Thursday, July 30, 2009

Robbing Death of All Its Power

One week ago today, my dad passed away, due to a blood clot. The day before, I was told by my brother that my dad's prostate cancer prognosis had changed from roughly six years -- a prognosis that had, until then, remained unchanged since the diagnosis, about a year before -- to six months. Based on that news, my wife and I took that Friday off from work, so we could go visit him. About twelve hours before we were going to get in the car and drive up, my sister-in-law called and told me that he was dead.

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I broke down at the news, of course. I was sitting at my computer when I got the call, and after my wife took the phone from me, I sat there with my head in my hands, sometimes grabbing my hair in my fists. I wanted to throw things, but I didn't. Later that night, trying to find something to occupy my mind, I settled on watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I now acknowledge is a particularly odd selection, under the circumstances. However, the film is so close to perfect that it did do the job that I required of it. A day or so later, one of my brothers told me that on the night he learned of my dad's six-month prognosis, he chose to watch Ikiru. I said, "I can't decide if that's the best or worst possible choice." He said, "Worst."
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* * * *
The first two nights I spent with my family, my brothers and I spent a great deal of time singing old Irish folk songs, primarily songs of Irish rebellion, because those were my dad's favorite. Growing up, we had a record, and later a tape, of the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem full of these songs, and my dad loved playing them for us. As a result, the lyrics of many of those songs have not left us. Those lyrics that did elude us were retrieved from the internet. Of my father's seven sons, two of us (not me) can genuinely sing, and each of them took a solo, one on "Boulevogue" (God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy/And open heaven to all your men) and the other on "The Parting Glass". "The Parting Glass" would later be sung by the same brother at my father's viewing.
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The lot of us sang, together, "The Croppy Boy" and "Nell Flaherty's Drake" and "O Donnell Abu" and "The Foggy Dew" and "Kevin Barry" and "The Minstrel Boy". Most of us can't sing, but we sounded pretty good. At the cemetery, we had a bagpiper, and he played "The Minstrel Boy". I wasn't quite prepared for that.
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* * * *
On Sunday, my wife and I, along with one of my sisters-in-law and her two kids, went to the National Zoo. My nephew really, really wanted to see beavers and otters. When I saw him that morning, as we were preparing to head to the zoo, I asked him, "What animals do you want to see today?" He said, "Beavers!" Like there was no question in the world. Had you asked my wife, she would have said "Pandas!" We did indeed see pandas and beavers and otters. It was a good day. My dad would have liked it.
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* * * *
I was terrified of going to the viewing, because I hadn't seen my dad yet, and seeing him in his casket convinced me that he was, in fact, gone. It had somehow been an easy fact to navigate around in the days leading up to that night, but no longer. I brought him a pack of Vantage cigarettes, which had been his brand for many, many years, until he decided they were too expensive. When I thought my trip to Northern Virginia was going to be a visit with my dad, I had planned on bringing him several packs. My dad smoked until the end, but, though I smoke myself, it was something I never before had wanted to overtly encourage. But it was clear at that point that he'd beaten cigarettes, so I felt that he should have the brand he preferred. He never got them, but I gave them to him anyway.
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* * * *
I was talking to one of my brothers about our dad, and how he raised us. Some old family friends, friends of my brothers and myself, were at the viewing, and many of them talked about how much they'd loved my old man, but were scared of him all the same. So my brother and I talked about how perfectly he walked that particular line. Based on his background, had my dad been a fictional character, he would have been the stereotypical hard-ass, who was either a cold disciplinarian, or perhaps worse. He grew up in an old Irish Catholic coal-mining community that still, to this day, seems to be physically clinging to the 1940s. He left that area and eventually became a Special Agent for the FBI. That was his job for thirty years, and he did it all over the country. He was a damn good agent (as he wouldn't hesitate to tell you, though maybe not in so many words) and a hero, and, by the way, he cut a very imposing figure. He was also the sweetest man I've ever known. My brothers and I weren't hit, by either of our parents, and they both loved to have fun with us, and joke with us. Any fear we felt was a fear of disappointing him. My mom, too. They were both such wonderful people that they set a very high standard of humanity by simply existing.
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* * * *
My dad had a lot of phrases that he liked to repeat to us, for encouragement or instruction. If we came home from school crying because somebody had been mean to us, he would hold us close and say, "Never let the bastards get you down." If, for some reason, he felt the need to talk to us about fighting another kid -- which happened from time to time -- he would tell us that we should never start a fight. Ever. But if we found ourselves inextricably involved in one, he told us that we should always go for the other guy's nose, because that would end the fight right there. He also had the funny quirk of ending every phone message with "Clear", which, I'm told, is an old pre-CB radio sign-off.
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But the best thing my dad ever said to me is something he said to me my whole life. He said, "I don't just love ya. I like ya, too." When I was a kid, I remember being confused by that, because wasn't "love" supposed to be a few steps up from "like"? What gives? As I got a little older, I of course realized that it's possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. As my brother rephrased it, when he and I were talking: "Even if you weren't my son, you'd still be my friend."
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* * * *
The night before the funeral, I went to bed early, but I had trouble sleeping. There were a few reasons for that, but one was that a few of my brothers, my wife, one of my aunts, and two cousins were all downstairs, drinking and laughing, and, in the house where I was staying, sound carries. At the time I was annoyed with them, but I now consider it my own fault. I should have been down there with them. My occasional bouts of loner-ism don't always pay off in my favor.
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Anyway, I was in bed, watching TV, flipping through the channels, and I found a show I'd never heard of before, called Movie Mob. The titular mob is a group of people from around the country who, at the behest of the show's producers, go out and see whatever big movies are opening that weekend, and then record their reviews on YouTube, or something, and send the links to the producers, who then show them to us, the viewer. The viewer, in turn, can get on-line and vote for their favorite, or least favorite, and the least popular member of the mob gets the axe, and can no longer submit his or her film reviews to the show. The films under discussion in the episode I caught were The Ugly Truth and G-Force. In the G-Force review, each member of the Movie Mob at some point offered up their imitation of a guinea pig.
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"Jesus Christ," I thought. "First my dad dies, now this."
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* * * *
In his homily during the church service, the priest said that funerals are important in that they're good at "robbing death of all its power." And indeed they are. They are also, of course, miserably painful, but afterwards you still feel cleansed, if I may be permitted to use that old cliche'. There were two eulogies at my dad's funeral: one from my brother, who talked about how my dad could never enjoy anything fully -- a song, a movie, anything -- unless he could share it with his family. One of my sisters-in-law relayed a bunch of stories about my dad, because, she pointed out -- as though any of us needed to be reminded of this fact -- my dad loved telling stories. The best story she told involved my dad tricking her into watching Patton.
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Both eulogies were funny and sweet and sad and terribly moving. And then we brought the casket to the cemetery and left flowers on it. We cried and said goodbye.
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As the song goes:
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O, all the comrades e'er I had
They're sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts e'er I had
They'd wished me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be with you all
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I love you, Dad.
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Clear.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Taking a Break

