Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Kind of Face You Whaaaaaaa!?: An Announcement

Oh hello. As some of you may remember, every October for the first several years of this blog's existence, I used to write, every day, about horror fiction. Sometimes novels, sometimes a pair of short stories more or less randomly chosen from an anthology, most often a couple of short stories by the same author so that I might discuss that author within some kind of framework. While by no means my most popular posts, this project did sort of define The Kind of Face You Hate, and those who did read them seemed to like them. I found this very flattering and gratifying, and every year I looked forward to expanding my knowledge about one of my favorite genres. I was forced to think about horror on a level that I wouldn't have had I been merely(!) reading these books and stories for pleasure. If my blog was ever going to have any sort of legacy, which I would have to say I kind of doubt it will, but if was ever going to, this ongoing series, collectively titled The Kind of Face You Slash, would be it.

On the other hand, it fucking sucked; it was, to my mind, and increasingly so over the years, a ridiculous amount of work for someone to do yet not be paid for. Remember, I not only had to write every day, but read every day, as well. Yes, foresight and better planning might have eased this burden, but I have frequently found, over the course of my life, that the best way for me to actually complete something is to have a deadline. And this was a downright shithouse of a deadline. The whole thing, once fun, became after five years a howling, waking nightmare of effort. I believe you can almost see me crumbling under the weight in those later years. One post in particular almost did me in. The stories I read so thoroughly defeated me through their mediocrity that when I sat down to write about them I did briefly consider hitting my computer with a brick to see what the result would be (I'm not going to link to it because, as you might expect, my review of the writer in question was unkind, and eventually he showed up in the comments, and said something that still makes me feel bad about what I wrote). In 2013, I enlisted the help of a series of friends and associates to take half of October off my hands, so that I would have to write and read fifty per cent less than I had before, and those guys came through like gangbusters. The problem was, being a kind of...not editor, because I didn't edit anyone, but I guess a manager, of a sort, didn't alleviate the pressure; it merely substituted the old ones, and not even all of those, with new ones. In short, I still had to work. So, in 2014, I decided that was it, I was indefinitely retiring The Kind of Face You Slash. You know how homicide detectives can get so burned out by the atrocities they're forced to deal with every day that they finally ash up and have to "get out of the life?" Well that was me exactly, and there's no difference between me and a homicide detective.

Cut to today! I'm still not going to bring back The Kind of Face You Slash this October! However, what I am doing, is I'm announcing that The Kind of Face You Slash is going to be an ongoing series from here until whenever. That is to say, I will be writing The Kind of Face You Slash posts in, say, November. And December, maybe. And January. And possibly even (almost certainly) this October. Not thirty-one posts in thirty-one days, but a continuous, though sporadic, series about horror literature. It will be similar to The Cronenberg Series, the major difference being that while The Cronenberg Series ended (for the time being) when I reached the latest of Cronenberg's major works (still entertaining the idea of writing addendum-type posts about his short films, by the way) in the case of The Kind of Face You Slash there's no end in sight. I'll end the series when I finally think "You know what? Fuck you guys." Which could be tomorrow, just to be clear.

But hold on! There's still even more to tell you! And I think I'd better keep this part brief because this announcement post has been very long and boring so far! As a result of my ruthless focus on horror fiction, as someone who writes about genre fiction I have been shamefully neglectful of my other favorite genre, which is crime fiction. And so the other day I says to myself, I says "Hey wait a minute, maybe you could write about crime fiction." And I was like "Yes." So, as of today I am announcing the start of yet another series, as continuous and as sporadic as The Kind of Face You Slash, but this time about crime fiction. So everything I said about the horror project in the last paragraph you can apply to this crime project, which I shall call The Kind of Face You Shoot. That one's actually going to begin sooner rather than later, because I've had something percolating, but anyway, there's your announcement. The Kind of Face You Slash is back, but on a new and endless-ish schedule, and it will be joined by The Kind of Face You Shoot, which will look at crime fiction (mostly novels, given the nature of the genre) from the old-timey ones to new-timey ones. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to some fuckin' new guy, I guess.

