Monday, December 31, 2007

Once in a Lifetime

Something I've had to admit lately, as much to myself as to others, is that I like musicals. Now, I don't have much experience in this area, but I think it's safe to say I'm becoming a fan. It isn't a genre where I'm rushing out to see all of the new releases(I'm fairly ambivalent about what I've seen so far of Chicago and Dreamgirls and, sorry to say, Hairspray), but I find the trappings of the genre highly entertaining. I love the theatricality inherent in using music and dancing to tell the story, and if that movie is one where it's realism would seem to preclude such flights of fancy, well, all the better. The scene in Magnolia where all of the characters begin singing the same Aimee Mann song gives me chills, and the musical numbers in the 40 Year Old Virgin and Anchorman gave some of the most hilarious, utterly joyous moments in both of those films. Admittedly, Anchorman is not a movie grounded in any conventional reality, and it's technically not a musical number, but it's still a bit unexpected when the characters break into Afternoon Delight. And so I came into my viewing of the movie Once a little bit predisposed to enjoy myself. The fact that it turned out to be not really a musical at all did little to change my disposition.

It's going to be very easy to overpraise Once, and a little overhyping is a dangerous thing for a movie where much of the enjoyment comes from how low-key and scrappy this film is. So a little focus on some of the flaws is probably in order. Director John Carney, with a few films and television shows already under his belt, is decidedly amateurish in his direction here. The camera switches between handheld and static shots with no real underlying reason, and often floats around a scene to the point of distraction rather than giving a fly-on-the-wall impression. At several moments the background cast or secondary characters acknowledge the camera directly. Sometimes it's only a glance, at others it's a group of children staring and following the camera as the character goes about her scene. And the story? As simple, bare-bones as you can get, not even filling an entire 90 minute running time.

I mention the film's flaws not to denegrate the film, but actually as a strange little honor. It would be a disservice to not mention the various flaws of this film. Because somewhere along the way the films flaws become it's strengths, and the scrappy, rough-hewn look and feel mirror and magnify the story's emotional core. As in the film's inspirational musical numbers, where all of the disparate pieces come together. The guitar with holes worn in it, the borrowed piano, the strangers gathered at the last minute to play backup. The pieces are unspectacular, but as they come together the whole is more than the sum of it's parts, and the music and movie begin to soar as something more emotional and genuine than multiplex audiences can usually expect to find.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin: The Gods of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs continues his slightly-less-famous-than-Tarzan series of Martian stories with Gods of Mars, furthering the outlandish interplanetary adventures of John Carter. For the most part this offered exactly what you would want in a sequel to A Princess of Mars, assuming of course that you enjoyed that book. Gods of Mars begins, as A Princess of Mars did, with a prologue in which Edgar Rice Burroughs meets up with John Carter, who has long been a friend of his family, and receives the manuscript which details John's adventures on the red planet. There's a bit of ret-conning here, where Burroughs makes reference to the fact that John Carter has never, as far as he's seen, aged. This is minor, but it is odd that this fact hasn't been mentioned before. There's a moment in the first book where Burroughs remarks that John Carter has not aged in the ten years since he had last seen him, but it's mentioned with shock, while in this book it's mentioned that Burroughs has never seen Carter age. From childhood on, apparently, John Carter has been in the periphery of Edgar Rice Burroughs' life, and has been stuck at the same age. Indeed he may be incalculably old, having little to no memory of his own youth. Perhaps this complaint only strikes me because the first book was so obviously written with sequels in mind. Even if he didn't have specific ideas about the following books, he left many obvious threads hanging and obviously wanted to revisit them. So it's a bit odd that some aspects would be so well set up, and others would seem sudden and forced.

There were plenty of questions left unanswered at the end of the first book; did John Carter save the dying planet by fixing their air pumps that feed the planet? Who actually sabotaged those air pumps? What was the deal with that weird tableau that greeted John on his return to Earth in that mysterious cave? How exactly is John being transported between worlds? We get the answer to only one of those questions(of course he saved Mars, silly!), but indications that the others may be answered in future books. John Carter mentions that he's discovered how to harness whatever power whisks him between worlds, and can actually travel to other planets if he so desired. And perhaps the fact that he doesn't age has something to do with the fact that all inhabitants of Mars live several thousand years, often only ending their life voluntarily by taking the(literal) voyage down the river Iss to the Valley Dor, which is basically Heaven. Imagine Tolkien's Gray Havens where all the elves and ring-bearers have gone.
As I remarked in my review of the first book, I'm a bit surprised at how much thought has gone into developing Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of Mars. This isn't exactly JRR Tolkien filling appendix after appendix of information detailing the lineage of every character and kingdom mentioned in his books, but it does feel a bit more fleshed out than most pulp sci-fi. That aspect of the series is furthered in Gods of Mars considerably, as Burroughs explores the religions and hierarchy of the various races on Barsoom(Mars). Upon returning to Mars, John Carter finds himself in the one place on Mars that no person is allowed to leave; the Valley Dor. The one person who returned from this place was killed as a heretic and blasphemer. Unfortunately the Valley Dor is not the paradise that the inhabitants of Mars think it is, and instead is a place of savagery and slavery. There's a religious hierarchy I won't get completely into, but pilgrims to the valley are either killed outright by horrific plant-men who drink their blood, or, if they somehow escape these monsters, put into slavery by the holy Therns.

The Therns are, they believe, the custodians of the true afterlife, and they view all the races of outer Mars as lower beasts, and it is their holy right to use them as they see fit. The Therns have their own personal heaven, the Temple of Issus, which is as closely guarded as the Valley Dor is to the rest of Mars, meaning that no living Thern has ever returned to tell the tale of what lies inside. It's a sign of the anti-religious streak in this book that this 'heaven' turns out to be false as well, as Issus is actually a member of the First Born, who do unto the Therns pretty much the same way the Therns do unto everyone else. Throughout the novel it seems that Burroughs has a particular axe to grind with religion, making allusions to Christianity and remarking at the drop of a hat what damage a blind superstition can do to an otherwise logical people. It's not altogether subtle, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting from popular genre fiction in the early 1900s.

I should make a quick mention here of the categorization of races on Mars. Burroughs, perhaps unfortunately, in hindsight, labels all of the races with colors. The Tharks are Green Martians, the Therns are White, the First Born are Black, and then there are the Red Martians. It would be easy to cry 'racism' at this practice, especially considering the First Born('Blacks', as they are called several times) are bloodthirsty villains, by far the worst the series has yet introduced, using all others as either brute labor or food. And yet that would be a surface complaint, and underneath I think Burroughs was hinting at something a bit more Utopian. When John Carter escapes the Valley Dor and battles his way to freedom, it is with a rainbow coalition of First Born, Thern, Thark and Red Martian, and he makes note of this specifically, remarking how the disparate races work together towards a common goal. And then you have the Red Martians, who are held up as the highest and most civilized society on Mars, both in the text and by the characters in these books. The Red Martians, it is revealed, are actually the result of breeding between all of the varied humanoid races on Mars. Quite literally Burroughs is stating that the advancement of society depends on the cooperation and co-mingling of different nationalities and cultures.

And no, I don't think I'm reading too much into these stories when I come to that conclusion. If anything it's all but bluntly stated. Burroughs is criticising religion and promoting a multicultural lifestyle, which is all very progressive for 1912 popular fiction.

I'm taking a bit of a break from Burroughs' Mars to visit another version of the planet in HG Wells' War of the Worlds. I'll be done with that in time for a post early next week. So stay tuned!

Sunday, December 09, 2007


This last few weeks have marked the passage of the seventh annual Anchorage International Film Festival, an event for which I was lucky enough to be a judge(in one of the short film categories). This presented me with a golden opportunity to attend every screening for free. I was in heaven. Unfortunately, this happened to coincide with my increasingly stupid looking decision to take on a second job for extra holiday money. Coupled with normal familial duties, I was unable to attend all but two films. The first of the two, Once, was extraordinarily enjoyable, and I'll be writing about that one at a later date. The second film, and subject of this post, was Cthulhu, a low budget, DVE-shot horror film loosely based on HP Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth.

