Sunday, March 29, 2009

Timing is Everything

You plan and you plan, and what you plan is to watch Let the Right One In this weekend, both because you've been wanting to see it for months, and so you'll have something fresh to write about today. And besides, it feels like it's been a good long while since you're written a serious post about the horror genre. But your "planning" has actually consisted entirely of assuming that the film was available On Demand. Which, you found out yesterday, is not the case. So fine, go rent the damn thing. Okay, I will. Or rather, my wife says she'll pick it up on the way back from an errand she has to run. But our local video store is all out. There has, apparently, been a run on moody Swedish vampire films. As a result, I have no Let the Right One In to write about, but have learned, instead, a valuable lesson: planning gets you nowhere!

I'll watch some other movie soon and write that up instead, but, in the meantime, anybody else surprised about this?
I haven't seen the film yet, and therefore have no opinion, but I do know that it's hardly being heralded as a major triumph for David Fincher. Criterion has done this before, though, albeit some years after the film's release, with Ang Lee's The Ice Storm*. Maybe I'm just oblivious to the high regard with which Lee's film is held, but that one I have seen, and it didn't strike me as any kind of modern classic (or important, either). It seemed too scrubbed clean and proud of itself. But it was based on a novel by Rick Moody, so the being-proud-of-itself thing was probably built in. Anyway, I could more easily see a Criterion release for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or Hulk, for that matter.

*Of course, Criterion also has Chasing Amy, Armageddon and The Rock under their belt, but I always hoped that was just a phase they were going through.

Friday, March 27, 2009

You Scamps!

Always with the trouble, you kids! Get on home now! Shoo!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Writers as Actors

Actors, it would seem, very often want to be doing something else with their lives. The old joke is "What I really want to do is direct", but often what they want to also do is write, and they don't necessarily want to write screenplays. The actor-as-writer is not really a recent phenomenon -- Shakespeare was an actor, after all -- and even the idea of a movie star writing novels stretches back several decades. Robert Shaw was a respected novelist and playwright, as was Peter Ustinov. Both were prolific enough as writers, in fact, that they could reasonably be said to be both things equally.
But being both things at once -- the modern version of being a true Renaissance Man -- is kind of a dying art (Stephen Fry, with, I think, five ten books under his belt, is the only guy I can think of who can be said to fit in the Ustinov and Shaw mold) and nowadays we have a lot of actors who dabble in writing. The most prominent of these would probably have to be Ethan Hawke, who has written two novels that apparently nobody likes (I haven't read either, and never will). Other than that, you have Hugh Laurie, whose one novel, The Gun Seller, I have read (and it was darn good, too, until the American Military showed up to play the role of "cartoonishly evil bad guys"), or Michael Palin (one novel also, called Hemingway's Chair, which I plan on reading soon), or fellow Python Eric Idle (two novels, actually, one hard-to-find novel from the 70s called Hello, Sailor, and another, Douglas Adams-esque, except supposedly far less good, SF comedy called The Road to Mars), or David Thewlis (one novel, called The Late Hector Kipling). One day, I'd like to gather up a bunch of these novels, the ones I haven't read (well, except for Hawke's), and plunge in. Maybe write them up as a kind of series. That might be interesting.

But anyway, what about the reverse? What about when writers choose to be actors? It doesn't happen often, because writers tend to be content, if that's really the word I want, with being writers. Still, it does happen, and the results are often surprising, or interesting, or maybe bad and weird. It depends.

First off, I'm going to cheat, because look below:

That still is from Alexander Mackendrick's A High Wind in Jamaica, and the blonde-headed lad is Martin Amis, world-famous and highly-respected as the author of Time's Arrow, Money, London Fields and many others. Obviously, when Amis did this film, he wasn't in the position of moving from the role of novelist to actor, but I've been a fan of Amis for quite a long time, and when I first heard that, as a boy, Amis appeared as an actor in this film, I became extremely interested. I didn't see the film until a year or so ago, after I'd read the source novel by Richard Hughes. The novel is a chilling masterpiece, and the film is, well, not. And Amis, as I remember, has almost nothing to say in the film, even though in the novel his character was pretty chatty. The film is a wash, really, and even if you're a fan of Amis, the novelty of the idea of seeing him in a film isn't actually heightened by actually seeing the film.

Above we have an image from Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu. To the right of Klaus Kinski is Roland Topor as Renfield. Topor isn't exactly a household name, but he was, among other things, a Kafka-esque, surrealist writer whose most famous novel, The Tenant, was adapted by Roman Polanski as The Roman Polanski Story (better known as The Tenant). Herzog says he cast Topor because of his laugh, but unfortunately all of Topor's dialogue had to be re-dubbed by another actor (the reasons for this escape me) so you don't even get to hear it. And as much as I love Herzog's film, Topor has always seemed like the weak link to me (well, Topor and whoever dubbed his voice), because he plays Renfield as a scampering cartoon loony, with none of the insectile creepiness that Kinski brings to his role. It always felt like a bad match, to me.

