Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Resolution #1 - I will watch both Satantango and Our Hitler this year.
Now, did I watch Bela Tarr's 33 hour, or whatever, long masterpiece? I did not. BUT! Did I watch Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's surrealist, psychadelic and kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of German fascist history?? Also no. For all I know, Our Hitler is the furthest thing from psychadelic, surrealist, or the rest of it. I didn't watch any of it. I never even got disc one from Netflix. Disc one of either film. I didn't even try this one. I thought about it once or twice. I'd think, "Shit, it's only September. I got about four months to watch roughly a day's worth of movies. I got this one. In the bag!" More fool me. We're off to a bad start.
Resolution #2 - I will see more films in the theater this year.
If I only saw three or four movies in the theater in 2008, then yes, I squeaked this one through. Otherwise, I think I matched my record low. This one, frankly, embarrasses me, but I really only go to see films in the theater that I really want to see, and many of those don't hit my town. Plus we have an XBox now, so...
Resolution #3 - I will clean out my DVR.
I did not clean out my DVR. To be honest, this one was never going to happen anyway. The best I could have hoped for was to make a tiny dent in the thing, and that I accomplished, in a sense. I did watch Kenji Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin, which I consider a major victory. I'd had all four hours of that thing in my DVR for well over a year, and one long weekend I knocked it out. Of course, I filled it back up with other movies, most of which I haven't watched (though some I have, so the tiny dent remains), but the main goal is to watch the oldest stuff. And The 47 Ronin (which, for the record, I liked well enough, but I probably won't be buying the action figures) took up a lot of room, having been aired on IFC or Sundance in two parts. In that same vein, I still have parts one through three of Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases floating around in the DVR. And if I'm being really honest with myself, like I sit myself down in a chair, spin another chair around backwards so I can fold my arms over the back and look myself straight in the eyes, I'd say to myself, "You are never going to watch all three parts of The Tulse Luper Suitcases. You should just delete them and free up the space. For Christ's sake, have you ever seen a Peter Greenaway movie?? Why don't you just put a gun in your mouth now!?"
So that's if I was honest with myself. But they're not available on DVD!! This is the only way I can ever see them! And what if they're really good and don't give me a giant motherfucking headache!? Because, you see, I'm of two minds about this.
Resolution #4 - I will watch more of the films I bought on DVD sight unseen.
I haven't done so badly with this one, actually. Of the examples I offered in the original resolutions post, I have watched Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, The Grissom Gang, Lisa and the Devil, Songs from the Second Floor, Army of Shadows and part one of the Pusher trilogy. I've also watched any number of second-rate horror films, and Performance (I'd rather watch the second-rate horror films again, by the way), Combat Shock, and a host of others. And all I resolved to do was "watch more" of them. So, yeah! Check this one off, bitches.
Resolution #5 - I will educate myself on the films of Max Ophuls.
Eh. Sort of, but not really. I finally saw The Earrings of Madame de..., and it was, as you probably know, brilliant. But that's as far as I've gone with this one. If anyone wants to give me advice regarding which Ophuls to check out next, drop a comment, and I shall heed it.
Resolution #6 - I will continue to give chances to Godard and Antonioni.
Godard, yes. Antonioni, no. And I still don't like Godard, other than Band of Outsiders and bits of Breathless, but that didn't stop me from picking up the Criterion of Pierrot le Fou, and I also have First Name: Carmen and Passion sitting in a white sleeve with "Netflix" on it lying around here somewhere. I bet I'll get around to it. Antonioni can just cool it for now. My interests lie elsewhere right now.
Resolution #7 - I will choose one month during which the only films I watch will be film noir.
This one was just stupid. I was never going to do this. I was flailing around, trying to come up with resolutions. I've watched a giant bagful of film noirs (films noir? Crime films?) this year -- The Sniper, The Lineup, The Big Steal, Crime Wave, Decoy, Mystery Street, The Racket, and so on -- so why put the pressure on myself to cram it all into one month? You're being a jackass, Bill. Quit being such a jackass.
Resolution #8 - I will invent a film-related meme.