In this filmed version, the main character, Russ, is a gay history professor in Seattle who is called back to his home town of Rivermouth when his mother passes away. Back in Rivermouth, Russ can't wait to return to Seattle, finding nothing but antagonism from his father(who leads the church of the Esoteric Order of Dagon) and the townsfolk who view his sexuality as the height of mental degeneration. His father, and indeed a few of the townspeople, take a very aggressive interest in wanting to see Russ have children(for reasons I'll explain later, but will probably make a bit of sense to people familiar with the story). The only friendly face he sees is that of his childhood friend Mike, a divorced father with whom he had a... sexually ambiguous relationship growing up. I suppose at this point something should be said about the homosexual themes in this film, since the protagonist's homosexuality is a large part of the plot both literally and metaphorically. Russ' father is upset at his son not for being gay, it seems, but for not having children, and metaphorically Russ' homosexuality heightens the tension and fear of returning to a small town, let alone one as bizarre as Rivermouth.

The plot(and I'm going to give spoilers here, so if you haven't read the story, or want to see this fresh, I'd suggest you skip ahead a paragraph) revolves around Russ' heredity, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon that his father leads. Dagon, as Lovecraft readers know, is one of the Deep Ones, a fish-god that grants wealth to those who offer up human sacrifices. There's also a lot of inter-species breeding going on, as the fish-men mate with humans and produce immortal offspring, and the people themselves begin to become more fish-like. Russ' family is so intent on him having children because his family has long been the emissaries of Cthulhu(although the church names Dagon, he is never specifically mentioned in the movie, instead they use the more popularly known Cthulhu), and they need him to father the next generation of fish-people and pave the way for the return of the Deep Ones. This is a little ill-defined in the movie, as much of the film is. A lot of it still works, however, to heighten the confusion and fear, but at times is the ambiguity is a bit off-putting. It works well when the characters are confused and unsure of things, but when they seem completely aware of everything and the audience is in the dark, it's a bit frustrating.

Now, I'll be honest here and admit that my initial reaction as the film went to black was 'god, what a mess!' The film is so jumbled and switches scenes and tones at such a jarring rate that it seemed to me a horribly confused mess. But, as the credits rolled, and that final image stuck with me, and I thought back over the film, I realized that the film had some very good ideas, but was slightly off the mark. The film feels one or two drafts, and several days in the editing bay away from being a really good film. The director, Dan Gildark, was at the screening I attended, and said that his distributor was imposing 8 minutes of edits on him, and I really do think that with those trimmings the film could be something special. Particularly, the flashbacks seem largely unnecessary and confusing. There's a brief flashback of Russ entering a room where a woman is crying, you see him with a shocked face as the woman screams 'What did you do to me?' Later in the film Russ is seen attempting suicide in flashback. Who was this woman? Was it his sister(the only prominent female from his childhood we see)? What was done to her? Did Russ attempt suicide because of this or some other reason? It's not clear at all, although when I asked him the director said there was a whole side story there that he cut out, choosing instead to make that vague and mysterious. I think this was a mistake, because without any context the flashbacks only serve to distract from an already convoluted plot, and it seems like these scenes should be important but there's absolutely no connection to the rest of the film.

But let's focus on what does work. As I said, the idea of an ostracized gay man returning home to face malevolent cosmic forces AND unfriendly townspeople is well realized, and more literally turns the hero into 'the outsider', something the film is tactful enough not to hammer you over the head about. The more mundane family and relationship moments work very well, which is something that doesn't happen often in horror movies. There's frequent, albeit brief, suggestions that place this movie in the near future; radio programs talk about increasing violence and ecological decay, one reports that the last surviving wild polar bear had died in Siberia, and every television station seen in the background has a 'breaking news' banner and blurry images of violent events. This all serves to heighten the 'Lovecraftian' horror of the story, with the madness being an ever present threat around the edges of the characters lives until it forces it's way into the center stage. The ever-present threat of rising ocean waters brings with it the implication that the world of the Deep Ones will be coming to overtake the world of man, which is a pretty clever twist.

Cthulhu was shot on DVE, which gave the theatre image a slightly blurry, out of focus look(I don't know if this will be the same for the image on a smaller television set), but made the colors incredibly bright and pure. This is a fairly low budget horror film, so anyone expecting a horror-fest like the Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna Lovecraft adaptations is going to be very disappointed. The effects, what little there are, are only briefly glimpsed and, at one point, slightly cheesy. Instead this film is more of a character driven drama with horror elements in it. Some of the horror elements, unfortunately, rely a little too much on the trappings of the genre, such as a scene where a little boy in front of a staticy television screen says "we're waiting... for Cthulhu" and the camera jump cuts a bit closer as he says Cthulhu. Or the crazy old aunt in a mental ward who turns away from the character, towards the camera as she starts over-emoting her forebodings of doom. Or a scene with a weird glowing tentacle thing that would look cheap no matter what, but is made slightly silly by the jump-cut and ominous, piercing string music that accompanies it. All of these scenes are played with such straight-faced seriousness that they stumble over the line and into camp, and are at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.

Speaking of things at odds with the film; Tori Spelling. The director had nothing bad to say about Tori Spelling, but I wanted to comfort him and give him my condolences that she was in this film, because her completely over the top performance suggests an alien trying to emulate femininity after watching hours of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop and really bad porno dialogue. I might be a bit harsh on her, but she was really, really unconvincing, and while her plotline was funny and integral, a better actor would have focused the laughs on the humor in the script, not the horrible line readings and unattractive come-ons. Aside from her, I have nothing but good things to say about most of the cast. Although some of the supporting characters ham it up a bit, the two male leads are generally well suited to the parts they play.

So in the end my rating for this film would put it around 3 out of 5 stars, which may be a bit misleading. I don't dislike this film, in fact I quite enjoyed it and plan on seeing it again when it gets an official distribution. But, due to some jarring tonal shifts and jumbled plotting it didn't fully engage me. I have high hopes that a slightly edited version, released in the spring, will improve my rating for this film. The director mentioned as his influences the films of Japanese directors Takashi Miike and Kyoshi Kurosawa. Miike I didn't spot, but anyone who enjoys the glacial pace and subtle horror of Kurosawa's films(particularly Charisma, a film I should admit I understand not a goddamn bit) will probably find a lot here to enjoy.

One last thing should be said about the sexual themes in this movie; I've been lurking around in the wastelands of the IMDB comment board, seeing what people had to say about this film. Many are purists upset at the liberties taken with the source material, and angered by the lack of tentacled monsters and outright scares(there are a few in Cthulhu, but that isn't the main focus), but a surprising amount of them are angered by the fact that the film has a publicly gay main character. This is upsetting, and surprising to me because I assumed that anyone open-minded enough to read Lovecraft, with his mind-bending mythology that isn't exactly Judea-christian friendly, should be open-minded enough to deal with a movie where two men kiss(yes, there is a love scene, and although it will gross many people out, it is filmed with more class, tenderness and romanticism than most heterosexual love scenes, and has 100% less testicles than Borat did). Some have argued that Lovecraft didn't write about sex at all, and so it should be left out of any filmed adaptations. And while that's true to a point, it should be mentioned that many of his stories dealt indirectly with bestiality. What is The Shadow Over Innsmouth about, if not a bunch of fishermen having sex with fish?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Spout #8: Out of Balance

This latest entry in my Spout Mavens reviews is probably the one I was looking forward to most, which makes the length it took me to view it a bit puzzling. Out of Balance plays into one of my pet obsessions; global warming and the corporations at the heart of the problem. Leaning more towards the left side of the political spectrum, environmental concerns and a distrust of large corporations is almost hard-wired into my thinking. And here the target is Exxon, the largest oil company, and, as the film argues, the largest CORPORATION in the entire world(I have no idea if that's true, and the film offers no quotable sources, but it sounds like it could be true). The only way this could be more up my alley was if the corporation being targeted was Wal-Mart.

Living in Alaska I may be quicker to distrust Exxon than most. The 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound was a huge disaster that we're still reeling from today. It wasn't just the largest oil spill in history, but it was in an area where people made almost their entire living on the water, from tourism or fishing, and both were, essentially, ruined for years to come. I remember two trips to Homer to study the beaches, both during school field trips. One trip was in 1988, the other was in 1990, and the difference, even in an area not directly in the path of the oil spill, was noticeable. The year after the oil spill the beaches in Homer were not devastated, but they were a little more empty, with not quite so many fish, crabs or octopus, and the sand was noticeably looser, and you would sink in above your ankles where the year before you would stand comfortably on the hardpacked sand. To me the Exxon oil spill is not the firsthand disaster it was to the people who lived in the Prince William Sound area, but neither is it the empty headline of some faraway tragedy that it must have been for people living in, say Missouri. The continuing problems are increased by Exxon's refusal to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages they were court-ordered to pay, money that would help cover cleanup, health care for those with problems stemming from the spill, and the loss of income to many families who depended on fishing as a way of life. Just a couple weeks ago there were a new string of news stories detailing Exxon's continuing, and partially successful, attempts to get the Supreme Court to lower the amount they're required to pay. You don't need to try and convince me that Exxon is an immoral, harmful corporation.