Incidentally, the best part of this announcement is that the idea was all my own, and wasn't quite reasonably suggested to me by Jose Cruz one day on Facebook. So thanks for nothing, Jose! I DON'T NEED YOU!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

They're Drafting Everyone These Days

Bernhard Wicki's most famous, or at least most seen, work as a director must be the German sections of The Longest Day, the 1962 Word War II epic, which, in a stab at democracy or something, producer Darryl F. Zanuck farmed out to three directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, and Wicki. Roughly speaking, the idea was to have the directors handle the locations that corresponded to their own nationality, but there was an arbitrariness to the gimmick -- the British Annakin also took care of the film's French material, and Marton was actually Hungarian. But Zanuck nailed it with Wicki, who in addition to being German was also untainted: due to his association with a German youth movement that was not the Hitler Youth, Wicki was sent to a concentration camp in 1939. This offense not being one from the long list of Hitler's unforgivable crimes, Wicki was eventually released, at which point he fled Germany. He didn't return until the war was over. In the post-war era his film career began, not only as a director but also as an actor, appearing in, among others, films such as Antonioni's La Notte, Fassbinder's Despair, and Wenders' Paris, Texas.

Wicki's career in Hollywood, once he got around to it, didn't last very long. The most notable American film that he directed by himself is Morituri, a 1965 World War II thriller starring Yul Brynner as the captain of a German supply ship transporting rubber, much needed by the Nazis, from Japan to Germany, and Marlon Brando as an anti-war German expatriate living in India who is coerced by the British into agreeing to gain passage under false pretenses, on the ship and sabotage it so that the boat can't be scuttled, and the rubber can be commandeered by the Allies. Long story. The fact that Brando's character had to be blackmailed into taking on this mission, and that even though his pacifism is found wanting as a philosophy in the face of the Nazi brutality he witnesses on the ship he chooses a course of action that intentionally hurts both the Nazis and the Allies, these things comprise a strange and conflicting set of morals that I don't believe Wicki had fully come to terms with.

Set Morituri (which, otherwise, I think is a solid piece of work, and I think Brando is wonderful in it) against the film that probably got Wicki that gig in the first place, as well as the Longest Day job: 1959's The Bridge, said to be one of the first anti-war films to come out of Germany after the war, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and released on DVD and Blu-ray last week by Criterion. Based on an autobiographical novel by Gregor Dorfmeister, it takes place near the end of the war, when the Nazis were at their most frantic. Losing badly but refusing to surrender, Hitler began literally drafting children and sending them into combat. In The Bridge, the first hour or so follows seven boys no older than sixteen, all friends, as they face heartbreak, pursue girls, follow the war's progress with an excitement their elders do not share, and wonder, with some eagerness, if they'll ever get drafted. One of them, Karl (Karl Michael Balzer), is in love with the housekeeper who helps his father and him. Another, Klaus (Volker Lechtenbrink) has a relationship with a pretty schoolmate which, when the draft notices finally do come in, he's in the process of botching. He so badly misjudges their last night together before he goes to basic training, and doesn't even realize he's misjudged it, that I thought "You poor stupid Nazi." That's not the only time the viewer might be moved to think such a think while watching The Bridge.

The Bridge has an interesting air of melancholy in the first half. It's interesting because you might normally expect that to come closer to the end. But Wicki chooses to not pretend that his audience doesn't know how this will all end, nor that the adults in his film -- the boys' parents and teachers, even in some cases their superior officers -- are any more delusional. When the children betray any amount of exuberance, or even a feeling of duty, about their pending military service, the adults tend regard them with unspoken pity. Once they are drafted, that sense of pity and melancholy turns to one of straight doom. On their first day of basic training, they're awoken in the middle of the night because the Allies are approaching. For a complicated set of reasons, the seven boys are given what is thought to be a cushy, nothing job of "guarding" the bridge into their own town, which is scheduled for demolition anyway, but misunderstanding, panic, and a relentless Allied assault soon transforms this bridge into a genuine battleground.

