Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I'd Watch That

Why not? It looks staggeringly original, it's got a girl in it, and a cat. Plus that Asian girl is looking all slinky in the part of the poster that was ripped out to reveal her red...attic? Basement? Probably not her kitchen. But she's slinky, is what my point is.

Finally, one must never underestimate Kay Kallard's fiery screen presence. Or the gritty naturalism of Herbert Smith.

This is probably a really famous movie and I'm just embarrassing myself, right? Well, my leg hurts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Capsule Reviews!

Vinyan (d. Fabrice du Welz) - Du Welz's first film, Calvaire, belongs firmly within the new trend of extremly grotesque and violent French horror films (Du Welz qualifies as French inasmuch as he's Belgian) that, generally, I don't like at all. But I thought Calvaire was actually kind of interesting, not just because it looked good, but because it combined backwoods European hillbilly horror with an occasionally Bela Tarr-esque texture. The film was a pose, but an interesting one. His new film, Vinyan, owes a great deal to Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now, but it's either a credit to the film, or a condemnation of my memory, that this didn't occur to me until after the film was over. The film features Rufus Sewell and Emmanuel Beart (both terrific) as parents who lost their son, Josh, to a tsunami disaster in Burma. When Beart believes she sees Josh in a video intended to draw attention to the plight of children in that region, they decide to travel into the jungle and see if Josh could possibly have survived. The above image should indicate to some degree what they encounter. Like the Roeg film, the horror of Vinyan comes from the bottomless well of grief contained in Sewell and Beart, and as a result of that, and du Welz's eye for unsettling images, this film carries a much stronger impact than a film like Inside could ever hope for.

JCVD (d. Mabrouk El Mechri) - When I first heard of this post-modern, heart-laid-bare action film, which features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a version of himself, I though it must be some kind of disaster. What happens is, Van Damme -- frustrated over his divorce, loss of custody of his daughter, and the trajectory of his career -- goes to a bank in Belgium, and finds himself in the middle of a robbery. Due to an unfortunate mix-up, the police believe him to be the guy robbing the bank, which, for the safety of those inside, Van Damme goes along with. As a crime film (which this is, more than it is an action film), JCVD is a little too loose for my tastes, but Van Damme is the real point of the movie. To put it simply: I had no idea. And it's not just his now-famous tortured monologue, delivered to the camera, and to his fans -- throughout the film, he's so effortlessly moving as a 47 year-old guy, whose career is that of an action film star, and who now believes that his career is not only kind of silly, but maybe worthless, too. He said it, not me, but if Van Damme really thinks that he's never done anything worthwhile with his career, he can think again.

Les Biches (d. - Claude Chabrol) - This film has been on my radar for at least a decade, maybe more, beginning before my knowledge of films was even that deep, because, hey, lesbians. Of course, that kind of content is pretty meager, probably because I just can't win, but Chabrol's highly influential, quiet thriller about two women -- the rich Frederique (Stephane Audran) and the poor, withdrawn Why (Jacqueline Sassard) -- is fascinating in the way it subverts our ideas of who will snap, and the reasons behind it. If you've never seen a Chabrol film, but have read the novels of Ruth Rendell, you'll already be familiar with the sensation of coldly watching a group of people -- who, for the good of all, should have never even met -- coming together like a car-less traffic accident. Quietly, coolly, and perversely compelling.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Klaus Kinski Wants to Know...

...if you're ready to rock!! And brother, the answer had better be yes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Mistake is a Dream that Your Heart Changes

About a month, or two, ago, my department at work was "encouraged" to attend a conference all about what our department does, and how it can be done better, and so forth. As I said, this wasn't mandatory, and I really don't think this encouragement had anything to do with a dissatisfaction with how our jobs were being done (in fact, I sort of know this last part to be true, because after the conference was over and I was back at work, I told my boss what the conference entailed, and she seemed to be as down on the whole thing as I was). The truth is, the conference had nothing whatsoever to do with our jobs in any specific way. But it was motivational. Yes, that's what it was, all right. Apart from being told that exercise is good for you, and eating breakfast is important (seriously), our speaker went around the room and asked as many people as were willing (which was a lot, as it turned out) to say, into a microphone, their favorite motivational quotes.

So the first half of my day consisted of being told I'm important, and that so is breakfast, and also "A mistake is a dream that your heart changes." Or "Sunlight is the sun's way of saying 'Good morning!'" (Incidentally, we were also told by our speaker that saying "good morning" is something everyone should do.) Or "Being the person you want to be is a good way to tell the world and others that being yourself is a great way to be!" Or "Success might be scary, but flowers succeed and failure is a raincloud." It's possible I have some of these quotes wrong, but I hope the point has not been lost on any of you.

