Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Resolutions?? Feh!!

So remember how on January 3rd of 2009 I, among numerous other film bloggers, put together a list of film-related New Year's resolutions? And how I was supposed to do, or complete, or not do, as the situation warranted, all of them before all the calendars of the world flipped over to 2010? I wonder how that turned out! Did I, in fact, stick to each and every one of my resolutions? Did I, indeed, stick to any of them? Perhaps now would be a good time to run through that list, one resolution at a time, and find out was has transpired over the past almost whole year...

Resolution #1 - I will watch both Satantango and Our Hitler this year.

Now, did I watch Bela Tarr's 33 hour, or whatever, long masterpiece? I did not. BUT! Did I watch Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's surrealist, psychadelic and kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of German fascist history?? Also no. For all I know, Our Hitler is the furthest thing from psychadelic, surrealist, or the rest of it. I didn't watch any of it. I never even got disc one from Netflix. Disc one of either film. I didn't even try this one. I thought about it once or twice. I'd think, "Shit, it's only September. I got about four months to watch roughly a day's worth of movies. I got this one. In the bag!" More fool me. We're off to a bad start.

Resolution #2 - I will see more films in the theater this year.

If I only saw three or four movies in the theater in 2008, then yes, I squeaked this one through. Otherwise, I think I matched my record low. This one, frankly, embarrasses me, but I really only go to see films in the theater that I really want to see, and many of those don't hit my town. Plus we have an XBox now, so...

Resolution #3 - I will clean out my DVR.

I did not clean out my DVR. To be honest, this one was never going to happen anyway. The best I could have hoped for was to make a tiny dent in the thing, and that I accomplished, in a sense. I did watch Kenji Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin, which I consider a major victory. I'd had all four hours of that thing in my DVR for well over a year, and one long weekend I knocked it out. Of course, I filled it back up with other movies, most of which I haven't watched (though some I have, so the tiny dent remains), but the main goal is to watch the oldest stuff. And The 47 Ronin (which, for the record, I liked well enough, but I probably won't be buying the action figures) took up a lot of room, having been aired on IFC or Sundance in two parts. In that same vein, I still have parts one through three of Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases floating around in the DVR. And if I'm being really honest with myself, like I sit myself down in a chair, spin another chair around backwards so I can fold my arms over the back and look myself straight in the eyes, I'd say to myself, "You are never going to watch all three parts of The Tulse Luper Suitcases. You should just delete them and free up the space. For Christ's sake, have you ever seen a Peter Greenaway movie?? Why don't you just put a gun in your mouth now!?"

So that's if I was honest with myself. But they're not available on DVD!! This is the only way I can ever see them! And what if they're really good and don't give me a giant motherfucking headache!? Because, you see, I'm of two minds about this.

Resolution #4 - I will watch more of the films I bought on DVD sight unseen.

I haven't done so badly with this one, actually. Of the examples I offered in the original resolutions post, I have watched Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, The Grissom Gang, Lisa and the Devil, Songs from the Second Floor, Army of Shadows and part one of the Pusher trilogy. I've also watched any number of second-rate horror films, and Performance (I'd rather watch the second-rate horror films again, by the way), Combat Shock, and a host of others. And all I resolved to do was "watch more" of them. So, yeah! Check this one off, bitches.

Resolution #5 - I will educate myself on the films of Max Ophuls.

Eh. Sort of, but not really. I finally saw The Earrings of Madame de..., and it was, as you probably know, brilliant. But that's as far as I've gone with this one. If anyone wants to give me advice regarding which Ophuls to check out next, drop a comment, and I shall heed it.

Resolution #6 - I will continue to give chances to Godard and Antonioni.

Godard, yes. Antonioni, no. And I still don't like Godard, other than Band of Outsiders and bits of Breathless, but that didn't stop me from picking up the Criterion of Pierrot le Fou, and I also have First Name: Carmen and Passion sitting in a white sleeve with "Netflix" on it lying around here somewhere. I bet I'll get around to it. Antonioni can just cool it for now. My interests lie elsewhere right now.

Resolution #7 - I will choose one month during which the only films I watch will be film noir.

This one was just stupid. I was never going to do this. I was flailing around, trying to come up with resolutions. I've watched a giant bagful of film noirs (films noir? Crime films?) this year -- The Sniper, The Lineup, The Big Steal, Crime Wave, Decoy, Mystery Street, The Racket, and so on -- so why put the pressure on myself to cram it all into one month? You're being a jackass, Bill. Quit being such a jackass.

Resolution #8 - I will invent a film-related meme.

Nope. I didn't even come close to this. Although it occurs to me that film-blog-type memes, after what appeared to be a never-ending flurry of them in late 2008, into early 2009, just sort of stopped. I guess everybody got fed up with them, and were getting annoyed because somebody tagged them, and then they felt obligated to take part, and who wants to write about dancers anyway?? So skipping this one was probably for the best.

Resolution #9*- I will...um...make a... or no! I'll write a book about...how movies can sometimes...if, you know, if, or I mean unless we watch them with...with, ah, more sophisticated eyes, then we, as a nation -- indeed, as a people -- will...as a people we will...ah...most likely, what will happen is...

Now that one I did.

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Okay, well, clearly, that was a roaring success. I'm very proud of myself, and of all of you. Fresh content for the new year is fast approaching, so be on the lookout for whatever that turns out to be.



*Number nine....number nine...number nine...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Moose

I can speak English. I learned it from a book.
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Merry post-Christmas, everybody. I was away, for five very delightful days, but now I am back. The above image and caption represents one of the lovely presents I received this year, and it's this sort of thing that I'll be thinking about all day, now that I'm back at stupid work. I hope all your holidays were similarly wonderful, and you are all just as miserable now that it's over as I am.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Overshadowed: I Hope You Slit Your Throat

Gordon M. Williams's career as a writer, at least at a glance, is pretty sobering. In 1969, his fifth novel, From Scenes Like These, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 1981, his last published novel (he is still alive, from what I can tell), was The Revolt of the Micronauts, his second novel based on the popular line of plastic robot toys (see comments). Though I don't know for sure, I think it's safe to assume that these last books (as well as the film novelization he wrote, for Ridley Scott's The Duellists, of all things) were written to put food on the table [well, who knows if that's true now - Ed.], and it's simply depressing to actually acknowledge and take to heart the realities of the life of a professional writer.

Even worse (possibly, anyway, but I shouldn't presume) for Williams is that his most famous novel is not really all that famous, except as the basis for one of the most notorious films of the 1970s. In 1969 -- clearly a big year for him -- Williams published The Siege of Trencher's Farm, the story of an American literary scholar named George Magruder, who, with his daughter and English wife, Louise, rent a home in a secluded, rural English village. George wants to finish his book on "Branksheer, the late 18th century English diarist", and Louise wouldn't mind reconnecting with her home country, not least because she's grown to hate America, and Americans, including, possibly, her husband.