Tom Jackson, the director and our guide through a list of Exxon's atrocities, seems like a well balanced, likable enough guy. That actually is important, because many of these anti-establishment style documentaries come off as reactionary, pretentious, and unlikable. Tom Jackson, however, puts himself right alongside the audience as he asks questions and learns the truth with us. He admits that global warming was something he didn't want to believe, in part, because he loves to just get in his car and drive. This everyman persona works slightly better than Michael Moore's attempts; his films may be more successful, both message-wise and monetarily, but he should stop trying to play the ignorant American constantly amazed by the things he puts in his movies.

The only real complaint to this film is it's brevity. At barely over an hour long, the film doesn't delve too deeply into specifics. There are plenty of talking heads, scientists, journalists and the like, but they focus more on the problem of global warming as a whole than Exxon's contributions. In fact, there's not really a lot here that the people watching this film wouldn't know already. Or maybe that's me, and people outside of Alaska aren't as aware of Exxon's misdeeds, but I couldn't help feeling that this film was preaching to the choir. It's unlikely that anyone not yet aware of global warming would pick this film up at their local video store, while anyone who would be interested in this sort of thing probably already knows this already. Still, Mr. Jackson is a decent guy, and the decision to film his own personal journey to find out why Exxon was so evil wasn't a bad one. The movie's heart is in the right place, and this is definitely a message that needs to be said, but there's not much here to recommend it over the other films of it's ilk.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Convent

The Convent is an odd film, and certainly not for everyone, but I still find myself subjecting my friends to it whenever someone comes over who hasn't heard of the film, and I tend to enjoy it a little more each time I watch it. That may be due to the opening scene, which sets a high water mark that the remainder of the film cannot hope to sustain. It's a knockout of an opening that ranks among my favorite movie moments. This gives the rest of the film a sense of anticlimax, which is unfortunate because it's actually quite fun, although very low-rent and goofy.

Opening with a woman wearing black leather walking in slow motion into a convent, where she promptly chugs some whiskey, and proceeds to pull a baseball bat out of her duffel bag, attacking the nuns with abandon, all to the strains of a perfectly placed pop song from the sixties. This act goes unexplained for a bit as the film flashes forward several decades, to present day where the condemned convent has passed into urban legend, and Christine, the leather-clad woman from the opening, lives unseen in a spooky house after being released from a psychiatric ward. It's a bit suspect that a woman responsible for so many violent murders would ever be released, but if this bothers you, you may want to stop watching; logic isn't necessarily something you should expect from this movie.

The movie follows a group of college kids as they head out on an annual rite of passage to sneak past the local police and vandalize the convent, immortalizing their fraternity's logo. The "witty'' banter between these kids is anything but, and yet I still find myself chuckling at the atypical goth girl's perkiness and horndog Frijole's repeated claims of being able to seduce any woman in "fiiiiiiiiive minutes". Megahn Perry plays Mo, the entirely too-chipper goth girl, and is one of the highlights of the film. Staying behind at the convent when the local cops(played by Bill Mosely and a twitchy Coolio) bust the kids for trespassing, Mo runs afoul of a couple of poser devil worshipers, the hilariously effeminate Lords of Darkness. The Lords of Darkness are at the convent to, apparently, impress a couple of gullible women with a phony satanic ritual that unfortunately summons actual demons.

The effects in this movie are lower than low budget, amounting to basically glow in the dark makeup and blacklight. The most professional this gets is a bit of sped up camera work during the demonic transformations that looks like a cheaper version of the same effect used in Jacob's Ladder. Still, this isn't a complaint. You don't necessarily look for slick, polished film making in direct to video horror films, and the low rent effects fit perfectly with the quirky, cheesy charm of the film. And The Convent is self aware enough to know that this stuff is silly, and makes up for it with actual comedy, particularly when it comes to the scenes involving the Lords of Darkness and their inept bungling as they realize the bullshit they've been spewing is actually real.

There's a cooler-than-cool cameo towards the end of the movie that I won't spoil, although IMDB and the All Movie guide have no such qualms, so those of you without the patience to sit through a 90 minute movie can go find out who it is at any time. As I said, that opening scene may lead you to believe the movie your watching is better than it is, and may lead to some disappointment as you watch this the first time. But if you let your judgment go, and just settle back to enjoy a fun "bad" movie, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Soundtrack to my Life

As I have mentioned more than a few times lately, I recently received a very massive iPod. So massive that I can put my entire collection on it, and still have room for a couple years worth of CD purchases(to be honest, I'm a bit ashamed that my entire collection fits so nicely on this one iPod). One of the great things about going disc by disc through my collection and importing them into a portable CD library is that I'm becoming reacquainted with some artists and albums that I haven't listened to in awhile. Some not even in this century. The usual question, and the one I've been asked by work friends who obviously don't know me well enough is 'why do you need all those CDs, if you don't listen to so many of them?' The obvious, logistical answer is that with so many albums in one collection, it's impossible to listen to them all regularly. But of course the real answer is probably the same one that would be given by anyone with a record collection in the triple(or quadruple) digits; these discs are important to me.

I know it isn't particularly enlightened, and we're all supposed to see material goods as nothing more than 'things', but if a house fire were to destroy my entire CD collection, DVD or book library, or even my collection of pop-culture memorabilia, I would be highly distraught. In the end these aren't family members, and so I wouldn't be devastated, but I am also more emotionally connected to my collection of 'things' than I think most people view as healthy. I can't yet explain it, as I've chosen not to closely analyze this compulsive collecting, but I think in the end I do agree with Rob from the novel High Fidelity; it's what a person likes that matters more than what a person is like. OK, a disclaimer; I don't follow that exactly, but I think the sentiment is a fairly close to how I view the world, good or bad.

People rarely show the outside world everything about themselves, and even the largest asshole you run into in the supermarket has hidden depths. The 'things' people buy can end up defining them in greater accuracy than a casual acquaintance could, if you know what to look for. And I think that's how I view my collection of CDs, books, movies and memorabilia. That after I'm gone, someone could sift through all of this stuff and know who I was, warts and all. They may not know that I have the admittedly lackluster Golden Earring album Cut on both Vinyl and CD because as a child my mom played that album during summer roadtrips across Alaska(this is also partly why I have so many Electric Light Orchestra albums, although the rest of the reason is because they rock!). There's no way someone randomly looking through my CDs would know that I own ABBA Gold because during a few months in London I would go to the club Trash every Monday with the Swedish woman I was staying with, and the final song every night was Dancing Queen. They played it ironically, I think, but I ended every night thinking 'this is the best song in the history of ever!' However this collection still traces the path of my life, my interests and my moods.

Everything I own has a story to go along with it, and a connection to my life that goes beyond what you might think. And although people probably won't get the whole story, my collection of 'meaningless things' forms as personal a roadmap of my life as any diary could be. If you know how to read it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: A Princess of Mars

I am now up to the 'S' section of my music library, which means I'll soon be done, and will be able to once again devote my time to blogging and writing in general.

Reading up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the most recent book in my 'bargain bin' project, I couldn't help but feel a sort of kinship for the man. Born in 1875, Burroughs tried to enroll in West Point but wasn't accepted, enlisted in the army but received a medical discharge before too long. After that he took a few odd jobs, ending up at his father's firm in 1899, marrying in 1900, and quitting his job in 1904. He took a few odd, low-paying jobs, wandered the country, did some ranch work, and in 1911, as a pencil sharpener salesman(a job which I find it hard to imagine ANYONE doing) found himself with a lot of free time. It was during this free time that he began reading pulp magazines and novels, of which he later said:

"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."

And so, at the ripe old age of 36, with no prior experience whatsoever, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the serialized story that would eventually become A Princess of Mars, the first book in his still-popular and influential series of books dealing with Mars. From there it was only a short time until Tarzan came out, becoming one of the most recognizable(and profitable) characters of the last century.

