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It doesn’t really have an ending. And it confounds all expectations. I think the black kid is going to die. I figure, that’s what the scene with him and white girl in the restaurant is all about. To show that he can be mellow, non-confrontational, sweet, etc. – so that when he is killed, we will care.

Then, the horrible prolonged scene on the subway where the Arab insults and eventually spits on Anne. I figure, she will react to that hysterically, causing her boyfriend to kill the next dark-skinned person he sees – who will just happen to be that guy we have learned to like. But that isn’t what happens. Nothing happens. As we go along, I make up several different endings, none of which is the one provided by the movie.

The other remarkable thing is, it shows the ordinary routine of being smuggled into France and then deported, an everyday occurrence for the Romanians.

Juliette Binoche can look so plain, and also so luminously beautiful. She’s an unparalleled physical actor. The body as instrument, to the nth degree. All the set pieces show her off.  Movies often have those, as actor bait. Write something a real actor would love to sink teeth into, and a real actor with a name will do it for union scale. It happens. It happens the other way, too. The clever producer or director or writer gets with a huge name actor and says, “What do you want to do on the big screen? Sing, tap dance, drown, masturbate? You name it, and we’ll write it into the script.”

For a film, that can be a disaster. But not here. However they came about, these amazing scenes show off so well the genius of Juliette Binoche. The one where she’s listening to a kid being abused in the building. And at her acting job, the locked-in-a-room-by-a-twisto scene. And that off-the-scale scene, more literally a tour de force than many others given the label, where alone on the stage she stomps around being a total uninhibited madwoman, with large awkward movements like Mountain Girl in Intolerance. The viewer is far, far back in the theater. What the hell is that? Is it from an actual play that already existed, or was it created for the purpose of this film?

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Hollywood, the Thirties: a washed-up former movie director, referred to as the Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), is reduced to making pornographic short films in his about-to-be-condemned rented mansion. His stars are Harlene, a wisecracking flapper par excellence who supports herself by waitressing and her habit by actressing, and Rex, a stupid and egotistical no-talent whose sideline is grave-digging. In the midst of the day’s shooting, producer Big Mac arrives; since he is paying the bills he can’t be thrown off the set. With Mac is a woman he introduces as his “fiancée – maybe”, Miss Cathy Cake. Mac, as usual, has brought Harlene’s paycheck in the form of a packet of white powder. This time, she overdoses, and while Mac (Bob Hoskins) and Rex (Stephen Davies) are away disposing of the body, Cathy Cake undertakes to seduce the supposedly impotent (owing to the failure of his career, and his massive intake of alcohol) Boy Wonder.

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This intricately structured film, written and directed by John Byrum, is both an allegorical representation of the film industry and an extended metaphor in which each character is an archetype, portraying the various ways in which individuals relate to Art with a capital A.

Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) represents the artist of real but abused talent. Despite her junk habit she is a professional – out of her dress and ready to start work the minute she arrives; listening intently as the Boy Wonder explains the purpose of a shot; getting it on the first take – even Big Mac recognizes that she is a “good little worker.”

Harlene’s affair with the Boy Wonder is part of their shared past. Refusing to believe that he can’t or won’t resume it, she gently tries to arouse him, which he tolerates up to a point but finally, patience exhausted, dumps her from his lap onto the floor. Her expression at that moment is worth the price of admission.

She is also a clown. When the wind-up camera grinds to a halt, destroying an intense scene, she rips her slip open and makes a ridiculous face to distract the director from his exasperation at having to rewind. Of the two women Harlene is by far the more sympathetic character: loving, generous, supportive, naïve, spontaneous, a little dumb. Her honesty, her humor and openness, her already anachronistic flapper attire and giddy ways, are all endearing. Although worldly-wise on the surface, she is essentially an innocent with the fabled heart of gold.

Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), on the other hand, is dangerous and weird, a pasty-faced caricature of innocence, a bisque doll who plays the lady while casting sidelong glances at Rex’s crotch.

Cathy’s coy ways disguise her twisted motivations and insidious intent. Although she aspires to be an actress, she realizes her total lack of talent and creativity, admitting that her liaison with Big Mac is a stratagem designed to bring her the opportunities that her own efforts cannot. But this ambition to be in the movies can be furthered at the same time as her new goal: once she learns that the Boy Wonder is theoretically incapable of sexual relations, she sets out to get him into bed. She proposes to meet the challenge of reawakening his desire if he, in exchange, will put her in front of the camera and take on the much more daunting challenge of teaching her “to be great.” The longest sequence of the film consists of her amazing relentless campaign to this end.

