Monday, July 30, 2012

On the Olympics

The Olympics: a time for sport and international brotherhood, shot through with rage-inducing international rivalry, has kept our planet from the brink of disaster for literally 30,000 years. Today, in 2012, we, as a people, find ourselves just now getting around to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first Olympic games, and while at this rate we’ll obviously be doing this crap forever, it is nevertheless a testament to our general delightfulness that we have yet to succumb to the ever-growing pressure to admit defeat and say “Okay, we’ll just wait until everyone’s asleep and then take turns slitting each other’s throats” and instead wake up each morning, look the Four Horsemen in the eye, and announce “No! Today we stand strong in hope and sports! You will not have us today, Plague Horse!” And we keep this up for two whole weeks!

Plus if nothing else it’s funny to watch countries like Burma or whatever only have like two athletes in the whole thing, and they finish 11th and 34th in the same event the day after the opening ceremonies and then go home on a plane made out of wood. “Duh, we are too good at sports!” Yeah, I don’t think so, pal! BA-DOOSH! We just got our tenth gold medal while you asswipes were tying up your bindles! That shit is so classic. But also, there’s brotherhood. In ancient times, the Olympics were held probably in the Coliseum, if not there then the Parthenon, if not there then the Acropolis, and it was a way for the ever-warring Greeks to say “You know what? Let’s just wrestle for a while.” No wars, no battles, no stabbing, just wrestling. Maybe eat some grapes between bouts, tell stories about their main god turning into a fish and raping that one mailman who you never see anymore, and just in general being a bunch of Good-Time Charlies. Later, they would stab their leader an even dozen times and then poison the dude who had the idea and who’d started to think that he’d finally made a couple of friends for once in his life, but when the next Olympics rolled around, one guy would look at another guy and be like “Wrestling?” and the other guy would go “Wrestling” and the ruins of this once massive empire would ring yet again with songs and laughter.

Since then, the Olympics haven’t changed too much. There’s still wrestling, for instance. However, it has moved away from the philosophy of its original slogan, “By Greeks, For Greeks,” and embraced a more global participation. I can’t say it’s fully global, and I suspect that some of the smaller, more backwoods countries still don’t really get a look in, because no thank you, but pretty much any country that matters at least gets to have a couple of archers in there. Or handball, have you seen this one? It’s like soccer without kicking mixed with basketball without dribbling. They have goalies but everybody scores all the time so I don’t know why they bother. The goalies are there for the free plane ticket, I think. But the point is if you’re from a country that doesn’t know how to do anything, as long as you promise not to act like a bunch of dickheads, maybe you could play handball. Don’t worry about winning a gold medal because the Olympics aren’t about that. And if France ends up winning the whole business, just ignore them and think “Hey, I got outside for a little bit.”
This is the attitude we should all take to the Olympics. It’s a time for good-natured horseplay, really, in the form of athletic feats that I’m not always sure make complete logical sense. I mean, I’ve been known to win a game of ping pong from time to time, but Jesus Christ! More like ping POW, you know what I mean? That’s how fast it is. Anyway, even Hitler, even that guy, he hosted the Olympics one year. Known primarily for his crotchety public demeanor and run-ins with the press, Hitler still got swept up in the spirit of Olympic goodwill, and when opening the games that year he gave the following speech:

Good morning, sports fans. What a day! I’ll tell you, as a German (well, Austrian, but don’t tell Goebbels that!) [pause for laughter], but as a German, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder than I am right now. I look out at the crowd of athletes and supporters and sporting enthusiasts, all of one particular race, except that guy, and I think that this is why I became the Chancellor – to see your smiling faces, ready to play! It’s childlike, this wonderment, this sense of play, and it’s something I think we’d all do good to hold in our hearts even as we move away from these Olympic games on back into our daily lives. Sure this will all be over soon, but there’s no reason we can’t carry the spirit onwards. It’s a spirit of love, it’s a spirit of togetherness, and it’s a spirit of fun. Boy, looking at all you guys, I want to jump down off this balcony and join you. And I certainly would if I hadn’t been forbidden to do so by my doctor, on account of the fact that I only have one ball. Let the games begin! Love, Hitler

