Thing Ding

When a movie is working with an audience, you can feel it.
I’m not talking about an opinion. You’re there and people are beaming and laughing and giving standing ovations when it’s over, and you can sense it coming out of every pore in the room. Guys like Variety‘s Robert Koehler can pooh-pooh all they want and it doesn’t matter — a hit is a hit is a hit.
This is the bottom-line deal with Paul Reiser’s The Thing About My Folks, an above-average, surprisingly effective father-son relationship film that I saw last Friday night at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Paul Reiser and Peter Falk in The Thing About My Folks.

I don’t like films that try to jerk you around and make you feel primary emotions, or ones that play the “square card” too heavily, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding did.
I understood what people saw in that film (as awful as it was) and why it comforted or charmed older audiences. Reiser’s film is plowing the same turf, but it does a better job of it.
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I didn’t even want to go at first because I’d heard it was not for me, and that it was aimed at the crowd who liked Greek Wedding and so on. My plan was to maybe watch the first 45 minutes or so and then make a call. I was also feeling a bit drowsy and wasn’t in the mood for a difficult sit.
But then the story and the acting and the writing kicked in, and I flushed all the negativity out of my system and just sat up and went with it. And then the lights came up and Reiser did a q & a with the audience, and he had them eating out of his hand.
It was announced last Sunday night that The Thing About My Folks had won the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Audience Award.
This is a kindly, amiable, recognizably human story about a middle-aged married guy (Reiser) getting to know his 75 year-old Dad (Peter Falk) over the course of a brief trip to rural New York.
The story kicks off with Sam (Falk) telling Ben (Reiser) and his wife Rachel (Elizabeth Perkins) that his wife Muriel (Olympia Dukakis), neglected for several decades due to Sam’s focusing on his business and being a bit of an emotional miser, has left him and gone off somewhere.

Attempts to find Muriel by Ben’s sisters are initiated while Ben tries to chill Sam out with an invitation to drive an hour or two north of Manhattan and look at a farm he’s thinking of buying.
What happens isn’t on the level of Eugene O’Neill, but it’s honest and sharp and, for me, sweetly satisfying. Falk kills (it’s his best role in a long, long time), Reiser is believably befuddled and sympathetic, and Dukakis comes in for a third-act score at the very end.
It’s a well written thing — tonally TV-ish, okay, but the snappy energy never flags, and there’s always an emotional point being constructed or reflected upon. And it’s nicely cut and smoothly paced. The same unpretentious homey quality that DeFelitta brought to Two Family House has been adhered to and enlarged upon.
This is not a Luchino Visconti or a Stephen Frears film, and it’s not for critics like Koehler or B. Ruby Rich, but on its own terms it works.
Here’s the weird part: audiences have been lapping it up at the Palm Springs Film Festival and the Sarasota Film Festival, and at some kind of test screening in Pasadena and another at Hollywood’s Arclight, and yet distributors have been reluctant to grab it.
Why? It’s not a kid’s film — it’s pretty much aimed at people in their 30s, 40s and beyond — and distribs aren’t sure they can sell it or “open” it.
I understand what they’re saying, but on another level this view feels bizarre. Sappy as this may sound, The Thing About My Folks really gets and expresses family values. Not the George Bush kind (culturally regressive, turning-back-the-clock) but the universal kind that most of us have dealt with in our own lives. Connecting with your elders, caring for them, understanding what they’re about.
I know what this sounds like, but Thing is better than that.

I’ve heard that one potential distributor is a tiny bit concerned about the movie’s ethnicity, that it’s a little “too Jewish.” Right…just like My Big Fat Greek Wedding was too Greek, which is why no one except Greek immigrants went to see it.
The main characters in The Thing About My Folks are New York Jews, but that’s the window dressing. It’s what inside a movie — i.e., the values it expresses — that counts.
One of the two producer’s reps for The Thing About My Folks is Jeff Dowd (a.k.a., “the Dude”), and he expressed a thought yesterday about why this film has been connecting that makes sense.
“With movies that are quality-level and playing well, there’s two kinds of buzz — good word-of-mouth and what we call compelling word-of-mouth,” Dowd said. “This movie has compelling word-of-mouth.
“You have compelling word-of-mouth when it’s value-based….like Passion of the Christ. That was a movie that culturally embraced the values of a certain audience. Fahrenheit 9/11 had a value-based appeal, and so did Greek Wedding .
“This has a value base. People want to see adult films that are positive and empowering and also entertaining, and this is a real family values film. It’s what people really go through in holding families together…without being ideological or getting into any kind of red-state thing. It’s playing just as strongly in blue states. Throw a dart at a map of the country and it’ll play there.”
Dowd’s partner repping Thing About My Folks is David Garber, who worked in the same capacity for Monster and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Some of the major buyers haven’t seen it yet, but some who’ve seen it have said, “I laughed, I cried, and I’m not sure I can sell it.”
I’m going to show The Thing About My Folks on Monday, February 21st, at the UCLA Sneak Preview class I’m hosting during the winter-spring season. The series is happening at the Wadsworth theatre on the Veteran’s Administration grounds, adjacent to the UCLA campus.
The 2.21 screening will kick off at 7 pm. Industry fence-straddlers are urged to get in touch with Jeff Dowd and get their own reading. Anyone else who wants to attend can enroll in the class through UCLA Extension (310.825.9971, reg. # Q9853).
Dowd is confident the film will be sold sooner or later. He understands what buyers are up against. “Right now they’re very, very busy…they’re swamped,” he says, “and there are all kinds of ways to feel uncertain about anything, but I used to be an exhibitor, and I get my information from audiences.”

