The Joy of Jeopardy!

Last summer, I had to take a class on the Biology and Psychology of gender and sexuality. Most times at my university, it is rare to venture outside one’s own department, either academically or socially, but this was a required course, and I was the only film student in the group. This last fact was vividly demonstrated, as we were required to give presentations on subjects of our choosing related to gender and sexuality. Not only were the vast majority of presentations awkward and unprofessional (a genuine shock to someone who spends most of his day with fellow performers), but, as most of the students in the class majored in either Nursing or Criminal Justice, almost every presentation was either about sexual assault or venereal disease.

This was fascinating. Not only had the professor allowed students to cover the same subjects over and over, but the students unselfconsciously ran with it, inflicting upon their captive audience a constant loop of graphic descriptions of violence and physical degradation. Not to say that these issues aren’t important; they certainly are, and Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who need to be educated about them; but when these are the only things you hear about, over and over, day after day, you start to go batty. Towards the end of the term, a woman sitting next to me and I watched in awe as two more students loaded up their PowerPoint presentations: one was on sexual assault, one was on venereal diseases. My classmate and I instantly broke into uncontrollable laughter. We’ve been friends ever since.

Even within the film department, you’re liable to run into people whose interests and fields of knowledge are wildly at variance with your own. Just this week, one of my professors asked the class what the first animated feature film was; one student guessed Toy Story.

This is all a very roundabout way of pointing out that in America, and I would guess California in particular, most people, even college-educated professionals, tend to be very knowledgeable about one thing (typically their chosen field of work) and startlingly ignorant about everything else. In Britain, everyone from cabinet ministers to taxi drivers can tell you the latin names of their houseplants, or give detailed descriptions of the Battle of Trafalgar, but when I volunteer any historical fact about Los Angeles (after all, why would I be expected to know about the place where I work and go to school?), everyone says the same thing: “you should be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy, for those of you abroad, is a syndicated American game show in which three contestants compete against each other, answering trivia clues in the form of a question (this is really just a formality, though; all one must do to gain points in the form of dollar values is answer a clue with “What/who is X?”) and wager carefully to end up with the most money. The current version of Jeopardy is hosted by Alex Trebek, mainstream celebrity in his own right and a god among game show hosts, and has made a few stars out of its contestants. In 2004, the show’s rules changed to allow champions to keep playing as long as they kept winning. Almost immediately, Ken Jennings came onto the scene, won 74 straight games and over $3 million, and is now widely respected as a public intellectual. This season has produced two star players of its own in Julia Collins and Arthur Chu.

The game has varying levels of difficulty. There’s the Tournament of Champions, where returning stars play against each other, and the questions are accordingly much harder than regular play. Then there are college and high school versions that are a little easier, and of course Celebrity Jeopardy! which is absurdly easy; even by those accommodating standards, a few supposedly smart people have shown themselves to be complete morons, to the delight of dedicated viewers.

Jeopardy! is an exception in this country. It’s taken seriously. It has none of the cheese of Wheel of Fortune, nor the silly dramatics of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The premise is almost preposterously straightforward, and the tone of the show is equally understated. The contestants dress up. Most interestingly, Jeopardy! not only celebrates knowledge, but well-roundedness, in a country that adores crippling overspecialization. And it’s a hit. Game shows come and go in waves, but Jeopardy’s been going strong for thirty straight years.

It survives because it’s easy to play along. And that’s the thing. Anytime I feel bad about the country I call home, I watch Jeopardy! I think about how many people have played, that it’s gone on so long that most people in America know someone who’s been on. I think about the millions of people playing along, earnestly watching to see if the contestants share some of their own knowledge. And I realize that there are a lot more Americans like me than anyone would suspect.

So why aren’t they in film school!?

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus

Dir. Kenny Ortega, 1993

In the pantheon of pop culture, there are few words as cringe-inducing to me as “Disneyfication.” Like “selling out,” it is an outdated term that needlessly vilifies success; a perpetuation of the very 20th century concept of the artist as a dangerous rebel. And for all we like to bash Disney, nobody can accuse them of making all their stories squeaky clean. Hocus Pocus is a perfect example.

Hocus Pocus starts with the story of Thackeray Binx, a teenaged boy in 17th Century Salem, MA whose sister was killed by three sister witches, played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. When Binx catches them, they turn him into a (immortal) cat, and before being executed proclaim that they will return for a single night when a virgin lights the black-flamed candle in their house.

Flash-forward to 1993. 15-year-old Max is a recent arrival from California, and an instant outcast. Also, he’s a virgin, which shouldn’t be a big deal at his, but everybody gives him a hard time over it. So he lights the black-flame candle to impress a girl he likes, summoning the witches, and causing all hell to break loose.

This movie didn’t do that well initially, but it did establish certain Halloween aesthetic for kids movies in the mid-90s, and it got a lot of play on television. Needless to say, if you read my writing on a regular basis, you’ve probably already seen it. Although it already had a decent following in the gay community, it exploded in popularity on its 20th anniversary. The kids who originally watched it were now adults, and this is a movie adults can enjoy. In fact, this movie seems like it was actually made for adults. Family entertainment was much darker in the 1980s and early 1990s than today; and this movie isn’t just dark, it deals with such heavy-duty topics as tits, sexual frustration, and dead children.

Yes, Hocus Pocus is campy fun, but it isn’t lazy or condescending. That’s what we liked about it as kids, and that’s why we remember it now. A-

A Short Way Back

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In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.

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“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.

 

Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.

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The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”

The Undiscovered County

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I looked over at Sam Ettinger. “You’re a smooth smoothie, you know?”

Sam was shocked. “You think we’re doing Fargo? I thought we were doing Sideways!

It was no matter. We’d been planning this trip for months; I’d finally gotten my driver’s license, at the age of 24, just to do this trip. We were going to Lake County.

We wanted to go to Lake County because we knew nothing about it. As far as could be told, nothing historical had ever happened there; no one of note had ever come from there or even lived there. On a map you can see it tucked into the mountains north of San Francisco Bay; coastal, yet landlocked. No railways run through it, no real highways, no rivers. The one thing you can see on the map is a lake, and a rather big one. It’s rare that a body of water that large goes unnoticed by the media or the traveling public.

Neither of us had ever seen so much as a news story about Lake County, and we decided to keep it that way: we wanted to preserve the mystery. Once while listening to This American Life, Ira Glass was doing a story on marijuana management in Mendocino County. Early in the story, he said, “While in neighbouring Lake County–” causing me to immediately shut off the radio.

If there was any time to do this trip, it was this February. In Southern California, the cold, wet winter had forsaken us, causing catastrophic drought and a general lack of merriment. I was in class 40 hours a week, and had just been turned down for a second date with a woman I seriously disliked, which was a relief but still discouraging, while Sam had just finished his master’s degree back east, and planned to visit Europe soon after. I wasn’t sure we’d find anything in Lake County, but at the very least it’d take our minds off everything else.

It happened to rain the night before we left, but it stopped around the time I got to Sam’s house. It was 6:00 AM, and under the cover of darkness, we made our way out of Pasadena. After a regrettable but much-needed breakfast in Valencia, we sped up the Golden State Freeway. I’d made a playlist specially to complement the landscape, but it was so dreary that the effect was altered. “I Can See for Miles” would have been perfect for when we emerged out of the Grapevine had the resulting view of the Central Valley not been obscured by fog.

A pit stop at Kettleman City, lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Santa Nella. The fog turned into rain. Hard, unrelenting, glorious rain that would stay with us throughout the weekend, and pour over Northern California for days more. This was what winter was supposed to be like. We tore through the hills of the East Bay, then Vallejo, then Napa. The road got thinner and thinner, until it was, essentially, a lane-and-a-half, over a heavily forested, slightly snowy ridge, and into Lake County.

The first word that came to mind was “peaceful.” For miles and miles we saw nothing but old barns, fallow vineyards, and mighty encinos stretching over the slickened road. Soon after, we arrived in Lakeport, the county seat, with a nice selection of independent shops below an old courthouse square. Bill Bryson would be thrilled. I pulled up to the courthouse at 4:30, and as it was a Friday, we had less than an hour if we wanted to know anything about the place. To that end, we walked right into the County Administrator’s office and asked: “Who’s the most interesting person in Lake County?”

The receptionist looked at us for a moment before speaking to her boss, Jill Ruzicka, who proceeded to tell us everything.

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Lake County is a basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, which is why it’s so isolated. It was settled by Europeans when California was still part of Mexico; consequently some families have been living there for six generations. The lake itself is the oldest in North America, having evaded the catastrophic shifts of multiple ice ages. The valley itself is volcanic; all of their electricity is produced by geothermal energy, which is also how their sewage is treated. As of 2014, it’s the greenest county in America.

“And of course,” said Ruzicka, “we’re finally developing a wine industry. The first time wine was developed in the county, Prohibition ended it all. We’re still recovering.”

I couldn’t help but seize on that opening. “Of course,” I said, “the main crop here is…”

She nodded knowingly. “Say it.”

“Marijuana.”

“It’s true.” She went on to say that marijuana is actually a severe pest in the county.

Ruzicka sent us off with a dinner recommendation when Sam discovered that he’d been accepted to get his Ph.D. at Cornell. To that end, we celebrated in style at Park Place, a popular little eatery overlooking the park on the lake. If I’d taken the time to write this in February, I might have been able to say what we ate. Oh, well. Sam claims to have had a pork chop with a red wine reduction and mashed potatoes.

“Lake County is amazing,” I said to Sam. “And nobody knows about it. I wonder whether we should tell anyone.”

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

3:10 to Yuma

Dir. James Mangold, 2007

3:10 to Yuma is yet another haute-western from the back half of 2007, albeit the most traditional of the bunch. The second adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story of the same name, it begins with poor Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), whose horses are stolen by the ruthless Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) in an effort to rob a stagecoach belonging to the then-under construction Southern Pacific Railway. The railway forms a posse with Evans to capture Wade and get him on the titular prison train to Yuma. Meanwhile, Wade’s even more psychotic deputy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) seeks to set him free– at any cost.

The relationship between Evans and Wade is an interesting one: Wade is a bad guy and he knows it, but he sees an honesty in Evans that makes him stand out from the amoral wasteland of the American west. Even if Wade gets on the train, he won’t be gone long, but he’s still willing to put on a show if only for Evans. But the real standout in the cast is Ben Foster. He’s been all over film and television, and he truly deserves to be better known; he’s our generation’s Joe Pesci.

All in all, while it pales in comparison to all the other movies coming out at this time, 3:10 to Yuma is a decent film with some great performances, and you should definitely see them if you like the people involved. B

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013

The Coen Brothers may be the perfect filmmakers. While they like to re-use images, tropes, and ideas, nobody can predict quite when or how those elements will come into play. That’s one of the reasons people dislike their films.

Inside Llewyn Davis is one film that is bound to divide audiences. It centers around the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a down-and-out folksinger struggling to make his way after the suicide of his partner. He’s not an unappreciated musical genius, just a journeyman, and the film takes us on an odyssey around New York and beyond.

When I saw the trailer for this film, it was nearly a year before it came out, and I was really disappointed. It looked like a very sombre and sad movie, so I was surprised how much fun it ended up being. The film is very episodic; elements and characters are introduced that are never really explored, so my only complaint is that I wish we had more. But that’s a good complaint for a movie to have, and I highly recommend it. A-

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1935

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is exactly the kind of conventional film that falls through the cracks of history. Does it deserve to be better known? Probably not.

Gary Cooper stars as Alan McGregor, an officer of the British army stationed in the Raj, near the border with Afghanistan. After being held responsible for the death of a fellow officer, he is put in charge of two replacement troops, one of which (Richard Cromwell) is the neglected son of the Lancers’ commander (Guy Standing). The tension between McGregor, his subordinates, and his commander draws them into a cross-border conflict with a dangerous Afghan chieftain.

It’s most notable for what it doesn’t do. This film was made in the very first days of the Hays Code, a system of censorship designed to appeal to a more virtuous sense of humanity. The Hays Code is indirectly responsible for almost all of the tropes we associate with Hollywood’s Golden Age, but in 1935 not all of those tropes had developed. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer features no romance subplot, which was unusual then but would have been unthinkable a couple of years later. And the film eschews the typical “happily ever after” conclusion, ending instead with a heroic sacrifice.

The biggest elephant in the room is the brownface. At a certain point, some soldiers disguise themselves as Afghans by darkening their faces, and it’s pretty bad, but considering the time period, it could have been worse. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Even if you can get past the blatant imperialism, racial insensitivity, and Hollywood unreality, the action is pretty good for the time, but it’s not particularly memorable. There’s nothing really striking about the film itself, and the characters and situations have all been done better than they are here. C