If even a sourpuss like Hitler can pour himself a glass of iced tea, kick back, and chant “Go! Go! Go!” for any and all countries and athletes, then my goodness, can’t we all do the same? And can’t we, as Hitler implored us to do, remember the joy we felt for these two brief weeks as we watched completely shaved people swim, and strangely wimpy boxing, and people getting all shit-talky about everything, even fucking fencing for Chrissake, and a bunch of sports that frankly I don’t think even exist at any other time, and can’t we, like Hitler, say “Yes!” to life and fun and peace. Thanks, Hitler. We owe you one.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What Do You Do?

At one point in Whit Stillman's 1990 film Metropolitan, which Criterion is releasing today on Blu-ray along with another Stillman film, The Last Days of Disco, Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), one of a group of young rich white people drifting from party to party during the season when such people do such things, mentions his disappointment at finally seeing Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. His objection boils down to the fact that, for one thing, he didn't assume the title held any irony, which he obviously should have, but mainly the problem, he says, is that it was simplistic and unfair and, further, the bourgeoisie has "a lot of charm." I'm pretty sure we're supposed to find Black's take silly, but at the same time Stillman's scarce and scattered filmography up to this point -- four films in twenty-one years -- seems to exist to, at least some degree, prove his point. I haven't seen Stillman's most recent film, last year's Damsels in Distress, but his previous three, which also includes 1994's Barcelona, are nothing if not charming, though this is a simplification. But they are charming. Funny, smart, gentle, sardonic (but not venomously so) they are about a world that is pretty much always mocked, if not vilified, in films from around the world. It's one Stillman knows better than most filmmakers who take it on, however, and his approach is refreshing to the point of actually being invigorating.
Merely telling a story about the privileged young (or old, too, but mainly the young) can cause you to take a beating these days. Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls has gotten quite a bit of heat for this reason (I don't like the show, but the fact that it's about people I'm told I'm supposed to hate before I've even met them is not the reason I don't like it). However Stillman -- a beloved, if somewhat cult, filmmaker -- avoids both the heat and the beatings not by kicking this, well, subculture, I guess you'd call it, in the teeth (Dunham kicks in a lot more rich peoples' teeth than Stillman ever even thinks of doing) but by betraying his full awareness of the issues people will bring to films such as his. Saying that Metropolitan is talky doesn't really cover it -- it's basically all talk, and what's being talked about, even when it's not being directly addressed, is the culture and its rather dubious claim to any kind of broad significance. I wouldn't, and Stillman certainly wouldn't, claim any such significance. Metropolitan more than any of his other films that I've seen is partly about the ridiculousness of these lives. But not the people. Or not necessarily the people (the line "It's a tiny bit arrogant for people to go around worrying about those less fortunate" gives some indication of the range of places Stillman's coming from). Each of these characters, save Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), the lead character who is actually not rich, but is mistaken for rich by Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) in an early string of mildly goofy coincidences and assumptions, was born into this world and into this money. Does this make them hateful?
Among the many things Stillman finds absurd, that idea is near the top of his list. Some of them are certainly unlikable, and in fact part of the thread of Smith's character is his occasionally pathological-seeming hatred for another member of their cult, but crucially not of their group, with the wonderfully ridiculous name Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe). Smith, who is kind of the stealth lead of Metropolitan, even though the poor, naive Socialist Tom is the hero, may go too far in his attempts to turn the group against Von Sloneker, but, we'll learn, he's also not wrong. And so -- and this point might seem laughably obvious and simplistic, but the fact remains that, within this specific realm, almost nobody but Stillman bothers to make it, or apparently even think it -- the young, privileged, and white are a group like any other group in that some of them are rather nice people, they don't have to loathe their own station in life in order to be nice, and they can detect wickedness, or anyway assholery, among their own without having to second-guess their entire existence. This is doubly notable in Metropolitan where the very presence of an outsider like Tom Townsend would appear to signal Stillman's intention to dismantle the super-upper-class world he stumbles into. It's positively subversive that he doesn't care to do that. The formula is set up so that it can be revealed to not be a formula.
I also happened to watch The Last Days of Disco, as it had been a very long time since I'd seen any of Stillman's film and wanted a little more context for Metropolitan (which I'd first seen so long ago that it barely counted, though as I watched it large chunks of the film came flooding back). If anything, it might be better than Metropolitan, though it's a tight race. The title sums up the idea of the film, not to mention the setting, and the financial malfeasance subplot involving the nightclub favored by the main characters makes The Last Days of Disco, out of all of Stillman's first three movies, feel positively twisty. But again what I love about what Stillman does here is that he structures everything around long conversations, and Stillman might drift, though never restlessly, from one to another to another, and the audience just listen in.
More interesting here is how the importance of certain characters fluctuates. Chloe Sevigny's Alice holds the top spot pretty much throughout, but her friend, roommate, and occasional antagonist Charlotte, played by Kate Beckinsale, sometimes retreats. Even more striking is how Robert Sean Leonard's Tom seems to surge into the spotlight, but he does so only as long as his presence has a direct impact on Charlotte, and then he, a fringe acquaintance when the film begins, goes about his life away from the rest of them. Going the opposite way is Matt Keeslar as Josh who initially appears to be some sort of eccentric minor character who will be turned to occasionally for laughs and that's it. As it turns out, though, Keeslar's role here is not entirely unlike the one he would go on to play in Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes's underrated Art School Confidential, plus with added extras in Stillman's film. It's just interesting to see characters not being forced to cling to the place in the story where they began. Usually a character will only drop out in the way Robert Sean Leonard does here because he gets shot in the face, which indicates to the rest of the characters that this shit is no joke. Similarly, the path to significance that Keeslar takes is usually punctuated by the audience collectively gasping "Oh, he was the killer!?" So it's unusual, and welcome.

