Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Very Quickly Now

(Vague but major spoilers for Let the Right One In are contained within the first two paragraphs of this post)

Over the weekend, I finally got around to watching Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, that last year was hailed as one of the best movies of the year, one of the best horror films ever made, and possibly the best vampire film, period, full stop, the end. It's all a little too fresh for me to make any similar proclamations, but it is a damn good film, easily the best horror film I've seen in at least a few years. Last year, I wrote about the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist on which the film is based (don't click on that link if you don't happen to feel like it, because the post is nothing to get too worked up about), and the short version is that I wasn't too keen on it. Apart from problems with either the prose itself, or the translation, it's clear to me now that the novel's greatest problem was massive bloat: it's about 500 pages long, and truly didn't need to be more than 300. A film that clocks in at just under two hours is going to have needed to hack away at a lot of that, to carve away anything that wasn't essential. Sometimes, what's inessential to a novel is part of what makes it great, but in the case of Lindqvist's novel that which was intended to add color simply drained all the life out of the story. .

Not so the film, which is wonderfully moody and sad, and which preserves everything strong about the novel. Part of the genius of Lindqvist's story (and he wrote the screenplay) is that in rooting for Oskar -- the young boy who is relentlessly bullied at school, and who leads a largely friendless existence until he meets a young girl name Eli, a girl who treats him well, who likes him, and for whom he feels immediately protective -- the audience is basically rooting against themselves. Everyone -- everyone who's not a bully, at least -- wants the weak and bullied to finally lash out against their tormenters, and when we see it happen in movies, when the asshole at the summer camp finally gets knocked into the lake, our impulse is to cheer. But in reality, when the tormented strike back, it's not always the bullies who get lashed. Let the Right One In, it seems to me, without ever mentioning it, is based on this idea. At the end, Oskar and Eli are on their own, traveling who knows where, to live their lives together. But we know what it takes for Eli to stay alive, and so does Oskar. Eli will take what she needs from whoever she can find, and if Oskar becomes like Hakan, Eli's previous keeper, he will provide for her at the expense of the first person he can lure.

Root for Oskar and Eli if you want to -- I did -- but you do so at your own peril.

* * * *

I just finished watching Erik Nelson's documentary about science fiction, horror, and etc. writer Harlan Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth. It was more or less what I expected it to be, except maybe a little bit better. Clearly, Larson came to the project as an acolyte, and Ellison is his altar. The only words spoken against Ellison -- this man who has amassed such an array of enemies that at one point they formed a club -- in the entire film are those uttered gently and with love by his friends and admirers. Ellison himself has claimed that Larson should have interviewed some of the many people who hate him, but Larson's excuse is that Ellison is his own worst enemy. True enough, and up to a point, but believing that does not make the film more interesting.

But I grew up reading Ellison, and though I now find him to be an obnoxious, insufferable egomaniac, he can still be a darned entertaining one (his rant about writers getting paid is a highlight of the film). If you've read enough of Ellison over the years, especially his autobiographical essays (all of his essays are finally about him, no matter what his ostensible subject is), then you've heard all this before, so it probably helps if you have some distance from that part of your reading history, as I do, before checking this out. It's a hagiography, but I can't find it within myself to get too worked up about that. Ellison's an old guy now, and he's written some terrific fiction, and he got kicked around a lot when he was a kid. Let him have his movie.

* * * *

Speaking of documentaries with which Harlan Ellison has some involvement, when is this thing coming out?
I can't pretend to be any kind of expert on the bizarre work and life (presumably also bizarre) of Brother Theodore, but what small taste I've had over the years -- on Letterman, in films, now in internet clips -- really makes me want to be an expert. Singular, hilarious and disturbing, Brother Theodore has been a background fascination of mine for years. How could I get my hands on his albums? Is it possible I could ever see him perform live? The answer to the second question is now, of course, "No", and the first one is "Probably not", due to the steep prices at which used copies are currently selling. And knowing just enough about some obscure artist to make me want to know more, only to have a full understanding and appreciation of the art thwarted by that very obscurity, until finally I have to settle for scraps and biographies or documentaries, is not a fate with which I'm unfamiliar. So I'm used to it. Once again, you've defeated me, The Universe. Now at least let me see this goddamn documentary.

