Public Grieving, Robin Williams and The World's Greatest Dad

Robin Williams World's Greatest Dad

   It was such a shame he had to go they all agreed. A sensitive soul, a kind man, they agreed.

   They didn't know him as well as they would have liked but his death was still a tragedy to them. Suicide, hanging, brought a cruel and lonely full stop to the end of a profound life they uttered to one another. In death, they could finally see his true being with lucid transparency. Now they could grieve together as one, loudly and publicly - his passing an excuse to delve into a game of one-upsmanship; who could conjure the most pathos-filled anecdote of his life?

   Yet, their behaviour was strange. As they stacked tale upon tale of his kind heart one on top of the next, creating a totem of sycophantic sentimentality, did no-one take the time to stand back and question what they were doing? Dare anyone stand up and speak the true feelings in their heart? Would peer pressure stop one from communicating that, in essence, perhaps he was, in all honesty, a bit of a dick?

   Here, I speak not of Robin Williams who committed suicide earlier this week. I speak not of the actor and comedian, the star of Flubber no less, who provoked an outpouring of public grief when news reached us that he had taken his own life. From all reports I have read, Williams was a decent and gracious man.  Instead, I reference one of the finest, and certainly most overlooked, films of his acting career - World's Greatest Dad.

  Williams stars as failed writer, single father and high school teacher Lance Clayton. He is insignificant to those around him in almost every conceivable way. His life would be morose and dull were it not for the existence of a son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), an entity who makes Lance's waking hours a hell even Dante could not have possibly imagined.

   A sex-obsessed, vile, anger-consumed teenager, Kyle's sole purpose seems to be to spread hatred everywhere he goes - he repulses all who encounter him, perhaps even his own father who is uncertain as to how he has spawned such a demon. Its almost a relief to us, the audience, when the brash youth shuffles off this mortal coil - his death is an accidental one, an experiment in autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong. Lance discovers the body and, after unleashing a torrent of grief, concocts a plan to gain his son a dignity in death which was lacking throughout his life. Lance, channeling his frustrated writing ambitions, pens a fake suicide of wounded prose to explain the tragedy.

   Something unexpected occurs. The passionate, lyrical poetry which supposedly comprised Kyle's last thoughts, touches a nerve with the teenager's peers and teachers - he was, they decide, misunderstood a beautiful soul perhaps. Scores of students swell with pride as they reminisce of shared bonds with the tragic deceased - Kyle, a despicable young creature whom no one would dignify with anything approaching a kind word whilst alive, was suddenly elevated to the position of a secular saint.

   In death, Kyle had become an icon of young adult suffering - everyone could suddenly relate and empathise with him; no outlandish, and entirely false, public proclamation of grieving was considered hyperbolic. Everyone who knew Kyle tried to make his death all about themselves - who knew him the best, loved him the most and, inevitably, the loudest.

   Lance, thrilled that his ghost-written note has been so well received, finds that he enjoys the attention of people poring over something he has created for once - maybe Kyle kept a journal or diary he could share? He too noticed an opportunity to exploit, a death by which to make himself noticed.

   Bobcat Goldthwaite's fourth feature in the director's chair is a film which will only grow in prescience as the years go by. Each time a public figure dies, we find new ways to publicly pronounce how much the passing of one life has affected ours.

   We paved the streets when Diana died so our anguished cries could be caught on camera; before the internet was widely available this was our way of letting the world know how much we cared. When the information super highway became available, we lit the World Wide Web ablaze with our creative sparks of mourning as a man we never met, from a profession as noble as marketing us products we simply don't need, passed away. Jade Goody, a young woman who repulsed us with her vitriol and unrelenting unpleasantness, became a paragon of virtue when cancer took her life.

   Nothing, not sport, not the memories of war and sacrifice, certainly not cinema, brings us together more than public displays of grief. The World's Greatest Dad takes us behind the scenes of the grief industry and reveals to us the most vulgar world imaginable - a place of hypocrites, liars and sycophants. In doing so, Goldthwaite and Williams have crafted a near perfect black comedy and social satire - an ugly moon which reflects on each of us. It is a rather beautiful legacy.
   Combat trousers. Curtains. Double Denim. Ska punk. James Van Der Beek crying. Perhaps only Jennifer Aniston's luxuriously bouffant hairstyle acts as a better metonym of the 1990s.

   For a certain generation, one which I fall slap bang in the middle of, no singular TV show is as likely to inspire a trip down memory lane as Friends. Even if we wished to escape it, there was nowhere to run - Marta Kauffman and David Crane's show was a cultural tsunami, event television on a weekly basis.

   I'm also quite certain that E4 was once solely dedicated to making certain that everyone in the country had seen at least every episode four or five times. Even as a casual viewer, I'm quite certain my memory holds more lines from episodes of the sitcom than it does facts about my own family.

Image Credit: Adventures In Tea and Cake

   So, when I was invited to watch the first four episodes of Friends at the Everyman cinema, I jumped at the chance - I'm always fascinated to see how pop culture dates and how people receive it in a contemporary world. With its minimal studio locations, post-Seinfeld vignettes snatched from every day life and a heavy emphasis on sarcasm - would the show still stand up in this more cynical era where traditional sitcoms were rendered almost entirely obsolete by The Office's meta/mockumentary stylings? Just as Nirvana had destroyed hair metal, had Ricky Gervais banished the "laugh track" to antiquity also?

   Seated in the Everyman's comfortable couches and watching the episodes projected straight from DVD rendered the occasion entirely uncinematic - were I here to watch a movie, the inner cinephile and snob in me may have found this setting somewhat unsettling. However, as an area watch the iconic TV show, the surroundings seemed almost perfect - I'm sure quite a few memories were invoked of communal student gatherings by the cosy, intimate locale.

Image Credit: Adventures In Tea and Cake

   The first thing to note with the episodes, before anyone had uttered a word, is just how young the cast looked. This should be an obvious thing to state, seeing how twenty years has passed since their recording, but I was still startled to see Matt Le Blanc look so fresh-faced and Jennifer Aniston still able to use facial expressions. The next thing of note was a 90s fashion I had almost entirely forgotten about - the excessively large shirt. Seeing David Schwimmer battling to not be engulfed by the ill-fitting, tent-like shirt he sported across episodes was almost as amusing as anything that came out of his mouth.

   The humour, particularly to dedicated Friends fans, seems to have stood up well - when asked to tweet favourite lines of the show, a torrent spewed forth of an eclectic and varied variety. Davd Schwimmer, easily the most talented member of the cast, gives Friends a morose and askew sense of humour which forms the show's heart and, watching his turn as Chandler, it becomes apparent what a huge shame it is that Matthew Perry never developed the career his skill-set should have granted him.

  The event was organised by Simplyhealth - they're currently running a Twitter campaign (#shhealthysmile) which is aimed at showcasing how laughter is good for your health and how being around laughter can be good for you. If this is the case, despite stuffing my face with sweets (we WERE at the cinema after all!), I must have left the screening fitter than I went in. Seeing the laughter Ross and co. inspired in the room certainly cheered me up no end and a night of smiles were had by all.

   I'll be fascinated to revisit Friends again in another twenty years - will the humour still hold up? And will the theme tune by The Rembrandts BE any more annoying?

No/Gloss Film Festival 2014 Preview

   As a Bradfordian, it often pains me to give Leeds credit for anything. Alas, when it comes to film, the city has got it nailed on. Not content with inventing the medium, Leeds also boasts the coolest social cinema in the country, an International Film Festival which has managed to secure future Oscar winning pictures with recurring effect and, not least, Neville Longbottom.

   For the last couple of years too, however, the city has also been able to add another unique event to its cinematic calendar. No/Gloss Film Festival, which returns for its third outing in October, is a two day celebration of the best of DIY film-making from around the world; a showcase of the unconventional and underground movies made as the antithesis of the mainstream.

   The movies themselves, spanning the globe, are not connected by any theme or form and shorts, features, documentaries, animations, music videos and experimental images all sit side by side in the line-up. The one bond that each film has in common with one another is that they are created "free from the restrictions of corporate expectations and the clich├ęd, glitzy superficiality we have come to associate the (movie) industry with".

    The 2014 edition, taking place on the 11-12th October at Templeworks, has begun to fill-up with announcements for titles which will be on display at the festival and looks as diverse as ever. Early Bird tickets for the festival are available here (for just £12!) now - for regular updates be sure to like No/Gloss on Facebook and follow them on Twitter too.

   Whilst the full line-up will be available in August, stand-out titles so far include:

Strong Coffee With Vodka

   An absurdist short German comedy, backed with Balkan beats, is a three handed tale of a doormat waiter, a tyrannical boss and a sadistic soy-loving customer who seems to take pleasure in causing pain to her server. Looks set to be an off-kilter and bizarre treat.

El Espejo Humano

  Shot in black and white, the eerie-feeling trailer showcases an apparent true story of a 17 year old-girl struck with social anxieties. With hardly any contact with the outside world, the only thing able to prepare her for the horrors of society are the ugly images which appear on her television.

Ehi Muso Giallo

   Another creepy-feeling European selection. Ehi Muso Giallo, a title which makes references to the art-horror genre popularised in 1970s Italy, tells the tale of a man who awakens to find himself bound and captive with no recollections of how he got there. A duo of torturers, whom the man despises as immigrants, help him reconstruct the events - it soon becomes clear that someone will have to die for the situation to end.

The Princess Bride: An Underrated Classic

   A tale of swashbuckling pirates, rodents of unusual size, cunning Sicilians, murder, torture, chases, blood-thirsty vengeance. And, perhaps more than anything, a story of love, true love. The undying romance of souls entwined in destiny and the deep emotions shared between an ill child and his infinitely patient grandparent. The Princess Bride is each of these and, unbelievably, so much more.

   The film's title is taken from a lengthy tome which a young child, wrapped up in bed and ill, has read to him by his grandfather. Sure, there's kissing involved, but, they agree, perhaps they can skip past those parts and just focus on the exciting bits, the parts with giants and electric eels, the cliffs of insanity and duels to the death. Maybe the book is not as soppy as the title sounds?

   As we settle down to listen to the grandfather's recital, a role sculpted by the immense charisma of Peter Falk, our cynicism melts away as we're presented with a fairytale as enchantingly sincere as one can imagine.

   We're introduced to Buttercup (Robin Wright), a young and beautiful woman who lives on a farm in the country of Florin. She is served by shy and unwavering  farm boy who happily obeys her every command with a content "As you wish". Buttercup realises the subtext of the farm boy's words and deeds - he loves her and, to her surprise, her heart reciprocates the same feelings too.Tragedy strikes, however, when Westley (Carey Elwes) leaves to find a fortune so they can marry - his boat is hijacked by the legendarily merciless Dread Pirate Roberts. There are no conceivable reasons as to why an anonymous farm boy should be shown clemency by a pirate known to leave behind no survivors.

   Buttercup, heartbroken and alone, prepares for a life without Westley. Five years pass with no sign of her one and true love returning so, against her better wishes, Buttercup agrees to marry the oleaginous Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Little does she know, however, her new relationship puts her in grave danger and she is kidnapped by a trio of outlaws - Sicilian mastermind Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), a Greelandic giant named Fezzik (Andre the Giant), and a Spanish fencer Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) who seeks nothing less than brutal vengeance upon the six-fingered man who slayed his father.

   Humperdink and his army set sail after the boat manned by the outlaws and heading towards the cliffs of insanity. As does a masked man dressed entirely in black. Buttercup fears for her safety and looks to jump into the ocean to escape - she is warned of the shrieking eels which live under the waves and grow louder in sound as they prepare to dine on human flesh. The grandson (Fred Savage) believes this bit to be too scary and asks to skip this part. Will Buttercup survive? Why have the trio kidnapped her? Will Montoya get to live his dream and say the words: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die"? And who, exactly, is the man in black?

   Rob Reiner directs the film with knowing austerity leaving the flair to the actors who grace the screens and to William Goldman's incredible script. We witness a back and forth sword fight in a duel as exciting as anything put on the big screen since Douglas Fairbanks; Wallace Shawn's vocal turn is a delirious and hilariously energetic masterclass in verbal communication; we care deeply for each character and their fate as, little by little, each twist and turn is plotted out in front of us. We may finally get the ending we were expecting but it is delivered to us in a manner we may not have ever expected.

   There's a lot going on beneath the surfaces, something many have (incorrectly) read as being a spoof or parody of the fantastical form - a bizarre reading of one of the most sincere films to have ever come to life in American cinema history. As Inigo Montoya faces death, believing to have failed his father by not inflicting vengeance in his name and honour, the Spaniard's response is heart-breaking in its brevity: "Kill me quickly".

   Hatred and sorrow have consumed Montoya's heart and come to define him yet, in this moment, he is rendered impotent and useless - was his life really so worthless? His head hangs low, ashamed and overcome with profound grief. Its a fleeting, subtle moment but one which is much closer to high art than cynical satire. It is impossible to imagine a heart so cold as to not be moved infinitely and forever when Montoya comes face to face with the six-fingered man he has been pursuing his entire life. Mandy Patinkin, in the role for which he will forever be associated, brings unspeakable pathos, wit and warmth to a character who will be eternally cherished by those fall head over heels in love with William Goldman's incredible story.

   The Princess Bride is a fairy-tale of wonder, a celebration of romance at its most fantastic, and a reminder, too, that the strongest love can be found in the world around us. A grandfather's unyielding patience is, in its own quiet manner, as impressive as anything we can conceive of in the infinite splendor of our minds.

   As he narrates the eponymous tale to his grandson, we witness a true love story. Will he return to re-read the book the following day his grandson wonders? An affirmative answer is inevitable and, as he replies "As you wish", we know what he meant was "I love you". This is true love, the type found in storybook stories but as real as real can be. Even more remarkably, inconceivably, this type of love does happen every day.

Kevin Smith's Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary

Mae Day

  Before Clerks, the legendary low budget indie movie which inspired a generation of slackers, Kevin Smith produced his debut film Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary during a short-lived stint as a film student.

   Like Kid Icarus and Lost In Manchuria, Mae Day is a documentary about the collapse of a movie - one in which the entertainment stems from disaster. Co-directed with Scott Mosier, Smith's short project was initially intended on sensitively portraying the life of a local transsexual entertainer. Yet, due to poor planning and organisation skills, it becomes apparent that the film will never get off the ground - the subject has become un-contactable and shooting, thus, must be postponed indefinitely.

   Whilst many would accept failure at this point, Smith and Mosier show an ingenious level of resourcefulness. Mae Day changes forms entirely as the co-directing duo turn the cameras back upon themselves in a Mea Culpa of sorts - their documentary is no longer about a transsexual entertainer, but rather, the failures of a team of student film-makers to create such a documentary. Smith and Mosier point their cameras at their peers who discuss the project, and the lack of professionalism and planning on display, and their teachers too.

   Rather remarkably, Mae Day may well be the smartest film of Smith's uneven career - a deep understanding of the non-fiction film form is on display as the students' dissect such film-making techniques with gleeful abandon. Its a documentary about the documentary form, a film about film and is rather smart in a reflexive manner - the stitches which hold the genre together are on full show rather than hiding. Subjects ask for second takes and Smith and Mosier's lines seem rather rehearsed, written.

   Mae Day is a wryly humorous, post-modern dissection of student movie-making - a clever film from a director more known for excelling in the studiously dumb.

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