And so, with the exception of the different names, the daughter, and the protagonist's intellectual pursuits, you can see that what we have here is the basic set up for Sam Peckinpah's 1971 masterpiece, Straw Dogs. (It's worth noting, as a curious bit of harmony, that Peckinpah's fifth film, if you count his 1966 TV film Noon Wine, was The Wild Bunch, released, as Williams's Booker-nominated fifth novel was, in 1969, and Peckinpah's last film was the paycheck-providing The Osterman Weekend, from 1983. Two years later than 1981, and more dignified than a Micronauts novel, but...) In that film, Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, a mathematician, who moves to the same kind of English village with his similarly resentful wife, Amy (Susan George), but sans daughter. The plot of both novel and film progress in pretty much the same way: George/David is a liberal pacifist who, shortly after the disappearance of a village girl, finds himself responsible for the well-being of Henry Niles (David Warner in the film), the man who may be responsible for said disappearance. George/David ultimately finds himself violently defending his home against a group of local men, who would have Niles for themselves, to exact justice how they pleased.

But hold on there, fellows, because things ain't that similar. For one thing, while Henry Niles, in both novel and film, is mentally a child, in Williams's story he's also a convicted, and multiple, child killer, while in the film he's merely the "village idiot" who kills the little girl in an Of Mice and Men-style accident (and he also has a vague backstory, involving "making a mistake" with a girl). And in the novel, child killer or no, Niles is actually innocent of this particular murder. The reader knows this primarily because the girl isn't killed at all. She disappears (she, too, is mentally handicapped in the novel) because she gets spooked at a children's party and runs out into the snowy evening, unseen (she's later found, nearly frozen, but alive).

Overall, the lack of death in The Siege of Trencher's Farm stands out quite a bit, especially if you've come to the novel, as I have, after witnessing the blood-soaked finale of Peckinpah's film. As it happens, while there is still the accidental and fatal shooting of a fellow townsperson and attempted peacemaker, a killing that changes the whole dynamic of the suspense, as well as cluing George/David into how far he may have to decide he's willing to go to protect himself and his family, in the novel, none of the men who attempt to break into George/David's home are killed. A foot is still blown off with a shotgun, and a baseball bat, a poker, and boiling water all come into play, but no one is eternally down for the count in the novel, and their fates, in fact, are tossed off by Williams in his coda with the revelation that the men are "being x-rayed".

All of this makes Williams's novel look a bit soft, even inconsequential. At worst, contradictory. In the novel, George travels much the same path as David in the film: he begins as a firm pacifist, not a bad guy so much as not terribly likable (more about that later) who, when faced with his wife's immediate desire to throw Henry Niles to the wolves, because whatever those wolves do will more than likely be just desserts, can't help but hammer on their shared history as anti-death penalty crusaders. His point of view is fine and defensible, whatever your own views, but given that Niles is a child killer, and he does have a terrified daughter in the house, he could maybe allow his wife to voice her understandable change of heart (more about her later, too). But really, it's more just the way he says things, as opposed to the content of it, which is largely his problem in the film, as well. In any case, of course, he pretty soon will himself move past his own pacifism, much to his own horror, ultimately. This is the novel I'm talking about here, don't forget, and forgive me if the image of George, after just winning his final, vicious battle with the last intruder -- another character who is mentally handicapped, if only mildly, which brings the count of such characters in the novel up to three -- broken and unbelieving at his own capacity for brutality finally leaves me unmoved, due to the fact that the loser in this clash is fated only to be "x-rayed". The villagers had a shotgun and several knives, while George had whatever everyday items -- which somehow does not include knives -- he had to hand. Add to that the fact that Niles is innocent here, and no murder was committed at all, save the one (technically manslaughter, I suppose) committed by the intruders against one of their own, and it's very hard for me to see where the deep moral ambiguity Williams is aiming for ever really comes into play. George is responsible for no fatalities, the reader knows that at least a couple of the villagers had decided to simply slaughter him and his family, to erase witnesses of their earlier killing, and at the end we're left with Williams's trumped up bit of moralizing, asking "Well, what else was George supposed to do?"

And Williams attempts, half-heartedly, to present both sides of the issue of what should be done with Niles. At one point, before Niles is taken in by George, but after he has unintentionally escaped (long story) from captivity, two local policemen, engaged in the search for the girl, discuss the situation:

"You'd have to feel sorry for the poor bugger," said a police sergeant... "He'll freeze to death."

"Won't be much of a loss," said the constable. "Lunatics like that shouldn't be in a position to get out."

"You'd hang him, would you?"

"Maybe not hang him. An injection. He's a liability -- to himself much as anything."

"The Two Waters folk say he's not dangerous anymore. Bad health."

"Can't be bad enough for my taste. You ever see the photographs of the kids he done in? Gave me nightmares for months, they did."

"Aye, I know. But he's not better than a kid himself. He isn't responsible."

"That'd be a lot of comfort to the kids. And their mothers."

At this point, we don't know that Niles hasn't killed the girl, but by the end of the novel we sure enough do, and this knowledge clouds over any ambiguity Williams may have wanted to convey. Wherever you stand on the idea of stringing up child killers -- and let's not pretend this isn't an intriguing notion in some ways -- I think we can all agree that it's pushing it a little bit to string them up for a murder that they not only didn't commit, but that never happened at all. So Williams is either guilty of bad ambiguity, or of deck-stacking.
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Not so the film, of course. Or not quite so, anyway. Because, to begin with, in Straw Dogs, David takes down just about everybody, and permanently, too. It is within the kingdom of reason to think that David's actions by the end of the film are a bit much. But before we get into what is presented on screen, and what morality, if any, can be gleaned from that, here's what Peckinpah had to say about it, taken from various letters to unsympathetic critics, and conversations with Peckinpah recalled by friends and colleagues (all quotes taken from Marshall Fine's biography Bloody Sam*):

John Bryson, after seeing the film, said to Peckinpah, "Where'd you get the heavies? They were incredible," referring to the beefy British actors.

Peckinpah narrowed his eyes, gave Bryson one of his reptilian smiles and said, "They weren't the heavies. The husband and wife were the heavies."

Following Pauline Kael's famous review, in which she referred to Straw Dogs as "a fascist work of art" (this being around the time that a small group of people decided to completely redefine, and thereby corrupt, the word "fascist", a move that everybody else was pretty much cool with), Peckinpah wrote her letter that read, in part:

"I read your review. Its ambivalence was complete, although I was distressed that you didn't pick up that David was inciting the very violence he was running away from."

I'm not sure I've ever encountered a film that has invited a more diverse stream of opinions, and justifications for those opinions, as Straw Dogs. The idea that David is the villain of the film has been picked up and run with by a number of people, though not in the direction I suspect Peckinpah might have intended. In my view, Peckinpah could very well mean that David's early cowardice, and inability to act, inspires his attackers to push him further and further, to the point that violent death is the only conclusion. A stronger man would have maybe kicked their asses earlier, and scared them into a little respect ("My vision of morality is not yours", Peckinpah told Richard Schickel). I feel that, since the above-quoted statements from Peckinpah have started to widely circulate, some critics have latched on to them -- desperately, even -- and interpreted them as claiming that David literally brings the violence he defends against upon himself. All this in order to make these critics feel better for liking the film they suspect might be distasteful to them.

