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Film nerds rejoice! New York Times theater critic, Jason Zinoman’s new book Shock Value is this year’s best book about movies. It’s strange, but horror flicks that used to be considered exploitative trash (e.g. Night of the Living Dead,  Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween etc.) are now cannonal works of American Cinema! Heck, Texas Chainsaw is in the Museum of Modern Art! With Shock Value, Zinoman dissects what made these films so successful and so scary; by talking to hundreds of people involved in making these films, considering the inspirations and influences of the directors, and breaking away from traditional critical interpretation of these movies, Zinoman comes close to cracking the core of sheer, senseless cinema terror. Zinoman talked to me about writing his book, new ideas about Brian DePalma and Dan O’Bannon (Alien screenwriter), horror’s meta tendencies, torture porn, and VHS tapes. Enjoy!

AHG: Can you tell my readers Shock Value’s overarching argument?

Jason Zinoman: During the fifties and early sixties, horror movies were lumped into the fantasy genre. At the end of the sixties, horror saw a jarring shift. I don’t want to read too much into it, but there’s common traits these films share. They became more graphic and saw a shift toward realism, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Instead of focusing on the supernatural, these movies are about the prom queen, going to the beach, babysitting–things that were very familiar and mundane in people’s lives. The films are ambiguous in moral and unresolved in ending.  As the auteur theory took hold in the cinema world, directors saw themselves as auteurs. Focus shifted away from stars like Borris Karloff and Vincent Price onto the directors of themselves. Perhaps an implicit argument in my book is that the auteur theory alone doesn’t explain what makes these movies good, though. One of the things that made The Exorcist great were the arguments between William Friedkin (director) and William Peter Blatty (the novel’s author). In Alien, Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter) is a tremendous creative force in these movies. Even Halloween, which is traditionally thought of entirely driven by John Carpenter, was the articulation of ideas were evolving over many years, and Carpenter was great at paying homage to other people. The clash of points of view lead to compromises that ended up making the movies better than if there was only one aeuterist vision.

AHG: I’ve read that a lot of critics/scholars think that these movies are a response to Vietnam, but I got the feeling you disagree. Can you elaborate?

JZ: Well, Vietnam was an influence on these directors lives. Part of the impetus for Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left was that Craven’s thought America wasn’t being show the real violence in Vietnam; he thought journalism was covering it up, and he wanted to be explicit about it. People who have defended horror over the last couple decades–the ones who made the case that these movies aren’t trash, that they’re worth paying attention to, and that they’re works of art–frequently invoke Vietnam to understand these films. A documentary called The American Nightmare looked at these movies through only that prism–their argument says that these movies are rooted in political and social anxieties of the day. Now, I think there’s a lot of truth to that argument; however, I think the success of these movies is rooted in something more univeral or timeless than the politics of the day. If you talk to these guys, you’ll realize they’re not very politically active people. George Romero is the perfect example. That movie was widely interpreted as a statement about civil rights, that it came from the wake of political assassinations. The truth is though, Romero cast his black protagonist randomly; it was a pure accident.

AHG: Wasn’t Night of the Living Dead already finished before MLK was assinated?

JZ: Exactly. Albeit, the fact that Living Dead was interpreted that way at its release is part of the reason the film became so influential. By focusing on primary sources from the period, and talk to people who knew these guys before they got famous. I wanted to find out what their original motivation was. In some ways, these people who said these movies are about Vietnam, or Watergate, or whatever are doing these movies a disservice. They’re better than that! If we’re still watching Night of the Living Dead four decades later, it can’t only be about Vietnam. People today aren’t obsessed with Vietnam as they once were, yet a TV show like The Walking Dead is a huge hit. Time has proven that these movies are more potent than merely a political statement.

AHG: How did you get access to all the people in the book?

