Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bride at the Alamo

My last evening in lovely Austin, TX was spent at one of several Alamo Drafthouse locations (this one known as the Alamo Ritz), watching James Whale's 1935 Bride of Frankenstein on the big screen, eating some pretty good food, and every so often getting annoyed by the audience laughter around me.
Before going any further, I have to say that this was, for me, a pretty great experience. I don't often get the chance to see revival screenings of any old movies, let alone Golden Age films, let even more alone Golden Age horror films. On top of that is the fact that this was a little bit more than just a screening, but rather the second edition of a new series at the Alamo Ritz called Cinema Club. Cinema Club is hosted -- or at least was hosted on Sunday -- by a couple of guys named Lars Nilsen and Daniel Metz, who introduce the film, and then are joined by a scholar and expert on that evening's selection. In this case, that expert was Dr. Thomas Schatz, of the University of Texas and author of The Genius of the System, among other books. After the film, the three of them got on stage to discuss the movie, and field questions and comments from the audience. All of this was great fun for me, and I would go back for Cinema Club every month if I could (next month they'll be showing Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, with special guest Kim Morgan). So no complaints.
Bride of Frankenstein is, as you all know, essentially a horror-comedy, which is a subgenre of horror that is far more problematic than the seemingly endless contributions to the category would lead one to believe. The tone the filmmakers have to strike, and the line that needs to be walked, is very delicate, and most people can't hack it, largely because they don't know tone is an issue, or can't see the line. James Whale, screenwriter William Hurlbut, and the other collaborators on Bride do manage to make their crazy mix of mortality, philosophy, satire, Vaudeville, and bleak examination of loneliness work (even though I, like Boris Karloff, do ultimately think the film is too comedic) because, as Thomas Schatz said after the Alamo screening, it's hard to know what to do with film. It's so loony, but so well put together, with three great performances -- from Karloff, Colin Clive, and the indispensible Ernest Thesiger -- that I'm sort of left shaking my head afterwards, thinking "Okay, then. It worked, but I'll be damned if I can say why." I'd rather watch Whale's original Frankenstein than Bride, but I wouldn't give up Bride for anything.
During the audience participation section of the event, one guy said that what really mattered to him about Bride of Frankenstein was the deep sadness of it, and of the monster's rejection by his bride (Arbogast has written extremely well about this element of the film, specifically the Bride's reaction to her mate, and I commend this post to your attention). Dr. Schatz beamed at the guy who made the comment, and I would have too, were I the type of person who beams, because that's what matters to me, too. The last twenty minutes or so of the film is what really provides any significant impact for me, at least emotionally, and I feel it's often overwhelmed by the tongue-in-cheek lunacy of the rest. I mean, even Schatz didn't bring it up, and his love of the film was quite clear.
. But coming to Bride of Frankenstein seventy-five years late is going to jack with some people's perceptions of it, and that's not the fault of the film itself. At the Alamo screening, when O. P. Heggie's blind hermit first appears on screen, there was quite a bit of laughter. It was of the semi-quiet, polite variety, for the most part, but its connection with what was actually on screen was telling. Outside of the bit with the cigars, this, the most famous scene in the whole film, outside of the Bride's reveal, is not played for laughs -- it's really pretty heartbreaking in how quickly it provides both the hopeless, desperate, dumb monster, and the blind, lonely hermit, with a glimpse of happiness and companionship before whisking it away with sudden violence and rage. It, in fact, sets up the monster's self-destructive rage at the end, when his best hope, another creature like him, looks into his face and shrieks in horror. And yet people were laughing as soon as Heggie showed up. And I knew why, and I'm sure you do, too: Young Frankenstein.
Broadly speaking, audiences -- including the kind of "hip" crowd in the Alamo audience -- have a hard time taking horror seriously, unless it's of a particularly visceral and overtly disturbing nature. When you add on the often broad comedy of Bride of Frankenstein, and its various and abrupt tonal shifts, it's hard to ground yourself while watching. There were one or two condescending comments from Schatz and Nilsen about what in the world could audiences in 1935 have possibly made of this movie -- because even though a sophisticated guy like Whale lived in 1935 and made the film in 1935, it's hard to believe that the rubes in the audience could have possibly appreciated it on as many levels as we do today -- but I have to ask what could those laughing at Heggie's appearance during the Alamo screening have possibly made of it? To put it simply, Bride of Frankenstein was getting bad laughs, and it didn't deserve them, and in the case of Heggie's scene, it was all because Mel Brooks expertly spoofed the movie twenty-six years ago, and some members of the audience on Sunday night couldn't look past that. When Karloff is angrily waving away Heggie's burning stick, they were seeing Peter Boyle's burning thumb.
In the Q&A, another audience member actually put this pretty clearly, asking Schatz how he thought Young Frankenstein colored our perception of Bride of Frankenstein today. I could have kissed that guy, because I think he was a irritated by that laughter as I was, but Schatz, unfortunately, didn't quite hear his question, or lost the thread of his answer, because the only point he made that was germane to the question was that it's impossible nowadays to come to the film innocently. True enough, but also too vague, and too willing to accept bad laughs borne of lazy, above-it-all attitude to old genre movies as a given. Yes, the film's madcap tonal changes play a part, but being unable, or unwilling, to shed the spoofs and copies you grew up with trumps all.
Bride of Frankenstein is actually a tough movie, deceptively so -- you can't just let it roll meaninglessly over you and hope to get inside it, even though those new to it would probably very quickly assume otherwise. For all my problems with it, this fact is obviously entirely to its credit, and it's why the film was picked for the Alamo Ritz's Cinema Club, and it's why Schatz, and his hosts, love it so much. But the further away we get from this film, and others of its era, the harder it becomes to present it as something other than a novelty, or a time capsule, something to be bemused by, because those people in 1935 sure had a crazy idea of what constitutes a great movie.
I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of the Alamo crowd with whom I saw the film. Far from it, though I realize it probably sounds as though I'm doing exactly that. It's just that those bad laughs really pissed me off. It indicates that some people went to the movie with a certain distance already set up between themselves and the screen, and they didn't want that distance shortened. They probably don't know it can be.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

