Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year, Everybody

Just wanted to drop a quick word, and wish everyone a Happy New Year, and use this space as a sort of place-holder before I get to some more substantial things (including completing a meme or two) in the next few days.

I'd also like to throw out a few thanks as we close out the year. This blog -- which is something that has been a big deal for me in the last chunk of 2008 -- is something I never really thought I'd start, so first and foremost I'd like to thank my good friend, Jonathan Lapper, for not only encouraging me to actually quit waffling and do it, but for his technical assistance and general friendship. And I'd also like to thank Dennis Cozzalio, my first movie-blog pal, for not only his encouragement, but his genuine and ongoing kindness. Further encouragement, kindness and friendship have been shown to me, one of the new guys in town, by highly accomplished veterans like Rick Olson, Marilyn Ferdinand, Arbogast, Fox, Adam Ross, Brian Doan, Ed Howard and Kimberly. And I've been further floored and overwhelmed by good words from Matt Zoller Seitz and Glenn Kenny.

So thank you again, to each and every one of you. I strive to write to the level of each of you, which is why I often find this whole blogging gig to be so goddamn hard.

Have a happy New Year, you crazy sons'a bitches!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Marilyn Monday - Blogger's Choice, Apparently

With no word from Marilyn regarding which actress should get the nod today, I'm going to go ahead and post a picture of someone I like, who I don't think Marilyn would choose herself...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My War with John Updike

Any artist worth a damn is going to make enemies. Being an artist who is worth several damns myself, I have, in turn, made several enemies. Most of these individuals have taken issue with me and my work on political or religious grounds. Knowing that people who dislike me for these reasons exist somewhere in the world and are currently speaking ill of me -- whispering about me in hypocritical hisses -- does not bother me in the least. Quite the reverse! As I may have mentioned before, I am an artist, and as such one of my responsibilities is to inform people when they are thinking incorrectly, and instruct them to adjust their beliefs and opinions accordingly. I don't ask for thanks -- I'm happy to do it, really -- and I don't expect everyone to appreciate my unique brand of acidic truth-telling. I'm comfortable weathering that particular storm.

However, over the years I have somehow managed to make another kind of enemy: that of the aesthetic variety. Or, at least, they claim their problems with me stem from an objective dislike of my art, but I have my suspicions that these specific bushes of vitriol have roots that run deeper, into their hearts and psyches. But that's neither here nor there. No, today I want to offer a rebuttal to the extraordinarily harsh -- but, of course, ultimately inconsequential -- words directed towards me and my life's creative work by a man who is generally regarded as one of America's "greatest" "writers", John Updike.

One year ago, I published a collection of my monologues. Currently and inexplicably out of print, the title of my collection was (is!) Speak Up! Speak Out!. In an especially brief review of the book published in The New Yorker, Updike said the title should be “Rampaging Tedium”. He also went on to say that “clearly, we are dealing here with a third-tier Eric Bogosian, as if a first-tier Eric Bogosian was somehow worth our time.” Okay, hold it right there, Psoriasis. I once wrote an appreciation of Eric Bogosian (I’m still looking for the right place to publish it) in which I said “Eric Bogosian is not just our country’s Dario Fo: he’s Dario Fo wrapped in the skin of Lenny Bruce and infused with the hot-wired, kick-ass, rage-filled savior-soul of Bill Hicks. He writes like a gutter-dwelling angel from Hell on meth!” If Updike doesn’t think someone like that is worth his time, then maybe he should go back to reading his precious Chris Bohjalian novels, or whatever the hell he reads.

Then, Updike pulls this card: “Mr. R.’s collection is a bewildering 23 pages long; the book costs an offensive fourteen dollars. That's nearly fifty cents a page.” First off, thanks for the algebra lesson, Dr. Math. Second, this is what Updike has been reduced to? Whining about how much books cost?? Whatever happened to the guy who wrote Rabbit Re-Do and The Vampires of Eastwidge? Those were pretty big books in their day, I thought. Plus, it’s not like he can’t afford it. Last I heard, Pulitzer winners rake in some pretty sweet coin.