As is Stillman in general. Damsels in Distress, I'm told, is quite a different kettle of fish, stylistically speaking, from what Stillman has offered previously, though from what I understand about it the ending of The Last Days of Disco sort of hints at what's to come. Thirteen years later, yes, but you can't have everything.

During the War, and After

On Tuesday Kino Lorber will release on Blu-ray Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive, and I can only hope this signals at least a mini-flood of Cavalcanti titles from the company. Something like the dedication they show to Jean Rollin would be preferable, but really anything would be welcome. If Vernon Sewell can get two movies out there, Cavalcanti deserves at least that many. I don’t say this merely because They Made Me a Fugitive is very good, although it is. I say it because, in order to provide myself with some small amount of context in which to view They Made Me a Fugitive I watched another Cavalcanti film – Cavalcanti being completely new to me – called Went the Day Well?, which I knew to be beloved by Dennis Cozzalio, and that’s pretty much good enough for me. But Went the Day Well? blindsided me with its sheer and total and unavoidable greatness, so that Cavalcanti at once became a filmmaker whose work I was now greedy for.
I say Cavalcanti was new to me, but watching They Made Me a Fugitive yesterday did carry a hint of déjà vu along with it. Particularly the early scenes, where Clem (Trevor Howard), a soldier fresh from World War II finds himself unwilling or unable to fit back into civilian life, which he now finds boring, and so he agrees to join up with a group of London gangsters led by Narcy (Griffith Jones), which is fine as long as it’s just stealing, but when Clem finds out that Narcy is branching out into narcotics his morals kick back in and he refuses to be a part of it. Narcy says okay, it’ll just be this one-time deal, and after that they won’t touch the stuff, although, of course, he’s lying, and during a panicked getaway later, Narcy, in the car with Clem and fellow gangster Soapy (Cyril Smith), Narcy orders Soapy to run down an approaching police officer, a murder Clem struggles unsuccessfully to prevent. After the car inevitably crashes, the cop’s body in its wake, Narcy arranges Clem’s unconscious body so that he appears to have been driving. When we pick up with the story after the cut, Clem has been in prison on a murder charge for at least a little while. And to top it all off, Narcy has stolen Clem’s woman.
From there, They Made Me a Fugitive becomes a mixture of a man-on-the-run film and a revenge film. The man-on-the-run sections are among the most interesting, especially a strange, stand-alone bit where Clem enters a home and is confronted by a woman (Vida Hope) who makes him a startling offer. What happens in this scene doesn’t have much impact on the rest of the film, but is instead something like a short story stuck in the middle of a novel. It’s fascinating and engaging precisely for that reason, and for the weird performance by Hope. If a monotone can be sinister, that’s what she’s doing, or trying to do. The film as a whole is expertly crafted, as I’m beginning to learn is to be expected from Cavalcanti, and has about it an air of particularly British cynicism. This is a crime film, and so cynicism comes with that territory, but I happen to be reading The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin, an English novel from 1945 about the war years, and it occurs to me that the cynicism of some British war fiction, and films, as well as of a good deal of their take on the crime genre, is of the exhausted variety. Clem is driven, but he’s tired, and the ending of They Made Me a Fugitive is one of resignation. The American version of the same story might have a bit more sweaty desperation to it. In English stories of this type, there’s always an assumption of bureaucracy at play somewhere, keeping the gears locked. This is the case even in a film like They Made Me a Fugitive, when bureaucracy doesn’t poke its head in, even as a theme. In fact, the cops are trying to do the right thing. But somehow Clem understands that this won’t, and can’t, work out.