McQueen, Gleason, and a Couple of Guys Who Had it Coming

First things first: I love Steve McQueen. And Jason Bellamy, over at The Cooler, is right this minute hosting a Steve McQueen blogathon from March 24th through the 27th. Under normal circumstances, I'd be all over this, but, as it happens, I'm about to go out of town for a few days, and will not be doing much with computers at all in that time, much less writing lengthy blog posts about The Cincinnati Kid or The Great Escape or Bullitt or The Getaway, or anything. So I'm out in the cold! Or am I?

Yes. One point of this post is to alert anyone who cares that this blog will be dormant at least until Monday, and possibly until Tuesday. No big deal, but until my return, you're all going to have to get your whatever reason you have for coming here somewhere else.

But what about Steve McQueen? Well, knowing that I wouldn't be able to participate in Jason's blogathon in any significant way, I still wanted to take part in what little way I can, so I tracked down (it was super easy) a video of one of the greatest, yet unjustly forgotten, fight scenes in film history.

The film is Soldier in the Rain, directed by Ralph Nelson, and adapted, by Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, from an early novel by William Goldman (this film being one of only two times, to my knowledge, that a Goldman novel was adapted by anyone other than himself, the other one being Jack Smight's No Way to Treat a Lady). It's not a great film -- it's a sort of loose, dramatic comedy about a wily Army supply sergeant named Eustis Clay (McQueen) and his friendship with a brilliant, sage-like master sergeant named Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason). The role is right in Gleason's zone, but I personally find watching Steve McQueen act like such a goofball to be oddly disconcerting.

At any rate, towards the end, Eustis Clay is feeling down, about a number of things, one of which is the letter he got from home informing him that his beloved dog had to be put down. He's drowning his sorrows at the local bar, when a couple of asshole MPs come in and start hassling him. McQueen, as Clay, is holding his own for a while, but he's outnumbered, and soon he's being overpowered. Then Jackie Gleason shows up.

There are a couple of things that happen during this fight that are a bit hard to swallow, but they gain a certain level of verisimilitude due to the clumsy brutality of everything else. It's strange to watch this moody little comedy, and then find yourself smack in the middle of a terrific, bone-crunching beatdown -- these guys are pounding the shit out of each other, and it makes them tired. And there's one moment that, to me, is almost as cool as the motorcycle jump in The Great Escape. I remember stumbling upon this movie on TV when I was a kid, right at the fight scene, and not knowing what the hell I was watching. For the longest time I wondered what movie I'd been watching, and when I picked up a VHS copy of Soldier in the Rain several years later, I did so because of the cast and, primarily, the William Goldman connection. And I'm watching the movie, going along, my opinion swinging back and forth, when suddenly...that's the fight! That's the fight I saw!!!!

Yeah!! Dropkick that sonofabitch!!!

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Okay, that's my kinda-sorta Steve McQueen Blogathon post. See you guys in a few days!

Monday, March 22, 2010

For Your Information...

...the discussion for this month's TOERIFC movie, Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, begins today at 10:00 AM, EST, over at Ferdy on Films. Be there!


PS - If you do a Google image search for "the rapture mimi rogers", you're going to pretty much only get pictures of her boobs. This is something I've learned.

EDIT: The conversation is going on right now! Go to the link above!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Capsule Reviews of Current-ish Releases!

