Now it can be told! The full shocking truth about the first ever VidBinge event, and what happened when I tried to recreate it some seven years later.
I told you this story before back in 2000, but here it is again anyway. For several years, I'd been giving regular video parties at Spank Towers: some of them daytime affairs, some of them all-nighters, most of them based around a theme of some sort or other. But Xmas 1999 saw the first ever VidBinge. The idea was simple: I'd bought my first DVD player earlier that year, and had quickly amassed a sizeable collection of films both old and new. In fact, as far as new films went, I found that I had twenty that had been released in UK cinemas that very year. Hence the plan: invite people over to my place, get them to vote on their favourite five films from that list of twenty, and show the most popular selections on a Saturday in December.
It worked rather well. So well, actually, that I did it again the following year: same structure, the only difference being that I wrote up the results on The Unpleasant Lair, using it as a springboard for reflections on the state of the year's cinema. And I've done it every year since, including this year: expect a full report on VidBinge 2006 soon. But when I was looking through the old VidBinge pieces from 2000 to 2005 with a view to reposting them on this blog, it struck me as a shame that I hadn't written up the event that started it all.
So, seven years after VidBinge 1999, The Belated Birthday Girl and I dug out the graph documenting the results of that first vote - the collected choices of Spank's Pals Grizelda, Jon, Ken, Lesley, Old Lag, Sylvia F and Suzanne Vega Fanclub - and spent a Saturday in November 2006 watching the top five selections. It was an interesting experience, because it wasn't like a usual VidBinge, even if you discount the smaller audience. Part of the interest in the event comes from reassessing films that you may have seen earlier that year: but in this case, we were watching films from seven years ago, and in many cases the intervening period has had an interesting effect on them.
Take, for example, Election - the fifth most popular choice on the list, and the first one in our day's programme. Back in 1999, it was a curious little high school comedy from an unknown director, Alexander Payne. Payne's no longer an unknown, though - he went on to have a hit with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, and then full-blown Oscar-winning success with Sideways. But at the time, he was nobody - I think I'd picked up on the movie from a review in Film Threat, saw it during my holiday in the USA that year, and came back raving about it to anyone who'd listen. It felt at the time like something I'd discovered, and it was great to see its director move on to bigger things. (Though not necessarily better things.)
Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta - and I've only just realised that pretty much all of Payne's work to date has been been on novel adaptations - Election tells the story of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who teaches civics in an Idaho high school. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is the high-flying star of his class, but for personal reasons Jim utterly detests her. So when it looks like she'll be running unopposed for student council president, Jim persuades the popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. It's the first step in a chain of events that will lead to calamity for pretty much everyone concerned.
Election's more than the simple teen comedy that its MTV Productions logo might suggest: there's still a bracing edge of nastiness to it. Broderick trades nicely off our memories of Ferris Bueller, Witherspoon gives Tracy a level of complexity we wouldn't see from her again until Walk The Line, and Klein nails the goofy charm perfectly. With four narrators all battling it out for screen time (including Jessica Campbell as Paul's grumpy sister Tammy), this could feel excessively literary, but doesn't, though its careful use of recurring motifs - notably the apples and oranges metaphor that comes back to bite Jim on the eye - shows a pair of writers (Payne and regular collaborator Jim Taylor) early in their career and unable to resist a bit of showing off.
Mind you, Tom Stoppard is quite late into his career, and he's still showing off. The story goes that Marc Norman came up with the original script for Shakespeare In Love (though Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms might disagree), but it didn't really take off until Stoppard gave that script a thermonuclear polishing. It has his fingerprints all over it, primarily in its sheer brazen desire to entertain, mixing high gags and low with gay abandon. At heart, though, it's a simple romance between struggling playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman who became his lover, his muse, and his leading man all at once.
I don't know about you, but I'm finding more and more that Oscar winners that seemed perfectly fine at the time tend to age embarrassingly quickly. I don't think I ever bought into the belief that Shakespeare In Love was the best picture of its year of American release (1998), so I'd assumed going into this screening that it wouldn't hold up to repeated scrutiny. And yet, somehow, it still does. It's no more than a piece of fluff, given some intellectual substance by Stoppard's relentless wordplay - but it's beautifully crafted fluff, which aims to please and hits the target.
I'd forgotten how much sex there was in the film, pushing an otherwise inoffensive period romcom into 15 rating territory - and that terrifyingly, apart from a couple of Gwynnie nips, most of that sex is down to Martin Clunes. But director John Madden gets the best out of his cast: Feinnes makes the most of the one decent casting decision of his life (less than a year later, he'd be in Rancid Aluminium), while Paltrow reminds us how good she was before she started trying too hard and naming her children after fruit. Nevertheless, if the script hadn't been buffed up by Stoppard, I suspect there wouldn't actually be anything there at all.
The big question when rewatching The Matrix in 2006 is this: can a previously acclaimed film be retconned into rubbishness simply by the existence of two very, very bad sequels? I first saw it in New York during that 1999 trip, in a Times Square fleapit that carelessly ran the film without picture for its first two minutes. I didn't review the film at the time, as it was playing in the UK not too long after my return. A few months later the DVD came out: it was state of the art for its time, and my old Samsung player used to judder like crazy during all the sections of the film where a white rabbit logo gave you access to a short making-of featurette (i.e., all the good bits). Thankfully, DVD player technology has caught up with the disc now, and this time round it plays just fine.
