The Most Dangerous Decade

The era of the 'oughts' has ended. 2010 is upon us, and this is no small milestone.

For me, it represents my first opportunity to analyze a specific decade in an adult way (at least such as decades are commonly bookended, in ten year chunks, starting at a zero year.) Fittingly, for me personally, the ‘oughts’ provide a fine capsule of time, a nicely ordered and packaged progression, particularly as they relate to my education in the world of movies. To look back--I graduated High School in the class of 2000. Unkempt and uninterested, and swept up in real drama at home, going away to school was not an option. Pondering (read: avoiding) my community college destiny, I took a job, and sat by helpless as my friends shipped off and away to University, and I remained a lowly ‘townie.’ The job? Blockbuster Video. This, you remember, was the video industry’s moment of middle-age, its adolescence having only recently faded. I still remember putting up the store's first shelf of DVDs not long after I started, alien in their slim paper snap-cases, and marveling at the menus, chapter stops and (gasp!) bonus features. It would not be long before the new format was ubiquitous, and VHS was in a fight for its life. I watched it all pass before my eyes, friends. I ate Kit Kats and drank Fruitopias, and got paid eight bucks an hour for it. It was glorious, to a point. But it was not to last.


Some ancient history.. My ‘a-ha!’ moment in film (every moviehead has one,) was with Magnolia, which I first watched by myself in the basement of my father’s house, sprawled out with a pillow and a blanket on the floor. I can still picture its two-tape clamshell VHS rental case, held together through the middle by a rubber band. To an eighteen year old kid who grew up on John Wayne, Mel Brooks and bad Nineties sci-fi, it was a capital-R Revelation. My education then grew the way most’s do; I gradually started thumbing through the VideoHound book we kept in the store, putting names to coverboxes, learning the difference between a Producer and a Director, etc. And, above all, watching more movies. This was before the Internet took over everything--which is not to romanticize the time, exactly. But it was different. I didn't own a computer until about 2002. By then, things were beginning to come together for me a little bit. I heard about Kazaa. Armed with the world’s shittiest dial-up, I excitedly downloaded the Pixies version of the song from Eraserhead, and Roy Orbison (en espanol) from Mulholland Drive. The movie world was revealing itself to me, and in conversation I could pretty well hold my own.

I banged around in the video world for nearly half the decade, running the gamut of rental chains (Blockbuster, then to Hollywood, then to Lion,) and then finally to a quaint little outlet store for DVDs, which I ran for a year and a half or so out in Itasca. It was like a secret club for movie collectors; everybody who knew about it checked it out, and they always came back (the prices were unbeatable.) I remember fondly some of my loyal customers, a colorful lot. There was Ray, the truck driver, who loved old horror flicks and stopped by often on his lunch break, and who dubbed me a copy of The Skull on VHS (years before it came out on DVD,) which I still have. There was Nick, lanky and wild-haired, a lover of all things vintage, and always with an amusing anecdote about whatever I had playing on the TV (on Duel in the Sun; "’Lust in the dust!’ they called it!”). There was Big Bill, who never bought much, but always came to see me and bring me a small container of pipe tobacco (he knew I was a smoker.) And of course Barry, the filthy-rich lawyer with the sports cars, in leather jacket and shades, who collected so obsessively he would literally call in a weekly list of new releases (never less than fifty titles) to be pulled for his review and approval. They were good people. At this point, the DVD collector’s market was in full, beautiful bloom, and interesting titles were being released at an unsustainable clip. And there I was, with a box cutter and a DVD player in store, and access to them all. It was a fine education, indeed.

A lot of bartering went down there; I was free to administer a lot of off-the-books discounts, and my generosity never went unreturned. They all stopped by with something: a book on Buster Keaton or a card at Christmas, a gift card, an old poster. I'm glad to have experienced that old-fashioned style of retailing, but it was clear even then that the moment was not to be forever. Our little corner store just wasn't shifting the units the way top brass wanted. They shoveled me up to a desk job, which my poor brain tried on for size but ultimately violently rejected. And that was the end of that (the store itself was shuttered not long after.) But I kept up with movies, and with writing, and soon enough the two met and fell in love, and, um, here we are. True story.

Now, it’s a new decade, and I find myself in the position of seeing that world fade away before my very eyes. At 27, already my old stomping ground has become a rundown, abandoned lot. Blockbuster hasn’t been relevant in years, and the stores are dropping like flies (the one I cut my teeth in, in Lisle, is an awkward-looking Auto Zone now.) Movies on discs feel more and more passé every day. Retailers struggle to navigate the waters of digital downloads and super High Def. And movie lovers? Left somewhere in the fray, for now.