I don't mean to imply I'm a wildly talented and influential author, or even that I one day aspire to be, but I still find this man's life story inspiring and especially relatable to my life. It's been said, and I always assumed, that aimlessness and slacking off were traits specific to the later section of the 20th century, an affliction unseen in such abundance before Generation X. And here is proof positive that that is incorrect. Here is a man who spent his entire twenties wandering aimlessly from one short, low paying job to another, turning his back on his father's business even though he had a wife and children to provide for. A man in a job with a lot of free time, and a sudden, almost idle desire to begin writing. And he became as successful at it as anyone in his day. Moreso, in most cases. It gives me hope, as I near my thirties, with an ever-growing list of job titles behind me and no clear idea of what I want to do with my life. With a longtime girlfriend and a four year old daughter and still no driving ambition, only a desire to make a modest living doing things I enjoy and making my family life as happy as possible. It isn't too late for me to discover my purpose(for lack of a better word), and there's still plenty of time to make my way out of my 'wilderness years.'

Not having read too many(or, more truthfully, any) pulp fiction magazines from the early 1900s, I can't honestly say whether or not Burroughs succeeded in writing stories superior to the ones he had read, although I think history has proven him the victor. Certainly A Princess of Mars was enjoyable as all get-out, and to realize that this was Edgar Rice Burroughs' maiden voyage as a writer, his first attempt, is all the more impressive.

Featuring absolutely none of the techno-babble that stalls so many other sci-fi books, Burroughs instead focuses his book on one action set-piece after another. John Carter, a ridiculously virile man, a southern gentleman fresh out of the Civil War, hides in an empty cave from a tribe of hostile Indians, and is inexplicably transported to Mars, where he is 'captured' by the Tharks. Tharks are a race of green men larger than humans, with four arms and huge tusks. The Tharks are warriors by nature, almost a proto-Klingon; fierce and barbaric but with an honest and strict code of conduct. On Mars, John Carter finds he has almost super-strength(owing mainly to the low gravitational force), and when he strikes a Thark for rudeness, accidentally killing him, he finds himself made a lesser chieftain in this alien society. During his time with these Tharks, he witnesses a battle against a race more like his own in both appearance and temperament. The Tharks take one captive, a princess of this human-like race, and of course John Carter falls in love with her and they plan their escape back to her kingdom. The book is, I have to admit, a nifty piece of fantasy wish-fulfillment, both for the author(John Carter is clearly the type of man Burroughs would like himself to be) and the reader, with every obstacle overcome triumphantly, and every action as noble and self-sacrificing as could be.

Although Burroughs never gets bogged down in politics or technical minutiae(both of which murdered A Brand New World, my last purely sci-fi read), his vision of Mars is remarkably well thought out, even if we don't see everything. The society of the Tharks is believably constructed, and although it conveniently allows our hero some loopholes which allow the story to progress, it is always logical. They even have what is reputed to be the first example of a detailed alien language in sci-fi, although rudimentary and not very detailed. The weaponry and other assorted gadgetry is explained only as much as it needs to be in order for the story to make sense. There are a few questions raised that are never answered, most notably in my mind is exactly why and how John Carter was sent to Mars, although it's somewhat understandable why he came back. And what was up with that morbid tableau that greeted John when he returned to Earth in the very same cave? I'm assuming that these questions will be answered in future books, and the prospect of unfolding this mystery is especially tantalizing.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was consistently fun and fast moving, although in that 'I'm getting paid by the word, lets use as many run-on sentences as possibly' way. And although the story progression isn't exactly complex, it has a sense of depths unseen that most of the books I've been reading in this project just don't have. I can't wait to read more, not just of this series but of this author.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Filling in the Blanks: The Wicker Man

Almost two weeks since my last post. Inexcusable. What have I been doing with my time? I'll tell you what; I got an early christmas gift from Amber. An iPod, a big ol' 160gig mammoth. Every moment of free time since then has almost completely been spent at my(kinda slow) computer importing my massive CD collection. As of this writing I have just begun the Ps. By the time I finish my main CD collection, and have moved on to soundtracks, rap, country & surf, and then move on to those CDs of Amber's that I want copies of, I think I'll have used up most of that space. With just a bit left over for MST3K episodes that I can watch while on the treadmill at the gym. Rest assured I've been stockpiling my posts, and although I haven't typed or posted any, I have several pages of notes. There should be a flurry of activity coming up, as soon as I'm done with my iPod project.

The Wicker Man is one of those almost inexcusable absences in my film-viewing career, made worse by the fact that I saw the remake first. This isn't the first time this has happened, in fact most classic movies that have remakes were seen this way, and normally I don't feel too bad about it, because I'm always sure to see the original shortly afterwards. But for some reason I've been slightly ashamed that I watched the Nicolas Cage remake before I watched the far, far superior original. Having seen the remake first, I was a tad surprised by the experience of watching the original. It turns out the remake, as inferior as it is, stays incredibly close to the original plot, so I was actually unsurprised by any of the plot twists. What was surprising was the context, which was completely different.

The original follows Sgt. Howie, a Scottish policeman as he investigates a missing child case in the private community of Summerisle. Although he was invited to the island(anonymously), he finds no help from the locals who treat him with fairly open derision, and deny the girl ever existed. The girl's mother(indicated by the letter Sgt. Howie received) claims to have no such daughter. On top of uncooperative villagers, the strictly Christian Sgt. Howie is vexed by the pagan lifestyle of the islanders, which includes plenty of casual sex, a complete disregard for all things church related, and a couple of folksy musical numbers. It's a credit to this film's inherent creepiness that that last part doesn't induce uncontrollable giggles.

There's not much I can add to the ever-growing library of dissections and reflections based around this movie, and I don't think I have much inclination to try anyway. The original Wicker Man served as a criticism of the Church and the draconian policies in effect in the UK at the time. Although now, several decades later, I have to admit I realized that intellectually more than I actually felt it. In fact I'm a bit surprised at how civil Sgt. Howie remains when confronted with so many things that go against his every belief. A friend commented on how the movie really makes you view the main character as an intruding asshole, stomping all over the island's religious practices, but my main question was why he didn't do it sooner, or freak out even more. My anti-church sentiments will automatically place my sympathies with those fighting against it, but in a fight this one sided I still felt sorry for Sgt. Howie. Remember: These people asked him to the island, mocked him, threw their beliefs in his face and tried to bait him throughout the film. I guess my problem here is that the pagan religion doesn't seem to be morally superior to the Christian religions. Although with the pagans there's plenty of naked Britt Ekland(ok, body double, whatever), so that does give it the edge.

The movie is creepy, however, and Christopher Lee is always awesome in everything he does, but rarely more so than in this film(although he doesn't have much screen time). And that's more than can be said about the recent remake, which, through one simple change, removes everything of value from the story. As I said, the remake is remarkably close in detail to the original, but it removes almost all of the sexual/pagan imagery and replaces it with some pretty serious misogynistic tendencies. Instead of pagans, the island is a matriarchy where the women run everything and the men are essentially animal labor. In case we don't get the symbolism, the island is famous for it's honey, and bees play an unfortunately major part in the films plot. To be fair, the original also had a case of on-the-nose symbolism with the pagan island famous for it's apples.

Much has already been made about the misogynism in the updated Wicker Man, in which literally every woman you see in the film is a controlling, murderous man-hating psycho-bitch. It's also been stated that the film would have been labeled misogynist even if the roles were reversed and the hero had been the lone female on an island full of men. That may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that this movie definitely has it's issues. There's no escaping the fact that The Wicker Man has nothing positive to say about women at all, and views them with nothing but contempt. Case in point; the montage near the end when Nicolas Cage finally cracks and begins randomly harassing and beating up the women he comes across.

There's a growing cult around this film, and I have to reluctantly admit I am a member. It's so bat-shit crazy, so mind-bogglingly silly that I have a good time whenever I watch it. There's that famous youtube clip which may go some of the way towards explaining my enjoyment of the film. There's also a pretty nifty rifftrax(downloadable film commentaries from Mike Nelson and a rotating cast of people, usually other MST3K members) available, and I'd heartily endorse following the links to both of those. Also, there's a pretty seriously awesome review over on the Onion AV Club, part of Nathan Rabin's My Year of Flops blog project, which dissects the appeal of this film far better than I could hope to.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Spout #7: Sun Dogs

When I first saw Sun Dogs on the list of movies available for review to Spout Mavens members, I skipped past it after reading only a few sentences. A movie about a Jamaican sled dog team? Cool Runnings gave me enough wacky Jamaican fish-out-of-water sports hijinks for one lifetime. Then I saw it was a documentary, and I put in a request. Then I started watching it and my interest waned. Then 10 minutes passed and I was hooked. Then I was bored. Then I was hooked again! It was a constant roller coaster of varying interest levels.