The problem here, really, is ambiguity. Now, I'm not knockin' the stuff, but a lot of people have a tendency to fetishize ambiguity as some kind of Ultimate Good, until, that is, the ambiguity is in service of something about which they feel they have a pretty clear head. So then, they either flee from it -- the ambiguous thing is clearly unambiguous, and vilely so -- or they condemn it, because such a topic cannot, must not, be viewed in any way other than this way. As a result, the violence in Straw Dogs has a tendency to utterly repulse viewers, or to force them to engage in mental and moral gymnastics resulting in an interpretation of David Sumner as this monstrous -- if ignorant of his own monstrosity -- bringer of destruction.

And let's face it: the guy's kind of an asshole. He treats his wife Amy like a child, he's jealous, yet blithely disregarding of her actions as long as she's not in his way. He's smug, self-important, all that stuff (and all of it brilliantly underplayed by Dustin Hoffman in, for my money, his very best performance. His second best, to me, can be found in Marathon Man, which might give you some idea of how I feel about Hoffman overall. Suffice it to say, I wish there were more Straw Dogs and Marathon Men on his resume). But he's also not wrong, at least not always. In the last twenty minutes of the movie, five drunken, violent men are trying to break their way into his home and murder the mentally handicapped man Sumner doesn't know to be guilty (and neither do the villagers, yet) of murder. He would rather, as a good and reasonable man of liberal tendencies, to wait for the doctor (Niles is injured at this point) and the police to arrive. In fact, he demands that this be the course of action, and he has every right to, as a law-abiding citizen, and because this whole debate is occurring in his own home. The villagers have a skinful at this point -- plus, not incidentally, the missing girl is the daughter of one of the men -- and they lay siege to Sumner's home, with fire, knives, and guns. The violence that follows is the result of a man defending his home and his wife. A wife who, by the way, has been raped twice at this stage, by two of the men now trying to break in, but David doesn't know about this, so I guess it doesn't count. Also, they more than likely strangled his cat.

Again, Peckinpah doesn't make it easy for us. Watching the film again last night, I almost found it funny how thoroughly he seemed to want to fuck with his audience. Amy (Susan George is terrific, and rarely gets the credit she deserves for her performance -- why Hoffman thought she was wrong for the part, I'll never understand) is quite an appealing character for much of the film, but her psyche is well and truly cracked by the double sexual assault she suffers about midway through, committed by a man she once had a relationship with, years ago, and his brother. This notorious scene is the most hotly debated one in the film, because at one point during the first rape, Amy does appear to, as the man said, "lie back and enjoy it". Peckinpah offered a lot of, let's say "dubious", opinions about women and rape in the aftermath of the film's release, and it's frankly hard for me to watch Amy transform from a woman suffering through rape to a woman making passionate love, and begin any thoughts with, "Yes, but what Peckinpah meant was..." For a long time, I was against -- and pretty much still am -- the idea that Amy should not be viewed as "Amy", but rather as All Women, which is the tendency these days. But while Peckinpah's portrayal of women throughout his career offers a sort of limited, but real, variety that he doesn't always get credit for, I'll be damned if he wasn't asking to be hit with both barrels after people saw this scene. The only thing I can offer up now is that while the rape scene is a source of understandable offense to many people, I do wish that more of them would acknowledge the Amy that appears afterwards: withdrawn, angry, haunted, frightened. If her enjoyment was put in the film for a reason, then so was her outrage.


In any case, the Amy that appears at the end of the film is somewhat less likable, on the surface, at least, and mainly to David -- we know something he doesn't, after all. But when the siege begins, and Amy says that Niles is the only one they want so they should just give him up, David says, "But they'll beat him to death." Amy responds, "I don't care," and David's baffled, sickened reply is "You really don't, do you?" Of the three parties involved -- the attackers, Amy, and David -- who occupies the moral high ground here? Can anyone argue that it isn't David? And if David is the film's villain, I can only ask, who isn't the villain?

And then, of course, he slaps her. Later, when she tries to flee the house -- and leave him to defend himself against five armed men -- he grabs her hair and slaps her. The only way I can respond to this moment, which must be mentioned, is that I can understand his anger. But he absolutely should not have slapped her. I can underline that last sentence if you need me to, and I will if you will just understand his anger.

But then again, this anger, and David's sudden taste for violence is all part of what makes Straw Dogs such a skin-crawler, isn't it? In the end, David isn't just defending himself and his wife and his home. He's enjoying it. In the novel, when this change begins, Louise notes:

...at the beginning he'd seemed helpless, weak and passive, looking to her for strength. Then there was a stage when he'd taken over. She'd liked that. To think that George, her bookish husband, was capable of finding ways to keep a gang of ruffians out of their house.

For the first time in years she'd felt the way she'd always wanted to feel, like a woman. Protected. Given a man to lean on....

But now...why was he looking so pleased with himself?

Maybe because he wasn't dead. Also, no points to Williams for sexual maturity, either. But anyway, that's the sticker. Had David performed each act of justified (please tell me how it's not) violence with a grim and never-changing face, I think the film -- the ending, at least -- would have been met with fewer howls of disgust. Violence is not something to be liked, which sounds sarcastic coming from a guy who loved Rambo, though I don't mean it to be. Yet David lets slip that little, cold-blooded smile, more than once. And maybe the reason we blame him in the end, is because we can't blame him. Most of us have never defended our lives, or the lives of those we love, with lethal force. Maybe there is something satisfying about it. Isn't it awful to think so? Isn't it awful that Peckinpah presents that possibility?

Oh, and lest I forget, David spreads that satisfied smile quite a bit wider, in the last scene, when he's driving a successfully protected Henry Niles back to the village. That moment's a real kick in the pants, isn't it? How dare he. But why is a moment never taken to consider what will happen to that smug grin when David gets to the village and finds out what really happened to that girl? Why does no one think about what happens after the credits roll? Why in the world would anyone want Straw Dogs to be any easier to take than it is?



*Just as a by the way, though a possibly unwise one: as I've made clear, I have many problems with Gordon Williams's novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, and apparently so does Fine, who, in his biography, calls it "submediocre". But he also persists in referring to it as The Siege at [sic] Trencher's Farm, and says that in the novel "the timid academic rises to the occasion of defending his home, killing all the attackers in the process". Except that the number of attackers George kills is a big goose egg. I feel as though if Fine hadn't familiarized himself with the novel at the time he wrote about it, then he shouldn't have behaved as though he had.
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[This post is part of Neil Fulwood's month-long Sam Peckinpah blogathon, over at The Agitation of the Mind. Fortuitously, it also continues my own Overshadowed series, earlier editions of which can be found here and here.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the Shelf: Assortment

Pretty good mix, I think. Those four Aickman books (in between Painted Devils and Rashomon by Ryonosuke Akutagawa, you will fail to be able to read the spine of Aickman's short novel The Model) are the only books by him I can currently afford. Once I win the lottery, I'll get back to you.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On the Shelf: Sturgeon


My focus on collecting the complete stories of Theodore Sturgeon unfortunately waned. I am not happy about this. What you see here is only about half of the published volumes.

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UPDATE: For Rod...