The way I remember hearing it, John Boorman agreed to cast James Dickey in the role of Sheriff Bullard in the film version of Dickey's Deliverance pretty much just to get Dickey off his back. Dickey was notoriously difficult to work with, or drink with, or sit in the same room with, or be a family member of, and it was no less difficult for the cast and crew to have him wandering around, insulting people, lying to them, and then slapping them on the back later as though they were old pals. But Boorman -- and anyone who cares to can correct me if I'm wrong in the comments -- achieved some sort of peace by casting Dickey as the sheriff who, in the last section of the film, suspects that our heroes are hiding something from him. And as it happens, Dickey is terrific in the role, the one roaring success of this kind of writer-to-actor leap I can think of. He brings a great authenticity and sharpness to a small role, and his performance is one of the most memorable in the whole film.

And then Salman Rushdie played himself in Bridget Jones' Diary. I don't remember anything about the film, or even what Rushdie did or said in his small amount of screen time, but I do remember thinking, "Well. That's kind of odd, isn't it?"

So who am I forgetting? Any other writers who made a brief foray into film acting that deserve a mention here? Let me know.



Where do I begin? In the comments section, many, many, many other examples of writers-as-actors have been pointed out to me, many I simply didn't think of, others I had no idea about. And now I feel mighty embarrassed, but oh well. I asked, didn't I? So, from the likes of Marilyn (who's probably mad at me), Mariana, Greg F., Pat, ND, here's some more...

Sam Shepard in a whole shitload of movies, most notably The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven

Norman Mailer in Ragtime, as well as some of his own films

Marshal McLuhan in Annie Hall

Robert Benchley in a whole lot of stuff

While I'm at it, Peter Benchley in Jaws

Paul Auster in The Music of Chance (that one was mine!!)

Stephen King in Creepshow, Sleepwalkers, Knightriders, Creepshow 2, and etc.

Truman Capote in Murder by Death

William S. Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy

Colin McCabe in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

Jerzy Kosinsky in Reds

George Plimpton in Reds, Good Will Hunting, and etc.

Antonin Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc

And, it just occurred to me, Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag are both in Zelig.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fiction...or FACT??

After watching Incident at Loch Ness over the weekend, I thought I might indulge in one of my favorite hobbies: going on-line and finding pictures of real ghosts and monsters. Sure, the government and probably also NASA tries to keep the proof of the existence of such creatures hidden from the public, but there are scores of ghost and/or Sasquatch hunters out there who struggle every day to get the truth out there (here). They do more before noon than you probably did all last Sunday, you lazy fuckers. So to begin.

Much is made by people who I would label "doubters" or "haters" or even "haterzz" that the entire length and depth of Loch Ness has been searched, and no ghost has ever been found. Well, okay, but what about the Loch Ness Monster??? He's the whole point, you lying idiots! And here he is, even!

And look at him getting ready to eat a fish! That's so cute! Although Nessie is pretty dangerous, too, so be careful the next time you're in Scotland.

The ghosts that aren't being found in the waters of Loch Ness can actually be found everywhere else in the world. All you have to do is look, and be sensitive to their presence, or have mind powers, or have top-of-the-line ghosting technology, like these fellows:

These guys are doing important work, and they're doing it on TV, but the thing I find so admirable about them is that they have day plumbers!! For Roto-Rooter, I think. And they've both made it crystal clear that if the ghost hunting money should ever dry up, they'll just go on being plumbers, smooth as you please, because they're just regular joes, like you and me. I bet they'd keep hunting ghosts for free, too, because that's just how they are.

Speaking of which, here's a ghost:

See it? How does NASA think they can keep this stuff from us? It's going to get out there anyway, you stupid astronauts. Maybe if you worked more closely and openly with the public, you would find even more ghosts, and your plan to construct an all-ghost space colony on Saturn will be realized far sooner than you dared hope.
Also, gnomes are real. For a long time, even I didn't believe gnomes were real, and I believe in unicorns, but lately they've been coming out of the woodwork (probably literally, because they're gnomes, and gnomes live in wood -- cabinets and hutches and trees and so forth). Here's one:
What's interesting about this guy -- who I have named "Simon Leafgood" -- is that he's clearly aware that a Man is nearby, attempting to capture his image in some way, and yet he appears unafraid. Have we infringed on their home so thoroughly that they have become acclimated to us? It's like when you go to a big city, and the squirrels will practically walk right up to you, like "Hey. Is that popcorn? What does ice cream taste like? I'm a squirrel, by the way."

Simon Leafgood certainly seems friendly enough, at least, but I fear that our ruthless industrial spread has angered some in the gnome community, and there may come a time when we will have to atone, or face the rope. Look at this:

That gnome is pissed! If that still doesn't give you a chilling enough picture of our future, then check out this video, from whence the above image came. They're out for blood, people. Human blood. And God knows that NASA isn't going to help us when the gnomes rise up. I don't know who can help us, but presumably, somewhere out there, there's some kind of Chosen One, a teenager probably, who maybe has an amulet he can use. Fingers crossed, anyhow.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Don't Know What Hit Us, But it Was Big

What must the pitch meeting for Incident at Loch Ness have sounded like? I imagine Zak Penn sitting down with the suits, rubbing his hands together, and saying: "It's Jaws meets The Blair Witch Project!" To which the suits would say, "Great! Who's your star?" And Penn would have to reply, "Werner Herzog!"