"Originality" has become a meaningless word. The loss -- not physically, which is inevitable, but in terms of cultural memory -- of people like Brother Theodore is the reason -- the entire reason -- for that. Far too often, true originality gets buried with the body. If no one tells you, or shows you, what the word means, how will you ever know? That's why I want to see the film: to remind myself what genuine, mad innovation really is.


Fox said...

I had never heard of Brother Theodore before, so I went to YouTube and watched the "That Itchy Chick" rant he did on Letterman. Oh my god... the part where he talks about the woman's hair being like sauerkraut??? Thanks for the introduction, Bill!

bill r. said...

You're welcome, Fox. Now you, too, can be frustrated over being born ten or fifteen years too late.

Greg said...

I remember watching Bro Theo on Letterman. He claimed to hear not with his ears but his knees.

I've always liked Ellison's concepts better than the actual stories. I think he had some of the best sci-fi ideas but I was never too thrilled with the actual stories themselves, and I realize I'm pretty much alone on that one. But still, for his scenarios alone I'd rank him at the top.

bill r. said...

Which Ellison stories do you think had the best scenarios?

I don't think as much of they guy's writing as a lot of people do, but some stuff -- Jeffty is Five, A Boy and His Dog, Shatterday, Paingod, Croatoan, etc. -- is really great. And there are some great stories in Angry Candy, one of his later collections, but the titles escape me.

He wrote some real dogs, too, though.

Thanks for stopping by, Greg!

Ed Howard said...

I have to admit I've never actually read any Ellison. Maybe I should fix that, though my impression of the guy has been pretty low ever since the whole long, drawn-out fiasco where, for rather ridiculous and inane reasons, he sued and nearly put out of business Fantagraphics Books, one of the best comics publishers around.

Ryan Kelly said...

Still gotta see Let the Right One In. I know people have been complaining to high-heaven about the subtitles... but do you really think it matters too terribly much? With most of the best films the spoken word isn't even a vital part of the experience. Most of my favorite foreign language films I watch with the subs off, anyway.

Do you think it detracts from the experience?

bill r. said...

Ed - You should read Ellison. I think you'd really love him. And the Fantagraphics thing...was that the hulabaloo related in the (very Ellison friendly) article "Bugfuck"? I don't know any more specifics about the article right now. I don't want to search for an article with that title while I'm at my desk, so I'll link to it later. You should read it.

Ryan - I have no idea if the subtitles are that big of a deal. When Arbogast linked to the original story, the differences seemed pretty striking, but watching the film on Monday -- and I'm pretty sure it was the version with the lesser subtitles -- I didn't notice anything amiss. But then, if I haven't seen the other version, I wouldn't, would I?

Ryan Kelly said...

You can tell when a film's subtitles are bad-- awkward syntax, unusual brevity, etc...

The people compalining about this film's subtitles really should watch my copy of Almodovar's Matador or Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's Home and Through the Olive Trees, they have freaking typos in them! And my copy of Where is the Friend's Home at one point gives up on translating all together and starts spelling the Persian phonetically. =/

bill r. said...

Ryan, obviously the film works with the inferior subtitles, but I think a lot of people are more put off by the principle of the thing. The film had better subtitles, and to save money the DVD company went with an inferior product, figuring no one who'd seent he film in theaters would notice, or care.

Ed Howard said...

I thought they fixed the subtitles on Let the Right One In and reissued it?

Anyway, any Ellison recs, Bill?

And that Bugfuck article, which I just skimmed, seems like just the beginnings of the Ellison/Fantagraphics wars. Fantagraphics later published a collection of interviews that included one they'd done with Ellison in the 80s -- an interview they owned, of course, but since Ellison and Gary Groth had been viciously fighting for so long, Ellison cooked up a flimsy excuse to sue them and try to stop them from publishing the interview collection, and there was all sorts of legal wrangling and internet hate mail and such. Of course, Groth also seems like a huge asshole a lot of the time, so who knows...

Ryan Kelly said...

Our pretty unbelievable access to world-cinema comes at a price, unfortunately. Not everyone can be a Criterion or Kino, though they're so good that they make you impatient for any thing less than exemplary.

bill r. said...

Ed - I don't know if the reissue has happened yet. I looked on the box to see if any mention was made -- I think the new edition is supposed to have some indication that it's a reissue -- and I didn't see anything.

I thought the Groth/Ellison interview difficulties were mentioned in the article. I don't know, it's been a while since I read it. Anyway, I kind of have the same idea: Groth and Ellison both seem like assholes, so why bother picking sides?