Friday, December 18, 2009

On the Shelf: Kingsley


I like the way books look. I think they're very photogenic. I ain't no photographer or nothin', but I might do more of these.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Books o' the Year

This was not the most satisfying year of reading I've ever had. I didn't read too many novels that struck me dumb with envy and satisfaction due to what the author had pulled off, and the ease and mastery with which he or she did it. So, since a list of my favorite reads of the years is probably going to be a thing I do here, I was wondering if I'd be able to come up with a group I was really pleased with. And then, when I was going through my list, my hacking and slashing of titles suddenly stopped, and I was left with thirteen that I couldn't find it within myself to whittle down any further. Which I guess says something, but I don't know what.

So here's the list, some of which I've actually written about in the last year (links provided, of course) with brief commentary. I hate writing these goddamn introductions anyway, so let's do this this thing.

Oh, one more thing -- well, two. First, though I say these are my books of the year, that doesn't mean a single one of these was actually published in 2009. I don't read enough new books in a given year to support such a list, so these are just the best books I read this year, period, regardless of publication date (and frankly, in some cases, regardless of availability). Also, like last year, the only thing about the order that I feel confident about is the ranking of the top two. After that, you could shuffle the order any-which-way.

13. The Mourner by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - The fourth book in Stark/Westlake's utterly satisfying series of Parker novels, The Mourner borrows its structure from The Man with the Getaway Face, a book that came just two books earlier. That structure, roughly, sees Parker stuck in a particularly bad spot, brought about by something no one expected. After that, Westlake backtracks to show you how we got there, and what follows. I think that The Mourner is a bit more successful than its precursor, if only because the catalyst, a slimy little bastard named Menlo, is more hateful than Parker precisely because he thinks he's smarter than Parker. And he almost is, but what's interesting is that Westlake can make two awful people appear unequally awful, only because one of them is such a cool professional. At least Parker cares enough to work at it.

12. Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg - Before reading this, quite a few months ago, it had been ages since I'd ready any kind of serious science fiction, and even longer since I'd read, specifically, anything by Silverberg, one of the most important writers to me in my early explorations of that genre. And very quickly, while turning the beginning pages of Tower of Glass, I found myself wondering what in the hell had I been thinking? All those years wasted! Because this novel, about an insanely rich and driven man who works to build a tower tall enough that he'll be able to communicate with other lifeforms (it's much more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be brief) while oblivious to the growing disturbance in the AI community he has created to do his work for him, is the real stuff: a briefly sketched, yet vivid cast of characters, an eye-opening, however dated, look into certain fields of science, social commentary, and great suspense, with a morally uncertain ending, all at something like 170 pages. High-end craftsmanship rarely comes as smart as this.

11. The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I will admit that this cycle of bitterly funny Hollywood stories -- which chronicles the misadventures of a hack screenwriter working under the 1940s studio system, and which Fitzgerald dashed off for quick cash at the end of his life -- loses its edge in the last few stories. But before then, it contains some of his absolute best writing, in stories that are absurd, nasty, mean, and sad. This is Fitzgerald's cult book.


10. Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess - My write-up to this book (clink that link!) shows me more baffled than anything else by Burgess's truly bizarre take on zombies (the virus is spread through language, don't you know), but in the time since reading it, my admiration for this one-of-a-kind horror novel has really grown, not least because I'm grateful simply because the damn thing exists. If Burgess hadn't written this, no one else would have ever considered it, and I think that's quite something to say about any novel, let alone a horror novel. And the film version, called simply Pontypool, which Burgess wrote, and which bears almost no resemblance to the novel, ain't too shabby either.


9. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño - My post on this novel was, like the one about Pontypool Changes Everything, not quite a review, and even today I'm not entirely sure how much I really enjoyed Bolaño's fictional encyclopedia of fascist South and North American writers. A better grasp than I have on South American literary, social and political history would not go unused while reading this, for instance. Still, the sheer inventiveness, and bone-dry humor that Bolaño brings to the table, as casually as you might bring a deck of cards, sure is impressive, and goes a very long way. For me, anyway.

8. The Hustler by Walter Tevis - What can I say about this one? The post linked to is pretty thorough, if I may say so, but I will add that one thing that should no go unnoticed about Tevis's novel is the complete absence of any pose. Tevis was serious about pool, or played that part to the hilt, at least. Books like this, no matter how dark, tend to have a sheen of manufactured coolness about them, of phony manliness. In Tevis's novel, pool was too serious for that, and Eddie and Fats were too complete as people (even if Fats is more legend than man). Anyway, this novel, and the subsequent film, inspired a whole generation of posers and fakers. If you want the real thing, you go to the source.


7. Zeroville by Steve Erickson - I was clued into this novel by Glenn Kenny, who, at various times, marveled at the pure cinephiliac swoon of this dark story about a young man, known as Vikar, who appears in Hollywood in the wake of the Manson killings, with an image from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his bald head. Obsessed with Montgomery Clift, and, as it turns out, a naturally if idiosyncratically gifted film editor, Vikar falls into the world of Hollywood's second Golden Age, meeting all the big names of the time, like Brian De Palma and Margot Kidder and Francis Ford Coppola, and finding a mentor in, of all people, John Milius. The number of film references here is overwhelming, but the dark and sad story is the genuine draw, and is what truly lingers afterwards.

6. The Grifters by Jim Thompson - This is Thompson at his best. He could really be hit and miss, could Thompson, but when he really had a story by the neck, he could sink his readers into the heart of crime fiction like a knife. Because of Stephen Frears's film version (written by Donald E. Westlake), you all probably know the story by now anyway. So now read the book.


5. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. - Do you want to know why I love this book? Okay. Wangerin's cult classic Christian parable, about a rooster and his farm kingdom facing a most hideous evil, does not whitewash or ignore the deep difficulty of life, or the unspeakable tragedy, and it doesn't tell you everything will be okay. And in the form of Wyrm, Wangerin's Satan, and his minion, the dreaded creature known as Cockatrice, Wangerin knows and can speak the language of true earthly and cosmic evil like, quite possibly, no other writer I've encountered:

No longer was Cockatrice's gaze faraway. This, now, was his business. From the top of the Terebinth Oak he watched the slaughter with attention and with cheer. "Children," he breathed over and over to himself. "Ah, my children."

And from below the ground, from within the prison of the earth, there spoke another, greater voice: "Circumpsice, Domine," Wyrm rumbled powerfully, almost peacefully. "Videat Deus caedem meum."

"Let God in his heaven witness all my murder," spoken in the language of the powers.

Passages like that are why I love this book.


4. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene - Speaking of Christian unhappiness, Greene's classic is about the grimmest account of a man finding his faith as you can possibly imagine. His protagonist does find faith at the end, but feels as though he's been defeated as a result. Though it's even more complex than that, as anyone who's read it knows, and I was rather surprised at the limbs Greene climbs out on as the story reaches its climax. It takes guts to lay not just yourself, but your actual narrative, out as unapologetically as Greene does here. Fiercely smart and wrenching.



