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Daily Reads: ‘Back to the Future’ Is Now the Past, Mickey Rooney’s Disturbing Last Years, and More

Daily Reads: 'Back to the Future' Is Now the Past, Mickey Rooney's Disturbing Last Years, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. “Back to the Future” Is Now All Back And No Future.
Yesterday was “Back to the Future” day, i.e. the day when Marty and Doc go to the future in the year 2015. Though the culture has been completely oversaturated with “Back to the Future,” there have been some worthwhile pieces yesterday that go beyond writing cheap nostalgia and actually examining that nostalgia. RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz explores how all of “Back to the Future” now takes place in the past, what that means, and how his perspective of the films have changed.

What strikes me about this trilogy now, during the final week of the final year of the saga’s Hill Valley narrative, is the way the individual movies, unlike their characters and town, have improbably escaped the ravages of time. Once we got about twenty years out from the first film, their 1985 scenes became “period,” too, like the 1955 scenes. I showed the trilogy to my son and daughter not too long ago, and they laughed as hard at Marty’s once-hip ski vest and feathered hair as audiences during my era laughed at the 1950s signifiers. My daughter, who is a lot older than my son and is studying film history and sociology in college now, was intrigued to see how a trilogy conceived and filmed in the ’80s viewed life in the ’50s, and what it said about 1980s life without meaning to. The sense of cultural superiority seemed more palpable to me when I watched the series with my kids than when I watched it during its original run, or when I revisited it in the ’90s as a college film student. I was 16 when the original “Future” came out. The eighties were my adolescent decade. Few teenagers have the self-awareness and humility to recognize that the time they live in is not, in fact, the most technologically and culturally advanced time that the human race will ever experience, and that snickering at the past (as depicted in movies or history texts) makes the laughing person seem clueless and arrogant; I was no exception. I’m humbler about that sort of thing now because I’m in my forties and seen a few decades turn over. When I watch the “Future” films today, I am not just watching the films, I am watching myself — or I should say, I am thinking about who I was when the films came out, and cringing a little bit at how much I thought I knew, and how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know. When I was in high school, I laughed during the diner scene (along with everyone else in the theater) because Marty ordered a Pepsi Free and the counterman thought he was demanding a Pepsi for free. Now I laugh because the Pepsi Free name was discontinued in 1987, two years after the first “Future” came out. The joke is not about the obliviousness of the ’50s adult, it’s about the arrogance of the ’80s teenager.

2. Tears and Terror: The Disturbing Final Years of Mickey Rooney.
Legendary actor Mickey Rooney appeared in over 300 films and before his death in 2014 was one of the last remaining stars of the silent film era. However, the last years of Mickey Rooney’s life weren’t peaceful or quiet, they were tragic and violent. The Hollywood Reporter’s Gary Baum and Scott Feinberg report on Rooney’s last years and how his family exploited and abused him until the end.

The alleged wrongdoing and how it went on for so long has been a mystery — until now. Five years after that interview, and more than a year after the star’s death, an investigation by “The Hollywood Reporter” (uncovering legal documents, witness testimony and financial records that never before have been publicized) indicates Rooney’s life was more abusive than he let on while he was alive. What’s more, the trouble persisted until he died in April 2014 in a Studio City rental, with only $18,000 to his name. (Rooney’s body rests at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many legendary movie stars are buried.) Just weeks after Chris was served with a restraining order on Valentine’s Day in 2011 accusing him of financially exploiting Rooney as his business manager, the actor flew to Washington, D.C. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate Special Aging Committee, had read press reports that a conservator for Rooney was pursuing elder-abuse charges, and he invited Rooney to testify about what he’d been through. As a transcript of that hearing reveals, Rooney, without naming names, tearfully explained that he’d himself been a victim of the increasingly common crime, stripped “of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life,” leading to an “unbearable” and “helpless” daily existence. In a process that began after Rooney confided in a Disney executive during filming of 2011’s “The Muppets,” Rooney’s attorneys filed court papers in their petition for a conservator (to protect him and recover his assets) that revealed the extent of the control — he wasn’t even allowed to buy food or carry identification. For her part, Jan, 76, who now lives with Chris at his house (and receives $100,000 a year from Rooney’s SAG pension and Social Security benefits), insists that she has been falsely accused and characterizes her late husband’s Senate testimony as coerced and unreliable. “Mickey was a 90-year-old man who was in and out of it mentally and was easily influenced by other people,” she explains. Only now will the public learn that the alleged debasement was not just financial but physical, too. Numerous family members and others close to Rooney say the small-statured actor frequently was abused by Jan, his wife of 36 years, who weighed twice what he did. “THR” also has learned that she was struggling with mental health issues during this time. These close acquaintances also say Rooney — who himself was arrested in 1997 by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department on suspicion of hitting Jan during a fight (the case was dropped) — was bloodied and bruised in multiple altercations, in his final years emerging as a feeble man lying to his doctor about why he was being treated for this black eye or that missing tooth. While Rooney always denied spousal abuse, multiple sources tell “THR” that, when confronted, Jan herself acknowledged assaults. In a long interview with “THR” via email, Jan is adamant that “I never physically abused Mickey, but we had some minor pushing scuffles, tempers flared when we were angry. Sometimes it was his fault, sometimes mine. We always made up.”