My reaction to the film now isn't that much different than it was back in 1999 - the main item of interest, once you get past the special effects that have been copied and parodied to death, is the way the film drops you and Neo (Keanu Reeves) immediately into its surreal world. It refuses to explain anything for the first 40 minutes, assuming that people will keep watching up to the scene where Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) reveals that Everything You Know Is Wrong. My pal Smudge The Cat astutely observed at the time that it was the sheer aggressiveness of the plotting that kept the whole thing moving, which feels even more true in the light of the sequels. Just hurling half-baked philosophy and pretty pictures at the viewer isn't enough unless you've got a well-crafted story to hang them off, something that Reloaded and Revolutions simply didn't have.
Of course, now we don't have the surprise of the story any more, these days the visuals and half-baked philosophy are more or less all that's left to enjoy in The Matrix. The philosophy is just the sort of thing that alienated teenage boys - hey, the core US cinema audience! - will lap up, as long as they don't take it too far and use it as an excuse to shoot up their school or something. As for the FX, they replicate the look of manga beautifully, which was probably the aim all along: which means it's not a problem that the much-lauded fight scenes feel incredibly stylised nowadays. As for the original question about the impact of the latter two films on the first one, some of Morpheus' more portentious lines show that the seeds of the sequels' twattiness were in the original all along, though admittedly balanced with some shards of genuine wit. (Morpheus describing the Matrix as 'the world that has been pulled over your eyes' is an underrated gem, I think.)
South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut comes next. With the exception of the late Mary Kay Bergman (who committed suicide shortly after the release of the film) and Isaac Hayes (who committed career suicide earlier in 2006), everyone involved with this film is still doing what they do here seven years later. One advantage of having child characters depicted by cartoons is that Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny will forever remain in fourth grade: no worries about the ageing process ruining their character development, or indeed for them to have any character development at all.
I have fond memories of seeing SP:BL&U at the cinema in the summer of 1999: it was a birthday outing, and I went with a few of the Pals, literally the day after we'd returned from a week in Edinburgh. Given that the main driver of the plot is the havoc caused by the four boys becoming corrupted by watching an inappropriate movie (Terrance and Phillip's Asses Of Fire, rated R), it was lovely to see two obvious twelve-year-olds trying to blag their way into the film in front of me.
The sheer shock of the opening barrage of filth can't ever be repeated, but it doesn't need to be: as with Trey Parker's earlier Cannibal: The Musical, this is written by someone who knows exactly how musicals should work. La Resistance was a highlight for me back in 1999, and it was funny seeing Les Miserables several years later and realising what a precise parody it was of that show's big reprise number. But all the classic animated musical cliches are there - this time round I particularly loved Up There, as perfect a statement of a character's needs as was ever sung in a musical, only given an edge by that character being Satan. If the film wasn't as tightly constructed as it is, it wouldn't survive repeated viewings as it does: and of course, the presence of swearier versions of our favourite characters helps all the more.
The Belated Birthday Girl approved of all the choices in the programme up to this point, but had major concerns about Happiness, the film with the highest number of votes at VidBinge 1999. I tried appealing to her love of American character actors. "But it's got PSH in it!" I said. "Sweaty, masturbating PSH!" That was probably a bad move, really. I'm not sure why this got so many votes in 1999: some of the people in the room had seen it before, some hadn't. I'd bought the DVD sight unseen during those early days when I was specialising in importing stuff from the US that had little or no chance of making it to the UK - for a while it looked as if the paedo themes of Happiness would stop it getting a release here, though in the end the BBFC relented.
Todd Solondz' film has a number of subplots, all revolving around three sisters. Joy (Jane Adams) is frequently unlucky in love, and has just broken up inamicably with Jon Lovitz ("I'm champagne, and you're shit"). Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) has a successful literary career, but is still unsatisfied, and only the phone calls from sweaty masturbating Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pique her interest. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) would seem to be having the best time of it with her beautiful family, but that's probably because she doesn't realise that hubby Bill (Dylan Baker) is serially raping young boys. You get the idea.
Maybe we were all just a lot more nihilstic back in 1999. That was the year I spent Valentine's Day with a few of the Pals laughing at the relationship meltdowns in Your Friends And Neighbors. Years later, it seems to me that though there are some touches of wit in Solondz's script, all too often it sidles up to its most shocking ideas and then runs away without fully exploring them. The confessional talks between Bill and his son Timmy (Justin Elvin) are still brutally harrowing, and possibly the main remaining reason to watch Happiness nowadays. But it becomes apparent on repeated viewing that Solondz doesn't really care about any of the five or six other storylines, many of which have fizzled out to nothing by the end. It's all played to the hilt by an all star cast of indie gods, sure, but maybe that impressed me seven years ago: less so now.
Because it's true: we all change over the years. Only six of the seven voters for VidBinge 1999 are still with us, as Sylvia F passed away in October of this year after a long-term illness. As for myself, I'm perfectly prepared to believe that The BBG's negative reaction to Happiness has coloured my own, though I think the other films in this collection still work today to some degree or other. And it's quite possible that the rest of the Pals would see things differently if they had to choose again from that shortlist of 20. Maybe I'll try that one on them in 2009. Being a monkey, and all.