Right now... I've had 2 hours of sleep. I stayed at my post... when the trainees ran... but the radiation leak was too much. I was knocked completely out while awaiting the strange weekly phenomenon known as Moriarty's Rumblings. But... With a superhuman sense of wonder I somehow pulled myself out of the funky black sticky poo of dreamland and into the ever so funky black sticky poo of working on this magical mystical computer. Though while talking in the mouse I discovered... it is voice activated... When I speak outloud while typing on the keyboard, every letter I say as a finger presses it down actually... APPEARS ON SCREEN. I'm so delighted. I think... I will return to sleep, but here's this week's Rumblings...
Hey, Head Geek...
You know, there are occasions when totally different interests overlap at once for a really bizarre cross-sampling, and you end up with something that you love dearly but you can't imagine anyone else would ever enjoy, much less make. Yet somehow, improbably, there it is in your hands. A good example would be this insane new CD that has been playing over and over on the loudspeakers of the Labs this past week. Surprisingly, it's not Reznor's latest Nine Inch Nails magnum opus, which I thought would be an instant obsession. Instead, it's from CyberOctave Records, and it's the newest CD by Buckethead called MONSTERS AND ROBOTS. I mentioned the Dave McKean-directed video for "The Ballad Of Buckethead" several RUMBLINGS back, but I had no idea the album would be so good. There's guests like Bootsy Collins and Les Claypool, and the artwork by guys like Dave McKean and Bryan "Franknseus" Theiss makes the booklet fascinating, but it's the insane guitar work by Buckethead himself that makes the album so jaw-dropping. This guy's crazy. I thought John Zorn was nuts, and this guy is influenced by Zorn, but this guy may actually be more demented. For those of you, like me, who are new to the world of Buckethead, he's been around for a while, has numerous albums under his belt, and describes himself thusly:
"He was born in a coop, raised in a cage/Children fear him/Critics rage/He's half alive/He's half dead/But folks just call him Buckethead"
His work is mostly instrumental, but there's some really funny lyrical material on the album as well. I can't believe how quickly the album's unique sound hooked me. I'm an addict now. It's speed jazz with a monster movie fetish. I mean, the guy has an entire track devoted to his imaginary battle with Michael Myers called "The Shape Vs. Buckethead." Forget FREDDY VS. JASON. It's impossible to describe. And it's not coming out of the player any time soon.
Something else I fell in love with since last we spoke was the Friday night presentation on Cartoon Network of the first new John K. cartoon for television in (can it really be?) seven years. My god, that's a long time for a genius to be floundering. Yes, that's right... I'm willing to give credit where it's due. I'm not so hung up on being a genius that I can't point out when someone else's brilliance surpasses mine. I know that John K. is smarter than I am because he somehow renders me helpless with laughter when I watch his work. I'll never forget my first exposure to REN & STIMPY. I was lucky enough to see "Space Madness" as my first R&S cartoon, and I think I actually blacked out from lack of oxygen right around the time Ren accuses Stimpy of coveting his ice cream bar. When I saw the uncensored "Powdered Toast Man" episode or the infamous unaired "Man's Best Friend," I got an idea of just how far John would push things and just how extreme his imagination is. But his time off and exposure to things like SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT had pushed my thoughts of John K. to one side. To be quite honest, it's been a while since I've thought of Spumco at all.
Then a friend called me to point out the Friday night air date of a full hour of YOGI BEAR as interpreted by Spumco. I invited several friends over, but I had to admit I was a bit anxious about the cartoons. Would the time away have dulled his edge at all? The first cartoon, a short called "A Day In The Life Of Ranger Smith," only put me partially at ease. It was funny, but it wasn't great. There were several trademark Spumco moments, but it didn't jump up and smack me, the way the best of John K.'s work has done in the past. Maybe it's good that the first cartoon let me down a bit. It definitely took the edge of me, because when "Boo Boo Goes Wild" hit, I was relaxed and my guard was down.