In case you're wondering, no, I did not provide any inspirational quotes. A few ran through my head, though, and if I had it all to do over again, I would have chewed through my own wrists before ever agreeing to go to this goddamn conference in the first place. If that had failed, and I still ended up going, I might have offered up "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child" or "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of…anything." Because there's actually a lot of wisdom in both of those, though I'm not sure they count as "motivational".

Anyway, here's a picture of that monster from Equinox.

Monday, April 20, 2009

TOERIFC: The Already Perfect Reptile

Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg begins with a gray image of people marching towards doom. We might think, at first, and depending on our knowledge of the film’s subject, that these people are Jews, possibly being rousted from a ghetto, or herded to a gas chamber (and that is where this film is heading, though Bergman ends his story before it gets there). But these miserable people, shown in clips throughout the very Woody Allen-esque opening credits, which are played over cabaret jazz, are in fact the people who will either actually carry out the Holocaust, or will facilitate it through their indifference, fear and callousness.

The Serpent’s Egg is set in Berlin, in 1923. Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), the film’s protagonist (“hero” seems like the wrong word), is an American Jew who has been living in Berlin with his brother Max for the last three years. With Max’s ex-wife, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), the brothers formed a circus trapeze act, until Max hurt his wrist. Since then, Max and Manuela have divorced, and both Max and Abel have descended into a kind of nightmare depression, which Abel dulls with alcohol, and which Max ends, at the beginning of the film, with suicide. After meeting with the police, in the form of Inspector Bauer (Gert Frobe), Abel goes to the cabaret where Manuela works to inform her of Max’s death. He shows her Max’s suicide note, and she stares at it uncomprehendingly, saying it is completely illegible. She asks Abel to try to read it, but he can only make out one line: “There is poisoning going on.

That line is, really, the film. Bergman’s vision of 1920s Germany is one of endless grotesquerie and madness, one where an evil is growing quietly from within. Those who are not directly linked to the creation of Germany’s monstrous future, like Abel and Manuela, can only suffer through the country’s devastating poverty and try to make their way, while either choosing to ignore, or smile their way past, what they see going on around them, as Manuela does, or let the nightmare consume them, which is the route that Abel chooses, for a while. He gets drunk every night, and later in the film, when he’s moved in with Manuela, he complains that a noise from outside their room, the rumbling of an engine, is “driving him wild”. Manuela can’t hear the engine, unless he mentions it, and then she can almost make it out. This is because Abel is tuned into the great and Hellish machine that’s revving to life beneath them, because he knows the world is about to end in fire. Manuela secretly knows the same thing, but tries to forget it. And it’s the knowledge, not the sound, which drives Abel wild. Berlin’s upper classes pursue their decadence with a forced and manic joy, but the wildness of Abel’s knowledge drives him to pursue similar diversions the same way he pursues waking up in the morning, which is to say: grimly. Abel throws a brick through the window of a Jewish shop, and humiliates a fellow patron at a brothel he visits late in the story, a scene which ends with him hitting one of the prostitutes – such are his tools for dealing with the engine.

Before going any further, it should be noted that Carradine is a spectacularly weird choice for a lead in a Bergman film. His gaunt, old-before-its-time face and mopey eyes are just right for Abel, and in that sense he’s not unlike Bergman favorite Max von Sydow, but his line delivery can sometimes seem over-pronounced (Carradine’s excuse -- given on the commentary track – that Abel is an American surrounded by Europeans, and that’s how people often speak to foreigners, doesn’t quite fly with me) and carry only the weight that the words had as originally written, but no more. And his drunk walk, which he performs regularly over the course of the film, is of the exaggerated, 1930s comic hobo variety. When faced with Nazi atrocities while stumbling down the street, I kept expecting him to stop, rub his eyes, look at the half-full bottle in his hand, and then pitch the bottle to the side.

“Drunk” and “sad” aren’t the only things Carradine has to do, however, due to the fact that Abel is not an entirely passive victim -- he nearly is, but not quite – because The Serpent’s Egg has a structure that is unique, in my experience, in Bergman’s work. It flows like a mixture between a mystery story and a horror film, with the emphasis on the latter. In its basic narrative line, The Serpent’s Egg most resembles horror films like Angel Heart (itself a horror film mixed with detective fiction) and The Ninth Gate, the kind where the hero follows a set of clues that lead him from a dark crime to a darker, often occult, revelation that either destroys him or at least opens his eyes to the broad-spanning and evil truth at the heart of his society, or the secret mad powers that will tear that society apart.