I'm going to give the blog a rest, and be largely off-line, for the next several days. I'm with my family, dealing with a bad time. We're getting through it, and I'll be back, I'm sure, before the week's up.

Talk to you all soon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quizmaster

I once told Dennis Cozzalio that when it came to taking his semi-quarterly film quizzes, my reaction was similar to Paul Valery's. "Dennis's film quizzes," Valery said (though I'm paraphrasing slightly), "are never finished, only abandoned." Well, the time has come, once again, to abandon another of Dennis's very thorough quizzes, and the results of said abandonment can be read below.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.

This is tough, because technically I believe 2001 is my favorite, in that I think it’s his best, but The Shining is the one I’m most likely to watch over and over…and indeed I have done so. Which I think would make 2001 my second favorite, since “favorite” and “best” are two different things. But I don’t know. Judges?

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

I think this has been going on for more than a decade, but the trend towards not giving a shit about B genre films. It used to be that good, sometimes great, professional talent would be hired for low budget crime, horror and science fiction films. Professionalism doesn't seem to enter into the equation anymore, let alone talent. If anyone who is perceived -- rightly or wrongly -- to be good at their job, then the genre films they get hired for have to be big summer tentpole wanks. The system that produced movies like Prime Cut is long gone.
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3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

I’ve only seen the Altman film, and that was a long time ago. I must say I wasn’t thrilled with it, though I don’t actually remember disliking it, either. But anyway, I guess Cody/Newman wins by default.

4) Best Film of 1949.

You picked the year that The Third Man was released. Did you mean to choose a different year?

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
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This is the first of many questions on this quiz that I can’t answer, because I haven’t seen either movie. But Jack Benny wins, because he’s Jack Benny.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

Oh, of course. It’s been a clich√© for many years now.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

I have no idea. Probably Seven Samurai, though. Kurosawa was pretty much the first foreign-language director I paid attention to.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

See? Another one. Can you believe I’ve never seen a Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto film? Isn’t that awful? But Peter Lorre wins because he’s Peter Lorre.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

Ouch. I’m tempted to go with an easy one, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is probably what I’ll go ahead and say. I was big on POW films for a while, and still kind of am. My brother always wondered why, and I didn’t really have an answer then, but now I’d guess it has something to do with “triumph over adversity”, as well as sticking it to those Axis rats. Of course, Bridge on the River Kwai is a bit more complicated than that, as far as the “triumph over adversity” part goes, but the Axis rats still have various things stuck to them, so it evens out.

10) Favorite animal movie star.

Snoopy.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

The time those parents let their kids take that other kid out of the house and make him "walk the plank" off the backyard pool's diving board, and he ended up getting eaten by the alligator in Alligator. They were probably busy getting drunk and swapping keys.

12) Best Film of 1969.