But what of the films themselves? Make no mistake; this decade will prove a marker. Already in the films I’ve experienced in 2010, I've begun to sense what the shift will be. An easy and all-too-perfect poster child is the recent Up in the Air, this year’s presumed Oscar horse. For all its pretensions of insight and lack of answers, Up in the Air does manage to convey quite nicely a fitting obituary to the death of the American happy ending, marking the moment when mainstream cinema officially divorced itself and split off from that haggard old Hollywood dinosaur—the ‘feel-good’ picture. Up in the Air enjoys a built in alibi for its bleakness; the global recession, which it exploits in its plotline as well, aping but not in any way commenting on the unfortunate realities of today’s economy. Notably, it does not even attempt to offer refuge. Why not? In the 40’s, Frank Capra, that grand chronicler of small-town America, at least had the good sense to send his viewers off with a smile. By comparison, Jason Reitman, who has ridiculously and completely prematurely been lauded by some as Capra’s second-coming, is content to simply identify the problem. It is here that he somehow endears himself to the new-age ‘cinerrati,’ even as he reveals his dearth of emotion. He really put his finger on it! Yeah, well, I’ve got a finger to offer in return.

I'm not OK with Up in the Air’s depiction of America in 2009. Does that mean, by proxy, that I’m not OK with America itself in 2009? I suppose it does. I'm not OK with posterity looking back and finding an era of wandering ghosts. I desire integrity, especially in the movies. Up in the Air has about as much to say about integrity as a tattered old pair of underwear. And the comparisons to Capra seriously make me want to puke. We watch Capra now (like we watch most old films now, those few of us that still do,) to drink in some small drop of the HOPE that they convey. The hope that, in fact, most films used to convey. But now, happy endings are viewed as trite, and in all but the most very trite of films, they are non-existent. The closest we get these days is the now- ubiquitous ‘dangling-thread’ ending, wherein filmmakers allow their viewers to, ahem, decide for themselves the fate of these characters, in whom it has been their job to invest us for the past 90 minutes or longer.

This seems to me to be a natural outgrowth of our modern life; too few experiences are thoughtfully mediated for us by a person these days. We check ourselves out at the grocery store; we pay our bills by automatic debit. Our cars can give us cross-country driving directions. We wish our friends and family members good morning and good night on their respective web profiles. We are no often required to rely on another person for anything in a given day. And when we do, it’s invariably an inconvenience. Who wants to wait for a bank teller when I can have my paycheck electronically beamed into my wallet? So too then—who wants to see a movie that gives me ideas about how to think? (That is, unless that’s already the way I think, a la Michael Moore, et.al.) Even the Oscar-bait feel-gooders are becoming harder and harder to find. Slumdog Millionaire lost most of its rags-to-riches luster when it was revealed that the film’s child star, a non-actor, had remained living in squalor in the Mumbai slums, even as the film (itself a horrendously sugar-coated depiction of the place) raked in millions at the box office. This is to say nothing of love stories, a practically non-existent genre, just as it often remains in modern life. It’s no wonder that (500) Days of Summer garnered so many sloppy comparisons to Annie Hall; it’s probably the closest thing our decade has given us, at least in the mainstream, but it’s still light-years away. Of course, I’m aware that these trends by no means began in the ‘oughts,’ but the global recession, born here in America and radiated outward across the globe, seems to have put the final nail in their musty coffins. But still I wonder--will we someday miss our happy endings? Will they now truly be forever doomed to dopily inhabit the dime-a-dozen Rom-Coms and Lifetime movies of the week? Is there room for resonant love stories, or any film born of integrity, in the high-brow film world?


Also appearing at the dawn of the new decade is James Cameron’s Avatar, raucously heralding a new day of techno-beefcake-panache destined to muscle its bloated, still-born visage onto movie screens for generations to come. Inhabiting at the same time the tiny fraction of cinemas not being devoured by Cameron’s mongrel techno-beast, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is by comparison a kind-of anti-Avatar, its effects looking as dated as Up in the Air’s supposed depression-era blueprints. As we watch an old trick crumble into dust before our eyes and behold its new embodiment (much like the ‘avatars’ of Cameron’s film) so too can we wonder: will we miss our old foe CG as well? That cursed demon, which we battled so mightily to extinguish, and which Cameron has now so thoughtfully taken upon himself to put a final bullet in its brain. Will we later long for the days when we didn't have to pay close attention to see what is real and what isn't? Will Starship Troopers, Men in Black and even that old sacred cow Jurassic Park feel charmingly quaint and old-fashioned, the way Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers do to us now? Yes, sooner than later, certainly they will.

It's an easy observation, but how fitting that the decade might be forever shorthanded as the 'Oughts,' a pair of big, fat, empty g00se eggs, waiting to be filled up with something. Are we up to the challenge in the new decade? Or will the ‘Oughts’ collapse deflated upon themselves? Will our emptiness be filled? Is a new era of integrity, fidelity and love on the horizon? And, if it isn't.. are we totally screwed?

I've got a 'Best of the Decade' list, which I'll be posting, with commentary, shortly. But I thought it only fitting first to give a goodbye to the decade itself. If the movies have endeavored to teach us anything at all in this decade, it's that we can always retreat to indulge in our passions, however vague or ill-conceived they might be. How we indulge them, what we make of them, and the ways in which they affect us remain open possibilities. But we are allowed our passions.