Up in the Air (d. Jason Reitman) - Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner's adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel picked up a huge amount of critical support when it first began playing festivals, but by the end of last year it had come to seem almost forgotten. And I think I can see why. Up in the Air is -- and I have no question about this -- a good movie, with a strong, and unavoidable, dark soul beneath the romantic comedy trappings. The acting is very solid, and George Clooney, even though he occasionally reverts to his comfort zone (which, honestly, is sort of what the whole film is), brings a sharp and genuine sadness to his role as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job -- which is to fire people -- demands that he spend almost his entire life on planes or in airports. Which is, finally, the problem, I believe. Up in the Air is so current, with several references to our country's "climate" of corporate lay-offs, that it's in danger of feeling, a number of years down the line, like a relic. I don't mean to sound overly optimistic -- I'm not, actually -- but instead want to remind everyone that films that manage to successfully capture a time in history often don't do it quite so directly. But boy, that sure sounds like nit-picking, and complaining just to complain, because I did quite enjoy the film, appreciating especially, as I often do, the small touches, such as brief moment between Bingham's two sisters (Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey), one about to be married, after Bingham is told that he's too late in his offer to walk her down the aisle.

Dorothy Mills (d. Agnès Merlet) - It is my belief that if you're going to make a horror film that goes out of its way to remind its audience of earlier genre masterpieces, you had better have something of your own tucked away that will make your film seem something other than a pale waste in comparison. In Dorothy Mills, the masterpieces being foregrounded are The Exorcist and, to a lesser extent, Hardy and Shaffer's The Wicker Man, films of such stature that I was really rooting for co-writer-director Merlet to unleash something really strange and original. But she doesn't. In this story of a psychiatrist (Carice van Houten, who is very good) who travels to a secluded Irish village to discover why young Dorothy Mills (Jenn Murray) abused a child she was babysitting, most of what we're given to react to is just an abbreviated rehash of what happened in those earlier films, and what is original to Dorothy Mills is, frankly, a little dull. But after the Satanic voice of Mercedes McCambridge spews the vilest of obscenities from young Linda Blair's mouth, hearing the thick country Irish voice of a teenage boy saying "Fuck you" and "Bitch", issuing from a surly teenage girl's mouth, I couldn't help thinking that something more was required from Merlet. I suppose I should be grateful that she didn't decide to try and one-up Friedkin and Blatty in the blasphemy department, and I am, but as the film progressed from The Exorcist to settle into its own story, all I could think of was the great heights of cinematic horror achieved by The Exorcist, and how rapidly I was now descending.
2012 (d. Roland Emmerich) - For a film that belongs to a genre that is traditionally perceived to be trashy to be called a "classic of its type", I believe it needs to be well-written. I believe the dialogue should live, and be as effective and as memorable in its own right as whatever more obvious spectacle is being offered up. Here is, in all honesty, what I consider to be the most memorable line of dialogue from 2012: "We have to get on the other side of the freeway!" So that's not good, and I doubt if decades from now 2012 will be considered a classic of its type, although who knows. Off-hand, I can't remember any dialogue from The Towering Inferno, and frankly this whole set of criteria I've set up for this gleefully low-brow genre is starting to sound pretty bone-headed, even to me. Even though, in theory, calling 2012 the "best Roland Emmerich film I've ever seen" is to write a series of words that together mean less than nothing, when I say it in fact, as I shall now do by inference, I actually mean that I did kinda have a good time with this. The all-star cast looks frequently embarrassed (except for John Cusack), and everything about the story is just plumb stupid, but the mayhem is extreme, various, regular and photogenic. If I thought that by spending four dollars to rent the new film by the guy behind Independence Day, I somehow deserved something more than that, then I'd be a fool.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Our Armond White Problem, and His

Ordinarily, I don't write about film critics, or literary critics, nor do I ordinarily write about internet controversies or high-profile disagreements, or anything like that. I read critics (most of the ones I read who aren't dead can be found on my blogroll, but not all), and I, like anyone, enjoy a good on-line dust-up, but I rarely find myself drawn to those topics enough to actually write about them. This generally has to do with the fact that, whatever I know about movies, I don't do a great job of keeping up with the business of it, the trends in criticism, the employment shifts, and historical animosity between various film writers, and all the other stuff that, however important it might be to the individual parties, would count as ephemera to an outsider such as myself. Which is the other thing: not being part of the world of film and film writing in any real capacity tends to mean you have no stake in any of the ancillary uproars you might come across in your day to day reading, entertaining and fascinating though you might find it all.

But today I read Armond White's, ahm, defensive essay, with extra capsule review (for lack of any pre-existing category in which to place it) of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (which I haven't seen, and therefore won't be discussing here), and I feel some need to weigh in. I freely acknowledge that, among people who find Armond White a subject of interest, however negative, I am really late to the game, at least as far as talking about him. So late, in fact, that a lot of people, after this latest go 'round of White madness, are basically saying "Enough's enough, I'm not wasting another breath on the guy." Which is a sound way to go about one's temporal existence. Still, there are certain particulars about White, and his new bit of prose, that, as I say, compel me.

I'm going to dispense with the surrounding drama of Armond White being barred from a critic's screening of Greenberg, his subsequent protests that his freedom of speech was being infringed upon, and even most of the background involving White, Baumbach, and Baumbach's mother, Georgia Brown, that led to it. Suffice it to say, White doesn't like Georgia Brown, and it seems quite likely that this animosity has bled into his assessment of Baumbach's films. I certainly believe that, as does pretty much everybody else who has followed this over the years, but it's not actually provable, and, in any case, has been rehashed so ad nauseum that there's absolutely nothing new I can bring to that table. The one aspect of that history that is relevant here is the fact that White, in his review of Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy, said, in effect, that since the movie was so bad, you know what would have been great? If Georgia Brown had gotten an abortion.

