The Lost Corey

Around 2004 I decided The Two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) were due for a major comeback. I’d seen Lucas, The Goonies and The Lost Boys, but all I really knew was that they were 80’s child stars, too famous too early, who fell into trouble with drugs and money. And, they were still out there.

I began watching some of their old movies and I became interested in Haim because he seemed to burn out quickest and most thoroughly. He was a Toronto kid who rocketed to fame fast, but many of his movies are barely watchable. It seemed that the bulk of his work consisted of disposable comedies like National Lampoon’s Last Resort, License to Drive and Dream A Little Dream. *

It’s tricky to unweave impressions of actors from the roles they play, but I figured there must be more to Haim than met the eye. I wanted to write a feature-length comedy that played with this notion. I wanted Haim to play himself, an actor struggling in the wake of former success.

I thought my script was funny. It was about a twenty-something layabout, motivated to find himself when Corey Haim crashes into his car. My protagonist had preconceived notions of Haim as a slacking party animal and slowly learns that Haim isn’t just a goof-off, but a desperate actor clawing his way through a ruthless industry.

A producer friend pointed out that if you’re going to bring back Corey Haim, you have to bring Feldman back too. I agreed. I wrote another draft of the script, changing things drastically: now it had The Two Coreys, and also Corey Hart for good measure, each in the shadow of their decades-past legacy and trying to make something of themselves in a world where their images ensure they are never taken seriously. My script was called The Last Corey. Again, I thought it was funny.

We found their agent (The Two Coreys shared an agent at the time) and gave him the script. A month or two went by and we heard nothing, so we contacted him. He said they’d pass. We asked what he thought of the script and he told us he stopped reading it after the first ten pages, feeling I’d made Haim out to look like a slacking party animal. This irked me because that was exactly point, and my script redeemed Haim in the end.

We asked the agent to read further and he came back and said fine, they’d do it, but only for a million bucks per Corey. My friend and I quietly laughed and gave up. Meanwhile, news about Corey Haim wasn’t promising. He was broke, living with his mother, and had tried to sell a pulled tooth on Ebay.

A couple years later I browsed through my script and it made me laugh. I thought it was a great opportunity we had missed, and I was surprised that we had actually made contact; only a dollar figure had stood in our way. But I couldn’t imagine going through with it and actually working with Haim, and I realized fittingly that this was because of the media-images I had absorbed of him in terrible movies.

So I thought it might be funny to make a movie about me trying to make a movie about Corey Haim: A fictitious writer named Eric Schiller, for his own strange reasons, has written a movie about Corey Haim, and he intends to cast Haim as himself. The journey to find Haim and convince him to spoof himself would be the bulk of the action. It could be hilarious. So I wrote a synopsis. It was called The Lost Corey.

About a year or two had passed since we spoke to The Coreys’ agent, and we hadn’t even considered showing him this idea. Then, like a slap in the face, A&E announced that The Coreys would reunite in a reality-style show. Someone must have agreed that they were due for a comeback. I was deflated. I never watched the show, and I basically forgot about my scripts.

Then, on March 10, 2010, Corey Haim died. “Natural causes” were cited despite suspicious drug activity leading up to his death. A representative said Haim had been drug free for about two weeks, ignoring that ”Haim had used aliases to procure 553 prescription pills in the 32 days prior to his death, having ‘doctor-shopped’ seven different physicians and used seven pharmacies to obtain the supply, which included 195 Valium, 149 Vicodin, 194 Soma and 15 Xanax.”

Looking back, I’m glad we never got to make these movies. Haim’s issues were still too raw. Both Feldman and Haim were victims of the worst part of Hollywood. Feldman claims he and Haim were given drugs and sexually molested by at least one prominent Hollywood mogul in the early years. The Oscar “In Memoriam” segment made no mention of Haim the year he died. And the body of work he left behind consisted of a few decent goofball comedies, and a lot of depressing filler.