Cathy has already demonstrated plenty of what may be termed psychic vampirism: she wanted to go watch Harlene shoot up; when the director was arguing with Big Mac she watched them as if a spectator at a tennis match. She breaks the Boy Wonder down by digging at his feelings for Harlene, his doubts about himself as a creative artist, his agoraphobia, and every other weak spot she can detect in him. Just when all this psychological probing gets to be too much, Cathy switches tactics and displays a dazzling array of manipulative and exploitive ploys. The ultimate irony of Cathy Cake is that she is indeed a superb and inspired actress – everywhere but in front of the camera.

Eventually Cathy succeeds in gaining the Boy Wonder’s confidence, and his body, along with causing a painful misunderstanding, and a lot of trouble for them both on Big Mac’s return. Even in the heat of passion she is true to her vampire nature – when the Boy Wonder wants to nuzzle and kiss, she pushes his head back in order to observe his face in the flushed and vulnerable erotic state. Her quintessential line, repeated several times throughout the film, is, “I want to see it all.” Her zombie-like appearance during the first scene was exactly right: she is an example of intelligence and curiosity with no ruling consciousness; out of control, like some monstrous child. Cathy’s outstanding trait is this half-voyeuristic, half-vampiristic need to feed on the pain of others. Archetypally, she is the Fan: this quality of being an emotion junkie is what going to the movies is all about.

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What is it with people, anyway? The film industry spends millions to deliver experiences that will take us out of the boring everyday world. That’s one of the things we pay for, when we go to the movies. So, why complain about the lack of verisimilitude in a work of fictional cinema? Look at it this way: if absolute factual accuracy is essential, why not just watch documentaries instead? There are thousands of great ones out there. It would take a lifetime to watch just the best, and several more to watch the rest. So go away and quit picking on Scott Rosenberg.

He wrote Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and remarked in the DVD version’s supplementary material, “I created a language, I created a subculture,” crediting Vietnam-era military slang, biker slang, and stuff he made up on his own. Well, some critics had a cow about the film’s language. Not the cussing, but the vernacular. M.V. Moorhead, for instance, called it “gaudy, self-conscious slang…” The well-respected Kenneth Turan described it as “a wacky kind of pumped-up slang laced with mysterious, evocative phrases…” Another commentator wrote of “dumb new slang phrases,” and so on.

Two different things are going on here: an accusation that certain terms used by the characters are inauthentic; and an assumption that making up vocabulary for a movie is somehow not okay. Where did that idea come from? Who knows? Writers do it in novels all the time. Look at that Jerzy Kosinski book where a serial molester lays out his entire bizarre personal dictionary of rape-related terminology. William Gibson makes up words, and so does Norman Spinrad. Tolkien made up a whole language. One of the greatest speculative fiction books ever, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, requires the reader to scale the heights of a steep learning curve just to get past the first page. And James Joyce? Don’t get me started. The point is, extensive use of self-referential slang occurs in works of fiction, whether presented in print form or on film. What’s the problem? It’s all part of being, as one reviewer put it, “hyper-stylised.”

In real life, some people do speak in impenetrable patois. In real life, small subgroups do have their own languages, sometimes specific to the locale. Maybe I’m wrong to assume that the authors of police procedurals engage in research, but let’s say they do. In a detective novel I read once, when the cops were on the job but out of uniform, they called their attire “soft clothes.” In no other crime novel have I encountered that term for plainclothes or civvies. Somewhere in America there probably is a police department where they say “soft clothes.” In various detective tales, when the cops go after the bad guy they call him the perp, the doer, the unsub… Apparently the worlds of crime and law enforcement both are rife with slang.

In writing the dialogue for Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, did screenwriter Rosenberg make it all up? And if he did, so what? The second question has been answered.

One of the expressions peculiar to the movie is “Give it a name,” which betokens affirmation and endorsement. It means “You got that shit right,” “Tell it like it is,” or “Word.” It seconds the motion on a thing that needed to be said. And if it wasn’t already in use before Rosenberg adapted it, well, it should have been.