Later, Updike blathers thusly: "Mr. R. seems to think that simplistic speech-making is the same thing as good writing. And by simplistic, I mean 'depressingly ignorant'. I have a hard time imagining even the most knee-jerk, closed-off college student would find much worth in what Mr. R. has to say in these pieces. That in itself might be forgivable, however, if the writing itself rose even an inch above worthless cliche', but it never does. He's happy to wallow in the endlessly worked-over sludge of the amateur polemicist." When I read that part, this is what I said: "Huh?" Literally, that's what I said. Since I'm sure you're just as confused as I was about what Updike thinks he's saying here, allow me to translate: "I'm too old! I don't understand! I'm on my way out!" Updike is terrified because he's part of the Old Guard, and us Young Guns (as I like to call artists of my generation and general thought-patterns) are coming up fast. He knows he's out of date, and that our Wave of Change is going to drown out his old-timey BS.

You see, there are two primary artistic media that are about to render all others irrelevant: monologues and YouTube. If I'd been able to, I never would have published my monologues, or even performed them at open mikes, or on street corners; I simply would have filmed (or, really, "videoed") them and put them right on YouTube. Unfortunately, I don't have a video camera. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is because, Mr. Updike, they cost a hell of a lot more than $14!

I won't lie to you: when I read his review, I was furious. I don't mind admitting this, because I am human, and I embrace my humanity. I also acted on this anger, a fact which also fails to shame me, by sending Updike an e-mail. The e-mail consisted of simply this:

I love emoticons, because they really represent, and speak to, the full range of human emotion. They certainly do a better job of it than Updike's dried-up old books. And the proof that my e-mail struck a nerve is that not only didn't he respond, he also changed his e-mail address. Game, set, match. Also, check-mate.

So, there you go. Updike's review was like a fly on the dinner table: mildly annoying until you smash it with a magazine. After that, it's on with your life. In short, I've moved on.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

There'll Be Nothing to Laugh at This Time

On February 11, 1969, one of horror cinema's most interesting filmmakers died at the age of 25. His name was Michael Reeves, and during his short life he made three features: The She Beast (1966 - known as Revenge of the Blood Beast in the UK); The Sorcerers (1967); and Witchfinder General (1968). The She Beast is available to rent from Netflix, and Witchfinder General was released on DVD by MGM earlier this, but The Sorcerers, despite starring Boris Karloff, is still unavailable in America, and has, in fact, never been available here. It seems to never turn up on cable, and although it has had a DVD release in England, that has since gone out of print.

I can't pretend to have any interest in the intricacies of the legal mudpit into which the video rights for this film are sunk -- whatever the story is, it would no doubt anger and bore me in equal measure. All I care about, especially after checking out Witchfinder General for the second time in about a decade and finding it to be absolutely terrific, is the damn film itself. I just want to see The Sorcerers. It seems like such a small thing to ask of the universe.

Well, the universe finally gave me the thumbs up on this one. My wife and I own a region-free DVD player, though we've put its primary selling point to almost no use up to now. But while dicking around on-line the other day, I found a copy of the out-of-print UK DVD of The Sorcerers for sale at an extremely reasonable price. Click, click, done. The movie arrived today, and I finished watching it about an hour and a half ago.

Boris Karloff plays Professor Marcus Monserrat. At the beginning of the film, he is trying to drum up business for his hypnotism business, which has fallen on hard times, we learn from Monserrat's wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey), since a reporter started poking around, and printed some unflattering things about Monserrat. As a result, the Monserrats are in dire financial straits, and are just barely scraping by. Even so, subsisting seems to be a secondary concern for the old couple -- Prof. Monserrat has another project brewing that he's finally ready to test out. He's built a machine that, when attached to a person and turned on, will subsequently give both of the Monserrats the power to control the thoughts and movements of the test subject whenever they want to. The sort-of-hard-to-buy point, and ultimate function (according to Marcus), of this machine is to allow elderly invalids to experience full, exciting lives vicariously through those young people who agree to connect themselves to such customers, via the professor's machine.

They need a volunteer for their test, and both Marcus and Estelle agree that a prime candidate would be a young person who has become bored with the free-living ways of the late 1960s. They find such a candidate in Mike Roscoe (Reeves favorite Ian Ogilvy), who Marcus runs into one night, and who, it must be said, is talked into taking part in this mysterious project incredibly easily. Once the experiment has been successfully conducted, Mike is sent away by the Monserrats, who marvel at the physical sensations they experience -- running water on their skin, cuts on their hands -- as their young surrogate goes about his daily business. But Estelle wants a bit more. She's tired of living off next-to-nothing, and wants to get back a little of what she and her husband lost, before turning the machine to its more altruistic uses for which Marcus built it. Marcus doesn't like the idea, but concedes to his wife, because he can see how unhappy she is. So they use Mike for some cheap, essentially harmless thrills. And still, Estelle wants more, she wants things that her husband finds horrifying, but her will, and her control over Mike, is stronger.