The film has one of the wonkiest premises I've ever encountered: a semi-improvised comedy-horror fake-documentary about a film-within-a-film starring Werner Herzog as himself trying to investigate the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, and accidentally encountering the real thing. With a story like that, Incident at Loch Ness should probably be crazier than it actually is, but it's crazy enough for my tastes, and manages to work on most of the levels it aims for.

The man behind all this is Zak Penn, Hollywood screenwriter (among other things, he wrote X-Men 2). He wrote and directed the film, and how he got Herzog on board, I have no idea. Although, these days Herzog kind of seems game for whatever, so maybe Penn just asked him. Penn is also in the film, playing himself as a shallow, selfish, cowardly and ignorant Hollywood climber. Penn, the character, is the producer of Herzog's Loch Ness documentary, which is to be called The Enigma of Loch Ness. The making of that film is being documented by John Bailey (the real film's actual cinematographer) for a documentary on Herzog, Herzog in Wonderland. Penn is initially unaware of Bailey's project, and is more than a little put out by this other camera crews' presence, because it is Penn's plan -- a plan he tries to hide from Herzog -- to "heighten" the drama, and commercial viability of the Loch Ness film with special effects and actors and Playboy models. Herzog gradually catches on to Penn's manipulations, and spends much of the film struggling to make the film he set out to make.

So it's a Hollywood satire about commercialism versus art, with the brilliant and umcompromising Herzog, that singular German madman, as its hero. Yes, that is what it is, but the film is structured as, among other things, a documentary about the mysterious events and tragedies faced by the crew when they finally make it to Scotland, get on a boat and begin exploring Loch Ness. Because, we learn, two of the film's crewmembers have died. What happened? What killed them? Nobody is quite willing to say, but by the end of the film it's made abundantly clear that Penn's attempt to inject false drama into Herzog's film were completely unnecessary.

Of course, this one of the film's many meta-ironies, because, obviously, this is a fiction film we're watching (though it was originally marketed, Blair Witch-style, as a genuine documentary), and because Herzog has owned up to the fact that he manipulates his own documentaries in order to achieve what he calls "ecstatic truth". He never, to my knowledge, goes so far as to actually make up "facts", but he does stage scenes for visual impact, and ask his interview subjects to restate thoughts and ideas so that they have a more poetic feel.

It's quite possible that Herzog's presence makes Incident at Loch Ness feel, not necessarily better, but more fascinating than it actually is. Near the beginning, we get a brief overview of who Herzog is and what makes him so special, as if we needed to be reminded, with clips from Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and My Best Fiend, as well as from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, accompanied by Herzog's familiar ramblings about "ecstatic truth", and, for me at least, this geared me up for a truly unique and unusual film. And it's not that we don't get that, but all that "ecstatic truth" talk, as it pertains to this film, doesn't actually amount to anything. The comedy of the film -- and it's a very funny movie -- cuts that with a fair amount of absurdity, so that, after a while, if we were ever unsure whether we were watching a real documentary or not, that uncertainty doesn't last long. And because the horror film elements are not especially original (other than that they exist in this movie), any exploration of the myth of the Loch Ness Monster is pretty much rendered moot.

But I have to say, the horror stuff does work pretty well. This movie can't have cost very much, and Penn uses that fact -- and this was honestly probably always his intention -- to keep his monster effects very low-key, adding a nice air of mystery, and a fear of the unknown, that so many straight horror films don't even bother with. Much of what we see of the monster could reasonably be explained away in more logical terms, and no one in the film actually comes out and says that it was the Loch Ness Monster who attacked their boat and killed their colleagues, but they, of course, have their suspicions. And there are a couple of truly nice, creepy images that make me wish Penn would try his hand at a real, no-winking horror film.

So the film works primarily as a comedy, and partly as a horror film, and pretends to be deeper than that, but isn't really. In this regard, Herzog's presence might actually hurt the film, because if we're familiar with his work then we know what ecstatic truth is supposed to look like, and in comparison Penn's film can kind of not seem like much. Like it doesn't have anything to say, in other words. If thought about too hard, Incident at Loch Ness looks like nothing more than an elaborate game. Except -- and this is a big exception -- it really is a damn good game.

Friday, March 20, 2009


This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Have Been Interviewed

Dennis Cozzalio isn't the only esteemed blogger to have been interviewed recently. I, too, sat down not long ago with a journalist to tell my story -- and it's about damn time, but never mind -- of maturity and art and creation and wisdom. I was more than happy to do this, but the interviewer doesn't have a website, or a magazine, or a newsletter, and said that he just wanted to do this for the "hell of it". I said, okay, then can I put the interview up on my blog? As it's been three months and I haven't heard back, I'm going to take that as a "yes". So enjoy!

* * * * * *

How did you get started writing? How did you begin?

How did I begin…what an interesting question. Well, I’ll tell you how I began: I picked up a pen. And I put that pen to paper.