That was probably the hardest part of the book–some of these people took years to just get into the room with me. I worked on the book for four years in tandem with my day job. I guess there were two types of challenges. First, the horror directors: most of the horror people are nice, accessible guys who’ve done a lot of interviews. The book started as a Vanity Fair piece about The Masters of Horror dinner. That was my intro to the whole world: it was great to have a chance to get these directors in the room, talk to them and get a lay of that land for context. Then there were the big Hollywood guys. That was much harder. Getting in touch with William Friedkin is my biggest accomplishment of the book; it took four years.

Some people I never talked to though. For example, Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) was in jail for part of the time I was writing. I actually got in contact with him before he got put in jail. I told him I was writing a book on horror films and he responded that he’s not a horror director, so I’m not talking to you. That taught me that these guys from this period aren’t necessarily proud to be known as great horror directors.

The other thing is that a lot of these guys have done tons of interviews, telling the same stories over and over again and now the stories have a life of their own. The challenge was getting past the stories and finding out what really happened. Generally, with a guy like Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface), I tried to talk to the people around him–his ex-wife, friends before he was famous, people he went to college with–and only after having this picture did I go talk to DePalma directly. What’s different about my book compared to most other books about horror, is that while there’s certainly theories and interpretations, it’s firmly rooted in reporting. That’s what I wanted. My proudest accomplishments are reporting accomplishments. Like getting DePalma to say things about his life and work that haven’t already been in a million interviews.

AHG: It seems like pregnancy and the female body is a big source of terror in the movies you mention (Rosemary’s Baby; The Exorcist; Carrie; Alien). You wrote, “Overwhelming terror may be the closest feeling we get to being born.” Can you elaborate?

I think the most important sentence ever written about horror was by H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest emotion of mankind is fear and the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” If that’s true–that the unknown is scarier than heights, or rats, etc.–then what exactly is “the unknown”? I think something that makes Alien so scary is the stomach explosion scene. No man can ever fathom the horror of childbirth. We can imagine it, but we’ll never experience it. It’s an unknown exclusive to men–once a woman has a baby, the whole process is a lot less mysterious. My wife had a kid a few years ago, which in a weird way, helped me write the book. If you look at a one year old, the first game they play is peek-a-boo–we love to be scared! It must be hardwired into our brains. When you’re born, you enter a world you know nothing about. Things we take for granted–how gravity works, what faces look like, knowing that touching something won’t make it fall apart–all those things are new. If you believe Lovecraft, then for an infant, everything is unknown. There’s an analogy to be made between that infantile unknowing and what horror directors are trying to do: they want to disorient you so much that everything you understand is wrong; what you see is not real. There’s a whole other world to which we can never have access.

AHG: People think that Scream was the first self-aware horror flick, but you bring up plenty of others like Romero’s Martin. Why do you think the genre has always been so aware of its cliches and conventions?

Good question. The traditional history of horror is that Scream ushered in a self-aware, meta style. I think that’s not true. Take a look at Halloween: it’s no accident that Jamie Lee Curtis is watching a scary movie while she’s babysitting (editor’s note: it’s The Thing From Another World).

I have a few theories. One, there’s an element of ritual in horror movies. Some people go to horror movies to see something new, but a lot of people see horror movies to watch the same thing again with slight tweaks. The conventions of horror are integral in scaring the audience. If there’s a scene where a woman goes into the shower, anybody who’s interested in horror movies immediately thinks, Psycho. A smart director could use that to trick you: maybe the killer appears when the woman gets out of the bathroom, for one example. Essentially, horror movies are tools to manipulate the audience and one of the tools of manipulation is your own knowledge of horror movies. These movies are all derivative in some way. The director is making explicit what most genres leave implicit: your previous schema of other horror movies becomes a part of the movie itself.

Two, horror movies are a particularly visual genre. The storytelling has more to do with point-of-view and where the camera moves than it does with the script. The narrative of a movie like Halloween isn’t just a guy breaks out of a mental asylum and kills babysitters–that’s pretty crude and uninteresting. The real narrative is seeing how Carptender manipulates the point of view of the movie from the victim, to the killer, to an observation of the dance back and forth. Those shifts become more important than plot shifts–you could even argue that they are the plot shifts. I think the audience becomes more aware that they’re watching a movie.