It's funny: when I first heard of The Sorcerers, I wanted to see it because of Boris Karloff. Later, more recently, I wanted to see it for Karloff, and because Reeves made it. But while Reeves does a fine job with unusual material, and Karloff -- solid as ever -- is the marquee name, and Ogilvy is ostensibly the hero of the story, the film belongs to Catherine Lacey. I don't believe I've ever seen her before, but her performance is about as creepy as anyone could possibly want it to be -- Reeves gets more mileage out of quick shots of her grinning face than most horror filmmakers can manage out of an hour and a half of beheadings. Estelle's turn from seemingly ordinary, but grinded-down, old woman to blood-crazy thrill-killer happens pretty damn quickly, but by keeping everything as simple as he can, Reeves makes it possible to believe that Estelle can go that route. All that needs to happen is that Catherine Lacey has to be able to play it, and good God, does she play it. She plays it big when she has to, while throwing in odd, skin-crawling little touches here and there to make the character seem like she really draws breath, my favorite being the moment when, after forcing Mike to do something particularly awful, Estelle slumps over in exhausted laughter, her forehead resting on her clenched fist, as if she were suddenly overcome with relief after hours of intense worry. But again, Reeves helps things along: his decision to follow up a sequence involving a night full of violent frenzy with Estelle spending the morning after in bed, hammered on a bottle of gin, was a brilliant one.

As I believe I hinted earlier, this movie is not without its flaws. The machine Monserrat built makes very little sense (and I don't mean scientifically, because who cares about that?), and there seems to be a gap between what the Monserrat's told Mike about the experiment and its results and how he deals with the aftermath. But the story taps into the same primal idea as Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, which, like The Sorcerers deals with, among other things, the question of what keeps most people from doing horrible things to others: morality, or the fear of repurcussions? And while the film's climax may be easy to predict, it's no less effective for that. Above all, though, this film has going for it the Monserrats -- old, feeble, decent and deluded Marcus, and his loving wife of many decades, Estelle, who, one day, is given utter freedom from her fears, and a freedom to indulge her every taste. Marcus is terrified and disgusted by what these tastes turn out to be. Estelle, no doubt, is surprised herself. But she's not disgusted. Far from it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top Books of the Year

I haven't seen enough new films to work up a best-of list, and I stopped keeping a list of all the films, from whatever year, I saw in 2008 awhile back. However, I do keep a running list of all the books I've read, so picking my favorite ten from that was relatively easy. Below, wouldn't you know it, I've posted the results. By the way, only two of these novels came out this year, but oh well. Live with it, suckers.

10. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Foster's devestating suicide earlier this year spurred me to finally take a serious stab at his fiction. Following my usual pattern, I chose a collection of his short fiction. None of you know this, but I tried to hack out a whole post about this book, but the complexities, brilliance and occasionally infuriating gimmicks defeated me. This book is unlike anything else I've ever read. In all honesty, it's also not the sort of thing that would usually be a natural draw for me. But it's also clearly the work of a man who was feircely talented, incredibly smart, and, more likely than not, bound up too tightly inside his own head.

9. The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

This novel tells the highly fictionalized story, based on fact, of Charles and Mary Lamb, two devotees of Shakespeare in 19th century London who, in Ackroyd's version of events, became involved with William Henry Ireland (another historical figure) best known for writing, among other things, entire plays which he was able, for a while, to pass off as lost works by Shakespeare. This book is quietly and darkly observant, and, by the end, more than a little chilling.

8. The Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry

I put off reading this sequel to McMurtry's masterful Lonesome Dove for, well, a really long time. I mean, it couldn't be as good as that first book, could it? McMurtry's just trying to soak up more of that sweet Lonesome Dove cash, isn't he? The answer to the first question is, "No, it's not." The answer to the second question is, "How the hell should I know?" But The Streets of Laredo is pretty great, whether you think it measures up to its predecessor or not. McMurtry's prose can be lean to a fault at times, but at other times, for long stretches, you have to wonder how he's able to do so much with so few words.

