Cinépathétic: Matthew Fleming
A note: this is the first in what I hope to be a long series of interviews with the fascinating people I know and love discussing the medium I know and love. First off is an interview with my best friend and current roommate Matthew (Birdman) Fleming over the course of a couple of hours and many drinks. Enjoy.
DR: Hello, Bird.
Birdman: Hi, Jarrod. How’s the other side of the couch treatin’ ya?
DR: I trust your list is ready? Prepared?
Birdman: 10-4. Though my list could certainly expand to include many more, these are the five films I feel for most strongly.
DR: Naturally. What’s first?
Birdman: I’ll start with a lob. Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking space-epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
DR: That would be on my list. That would be on anyone’s list. I’d ask why 2001 made it to yours, but that would be wasting everyone’s time. Of all of Kubrick’s works, why stop here?
Birdman: I love all of the Kubrick films I have seen, which would be everything Paths of Glory and on. I watch Dr. Strangelove more often, because it’s hilarious, and if you have a chance to watch Barry Lyndon on a huge, high definition television, please do. 2001 is something completely transcendent. Visually unmatched by most of the technology-powered films that followed, it showed me space in a manner which inspired all the awe with which I now see the universe. The first five times I watched it, it moved me and I didn’t understand half of it. It is such an affective examination of existence.
DR: There have been more than enough space treks in theaters this year. We saw Elysium together, and I remember the consensus being a semi-enthusiastic shrug. What do you think is missing from science fiction these days?
Birdman: There isn’t enough real exploration anymore. It isn’t enough to retread all the familiar narratives, just “in space.” It isn’t supposed to end at “visually stunning.” There is a palpable sense of wonder in 2001, and I love the inevitable “I don’t know, maybe this.” Nobody gives a shit about the characters in Star Trek or Star Wars if they are just having the same old space adventures. Give me some heart.
DR: The vast inkblot of space is terrifying to me, and there are several sequences in 2001 that still freak me the fuck out. Kubrick’s decision to omit sound from the exterior shots of the film, and the purr of white noise in its place recalls alpha waves that can be used during meditation. The film’s pace is steady and methodical, and some would use the word “slow”. How many times have you watched the film? When (or if) you rewatch it, what is your rationale? I rewatch it sometimes just to zone out and absorb the moments. Some people take lycergics to heighten their experience of the film. Why you?
Birdman: It’s a metaphysical experience, to be sure. I’ve seen the film in entirety about ten times, and I’ve watched individual segments countlessly. The Blue Danube makes the space station segment feel like a live-action segment of Disney’s Fantasia, light-hearted and fun. I’m also very interested in Kubrick’s career from the standpoint of understanding and interpreting his intentions. Sometimes I just want to fall asleep watching something huge and beautiful with the desire that my dreams may come close to the same.
DR: I’m with you, 100%. When was the last time you saw 2001?
Birdman: Year-and-a-half, summer before moving to Chicago. Big, pretty HDTV and surround sound. Nothing quite like that 70mm print that was touring for a while, but it does the trick. And I’m really serious about that Barry Lyndon thing. I fell asleep the first time I tried to drag my way through Ryan O’Neal’s performance. Once I saw it the right way, I understood what Kubrick was doing. Stanley Kubrick movies usually prefer large screens.
DR: Frustrating aspect of being an avid film-goer in the 21st century is that the revival and art houses are shuttering like bug-fuck crazy and studios are holding onto their increasingly rare film prints like grim death, which makes the odds of spotting a reel screening of 2001 in its original format insanely bleak. If you convinced someone to watch 2001 for the first time with you, how would you maximize the experience? Don’t say, “on my laptop, in my bed.”
Birdman: Again, with the largest screen, highest-quality copy, most expansive sound. And also, with someone else who has seen the movie present to encourage them to stick it out. I understand it isn’t easy to sit through the first time, or the first handful of times. When I first saw it as a teenager, I had to restart it a few times. It’s like riding Space Mountain and trying to read Tolstoy. Eventually, you can get it right if you just trust that the end result is totally worthwhile.