3. The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford - Charles Willeford is his own thing. I think every genre has a small number of writers working within it who are so unusual, so impossible to predict or imitate, that they are forever relegated to cult status. Horror has its Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti, and the crime genre has (among others) Charles Willeford. Read his Hoke Mosely novels to see how he treated the idea of the series detective, but read his stand alone books, like The Burnt Orange Heresy, to find the fire of true originality burning quietly in a genre whose practitioners too often coast on their influences. A story about art, lost genius, desperation, and, almost incidentally, yet inevitably, murder, this novel also has the virtue of placing you right in the middle of swampy Florida as only he could conjure it.

2. The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore - I read this one more recently than anything else on this list, and it was the topic of my final The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! series. A strange and rich blend of satire, history, and horror, Endore's novel is not like any other horror novel you've read -- I say this with great confidence. Click the link in the title for a fuller discussion, or just read the book for yourself. The latter option is preferable.



1. The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth - I went on a bit of a Roth tear this year, reading something like ten of his novels all told. Many, if not most (if not all) I liked very much, but The Professor of Desire, for me, stands alone. Roth's prose, which is so smoothly readable while containing some rather distressing depths, is at its most confident in this, the second of his weirdly disconnected Kepesh novels (in the first Kepesh novel, The Breast, Kepesh transforms into a giant female breast, and that's the last time in the trilogy you're going to hear about it). Here, Roth exposes Kepesh at his most shameful and weak -- this is the most uncomfortable Roth novel I've read, and that is a pretty tight race, let me tell you -- and also at his most warm-hearted. The blackest of psychological depths, as experienced by all of us, is leavened not only with Roth's humor, which is almost always acidic and not terribly ameliorating, but also with a genuine sense of caring and empathy. The final section, involving a visit between Kepesh and his aging father, is as beautiful and moving a piece of writing as Roth has yet turned in.

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That's it, folks! I'm done for tonight, and you all got some reading to do, so go on! Git!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hey. What's Going On?

I'm good. Just wearin' some gloves. Welp...take it easy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blech

I seem to have hit a bit of a dead spot when it comes to the blog lately. The brain, she's just not firing this week. I don't know what it is, but it seems to be infecting quite a number of my fellow bloggers lately (where the shit is Fox??). For a lot of us, I think it has to do with sputtering on fumes after the marathon that was October. That's what's happening to me, anyway. I know I want to write something, but any decent idea I've had would require energy that I simply don't possess at the moment, or I realize, just in the nick of time, that it's not a good idea at all.
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So what to do? I don't really want to go on hiatus. I'm afraid either I, or whatever readers I may have acquired, won't come back. So hey, how about this:
That's a cool poster.

But damn it, I just don't know. Is it worth to get something halfway decent up just to keep a blog's momentum rolling? Probably not. A lot of great bloggers are willing to let their blogs lie fallow until they feel they have something of worth to say, and things often work out for them. I'm perhaps too neurotic for that. In any case, don't expect a new post every couple of days, at least not until the doldrums pass. And when I do post, there will probably be a lot of capsule reviews, though I do have one big post planned this month, for a blogathon.

So, er, anyway. Sorry, I guess. But maybe I'll bust through this tomorrow, and everything will be back to normal by the weekend.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Capsule Reviews Again

A mere trifle, but I do hope you enjoy it...

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The Hills Run Red (d. Dave Parker) - On paper, this one sounds like absolute catnip for me, even though I kind of knew it wouldn't pan. A young guy named Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a lost slasher film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red, directed by a mysterious fellow named Wilson Wyler Concannon (William Sadler), who, following his film's brief theatrical release, and almost immediate horrified withdrawal, disappeared. The film hasn't been seen since, and therefore quite a cult fascination has developed around it. So Tyler, his buddy Lalo (Alex Wyndham), and unhappy, unfaithful girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery) venture out to find Concannon, his film, and produce a documentary about their search. Their one lead is Alexa (Sophie Monk), Concannon's daughter, now a stripper and heroin addict. Apart from the always welcome Sadler, precisely two things about the film work. One is an early line of dialogue, spoken by Lalo to Tyler. Lalo is trying to get past Tyler's bullshit claims about why he's interested in this lost film, and he says, in effect, "All you want to do is show everyone that you're more obsessed than they are." That's a reasonably cutting analysis of a certain segment of fandom, which the filmmakers promptly fail to develop. The second effective moment -- effective in theory more than in reality, to be honest -- is the reaction of one of the characters when he finally gets a chance to view the mysterious The Hills Run Red. This reaction is, again, a fairly pointed swipe at modern horror film violence, and not only our reaction to it, but our intended reaction. But this is all buried in a fairly amateurish bit of moviemaking, where none of the actors (Sadler again excepted) register, and which you realize is actually just a slasher movie, gussied up. The script, by horror writer David Schow, might have gone somewhere had it been run through the typewriter a few times more, but the whole production has the feel of something that someone desperately wanted to have finished and on screen. So inauthentic is the film that at one point, Sophie Monk is shown shooting heroin, and I pointed out to my wife that Monk did not make a believable heroin addict, to which my wife responded, "And when you shoot heroin, I'm pretty sure you don't stick the needle straight into your arm."

Deadgirl - (d. Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel) - Inside the DVD case for Deadgirl, when you remove the disc, you see on the inside flap of the paper insert/cover a reproduction of the film's poster, with the tagline: Every generation has its story about the horror of growing up. My immediate reaction to reading this was "They do?" and "So?" More importantly, that sentence might give you an idea of the willed air of significance that directors Sarmiento and Harel, and writer Trent Haaga, want so desperately for their film to radiate. And, to be fair, the film ain't that bad. Two teenage pals, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan), while frolicking, as teens will, in an abandoned insane asylum, discover what they initially believe to be the naked corpse of a young woman, but soon realize is the naked zombie of a young woman. Rickie freaks out, but JT sees the potential sleazy benefits of having a secret sex slave chained up in a locked room no one else ever enters. JT's immediate spiral into the darkest of perversions is offset by Rickie's unrequited pining for his classmate JoAnn (Candice Accola). The film is supposed to be a story about the horror of growing up, and it's well-enough made, and the acting is across-the-board solid, keeping the story grounded. But what it's really about is how dangerous the filmmakers think it is when teenage boys can't get laid. Which, okay, fine, if zombies really existed, I have no doubt that some of the prettier ones would be chained up and used in this very way. But the straining for significance that comes along with Rickie's unhappy quest for love has the effect of rendering the whole film sort of laughably earnest and immaterial. You're left wanting the filmmakers to grow up and stop thinking about their dicks all the time. Also, it's too long.
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Then again, maybe the film is a metaphor for internet porn.