There’s also element of immorality, or disreputably inherent to horror. One of the scary things about horror films of this period was simply the fact that you were watching a horror film. It was sort of an embarrassing thing to do. Finding out you liked horror films at this time was almost disturbing. The directors were self-conscious about that. Perhaps that’s on the low-brow end of the spectrum.

Where it gets more high-brow… DePalma, for example, (perhaps the most self-aware of all these directors), was really into Brecht ideas about drama. Brecht advocated for an alienating affect in art; a means of calling attention to the fact that the audience was watching, in Brecht’s case, a play. It allows the audience to dissect these ideas with a little more critical distance. Now, I’m not saying Dressed to Kill is a Brechtian drama, but I do think that DePalma absorbed those ideas and tried to incorporate them into his film. I guess it’s not just one answer, but I think it’s a combination of all these things.

AHG: What’s your take on the “torture-porn debate?” Do you think movies like Hostel and Saw are an extension of ideas introduced by Craven and Hooper, or is it something different?

I think there’s some similarities. Certainly if you talk to Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) he’ll say that Hostel is an anti-war movie about Iraq, and torture, etc. I tend to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. But I do think that the term torture porn obscures more than it illuminates. What does the term even mean now? When Hostel and Saw came out, everyone understood it; now, I find it’s used mostly as an insult. Movies like A Serbian Film, Human Centipede, or The Hills Have Eyes remake are called torture porn because they have extreme violence, but is that accurate? In my mind, the important distinguishing factor isn’t how graphic the violence is, but instead the point-of-view the director is trying to portray about the violence. I like Hostel. I don’t think it’s about exposing you to horrible things or trying to desensitize the audience to violence. I think Roth is using immoral acts to get to his ends. Maybe the Saw sequels are just violence for the sake of violence. But, I think it certainly depends on the movie.

AHG: You mentioned earlier that Polanski didn’t want to be called a horror director. In the book, you bring up the high-brow pleasure of low-brow art. I guess, has that stigma evaporated away from horror films? What do you say to change the minds of people who dismiss the genre?

I think that it’s already changed a lot. There’s still some stigma, but not to the extent of what was seen in the seventies. Wes Craven really was ashamed of making Last House on the Left; people stopped him at parties to remind him how he was a horrible person. But Eli Roth and Rob Zombie aren’t ashamed of what they do; they see themselves as part of a grand tradition. And, the presidents of movie studios think that too! You don’t need to convince a studio big wig that horror is a bankable genre. Critics too! In Roger Ebert’s review of Night of the Living Dead, he says he hadn’t seen a horror film in 10 years. There’s no way you could find a professional film critic who hasn’t seen a horror film in one year–maybe not even as long as one month!

I think that perhaps the bigger fear is that horror could go too mainstream. If horror loses it’s stigma, then you loose the low-brow pleasure of the genre. It’s fun to do something a little disreputable. People see their first horror movies as kids fully aware that their parents don’t want to see. The fact that they’re morally ambiguous, kind of trashy, maybe even bad for you–that’s part of the fun! People like guilty pleasures; we like what teachers and parents say we shouldn’t like. I think the best horror films tap into that, while simultaneously giving other pleasures. But I know I wouldn’t want to live in a world where horror movies are completely reputable. Horror movies have always tried to push the envelope and find out what is taboo, or shocking at the time of creation. Locating the taboo isn’t obvious–it’s not more violence or gore, that’s been done. It takes a lot of creative to push the line just far enough before it becomes unenjoyable. A movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre dances on that line between trash and art, moral and immoral, and I think that’s a fun place to be.

I get what you mean! While I was reading your book, my roommate was watching Antichrist. That seems like a film that takes away all the “low-brow pleasure” of the genre. Once you make an art house horror movie, it’s not fun anymore.