As I say, these stories are told as mysteries, and end up in the horror genre based, generally, on what is discovered. The beginning of this mystery is the suicide of Abel’s brother Max, although given the relentlessly grim nature of Bergman’s film, it’s less surprising that Max, who we only ever see as a corpse, blows his brains out than that everybody else in Berlin doesn’t follow his example. The mystery is deepened, however, when Inspector Bauer calls Abel to the morgue to show him a series of corpses, asking, after revealing the face of each body, if Abel knows them. A couple he knew in passing, one female was engaged to his brother, and another reminds Abel of his father. It appears at first, to Abel and to us, that Bauer is looking at Abel as the killer of all of these people, so it would appear that, along with everything else, Bergman is setting Abel up as a “wrong man” figure. But Bauer’s suspicions, if he ever even had them, ultimately go nowhere. In any case, when Abel clues into these suspicions, he accuses Bauer of doing this because he, Abel, is Jewish. This stops Bauer cold, which Abel takes as confirmation that he was right.

Another staple of the various genres Bergman is poking around with is the former acquaintance of the protagonist, now the villain of the story. In this film, that man is Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent), who Abel runs into, for the first time in ten years, in the wings of the stage at Manuela’s cabaret. He begins peppering Abel with questions about their mutual past, but Abel acts as though he doesn’t know him. Later, Abel tells Manuela that when he and Hans were children, Hans tied a live cat down and dissected it. He describes seeing its heart still beating very fast. This incident, not surprisingly, has lingered with him, possibly in the back of his had as an indicator of the future, or as a clue to the world’s infernal secrets. It’s certainly a clue to the character of Vergerus, who he will meet again, and learn more about. Among other things, Manuela has a menial day job in Vergerus’s clinic, and Abel eventually will, too, in the clinic’s archives.

All of this is leading us to the solution of a mystery – to be honest, Abel, in his role as the protagonist, isn’t much of a seeker of facts, but he does have a talent for stumbling across them. And he trips face first into the truth when he returns one morning, from the brothel mentioned earlier, to the room he shares with Manuela, and discovers her dead. Here, also, Bergman’s sense of logic shatters – deliberately, I’d guess -- along with all the mirrors that Abel breaks in the room, revealing behind each one a camera. In a scene that seems to challenge us to locate ourselves within any kind of physical geography that pertains to what we’ve seen, or thought we knew, before, Abel climbs into one of those hidden camera rooms and finds himself running around a subterranean series of rooms, filled with metal walls, metal staircases, and metal bars (in fact, it looks not unlike his work area at the clinic’s archives). We realize, before Abel does, that someone is following him through these rooms, and finally attacks him – and, due to the way the subsequent fight is shot, we never see the assailant’s face. The fight ends on an elevator, with the attacker being decapitated, and the horror film feeling Bergman has been toying with all along is now put in the forefront.

The motives of the man behind all this, Vergerus, might be considered muddy. The human experiments he’s been conducting – which, like the similar Nazi experiments that followed in reality, result always in torture, and often in death – are intended to indicate what is weak about humanity, and what is strong, so that the weak can be eliminated. How injecting a man with a drug that causes him to endure unbearable dread until he’s driven to suicide is supposed to indicate what’s weak about humanity is anybody’s guess, but Vergerus’s methods aren’t exactly that far-removed from those of the Nazi scientists he, in Bergman’s world, gave birth to. And unclear motives are simply something you have to come to terms with when considering Nazi atrocities. The genocide they perpetrated wasn’t just genocide (but then, genocide never is); these atrocities included, in some cases, turning their victims into furniture. Such acts inspired several generations of serial killers, so, with the Nazi Germany, what you have, at the core, is serial murder on a national scale. Horror film tropes and general illogic might be the best approach to a fictional tale of the Holocaust or its beginnings, even if your style is intended to be naturalistic, which Bergman’s isn’t.

The horror idea is carried further in the film’s climax, which features Vergerus swallowing a cyanide capsule. He says he knows Bauer is on to him – these experiments aren’t yet sanctioned by the government – so he takes the capsule without regret, knowing that what he has helped set in motion is much bigger than anyone’s romantic ideas of justice. Just before the cyanide takes effect, Vergerus positions a bright light over his head, and holds a mirror to his face, so he can clinically observe the way the muscles in his face distort as the poison shuts down his body. This is a psychopathology so far removed from any sense of human worth and dignity, and so dedicated to its idea of a better world, that when the pathology grows, and cracks its shell and steps fully formed to take its place in the world, the option -- for those among us normal enough to regard the serpent with an overwhelming incredulity -- of going mad right along side it might seem, must have seemed, awfully tempting. You can’t beat, or reason with, or argue with, or feel superior to, or react to in any rational way, that which you have no hope of understanding.