Why not? [Laughs] No, I’m only joking. I did it because of a mixture of things. Anger. Anger at the world and its governments. Also love for people. And also because some dreams deserve to be shared, and I believed that I dreamed such dreams. For instance, my first short story was about a robot who learned how to cry. When that image came to me, of a big metal robot with lightbulb eyes, and a, like a grate for a mouth, and from one of those lightbulb eyes there fell a single tear…well, what could I do? Keep it to myself? That would have been a criminal act.

A crime against art?

No, a literal crime. This would have been a legal issue, I believe. There is a law in the books against withholding beauty from mankind. I think that’s in there somewhere, but I’ll admit I haven’t studied law in ages! [Laughs]

Still, who would know? How could you have been caught?

I would have turned myself in.

I see. So did you ever publish that story? I confess that I’m not familiar with it. What was it called, by the way?

It was called O, And Daylight Does Break on This Metal Man, which is a line from a poem I’d written just a few hours previously. No, I never did publish it, but not from a lack of trying. I sent it off to Ploughshares and The New Yorker, and I never heard a thing. Also, at the time, I was convinced there was a short fiction magazine called Dragynfyre, and I sent it off to them, as well, but it turns out they didn’t exist. Maybe that was a band. Was that a band?

I don’t know.

Well, anyway. So the story didn’t get published, but do you know what I did?


I persevered.

Moving on from your early years, I just wanted to ask you: over the past decade or so, your work has tackled a number of sensitive, topical issues, such as racism, modern imperialism, government misdeeds, war and poverty. Why do you stress the political in your work so strongly?

Because if not me, who? No one is talking about these issues. When I get on the internet every morning, do you know what sites I’m looking at? Youtube! Or celebrity gossip sites! Trash, in other words! Where’s the good, hard news, the investigative reporting? Where are the liberal bloggers trying to pull down the curtains to reveal that Oz is just another flying monkey? They simply don’t exist. So I had to step in, because as somebody once said, “Art is a cudgel.” And I am that cudgel.

You once said – not in an interview, but actually in a PS at the end of one of your stories – that your job as an artist is to ask questions. What did you mean by that?

Let me answer your question this way: as an artist, I wear many hats. I am a monologuist, and I am a horrorist, and, at my most political, I am an ambiguist. Because the important thing is not to answer questions, but to ask them. Especially if the question has never been asked before, which none of mine have been. Answering questions is easy, asking them is hard. Once a question is asked, you have something to answer. If the question has never been asked, what do you have? A black void of ignorance.

So if answering the questions is easy, do you have answers to the questions you’ve asked in your work?


What are you working on now?

Well, I have several more monologues in the works. One is about an old minority man who is upset about health care. It’s called Poor Man, Heal Thyself. Then I have a new horror novel that I’m putting the finishing touches on, and I think this one is going to be particularly interesting. Imagine, if you’re able, a town out in the Midwest somewhere, that is being overrun by old demons from the past, and the reason there are demons is because of something the town elders once did, some black secret which has since been covered up by all the adults over the years. And guess who alone has the power to defeat these demons? Go on, guess.

I don’t know.

The children!

How is it that children are powerful enough to defeat these demons?

Because of innocence.

I see. Does the novel have a title?

Yes, it’s going to be called The Deading.

That’s magnificent.

Thank you.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What Jonathan Said

This Jonathan, that is. I don't imagine that there's going to be a hell of a lot going on anywhere on the the internet today, because in just under two and a half hours, Rick Olson, our resident Scandanavian, is kicking off this months' TOERIFC discussion -- this time it's on Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning. So everybody go there today, and leave me alone!


EDIT: Maybe I should save this for its own post, but I just heard that Ron Silver passed away. He was one hell of an actor, and -- I'm not going to lie -- I truly admired his articulate way of presenting what was, in Hollywood, an unpopular political stance, one that I happened to share.

But politics is neither here nor there, especially now. He was a very fine actor, from what I've gathered a good guy, and, in any case, a human being. RIP.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Quick One While I'm Away

In a few hours I'm going to be jetting up to Northern VA to see the family, because we have a new addition to the ever-expanding crew (welcome, little Melanie!) so I want to get a quick, not-much-of-anything post in before that happens.

All's I really got to say is, don't forget Rick's sure-to-be-enlightening post for this month's The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club pick, Boudu Saved from Drowning this coming Monday, March 16! You'll be able to find it, as if I need to even tell you, at Rick's own Coosa Creek Cinema, so be there, or go suck an egg. I actually haven't watched the film yet, but I'm bringing it with me on my trip, just in case I find myself in the vicinity of an open TV and DVD player with a spare hour-and-a-half. Otherwise, I'll have to squeeze it in on Sunday when I get home. But watch it I indeed shall.

Also, after bailing on Brian Keene's insipid zombie novel, The Rising, my scramble to find something else to read has landed me on Jim Thompson's The Grifters. It's been ages since I've read any Thompson, and so far this book is just terrific. God bless the Jim Thompsons of the world -- there haven't been enough of you guys. A lot of pretenders, but very few of the real thing.

