May 21, 2015

An Indefinite Vacation

After several months of consideration, I've decided it is time for the dreaded “going on hiatus” post. I started Public Transportation Snob four years ago, and it’s been rewarding to connect with so many great people through the site. I’ve traveled out of town to meet fellow bloggers, welcomed them to St. Louis, and chatted for countless hours on podcasts. It’s been awesome, but sometimes it’s time to tackle a new challenge. I’ve made adjustments and tried to keep myself engaged with writing about movies. Even so, the best move at this point is to take an indefinite break from this site.

This choice relates to my “Pop Culture Decluttering” plans described last month, but that isn’t the only reason. I love digging into films and they're messages, and my mind won’t stop that activity. The ratings and short reviews will continue on Letterboxd, and I’ll try to give more reactions on Twitter as I go. They just won’t be put together in full reviews on this site. My posting frequency has gone way down in the past few months, and it makes sense to say something official. There are so many different tasks that occupy time at work and home, and this blog will exit that list.

I’m calling this hiatus indefinite because there’s still a small chance I’ll re-appear on the site periodically. I may get inspired to write about the second season of Deadwood (when I finally watch it) or to dig back into revisiting Stargate Universe. If Michael Mann directs another film, I’ll have to discuss it somewhere. It won't be the same posting frequency as in the past, however. Regardless of whether this is the last post on this site or not, I’ll still remain active in the online community. In a strange way, I may actually watch a few more films because there’s no concern with writing about them here. Guest posts may still happen down the road too. The possibilities are endless, but it’s time to step back. I’ve written more than 750 posts since March 2011; it’s hardly been a quiet endeavor.

To anyone who’s read, commented, or passed along a kind word about this site, I’m eternally grateful. Thanks to all of you for making this such a fun project!

May 19, 2015

Park City: Hope and Chaos at Sundance

Sundance has enjoyed a reputation as a king-maker of independent films since it truly rose to prominence in the early ‘90s. Directors like Stephen Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino became stars after their debuts broke out at Sundance. The ‘90s indie revolution was closely aligned with the festival, but its impact doesn’t feel as strong in today’s global marketplace. Even so, countless young filmmakers make the pilgrimage and screen their movies with hopes of getting distribution deals. The event in Park City, Utah has become gigantic, but it remains a crown jewel for aspiring young artists. This excitement is prevalent in Hannah Rosner’s comedy Park City, a light-hearted look at a trip to Sundance. With their film Hearts and Cash packed in their beat-up Prius, a group of filmmakers take a shot at greatness. Of course, the first step is just making it there in one piece.

Rosner uses the mockumentary format to poke fun at the characters, but it’s never mean-spirited. Joey (Joseph Mireles) is the director and has spent his life studying movies. The problem is that he can’t relate to the outside world, especially the chaos of Sundance. He’s lost in the strange world of agents and studio guys yet keeps an optimistic attitude. When their film goes missing, it’s frustrating but isn’t presented like a tragedy. They may bumble their way to it, but this group is heading for a good place. Rosner plays the producer named Hannah Rosner, which adds to the real-life atmosphere. It’s a world that feels similar to our own, though it’s a lot goofier. Hannah is the level-headed person in the group, but even she can’t help but end up sleeping in a bath of nachos. You can only resist for so long.

David Hoffman, Hannah Rosner, and Joseph Mireles star in Park City

It’s easy to dismiss this movie as just another low-budget indie comedy, but there’s heart within the madness. Their lead actress Jill (Jill Evyn) is full of herself but pretty self-aware for a starlet. She knows how to play dumb, especially when trying to seduce a producer Mr. Cohn (Louis C. Oberlander) to help the movie. Their ridiculous dance back at his place is one of the silliest moments. He’s the only real villain and comes off as more goofy than menacing. The main enemy is bad circumstance, and the odds are not in their favor. Murphy’s Law is cited frequently, but these characters do play a role in their mess. Forgetting to get gas or throwing the back-up screener out the window isn’t completely an accidental moment.

Park City has a low-budget feel, but that connects with the mockumentary format. There are limited sets and a few awkward actors, but that mostly connects with the characters’ lack of resources. Co-written by Julia Turner, the script is breezy and never takes itself too seriously. Joey and Hannah are determined to get their film to the screening, but they spend much of the story facing oddball situations. The standoff with a mustached taxi company owner is a highlight; the actors get what type of movie they’re making. Partially funded through Kickstarter in 2011, this project ends on an upbeat note that conveys the idea that even misfits can make a movie. The final scene of an audience watching Hearts and Cash makes all the hurdles worth it. They may never find success with it, but it was shown at Sundance. Who can complain about that?