In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman says of The Serpent’s Egg:

If I had created the city of my dreams, a city that does not exist and never has, and yet manifests itself acutely with smells and loud sounds, if I had created that city, not only would I have been moving in it with total freedom and an absolute sense belonging, but also, more important, I would have brought the audience with me into an alien but secretly familiar world. In The Serpent’s Egg, however, I ventured into a Berlin that nobody recognized, not even I.

I pulled that quote from the internet, not the book itself, so I don’t have the context necessary to tell me if Bergman thinks the result was good or bad, although the tone implies that he had regrets. The film is generally regarded, in truth, as one of Bergman’s worst, and it’s true that there are hiccups along the way – when Abel tells a prostitute to “Go to hell!”, and the prostitute laughingly responds “Where do you think we are?”, it’s hard to believe that Bergman didn’t know that he’d already made that point several times over – but I really don’t think his Berlin is one of them. The desperate decadence we associate with the country at that time is all there, to the point where it seems like, as shown by the bizarre, but not unfamiliar, cabaret acts in Manuela’s club, even Germany’s distractions were insane. The madness of the society is so deeply rooted that the entertainments available are grotesque enough to be slightly removed from humanity, which will be necessary to do the work asked of them some ten or fifteen years later. At one point, Inspector Bauer sees a street musician, the kind with an accordion and a monkey, performing with a blank faced to a crowd of people just as dull-eyed as he. Although Bauer is actually a fairly sympathetic character, the way he makes a point to give the musician money seems to say, “Keep it up. You’re doing good work.”

Humanity isn’t completely dead in Bergman’s Berlin – it’s just dying. Manuela clings to it, smiling sometimes insanely, and Ullmann’s performance, considered shrill by some, I think is hysterical in just the right way. Manuela is a fundamentally decent person, one of the few left in her world who can still feel guilt, which she does, over Max’s suicide. In one of the film’s best scenes, she goes to see a Catholic priest, played with a kind of simple warmth by James Whitmore. The priest is at first dismissive of her, based on her inability to come to the point, but when she does, and he sees that she wants forgiveness for something she most likely isn’t even guilty of, his wall of apathy crumbles, and he tells her that God is so remote that he probably can’t even hear our prayers for forgiveness. But, on His behalf, he, the priest, will forgive her, and ask her forgiveness in return, for his previous indifference, which she grants. In Bergman’s long battle with God, here he seems to allow for the possibility, at least, of His existence; he just doesn’t see what good that existence does anybody. But at least two of His believers, Manuela and the priest, seek and bestow forgiveness. There won’t be much more of that in the years ahead, so you take what you can get.

When the film ends, we’re told by Inspector Bauer that Hitler’s Munich putsch has failed completely. Vergerus has already predicted this to Abel, and said that Hitler was a dullard, and would not be the future of Vergerus’s dream. Little does he know, although this low opinion of Hitler as an intellect might tie in with the film’s title, which supposedly comes from this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which hatch'd, would, as his kind grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell.

But that’s not what happened, is it? And as it pertains to The Serpent’s Egg, the line comes off as an optimistic fantasy, because you read the words “kill him in the shell” and you have to think: if only.

Friday, April 17, 2009

David Carradine Will Punch Off Your Head

...if you're not right here, Monday, April 20th, at 10:00 AM EST, for the discussion of TOERIFC's April movie, The Serpent's Egg!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Gang

Presented as part of a countdown to the TOERIFC discussion of The Serpent's Egg (April 20, 10:00 AM EST, right here on this blog), which this image is not from.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Healthy and Adorable

In Otto Preminger's Whirlpool, Jose Ferrer plays a man named David Korvo, and Korvo must be one of the most off-putting characters I've ever encountered in a film. When we first meet him, he's just followed Gene Tierney's Ann Sutton into a department store, escorted by the store detective who has caught her shoplifting. Korvo is a respected customer of this particular store, and also that rarest of things, a famous hypnotist. He gets Sutton out of this particular jam, promptly diagnoses her as a kleptomaniac, and wonders why her husband, noted psychiatrist William Sutton (a miscast, but still good, Richard Conte), has so far been unable to reach the same conclusion.

All of which puts Ann a little bit at Korvo's mercy, as she doesn't want her shameful act of thievery to get out to the public. When he invites her to dinner, she assumes his plan is to blackmail her, and tells him so, although she's also prepared to pay him off. He's offended -- or, rather, he acts as though he's offended -- and reveals that, in fact, all he wants is to take her on as a patient. Yeah, okay, Jose Ferrer. Like I even believe you.