Calvacanti has a real way with action, too. The climax of They Made Me a Fugitive takes place in a storeroom for coffins (the film foreshadows a fair amount of doom; more, even, than the film contains), and the fight that breaks out is as clumsy, ugly, chaotic, yet clear and logical as you could want. One character's death is almost stupid, but not in the sense that the film has made a mistake. Rather, the character assumed a capability he probably shouldn't have -- it's not an unbelievable move on his part, though. In any case, the action in They Made Me a Fugitive pales next to that featured in Went the Day Well?, which is a combat film of a highly unusual type. Made in 1942, based on a Graham Greene story called "The Lieutenant Died Last" (a story I was appalled to discover I did not possess in any story collection I could think of, and so I have a Greene collection wherein it may be found winging its way to me as we speak), Went the Day Well? is about a group of Germans who have been trained to pose as English soldiers in order to con their way into being billeted in the English village of Bramley End. There, the plan is to help set up a planned German invasion, with the assistance of long-time village resident and German agent Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), a character I quickly grew to loathe. The villagers are honored and pleased to do their part for what they believe is the English war effort, though within a half hour of the film's 92 minutes, certain suspicions lead some of those villagers, primarily Norah (Valerie Taylor) to wonder about these soldiers. Once the lid is blown off, the soldiers, led by Basil Sydney as a German officer whose English accent slips when the heat's on, become Nazis, and Went the Day Well? turns brutal to a degree I never anticipated.
Went the Day Well? quickly became one of my favorite films of all time during a scene I wouldn't think of spoiling, other than to say it features Muriel George as Mrs. Collins, giving a performance for one scene that is essentially perfect. Not that she was bad before this, but she'd been the picture of the jolly English widow up until then, and in this scene some kind of dam breaks. It's magnificent, and one of the great movie scenes. Of all movies, I'm saying. This is an unambiguous classic. And there are more moments that reach that same level still to come -- the payoff to Taylor's character is another (really, the women in Went the Day Well? pretty much steal the show). It's a film I love so much that it's hard to talk about. I could gush, but anybody can gush. Maybe give me a few months. Maybe I'll have another reason to talk about it after Kino Lorber takes my hint.

Friday, July 20, 2012


At the end of Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 film Targets, a mass murderer named Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O'Kelly, stations himself behind the screen of a drive-in theater where he fires randomly, but with precision, into the audience. Last night, or very early this morning, a man named James Holmes entered a Aurora, CO movie theater through one of the exit doors near the screen and did much the same thing. In Aurora, in reality, twelve people were killed and dozens more were wounded.

In Targets, Bobby Thompson's story is paralleled by that of aging horror film icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) who is touring to promote his latest Gothic picture. He's morose, though, due to his advanced years and, more to the point, his belief that the kind of old fashioned, cobwebby movies he makes are irrelevant and cannot compete, in terms of generating fear, with the real horrors splashing themselves across the front page. This is a very late '60s idea, one of the ones that got its hooks in and has hung tight up to today. In any case, Orlok will eventually confront this belief very directly, as it is his film showing at the drive-in Bobby Thompson has chosen for his shooting gallery, and this drive-in is Orlok's last stop on his tour.