It's impossible to view Sun Dogs without thinking of Cool Runnings-the John Candy vehicle that had him training the first Jamaican bobsled team(based on a true story)- and in fact that's the intention of just about everyone involved in this film. The Jamaican sled dog idea was nothing more or less than a calculated ploy to bring money, tourism and attention to a country mired in widespread poverty and crime. This isn't an ignoble goal by any means; the main purpose of everyone involved is to show the world that Jamaicans are hardworking, strongwilled people, able to succeed at whatever they try. My problem, specifically in the beginning of the film, is that the documentary looks too much like a video postcard you might see on the travel channel, and I was worried that Sun Dogs would completely ignore the less attractive aspects of Jamaica. But, about 10-15 minutes in, the film begins to go down those more dangerous streets, and features a few talking head interviews that cover the crime rate in Kingston, the state of education, and the state of poverty. This seems to add a few new dimensions to the film, but in the end it isn't focused enough. The filmmakers try to cover so many topics, and then cram it into a few scant minutes during a documentary about sled dogs, that the documentary has no real depth.

For the most part the film follows the handful of people trying to pull together a sled dog team, train the dogs from scratch, and introduce this new sport in a country where most people don't even know what 'sledding' is. This is, literally, a ragtag team of dogs and people, which fits right in with the uplifting sports film these people are so desperate to make. All of the dogs are rescued from the J.S.P.C.A. and the filmmakers(and dogsled promoters) are eager to paint this as an allegory for Jamaica itself. These dogs are rescued from hard and brutal lives and given a shot to improve themselves and live happily ever after. And there lies my main complaint with this film; everyone is so eager to make this a brand, to market both the film and the country, that this documentary rarely feels real. I'm not saying that the events in this film never happened, or that it was all scripted, I'm just saying that for a documentary there's an awful lot of manipulation going on.

The previous documentary I reviewed here, Let The Church Say Amen, featured a group of people I would normally not enjoy spending time with, and despite the fact that I didn't enjoy spending time with the people in that film, I came away pleased with the movie overall. Mainly that was because every single thing in that film felt real, like the cameras just happened to capture these people and these events. In Sled Dogs it's obvious, painfully so, that some scenes and events have been staged because the filmmakers just needed the footage. A lot of these are minor, like characters meeting or having introductory conversations when it's clear they'd known each other previously.

It's hard for me to hate- or even dislike- this film, when the goal is so noble and the efforts of everyone involved are so heartfelt, but too much of this feels like a bad infomercial. Like the introductions of all the dogs where they do something wacky, the shot freezes as their name comes up and someone dubs in a cheesy 'woof woof' sound, to give them all personality. Something happens on the island near the end of the film that is a complete reversal of everything you would expect. The documentary seems eager to skip past this event, which I will not divulge here, but if anything more time should have been spent on it. It introduces the idea that perhaps the entire ills of a nation can't be solved by a winning sled dog team and a heart of gold attitude. It's also the one moment in the film that feels heartbreakingly real and unstaged. As it stands it's too little too late.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

For Love Not Lisa

I stopped in at a pawn shop the other night, something I do with some small amount of regularity. In fact it's the main reason I don't currently have an active membership at Blockbuster; the pawn shop down the street from me has an insanely huge collection of DVDs, and all of them for only a dollar more than the average rental price. Why rent them when I can buy them for almost the same price, and have a copy to keep if I like it? On this particular trip I was looking through the CD selection, which is something I don't often do. Most of the CDs are bargain bin, one hit wonders. Quite a few Reader's Digest compilations as well. I was pretty much looking through the CDs more out of boredom than the hope that I would find something worthwhile. For the most part I was correct, there were more than a few CDs by forgotten bands in the Boyz II Men mold. However something did catch my eye; a completely undecorated recordable CD, in a plain white sleeve with only the handwritten words 'Music From Lisa' on it. This was very tempting.

The homemade mix CD(or to a greater degree, the mixtape) holds a special allure to me. As soon as I got my first CD player I was making mixtapes for friends(despite having only 6 CDs to start with). A couple of years at the college station coincided with my entrance into the world of mix CDs, and while a disc doesn't have the same tactile sense, or indeed the same feel of love and labor, it has proven a boon to my habit of pouring my feelings onto a disc with another person's words. It seemed, when I first saw/read it, that High Fidelity had been written about me. Countless discs and tapes are floating around somewhere, and if they are ever collected they will serve as a perfect document of my attitude at any given moment of my life, and my feelings towards the women in my life. So this nondescript disc, with no indication at all what would be on it, was too much to ignore. Who was Lisa? What type of music did she feel expressed her feelings? Who had the music been intended for, and why had he been so callous as to toss out such an intimate expression of Lisa's emotions? Only one of my questions would be answered.

Lisa loves country music.

As I put the disc in my car stereo, after haggling the price down to 50 cents(it was tempting, but I don't think I would have paid the $3 asking price for a blank CD), Unknown Song #1 came out of the speakers. A song I recognized as 'country', although mainly because that's what this music is classified as these days. This isn't Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, this is music made by people who's musical heroes are Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Still, the song was pleasant, and the experience was striking enough that I instantly loved it. The following tracks were not nearly as enjoyable, but I was smitten by Lisa's opening shot, a melancholy song full of yearning for a far off, better place, and so I continued listening and let the flaws pass me by. In fact, a Morphine song about 4 tracks in threw me over the edge. However, another 10 songs of mediocre-to-shitty country songs began to grate on me, and I realized that Lisa and I were going through all the stages of a relationship, despite having never met.

First off, we 'met' in a striking manner. It may not have been epic, but it wasn't without it's romance. A spur of the moment decision, a lark, and something beautiful is born. At first it was amazing, with the romance and beauty blinding me to whatever flaws existed as we got to know each other. I was too amazed by all the new things I was discovering to realize we were doomed from the start. You see, we all grow up with sitcoms and romantic comedy films that lead us to believe in an unattainable idea of love. We forget that, outside of the fact that these are actors, these people don't spend every day together for extended periods of time. They have commercial breaks, and maybe an hour or two of actual interaction. So of course the relationship seems perfect; they never have time to go from 'getting to know you' to 'know you, hate your guts' or even 'know you, still love you, want some space', which is where the majority of real relationships end up. As I spent more time with Lisa, I began to lose interest.

Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon showed up with a song off of Prairie Home Invasion around track 11 or so, and that was enough to brighten the outlook considerably. However, it was 'Are You Drinkin' with Me Jesus?' which was probably put on as a novelty song, meaning the deeper socio-political messages of that album could have been lost on Lisa. I'd already reached the point in our relationship where I was viewing things that I would normally see as endearing as obnoxious.

We were not going to last. Life is not like a sitcom. I took to skipping the songs after the first ten seconds or so, losing faith that I would find anything worthwhile. And then, on the last track(21), Rick Miller blasted out of my car stereo speakers and asked me to eat another Oatmeal Pie. A Southern Culture on the Skids track! Anyone with enough taste to end a CD with a SCOTS track, no matter how 'trivial', has to be a worthwhile human being. That Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon song wasn't a fluke! Lisa did have great taste! All was forgiven, and I listened happily until pulling into my driveway and cutting off the final chords of Camel Walk.

Maybe life is like a sitcom sometimes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin: Acid Rock

I have to admit I'm a pretty big fan of propaganda; when someones ideals and moral values are heightened to the point of self parody. I have a pretty big box of propaganda pamphlets, booklets, videos and comics in my closet, and the subject matter is primarily religious. Tapes of Bob Larson's christian television show(Bob Larson is either a brilliantly subversive satanist, or the devil himself, and I'm not joking about that at all), dozens of 'Chick Tracts' along with their larger print versions from the 70s(inadvertently some of the most hilariously homosexual comic books around). They share the box with some religiously neutral diatribes against the World Health Organization, psychiatry, and basically anything 'those damn kids' are into. With this ever growing collection and minor hobby, it's quite possible that I would have picked up today's book, Acid Rock, even if I hadn't been somewhat familiar with it's basis.