Ha ha, and then everybody had a good laugh and went home. Now, this abortion line is by far the most discussed aspect of the White/Baumbach controversy, to the point that, since the review pre-dates the New York Press's (the paper that employs White) on-line archive, some have wondered if White ever actually wrote that. Well, he did, as proven by J. Hoberman, who found the review in a library archive, scanned it, and put it on these here internets.

All of which brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is White's defense of the abortion line. First, here's the line itself, which White himself quotes in his Greenberg piece:

I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.

I'll leave the job of parsing and interpreting that last sentence to you. Shouldn't be too hard. Now, here's what White says by way of explanation:

The last line is not Oscar Wilde but it’s also not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference. It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral. No more than that.

First off, his admission that he's not Oscar Wilde is probably as humble as White is ever going to get, so you should savor it. Second, if he'd actually used that "natal congratulations" line in his original review, either no one would have cared, or maybe thought "Hey, that's pretty funny." Really, transplant that line into the Mr. Jealousy review, in place of the abortion line: it works! Third, we see here the entire Armond White Problem illustrated, plain as day, although your ultimate defintion of that problem may vary (in other words, its impact is in your inference), but basically it's one of these:

1. White doesn't say what he means.

2. White doesn't mean what he says.

3. White doesn't care what he means or says.

4. White knows exactly what he's doing at all times, and is some kind of nefarious super-mind, planting the abortion line into his Mr. Jealousy review over a decade ago, and demonstrating an inhuman patience before paying it off earlier today.

Except it can't be that last one. I don't know too many people who are still swept up in any admiring way by White's word-smithery, so it's like saying someone is a great liar: if you know they're lying, how great can they be? (And not incidentally, White's also a bad liar.)

But I digress. Let's look at that sentence again:

It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral.

Well, that's not like any kind of definition of "abortion" I've ever come across, and "abortion" is the word he actually used (never mind that White has completely avoided the topic of what the word "retroactive" means, and how it functions in the sentence). But he seems to think that "abortion" means that, while others are congratulating a new mother on her wonderful new baby, you're backing away because you know that in the future that kid is going to make Mr. Jealousy. Which is also not what White thinks he's saying, because later he attacks Hoberman and others who have showered disgust on him for "suggesting" Baumbach's abortion by getting all political on them, and saying these people are hardly Pro-Life, so why should they be so offended in the first place?

Can Hoberman and Dart’s objections to the very mention of abortion mean that they are, in fact, Pro-Life? (I remember Hoberman railing against Juno for choosing life while praising the Romanian abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.) Can’t wait to see Hoberman and Dart defend their Pro-Life position on the Glenn Beck show.

There's a hell of a lot wrong with this line of reasoning, but what bothers me the most has to do with something more personal, which is that I've always wanted to like Armond White. There's a lot about the guy that, on the surface, appeals to me -- his refusal to walk down easy, knee-jerk Liberal lines of film criticism being the most prominent. When I first started to notice this aspect of his writing, I lit up a bit, excited to find a voice that spoke more directly to me, at least regarding politics, than most film critics do. But at best, White is politically a dumb-ass, and at worst his politics are nothing but a pose. At this point, I'm leaning towards the latter option. The way he brings up abortion as a bit of political self-righteousness is unbelievably cynical, and disgusting to me. I want to agree with the man, but I can't, because he doesn't mean what he says, or care what he means.

Words matter, is I guess what this is all about. Though, as you can see, I haven't been able to pinpoint what is the core motivation, or specific fault, behind all this, a few things still seem pretty obvious: he writes without a thought; he thinks we're all morons; he doesn't know what words mean. Also, he's a bitter, hateful, small little man.

Oh, and as I implied earlier, after several paragraphs railing against the shadowy organizations, which include Noah Baumbach, that would keep him from seeing Greenberg, White actually tacks on a capsule review of the film at the end. Guess what? He didn't like it very much.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Have You Read These Bestsellers? #1


[Click for bigness]

Because I sure haven't! I've only even heard of one of these, Semi-Tough. "Best seller" doesn't mean what a lot of people would like to think it means.
PS - If anyone can clue in an ignorant soul such as myself on how to make my pictures bigger, I'm all ears.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Very Poor Devil