So have a great weekend, everybody, and remember, as Thompson says, via Lilly Dillon in The Grifters: "They can kill you, but they can't eat you."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tar or Milk?

Raindrops fell like tears from a black tar god -- or drops of rancid milk from a dead mother's breast.

That line comes from The Rising, the first novel by horror writer Brian Keene, and when I read it, mere minutes ago, I had to ask myself (since Keene wasn't available to ask personally): "Well, which is it? Tears from a black tar god and rancid breast milk sound like two pretty different things to me. Presumably, one is black and the other is white, or off-white. So is the rain black or white, or just normal rain-colored? And if that's irrelevant to you, then how can rain fall 'like breast milk'? I can allow that tears from a black tar god might fall like rain, because gods are not only big, but tend to be located above-ground, so I'm fine with that. But when has breast milk ever rained down on anything?"

It appears to me as though Keene simply wasn't satisfied with black tar god tears standing in for rain, and needed another image that involved liquid -- preferably gross liquid, as that seems to be his MO -- to pair it up with, so that readers could take their pick. But it's terrible writing. It's a meaningless cluster of similes that also indicates that you've placed yourself in the hands of a writer who is, among other things, indecisive.

Just a few pages later:

She was safe for now.

Or was she? What if there was a zombie in here with her, lurking in the darkness, waiting to lunge out and eat her?

I don't know, Brian Keene, you tell me. You're the guy who wrote the book. But thanks for reminding me that this is a zombie novel I'm reading. I'd very nearly forgotten! And I do also appreciate this window into the mind of the character. Knowing that she's worried about being eaten by a zombie really brings her alive.

Just a few paragraphs down:

...she couldn't see her ears, but she knew they were scarlet.

Hey, I can't see my ears, either, unless there's a mirror handy! It's like I know this girl!

You get the idea. This book is just grade-school bullshit. I'm writing this out of an immense feeling of frustration, which coincides with a bit of introspection regarding why I seem to want to continue to cling to the horror genre. The vast majority of it does me very few favors. And I certainly can't find my way to thinking of myself as a member of the horror fan community, because it's utterly beyond me how that group can embrace and praise a great writer like Thomas Ligotti, while doing the same to someone like Keene. The Rising is an award-winning book, for God's sake. Horror fans, by and large, seem to be completely unable to tell good writing from bad, and I'm getting a little fed up with it.

Although, hey, here's something interesting. One of the authors who provided a blurb for The Rising is Richard Laymon. "A top-notch horrifying thriller!" he proclaims. Except that The Rising was first published in 2003, and, erm, Richard Laymon died in 2001. So...I don't really...


Monday, March 9, 2009

If You Haven't Seen this Performance... should. And by "this performance", I mean Stephen Graham in Shane Meadows' This is England. When the film came out a couple of years ago, all the praise I can remember reading about it seemed to revolve around the performance by then 13 year-old lead actor Thomas Turgoose, and make no mistake, that kid deserved all the praise he got. He's terrific in the film (his first), but when Stephen Graham (who, until I finished watching This is England, I was referring to as "the guy from Snatch") makes his first appearance as Combo, the skinhead who brings bigotry into a formerly benevolent group of other skinheads and punks, this movie is on fire.
Skinheads and neo-Nazis have, over the past decade or so, threatened to take the place of the mentally challenged character as the kind of role that gets an actor noticed, who lets him froth at the mouth while showing the wounded heart underneath -- see Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper, Edward Norton in American History X, and Ryan Gosling in The Believer. In short, without much effort, the genre was getting a little tiresome. And to one degree or another, I liked all those movies, and thought those were all good performances. And Graham does the frothing-at-the-mouth-wounded-heart business as well. So, there's nothing really new about the character or the story. But I believed Graham was Combo every damn second, I did not see the wheels turning, I did not see him acting. All I saw was genuine rage and hate and violence and sadness and all the rest of it. Utterly mesmerizing. He has a scene where he lays out his philosophy, and, when he strikes a nerve with Turgoose's Shaun and has to calm the boy down and explain why he said what he said, I thought that here's a guy who could make any kind of hatred sound reasonable, because as far as he's concerned he's not selling snake oil. He's selling what he believes to be right and true. Graham is filled with anger and tenderness, and he's just superb.


This post was going to be about one of the last shots in Angel Heart, which I watched over the weekend, but I couldn't find an image of it on-line, so I'll just briefly talk about it as a post-script.

While the film didn't match what I remember to be the near-greatness of William Hjortsberg's source novel (called Falling Angel), I thought the film was pretty damn solid. But then at the end...that glowing eyed baby. Sweet Christ, is that the worst idea to ever make it into an otherwise perfectly good movie, or what? I can't believe that at no point did anyone say, "Hey, Alan Parker, have you seen the finished shot of the demon baby? Because it is totally dumb as shit. And it doesn't mean anything, so why not just snip it?" Maybe someone did, and Parker told them to piss off or to stick it up their arse or to eat shite or something. Whatever the case, reason and logic died that day.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Superhuman Crew

Well. Okay. So.

