My first favorite movie was Follow That Bird.
It starred my favorite actors at the time—a 6-foot, yellow-feathered
puppet named Big Bird and his cohorts Oscar the Grouch and Mr.
Snuffleupagus—plus it had songs that made me laugh and cry. For
distribution reasons I’d be happy to have somebody explain, the Sesame Street
motion picture played in theaters as weekend repertory filler about
every six months between its 1985 premiere and its VHS release a couple
years later. My parents took me to see it each time—I suspect this was
the formative cinematic experience for a lot of people in the generation
now entering its 30s.
Beer and Movie is showing Follow That Bird on a big screen again at the Laurelhurst Theater for a week starting next Friday, Feb. 25, and I watched it again the other night. I had forgotten nothing of the opening scene: Oscar, propped in his trash can in front of the American flag (a parody of George C. Scott’s Patton speech), asking everyone to remain seated for the Grouch Anthem. I still knew all the lyrics:
Grouches of the world, unite
Stand up for your grouchly rights
Don’t let the sunshine spoil your rain
Just stand up and complain
Let this be the grouch’s cause
Point out everybody’s flaws
Something is wrong with everything
Except the way I sing
By common consensus, this is the image of the critic: the grouch, the nit-picker, the unwashed kvetcher who precisely diagrams why your favorite things are second-rate. I unapologetically do a good deal of that in these pages, which is why the following piece may be a little...um, uncomfortable? As the co-founder of Beer and Movie—the second year of which kicks into full gear this week—I help select the films, I care passionately about how they’re received, and I want as many people as possible to see them. So, take that bias into account.
But I’ve learned a few lessons from working side by side with BAM’s visionary co-founder, Jacques Boyreau, and one of the biggest is that whether a movie is good or bad is possibly the least interesting thing about it, and that filmgoing is more than a qualitative evaluation. This is why it’s infuriating to watch crowds gather to laugh at a picture’s supposed incompetence, and why WW has implemented an amusingly arbitrary numerical scoring system for reviews: If you want to know whether the flick is worth your money, there it is, and we can move on to other, less boring things happening inside the art.
For example, this Friday, Feb. 18, BAM begins a weeklong run of six repertory sci-fi and fantasy films at the Academy Theater: The Dark Crystal, Evil Dead 2, The Fifth Element, Ghostbusters, The Neverending Story and They Live. What these pictures share, apart from general implausibility, is an explicit recognition of implausibility, an awareness of their own status as fictions. They don’t ask you to suspend disbelief—they use disbelief as a tool. This thing they do can be as simple as The Neverending Story taking place inside a book, or more complicated, like Evil Dead 2 repeating the plot of Sam Raimi’s previous horror movie, but with the absurdity and gore ratcheted off the charts.
In They Live—with apologies to Bill Murray and Milla Jovovich, it’s the Academy entry I’m most excited about—director John Carpenter starts out using artificiality as both subject and cover. (The movie’s extraterrestrial “ghouls” look like wealthy humans, and their true odium is seen only in black-and-white; as Jonathan Lethem points out in his new monograph on They Live, this is an ingenious way of skirting a special-effects budget.) But eventually Carpenter’s phoniness turns confrontational: “All the sex and violence on the screen have gone too far for me,” says a cadaverous ghoul movie reviewer. “I’m fed up with it. Filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint.” The movie does more than pre-empt criticism—it makes critics part of its rot.
Decay is also at the heart of Doghouse, a new zombie film BAM debuts Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, at the St. Johns Cinema and Pub. Superficially another jokey Shaun of the Dead knockoff, its gender warfare actually works to judge the quick and the undead—its misanthropy is very real. Which is why we’re showing it as a double feature with Day of the Dead, Romero’s baldest statement that zombies are just like us.
Vengeance, another BAM premiere opening at the Laurelhurst on Friday, Feb. 25, even subverts the genre expectations in its title: Johnnie To’s operatic Hong Kong gun fu is a tropical remake of Death Wish, if Charles Bronson woke up halfway through with his memory suddenly wiped of whom he was targeting, and whom he was avenging. As a director, To lives in thrall to the siren song of crime movies (Le Samourai, Manhunter, everything John Woo ever made), and he just wants to find the secret chord.
Which brings me back to Follow That Bird. The only thing it has in common with Vengeance (boy, they’ll make a gloriously perverse twin bill) is the most crucial thing: They both revel in their own being. The Sesame Street movie makes references to other films, sure, but mainly it’s so poignantly proud to be a movie. All the best movies are amazed to exist, and they take you back to when you were still amazed they existed, too.
So, Portland, here’s my request: This month, go to the movies—BAM movies and others—with the goal of remembering what it’s like to discover a nonexistent place that makes you feel delight. Can I tell you how to get to Sesame Street? Sure: Just let a little sunshine spoil your rain.
SEE IT: The Beer and Movie sci-fi and fantasy
showcase screens Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24, at the Academy Theater.
The Dark Crystal screens at 5 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24.
Evil Dead 2 screens at 9:45 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24.
The Fifth Element screens at 7:15 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24.
Ghostbusters screens at 7:30 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24, and 3 pm Saturday-Monday, Feb. 19-21.
The Neverending Story screens at 5:15 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24, and 12:45 pm Saturday-Monday, Feb. 19-21.
They Live screens at 10 pm Friday-Thursday, Feb. 18-24.
Follow That Bird and Vengeance open Friday, Feb. 25, at the Laurelhurst Theater. Doghouse and Day of the Dead screen Friday-Saturday, March 18-19, at the St. Johns Twin Cinema and Pub. Visit bamfestpdx.com for a full schedule.