Moral gray areas. That's what serious artists often claim they like to examine. "Here," they say. "Here's a movie I wrote. What it does is, is it presents you with a man who does things that are so awful that you know you should be plainly disgusted by him. But you find yourself rooting for him, despite everything. Why is that? What is it about us that we can so easily find a link to such men? Are we all beasts inside? Or do we at least recognize the potential for violence, under certain circumstances, within each of our breasts? Also, it stars Antonio Banderas." So you take the the movie they wrote, and you watch it. Turns out it's about this hitman, a brooding, tortured man who has found, perhaps to his dismay, and against his own values, that the work he's best at is killing other human beings. This work proves highly remunerative, but his soul is dying. Except that, by the way, he does have his own private code under which he works, which says that he will only execute other killers, assassins less scrupulous than he, or tyrants, or members of secret government cabals who plot to blow up all the oceans so that they can become even richer! This hitman won't kill just anybody. And that movie is called Grosse Point Blank, and it stars John Cusack, not Antonio Banderas.
The point is, all that "moral gray area" bunk the guy was peddling was pure snake oil. We're not stupid. We know we're watching a movie, so a little violence directed towards those who would perpetrate cold-blooded, black and white evil on the world is something we can accept, especially if the person dealing that violence is a bit conflicted about it. "Oh, look," we might think. "He doesn't even want to be doing this. It's tearing him up inside! I'm really glad he shot that one guy, though, the one who recorded himself torturing single mothers, and then sold the videos to heads of corporations who think such things are funny. That guy was a real fucker."
So we're complicit in this hypocritical bullshit, but Grosse Point Blank, for instance, had the good grace to be funny, and I wish I had it on DVD, because that might be good to watch tonight. Be funny, be entertaining, and I'll probably nod along with all the phony moralistic hokum that you didn't have the balls to go all the way with. I just won't take you that seriously.
Where was I going with all this? Oh, right. Horns, by Joe Hill.
Joe Hill's new novel begins with our protagonist, Ignatius Perrish (or "Ig", as I rapidly tired of seeing him referred to), finishing up a colossal drunk by urinating all over the plastic religious icons set out in the woods, as a memorial to Ig's murdered girlfriend. It is at this spot that Merrin Williams was murdered, by Ig, or so many people in the town believe. But there is no proof, so Ig is never charged. Yet he's tortured by the circumstances that led him to leave Merrin alone that night, a year ago, when she was killed, as well as his new role as town pariah, so he "spends the night drunk, doing terrible things", such as urinating on her memorial, and then when he wakes up in the morning, he has two horns growing out of his head.
So far, so good. That was my reaction anyway, because as a sometime fan of Hill's short fiction, I thought a novel about a formally ordinary man, beat to the ground by grief and spiritually wrecked, transforming into a demon, or maybe even the Devil himself, is a pretty terrific premise. But as you might have guessed by now, Hill is playing the same spurious game as I described earlier. Ig is, after all, a demon, or becoming a demon, when we first meet him. And everyone he meets senses this, and after a blinking, confused reaction to his horns, proceed to confess to him all of their worst, most secret urges. Here, Ig is trying to get help regarding his horns -- he thinks he might be hallucinating due to a brain tumor -- from a local clinic, but the doctor has other things on his mind:
"To be honest," Renald said, "it's a little hard to concentrate on your problem. I keep thinking about the [Oxycontin] in my briefcase and this girl my daughter hangs out with. Nancy Hughes. God, I want her ass. I feel sort of sick when I think about it, though. She's still in braces."
"Please," Ig said. "I'm asking for you medical opinion -- your help. What do I do?"
"Fucking patients," the doctor said. "All any of you care about is yourselves."
See? So at least he's trying to be funny. This kind of exchange, by the way, almost completely accounts for the novel's first forty pages, and I may not have to tell you that it gets really damn old, really damn fast. But in that time, it's not hard to notice a certain trend, which is that all the worst confessions come from people that Hill has decided we shouldn't like. And not just the specific characters, but rather the kinds of characters. The doctor, a man of authority, is a pervert. The nurse Ig met just moments before confessed merely to wanting to take her anger at a neglectful parent further than society would deem appropriate. Ig's girlfriend only wanted to eat a whole box of doughnuts, while the policemen he meets later want to brutalize him -- beat him with their nightsticks and possibly, what the hell, rape him. A nun confesses to being lonely, oppressed, a closeted lesbian who only wants to be happy. The priest, on the other hand, blithely confesses to screwing the mother of Ig's murdered girlfriend. So Ig leaves the priest gasping under a barbell, and helps the nun escape to a new life, aided by stolen church funds.
And so it goes, throughout the novel, the plot of which, by the way, revolves around Ig's discovery of who actually murdered Merrin -- it was Lee Tourneau, his best friend from childhood, a fact you learn early on, before you even meet the character -- his quest for justice, and a series of idyllic, bittersweet flashbacks to his younger days, his life with Merrin, and Lee, and Ig's family, especially his brother Terry, now, like their father, a successful trumpet player (horns, you see) and late night talk show host.