As a slightly off-kilter crime film, Whirlpool is a corker. Tierney is wonderful as a damaged woman who is being used in a few different ways, possibly by more than one man, who finds herself accused of a murder that she's pretty sure she didn't commit. Although she does eventually find herself under Korvo's spell (pun!), she's no dummy, and I love the scene at the high society cocktail party she attends with Korvo, after she's convinced herself that he's no blackmailer (and, in fairness, he's not -- he's much worse). Korvo's natural sliminess and arrogance can't go unnoticed for long, and Tierney's delivery of the line "You're very smug!" is very sharp, and if Korvo was the kind of guy who ever gave a shit, he might have been wounded.

And Ferrer is simply outstanding. It's hard to tell if Korvo intended, from the beginning, to frame Ann for murder. It's clear he intends something other than what he claims, but when he starts gathering the items he'll need to put her in the hotseat, Ferrer plays it as though the ideas are just then occurring to him, and he's just going where the wind takes him. Plus, he's just so amusingly hateful on a minute-by-minute basis, in a way that makes you believe that the characters in the movie can buy into his bullshit, while still allowing the audience to comfort themselves that they wouldn't cross the street to piss on Korvo if he was on fire. If he wasn't on fire, then they'd consider it.

But this film is a bit more than the above. There is a dark sexuality to Whirlpool that, while fairly plain to see, is not actually dealt with as part of the narrative, making the whole thing all the more interesting. When Korvo initially takes Ann out for dinner, he makes a self-deprecating reference to his own less-than-pleasing physical appearance. Later, at the cocktail party, Korvo takes Ann into an empty room and hypnotizes her, with her permission. While hypnotized, Korvo is able to get Ann to perform a couple of innocuous tasks before having her take a seat, holding out his hand to her, and saying, "Take my hand, Ann." But, even hypnotized, she won't do it, and a cloud of shame and anger and disgust passes over Ferrer's face that indicates both the limits of his hypnotic abilities, and what he'd do if those abilities were stronger. An amoral man who believes himself to be ugly will do just about anything to be with a woman as beautiful as Gene Tierney.

Not only that, but there are hints that Ann's relationship with her husband is not all sweet and pure. Early in the film, William Sutton tell shis wife that he just wants her to be "healthy and adorable", and later, when Ann comes home from the cocktail party and drops right to sleep, per Korvo's hypnotic suggestion, her husband starts touching her lightly, and undressing her. Under normal circumstances, this might seem perfectly normal: a woman falls asleep fully clothes, and her husband touches her affectionately before undressing her to make her more comfortable. But coming right after Korvo's "take my hand" moment, and seeing where Preminger cuts off Conte's disrobing of his wife, it's hard not to at least wonder if he plans on benifiting from Ann's fogged out state, where Korvo failed to.

Which sort of begs the question: Why didn't Preminger cast his favorite actor, Dana Andrews, in the role of William Sutton? He would have been more believable as a psychiatrist. For all I know, he wasn't available, but it could also be that Andrews didn't really project warmth, and Conte, on occasion, did, the better to submerge, however shallowly, the possibility that William Sutton had a depraved side to his personality.

Preminger is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I've enjoyed a whole passel of his films over the last several months -- Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, Daisy Kenyon, Fallen Angel -- and each one (barring Daisy Kenyon, a great film, but of a different genre) has taken its place among my top crime movies of the 40s. He had a wonderfully elegant and precise way of moving his camera, and placing it in the best, and therefore only, spot imaginable. See the way the camera reveals a woman sitting on a couch at a crucial moment in Whirlpool, or how much it picks up when Dana Andrews is arguing fiercely with his wife at one point in Daisy Kenyon. He may have been a son of a bitch -- Jean Simmons certainly thinks so, and with good reason -- but he knew how to make a film.

And I'd like to briefly thank Glenn Kenny, whose love of Preminger's films, so fascinatingly expressed both on his old blog (which I won't link to, out of a sense of loyalty) and on his new one (which I will, out of that same sense), clued me in to the fact that Preminger wasn't the flat technician I'd been lead to believe he was. There was more to him than just Laura, which, as good as that film is, is starting to look, in the Preminger filmography, as something of an also-ran.

Friday, April 10, 2009

True Things About Me and Films

If memory serves, it was Miller's Crossing that really set me on the road to becoming the particular kind of cinephile that I am now, by which I mean someone -- and we are legion -- who has a particular fondness and appreciation of genre films. Three years prior to that film's release, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables sparked a fire in me, which lit the way to my love of the crime genre both in film and literature (and introduced me to David Mamet, not incidentally), but the bloom has faded -- not entirely, but enough -- from that particular rose, while Miller's Crossing has not lost an inch over the ensuing 19 years. I was electrified after seeing that movie, and the now-famous Danny Boy scene was such a viscerally beautiful moment that I wanted to rewind the film, in the theater, and watch it again. For me, it is a perfect film.

