documentary miniseries. (This was disappointing at least in part because it meant I couldn't share Gwen's hypothesis that Oprah Winfrey is Mom from [i]Futurama[/i], so I'll just share that now.) You have to go into "browse," look at each individual entry under the title, and discover that, no, none of them are the one you want. This is insane. Then, I was amazed to discover this in here. I mean, yes, there's a wait on this on Netflix, but there are still ten holds of [i]Life[/i] on the library's list, so that's no help. But what got me is that we have once again found a movie that's in here twice. Who exactly is manning the database over at Rotten Tomatoes?

I have long asked the question, "Does anyone know who else was reporting when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon?" You see, in the United States, there is one answer to the question of who was broadcasting Apollo 11 and there is one answer to the question of who was broadcasting when John Kennedy was assassinated. In the United States, it was Walter Cronkite. However, this was not the case in the United Kingdom. For the British, there was Sir Patrick Moore and a young James Burke broadcasting about Apollo. (I don't know about JFK.) This is not so much a movie as a summary of the BBC's coverage of the events leading up to those first historic steps. It includes the somber voice-over during the actual Apollo footage and the more frivolous behaviour of Burke as he explains the science and technology, mostly the technology, to the BBC audience. The two probably spent a lot more time than this covering the events; indeed, we know they did, because this isn't even all the footage from that night. But it's the big stuff.

James Burke, I have loved of old. However, I had only ever thought of him in the context of [i]Connections[/i]. Really, he wasn't that much younger here, but this footage does include the most exuberant, joyous footage I've ever seen of him. I don't know if this is a difference between American and British coverage of the space race or if it's simply that I haven't seen the corresponding American footage. However, it's easy to see the seeds of [i]Connections[/i] in, for example, his crowding into the actual capsule and going down the actual escape tube. He even, Gods love him, got to go for a ride in the Vomit Comet, and that's where he seems basically just giddy. Not that I blame him. I recently saw for the first time a picture, which turns out to be a few years old, of Stephen Hawking having the same experience. Inasmuch as his face has expression at all anymore, he is obviously wearing an expression of delight. Whereas the other people are really, [i]really[/i] hoping they don't drop him.

Honestly, I really wish more Apollo programming shown today involved some of the stuff we see from James Burke. It is often speculated that the reason it's so easy for some people to believe Apollo was faked is that they don't know much about the Apollo record. They see little tiny clips of footage and don't realize that it goes on uninterrupted for hours. They hear about Moon rocks, and they don't realize that there are hundreds of pounds of them, including long core samples. In general, there seems to be a lot that people don't know, and while some of it is extremely technical, Burke is able to reduce it for us without making us feel stupid. He also has remarkable access to NASA, it seems, and I wonder how many other reporters did. It's not as though you can't even just book the Vomit Comet these days, and quite a lot of Apollo was about public relations. But they never show this stuff, and I think they ought.

Of course, I can only be so smug. One of the boards I'm on is about Apollo, and the hoax section has twice the posts of the reality section. (That's debunking, not accepting.) And the thing is, I never go into the reality section, the part of the board where people discuss technical things. The fact is, I don't really understand them. They start laying out strings of numbers, and my eyes glaze over. They have details about radiation, engineering specs, and so forth. I barely remember any of the physics I learned in high school, and I've never actually taken chemistry. I am not a scientist. I don't even play one at home. However, the reason I hang out in the hoax section is that the people there are very, very good at breaking technical stuff into bite-sized pieces so that even I can understand it. And there are so many things which don't require much in the way of scientific training to understand. This shows a lot of those things, and it shows a lot of them in the moment. You are not too dumb to understand; you are intelligent enough to be educated.