I'm not sure that Hill had any idea what kind of character he was creating with Ig. When he leaves the priest under the heavily-weighted barbell, I got the sense we weren't supposed to care much what happened to the priest, because Hill already told us what a dick the guy was. Plus, he helped that sad nun! Not long after, however, he pushes his elderly, wheelchair bound grandmother down a steep hill outside his family home and watches her frail body crash into a fence at, he guesses, about forty miles-per-hour. Ah, but here's what he learns about his grandmother after touching her wrist (another one of his powers):
His grandmother, he learned then, had no hip pain at all but liked people pushing her here and there in the wheelchair and waiting on her hand and foot...She especially liked to order around her daughter, who thought her shit didn't stink because she was rich enough to wipe with twenty-dollar bills...It was Vera's [the grandmother] privately held belief that Ig knew what his mother had been -- a cheap whore -- and that it had led to a pathological hate of women and was the real reason he had raped and killed Merrin Williams...[who] had been a frisky little gold digger...
So she hates everybody, and faked her way into that wheelchair. But hold on, she's still a frail eighty-year-old woman, and Ig still pushed her down a hill and into a fence. Unpleasant as she may be, that still makes Ig pretty hard to root for. Well, Joe Hill has anticipated your uncertainty, and we learn some time later that the old bat's fine! A little banged up but, crucially, Ig didn't kill her. Shouldn't have done it, maybe, but no real consequences to be het up about, so you can put your rooting caps back on.
Much later in the book, Ig is asked by another character how he came to have those horns, these new powers, such a devilish appearance and demeanor. Ig says "Without Merrin in my life...I was this."
The Devil is in us all without true love and whatnot, except for two things: Hill goes out of his way to make a case for the goodness -- of a sort -- of the Devil, Biblically speaking, and he also seems to forget that he's painted a reasonably full portrait of the young Ig, before he had Merrin, and guess what? He was a fucking peach! He helped people, giving Lee (who he believes saved him from drowning when they were teenagers) money and CDs when he thought Lee had nothing. Hill repeatedly tells us -- and I mean, repeatedly -- that Ig was a terrible liar, because lying made him sick. In short, he was a good kid. Oh, sure, we're told that the young Ig does some maneuvering so that the young Lee won't pursue the young Merrin, but he doesn't maneuver dishonestly, and besides, given that years later Lee will rape and murder Merrin, Ig wouldn't have been out of line if he'd skipped past the aforementioned maneuvering and simply pushed Lee under a train. So what's all this "I was this" business? You were what? A nice guy whose horns hadn't grown out yet? Physically grotesque, but still a person who would forever prove that it's what you're like on the inside that really counts? I mean, it's not like you were a priest, or a cop, or anything like that.
Horns is really, for all it's profanity and perverse sexual shenanigans, something of a PC joke. The truly good guys are given nothing truly bad to live down, and the bad guys are never given anything truly good to cloud our view of them. Men are the worst, authority figures worse yet, and there's not a moment of gray in the whole damn thing.
(In fairness, I must add that there is a scene involving a Christian Conservative politician, and Hill portrays the man with a surprising amount of sympathy. It's brief, however, and the implications of the scene go a pretty far way towards erasing that sympathy, at least in my eyes.)
To truly illustrate this, late in the book Hill gives us a scene with Merrin's still-grieving father. Since this is a pretty good guy, Merrin's dad, he doesn't confess anything too bad to Ig, and later becomes a bit philosophical:
"...My father wouldn't let me take the theology course I wanted, but he couldn't stop me from auditing it. I remember the teacher, a black woman, Professor Tandy, she said that Satan turns up in a lot of other religions as the good guy..."
And stop. Now, listen. Joe Hill's dad is Stephen King, and King has in the past been called out by critics for portraying his minority characters, specifically his black characters, as one-note saints, magical souls whose only purpose is to help the more important white characters. Though I personally think a bit too much is made of this, it's not like those critics are basing it on nothing -- there's Mother Abigail in The Stand, Halloran in The Shining, John Coffey in The Green Mile, and possibly others I'm forgetting. But at least in King's novels the black characters get a look in. Despite what the critics say, even despite the validity of what they're saying, Mother Abigail, Halloran and Coffey are allowed to be more than just black. Joe Hill turns the only reference to a black person in the entirety of Horns into a politically correct non sequitor. Why would Dale Merrin feel it necessary to point out, apropos of not a goddamn thing, that the professor in question was a black woman? Because she's the one, indirectly, whose going to explain the whole thematic structure of the book, and you can't have a white guy do that. What would people say? The fact is, the race (or gender) of this never seen, and never again referred to, professor is entirely irrelevent. Why does Hill seem to think it is?
Well, so that's it. Oh, the book ends with a sort of chase, and snake bites and stabbings, and it's all pretty tedious, but at least it signalled to me that the end was nigh. And to that, I say "Thank God."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mother Effer