For those of you that missed it, go to the Cartoon Network's web page and find out when the special airs next. "Boo Boo Goes Wild" is an astonishing piece of postmodern silliness, and it managed to successfully kill three of the weaker henchmen from laughter. The poor bastards simply ruptured something internally and dropped. I don't blame them. The premise of the episode is simple enough. After an incident in which the Ranger makes Yogi and Boo Boo put on their clothes, Boo Boo snaps. Fed up with Ranger Smith's totally random rules and regulations, he decides to quit playing along. "I WILL NO LONGER WEAR THE MAN'S CLOTHES!" he bellows, removing his bow tie. "I WILL NO LONGER SPEAK THE MAN'S TONGUE!" With that, he drops to all fours and reverts to primal bear-ness. He goes on a rampage through the park. I don't want to ruin any more, because every minute of this half hour was hysterical and twisted. My one regret is that Cartoon Network asked Spumco to alter part of a massive fistfight between Yogi and the Ranger. It seems that John K. is a fan of Ultimate Fighting Championships, and he made this particular dustup into an event that was a little more brutal than anything Hanna or Barbera ever imagined. Realistic sleeper holds, brutal facial punches, and frantic strangling struck the network as a bit excessive. If you want to check out the unedited fight, visit John K. and the rest of those glorious bastards at www.spumco.com and watch the Quicktime they've provided.
I know I'm typically a movie guy, but this week, there's a lot of music and TV that seems worth mentioning. For example, I wrote about how much I enjoyed Naked Trucker at Largo last week, and on Saturday night, who should turn up in a major role on Dreamworks' wonderful new FREAKS AND GEEKS but David "Gruber" Allen, the Naked Trucker himself. I thought the show was outstanding, a bright spot in a season that, until this, hasn't seen any newcomers of real note. Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan head a team that make this pilot such a joy, such an effortless pleasure, that I would now count myself a regular viewer of the program. From the first moment, the characters all ring true, and the drama all feels real. This is definitely not another DAWSON'S CREEK clone. As the airwaves are cluttered with POPULAR after GET REAL after MANCHESTER PREP, it is refreshing to see that someone remembers what the experience of adolescence is really like. Each week, Joss Whedon and his gifted staff create a piercing metaphorical look at the same subject with BUFFY that I consider to be among the finest shows on television, but even they don't play it as real as this show. These kids are really kids. They don't look polished or pretty. They also don't look 25. The terror of dodgeball has never been made so funny, and every time the show threatens to play things conventionally or go for a cliche, it makes some strange, subtle left turn that keeps it honest. The opening image of the show said it all, as a beautiful cheerleader and a chiseled football hunk sit in the bleachers by the football field, speaking earnestly about their relationship. As they do, the camera seems to lose interest and drift down to where the series' stars, the freaks and geeks of the title, are hanging out under the bleachers quoting CADDYSHACK and debating whether John Bonham is God or not. The series is set in 1980, but the period detail doesn't distract or date the material. If anything, it frees the filmmakers up from having to turn their show into a fashion ad. The focus is off the clothes and on the characters. Bravo to all involved.
Seems like I've been throwing a lot of kudos in Dreamworks' direction lately. Maybe that's because they seem to finally be turning out the kind of projects right now that I hoped the SKG collaboration might eventually produce. Right now, they're enjoying a wonderful showing for the platformed rollout of AMERICAN BEAUTY, a film I've been very vocal about for the last month. I recently had the opportunity to join three other reporters for a set of round table interviews with the principal cast and director of the film.
Now... here's where I have to pause to speak to any kids that might be reading this column. Kids, it's not cool to flip out and massacre over 40 henchmen just because someone lost the tape your interviews were on. Henchman Mongo was spotted playing with the recorder, holding it with his feet and trying to use it to pick his teeth, but he swore he didn't lose the device. He also managed to hide well enough that when I did finally blow my top, he avoided the worst of my wrath. In the end, getting that mad didn't bring the interview tape back, so I'm left to share my impressions of the day with you, rather than the specific interviews themselves.