All day today people have talked and written about what happened in Aurora, taking their irrelevancies very seriously, and with some kind of belief that perhaps if we news-watchers could just take the time to hash this out we could stop it from ever happening again. It is nearly impossible to engage in this sort of thing without being insufferably trite, as I imagine I'm in the process of confirming as I write this. But everything will be hauled out before it's all done -- all done for us, I mean. For the twelve it's already done. Of course the thinking often is that for those gone there's nothing to be done, and when looking at the big picture and in practical terms, it's who's left that matters right now. This is debatable. Everything is debatable, I've learned, including the movie playing in the theater Holmes stormed into. The Dark Knight Rises, it was. Who can resist that kind of synergy?

In Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, the impact of a fatal bus accident washes out over a number of characters, and while Lonergan's writing and the actors' performances makes each of them painfully specific, Lonergan's directing encompasses everything. His directing sprawls, so that sometimes the principal figures become lost, or just the next person in line after that one, who this film only happens to not be about. In a very real sense Margaret is about immensity and incomprehensibility, the bigness and wildness that we can't even see. "This is not an opera!" rages one of the film's more easily sympathetic characters, played by Jeannie Berlin, to another, rather less sympathetic one played by Anna Paquin, who is almost unconsciously trying to transform the central tragedy and her genuine feelings of guilt into something that is about her, rather than the woman who was killed. She says it again: "This is not an opera." It feels like it sometimes though, doesn't it? Conversations about What Is To Be Done Now sure can seem to. But it's not. It's just movies. It's all just movies.

Byron Orlok watches bodies falling around him at the end of Targets and does what we who are blessed enough to have never known, and God help us will never know, what it's like to find an exciting night out to the movies shatter into bloody chaos, might flatter ourselves into believing we would do: he approaches the source of the violence and means to stop it. It's all just movies, but with Targets, if Bogdanovich and uncredited screenwriter Sam Fuller understand one thing it's that yes, it really is all just movies. It would be disingenuous to claim that this excludes Bobby Thompson, but to the degree it's possible, Thompson is a separate entity within and apart from the film. Once the unavoidable is acknowledged -- Bobby Thompson is fiction -- it is allowable and possible to see him as a chillingly reasonable facsimile of Charles Whitman, his inspiration, or James Holmes. Byron Orlok is the opera.

The opera is the shape of things. Or the attempt to shape things. Margaret finally takes that same form, while Orlok was born to it. When confronted with the real horrors that had been grinding him down, Orlok is furious, using the cane with which he can barely keep himself up to beat down the killer, and then stunned.

"Is that what I was afraid of?" he says.


Many thanks to Glenn Kenny for the screengrabs from Targets.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pile of Bodies

Tomorrow Kino Lorber’s Redemption line will be releasing two films – his last and his third from last, as it happens – by director Vernon Sewell: The Blood Beast Terror from 1968, and Burke & Hare from 1971. Burke & Hare is, of course, about the notorious grave robbers in 19th Century Scotland who sold fresh corpses to doctors, who purchased them in the name of science, donated corpses being rare at the time, until they decided people weren’t giving up the ghost fast enough or in sufficient quantities to satisfy their financial needs and therefore resorted to murder. I’ve now seen five different films inspired by this piece of criminal history, including John Landis’s recent non-remake Burke & Hare, Freddie Francis’s not great but still not bad adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s screenplay The Doctor and the Devils, and Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher, for which the Burke & Hare story is only a loose inspiration, but which remains the gold standard for this sort of thing.