Park City is currently available to download on iTunes; check out the trailer here

April 25, 2015

Pop Culture Decluttering: A Simpler Plan

Anyone who moves into a new house knows that feeling. You have the luxury of space that was never possible in a small apartment. It’s amazing, but this bliss is short-lived. Little by little, the stuff
accumulates. The closets and cabinets fill up, and boxes conquer the basement. It only takes a few years to transform a serene haven into a frustrating mess. You aren’t ready to go on Hoarders, but the clutter can increase the stress in your busy lives. There’s an entire industry built on saving us from ourselves. Books and online articles with titles like “10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home” draw heaps of attention. It’s a fixable problem, but choosing to make the time and solve it isn’t easy.

We’re currently following this process at our house after living there for seven years. It’s been rewarding to eliminate stuff that has just occupied space for a long time. This process has led me to undertake a similar project with pop culture. When you write a blog about film and TV, it creates a drive to stay on top of everything. You’re essentially fighting a war on multiple fronts. New movies and shows arrive each week, and thousands of worthy titles from the past remain unseen. This push to cover all the bases can lead to amazing discoveries. It’s more likely to create an overwhelming sense of failure, however. The constant noise builds to a dilemma where there aren’t enough hours in the day to even scratch the surface.

The problems I cite are definite first-world problems. The technology that makes all this content available is incredible. Can't we just enjoy the ride? That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly that simple. Maintaining a work/life balance is a major challenge for nearly everyone. For pop-culture obsessives, there’s another layer of obstacles. Even in a mid-size city like St. Louis, interesting cultural events happen nearly every night. When you add those concerts and film screenings to DVR and Netflix backlogs at home, it’s quite a pile. Books, podcasts, and magazines also scream for attention. Intellectual curiosity is a great thing, but it can lead to disappointments.

The library is an amazing resource, but it can almost be too much of a good thing. 
It’s thrilling to discover a lesser-known movie or band that blows you away. I haven’t given up that pursuit but have simplified the approach to getting there. In a similar way to decluttering a house, I’ve developed a more linear approach to pop culture. If I’m watching the fourth season of Game of Thrones, I should finish it before tackling five other shows. I borrow DVDs regularly from the library, and they’re usually available for a week. Taking out five at once makes no sense; it’s a waste of mental and physical energy. Having a stack of unread books waiting on the shelf also just leads to disappointment. This approach has helped me to focus on what really excites me.

Before continuing, I should clarify my positions a bit further. This isn’t a manifesto that everyone should follow; it’s more of a personal mission statement. Some film bloggers watch 400-500 films in a year and write about most of them. I marvel at their dedication and love the idea of their singular passion. It takes resilience for even the most ardent cinephile to follow that schedule. Most are not writing about films as a full-time job, so this quantity is mind-boggling. I’m not criticizing those achievements. What I’m seeking is the right amount of material that fits within my life.

"You know that Shakespearean admonition, 'To thine own self be true'? It's premised on the idea that 'thine own self' is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if 'thine own self' is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?" - Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), The Last Days of Disco

Having an obsessive personality makes it even more challenging to lessen the pace. When I'm asked to appear on a podcast or write for another site, my first inclination is to say yes. It's a challenge to recognize my limitations even when the opportunities sound enticing. It's only when I think about all the different obligations that I realize the flaws. Last fall, I decided to try and post every day on this blog. I wrote during lunch breaks and pushed myself to expand the audience. It wasn't a satisfying experience. Writing became less fun, and that frustration showed in the final product.

Life changes, and that's okay.
Another factor is my current place in life. I’m 39, married, and have two amazing daughters (6 and 2). When I was 23, paring down my pop-culture activities would have sounded ludicrous. I gathered heaps of DVDs, CDs, and books to consume down the road. Life changes, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that being excited about pop culture is immature. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece on “Appreciation vs. Obsessive Consumption”. I’d been writing this blog for a year and was battling the push to see everything. Three years later, I’m building on that premise with my life. I’m asking “what do I really love doing?” and focusing on those activities. Writing is on the list but not as high as it once was. After sitting in an office all day, spending my nights in front of a screen feels restrictive. Playing tennis, taking a swim, or going for a walk often beats turning on the computer or TV.

It's important to recognize the opportunity cost for any decision. If I decide to play tennis on a weekday evening, that activity replaces another option like watching a movie. Leisure time is a wonderful thing, but there isn't an infinite supply. The amount of hours is the same, and we can't have it all. Pop culture decluttering allows me to recognize the most rewarding use of my time. The wealth of options sometimes makes the process feel like work, particularly for bloggers. Even if we love writing and running our sites, it's easy to start treating them like a painful chore.

This is just a small portion of our collection, but it would take months to watch it all.
While I’m focusing on habits, there is also a physical aspect to these decluttering goals. My DVD and Blu-ray collection isn’t as robust as some film fans, but it does contain unnecessary copies. For example, I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train multiple times. It’s a great movie, but I don’t have plans to revisit it anytime soon. When I’m ready to re-watch that film, locating it will be easy. I cite this example because it isn’t a bad movie that’s easy to eliminate. It reveals the limits of needing such a large collection. It’s like the Seinfeld question where Jerry asks George about why he keeps so many books. If I’m not planning to watch the movie, is it just a prop to show off to visitors?

This project is going very well; I’m enjoying the experience more and not getting stuck in old patterns. There is a lingering question that hangs over these changes, however. How do I still write a film blog when I’m less absorbed in the medium every day? If I’m not as engaged by writing movie reviews, what do I write about here? It’s possible that this site has run its course, and that’s okay. I started Public Transportation Snob as a writing project and way to dig into unexplored corners of the movie world. My interests don’t seem to fit with that model anymore. I’m still in the midst of my pop culture decluttering, so where I land may determine the site’s future. For the moment, I’ll continue this journey wherever it goes.

April 4, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Poltergeist

Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spieberg

"It's not ancient tribal burial grounds, just... people."

Growing up in the ‘80s, I wasn’t a daring movie watcher. To put it simply, horror movies frightened me. Even PG films like Poltergeist were spooky enough to give me nightmares. We started watching the Tobe Hooper film at a friends’ house on VHS a few years after its 1982 release. I was probably around eight and not ready for it. Once the chairs started moving and the tree came to life, I was out of there. I went home before the real chaos began, and that was definitely a wise move. I’ve seen glimpses of scenes on TV since, including a creepy clown and famous shots of Heather O’Rouke saying “they’re here” as young Carol Anne Freeling. Even so, I’ve never sat down and watched the complete movie. Part of me is still wary after that first experience; childhood fears don’t ever really go away.

Commercials on TV have started airing for the new remake, which hits theaters in May. I’m not thrilled to see it, but the brief glimpses of a clown (again) and other iconic elements are still creepy. On the other hand, I doubt it will leave much of an impression. The trailer offers glimpses at the iconic moments of the original, yet feels strangely distant. It’s possible the genre has changed too much to make this premise click. Sam Rockwell and Rosemary Dewitt should help to sell it. I’m getting off track, however. We’re here to talk about the original, which Hooper directed with considerable input from Producer Steven Spielberg. There have been hints that Spielberg did more than Hooper to really guide the project. Regardless of the real creative source, the movie worked for audiences. It’s time for me to finally put aside the fears that have caused me to avoid Poltergeist for more than 30 years.

The story is set in the type of new house community that was common in the early '80s. In fact, my parents moved us into a similar neighborhood in 1982. Our house was right next to a cemetery; is my reluctance to watch it making more sense? Despite the updated furnishings, the house where the Freelings live is really creepy. An ugly old tree stands just outside the kids' window, and an unfinished pool sits in the backyard. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) are well-meaning parents trying to raise three kids. They don't deserve to be haunted by ghosts. On the other hand, they're so laid back that the danger barely fazes them. They witness unbelievable sights yet seem okay with spending another night in the house before moving. Carol Anne is abducted and disappears, but her parents (especially Diane) often forget that fact when marveling at the ghosts. Part of the reason is the requirements of the script; if they'd bolted when the chairs started moving, the movie would end. Plus, we'd never get the chance to meet the great Zelda Rubenstein as the ghost expert Tangina!

I didn't have nightmares after watching Poltergeist, but that doesn't mean it isn't scary. One scene with a guy imagining the skin on his face ripped off is grisly. The clever use of make-up brings a different level of creepiness than modern effects. The use of sound also makes an impact when there's little happening on screen. Just hearing Carol Anne's voice from another dimension brings a chill. The pace is fairly slow, but it ratchets up the tension. The quiet before the chaotic finale is quite effective. We know that everything is not okay and keep waiting for something to happen. There's a fine line between scares and silliness, and this movies strikes that balance. A toy clown trying to choke young Robbie (Oliver Robins) is funny; Diane getting attacked by skeletons is more frightening. Most scenes have a little of both. The result is an odd hybrid between mainstream entertainment and horror. The tone shifts by scene and generally works, though the end result is a bit different than you might expect.

This post is the March contribution to the Blind Spots Series. Check out all the entries on this page