The G. I. Joes in The Price of Cobras (d. Stephen Sommers) - It is because of Sommers that one of the worst things in the world, Van Helsing, exists at all. Knowing this, I watched his G. I. Joe movie anyway, because, second-generation G. I. Joe fan that I was, I had a whole army of those little action figures, each with his or her (well, his) own combat specialty and codename and history and gun. I had two armies, even, what with Cobra and all. And I waged many a mighty battle as a young boy, battles which, in all honesty, I still remember certain specific moments from, and still remember fondly. So in the interest of nostalgia, I figured what the shit, and gave Sommers' movie a look. And I enjoyed it. Oh, it's stupid. Don't get me wrong -- it's dumb as a sack of lightbulbs. But it's fun. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the central action sequence, which takes place in Paris and involves a car chase, punching, shooting, nano-somethings, ninjas, and high-powered metal combat suits, is a blast. I was fairly stunned that this section of the movie had me as wrapped up as it did. It is precisely the kind of action setpiece that made me love summer movies, and the absence of which caused me to start hating them some years back. But, okay, yes, it's stupid. Yet I didn't care. There's a scene where the G. I. Joes are all in a giant robot shark, which is swimming towards Cobra's underwater lair, and only briefly did I think, "Robot shark?? The G. I. Joes actually made a robot shark submarine at some point, hoping it would come in handy down the road?" After thinking this, I then thought, "Yeah, okay." Sue me, but I had a good time.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jokes!


1) Grrr! I need my morning coffee!

2) Grrr! I sure hate Mondays!

3) Grrr! (Something about mothers-in-law.)

Take your pick, because they're all hilarious.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Quizmaster, Too

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It's time for another one of Dennis Cozzalio's infernal quizzes. This one is fifty questions long. Fifty.
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1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.

Yowch. Well, I often say that Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink are my #1 and my #2, which I suppose makes the answer Barton Fink. But since I started saying that, their work has just continued to be incredibly diverse and rich. I'll stick with Barton Fink for now, though.

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2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)

Maybe Days of Heaven, but there are so many, really. The Shining, too. Most of Kubrick, except for 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut, both of which I've seen in the theater. Lawrence of Arabia, too. Hell, I don't know. All of them, I guess.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)

Ah...Japan, I think. I say Japan primarily because of Kurosawa, who is a very important filmmaker for me, and I don't think there is a French equivalent, at least as far as I'm concerned. But then I remember how drawn to Jean-Pierre Melville I've become, and also of the depth and breadth of French films that I've experienced over the last few years, from Melville and Bresson and the Dardennes brothers and Claire Denis, and so on and so forth. I don't know. I have to stick with Japan for Kurosawa, though, because I grew up with his films, and I feel so close to so many of them.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.

"You go ask her if she'll eat dog now." Paul Newman in Hombre.
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5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?

Writing. Strangely, it's also the one that gets the least credit, when you get into the deep-down criticism (unless the director happened to also be the screenwriter) -- a lot of actors complain about writers being "too precious about their words", which implies that the actor saying this believes that whatever they might improvise in place of a given scripted line is automatically better than what the writer came up with. Sometimes it is, probably, but actors aren't writers, and they shouldn't assume that a line isn't written in a certain way for very specific reasons. It would be like saying that actors are too precious about their faces.

They say screenplays are just blueprints for the film, and that's true, but show me a good and stable building that came from a shitty blueprint.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).

You know what I'm tempted to say, partly to be different, but partly because it's true? Frailty. I won't go so far as to say it's a great film, but look at what happens (SPOILER): Bill Paxton's character, for much of the film, is thought by the audience, and his sons, to be wacked out of his head to the point where he believes God is telling him to kill certain people because they are demons. We believe these are innocent people he's killing, and teaching his sons to kill. But then the revelation (pun!) is that God really was telling him to kill people, and those people really were demons. At first, it seems like a cop-out; an interesting premise turned suddenly uninteresting. Yet what's curious about the film is that once this is revealed, the tone of the film doesn't change. It stays a horror film. Demons are being killed, demons who did awful things, but the whole idea of Paxton training his children to do this remains deeply chilling, implying that God is vengeful, and that may be all He is.
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7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.

I suppose it would have to be Harrison Ford. I was a child of the 80s, after all, and Harrison Ford was fucking it for us. I hardly think I need to tell you why. But it wasn't just because of Solo and Jones, but because of the other, more adventurous films he made in those days, like Blade Runner and even The Mosquito Coast. And even though he looked like a star, he showed fear and normalcy, as well as humor -- he was human. And he got his ass beat so often...he was like a pulp detective. I loved him so much that my parents caved and let me watch my first R rated film (Blade Runner) and what was probably either my second or third, as well (Witness).

And now look at him. Cranky, tacky, arrogant, and he doesn't even make any films halfway good enough to back it up. He's really kind of a turd now, when you think about it.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?

Lom. I haven't seen as much of his stuff as I have of Magee's, but Lom's career seems much more interesting and diverse.

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film ? (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)

Wild at Heart. It may be more superficially watchable than, say, Eraserhead, and technically better than Dune, but Wild at Heart is for me the only time that Lynch has made a film that self-consciously attempted to live up to his media image of a weird and shocking loony-bird, as opposed to a guy who made movies because he needed to get them out of his head.


10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

I'm tempted to call it a push, but I'll give it to Hall for that rain-shadow effect in In Cold Blood. I don't care if it was just an accident.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.

Hm. I haven't seen as many as I should have, but I'd probably have to say The Beguiled, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers coming in first.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?

In the theater, it was A Serious Man (I'll be seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox this weekend). On DVD it was...goddamnit, usually I have something really good for this question, but this time I think the answer is Kung Fu Panda. For the second time. Fuck you guys, it's a funny movie.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

I'm so out of the Blu-Ray loop. I don't know. I was in Best Buy, sometime around last Christmas, and I saw The Dark Knight Blu-Ray being shown on an HD TV, and it was pretty freakin' stunning. That's not my answer, necessarily, but that's really my main experience with this technology so far.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?

Mintz-Plasse hasn't been around that long and seems pretty one note so far, but I have enjoyed his stuff. Deezen, not so much.

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.

Too many to list. Harry Dean Stanton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Warren Oates, Paul Newman, John Malkovich, J. K. Simmons, Andre Braugher, Steve Buscemi, Margo Martendale, Hal Holbrook, Naomi Watts, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Bogart, Delroy Lindo, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Edward Woodward, James Garner. And so on.
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16) Fight Club -- yes or no?

No. I suspect I should give this a second chance, but I have very little faith that I'll be rewarded for my efforts. It's always struck me as a film made for affected 20 year-olds, by an affected 20 year-old.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?

Wright.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
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"You wouldn't dare! You're chicken!" Said by Ann Savage in Detour. It's really more the delivery than the line itself.
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19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.

In Eureka, when that hobo blows his brains out. They cut from the actor playing the hobo to Gene Hackman, then back to the hobo, who is now a dummy. A whole dummy, for just a split second, before his head explodes, and you can see a little piece of painted plastic, which had been an eye, shoot off screen.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)

I keep almost buying My Bloody Valentine 3D, but that hasn't happened yet, so it doesn't count. I did buy the godawful Heather Graham vehicle Killing Me Softly for about five bucks once, but for one or two (well, two) reasons, I haven't quite regretted it yet. I should, though.
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21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?

I'll say Johnson, only because I love everyone who had anything to do with The Caine Mutiny.
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22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.

Haven't seen that many. I saw Mortal Thoughts ages ago, and more recently caught Choose Me on cable. I enjoyed Choose Me very much for about the first half, before I thought it started to slip away. Still, I'll go with that, for lack of any other option.
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23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.