Nope. I didn't even come close to this. Although it occurs to me that film-blog-type memes, after what appeared to be a never-ending flurry of them in late 2008, into early 2009, just sort of stopped. I guess everybody got fed up with them, and were getting annoyed because somebody tagged them, and then they felt obligated to take part, and who wants to write about dancers anyway?? So skipping this one was probably for the best.
Resolution #9*- I will...um...make a... or no! I'll write a book about...how movies can sometimes...if, you know, if, or I mean unless we watch them with...with, ah, more sophisticated eyes, then we, as a nation -- indeed, as a people -- will...as a people we will...ah...most likely, what will happen is...
Now that one I did.
Okay, well, clearly, that was a roaring success. I'm very proud of myself, and of all of you. Fresh content for the new year is fast approaching, so be on the lookout for whatever that turns out to be.
*Number nine....number nine...number nine...
Monday, December 28, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
"You'd have to feel sorry for the poor bugger," said a police sergeant... "He'll freeze to death."
...at the beginning he'd seemed helpless, weak and passive, looking to her for strength. Then there was a stage when he'd taken over. She'd liked that. To think that George, her bookish husband, was capable of finding ways to keep a gang of ruffians out of their house.
*Just as a by the way, though a possibly unwise one: as I've made clear, I have many problems with Gordon Williams's novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, and apparently so does Fine, who, in his biography, calls it "submediocre". But he also persists in referring to it as The Siege at [sic] Trencher's Farm, and says that in the novel "the timid academic rises to the occasion of defending his home, killing all the attackers in the process". Except that the number of attackers George kills is a big goose egg. I feel as though if Fine hadn't familiarized himself with the novel at the time he wrote about it, then he shouldn't have behaved as though he had.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
So here's the list, some of which I've actually written about in the last year (links provided, of course) with brief commentary. I hate writing these goddamn introductions anyway, so let's do this this thing.
Oh, one more thing -- well, two. First, though I say these are my books of the year, that doesn't mean a single one of these was actually published in 2009. I don't read enough new books in a given year to support such a list, so these are just the best books I read this year, period, regardless of publication date (and frankly, in some cases, regardless of availability). Also, like last year, the only thing about the order that I feel confident about is the ranking of the top two. After that, you could shuffle the order any-which-way.
13. The Mourner by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - The fourth book in Stark/Westlake's utterly satisfying series of Parker novels, The Mourner borrows its structure from The Man with the Getaway Face, a book that came just two books earlier. That structure, roughly, sees Parker stuck in a particularly bad spot, brought about by something no one expected. After that, Westlake backtracks to show you how we got there, and what follows. I think that The Mourner is a bit more successful than its precursor, if only because the catalyst, a slimy little bastard named Menlo, is more hateful than Parker precisely because he thinks he's smarter than Parker. And he almost is, but what's interesting is that Westlake can make two awful people appear unequally awful, only because one of them is such a cool professional. At least Parker cares enough to work at it.12. Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg - Before reading this, quite a few months ago, it had been ages since I'd ready any kind of serious science fiction, and even longer since I'd read, specifically, anything by Silverberg, one of the most important writers to me in my early explorations of that genre. And very quickly, while turning the beginning pages of Tower of Glass, I found myself wondering what in the hell had I been thinking? All those years wasted! Because this novel, about an insanely rich and driven man who works to build a tower tall enough that he'll be able to communicate with other lifeforms (it's much more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be brief) while oblivious to the growing disturbance in the AI community he has created to do his work for him, is the real stuff: a briefly sketched, yet vivid cast of characters, an eye-opening, however dated, look into certain fields of science, social commentary, and great suspense, with a morally uncertain ending, all at something like 170 pages. High-end craftsmanship rarely comes as smart as this.
11. The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I will admit that this cycle of bitterly funny Hollywood stories -- which chronicles the misadventures of a hack screenwriter working under the 1940s studio system, and which Fitzgerald dashed off for quick cash at the end of his life -- loses its edge in the last few stories. But before then, it contains some of his absolute best writing, in stories that are absurd, nasty, mean, and sad. This is Fitzgerald's cult book.
10. Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess - My write-up to this book (clink that link!) shows me more baffled than anything else by Burgess's truly bizarre take on zombies (the virus is spread through language, don't you know), but in the time since reading it, my admiration for this one-of-a-kind horror novel has really grown, not least because I'm grateful simply because the damn thing exists. If Burgess hadn't written this, no one else would have ever considered it, and I think that's quite something to say about any novel, let alone a horror novel. And the film version, called simply Pontypool, which Burgess wrote, and which bears almost no resemblance to the novel, ain't too shabby either.
9. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño - My post on this novel was, like the one about Pontypool Changes Everything, not quite a review, and even today I'm not entirely sure how much I really enjoyed Bolaño's fictional encyclopedia of fascist South and North American writers. A better grasp than I have on South American literary, social and political history would not go unused while reading this, for instance. Still, the sheer inventiveness, and bone-dry humor that Bolaño brings to the table, as casually as you might bring a deck of cards, sure is impressive, and goes a very long way. For me, anyway.
8. The Hustler by Walter Tevis - What can I say about this one? The post linked to is pretty thorough, if I may say so, but I will add that one thing that should no go unnoticed about Tevis's novel is the complete absence of any pose. Tevis was serious about pool, or played that part to the hilt, at least. Books like this, no matter how dark, tend to have a sheen of manufactured coolness about them, of phony manliness. In Tevis's novel, pool was too serious for that, and Eddie and Fats were too complete as people (even if Fats is more legend than man). Anyway, this novel, and the subsequent film, inspired a whole generation of posers and fakers. If you want the real thing, you go to the source.
7. Zeroville by Steve Erickson - I was clued into this novel by Glenn Kenny, who, at various times, marveled at the pure cinephiliac swoon of this dark story about a young man, known as Vikar, who appears in Hollywood in the wake of the Manson killings, with an image from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his bald head. Obsessed with Montgomery Clift, and, as it turns out, a naturally if idiosyncratically gifted film editor, Vikar falls into the world of Hollywood's second Golden Age, meeting all the big names of the time, like Brian De Palma and Margot Kidder and Francis Ford Coppola, and finding a mentor in, of all people, John Milius. The number of film references here is overwhelming, but the dark and sad story is the genuine draw, and is what truly lingers afterwards.
6. The Grifters by Jim Thompson - This is Thompson at his best. He could really be hit and miss, could Thompson, but when he really had a story by the neck, he could sink his readers into the heart of crime fiction like a knife. Because of Stephen Frears's film version (written by Donald E. Westlake), you all probably know the story by now anyway. So now read the book.
5. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. - Do you want to know why I love this book? Okay. Wangerin's cult classic Christian parable, about a rooster and his farm kingdom facing a most hideous evil, does not whitewash or ignore the deep difficulty of life, or the unspeakable tragedy, and it doesn't tell you everything will be okay. And in the form of Wyrm, Wangerin's Satan, and his minion, the dreaded creature known as Cockatrice, Wangerin knows and can speak the language of true earthly and cosmic evil like, quite possibly, no other writer I've encountered:
No longer was Cockatrice's gaze faraway. This, now, was his business. From the top of the Terebinth Oak he watched the slaughter with attention and with cheer. "Children," he breathed over and over to himself. "Ah, my children."
And from below the ground, from within the prison of the earth, there spoke another, greater voice: "Circumpsice, Domine," Wyrm rumbled powerfully, almost peacefully. "Videat Deus caedem meum."
"Let God in his heaven witness all my murder," spoken in the language of the powers.
Passages like that are why I love this book.
4. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene - Speaking of Christian unhappiness, Greene's classic is about the grimmest account of a man finding his faith as you can possibly imagine. His protagonist does find faith at the end, but feels as though he's been defeated as a result. Though it's even more complex than that, as anyone who's read it knows, and I was rather surprised at the limbs Greene climbs out on as the story reaches its climax. It takes guts to lay not just yourself, but your actual narrative, out as unapologetically as Greene does here. Fiercely smart and wrenching.
