Second Sight: How Channel-Surfing, an iPod, and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED Restored a Movie Critic’s Eyesight

Second Sight: How Channel-Surfing, an iPod, & PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED Restored My Eyesight


The comfort you find in routine can, at times, be
overwhelming. You turn on your computer for the first time in weeks to check
your e-mail. You have hundreds of unopened e-mails in your inbox, but it’s one
of the most recent ones that catches your eye. It’s an invitation to a
promotional screening. You haven’t been to a movie, let alone a promo
screening, since mid-December. You accept the invitation, explaining to the PR
person why you’ve been dormant for the last seven weeks. You get dressed for
the first time where the destination isn’t a doctor’s office. The ride in the
car is mostly quiet, the radio providing most of the entertainment. Certain
turns on the highway seem familiar. Yes,
we turn right, then left, then right again
. You walk into the theater and
the sound of people rushing to the concession stand or their assigned
auditorium washes over you. You remember that most promo screenings are either
in screen 9 or 8, and without missing a beat, the ticket-taker says your
screening is in screen 8. Your party gets allowed in first, annoying the people
still waiting to be let in. (Ahh, the perks of being with the press.) You walk
down to the very front row and take a seat. The screen is huge. You had
forgotten how big the screen was. You wonder how much will you see? Will it be
better than before? The lights go down and, for a brief moment, you panic.
Darkness is something you’ve come to associate with dread, not joy.

I have a friend who rejects the notion of using New Year’s
as some kind of line of demarcation. You don’t need the start of a new calendar
year to start over. Every day provides an opportunity to start anew. This
sounds perfectly reasonable, but I confess the events of this past New Year’s
Eve led me to believe that only ominous things lay ahead for me. I was in my
home office, catching up on end-of-the-year reading, thinking about my year-end
top 10 list, and generally taking it easy. I was really procrastinating because
I had a couple of deadlines hanging over me. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street had just come
out and I was starting to gather my thoughts on a piece about Scorsese being a
director of comedy. I had just spent the last couple of weeks watching every
Scorsese movie in chronological order, which is something I do every time a new
Scorsese movie comes out. It was seeing GoodFellas
at age 11 that made me want to be a critic. I was always a rabid watcher of
television and movies, but Goodfellas was
the first movie where I knew I had seen something different. I became obsessed
with every facet of the movie. I went out and bought the soundtrack on cassette
(!), which began my lifelong obsession with pop music. I also studied the
evolution of gangster movies, as 1990 saw the release of Dick Tracy, King of New York,
Miller’s Crossing, and The Godfather Part III. (To this day my
two favorite movie genres are Gangster and Musical.) I talked and wrote about
the movie constantly. I knew I was still too young to fully comprehend its
themes of Catholic guilt and loyalty, but I kept trying to figure them out.
(I’m still trying.) I soon realized that criticism, be it of movies, music,
television, literature or any other form of entertainment, allows you to work
through your emotional responses to what you experienced, and by doing so you
are bringing into focus the reader’s own emotional responses. It was through
critical writing that I was able to see the
world more clearly. I chose to be a movie critic instead of a music critic
because movies got to me first. As I arrived at this choice, I never really
dwelled on the inherent contradiction of being a blind movie critic. (To be
completely accurate, I was born blind, but through numerous operations as a
child, I now have extremely limited eyesight.) I guess the sight of seeing
someone walk into a theater with a white cane in one hand and a movie ticket in
the other is a little …odd? The inability to register how others see you can be
both a blessing and a burden.  

I was also applying to journalism graduate school with the
intent to concentrate on criticism. The deadline was January 4th,
and all I needed to do was write a couple of essays. It was 5:30pm, and I just
opened my Word document to hammer out one of the essays. I got up and went to
the kitchen to get a drink of water and talk to my sister-in-law. I was away
from my computer screen for no more than 15 minutes, but when I returned the
text of the Word document was all blurry. I couldn’t read a thing. I thought
maybe it was my monitor. I turned to the CCTV I have on my desk. (A CCTV is a
large monitor with a camera shoved up its midsection that allows me to place
any kind of written materials on a tray in order to magnify it for reading.) I
had just received the Criterion Blu-ray of Michael Mann’s Thief and it was still sitting underneath the monitor. I turned on
the CCTV and flipped over the Blu-ray so I could read the text on the back
cover. No luck. Concern, not panic, washed over me. Maybe I was just
overworked. I informed my brother of this development and we agreed that I
should shut things down and rest. Seeing as all my doctors are in Houston and I live in San Antonio (and
going to an ER on New Year’s Eve held zero appeal), I hoped things would
improve in the morning.

Morning came and there was no improvement. Everything was a
blur. I could tell if there was light but not much else. When I looked at the
Christmas tree all the lights were just one blurry glob. The blinking red star
atop the tree became a blinking red splash of color. I called the on-call
doctor in Houston and she offered to open the office if my brother and I were
willing to make the trek. We put our heads together and decided it was
necessary to make the trip. We figured the problem was one of three things: 1.)
my eye pressure had gone way up, 2.) my cornea was rejecting, or 3.) my retina
had detached. We took comfort in the fact that all three of these things could
be treated. (As it turned out, we were wrong. )


The on-call doctor took my pressure and turned out not to be
that high. The first thought was maybe the cornea was rejecting. (I had had my
third cornea transplant back in 1996.) My brother and I had prepared to stay
overnight and come back first thing in the morning when the office would open
for business. The next morning the cornea expert ordered an ultrasound of my
left eye. It turned out there was a massive amount of blood in my left eye and
they couldn’t tell if my retina had detached. It looked as if it was still
attached, but didn’t know for sure. We were referred to a retina specialist in
San Antonio who would be better equipped to help me. I was also told that I
should just rest because it was going to take time for the blood to dissolve.
It was January 2nd,
and I realized that this was something that wasn’t going to resolve itself in a
couple of days. It was at that moment I decided to let go of the idea of finishing
my applications to grad school. I just knew that whatever was happening, trying
to carry on and finish an application was simply impractical. Surprisingly,
this didn’t get me too down. Sometimes being forced to let something go can be
a good thing.

An appointment was made for Wednesday the 8th. My doctor turned out to be one of the best retina doctors around. Nevertheless, It
was a long and intense appointment. The fact that it was my first appointment
meant I had to provide an extensive and detailed rundown of my medical history.
Being born with Glaucoma, multiple surgeries, cornea transplants, and much more
were discussed. I realized halfway through giving my history that I’d been
through a lot. I was stunned that things had gone so well for so long. I
remember having the thought that maybe I was lucky my vision had lasted this
long and this blurriness meant things were finally shutting down. I also
realized this was the first major development with my vision without my mom
taking charge. As she had passed six-and-a-half years ago, I hadn’t had to deal
with any kind of medical emergency without her knowing all the answers. With my
older brother now taking point, it hit me: the possibility of losing my vision
meant I was going to have to take charge. I flashed forward to an image of
myself as a blind old man and was having to get around without any assistance. Fear
settled in.

Another ultrasound was done and it showed that there was a
lot of blood and also floaters in my eye. Dr. Mein referred to it as “trash,”
and that he needed to first clean out the trash before he could truly determine
if my retina was attached or not. An out-patient procedure was scheduled for
the following Thursday. (“Out-patient procedure” is a more soothing way of
saying “operation.”) As a kid I would literally get sick to my stomach the
night before an operation.  While I
didn’t get sick, I did regress to that level of dread. I knew the procedure was
necessary. My vision had deteriorated so badly that I could no longer see the
blinking red star on the Christmas tree. At one point my vision had gone all
pinkish-red due to the amount of blood in my eye. I dreaded nighttime. I slept
lightly because the act of waking up in the dark when you knew it was daylight
was pretty rough.

The morning of my eye procedure was also the day the
nominations for the Oscars were announced. My brother read me the list while we
waited to be called to get prepped. I wondered if I would get my vision back in
time to watch the telecast. I was excited that The Wolf of Wall Street got nominated, and then realized I might not get a chance to see a Scorsese movie for a second time in theaters. I
always see a Scorsese movie at least two or three times in a theater. Was it
going to be the last Scorsese I would actually see?

By the time they came to wheel me away I told my brother,
“I’ll be right back.” I was awake for the entire procedure. They numbed my eye,
then they put a speculum under my eyelid in order to keep it open. (Think Alex
in A Clockwork Orange minus the
ultraviolence.) My vision became like an out-of-focus animation cell. I figured
I was staring into the light. I started to see these Tylenol-red lines floating
around. I assumed it was the blood in my eye. Then, I would hear this bzzz sound, and the red would go away.
Dr. Mein didn’t play music but I thought I heard some soothing ambient noise.
His voice was calming as he whispered to the other people in the room. He was
good at whispering to such a degree that I couldn’t make out anything he was
saying. You know that old saw about when you lose one sense the other four are
heightened? It’s mostly true, but not in a David-Strathairn-in-Sneakers kind of way. You become acutely
sensitive to every sound or ache or surface—and you usually assume something’s
wrong. You retreat into your mind, and that’s not always a good thing. I
remember at one point during the procedure, I flashed back to High Jackman’s
final scene in Prisoners. One of my
favorite movies of 2013, the movie is all about a survivalist who is constantly
preparing for the worst-case scenario, and when it comes he realizes being
prepared is not the same as being ready. I realized that I was always prepared
in the back of my head of going blind, but now, in the middle of surgery, I
realized I was far from ready.


The procedure went well. The doctor got rid of the “trash,”
and it looked as if my retina was still attached, but we didn’t know to what
extent the damage had been done to my eye. I had come to realize that Dr. Mein
never tipped his hand in getting your expectations up. Every piece of good news
was delivered with a cautionary warning. The retina was attached, but we had to
also make sure the cornea didn’t reject and my eye pressure stabilized. There
were a lot of moving parts that needed tending to. (At one point I was told
that the eye is one of the slowest things to heal in the human body.) My family
became like the family at the end of Silver
Linings Playbook
: we were excited with scoring a 5 instead of a 10. We had
to wait a few days before determining what else could be done. It turned out I
had what is known as a choroidal, which meant that the connecting tissue
between the retina and the sclera had torn. This required a gas bubble to be
injected into my eye. The purpose of the bubble was for it to push the tissue
back up against the retina. This meant I had to bend over at a 90 degree angle
every 15 minutes out of every hour I was awake. (Think getting prepared for
impact when a plane is going to crash.) I could also kneel over a footrest to
achieve this position. Luckily I didn’t require a full gas bubble. If I did, I
would’ve had to lay on my stomach 45 minutes out of every hour for weeks. The
bubble I got took up about two-thirds of my field of vision. The bubble
consisted of a neon-pink border surrounding a darker circle that surrounded a central
circle that is supposed to provide a hole to see out of. It’s like looking
through a circle of dirty water. Before the bubble I couldn’t see anything.
Now, all I could see was this bubble.

And so it went. I developed a new routine that gave me a
little bit of structure. January went by slower than a Bela Tarr movie. It
became Good Morning America followed
by Live with Kelly and Michael followed
by The View followed by CNN.
Sometimes I would change things up and listen to The Price is Right. I say “listen” because I couldn’t make out
anything on the TV screen. The afternoon consisted of The Ellen DeGeneres Show followed by Jepoardy!. The end of Jeopardy!
signaled that evening was about to start which meant nighttime. With my
brother and sister-in-law at work and my niece at school, I had to rely on my
memory to remember which channels were which. I surfed for anything that would
distract me. I became an armchair expert on the Michael Dunn trial. (Sadly, I
called the verdict the moment I heard his bullshit testimony.) I looked for
movies to listen to that were light in tone so I wouldn’t have any dark
thoughts or images in my head. Stripes was
a good one. I had seen it so many times growing up that I could practically see
it in my head. One night my brother came across The Shining and I made him change it. I didn’t need those endless tracking shots swirling in
my head. I remember thinking is this what I have to look forward to if my
vision doesn’t improve? The thought of going out to the movies and attempting
to be part of the critical conversation became an alien notion. What’s the
point of going to a Scorsese or a Fincher or a Nolan or a Malick if you can’t see it? I called my sister at one point,
and trying to put a positive spin on the situation, I said, “I guess I can
become a rock critic.”

The weekends were marked by awards shows and the NFL playoffs.
I listened to the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and
the SAGs. I became detached from the proceedings. Not being able to read or
type meant I was unable to engage on social media. I wondered if I ever would
again. I knew technology for the blind allowed for talking computers that read
the onscreen text, but things like Facebook and iTunes were not very blind
friendly. Would I ever make a playlist again? I know there are more important
things than managing your iTunes library, but the prospect of not being able to
do the things you do without thinking was the first thing that popped into my
head. Some friends would call and let me know what was happening in the real
world. That’s how I was able to keep up with the yearly Armond White fiasco and
how the Ebert doc was being received at Sundance. I thought about Ebert a lot,
and how he managed to preserve his critical voice long after he lost the
ability to speak. Would I be able to do the same? I had cornered the market on
blind movie criticism, not realizing it was a one-of-a-kind skill set. 