Jeff “the Dude” Dowd, the real-life model of Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski, going for a strike.

What Dowd is trying to do now is to ease buyer concerns about how the film can be sold, and on this point his pitch is simple: Paul Reiser and Peter Falk are ready to go on Oprah and other TV and radio talk shows as a team and sell the hell out of it.
“These guys are great together, and they can get on television,” says Dowd. “The producers of these shows know who they are, they know Reiser is funny and they’ll put them right on.
“This is a relationship movie, and it’s hitting the responsive chord that we all yearn for, but more than that, it’s not only saying that women like vulnerable men, but it’s about two men learning to be more romantic with women.
“We’re real enthusiastic at this point,” says Dowd. “With sports or movies, sometimes you have to climb the mountain. Hilary Swank has had to climb it. So have Jamie Foxx and Taylor Hackford. More often than not, climbing the mountain is what this business is all about.”

Dean’s Ghost

James Dean will have been dead a full fifty years as of 9.30.05 — over seven months from now. But Warner Home Video, owner of the rights to Dean’s three feature films, doesn’t want to wait that long to exploit this anniversary.
Anyone who was young in the ’50s or ’60s has a special thing for this quietly intense young actor who was the first to make something iconic and riveting out of teen angst in mainstream films, and in a way that still touches and penetrates.
Twice I’ve visited the Dean death site, which is located near the small town of Cholame off Route 46. I’ve stood next to the spot where Dean’s spirit left his body. I’ve taken it all in and felt vague stirrings of what I’ve told myself is probably some kind of historical after-vibe, and I’ll bet there isn’t a single Warner Home Video exec who’s done this or felt this, so don’t tell me.

James Dean action figure, marketed in Japan and I don’t know where else.

Every time I re-watch a Dean flick I’m still heavily impressed by those amazingly delicate chops of his, and how he managed to deliver that aching vulnerable thing with just the right amount of finesse.
But does Dean mean all that much to GenXers and GenYers? How many under-35s have seen and really enjoyed East of Eden or Rebel Without a Cause? These are great films (nobody cares much about Giant… it’s a dull film), but does the Dean legend/mystique pack that much of a punch these days?
I’ve asked my son, Jett, to riff on this in his next Sixteen column.
In any event, Warner Home Video will release a brand-new Dean DVD package on May 31 — remastered, double-disc, extra-heavy presentations of East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, plus a new documentary, James Dean: Forever Young, with previously unseen footage of Dean’s TV work.
And they’ll be debuting the Forever Young doc at the ’05 Cannes Film Festival, along with screenings of the three features, which have all been digitally restored.
(I wanted to ask someone at the press thing if their original negatives have been genuinely — i.e., photochemically — restored in the organic, old-fashioned way, but questions weren’t allowed.)

Aftermath of Dean car crash tragedy on 9.30.55. I’m not certain if the guy on the ground is Dean or the guy (Rolf Wuetherich) who rode with him that day…or if the photo has been faked.

Plus they’re organizing “Dean Fest,” a big three-day media festival happening in Dean’s home towns of Fairmont and Marion, Indiana (he was born in Marion, raised during his teen years in Fairmont by his aunt and uncle) from June 3rd to 5th.
I don’t know how worshipping at the altar of Dean’s memory is supposed to amount to three meaningful days for anyone of any age, but I guess the Warner folks will try and make that dog hunt.
I know — why don’t they imitate what David Cronenberg did in Crash and hire guys to drive imitations of Dean’s Posche Spyder (i.e., “Little Bastard”) and Donald Turnupseed’s black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor, and have them smash into each other? Too perverse?
A bunch of other opportunists will be getting in on the hustle — merchandisers, piggy-backers, sweet-talkers. Peddlers of T-shirts, coffee mugs, red Rebel jackets, Dean dolls, etc.
Why am I writing about this now? Because Warner Home Video threw a press event yesterday morning at the Grove to announce the Dean bandwagon, and I had nothing else to do. All right, I was vaguely interested.