One Upon a Time in the West

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

Theatrically, it was Public Enemies, which I liked, although I was also slightly disappointed in it in some ways. Mostly small ways, but they added up. But the good stuff lingers in my head more, so that’s a good sign.
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On DVD it was Dr. X, directed by Michael Curtiz. That is one crazy-ass movie, I don’t mind telling you. “Synthetic fffllleeessshhh…”

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

Short Cuts. That was my favorite for a long time, but now it’s taken a back seat to Gosford Park, which I truly think is a full-blown masterpiece. Short Cuts actually might be third, since I watched Nashville again about a year ago, and thought it was damn near perfect. So Nashville and Short Cuts are tied, with a final decision pending.

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?


16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji?
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I can only go by an internet search of what they look like, but Meiko Kaji. She has that certain something. Actually, hold up, I did see Kaji in Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion. So yeah, her. She's hot, and if I wasn't married, hoo boy I wanna tell you, etc.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

Olive, in a walk.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
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Sheesh, I don't know. I feel like I should have a whole difficult list to choose from, but either I don't, or my brain is dead. I did like The Funhouse, though. More not-that-great horror movies should be that good.

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

I’d say Zodiac, if I’d seen it in the theater. Public Enemies did impress me on that front, actually, so I’ll go with that one.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Unforgiven is way too obvious an answer, isn't it? But that is my favorite, although I'm sort of taking the "deconstruction of the genre" elements on faith, because, while I can see where people are coming from when they make those points about the film, I honestly don't care about that. I think it's the least interesting thing about Eastwood's masterpiece, and I'd wager that Eastwood and company didn't give it much thought, either.

21) Best Film of 1979.

Hanover Street. Okay, no, it’s Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

The depiction of small-town life is one of the things I always liked about Sling Blade. It was honest about the bad aspects without resorting to full-scale condemnation, and it also showed that there was a great deal of warmth and kindness to be found, as well as lawnmower-blade slayings.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

This is at least sort of a horror movie, so cheating or not I'm going with the Angel of Death from Hellboy II.


24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

The Conversation. It’s almost as good as The Godfather.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

I'm going to get yelled at, but Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I liked that movie. I had a damn good time with it. Screw everybody else.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

I’m not the world’s biggest De Palma fan, but he can direct the hell out of a sequence, and my favorite is the first murder in Sisters, with the split screen of the bloody hand clawing at the window on one side, and on the other side that hand seen from across the street by a neighbor, who calls the police. That is really ingenious.


27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

I could pretend to have one, but I don’t, really.

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

I haven't really seen any pure Smithee movies, I don't think. I've only seen the movies that get the Smithee stamp due to TV re-edits, and not even very many of those. So I guess the longer version of Dune is my favorite, even though I don't like it.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

Please. If you give a choice of two, and one of those choices is Walter Matthau, then Walter Matthau automatically wins. That’s, like, just science. If the choice was “Monkeys or Walter Matthau?” or “Tokyo or Walter Matthau?” or “Cheeseburgers or Walter Matthau?” the answer is always Walter Matthau. This is like an IQ test question, and if you don’t pick Matthau, then it proves you’re a dumbshit.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

Bullets Over Broadway. It’s his funniest, that’s for sure.

31) Best Film of 1999.

Magnolia. Still my favorite PT Anderson film, and it still contains one of the most mesmerizing and mysterious openings I've ever seen. Love that film.

32) Favorite movie tag line.

Snuff - "A film that could only be made in South America, where life is CHEAP!"

33) Favorite B-movie western.

Did Budd Boetticher make B westerns? If he did, then The Tall T is my answer.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Wow. Almost everybody who's been adapted on a regular basis has their share of highs and lows. Obviously Chandler had a nice run, as did James M. Cain. God, there's so many. Did you realize this was an impossible question when you asked it?

But I'll say Robert Bloch. He actually hasn't been adapted all that often, but one film -- Psycho, of course -- has made his name live on for decades after it might have otherwise faded into obscurity. This isn't a qualatative judgment, by the way, because Bloch was a very good writer, but lots of good writers are forgotten. However, the day Hitchcock started rolling on his film, Bloch was ensured that every book he published subsequently would have stamped, on the front cover, the words "By the author of Psycho!" I know that's how I first learned about Bloch, and I'm grateful for it.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Susan Vance. That’s one of my favorite comic performances.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

Randy Newman as the Singing Bush in Three Amigos.
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37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
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Neither. “Occasionally funny comedy” would be my description. This stuff is nowhere near as subversive as a lot of people claim.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles, Boris Karloff, Werner Herzog, and Salma Hayek, and I'd like to meet Salma while we were both swimming. And she'd be delighted to meet me. Also, my wife would be totally cool with it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

They Were Five Ordinary Guinea Pigs

So what? Guinea pigs are everywhere. I can't walk down the street without kicking several of them with my boots. Why should I pay my hard-earned money to see a movie about ordinary guinea pigs, no matter how three dimensional the presentation? What could possibly happen to five ordinary guinea pigs that could make a film about their lives worth even a minute of my time? Because frankly, I'm fed up with non-sassy talking animals. If they can't show me some urban attitude, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing all of our universal foibles, then why are they even talking? I was at the zoo last week, and I saw this zebra. The zebra was watching this human couple on the other side of his pen having a fight, and the woman was getting all mad, and she said, "Well you can just let her learn to make an omelette!" And then she threw her soda at the guy. So I'm watching the zebra, because I want to hear the zebra say, "Oh no she didn't!" or "They should see my therapist!" If I'd said something like that, or some other human passer-by had, it wouldn't have been a big deal. But to hear a zebra say it, well, that would have made my week. I mean, because he's a zebra. So I'm waiting, and I'm watching the zebra, and then the zebra looks at me, and he says, "Shit. Why have that conversation in public? Wait until you're in the car, at least."