I'm not sure I've seen any great ones that can really be considered undiscovered gems. All the gems I've seen have been well and truly discovered by the time I get to them. Still, Errol Morris's Mr. Death is never regarded as his masterpiece by anyone but me, but seriously, you guys...that thing is amazing. Watch it again.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.

I like Chris Elliott's deleted scene from The Abyss, which he showed on Letterman once, years ago, that depicted him and Gerard Mulligan in scuba gear at the bottom of the ocean. At one point in the scene, Elliott says, "Great, now we're stuck down here in the abyss." Also, he was stranded on the boat in Cabin Boy.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.

Yeah, every time I take one of these goddamn quizzes.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)

I've seen more Ann Sheridan movies, so her.

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?

Yes. I look just like Mickey Rooney, circa now.
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28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?

Yeah, there's a few, actually. Cannibal Holocaust is one, because of the turtle scene (among other things). There are some, like Last Year in Marienbad, that I'm hesitant about because, frankly, I don't want to feel like a moron afterwards. I will see the Resnais film, though, because for goodness sake I bought the damn thing, but I'll be taking my own sweet time about it.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.

I feel like there's a good one, right on the tip of my brain, but I can't pull it. But Fargo, particularly that shot of John Carroll Lynch sitting in a warm kitchen eating breakfast, while Frances McDormand heads out into the blue early winter morning, is pretty good. It's good because it gets across a great sense of ordinary coldness, the kind of winter certain people are born into and can put up with. That's hardly ever dealt with at all, let alone with such grace.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?

I've hardly seen any of Graham's work, but I have a hard time picking Jeffrey Jones as a favorite anything. Also, Graham was in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, which is all I need to hear.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).

You know, I really liked how the born-again Christian in Observe and Report wasn't sneered at. A little gentle fun was poked at her, but she was one of the good guys. For a movie straining to offend, that refusal to go after an easy target with both barrels was very refreshing.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo. First is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

33) Favorite movie car chase.

In the interest of changing things up a bit, and getting away from the answers this question normally gets, I'll say that I really liked the one in The Seven-Ups.
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34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)

An all-girl Cruising.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?

Feldon, but more importantly, when I did a search on IMDB for Barbara Rhoades, I discovered that there was, at one time, a Serpico TV show. What the hell?? Why didn't anyone tell me?

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.

I think House of Wax is underrated. That thing has Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, for Chrissake. It's like that too-brief pairing of Peter Cushing and Jack Palance in Torture Garden. I didn't even know you were allowed to do things like that!

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

There's a very obvious answer to this one, for me anyway, but I don't want to sound like a broken record, so I won't say Michael Moore. Barring him, though, I don't know if I have an answer. Oliver Stone at least has Salvador, which I remember liking, and I want to check out his horror film, The Hand. I don't think that outside of that one fat piece of phony-everyman, pseudo-hippie, smug, lying horseshit, there is a single filmmaker who I broadly dislike who doesn't have at least one thing of value to their credit.

So, Michael Moore, I guess. Oh wait: Rob Zombie.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.

I don't think I've experienced quite so dramatic a swing. There were a lot of films that I didn't like due to youth or inexperience, like Taxi Driver, that I now dearly love, but I guess the most currently resonant example of that is Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I didn't get at all when I first saw it as either a teenager or young college student. I finally saw it again last year some time, and absolutely adored it.
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39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

Haven't seen enough of either, but Greg's rationale that only one of them made The Earrings of Madame de... is pretty damn sound.

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?

The Cutters is from Breaking Away, right? That is, by far, my favorite movie of the three referenced here, but I'm nothing like any of those guys. I'm probably closest, or was, to Delta Tau Chi, and that only barely, because I used to like to drink a lot, and still like girls (specifically, my wife). I guess I'd like most to be a Warrior, only because getting into gangfights with guys dressed up like baseball players might be kind of thrilling, as long as we won, which I think we do. I don't know, I haven't seen that movie in forever.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.

Since Greg already took "reluctant hero", I'll go with the related "one good cop in the bad town".

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

Minnelli. I finally saw Some Came Running earlier this year, and holy shit, is that a great movie. Honestly, it's like the Ophuls question: only one made Some Came Running, so...
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43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.

Can I cheat and take my choice from literature, rather than film? Any film choice I might go with will have either already been taken, or it's not something I really like that much. So, instead, I'll point out that Robert Bloch once ended a short story with the line "She was decorating the Christmas tree."

Use your imagination.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.

It's an easy answer, but Gary Cooper going out alone, wracked with fear, at the end of High Noon. I love that so much.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

I'm honestly getting pretty sick and tired of the James Cameron cult. In recent weeks, more times than I can count, I've seen people use as evidence that Avatar cannot be anything less than wonderful all the films that Cameron has already made. They'll say things like, "Have some faith! This guy made Terminator and Terminator 2 and Aliens and The Abyss and Titanic!" I know he did. That's the problem: he's a shitty writer.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?

Munro. Come on, now. I mean, look at her!

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)

John Ford. I like to think he got his eye shot out by a Nazi, who he then beat to death with his movie camera, but it was probably actually glaucoma, or something. Either way.

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)

The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?

Inglourious Basterds. It's been a long time since a movie has energized me like that.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

Kennedy. Cool Hand Luke trumps all. .

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hangmen

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This post is part of the Boris Karloff blogathon being hosted by Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia. Spoilers for The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang follow.