And it may well be that, in life as in the movies, we are not often predestined a happy ending, but will instead have to thoughtfully seek it out. Perhaps it’s still out there, buried somewhere in the electro-miasma of rental queues and digital streams, waiting, calmly and silently, to embrace us.



7-7-7 (Day 3)

Two days in, I was rejuvenated, and about as excited as a person can be to go see a 50 year old movie at an 80 year old theater in a sleepy little suburb. Tonight, it was 3 Godfathers at the Tivoli. In Downers Grove, my old hometown.

Well, actually, my old adopted hometown. I lived in Woodridge, which is one town over, for about five years during high school. But Woodridge was (and still is) just houses and White Hen Pantries- DG was where the action was. And the Tivoli is right in the heart of it. Steps off the Metra stop in downtown Downers, in an old building which also houses a downstairs bowling alley, and a pizza joint. Straight up suburbs. Small Town, USA, with just a hint of white-folk ritz.

When I called it home, Downers was good to me. I drove my cars up and down its streets in summertime, to park in front of friends' houses, lugging bass amps down cramped stairwells and back up again. We drove down Ogden Avenue to the Omega restaurant at 3 AM, for free bread and hot coffee and dirty looks. We watched movies, too. In basements and living rooms, drinking liquor we shouldn't have had, laughing and smiling with that old, ecstatic purity of teenaged-ness. Lots of memories. Very few bad ones.

These days, the Tivoli spends most of its days (as it did then) sadly relegated to second-run movie house duties. On the day I visited, Monsters and Aliens (in 2D, sadly,) had just finished a run, and something else lousy was coming in behind it. The Tivoli used to have a sister theater, Tivoli South, which was on the other side of town, and about as ratty and run-down as they come (side note: it's under new ownership and has been converted into a movie house for exclusively Bollywood/Indian language movies. The delicious Sher-a-Punjab buffet and Bombay Bazar grocery are just a few steps away. It's like Mumbai, DuPage Co. edition.) But the Tivoli is no typical cheap theater. Not by a mile. Built in 1928 at the dawn of the sound era, when the huge, sprawling movie palaces were giving way to smaller (by comparison) and more plentiful theaters. By today's standards, it might as well be Carnegie Hall. Easily the most spectacular room in Downers Grove, the Tivoli has benefited from some loving care and restoration in recent years (no doubt there are quite a few patrons of the arts with deep pockets still left in town.) It's really something. Here's hoping that the Tivoli can keep its mojo forever.

I arrived a bit early, somewhat on purpose, as I wanted to grab a pint at Emmett's Ale House, one of the first micro-breweries I ever visited, at the dawn of my drinking years. Hitting the suburbs is a funny thing when you have the benefit of a few years mainly in the city to color your perspective. I suppose if you're looking for it, you're going to find people that annoy you anywhere you go. But that night, in that bar, I was surrounded by a flock of rapidly aging yuppies, with $50 haircuts, $500 jackets and $50,000 cars. I ordered my doppelbock, and it came in a snifter (?). Five years ago, I might have thought it was the best thing I ever tasted. Not so much any more. I paid and headed down to the show, and the soft din of the high-priced dinner conversation faded out of my ears. What a relief.

I've seen 3 Godfathers plenty of times; it's a nice choice to bust out around Christmas time. A loose retelling of the "three wise men" bible story, filtered through Ford's trademark Monument Valley/cowboy lens, and it has a universal appeal and an easy charm that suits most tastes. Was this my first Ford in the theater? Apart from Young Mr. Lincoln at the Chicago Outdoor Film Fest this Summer, I think so. It's late, minor Ford, to be sure; the great director is painting with a broad brush here (something about the size of a push-broom,) and nuance goes out the window pretty quick in favor of tear-jerky chest-grabbing moments, which are pulled off pretty admirably by the three godfathers of the title: John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendáriz. Never one to leave us hanging, Ford's story of three men in search of new souls pushes (sometimes mashes) all the right buttons, and by the end, by trial and tribulation, they, like their unexpected child companion, have been reborn. Drinks are poured, songs are sung. What a yarn. So great.

The news had broken earlier in the month that Downers' annual summer hooplah, Heritage Fest, had been cancelled. The city couldn't afford it. Could it be true? Heritage Fest was like a high school reunion where your friends parents might show up. Seemed like we went every year, whether we wanted to or not. And we paid $6 a cup for Michelob, and ate the elephant ears. Cuz that's what the townie kids do. But were all grown up now. Very few of us left in Downers Grove proper. No more Heritage Fest? Shame for somebody, I guess. But I won't miss it.

The Tivoli, on the other hand, is a treasure. And worth the drive.

History of the Tivoli Theatre: http://www.classiccinemas.com/history/tivoli.asp

(images: click to enlarge)