I agree. We don’t want to give the horror genre to Lars Von Trier. Sure, he’s interested in things typical to horror movies: scares, violence, shocks. But he’s missing something essential about what makes horror movies fun. There’s a certain self-seriousness about his movies that lose the fun.

AHG: On a much lighter note completely devoid of castration and female circumcision, in the book Eli Roth  says, “The way that kids first learned about horror movies in the seventies and eighties was usually from unreliable sources..hearing about these movies secondhand gave them the power of legend before they became popular.” Did you have any experiences where you heard about horror movies before you saw them?

JZ: In third or fourth grade, my friends would have long conversation about the Friday the 13th movies even though none of us had ever seen them. We told stories trickled down from older brothers about various graphic details and murder scenes. The movie we were describing probably barely resembled the Friday’s actual plot (and really, there wasn’t much plot to begin with). But there was something great about recounting the plots of horror movies. It was like telling ghost stories around a campfire. I like contemporary horror movies, but today’s horror market makes it so hard to make a  movie scary. The script will get leaked on the internet, the trailer gives too much away, the press and PR talk it up too much. Not to mention, kids are technosavy: they can read reliable summaries, or even download the whole movie! In the eighties, there was no internet or cable. You heard stories and let your imagination fill in all the details.

AHG: I remember talking about Friday the 13th when I was a kid, too, but I’d try to figure out plots from the VHS covers at the rental store. I can’t remember which Friday the 13th it was, but the one where a worm is coming out of Jason’s mask really creeped me out. I still remember it.

JZ: Exactly! Going to the video store and knowing a movie only for its cover. I remember a movie called April Fool’s Day. There was a girl at a party, holding a knife behind her back, and her hair was braided into a ponytail noose. I’ve never seen it, and I’m probably never going to see it. There’s no way the movie could be better than that poster.

A clever fox once said, “Chaos reigns” Things fall apart; entropy rides everything. Death is close and getting closer all the time. Who’s to say it won’t be soon? Who can promise that the world won’t end? Not Dan Martin. Martin is a former engineer for Boeing Aerospace, and currently an expatriate of society itself. Dan lives with his wife in a Mexican desert. He’s written thirteen books about building your own free home, or installing DIY solar panels, and other elements of off-the-grid living. His most recent book, Apocalypse: How to Survive a Global Crisis, is a synthesis of Dan’s rugged survivalist skills, and information supporting civilization’s impending doom. I talked to Martin over a satellite Skype phone while he took a break from traveling, giving seminars and going to Haiti to rebuild schools in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. Hopefully, after you read this, you’ll be prepared for the world’s eruption into hellfire flame.

AHG: You’re a pretty prolific writer; how did you start writing books about self-sufficiency and doomsday preparation?

DM: I was in the military for about four and a half years. Then I worked for Boeing Aerospace; I was an aerospace technician for about five years. One day, I woke up–or “opened my eyes” I like to say–and realized living in society wasn’t for me. So, I bought some raw land in west Texas and I built a ranch. My wife and I sold all our property and cashed in our accounts and investments. We sold the car; we got rid of everything. We built our own house and our own farm road. The cabin we lived in for eight years had no utilities–electricity, water, phone, garbage, etc. We caught rain water for drinking and bathing; we made our own composting toilets. We made furniture, and grew our own food. Eventually we installed windmills, solar heating and cooling, hydroponics…

AHG: This seems to explain your massive Amazon page. After you learned how to do all this stuff, did you just think, “Well, might as well turn this stuff into books.”

DM: When I started, you couldn’t just buy a book or download something that explained how to be completely self-sufficient. So I just had to learn hands on. I decided I had to get this information out to people so they don’t have to fight as hard as I did if they’re inclined to try these kind of things. So did your experience as an engineer help you figure out how to do this stuff? When I was at Boeing, I worked with NASA and helped with the space station. We learned how to synthesize nitrogen from air, oxygen from air, separate the gases and what not. Not to mention, I grew up in the mountains and camped in the woods. Worked on cars and stuff. I’ve always been a do it yourself kind of person. Anything I didn’t know I just figured out as I went.