Actually, the phrase itself has been around for quite a while, although with a different and more direct meaning. In the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, published in 1854, a bartender asks a customer what he’ll have. Will it be sherry? “Give it a name,” he says. In the short story “Ulysses and the Dogman” by O. Henry, we find these lines:

“S-h-h-h!” said the dogman, signaling the waiter; “give it a name.”
“Whiskey,” said Jim.
“Make it two,” said the dogman.

The term is also used the same way, coincidentally, in the great Ulysses of James Joyce.

“Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe,” says I, “I’ve a thirst on me I wouldn’t sell for half a crown.”
“Give it a name, citizen,” says Joe.
“Wine of the country,” says he.

BUCKWHEATS

This expression seems to bother some people a lot, but don’t blame Scott Rosenberg. A contributor to the online Urban Dictionary notes that the word was used back in 1979, in a Season 5 episode of the TV series “The Rockford Files.” In that context, it’s defined as “a series of small painful beatings administered in such a way as to inflict maximum pain without causing permanent damage or desensitizing the recipient. Implies endless pain.” The dialogue quoted is, “Give me the name, or it will be a long night of buckwheats.”

In Things, the old guy, Joe Heff, who explains a lot of this stuff enlightens his fellow loafers in the diner. A sentence of buckwheats means the victim is to be executed in an excruciating and lingering way, such as having a bullet fired up his ass, which results in a fifteen-minute death scene.

The 1999 edition of The Mafia Encyclopedia by Carl Sifakis includes the term, but of course the film had already appeared by then. What I don’t know is whether the 1987 edition contained it. This page from the Sifakis second edition describes several gruesome buckwheats hits, and seems to imply that the term has been around for a long time. It’s also found in Pete DeVico’s 2007 book The Mafia Made Easy: The Anatomy and Culture of La Cosa Nostra.

In Things, there’s a very effective scene where The Man with the Plan mimics and mocks the dread that Jimmy will feel and have to live with, never knowing what his fate will be. The Man trembles and stutters, “Buckwheats. Or maybe not! Maybe, yes, maybe, buckwheats, may maybe buck buckwheats, or, no.” I’m guessing the Mafia, never renowned for sensitivity, coined the term based on the movie character Buckwheat, in the old Our Gang comedies. This was a black kid whose fearfulness was expressed in various ways. His hair would stand on end, or he’d turn white from fear (primitive SFX, done with the film’s negative.)

Back in 2001, Dan Rather told an interviewer how the cowardice of his network superiors forced him to cover a story against his will. He said, “What happened is, they got the willies, they got the buckwheats, their knees wobbled…” My theory is, he’d seen Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and meant that his bosses were shaking and stuttering, pretty much like the demonstration given by The Man with the Plan. Of course Rather was publicly scolded by African Americans for using an offensive racial slur. Question: why didn’t Rather’s remark draw criticism for insulting people with a certain name? Maybe Willie Nelson should sue.

There’s a rather cryptic mention in a 1982 New York Times article on the theater, covering a revival of the play Rose-Marie, which was first staged in 1924. It refers to the question of whether “Leslie Shreve’s curse of ”Buckwheats!” made Lady Jane an endearing creation.”

There’s no doubt that Things contributed to the popularity of the word. In 2005, someone’s comment about a hoax website claiming Christopher Walken would run for president was titled, “Buckwheats for Bush?” In 2006, in a forum discussing favorite music choices, one writer seemed to take for granted that people would understand what was meant by the comment “I suggest buckwheats for everyone who contributed to the list.” In a 2007 discussion we find this line: “That piece of anal excretion that was speaking up for the murder cult leader needs a buckwheats.”

In the same year, elsewhere online, there’s this: “It’s buckwheats for him, innit. Apparently, that’s an Americanism for being shot up the arse. With a gun, like.” Also in 2007, the following contribution was made to a serious discussion of the merits of a Swiss-made weapon: “Legend has it that Pancho Villa got his buckwheats with a number of Mondragons!” A humorous 2007 blog entry by Steve Graham says, “So anyway, this chicken had to be dealt with. I’m talking buckwheats. Because if I let him get away with this, soon everyone would think they could crap in my yard.”