3. The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford - Charles Willeford is his own thing. I think every genre has a small number of writers working within it who are so unusual, so impossible to predict or imitate, that they are forever relegated to cult status. Horror has its Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti, and the crime genre has (among others) Charles Willeford. Read his Hoke Mosely novels to see how he treated the idea of the series detective, but read his stand alone books, like The Burnt Orange Heresy, to find the fire of true originality burning quietly in a genre whose practitioners too often coast on their influences. A story about art, lost genius, desperation, and, almost incidentally, yet inevitably, murder, this novel also has the virtue of placing you right in the middle of swampy Florida as only he could conjure it.
2. The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore - I read this one more recently than anything else on this list, and it was the topic of my final The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! series. A strange and rich blend of satire, history, and horror, Endore's novel is not like any other horror novel you've read -- I say this with great confidence. Click the link in the title for a fuller discussion, or just read the book for yourself. The latter option is preferable.
1. The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth - I went on a bit of a Roth tear this year, reading something like ten of his novels all told. Many, if not most (if not all) I liked very much, but The Professor of Desire, for me, stands alone. Roth's prose, which is so smoothly readable while containing some rather distressing depths, is at its most confident in this, the second of his weirdly disconnected Kepesh novels (in the first Kepesh novel, The Breast, Kepesh transforms into a giant female breast, and that's the last time in the trilogy you're going to hear about it). Here, Roth exposes Kepesh at his most shameful and weak -- this is the most uncomfortable Roth novel I've read, and that is a pretty tight race, let me tell you -- and also at his most warm-hearted. The blackest of psychological depths, as experienced by all of us, is leavened not only with Roth's humor, which is almost always acidic and not terribly ameliorating, but also with a genuine sense of caring and empathy. The final section, involving a visit between Kepesh and his aging father, is as beautiful and moving a piece of writing as Roth has yet turned in.
That's it, folks! I'm done for tonight, and you all got some reading to do, so go on! Git!
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
So what to do? I don't really want to go on hiatus. I'm afraid either I, or whatever readers I may have acquired, won't come back. So hey, how about this:
That's a cool poster.
But damn it, I just don't know. Is it worth to get something halfway decent up just to keep a blog's momentum rolling? Probably not. A lot of great bloggers are willing to let their blogs lie fallow until they feel they have something of worth to say, and things often work out for them. I'm perhaps too neurotic for that. In any case, don't expect a new post every couple of days, at least not until the doldrums pass. And when I do post, there will probably be a lot of capsule reviews, though I do have one big post planned this month, for a blogathon.
So, er, anyway. Sorry, I guess. But maybe I'll bust through this tomorrow, and everything will be back to normal by the weekend.
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Hills Run Red (d. Dave Parker) - On paper, this one sounds like absolute catnip for me, even though I kind of knew it wouldn't pan. A young guy named Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a lost slasher film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red, directed by a mysterious fellow named Wilson Wyler Concannon (William Sadler), who, following his film's brief theatrical release, and almost immediate horrified withdrawal, disappeared. The film hasn't been seen since, and therefore quite a cult fascination has developed around it. So Tyler, his buddy Lalo (Alex Wyndham), and unhappy, unfaithful girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery) venture out to find Concannon, his film, and produce a documentary about their search. Their one lead is Alexa (Sophie Monk), Concannon's daughter, now a stripper and heroin addict. Apart from the always welcome Sadler, precisely two things about the film work. One is an early line of dialogue, spoken by Lalo to Tyler. Lalo is trying to get past Tyler's bullshit claims about why he's interested in this lost film, and he says, in effect, "All you want to do is show everyone that you're more obsessed than they are." That's a reasonably cutting analysis of a certain segment of fandom, which the filmmakers promptly fail to develop. The second effective moment -- effective in theory more than in reality, to be honest -- is the reaction of one of the characters when he finally gets a chance to view the mysterious The Hills Run Red. This reaction is, again, a fairly pointed swipe at modern horror film violence, and not only our reaction to it, but our intended reaction. But this is all buried in a fairly amateurish bit of moviemaking, where none of the actors (Sadler again excepted) register, and which you realize is actually just a slasher movie, gussied up. The script, by horror writer David Schow, might have gone somewhere had it been run through the typewriter a few times more, but the whole production has the feel of something that someone desperately wanted to have finished and on screen. So inauthentic is the film that at one point, Sophie Monk is shown shooting heroin, and I pointed out to my wife that Monk did not make a believable heroin addict, to which my wife responded, "And when you shoot heroin, I'm pretty sure you don't stick the needle straight into your arm."