DR: So you’ll be seeing it again.
Birdman: As soon as there is a very big television in this apartment.
Birdman: The final film of my favorite filmmaker, Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.
DR: Buñuel is huge in your world.
Birdman: Indeed, whenever I look at my incomplete collection of his Criterion DVDs, I get a sad. I saw Belle de Jour on cable when I was 16. The description made it sound like an Emmanuelle or Lady Chatterley-esque foreign boobfest. Instead, I found myself witnessing cinematic techniques that were unheard of by that point in my youth. Where’s the music? What’s all this unimportant background subtext? The artist and his works have been an obsession ever since. If I can’t find his autobiography on my shelf, I order a new copy. Anyway.
DR: What I enjoy about the director is that any of his films can be enjoyed similarly: you can either take a backseat and amuse to the absurdism portrayed onscreen, or involve yourself implicitly with the obvious motivations and obsessions of the filmmaker himself. What makes you freeze on Obscure?
Birdman: That Obscure Object of Desire is an attempt to understand that which cannot be understood: the ways of love, and especially, the complexities of the woman. It’s easily relatable to our sort. Two actresses play Conchita, the protagonist’s love interest, and alternate sometimes within a scene depending upon the personality characteristics she is exemplifying at the time. The use of two different women to illustrate men’s stupidity is brilliant and hilarious. There’s an entire subplot of the film about terrorist attacks, the mise-en-scene is inexplicable. There’s a lot to enjoy about it.
DR: It was Buñuel ‘s last feature before his death. Do you think that the film purposefully omits any answers to the quandaries that plague the protagonist, and the big questions of the film in general? That maybe the man, Buñuel , knew about as much as any of us do about the matters of the the heart and the loins? Which is, to say, nothing at all?
Birdman: Don Luis was married for close to sixty years, but had challenging relationships with his leading ladies. He also had a habit of taking these grand questions about equality, morality, big issues, throwing them into the air and implying to his audience, “but you already know the answers, don’t you?” I think he understood that the answers, or even his opinions, aren’t necessarily as important as keeping the questions and the debates alive. He found so much absurdity and silliness in the way people over-complicated everything from love to religion to dinner parties. Sometimes, I think he’s saying that the questions are dumb to begin with.
DR: Obscure has a deep lining of unrequited love AND lust. I remember watching the film and feeling that his impassioned pinings were a dooming harbinger of my life to come. The line between love and lust being a very thin one indeed.
Birdman: The other issue is there in the title as well: that object. The protagonist isn’t in love with Conchita, he’s in love with something he desires, wishes to exact control upon. Love, desire, control, they’re all interwoven so tightly that deciphering one feeling from another can drive you crazy. Also, dooming harbinger? Like maybe… a rocket?
DR: Ha. But Conchita consistently lies to Mathieu. Just when he thinks he’s out, she pulls him back in. Then there’s that scene. You know the one. Where he “convinces” her of his feelings. I’m saying he beats the shit out of her.
Birdman: Yes. He’s trying to do everything she says she wants or he thinks she wants, and then he just takes control of her as an object. She knows that Mathieu’s only real concept of love is manifest through control. They get back together again, ultimately. And of course, then they are killed in a terrorist attack. It’s all so volatile and confounding, their relationship, love, all of it.
DR: So you think they die at the end of the film. Oh, whoops, SPOILERS.
Birdman: I think that so much of the film feels like a dream, it could be interpreted as a surreal assembly of pieces of their puzzle. I think that the metaphor is more important.
DR: Why does this story in particular resonate with you? Why keep coming back to it?
Birdman: Love and its trials are more forgiving subject matter than some of his other obsessions, i.e., religion and class structures, which makes it a nice entry for my friends who are unfamiliar with his body of work. But really, I love the performances of the three leads. I love the confused look Fernando Rey gives every time Conchita toys with his heart, and I love the way Carole Banquet and Angela Molina perfectly encompass the same character. It’s enjoyable, and while the social subtexts are still there, it isn’t as polarizing as his earlier works. Some call it softer, I call it fun.