I tried to visualize what
I was hearing. The new seasons of Girls
and Justified started, and the
very verbal natures of these shows allowed me to construct the blocking and
settings in my head. On the days my dad would come over to keep me company,
we’d watch Justified and listening to
Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder do his soft-spoken intimidation of people provided
some fleeting moments of relief. True Detective
was more difficult. With its Sam Shepherd-meets-Jeff Nichols “poetic”
dialogue, its back-and-forth structure, and its backwater setting, I knew I
wasn’t experiencing the whole story. I intuited that the pregnant pauses, the
sideways glances, the visuals were a
major part of the story. (I stopped watching after three episodes.)

I then remembered an essay by my friend Ian Grey about his
recovery after a major accident and how movies and music saved him. I grabbed
my ipod, and after using the sound of the clicking wheel in order to guess
which “Artist” I was selecting, I started to listen to music. The media
coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles coming to America prompted
me to revisit Beatles for Sale and my
personal favorite, Rubber Soul. The
Stones’ Emotional Rescue and
especially side two of Tattoo You were
on a constant loop. (The Prince-like ballad “Worried About You” from Tattoo is a particular favorite.) I
reconnected with The Kinks’ second record, Kinda
, with “Nothin’ In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ “Bout That Girl,”
“Never Met A Girl Like You Before,” and “When I See That Girl of Mine” being
highlights. One day I stayed in bed and switched from Syl Johnson (“Let
Them Hang High,” “I Can Take Care of Business”) to mid-‘60s Joe Tex singles (“I
Want To Do Everything For You”), and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Supper Club, with a performance of “Bring It On
Home to Me” that is so overwhelmingly powerful it can make anyone into a
believer. Listeningng to the Cooke performance made me think of Michael Mann’s Ali and how it was used as the bedrock
for the movie’s stunning opening sequence. I then suddenly realized that my
love of music and movies is pretty much equal, yet I chose to concentrate my
writing on an art form that is, shall we say, more challenging than the other.
I don’t know why. I may never know why.


Then, one day I was sitting on the couch with my dad,
channel-surfing, and came across Peggy
Sue Got Married
. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola during his ‘80s
wilderness period, it’s a movie I saw many times as a kid. Having not seen it
in years, we decided to watch. A variation on Back to the Future (which came out a year earlier), Peggy Sue Got Married is more fanciful
and slyly more profound. It contains Kathleen Turner’s finest performance as
Peggy Sue, a 43-year-old wife and mother who is given the opportunity to go
back in time and make different life choices. What surprised me is how vividly
I could recall the movie even though I hadn’t seen it in years. An early
sequence got to me: It’s 1960, and Peggy Sue has passed out after giving blood
at her school’s blood drive. A couple of teachers decide to take her home.
Sitting in the back of a car, the radio starts to play The Champs’ “Tequila” as
she looks out the window. The camera stays on Turner’s face as she sees the
landmarks of her youth. Everything feels new again. (The Oscar-nominated
cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth is warm and nostalgic without being gauzy.)
When she arrives at her childhood home, Peggy Sue tentatively approaches the
front door. An off-screen voice cheerily says, “I left the door open!.” It’s
Peggy Sue’s mother, played by Barbara Harris. The moment her mom enters the
room Peggy Sue reaches out to touch her. Without it being said, we realize that
her mother has been dead and she’s seeing her for the first time in years. The
scene climaxes when she sees her younger sister Nancy (played by Sofia Coppola
in a fine bit of acting), and rushes towards her. (It’s never stated, but we sense
that maybe her sister is either dead or that they don’t speak to each other.)
Even as a kid I knew this scene was an early emotional peak in the movie, but
now it resonated even more. The seemingly random development of not being able
to see (and possibly facing the reality of not seeing again) was being
reflected back at me as Peggy Sue saw her childhood one more time. Ebert
believed movies were the best vehicle to create empathy, and my ability at that
moment to use critical thinking in order to make this connection with a movie I
hadn’t seen in years gave me hope.

Slowly, my vision started to get less blurry. While January
moved at a snail’s pace, February went by in a flash. I became acutely aware
that time moves both agonizingly slow and incredibly fast. The four light bulbs
that hang over the family room table went from a single bright blurry glob of light
to four separate blurry globs of light. I would look into the bathroom mirror
and see an out-of-focus reflection. For a moment I thought I was having an existential
crisis. Then, one day I found myself sitting at my desk in my home office for
the first time in weeks. I turned on my CCTV and I was able to faintly make out
the back cover writing of the Thief Blu-ray.
Soon, I could read it without straining. I decided to go to a promotional
screening and watch Liam Neeson save a plane full of ungrateful passengers. I’m
glad I chose to see a B-level highjack-airliner thriller as my first movie to
see instead of something more significant. It took the pressure off of thinking
too much. (For the record: Non-Stop is
a fun entry in the highjack-airliner thriller genre, but still doesn’t beat the
terrific Executive Decision.) Two
days later my dad and I went to see The
. (We sat in the front row so my dad could whisper the subtitles to
me.) I caught up on True Detective.
(Its Zodiac-like plotting is quite
impressive.) I got to see the Oscars. And I got to see The Wolf of Wall Street for a second time in a theater. My doctor likes
what he sees so far. There’s no telling how long my vision will stay healthy. A
year? Five years? Ten? The cornea I have at the moment has been intact for
nearly eighteen years. Do I have that much time left? Maybe half that time. I
don’t know. What I do know is I’m ready.

Aaron’s Ten Best
Movies of 2013

Fruitvale Station

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Before Midnight

The Wolf of Wall Street


Blue Jasmine


The Past

10.   Gravity

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

Remembering Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Remembering Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

nullIt was the same ritual every year. It was usually late October, maybe early November. You’d go to the mall where there was a bookstore, usually a Walden Books. (This was before Borders and Barnes & Noble were in every shopping center.) The section devoted to “Film” was one shelf, not a wall. You’d scan the shelf to see where it was. Then, you’d come across its brightly colored thick spine and pull it from the shelf. You’d flip through it excitedly, not being able to wait to get home and devour every page.

I’m talking about the annual ritual of picking up Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion. The first one I ever got was in 1991. It had red and yellow lettering, with Ebert on the cover, doing a thumbs-up pose. I was 12 going on 13 and was already a devotee of Siskel & Ebert. I wasn’t aware Ebert collected his print reviews in book form. When I found out I couldn’t wait to get home and read it cover to cover. And I did. I remember there were lengthy pieces on Marlon Brando (in connection with the summer 1990 release of The Freshman) and escalating movie violence. There was Ebert’s essay on why Goodfellas was the best film of 1990. Considering that that was the movie that made me start to develop my critical voice and want to write about movies, I read that essay with particularly great awareness of its reasoning and phrasing. Mostly, though, I read the book for its reviews. I read ‘em all. I started to make note of certain positive reviews of movies I hadn’t seen and would seek them out at the video store or when I would read the Sunday paper’s weekly TV listings. That’s how I discovered movies like James B. Harris’ Cop and Blue Collar and My Dinner with Andre and Four Friends and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. I would watch the movie and then go back and read Ebert’s review to see if his reaction mirrored my own. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t. (He liked Cop but I loved it. He loved Fellini’s Satyricon, but you couldn’t pay me to see it again.)

nullAnd the ritual continued every year, around my birthday. Along with Leonard Maltin’s Home Video Guide, the Movie Home Companion kept me occupied when I should’ve been studying or doing my homework. Being severely visually impaired, I shouldn’t have been reading for long stretches at a time, but I did. (I remember when I discovered the Talking Book Program for the Blind had Ebert’s A Kiss is Still a Kiss on tape. I must’ve listened to it dozens of times, especially his interviews with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, William Hurt, Nastassja Kinski, and Robert Mitchum, and his level-headed defense of Bob Woodward’s Wired.) Ebert’s introductions to each subsequent edition were like yearly dispatches from an old friend. He would end each intro with a list of recommended readings including Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Stanley Kaufmann and other esteemed critics. He wasn’t insecure about having people leave him to discover other voices. He encouraged it. I devoured Kael and Sarris and Molly Haskell. I also read some John Simon. (I’m still debating if that was a good idea.) Eventually, I started seeking out different critical voices on my own. I got subscriptions to both Film Comment and Entertainment Weekly. Ebert taught me not to discriminate, so I appreciated the scholarly tone of Kent Jones and the punchy yet elegant phrasing of USA Today’s Mike Clark and EW’s Owen Gleiberman.

I started to write reviews myself. Like most things you attempt, you start by copying. I eventually developed my own voice that has a penchant for utilizing illuminating alliterations and parentheticals. (I love me some parentheticals.) I don’t write like Ebert. He was a newspaper man through and through and I, sadly, had to come of age during the Dead Trees era. Then again, Ebert didn’t really bother with those kinds of distinctions. He mourned the demise of newspapers, but he also embraced social media early on, as a way to continue writing about movies or, more accurately, he just loved finding ways to continue writing.

Ebert was a writer, a newspaper man, before he was a critic. His voice as a writer is what will be remembered. To dismiss Ebert’s contribution to film criticism because of his participation in the Siskel & Ebert program requires you to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Ebert’s criticism is in print. The show brought a generation (including myself) to the writing, and the writing inspired us to find our voice. (Blaming the TV show for the commercialization of film criticism is akin to hating Jaws and Star Wars because you dread all the copycats that were inevitably going to follow. Denying pleasure is the one thing a critic should never do.) It was hard to watch Ebert struggle with his deteriorating health over the years. It seemed especially cruel when he lost the ability to speak, but he rose to the challenge. His writing toughened over these last few years. He seemed to be less forgiving of movies that only did the bare minimum of what their genre required. (Ebert had been accused of being to forgiving of disposable entertainments. He wasn’t. He just started to demand more.) He used his blog to write about politics, Chicago history, his personal life, and movies. It always came back to writing about movies because they allowed him to write about everything else. Ebert lost his ability to speak, but he never lost his voice. Roger Ebert. One voice for all to hear. 

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

The Five Best Uses of Music in Coen Brothers Films

The Five Best Uses of Pop Music in Coen Brothers Films


The Coen brothers’ relationship to source music is as integral to their vision as recurring themes and subject matter. Like a signature shot or the way certain characters speak, a director’s song selection can reverberate throughout an oeuvre. We anticipate with excitement what 45s are going to be “rediscovered” after being used in a movie. Martin Scorsese and David Chase are masters at using pop music to enhance ecstasy and dread. Danny Boyle uses Brit pop and world beat grooves to bring us into the jangled headspace of his anti-heroes. Quentin Tarantino brilliantly uses a mix-tape approach to music to complement his genre deconstructions. Matthew Weiner knows how to take an old standard and make it sound new again. Cameron Crowe celebrates the good vibrations of ‘70s gold. Allison Anders’ passion for American pop deserves more recognition. Same goes for Craig Brewer, who is practically alone in acknowledging that hip-hop and country no longer occupy separate playlists.

Then there are filmmakers whose understanding of music is constantly evolving. They don’t so much recontextualize their record collection as expand it. These filmmakers work in the vein of Stanley Kubrick, a master at selecting period-specific source music for his movies. Modern-day Kubrick musicologists include David Fincher, who uses both original scores and source cues in startlingly new ways. (Fight Club is his A Clockwork Orange, while the score to The Social Network feels like a companion piece to that of The Shining.) Wes Anderson is another director who constantly mixes things up on the soundtrack. The use of multiple Hank Williams songs in Moonrise Kingdom was an out-of-the-box gambit that proved surprisingly moving. (On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson so desperately wants to be a Kubrickphile that his soundtracks have felt increasingly strained since the gloriously melancholic Magnolia.) But the filmmakers who most resemble Kubrick when it comes to music are the Coen brothers. Ever since their audacious directorial debut Blood Simple (1985), Joel and Ethan Coen have used both source music and composed scores to set the tone of their fishbowl-lens visions of cruelty, trickery, detachment, and longing. Specializing in deadpan genre deconstructions, the Coens use music to provide the emotionality for their generally cool stories. Their movies have always given off the feeling of being hermetically-sealed environs where acts of cruelty and kindness are given equal weight. This would be quite off-putting if it weren’t for the music. What follows are the best uses of music in the Coens’ movies. I stand by my ranking, or my name isn’t Aaron Aradillas.