I was like, "Oh, fuck you, zebra!" and I stomped off. I was so angry. So what I'm saying is, these "five ordinary guinea pigs" don't sound like my idea of a good time at the movies, unless they have something more to offer that I'm not aware of.

Oh...oh my! Eight tickets please!!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't Be Shy!

Head on over to Ed Howard's place at 10 AM EST and join the discussion about this month's TOERIFC film, Paul Verhoeven's Black Book!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Talk About Your Missed Opportunities


Watching Terence Malick's Days of Heaven again, for the first time in a while, I was reminded of this exerpt from an interview with film composer James Horner, regarding Horner's work on Malick's The New World:

I would sum up Terry as a brilliant photographer - and that's where it stops. The images in The New World are stunning, in Thin Red Line are stunning. In Thin Red Line he was surrounded by a couple of three or four people, a wonderful editor, a wonderful sound effects person who guided him through the dubbing and a couple of other people. And on The New World they were not employed. And Terry shot The New World and the whole idea of The New World was going to be a love story between John Smith and Pocahontas. And there is no reason in the world why it could not have been as great love story as Titanic was.*

I know! If only, right? Why can't Terence Malick, a filmmaker whose head is full of poetry and images and who is willing to follow his story where it leads him, instead of dragging it, spitting and kicking, after him be more like James Cameron, whose head is full of technology, and who would probably fire half his crew if anything ever happened on one of his sets by accident. With Days of Heaven, Malick takes his story, which is at root a potboiler, and makes it Biblical. With Titanic, Cameron took tragic history and turned it into television.

Okay, I thoroughly dislike Titanic. I understand that many people like it, and I'd rather not fall into the trap set up by Horner, intentionally or not, of comparing and judging one filmmaker against another, especially as the two have almost nothing to do with each other. But isn't it interesting that Horner seems to think that The New World would have been better had it been more like a film that had already been made (a film for which Horner's score won an Oscar, not incidentally)? What a blinkered view of film he must have, and how interesting that the opinion comes not from a studio suit, but from someone on the creative side of filmmaking. This also reminds me of something Owen Gleiberman said in his review of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which was, roughly, that he expected Anderson to be able to make a really wonderful film some day, if he could just stop being Wes Anderson. In other words, if only he'd subsume himself into the machine. Let your instincts and point of view fall away. Don't make the films you want to make -- make the films I want to see. And that's a film critic talking, folks, but it's the same thing with Horner and Malick. Gleiberman wants Anderson to lose his individuality, and Horner wants to write the score for a movie that's just like that other movie he wrote that other score for. You know the one. It's where Leonardo DiCaprio teaches Kate Winslet how to spit, and then he falls off a boat.

Perhaps I'm making far too much of these couple of quotes, but Days of Heaven is such an original, beautiful and haunting movie that Horner's belief that Malick would be a better filmmaker if he'd just model himself on the guy who wrote a scene in one of his movies where a big robot asks a teenager what crying is, really and truly fries my ass. He said it three years ago, and I'm still chapped about it. That's what seeing Days of Heaven again for the first time in about ten years will do to you. It instantly makes you the enemy of anyone who has ever said a word against Terence Malick.

So watch it, you!



*This is from an audio interview, all the links to which seem to be dead now, though if you do a search for "James Horner interview Malick", you'll find plenty of references to it. In any case, I came across the transcipt portion quoted above some time ago here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Separated at Birth


I can't be the only one who's thought this. Both are also well known as staples of film noir, and for their similar political stances. I've been watching a lot of crime films lately, and I can't figure out why they were never cast as brothers.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is Knowing All That Bad?

I submit that it is not.

Famously, Roger Ebert appears to be the only major critic who not only praised Alex Proyas's film, but vigorously defended it. Having now seen the film for myself, I'm tempted to say that Ebert went a little far, but who cares? Knowing got slammed by pretty much everybody else, critics and public alike, though beyond a certain sappiness in the last chunk (said sappiness stemming from an implication of what will happen some years after the film has ended that is hard to not be a little put off by -- see the film and you'll know what I'm talking about) I cannot figure out what in the world is supposedly so bad about it.

The story is thrilling and mysterious, and kicks off in a very intriguing manner: fifty years ago, a young girl puts a piece of paper, on which she has written a series of numbers, into her class's time capsule, which is unearthed during the present day by a new class, and the student who ends up with the numbers is the son of a widowed atrophysics professor played by Nicolas Cage. Certain mind-boggling coincidences lead Cage to believe the numbers predict major disasters, culminating, he comes to believe, in the end of the world.