It's strange to share an interview, or at least, it is for me. Here, I had not one, but three women, seated at the table with me. When I interview someone, I like to be able to really focus in on the person and shut off the room around us. Having other people tossing questions into the mix only blows whatever roll I'm on. In this case, there were really only two of us who asked questions anyway. Marilyn from the ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT website did a good job fielding the personal questions, the kind I just don't ask, and we didn't end up stumbling over each other, which is what I was afraid of.
BEWARE: SPOILER WARNING!!! MORIARTY DOES DISCUSS THE ORIGINAL ENDING AND CURRENT ENDING OF AMERICAN BEAUTY BELOW!!!! WARNING
The first person brought into the room for us was Sam Mendes, the director of the film. He immediately walked over to me and started discussing the early review I wrote for the movie. Turns out Mendes had read it and was excited to talk with me about it. He was immediately engaging, and I got the sense that he's still excited by each new work of his. This isn't someone who's cranking out "product." Instead, this is an artist who is excited to have finally connected with a screenplay, proud of his first film. We spoke at length about his reputation as a provocateur. I mean, one of the first questions asked him by the other reporters was about Nicole Kidman's nudity in THE BLUE ROOM last year on Broadway. Mendes doesn't see why anyone is surprised by the occasional nudity in his work, or why anyone would consider AMERICAN BEAUTY to be shocking. Instead, he sees the work from the inside, and he knows that these choices are right for these characters, for the subjects that Mendes deals with. He spoke to both Mena Suvari and Thora Birch before casting them about how he saw the most explicit moments involving each of them, and they both agreed with him that these brief moments of nudity are important, that they're turning points for both Jane and Angela. When Jane offers herself to Ricky like that, she changes, and it's genuinely a change for the better. For her to even consider doing it signals some sort of can't-turn-back switch in her. When Angela offers herself to Lester, it's for every wrong reason there is. She needs him and his lust as validation, and she's willing to even have sex with him, as long as she's allowed to feel pretty, as long as she can be special.
Mendes also spoke about his decision to change the script's original ending to, I think, spectacular effect. When I read AMERICAN BEAUTY last year, I honestly didn't like Lester. I couldn't empathize with him. I thought the script was good, but not great, and part of the problem was that ending. Alan Ball originally had Colonel Fitts use the tape that the film opens with to frame Ricky and Jane for the murder of Lester. There's a trial, sentencing is handed down, and the wrong people are punished. It changes the whole focus of the story. I think that you can argue either Jane or Lester as the main character in the original script. In cutting the film, though, Mendes said he gradually realized that the film ends with Lester's memories, his calm realizations about his death and his life, and he decided to cut the film both ways. He showed his version to Dreamworks first, afraid of what they'd say, and was shocked when they signed off on it without seeing the other cut. They even told him he didn't have to test screen the film.
I think it's funny that Mendes did indeed choose to screen the film once, since he wanted to hear an audience react to it before calling it finished. Afterwards, he spoke directly to the audience, eschewing reaction cards entirely. He took questions, asked questions, and was pleased when one teenager forcefully commanded, "Don't let them change a frame, dude." Mendes enjoyed the process and actually used it to cut five minutes from the film, tightening a few sequences. It's amazing what happens when a studio uses the screening process to support a director instead of bullying him, isn't it?
After Mendes, we were joined by Kevin Spacey. I've been a fan of this guy since the early WISE GUY days of his career, and it was a real charge to finally meet him. He introduced his way around the table, ending with me. "Hi, I'm Kevin," he said.
"I'm Moriarty, from Ain't It Cool News."
"Oh, a pseudonym... I see. Who you hiding from?"
I laughed as he got settled in for the interview, ordering a Coke from a waiting publicist. "You know," I said, "I was flipping around late night cable last week and found ROCKET GIBRALTAR as it was just starting."
Spacey looked at me sharply, surprised. I assumed he was surprised because I mentioned GIBRALTAR, one of his very first films, one that I'm sure is never brought up to him by reporters.
"I remember seeing the film in the theater, but I haven't thought of it once since," I continued. "I didn't remember you from it, but watching it this time was interesting. You played a stand up comedian. This was right after you were working as a stand up, right?"
He nodded, smiling now.
"Your first scene, you're doing your Carson impression, and it's just like watching you on a talk show now. You really had it together even then."
"Thanks," he said. "It's strange you'd bring that up. I happened to be watching a little late-night cable myself last week, and I also happened to stop on ROCKET GIBRALTAR just as it was starting."
Based on his laugh, I'm going to guess I must have looked as surprised as he had earlier. What are the odds, you know? "What did you think of it?" I asked.
"I couldn't get past my hair. God, the '80s were cruel." Just like that, him laughing, me laughing, we found ourselves at ease, relaxed, and we just started into the interview. He spoke with great affection about his recent work onstage in THE ICEMAN COMETH, an experience he ranks as the greatest of his career. In his mind, ICEMAN and AMERICAN BEAUTY are of a piece, works related at heart, and his BEAUTY shooting schedule was bookended by the London and New York productions of ICEMAN. The cumulative effect of all that work is a Kevin Spacey who seems to be taking charge of his career with renewed zeal. He's moving away from the kinds of roles that have made him famous, the smooth-talking sociopaths of SE7EN and THE USUAL SUSPECTS. He's producing now, and Lion's Gate just picked up a small film that Spacey produced and starred in called THE BIG KAHUNA.
There's a careful, considered quality about Spacey when talking with him that is part of his appeal on film. He doesn't seem to waste any energy. If he moves, it's to emphasize some point. If he speaks, it's probably worth paying attention to. Above all else, there's this keen intelligence behind his eyes, and you get the feeling he's taking you apart just as much as you're trying to take him apart. At the same time, he doesn't seem to have much of an ego about what he does. To him, it's an experience that is worth having, and the goal is never accolades. Like Jack Lemmon, an actor he adores, he is the consummate pro, always on, always bringing something fresh to each take. My time talking with him was a genuine pleasure.
Annette Bening was next through for us, and I found myself a bit intimidated when she swept in with a little fluttering, hovering group of publicists around her. Being married to Warren Beatty, Bening has had plenty of education in how to run right over the press, and I was, on some level, concerned that she would be some sort of diva about the process. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. As soon as she was seated, she shooshed all the publicists away and seemed to really open up. Maybe it was because I didn't ask her about her personal life, but about how she brought Carolyn to such sad, brittle life. Bening seems overful with joy at having been able to play the character. She spoke of how she was a babysitter as a girl and how she used to see behind people's closed doors, especially when they would come home. She'd see the faces they never wore in front of their neighbors, and she'd hear the fights, the secrets. She said she thought back on all of that when she first read the script, and she drew on it as they rehearsed the film. Like Spacey, she came to AMERICAN BEAUTY fresh from a run onstage. For Bening, it was a critically acclaimed turn in The Geffen Playhouse's HEDDA GABLER that almost kept her from being in the film.
I also got her to speak in depth about her just-wrapped film, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? This is the Mike Nichols film starring Garry Shandling that Shandling also wrote. Shandling is one of Beatty's best friends -- they've worked together in LOVE AFFAIR and the upcoming TOWN & COUNTRY -- and it was potentially strange for Annette to do a film in which she played so many intimate moments with Shandling. In the film, he's an alien sent to Earth to breed with a human woman. He's equipped with a metallic humming penis and told to try an Alcholics Anonymous meeting to find women who might be desperate. The script was evidently workshopped by Shandling over many years, with Bening reading it aloud many times over the course of the development. I hope it comes together on film. She seems to believe it's a special picture, and that would sure be great. I always want to believe in Nichols, and Shandling's the main brain behind my favorite TV show this decade.