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Yowch. Well, I often say that Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink are my #1 and my #2, which I suppose makes the answer Barton Fink. But since I started saying that, their work has just continued to be incredibly diverse and rich. I'll stick with Barton Fink for now, though..
Maybe Days of Heaven, but there are so many, really. The Shining, too. Most of Kubrick, except for 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut, both of which I've seen in the theater. Lawrence of Arabia, too. Hell, I don't know. All of them, I guess.
Ah...Japan, I think. I say Japan primarily because of Kurosawa, who is a very important filmmaker for me, and I don't think there is a French equivalent, at least as far as I'm concerned. But then I remember how drawn to Jean-Pierre Melville I've become, and also of the depth and breadth of French films that I've experienced over the last few years, from Melville and Bresson and the Dardennes brothers and Claire Denis, and so on and so forth. I don't know. I have to stick with Japan for Kurosawa, though, because I grew up with his films, and I feel so close to so many of them.
4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
"You go ask her if she'll eat dog now." Paul Newman in Hombre.
Writing. Strangely, it's also the one that gets the least credit, when you get into the deep-down criticism (unless the director happened to also be the screenwriter) -- a lot of actors complain about writers being "too precious about their words", which implies that the actor saying this believes that whatever they might improvise in place of a given scripted line is automatically better than what the writer came up with. Sometimes it is, probably, but actors aren't writers, and they shouldn't assume that a line isn't written in a certain way for very specific reasons. It would be like saying that actors are too precious about their faces.
6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
I suppose it would have to be Harrison Ford. I was a child of the 80s, after all, and Harrison Ford was fucking it for us. I hardly think I need to tell you why. But it wasn't just because of Solo and Jones, but because of the other, more adventurous films he made in those days, like Blade Runner and even The Mosquito Coast. And even though he looked like a star, he showed fear and normalcy, as well as humor -- he was human. And he got his ass beat so often...he was like a pulp detective. I loved him so much that my parents caved and let me watch my first R rated film (Blade Runner) and what was probably either my second or third, as well (Witness).
And now look at him. Cranky, tacky, arrogant, and he doesn't even make any films halfway good enough to back it up. He's really kind of a turd now, when you think about it.
8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film ? (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
Yeah, every time I take one of these goddamn quizzes.
26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
I feel like there's a good one, right on the tip of my brain, but I can't pull it. But Fargo, particularly that shot of John Carroll Lynch sitting in a warm kitchen eating breakfast, while Frances McDormand heads out into the blue early winter morning, is pretty good. It's good because it gets across a great sense of ordinary coldness, the kind of winter certain people are born into and can put up with. That's hardly ever dealt with at all, let alone with such grace.
31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
33) Favorite movie car chase.
35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
It's an easy answer, but Gary Cooper going out alone, wracked with fear, at the end of High Noon. I love that so much.
45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Boris Karloff spent a lot of time trying to defeat death. Often in his films, leaps in medical technology offered the possibility of erasing death as a biological necessity, or at least a reversal of the aging process to such a degree that a person's lifespan could be doubled. Karloff's involvement in these breakthroughs could range from the driving intelligence to the assistant to the driving intelligence to the guinea pig. Whatever his place, Karloff always, finally, realized that death cannot be beaten, and to even try is an immoral act.
