What Matters? – The Death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and The Ripple Effect

“Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy. Then it’s a miserable existence. I’m putting a piece of myself out there. If it doesn’t do anything, I feel so ashamed. I’m afraid I’ll be the kind of actor who thought he would make a difference and didn’t. Right now, though, I feel like I made a little bit of difference.” (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, imdb.com)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

I know he’s a celebrity. I know I don’t know him. He might’ve been a good person, or perhaps not. With his death, comes a great sadness, though. The writer and director in me had him on the short list of brilliant actors I dreamed of working with. The film lover in me wishes he’d be around to win just a few more awards — to play the lead in just a few more films. The horrid shock of knowing we’ll never get to see him in a new film ever is devastating. My only consolation is the realization that there are so many of his films I’ve only “meant” to see, and through them he gets a few new roles — at least for a little while.

After several hours of reflection behind me, I realize why this death affects me more than other celebrity deaths have. Yes, he was an amazing actor — the type that makes you see a movie just because he’s in it, but that’s not it. This death brings tears to my eyes, because he mattered to me. He mattered because in my world Capote mattered. It changed me, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman was Truman Capote, and that mattered.

As I pondered why Capote, of all random films, means something to me, I started thinking about other films (not necessarily my favorites) that truly effected me in some way. Why did they stand out amongst so many? When I started thinking about it, it was actually easy to focus on a select few. This list, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is inspired by you:

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Beginning in the summer of 2004, I worked the overnight shift at a TV station during the week. I watched a lot of movies during that time, often early in the morning, or in the middle of the night on weekends when the world was asleep. My mind shifted and became addled by a reverse sleep cycle, and I only remember that I might have maybe watched this or that during that time. There’s one film I remember vividly, though.

Before Sunrise

As Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke bantered about in Before Sunrise,  I remember thinking that never before had I seen a film that had so much dialogue. How had this one pulled it off with such great success? They beat into our brains in film school that films should show not tell, that less is more when it comes to dialogue. Yet, here was a film that broke those rules. Nothing really happened, and it was beautiful. It was fascinating. The conversation was brilliant. The characters were real. I loved it. I love it. It has, had, and continues to impact and inspire me. Thank you Richard Linklater. Thank you Julie Delpy. Thank you Ethan Hawke.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Before college I hadn’t been exposed to many silent films. When I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it enthralled me. The peculiar scenery, the bizarre characterizations — the horror of it all. This film made me love silent films. It made me see that the world didn’t need to look like the world, to feel like the world. It taught me what a somnambulist is for goodness sakes! Caligari has inspired Hitchcock and Tim Burton, and any number of others. I didn’t know any of this when I first saw it, though. All I knew is it was amazing!

Walk the Line

In addition to leading me onto the straight and narrow path of being smitten with the music of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, simply put, made me believe in love again. It had one thing that separated it from every other love story I’d ever seen or read — one detail that made it stand out. It was  true.

Harry Potter

Okay, this is a weird one in comparison to the others. Hear me out, though. Before seeing  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I hadn’t read any of the books. After seeing it, I immediately read every single one that was out at the time. I bought the remaining novels on their opening days year-after-year. I won a 2nd place Colorado Broadcaster’s Association award for a news piece I did on the final book release. This fantasy world matters to me. Watching Harry Potter marked the first time since L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, that I was fully transported into another world — it brought magic to my life. I wanted to be in those books. I wanted that fantasy to be real. Because of all that followed, this first film mattered.

The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside is about assisted suicide. It should be a depressing film, but it’s not. I left the film feeling more alive. It was an emotional journey, and of course I cried, but it was not sad. I gained a new love for Spanish cinema after seeing this film. My heart grew fond of Javier Bardem long before he joined forces with The Coen Brothers or James Bond. Mostly, though, I was moved in a way I’d never expected or known before. This one sat with me for a long time.

The Sensation of Sight

David Strathairn starred in Good Night and Good Luck. In any other year he would have had-an Oscar winning performance. This isn’t about that film, though. About a year later, I went to see a film starring Strathairn at the Starz Denver Film Festival called The Sensation of Sight. I had no idea David would be there, but when the Q&A began, there he was  with Ian Somerhalder from Lost. What? My heart began to race — literally. Standing in this tiny theatre in Denver, and it truly was a tiny theatre, was an actor I had grown to love. Those days when I sat in the audience at Starz were some of the days I felt most alive during my stint working at a news station. I sat there film after film, and I knew I belonged. It was one of the only places that made me feel that way. Seeing David Strathairn there in my world, close enough that I actually could have talked to him had I thought of something to say, gave me more hope than I even realized at the time.

