Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. Here's Scout Tafoya.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Doylestown, PA. Middle class suburb neatly situated between the woods and Philadelphia. Twenty minute drive and you'd be in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. An hour drive the other direction and you'd be in the city. Kind of neat. Went to a hippie school in the woods, which was really, really nice. Actually seeing trees every day. Spoiled me because now Queens makes me claustrophobic. The town itself was perfectly lovely, until I realized it was pretty much entirely free of diversity of any kind. So in High School I kind of lost patience with the place and the many angry people who lived there. Lots of lawyers, racist bumperstickers and pointless boutiques. Two olive oil shops a block away from each other. Naturally all 20 of the bars in the center of town are always packed. I worked at the town's only record store, Siren, for almost a decade and it was the only place weirdos could hide. That place was my home. I felt safe there, like I was with my people, but still the creeping despair would find its way in. Sad accountants and lawyers would wander in and demand 10% discounts on .99 cent records and then put these awful smiles on, like they knew we had to be nice to them because the customer's always right. Just appalling greed and social tone-deafness. We had a guy come in and demand that a man talk to him instead of one of our female employees. So much unfocused resentment in that place. But it's lovely in the fall.
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
I grew up in a movie house. No two ways about it. My parents loved movies, they used them to raise me and my siblings. We would talk in movie quotes and still use "Mystery Science Theater 3000" references to get through awkward situations even though I'm the only one in my family who still watches the show (can't go to sleep without watching sometimes. There's a facebook group for people like me. I'm not kidding). Movies were always in my life. They were such a crucial part of my development, because I saw how big the world could be and how many experiences I wasn't having because I was raised where I was raised. Watching foreign movies with my dad at an incredibly young age helped me become a more empathetic person. Showed me how big the world is. I'm lucky enough that I can strip away nostalgia and see that just because I watched something as a kid doesn't make it a good movie. But coming of age in the 90s made it so that I prize a certain aesthetic sturdiness that directors don't have anymore. Look at "Clear & Present Danger" or "Executive Decision." I loved watching those films with my mom. Those are probably no one else's idea of a good movie, but I have such fondness for their texture. You know the dimensions of every house Jack Ryan used to walk into. The way the environments and personalities are so clearly but casually established. Look at the way the houses and offices are dressed in "Patriot Games." People used to love doing those jobs, you can just tell. Today that's mostly been lost. Everything streamlined, everything self-conscious.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
"Aliens." It's my first memory. I'm on my parent's bed and wake up, as if from a nap, and there are the last 20 minutes of "Aliens." That'll excite a kid's imagination. I used to write short stories in fourth grade instead of doing homework that stole plot and structure elements from "Aliens." It's the reason I'm writing these words right now. Let me know that movies could be the most exciting thing in the world.
What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."
That would be a Michael Mann double feature. My dad had the VHS of Heat and I used to watch the second cassette near constantly when I was 7 or 8. My mom is probably the reason we owned "Last of the Mohicans," but I never thought to ask. She watched it more and had the soundtrack. They both knew I loved the films, anyway. And I'd hear my dad talk about Mann and it got me thinking about the director's job. I didn't get it exactly, but I knew that everything I was seeing, the way the camera so coolly films Robert De Niro shooting out of the windshield of his getaway car. Every little detail of this enormous movie was all the work of one guy. I wasn't as analytical with "Last of the Mohicans." That to me was just the perfect romantic movie. I was so taken with it, that score, those all-consuming images. There was almost no room for me to pick it apart, it all worked so well. But the experience of obsessing over these films alerted me to the fact that there was an author. One person made these things exist. It's a little more complicated than that, but there's something poetic about that idea, that one person's vision conjures entire worlds, moves armies of cast and crew, invents images where there were none. It's all still magic to me, and I've made my own movies, I know that it's frequently grueling and lonely. But I watch "Last of the Mohicans" even now and I'm a kid again.
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
"Monsieur Ibrahim." Nothing to do with the film's quality, and in general I try to stick everything out to the end. I paid for the experience, might as well get my money's worth. In this instance my then-girlfriend was mad at me (I was 14, I think) and so I had this knot in my stomach and I keep watching this kid, who's basically my age at the time, having sex with prostitutes and just loving life. I kept feeling progressively sicker until I ran out and called her and tried to fix whatever the issue was. Most absurd situation. Her parents thought I was a bad influence on her, what with my deranged habit of watching polite arthouse cinema about gentle Turkish perverts, and didn't want me to see her anymore. I think she thought I wasn't making a good enough show of myself; upset I wasn't trying harder to look like a nice Christian boy in front of her parents (that I was raised Quaker and had turned into an atheist seriously didn't help). I remember that argument as well as the first twenty five minutes of "Monsieur Ibrahim."
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
This thankfully changes all the time because I love being surprised by how funny movies can be. Anyone who's sat next to me at NYFF press screenings knows I laugh obnoxiously loud (Fellow Ebert writer Glenn Kenny can attest to this, as can Nick Newman, Greg Cwik, Monica Castillo and Eric Barroso and most of the Lincoln Center patrons, most of whom probably have voodoo dolls in my likeness). My girlfriend gets angry when I laugh at things without warning her because it's so loud. I was asked to laugh less loudly by the management at a matinee of Me & Orson Welles once because people had complained. I think I ruined "Manchester by the Sea" and "Listen Up, Philip" for everyone at Walter Reade. I still lose my mind laughing at the Lonely Island movies ("Hot Rod," "Macgruber," "Popstar"), the Jackass films, "A New Leaf," "Young Frankenstein," "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother." Any film that requires rewinding to watch a joke again is ok by me. I can't think of a single answer to this but I remember the second time I saw David Wain's "They Came Together" I thought I was going to die. I was doubled over on my floor.
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
Elem Klimov's "Larisa." That's where the form for my video essays came from. Also, "Holy Motors."
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
This also thankfully changes all the time. When I was a kid everything scared me ("Them!" gave me nightmares, for crying out loud), but I loved being scared so I kept watching scarier movies. My dad was probably so frustrated with me because I'd keep asking to watch frightening movies and then have nightmares and wake he and my mom up and then beg to watch something worse the next time we were at Blockbuster. He drew the line with "Jaws" sequels. "Jaws" messed me up for weeks, so when I asked to watch the sequels he said no because he knew I was having shark nightmares. He may ultimately have been looking out for himself because the "Jaws" sequels are all terrible and he didn't want to have to endure them again. Now I love getting scared. "The Woman In Black" did a number on me, ditto "The Babadook." I saw "The Exorcist" for the first time when it was re-released in theatres in 2003, and that was a perfectly terrifying experience. "The Evil Dead" was perfectly terrifying.
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
"Wild at Heart." Silver medal: "All That Heaven Allows." Bronze: "Ghost & Mrs. Muir."
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
Probably "The West Wing." It's that 90s thing. I felt like I'd been in those offices after watching the show week after week. I wanted to return to the environment, bask in that warm cinematography and hear that lovely, pretentious dialogue. My friend Nick Smerkanich and I would quote that show to madness in High School. We both loved doing our Alan Alda and Stockard Channing impressions. You know…kid stuff.
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
Probably The Great Gatsby. Boring answer but what can I do, it's perfect. Cormac McCarthy is in my head all the time. The Road and Blood Meridian. Dispatches by Michael Herr.
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
Interpol. They've been with me for over ten years and I still find solace and meaning in those howling grey modernist landscapes. When someone captures your feeling of isolation and angst so perfectly, you make a friend for life. Interpol's music has been with me at every major turning point in my life.
Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
Maybe Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition." 9 hours of watching a nice guy get slowly murdered by his country is about 7 hours too many for me. But Kobayashi was one of the finest directors in what was probably the greatest era of Japanese filmmaking, so naturally it's staggeringly good. It's just impossibly sad, top to bottom. "Scenes from a Marriage" is another one. A lot of Bergman's Fårö movies are too heavy for words ("Shame," "Passion of Anna"). "Scenes" in particular is just so aware that everything is meaningless and romance is a fabrication, and it's so rational about it. Gives me hives just thinking about it.
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
"Apocalypse Now Redux," though "Heaven's Gate" is creeping up. Ask me how fun my parties are.
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
Probably have to be "Aliens," and yes, quite. But I've been watching R-rated films since I was a kid. My parents wanted to share movies with us. They didn't pay attention to ratings. I bought "Dawn of the Dead" on VHS in 4th grade because I was so in love with it. I was very lucky.
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Cary Grant, Harrison Ford, Tatsuya Nakadai, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Chow Yun-Fat, Peter O'Toole, Kurt Russell, James Mason, Gene Hackman, Oliver Reed, Jeff Bridges, Denis Lavant, Elliott Gould, Roy Scheider, Peter Falk, Gene Wilder, Yaphet Kotto, Warren Oates, George Segal, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre.
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Sylvie Testud, Anna Karina, Isabelle Huppert, Pam Grier, Olivia Hussey, Ellen Burstyn, Madeline Kahn, Gena Rowlands, Bulle Ogier, Linda Darnell, Dorothy Mackaill, Aurore Clement, Simone Simon, Yumiko Nogawa, Harriet Anderson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tilda Swinton, Melanie Lynskey, Tallie Medel, Ronit Elkabetz, Vonetta McGee, Marki Bey, Gene Tierney, Kate Lyn Sheil and Thelma Ritter (she may never have been the lead, but she stole everything she walked through so…).
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
That's kind of my thing around here. It's tough to know the tide really because every film has fans. John Carter and Lone Ranger fans came out of the woodwork in a big way when I did my Unloveds on those. I think Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous" is probably the best answer for this. It's the one film I know is going to produce groans and eye-rolls when I bring it up. Mia Hanson-Løve brings it up in her film "Things To Come" as a kind of punchline, so clearly its fate is sealed. That film is the Thelma to my Louise.
What film do you hate that most people love?
It's a good thing this question is near the end or I'd have lost people right up front. The list is endless: "Room," "Avatar," "Coherence, "Interstellar," "Breakfast Club," "Fight Club," "Gone Girl," "Forrest Gump," "The Matrix," "The Usual Suspects," "Back to the Future," "The Wizard of Oz," "American Beauty," "Amelie," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Good The Bad & The Ugly," "Once Upon A Time In The West," "American Sniper," "Wall Street," "The Departed."
Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
I fled a screening of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" when I got a phone call from a girl I was in love with who had gone to my house to look for me to talk to me about something. But I wasn't there and she was just going to drive home. Didn't want to discuss it over the phone. In fact, just forget about it. She lived an hour away on a good day, but it was the dead of winter and the narrow roads through the woods to her house were iced over. I knew she had a headstart and I needed to get to her house before she went home and went to sleep because I couldn't very well knock on her door and explain to her parents that I was just in the neighborhood. I lived an hour away and it was 10 PM. I had to talk to her before she made it to her front door. So I sped the whole way there on winding, icy roads through pitch dark woods. It's a wonder I didn't wrap my car around a tree or slide into a ditch. I got to her house as she was pulling into her driveway. When she figured out what I'd just done she just put her head against the steering wheel and sat there. We were together for almost two years after that night. I did eventually finish "Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" and liked it quite a bit, but not half as much as running out of it to go do something stupid and crazy.
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
Worrying someone is going to shoot up the movie theatre I'm in. That and dim projector bulbs.
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
The feeling of magic has dimmed slightly. When you'd watch movies and have no sense of the world or the making of the film, just that a giant, beautiful collection of images was whirring past you. Stories, written in light, as big as life. You can't get that back.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
I've unfollowed a whole bunch of people on Twitter, does that count? Friends are more important than my opinion on a movie.
What movies have you dreamed about?
William Friedkin's "The Hunted," strangely enough, is the one that comes to mind. "Twelve Monkeys" has been responsible for a few of the design elements in my dreams. The clothes and environments and the like. I know there are more but I can't remember them as well.
What concession stand item can you not live without?
I'm vegan, so I'm usually SOL at the concession stand, but I do love the smell of popcorn. Can't beat it. It's how you know you're at a movie theatre. You're about to do something great.
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