Taxi Driver -A film to welcome Trump with – Happy 40th

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Release: February 8 1976

Director: Martin Scorcese

Taxi Driver is an all-time great. One of my favourite, if not my very favourite, movies of all time. This year it celebrated its 40th anniversary with a new blu ray release, which if Santa doesn’t bring me, I will get him to put on his belated sleigh via Amazon.com. If you haven’t seen it (then we can’t be friends)it is essentially about a Vietnam war vet Travis Bickle (De Niro, duh) who, unable to sleep, gets a job as a Taxi Driver. Meanwhile he develops a crush on a woman named Besty (Cybil Shephard) who works at the New York campaign office of Presidential hopeful Charles Palantine. He eventually comes on too strong as the socially awkward, and apparently friendless, Travis takes her to a movie theater specialising in sex films. Offended she leaves and goes home alone.

Growing increasingly disillusioned he confides in a fellow taxi driver about his thoughts and ideas, which are starting to become violent. Travis, disgusted by the sleaze, prostitution, and drugs (to name a few) that he sees throughout the city on his routes – “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” – undertakes intense physical training in his home, both to ready him for the ‘rain’ and as an outlet for his frustration. He eventually befriends a young prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) who he tries to convince to move back home with her parents.

He buys guns, shaves his head in to a mohawk, asks if you’re talking to him, you. Here’s where it gets relevant – Travis shows up at a rally for Charles Palantine where he plans to assassinate him. He gets noticed by Secret Service and flees successfully through a crowd of people. When Palantine happens to jump in his cab Travis tells him he just knows he’s going to win! Next, he’s out there trying to kill the guy. What changed? Betsy. He’s getting more and more fed up, not helped, by his recent run ins with Iris, with the way things are going. It seems killing Palantine is more of a symbolic ‘fuck you’ to Betsy (and the Government that allows the ‘whores, skunk pussies’ etc.) as opposed to killing her – the dead don’t feel pain, right? Keep in mind this film was made roughly 13 years after Kennedy’s assassination, around about the same amount of time between the 9/11 attacks and the present – less than ten since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. Crazed gunmen were likely the boogeyman of the day, much like Middle-Eastern terrorists at present.

The fact that the movie is so widely revered, aside from its impeccable content, is testament to just how real and common Travis’ feelings of loneliness are. He feels no one understands him – he’s “God’s lonely man.” – and that killing a prominent politician may serve as a catalyst for change, or at least give some damn relief. Now, I don’t mean everyone, or anyone, who’s been let down by a girl, or society, or both, would or should gun down politicians, but it wouldn’t be the first time and I’d wager it won’t be the last either. What can Taxi Driver tell us, or warn us, about a Trump Presidency? Maybe nothing, but we do know that, for better or worse, he is skating on thin ice already, and the film is depicting true, real emotions and circumstances. New York in 1976, as portrayed here, takes on an almost dystopian image; neon lights, steam coming from man-holes, drug addicts, rubbish flying in the wind, you know the drill. I am partially reminded of the proletariat from Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps it is merely a reflection of how the world looks through Travis’ embittered eyes – perhaps it’s how the world is  now beginning to look for a lot of people, Trump voters or otherwise.

Paul Schrader’s script, at a glance, might be too confronting for some. In it’s complete, filmed, form maybe even more so. It was definitely controversial in its release, especially the final few scenes. However, if this were simply a film about a lunatic that people don’t really identify with, or don’t even really care about, it would have been lost and forgotten like plenty of other neo-noir New York City thrillers. Instead it remains consistently hovering in most top 10 lists of the greatest movies ever made. Happy 40th.