DR: Considering the material at hand, some might call you a masochist.
Birdman: It’s a good reminder to laugh at the absurdity of human relationships. We all need to be reminded sometimes.
Birdman: Another one I know you enjoy, Blue Velvet.
DR: David Lynch at his most mainstream. I always appreciated the “beneath the surface lie evils you cannot imagine” bent to the film, and I’m more than confident seeing it for the first time (when I was 13) twisted me forever. It’s a demented slice of Americana. What appeals you to it?
Birdman: I love Lynch’s take on film noir. This is his Double Indemnity, The Third Man, Chinatown, etc. In context to his career at the time, it makes sense that he would attempt mainstream, coming on the heels of Dune. The extent to which he stretches the mainstays of the classic detective narrative is beyond disturbing, and the performances are serendipitously spot on. Lynch takes the classical Hollywood narrative and turns it on its ear.
DR: He set it on fire, more like. Lynch has often said that his film’s narratives are a melange of sequences from his dreams, his experiences with transcendental meditation, and his memories. To confine that confounding truth to a particular genre isn’t retooling that genre: it conceives something new entirely. Blue Velvet challenges and frightens to this very day. But as a detective story, we are the mercy of the burgeoning dissolution of our protagonist: Jefferey Beaumont, played by a plucky Kyle MacLachlan. A far cry from a Sam Spade.
Birdman: A detective in over his head has nothing on that kid. The psyche of man is all balled up in Jeffrey: good kid from a good family with a swell girl that thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas, and a carnally-numbed Isabella Rossellini that is dragging him into the depths of the dangerous unknown. Too bad for him that Frank Booth is the end of that chasm, Dennis Hopper inhabiting a character that would have killed a weaker actor. He’s like Monet working in the medium of vulgarity and abject violence.
DR: Jeffrey digs into Dorothy’s life in real time in the film, meaning we as the audience receive the same information Jeffrey receives as he receives it. It makes the mystery more alluring, but frightening as well. It’s the little touches that make it scarier. Dean Stockwell didn’t need to wear face paint, but he does. Frank Booth has to weep at hearing Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. The dead cop by the floor lamp. So much is given to interpretation, that entire essays have been dedicated to this one film. I get lost in the mystery in that even though I’ve seen it more than a dozen times, I still don’t really know what the hell is going on other than that I know Jeffrey is losing his mind. Then the ending. Everything’s hunky-dory. But then there’s the fake red bird. Your interpretation?
Birdman: My parents had Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits on cassette when I was a kid, I’d listen to it again and again. When I first saw the In Dreams scene in Blue Velvet, my eyes grew wide, my mouth went agape and dry, and I felt real fear. The animatronic robin at the end of the film gave me the same kind of feeling of comfort that you get from a funeral director: professional, yet unsettling still. Surrealism is all about replicating the uneasy pseudo-reality of our dream worlds, so films like this, when affective, never let you know when to wake up. Lynch is subverting the comfort of our supposed realities; the underground, the psyche, the seedy underbelly, the darknesses are all illuminated. Dreams unpack and try to make sense of all of it, Blue Velvet repacks it, throws it in the air and dares you not to flinch.
DR: Lynch has always worked, for the most part, within certain self-made archetypes. One of the recurring aspects of his films is the ceaseless evil of the villains. There is always an ethereal bent to his antagonists – they seem more demon than human. Twin Peaks even went so far as to imply that BOB was a force of nature. Frank Booth takes a hit of nitrous and his pupils dilate and he stares INTO Jeffrey and says, “you’re like me.” And it makes sense. Jeffrey discovers he’s capable of far more evil than what he could ever know by film’s end. Is Jeffrey the villain of this story? Does his intervention wreak more havoc than salvage good?
