A while back when I wrote up Point Break as a classic movie, a number of people got their panties in a bunch. "It’s genre trash." "It’s overrated now because of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar for The Hurt Locker." Opinions abounded.
I don’t care, because there is no algorithm for determining a classic movie. It’s like art or porn: You know it when you see it. Which means that it’s completely subjective.
Of course, some categories of value for classic movies can tip the scale in a way that’s fairly inarguable – like influence. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, Snow White, Star Wars, Toy Story ... classics due to influence. Then again, The Great Train Robbery is just as influential as Birth of a Nation, and that doesn’t show up on a lot of classic-movie lists.
Other determinations, however, are completely subjective. They are the movies that changed you. They are your personal pantheon. Knowing what they are, whatever they are, helps you understand yourself and your relationship to aesthetics, history, identity, knowledge – you know, all the stuff that comprises your world. In fact, I’d recommend everyone come up with their top 10 classic movies, letting go of whatever AFI or Roger Ebert says. If Heartbeeps is in your top 10, so be it. In fact, if Heartbeeps is in your top 10 and you’re a single lady, get ahold of me through my editor; we probably have a lot in common.
All of which brings me to this week’s classic movie:
1979’s The Black Hole.
If you’re watching really carefully, you can see a poster for The Black Hole in Flynn’s kids’ room in the recent Tron: Legacy. That’s because The Black Hole was the other reasonably successful cheesy science fiction movie Disney released in the late '70s early '80s, in a continuing effort to ride the sci-fi wave of Star Wars.
The Black Hole is a strange, scary movie that makes very little sense and ends with a drop into the truly bizarre that Disney should be very proud of. It is also one of those movies that makes physicists want to wrap their hands around Hollywood’s throat and squeeze. That's because it tells the story of a bunch of wayward starfarers who happen upon a ship run by a crazy scientist, played by Maximillian Schell. The crazy scientist has a ship that can defy the gravity of the black hole, and plans to head inside to explore “beyond.” The black hole, of course, you can see with your naked eye – because, like, it’s blacker than the rest of space. And also a little bluer.
As a kid I couldn’t appreciate the silly physics. I think what drilled the movie so deeply into me was its other strange aspects. For instance, the crazy scientist is attended to by these robed and masked attendants. He’s cagey about what these things are – maybe androids – but eventually we see one of the masked attendants limping, and then later we see them carry out a funeral for one of their own. So naturally one of the starfarers sneaks up to one of the attendants and pulls off the mask. This sequence so terrified me as a child that I didn’t know what the starfarer saw behind the mask until I was well into my 20s.
The movie also has a giant red robot that kills with razor fans, an aging floating robot and a telepathic connection between a blonde and another floating robot. And Ernest Borgnine. Let’s not forget Ernest Borgnine.
None of that compares, however, to the final sequence in the film. As Chekhov once said, if you introduce a black hole probe ship in Act One, you must have your protagonists head into the black hole by Act Three. And so they do. What follows is, well, let’s just say that Stanely Kubrick, Milton, and J.G. Ballard would be proud. I’m talking traversing what might be heaven and hell, celestial robot/human embraces and the absolute “beyond.”
In a world where studios pay brain trusts of Oscar winners to ensure that everything in a movie is clear, that all loose ends get tied up neatly, and every question is answered, a movie that’s just plain strange can be refreshing. As my third-year playwrighting instructor Nicole Burdette used to say, when telling a story, you don’t have to explain more than life does.
And life, frankly, doesn’t have that many answers. Which is why, in my own personal pantheon, The Black Hole is a classic movie.
New York's famed Chelsea Hotel is crawling with an assortment of creative types and wannabes whose lives are in disarray. These include tortured writer Bud (Kris Kristofferson) who has beaten the bottle but not the blues brought on by love continually going bad. Former paramours Mary (Natasha Richardson) wife Greta (Tuesday Weld) and waitress Grace (Uma Thurman) could cure his terminal loneliness but won't. Other Chelsea residents not faring much better are prolific poetess Audrey (Rosario Dawson) struggling painter Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Crutches (Kevin Corrigan) a druggie hanger-on appropriately on crutches. Also helping support the Chelsea Hotel's rep as a magnet for misfits are out-of-town musicians Terry (Robert Sean Leonard) and Ross (Steve Zahn) who like their company very young. There's also Lynny (Frank Whaley) who does wobbly stand-up at the local club.
It's hard to fault talented actors who have so little to work with. But such seasoned talents as Richardson Thurman D'Onofrio and Zahn deserve better. At least Kristofferson as the tortured writer rings some emotional if familiar truths as does Weld his unlucky wife. These are two vets worth a detour to the Chelsea.
Oscar-nominated actor-turned-director Ethan Hawke has surrounded himself with many of his gifted thesp friends for his directorial debut. But all this directing and acting talent is no match for playwright/screenwriter Nicole Burdette's pretentious messy riff on the iconoclastic Chelsea characters and their questionable art. Hawke counters the mostly verbal tedium with seemingly random cross-cutting among the quirky Chelsea wannabes. Technically "Chelsea Walls" advertises some of digital video's shortcomings like graininess and a resistance to reds. But Hawke also exploits the medium for its strengths--spontaneity funkiness and intimacy. Hawke another wide-eyed filmmaker entertaining himself with wonderful digital toys forgets that he also has to entertain an audience.