Anyway, these Kino Lorber releases are instructive of a certain non-Hammer, non-Amicus strain of late 60s, early 70s British horror, that strain being of the “Well, this stuff’s pretty popular, so…” school of thought. Which is not to say, or even imply, that either film lacks entertainment value, but I have yet to figure out if they’re any good or not. It would also seem to be helpful that while The Blood Beast Terror is ostensibly a serious horror film, Burke & Hare is intended to be something of a black comedy (as is Landis’s film), but the lines between the two films and the two approaches can become rather blurry. The Blood Beast Terror, in particular, is a strange film. It stars a somewhat weary-looking Peter Cushing as a police detective investigating a series of deaths that could be the result of wild animal attacks, or possibly murder – whichever it is, the bodies have been almost drained of blood. Meanwhile, there’s this doctor named Menninger (Robert Flemyng) who is interested in moths, and is conducting strange experiments, and who has a weird, possibly lusty, daughter (Wanda Ventham), a doctor who very clearly is at the center of this whole thing, though what “this whole thing” actually is won’t be made clear, or clear-ish, until near the very end. But it has something to do with a moth creature. That much we find out way earlier.
The strangeness of The Blood Beast Terror doesn’t come from its story or visuals – although, in its way, that moth creature is quite something -- or anything like that, but rather from Sewell and screenwriter Peter Bryan’s strange way of stringing everything together. For instance, a character, another scientist played by William Wilde, is introduced at the very beginning finishing up a trip to Africa. When he returns to England he goes to see Menninger, a man he’s never met but with whom he shares certain professional interests. But this man who you’d think is going to have all sorts of impact on the story winds up being nothing more than a clue. More intriguingly, from a structural point of view – if that is the point of view being futzed with here – is a scene about a third of the way through the film involving a play being staged by Menninger’s medical students in his home. This is all part of a larger soiree, but we’re told this play is going to be having a full dress rehearsal, and the rather amazing thing is that Sewell shows us…well, for a little while I wondered if it wasn’t going to be the whole damn play. As it happens, we’re shown the entire last scene. I should have timed how long this lasts, but I’d guess it to be a good five minutes. We never even cut away to any other action going on in Menninger’s home – it’s all about the play. And the play doesn’t actually matter. The contents of the scene do give Menninger an idea for his mysterious experiments, but he could have gotten that idea anywhere, and it is in no way essential that we know how he got there anyway. I mean, it’s a mad scientist play, of the horror variety, so it’s got parallels or whatever, but it doesn’t mean anything. The rinky-dink nature of the play also requires that the scene be played for laughs (not unsuccessfully, it must be said). And so…what is this doing here? The most interesting thing about the play scene is that it reveals either that the playwright, a young medical student, is plagiarizing Mary Shelley, or that in the world of The Blood Beast Terror, Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn’t exist.
The relative goofiness of The Blood Beast Terror’s play scene is stretched to feature length in Burke & Hare, only this time it’s been slathered in bawdiness. Or “bawdiness.” Well, okay, bawdiness – I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the heart of the film’s good-natured salaciousness, Francoise Pascale, wasn’t easy on the eyes. But while I haven’t yet seen any films from Britain’s famously ribald Carry On series, from what I do know about them, if they’d ever gotten around to making Carry On, Burke & Hare it would have looked a lot like this. The story is well known, and anyhow I already pretty much summed it up earlier, but this time along with the grave robbing and murder, Sewell and screenwriter Ernle Bradford have thrown in a brothel that is frequented by doctors and medical students. So you have Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and Hare (Glynn Edwards) selling bodies to doctors, and then over here what you have is the brothel’s madam (Joan Carol) also selling bodies to doctors. But in a different way! Metaphorically! As opposed to literally! It’s not a very funny movie, is what all those ironic exclamation points are meant to convey. It does have a catchy theme song performed by The Scaffolds, a band that, I’ve gathered, was sort of like The Monkees if The Monkees had been a performance art project, which maybe they were.