Birdman: The villain of the story is the potential for any human to become consumed by the carnal animal that still exists in our nature. Frank knows that Jeffrey has that nature in him somewhere, and it’s up to him to fight it back into the dark, to rise above the animal. Frank Booth has descended beyond reason, and Jeffrey has to experience, then ultimately repel this animalism. But by the end, we have all seen it, Jeffrey and Sandy and the audience all know it’s there. Whether it will return is anyone’s guess, but we all know it’s there.
DR: The film is bookended by the entering and exit of an ear canal. The entry at the beginning belongs to a severed ear in the middle of a field, covered in ants. The exit is through Jeffrey’s own ear, as he kicks back in his idyllic backyard. In between is the byzantine path of conscience. So much of the film can be called hallucinogenic. And as Jeffrey becomes more embroiled in the mystery, the more unhinged he becomes. I’ve always appreciated the dreamlike quality of Blue Velvet and LOVED how Lynch elaborated on those themes in Mulholland Drive. But I always wondered how much of the real intrigue was flat-out passed in the film, Booth’s comings and goings, Dorothy’s child, her own descent into madness, etc. There’s so much implied and never elaborated upon, that when the film ends, it really does feel like a dream. You remember the broad strokes, but fail at the details.
Birdman: I’d love to see the original four-hour cut. The blu-ray apparently has a ton of deleted scenes. The holidays are on their way. Also, that whole “ants in ear” thing? Totally an homage to Buñuel.
DR: What makes you say that?
Birdman: Un Chien Andalou, the first Buñuel short film made in tandem with Salvador Dali. The woman gets her eye sliced, later there is a man who seems to have ants crawling from an unseen hole in his hand. I’d like to think there’s something of a nod from Lynch to Buñuel in that opening.
DR: Like Kubrick before, Lynch too is a very deliberate filmmaker. You might be onto something there. Number four.
DR: AKA: Kurt Russell’s Mullet Vs. The World.
Birdman: Kurt Russell’s Mullet Vs. CHINESE BLACK MAGIC! Indiana Jones is the best supernatural adventurer, but Jack Burton is the most delusional.
DR: More of a cowboy, too.
Birdman: He’s an everyman who thinks he’s John Wayne and Confucius driving a big rig.
DR: I don’t even have ask you why you love this movie so much anymore. But humor me.
Birdman: His buddy Wang Chi is the real hero, charming, idealist, young lover, and great at Kung Fu. Thankfully, Jack Burton has a big enough ego to go along with the entire adventure, at least so he can get his truck back. The supercut of his confused reactions is amazing. He doesn’t want to know that Chinese black magic is real, but he can’t deny the crazy supernatural happenings that are afoot. James Hong is alternately terrifying and hilarious as Lo Pan, the accursed relic of feudal China, who is lucky enough to find two girls with green eyes, the key to reinhabiting a fleshly vessel and subsequently ensuring his immortality (which he seems to have already). Everything about the plot is fantastical and absurd, but c’mon, it was the ’80s. The movie is as quotable as anything before and after, and I would argue that it ranks alongside The Big Lebowski, this generation’s go-to for comedic quotes, as containing some of the sharpest lines written. “You know what ol’ Jack Burton says at a time like this?” “Who?” “JACK BURTON. ME. Ol’ Jack says… oh what the hell.” And then he throws a dagger at Lo Pan and misses.
DR: The film itself was a complete flop commercially. It sent Carpenter running away from the Hollywood studio system to mixed success. For every They Live, we had Memoirs of An Invisible Man. What the fuck, exactly, does John Carpenter want to say with his films?
Birdman: Carpenter is such an enigma. This movie was rewritten from a western into a kung-fu-supernatural-schlockfest, and I’d argue that if not for Carpenter, it would have never seen the light of day. He’s had such a spotty career, marked with a few exclamations and far more periods. But when he’s on, he’s as good as the greats. A better analogy, I think, is that for every Escape From New York, we have an Escape From L.A., and then we have nothing to care about for years. Even when he returns to familiar territory, he just seems to miss these days. Is it too much control? Is it not enough control? Beats me.
DR: He always struck me as a lazy Renaissance Man: his hands are passively in several pies at all times, and when the stars align, something truly tangible is created. Halloween wasn’t created in a vaccuum, after all. But Big China has to be one of the hardest films of Carpenter’s for me to watch, if for no other reason than that I’m supposed to enjoy it. But I don’t. It’s messy, it’s surreal, it has Kurt Russell, and it has every thing going for it superficially, but I always end up lumping it in with schlock like Super Mario Bros. You know the one. Bob Hoskins and Johnny Leguizamo.
Birdman: Not me. I can literally watch Big Trouble in Little China any time. My dad and I quote the movie together. I implore you to take it for another spin. It’s dumb fun, and still kind of smart, and those are hard qualities to find in something this off the rails. Truthfully, I think it’s better than They Live. And I love “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Super Mario Bros. is like one sentence about the video game put into a blender with a story penned by a five-year-old who has just started waking up from an anesthetic.
DR: But Jack Burton is such a fucking idiot.
Birdman: He’s so dumb! But he keeps on trying, and he shows moments of greatness. Right after missing Lo Pan with the dagger, Lo Pan says, “Goodbye Mr. Burton,” throws the dagger, Jack catches it and sends it straight into his newly-fleshy head. Jack’s reply: “It’s all in the reflexes.” He’s a character that should have gotten a second chance at being developed further. Now that I think about it, this might be why I love The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. so damn much.
DR: Leads us down a dark avenue where we envision grand sequels that never happen. If Carpenter and Russell decided to embark on such an endeavor, would you want to see it?
Birdman: Here we go! FRANCHISE! Little Tokyo- Yakuza are trying to conjure a demon samurai in an effort to bring forth a new dark Japanese Empire, Wang Chi just happens to have Japanese friends in L.A., where he is vacationing with Jack Burton. Adventure ensues. Then… Little Italy! Jack Burton has retired from the road and is running a seemingly successful taxi dispatch in New York, Wang Chi comes to visit, Jack admits he’s in the hole, but his cousin has a plan to fix everything. Said cousin is embroiled in mafia problems, Jack and Wang have to investigate. This one would depart from the fantastical and supernatural elements, but would make up for it in a darker tone. Two words: Wang dies. Jack is now motivated by revenge, triumphs, comes into a large sum of money (still working the “how” out), retires to the Carribean. From there… voodoo? I could make it work.
Birdman: That spot belongs to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. This film has held the distinction of being my number one longer than it hasn’t been. The original DVD released was recalled, and I resorted to paying $60 for it on eBay. Worth it.
DR: I’m so grateful you removed Citizen Kane from the list.
Birdman: I love Citizen Kane, and it’s at the top of lists for a myriad of reasons. Truthfully, it would be more appropriate for me to place Orson Welles on a top five of most fascinating people, as far as I am concerned. Ed Wood has really had impact in my life as a cinephile, writer, curator, and human. Tim Burton hasn’t been the same since.
DR: Tim Burton never stood a chance, when you think about it. Ed Wood was so eager to please, so happy to work in this exciting field, and put as much of himself as he could into everything he did. It was all shit, but the only pretense was his own. Tim Burton is a part of a bigger, uglier machine now, one he helped build. Do you think that this film was Burton’s feeble attempt to rebel against the machine he found himself surrounded by?
Birdman: I think that’s plausible. I think he was, in earnest, still trying to be an artist. Ed Wood’s story was the right kind to tell, one of art for it’s own sake, and the fact that Burton (mostly) tried to emulate the do-it-yourself look of Wood’s disasterpieces made it that much more likable. The real Ed Wood was most certainly an imperfect man, but the story is much more important. The ideals that he is striving toward are so honest, and that he embraces his own demons (to an extent) give the audience even more reasons to root for this poor, doomed artist. Johnny Depp’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and credulity lend to the best performance of his career. He has seldom been so emotive and yet restrained, both before and since, with maybe an exception given for Edward Scissorhands. After Ed Wood, his performances range from “phoning it in” (see Secret Window) to impressions of famously flawed pop stars taken to their zenith. And the supporting cast? Martin Landau actually deserved that Supporting Role Oscar, and Bill Murray turned in something we hadn’t seen from him since Reagan’s ’80s. This movie is a wonderful meta-examination of art and artist, and the stars aligned in so many ways to keep me watching endlessly.