If you don't mind spending the money, just pick up the Essential Ellison, which is what it says it is, or, for less money, Angry Candy.

Ryan - I see your point, but why couldn't Magnolia/Magnate/Whoever made the decision just pony up for the original subtitles? It showed an extreme amount of indifference on their part.

Ryan Kelly said...

A company... indifferent to... humanity? Say it 'aint so!

I mean, I understand where people are coming from, too. I'd just sooner complain about a bad transfer or audio than subtitles. There's almost always something lost in translation, even with good subtitles.

But you're right, it shows that they're lazy and don't really care about movies and assume their customers are ignorant. Which isn't exactly something new.

Greg said...

Actually, nevermind. I did a search of the really great stories I remember and they were all Asimov. Oops. So, I guess I don't think that much of Ellison. But Asimov, holy shit! That guy had some freakin' great ideas! I just found his writing a little dry but he's the one I was thinking of, not Ellison.

Although I did like his stuff he wrote for tv, even though looking at his Wikipedia entry it seems he hates how every damn one was produced.

bill r. said...

Greg - Ellison hates almost everything.

Brian Doan said...

I grew up reading Ellison, and though I now find him to be an obnoxious, insufferable egomaniac, he can still be a darned entertaining one (his rant about writers getting paid is a highlight of the film). That pretty much sums up my feelings, too. But I'd be lying if I denied how important his work was to me when I was a teenager. THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON volume is ok, but I'd recommend AN EDGE IN MY VOICE (a collection of fabulous journalism he did for FUTURE LIFE, STARLOG and THE LA WEEKLY in the late 70s and early 80s), the SHATTERDAY collection (which includes two stories Bill mentioned-- the title story and the extraordinary "Jefty Is Five"), STALKING THE NIGHTMARE (a really nice mix of short stories and essays) and his book about "CIty On the Edge of Forever," which includes his original script, a long essay about the making of the episode, and essays by other writers about its impact.

I don't know if I want to see the film or not-- I'm very curious, but a little Ellison goes a long way.

bill r. said...

Brian, I would agree that any number of stand-alone Ellison collections might be a better (and less overwhelming) place to begin than the Essential book, but that one DOES have all the classics in one place.

He was very important to me as a teenager, too. Politically, he and I don't always match up, and even then we didn't, but his "fuck it all" attitude, mixed with his habit of championing obscure writers (for which I'll always be grateful to him) and old-man love of comics and radio shows, was a pretty wild and irresistible mix. That and his formidable imagination, which, unfortunately, sometimes paired off with a tendency to over-write. But whatever, he was a HUGE deal to me when I was younger, and I'll never deny it, either.

As for this:

I don't know if I want to see the film or not-- I'm very curious, but a little Ellison goes a long way...

I know how you feel, but honestly the film doesn't beat you over the head with him. I know that probably sounds strange, given that this is a documentary about HIM, but he comes off relatively...err okay. Maybe it's because he's an old man now, but I find him easier to take these days.

Marilyn said...

Don't know Ellison as a person and haven't read all that much of his stuff, but "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is the single most memorable short story of any kind I have ever read. It may be a ripoff of Johnny Got His Gun, but it's a superb one.

Don't know Bro. Theodore. I'm pissed I never got a chance to see Lord Buckley. At least I've seen Del Close, who was a respectable knockoff of LB.

Subtitles? When are we going to get some decent ones for Rome: Open City? I'm going to import an Italian to translate for me pretty soon.

bill r. said...

Marilyn - "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is a doozy, all right, and it's one of my favorites, too. Hell of a title, isn't it? I haven't read Johnny Got His Gun, so I can't comment on that.

The subtitles for Open City are an adventure. The censors went ape-shit on that one, and it's beyond me why that film hasn't been restored. In the sections where the subtitles just drop away, you can sort of put two and two together, but still. Isn't Criterion supposed to take care of that one soon?

Marilyn said...

Gee, Bill, I sure hope so. I love that movie, but it's really frustrating to watch. Another one I had to give up on is Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, not because of bad subtitles, but because there are too many. I spent 30 minutes reading the movie before I decided that was ridiculous. I want that one dubbed.

bill r. said...

I think Criterion is doing some sort of Rossellini/war box-set, with Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero. We shall see.

I've never seen Gospel According to St. Matthew, because the copy Netflix has is -- according to the user comments on the site -- completely chopped to shit. So I'll be waiting a little longer for that one.