Corey Haim’s career is the perfect example of how fame can destroy people. It’s easy to imagine how easily a child might be manipulated by promises of money and fame. In his prime Haim really was a star; before a slump in the 90s he appeared in a half-dozen major motion pictures and his face was all over teen idol magazines. In retrospect we can see the price he paid. Hollywood completely exploited and discarded him before he reached 20.

Haim’s life was much more serious and tragic than I expected. I can’t scoff at him any more; as frivolous and funny as his failures were, they now seem like symptoms of psychological torture inflicted on a child at his most vulnerable. His life is a great cautionary tale and could make a decent biopic. Justin Bieber could play Haim (it’s amazing how alike they look). Maybe if Bieber got deep enough into character he’d resolve to show the world the difference between a serious entertainer and his media image. If nothing else, it might put a redemptive twist on Haim’s life.

 

* The most fascinating product in Haim’s catalog is called Me, Myself and I (1989), a postmodern nightmare happening in Haim’s own mind. We follow him on a “typical day” where he plays hockey and baseball, records music, and fields interview questions from himself, assuring fans and the industry that he’s straightened out and ready to work. But he’s glazed over, stoned, and talking nonsense. It is truly bizarre, very funny, and retrospectively, very sad. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube.

 

Movie Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent ViceWatching Inherent Vice, it’s easy to see Paul Thomas Anderson loves his source material, his actors, and 70s-era LA. Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is an entertaining ride, suffusing melancholic nostalgia with druggy irreverence. But the film is likely to fall just short for fans the novel.

Aside from some changes to the central plot, the movie is like a really stripped-down version of the book. The most prominent and interesting departure Anderson makes is his use of a minor character as the novel’s omniscient narrator. This lets him deliver some of Pynchon’s prose verbatim, a trick he gets away with because, goofily enough, the character is a psychic.

The plot is a bit of a quagmire, introducing a new, memorable character in almost every scene and somehow connecting it all to Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s pot-fueled investigation of his ex-old lady’s new lover. The lover, prominent land-developer Mickey Wolfmann, seems to have a finger in every pie; his name comes up in connection with Black Panthers, Neo-Nazis, a consortium of dentists, a heroin cartel, and a New Age spiritual retreat.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a loveable, faithful version of Doc, sporting big Neil Young chops and hair he styles per occasion (whether it’s his “straight banker” wig or his failed attempt at an afro). But within this levity is a weight of sadness, felt from the first scene in which Doc’s ex-lover Shasta surprises him with a visit. That sadness can be ignored for a while (weed helps), but comes tumbling back inevitably as Doc witnesses the utopian 60s crumble around him, and the cold reality of the 70s rears its head.

The face of the new era is Doc’s nemesis, detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played to the hilt by Josh Brolin. Brolin knocks this role out of the park, with a performance that’s somehow hilarious and frightening in every scene. Phoenix and Brolin are great foils for each other, and the rest of the cast just sizzles. Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katharine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts and Maya Rudolph fill out the panorama with fantastic nonsense.

This is the first major adaptation of a Pynchon book. As I see it, the main reason for trepidation in adapting his work (other than potentially pissing off a giant) is that Pynchon’s books are incredibly complex, have so many connections, and have such a distinct feel and atmosphere, that some of his paranoid complexity must get left behind on film.

The biggest disappointment I experienced with Inherent Vice is that Anderson seems to have left much of the book’s atmosphere to the wayside. Pynchon’s novel is rife with beach culture, surf music, urgent, stoned phone calls about late-night television, Manson-trial references, and midnight meals on Gordita Beach. But the movie has ignored most of this flavor to economically handle the sprawling, spider-webbed plot.

And even the plot underwent significant alterations on its way to the screen. Several great characters and significant storylines have been cleanly nixed, though a viewer unfamiliar with the book might not believe it considering the density of what remains.

Anderson’s directorial style is solid throughout, and his actors really sink their teeth in. Long, single-take scenes give the performers room to breath and explore, and Anderson kept me fully engaged even as I puzzled over the screenplay decisions. His soundtrack (opening perfectly with Can’s “Vitamin C”) is great, and conjures the feeling of the era.