 

Paradise Lost – tragedy, entrapment, trilogy

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Release: June 10 1996

Director: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

My first introduction to the West Memphis Three (WM3) must have been around the time they were finally released. I remember some sort of controversy in the news that one of the boys convicted (Damien Echols) was either now living in New Zealand, or spending some kind of extended holiday here, I can’t remember which. I didn’t think much of it, but it stuck in my mind because they made the point that Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh were staunch supporters, and believers of their innocence. Since then the documentary series about the case has consistently popped up on my IMDB recommended list, and documentaries you ‘must see.’ On a whim we chucked it on and from, literally, the first frame I was captivated.

A quick recap; On May 5th 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas three eight year old boys – Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers – were reported missing. On May 6th a black shoe was found floating in a muddy creek in Robin Hood Hills. The creek was subsequently drained and the three missing boys bodies were found dead, naked, and hogtied with their own shoelaces. Christopher Byers died of ‘multiple injuries’, the other two died of ‘multiple injuries with drowning.’Much of the politically conservative and Evangelical Christian community, including detectives, believed these killings to be the basis of a ritual, Satanic slaughter.

The film’s opening scenes are plainly shocking. They stopped me dead. I remember making jokes, or acting silly, before the movie had actually started thinking we’d have a while to get through the opening sequence or whatever. The opening scene(s) had my mouth agape the entire time. What struck me is what I imagine strikes most people when first hearing about this case – the absolute brutality that it takes to do this sort of thing to three little boys. We are first shown police footage of the boys’ bikes sitting on top of some pipes, we are then shown the actual crime scene creek being drained, followed by images of the dead boys lying on the banks, still hogtied. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever seen a picture of a murdered kid before. Perfected by Metallica’s song (Welcome Home) Sanitarium, the scene is one of the most powerful, if not the most, I’ve ever seen. It made me so mad and disgusted with whoever did it that in my mind I was already doing my own research by the light of my laptop monitor while everyone else was asleep.

Going in to this documentary series, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought that it was just another crime doco about three kids who were really in to Satan which led them to murder three boys and how it destroyed a community. Boy, was I wrong. About ten minutes in to the film the tone takes on a slight change, one of almost passion backed again by Metallica’s awesome instrumental ‘Orion.’ The mother (Pam Hobbs) of one of the boys is asked by a reporter – “Do you feel the people who did this were worshiping uh…”

“Satan? Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“Just look at the freaks. I mean, just look at ’em.”

This chilling statement (accepting the fate of your murdered son over the way someone looks!) is one to sum up the entire film almost. We meet the parents  of all three kids, Jason Baldwin (16), Damien Echols (18), and Jesse Misskelly Jr. (17), who all profess their sons’ innocence, followed by the boys themselves. It is Joe Hutchison’s (Echols’ father) words “Our son is innocent. We intend to prove it.” that subtly shifts the film, or rather opens up the film, in to an ambiguous (pfft!) account of the trial. When Hutchison said that, I had chosen my side – the underdog, obviously. He speaks with truth and conviction, while Pam Hobbs, for example, speaks like someone suffering paranoia, or even delusions as she smiles throughout the interview. What follows is perfect structure – hats off to the film makers. Stepfather of Christopher Byers, John Mark Byers, is seen in his redneck uniform of a trucker cap and overalls at the actual crime scene, making such claims as – “…they had their satanic worship services out here. They had all sorts of wild, homosexual orgies…” Such were the rumours and hatred for these three scapegoats, stories like this with absolutely no factual basis came out of nowhere, likely from those trying to deflect blame. Perhaps those responsible for the crime itself.

The first Paradise Lost film (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) is a masterclass in documentary film-making. The injustice is so blatant though, that you hesitate to call the film an objective piece – even though it is. There are no voice-overs or narration, everything appears exactly as it was filmed. If someone looks stupid? That’s the way they made themselves look, not clever editing or framing.  On that note, the justice department, and the community of West Memphis, Arkansas should be ashamed of themselves for the way they perverted justice so righteously – ironically playing God as Echols was sentenced to death, some parents of the murdered boys even proudly displaying themselves on film shooting at pumpkins made up to look like the accused’s heads.

If we’re going off the way people look, or seem, (thanks Pam Hobbs) then my partner Abbey was right when Jason Baldwin appeared on screen for the first time. “Well, he’s innocent.” she said. And of course he is, “just look at ’em”. What we see on his face is genuine shock, and more than that, terror. The film makers themselves even noted that before they arrived in West Memphis they simply assumed that the three accused were guilty, why wouldn’t they? After the film’s release, however, it became clear that it wasn’t only the film makers, or Abbey, who could tell these guys were innocent, but basically everyone that saw the film – including people like Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Depp. This sprung the Free the WM3 movement which gained traction and support from all over the globe, and sprouted two more films in the Paradise Lost saga, and West of Memphis, a separate documentary released after the Three were freed.

Yeah, spoiler alert – they got out eventually. The story of how, why and when is just as gripping as the first film so go check it out. I will say this, though, justice has not been served. Just because they can walk freely today is no consolation. The circumstances they were released under were a disgusting display of the state throwing their weight around and forcing three already trapped men further in to a corner. Echols, however irresponsibly, summed it up best during his trial:

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Music Memories – Going to California Pt. 2

We had done it. Albeit at a rate we weren’t expecting but are considering tax for not being prepared. Demand was such that in the ensuing days ticket ‘worth’ on the secondary market would reach, I’m not kidding, over $100,000 before dropping sharply (to a mere $8,000 for a pit ticket, pfft). No complaints from us, we were going and it’s something you can’t really put a price on. Why the cliche? Because it’s honestly true.

In the months leading up to the event there were no other snags, none that eventuated anyway. I was in a constant state of fear that our tickets wouldn’t arrive in time or that they would have been tampered with or stolen, or something – mainly based on our postie’s claim that she had seen people from ‘the hospital’ up the road going through peoples’ mail and mailboxes. They arrived with ample time to spare in a beautiful box with a bunch of goodies inside, which is something I’d never known any festival to do. Some people online said it’s what to expect after paying such prices, which seems funny to me because in my mind I’ve only paid for the gig(s), and that anything else on top of those 6 artists performing (i.e an awesome box with presents) was a nice bonus.

Around the same time Abbey and I had been getting way in to David Lynch and Twin Peaks. No real reason for it, we had been meaning to check out Twin Peaks for a very long time and a bunch of Lynch films had been on our ‘list’ for ages. If you’ve seen Twin Peaks you probably know that nothing is a coincidence, and the owls are not what they seem, so imagine my pleasure when David Lynch him-fucking-self announces his own, new festival featuring headliner – wait-for-it-because-i’ve-been-beating-myself-up-about-not-seeing-him-when-he-came-to-NZ- Robert Plant. Robert Plant. Lead singer of my favourite band of all time, Led Zeppelin. The voice.  Things were indeed aligning as I scroll down the page and notice that the dates and location- Oct 8-9 Ace Theater, Los Angeles. We were landing in L.A on the 8th.

Tickets actually seemed harder to get for this than Desert Trip. The only reason we were able to score them, I believe, is because I managed to find a presale code on the internet somewhere, Reddit perhaps. The venue is a theater at a hotel, the capacity is only 1600. Lynch is one of those directors that has somewhat of a cult following, you either don’t really get him, or you LOVE him. More than 1600 people would have tried to get tickets regardless of who was playing, let alone Robert Plant, and indie darling St.Vincent. Robert Plant probably hasn’t played a venue this size since Led Zep’s early days. Based on social media, and again pricing on the secondary market, demand was huge and I honestly felt special just knowing that I’d be able to go. Not many cool things like this happen to me.

With everything go, having tapped my feet and paced the living room for months in anticipation for the day, it had arrived. There were no more snags. Couldn’t be. We had everything in order down to the smallest detail. Certain, rather thoughtless, friends had suggested strongly to us not to plan anything – after we’d already planned everything. Yeah, this isn’t some two-week jaunt across Bali, guys. I’m not going just to get wasted, I’m going for a pretty specific reason and if I end up sleeping in, or missing the bus, or anything, I’ve wasted so more money than your entire trip cost. Money that, for more private reasons reason than one, I won’t see again. If Desert Trip was in Spain, I’d be going to Spain instead, get it?. But alas, we get to the ticket check-in and the girl at Virgin Australia types in our flight details and with a smile informs us our flight has been cancelled because of “the hurricane.”

The hurricane in Florida? On the other side of the continent? Surely not. But, hey, you take their word for it right?  Immediately we go in to hyper drive thinking of other options, I head over to the Air NZ counter and ask when the next flight to L.A that we can get on will be. It’ll be $1000 bucks a person, and we’d be fighting tooth and nail to make it in time for Robert Plant. That was the main concern, we’d always make Desert Trip regardless, but Robert Plant, man. So Abbey is getting on it talking to a bunch of customer service lines, travel insurance etc., and we have to go back to the Virgin counter and ask the customer service team for printed proof the flight had been cancelled. The lady says, “Proof? The hurricane is all over the news.” The manager who happens to be in the vicinity overhears this and asks what flight we’re on. We tell him. It’s not cancelled, he informs us. Only some East Coast flights are. Pretty much what we had thought, too. We had no time to abduct and torture the woman who told us otherwise, so we thank them profusely and run to our gate where we arrive with plenty of time.

Hunter S. Thompson Episode II – Attack of the Clones

“Ye gods..” is a phrase that I really like to use, although sparingly. You have to be careful when blatantly biting someone. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard Johnny Depp, poseur extraordinaire, use on occasion too. I imagine we both got it from the same guy.

It doesn’t sound quite as cool with a New Zealand accent either, which is another reason I’ve got to use it like it’s running out and we still need what we have left to last the summer. Sounds much better crawling its way out of a throat dry with whiskey and American cigarettes, barely said at all. Dark sunglasses might help, too. I first came upon it reading a bunch of Hunter S. Thompson’s stuff, probably some volume of the Gonzo Papers. It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s more of just an expression, exclamation. When talking about The Rum Diary he (HST) states, “Ye gods, this is me…”, for example.

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those writers, even just one of those ‘guys’, that it’s very cool to be ‘in’ to, apparently. If you don’t own a Fear and Loathing poster have you even tried mushrooms? Everything that fell out of his mouth sounded like prose. Sentences that I’d have to sit in a dark room for weeks on end just to birth, only to never be able to say naturally. He would be over the thought before it’s even left his mouth, very little thinking actually seemed to even go in to it. Most of us have to think before we speak, a sentiment drilled in to us since the very earliest of education. Hunter, on the other hand, could say the most vital, intelligent things apparently without having to have thought at all. Not to mention the weight of all the drugs and alcohol he’d likely be performing under. He was positively Dylan-esque – Dylan at his best, that is.

There are, however, throngs of people that don’t understand the madness that must torture a mind as intellectually superior as Hunter’s. A lot of very clever, highly regarded, artists have killed themselves. I don’t think that burden is nearly as glamorous as the literary and yes, even photographic snapshots would have us believe. But for many 16 year olds just discovering the Fear and Loathing movie (“Aw dude, you’ve never got high and watched Fear and Loathing!?”), this is the place to be. And thus springs the inspiration for the New Years’ journeys and festivals. Instead of Duke and his Attorney blasting through the California/Nevada desert in a red convertible with suitcases full of drugs, spawns of Auckland’s elite pack silver VW Golfs with a few bags of weed, some pills full of chalk and rat-poison, stock their iPods with music their source would have hated, and drive off to Gisborne thinking it’s the same thing. Well, it’s not the same thing. Cue the Snapchat stories filled with piss breaks, and the caption “We can’t stop here…” There’s a famous scene in which Duke and the Attorney get really messed up on some ether and go walkabout. Here’s a sad, sad, true story – I knew some people (seemingly intelligent Uni students) who spent a night huffing CRC because it CONTAINED ether. Contained! Lots of things contain ether. Lots of things contain lots of things, but such is the struggle to be like him.

Most of those guilty will immediately get defensive and claim they aren’t doing that. Watch their faces when you say, “Yeah you’re right, you don’t really read his stuff anyway,do you?”. It’s like asking a robot what happens when Pinocchio says “This is a lie.”, they just can’t compute and then explode. Where else do you get the idea to DO ether? It’s not exactly like South Auckland is dotted with ‘ether houses’ and cops come up with big loads of ether in all the gang raids. The main point is, if the praise that he seems to get on a real, day to day basis, was literary and legitimate, he’d be considered one of the greatest who ever lived.  Instead of inspiring people to read and write, he’s apparently inspiring dumb teenagers to live up to some impossible expectation that is the epitome of drug-decadence, and frankly isn’t even his best work. He’s definitely considered to be ‘up there’ on the literary ladder, but instead of just sharing drugged-out quotes of his over Facebook and pretending you understand, actually give it a go. If you think this one tiny quote is so cool, you are in for a treat because his books are full of them! I believe people simply can’t be bothered. Can’t be bothered with the challenge of anything non-linear, or slightly confronting, which is really sad.

It’s kind of a general issue and arguably stems from the same soil as ‘headline whoring.’ Sharing a story, or facts, simply based on a cheeky, click-baiting headline. It is so wrong and irresponsible and is greatly contributing to the dumbing down of our collective sub-conscious.

“Did you see Company X is trying to get their employees to…”

“No, if you actually read the article it said they were ‘considering’ it, to ‘potentially’ be implemented by 2025.”

Same thing when people see a quote of his, or see the movie adaptation of one of his books, they take it in and share it like its their own. And this happens with many, many, other respected musicians, authors, and artists in general. Anyone that it is ‘cool’ to like is at great risk of being reduced to a slogan, or a t-shirt. It happened with The Ramones, Black Flag, Sex Pistols and even Che Guevara. Of all the people who use the quotes, the bat country, the ‘drugs always worked for me’, the breakfast routine – the percentage of those who have actually bothered to go further and read anything substantial by him would be very interesting on one hand, and embarrassing on the other. Interesting to me, because I believe it’d truly back up what I’m saying, and embarrassing for a lot of you.

 

Movie Memories – Stand By Me

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Release: August 22 1986

Director: Rob Reiner

My first recollection of Stand By Me was seeing it in a magazine – Top 100 Movies of All Time. It came in somewhere around the 20s, and the accompanying picture was the one above, of Vern (Jerry O’Connell) pointing out Ray Brower’s dead body. I wrongly assumed that the boys shown were ‘the bullies’, and that’s all the thought I ever gave it (having perused that list many, many times) until my older brother mentioned having to study it as part of a coming-of-age thing. I must have been 11, if my brother was in year 9. Dad was an avid Stephen King lover, he had all of his books and had read them each more than once, so was pleasantly surprised when my brother mentioned off the cuff that he was studying this movie called Stand By Me at school. “Stephen King wrote that,” Dad said, “it’s a short story, you would like it too, Max.” My brother agreed, “Yeah, it’s actually pretty cool, man.”

“Stand By Me? About a bunch of boys on an adventure? Sounds gay if you ask me.”

The very next weekend we were at Dads we went to Whitcoulls, and lo and behold, the Stand By Me DVD is sitting in a bargain bin. Dad and Jed immediately grab it and show it to me, while Dad slips it in to his other hand to meet the other movies we’d be adopting – the “I’m buying you” hand. I don’t know why, but the fact we had just bought it made me even stronger in my fight to ward off this “gay” movie. The slipcover gave me all sorts of material, while Dad smiled to himself and shook his head knowing somehow that I’d end up eating my words, “If you say so…”

“River Phoenix? River Phoenix?  That’s a person’s name? Should be Stand Bi Me they all love each other so much. Ugh, set in the ’50s? How boring. Oh look, a treehouse! Wank.”

I imagine at this age I was trying extremely hard to shed my ‘innocence’ because I can’t fathom how anyone who knows me, let alone me myself, could ever make a convincing argument that Stand By Me isn’t up my alley. I even found myself at that stage leaving Star Wars behind, an ever present source of wonder for me, no matter how hard the devil playing Eminem on my shoulder had tried to convince me otherwise. I even think part of it was pure bloody-mindedness. I didn’t want to like it partially because these people just assumed I would; how dare they!?

Dad and Jed put it on when we got home, to prove me wrong. Jed didn’t mind because he truly had enjoyed watching it in class – that was soon to change. And Dad didn’t mind because he hadn’t seen it in years (plus, he collected all the movies based on Stephen King’s work too). I remember the opening sequence with the older Narrator sitting in his car by himself and the score behind it thinking “Pfft, this so isn’t me”, but as soon as the cash register “chings” and we see Gordie’s face for the first time I was in 1959 Castle Rock, and I didn’t want to leave. I still tried to appear weary and not fully sold, but I wanted their lives and I felt honestly duped that I wasn’t able to experience it.  At the end of the 90 minutes, they both looked at me exaggerating their points. See!? See!?

I saw. I skipped forward which took me straight back to the main menu of the DVD and again I clicked play. I watched it three times that day, back to back. And when my little brother joined us another weekend, we watched it multiple times then, too. And twice the next day, and the next day – hence Jed’s eternal sigh whenever it’s brought up.

Stand By Me quickly became, and still is, one of my favourite movies of all time. I don’t have an ordered top ten when it comes to movies or music because I feel like I’m being mean to any one who isn’t number one, they all deserve it. Stand By Me, the song, is also one of my favourite pieces of music of all time.tumblr_nir90zxpfz1r7a23yo1_1280

When I first saw Stand By Me it became an instant favourite based on its own merit. The writing, the acting (especially by such young boys), the soundtrack, everything comes together in a completely dynamic and perfectly subtle way to create a real, living, breathing world. You feel like you are experiencing this adventure as opposed to watching it, and it’s only at the end when we are reminded that the ‘narration’, and the story itself, is in fact just The Writer recalling it, and yes, it isn’t real – Richard Dreyfuss is an actor. Hearing Rob Reiner, or even Stephen King, discuss the film in interviews, or the special features which would often bridge the gap between viewings, it becomes clear that it not only epitomises their childhoods and their understanding of coming-of-age, and rites of passage, but once you step back like they are you realise it pretty much epitomises coming-of-age in general. Stephen King who is famously weary of people adapting his work (see: The Shining), has gone on record to say it is his favourite adaptation of any of his books, regardless of noticeable differences in content. People see themselves in the boys and can relate to at least one, or all, of them in a totally personal way. The characters created are so vivid and real that it’s hard not to relate – when you’re watching it you ‘choose’ a character and they’re you’re guy for the duration of the film, you feel like part of their gang.

Stephen King born in 1947 loved it, when it came out in 1986 people loved it, my little brother born in 1996 loved it, I loved it. Film itself does age, it is a physical thing that deteriorates in quality with time, but it also is something that has been in a constant state of improvement ever since it was invented. Stand By Me’s age doesn’t take away from the impact for even a second, which is something that can’t necessarily be said for all ‘classics.’ I would put its emotional impact, even just enjoy-ability, up against any movie, not to mention those that have access to all the state-of-the-art technical bells, whistles, and top talent.

Sure, Stand By Me isn’t like anything filmed today – those ways are mostly redundant – but the content is timeless and could hold its own against anything from ancient Greek poems, to 4k movies so life-like that any emotion less than a close-up of a quivering tear duct slaps the medium in the face.