.* * * * *

When I was a teenager -- I can't remember exactly when -- I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. Like pretty much everybody else who caught that film at a young age, my one previous viewing of Kubrick's masterpiece bored me stone stupid, but for whatever reason I tagged along with my brothers to this screening. They were quite excited, because they already loved the film, and had also already caught Lawrence of Arabia on the Uptown's giant screen, and were properly awestruck (the rat they saw scurrying past the bottom of said screen did not diminish the experience one iota). So, like I say, for whatever reason, I went along. And as soon as Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra kicked in, I became enveloped. I was still expecting to be bored by what was to follow -- and I'm sure I was, at times -- but the majesty of that opening, in that theater, on that screen, with that sound opened my eyes to what film could be. I couldn't describe then -- and can't now, really -- what it is that I realized films could be, but later, when the Strauss piece kicked in a second time, and the ape realized just what he could use that bone for, and we're shown his arm rise into view, holding the planet's first weapon, I got chills. The hairs on my arm stood on end. A film had never done that to me before, and it's never quite happened, in that same way, since, but I keep going to the theaters and sliding in those DVDs, hoping it will happen at least one more time before I die.

* * * * *

When I was younger than I was in either of those two earlier anecdotes, I remember my brothers used to invite friends over to watch movies, and very often they were horror films. By that point, I'd started reading Stephen King novels (no Hardy Boys for me! Although, okay, I was quite the enthusiast when it came to The Three Investigators, and even believed, in my youthful idiocy, that Alfred Hitchcock wrote those books himself. I thought that there must be nothing that the man couldn't do), so horror and me were at least on friendly terms. One of the things about horror that shocked and, yes, delighted me was the violence, because no one ever died in the books I was supposed to be reading. Sometimes an evil robot would be pushed off a cliff, but as far as Living Thing-on-Living Thing violence was concerned, my blood-thirstiness was not satisfied by Raiders of the Lost Ark or Clash of the Titans, although Race Bannon shooting a guy dressed as a gargoyle, or killing a scorpion with a bullwhip, gave me quite a charge, because those killings were happening in a cartoon. Anyway, so my brothers would invite these friends over, and the movies they would watch would be things like John Carpenter's The Thing or Day of the Dead. And every so often, I would sneak a few steps down the stairway that led to the "family room" (as opposed to the living room) where these films were being watched, and try to catch glimpses of the kind of movies that my parents, at this point, had forbidden me from watching. I can't quite remember what I glimpsed from spying on The Thing, but do you know what I managed to catch from Day of the Dead? My timing was apparently amazing, because I saw Rhodes getting ripped in half and his guts scooped out and devoured by the handful. Good Christ! This is what grownups watched?

* * * * *

I was a fairly young kid when David Cronenberg's The Fly came out, but my parents let me see it anyway. I think they both had fond memories of the original and assumed this couldn't be too far removed from that. Well, they were, you know, wrong, but what got me about the film wasn't the copius amounts of fluid regularly spraying across the screen, but the moment at the end when Brundle, barely able to move now that he's almost completely transformed into this ungodly thing that cannot exist, feebly uses his claw to lift Veronica's shotgun up to his head, signalling to her that he couldn't go on. He had now come to terms with what he was, and what he'd done, and anyway he was simply in too much anguish. I don't believe I'd ever seen such nightmarish torment depicted on-screen before, or at least not this kind of weary defeat. And brother, when I saw him lift that barrel to his own head, I sobbed.

* * * * *

My parents were both considerably older than is considered average when they had me, the youngest of seven boys. As a result, their own tastes, while often -- increasingly so, over the years -- at odds with my own, helped me to become far more catholic in my cultural experiences than those of my peers. I grew to like swing music, for instance, and old radio shows, as well as old movies (my dad also fed my interest in the crime genre by recommending Mickey Spillane to me at a young age, although I could tell that he wasn't sure, even then, if I was old enough, but it was a shared interest, so I guess he wanted to encourage me. And he never gets tired of relating the ending of Spillane's I, the Jury -- "It was easy" -- or, conversely, quoting Paddy Chayefsky's sly put-down of Spillane, from Marty: "That Mickey Spillane, he sure can write.") My dad is a big John Wayne fan, and my mom loved musicals and "happy" movies. Her favorite movie of all time, though, wasn't one she grew up with, but rather Wilford Leach's adaptation of of The Pirates of Penzance from 1983, starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith.