AHG: Alright, well I just finished up Apocalypse. Let me make sure I’m getting your main argument: essentially, while we can’t say for sure where and when a government meltdown will happen, we can be pretty certain one will happen eventually and the least we can do is prepare. Does that sound right?

DM: Correct. Not only will it happen, but I think it’s already begun. Look at economic collapse, major earthquakes around the world, tornadoes, record setting floods, wildfires, in March alone, 24 countries tried to rise up against their governments…I’m not religious, I’m not spiritual, I’m not prophesying any magical forecasts. It’s just when these religious or cult like entities prophecies these things, and then when scientific entities like NASA are backing them up, it’s something we should pay attention to. There’s so many prospective ways the apocalypse could happen–astroids, nuclear warheads, I personally subscribe to the idea of super-solar flares. In September of 2010–I’m not sure–NASA released a report that states in 2012, solar flare bursts are predicted to go through Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not uncommon for the sun to become super-active. The last time was in 1959-1960. Back then, the only electronic grids were telegraph machines and wires. They didn’t have electrical wires, phone lines, computers, whatnot. All the wires and cables of the telegraph grid spontaneously ignited and burnt up the whole system. They had to replace the whole system., causing a massive replacement. Today, we’re dangerously dependent on our electrical grid and it’s extremely susceptible to this type of power failures. It’s essentially a big sponge for these times of solar flares…

(Editor’s Note: I looked for this report, but could not find it. Ron Paul’s website published a story citing the report, but didn’t include a link. Universe Today has a great article breaking down the science of solar flares that does say solar flares would be disastrous for electronics; however, they’re skeptical that the flares predicted for 2012 would be able to do that. Guess we’ll have to wait and see! )

AHG: What are you doing December 21st 2012? Should we be doing the same thing? Should we find bunkers?

DM: The whole solar flare thing isn’t going to kill everybody on earth. It’s not going to burn anything down; you don’t have to go underground. It doesn’t have the potential to be that severe; it would just effect electronics. Essentially, it will be a normal day until all of a sudden our iPods and laptops and ATM machines stop working. American society depends so much on that stuff and society is so fragile that it could set into motion a collapse that society couldn’t recover from. Me, I’m going to be sitting on the beach drinking a beer on Dec. 21st because I’m so far away from civilization that I don’t have to worry about that stuff.

AHG: If the apocalypse hits in 2012, we don’t have much time. What should we do to prepare?

DM: The most important thing to do is educate yourself. America is dependent on a service driven economy. If something happens with the plumbing, call a plumber; if you’re injured, call a doctor, etc. The most important thing is to learn about as many feilds as possible. Learn the fundamentals of electricity, mechanics, plumbing, medicine, welding, hunting, cooking! It’s really dangerous to be dependent on just one thing because if it gets taken away, what do you do? If you’re used to having a roof without leaks, and after a societal collapse you find out there’s leaks in your roof, what do you do?

AHG: What are the most essential supplies to surviving an apocalypse?

DM: According to my solar flare prediction, you should stock up on non-perishable foods and ammunition. Money, credit cards, and currency will be worthless. You’ll need something else to barder with. I foresee things like cigarettes, coffee, toliet paper, and things you don’t think have much worth will be extremely valuable because people are addicted to these things. Even if you don’t smoke or drink coffee (which I don’t), I’ve stocked up on cartons and cartons of cigarettes and crates of coffee because I know they will be worth something if the factories close.

Besides learning all these trades, take a step to convert your body and yourself away from luxuries. We’re so used to climate controled areas, so turn your air conditioning and heaters off. Live with that so your body accumulate to these  temperatures. I hear about the heatwaves in New York where people are dealing with 110 degree tempatures; that’s an average day in Mexico. We’re used to that down here. But most people leave their air conditioned house for their air conditioned car until they get to their air conditioned office and go to an air conditioned resturant for dinner.