James Dean

They got Pete Hammond to be the master of ceremonies. A parade of corporate suits took turns at the mike, blah-blahing about Dean’s rebel spirit and lasting influence. Some pals and colleagues of Dean’s from the old days shared some recollections. Martin Sheen (who played Dean in a TV movie about 25 years ago) showed up also, paying tribute to Dean’s profound effect upon actors, etc.
There was no trace of Dean’s old pal Dennis Hopper, though. There should have been.
I was told the whole presentation would last a little more than an hour. I stayed for the first 90 minutes, at which point the screen presentations had completed and Hammond had introduced and interviewed six or seven of Dean’s former friends, co-workers and/or associates. There were thirteen empty chairs to go when I left.
If Dean had lived he’d be 74 today — Clint Eastwood’s age. But I don’t think it was in the cards for Dean to reach a ripe old age. Photographer Phil Stern, easily the morning’s most caustic and honest speaker, said Dean was reckless about driving and was probably nursing some kind of urge to self-destruct.
Stern said he was driving on Sunset Blvd. (near the corner of Crescent Heights Blvd.) one day in early ’55, and he nearly killed Dean after he ran a red light.
“Dean was very prescient because he structured his career in such a way that he passed away, which I believe was inevitable, in a way that precluded the possibility of people seeing him as a pot-bellied bald man,” Stern remarked.

There was something odd about friends and contemporaries of a guy known as the most influential troubled teenager in movie history…the proverbial `50s youth with a turned-up hood…there was something disorienting about Dean’s contemporaries looking so old and crochety and bent over.
Corey Allen, 70, the actor who played Buzz in Rebel Without a Cause (i.e., the one Dean had knife fight with, and who went over the cliff in the car) was white haired and bearded and carrying a cane and apparently suffering from Parkinson’s, or something like that. He seemed okay attitude-wise.
You came out of this corporate presentation knowing one thing: time sure as shit marches on, and getting old is a sonuvabitch.
I’m a huge Dean fan, and I’m very glad that East of Eden is finally coming out on DVD. (I own the laser disc version that was issued in ’93, but I threw my laser disc player into the dumpster around ’99 or thereabouts).
And as long as I’m breathing I’ll always love Leonard Rosenman’s scores for both East of Eden (especially the overture and main title pieces) and Rebel Without a Cause .

James Dean, 24, taken sometime during or after the making of Rebel Without a Cause.

But there was something seriously odious about all these bottom-line corporate suit types paying tribute to Dean’s earning potential as a brand name, but not necessarily (or at least, not believably) paying tribute to who he actually was.
There’s a line in Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters in which Max von Sydow’s artist character says that if Jesus Christ were to come back to earth and see what is going on today in his name, “he would never stop throwing up.”
I was wondering what Dean would have thought of Tuesday morning’s presentation. I like to think he would have been amused in some way, shape or form. I was also imagining his ghost sitting in the seats yesterday and throwing ectoplasmic spitballs.

Dean Again

“I’m under 35 (a good 15 years under, actually) and I’ve never seen East of Eden, mostly because a good copy is hard to find, and I’ve never gotten aorund to Giant. But I want to say that me and my friend damn near worship James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
“His subtle performance as a tortured youth is made only more legendary by the stories of his own tortured life and tragic death. The myth of lost promise built in the themes of Rebel Without a Cause may have been solidified by his death, but they were created by his performances.
“I’m glad that Warner Brothers has decided to give his movies the big editions they deserve, although I do agree that the hype only seems to be the shallow corporate bottom line.

“Maybe Universal will want to get with the program and release a DVD of James Bridges’ 9.30.55, a movie about Dean’s death that I’m told is pretty okay.” — Michael Avalos
“I’d cut the Warner Home Video people some slack if I were you. Okay, so the Dean event was run by a bunch of suits and htey don’t get it. I wasn’t there and couldn’t say. Everybody sells out at some point, whether it’s them or someone else doing it on their behalf (remember Disney using The Doors’ “Break on Through” to promote Monsters, Inc.?
“What I do know is that there’s no other studio today putting out better DVD releases of classic titles than WHV. Hell, they may be the only reason many under-35s like myself have even heard of certain films, whether they see them or not.
“No matter what the money men do to promote the discs, the fact that they’re putting the time and money into promoting them at all is enough for me, as it’s clear to me that this is one studio that cares about their classic titles more than most.
“In this case, the announcement of double-disc East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause set and the new doc should go far in showing who Dean was as an actor and a person rather than, as you say, his ‘earning potential as a brand name.’ His movies are getting the treatment they deserve, and that’s enough for me.” — Mark Van Hook, Boston, MA.