The Destroyer series, despite it's longevity(currently over 130 books long, with a new series starting soon), is probably most well known for the 1985 film Remo Williams; the Adventure Begins. Certainly that's how I knew it, as the movie had been a minor favorite as I was a child. I revisited the movie recently, and it reminded me that I'd been wanting to check out the books for awhile. Acid Rock is the 13th book in the series, but it's the earliest title I could find after scouring every used bookstore in Anchorage. I also assumed(mostly correctly) that the series would not be continuity heavy, and would probably be easy to understand wherever you happened to jump in.
The plot ensures that this book would fit right in with the rest of the material in that box in my closet. Remo(unlike the movie, he has no last name) and Chiun are given the task of guarding Vickie, a young, sex-and-drug crazed groupie of the acid rock band Maggot and the Dead Meat Lice. Vickie is the target of a 1.5 million dollar contract because she has chosen to testify against her father's shady business partners. It's not very clear what crime it is she's testifying about, but to be fair that isn't really the focus of the book. What the book focuses on is a hilariously over reactive view of post-hippy counter culture, where casual sex and serious drug usage were starting to lose their innocence. Vickie is perpetually stoned, and has sex with just about everyone she meets(the only exceptions are people who refuse, not people she decides not to offer it up to). Practically her only lines of dialogue from the prologue to the end of the book(when she miraculously cleans up her act) are 'gotta ball that maggot.' It's repeated over and over, making her a sorta nympho energizer bunny. She stops to have sex, and mechanically gets out of bed, saying 'gotta ball that maggot' as she leaves the room and her lover stares after her in confusion.

The view of youth culture in this book isn't too different from the Chick Tracts in my collection, actually. On top of Vickie's behavior, the author's view of the music of this new generation couldn't be more negative. It's never described as rhythmic, but as screeching and offensive. This isn't really that surprising, but when an accident at a rock concert kills dozens, and the band keeps playing and the crowd ignores the moans and screams of the still-living victims, it seems like Mr Murphy and Mr. Sapir have a serious axe to grind. Now, the question arises; is this serious, or tongue in cheek? I haven't read any of the other books, but the humorous, deadpan tone between Remo & Chiun would lead me to believe the comedy was intentional, not accidental. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. The book is fairly awful, in terms of realism or meaning, but I want this to be by design, because it's also fun as hell.

Remo & Chiun are kept outside of the action for large parts of this book, and in fact seem more than a little uncaring in their assigned task. More than once they allow Vickie to elude their guardianship, and don't seem to be in much of a hurry to find her again. But still the interaction is funny, and more than once elicited a slight chuckle.

It isn't a top priority, but I've decided to check out more in this series at a later date. My question, to anyone who might have read these books; IS the humor intentional, or should I move this from the bookcase to that box in my closet?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Across the Universe

I love the Beatles, but it took me awhile to accept that fact. Like Elvis, or Sinatra, the Beatles always seemed more an institution than anything else. By now, you HAVE to like the Beatles, everyone agrees. But over the course of my early twenties, as I slowly let go of all that 'too cool for school' hipster bullshit that every young man in his late teens goes through, I began to see just how seriously awesome the Beatles were. Hell, how awesome the Beatles ARE. It was a combination of two songs, Help and Eleanor Rigby. Those two proved the Rosetta stone to my apprecation of one of the best bands in the history of ever. Eleanor Rigby is just too sad to ignore, and that bass line in Help satisfies me in an odd way. (and yes, in the end, I came around to an appreciation of Elvis and Sinatra as well, although to a much lighter degree)

So as a Beatles fan, last night I went to see Across the Universe, a musical where the entire cast sings a long list of Beatles songs throughout the film. The movie was directed by Julie Taymor, a director I have a pretty good amount of faith in despite having only seen one of her previous films, Titus. Her other film, Frida, is one of those movies I never seem to find myself in a position to watch. The trailer for Across the Universe led me to expect a pretty generic love story set against the backdrop of New York in the turbulent Vietnam era. However, the visually stunning Titus, along with her visually stunning version of the Lion King for Broadway(which I haven't seen, but have seen pictures of) left me pretty confident that Across the Universe would feature awesome music set to stunning visuals. And guess what? I was completely, 100 percent correct. Across the Universe was more or less exactly what I was expecting. So why am I so let down?

It turns out the parts of this movie I loved and the parts I disliked were exactly the opposite of what I expected. I expected I would enjoy the trippy visuals, and be bored by the cliche love story, when in the end I disliked most of the surreal moments and enjoyed the parts that just let the music tell the story. Some of the musical moments are sublime, like the mournful takes on Let It Be and I Want To Hold Your Hand, or the freewheeling With A Little Help From My Friends and I Saw A Face. But then others drag the movie to a halt with their garishly over the top costumes, lighting and visual effects, like the Bono sung I Am The Walrus or Eddie Izzard's rendition of Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite. Normally I like Eddie Izzard, and that song is one of my favorites(in that almost all songs by the Beatles are one of my favorites), and even though I'd heard bad things about his scene, I had convinced myself that these were from reviewers just not cool enough to get it. But no, his scene is absolutely wretched, and obnoxiously bad. In comparison Bono is only slightly goofy, with his Timothy Leary by way of Robin Williams drug guru.

Still, some of the movie suffers from obviousness. Take the scene where Prudence(every named character is taken from a Beatles song), lovelorn and broken hearted, locks herself in a closet, so the characters serenade her with 'Dear Prudence, won't you come out and play.' It makes me wish they had found a way to include Maxwell's Silver Hammer. And yes, a lot of the symbolism is pretty on-the-nose, as in 'She's So Heavy' being sung by soldiers carrying the statue of liberty on their backs across Vietnam. But when this musical lets loose, it's absolute joy. At varying times I was looking at the audience around me to see if anyone else had a great big grin on their face, or shrinking into my seat and forcing back a single, solitary(and very manly) tear.

I'm not saying all of Julie Taymor's visual tricks were bad, but many of them seemed poorly thought out. And when this musical gets going, it soars. My disappointment may not be there on a second viewing, but as for now it's dropped this rating down from 'I Loved It!' to 'I Liked It.'

Friday, October 12, 2007

Filling in the Blanks: Blackmail

I've mentioned in earlier posts my lack of conventional film education. There are plenty of films out there, many in the 'film aficionado canon' that I have never seen. I don't really feel bad about this, it's impossible to see every film out there, even the great ones. If I were to try and watch all the 'classics' I would never again be able to watch a new movie in the theatre. But these are still(mostly) important films, and I do feel as if my background is a bit lacking for not having seen them before(Casablanca is the largest omission I can think of right now). So I've decided to try and round out my movie viewing a little bit, to try and fill in those gaps in my knowledge(hence the title of this post). These won't all be on the AFI top 100 list, and maybe some of them wont be very well known, but these will be films that I think I should see to get a better grasp on the medium, or even just the artist responsible.

Hitchcock is one of those directors I've always wanted to watch more of. I'm not ignorant of his works, and have seen a fair amount of them, but they tend to be the bigger name films(Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window), meaning that his earlier British films are almost completely unknown to me. Awhile back I was given one of those 9-disc movie sets that consist of public domain movies with questionable prints, and consisting entirely of Hitchcock films. I should have watched these earlier, but for some reason I felt bad watching such poor quality versions of films from a director who's entire filmography deserves the Criterion treatment. The other night I decided to move past my hangups and just sit down to watch them. Not all at once, of course, but I've decided to make this a regular thing, where at least once a week I sit down to a movie from one of those 'classic' lists, or from a filmmaker who I've remained woefully ignorant of(coming up; Robert Altman!).

Blackmail, released in 1929, isn't the earliest Hitchcock film in this set, but it is the first movie on the first disc. Also it's Hitch's first 'talkie', so that definitely makes it an important film, right? I can't say that I was worried about the quality of this film, because Hitchcock has never disappointed me yet, but I was still unsure about how entertained I would be, and wondered how well his later-period style would compare to this earlier attempt. It turns out that early Hitchcock is very similar to the Hitchcock more familiar to casual moviegoers. Most of what you'd expect from a Hitchcock film are in here; the drastic reversal of expectations, the suspense centered around the person who committed a crime rather than the victim, and a climactic chase through a national landmark. Perhaps this all doesn't work, and it isn't as polished as it would become, but I think I enjoyed it more because of that. I liked seeing an artist already confident in his abilities, testing out new technologies and style. I also really enjoyed the silent film touches that permeate this film.

The film opens with an 8 minute scene where Scotland Yard chases down, catches, and locks up a criminal. This scene is also completely silent, save for some music and sound effects. It turns out this was because Hitch had already filmed most of the movie by the time the decision was made to use sound, so some scenes were reshot and others just had dubbing put on top of them. But it also seems like it could be an example of Hitch's sense of humor(imagine the first part of Psycho as a very elaborate joke pulled on the audience). Here we have the first British talkie, which it was widely advertised as, and the film opens with 8 minutes of no talking(although we see people moving their mouths).