The morality of the film is complicated. Wicki subtly acknowledges Nazi atrocities and the basic wrongness of serving that cause without ever making the film about that. This allows the film to, for instance, make one of the characters who has some sympathy for the boys' hopeless situation, not only a card-carrying Nazi, but a True Believer. Similarly, the officer set to command them on their bridge-guarding detail (which he also believes is better suited for relaxation than combat) is about as kindly yet professional an officer as a young recruit could hope for. Yet while watching him, I couldn't help but think "How many Jews did you round up?" The Bridge invites that question but I'm not sure it does so intentionally. It may have still been necessary in 1959 to pull back from certain things, I don't know; beyond that, the film wants to be less about World War II than about "war" as a concept, but in my view its tough to use World War II for that purpose. There's simply too much basic morality, too much necessity in the waging of it, to contend with. This is why Kubrick's Paths of Glory is one of the greatest anti-war films, if not the greatest: it's about World War I, a ridiculous war.

Nevertheless, little of this is in The Bridge itself -- it's the sort of stuff you pull out of it later. But The Bridge, itself, is terrific. When the melancholy falls away, it becomes a film of pure savagery. The brutality of the violence is shocking for the time, and though the point Wicki wants to make pushes him to heighten that brutality to a level that is sometimes executed clumsily, more often than not it's incredibly effective. And I was pleased to see the one American soldier who gets any lines portrayed well, in contrast to the absurdity of the few American characters in Morituri. Then again, this depiction in The Bridge is in keeping with the rest of the film. The American soldier is, after all, an adult, and he, like most of the adults throughout the film, he wants to convince these boys that what they're doing is foolish. It's foolish, and pointless, and they don't understand. From their point of view, however, since they were children they'd been taught to fight for the Fuhrer and the Reich. Now that they've finally been given the opportunity, why should they be told to run away?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Von Klaus Family History

Nowadays, one thing a person can get upset about is the use by the makers of, let's say, a television show of certain violent acts for, the assumption is, shock value. And many times shock value is the goal, I'll grant you, it's just that I'm never sure why this kind of moral fury is righteous, yet when we think back on a time when that same brand of fury was directed at slasher films and, before that, EC Comics, we find only hypocrisy, censorship, and an insidious, intrusive moralizing. The only thing I feel confident about is that, deluxe Tales from the Crypt reprint collections notwithstanding, William Gaines probably wouldn't find things going any better for him now than he did then. That Tales from the Crypt hasn't been grandfathered into this new system of finger-wagging is because, I think, most of the men who wrote and drew those stories are safely dead and can no longer harm us.

Also dead and therefore also exempt is Jess Franco, the Spanish horror/erotica/exploitation filmmaker who directed a ridiculous number of feature films, from black & white Gothic thrillers to hardcore horror porn, to everything within what you'd have to guess is the very wide variety of options in between. Broadly speaking, Franco belongs to the same strain of European horror as Mario Bava, Jean Rollin, and Dario Argento, falling along the spectrum of respectability somewhere between classic Argento and the somewhat less elegant Lucio Fulci. That last bit is clearly a "depends on who you ask" situation, but Franco could be wildly sleazy, and while I don't mind sleaze -- I even, er, kind of like it -- in my experience the sleazier Franco got the less engaging his filmmaking instincts became. My own instinct is to contrast this with Rollin (he also directed porn on occasion) who had an unparalleled talent for combining marketable prurience with breathtaking horror poetry. Then again, my eyes were recently opened because Franco's catalogue is having one of those years -- recently there's been a mini-flood of his films released to Blu-ray, including the long hard-to-find Vampyros Lesbos, a film that I found both less sleazy than I'd anticipated and far more Rollin-esque. Yet I also found that it went in one eye and out the other. I'm frankly stumped.