Hike. Run. Build your muscles up and walk places instead of driving to them. Lay off the cell phone and laptop and stop being dependent on them. If only to get a taste of what things might be like if you’re cut off from modern society.

AHG: Those sound like reasonable things to do regardless of impending doom. Who’s going to take control after society collapses?

DM: The United States government is a capitalist run government: it runs on money. If the economy collapses and everyone loses their jobs, no one will pay their taxes. If that’s the case, there will be no one around to uphold the lifestyle we’re used to–the police, armed forces, and security will have no reason to protect and serve. The prisons will empty because there won’t be money to keep them open. Gangs will rise up. Even out of work law enforcers might abuse their authority and take control. The strong will survive. There will be confusion, suffering, death, ignorance, looting, rape, murder. That’s the way it always is. Whenever a government collapses, that’s what happens. Look at the USSR in the 90s, and Africa right now.

AHG: So, my readers should probably go out and buy a gun?

DM: If you’re living in society, your only option is to batten down the hatches, arm yourself, stock up on some food, and ride it out. The better option though, is to get away from it. Go out where there’s no people. If you can go out where there’s no people, there will be a lot less danger.

Eventually things will calm down. People will adapt; humans are very resliant. We will build new societies and new forms as government just as faulty as the last one. That society will fall in 500 years, or 100 years, just like the ones before it. That’s the way we are. Every government fails; none has ever survived. Especially superpowers! It sucks, but that’s the way it is.

AHG: You write that motorcycles and trucks will be the preferred mode of transportation, but what about horses?

Well, I say motorcycles and trucks because my book is for people living in the city, living in society. In the city, it will be a lot easier to get a hold of a motorcycle than a horse. But if you’re in an environment with horses or donkeys, and you have experience riding and taking care of big animals, that would be the way to go.

Between horses and donkeys though, donkeys–or what we call, burros–are a better option. Horses are breed to move heavy weight and run real fast. That can be a bonus in an emergency situation, but in the long run, you’d want an animal that could move over any terraine. A dedicated, security animal. That’s why you’d want a donkey. A horse has “flight” demeanor, while a donkey has a “fight” demeanor. A donkey will stay and protect you, while a horse would probably run away.

AHG: What are you going to miss most about civilized society?

DM: I’ve been out of society for almost ten years now. When I lived on the ranch, I didn’t see any other people for eight years. I haven’t had a phone, or a calendar, or an alarm clock in almost ten years. I haven’t owned a wallet in almost ten years! We’ve eliminated anything we were dependent on.

When I left the ranch, everyone had cellphones. Big, black cellphones they’d hold up to their face. But when I came back, nobody had cellphones anymore! They were just talking into little speakers. Just talking to themselves and shouting out into the air. Now I see people with cellphones, but all they do is tap on them!

AHG: I think you mean Bluetooth headsets and smart phones.

Yeah probably.

Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t care if you like him. In an interview with the A.V. Club, he said, “You know, it’s not our jobs to account for the perceived likeability of a character.”–that’s why he’ll play an idea-stealing, internet billionaire, or a bratty teenager dealing with divorce and both characters will be selfish jerks, empathetic and vulnerable, but most of all, too smart for their own good. In 30 Minutes or Less, Eisenberg’s all those things as well as a joint-smoking pizza boy who robs a bank. His best friend (Aziz Anzari) is sick of his shit; his true love merely tolerates him; everybody else thinks he’s mostly unpleasant. I can see how lots of folks (read: old people) would find a movie like this off-putting; but if you agree that sometimes the funniest jokes are the meanest ones, you’ll  enjoy 30 Minutes or Less. Its fun to spend a little time with shitty people.

I assume 30 Minutes or Less was pitched as a “Comedy Bank Heist”–even the characters are hyper-aware of genre conventions because they rent movies like Point Blank, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. This sets the film up for two things: stupid criminals and climatic explosions. Danny McBride plays the same role everybody loves, an egotistical slob who refuses to consider the consequences of his actions. Nick Swardson acts as Eastbound and Down’s Stevie by playing a toned down version of “Flamboyant Moron” and giving McBride someone to yell at. Both characters are total shitheads, but they’ve got a bickering chemistry that comes out funny. Then, there’s explosions. Zombieland showed that Ruben Fleischer can shoot action scenes, so 30 Second’s car chases straddle the line between goofy-slapstick and legitimately-badass. But the movie certainly leans more toward comedy than action. Most of Ansari’s dialogue was improvised; makes sense, because 30 Minutes owes a lot to UCB-improv comedy. The film keeps a brisk pace, the jokes stay conversational, and almost every punchline returns with a snappy call-back. 30 Minutes is a much leaner Pineapple Express, a meaner Hot Fuzz, or Superbad after Evan and Seth go to college and realize they fucking hate each other. During a boring summer of sappy-sweet rom-coms,  30 Minutes tastes deliciously sour.

The best advice I can give: choose Halloween costumes wisely because they are windows into the subconscious. Oliver, the protagonist of Beginners, dresses like Sigmund Freud for Halloween. Initially, the costume gives him an excuse to sit quietly and “psychoanalyze” strangers, but as the film unfolds the metaphor gets broader, deeper. It explains Oliver’s relationships with his parents, women, identity, sex, emasculated fathers, Oedipal urges, life and death. Oliver is an introspective thinker; a loner struggling to find happiness against life’s indefatigable deluge of depression; and maybe, someone who thinks he understands people better than he actually does—like Freud. What makes Beginners one of this year’s most rewarding films, though, is it seems there’s something profound and lofty inside Oliver’s head. Maybe? If not, at least there’s a cute French girl and a talking dog.

Beginners is autobiographical, so a short biography of its writer/director Mike Mills is in order. In 1999, Mills’ mother died. Two weeks later, at age 75, Mills’ father revealed he was gay; after living an openly gay lifestyle for five years, Mills’ father died in 2004. Oliver’s situation is identical and this context is revealed in the film’s first five minutes. Through flashbacks, voice-over narration, and picture collages Oliver tries to make sense of his parent’s “unloving” relationship, and the new-found happiness his father has found in the homosexual lifestyle. All of this could come off as excessively maudlin, or even crudely absurd (how would you react if your geriatric father started putting out personal ads soliciting oral sex from younger men?) but it stays grounded in reality–perhaps only because it actually was reality for Mike Mills.

Really, that’s only half of the movie. The other half is classic Woody Allen rom-com–a nebbish nerd goes for a beautiful actress–but foregoes Jewishness for extra-depression (although, Jewishness is still touched upon). Like Allen, Mills has a propensity for quirky relationships, jazz music, and slightly-surrealist visual humor (like the aforementioned talking dog, an adorable Jack Russel Terrier who’s thoughts are delivered in subtitles). However, while Allen’s movies have a wistful nostalgia for the past, the characters in Beginners can hardly hold up history’s epochal crush.

If Beginners was a book, it would be uncomfortably depressing. It takes more than talking dogs to make parental death and overwhelming loneliness a bearable cinematic experience.  The performances of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plumber, and Melaine Laurent allow Mills” first-hand sadness to be refracted into manageable metaphors. Plumber is able to show human dimension to Oliver’s father, Hal, a character coming to terms with his sexuality at 75; he’s just as confused as his son is. But Plumber brings an energy to Hal even when he’s supported by machines on his deathbed–a wise man once said, “Death is only one final moment.”

Hal’s demons reflect Oliver’s. The parallels between Oliver’s lover and his mother (sound Freudian?) bring the film full circle. Death, life, love, loneliness, etc. It’s got everything folks! Go out see if our wayward protagonist ever fulfills childhood desires, because Beginners is one of the best films of 2011.