The rest of the movie has the feel of a silent film, despite having dialogue. Many scenes play out with little being said, but instead with meaningful looks between characters and some fairly easy to follow action. Hitchcock is of course an impressive visual director, with many scenes in here foreshadowing events or visuals in later movies. I really enjoyed some of the visual trickery. The standouts would be a scene in the beginning where two characters climb a long staircase while the camera floats upwards beside them, and a nifty use of shadow where the killer decides to turn themselves into the police. As they stand up, a shadow is cast across their face, making the unmistakable impression of a hangman's noose around their head. This may not be the most subtle of tricks, but I've always enjoyed Hitchcock's overtly theatrical tricks, like the scene in Vertigo where James Stewart first sees Kim Novak, and the lights dim as she passes by.

The film is a bit darker than I expected it to be, but this may be due to the fact that the DVD case describes this film in unbelievably innocuous terms, with the coda 'Suitable for children!' I'm not exactly a prude, but I probably wouldn't show this to my daughter for a few years. This isn't to say the film is bleak, or without humor, in the end it's quite entertaining. But it seems to me that Hitchcock has always had a distinctly pessimistic, misanthropic tone to his work. In Hitchcock's world, even the victims are flawed and slightly unlikable. Marion Crane in Psycho had just embezzled a large sum of money, L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window is, in the end, a voyeur, and John Ferguson in Vertigo had some pretty disturbing sexual issues playing themselves out. Nobody is innocent in a Hitchcock film, and we're usually rooting for the villain instead of the 'good guys'.

I may be making too much of this film, or grading it more highly than I would if I'd seen more Hitchcock films. Perhaps this movie isn't that great, comparatively, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: The Thin Man

Whenever I start reading a new book, particularly by an author previously unknown to me, it almost always takes me a chapter or two to get in sync with the writing style. I blamed this phenomena on my inability to really get into the last book I read, A Brand New World. But that continued past the first few chapters, and throughout the book I just couldn't really get inside the story. The normal immersion into the fantasy eluded me, and I found myself reading entire passages two, maybe three times to suss out the meaning. Eventually, rather than attribute this to an unskilled author, I laid some of the blame on my inexperience with writing of that time period. I've read books from the turn of the century, and books from the 40s, but not many books from the 20s and 30s. I thought, perhaps, that the style of that period was so alien to me I was missing something in the book. And then I read Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, and dashed that theory to pieces. Dashiell Hammett is probably the most well known author I've written about so far, and certainly he belongs to a class almost completely separate from the other writers I've covered, but he still falls into the general theme of hard boiled pulp fiction. I'd never read anything by him before, although I had seen a few of the Thin Man movies.

For those out there who haven't read the book or seen the movies, Nick Charles is a retired detective. He used to be quite well known and sought after, but for awhile now he's been focusing mainly on running the kinda vague businesses of his new wife, Nora. But really this involves him making a few calls to an accountant here and there, and drinking copious amounts of liquor. The fact that he's retired doesn't stop anyone from thinking that Nick is in town to investigate the murder of a scientist's secretary/mistress, and despite his numerous denials, Nick is eventually roped into helping solve the crime. Complicating matters is the fact that only a few people have seen the scientist in months, and his interaction with the outside world occurs through letters he sends his lawyer.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, so I wasn't too surprised by any of the big reveals, but a few things were different. For starter Nick is a much more passive observer in the novel, and he doesn't do much field work as a detective. In the movie he goes out and investigates a few leads, but in the book he mainly talks to people as they come up to him, and occasionally nudges the police in the right direction. Personally I find the book version to be much more impressive, mentally, but I understand the need to change things up. It's not very visually appealing to have your hero sit around and do nothing while other people carry the story in a movie.

Now, if there's one thing the Thin Man series is known for, it's the high-functioning alcoholic couple at the center; Nick and Nora Charles. The movie's casting was perfect(few people have mined a drunken state for deadpan humor as well as William Powell, see his drunken scene in My Man Godfrey for another example), and in both the film and book Nick and Nora are the only stable element in a sea of crazy characters. Actually, crazy may be too light a word. Some of these people are downright psychotic. The darkness of this book really surprised me, considering it's generally light and humorous tone. Nick and Nora may jibe playfully with each other and spend their days idly getting wasted, but the supporting characters are frighteningly off kilter. Take Gilbert Wynant, son of the titular Thin Man, who's detached curiosity about people's behavior borders on the sociopathic, as he does everything from the comparatively minor steaming open envelopes and reading his family's mail to dosing his sister with morphine to witness firsthand what it does to people. There's a bit of an incestuous undertone in the Wynant family, something below the surface that gets a single straightforward mention towards the end of the book.

I find it to be a bit paradoxical that my ability to write about something fluctuates with how well I enjoyed it; I find it difficult to write about entertainment that I love, but fairly easy to write about things I hate. And so it is with this one; I really enjoyed it, and have picked up a few Hammett books to add to the pile, but I have very little to say about this. It was fast and breezy, and very fun to read. I want Nick and Nora's relationship, but I don't drink so I think I may be out of luck.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Spout #6: Great World Of Sound

Fame is an enticing drug, and it's attainment figures into the daydream of billions. In fact, anyone saying they don't want fame is either lying, or up to no good. Oh, I don't mean to say everyone wants to be Britney Spears or Leonardo Dicaprio, I mean that everyone wants to be noticed for their talents. To paraphrase Tyler Durden in Fight Club(I know, it's been done to death, but it fits here); we've all been raised to believe we'll be rock stars, or astronauts, or president of the United States, but for most of us, that stuff ain't gonna happen. That doesn't stop our dreaming, although it may stop our actually working for it. There are plenty of people out there playing on these dreams, shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent, and even Big Brother or Survivor style reality shows, all play on humanity's desire to be famous without too much exertion or talent. In fact, lack of talent is prized almost as much as actual talent in some cases, with all of the really hideously untalented American Idol contestants getting more airplay than some actual winners(how many CDs does William Hung have now? AND an Arrested Development cameo?!). This desire for fame, and the willingness to prey on that desire, informs almost every character you meet in Great World Of Sound, the excellent feature debut from writer/director Craig Zobel.

Martin(Pat Healy) answers an ad looking for people to join the Great World of Sound production company as talent scouts, travelling the country to find new talent. Martin is a man with no real goals in life, forever latching onto whatever his girlfriend at the time is into, and basing his life around that. Eager to find something to define himself within his new marriage, he leaps headfirst into this job. Perhaps that explains why he is so blind to the fact that Great World of Sound Productions is a scam, an old school grift that dates back to at least the early 20th century. Now, I'm not giving anything away by saying GWS is a scam, I knew it right from the opening scene at Martin's interview, and you'll know it, too. In fact, the big question is; Why doesn't anyone else seem to know it? For a seemingly with it, intelligent guy, Martin is pretty slow on the uptake. Or maybe that's another jab at American fame-seeking, that our quest for glory will blind us to all of the moral compromises we make along the way.

At the training seminar for GWS, Martin meets up with Clarence, a middle aged black man who is looking for a way out of manual labor so he can provide for his six(unseen) children. They bond quickly, and the early half of this movie plays like a particularly dry episode of The Office, with quiet, awkwardly hilarious moments and longer than normal camera takes. Sent on the road to scout talent in another state, Martin and Clarence use their hotel room to audition local 'talent' in scenes that are painfully realistic because, well, they are real. Most of the performances we witness were captured Dateline Hidden Camera style, with the artists being briefed about the film only after their audition. Some of these are played for uncomfortable laughs, but occasionally a true artist emerges. Not that it matters. To Great World Of Sound, EVERYONE is a potential celebrity, and they'll sign anyone who can give them enough money. Ideally they want 10% of the costs of printing a CD, which comes out to $3,000, but they'll take a 'good faith' down payment to get the ball rolling. Again, it's hard to see how the main characters don't realize this is a scam.

Eventually things begin to slide from comedy to tragedy, somewhere around the time Martin and Clarence audition a young girl who has written a 'new national anthem'. For the first time Martin sees talent that moves him, and when her grandfather can't come up with the 'good faith payment' Martin helps with money out of his own pocket. This may not be when Martin and Clarence get wise to the scam, but it is when things begin to turn tragic, and the young girl is what begins to clue Martin in to the shady nature of his job. A visit to the recording studio to watch her record her song finds a technologically behind-the-times operation, inept/uncaring technicians, and a very angry grandfather. Suddenly the auditions are no longer funny, and they begin to become sad and tinged with slight dread that these people actually WILL sign up. These aren't talentless and deluded slackers, these are daughters and husbands and grandmothers that are being conned.