None of us boys were overly keen on musicals -- it was much easier for us get into True Grit and The Cowboys and Rio Bravo -- but we unavoidably saw a whole mess of them anyway while growing up, and even liked some of them. I think if you polled all seven of us on what our favorites were, The Music Man would come out at either the number one or number two spot. Battling it out for top spot would be The Pirates of Penzance, rented out of the blue, as far as I know, one weekend from Erol's. And that sucker swept us all up. It was so funny, with the romance that we all so dreaded almost ruthlessly cut by a magnificent Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, or Tony Azito as the Sergeant. But always, always, always there was the humbling (humbling now, then merely delightful) genius of Gilbert and Sullivan. So we all really liked that movie, but my mom loved it. She couldn't get enough of it. My mom loved her family, and was loved, fiercely, by them in return, and this seems so piddling in comparison, but I'm glad she had that movie. No, on second thought, it's not piddling, because it was a thing that made her happy. No one can have too many of those in their life.

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From sneaking downstairs to watch Rhodes get torn to pieces, to my mom and Pirates of Penzance. The logical progression from there is to talk about going to see Strange Brew with my family, and my dad being utterly bewildered by his sons' relentless guffaws, but that'll have to wait until some other time. G'night, folks!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Humongous Rock Star of the Universe

I'll be off-line most of the day tomorrow, so don't do anything cool without me. All you're allowed to do is gaze upon the below ad -- which I remember quite well from my old comic book-reading days -- and eventually pass out because it's all simply too wonderful. Give 'em everything you got, Meat Loaf. Give 'em eveything you got.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alan Clarke's Elephant

I'm not sure what, exactly, I have to say about this one. For those who don't know it, Alan Clarke's 39-minute-long film is nothing more than a series of scenes depicting one or more men quietly and efficiently gunning down some other man, either in the victim's own home, or in a public restroom, or in the street, etc. The film is almost completely free of dialogue -- only one of the scenes features any speaking at all, and even that is of the most perfunctory sort -- and each scene includes many of the same shots: a shot, from the side, of the killer walking, a close-up of the killer's face as he's committing the murder, a close-up of the gun being fired, and a medium shot, after the murder, of the victim.
I first found out about this film by reading an interview with Gus Van Sant regarding his own film called Elephant, about the Columbine school massacre. Van Sant acknowledged his clear debt to Clarke's film by pointing out, among other things, that he'd simply lifted Clarke's title. Both films share other similarities, such as a fascination with showing people walking. This has become a big thing with Van Sant of late, and you can see all the inspiration for it in Clarke's film. As I said, each killer is shown walking for a fairly long stretch before he reaches his victim, and Clarke's camera does nothing more than dolly along beside him, the microphones picking up (or adding later) the sound of the shoes on gravel or macadam or mud. Van Sant has a curious ability to add an enigmatic kind of poetry to his walking scenes, but Clarke seems uninterested in that. He wants only to show -- I believe -- that a human being who has set out to kill another human being has to go through the same old bodily motions that we all do in order to get there, that a conscious decision has to be made to kill, and more actions than the pulling of the trigger have to be taken, and that turning back is always an option. But in his film that option is never taken.

The Van Sant interview clued me in, before I'd ever seen it, that Clarke's film is about Ireland's Troubles. This information gave me the context that, I have to admit, I may not have been able to provide for myself if I'd just watched the movie completely cold. The film aired on BBC in 1989, at a time and in a country that probably didn't need any hand-holding to get the point. I can only imagine the impact this film would have had then, and can only say for myself that I found the film fascinating and sort of bizarre, as well as slightly enervating by the end. Which was probably, in a sense, part of Clarke's point.
Anyone who wants to can watch Alan Clarke's Elephant here.
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Update: Sometimes, I go too fast. I realize now that not only didn't I talk at all about the title of this film, but I should have. Over at the Palimpsest, where I also posted this, fellow member Fanshawe reminded me of the source of the title Elephant, which is a quote from Irish author Bernard MacLaverty, who referred to the Troubles as "the elephant in our living room". MacLaverty's elephant, at least according to Wikipedia, are the "underlying social problems of Northern Ireland." Taking Wikipedia at its word, it's quite interesting that Clarke would use the title Elephant, because if there was ever a film that was calculatedly disinterested in exploring cause and effect, it's this one.