To begin at what will have to pass for a beginning, I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' ground-breaking comic book Watchmen somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty years ago. Since then, I have not once re-read it from beginning to end, though I have flipped through it countless times, and read sections -- in fact, just in the last couple of nights, I re-read the first three issues. Parts of the comic -- the big stuff -- have never left me in those twenty years, but I wanted to refresh my memory regarding some of the details, the texture and the smaller moments, before seeing Zack Snyder's new film adaptation, which I have now done. And I am perplexed.

The first thing I should mention is that the comic book is adaptable. It is not some sacred text that, apparently unlike the works of Dostoyevsky or Kafka or Dickens or James Joyce, all of whom have had their fiction adapted to film without complaint, is somehow so much more of its particular medium that to try and transplant the themes and narrative and visuals to another artform would cause the whole fragile construct to break down into incoherence and meaninglessness. Some people, like Alan Moore and a certain contingent of the original comic's fans, have claimed that something very like that would happen to a film adaptation of Watchmen (though I admit they don't say it in so many words), but to them I would just say "Oh please. Shut the hell up. What are we talking about here? No one's trying to take the collected poems of Dylan Thomas and adapt them as a piece of carpentry. So like I said before, shut up."

Which brings me to the Watchmen film adaptation that we actually do now have, after twenty-some years of one false start after another. And who finally took the reins of this particular horse and rode him to the finish line? Zack Snyder, the man behind another comic book adaptation -- the dopey-but-fun 300 -- and the surprisingly effective remake of Dawn of the Dead. Snyder was no one's first choice -- hell, he probably wasn't even Snyder's first choice -- but you have to hand it to him: he's the guy who got it done. And what he got done is what I would have to call a bit of a big fat mess, which happens to be extremely faithful to the source material while still making me think, as I watched it, things like "Huh? What? Why did that just happen like that? Who cast this movie? What, was Heather Graham not available?"

There are two sections of this film that I think work pretty damn well, almost without reservation, and one of those sections is the opening credits, which sets up the back-story with as much grace, efficiency, style and wit as you could reasonably ask for. The main action of the film takes place in an alternate America, in an alternate 1985, but the history of the characters, and of this paranoid alternate world, stretches back to at least the 1940s, and Snyder lays that all out in a wonderful series of not-quite-still photos depicting costumed heroes facing triumph and tragedy against a historical backdrop familiar to, but of course completely different from, the one we know to have actually occurred. These moments are, as I say, not quite still, and each tableau looks like it was set up for a particularly strange and successful wax museum, albeit one in which the statues have learned to move really slowly. Playing over all this is Bob Dylan's The Times They are A-Changin', a choice I've heard some people complain about due to the song supposedly being too obvious. And maybe it is, but I actually thought it worked quite well, at least in part because it's been a really long time since I listened to it (this is the first of three Dylan tunes used in the film, by the way, though it's the only one actually performed by Dylan. The second one is the really over-familiar, but still great, Hendrix cover of All Along the Watchtower, a choice which also works, due to the kind of nutty imagery it accompanies, and the utterly bonkers majority of the film that has preceded it; and the third one is a cover by My Chemical Romance of Desolation Row, to which I say -- and maybe this is just me being a purist -- "No. No no no no no. Goddamn it, no! NO NO NO! You jack-asses! NO!!")

After that very promising bit of stage-setting, what do we get? Well, we get, as retired costumed hero Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II, Malin Akerman. And I don't mean to single her out, because we also get Patrick Wilson. And it's not even just them, because we also get Carla Gugino. And while my reaction to Akerman's line deliveries was something along the lines of squinting up my face and muttering "....the fuck??", I'm actually not convinced that the fault lies only, or even primarily, with her. For one thing, I've only seen Akerman in one other film in which she was asked to do anything particular, and that was the recent remake of The Heartbreak Kid. And she was fine. I'm not going to try and oversell my point, but she was fine, and yet here she's an absolute, no-fooling, almost literal catastrophe. And I mean, in every scene she's that bad. Even the small, nothing stuff completely tanks. What happened? How could Snyder or the studio allow this actress, who is not any kind of box office draw, to so badly hamstring this hugely expensive and breathlessly-awaited film? I submit that Akerman gives the performance she gives because Snyder directed her to do so. Because Gugino (as Akerman's mother, and the first, World War II-era Silk Spectre), a very fine actress, isn't any damn good either. Wilson (as Dan Dreiberg, who once fought crime alongside Laurie as the Nite Owl) fares better than either of these women, and I can't quite explain that, but he does have his shocking moments. Akerman has a lunch scene with Wilson, and an antagonistic visit with Gugino, in the first half of the film that seemed alternately like badly staged amateur theater and amped-up soap opera. Why would Snyder do this? When he reads the comic book, is that how the words sound in his head? If not, why tweak them like that for his film?

Faring better -- much better -- is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach, a mentally unbalanced, Travis Bickle-esque costumed detective who is the only crimefighter who has ignored the government sanction against his kind, which was passed about seven years prior to the film's main action. Rorshach, when we first see him, is investigating the murder of yet another ex-crimefighter known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who we quickly learn was a black-hearted, misanthropic sociopath who killed and raped as it suited him, because, he justified, such was human nature. Rorshach thinks this murder indicates that somebody is targeting former costumed heroes, and so he goes to Dreiberg and Jupiter for help. And to Dr. Manhattan (an interesting Billy Crudup), formerly Jon Osterman, a physicist who decades earlier had been transformed, through a nuclear lab accident, into a kind of walking blue computer, for whom the laws of space, time and physics mean nothing. Dr. Manhattan was used by President Nixon (now serving his third term) to end the Vietnam War in favor of the US (it took him a week), and now Manhattan is working to help yet another former hero, billionaire super-genius Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), to put an end to mankind's reliance on fossil fuels. None of these people seem especially willing to help Rorshach in his investigation, and the US is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia (which everyone is hoping Manhattan will be able to prevent).

So. The comic book, by the way, is very dense. In case you've never had that pointed out. It's extremely complicated, with its side stories and incredible detail and shadings (also textures). I'm being a little flippant, but that doesn't make it untrue. The comic does have a lot going on, much of it vital to the comic's longevity and reputation as a respected work of art. But it's the things that are inessential to the plot that are often shed when a story is adapted from one medium to another, and in the case of Watchmen this ostensibly necessary step has highlighted a very glaring flaw in the story, which is that the mystery that serves as the narrative's engine -- who killed The Comedian? -- is frickin' lame! Specifically, the solution to that mystery. Steps toward figuring out who aren't even really taken until the film's final third, after Rorshach has convinced Dan and Laurie to help him (up until that point, Rorshach had dug up some enigmatic clues regarding why), and when those steps are taken, what do they involve? Roughing up a two-bit criminal in a bar, and hacking into someone's computer and opening a file. I mean, fucking Scooby and Shaggy could have done that! Among the many things I realized about the comic while watching this film is that the way in which the story is told (which is what Moore has always claimed was the really important thing) provides a great deal of cushion to a very thin main plotline, so that narratively-speaking it's really the interstitial, supposedly (but actually not) throwaway stuff, and the Big Payoff, that matter. The texture and details don't just provide a cushion -- they also act as camouflage and dividers to a quite lame mystery. Remove all that, or even most of it, and that lame mystery's gonna bite you.

Since I'm talking about the comic, here's another thing: remember when I said that some people are claiming that Watchmen is "unadaptable?" I told those people to shut up earlier, and I stand by that, but one of the aspects of comic book storytelling that many of them bring up to make their case is the question of "what goes on between the panels". In other words, you read, and examine, one comic panel, and as your eyes move to the next one your brain sort of spontaneously fills in what the characters were doing between those two panels. Well, yes, that's part of what makes a comic book a comic book -- doesn't mean a film can't tell the same story in its own way. But sometimes Snyder doesn't seem to think anything goes on between the panels. Already, the film has been criticized by some as being too "slavish" to the original comic, and while Snyder isn't always the comic's lapdog (he does tweak that famous ending, after all, and to be honest it works just fine), but sometimes he is to the point of having tunnel vision. One scene, a flashback, involves The Comedian being confronted by a woman he has badly wronged. It's a famous scene from the comic, and I happened to have re-read the scene the night before. And whatever is said and done in the comic is said and done by the actors on the screen, without a single addition of any kind of business -- nothing from between the panels, in other words -- to keep things from being hopelessly stiff. In the comic, this is a scene of high drama, it's a big character moment, and it's pretty shocking. In the film, it seems as though everyone was so conscious that this was one of the Big Moments that they all wanted to keep their inferior and unworthy paws off it, a move that results in the scene having the unique quality of feeling both motionless and rushed. If you can imagine a dead fish moving really fast, then you're starting to get the idea.

And speaking of fast! Last night, you see, I decided to hearken back to Zack Snyder's golden days, so I watched his remake of Dawn of the Dead. And the sucker holds up quite nicely, I have to say, although you know that thing that people think Snyder has for slow motion, starting, we all thought, with 300? Well, the honeyed-glow of memory is a devious fiend, or whatever, because Snyder has always nurtured that particular fetish. In Dawn of the Dead, anytime anyone racks an empty shotgun shell out of the chamber, the camera shows us that thing fall like it was sinking to the bottom of a fucking pond. And the slow-mo as presented in the trailers for Watchmen did fill me with a bit of dread -- "This is not right!" I cried, joined by a chorus of others -- but I was willing to take a wait-and-see attitude. My cautious optimism was further boosted by an on-line review (or maybe it was just a comment on someone's blog) in which the writer claimed that the slow motion everyone was worrying about was in no way a big deal, and in fact we'd probably seen everything there was to see of it in the aforementioned trailers. Having now seen the film, I'm obliged to point out that this is not quite true, but that Snyder switches to slow-motion only when anything is happening on screen. Outside of that, he backs away. Except that sometimes he does also speed things up so that fast things are faster, but otherwise, see above.