You know what can bring your blog plans to a shrieking halt? Shitty days. Shitty, shitty days. Which is what I just experienced, brother, and how. I was all primed to finish my review of Joe Hill's Horns, but now I barely have an interest in food, let alone writing anything.

Depending on how tomorrow goes -- tomorrow being the sequel to today, in more ways than perhaps the obvious one -- I might get the review up tomorrow night. Then again, perhaps I'll be so furious that I cancel this whole fucking blog outright. Okay, that probably won't happen, but the Horns review might be further delayed.

So. Here's a picture of a robot monster. Sorry.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What You May Not Have Noticed About Last Night's Oscar Ceremony...

...is that for part of it, my giant cat was sleeping in my lap like this!!!

And get a load of this crazy baby orangutan!!


The Oscars! There's always something outrageous going on!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Contrarian Days

I watched a couple of movies today that were, from what I gathered, generally well and truly hated. Maybe "not well liked at all" is a more precise description, but either way they both got stomped on, but good. And then I watch them, and I like them both. To varying degrees, and for various reasons, and with qualifications, some of them massive. But still: either I'm going soft, or you're all a bunch of stupid morons.

The shameful truth about The Box and me is that I kind of wanted to hate it. Even without yet having seen his previous film, the infamous Southland Tales, I've come to the decision that I really dislike Richard Kelly. He's said a lot of obnoxious things in interviews, about his "neo-Marxist" political views and his views on writing, and his response to the critical shellacking he received following Southland Tales essentially amounted to "If you don't like my movie, then you're old." So the fact that I did end up admiring the film, to a point, I guess means that I'm positively busting with integrity, but I'm not even going to mention that, as it would be crass.

Based on Richard Matheson's famous short story "Button, Button", The Box tells the tale of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), and the offer made to them by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward gives the couple a box, inside of which is a red button, enclosed in glass. If the button is pushed in the next twenty-four hours, someone who the Lewises don't know will die, and they, the Lewises, will be given one million dollars. If they choose not to push the button, Steward will retrieve the button, and go on his way. Their dire financial situation having been established, Diaz pushes the button about a half hour in, and this, by the way, signals the end of Kelly's Matheson adaptation, and the hour and half that follows is pure Kelly.

For better or for worse. The better is that there is a great deal of strangeness that Kelly squeezes out of Matheson's premise, and his own extrapolation of it: mysterious kids, random nosebleeds, a city-wide rise in domestic violence, NASA, Mars, lightning...what do any of these things have to do with each other? The first hour of the films at times feels like the stage is being set for something truly bizarre and mysterious, and the second half pays it off, or tries to, although the core pay-off -- the meaning behind it all -- has been cribbed from any number of earlier SF films (most of which cribbed it from one very famous movie, the title of which shouldn't be revealed as it would constitute a spoiler), and The Box's strangeness goes from intriguing to a trifle desperate. When Kelly wrote the section of the film that ends with Marsden suspended above his wife, who is at home in bed, in a pool of floating water, which then comes splashing down, I imagine he must have thought: "What the fuck am I doing?" And then he looked at the calendar, and then the clock, and thought: "It'll work. It'll work. It'll work. It'll work." Over and over again until he nearly believed it himself.

The second half, in general, is just loony, not to mention clumsy. In fact, clumsiness doesn't always cut it. At one point, James Marsden leaves a party due to illness, and as he steps outside another character, played by Ryan Woodle, approaches him with a gun, and tells him to get into a car, which Marsden does. After Woodle's character has revealed his intentions, Kelly cuts to a scene of another character being kidnapped. Then he cuts back to Marsden and Woodle, and Woodle says "They just kidnapped [character we just saw being kidnapped]." Well, how the Christ does he know that? Shouldn't Woodle have approached Marsden after we saw that other person get kidnapped, so that we could have inferred that Woodle either witnessed or was informed of the kidnapping before he talked to Marsden? As it plays now, Woodle and Marsden were already on the road by that time, so he couldn't have known this. Yes, we will learn that Woodle's character would have had a very good reason to suspect that such a thing would happen, but that's not what he says. He says, essentially, "Hey, they just kidnapped so-and-so." Like, "I just heard it on the radio that..." or "I was just watching the dailies earlier, and..." or "Richard Kelly wanted me to tell you..."

The Box is many things. It's part of a superb SF/horror film. It's also a paranoid thriller, as well as a surreal, existentialist nightmare. And it's also the kind of movie that uses an image of the World Trade Center, because that's the kind neck-breaking strain boneheads like Kelly put themselves through in their shallow bid to claim significance for their work. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel it was mostly those first three things. What The Box thinks it's up to, I have no clue, but when it's not being either very good or very bad, it's pleasantly baffling. And possibly, I've become too forgiving.

Gentlemen Broncos, meanwhile, was absolutely rent asunder by critics last year, and this disappointed me because, despite my aggressive indifference towards Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, the premise of this new film struck me as something I wished I'd thought of: a young man who aspires to write science fiction professionally, attends a writers' workshop/getaway, at which one of the instructors will be a successful SF author who is our young hero's idol. That idol will read what our hero has submitted, and then plagiarize it.