7. The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Finally -- finally! -- I was able to read the first book in the series upon which Donald Westlake's ultimate legacy will be based. The Hunter is his first novel (writing as Richard Stark) about Parker, a cold-blooded, amoral thief. Parker is a true anti-hero, in that nothing that he does can be considered morally good. If he lets someone live, it's only because killing them would cause him too much hassle. If he kills someone, he does so because letting them live would cause him more hassle. He's a stone cold bastard, but he's also smarter than everyone else. Westlake is a great writer, and The Hunter is a great place to start, if you want evidence of that fact. (Note: This year, I also read the second novel in this series, The Man with the Getaway Face. It wasn't as good as The Hunter, but it's still excellent.)

6. The Man in the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

The best book I read for my The Kind of Face You SLASH!! series.

5. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

I read this novel, my first Highsmith, around the beginning of the year, so it's hard now for me to summarize what I loved so much about it, both as a story and a piece of prose. But I did indeed love it very much. Like McMurtry, Highsmith tells her chilling story about everything going to hell for a small group of people in very spare language, completely free of pretense, which forces you to focus on what matters most: the people, and what's happening to them.

4. In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

Another writer I read for the first time this year is Tobias Wolff. I'd been hearing about how great he supposedly is for a long time, and the sheer volume of it eventually wore me down to the point where I said, "Fine, goddammit, I'll read one of his stupid-ass books". The one I chose, one of his several collections of short stories, knocked me out. There are few writers, of the short story or any other kind of fiction, as precise as Wolff. There are even fewer for whom the word "perfect" would seem like anything other than sheer hyperbole. But Wolff acheives perfection m0re than once, in this collection alone. Here, read the brilliant Hunters in the Snow for yourself. Tell me I'm wrong.

3. Lush Life by Richard Price

Richard Price is one of America's greatest living writers. His mastery of dialogue is the equal of David Mamet's, and his observation of human behavior is as keen as any I've ever encountered. His last four novels can be roughly categorized as crime novels, but, while I bristle at the idea of calling them "more" than that, I would have to say that they are crime novels while also being several other things. Lush Life tells the story of a random, senseless murder and its investigation and consequences. If that sounds like old-hat to you, than you're going to miss out. Price is a genius, simple as that.

2. Old School by Tobias Wolff

Wolff is primarily a writer of short fiction, but a few years ago he did publish Old School, his "first" novel ("first" in the sense that it's actually his second, but it's the only one he's willing to acknowledge), about the narrator's experiences in a private school in the 1950s and 60s. Each year at this school, a distinguished writer is invited to speak to the students. Each year also brings with it a writing contest, the winner of which will be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the visiting author. Roughly speaking, the novel follows the narrator as he tries to win each contest, and an opportunity to meet, respectively, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Wolff proves with this that he should write more novels. It's really exquisite -- beautiful and funny, and it has one of the most moving final paragraphs I've read in a long time.

1. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

See below. How's that for an anti-climax?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

All Limbo's Clamor

Who, I wondered, towards the end of Outer Dark, actually read this book when it was published in 1968? Who closed it and thought, "Oh, I have to tell my friends about this one"? Who, in turn, was told about it and then rushed to the bookstore to buy their own copy? Now, forty years later, Cormac McCarthy is widely considered one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- living American writers, and along with that reputation comes a sizable audience who wants to know what all the fuss is about. Those people will start with the most famous books, like No Country for Old Men or The Road, and if they're keen enough on those will begin working their way through the rest of them. But if anybody should happen, for whatever reason, to start with Outer Dark, will they wish to continue?

Well, of course some of them will. Had I started with Outer Dark, I feel pretty confident I would have continued to read McCarthy. After all, it's a work of bizarre, unique genius. But it's also one of the most gut-turning, unblinking and disturbing horror novels I've ever read.

More about that word "horror" later. First, I'll give you a brief idea of the story. Somewhere in the American South, probably around the end of the 19th century, a woman named Rinthy Holme is about to give birth. Her brother, Culla, is the father. Upon giving birth, Culla takes the baby (a boy, or "chap", as he's referred to throughout the novel) into the woods and leaves it there. He tells his sister that the baby died of natural causes. In fact, the baby didn't die at all, but rather was taken from its lonely patch of forest by a tinker (referred to only as "the tinker"). Rinthy discovers her brother's lie, and, believing that Culla traded the child to the tinker, sets out to find her "chap". Shortly after that, Culla sets out to find Rinthy.

The novel tells its story in alternating chapters: one chapter following Culla, the next following Rinthy. Every third chapter, or so, is broken up by short accounts of three mysterious, unnamed, deeply dangerous men. These men begin to leave behind them a trail of corpses (one of the killers, "the bearded man", uses a large knife to "unhinge" a man), though the reasons behind these murders are mysterious, as is the connection between the killers and Rinthy and Culla.