So Watchmen is a complete wash? Is that what I'm telling you? No. No, in fact, remember when I said there were two parts of the film that I thought were more-or-less complete triumphs, the opening credits and something else? That something else is the ingeniously constructed origin of Dr. Manhattan sequence. The fact that the construction is pretty much all the work of Moore and Gibbons doesn't mean Snyder shouldn't get credit for pulling it off. I don't know that I can really say that Billy Crudup gives a "great" performance as Dr. Manhattan -- he's set at one pitch throughout -- but Crudup plays the character in the only way I can imagine it working, and it's extremely effective. Sounding at times like 2001's HAL, his origin sequence sees him scrambling the chronology of his past as a regular man, and the tragedy of his transformation, one aspect of which is the complete absence of any kind of emotion, at least any kind we mere humans can recognize. How is Crudup able to make us feel the sadness of this creature even in his completely flat narration? I think it has to do with the sequence's overall beautiful and otherworldly strangeness. As I watched this part of the film, I thought: "Here, right here, you've nailed it! Keep going like this, and I'll forget everything else I just saw."

Alas, Snyder doesn't do that. And so I watched the rest of this bizarre, galumphing, nutjob of a film play-out in such a way that even the good scenes never felt quite right. It's here that I'll admit to a kind of lop-sided admiration for Snyder and his Hail Mary of a film, because if nothing else, this crazy bunch of son of a bitches stayed firm and frickin' went for it. And there's no denying the fact that I am one of those people who can sit in a theater, watching a film version of Watchmen, and think with gleeful disbelief, even as I take note of all the many ways I think it's coming up short, "I am watching a film version of Watchmen." And so I did today. And when this movie, in some doorstop of an expanded boxset, comes out on DVD some months down the line, I freely admit right now that I will buy it. But that fact says a whole lot more about me and my apparent lack of respect for this thing which you call "money" than it does about the film itself. Because like I said before: alas.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

This is What I Do When I Have Nothing to Write About

I hope you understand. Besides, I'll probably be reviewing Watchmen this weekend, which is what the internet wants from everybody anyway. Oh, look, it's Joan Chen!

Anyway, I guess that's it. Oh wait, I guess I should make this Watchmen appropriate, so...

Those last two ladies are in Watchmen, you see. Relevance!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Here are Three Short Reviews

I'm going to very quickly review three movies I saw recently. There's no time to explain why!

The Messengers - d. the Pang Brothers - I can understand why, in horror films, babies are frequently the only people who can see the ghosts. Babies are innocent, and ghosts feed on innocence, and babies believe in wonder and magic and so forth. That all makes perfect sense to me. But why is it the babies are never scared? In this movie, the family getting haunted find themselves in that particular mess because, like so many troubled people before them, they chose to deal with a family trauma by buying an abandoned farm, and Ben, their baby, sees dessiccated, corpse-like people crawling along the ceiling like spiders. What does Ben do? He smiles and points. Yeah, okay the Pang Brothers, I got news for you: babies and other young children scare really easily. My niece became terrified one time when I took her into a corn maze and she saw a teenager dressed in a gorilla suit. So why does this Ben kid have such superhuman courage? Anyway, there was more to the movie, but I didn't like any of that stuff, either.

Paranoid Park - d. Gus Van Sant - I've written elsewhere about my admiration for Van Sant's Elephant, so I had reasonably high hopes for this film, about a teenage skateboard punk who accidentally kills a railroad security guard, and has to weather the guilt and panic that follows. Paranoid Park shares many of the same stylistic and thematic interests as Elephant, and also has much of the earlier film's power to spellbind with minimalist acting and the treatment of the mundane in classical terms. But I have a hard time with a film that deals with a young man who has killed another human being, which then ends up being about that young man ridding himself of guilt, as opposed to owning up to what he's done. Oh, so you purged your soul by writing down your feelings, did you? Perhaps the family of the man you killed would like to read them. Oh, you burned the pages? Well, never mind! Can't be helped!

Gomorra - d. Matteo Garrone - Described simply, this film comes across as a mix of Rome, Open City and City of God -- and I'll bet that's just how they pitched it, too! -- but in truth Gomorra is too well-observed, too quietly disturbing and moving to be quickly tossed off like that. It tells three stories about people within or on the fringes of Italy's Camorra criminal organization: two young, idiotic scumbags who want to take a piece of Camorra's slum turf for themselves; an old-time bagman used to the peaceful aspects of his job who finds himself in the middle of the violence when everything becomes unhinged; and a tailor and entrepeneur, one of whom tries to make too much of himself outside of Camorra's control. Violent, shocking, often beautifully acted, and featuring some of the most striking photography of slums and tenements I've seen -- the buildings where these characters live look like state prisons that have been opened to the public -- this is an excellent film, made by Garrone at great personal risk. If you can catch this in theaters, do it. Otherwise, it's currently On Demand as well, so check it out. This is mesmerizing stuff.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Affinity #10

See the man
The crushed up man
With the crushed up Carrolls packet in his hand
Doesn't seem to see or care
Or even understand
And all he says is:
F yez all
F yez all
F yez all
- Shane MacGowan
"St. John of Gods"