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Lost in America (1985) March 21st, 2020

Anchorage is about to enter what the Mayor is calling a ‘Hunker Down’. I don’t know what that means exactly. It sounds like it means all ‘nonessential’ businesses are closing. Seems like a business’s essentialness depends completely on your point of view. I’m sure the clerk at the comic book store thinks that business is pretty essential to pay his rent. The global situation is starting to erode my already skeletal faith in the people in power to do what’s necessary to protect the people and ensure our future prosperity. Enter Albert Brooks, by way of Goodwill.

Turns out Goodwill might be one of those nonessential businesses that shut down because of the pandemic. The thing about Goodwill is they have affordable used jigsaw puzzles. There’s really no better time to be a jigsaw puzzle. I’m on social media far too often and I’ve seen the number of people posting about puzzles jump from 0 before coronavirus to ‘any-number-higher-than-zero-should-be-alarming’ now. So my wife and I stop into Goodwill to stock up on puzzles before they shutter for our safety. We walk in, she goes for the puzzles and I go for the books. On the end of the book aisle is a shelf with Blu-Rays. There aren’t many and the stock they have is the stock they’ve had. For a while. My eyes scan across the numerous blue spines and stop suddenly, sharply on a clear spine.

Ok, I don’t really know who’s reading this blog. At this point, you know me. We’re related or friends. But I’m gonna pretend that you’re a stranger and over-explain this. In my world, clear Blu-Ray cases mean one of two diametrically opposite things. Either it’s cheap or it’s Criterion. As luck would have it, this was the latter. Staring back at me from the probably not infected shelves of the Goodwill, hermetically sealed in it’s original Barnes and Noble shrink-wrap, was a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of Albert Brook’s 1985 film Lost in America. I’m not going to pretend to have the biggest personal Criterion library but my wife tells me it’s average (How would she know? How many Criterion Collections has she seen? How many before she aggregated enough data to confidently determine an average?). The Criterion Collection and other boutique Blu-Ray producers are important to me. I love movies but I haven’t seen every movie. It helps to have a guide, someone who can point you towards the sweet cream of cinema. Hence the significance of the 101 ‘Genre’ Movies You Must See Before You Die books and the Criterion Collection. They recommend movies I didn’t even know existed.

I started building my Criterion Collection in high school with spine #100 The Beastie Boys Video Anthology. You have to understand, the year was probably 2003-04 and YouTube exist yet and was 10 years away from becoming the on-demand MTV it is today. The only way to watch music videos was to catch them on TV or buy the DVD’s. I bought the DVD’s and watched them over and over again, occasionally subjecting my Dad to a few enthusiastic viewings. Since then the collection has grown and will keep growing for awhile. Lost in America was about to be my newest addition at the low price of $10. Puzzles be damned I was buying this weird diamond in the rough. Then I examined the cover more closely. Two people, a man and a woman, on their knees in the Arizona desert with their heads buried in the red dirt. “Oh,” thought I, “It’s just like us, trying not to breath anyone else’s air or touch our faces.” With that errant synapse I knew I would watch it tonight.

Improving my writing is the main incentive to do this blog (was that active enough? is my grammar ok? does this run-on sentence make my blog look fat?). It’s also fun, so far… but I have instituted minor style guides and one of them comes from another Albert Brooks Criterion Collection release, Broadcast News. See, in that movie, William Hurt’s character seems to be fully aware that he’s failing upward in the news biz because he’s very good-looking and can read aloud. He’s found himself in a high-paying prestigious anchor job but he couldn’t feel more like a fraud. He confesses to Brooks a promise he made himself. Never pretend you know something you don’t know. That’s one of my guides here. I won’t pretend to know something I don’t know, or in this context, I won’t pretend to have seen a movie I haven’t seen. So here goes.

Turns out in order to really ‘get’ Lost in America you need to have seen Easy Rider and I haven’t. I think it was recently at the Bear’s Tooth and maybe a Fathom event or something but I missed it regardless. I’m a bad movie fan. The entire thrust of Lost in America is focused on satirizing Easy Rider and the ‘dropout’ mindset. How could I be so confident Lost in America is satirizing Easy Rider? Because they reference the classic road movie by name numerous times. “Have you seen Easy Rider?” Julie Hagerty asks a motorcycle patrolman in the hopes of avoiding a ticket. Albert Brooks sitting comfortably in his deluxe motor home attempts to signal camaraderie with a passing motorcyclist, a brother on the road sticking it to the man, only to receive the bird in response. It’s pervasive.

Sometimes I’ll see a movie and think “I completely understand this movie. I know what the creatives were trying to say with this film.” That’s a great feeling, it’s a great incentive to see old movies. The thrill of ‘getting it’. I didn’t ‘get’ Lost in America in that perfect way. I ‘got’ the deadpan humor and appreciated the extraordinary performances. Albert Brooks is reliably immaculate. Julie Hagerty blew me away with her ability to jump from the mousy soft spoken wife to the chittering out of control gambling fiend. Garry Marshal steals the show and he has two scenes in the 90 minute feature. Brooks, as the Director, chooses a flat medium-wide profile two shot done without minimal cut aways more than once in the film. Suggesting the two characters, often one a younger person trying to break free of the rat race and the other a seasoned rat are actually two sides of the same coin in different stages of life. There are these brilliant tracking shots that follow characters through space. The opening shot is an odd silent tour through the unhappy couples home ending with a shot of them in bed on their last night in the house before it’s sold. The movie is great but I don’t think I’ll be able to truly appreciate it until I see the inspirational source material.

I guess I owe it to Albert Brooks, the Criterion Collection and Lost in America to see Easy Rider. Otherwise it’ll just feel like a slower, drier National Lampoon’s Vacation.

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