3. The Beautiful, Dirty Vision of Gaspar Noé.
The provocative Argentinian director Gaspar Noé has a new film out called “Love,” a 3-D romance drama that features among other things graphic sex. None of this is surprising if you’re aware of Noé’s work which has always combined lusty imagery with chilling, fearful overtones. Vulture’s Jada Yuan examines the beautiful, dirty vision of Gaspar Noé in honor of his new film.

Gaspar Noé’s “Love” is what one might call a “penis-forward” movie. Its opening shot, set to the mournful strains of Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 3,” is a fixed-frame view from the foot of a bed of a young man whose erection is being stroked by a lithe brunette, her dark nipples and ’70s pubic triangle facing toward the camera while he rubs her clitoris. We watch for three full minutes, our eyes trained on the couple’s facial contortions and involuntary muscle spasms as they give and receive, the rhythmic touching of flesh the only sound other than the swells of the orchestra, until he ejaculates and she licks him clean. This, by the way, all happens in 3-D. “It’s not shocking, come on! It’s a sweet double hand job,” says Noé, on a cold September morning in Toronto, when I ask him if audiences will be taken aback by his movie’s opening cum shot (out of a total of three). This is, after all, a kind of unicorn: a widely distributed full-frontal three-dimensional movie, complete with a very long, very graphic threesome and a trip to a Parisian swingers’ club in which the extras were French porn stars and some of the movie’s crew members who felt like stripping down. European film’s most Dionysian provocateur, Noé is often mentioned in the same breath as director Lars von Trier, but where the latter approaches carnality with an existential chilliness, Noé’s work is brimming with a glutton’s appetite for libidinal indulgence that suggests he actually likes sex — an appetite that he matches with an exhilarating cinematic ambition. The kind of ambition needed to make a beautifully shot, technologically advanced, emotionally wrenching, high-art skin flick. On the day we meet, Noé has just flown in from Paris for “Love’s” North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and looks like it, in a rumpled black T-shirt and black jeans, with rampant stubble and a black horseshoe mustache that contrasts with his bald pate and genial air. We’re still talking about the film’s opening scene, because how can you not? “When it’s raining outside, you just want to stay in bed and have sex,” he continues. “I tried to put what I consider the sweetest things in life [in the film]. Why would you always portray your fears but not also your pleasures?”

4. Bill Murray Needs To Start Making Good Movies Again.
Everyone loves Bill Murray. He’s funny, he’s idiosyncratic, and his unique blend of sarcastic wit and sad-eyed earnestness has made him an enduring American cultural figure. But unfortunately, Bill Murray hasn’t really made a good movie in quite a while, and his most recent film “Rock the Kasbah” has garnered very negative reviews. Uproxx’s Mike Ryan argues why Bill Murray needs to stop being “Bill Murray” and start making good movies again.

Okay, deep breath: I am a fan of Bill Murray’s acting. I really am. My annoyance comes from a place of love and disappointment. “Lost in Translation” is one of my favorite films and it captures Murray at his absolute best. There, he’s heartfelt, dignified, sad, kind – a real human being. Yes, he sings, but when his Bob Harris sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” Murray’s not hamming it up. He’s not trying to save a movie in one scene. He’s understated and the result is haunting, even magical. When Harris makes eye contact with Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, there are sooooo many ways for this scene to be played the wrong way. But a deft Murray has the ability to play that moment in a way that conveys he’s looking at a dear new friend who’s helped him rediscover a side of himself that’s been missing. Charlotte means the world to Bob, but not in a romantic way. And he relays all of this with one look as he quietly sings the words “more than this, you know there’s nothing…more than this.” The Bill Murray of today reminds me of “Groundhog Day.” Remember when Phil Connors (Murray) has the almost-perfect day? Not the one that gets him out of the day, but the one where he finally wins over Andie MacDowell’s Rita? Remember how that day ended with an impromptu snowball fight with some local children, with the end result being Phil and Rita falling down together in a snowbank? The next day, Phil tries to recreate this day again, but it’s not the same. It feels forced. He even overdoes it with the snowball fight, then forces Rita to the ground, trying to recreate the impromptu fall. This is how I think of Bill Murray now; he’s trying hard to recreate the magic he found with “Lost in Translation,” but it feels forced and “off.”