This is a science fiction disaster film, like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day, but it's distinguished from those two by not sucking, and by having a brain in its head and sense of conviction about its themes, among them being religious faith and the nature of the universe. It's an Apocalypse film that realizes that the Apocalypse -- religious or man-made or plain old shit luck -- is kind of a big deal.

Is that the problem so many people have with Knowing? That it's sincere? I'm inclined to think so. That's not to say that there is no room for legitimate criticism to be directed towards the film, but Ebert seems to have been the only guy to engage with the film seriously. Every other reference to the film I've seen has been casually brutal and dismissive. But Knowing, like Deep Impact, is genuinely interested in the implications of its story, and the Irwin Allens and Roland Emmerichs and Michael Bays are not. I honestly feel like that puts some people off. Also like Deep Impact, Knowing takes its disasters seriously, and doesn't treat them as eye candy, or even as things that can be stopped. Both films also attempt to deal with the grief and horror that follow. Popcorn films aren't supposed to make you feel bad.

I suggest that anyone who hasn't read Ebert's review, or his blog post, on this film do so. I'm not convinced that Proyas was as successful with this film as Ebert says, but Ebert has without question dug out what Proyas's intentions were, and nobody else seemed to care to do so. More importantly, though, give Knowing a chance. I don't claim that this is a great film, and I don't believe that every single person reading this is going to even like it that much. But I happen to think it's pretty good, and that it deserves a shot. Knowing is trying something.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Hurried Feeling Encased His Groin

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[This post is part of The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg of Cinema Style]

There's no point in lying about this -- when you pick up a novel written by Ed Wood, you want it to be terrible. Not just bad, because that it will achieve this at minimum is a given, but awful to the point of hilarity. You want lines on par with "Modern man is a hard working human" from Glen or Glenda, or "You know, it's an interesting thing when you consider: the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot — the dead" from Plan 9 from Outer Space to litter every page. So if the resulting reading experience is unsatisfying on that level, without actually being any good at all, what are you left with? More specifically, what am I left with, because I'm the guy in the hot-seat.
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The book I'm trying to not talk about too specifically is Ed Wood's Killer in Drag. It's an utterly bizarre and slapdash piece of work, but as a piece of prose I can honestly say that I've read worse. It's completely undistinguished, and when Wood does shoot for poetry you get lines like the one I've used for this post's title. Generally, though, the writing is very workmanlike, forgettable...which I certainly can't say about the writing showcased in his films. Why is that? It's a question I've been wrestling with, and I actually think I have an answer, but before I get to that, let's look at Killer in Drag's story, because that thing sort of is a humdinger.

Glen is a hitman. Or, rather, his female personality, Glenda, is a hitperson. This proclivity of Glen's is favored by his mob employers, presumably because it aids in keeping his identity a secret. When Glen gets a job, he dresses as Glenda, goes to a nearby bar, and gets his orders from a skeevy little low-level mob thug called the Mouse, and then he goes and does it. Glenda, it's worth noting is apparently fall-down gorgeous, and not only can no man tell that she's not actually a woman, but they all seem to fall instantly and hopelessly in love with her. Glenda accepts this as natural, and even takes pity on these poor guys on occasion. In this passage, she's just shared an elevator with the elderly operator:

The little man appeared to be gasping for air. Glenda felt sure this little man would retire to the men's room in the basement for several moments as soon as he could get clear of his elevator; so she kissed him quickly on his high forehead, leaving a big red smear of lipstick. She felt sure her kiss, and its remaining imprint, would help him later in what he would have to do.

Moving on rapidly, Glenda's first job in the book is to try to extract, from a poor old deli owner named Greenbaum, the money owed by the old man to the mob. Greenbaum doesn't have it, so Glenda guns him down in cold blood, and steals every cent she can find from the store. This isn't to pay of the mob, but to keep for herself, so that one day she can get out of this miserable racket.

Later, she goes to see Dalten van Carter, and rich and elderly homosexual. Glen/Glenda is basically angling for this guy to become his sugar-daddy, despite the fact that, while Glen will have sex with men, it seems reasonably clear that he'd rather not. This is a strange aspect of the book, though what it means, or doesn't, about Wood's own life is something I neither know nor care about. But later, Glen will have sex with another transvestite, and what little description we get has a grubby tinge to it, which is missing from Glen's relationship with a female hooker named Rose.


But I'm getting quite a bit ahead of myself. Van Carter is not destined to be Glen's savior, because before too much can happen between them, one of Van Carter's jilted lovers bursts in and murders him. Glen is helped to escape by a servant, who we later find out is also murdered, which is a shame because he was the only witness. And Glen left behind his purse, which has his ID. The ID is for Glen, not Glenda, but he doesn't imagine it will take the police too long to piece things together and wrongly blame him for Van Carter's death. Clearly, Glen has to blow town and never look back. So he buys a carnival.