Boris Karloff spent a lot of time trying to defeat death. Often in his films, leaps in medical technology offered the possibility of erasing death as a biological necessity, or at least a reversal of the aging process to such a degree that a person's lifespan could be doubled. Karloff's involvement in these breakthroughs could range from the driving intelligence to the assistant to the driving intelligence to the guinea pig. Whatever his place, Karloff always, finally, realized that death cannot be beaten, and to even try is an immoral act.
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Karloff's career in anti-morbidity began, of course, in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, where he played the stitched-together prototype of immortality to Colin Clive's basically decent, yet deluded, title scientific pioneer. One of Karloff's own first forays into the kind of role Clive portrayed in the earlier film was in Nick Grindé's 1939 The Man They Could Not Hang, in which Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard. Cutting through the script's pseudo-science, Savaard's idea is basically that the heart of a deceased individual, with the kind of medical assistance that includes lots of electricity and beakers, and provided the initial cause of death did not damage the heart, can be restarted, and the deceased can actually be brought back to life. He's attempting to prove this as the film begins, with one of his medical students cheerfully acting as a guinea pig, but he is thwarted by a police raid which has been instigated by the guinea pig's fianceé (and Savaard's nurse), who chose the exact wrong time to turn her private misgivings into action. When the police stop Savaard, he has just killed his assistant, with the intent of bringing him back to life. But the police do not allow him to do this, so the dead stays dead, and Savaard is tried and convicted of murder, sentenced to hang, and hanged. Only, of course, to be brought back to life by one of his partners in science.
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Before he's hanged, and before he goes all Dr. Phibes on everybody, Dr. Savaard is given the opportunity to speak in court. Here, Karloff is allowed to rage with moral indignation and frustration at everyone who has allowed the boy to die and condemned him, Savaard, for trying to save humanity from mortality. He tells the judge, the prosecutor, the foolish woman who called the police and ensured the death of her fiancé, that when their time comes, in the moments before they each breathe their last, they will remember him, and what he could have done for them. It is with Savaard's conviction, and with his outraged and bitter words directed at all those who he believes, correctly, to be far stupider than he, that all the love for the human race that might have originally spurred him to pursue his theories, drains away from him forever. When he returns from the dead, he is physically as fit as he was the moment before his appointment with the gallows; however, mentally, even philosophically, he is a changed man. His entire existence at this point is given over to exacting vengeance on everyone he blames for his death.
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The thing is, though, now he has proof! His every breath is a slap to the face of the doctors, judges and policemen who laughed at what he claimed were his motives for killing the young man. When presented with this unavoidable proof, each of these men and women is properly thunderstruck, but Savaard does not use this to push his new technology forward. He uses it to mock his enemies, and throw them off-balance long enough to kill them. When his revenge plans inevitably fall short of his ambitions, and Savaard has to use his invention to resuscitate his own daughter before expiring from a gunshot wound himself, his last act with his second life is to destroy all his work so that it can never be reproduced. The last line in the film is delivered to Savaard a split second before he dies, by one of his intended victims: "Why did you destroy it?" No answer is forthcoming, but the only possibility is that Savaard has decided that, outside of his daughter, mankind doesn't deserve what he's offered them.
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Had Savaard not been sentenced to hang, but rather given life imprisonment, an imprisonment from which he escaped, would he spend any time seeking revenge, or would he instead retreat to his lab to continue his life's work? Some of Savaard's bloodthirstiness can of course be explained by the gross injustice he suffered, but isn't it also possible that he lost something in the days he spent dead to the world? If a return from the dead is possible, might not something still be lost? In Before I Hang (1940), also directed by Nick Grindé, this question, or some loose variation of it, is also posed. This time playing the far more gentle-of-spirit Dr. John Garth, Karloff is attempting to reverse the aging process. His work, like that of Savaard, is brought to a halt by a death, this time that of an elderly patient. Dr. Garth could not help this man, who was suffering great pain due to his advanced years, so Dr. Garth performed euthanasia. Again, like Savaard, Garth is convicted and sentenced to hang. While in prison, he is allowed to work with the prison doctor, who is convinced that Dr. Garth's new anti-aging, serum-based methods can succeed, and that Garth must be allowed to complete his work. The serum requires blood, and Garth chooses to test the serum on himself, shortly before he's set to hang, using the blood of a recently executed multiple murderer. As it happens, though, Garth's sentences is soon commuted to life imprisonment, which is followed up by a full pardon. As the years Garth has piled up begin to fall away -- he no longer needs eyeglasses, his hair darkens -- he is, like Savaard, walking proof that his crazy ideas aren't so crazy after all. Except that any time he tries to perform his procedure on a patient, he finds himself strangling them to death instead.

Why? Because, in a tip of the cap to the creature's abnormal brain, of the killer's blood now running through his veins. Garth does no choose to murder -- he's overcome by an unstoppable impulse. When he realizes what he's been doing, he begs to be apprehended, even killed himself, so that he won't harm anyone else. His wish is granted, but his work is carried on by his daughter and young apprentice, and the film ends on a note of optimism completely absent from the climax of The Man They Could Not Hang.

Even so, in both films, the best of intentions -- to help mankind live well beyond their natural allotment of years -- results in horror and death. And before Dr. Garth's serum kicks in, both returning Garth to his youth and instilling him with a bloodlust he'd never known before, he spends several weeks in a coma, a condition often referred to as a "living death". Savaard and Garth both return from their graves with a desire to kill that in one case replaces, and in another case betrays, both men's original desire to give life and health to their patients. They don't return from the dead the same men they were when they began that last great journey we will all face, and which we all dread. In perverting nature, the capital N kind, Savaard and Garth also pervert their own private natures, and that piece of themselves that they left behind in their different deaths was their core humanity.

And now look at Karloff in Val Lewton and Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher, from 1945. Five years after Karloff died as the kindly Dr. Garth, he was revived as the cynically and gleefully amoral John Gray, who will do anything to provide his employer, Dr. MacFarlane, with fresh corpses. MacFarlane is a cold man of science who cares only to solve the puzzles that medical science lays before him. He has nothing of the care for mankind shared by Dr. Savaard and Dr. Garth, and Karloff's Gray is amused as he commits the murders that provide the bodies that allow MacFarlane to continue his research. He's further amused by MacFarlane's belief in his own goodness, as well as Gray's essential evilness. Gray knows that MacFarlane is just as nasty and unpleasant a figure, and every bit as culpable in the murders, as Gray himself. Gray also knows where MacFarlane's own brand of medical drive and ambition will lead him. Gray knows how this will end. He's been here before.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I See Your Lips Moving, But...

Here's something I'd like to see people stop doing: claiming that a novel is unfilmable because of the prose. This is an old conversational ploy that is intended to make the speaker appear superior and more knowledgeable about not only film, but literature, and the process of adaptation, than the person to whom he or she is speaking, particularly if the listener has expressed some enthusiasm for the film under discussion. The statement also betrays an astonishing ignorance.

I bring this up now because I'm stumbling across this particular bit of foolishness again and again in connection with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (for the record, I am not personally aware of any film critics who've gone this route in relation to Hillcoat's film, but I've seen it in comments section of blogs and other websites all across this great internet). The specific adaptability of The Road is irrelevent, because the very idea -- that a book cannot be adapted to film because of the author's prose style -- is bullshit almost across the board. Guess what? Nobody's prose gets "adapted" to the screen. What gets adapted, faithfully or not, is character, story, theme, mood, atmosphere, dialogue. It is impossible to adapt prose to film -- a filmmaker can depict what is being described, but he can't depict the description itself.

Adding to the silliness of the idea is that The Road is written in a style far more straightforward than anything else McCarthy has written, outside of No Country for Old Men. Here's an example of The Road's style:

The following day they crossed the river by a narrow iron bridge and entered an old mill town. They went through the wooden houses but they found nothing. A man sat on a porch in his coveralls dead for years. He looked a straw man set out to announce some holiday. They went down the long dark wall of the mill, the windows bricked up. The fine black soot raced along the street before them.

What can't be filmed from that is the deliberately antiquated phrasing of "He looked a straw man...", but you can sure as hell shoot the image described. Talent, or the lack thereof, dictates the rest.

So Cormac McCarthy's prose won't be adapted by John Hillcoat, or anybody else. You know another writer whose prose will never make it to the big screen? Dan Brown. And Stephen King. And James Joyce. And Charles Dickens. And Vladimir Nabokov. And Leo Tolstoy. And Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although Joyce is maybe a bad example, because, for instance, Ulysses (never mind Finnegans Wake) might actually be unfilmable, at least as a whole, since, in that case, many large sections of that novel contains prose that is so baroque that it obscures action to the point of obliteration. Since this is part of the experience of Ulysses, putting the entirety of it on-screen might be impossible. Well, no. Improbable. I'm sticking with the less concrete word, because I could very well be proven wrong some day.

Oh, also, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

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