5. Garth Risk Hallberg’s New Novel Is Influenced By Television.
“City on Fire,” the debut novel from Garth Risk Hallberg, has become the “industry event of the year,” with ten publishing houses competing for its publishing rights (the highest bid was reportedly close to $2 million.) However, “City on Fire” takes its cues not from other literary works, but rather the New Golden Age of TV shows, like “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.” The Atlantic’s Erik P. Hoel explores how “City on Fire” illustrates the anxiety of influence and how television has become a culturally dominant force.

Today, few novels feel like what the critic Lewis Hyde called “gifts” — the kind of works that can’t be created through an act of will, but that seem rather to be bestowed upon an author. “City on Fire,” however, does. Reviewers have pinpointed the novel’s journalistic attention to detail, as well as its passion and warm-heartedness, but the book also represents a new kind of interplay between television and fiction borne of the New Golden Age of TV. Starting roughly around the year 2000, shows like “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men,” and “Six Feet Under” began playing around with characterization and plot with the kind of subtlety once only found in novels. “City on Fire” demonstrates how this new anxiety of influence is shaping the way fiction writers approach their work. Despite the artistic progress TV has clearly made in the last 15 years, there’s still a very recognizable formula for a Golden Age serial drama, and it’s one that “City on Fire” unapologetically adopts in its structure. First, introduce a heterogeneous handful of characters from different walks of life. The novel follows a black gay novelist and his boyfriend; a heroin-addicted heir, who has a sister who’s married to a Wall Street trader; a punk-rock anarchist; a hard-boiled detective on crutches; a depressive journalist; and an old-fashioned firework maker with a daughter who’s the love interest of an asthmatic suburban kid. In standard prestige-TV style, different characters in “City on Fire” are introduced at different times, and those who play bit parts in another character’s story get their own in-depth treatment later. The book flips perspectives over its 96 chapters accordingly, foregrounding some characters while backgrounding others. Many TV shows like to reveal early on — although late enough for it to be a surprise — that some of their characters are connected in odd, almost karmic ways (for example, Sawyer had drinks with Jack’s father on “Lost” before the plane crash). Correspondingly, nearly everyone in “City on Fire” is linked either in ways necessary for the plot, by happenstance, or by bisections of thoughts and deeds.

6. What the “Back to the Future” Franchise Sneakily Got Right.
Today, Criticwire will close with just one more article about “Back to the Future” in honor of “Back to the Future” day. There’s been a lot of talk about how prescient or not “Back to the Future’s” vision of 2015 was, but the LA Times’ Steven Zeitchik explores what “Back to the Future” franchise sneakily got right, and it ain’t the technology.

In breaking down the movie’s appeal, there are, of course, the glossy plot elements. The sci-fi conceit. The parallel multi-generational romances. The ticking clock that has the heroes trying to catch, literally, a bolt of lightning. “You just have a masterfully written script in terms of tightness,” said Alan Silvestri, the film’s composer, who has been touring the world this year with that concert, when I asked him for his explanation of the movie’s abiding popularity. “Just the way it’s cut, the way it all fits together — it’s exactly right.” (The WGA agrees: In 2006 it ranked “Back to the Future” the 56th best script of all time.) The unlikely mix of wholesome and subversive doesn’t hurt either, even if that was the movie’s early undoing. (When Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale first pitched the idea for “Back to the Future” in Hollywood, they ran into a wall. Some studios thought it wasn’t hard-edged enough for an audience schooled in “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Porky’s.” Then Disney rejected it because it was too hard-edged.) The film also carries with it a playfully obdurate disregard for authority — of the youthful sort, with Marty’s guitar-playing lateness in the face of a collar-grabbing principal, and of the more adult type, the out-of-the-box science practiced by Doc Brown. Movies about outliers tend to resonate because 90% of us think we’re better than average. Few films so skillfully exploit this self-perception better than “Back to the Future.” But there’s something deeper at play, something that both makes the movie creepier on reflection and that could have made viewers (and, indeed, made a studio) stop dead in their tracks: the Oedipal element. In watching Marty resist the overtures of Lorraine, we’re experiencing some darkly funny moments. But if the getting-hit-on-by-your-mother concept were just played for laughs it would amount to little more than a Freudian in-joke. “Back to the Future” does something else. “You’re getting to be a fly on the wall when your parents got together, and isn’t that the great fantasy for many of us?” asked Gale, when I put the longevity question to him. Deep down we all wonder where we came from, how two people very far removed from us came to make a choice that allowed us to even exist and have that thought in the first place. In “Back to the Future” we can see (as Gale, who came up with the idea of a maternal run-in, notes) just that process up close; in fact, we can be participants in it. “I think if we didn’t give people a chance to see that it would have been a nice movie, a nice hit,” Gale said. “But it wouldn’t have lasted.” Is it an accident that the movie became such a Gen-X favorite? All of this parental archaeology plays extremely well to the first generation to experience divorce on a mass scale.

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