I get the feeling that Anderson loves the novel so much he was afraid to make it his own. He goes to great lengths to capture the dialogue, even much of Pynchon’s prose, but I sense he was afraid to change anything too greatly, so his alterations are tentative, like he’s hemming a suit instead of making one from whole cloth.

I can’t help but feel a tinge of dissatisfaction from this adaptation. The movie was enjoyable throughout, but captures the novel in only broad strokes, and I’m not sure it stands as a fully realized separate piece. Run-time constraints trimmed many of the relationships from the book into just a few scenes that fail to capture the weight necessary to pull off their own dramatic purposes. Doc’s connection to undercover sax player Coy Harlingen comes to mind here, but most prominently abridged is Doc’s love/hate relationship with Bigfoot.

One of the most striking omissions from the novel is the glut of surf music that paints the background of Doc’s existence. In the book, he can hardly escape it. But outside of a brief visit to the house of notorious surf band The Boards (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from The Growlers), surf music is completely ignored. If you ask me, the movie should have been drenched in surf. I’ll take the Can though.

Whether you’re a Pynchon fan or not, Inherent Vice is a really good movie. I’ll watch it again. Someone had to be the first to adapt Pynchon, and I’m glad it was Anderson. He picked the most adaptable of the author’s novels (by a long shot) and gave us something interesting, unique and engaging. It’s funny, well acted, beautifully shot, and there isn’t a movie like it.

Convergences

Reading Vineland or Inherent Vice, you can really feel Thomas Pynchon’s love for surf music. His books stoked my interest in the genre, but it was my brother who introduced me to The Growlers. They’re one of my favorite current acts, and it was a trip to learn they appear in P. T. Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

I assume The Growlers are playing the notorious cult/surf band The Boards, because it would be perfect. The timeline of a) my rising interest in surf music; b) reading Pynchon; and c) getting into The Growlers makes me feel like this cameo came to being just to give me a thrill. It’s just great timing.

Assuming the universe caters to my interests, it makes sense that the return of Twin Peaks should feature some of the other music I’ve been listening to these days. Two groups that stand out, probably because they seem to have been heavily influenced by Angelo Badalamenti’s enveloping original score, are Beach House and Bohren & Der Club of Gore.

Check out this ridiculous Beach House video with another interesting artistic convergence.

If you’re feeling darker, drape yourself in this thick cloak of a tune from Bohren.

Or maybe David Lynch will offer up some of his own work. He’s released a number of projects on Sacred Bones Records, including The Air Is On Fire, which plays like the soundscape of one of his films (think Eraserhead OST, but much more sophisticated and subtle).

This one requires headphones, volume, twelve minutes and a dark room.

Going Back to Cali

Inherent ViceAn unseemly hour of departure tomorrow means I have time for few words. My destination is California. My plan is to re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon while I’m there. Most of his books are complicated enough to be more rewarding the second time through, so I plan to have the novel freshly processed before the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation. This is not necessary; it’s for pure joy. Inherent Vice is the first Pynchon novel to be adapted for film, and this is the most I’ve looked forward to a P. T. Anderson movie. Check out the trailer. Read the book. Enjoy.

 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

The following review is one giant SPOILER.

There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.

His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.

Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).

Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).

But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.

Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.

With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.

Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.

Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.

The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.

About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.

In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.

Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.

It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”

No Pressure, David Lynch

The phrase “ahead of his time” seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment. It’s like an apology for why an artist does not have popular appeal despite being head and shoulders above his competition. Like the artist has too much vision. So much that most people don’t get it.

Twin Peaks The Entire MysteryIt’s been 8 years since his last film, but David Lynch‘s popularity seems bigger than ever. 2014 sees the Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, which includes the pilot, 29 episodes, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and an infamous 90-minutes-worth of deleted from FWWM.