“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane 

A Serious Man, the Coens’ most humane movie, is all about the disorienting feeling of trying to assimilate in a world where faith in a higher power is constantly being tested. While not strictly autobiographical, the film is informed by the Coens’ Jewish upbringing during the 1960s in suburban Minnesota. Part of the first generation of Jewish-Americans who felt removed from the Holocaust, they re-create the swirling atmosphere of suburban blandness and mind-expanding psychedelia rock. As Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts to seek answers to life’s mysteries, the Coens gently mock and pay respect to the temporary comforts of religious rituals. Unlike a physics problem, which can be mapped out to its one and only conclusion, real life is messier and can sometimes seem quite arbitrary.

Larry’s journey to the realization that not every question has an answer is foretold by the use of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” a track from their Surrealistic Pillow album, the song is a rocked-out version of a mellower folk number that singer Grace Slick brought from The Great Society. The song is highlighted at three key points during the movie. First, it follows a seemingly unrelated prologue scene set in the early 20th century that centers on suspicion and misunderstandings in a rustic shtetl. The bemused tone of the prologue, followed by the swirling guitar sound of “Somebody to Love” over the opening credits, keys us to the movie’s constantly shifting mood of unrest. With Spencer Dryden’s forward-motion drumming and Slick’s authoritative yet pleadingly romantic howl, “Somebody to Love” is rightfully held up as a superior example of psychedelic rock. It’s revealed that the song is being heard on a tiny transistor radio by Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who can barely concentrate on his Hebrew school studies. (He’s preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.) The lyrics of the song seem fatalistic but are actually cautiously optimistic.

    When the truth is found to be lies
    An’ all the joy within you dies
    Don’t you want somebody to love
    Don’t you need somebody to love
    Wouldn’t you love somebody to love
    You better find someone to love, love

It’s the thin line between “want” and “need” that drives Larry to question the purpose of his life—and why it seems to be inexplicably coming apart. He seeks counsel from three rabbis, but the answers they give him aren’t very helpful. It isn’t until the end when Danny, who has completed his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and is sitting with the most senior rabbi, that the song is reprised. The rabbi alters the opening lyrics of the song slightly and offers them as advice to Danny. This is followed by a gathering storm that forces the school kids to seek shelter. The final shot is of Danny looking at an ominous storm cloud. Here the song is reprised for a third and final time, except this time it all comes together as Danny, having just come of age, seems to grasp what his father does not. That is, sometimes not knowing can be scary, but it can also feel like freedom.

“It’s the Same Old Song” by The Four Tops 

Blood Simple was not your typical directorial debut. A blood-soaked neo-noir, it was a calling-card movie that rocked audiences. Released only a couple of months after Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple was also an independent deadpan comedy, but it was also a scarily tense throwback to all those nasty ‘40s thrillers that revolved around sex, murder, guilt, and the fear of being caught. Before House of Games, before Reservoir Dogs, before One False Move, before The Usual Suspects, before Bound, the Coens reached back into Hollywood’s past and came up with a low-budget contraption built to thrill. It remains one of the most important debut features in modern movie history.

The highlight is an extended wordless sequence where, after a series of double-crosses and assumptions, dumb lug bartender Ray (John Getz) finds himself cleaning up the blood-splattered office of his girlfriend’s husband, who has been shot by the sleazy private investigator hired to kill the cheating couple. (You get all that?) As Ray locks the office door and begins to use his jacket to clean the blood, his co-worker Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) arrives and turns on the jukebox and “It’s the Same Old Song” blasts onto the soundtrack. The song’s jaunty melody is a variation on “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” while the lyrics about a former girlfriend who seems to enjoy leaving men in pain tap into the misogyny, the mistrust of women, that courses through film noir. The relentless beat is like the telltale heart of the audience. Like Donovan’s “Atlantis” during the “Billy Bats” sequence in GoodFellas, or Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, “It’s the Same Old Song” in Blood Simple heightens our excitement in not wanting to look away. The sequence illustrates that a perfectly chosen pop song can allow you to get away with murder.

“Danny Boy” by Frank Patterson 

You Can’t Hit Albert Finney! by cliporama2

1990 turned out to be the year of the gangster film, with an emphasis on pop. You had GoodFellas, of course, with its gimme-shelter-from the-storm of violence and cocaine craziness. Abel Ferrara’s great King of New York possessed a Scarface-level of comic scariness that was set to the thumping beat of Schoolly D’s “Am I Black Enough for You?” The most hyped movie of the year, Warren Beatty’s candy-colored Dick Tracy, had songs written by Stephen Sondheim and performed by Madonna. (Her I’m Breathless is actually an underrated gem.) Even the unjustly maligned The Godfather Part III concludes with a nearly 30-minute action payoff, set to the opera Cavalleria rusticana, that remains one of the greatest pieces of sustained action filmmaking ever made. And in Miller’s Crossing, the Coens stage a musically-enhanced action sequence that plays like the ultimate version of a gangland shoot-out.

The movie is what I like to call one of their “tutorials.” Like Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, even Burn After Reading, the Coens like to make movies that are like “how to’s” on certain genres. Miller’s Crossing is an obsessively detailed re-creation of a ‘30s gangster movie. Everything from the clothes to the ugly mugs to the complicated machinations of the plot to the overly articulated dialogue instructs us on how we should be experiencing the movie. Naturally, there’s an attempted hit on a boss that’s a shoot-the-works knockout. As Leo (Albert Finney), the head of the Irish gang that runs the city, lies in bed while smoking a cigar, we hear Frank Patterson’s version of  ”Danny Boy” being played on a record player. This song, the quintessential Irish standard about a mother bidding her son farewell as he goes off to war, builds on the soundtrack as we see the feet of henchmen heading towards Leo’s bedroom. (They’ve been sent by Italian gangster Johnny Caper [Joe Polito] who, among his many grievances, is sick of Leo giving him the high hat.) Leo, sensing something is up, grabs his gun and lunges under his bed right at the moment the gunmen burst in shooting. “Danny Boy” seems to fade for a moment only to come roaring back on the soundtrack as a series of precisely edited shots and movements show Leo defending himself. After shooting one guy in the foot to have him fall to the ground so he can shoot him in the head while still hiding under the bed, Leo grabs a Tommy Gun and systematically goes after the remaining gunmen. There’s a bit of slapstick gruesomeness when Leo pumps what seems like a thousand rounds into one of the men. The climax of the scene has Leo doing a James Cagney pose as he slowly walks down the street, firing the machine gun at a car until it swerves, crashes and explodes. As Leo stands in the middle of the street, triumphant and satisfied, the song ends. The point is clear: war has been declared.

“The Man In Me” by Bob Dylan 

Ah, The Big Lebowski. It’s probably the Coens most well-known, most quoted, most revered movie. The follow-up to their great kidnapping comedy Fargo, Lebowski saw the brothers in prankster mode as they used a Raymond Chandler-like structure to riff on male aggression, ignorance, nihilism, and L.A.-based fringe characters. Taking off from a Brazil-like misunderstanding that causes pacifist The Dude (Jeff Bridges), his psycho Vietnam veteran best friend Walter (John Goodman), and their innocent buddy Donnie (Steve Buscemi) to attempt to rip off people they think are dumber than they are, The Big Lebowski is a stoner comedy that reveals just how circularly aimless a lot of plot-driven pulp fiction really is. It really doesn’t add up to much. By the end, most of the characters are back where they started. That’s probably why it has only grown in stature over the last 15 years. The movie’s give-and-take between laid-back detachment and in-your-face cruelty (embodied by Goodman’s towering performance) was a precursor to everything from Jackass to Napoleon Dynamite to Superbad.

The Big Lebowski would seem, at first glance, a heartless comedy of the grotesque, but the soundtrack tells a different story. A celebration of the ‘70s SoCal vibe, the Lebowski soundtrack is both ironic and sincere. You get absurd selections like Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” alongside a searing live version of “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt. Also, as a running gag, you have the movie’s disdain for “the fucking Eagles.” (The Dude’s dislike of the ridiculously popular California band is leftover snobbery from his counterculture youth. There’s no way a group that successful can be good.) And, of course, we mustn’t forget Creedence. For me the best use of music is Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” It’s used a couple of times (including in one of The Dude’s flying-like-Superman hallucinations), but its use in the strikes-and-spares opening-credit sequence sets the movie’s tone beautifully. We watch as serious-looking bowlers line up and execute perfectly controlled rolls. There’s a Busby Berkley-meets-Bob Fosse playfulness to the choreography of the movements. Musically, the song (taken from Dylan’s New Morning) is a laid-back groove with Dylan in fine voice. (This period of his career saw him transitioning from his trademark nasal pleading to his current smoker’s growl.) Lyrically, it’s blessedly devoid of Dylan’s typical skepticism and mistrust. The opening child-like refrain of la-la-la-la-la-la-la is quite affecting. The opening lines are a winking foreshadowing of The Dude’s role in the world.

    The man in me will do nearly any task
    And as for compensation, there’s a little he would ask

The Dude’s pacifism has morphed into a neverending journey to stay mellow in a world where aggression won’t stand. All he really wants is a new rug, and he is willing to do nearly anything for it. By the end, he’s lost a friend but is possibly a little wiser. The Dude. He abides.

“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys 

The current popularity of bluegrass and folk music can be traced back to the runaway success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? A companion piece to the Coens’ hillbilly family comedy Raising Arizona, O Brother was a mix of Homer’s The Odyssey, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and Hee-Haw. Depending on how you looked at it, the movie was either an inspired Depression-era Southern comedy of manners or a condescending, cracker-barrel comedy that made you feel superior to everyone and everything on screen. This trace of superiority the Coens seem to display over their characters (and sometimes the audience) has been something I and many others have grappled with over the years. It all began with Raising Arizona, a rollicking comedy that nevertheless isn’t above ridiculing “regional folk.” (At the time of the film’s release, critics praised the Coens’ sense of quirk and style while bashing David Byrne’s equally quirky but more humane Southern character study True Stories.) Fargo, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man show the brothers playing it straight, and their filmmaking is better for it. Even True Grit had a more controlled sense of its down-home characters than O Brother. (With No Country for Old Men, they traded in their quirk for Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic pulp. Talk about an upgrade.)

What saves O Brother, Where Art Thou? is its landmark soundtrack. Produced by T. Bone Burnett, the album consisted of period-specific traditionals and folk standards, used throughout the movie as a kind of running musical commentary as escaped convicts Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Peter Hogwallop (John Turturro) go on a journey to retrieve some supposed buried treasure. I had thought of highlighting the haunting “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” performed in the movie by Chris Thomas King portraying delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, but I opted for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” As performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys (Tommy on guitar, Everett on lead vocals, Delmar and Pete on harmony), the song is heard throughout the movie. (The boys cut the record in one take in a recording booth as a way to make some quick cash. To their surprise, it became a smash hit.) The song is a lament by a man who’s at the end of his rope and has decided to leave everything behind and jump a train. He’s almost welcoming of the relief of death.

    It’s fare thee well my old lover
    I never expect to see you again
    For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad
    Perhaps I’ll die upon this train

The song becomes the theme for “Pappy” O’Daniel, (Charles Durning), the cheerfully corrupt (and honest) incumbent governor of Mississippi. Dan Tyminski’s vocal and guitar playing is so joyful that, like a lot of folk and gospel and rural American music, it turns despair into hope. The entire soundtrack is almost contrapuntal to the Coens’ occasional smugness toward the South. The music gives their diorama view of rural life a glimmer of soul.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), ROBOCOP (1987), and DIE HARD (1988).

Tim Burton’s Batman was a game-changer for summer blockbusters. It closed out a decade marked by light and sunny escapist entertainment by applying a more serious, atmospheric attitude, both dark and thrilling. It also ushered in a new level of hype that became an integral part of the movie-going experience. And it pointed the way for comic-book movies to become the dominant vehicle for summer entertainment.

Before Batman, Hollywood had created comic-book movies as silly, second-tier product. With the exception of the first Superman movie, comic-book movies lacked high production values and fidelity to their source material.

Things began to change when comic-book artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore offered their takes on the superhero genre. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns brought a new level of psychological depth and graphic sophistication to comics.

Meanwhile, Hollywood was searching for the new Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, another prodigy with a childlike sense of wonder to dazzle audiences. Enter Tim Burton, who scored two hits, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, before turning 30. The surprise success of these dark, anarchic films marked Burton as having the ability to be edgy and still appeal to mass audiences. The execs at Warner Brothers could sense that audiences’ tastes were changing and a risk-taker like Burton might be necessary for Batman.

