Monday, February 27, 2012

Off the Shelf #3

Cornell Woolrich is one of the more unusual writers of the pulp crime era. My understanding of his life is that he was a deeply unhappy, closeted homosexual who lived most of his life with his mother, and spent much of that life cranking out, as most pulp writers did, dozens of novels over the decades, many of which are forgotten, with others managing to cling to some level of respect and recognition. This was helped by some of his work being adapted into famous films, most notably his short story "It Had to Be Murder", which was transformed into Rear Window.

It hardly begins and ends there, however. I admit, I've only read, along with a small handful of his short fiction, two Woolrich novels, Rendezvous in Black and the deeply bonkers, as well as deeply ambitious and psychologically withering, Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Woolrich wrote a number of books which are now referred to as his "black series," and I remember thinking, as I read Rendezvous in Black that the structure was so ingenious, that it was surprising that nobody had thought to rip it off yet. The idea is basically that a man lost the woman he loved in a freak accident (improbable ways of dying seem to be a common theme in Woolrich; this could be read as Woolrich regarding death, the fear of which is thick in his work, or at least what I've read of it, as absurd. This itself implies that Woolrich not only feared death, but loathed it) -- the responsibility for that accident can be laid on the doorstep of a group of men whose carousing led, wildly, to the woman's death. The man, in a fevered, but somewhat calculated madness, sets about exacting revenge on the men one by one, and the novel -- this is the ingenious part -- takes the structure of a series of connected short stories, each describing the life of the victim, and the day on which he meets his end.

I have quickly picked up on the possibility that structure is something of a big deal with Woolrich (Night Has a Thousand Eyes basically begins with a massive, novella-length chapter that sets everything up, and continues with a series of much shorter chapters that move the pieces around until the inevitable-after-the-fact climax), so I was rather taken aback to realize, very early into my current reading of his 1940 novel The Bride Wore Black, that the structure of the book was basically identical to that of Rendezvous in Black, which was published in 1948. That structure being very particular, I have no choice but to assume the plot will follow suit. There are other indicators beyond structure in The Bride Wore Black that this will be the case, but if memory serves the reveal of the motivation behind the murders in Rendezvous in Black comes very early in that novel, maybe even right at the beginning, and this hasn't happened in Bride, so I guess we'll see. In any case, if I didn't know any better I'd think that Woolrich's "black" novels had not only that title color in common, but also that they were all the same book. Except I know that another book, Black Alibi, served as the basis for Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's The Leopard Man, so I'm going to go ahead and assume this isn't the case.

Anyway, regardless of how it all plays out, The Bride Wore Black (which was adapted by Francois Truffaut in 1968) strikes me as thus far significantly better than Rendezvous in Black, just on a basic writing level. I'm in no position to analyze why this might be, not least because I read Rendezvous a very long time ago, but another interesting thing about Woolrich is that he started his writing career trying to emulate F. Scott Fitzgerald, and only turned to crime and suspense fiction when he failed to set the world on fire in his chosen mode. I don't know that this was a strictly commercial-oriented decision on his part, but either way he certainly seemed to take to the genre. It does seemed to have matched view of the world.

In closing, though, I'd like to note that it's not all despair and sad-sackery in Woolrich's fiction. There's life in it, not just death, and even some level of post-modern laughter. Early in The Bride Wore Black, a character named Ken Bliss (not long for this Earth, to be sure) reacts to some surprising news, and Woolrich describes the reaction, and in his own way -- and this is the point -- reacts to the censorship and publishing restrictions of the day, like this:

"Well I'll be a -- " Bliss said. He went ahead and said what it was he would be.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Off the Shelf #2

I am writing only for my shadow, which is now stretched across the wall in the light of the lamp. I must make myself known to him.

Everything I know about The Blind Owl author Sadegh Hedayat is that he wrote The Blind Owl and, in 1951, on a trip to Paris, he committed suicide. Without knowing that last bit, simply reading the first thirty-odd pages of this very slender novel would have put into my head the idea that his end was most likely self-inflicted. It is hopeless and despairing and bizarre from page one, and so far it reminds me of nothing so much as the short horror fiction of the notably mentally unstable Thomas Ligotti. I doubt very much that Hedayat would have placed his book into that or any other genre; I suspect he regarded it as an accurate representation of his brain. But then, so does Ligotti of his own fiction.

This is all relevant, or relevant-ish, because I first learned of The Blind Owl from Robert Irwin's entry for it in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's Horror: Another 100 Best Books. Which I hasten to add I haven't read, because those books, invaluable as they are, tend to not mind spoiling things too much, but one way or another I was intrigued enough to get myself a copy of Hedayat's book. Where I am, about a fourth of the way in, the narrator is already secluded in his home with the corpse of the woman of his obsession, who arrived only to haunt him and then die, in that order, while he attempts to capture her image in a painting. It is a mad book, already, written by a sadly mad man, whose legacy will be madness. It is uncomfortable, hence, possibly, my flippancy.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Off the Shelf #1

Well, there's no reason to be completely. I've decided to drop a word or two on what I'm reading until blogging activities are back to normal. Currently, I am reading this:
Women in the place looked at Billy admiringly, taking him for the spruce young businessman with the executive briefcase that he appeared to be. They couldn't know that within less than an hour he would be stripped naked, carefully removing and preparing everything that he had in his case. The couldn't know what he had in it.

The Devil's Home on Leave is the second in Derek Raymond's series of "Factory" crime novels, that center on a nameless police detective who works in the Unexplained Deaths, or A14, division. The first novel, He Died With His Eyes Open was a despairing little number which set up our hero as England's, or the world's, lone idealist. Raymond, who passed away in 1994 a gaunt, morose-looking man whose crime fiction had been driven by his own encroaching misanthropy, sets up his moral contrasts rather too sharply at times, but so far The Devil's Home on Leave, which finds the detective investigating a murder where the victim was found dismembered and boiled in various plastic bags, thoroughly outstrips its predecessor in terms of narrative propulsion and bleak psychology. Raymond really piles it on, making it even more alarming that the fourth "Factory" novel, called I Was Dora Suarez, has a reputation as one of the most shocking, most unshakable crime novels you're likely to read. We shall see.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Readin'

I don’t know what it is – maybe Tiny Furniture took more out of my than I thought – but this blog can go suck it for all I care. Actually, no, that’s not fair. I don’t really believe this blog should have to go suck anything. But I’ll tell you, for a while now, since about 12:00 AM, January 1, 2012, my time management skills as they apply to my hobbies and interests, have been all screwy. More specifically, I feel like I’ve barely been reading my precious books this year, at least not at the clip I normally manage, and when you consider that I actually feel guilty when I feel like I’m not reading enough (for the record, I’m a mentally ill idiot whose emotions are stupid), then maybe you can imagine my desire to change things.

All this is only to say that I’m going to take a “reading break” from the blog for a little while. Not long, probably, and if any screener obligations come along during that break then I will of course have to put the break on hold. But I really do want to get some kind of rhythm going in my reading. January was a pretty productive month here, February has, thus far, been less so, and if that’s going to be the case I might as well put that free time to good use. Once I get my reading legs back, though, things should be back to normal.

For those of you still unclear on what, exactly, I’m talking about here, I’ve included a picture of a book being read by a person:

This is exactly what I will be doing, precisely like that. Outfit, clothes, all of it. Hair. The whole deal.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Lessons can be learned from Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai from 1964, which is being released by Criterion tomorrow. Many of these lessons could probably best be applied to making action films, though I'm of the opinion that they could be applied, in perhaps a more general sense, to a variety of genres, because if Gosha's narrative philosophy here could be reduced to one word, it would be "headlong." Three Outlaw Samurai, a film about the titular samurai one by one finding their moral compass which will point them towards a peasant village that is desperately seeking to end the callous tyranny of a corrupt magistrate who is making their lives hell, begins precisely at the beginning. It opens with a wandering samurai named Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) stumbling immediately upon the core group of peasants -- led, if that's the word for his sweaty panic, by an old man named Jinbei (Kamatari Fujiwara) -- and their newly acquired hostage, the daughter of the magistrate. Shiba makes sure that these men have not mistreated the woman, beyond the kidnapping, before deciding that he will help them. This all transpires within the first five minutes, and our story is underway.

At 93 minutes, Three Outlaw Samurai displays a gratifying efficiency throughout. It is not the only method for such a film, of course, but it is a style, one that seems to be dying. Look at the turn taken by the character Sakura (Isamu Nagato), the second samurai to join Shiba's mission. Sakura was hired, sort of, by the magistrate to assist in the killing of these peasants, but when faced with the full story behind the peasants' motives, Sakura turns back to his masters, following a lightning-fast glimpse of action, and says "I quit." Before this, Sakura's central struggle has also been set up, when a clumsy peasant, knowing who he works for, attacks Sakura in the dark, only to have Sakura cut him down in an instant. The death of this innocent peasant will weigh on him and drive him to good decisions and bad for the rest of the film (Sakura would have been played by Toshiro Mifune if Kurosawa had been behind the camera on this one). From Sakura's introduction to "I quit" takes up, what...? Maybe six minutes?

I'm reminded of William Goldman's breakdown, in Adventures of the Scree Trade, of the ending of Hitchcock's North By Northwest, and how Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman get across loads of information, everything from the defeat of the villains, to the eventual marriage and honeymoon of the heroes, in forty-three seconds. It's a marvel of storytelling economy, and so, in its way, is Three Outlaw Samurai. This economy translates to the film's action scenes, as well. The fights in Three Outlaw Samurai, and this is not atypical of samurai films from this era, are all frenzy and chaos. The brutality is expressed not through geysers of blood but through speed. In one ambush scene, two characters are killed literally within a second of the attack beginning, and this is the shock, not the arterial spray, of which there is none. Compare this to Takashi Miike's recent 13 Assassins (a film I loved), which extends its primarily battle scene to about half of the film's total length. And also it puts some geysers of blood in there. In Miike's film, the fight choreography is excellent, and noticeable. The fight choreography in Three Outlaw Samurai is entirely invisible. You know, as you watch it, that the film's big climactic fight must have been planned with some degree of meticulousness, but it plays as total mayhem. This paroxysm of flashing swords helps mask the unlikeliness of three men fighting back dozens of attackers by making it all appear somehow possible. Because it's fast. You see three men rapidly fall to the sword of our third outlaw samurai, Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), and you don't think "Oh, how could he do that!" but rather "He's one fucking good samurai, that guy."

But, as I've said, there are many methods. Two years later saw the release of Kihachi Okomoto's The Sword of Doom, a film that ends with a battle that somehow manages to be shaggy and shambling but still crazed, mirroring the fuzzy-brained psychosis of its lead character. But Three Outlaw Samurai is bracing in both its narrative and violent speed -- it's clear-headed, assured, confident, and rousing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Young, Young Person

I first heard about Lena Dunham, and by extension her film Tiny Furniture, which will be released on DVD by Criterion on February 14, from this piece, which I learned of from this piece by Glenn Kenny, who took a great deal of issue with Dunham's thoughts on Nicholas Ray in general, and Ray's film Bigger Than Life in particular. The comments in question don't amount to a whole lot in terms of pixels sacrificed, but it is at least tempting to believe they say a great deal about Dunham and her approach to filmmaking. Here's the salient chunk:

For me, forgetting that I'm watching people act is such a thrilling sensation. That's what I look for when watching movies. . . . I'm a total movie geek, but I can't get into movies like Nicholas Ray's. I'll go with my friends and they'll say, "Bigger Than Life—that was incredible." And I was so distracted the entire time by watching James Mason act in that fashion.

I'm not going to rehash Glenn's post, so let me just state, if you click on the link to his piece and read it, you can be sure that I agree. More to the point, having recently watched Tiny Furniture, I was moved to think back on Dunham's comments, particularly the "I can't get into movies like Nicholas Ray's" bit, and, well, no shit. And I do shudder to think what films this total movie geek can get into, but that's not for me to speculate on. But most of them were probably made in the 1990s.

By way of building a bridge between the preceding and actual thoughts on Tiny Furniture itself, the idea that she loves to "forget" that actors are acting in a film is particularly rich when faced with her breakout film. Never mind that I don't know what it means to "forget" such a thing -- what do you imagine is going on in place of that understanding? -- but whatever it means, it never happened to me as I watched Tiny Furniture. In a couple of cases, I thought "That person can't act," but I hardly think that's what she means. And if a better way of phrasing her thought is that she loves to lose herself in a great actor's seamless performance (I don't even know if that's what she's getting at, though, to be honest), then wouldn't that be better achieved through someone like James Mason, rather than, say, your non-acting mother or sister?

Which is what Dunham is doing with Tiny Furniture. Using her mother's home as her primary set, and casting herself in the lead, her mother in the role of her mother, and her sister in the role of her sister, Dunham is playing the badly misguided game of trying to force actual reality, or whatever vibe she thinks that gives off, into the role of drama (a general term, as the film is primarily a comedy). This can work if you're Rossellini and you're making Paisan, and so I'm left wondering about Dunham's thoughts on that particular filmmaker.

As if all of this weren't enough, Dunham's film chooses as its subject Young Woman Graduates From College So Now What Does She Do Because She Feels Adrift, Is The Problem. The fact that this has maybe been done once or twice should not be a roadblock, or not necessarily, because if you're a good filmmaker then you can make it work. Dunham is not a good filmmaker. I don't know what she regards as the craft of filmmaking. As far as I can tell, she may just walk into her mother's living room with her eyes closed, and then open them and think "Oh my God that's a great shot, I am a filmmaker." She likes a static camera, she does, and apparently figures that arbitrarily structured medium shots and close ups and the occasional medium long-shot, if she feels like playing with space, to be form enough for her. Tiny Furniture is not so much ugly as bland, although sometimes it's ugly, too, in the sense that bland and dull are ugly. It is, in other words, not crafted in any way, there is no eye at work. No care or thought is given to the performances of the non-actors, because, what, that would potentially push them into James Mason territory?

None of this, I suspect, would matter all that much to me if it was a funny film, but it isn't. One of the characters, a rude, lazy, hipster prick named Jed played by Alex Karpovsky, one of two uncertain romantic relationships Dunham's character Aura(!) has in the film, and which form the basic crux of whatever plot we're dealing with, is shown reading Woody Allen's Without Feathers in a couple of scenes (a couple of scenes that, in the film's timeline, take place several days apart, which made me wonder even about that, as Without Feathers can be knocked out in a day, easily, by anyone) -- this reminder of funnier days in my life is as close to experiencing actual humor as I got. This is the real failure of the film, because I gather that, total movie geek or not, comedy is where Dunham's heart actually lies. It could be a case similar to John Cleese not giving a shit about the actual filmmaking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as long as he knew the jokes worked, except, here John Cleese is replaced by, I don't know, Eric Schaeffer or somebody. But following the critical success of Tiny Furniture, Dunham has been palling around, and possibly working with, members of the currently hip comedy scene, like Patton Oswalt and so forth. So if actual filmmaking is not her thing, okay, let's move on. But now she really needs to work on her jokes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Who Goes There? Too!

That new movie, the one called The Thing, has to be the damndest of the recent spate of horror...well, I was about to say "remakes", but of course we've been assured it's not that, but rather a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film. That film, the Carpenter one, is called The Thing. The prequel, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr., is called The Thing, and I, for one, am very much looking forward to the eventual sequel to The Thing, the one from 1982, which will be called The Thing. I'm assuming.

It's not a remake, though. What it is, is the story of the Norwegian base, the last survivors of which we see dying -- one by accident, one from a gunshot fired by Donald Moffat -- at the very beginning of the 1982 film, as they pursue a dog through the Antarctic snow towards the American base, where that dog, which is not a dog, will cause all manner of shit to go down. With the knowledge that Van Heijningen's film was not a remake, I'd decided that if it ended with some distant, Donald Moffat-esque figure shooting the new film's sole survivor, then I would have to give it some credit. And Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer do sort of do that, recreating early shots of the Norwegians' helicopter pursuit of the dog from the Carpenter movie, but this film cuts quickly to black before the two Things can bleed together too completely. Okay, fine. But I can't actually offer up the credit I'd promised because these final moments of The Thing (not even The Thing: The Beginning?) reek of reshoots. This is pure speculation, but it's easy for me to imagine the filmmakers becoming nervous about announcing to the world that they were unquestionably remaking Carpenter's beloved and fiercely protected classic -- though admittedly a similar announcement did not end up hurting Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead at all -- and decided they could rejigger the whole thing, with minimal effort, into a prequel. This one self conscious nod to its predecessor is intercut with the closing credits, after all.

But I'm probably wrong. For one thing, I doubt any plans to reconfigure the film could have reasonably included going back and adding a bunch of Norwegians to the cast, so they were probably there from the beginning. It also logically follows, what with all the Norwegians, that we're not dealing with the same group of characters. I mean, they do pretty much all the same stuff, but, for instance, the MacReady stand-in here is named Kate Lloyd, and is not played by some Kurt Russell type, not even whoever the female equivalent of a Kurt Russell type would be, but by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Who is very pretty, a statement I make not to belittle her or her gender, but to simply get it out of the way, because I was going to point it out eventually, so why not now? In fact, Winstead is quite good in the movie. She plays a scientist who realizes that The Thing is a space alien who can mutate and take the forms of others, and, like Russell's MacReady, eventually uses a flamethrower a lot. But Winstead plays Kate as smart and professional and as reasonably terrified as everybody else would be, and she even manages to get across the certain flinty element the character needs to survive. So that's good, and really I would not be able to single out any of the performances in this film as bad. The whole film is very capably put together.

See? Pretty.

It's also a remake of John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. I can't even add "in all but name," because it uses the same title. It's the exact same story, which you might assume even if you did buy the snake oil that this is a prequel -- after watching the 1982 film, certain assumptions can be made about what went down in the Norwegian camp -- and all Heijningen and Heisserer have done is they've taken a handful of Carpenter's most memorable scenes and tried to create their own versions. This is sort of like what people do when they remake things.

A lot of stuff gets redone in this. You have some version of the Copper/defibrillator scene, although less dramatic, you have their take on Richard Masur's sudden exit, although less that. The single biggest indicator of what kind of movie this new The Thing is, is their approach to the original's blood test scene. As I'm sure you remember, in that film a test is devised to find out who among the characters is not who they appear to be, but rather a transformed and deadly thing -- the basic idea being that every part of the alien is sentient and alive with nerves, so that if everyone gives a blood sample, a heated length of wire can be applied to the blood, which, if it's not human, will react violently. This scene is a classic, a small masterpiece of suspense and horror. In Van Heijningen's backdoor remake, you know, wouldn't be neat if sort of the same thing was done, but different and new, but exactly the same? Sure, I suppose so. Somebody landed on the idea that these aliens, when transforming their bodies to resemble specific humans, can't replicate inorganic matter. This is logical enough. So Kate Lloyd takes a little flashlight and looks in everybody's mouths, at their teeth, trying to find fillings. O...kay. It's not that this makes no sense, but more that it's inherently a mighty lame thing to watch someone do in a movie. It generates not one ounce of suspense, and it manages to not do this rather brilliantly. Watching Mary Elizabeth Winstead shine a light into all these guys' open mouths is almost pure in its torpor, but there's this wonderful twist to it all because you know it's meant to have you on the edge of your seat, leaning forward, saying "Oh shit, I wonder if this guy will show any evidence of having cavities that have been repaired by a professional dentist..."

Then, too, you must consider the fact that not having fillings proves precisely nothing. In Carpenter's film, the alien blood leaps from the petri dish when poked with the hot wire, so there's your answer right there. In this one, no cavities means maybe he's pretty good at taking care of his teeth. Now, one character, an American scientist played by Eric Christian Olsen, actually makes this very point when he says "So, I'm gonna die because I floss?" The problem is that the filmmakers have no comeback to this. Four characters are separated out because they have no fillings, and the ubiquitous flamethrower is trained on them. Okay, so now what? Nothing. The film gives up. It's as though when Olsen's line was written, Van Heijningen and Heisserer looked at each other over the page and one of them said "This tooth shit isn't really working, is it?" No, it isn't, so instead of resolving the scene they have two characters we thought were dead bust in, allowing everyone to shift their suspicion to them. It's true, the fact that the alien can't replicate organic matter does pay off in another way later, but that doesn't change the fact that Van Heijningen and Heisserer's attempt to recreate one of the most iconic scenes from the John Carpenter film they are not remaking, you goddamn motherfuckers, what do you know about it, sort of just trails off, embarrassed, and unsure why they even bothered with this dumb idiot movie.

The weird part, and maybe this is just my deal, is that I will watch this again. It's by no means a terrible movie. It's not especially good, but it's fun, in the Sunday-afternoon-monster-movie-killing-loads-of-people way, which is one of the best kinds of fun, cinematically speaking. The effects are pretty decent, even, and no one can claim that the CGI folks ripped off Rob Bottin's peerless practical effects because, remake or prequel, we're dealing with the same alien, so it should mostly behave in the same way. It's just that, you know, when you think about it, the dog is barely in this thing, and then they're chasing it at the end, and it's supposed to be meaningful, but the only reason it's meaningful -- the only reason any of it's meaningful -- is because we already saw that other, much better movie, which didn't need anybody's help in telling its story. Thanks, though.