Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pretty in Pink

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

Teens like us

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Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture prom would you want to attend?”

Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles.

—Samuel Johnson

I know what he means. Growing up, I rarely, if ever, read books or watched movies with protagonists my own age. Even in grade school, after graduating past picture books, I was quickly devouring novels by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, the characters of which tended to be five or so years older than I was. By middle school, I was reading books about the adult world that I desperately—and prematurely—longed to enter. I’m not saying that these were works of great literature; I consumed my share of bad thrillers, horror novels, and miscellaneous junk. But it was all junk about grownups, and even the most mundane novel of adulthood offered a promise of life that I didn’t see in stories about people my own age. (The big exception here is Stephen King’s It, which I did read when I was just about the same age as the protagonists for half the story, and I still think it’s the ultimate young adult novel, although the glimpses it gave of its characters at a later stage were equally revelatory. It isn’t exactly a book I’d give to a twelve-year-old to read, but I wouldn’t discourage it for a second.)

In some ways, my diet of adult novels was partially fueled by the historical moment in which I grew up, in which teenage readers were relatively underserved by publishers. These days, teens have entire sections of books devoted to escapist entertainment with protagonists their age, and if I were growing up now, I don’t doubt that I’d be reading the likes of Divergent. As disposable as many of them are, these books serve the same purpose for teenagers that Bruno Bettelheim identifies in fairy tales for younger kids: they’re fantasies of empowerment, stories that deliberately exaggerate the agency you have at a young age to encourage you to take ordinary risks. If there’s a common theme in these books—or at least the ones that have reached my radar thanks to their adaptations in other media—it’s that the fate of the world hangs in the balance due to the actions of one adolescent, whether named Harry or Katniss. In real life, a teenager has changed history maybe once, and it didn’t turn out so well for the girl involved. But there’s still a place for that kind of daydream: anyone under eighteen gets used to feelings of powerlessness, and sometimes it takes the fiction of a singular destiny that will shake entire civilizations to ignite that first cautious attempt at independence.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

There’s another, more modest vein of fiction for teens, of course, and that’s the high school story. Some are overt fantasies as well: you could write a book or three on how Buffy, Twilight, or The Vampire Diaries use vampirism as a metaphor for a coming of age, and even a more “realistic” show like Beverly Hills 90210 presented an absurdly heightened vision of high school as a cauldron of glossy melodrama. That’s part of their appeal; like fairy stories, they gain much of their power from their displacement, which may be why we’re so willing to accept high school seniors being played by actors in their twenties. When I was in high school myself, I don’t remember latching onto any depictions of it for solace or escape, perhaps as another accident of timing: I was born too late for The Breakfast Club, too early for Freaks and Geeks, and in any case, I was already far down a strange cultural path of my own. Yet part of me wonders if I could have used it. Just as I sometimes feel that I discovered The Smiths ten years too late, I occasionally regret that I didn’t watch My So-Called Life on its first run, or make a point of catching up on John Hughes. I wanted to be told of giants and castles, but while I still feel that it’s important for young people to read slightly above their heads, I’ve also begun to appreciate the importance of a familiar face.

If young adult fiction has taken the place that traditional stories and tales once occupied in the minds of children, it’s no accident that so many center on the big dance: a prom may seem absurdly trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it feels like the royal ball in Cinderella. I had a pretty good time at my own senior prom, so my feelings about it aren’t as charged or ambivalent as they might be. And although I’d be tempted to attend Back to the Future‘s Enchantment Under the Sea, the first fictional prom that comes to mind is the one in Pretty in Pink, which is one of the few John Hughes movies I saw at around the right time. Not so much for the prom itself, but for the montage sequence that comes right before it, scored to the gorgeous instrumental version of New Order’s “Thieves Like Us,” as Molly Ringwald prepares her dress and we cut between the solitary faces of the rest of the cast. It captures something of how high school felt to me: tentative, full of hopes and plans, looking for fragments in beauty in an experience I was otherwise glad to move beyond. It’s about making the best of things when you’re on your own, and I almost didn’t wish it end so happily. Perhaps, as in a fairy tale, that happy ending is necessary to sweeten the rest of the experience, but the real message lies here, twenty minutes earlier, as we get ready for the big dance even if we’re afraid of a broken heart.

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2014 at 9:51 am

And the music plays forever…

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These days, I have reason to be thankful for a lot of things, but at the moment, I’m inordinately grateful for what seems, at least for now, like the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet: The Infinite Jukebox by Paul Lamere, which has provided the soundtrack for my writing life for most of the past week. Basically, it’s a web app that creates an infinite loop of any song you upload in MP3 format, remixed in real time to move from one point to another by matching beats from throughout the track. You can read more about it here, but there’s no substitute for trying it out for yourself. Before long, I suspect that you’ll be as addicted as I am—it’s really that elegant, ingenious, and hypnotic.

Of course, it takes a little practice to find songs that lend themselves to the form. The ideal track, I’ve found, is long, varied, and self-similar, with enough regularity to afford a large number of possible pathways. A song like “How Soon is Now?” is just about perfect, with its obsessive return to the same lyrics and reverberating chords—although it might be psychologically unhealthy to play it for more than an hour or so. I’ve also had great luck with tracks from Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys and New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” (which allows me to endlessly relive my favorite montage from Pretty in Pink). It’s particularly good for writing: I’m often attempting to capture the mood of a certain piece of music, and this way, I can play it forever. If you’ve got a laptop in the kitchen, give it a try while you’re cooking today. You’ll thank me.

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

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