Karloff's career in anti-morbidity began, of course, in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, where he played the stitched-together prototype of immortality to Colin Clive's basically decent, yet deluded, title scientific pioneer. One of Karloff's own first forays into the kind of role Clive portrayed in the earlier film was in Nick Grindé's 1939 The Man They Could Not Hang, in which Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard. Cutting through the script's pseudo-science, Savaard's idea is basically that the heart of a deceased individual, with the kind of medical assistance that includes lots of electricity and beakers, and provided the initial cause of death did not damage the heart, can be restarted, and the deceased can actually be brought back to life. He's attempting to prove this as the film begins, with one of his medical students cheerfully acting as a guinea pig, but he is thwarted by a police raid which has been instigated by the guinea pig's fianceé (and Savaard's nurse), who chose the exact wrong time to turn her private misgivings into action. When the police stop Savaard, he has just killed his assistant, with the intent of bringing him back to life. But the police do not allow him to do this, so the dead stays dead, and Savaard is tried and convicted of murder, sentenced to hang, and hanged. Only, of course, to be brought back to life by one of his partners in science.
Before he's hanged, and before he goes all Dr. Phibes on everybody, Dr. Savaard is given the opportunity to speak in court. Here, Karloff is allowed to rage with moral indignation and frustration at everyone who has allowed the boy to die and condemned him, Savaard, for trying to save humanity from mortality. He tells the judge, the prosecutor, the foolish woman who called the police and ensured the death of her fiancé, that when their time comes, in the moments before they each breathe their last, they will remember him, and what he could have done for them. It is with Savaard's conviction, and with his outraged and bitter words directed at all those who he believes, correctly, to be far stupider than he, that all the love for the human race that might have originally spurred him to pursue his theories, drains away from him forever. When he returns from the dead, he is physically as fit as he was the moment before his appointment with the gallows; however, mentally, even philosophically, he is a changed man. His entire existence at this point is given over to exacting vengeance on everyone he blames for his death.
The thing is, though, now he has proof! His every breath is a slap to the face of the doctors, judges and policemen who laughed at what he claimed were his motives for killing the young man. When presented with this unavoidable proof, each of these men and women is properly thunderstruck, but Savaard does not use this to push his new technology forward. He uses it to mock his enemies, and throw them off-balance long enough to kill them. When his revenge plans inevitably fall short of his ambitions, and Savaard has to use his invention to resuscitate his own daughter before expiring from a gunshot wound himself, his last act with his second life is to destroy all his work so that it can never be reproduced. The last line in the film is delivered to Savaard a split second before he dies, by one of his intended victims: "Why did you destroy it?" No answer is forthcoming, but the only possibility is that Savaard has decided that, outside of his daughter, mankind doesn't deserve what he's offered them.
Had Savaard not been sentenced to hang, but rather given life imprisonment, an imprisonment from which he escaped, would he spend any time seeking revenge, or would he instead retreat to his lab to continue his life's work? Some of Savaard's bloodthirstiness can of course be explained by the gross injustice he suffered, but isn't it also possible that he lost something in the days he spent dead to the world? If a return from the dead is possible, might not something still be lost? In Before I Hang (1940), also directed by Nick Grindé, this question, or some loose variation of it, is also posed. This time playing the far more gentle-of-spirit Dr. John Garth, Karloff is attempting to reverse the aging process. His work, like that of Savaard, is brought to a halt by a death, this time that of an elderly patient. Dr. Garth could not help this man, who was suffering great pain due to his advanced years, so Dr. Garth performed euthanasia. Again, like Savaard, Garth is convicted and sentenced to hang. While in prison, he is allowed to work with the prison doctor, who is convinced that Dr. Garth's new anti-aging, serum-based methods can succeed, and that Garth must be allowed to complete his work. The serum requires blood, and Garth chooses to test the serum on himself, shortly before he's set to hang, using the blood of a recently executed multiple murderer. As it happens, though, Garth's sentences is soon commuted to life imprisonment, which is followed up by a full pardon. As the years Garth has piled up begin to fall away -- he no longer needs eyeglasses, his hair darkens -- he is, like Savaard, walking proof that his crazy ideas aren't so crazy after all. Except that any time he tries to perform his procedure on a patient, he finds himself strangling them to death instead.