In 2008, a political discussion site includes the sentence, “It’s buckwheats fo’ ya!” On another site, in a discussion about surveillance and related matters, someone named Jsin wrote, “In ten years the oil wars will be in full swing, the feds will not know shit, and your pixels will be dead. The worse that can happen is someone will know you and remember you pissed them off for some reason… Then ya know it’s just buckwheats.” In the same year, this remark showed up in another discussion group: “The fact that these punks made a video with the intent of putting it on the internet cements our feelings on the issue – buckwheats. All of them.” Elsewhere: “And this one goes right between Obama’s beady eyes…This next one is buckwheats! Right up Olbermann’s bunghole…”

A few more recent examples of contemporary use: “That dude that did this is gonna get buckwheats…” “This was a buckwheats hit to Toshiba, plain and simple buckwheats.” Writer Bob Murphy, when considering the case of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, titled his piece “Buckwheats for Bucky?” Here’s the one I relate to, from a poem by Katrina Rasikari:

My God do I miss you!
Life is pure buckwheats without you!

Video gamers have enthusiastically adopted the term, as explained by another entry in the Urban Dictionary: “A person who has called buckwheats on another player will often avoid other players, ignore easy kills, and disregard danger to oneself in order to punish their enemy for some perceived slight.” There is, in fact, a website called Buckwheats.org that has to do with gaming. And there’s a site called La Familia, in support of one subgroup of the players of Shadowrun, a “punk game set in an alternate near-future.” Its lexicon defines buckwheats as “a vengeance murder involving torture, mutilation and a slow death,” and offers as an example of usage, “He died buckwheats.”

Another gaming site elaborates by explaining that buckwheats “is usually reserved for traitors, informers, welchers, and other people who need to serve as an object lesson… The look on the victim’s face is usually good for a nightmare or two.” Other random outbursts found on similar sites include “Buckwheats for that guy,” and “I have one word for you: ‘Buckwheats!'”

BOAT DRINKS

Moving on to a more pleasant topic, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg absolutely did not invent “boat drinks.” This term is the title of a 1979 song by Jimmy Buffet, whose lyrics include the lines

Waitress I need two more boat drinks
Then I’m headin’ south ‘fore my dream shrinks

A boat drink typically contains rum, and comes with a little umbrella or some other decoration. There’s a difference between boat drinks and, for instance, the self-medicating shots of hard liquor slugged down by a dock worker after a day of brutal labor. Boat drinks are luxury. They serve not as an anesthetic for the woes of life but as enhancement to an already high level of satisfaction. A fellow named Mark Knowles wrote, “There is something special about boat drinks, because ‘boat drinks’ is really a state of mind rather than a particular drink.” In the film, it’s an all-purpose salutation and expression of good will and fellowship. Andy Garcia, who should know, said “boat drinks” is a metaphor for heaven.

IT IS WHAT IT IS

Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead contains a multitude of colloquialisms, both traditional and invented for the occasion.

Assigning Jimmy to detain and frighten the fiance’ of his son’s ex-girlfriend, The Man says, “It’s just an action, it’s not a piece of work.” In other words, yes, get violent, but no, don’t kill the guy. “Piece of work” is, of course, a familiar construction. The first thing you think of is Shakespeare – “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason.” And there are a whole lot of other ways to use it. But Scott Rosenberg may have originated this one.

Also, it appears that he invented “Blood runs when the time comes,” which Joe Heff quotes portentously as the first rule of life. It sounds like something that genuine bad guys would have thought up, but apparently it is made up. The saying has been used in a song, “Hell Bound” by Helder which probably was written since the movie came out. Here’s the verse:

we’re never satisfied
but tonight we go with the tide
blood runs when the time comes
I’m gonna stick to my guns

“Bangtail” is standard black American slang for prostitute, but “lunchy” may be a neologism, at least the way it’s used here. It’s how the old guy describes Bernard. Looking it up, we find meanings like mediocre, stupid, dull-witted, and irresponsible. While Bernard is all those things, I think “lunchy,” as used here, is short for “out to lunch.” It’s an expression we’ve all heard, and it implies something stronger than any of those other qualities: namely, a connection with reality that’s tenuous, if not completely severed.

And here’s an expression known to probably everyone: “It is what it is.” Somebody could write a book on that one. I know I could. So, what I’d like to say here is, don’t pick on Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead. It is what it is, and that’s damn good.

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