On the plus side, today sees the release on Blu-ray and DVD of another Franco film: The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, from 1962. Along with The Awful Dr. Orlof, also from 1962, I'd have to say this is my favorite of the Franco movies I've seen, a fact which may say more about my tastes than anything else. But it's a strong, fun little mystery with a Gothic flair, which it could hardly avoid with a title like that. In a small German town, women are turning up dead. The locals are inclined to connect these deaths to the nearby castle home of the Von Klaus family, currently inhabited by an elderly matriarch (though not for much longer in her case) and her brother Max (Howard Vernon), who looks a lot like a portrait of a male ancestor known to have been a sadistic murderer of women. Also arriving on the scene, to see his mother off into the next world, is her son Ludwig (Hugo Blanco) and his fiancee Karine (Paula Martel). The villagers think the killer resides in that castle, but who is it? Looking to find out are a cop (Georges Rollin) and a crime reporter (Fernando Delgado) for the evidently, though surprisingly, legitimate publication Maidens & Murderers. So who did it? Or rather, who's doing it? And who's next?

I'll be honest, anyone who correctly predicts the identity of the killer should feel not special pride for having done so, but that doesn't matter to me. I've said before that for all the talk about how the Western is a largely dead genre, just as dead, it seems to me, but strangely unlamented, is the murder mystery. Oh you have twist endings and such, but the structured mystery barely exists now, and watching The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus I realized how much I miss it. And predictable or not, it's a good film. It's well shot, it's eerie, and it has nice touches here and there, such as when Karl, the crime reporter, stops the men from the coroner's office who've come to remove a murder victim from the crime scene, so he can take a picture of her face. They stop and let him do it, but Steiner plays it as a man slightly ashamed to be doing his job at the same time that he's determined to do it.

Furthermore, Franco gets to be sadistic in the way that would make him famous, and which he couldn't get away with now, save out on the far fringe of movie-making. It's a brief scene and not all that extreme, given lots of different factors, but because it's effective it is therefore kind of shocking. And why shouldn't sadism be shocking? If not that, what should it be?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Shit in Your Hammock

[Beware of massive spoilers for Fierce People, like you give a shit anyway]

I think it's safe to say that as an actor, at least among Serious Film Types, Griffin Dunne is somewhat beloved. Or at any rate very much liked. This is all on a sort of cult level, but let's face it, it almost always is. On the basis of just two films, both of which exist in universal terms on that same cult level, those films being John Landis's An American Werewolf in London and Martin Scorsese's After Hours, Dunne, as an actor, has been able to cement his place. And good on him, because they're both wonderful performances. Dunne's delivery of the line "David! You're hurting my feelings!" in An American Werewolf in London was one of my favorite bits from that film when I was a kid, and remains so to this day. It's the way his character Jack (a rotting corpse by this point in the film) holds onto his naked but not, in this case, especially ostentatious sarcasm even in the midst of his state of undead horror that naturally appealed to my younger self, and I'd wager most people's younger selves, but even getting over that part it's just funny, it's a funny line and Dunne gives it the funniest reading possible. This all somehow helps sell the pity we must feel for Jack, and the other werewolf victims, which in turn allows the film to walk the very thin tightrope it ultimately succeeds in walking. And I've barely even mentioned After Hours, a great, 90 minute surreal Martin Scorsese comedy that Dunne carries on his shoulders. This is almost undefinable, but in that film the idea is for Dunne to play an everyman, but only sort of, and Dunne is the essence of an everyman who is nevertheless naturally specific and peculiar and not actually an everyman even while he's being one.