So that’s Burke & Hare. It hits some good notes along the way, such as the scene where Burke and Hare, having murdered only the one person at this point, find themselves talking with their respective wives/girlfriends about where all this money suddenly came from, and gradually, but eerie ease, picking up as a group the idea that murder really might be the way to go with this, permanently. It’s sort of chilling in how unadorned the whole scene is. But again, crucially, it’s never funny. The music by Roger Webb seems to filtered in from the next studio over, which was recording music for Tom & Jerry. And I love Tom & Jerry (the original ones, not the later ones where they’re friends, or the weird-ass “Dicky Moe” ones), but using that style of music to accompany the madam going from peephole to peephole, watching all manner of crazy bedroom hijinks, all of which are essentially the same thing, and then shaking her head as though to say “What a world!” is, I have to say, ill-advised. Not that this tone paired with occasional callousness towards the fates of the film’s characters isn’t interesting, in a way, but it all piles up into a weird sort of airy mass of non-Amicus, non-Hammer silliness.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Due to Illness

I'd like to offer my apologies for the light posting around here lately. I've been ill, you see, and haven't watched a hell of a lot of movies, at least not ones I cared to write about. I watched that miniseries The Hatfields and the McCoys over the weekend -- that was pretty good, I thought. What a nasty feud! "Come on, guys, don't feud like that!" is what I kept shouting at the TV. The McCoys clearly got the short end of the stick when it came to vengeance, though, so from their point of view it's probably easy for me to say.

I also watched, or rewatched, for the umpteenth time, both Quick Change and Let It Ride. Both films had been favorites back when they were released, and both held up rather nicely. But here's the interesting thing, or kind of an interesting thing -- both films are based on books by Jay Cronley, a writer of comic novels. Quick Change was based on Quick Change, and Let It Ride was based on his book Good Vibes. The films came out in 1989 and 1990, respectively. In 1988, another Cronley novel was adapted into the Chevy Chase film Funny Farm, which I also remember being quite a solid piece of work. That's three Cronley adaptations in as many years, and then nothing. I don't suppose any of these, save maybe Funny Farm, did much business, but unless it's all just a coincidence somebody or some group of people thought Cronley's stuff offered some strong material. I remember Bill Murray, who co-directed, co-wrote, and starred in Quick Change doing the publicity rounds at the time and praising Cronley's books. So what was going on? And what happened? I don't believe Cronley found himself pelted with offers to profile him in The New Yorker or the LA Times or any other publication that might have wanted to do such a thing, and while I still haven't read one of his novels I suspect this is too bad. Clearly he has a knack for something, and the movies are funny. In 1985, Quick Change was turned into a Canadian film called Hold Up, and another Cronley novel, called Cheap Shot, was adapted into a French film called Nos Amis les Flics. Interesting.

In my time of illness, I also read a horror novel called Carpathia by Matt Forbeck. It's about the survivors of the Titanic disaster being rescued by the titular ship, and then being prayed upon by vampires. Carpathia, Carpathian Mountains, Dracula -- you guys know the score. Anyway, I admit to being sucked in by that premise, and even thinking the whole "Carpathia" thing was clever. My mistake. All I'll say about Forbeck's novel is that a little over halfway through, a character named Dr. Griffiths suddenly starts being referred to as Dr. Cherryman. When he got eaten by a vampire, I didn't know who to mourn.

Regular posting to resume shortly, I hope.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Zombie Fighting a Shark

Look, it's a zombie, and it's fighting a shark. Shit, I know you've all seen this movie. I'm real tired, you guys.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Remaining in the lead, so far as I can tell, when it comes to high quality Blu-ray releases of silent films is Kino Lorber, who tomorrow will be releasing a fascinating collection of social dramas under the umbrella title The Devil's Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption, and on July 10 will follow that up with The Saphead, Buster Keaton's first feature as a lead actor. The Saphead has had a DVD release before, but to the best of my knowledge this is the first commercial release of any of the films contained on the Devil's Needle disc, and not a moment too soon -- each of the three titles has been preserved by the Library of Congress, and brother did they need it.