This brings us back around to Capote, which came out the same year as Goodnight and Good Luck. Any other year, Strathairn may have won the Oscar, or perhaps it would’ve been Heath Ledger. It was neither. It was… who?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Capote

This was, as it happens, the second year I’d had an Oscar party — the second year in which I made a grand effort to see as many films as possible. This was the year, I opened my mind to movies I wouldn’t normally see. It was one of the most memorable years in film for me to date. Perhaps, it was the impact of the films that year, or maybe it was just that I’d spent so much time in theatres alone in awe. It’s hard to say. In any case, I didn’t know much about Truman Capote. I’d never read In Cold Blood. I still haven’t. The film Capote blew me away, though. I’m sure I’d seen shocking endings before, but something about Hoffman’s performance — something about the way in which that character behaved — something about the cold, heartless ending — it mattered. It shocked me, and it changed the way I looked at film. It changed the way I measured an amazing performance.

You see, Phillip Seymour Hoffman will forever be Capote to me. He will always matter. Mr. Hoffman sir, you did make a difference. You did the only thing you ever set out to do. There is no shame in the roles you played, or the lives you changed. You’ve created a great ripple.

Goodnight Mr. Hoffman, and good luck.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pod People, Pop Culture, and The Cold War

For the month of October I plan on joining the masses who are celebrating Halloween by watching a few great horror films. I suppose, then, it’s intriguing that I chose Invasion of the Body Snatchers as my first October movie. Am I becoming a pod person by celebrating with such conformity? I’ll never tell. What I will tell is that this month I’ll be reviewing “horror” films of yore, which let’s be honest is probably more my pace than horror films of…now. 

At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t.
Something evil had taken possession of the town.” – Dr. Miles Bennell

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a small-town doctor, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), returns home to find people behaving extremely strange. On the surface everyone looks normal, but patients are making appointments with the doctor only to cancel or not show up at all. The people he does talk with claim their family members aren’t their family members, and as much as some of us (not me) might want that to be the case with some of our own family members, in this town it just might be true. Something altogether creepy is taking over, and Bennell and his old “friend” Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are the only two left to fight off the invasion of well…the body snatchers.

You can watch the trailer here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFnSxeDfENk

Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, this Sci Fi/horror classic ranked number nine on AFI’s list of best science fiction films as well as making number 47 on their 100 Years…100 Thrills list. The film was also ranked on lists by Time magazine, The Chicago Film Critics Association, and on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Do I agree that it deserves these listings? Why yes, I do.

What first  struck me was the formality of it all; the doctor and his nurse casually remarking on the strangeness of the town, and Becky in her polka-dot skirt, full of hope, and the promise of a new beginning. Of course, that only lasts so long. Once the doctor’s friend Jack finds a mysterious body in his house, it goes from psychological thrill to full-on freaky pretty quickly. Yet, there’s still this fifties normalcy about it. It’s not a gruesome film by any means, nor is it violent, or even that scary. What is scary is the entire concept of the film. Having your body taken over by an alien look-alike growing in a giant pod — that’s terrifying. Good gracious is that terrifying! Whether by aliens, brainwashing, or some other means, the idea that someone could take you over at any moment is downright creepy.

 “Sick people who couldn’t wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn’t his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn’t her uncle.” – Dr. Miles Bennell

No wonder, then, that this film lives on and on… and on through the many pop culture references it’s acquired over the years. TV episode titles like“Invasion of the Mork Snatchers” from Mork and Mindy and “Invasion of the Psychologist Snatchers” from Family Ties pay obvious homage to the film. Heck, even the Muppet Babies cartoon referenced the movie with season four’s  episode, “Invasion of the Muppet Snackers.” However, clever titles aren’t the only way in which the film is referenced. I was first drawn to the movie based on an allusion made in my all-time favorite show Gilmore Girls. In this reference one of the main characters, Lorelai, calls her father “Pod Grandpa” because he’s in an unusually good mood. As it turns out, there was an earlier reference to the film in which Luke tells an annoying town member, “Guess my pod is defective.” In looking for these references I found a decent list of other pop culture shout-outs to the movie that spanned from Cheers to Seinfeld and Dharma and Greg to Golden Girls. Even recent episodes of The Big Bang Theory have alluded to the movie. In one scene Sheldon notes “the Body Snatchers Clause” of his friendship with Leonard. You can check out the full list of pop culture references here. I’m certain it’s not complete, but it’s definitely entertaining.

Why all of the references you might wonder? I mean as far as iconic pop culture films, only a few people I know have even seen it. Yet, there they are; allusion after allusion to pods, body snatching, and worst of all…the pod people themselves! I’d suggest that it’s partly tongue-in-cheek and partly based on a real fear of conformity, whether by mysterious soul-sucker, peer pressure, or some other means. I mean, is there any greater insult than being accused of being a pod person? I suppose amongst the artistic community, from which these references stem (not pod stems, mind you), then this really would be the worst thing to be called. Sound the alarms! I’ve turned into everyone else! The pod people must be to blame!
 

Ah yes, that fear of conformity. The fear of someone or something draining away all of our original thought, emotion, and belief and leaving a shell of something that cares for little beyond survival. Now what on earth would cause such a fear in 1956?

Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next!” – Dr. Miles Bennell

Sound like anyone you know? I sure hope not. Does it sound like Senator McCarthy, though? I’d say so. Perhaps, it was the Cold War film history course I took in college that caused my brain to automatically ding “Red Scare” when it heard the above quote. Perhaps, it was the documentary I watched with Forbidden Planet about early Sci Fi and the Cold War. Perhaps, I too am a pod person, who can no longer separate what I’ve been told from what I believe. Let’s toss out that last option for now, and contemplate the first two.

I was pleased that with a quick Google search I found others who’d written, often passionately, about the cold war and McCarthy references in the film. Look Mom, I did learn something in school! What’s interesting is there seems to be some debate as to whether the body snatchers represent the communists or McCarthy. Was the film telling us to be scared of those evil commies who’re coming to snatch our souls away and make us just like everyone else, or were we to be scared of McCarthy and the government who were filling us with the fear to conform or be accused of being a communist? The debate rolls on with that one. Of course, according to the director and writers, they weren’t making a statement at all.

In the film’s Wikipedia entry (I know, I’m quoting Wikipedia), the writer references an interview with actor Kevin McCarthy (no connection to the senator – I don’t think). McCarthy claims to have seen no political references in the film at all. McCarthy’s interviewer also claimed to have spoken with the original author Jack Finney, who also denied any political undertones. Riiiight…

In the article “Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tale of Our Times” by John W. Whitehead, director Don Siegel is also said to have denied the political undertones of the films. He sees the story more as a battle against technological advances that are leading people to become “pods”, then as a statement about McCarthyism. In a quote from the article he says:

People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you..of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in…People are becoming vegetables. I don’t know what the answer is except an awareness of it. That’s what makes a picture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers important.


Yes, and that is what keeps it important, is it not? McCarthyism or not, the film has a very clear theme about holding tight to your individualism. Perhaps, we should be careful. We’ve already become iPod people, how much longer until we turn full-on pod? Don’t fall asleep dear reader, or you just might wake up devoid of all emotion, and thought. You just might wake up and no longer wish to read my blog, and then what would I do? It’s not really that simple, though, is it? Fall asleep and become someone else? I suppose only if your town is invaded by alien pods. I think I’ll dress as a pod person for Halloween. It’s a great costume. I get to be myself, and act like someone else. No one will suspect a thing. Or…not.

In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” – Dr. Miles Bennell –

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think the relatively unknown actors really helped bring out the greatness in this film. Because we didn’t know them, they seemed like ordinary people, which helped us believe that they were. For the most part, they did a great job. The voiceover strung throughout by Dr. Bennell moves the story forward, and really creates a sympathy for his plight. It works.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
My reason is three-fold. 1. I found it on the shelf at the library and that reminded me of… 2. I’d heard so many pop culture references to it that I decided it was time to see what it was all about. Finally: 3. I decided to review horror movies for the month of October, thus, it fit the bill…at least mostly.

If you liked this, you might also like:
The cool thing about this flick is that it’s just as much horror as it is Sci Fi. If you liked the style of this, and can bear a bit of a more disturbing horror film, then check out the original Night of the Living Dead...so creepy! If that seems like a bit much, and perhaps it will be, then stick to Hitchcock for horror. He has the same polite, slowly building, and obviously brilliant mannerism to his films. For a lesser known Hitchcock thrill I’d check out Shadow of a Doubt. If you haven’t seen Psycho, though, start there. I’m sure there are some other great Sci Fi films from this era as well, but I’m still finding them.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap, then be thankful that you can still show your opinion through clapping. Thus, have not been transformed into a pod person…yet.

Related articles and a few lists of other people’s favorite classic horror films