As always, McCarthy's prose is striking: a bizarre mix of Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and the Bible, but still completely McCarthy's own words. As one might imagine, this mixture produces disorienting results. A clean, precise sentence such as...

It was later afternoon when they set forth again, out from the town, the wheels rasping in the sand, back down the yellow road. followed up immediately by sentences like this:

Night fell upon them dark and starblown and the wagon grew swollen near mute with dew. On their chairs in such black immobility these travelers could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time.

That "starblown" is particularly Joycean. There are a lot of brand new compounds like that (see also "redgummed" and "spraddlelegged", along with many more). As with Joyce, this has the effect of very concisely and poetically describing an image by using words that, in effect, hadn't existed before. But also like Joyce, he can produce nearly impenetrable (or actually impenetrable, in the case of Joyce) passages that make you want to put the book down and not speak to it for a few hours:

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo's clamor.

That was from the second of two paragraphs, back to back, early in the novel that made me begin to fear I'd pulled the wrong book from my shelf, when I read this about four months ago. I do find this kind of writing infuriating, and I don't really understand why the critical community doesn't also look at it a little askance. But it's so taken for granted with McCarthy that even the back cover copy of my edition can't help but get into the act, with its proud and giddy use of the word "fabular".

However, that kind of writing is very rare, and more often we get this kind:

Holme left the road and clambered up the rocky slope to give them leeway. The first of the drovers was beating his way obliquely across the herd toward him, the hogs flaring and squealing and closing behind him again like syrup. When he gained the open ground he came along easily, smiling up to where Holme sat on a rock with his feet dangling and looking down with no little wonder at this spectacle.

This scene, which describes Culla Holme watching a sea of hogs being herded through a field, will turn sour for Culla. Many of his experiences during the course of this novel do. Each of his chapters described him searching, often vainly, for work to support himself during his search for Rinthy. He's occasionally accused of crimes he didn't commit (while only the tinker, who we do meet again, is aware of the crime he actually did commit). Rinthy's chapters, on the other hand, describe her finding kindness and charity almost wherever she goes, though her search for the tinker and her son seems hopeless. Meanwhile, those three men have started killing people, and we gradually realize that we've met their victims earlier in the book, when Culla encountered them in his travels.

So where is all of this heading? It's heading, as is usually the case with McCarthy, to a kind of Apocalypse. (Spoiler) For McCarthy, in book after book, the sick, mad, shrieking end of humanity is represented by the violent death of infants. Babies are murdered by the handful in Blood Meridian; a baby is roasted on a spit in The Road (and though I don't wish to drag politics into this, I'd be remiss if I brought up this motif and didn't mention that, in No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell speaks very unfavorably about abortion). These infants are always faceless and nameless, but by being slaughtered so casually and motivelessly in Blood Meridian, or used for sustenance by depraved adults in The Road, their humanity is somehow heightened. This, McCarthy is saying, is as bad as it can get. Once this happens, nothing is salvageable. In Outer Dark we get this act presented, by its perpetrator, as a kind of infernal lesson, or as a rebuke. It's a way of saying to the one who witnesses it: See what you did?(End spoiler)

I've thought a lot today about the violence in McCarthy's fiction, and I think that, for myself, one of the reasons it's so jarring is because it's so uncommon in literary fiction. Other writers of McCarthy's stature and ambition have dealt with savage violence from time to time, but with those writers it tends to be a sort of experiment, or an itch that needed scratching before returning to their other work. But in McCarthy, grotesque, brutal violence is always there, and it's depicted at a level so graphic that the only equivelant in fiction I've seen is in the horror genre. But what I realized today is that, in horror fiction (of which I read a lot), if the book is especially violent it tends to also be especially bad. The truly great horror writers are generally more subdued about violence, often only suggesting the worst; if they deal with it straight on, they only very rarely dwell on it. But McCarthy takes the violence of "splatter" horror and weds it with the stark poetry of great American fiction. It's a jarring combination, almost appalling. And in Outer Dark, it's also otherworldly. The three killers float through the novel like ghosts, and they shouldn't know, or care, about the events of this story; they shouldn't know about Culla or Rinthy or their baby. But by the end, the bearded man seems to know more than he's saying. In fact, he knows more than we do.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It Helps if You're Mad

The other day, I was talking to one of my co-workers about films and books. We were approaching these subjects in a general sort of way, but I was eventually able, as I often am, to steer things towards one of my specific interests, in this case the writer Derek Robinson. I was proud of my skill in turning the conversation to my favor, but this morning it occurred to me that, as a blog proprietor, I can turn "conversations" my way any time I want, and with much less effort.