Why? Because, in a tip of the cap to the creature's abnormal brain, of the killer's blood now running through his veins. Garth does no choose to murder -- he's overcome by an unstoppable impulse. When he realizes what he's been doing, he begs to be apprehended, even killed himself, so that he won't harm anyone else. His wish is granted, but his work is carried on by his daughter and young apprentice, and the film ends on a note of optimism completely absent from the climax of The Man They Could Not Hang.
Even so, in both films, the best of intentions -- to help mankind live well beyond their natural allotment of years -- results in horror and death. And before Dr. Garth's serum kicks in, both returning Garth to his youth and instilling him with a bloodlust he'd never known before, he spends several weeks in a coma, a condition often referred to as a "living death". Savaard and Garth both return from their graves with a desire to kill that in one case replaces, and in another case betrays, both men's original desire to give life and health to their patients. They don't return from the dead the same men they were when they began that last great journey we will all face, and which we all dread. In perverting nature, the capital N kind, Savaard and Garth also pervert their own private natures, and that piece of themselves that they left behind in their different deaths was their core humanity.
And now look at Karloff in Val Lewton and Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher, from 1945. Five years after Karloff died as the kindly Dr. Garth, he was revived as the cynically and gleefully amoral John Gray, who will do anything to provide his employer, Dr. MacFarlane, with fresh corpses. MacFarlane is a cold man of science who cares only to solve the puzzles that medical science lays before him. He has nothing of the care for mankind shared by Dr. Savaard and Dr. Garth, and Karloff's Gray is amused as he commits the murders that provide the bodies that allow MacFarlane to continue his research. He's further amused by MacFarlane's belief in his own goodness, as well as Gray's essential evilness. Gray knows that MacFarlane is just as nasty and unpleasant a figure, and every bit as culpable in the murders, as Gray himself. Gray also knows where MacFarlane's own brand of medical drive and ambition will lead him. Gray knows how this will end. He's been here before.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
I bring this up now because I'm stumbling across this particular bit of foolishness again and again in connection with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (for the record, I am not personally aware of any film critics who've gone this route in relation to Hillcoat's film, but I've seen it in comments section of blogs and other websites all across this great internet). The specific adaptability of The Road is irrelevent, because the very idea -- that a book cannot be adapted to film because of the author's prose style -- is bullshit almost across the board. Guess what? Nobody's prose gets "adapted" to the screen. What gets adapted, faithfully or not, is character, story, theme, mood, atmosphere, dialogue. It is impossible to adapt prose to film -- a filmmaker can depict what is being described, but he can't depict the description itself.
Adding to the silliness of the idea is that The Road is written in a style far more straightforward than anything else McCarthy has written, outside of No Country for Old Men. Here's an example of The Road's style:
The following day they crossed the river by a narrow iron bridge and entered an old mill town. They went through the wooden houses but they found nothing. A man sat on a porch in his coveralls dead for years. He looked a straw man set out to announce some holiday. They went down the long dark wall of the mill, the windows bricked up. The fine black soot raced along the street before them.
What can't be filmed from that is the deliberately antiquated phrasing of "He looked a straw man...", but you can sure as hell shoot the image described. Talent, or the lack thereof, dictates the rest.
So Cormac McCarthy's prose won't be adapted by John Hillcoat, or anybody else. You know another writer whose prose will never make it to the big screen? Dan Brown. And Stephen King. And James Joyce. And Charles Dickens. And Vladimir Nabokov. And Leo Tolstoy. And Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although Joyce is maybe a bad example, because, for instance, Ulysses (never mind Finnegans Wake) might actually be unfilmable, at least as a whole, since, in that case, many large sections of that novel contains prose that is so baroque that it obscures action to the point of obliteration. Since this is part of the experience of Ulysses, putting the entirety of it on-screen might be impossible. Well, no. Improbable. I'm sticking with the less concrete word, because I could very well be proven wrong some day.
Oh, also, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!