Wes Bentley seemed well aware that the minute he walked into the room where we were, all three of my fellow interviewers had hormonal reactions that practically made noise. He's an intense looking kid, incredibly skinny, with laser blue eyes, and he seemed as at ease with himself as Ricky is in the film. He spoke about how fortunate he felt to get the role in the movie. He's consciously trying to avoid the typical teensploitation roles, and was starting to think that any work would be good work when he got the AMERICAN BEAUTY script sent to him. He read it on a plane trip and said that when he got off the plane, "I was actually excited to call my agent for the first time in my entire life." When he first auditioned, he ended up reading just before Mena Suvari, and they rode up in an elevator together. He says that after auditioning, they both joking said, "See you on set," to each other, but he never actually thought they'd both get the film. He spoke about how much he learned from playing Ricky, and how Ricky's philosophy about beauty has started to creep into his own world view. He comes across as a guy who wants to make the right choices, who wants to play challenging material, and who believes in the transformative power of art for both the performer and the audience. Based on how hard my fellow interviewers fell for him during our 20 minutes together, he also comes across as a movie star in training. Keep your eye on him.
Finally, we were treated to the rather intense experience of both Thora Birch and Mena Suvari together. Mena is, for all intents and purposes, a rock star. She carries herself with a combination of swagger and strut that manages to be sexy, funny, and even endearing without ever crossing the line to obnoxious. Thora, on the other hand, sits back and speaks quietly. At first, she appears to be insecure, shy, but when you listen to her closely, you realize that she's just soaking it all in. She's got a sharp wit and a charming, easy laugh, something that Mena seemed very able to provoke. Together, they were quite a show, a marked contrast in energy level to Wes, who was focused, direct, and mellow.
The other interviewers pushed Thora to discuss her nude scene. I'm sorry to have to deflate all you newsgroup conspiracy theorists, but there was no digital body double for Ms. Birch. She's going through exactly what so many young women do in their late adolescence. She's growing into her body, redefining herself as a sexual being, and the scene with Jane was important both for the character and for Thora as an actress. She's got all the same body issues that so many other 17 year olds do, and doing the scene was a leap of faith, a big moment. On the other hand, Mena didn't seem to feel her scene was anything particularly significant for her as an actress. She seems to be more on the Heather Graham end of the scale as far as body image goes, and it was fascinating to listen to the two of them bounce off each other.
In the end, the impressions I came away with were of people who are intensely proud of this project, who feel they've made something special. It was a great round of interviews, and if you're still interested in reading transcripts, send me an e-mail to let me know. If the idiot henchman who ate the tape ever passes the thing (I've got Mongo on stool duty), I will do my best to pass the material along.
I'm going to discuss my impressions of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE 25th anniversary special next week, because there's a lot there worth discussing, but I want to make quick note of Universal's brilliant MAN ON THE MOON spots that ran about halfway through the show. The footage of Andy doing his famous "Mighty Mouse" routine was actually included in the special, so it took some kind of balls for Universal to cut a spot that is essentially just Andy's SNL "Mighty Mouse" appearance, complete with a Lorne Michaels appearance. Jim Carrey is so completely transformed into Kaufman in the two-part commercial that I had to watch the spot over and over again, not believing it. Christmas Day can't come quickly enough.
I also want to wait until next week to discuss some truly insane new ideas that I consider not only dangerous to the future of film in this country, but which I find troubling in other social regards as well. We're talking about things like a proposed "Violence tax" on films and TV shows and the possibility of a Congressional Cultural Committee. These are dangerous days ahead, and it is time to propose solutions that can head off what I sense is a coming witch hunt. Harry and I are working on something right now that I find genuinely inspiring, and we'll touch on that to some extent next week as well. Until then...