Which brings me to Derek Robinson. I first heard of him, indirectly, from a couple of my brothers, who watched the Masterpiece Theater adaptation of his novel Piece of Cake many, many years ago. I remember very little of what they said about it, other than that the title stuck in my head, as did the fact that this was a World War II story that centered around a British fighter squadron. As I say, I have no idea why all this stuck with me, although, now that I think about it, it might have something to do with the fact that I didn't see the series myself, and, being a kid at the time, anything my older brothers got to see or do that I didn't see or do myself (not that Piece of Cake was forbidden to me, like Monty Python, but you get the idea) had a tendency to lodge in my brain.

Anyway, some years later, after my obsession with books had well and truly taken hold of both my body and spirit, I came across, in a used bookstore, a novel called Piece of Cake, by Derek Robinson.

A quick investigation confirmed that this was the source material of the Masterpiece Theater series, so I bought it and, at some point during the intervening years, read it. I sometimes tell people that Piece of Cake is my favorite book, but it's been so long since I read the whole thing that I should probably stop saying that, just in case a subsequent re-reading of the novel should make me out a liar. But it is a great book. It tells the story of an RAF fighter squadron, called Hornet Squadron, from September 1939, up to the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Robinson gets across what it must have been like to be a young man at the beginning of World War II, getting ready to take up one of the most insane and dangerous jobs in any military at that time, and he does so with a great deal of sardonic wit and a complete lack of dishonest sentiment.

Without even opening the book, I can still rattle off the names of the main characters (of which there are quite a few): Pip Patterson, Mother Cox, Moggy Cattermole, Flash Gordon, Moke Miller, Rex, Kellaway, Baggy Bletchley, Stickwell, Fanny Barton, Christopher Hart III (known as CH3)...I also remember, to a man, whether or not they make it out of the novel alive, and, if not, how they died. More than any other novel I know, Piece of Cake kept me completely off-balance regarding my confidence in the fate, and life expectancy, of the characters. Anybody could be killed at any time. No one was ever safe. In this sense, Piece of Cake feels like the most realistic war novel I've ever read. And it's still a very funny book, from the first page to the last.

I've since read many of Robinson's other novels. He certainly does seem to favor war novels about fighter (or bomber) squadrons bearing ironically frivolous titles (see also A Good Clean Fight and Damned Good Show), and he also really likes to write about Hornet Squadron -- apart from Piece of Cake, this squadron also appears in the aforementioned A Good Clean Fight, and in his World War I novels War Story and Hornet's Sting (and you can find Hornet's prototype in Robinson's Booker Prize-nominated Goshawk Squadron). I've read all of these, except Hornet's Sting, and I like them all, but I'll be honest and say to anyone interested in Robinson that there is a sameness to these novels that might wear on you, so if you wanted to pick just one, then go with Piece of Cake. With that novel, he was working at the height of his powers: it's his epic, and his masterwork.

Robinson does write other kinds of books. He's written a few spy novels, an American Civil War novel (Kentucky Blues), and many non-fiction books about both war and rugby. He's still writing, but his kind of fiction is apparently, and unfortunately, out of style, because he's had to self-publish his newest novel, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, about Cold War spy-plane pilots. This guy has been nominated for a Booker, he's been adapted by Masterpiece Theater, and now he has to self-publish. I'm disgusted, but unsurprised. But oh well. I'd say that I hope Robinson isn't bitter about this turn of events, but having read a number of his novels, I think the odds are that he probably is, which is fine, because he has every right to be. After all, he's the guy who wrote Piece of Cake. Read that book, all of you. It's another great novel in danger of being forgotten.

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Shouldn't Buy This

Last week, I unexpectedly had a little extra cash rattling around in my pocket, so I went to my favorite local movie store and bought this thing:

My thought process went something like, "Say, this sum'bitch is less than thirty dollars. That's like a buck a movie. Plus also which, I haven't seen any of these, and maybe there are some hidden gems in here. If I really like only two of these movies, then I can easily justify the purchase!"

I can't honestly say I'm terribly familiar with all of the various '"sploitation" genres that are being represented on this box-set (the twenty films are crammed onto three two-sided discs), and I've long felt that I might be missing out, genre fan that I am. So I took the plunge and bought it. I'm not even going to tell you what DVDs I put back in favor of this, for the shame I feel now is too great.