Again, I'm getting ahead of myself, but that is what he does. He winds up in a town that is currently being visited by the carnival, and finds himself pressed for his biography by a couple of corrupt cops named Ernie and Mac. To get them to leave him alone, Glen claims to work concessions at the carnival, and decides to make that lie the truth by getting a job at J.M. Greater's Greater Show Attractions, which must be the shittiest name for a carnival I've ever seen. Glen can't get a job, but as it happens the owner is looking to sell, and there you have it. Then Glen meets Rose the hooker, the two of them fall in love, and then the next morning four people die in a carnival accident/brawl/murder. Mac and Ernie, who've already hit Glen up for payoffs to overlook certain non-regulation rides and performances (mocking the carnival's bad luck with weather lately, Mac -- employing everything Ed Wood knows about how bad guys talk -- says "Yeah -- that's right, Ernie. Until tomorrow. Just thought of somethin'...Maybe the sky, tomorrow, will let us wait until midnight to collect our -- rent") now demand five grand in order to get Glen off of negligent manslaughter charges. They give him two hours to raise the money, during which time Glen discovers that he has no insurance for the accident, and is informed by Rose that Ernie and Mac will never just let him off scot-free. So Glenn tries to skip town dressed as Glenda, but Ernie and Mac catch on to his little game, and chase after him, but it's okay, because they get hit by an enormous truck and die.

The morality of this book is a mite skewed, one is tempted to say. Remember, very early in the book Glenda ruthlessly and coldly murders an old man because he didn't have enough money to pay off the mob. From that point until the end, we're meant to pity him because being a transvestite is pretty rough-sledding. I don't doubt that, but need Wood be quite this glib?

"...I'm wanted for murder back east."

She gulped.

"I didn't do it. But I can't prove it. The only witness other than the murderer was also killed. Do you see why I can't be taken into custody?"

"Oh, my darling."

"And now do you see why I can't take you with me -- not like this. I've got to travel alone and fast."

"I understand now, dearest...And I believe you incapable of murder."

"I wouldn't quite say that. But I'm innocent of what they want me for. Mac and Ernie were out there."

"The lousy bastards."

Are we really supposed to feel all the sympathy we normally would for a man wrongly accused just because the man in question, while guilty of any number of previous murders, doesn't happen to be guilty of the specific murder he's being hunted for? I'm afraid my heart ain't that big.

Then again, I could be judging too quickly, because the final chapter describes the Mouse, Glen's old contact, giving orders to a new hitman -- another tranvestite, this one apparently less successful in his appearance, named Pauline (and the Mouse is so stupid that he actually has to ask Pauline what her "boy name" is) -- orders which will send him to Los Angeles. When Pauline asks who her target is, the Mouse replies "One of your own kind, doll..." Which, if I'm connecting the right dots, should lead readers right into Death of a Transvestite, the sequel to Killer in Drag, and maybe Wood has a whole reap-what-you-sow finish for his story. I don't know, but as it stands, Glen is actually the worst human being in the whole book.

As for the prose, well, you can probably tell for yourself that it doesn't exactly soar, but it's also not quite embarrassing. However, it's also fairly boring, which is far worse than what I'm used to from Wood. My theory is that, despite the cross-dressing element to the story, Wood didn't really pour his heart and soul into this book. I've heard he wrote novels to make quick money, so he more than likely just dashed them off without much thought. He dashed off his scripts, too, but I think, because film was what he really cared about, he took his scripts far more seriously. The films were his statement, and were to be, and are, his legacy. When he didn't care about the work, it comes off flat and without style. The writing is servicable, barely, but forgettable. When he did care, though, that's when Wood failed spectacularly, and that's the great joy and poignancy of the man and his work. He aimed for the clouds, and flamed out on the tarmac. But he did take aim.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Oh My...

Here's a passage from Ed Wood's novel Killer in Drag to increase your excitement over the full upcoming post on the book I guess I'll have to write because I said I would:

A moment later Glenda stepped out of the bushes. She went to the fallen man and roughly stripped him of his long underwear and with the overalls she rolled them up in a ball and took them to the car where she threw them on the floor in the front. Then she went back to the fallen man. She stripped off her own panties, urinated in them and threw them across the man's face.

"At least you'll come out of it with the smell of things," laughed Glenda. "Dry them out and maybe you'll get home somehow. You filthy bastard."

So then. That's how it's going to be, I guess. Not exactly what I signed on for, but them's the breaks.

Oh, and no, I have no idea what "dry them out and maybe you'll get home somehow" means, either.

[This has sort of been a part of The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg of Cinema Styles]

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ed's Hollywood: Trouble, Problems, Heartaches

[This post is part of The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg of Cinema Styles]

I believe the first time I learned that, in addition to writing and directing all those films that mean so much to all of us, Ed Wood also wrote a number of books, was one day in college, while spending my lunch break leafing through Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstacy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. As I remember it, that book gave a pretty detailed rundown of the several dozen novels, and occasional work of non-fiction, that Wood churned out, beginning, for all intents and purposes, in 1963 (years later, I also read an even more thorough look at this side of Wood in an article published in Outre magazine, and though I'm not entirely sure, since it's been a number of years and I no longer have the actual magazine, I believe that same article can be read here). It was then that I discovered that the gentle soul behind Bride of the Monster also wrote books with titles like To Make a Homo, Death of a Transvestite, Night Time Lez, The Sexecutives and Forced Entry.

That list of titles should give you a pretty good idea of what you'd be getting if you chose to actually purchase, sit down, and read one of Wood's books. "Lurid" doesn't seem to quite cover it. "Sleazy" is probably a better word, although the cost of a used copy of most of these titles is so prohibitive, the majority of us are going to have to live with only an assumption of their contents. Ah, but note that I said "most of these titles". The "good" news is that a handful of Wood's books have been reprinted in recent years (although, sorry, Raped in the Grass remains out of print), and so far I've been able to track down Wood's first novel, Killer in Drag (originally published as Black Lace Drag), Death of a Transvestite, Devil Girls, and Wood's sort-of memoir, sort-of practical guide for young people seeking a life in movies called Hollywood Rat Race. Later this week, I plan on writing up Killer in Drag, but today I wanted to dive right in to the world as Wood saw it. Or, more accurately, pretended to see it.

Written in 1965 (though not published until 1998, or at least so I'm told), Hollywood Rat Race is, as you might have already guessed, an exceedingly strange book. One thing I certainly wasn't expecting was for the book to be close to tedious for almost the first quarter of its 138 pages. There's almost no end to the negative things one can say about Ed Wood's films, but I think it would be hard for anyone to justify calling them dull. But the first two chapters of Hollywood Rat Race (titled, respectively, "Hollywood and You" and "I'm Ready to be Discovered") detail -- ad nauseum and with a great deal of cynicism, if not plain bitterness -- how close to impossible it is for anyone to make their way in the film business. Focusing on the plight of wide-eyed innocent females, these chapters are full of this sort of thing:

You did not fully realize how much stronger the competition was going to be when you arrived in Hollywood only partly prepared for it. Ten thousand newcomers a year, just like you, just as handsome or pretty, and just as talented, come to Hollywood, and all looking for the same job -- yours!

And on and on with this stuff. The "You" character in the first chapter is an aspiring actress (or actor) who was trained to regard performing as their calling through high school theater work. In the second chapter, the "You" character just won a beauty contest, and one of the prizes was an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood. Other than that, the two chapters are essentially identical. In fact, Wood ends chapter one with a not-very-convincing "Good luck to you!", and chapter two with a similarly dubious "Hope springs eternal." After that, though, we get to the good stuff, in that Wood begins to drop names, relate hard-to-swallow anecdotes, and, I'm convinced, slowly go mad.
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When I say Wood drops names, I mean he drops names like "Rory Bancroft" and "Kenne Duncan". About Kenne Duncan, Wood says:

Kenne has been a villain to almost every cowboy hero you see in Westerns on film or television. At the end of the picture, he is always outdrawn by the hero -- shot down and killed where he stands.

In reality Kenne is one of the best trick shots in the world. While his films show him as the villain who couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, his nightclub and carnival acts depict a different story. For this stereotyping, Kenne should hate movies.

His seven-thousand-dollar house car and his eight-thousand-dollar Higgins yacht tell us differently... Who can hate the business that loves you and rewards you.


There are two things worth talking about in that passage. One is the fact that, while it might be tempting these days to laugh a little at the air of grandeur Wood is blowing around Kenne Duncan (who appeared in Wood's Night of the Ghouls and The Sinister Urge), Wood shows a very admirable sense of loyalty towards his friends here. What he's doing is using the life of Kenne Duncan as an example of a successful film/show business career. Which, in practical terms, is probably a fair argument. Duncan worked pretty steadily from 1928 until about 1965, and racked up, as Wood points out, about 300 film and TV credits. It ain't necessarily stardom, but it still puts Duncan well within the successful minority of Hollywood actors.
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One of the things that Wood wants to drum into the neophyte actors and filmmakers he imagines will be reading this book is the importance of character actors in the film business, and the need for young actors to have a broad skill-set. And, he points out, you acquire such a skill-set by doing the work, and by apprenticing yourselves to those who've already been there. To illustrate his point (which no one can claim is a bad one), Wood offers this example:

The atomic bomb didn't just happen. Many people of many trades, skilled people of long apprenticeship and longer study were commissioned for such a magnificent undertaking. Of the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people who could have liked to work on such a project, the men and women whose names you read in the newspapers were chosen because they have their trade well in hand. They knew it and they lived it, they are their trade. Just imagine what would happen if one person were permitted to cut in line, got the job, but couldn't handle it. He makes an error and the scene is spoiled. I wonder how we'd reshoot the atomic bomb dropping.

Far-fetched? Think about it!

