The Reel Less Traveled – January 2021

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Veering Towards the Edge

    Knowing your audience keys the usefulness of a column like this. Even though I fancy myself a bit of a misanthrope, I have lived in the Lamorinda area more than a dozen years and do venture out from time to time. Observing and interacting with the good people that inhabit this charming part of the world, I trust, will help me provide apt recommendations to those very same people.
    Knowing full well that I should shy away from anything too controversial, I, at the same time, have no desire to pander. It’s in that spirit, then, that I write this first column of the New Year. The recommendations that follow come from an unexpected and unconventional place but will still manage to hold your interest.
    Every once in a while, a director ventures out of the familiar to make a film that seems to contradict what we’ve come to expect. The most famous example would be Alfred Hitchcock who, apart from his usual, more suspenseful films, made a domestic comedy (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), an almost silly comedy of manners (The Trouble With Harry) and even a historical drama (Jamaica Inn). You could even argue that his Topaz has all the markings and plot beats of a James Bond film.
    It’s two other directors, however, who I wish to call to your attention. Though their output is fraught with themes of a decidedly adult nature, they have also made movies that still have their unmistakable stamp of style while being totally accessible for everyone. And, both deserve their PG ratings!
    Starting chronologically, let’s talk about Ken Russell. I’ve mentioned him before and have long admired his work, from his films about famous classical composers’ lives to his more visceral works such as The Devils and Lair of the White Worm. I’ve even mentioned The Boy Friend in the past, which I still think worth seeking out.
    Here, however, I call your attention to Tommy (1975). Many will remember this as one of the first “conceptual” rock albums in that it’s not an unconnected collection of songs by The Who, but one that tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. Performed on stage from 1969, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall (itself a pretty impressive movie), it made a stunning film. Bearing all the trademark Russell excesses, it features Ann-Margaret and Oliver Reed with cameos by The Who, Tina Turner and Elton John.
    Roger Daltrey assays the title role but it’s the visuals that dominate. This, with the music, propels this movie forward with nary a quiet moment to catch your breath. And, fair warning, if you think you’ll be watching something that’s, in any way, conventional, then you’re in for quite the surprise. Russell doesn’t do “conventional.” So, if you’re open for something challenging, Tommy should work for you.
    Another distinctive director, David Lynch, never shies away from anything. Though surreal might be the most common word used to describe his films – besides descriptors like violent, carnal and frightening – I’m glad to report that there’s absolutely none of that in A Straight Story.
    Indeed, as far as I can tell, this may be the only Lynch film the Motion Picture Association rated G. Moreover, further proving its a typicality, Disney Studios distributed it! Based on actual events, it tells a story about an elderly gentleman who, hearing that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, resolves to visit him, possibly for the last time. Himself in failing health and unable to drive, he uses a motorized lawnmower to make the cross-country journey. This gentle tale features tender performances by Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. Some might have a hard time with the film’s laconic pace, but those who appreciate Lynch’s style, especially his ability to find wonder in the ordinary, will be rewarded. Beauty, wisdom and kindness run through this film, along with a little poignancy. It’s well worth your time.
    On the local front, it’s probably common knowledge by now that the Orinda Theatre has closed its doors for the foreseeable future. This tragedy, brought about out of necessity to be sure, bears further mentioning, if for no other reason than to always keep Orinda’s gem in mind. The theatre’s Facebook page (facebook.com/orindatheatre) remains active, as does its fundraising page (gf.me/u/y2rv6q). I know at least some of you check in on these resources from time to time. If I can entreat you to encourage others to do so, it will help ensure the theater’s eventual re-opening.
    And let’s not forget the International Film Showcase. Jo Alice and Efi continue with their virtual cinema program (internationalshowcase.org), currently the only game in town. Your patronage can only be seen as a good thing.
    So, I leave you for another month. I wish all of you the very best in the months to come, and, as always, urge you to keep watching those wonderful flickering images of light, for that is where the reel magic lies.

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