The title film, The Devil's Needle from 1916 and directed by Chet Whitley (for the record, according to the very informative notes by Richard Koszarski that come with the disc, the version available here is a re-edited release from 1923), is about what you'd expect it to be about, namely drug addiction. In this case the man sent into a headlong descent to the bottom is an artist played by Tully Marshall. Norma Talmadge plays his model who took up the needle habit some years back as a means to obliterate the unpleasantness of the outside world, and, seeing her painter friend struggling with hopeless love, poverty, and the lack of inspiration, urges him to follow suit. Which he does, and Marshall is soon off his nut. But this isn't Reefer Madness, and while strict realism is hardly a goal here The Devil's Needle doesn't finally function as hysteria but as melodrama. The performances are quite good -- Marshall especially strikes the right notes in a role that could have easily slid into unintentional comedy -- and the film offers hope to all those lost souls out there. But almost more fascinating than any of the very solid filmmaking on display is how The Devil's Needle seems to have been plucked by its restorers from from the verge of total destruction. Sections of the film have been badly eaten away by age and the standard ravages suffered by celluloid, though you could, if you wished, think of this as a visual match with Marshall's own dissolution. Then again, the damage is at its worst during the considerably more heartwarming conclusion. I can only be grateful to be able to see this film at all.

Faring better in at least the sense that it seems whole and largely unscarred is 1913's The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. Directed by Frank Beal, the only reason this 28-minute film isn't a documentary is that documentaries as we know them didn't exist in 1913. Its goal, apart from striking terror in the hearts of young women, is entirely educational. It tracks the sad life of one young woman who is roped into the world of white slavery by an amoral "procurer" (Edwin Carewe), from how she first stepped wrong to how she found herself unable to extract herself despite her best and most honorable efforts. Twice in this film we're shown a card of slang used by white slavers to mask their true meaning, and both times it's the exact same list. As filmmaking its ambitions are far below The Devil's Needle, though as a historical document it's invaluable.

Finally we have Children of Eve directed by John H. Collins in 1915. This Dickensian story of coincidence, poverty, callous privilege, tragedy, and then-recent history is the kind of film where a decent, good-hearted man suffers an emotional blow, and the story cuts to fifteen years later when that man has suddenly, to the viewer's eye, become almost entirely hateful. The rest of the film, and its convoluted but actually rather rich plotting, exists to bring that man, who takes a backseat to other characters once that skip ahead occurs, to his senses, even though, in true tragic fashion, it's far too late. Children of Eve is really Dickensian, as I say, even at only 66 minutes. The horror of early 20th Century child labor is its social focus, and a fictionalized depiction of the real Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 is its climax, a culmination of the characters' various threads, and a driving home of its points. It's all very good, and strikingly sad at the very end. Even Dickens at his darkest left so little light.

Meanwhile, the Buster Keaton film The Saphead -- or rather, the Herbert Blache film The Saphead starring Buster Keaton – is a historical document of different kind. In it, Keaton plays some version of the character he would perfect once he stepped behind the camera. But his control didn't extend much beyond that, and the comedic sensibilities of this thing are often baffling. In the film, Keaton plays Bertie, a kind but lazy son of a wealthy Wall Street mogul (and for the record, it's quite possible that the name "Bertie" was inspired by P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, introduced in 1916; The Saphead is based on a 1913 play The New Henrietta, but "Bertie" was not the character's name in that original version) falls in love with Agnes (Beulah Booker), his father's ward. But he needs to get his act together if he's ever to win her heart. Or does he? Every conflict raised by the plot is summarily dispensed with, leaving behind no change. Bertie thinks women only love bad boys, and half-heartedly tries to live that life, but soon finds out that Agnes doesn't care about that and already loves him. His father tells him he'd better get a job, and cuts his son off, if he's ever going to allow him to marry Agnes. But -- and this is intended as a joke, in fairness -- the father's last payment to his son is $100,000. That's $100,000 in 1920 dollars, too. But Agnes doesn't even care about that, and says she will marry Bertie regardless of whether or not he gets a job. Okay, but the father will NOT attend the wedding. Until he sees Agnes in her wedding gown, and melts. And so on. None of the conflicts last long enough for any jokes to occur. That is until the end, when other elements of the plot join up to place Bertie on the floor of the Wall Street stock exchange, and here Keaton's gifts are given as full a field as The Saphead ever allows, and it must be said that it pays off quite nicely. It's a manic and quite funny climax, coming at the tail-end of a film that is otherwise a real head-scratcher.

Anyhow. No matter. Elsewhere plans are no doubt moving forward to get Drop Dead Fred on Blu-ray while He Walks By Night and Detour are walking around asking when they'll even get a regular old DVD release. So thank God for Kino Lorber.