I've only watched one of the movies, and that's the only one I plan on watching. That film is Max Kalmanowicz's 1980 horror opus The Children, about a small town whose entire child population -- which must be pushing double digits -- is contaminated by some toxic, gaseous disaster, transforming all of them from children into...The Children. Which might sound to many of you like a lateral move at the absolute worst, but which is in fact a quite horrifying development, as it deadens their minds and turns their hands into deadly, flesh-melting weapons. Cutting off those hands is this film's equivalent of "destroy the brain and the body dies", nonsensical as that both sounds and is. But this is a film that introduces one female character as having a sister (or teenage daughter) who seems barely conscious, and to whom she feeds codeine tablets, only to have both the codeine feeder and the feed-ee drop out of the story within minutes. Also, before all the kids come back and start burning off everyone's skin, it's believed that they've been kidnapped, and upon hearing this information, the resident Bad Mother (she's rich and has a pool and sunbathes) says, "A kidnapping in Ravensback?? How exciting!!"

The Children looks and feels like an old TV movie, and I might think that's just what it was if it wasn't for the scene where there are boobies, and the other scene where that one guy says "handjob". The TV movie feel is enhanced by the DVD quality, which is rancid. The damn thing looks like it was transferred off of a VHS bootleg. And hey, what's this? Right at the end of the film, before the credits, the picture fritzes out with that rolling distortion, bleeding into static, that you used to get with old, well-used tapes. Hmmm....

The Grindhouse Experience retails on Amazon for $34.99. It's not worth $3.49. I'm taking this turd back to the store tomorrow, where I can get trade-in credit, and hopefully I'll be able to go home feeling a little less ripped-off. Before I do, though, it occurs to me that the picture quality of High School Hitch Hikers might not be so bad. I'd better give it a look...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

25 Super Ladies

I am a male chauvinist. Either that, or I'm gay. I say that because this meme, started by Nathaniel R. and sent my way by Rick, was very difficult for me. The idea is that you simply pick your 25 favorite actresses, and I would have had a much easier time picking my 25 favorite actors. Make of all this what you will, but I do genuinely like all of the following actresses, even if "favorite" might be stretching it on occasion. And that's the end of the commentary on this post, because I have a cold.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Here We Are at the House

So a few days ago, Marilyn -- whose influence on this blog is becoming absolute -- sent me a letter that said "Hey Bill, I'm too a-scared to watch Jennifer Chambers Lynch's film entitled Boxing Helena, probably because it has something to do with being made helpless. You know who should see it is you. Will you see it and write about it? You are handsome. Also, you are smart. Sincerely, Marilyn. PS - You are funny." Flattered by her compliments, I agreed to give Boxing Helena a look-see. I've always been more than keen on Miss Sherilyn Fenn anyway, and Jennifer C. Lynch is David Lynch's daughter, a fact which only increased my curiosity. Sweetening the pot still further was the fact that the film also featured dismemberment and boxing things up and Art Garfunkel. Yes, this was a movie that needed to be watched. Which I did. And this thing is awful.

Julian Sands, it cannot be stressed too highly, stars in Boxing Helena as Dr. Nick Cavanaugh. I dearly wish there was some way to give you some sense of his line readings, but then again maybe the limits of the English language are, in this case, a blessing. Sands is through-the-floor terrible in this film, and I was all set to tear him a new cornhole, because it's high time someone knocked Julian Sands off his pedestal, but then in one scene I noticed he was wearing a hearing aid. This was late in the film, and there had never been any indication that his character was hard of hearing. So I started thinking, "Is Julian Sands deaf? Is that why he's so bad? Am I discriminating against him? Maybe he's actually a really good actor, for a deaf person. But wait, Marlee Matlin's deaf, and she's pretty good. Was she born deaf? Because maybe that's the difference. Maybe Sands..." And so on. I finally decided to err on the side of caution, and I therefore now consider his performance a courageous triumph. I have to add a little toughness to the love, however, and point out that while Sands sure as hell gives Nick Furlong a run for his money, he's still going to have to put in some hard work if he wants to get to the level of Dakota Fanning.