Batman arrived at the end of a decade where greed ran rampant, recession was imminent and people sensed things were getting worse, not better. Burton’s vision of Batman matched his audience’s feelings of restlessness and unease.

Every aspect of the movie was infused with Burton’s desire to present the world of Batman as a reflection of modern dystopia. Anton Furst’s groundbreaking production design took elements of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Depression-era Art Deco Manhattan, heaping layers of urban squalor upon itself.

But if there’s one image that defines the bold new vision of Burton’s Batman, it’s the Batsuit. Designer Bob Ringwood totally rejected the gray and blue image from the camp TV series. Ringwood’s design is a suit that contains drama in itself, something powerful but unwieldy, something closer to Robocop than Adam West. The Batsuit is a vision of man made superior by advanced technology, but also encased and imprisoned by it. It’s a 21st-century suit of armor for a Dark Knight, and it is still the template for how we see Batman today.

At the same time, the new Batman’s rigidness made him a foil for the film’s true protagonist. The Joker, with his anarchic wit and irreverent gags, is the heir to Beetlejuice. the charismatic anti-hero and master of ceremonies of Burton’s funhouse. At the same time, he was the comic alibi that could make Burton’s seriousness acceptable, breathing life and energy into his arty aspirations.

The Joker may have overwhelmed Batman in this film, but looking at the superhero movies that followed, we see the real winner, in a legacy of dark, disturbed protagonists whose vulnerabilities reflect the anxieties of our era. At the same time, Batman’s demons yielded a new dimension of interior drama and fragility that feels real—something that modern-day superheroes with their unlimited CGI powers can’t compensate for.

With its groundbreaking character types and radical visuals, Batman provided a new template for blockbuster storytelling, one that could even overcome its greatest weakness: its script. The plot of Batman may dip into incoherence, revolving around the Joker’s wanting to become some kind of homicidal artist by poisoning the citizens of Gotham until they die with a smile on their face.

Then again, the plot holes didn’t seem to matter to audiences. What mattered was the vision, the mood, the experience of a live-action comic-book movie that treated its source material seriously. Burton’s Batman provided the signal for a new comic-book movie whose ambitions often surpassed its abilities to deliver. These films are often incoherent or overloaded, but at their best, they come through with unforgettable images and moments. The Joker’s master plan has come to fruition. For better or worse, we exit the theater with a smile on our face.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), and ROBOCOP (1987).

The 1980s were dominated by action movies. Previous decades saw action movies held in more or less proper proportions, with action relegated to war movies, westerns, or the occasional spy thriller. John Wayne, William Holden, Steve McQueen, and Lee Marvin would preside over the action, usually playing men of few words. Then, the 1970s saw a shift towards existential dread as the rise of crime in cities allowed movies to tap into the audience’s fear of social unrest. (The plots of westerns and caper thrillers were too exotic to have any real-world connections. Vietnam had, for the moment, made the gung-ho heroics of war movies seem rather unseemly.) Movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and various blaxploitation offerings gave us vigilante thrills and heroes that restored order in times of civil unrest. Guys like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were older and still men of few words, but they were now providing comfort and safety.

But the ‘80s saw an accumulation of action movies, with a heavy emphasis on the flexing of one’s muscles. Cop buddy movies, urban vigilante movies, POW rescue movies, Chuck Norris karate movies, Death Wish sequels, you name it, dominated the theaters. The existential dread of the Watergate era had been replaced by Reagan-era optimism. Along with Eastwood, who had managed to become an elder statesman of action, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had become pillars of American might. The recurring image in ‘80s action movies was of an obscenely pumped-up one-man fighting machine. (It wasn’t a Stallone or Arnold movie until they were fighting the bad guys while wearing a tight t-shirt that accentuated their forearms.) Movies like Nighthawks, The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando, Cobra, and The Running Man were outrageously entertaining comic-book depictions of outsized masculinity. But by summer ’88 audiences were starting to feel fatigued by all the car chases, shoot-outs, fistfights, and explosions. We kept going to action movies, but we were rarely surprised. That is, until one movie caught everyone by surprise and forever changed the language of the genre.

Die Hard was something new, an over-the-top blowout its director made personal by injecting humor and humanity into its incredible action set-pieces. Director John McTiernan staged the action with a you-are-there immediacy that was different from most other action movies. Your perspective was constantly shifting along with the hero’s, as if you yourself were always under the threat of attack. Die Hard was a ‘70s disaster movie crossed with a ‘80s one-man action vehicle, but it played like a witty character study.

And the character of John McClane turned out to be one of the most endearing action heroes in movie history. As played by Bruce Willis, McClane is a screw-up forced into action because bureaucracy and macho posturing are causing inaction. McClane is fully aware that he’s in way over his head. He sees the dark humor of his predicament which gives his one-liners a playful spontaneity. (“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs!”) The casting of Willis in the lead was a masterstroke. We may now take for granted that TV actors can transition into movies, but back in 1988 it was a rare occurrence. (TV star Mark Harmon made a bid for action superstardom with the summer ’88 buddy thriller The Presidio, but he forgot to bring the humor.) On Moonlighting Willis played a smart-ass cut-up, but what made him instantly likable was the feeling that Willis himself was a smart-ass cut-up. In Blake Edwards’ comedies Blind Date and the criminally underrated Sunset, Willis displayed a knack for light slapstick and farce that, if you weren’t paying attention, could be seen as being one-dimensional. Willis always makes you aware that he knows he’s in the middle of an incredible situation. That’s what makes him such a compelling actor. (It’s also what makes him a star.) We want to see how Willis/John McClane (or Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction or Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout or David Dunn in Unbreakable) gets out of a sticky situation. In Die Hard, Willis created a new action movie archetype: the everyman superhero.

The reason we root for McClane is because we know just how outmatched he truly is. As the villain Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman ushered in a new golden era of movie villains. With the exception of the Bond villains (who were just as dashing as Bond himself), the bad guys in movies were almost always secondary characters who rarely registered. (Anyone remember the name of Fernando Rey’s character in The French Connection?) The hero was the star, and stars can’t be upstaged. For the most part, memorable villains appeared only in exploitation movies (Vice Squad, 52 Pick-up) or intense psychological dramas (Manhunter, Blue Velvet). But Die Hard changed all that as the filmmakers realized the best way to make the hero look good is to put him up against someone stronger and in complete control. Previously, villains were the ones that sweated. Here, McClane’s undershirt is drenched in fear and desperation. Gruber is the ultimate villain for the 1980s: a sharp-dressed corporate raider who seizes the Nakatomi Corporation during its Christmas party in order to steal $640 million in negotiable bonds. Rickman infuses Gruber with such high comic levels of contempt and self-satisfaction that we’re genuinely startled when he turns violent. It’s a wickedly sinister performance, never more so than when he compliments Nakatomi president Takagi (James Shigeta) on his suit by flatly saying, “Nice suit. John Philips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.” Rickman makes being bad look good.

Die Hard looked and felt different from most other action movies. Shooting in widescreen allowed McTiernan to fill the frame with extra information about the Nakatomi building’s layout. Over the course of the movie, as McClane crawls through elevator shafts and ventilation ducts, we become familiar with recurring locations throughout the building. (McTiernan displayed a similar mastery of geography with the jungle-set Predator.) The cinematography by Jan de Bont (The Fourth Man) was quite daring for an action movie as he opted to pan on action instead of keeping the camera static. In an early scene, when one of the bad guys slides down a flight of stairs, the camera slides along with him. The many scenes of McClane running through empty offices and hallways have a thrilling sense of movement. By showing the building under construction, McTienran and De Bont could place fluorescent lights in the ground and have half-finished structures in the foreground. In one of my favorite sequences, as the LAPD S.W.A.T. team prepares a rescue attempt, we’re given several perspectives at once. There’s the computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard) watching the S.W.A.T. team get into position on a close-circuit monitor, while Hans looks down from an executive office. We also see McClane looking on helplessly as the police walk right into an ambush. (The climax of this sequence is one of the movie’s highlights.) The nearly non-stop score by Michael Kamen gives each set piece its own rhythm. At various points in the score Kamen incorporates Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” A playful acknowledgement that all an audience might want from a movie is to be thrilled.

There’s a distrust of authority and upper management running throughout Die Hard. The movie aligns itself with the working-class, be it funky limo driver Argyle (DeVoreaux White) or patrol officer Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). It’s when those in power arrive on the scene (S.W.A.T., the FBI, Deputy Chief Robinson) that ego begins to interfere with getting the job done. Of course McClane is a NYPD officer, but we quickly intuit that he doesn’t follow the rules. (Die Hard with a Vengeance begins with McClane on suspension.) This highlighting of the conflict between individual action and teamwork is really a variation on the ingrained conservative value system of action movies. John McClane is no different from Popeye Doyle, except we now cheer him on without reservation.

This conservative streak allows for some satirical riffing on alpha male action-movie heroics. Unlike his Planet Hollywood partners, Willis isn’t afraid to show a vulnerable side. In a brilliant touch that immediately makes McClane relatable, he spends the entire movie running around in his bare feet. We become acutely aware of the beating McClane is enduring, especially when he has to run across shards of broken glass. This is contrasted with the macho posturing of those in charge like blowhard Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the borderline psychotic FBI agents who take over the negotiations. (During the rooftop climax, when the feds are manning a gunship, an agent exclaims, “Just like fuckin’ Saigon!”) Gruber is amused by alL the futile attempts to outsmart him and his men. At one point he asks McClane, “You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” McClane’s response both mocks and pays respect to old-fashion American heroism.

It’s interesting to note that the summer of 1988 saw established action movie icons attempting to maintain their dominance. Stallone’s Rambo III was so by-the-numbers that even its title was tired. Schwarzenegger tried to make fun of his own image by doing the cop buddy action comedy Red Heat. In a symbolic changing-of-the-guard, Eastwood came out with the final Dirty Harry movie, the surprisingly entertaining The Dead Pool. But Die Hard set the template FOR all future action movies. The most immediate reflection of its impact was Hollywood’S attempt to copy its success with a series of “Die Hard on a …” movies. We got everything from “Die Hard on a submarine” (Under Siege) to “Die Hard on a plane” (Passenger 57) to “Die Hard on an island” (The Rock). (In the best Die Hard clone, Jan de Bont’s spectacular Speed, Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven is the kind of guy who joined the LAPD because he saw Die Hard in theaters.) The movie’s more lasting impact is shown in the way it presented the hero, foregoing he-man stoicism in favor of intelligence and vulnerability. Die Hard gave us a hero with brains as well as muscles. You can see its influence in characters ranging from Batman to Jack Ryan to Ethan Hunt to Jason Bourne to James Bond (Daniel Craig’s take) to Jack Bauer. One of the movie’s taglines at the time claimed, “It will blow you though the back of the theater!” Boy, did it ever.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), and TOP GUN (1986).

The summer of 1987 saw few new ideas in Hollywood. Coming off of summer ‘86’s head-spinning tug-of-war between steroid genre offerings (Cobra, Top Gun) and movies attempting to deconstruct genre conventions (Aliens, The Fly), Hollywood seemed content to make movies that felt more like covers than original compositions. In his review of the requisite Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Predator, Roger Ebert wrote, “Predator begins like Rambo and ends like Alien, and in today’s Hollywood, that’s creativity.” Elsewhere, Boomer TV favorites were blown up for the big screen, as with Brian DePalma’s surprisingly square The Untouchables, while Dan Aykroyd gave a career performance in the clever Dragnet. There were also John Hughes-inspired teen comedies like Adventures in Babysitting and Summer School. The creatively bankrupt sequels included Superman IV, Jaws: The Revenge, and Beverly Hills Cop II, a movie that was all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. The newfound Top 40 popularity of oldies music tied to the surprise success of Stand By Me led to movies like La Bamba and Dirty Dancing. (Can’t Buy Me Love managed to cross a John Hughes teen comedy with a golden oldie. That’s what’s known as “high concept!”) Even Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable Full Metal Jacket was viewed by some as an also-ran, coming as it did on the heels of Platoon. But there was one movie that combined violence, satire, and humanity so brilliantly that even its most ardent fans didn’t fully realize it was showing a future that was quickly becoming the present.

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a future shock comedy set in the very near future, which is really a cracked reflection of the present. Unlike, say, Blade Runner, which luxuriates in its beautifully framed images of urban decay, RoboCop has a more lived-in look and feel that gives its story a startling immediacy. Set in Detroit (shot mostly in Dallas, TX), the movie captures the ever-widening disparity between the corporate-political power structure and everyday working citizens. The glass and steel of the numerous looming skyscrapers reflect the fear and need for protection of those in power from a restless citizenry enveloped in crime and madness.