So he's great! As an actor! As a director, well, who among us can say? Dunne has been a director only sporadically, and he came to it late, directing his first feature, Addicted to Love, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, in 1997. Since then he's directed four more features, as well as episodes of various TV shows, but I'd never seen any of it until yesterday when I watched, for I was called upon to do so, Fierce People, Dunne's comedy/drama/thriller(!?) from 2005. This is a film about which I can at least say this: it would be impossible to watch the first fifteen minutes of Fierce People and then correctly predict what happens in the last fifteen. Or maybe even the first twenty-five minutes and the last twenty-five. It's a fairly bonkers piece of work, a film that to some degree you'd have to acknowledge as ambitious, but, as is often the case, with ambition comes misguidedness, tone deafness, ridiculousness. You have to know what you're doing, in other words, though I suppose a certain heedlessness is desirable, too. I don't know. I don't even known if what we're dealing with in Fierce People is negligent heedlessness or outright stupidity.

Whatever the case may be, I suspect that Dirk Wittenborn is largely to blame. The temptation is to say "mostly to blame," but since I have not read Wittenborn's original novel Fierce People, on which the film is based (a film for which Wittenborn himself did in fact write the screenplay, as well as serve as a producer), and since slavishly faithful to that novel and script though he may or may not have been, Griffin Dunne is still the guy at the wheel here, and it's supposed to be up to him how much of that source material is going to be chucked overboard. But all of this is verging on speculation on my part, so it's best to to drop that and explain what the film Fierce People is about. It's about this young guy played by Anton Yelchin named Finn Earl who...wait a second, come back. Named Finn Earl whose mother Liz (Diane Lane) is a booze-and-drug-addicted masseuse. His father is a famous anthropologist named Fox Blanchard who...hold on a minute, would you? Named Fox Blanchard, who we see via "archival footage" played by Dirk Wittenborn himself. Blanchard made a famous documentary about an especially fierce (have you clued into anything significant yet?) native tribe of South America; Finn has long been fascinated by this film, and his father, whom he's never met. One summer, all the ducks have lined up and it looks like Finn is going to get to travel to South America and visit his dad when he gets busted attempting to procure drugs for his mom. This incident urges Liz to clean up her act, and legally and financially the two of them are rescued by a very wealthy benefactor, one of Liz's clients, named Ogden Osbourne...I wish you'd at least hear me out.

Osbourne (Donald Sutherland) lives on a vast expanse of land, in a massive estate, on the grounds of all of which live many people, family and employees and the families of employees, and he offers one of the homes to Liz and Finn. Liz accepts, the idea being that she's going to be working for him as his personal and exclusive masseuse. Finn, meanwhile, is free to essentially gallivant about in various teenager ways, meeting along the way such eccentric characters as Jilly (Paz de la Huerta), his and Liz's teenage maid; Maya Langley (Kristen Stewart) and her brother Bryce (Chris Evans), two of Osbourne's grandchildren; and Whitney (Jeff Westmoreland), a mentally handicapped man who exists in the film to be somehow both enigmatic and completely ignored, to provide the solution to the film's big mystery in the only way a mentally handicapped person in a film can do such a thing, which is to say "poignantly," and to be referred to by Finn, our hero, as a "retard," though the effect this has on the story as a whole was perhaps unintended by the filmmakers. Then again, Finn is a genuine little shit to his mom regarding her attempts to get sober (not, please note, regarding her being a cokehead at the time when she was a cokehead), and we're evidently meant to read this as an example of a refreshingly idiosyncratic and loving mother-son relationship, so who the hell knows what Dunne and Wittenborn thought they were up to?

Finn falls in love with Maya and becomes good pals with Bryce. And this kid, this Bryce, he's a real wild card: born rich but disdainful of the wealthy hypocrites who surround him, he's capable of tearing a person to shreds with his words, you see, but he's usually doing that to rich assholes so we admire him. These relationships, as well as Liz's romance with a local doctor (Christopher Shyer) known to the Osbourne family and how this is viewed by Osbourne himself, form the crux of the film's loose plot. The idea is really to, well, listen, I'm just going to say it straight, to tear the lid off the lives of the super rich in America and to contrast them with crazy South American natives -- please notice how intricately the theme of "tribes" and "tribalism" is woven throughout Fierce People by having the word "tribe" repeated somewhere in the neighborhood of every sixth word -- so that we might finally ask the question who, really, are the "crazy natives?" Hence that title, Crazy Natives.