Anyway. Nick Cavanaugh is a brilliant surgeon who, following the death of his mother, has recently inherited his sprawling family home. He has a long-time girlfriend named Anne (Betsy Clarke), but still obsesses over a woman named Helena, played by Sherilyn Fenn. Nick's best friend Lawrence (ART GARFUNKEL!!) gently reminds him that he only spent one night with Helena, and he might want to think about letting it go. You can never ignore the advice of Art Garfunkel and still expect a heavenly light to ever again shine on your soul, but ignore him Nick does, by inviting Helena to a party he suddenly decides to throw.

Helena, meanwhile, is gorgeous. I mean, look:

I'm fucking pretty as shit

But that soft, angelic exterior masks -- wouldn't you just fucking know it -- a cruel and manipulative mind. At the time of Nick's invitation, she's dating Ray (Bill Paxton), and as we meet these two wide-eyed and innocent creatures, they are engaged in the physical act of love, and Helena gets so mad about her phone ringing in the middle of their humping that she calls a halt to the whole procedure. This upsets Ray, as it would anyone, but he tries to gently coax his lover back into his arms by pointing at his wang with both hands and calling it "Daddy". Somehow, this doesn't work, and Helena continues to treat him badly (although, to be fair, Ray does tend to wear mesh shirts and leather pants, and say things like "It's a big night tonight at the club").

Anyhow, Helena, for some reason, accepts Nick's invitation, but the party goes very badly for Nick, ending as it does with Helena leaving with some twerp, and Nick calling Anne "Helena". Not only that, but Art Garfunkel also pretty much bails on Nick. "Fuck it," Art Garfunkel says, and you know what? I don't blame him.

Fortunately for Nick, Helena left her purse at his house, and she calls and asks him -- insluting him even as she asks for a favor! -- to bring it to her at the airport, where she will be catching a plane to Alcapulco. Nick does this, but the purse is absent her address book, so he takes her back to his house so they can both look for it. And this moment gave me my favorite line in the entire film. We get a shot of the car pulling up outside his house, and Nick says: "Well, here we are at the house, Helena. I'm so glad I was able to tell that story in such depth and detail." I swear to God, that line is actually spoken. We're never told what the story is that Nick is referring to, but I, for one, am glad that these two kids were able to have at least one pleasant conversation before the horror begins.

The horror begins when Helena, who really hates Nick and isn't shy about letting him now that, discovers that Nick purposely left her address book behind, and used it to lure her to his house. She is so upset by this that she storms from the house, and about halfway across Nick's front lawn, she turns to face him, while continuing to walk backwards. As people so often do when they're angry at someone who is standing in a doorway, Helena walks backwards for about twenty feet, right out into the middle of the street, where she's run down by a speeding truck. Nick does the only thing he can do, which is to carry her crippled body into his house and cut off her legs and stop going to work so he can make sure she doesn't escape.

Nick and Helena in happier times
This choice of action really makes Helena angry, and the next half hour or so of the film consists of her calling Nick names (she calls him pathetic, she says she didn't enjoy the sex they had together that one time, but, it should be noted, she never calls him a "Sting-looking, Malcolm McDowell-sounding motherfucker", which is just another one of this film's many missteps), while Nick says, "But I love you! I think you're beautiful! Wup, you just tried to choke me. Let's have those arms off." So he cuts her arms off, an action that actually draws Helena closer to this guy, because she's tired of feeling all, you know, icky, and wants to feel the touch of a man again. And considering that Dr. Nick is, ostensibly, a man, why not just go for it? So Helena goes from saying "You're a loser!" to "You're bad at sex!" to "I don't want to be alone!" to "Touch me!" -- this last phrase being spoken in slow motion -- in about twenty-five minutes. Further upsetting my expectations for this film was the fact that there wasn't a single box in the whole damn movie.

In 1993, Boxing Helena fever briefly swept the nation

That's just completely unbelievable, isn't it? There is simply no way anyone could possibly buy how this section of the story unfolds. But that's okay, because everything that happened after Helena got hit by the truck is (SPOILER) a dream Nick's having after falling asleep while waiting for Helena to get out of surgery. He didn't dismember her after all; he just wants to. And also everything you just saw meant precisely jack-shit. I get the feeling that Boxing Helena was hurried into theaters before Lynch could really go to the mat for her original ending, which featured a final title that read "The End...?", but sometimes artists lose the war, and the barbarians end up running the asylum as the Philistines watch Rome burn, or however it goes. But what we have, like Welles's truncated The Magnificent Ambersons, is still a marvelously engaging work of art, a film whose genius makes itself known in spite of those who might wish to hide it. Good night, and God bless.