Verhoeven, a Dutch director who had achieved some success with intense art-house offerings like the psychosexual freak-out The Fourth Man, brought a much-needed dose of subversiveness to Hollywood action movies. Directors like Walter Hill, Richard Donner, and Peter Hyams operated in a slightly accelerated classical form. Clean images and pauses in between action set-pieces were the hallmarks of traditional action movies. Verhoeven gleefully took a butcher knife to classical forms and came up with a potent mix of ultraviolence and biting satire. The screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner took a perennial 80s action movie—the cop buddy movie—and cranked up the energy to 11. Audiences conditioned by countless cop buddy movies were ready for a movie that went through whiplash tonal shifts. The popularity of this movie, which would typically go from a laugh to a moment of poignancy to a crowd-cheering bit of vigilante violence within the same few minutes, showed that audiences were able to make emotional adjustments at a quicker pace than previous generations of moviegoers. We were all entering a world of speed-up.

As the movie opens Detroit is being overrun by crime while an undermanned police department threatens to go on strike. The city fathers are so desperate for a solution that they partner with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation, which has created a prototype for a mechanical law enforcement unit called ED-209. The scene where the ED-209 is demonstrated remains one of the greatest scenes in science fiction movies—the machine malfunctions and kills an executive. The humor comes from the sight of a machine following its programming even in the face of utter compliance. (The machines will always come out on top.) When the ED-209 fails to live up to expectations, another eager executive (Miguel Ferrer) says he has a different program that will keep costs down and is guaranteed to work. All he needs is a volunteer.

That’s when Verhoeven introduces us to Murphy (Peter Weller), an earnest police officer partnered with Lewis (Nancy Allen). Weller infuses Murphy with a winning mix of joy and professionalism that tells us he loves being a cop. (The way Murphy practices un-holstering his gun is a nice touch.) He has such an easy rapport with Allen that we’re immediately on their side. (Verhoeven has some perverse fun by making Allen look almost as masculine as Weller by outfitting her with a haircut that’s just painful to look at.) When Murphy and Lewis find themselves in a high-speed chase they work in almost perfect harmony. A problem occurs when they get separated as they pursue a gang of crazed drug-dealing anarchists into an abandoned warehouse. The scene where Murphy is shot to death is so brutal that it puts us on point in wanting to see him get revenge.

Murphy’s body is so ravaged by gunshots that he becomes the perfect candidate for the RoboCop program. In the sequence where he is built, a series of POV shots subtly replaces a human perspective with a computerized one. The images become more square, as if the world were being viewed through a computer monitor. (The shot of a woman giving RoboCop a kiss is curiously moving.) When RoboCop goes out on the street for the first time Verhoeven clearly riffs on the part in every superhero story where the hero puts on his costume for the first time; Verhoeven frequently takes standard situations like a convenient store robbery or a hostage negotiation and gives them a warped comic spin that doesn’t detract from their excitement. I especially like RoboCop’s solution to stopping a rape in progress. (“Madam, you’ve suffered an emotional shock! I will notify a rape counsel center!”)

Made in the pre-CGI era, RoboCop is one of the last great practical effects movies. Matte paintings, stop-motion animation, and cutting-edge costumes give everything a tactile quality that’s still thrilling to see. The stop-motion animation of the ED-209 by Phil Tippett is jaw-dropping, especially in a slapstick bit where ED-209 chases RoboCop through the OCP building but is defeated when it can’t navigate a stairwell. Rob Bottin’s make-up effects and costume design remain the best of his career. Coming off his very sticky (and overly painted) effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bottin’s work here has a more flexible and believable feel. RoboCop’s uniform is like a cross between Japanese comic art work and military chic, turning Murphy into a believable man of steel. (Think a walking Ford Taurus.) Late in the movie, when RoboCop takes off his helmet and we see Murphy’s face for the first time since his death, Bottin’s bald cap prosthetic makes Weller’s already intense blue eyes even more penetrating. RoboCop’s internal struggle with his human instincts is over. Murphy is back.

Verhoeven’s nasty playfulness is constantly popping up throughout the movie. He has an especially kinky preoccupation with the connection between sex and machines. The scene right before Murphy is murdered shows Lewis coming upon one of the more deranged bad guys, Joe (Jesse Goins), taking a leak. When Lewis pauses long enough to glance at his privates, it allows the bad guy to get the upper hand and leads to Murphy’s death. Later, when Lewis and Murphy are reunited, she helps him fix his targeting system by correcting his aim. It’s the closest they will come to consummating their relationship. For Verhoeven, sex is partially mechanical. (Showgirls is all about manufactured sex.) The rousing score by Basil Poledouris uses both orchestration and electronic sounds to highlight the contrast between the organic and mechanical.

Verhoeven’s most daring gambit is the perfectly timed moment of satire. The idea was such brief inserts of humor would lighten the intensity of the action, but instead they just intensify the action, forcing us to be prepared for anything. At various points in the movie the action is interrupted by media newsbreaks (“You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world!”), that inform us about incidents like American troops aiding Mexican nationals with a raid in Acapulco, or when the U.S. accidentally wipes out Santa BarbAra from outer space. The fake commercials are hysterical, especially a spoof of Electronic Battleship called Nukem. (“Pakistan is threatening my border!”) Of course, the most startling aspect of RoboCop is its depiction of the corporatization of America and the outsourcing of labor for profit. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the most ruthless of the OCP execs, spouts rhetoric that at the time sounded like a send-up of Gordon Gekko, but now wouldn’t be out of place on Fox News or a CPAC conference. It’s casually mentioned that OCP has found profitability in industries that had been deemed money losers. These include hospitals, prisons, and space exploration. They now want to take over the Detroit police department and turn it into a moneymaker. In 1987 this sounded like an outrageous satire of the 80s Wall Street culture. Today RoboCop stings, as its vision of the future were all too real. Verhoeven brings it home by staging the final showdown not in the streets of Detroit but in a boardroom.

But RoboCop’s most lasting legacy is RoboCop itself. This film marks the first time moviegoers were made to identify with a machine. Before, machines and aliens in movies were seen as something otherworldly. Even when we were made to feel an attachment to a non-human character like, say, E.T., we saw him through a human perspective. But RoboCop was different because the most human character in the movie was a machine. Every other character in the movie, even the loyal Lewis, was secondary. When RoboCop walks through the now abandoned house where his wife and son lived, we’re made to fill in the emotions he can no longer compute. Movies were now embracing technology and machinery. Everything from Total Recall to Terminator 2 to A.I. to I, Robot to Transformers has showed us machines that are more human than humans. We no longer rage against the machine. We are the machines.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), and PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985).

The 1980s saw Hollywood going to war. America’s defeat in Vietnam instilled a sense of hopelessness that ran throughout the 1970s. The Vietnam movies of the late ‘70s (The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now) were all about mourning and the tentative first steps necessary for the country to move on. Then, with the election of a former Hollywood star as President, Hollywood decided to re-up with the military and make movies that were the equivalent of Reagan’s military intervention policies. The distrust of the government and the military during the ‘70s was now giving way to a cinematic flexing of American might. All that was needed to build up morale was a few easy wins, and after that, the Vietnam disaster would hopefully seem like a bad dream.

From the softening of basic training in movies like Private Benjamin, Stripes, and An Officer and a Gentleman to re-staging Vietnam in men-on-a-mission action dramas like Missing in Action and Uncommon Valor,Hollywood saw it was better for business if America came out on the winning side. (The first Rambo movie, First Blood, would be the rare movie during this time that tapped into the rage and marginalization of returning Vietnam veterans. Its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, would turn that rage into comic-book fury, complete with the crowd-baiting question, “Do we get to win this time?”) Vietnam cast a shadow over movies that weren’t even explicitly about the war. Vietnam became a shortcut to character development. Sylvester Stallone’s character in Nighthawks was a pacifist because of his experiences in Nam, while Roy Scheider’s pilot in Blue Thunder suffered from “stress” due to his tours of duty. Movies as varied as The Exterminator to Commando to the first Lethal Weapon all used Vietnam to heighten the audience’s identification with the lead character. All of this cinematic stockpiling of goodwill came to a head in 1986 with the release of a movie that turned Hollywood’s restaging of Vietnam as a winnable war into an advertisement for America’s outsized belief in its own exceptionalism.

Tony Scott’s Top Gun is a visual and aural assault, a full-throttle “ride” that doesn’t stop for pesky things like story. The story goes that the pitch for Miami Vice was “MTV cops.” The pitch for Top Gun could have easily been “MTV pilots.” Scott, along with his older brother Ridley, Adrian Lyne, and Alan Parker, was at the forefront of a group of British TV commercial directors. These directors made advertisements cinematic. When they got their shot at making movies, they infused their movies with a powerful visual sense. Ridley Scott made rust and dirt and grime look authentic and cool in movies like The Duelists and Alien. Parker gave everything an artificial beauty, even a Turkish prison in Midnight Express. Lyne’s use of backlighting throughout Flashdance would become a mainstay on MTV. But Tony Scott was the bad boy of the bunch. He could do everything they could do but he didn’t have any pretensions about subject matter or critical response. Pauline Kael described Top Gun as a “…recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” As it turned out that’s exactly what audiences liked about it. Advertising was now a legitimate form of storytelling.

The story of Top Gun is so simplistic that it’s almost child-like. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer helped shape mainstream American movies by specializing in movies that anyone could follow. Movies like Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Days of Thunder gave viewers such a cocaine-adrenaline rush that you came out of the theater ready to take on the world. They made movies about winning, and in the 1980s that’s what audiences wanted to see. The screenplay (more like a scenario) by Jack Epps, Jr. and Jim Cash may have centered on hotshot Navy pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his training at the Top Gun school but, really, the movie was about you and your dream to be the best at whatever you did. Simpson and Bruckheimer’s movies played like a cross between a rock concert and a motivational seminar.

The movies' pop psychology trappings didn't lessen their entertainment value (who doesn’t like a rush of adrenaline?) The opening credit sequence remains one of the best of the decade. From Harold Faltemeyer’s iconic synth-guitar theme to Jeffrey Kimble’s vivid filtered cinematography to the eroticized, slo-mo pans of fighter jets getting ready for a dawn run, the sequence seduces you into wanting to go to war. Even Kenny Loggins’ anthemic “Danger Zone” is part of the quickening of your senses and making you not question the sheer manipulativeness of what you are seeing. (“Revvin’ up your engine/Listen to her howl and roar”…) There aren’t really any scenes in Top Gun, just set-pieces. There aren’t really characters, either. Any nuance or shading in the characters is due to the characters' personalities, not the writing. The characters’ names do most of the work of characterization. When a character named Viper is described as the finest fighter pilot in the world (and he’s played by the sturdy Tom Skerritt), more than half the job is done.

The movie gives us a comic-book version of masculinity. Vulnerability is kept to a minimum. This leads to a good dose of (unintended?) homoeroticism. The verbal showdowns between Maverick and his chief rival Iceman (Val Kilmer) are kind of wonderful in the way the actors play the scenes totally straight. (They’re like the scenes between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur, except the actors in Top Gun don’t know their secret.) The locker room scenes have a PG level of jocular aggression, while the famous volleyball sequence is meant to appeal to the girls in the audience, but it’s clear Scott knew it would also appeal to men. (The use of Loggins’ awkwardly titled “Playing with the Boys” pretty much seals the deal.)

The aerial photography is still some of the best of its decade, if not in film history. The five major flight sequences help distinguish Top Gun as a superior action movie. Most flyboy fighter pilot movies relied heavily on “realistic” footage but rarely bothered to inform the viewer to what exactly was happening. Scott’s insistence on pre-planning the maneuvers and choreographing the flight sequences allowed him to display a sense of scale that recalls the Death Star run in Star Wars. (Lucas uses CGI the way Scott uses practical and model effects.) We genuinely feel like we’re in the cockpit of one these fighter jets. There’s a palpable feeling of exhilaration during takeoff or when one of the jets has to spin in order to avoid being shot down. There’s also genuine terror, especially when Maverick’s jet goes into a flat spin and he and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) are forced to eject.

When Top Gun is in the air, it’s terrific popcorn entertainment. It’s the scenes on the ground that are more problematic. Unlike the non-musical sequences in Purple Rain, where the characters’ interactions were kept direct and intense, the scenes in-between flight sequences have a workman-like pacing that exposes just how thin the story really is. The best performance is by Edwards, who uses humor and sincerity to get us to love him. His death in the movie genuinely hurts. Kelly McGillis is the movie’s biggest weakness. SHE displays none of the confidence that made her so memorable in Witness, her previous movie. She has zero chemistry with Cruise, or more accurately she has just enough to get by. Compared with Cruise’s erotic connection with Rebecca DeMornay in Risky Business or McGillis’ passionate embrace of Harrison Ford in Witness, their scenes together are pretty tame. The one scene between them that works is when they’re sitting on her porch and listening to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” The movie constantly tells us that they’re in love. (The gorgeous Berlin theme “Take My Breath Away” goes a long way in convincing us they’re a couple.)