And Van Sant's film, too, while we're at it, although some claim that the shower scene in Van Sant's Elephant (as opposed to the shower scene in Van Sant's Psycho), which depicts the two killers kissing, is meant to show that homosexual repression was at the heart of their rampage. I'm not buying that, though, not least because, in that scene, the killers don't exactly seem repressed. In any case, the result is that, with both films, the title Elephant just sort of hangs there mysteriously, daring you to make sense of it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

More Capsule Reviews

Pumpkinhead (d. Stan Winston) - Prior to yesterday, I had seen this film once before, an eternity ago, and the only thing I remembered about it is that, at one point, Pumpkinhead stabbed a guy with a rifle. It seemed ridiculous to me back then, but now, after catching the film again, I feel that, if anyone is going to not only be able to stab someone with a rifle, but want to do so, it's Pumpkinhead. And really, this film is a cut above most 80s horror. It's a tight little fable about revenge -- to better get across the fable vibe, Winston ends up going a little too heavy on the blues and reds, but by and large the film feels the way he must have intended. Along with "fable" and "horror", Winston has also made an effective Southern Gothic thriller, steeped in swamps and heat and grief, the latter provided by a very good Lance Henriksen, who unleashes the titular demon after his son is accidentally killed by a group of city kids. Winston and the screenwriters up the horror by showing that not only are not all of those city kids all bad, but very few of them actually did anything wrong. So this is pretty solid, I was surprised to find. This is the only film the late Stan Winston directed, but why is that? He had a nice eye.

Quarantine (d. John Erick Dowdle) - First thing's first: I have not seen REC, the Spanish film of which Quarantine is a remake, so I can't say whether John Erick Dowdle, in re-jiggering that much praised film, raped my last Spring or not. All I can say is that this American film is pretty damn effective. A group of people, including a TV reporter and her cameraman, suddenly find themselves locked inside a gloomy apartment building after the CDC learns that an especially nasty, rabies-like virus is running through the building's inhabitants. The film is shot -- as an increasing number of horror films these days seem to be -- as though one of the characters is actually the one holding the camera, but as this character is part of a TV news crew, this film (and, presumably, REC) has a better, built-in excuse for that camera continuing to roll than most such movies do. And the chaos generated by the hand-held camera is disorienting, but in a good way. When one of the rabies zombie monsters comes shrieking out of nowhere to attack somebody, the fact that we don't always know who the creature was before getting infected often works. "Who is that?" I thought, or, "When did they get bitten??" This isn't a matter of sloppy filmmaking, but rather a case of pumping up the terrible havoc of the situation. Also, Jennifer Carpenter, as the reporter, was, I thought, very good. She doesn't have the standard "horror film heroine" (that's called the "final girl" now, I think somebody told me) trajectory, and reacts quite believably to the increasingly bizarre, grotesque and hopeless situation she suddenly finds herself in, just because she was given the wrong story to cover on the wrong night.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (d. Joss Whedon) - I'm late to the game in praising this short film by the man behind TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. I'm late to Joss Whedon in general, really, but I've liked what I've seen of Firefly, and really thought Whedon's theatrical film sequel to that show, Serenity, was damn good. Now, this somewhat mistitled film (there's not really that much blogging to be seen), which debuted on-line and is now available on DVD, has shown me just how creative this guy can be. The 45-minute film is a deliberately cheap-looking musical superhero story (or supervillain story, actually) about Dr. Horrible (a superb Neil Patrick Harris) and his plan to rule the world and win the heart of Penny (Felicia Day), who has fallen in love with Horrible's nemesis, the vain and obnoxious hero, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). The songs are almost uniformly good, with one particular stand-out, "Brand New Day", coming at the end of Act II, quietly setting up the audience for a wild tonal shift, without us ever being aware of what Whedon has in mind. This is really good stuff: funny, catchy, and other things that I shouldn't mention.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Fox has tagged me for a thankfully simple meme, the idea of which is to simply list your ten favorite film characters. I don't pretend this is actually my top ten, but they're ten that I really like, and also I cheated once, but that's my business. So let's do this thing.

Tom Doniphan

Father Karras

Danny Rose

Baron Victor Frankenstein



The Faun

Dave Moss

Tom Reagan

Sherlock Holmes (as portrayed by Jeremy Brett)

I tag Dennis, Brian, Glenn, Wings, Rick and Mariana. That's one more than I needed to tag, but what the hell.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oh No April Fools!

Oh no! I am have turn into a balloons!!!

Oh ha ha, no, is not true. I am not balloons. You are April fools! Good night my friend!

Affinity #11

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
"I'll take the mazuma"
Said Jesus to Marion
"That's the 3:10 to Yuma"
My ride's here
My ride's here

-Warren Zevon
"My Ride's Here"

It's going to be quiet around here for the next few days. The last couple of days weren't great, and so will be the case with the next couple, but things should be back on track next week.