The other thing you might be wondering about while reading that passage about Duncan is, "Why is Wood talking about hate? Who ever said anything about that?" Well, the passage comes from a chapter entitled, in fact, "Hate", which is all about how angry Wood gets when he hears people run down the film business. He claims that these people are everywhere, and that what these people do (he actually calls them "haters") is pump up the "New York Stage" as the haven for real actors and actresses, and they announce these beliefs at such a volume that they cannot be ignored. Wood continues:

Yet I don't even care to ignore them -- I want to know these "haters". I want to know who they are with their big mouths and their small ideologies, so I won't have to hire them for my films. You'd be surprised as to how man other directors and producers feel as I do.

And who are these ignorant big mouths who wish to tear Hollywood down? Ed Wood has a theory.

Perhaps a bunch of Communists? They seem to infiltrate everything with their hate campaigns. But if people have been hating Hollywood since movies began, then how could it be a communist-inspired phenomenon? I didn't say it was communist inspired, I said "perhaps".

So I guess he's not so sure. He thought he probably had it figured out, but then he gave it a bit more thought, and now he's reconsidering.

One of the other really fascinating chapters in the book is called "Nudie Cuties". In it, he claims to be relieved that the film made from his script Orgy of the Dead turned out so well, and he also offers this picture of the streets of Hollywood that all you small-town types had better get used to if you plan on trying to make a life there:

Even some of the boys have taken to wearing light pink lipstick while the girls have eliminated that cosmetic. But isn't this, then, show biz? Hollywood is not as the fan magazines attempt to paint. You'd be surprised how many of the boys prefer girl's [sic] clothes and the girls who prefer boy's [sic] clothes! And I mean big stars, directors, producers, and writers!

Ahem. I don't know what Wood means when he says "But isn't this...show biz?", because I don't think that's what showbiz is, actually, but as for the rest of it...what's he up to? Is he in some kind of mad denial about himself? That's how I initially read it, but now I think there's at least a fair chance that this was a sort of private joke for himself and his friends. I hope that's what he's doing, anyway. Otherwise, this passage would seem to indicate that his mind was slipping a little, if not into madness, than at least into self-hatred.
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But who knows what was going through Wood's mind as he wrote this book. His attitude to Hollywood and the film business seems to fluctuate from a kind of frustrated anger, in the early chapters, to an all-encompassing love, especially for those, like himself, who existed on the fringe. His lessons for the reader range from good, practical sense to flippant and lazy (on writing, Wood says at one point "Oh, I suppose a certain command of the language is advisable"). And to say he gets distracted away from his various points is not exactly to criticize Hollywood Rat Race, but rather to highlight why it's worth reading. I've let Ed Wood do most of the talking in this post, and I'll now give him the last word. This is from the very end of the book, in a chapter called, simply, "Hollywood", in which he complains that these days (in 1965), things in Hollywood just aren't as good, aren't as fun, as they used to be, and his beloved town is on the skids (he spends the first couple pages of the chapter complaining about the sorry state of modern parades). At the end, just a paragraph or so from the book's end, he says:
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The city fathers, the Chamber of Commerce, the councilmen and civic beautification organizations are trying to do something to improve Hollywood's glamor rating, but it takes a long time. Recently an organization planted a few trees along Hollywood Boulevard, but it will take many years before any one of those trees gives shade to the midget who touts the Hollywood Wax Museum, which by the way is a very fine show.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I Almost Forgot to Tell You Guys!

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, which celebrates the anniversary of the day the United States officially gained its independence from Hawaii. Queen Liluokalani never knew what hit her.

This is a holiday where I come from (Virginia), so I'm going to take the opportunity to enjoy that time away from this cursed blog, which might be counted as a shame -- although that's almost certainly not the case -- because today I saw Michael Mann's Public Enemies, and due to the holiday I have no plans to write about it. Part of my indifference to that task stems from the fact that, while I did indeed like the film -- at times, very much -- it left me without a great deal to think about. At this moment, I kind of feel like Public Enemies, as the English say, does what it says on the tin. It's too early to say how tenaciously the film will cling to my brain, but if I do eventually find a level of greatness in it, more than likely this blog will have moved on by then, and that's a loss we'll have to share together.
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I will say that Mann's choice to shoot on HD video jarred me once (in a scene towards the end featuring Marion Cotillard alone in her apartment -- the screen image was filled with a kind of too-modern grain, if that makes any sense), but was otherwise quite striking, especially in a beautifully crisp night-time shootout involving Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Also, the highlight of the film, for me, was Agent Winstead, played by Stephen Lang.
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That's Lang above. I've admired him for years, but I know very little about the guy. However, after seeing him in Public Enemies, I'm going to assume that his middle initial is "M.", and on his birth certificate his last name is italicized. Which means his full name is Stephen Motherfucking Lang. That's how I'm going to think of him from now on, anyway.
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So have a happy Fourth, all my American brethren, and, to everyone else, have a plain ol' good weekend.

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Oh, and PS! When I return on Monday, it will be with a post for Greg's (of Cinema Styles fame) Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, which lasts from July 6 through July 12. Please join him, won't you?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Affinity #14

Well, I just hate you, and I hate your ass face!

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