Cruise’s chemistry with McGillis doesn’t really matter anyway. What matters is his chemistry with the audience. Cruise’s all-American image is so integral to the success of Top Gun that audiences and critics didn’t fully grasp that it takes a rare kind of acting skill to make what he does look effortless. In Risky Business, he used his baby-faced wholesomeness to get us on his side, even if he was playing a junior pimp. From his somewhat slight frame to his little-boy voice, Cruise, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have the makings of one of the biggest movies stars in the world. But Cruise’s fabled work ethic is transmuted into his characters’ winning cockiness and we can’t help but be on his side, be it in The Color of Money or A Few Good Men or Magnolia or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In Top Gun, Tom Cruise became a star by embodying America’s belief in overcoming adversity in order to come out on top.

(NOTE: Oliver Stone would commit a courageous act of star vandalism by casting Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Cruise’s Ron Kovic is Maverick, humbled by the ugly reality of war, only to come out a winner on his own terms.)

Is Top Gun a good movie? That’s a tricky question. It’s certainly a watchable one that has managed to stick around long after other, more respectable movies have faded from memory. However, of all the movies surveyed in this series of articles it’s the one that has very little resonance today. The release of Stone’s Platoon at the end of ’86 effectively killed Hollywood’s un-ironic love affair with war. (The release of Robocop the following summer would usher in Hollywood’s long-standing romance with technology and machinery.) Top Gun’s influence can been seen in movies like The Rock, a mostly humorless “ride” that forgot to add the rock ‘n’ roll. (The Rock director Michael Bay is like Tony Scott’s ugly stepson. He’s the father of Chaos Cinema.) Top Gun is an artifact, like bellbottoms or the bob hairdo, from a seemingly more innocent time. It represents a coarsening of summer entertainment, a moment when advertising became a part of the storytelling. Who knew what was once considered crass marketing would now look restrained and old-fashioned?

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



Aaron Aradillas

There is no single review or article by Andrew Sarris that I can turn to at this moment to illustrate his impact in shaping my critical mind. For me, Mr. Sarris was part of a wave of movie critics who came before me—before all of us—who forced me, through his writing and constantly evolving thinking, to challenge myself as to why I responded to movies the way I do. Pauline Kael’s specialty was conveying her immediate, heightened response to a movie. Mr. Sarris would also do that, but then would investigate how exactly a director or an actor went about in provoking a response, good or bad, from the viewer.

Of course, Mr. Sarris’ The American Cinema is one of the cornerstones of any self-respecting critic’s approach to writing and criticism. It doesn’t even matter if you agree with the auteur theory as put forth by Mr. Sarris. What matters is the way it provides an organizing theory that attempts to put certain filmmakers’ bodies of work in a larger context. Mr. Sarris dared to offer the kind of serious consideration of movies that had been afforded to musicians, painters, playwrights, and poets. Even those who rejected the auteur theory as silly or dry or too academic (most famously Ms. Kael) would go on to practice their own form of it. (See Ms. Kael’s writing on DePalma.)

It is impossible to write about Mr. Sarris without mentioning his partner Molly Haskell, a powerful critical voice in her own right. Ms. Haskell, with soothing Southern voice and disarming yet firm demeanor, was a perfect counterpoint to Mr. Sarris’ veteran college prof easiness. Her From Reverence to Rape remains a provocative and essential examination of the portrayals of women in the movies, while Love and Other Infectious Diseases is both a harrowing and moving chronicle of Mr. Sarris’ extended stay in the hospital in 1984.

I met them once at the Museum of the Moving Image’s workshop for film critics. They were like the John & Yoko of movie critics, rarely separated and in perfect harmony. (If you want to see just how good they were together, then check out their back-and-forth discussion on the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.) They were generous with their time and genuinely curious about online criticism, as most of us there wrote mostly for online outlets. When it was decided that the conversation would continue over dinner, Mr. Sarris chose to be driven to the restaurant while Mrs. Haskell opted to walk. Being visually impaired, I asked if I could walk with her. She said yes and adapted to guiding me without a problem. I would speak to both of them separately on later occasions by phone. I remember one conversation with Mr. Sarris where we got into a discussion about the movies of Steven Soderbergh. He was mixed on his most recent work. After I finished a five minute dissertation on his body of work, Mr. Sarris said something to the effect of, “You seem to have thought about this. Maybe I’ll think about it.” And that’s what I take away from Mr. Sarris: the desire, the need to constantly think about why I love the things I love.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

Miriam Bale
The first thing I remember about meeting Andrew Sarris is the twinkle in his eye when he discussed cinematic crushes, ever-evolving ones like Jennifer Jones, and the old standbys like Margaret Sullavan, for whom he reserved not just a twinkle but a beatific, reverent grin. It was then that I realized that, as much as we are taught to think of Kael and Sarris in separate camps, both critics introduced the most definable aspect of American criticism, a criticism based on personal, unreasonable love. The next time I saw that twinkle and grin, Andrew was talking about Jennifer Jones at a Film Society Screening, but he was looking at his wife Molly, the woman who both embodied and shared his love of the great sirens of cinema. It was a playful spirit of flirtation and passion that kept his love for cinema always fresh; he was constantly watching new things, constantly revising old opinions. And it was this same  flirtation and passion that fueled one of the greatest collaborations in cinema, that between he and his wife and co-presenter Molly Haskell. Andrew had enough a deep enough lust for cinema to spark all the work-based-on-love that we critics are continuing now.

Miriam Bale is a film programmer and critic based in New York.

Steven Boone

Andrew Sarris made a name for himself as a film critic. That's an amazing feat in a world where critics are rated somewhere between accident lawyers and executioners in popular appeal. To do that, you must either hold a set of opinions so bold, idiosyncratic and gorgeously worded that they stand out like an outlandish hat in rush hour (like his rival Pauline Kael) or introduce an original concept that was actually always there, waiting to be named. Mr. Sarris did the latter. Importing from the French, he named the film director as the true author of a film, at a time in America when they were thought of as Hollywood's assembly line foremen. Would an entire generation of maverick American directors have stepped out so boldly in the 1970's if they were still regarded as anonymous, interchangeable employees of moguls?

Another great thing he did was fearlessly brush against the grain when the grain simply chafed. He is famous for his stirring, spiritually astute readings of masterpieces like Au Hasard Balthazar and Lola Montes, but my favorite review of his is a cranky pan of the beloved Southern Gothic classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Practically anticipating Phil Ochs' bitterly ironic song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and James Baldwin's Hollywood essays in The Devil Finds Work, he described the film's happy ending thusly: "This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out. How neat and painless it is for the good people of Maycomb to find a bothersome victim in one grave and a convenient scapegoat in the other. When all is said and done, Southerners are People Like Us, some good and some bad. So what? No one who has read the last letters of the German troops trapped in Stalingrad can easily believe in a nation of monsters, but the millions of corpses are an objective fact. At some point, a social system is too evil and too unjust for personal ethics to carry any weight. It is too early to tell, but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird."

Sarris wrote with the understanding that movies are not mockingbirds, giving us song to help pass the time and feel a little better about things. By most reliable accounts, he laughed easily and often but never forgot that movies are a matter of life and death.

Steven Boone is a critic and filmmaker, the publisher of Big Media Vandalism, and a regular contributor to Capital New York.

Godfrey Cheshire

In 1968, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I published my first film reviews in the school paper. As I recall, the first hailed Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler while the second registered my fervent but not terribly articulate enthusiasm for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The same year, I discovered Andrew Sarris’ reviews in the Village Voice, and Sarris published his magnum opus, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Looking back, I can’t say which came first: my reading of Sarris or the commencement of my own film reviewing. What I can say is that no film critic meant more to me, then or later, and that no other writer’s example was a greater influence on my eventual decision to try writing film criticism professionally.

During college, attending the campus film societies’ screenings and debating Sarris’ and other critics’ reviews were intertwined obsessions that, though extra-curricular, actually seemed to add up to the foundations of a real education in cinema for myself and a small corps of cinephile friends. When asked later what made Sarris so crucial to this era, I usually point to two things. First, while he was known for importing the auteur theory from France (and “theory” was always a misnomer; the French were right to call it a “policy”), the key idea that undergirded it was that film was an art, one uniquely capable of reaching from the grossest of lowbrow slapstick to the chilly peaks of high modernism. It’s hard to believe now perhaps, but until the auteurist floodgates opened in the ‘60s, most reviewers (people rarely spoke of “film critics”) regarded movies, good or bad, as entertainment ground out by big studios for an unsophisticated mass audience. In introducing the director as artist-auteur, Sarris helped us see the work of studio hands like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford as beacons of personal vision no less than the more determinedly individualistic and idiosyncratic work of new directors like Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, and Truffaut. And his eloquent, probing reviews elucidated the films of both sets of artists in terms not just of cinema history but of other trends in art, politics and society.

The second reason for Sarris’ importance was simple: he gave us a map. In ranking directors in a hierarchy from “The Pantheon” (Chaplin, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Renoir, et al.) down to the lowliest of genre hacks, The American Cinema provided an evaluative overview of the whole history of Hollywood cinema that had no parallel in film criticism. For a college-age film nut in the early ‘70s, it was at once wildly entertaining, wittily challenging and endlessly instructive. Of course one could (and did) disagree with some of Sarris’ predilections and aversions: that was part of the fun. But on the whole, he was a remarkably generous and authoritative guide; there was simply no better way to get a sense of the whole amazing expanse of American cinema, to begin making one’s own evaluations, and to learn which classic films needed to be seen for an assiduous cinephile’s education to be considered adequate if not complete.

To flash forward a couple of decades, I ended up in New York in the early ‘90s and had the great pleasure of getting to know Andrew and his wife Molly Haskell, a Southerner like myself. Encountering the man, happily, involved very little in the way of surprises. He was in person just as he was on the page: charming, engaged, funny, warm, curious, articulate, gracious, sharp-witted and kind. If cinephile means “lover of film,” Sarris will always represent to me the consummate cinephile, because his love of cinema was so passionate, prescient and precise that it kindled and shaped that same love in myself and many others. I feel a tremendous gratitude for all he taught me. Thank you, Andrew.

Formerly the film critic of New York Press, Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based filmmaker who directed the documentary Moving Midway

James Grissom
Andrew Sarris and I shared a birthday—Halloween—and a deep admiration for Molly Haskell, his wife and one of my first Southern-born friends when I moved to Manhattan. My parents did not feel I would be safe and well in New York City until I was surrounded by people with Southern sensibilities, and  Virginia-born Molly met their qualifications. I introduced myself to Molly in Grace’s Marketplace—over chocolate, as I remember—and my memories of her and Andrew are always around food and talk and laughter.
Andrew was proud to defend the films and the actors he loved, and his passion was infectious: Very few people cared about, studied, and shared as fulsomely as he did. As much as he loved films, he loved words, and he could toss them about with great alacrity until they fell into perfect placement. Andrew was happy to do this with another writer’s words as well, and they always came into sharper focus, grew leaner and tighter and stronger. I think Andrew thought it a particularly severe sin to not clearly convey what a film or a book or a person or a sensation had meant to you: He was very much aware of being a witness to things, and he felt an obligation to share whatever he had learned or felt.
I took for granted the idea that I would always have a dinner with Andrew and Molly; that they would listen to my ideas and share their own with me; that we would sit in their apartment, watching the sun set or the moon rise over the Guggenheim, and sort things out. As painful as it is for me to consider that Andrew is gone, it is far worse for me to realize that I did not appreciate, until now, how lucky I have been to have known him, to learn from him, and to be able to love—with his approval—Molly Haskell.
James Grissom is the author of Follies of God, a book about his five-day visit with Tennessee Williams, which is scheduled to be published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Margaret Hames

An A+ Gent

It was my privilege to be Andrew Sarris’ teaching assistant at Columbia University’s film school in 1998. Sarris taught a large, very popular World Cinema class that admitted both undergrads and grad students. His class was a bit on the loosey-goosey side, as Andrew would sit at the front of the class and talk about his favorite films of that particular week, discussing up-and-coming directors he admired, and young actors he thought showed promise. I remember he had very high hopes for “Rennie” Zellweger, and once when an undergrad asked a particularly pretentious “look how smart I am” question, Sarris answered, “I’d rather talk about Rennie Zellweger.”

I was also Sarris’ student in a combined undergrad/grad class on writing film criticism, hands-down one of the best, most inspiring classes I took at Columbia. Once, Sarris called me out for being a bit dismissive in that “smart-ass critic” way regarding John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Sarris reminded me that John Frankenheimer had certainly more than earned a wee bit of respect in this world. And that goes a long way to understanding Sarris. He had the long view. He had seen so much—good and bad—you’d think he’d have seen enough; but “enough” never came. He was quick to call out the over-praised empty suits, but just as quick to stand up for those directors who had earned their stripes, whose work deserved careful consideration and respect because they were (among other things) auteurs. Oh yes—that word that Sarris introduced into the English language is pretty much taken for granted now. Would anyone question whether a director was (or should be) the true author of a film? He knew it was his greatest legacy and told me so.

Sarris was never dismissive. Visiting over the years, I saw him take up a cane to help him walk, then two canes. The last time I saw him, Columbia was awarding the first annual Andrew Sarris Prize. He kissed my hand, which he often did to female students, one of the only people in the world who could get away with such a gesture. Columbia grades their film students on a pass/fail model. But since I took Sarris in a seminar that included undergrads, he was forced to give me a letter grade. He gave me an A+. So on my Columbia transcript, there’s a whole bunch of passes and one gleaming A+, which is precisely the grade I give to him.

Margaret Hames is the publisher of Media Darlings

Kevin B. Lee

To my knowledge, the above video essay, produced last month for Press Play and Sight & Sound features the last recording of Andrew Sarris' voice. We recorded it one afternoon in Sarris and Molly Haskell's chic apartment filled with books, paintings and grand windows overlooking the Upper East Side; walking into it was like walking into a film critic's loftiest lifestyle aspirations. "We bought it 30 years ago, otherwise we could never afford it," Molly shrugged.

With Andrew's potential for participation limited by poor health, he occupied himself in the dining room with a sandwich while we recorded Molly in the living room. Nonetheless, Molly procured Andrew's original Village Voice review of the film and read from it. She really wanted his voice to be included, and the video is all the better for it. The selected passage, with its discussion of cinema as the beguiling dynamic between surfaces and essences, also gets at something about the relationship between film criticism and its subject, the mad pursuit of conveying the essence of one medium through another. The video is as much a tribute to the essence of Sarris' approach to cinema as it is to Rohmer's. And for all the talk of Sarris being the anti-Kael, there's something about his articulation of ideas that's every bit as sensual and sexy in its own way as what Kael was famous for.

In the midst of the recording, Andrew walked in and eased into a sofa, quietly listening to the conversation. But at one moment, in response to the discussion of scenes involving the touching of Claire's knee, he interjects with a hearty, satisfied chuckle and a soft mumble. I've gotten emails asking what he says, and all I can do is wonder what thoughts went through his mind as the image of that knee flashed across the screen of his memory. But as far as conveying an essence of a lifelong love of the movies, this final sound of his laughter may suffice.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play.

Craig D. Lindsey

I never paid much attention to the whole Kael vs. Sarris debate. I always thought it was two writers engaging in a good ol’ pissing contest. They were two film writers with two wholly unique perspectives on film criticism—end of goddamn story.

I say that to say this: What I enjoyed about Andrew Sarris was how, in his later years, he served as the sensible, introspective yin to Rex Reed’s catty, oversensitive yang in the pages of the New York Observer. Both writers had their own separate columns in the salmon-covered weekly. Since Reed’s column (titled “On the Town with Rex Reed”) dealt with movies, theater, cabaret shows, etc., it wasn’t as intense a film column as Sarris’s. However, on many an occasion, you’d see both men review the same movie in the same issue—and this is where things got fun.

Here’s a sample of what Sarris wrote about The Dark Knight:

“What is most unprecedented about the narrative, however, is its largely unsympathetic treatment of the yapping and yowling citizens of Gotham City, a gloomy echo of ourselves, at the gas pumps and grocery stores, still looking for easy answers from the highest bidders for our votes. In this respect, Ledger’s Joker brilliantly incarnates the devil in all our miserable souls as we contemplate a world seemingly without hope.”

Now, here’s Reed’s take:

The Dark Knight is preposterous, unnecessary and a far, far cry from the old DC Comics of my youth created by Bob Kane. But before the hate mail pours in, let me confess I’m a fool for this stuff, and if “logic” is a word you cannot apply to this movie, neither is “boring.” Compared with the summer’s other action potboilers, it’s a Coney Island roller coaster ride with some of the rails missing.”

This isn’t to say one style of criticism is better or worse than the other. However, you did get an immediate sense of how both men looked at movies. Sarris = well-mannered, pragmatic, detailed, looking at something from all angles before coming to a conclusion. Reed = ornery, hyperbolic, contrarian, getting an idea of what he saw and running with it. If they were a comedy team, Sarris would be the dry-witted straight man, while Reed would be the low-brow clown.

Unfortunately, Sarris was laid off from the Observer in 2009, making Reed the last critic standing there. It’s sad now that not only Sarris has passed, but that fascinating balance will never be replicated again at that paper.

In my opinion, Andrew Sarris will always be seen as a great critic and writer because, quite simply, he knew what he was doing. And whenever you read him, you knew it too.

Craig D. Lindsey is one of the earliest contributors to Press Play.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Andrew Sarris put a frame around cinema itself. He turned the appreciation of movies into an art, but with elements of science. The American Cinema is a taxonomy of directors, arranging them from most to least evolved, most to least artful, most to least memorable. His way of thinking about movies influenced not just film criticism, but pop music and TV criticism and comics criticism, too. Critics of any art form that was previously too young, awkward and humble to dare to define a pantheon were emboldened to try it thanks to Sarris, who insisted that movies could be art as well as entertainment and found the words to explain exactly how that could be so.

I was in the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics for a number of years with him and always looked forward to seeing him at screenings and voting meetings. He was an affable man who seemed to always be taking notes, and he'd been around so long by the time that I got into those groups that he didn't seem to be flustered by anything that happened in the room—though of course by that point, the 1990s, the arguments were pretty mild compared to what I'd heard went on the 60s and 70s. Even when critics were sparring with each other over whether this film or that actress deserved an award, he just grinned, glancing back and forth between the antagonists as if he were sitting courtside at Wimbledon and chuckling a bit.  I went up to his house one time to take his picture for the then-new New York Film Critics Circle Web site, which my brother and I built. I felt as if I were making a pilgrimage. He was charming. While I was taking his picture, his wife Molly Haskell—a giant in her own right—came into the room, introduced herself, then told her husband that he should sit in front of a different window because the light was better there.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

Oliver Stone

Mr. Sarris was quite generous to me. I was a young screenwriter in New York City.  I remember writing a critical appreciation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in the early 70s and sending it off. Surprisingly, Mr. Sarris published it in the Village Voice. Meeting him years later, he struck me as a gentle soul, and although over the years his reviews could be tough, I never felt a bone of meanness.

Oliver Stone is the director of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers and the upcoming Savages.

Max Winter

Sarris silenced them. By them, I mean the group of people I met and befriended when I started at Columbia University, fresh from Dallas, Texas, in fall 1988. Silenced in what way? Every way. These people didn’t talk like the people I grew up with. They were affectionate at their core, and you could tell that when you talked to them about things they loved, from the Velvet Underground to William Carlos Williams to Bob Dylan to Lorca, but it was buried under several very thick layers of toughness and aggression. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I learned; I remember ending one conversation by overturning a glass of soda on someone’s plate, for no reason I can recall. It seemed to make sense at the time. But Sarris.

Sarris shut them up. We brought the Village Voice to lunch in high-ceilinged John Jay Dining Hall in those days, and every week, the same ritual lionizing of certain names would occur: J. Hoberman. Greil Marcus. Andrew Sarris. When Sarris’s name was mentioned, though, only he got the kind of hands-in-the-air, I-won’t-even-humor-any-other-name response awarded to people deserving of great reverence. He wasn’t a “tough guy,” but his mind was tough, and that brought all the aggression to a halt. There was no question: when one of his pieces appeared in the Voice, that was a treat. The dense, surprising, literary prose seemed to me far more stimulating than anything I was reading in class, in an academic structure seemingly designed to encourage distraction. And it silenced students in a generation which viewed everything from classroom lectures to poetry readings to the level of service at a diner as an opportunity for review, of some kind.

Sarris’s death feels symbolic, a sign of the erosion of a tendency. Towards what? Towards more courage in criticism, towards engagement, towards saying something that might seriously dismantle a reader if there was a thought it might change their thinking. Think Lester Bangs! When Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung came in for review at the Columbia Spectator, everyone was on it. Who would attract that kind of interest now? Our premier critics are plenty sassy these days; they know what they like, and they know what they can’t tolerate, but they don’t necessarily have the erudition necessary to put weight behind their punches. Sarris taught at Columbia when I was a student there, as did Martin Scorsese, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Milos Forman, and as with many people I admired, I stayed away. I wanted to preserve my reverence. I did hear one lecture, though, almost by accident—and he said something during that lecture which has stuck with me, for years. He told a student, “As a critic, you understand, I can’t make the sun rise. However, I can tell you it has risen.” Who knows if that was original with him, or if he said it once a year and I was the last to know, I still feel sorry I didn’t see more of those lectures; that kind of sunrise I could have seen over and over.

Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.




The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), and PURPLE RAIN (1984).

The summer of 1985 was, quite simply, the worst summer of the 1980s. I should qualify that statement by saying it was just impossible for that summer’s crop of movies to live up to the pop ecstasy of summer ’84. The inmates-running-the-asylum aesthetic of such movies as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Top Secret!, Purple Rain, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was now being replaced by a safer, more conservative one. Ronald Reagan had been re-elected and it seemed as if order was being restored. Of course there is no evidence for a correlation between Reagan’s re-election and the conservative, retro tone of the movies from summer ’85 (most of the movies were in production when Reagan was elected), but it sure felt like there was one. Rambo: First Blood Part II, A View to a Kill, Fletch, Brewster’s Millions, Pale Rider, Silverado, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, Day of the Dead, Explorers, The Black Cauldron, and European Vacation all had a haven’t-I-seen-this-before feeling about them. Spielberg, who had taken a critical lashing for the intensity of Temple of Doom and was in the middle of making his first bid at “adult” filmmaking with The Color Purple, gave a peace offering by producing the junior Indiana Jones romp The Goonies and the Eisenhower-meets-Reagan time travel comedy Back to the Future. (I should stress that some of these cinematic reruns were quite entertaining, particularly the Rambo sequel and the two Spielbergs.)

Then, near the end of the summer, a spate of movies came out that, rather than rehashing worn-out movie trends, attempted to both deconstruct and comment on certain genre conventions. Tom Holland’s Fright Night used comedy and eroticism (and gory special effects) to rebut all those witless slasher movies, while Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead was a much needed antidote to George Romero’s heavy-handed zombie movies. And Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius was like a teen raunch comedy written by Albert Einstein. But one movie seemingly came out of nowhere and signaled a change in mainstream American movies.

Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a candy-colored toy box of a movie. A series of sight gags, non-sequiturs, and flights of invention, the movie has a mad, on-the-fly structure, built with the insane logic of a children’s story. The story, as much as there is one, is about a boy and his dog, or in this case, a boy and his bike. There’s such an elemental purity to Pee-wee’s attachment to his bike, that when it’s stolen, we totally identify with his anger and feeling of helplessness and are willing to follow him anywhere in order to be reunited with his bike, even if that means going to Texas!

At the center of everything is Pee-wee Herman, a man-child who looks like a cross between 50s kids' show host Pinky Lee and a mime. As embodied by Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s initial appeal was the way his child-like innocence allowed him to get away with making sexually-tinged remarks. The sexual innuendo and physical comedy of, say, the famous 1981 HBO special The Pee-Wee Herman Show was startling in the way it made us recognize the countless inappropriate moments that make up our childhood. And Pee-wee’s speaking voice was like a cross between a guttural snort and a high-pitched whine. Depending on your tolerance of adolescent humor, Pee-wee Herman was either the most obnoxious character since Tony Clifton or a cross between Harold Lloyd and a child star.

Burton's training as an artist and animator allows him to stretch the boundaries of movie frame. (It was his animated shorts Vincent and especially Frankenweenie, with its story of a boy re-animating his dead dog, that led to him getting the job of directing Pee-wee's Big Adventure.) He brings an animator's sensibilty to the live-action form. The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, Cloak & Dagger) has a tactile Pop Art look, as if the color processing was done by Crayola. (Red and grAy never looked so shiny.) The production design by David L. Snyder makes everything look like a pop-up book come to life. Pee-wee’s kitchen is one big impractical Rube Goldberg breakfast machine, A kid’s idea of efficiency. (The joke of this contraption is that it goes off without a hitch.) Of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is most remembered for Danny Elfman’s first collaboration with Burton. Reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s ragtime Gremlins theme, Elfman’s score is a cross between Saturday morning cartoon themes and the music you hear upon arriving at the circus. Elfman has fun adapting the main musical theme for the movie’s many environments. (I especially like how the music gets a slight Mariachi flavor when Pee-wee visits Texas.) Elfman’s scores of late have been rather routine in their eccentricity, but his early collaborations with Burton (not to mention his scores for Midnight Run and the first Mission: Impossible) gave the telegraphing emotionalism of movie scores by guys like David Grusin and John Wlliams a much needed injection of playfulness.

The adventures that Pee-wee has are so disjointed that their unpredictability keeps you in a delightful state of anticipation. The screenplay by Reubens, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol keeps sequences brief, almost like extended sketches. (Reubens and Hartman got their start at The Groundlings.) It’s as if the vignettes are a kid’s idea of what places they’ve never been to are like. When Pee-wee attempts to hitchhike across the country, there’s no real danger because we know he can handle himself, even when he’s picked up by an escaped convict. (Curiously, this sequence contains the only moment of sexuality as Pee-wee helps the fugitive Mickey (Judd Omen) evade capture by pretending to be his wife. After they’re clear of the authorities, Mickey gives Pee-wee a fleeting once-over. The rest of the movie is devoid of Pee-wee’s trademark sexual innuendo.) A biker bar is like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, while all of Pee-wee’s fears are visualized through stop-motion animation, especially Large Marge. The highlight of the movie is when Pee-wee goes on a tour of the Alamo in hopes of locating his bike in the basement. Jan Hooks’ performance as the perky, gum-chewing tour guide is a little masterpiece of comic timing. (“Do we have any Mexican-Americans with us?”) As a native of San Antonio, I found this sequence almost cathartic as it deflated the unquestioned reverence towards the Alamo.

The climax of the movie is like a mini It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as Pee-wee finds his bike on the Warner Brothers studio lot and cycles though several adventures in the span of ten minutes. Pee-wee makes appearances in everything from a Japanese monster movie to a Twisted Sister video all the while enjoying every moment of it. The mash-up of movie genres and sleight-of-hand visual gags is dizzying. Burton’s most subversive joke comes after Pee-wee has caused all manner of destruction, when the execs at Warners want to make his story into a movie.  Little did anyone know just how telling this twist would be as the studio’s co-opting of Pee-wee’s adventure would foretell Hollywood’s growing awareness of the audience’s desire to claim a movie (or, more accurately, a movie’s sensibility) as theirs. Studios may not have fully understood Burton’s funhouse mix of 50s horror and deadpan humor, but they could see that audiences were connecting with it. Studios quickly learned it was good business to allow directors with just enough rebel-outsider “vision” to helm their big-ticket projects as a way to entice audiences growing ever more skeptical of being “sold” a movie. Everyone from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson to Peter Jackson to J. J. Abrams to Guillermo Del Toro to Joss Whedon have done a brilliant job of maintaining their cult figure status while shaping mainstream audiences’ tastes. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, both Tim Burton and Pee-wee Herman showed that you could find success in being different.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.



This video essay is part of the "Cruel Summer" series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), and WARGAMES (1983).

If the 1980s are considered a decade of excess, then 1984 was the peak of that excess. George Orwell’s book 1984 had already given the year so much significance that an inexplicable energy and urgency coursed through it. Reagan’s re-election was pretty much a given, a recession was ramping up, and a wave of conservative values was washing over the country. While there wasn’t yet a sense of hopelessness, there was a feeling that maybe things would get better if only we could just get through the year. All this restless energy was channeled into music. In a rare case in which the stars aligned just right, the music released during 1984 was not only the most exciting of the decade but would turn out to be some of the most endearing pop music of the next 30 years. MTV was entering its third year and had, in a sense, become the number-one radio station in the country. If you had a video in heavy rotation on MTV, you had a hit record. During the summer of 1984 you were likely in any given hour to see videos for Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Madonna’s “Borderline,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” The Cars’ “You Might Think,” Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart of Rock N’ Roll,” Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” Rick Springfield’s “Love Somebody,” Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” Tracy Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” Duran Duran’s “The Reflex,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” not to mention the videos of Michael Jackson, especially “Thriller.”

The movies took their cue from the music as Hollywood entered into A symbiotic relationship with MTV, both as a new form of storytelling but, more importantly, as a powerful marketing tool to reach the coveted youth audience. Movies like Rocky III, Flashdance, and Staying Alive demonstrated the potential success for music-fueled storytelling and an accelerated editing style, but the movies of 1984 showed Hollywood going all-in on this new aesthetic. Almost any movie worth remembering from 1984 was connected to pop music. Footloose was the movie for the high school class of ’84, while Against All Odds had a power pop sensuality. Repo Man and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai had a madcap sci-fi punk vibe, while This Is Spinal Tap deflated the pomposity of heavy metal. The raw energy of the burgeoning hip-hop scene was showcased in the (still exciting) Breakin’ and Beat Street. Even music-oriented movies that flopped had soundtracks that rocked. Walter Hill’s rock ‘n’ roll fable Streets of Fire gave us Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You,” while Rick Springfield’s vanity project Hard to Hold had a soundtrack better that the movie. Disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis relevant to the MTV generation by adding a modern rock score, while ALSO scoring the soundtrack to the unjustly forgotten computer romance Electric Dreams. Even big name directors got into the act, as Brian DePalma showcased Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” in his horror-porno satire Body Double while Milos Forman displayed a punk-ish attitude towards classical music in the Best Picture Oscar-winner Amadeus. But there was one movie (and record) from 1984 that would not only be representative of the entire year, but also become a cornerstone of pop culture.

Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain is a one-of-a-kind mix of rock concert, intense drama, romance, and comedy. A star vehicle designed to showcase the talents of rock-fusion musician Prince, Purple Rain was that rare vanity project that worked. (Both Rick Springfield and Paul McCartney attempted similar movie projects in ’84, but they were a bust.) Magnoli (who had been an editor on James Foley’s youth-rebel drama Reckless) made his feature debut as a director with this film, displaying a remarkable understanding of quick-cut, backbeat-driven movie-music visuals that very few filmmakers have been able to duplicate. When pop stars attempt to cross over into movies, the results are often embarrassing. The Elvis movies are a classic example. Crummy direction and writing turned one of the century’s most charismatic entertainers into a depressing robot on screen. (With the exception of Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis movies would have been perfect for MST3K.) Performers ranging from Diana Ross to Peter Frampton to Neil Diamond all tried to translate their control of the stage to the big screen, and the results were a display of ego gone wild. Their fame as pop stars worked against them, because it caused them not to work hard enough at portraying characters. (Only The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night displayed the kind of looseness and willingness to look silly that’s required to hold a viewer’s attention.)

Purple Rain was different. Prince was still a mystery, not yet the all-caps superstar he is today. From the movie’s beginning, when we heard a voice introducing The Revolution, followed by an anticipatory electro-synth drone accompanied by Prince’s spoken-word proclamations about life, we knew we were seeing something new, something vital. On songs like “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and “Controversy” Prince’s fusion of hard rock funk and dance rhythms was like an antidote to the polish of disco. (The music sounded like the next evolutionary step following The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls.) But Prince still hadn’t broken out. Purple Rain was his coming out celebration. Young audiences flocked to it expecting a show, and Prince delivered.

The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” number both sets the stage for Prince’s showmanship and put the story into motion. Unlike, say, Footloose or Flashdance, where the pop music was used to enhance a scene by giving it a beat, Purple Rain integrated the songs into the story. All the musical numbers are both interwoven into the story and separate from the drama, as if commenting on the lives of the characters. At times, Purple Rain plays like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Cabaret. Magnoli keeps the numbers visually arresting by using movement in the foreground to give them different perspectives. Not using a steadicam, he uses the swaying of the crowd’s bodies or the back and forth of waitresses trays to let us know life is going on even while the music plays. (Streets of Fire had a similar introductory musical number, but its song, “Nowhere Fast,” was no “Let’s Go Crazy.”)

The story of Purple Rain is almost primal, with its elements of frustration and rebellion. While the movie isn’t explicitly autobiographical, it creates a heightened version of reality; Prince and all the other performers play characters they can inform with their life experiences. The inexperience of the cast and crew affords them a cocky fearlessness, as the movie has a let’s-put-on-a-show energy, crucial to its success. The young people in the audience knew they weren’t seeing high drama. Instead, they related to the story of The Kid’s (Prince) desire to express his pain as an extension of their own similar desires. The Kid’s tentative romance with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) is first fueled by eroticism and hostility, but soon turns into a test of The Kid’s maturity. The movie tells us that if The Kid can learn to be generous and trusting, that might be what he needs in order to become a star.

This all sounds kind of heavy, but Magnoli is wise to keep the non-musical scenes brief and direct. No dialogue-driven scene seems to last longer than five minutes. This isn’t entirely because of the inexperience of the actors, but more because the music is so powerful that the scenes don’t need to be extended. The Kid’s romancing of Apollonia happens mostly through visuals. Their first meeting is done with eye contact and the help of the camera. Their first date is when they go riding on his motorcycle as “Take Me With U” plays on the soundtrack. (“I don’t care where we go/I don’t care what we do.”) When Apollonia is being wooed by The Kid’s rival, Morris (Morris Day), he sings “The Beautiful Ones” as a defiant ultimatum. (“Do you want him? Or do you want me?/Because I want you.”) Magnoli’s editing and the hot cinematography by Donald Thorin (Thief) give each number a palpable sense of momentum. “When Doves Cry” is used powerfully in a mid-movie montage to develop characters and fill in holes in the movie’s chronology, while Thorin uses fiery red lighting for “Darling Nikki” to accentuate The Kid’s desire to humiliate Apollonia.

What’s fascinating about Purple Rain is the matter-of-fact way it presents a racially integrated world. Until Purple Rain most black characters in movies either lived in a white world, or were held at arm’s length in movies dominated by black characters. But Purple Rain presented a world where race and gender were shown in something approximating the right proportions. The explicit sexuality of the characters was thrilling, as black sexuality had been mostly chaste (Sidney Poitier movies) or presented as something mythic (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song). The time was right for black sexuality to be presented on screen accurately, and it turned out Prince was just the man to do it. The only drawback was in the treatment of its female characters. Purple Rain isn’t wholly misogynistic but like Saturday Night Fever, it isn’t entirely enlightened either.

Prince doesn’t really act in the film, more often standing still and using his presence to draw us closer to him. This is smart because his normal speaking voice lacks authority. Prince does anger and contemplation beautifully. He’s less assured when trying to be conversational. (His best scene is with Clarence Williams III, who plays his abusive failed musician father. They create just the right amount of tension, giving the scene a hushed intimacy.) Luckily the other actors around Prince are strong enough that they balance some of the movie’s shakier scenes. Wendy Melvoin is quite good in her big showdown scene with The Kid, while Billy Sparks is a natural as the manager of the First Avenue club where all the drama unfolds. Of course the scene-stealers of the movie are Morris Day and Jerome Benton. Day is like a cross between The Mack and James Brown, with Benton as the straight man for his outrageous one-liners. (“Let’s have some asses wigglin'!”) The two performances by The Time ("Jungle Love," "The Bird") are bumptious fun and work as welcome relief from the intensity of the other numbers. Morris is the leader of his band, but he knows to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians. That’s what The Kid needs to learn in order to go to the next level.

The movie’s final act is an extended battle of the bands, as The Revolution and The Time fight for supreme dominance at the club. The three-song set by The Revolution works as a kind of three-part movement toward the movie’s conclusion. “Purple Rain” is a spellbinding one-take performance as The Kid reconciles with those he’s hurt. (I love the moment when he kisses Wendy on the cheek.) “I Would Die 4 U” is used for the movie’s final character montage, while “Baby I’m A Star” pretty much says it all. (It’s easily the best number in the movie.)

Purple Rain is an anomaly, in that no matter how hard directors have tried, its success can’t be repeated. (Anyone remember Under the Cherry Moon or Graffiti Bridge?) It’s a movie whose title conjures up a moment in time. Purple Rain is a movie, a record, a sound. Its legacy is the audience’s wanting nothing but a good time.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

For more commentary on significant films of the 80s, see this 5-part video essay by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz for The L Magazine! Parts 1 and 2 cover 1984.