As a film, as, you know, cinema, Fierce People is undistinguished apart from the fact that it feels slightly out of time, though I guess it wasn't. I looked up what other films came out in 2005, to see if they all seemed like they should have come out in 1997, and in fact many did. White Noise and Memoirs of a Geisha and so forth. There was also Munich, which is a film that kind of acts as part of the transition to 2007, which historically now seems like a big deal, but anyhow the point is, in Hollywood the impulse was to cling to something very basic, visually. Fierce People belongs to "The Cinema of Cars Pulling Up in Front of Houses," preferably doing so just as the opening credits end. Which means that the structure of the film's first half or so is neatly mapped out: Something Has Happened, We Must Leave; Here is a Place We Can Go; Here We Are: Oh Boy This is a Weird Place. It's all very easy. You'd have to imagine that for Dirk Wittenborn there's an autobiographical element, as he himself didn't come from money but has, from what I've gathered, spent his life around it. On the website for his most recent book, called The Social Climber's Bible, written with Johnson & Johnson heiress Jazz Johnson, and by the way is anybody else getting tired yet?, Wittenborn describes himself as an outsider (with Johnson being the insider) in relation to the world of the super-rich. That he was able to channel this sense of himself into a pure Hollywood formula is, I don't know what, but it's something, of that I'm almost sure.

Dunne, on the other hand, grew up an insider. His father was Dominick Dunne, best-selling author (and frequent chronicler of high society murder cases), he's the nephew of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and while there was obviously a more literary bent to the high-end life in which he was raised, it was nevertheless relatively high-end. From that perspective, Fierce People comes off as a piece of self-examination and attempt to tear down from the inside. And while I don't believe that having money, even being born into money, which is the secular world's version of Original Sin (or rather, it's one version out of about seven), is a bad thing, I think that as long as we all agree that examining one's life is a good idea, we can also agree that examining one's moneyed life is maybe an extra good idea. So okay. Now what? A Car Pulls Up in Front of a House...

And then after that, eventually, Fierce People goes totally bugshit. Spoiling the plot of Fierce People wouldn't bother me too terribly much -- my only reservation is how much detail do I want to go into. In other words, how much of my own time do I want to spend on this? I guess I'll cut to the chase and say that after a while the fun times Finn has been smugly enjoying begin to sour, and somebody beats him up and rapes him. Who I ask you is the real fierce people and whatnot. Now it's a mystery thriller, this film, although figuring out who did this is probably not so tough. Because the film keeps the identity from the viewer, you're probably not going to think "I bet it's the guy everybody already hates!" And it isn't. In fact I'll tell you who it is, it's Bryce, the Chris Evans guy, the guy who was maybe a little too wild. His reasons for raping Finn are somewhat less clear than his reasons for murdering Osbourne -- by the way, he murders Osbourne -- but we have to get across to the viewer that frankly when you think about it? These super rich people? They're pretty twisted. And also? The South American natives? Even though we judge them? And think that we're better than them? We're really not. And rich people are probably the least better than them than anybody. If you don't believe me, what about that one guy who raped that other guy in Fierce People.

Dunne's work as a director of suspense sequences and fight scenes is largely of the template variety. If Fierce People becomes weird, that's only because the story is uncontrolled loony toons -- as a film it remains leaden. Which helps to make it weirder, I guess, but not in any way that's interesting. The film goes where it goes because I think Wittenborn didn't believe readers or film audiences would hang around to watch his weak-ass anthropology pun unless things turned violent at some point. But in the end we know who are the real fierce peoples of the world, and everything is good again.
This post has been part of The White Elephant Blogathon hosted this year by Philip Tatler at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket.