How can you make a boring movie about John Dillinger? I wouldn’t have thought it possible until I recently rented Public Enemies. If you heard of a movie starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, with the director of Heat and The Insider, wouldn’t you be interested? I sure was.
Public Enemies sure is a pretty movie to watch. It’s abundantly clear the budget went to art direction and cinematography. Plus, they filmed many of the scenes at the locations of the actual events. You get to see Depp’s Dillinger shot in the head while walking out of the Biograph Theater on the same Chicago street the real Dillinger was shot in the head while walking out of the real Biograph Theater. You get to see the Indiana prison where Dillinger and his cohorts were briefly imprisoned. You get an all-too-short shot of the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona, where Dillinger was captured alive for the last time.
And, you know, there are the actors. Johnny Depp should be the epitome of the smooth criminal. Christian Bale should be perfect as the diligent G-Man hot on Dillinger’s heels. And Marion Cotillard is totally hot. But for reasons unknown to mere mortals, the whole thing never takes off. None of these elements grow into the mighty oak of a movie Public Enemies should rightfully be.
I can tell you two things I noticed that kept Public Enemies from generating my interest. Too much time devoted to a love story that isn’t in any way fresh. This is what I got from it: Dillinger was able to get any woman he wanted because he looked and sounded exactly like Johnny Depp. If you look and sound exactly like Johnny Depp, and you’re a famous criminal to boot, you can talk to that fancy French girl and she will fall in love with you. We know that already. Can’t the screenwriters make the dialog a little more interesting than the premise I just laid out? We know they fall in love, but let’s see them work at it a little.
The second, more important, failing of the movie is harder to explain. I’ll call it a lack of forward momentum. We know that Dillinger is wanted by the law, and we know that Dillinger robs banks, and we get to see both those things. But for some reason there is no urgency in either endeavor. It all felt so preordained that I wondered why they were going through the motions.
Richard Kelly directed Donnie Darko, one of the most incredible science fiction movies of all time. OF ALL TIME. Then he made a movie, Southland Tales, so overstuffed with character, story, and ideas, it literally made no sense at all. And it had no ending. So he moved on to something more manageable as a movie: the retelling of a short story by Richard Matheson.
Richard Matheson wrote Button, Button for The Twilight Zone, as well as a whole host of other stories adapted for the small and big screen (I Am Legend, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and Stir of Echoes, to name a few). Richard Kelly was working from solid source material, but then again so was Michael Mann when he decided to tell the John Dillinger story.
One thing I liked about The Box was the carryover of many of the themes and character types from Donnie Darko. Without making a rehash of his beloved classic, Kelly manages to work in quite a few of the things that made Darko such a personal, bizarre, compelling film. In The Box, Cameron Diaz plays a serious English teacher, much like Drew Barrymore in Darko. Partway through the film we are introduced to a book that supposedly explains every weird thing that has been going on, yet this book only raises more questions than it supposedly answers. There is a creepy teenage boy who looks like he was brought in from a Kubrick film. There is plenty of water imagery symbolizing (perhaps?) forward movement, even movement between dimensions.
I can see why The Box failed at the box office. The audience must pay close attention. There are clues throughout the film as to what the eff is going on, but it’s never spelled out for you. There are creepy things that happen, things like background characters staring directly at the camera for no immediately apparent reason, or dark figures moving outside the house without being immediately explained. I hope you see what I’m getting at: The Box is not going to hand you anything. You have to wait a little, and that is part of what makes this movie so freaking good.
The Box sets up a premise and successfully follows it through. It is surprising without being gimmicky (I’m looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan). It is the perfect movie to watch on a cold rainy night. It’s creepy without being a ghost story, unsettling in all the right ways. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the whole story takes place against the backdrop of NASA’s landing of the Viking landers on Mars. It’s an awesome set-up with the perfect frame.
So go rent The Box and make sure Richard Kelly gets to direct another movie someday. Whatever it is, we won’t be underwhelmed.
Compact discs are on a precipice. There will be a time, perhaps in the next few years, when they are no longer the main way people buy and listen to music. Like records, though, I predict the CD will be around for the rest of our lives. Unlike tapes (or even the 8-track), CDs have staying power. If you like album art, the digital download doesn’t compare. The compact disc sound quality (to my ears anyway) is superior, and the discs don’t degrade unless you really abuse them.
This is a personal history of music purchasing, not music listening. I don’t think there is much writing out there on how people acquire their music, beyond the occasional hyperbolic article entitled something like “CDs Soon Extinct: Is This The End of Record Companies?” Of course listening to the music is the most important part of the process, but how we get to that step has changed over the years, and that interests me enough to share my own story.
I bought my first CD at Target in Tucson, Arizona. My parents had purchased our first CD player maybe a year or two before. I still remember the salesperson selling us the player: “CDs are indestructible. You can throw them like a Frisbee and they won’t break.” The promise of perfect sound forever, coupled with the amount of space you can save compared to a record collection, was enough incentive for my parents to take the plunge.
Being a kid, it took a while to accumulate the funds to purchase a CD (they were more expensive than tapes). I also had to decide what CD was worth buying. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s were not exactly a swell time for new music. Being a lifelong Beatles fan, my first CD was a Paul McCartney greatest hits album. It was new, and I already had the Beatles albums on tapes. I still have the CD, for sentimental reasons. It isn’t a great album, but it does include Band on the Run.
At first CDs came packaged in something called the “longbox.” It was a worthless rectangular cardboard box that you threw away as soon as you opened the shrinkwrap. The longbox’s only purpose – perhaps beyond discouraging theft – was to sit the CDs taller on the shelf. Because everybody knows you can’t see a compact disc when it’s just sitting on a shelf. It needs to be stilted so it’s staring you in the face.
I can’t remember when stores finally did away with the longbox, but it was maybe midway into the 90’s. Long enough that there are millions of these longboxes choking our landfills today. I would hope distributors learned something about packaging from that mess, but the cynic in me doubts it.
I had a few weeks to listen to Paul sing Silly Love Songs before my mom decided I was getting lazy. So, at the tender age of 12, she sent me to work in a warehouse. Speaking of packaging: my job was packing computer software into boxes. At the end of the day, I was called in to the manager’s office. “The owner found out that we hired a 12-year-old and she doesn’t want that liability. Here’s your paycheck.” I think he wrote out a personal check instead of a company paystub, such was the stigma of my being there. It was my first job and my first firing, all in the same day.
My mom picked me up and I told her the news. She took it way harder than I did. I think she had hoped my job would lead to me moving into my own apartment and becoming a productive member of society. Instead, I just went to school and made her buy me food, clothing, toothpaste, and underarm deodorant.
On the way home from my failure, we stopped at Target. I used my paycheck (almost all of it, as I recall), to buy my second CD: The Beatles’ Help. It was the first time I purchased an album I already owned. Later, we would call the reissuing of an album a “double-dip.” Double-dipping is actually the reissue of an album on the same format (like the recent Beatles Remasters). But in practice it had the same outcome: now I had Help twice.
Target used to have rows and rows of new and old music. After a few years, maybe by the mid-to-late 1990’s, I outgrew their selection. It was a combination of factors: my tastes became more diverse and less mainstream, and their music selection dwindled to a few new releases and some “Golden Oldie” greatest hits compilations. Once you have the Lynyrd Skynyrd Greatest Hits album and the Beyoncé oeuvre, Target isn’t going to help you anymore.
I moved on, like many young men of my generation, to that beautiful technological paradise called Best Buy. Best Buy stole my heart as well as my wallet. I spent countless hours of my high school years perusing the racks of CDs.
There were a few independent music shops in Tucson. Zia Records and PDQ had much larger selections than Best Buy even in its heyday. You could chalk it up to the longer drive to get to either independent store (driving 45 minutes to get somewhere is not unusual in Tucson), or you could point to my still fairly mainstream musical tastes at the time. Both would be right as to why I stuck with Best Buy for most of my CD purchases.
College changed my listening habits forever. I learned that there was good – nay, excellent – new music being made every day. There were bands I never heard on the radio because The Man was keeping me down. That musical oppression riled me up. Fortunately, the cure was all around me in the form of musically liberated friends.
Not only was there a great college radio station, but we had a whole Conservatory churning out classical and jazz players every year. Some colleges have basketball teams to follow. I went to free concerts dozens of times a semester. They wanted an audience and I was more than happy to oblige.
But this post is about purchased, not free, music. And so, just like you may have noticed I omitted the major musical revolution of the first decade of this century, I will linger no further on free student concert-going.
Today I buy my music in two ways. I don’t use iTunes unless someone gives me a gift card. I buy CDs from Amazon or from one of two fantastic music stores in Portland. Between those three sources I can find just about anything.
I suppose in this day of reducing our carbon footprint I should reconsider the purchase of physical media, especially when the digital download offers almost as good sound quality and far better portability. But when I want to listen to good music on my home stereo system, look through liner notes, or study stupendous cover art, the compact disc remains my format of choice.
I could’ve also called them Spine Robots, since they resemble both office towers and vertebrae. This is a skyline I’d like to see someday. Metropolis, indeed.
Behold, the cover to the fourth Falling Rock book collection.
But why is it called See America First! ? Actually, like most of my best ideas, I stole this one from the railroads.
See America First was an advertising campaign begun in 1906 by the Great Northern Railway, an effort to lure well-heeled Easterners to the new(ish) national parks in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and California. Previously they had been spending their riches all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, vacationing in lush Switzerland and Poland, among other European countries.
The ads were incredibly successful; thousands of people purchased train tickets West instead of plane tickets to Europe. The national parks achieved a much-needed attendance boost and the railroads saw a tidy profit. Everybody was a winner.
Today, a little more than a hundred years later, Falling Rock National Park needs a similar influx of visitors. Since you can only visit Falling Rock by reading the comic strip, I suggest you purchase a copy of See America First! online or in one of the comic book shops that carry my fine publications.