by Pablo Kjolseth.
Readers will have to forgive the portentous title, but I think Tod was hoping for me to tackle a theme (or themes) that would really shake the tree, challenge the status-quo and, as she puts right up there on her Exterminating Angel Press website: “look at our world in a different way.” My two chosen topics were “beer and cinema.” From her initial reaction I may as well have announced my intention to put together a collection of poems dedicated to dime-store fart cushions, so I was quick to add that my desire was to pay homage to “craft-beer” and “independent cinema.” Look here, good lady, these are no regular whoopee cushions! These blast-bags will MORE than shake the tree AND have tremendous power within human society to change how you sit and misbehave in a theater seat. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But one hopes the better.
Either way, with enough beers under my belt I’m definitely looking at the world in a different way, and there are are some powerful films out there that have certainly changed my life. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made me swear off meat for many years. Importing a European print of Brazil as a campus film exhibitor pretty much led to the job I still have. They Live changed the way I looked at a world that is always trying to get us to WATCH TV, OBEY, CONFORM, and CONSUME. Similarly, Dawn of the Dead goes far beyond the now long-past-their-previous-past-their-expiration date ultimate consumers of flesh to pose its audience one obvious question: If you were to die and come back a zombie, would a shopping mall be your default go-to-place? Really? Was shopping really that important to you? Sad. For reasons that will soon be clear, anyone who knows me can say with confidence that my zombie-ass would probably end up sitting down in a movie theater or brewpub. (Enthusiastic shoppers reading this might consider that a much sadder fate than wandering around an abandoned J.C. Penney’s. It’s all a matter of perspective.)
From where I sit, movies are the modern day equivalent of our ancestral fire-pits, where stories were told that helped humans try to make sense of both the wonders and perils of our universe. The fire-pit evolved into shadow-play, with that light later shifting to behind a shutter system that projected 24 images against an upgraded cave-wall that now came with perforated screens and immersive sound systems. This new art form captured time and sewed in spatial relationships with all kinds of unique possibilities for the stories we tell each other now and for generations yet to come. This is not without some chin-scratching results, like when one ponders the idea that more children are currently familiar with images of Darth Vader than Jesus Christ, which is grist for another column and here mentioned only to cite the power of narratives. The number of people who believe in creationism is alone testimony to the powerful narrative that the Bible still wields within contemporary society, so Bible-thumpers need not be worried about Darth Vader. Yet.
Back to beer!
The case for beer being pivotal to human existence is readily available online and for free in a one-hour documentary:
Have I seen it? No. But I’ll get to it soon enough. The doc already had me at the title and I’m a firm believer in the idea that fermented beverages have been bringing people together for thousands of years. The problem is that this social-lubricant is also responsible for its share of lynch mobs, domestic-abuse, self-abuse, and vehicular homicides. However, I really do feel that there was a big change in my life when I went from being a college student with a kegerator filled with Budweiser (or Molson, when feeling upscale – not that it mattered since they’re both owned by the same company) to being a home-brewer cultivating carboys of Chocolate-Raspberry stouts in my basement. It was at this point that I became part of the creative process and suddenly realized that beer could be delicious, memorable, and something to be shared with the same kind of rightful pride now seen by brewmasters at many micro-pubs popping up nation-wide. In the world of taste for adult fermented beverages, this was like jumping from flat, 1.33:1, B&W, silent-films to – bam! – anamorphic, Technicolor, 7.1 surround-sound/Sensorama big-screen presentations with a whiff of Odorama. (Screw 3-D. It’s over-rated.)
Two quick asides:
1) Speaking of beer-related documentaries that I have not yet seen, here’s one to dilute the testosterone pool:
2) There’s something else that’s very special about beer, which is highlighted by this New Yorker cartoon by William Hamilton:
The same can not be said for movies which, more and more, are being seen online, at computers, and various gadgets of all shapes and sizes. Norma Desmond had no idea how small “the pictures” would get. Pretty friggin’ small. Sadly, it’s also widely thought of as “content” rather than art, especially at the studio level. Beer also suffers from a similar mindset when talking about the owners who peddle the largest market share, except instead of “content” it’s “units.” Instead of “art,” it’s, well, just beer.
I think of the bulk of studio movies out there as akin to visual Pilsners and Lagers. They are “session beers” (to use a hated term) that rely on formulas and consumer demand as dictated by one thing only: the opening weekend box-office performance. More money is put into their marketing than is put into their ingredients, never mind the committees who oversee the production and overall research guaranteeing said content will then be widely accessible and appeal to as large a demographic as possible.
When your target audience is everyone, here’s an example of what happens: you put a man (preferably divorced due to circumstances out of his control, and emotionally available), a woman (who tragically lost her husband and child in some torrid affair involving zombies, Liam Neeson, or a dingo), and then, of course, the all-important teenager(s) to fill out the poster. This latter category is the most coveted of demographics, as disposable income might still be “a thing” for teenagers. Better to get them sooner rather than later, because after college they’re fucked. And, heck, might as well water down all plots and stories down to the teen level to cover all bases. Get some built-in brand appeal. Sprinkle in some kids to move some merchandise and cross-promote. Don’t forget product-placements and happy-meal tie-ins. Dolls. Comics. Candy. Toys. Whatever you got.
People blame Jaws and Star Wars but, really, somewhere down the line it was inevitable in our market-based system that one of the greatest art forms of the 20th century would somehow settle into a system where the visual “content” would really just be one giant ad for multiple things that companies want you to buy. As to the exhibition space, this has largely devolved into giant recliners that lull you to sleep while you watch the ads in front of the ads in front of the one big ad you paid over ten bucks to watch, and all this while stuffing your face with the concessions that now make up 65% of the exhibitor’s profits.
Every now and the, of course, there are surprises. Boyhood is a terrific film that uses the power of cinema in an inspired way, and it’s doing deservedly boffo business for its distributor. But for the most part, the multiplex movies out there are the visual equivalent of Budweiser.
Independent cinema? Now we’re talking Chocolate-Raspberry Stout. Oh, sure. Every now and then you hit a batch that is bad, hilariously bad, and maybe it even makes you sick (which, in the case of early work by John Waters, might even be the intended goal). That’s okay, as long as it has passion. Sure, bankers still get involved along with other gangsters and plenty of shady deals with lots of people getting screwed. But the results are far more memorable, heart-felt, and possibly even life-altering. These are movies with many ingredients that are made in the spirit of the advice Jean Pierre Renoir once gave to his son: “Never make a movie unless it’s like having to take a piss.” Which brings us back to beer. When you drink Budweiser, your piss comes out transparent, as if you had loaded up on nothing but water that day. When you drink craft-beer, it’ll equal the color you get from having had a heaping mound of asparagus. In a word: nutrition.
Related links below.
Here’s something I wrote two years ago which, unfortunately, no longer carries the original images due to TCM switching over to another platform:
A far better link, just for fun:
For one very specific example of both great independent cinema AND beer:
Last: a link to a recent article by Richard Bordy that touches on the idea of movies being aimed at adolescents rather than adults that then flips things around in a way that Brody hopes will still endear him to youngsters because, hey kids, come play on my lawn!
Pablo Kjolseth blogs for TCM and is the International Film Series Director at C.U. Boulder. He is currently putting the finishing touches on the Fall IFS film calendar, which will include documentaries on Tuesdays, masterpieces of Polish cinema on Wednesdays, a run of archive 35mm prints on Thursdays, and all kinds of special events and Boulder Premieres over the weekend, starting in September. Details will be up by the end of the month on the IFS website (www.internationalfilmseries.com), with more information about the IFS available at: www.internationalfilmseries.com/notes.php