The capacity for a merciless skewering of SF, both professional and amateur, as well as fandom, in this premise is incalculable. But then the reviews started coming out, as well as clips from the film itself, and everyone who'd seen the film seemed to agree -- and I was beginning to see their point -- that the SF that was described in this film, and the SF film within the film, was so far removed from any reality, bore so little resemblence to the genre as we know it, from any era or any nationality, that there was no possibility for satiric sting, no potential for self-recognition for us SF fans looking to laugh at ourselves, or each other, or to get all the inside jokes we felt sure Hess would lay throughout his movie, because, of course, there were no inside jokes. Gentlemen Broncos existed entirely in the world of Hess's brain, so any inside jokes would be appreciated only by him.

So then I watched the film, and I realized that what everyone was bitching about was that Gentlemen Broncos was not the film they imagined it would be when they read the plot synopsis (I know this, because I imagined the same movie). The fact that Hess had no interest in satirizing, or even somewhat aproximating, actual science fiction, as we experience it in the real world (there's an irony there, I think) doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody. Or if it did, they didn't care, because they knew the movie they wanted to see, and this wasn't it.

Each of Jared Hess's films have been pitched at the same level of grotesque deadpan. The man is not a realist. I don't know if this was lost on the many fans of Napoleon Dynamite, but it's a style that has been falling out of favor with those fans ever since. The point is, none of his characters are meant to be believed, in the sense that we might expect to meet some version of them in our daily lives. But they are meant to be believed in the kind of world that might contain them all. Presumably, that world would also feature forms of entertainment; possibly, this would include some version of science fiction. If so, then the science fiction found in a world population by Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico, Don Carlos, and Dr. Reginald Chevalier is going to look like this:

You'll notice I haven't spent any time trying to convince anyone that Gentlemen Broncos is a good (not great -- nobody ever said "great") and funny movie. I can't do that, so I won't even try; the film is too off for me to muster that kind of argument. All I'm saying is, if you watch it, let it be the movie it is, and don't worry about the movie you thought it was going to be.

Of course, if you don't think Jermaine Clement as Dr. Chevalier gives one of the great comic performences of the last several years, then I have nothing to say to you.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Everybody Dies

Of all of Donald E. Westlake's fiction, Levine feels like a bit of a lost book. This is maybe not surprising when you consider that it is, essentially, a series of six long short stories (or "novelettes", which is a term that I don't think anyone really uses anymore, but which Westlake uses to describe these stories in his very interesting introduction to the book) about a Brooklyn plainclothes detective named Abraham Levine. So it's not quite a novel, and not "just" a collection of stories, making it harder, I imagine, for some people to latch onto and categorize. But it's pretty terrific stuff. Abraham Levine is in his 50s, and has a bad heart. He's also terrified that his heart will give out before it should, and this effects his relationship to life and death, particularly the brand of death he encounters on his job. What particularly infuriates him is when he sees anyone treat life as something frivolous, whether the life in question is someone else's, or their own. Life is something Levine is sure he's soon to be without, and the idea that anybody can take such a gift lightly is horrifying to him.
Five of the six stories were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and each one deals with a different kind of crime, and a different kind of death -- suicide, murder, Levine's killing of a suspect, and so on. In each one, Levine's heart seems to be getting worse -- he discovers a way to block his hearing and listen directly to his heartbeat, and since that heartbeat is already irregular, he focuses on the number of beats he can hear before it skips one, and he dreads the moment when it will skip two, because that means lights out.
In his introduction, Westlake talks about his relationship to these unusual group of stories, and to the character, and how those stories changed over the years. The fifth story, "The Death of a Bum", is probably the most interesting of the bunch, in that it focuses on an aspect of police work that almost never gets dramatized, because nobody ever thinks there's any drama in it. Westlake knew better, though he also knew it would never sell to any of the normal mystery magazines (because it's not a mystery), so while he could write it free of any thought of markets or audiences, it also took three years to finally place it. By that time, he felt he'd lost momentum with the Levine stories.
However, in the 1980s, Westlake was approached by Otto Penzler about putting together a book of the Levine stories, but was told he needed to write one more, which he did. "After I'm Gone" was written in 1984, and it's the best written piece in the book -- obviously, by that time Westlake had matured as an artist quite a bit, but he was also the same age as Levine. The first five stories were written by a guy in his 20s about a guy in his 50s, but in "After I'm Gone", Westlake and Levine were contemporaries. As a story, "After I'm Gone" loses something to "The Death of a Bum", and, in fact, each of the five early stories has, as stories, a more unique kick to their plots than "After I'm Gone" (although "The Sound of Murder" is a bit much, tipping over almost into Gothic territory, and isn't quite in keeping with the every-day realism of the rest of the book). But the last story has a brilliant final page, sad and sardonic and moving in the most off-hand kind of way. After reading about the death-obsessed Abraham Levine for 150 pages before reaching this final piece, it's not hard to guess what the last page is about, but Westlake makes it hurt anyway.
This may sound like faint praise, but reading Levine made me feel like I was watching episodes of an old cop show from the 50s, a particularly ambitious and original one that, due to its somber and unique take on cop dramas, only got six episodes before it got yanked. And it's a show everybody kind of remembers, and which sometimes still gets shown on TV, and which everybody wishes had gotten a longer run.