Twin Peaks, labeled “ahead of its time” in 1990, has shaped television and film culture for twenty-five years and it is widely regarded as a must-see television classic. And it’s nice to see such enthusiasm around this release in social media. The Blu-ray release is apparently a big enough deal to warrant live events, like the August 30th TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of FWWM with stars Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise and Sherilyn Fenn (Fenn didn’t make the final cut of the movie, but remains one of the most alluring women in television history).

EraserheadSo I guess Lynch was really ahead of his time with Eraserhead (1977), which is set for a sickeningly overdue Blu-ray release from Criterion this September. The disc boasts 4K resolution, which will make it far and away the best picture available shy of a film print. Incidentally, I once saw a 35mm screening in LA, but the picture was misaligned, some very crucial framing botched, and some of the special effects magic was ruined by the mistake. The audience was pissed. I was, anyway.

Might audiences be finally catching up with Lynch? His last film wasn’t even a film, proper, but a DV experiment in complexly layered identities. But despite its dark, baffling structure, 3-hour length and deeply idiosyncratic symbolism, Inland Empire wasn’t reviled by critics nearly as much as I expected.

What a great coincidence it would be if Lynch came out of his self-imposed retirement from film. We know he would have an audience. It’s a niche audience, sure, but many will go see anything he puts out. However, Lynch’s films have a tendency to be savagely unexpected and rarely cater to anything resembling a popular market. He obviously only makes films when he feels inspired to do so. But seriously Mr. Lynch, get on that.

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

3 Reason to See The Birder at Carlton Cinema

TheBirder-Poster

Watch A Funny Movie With Heart

The Birder is a comedy that will leave you feeling good, not jaded. While most blockbuster comedies try to clobber you over the head with gags and vulgarity, this movie, like its central character Ron Spencer, is looking to dig out a little corner for itself in a world that rewards flare and loud slogans instead of genuine content. Feel free to take a break from all the cynicism for 90 minutes and check out this film.

If you go to comedies because you want loud, drunken montages that remind you of beer commercials, The Birder might not be for you. But if you’re a fan of character-driven movies, or Wes Anderson films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Bezaire’s comedies might float your boat (see Things To Do as well). Dry wit and deadpan delivery make The Birder quietly amusing throughout.

Because movies can be funny without envelope-pushing sight gags, you won’t see a droopy naked ass like The Hangover, Snoop Lion will not make a guest appearance, and there will be no explosive projectile vomiting. What you will see is a thoughtful buddy comedy with a catchy indie soundtrack.

Support Canadian Film (and friends of mine)

Making films in Canada is a tough racket to break into. A surprisingly small number of Canadian films ever make money, including the larger budget Telefilm-funded movies with stars attached (Paul Gross’s Passchendaele, the largest Canadian-funded production in our history at $20M, was also one of our biggest box office losers).

A large part of this problem is that many Canadian moviegoers don’t care to see Canadian films. Many of our homegrown movies feel Canadian, and this can be awkward, like inviting someone you want to impress to your parent’s house. You notice every flaw and tick and bad habit like a cynical outsider and it makes you self-conscious.

But The Birder is a polished film. It looks and sounds professional, it’s entertaining, it has some solid talent behind it, and it was pulled off on a tiny budget thanks to years of perseverance by many friends of mine, including Gerry Lattmann of The Dot Film Company, Theodore Bezaire, and Mike Stasko.

Support Carlton Cinema

I was surprised to learn that Carlton Theater now serves alcohol. This shouldn’t be a big deal, because all theaters everywhere should have always served alcohol. Audiences will enjoy a movie more if they can casually drink a nice beer while watching. You don’t need social science to figure out that this is true. It feels nice to be treated like an adult. And beer is good.

Carlton serves some of the standard lager selections, as well as selections from local craft big shots Mill Street. They also serve wine and liquor. Don’t let a lack of alcohol make you skip a movie ever again. Reward the theater’s decision and reward yourself, and do it this week. The Birder pairs well with Mill St. Tank House Ale.

The movie plays at Carlton until Friday, and if it does well, it will play longer. The Carlton is willing to occupy one of their screens with a Canadian indie movie instead of a sure sell like Neighbors or any other very-well-funded Hollywood movie in no need of support. If you want theaters to continue to take their chances with indie movies, go see those movies in those theaters.

My Favorite Characters Hate Themselves

Recently I did a little writing exercise. I thought about my favorite characters from movies and television and drafted up a few paragraphs on each. I focused on their strengths, weaknesses, and the various inner conflicts that give them depth. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but once I had it all on the page, I realized that all my favorite characters are highly self-destructive.

Okay, so maybe they don’t hate themselves, but they all have internal compulsions that drive them in conflicting directions. They do things they know they shouldn’t; a dark side compels them, and they seem to have little or no control over that darkness. Even as they do their best to be good, they are subconsciously their own worst enemy.

Don Draper is a perfect example of a great, three-dimensional character. He is a brilliant ad man because he quickly knows what people want, what drives them to act, and he plays on their primal urges. But when it comes to Don’s own urges and wants, he seems oblivious, and so he treads upon himself with profligate sex and alcoholism, trying to fill a gulf of want, but wearing himself down until he can’t find his talent.

One of my favorite movie characters is Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson’s wannabe career criminal has an infectious enthusiasm that is so innocent and childlike he draws otherwise upstanding people into poorly considered criminal schemes. He’s a terrible criminal and realistically has no hope of fulfilling his dreams, but his wide-eyed charisma makes it hard for people to say no, or to be honest with him about his ridiculous plans. Dignan doesn’t hate himself, but if he ever faces the reality of his decisions, he might.

Conflict is necessary; without it, there cannot be a story. But most characters lack that subconscious self-loathing that dominates my list of favorites. (I’m not sure what that says about me.) Generally the more divided a character is, the more rich their internal struggle. It’s easy to say that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is self destructive since he’s so generally sloppy, but he is just too easygoing to hate himself, and his character isn’t as rich or compelling as Dignan in the same measure that Lebowski is less tragic.

Think about Breaking Bad’s Walter White, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Bill Murray from Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters or Scrooged or Lost In Translation, Eddy from Hurlyburly, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation or “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Romeo, Hamlet, Dracula.

These characters are some of my favorites. Their internal tensions drive the respective plots forward with an sharp edge. The problems generated by these inner conflicts give me a thrill because I sense that I’m not just watching an external narrative advance step by step; I’m seeing an existential crisis in action. I get the sense these characters sometimes wonder, “How can I be this way?”

Even when the plot doesn’t have to move forward, great inner conflicts lead to memorable characters. Sam Malone from Cheers is a recovering alcoholic, a washed up baseball player who, since he knows nothing else, buys a bar and works his days away with his ex-coach, nailing as many ladies as possible. Diane Chambers, a self-styled intellectual and scholar, takes a job as a barmaid and cannot resist Sam’s charm. To my mind, this is one of the best premises ever for a sitcom.

I resonate with these characters. I feel quickly and deeply invested. I want these characters to struggle with themselves and I usually want to see their better natures win in the end. We all have inner conflicts, and we generally see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. A well-crafted character should gradually invite us to project our conflicts, to see ourselves in the character’s skin (to some extent) and reciprocally, to share in their emotions.

And the best characters aren’t necessarily revealed right away. Sometimes it can take multiple viewings or readings to tease apart the antipodal motivations, to really get inside a character’s head and start to understand those primal urges that drive him or her. A great character should be rich enough with content that they can surprise us, but once we get inside their heads, it should all make perfect sense.

My favorite character ever might be the darkest of all: Laura Palmer. Her death at the beginning of Twin Peaks marks the beginning of our discovery. In 30 episodes we never properly meet her, but we learn so much of her inner conflicts we can infer depths to her that most characters cannot touch. And when we finally meet her in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we get a touching and disturbing portrait of struggle between light and darkness. Laura is a heroine who still resonates with culture today, echoing all over the media landscape in shows like The Killing.

Truly great characters live forever.

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.