DR: Burton’s relationship with Vincent Price mirrors Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi in such an eerie way. Keeping that in mind, I always thought that his Sleepy Hollow was a last gasp at the films Tim Burton always wanted to make, but was too compromised by studios that owned him. The black and white of Ed Wood almost reads as a pandering smirk rather than an earnest trope in retrospect. Does his subsequent career mar your appreciation for this film?
Birdman: Okay, first, I agree about Sleepy Hollow. It feels like Burton’s last grasp at making an auteur-level attempt at the gothic horror he loved as a young artist that was ultimately spit-shined by Paramount. There’s so much to like about that movie, and truth be told, I can still enjoy it once in a while. But eventually, the studios won, and some force within his ego decided to become a self parody. The black and white of Ed Wood still seems like a faithful telling of the story, I don’t think the movie could have worked without it, and I’d like to believe Burton was honestly trying to shrink away from the Batmans. He makes a passion project that didn’t make money, the studios tell him they want to make hits that look like Tim Burton movies, he goes off his shit and decides to do just that. Big Fish looks like On Golden Pond with some “Tim Burton aesthetics” and no heart. Or rather, a mechanical heart. This is what I think the moneybags think feeling is like. It’s hard to say what went wrong. I can’t imagine he’s not just as self-important as Spike Lee these days.
DR: It’s a perpetual thing, I feel. Disney’s hooks are in him, good and deep. I can’t recall who said it, but I was reading the other day about Ed Wood the director, and the person quoted said something to the tune of, “years from now, people will still be discovering Plan 9 From Outer Space, and that’s what makes Wood endure moreso than most contemporary directors.” Something like that. But it got me thinking about Burton as a director. As a tremendous fan of irony, I’d like to believe that Wood will outlast Burton as the iconoclast, but the nostalgic dork in me who loved Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands wants Tim Burton to prevail, and move past his blockbuster bullshit. Does Tim Burton have a Plan 9 still inside him? Is there still hope?
Birdman: Sadly, I think not. Jesus, I loved Tim Burton’s first five movies. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure? Beetlejuice? These movies are so strange and bizarre, it’s no secret they couldn’t have been made in today’s Hollywood system. Edward Scissorhands has the best chance of passing the test of time, but it’s a fairy tale, and those last forever. His Batman movies are indicative of the time when they were produced, and perfect for such, but will ultimately be overshadowed by the Nolan-Batverse. In a perfect world, Ed Wood, the man and the movie, would lead people to each other in a loving relationship of admiration and tribute. Tim Burton’s time has passed, and I fear that the chances of him rediscovering that kind of artistic wonder are the same as Spike Lee Doing The Right Thing Again.
DR: An Honorable Mention? Any further shout-outs?
Birdman: Honorable mentions: Chinatown, Back to the Future 2, L’Avventura, Fitzcarraldo, The Fog of War. Too many to list here. Shout outs? Dr. Henry Aldridge, the man who saved Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor circa the 1970s and my department head. He let me write a scholarly paper about the depiction of prostitutes in modern art, and asked for a copy when it was finished. He also made me watch Wild Strawberries for the first time. Great mind. Thanks for having me as your first guest on the GloomShuttle!
Matt “Birdman” Fleming is a Class of ’12 graduate of the Electronic Media and Film Studies program at Eastern Michigan University, where he wrote essays on such subjects as identity in Blade Runner, prostitutes in modern art, and the history of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s State Theater. When he isn’t watching movies and television, he tries to write about them. He enjoys pizza and coffee, and occasionally gets the gall to tell some jokes at a comedy open mic. He’s a good pal, too.