The performances are pretty stellar all around, whether in the 'caught on tape' musical performances, the weasely-but-not-slimy vibe from those running the GWS scam, and the interplay between Clarence and Martin. Pat Healy plays Martin with a deadpan sincerity, quiet, reserved and awkward, but truly desiring to help guide these people to stardom. Kene Holliday-good enough in this role that I wonder where the hell he's been since Matlock- plays Clarence almost diametrically opposed; gregarious, loud and crude, wanting nothing more than to make an easy buck and a better life. He isn't a bad man, but he does hold a bit of contempt for these people, looking to make it in life on 'talent' when most people have to make it with sweat and tears. It doesn't sound like the basis for a very good friendship, but the two connect, and the friendship feels real.

As I said, it's a bit of a curiousity that no one notices this is a scam. It's odd that in this day of the information highway, no one even thinks of checking into the history of GWS, but it's a minor flaw. Specifically because these people are so blinded by their own dreams that they would grasp at any way out of their ordinary lives. If I have one complaint with this movie, it's that it offers no real conclusion. Oh, sure, Clarence and Martin see the error of their ways, but it's too late; GWS has pulled stakes and moved on to greener pastures and more gullible marks. But what next? Does anyone seek out and hold GWS liable? Do any of the swindled artists seek out Clarence or Martin? The finale of this movie never lets it's characters off the hook for their duplicity in swindling people out of their savings, but neither does it offer the catharsis of confrontation. These are sad things happening to sad, desperate people, and in the end we're not given any sense of what to expect as they go their separate ways. I suppose this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and on a future viewing I'll probably change my mind about that, but I did eject the disc wanting... more. Which is the goal of any entertainer, after all.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: A Brand New World

I've been unable to find much information on Ray Cummings, the author of today's entry- A Brand New World. Wikipedia tells me that he's considered one of the father's of the pulp sci-fi genre, but I haven't found any extensive historical references to back that up. I'm tempted to believe that, though, if we're talking about the modern sense of pulp sci-fi, and disregarding the works of Jules Verne or HG Wells. Certainly he has an impressive background, working as a technical writer for Thomas Edison for a few years, ending in 1919. With that on his resume, it's not wonder he became an acclaimed(and prolific) sci-fi author, although based on this book I'm a little unconvinced as to how well earned his 'acclaimed' status is.

The plot, set in the distant future of the late 60s(the novel was written in 1928) concerns the arrival of a planet with a mind of it's own(possibly literally). A new planet that drifts into our solar system and begins to orbit around our sun, passing by earth every 17 months. There is absolutely no effort made to explain this odd phenomena, which implies the planet itself is a sentient being(other mentions are made of it's constant wandering from star to star). This throws earth's rotation off a bit, with the poles shifting to where our equator currently sits. On top of this the new planet(dubbed Xenephrene) is inhabited by a race that may or may not be in the conquering mood. Actually, a small minority feel like conquering Earth, but there's no real attempt on the part of the majority to hold them in check, so the invasion begins.

As a technical writer, you'd probably expect Ray Cummings' work to be full of lots of dry scientific jargon, but you'd be wrong. There seems to be a pointed attempt to not explain the science of this novel, which isn't in itself a bad thing. Star Wars is more personally and emotionally resonant than Star Trek because it never gets bogged down in specifics about the science. All we need to know in the world of Star Wars is that they have technology light years beyond what we have, and the rest of the film can be spent on story. Star Trek, however, devotes whole episodes centering around technology, and they can drag on with endless descriptions of how the warp core works. It's also easier to suspend disbelief when the story doesn't try too hard, and inevitably fail, to cast the proceedings in too realistic a light. A Brand New World, however, ignores science to the point of distraction, and the science that is mentioned has the 'deus ex machina' feel of being dropped in there as an excuse to get out of a tight spot. There's no real effort to explain how space travel works, instead we're told that an alien substance called 'reet' is the best substance with which to try and defy gravity. We also get little discussion of how a new heat based weapon works, and the author repeatedly relies on his protagonists fairly limited knowledge of science to explain these gaps.

Occasionally, however, Cummings decides to throw us a bone and explain the technicalities of some of the action. However, his decisions as to what to explain are frequently nonsensical. Such as a segment which takes several paragraphs to explain the process of opening a spacecraft door. It isn't too egregious, as these things go, but it's a bit out of place in a book that takes such pains to not explain anything. This general lack of explanation carries over to the rest of the plot, too, making for a book that is overall low on information.

It's a common enough literary device to center your book on a protagonist who is generally passive, allowing himself to be carried along through the story rather than instigating it. And by also writing only what the main character actually witnesses, it allows the reader to more easily imagine him or herself in the story. In the case of A Brand New World, however, our character is kept well away from much of the interesting stuff, and the events he is involved in he seems uninterested in explaining. Too often he uses phrases like 'history has already recorded' as an excuse to not describe what in other books would have been gripping alien invasion storytelling.

Perhaps Cummings' technical writing career was a stumbling block he just needed time to overcome, because his skills in narrative fiction, as evidenced in this book, are in desperate need of some help. This book also needed the help of a good editor. I'm used to typos and grammatical errors in books; everyone makes them, and it's impossible to catch every single one of them when your working with a novel length piece of work, but this is just ridiculous. Countless uses of incorrect punctuation, and misuse of quotation marks make it hard to understand whats going on at times. But above that, I think Cummings' needed a thesaurus. Take this passage, describing the strange alien atmosphere, full of creatures just out of the realm of human senses:

"And then I realized that this was no silence! Around me came thronging a million tiny noises. Jostling things of sound in the darkness-things all alive with sound! I could hear them murmuring, whispering like wraiths of jabbering things alive with sound. Or was it sound I was hearing? It was all so vague, so unreal, it might have been some other sense. But it was gathering strength: jostling sounds were whirling about my ears..."

And it goes on for a bit, with a few more uses of the words 'sound' and 'jostling'.

Eventually the book suffers most from a profound lack of inertia. There is no drive to it, and no intrigue or action. The fate of Earth often rests in vaguely described political machinations, which never makes for exciting sci-fi. UFO dogfights? Awesome! Parliamentary process? Kinda boring.

Interesting side note: I came to this book by accident, but I came to the author by design. I had come across this cover while searching for images and information about Samuel Delany(Ballad of Beta-2):

I couldn't find that one at any of the shops around town, but it appears to have almost the exact same plot as A Brand New World, with a planet entering our solar system and it's inhabitants invading earth. If I ever do find that book, and if that book does feature a character like that little red guy on the cover, I'm going to imagine him speaking in the voice of Don Rickles in those cancer screening polyp ads.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Death Wish 1&2

The novel Death Wish was, as I stated in my review, spare and generally neutral about whether liberal turned vigilante Paul Benjamin was a good upstanding citizen pushed too far or a psychopath indulging his inner fascist. The movie, starring Charles Bronson, continues this neutrality, and in fact the film turned out to be one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen. There are a few changes here and there, but with a few exceptions they're all minor. Things like Paul's surname being changed from Benjamin to Kersey, and his job changing from an accountant to an architectural engineer(or something like that). I'm not really sure why the job changed, but perhaps it's because watching a montage of someone surveying property is (only) slightly more interesting than a montage of someone using a calculator.

The plot is still the same; Paul Bejamin's wife and daughter are attacked in the exact same manner described in the book, although the rape of Paul's daughter was new to the film. After his wife dies, Paul begins to see criminals everywhere, and eventually begins taking to the streets every night to stalk and kill muggers. The movie plays out more like an urban western than the book did, with Paul's trip to Arizona adding more than a dash of cowboy flavor(wild west shows and bull horns mounted on cars). The finale of the movie-with the cop who had been on the vigilante case telling him to move out of New York- carried with it the association with every western ever made where the sheriff told the outlaws to get out of town by sundown. Even a few of the scenes of Paul stalking muggers are played out as old fashioned duels at high noon. This idea was brought up in the book, but the movie takes it and runs with it. You could see this as the filmmakers condoning Paul's actions, but it would be more accurate to say this was an outward exhibition of how Paul sees himself. Paul never sees himself as a criminal, or as a man with maybe a few loose screws, he sees himself as Gary Cooper in High Noon. In a town full of frightened citizens, he's the only man willing to stand up and make an example of himself(and the criminals).

The movie is a pretty solid affair, and I enjoyed it well enough, but it still feels a little superficial. The novel was also light on discussion of ethics, but the movie removes almost all of those elements, creating a pretty standard revenge film. Much of the moral of this film, the feeling that we get that Paul's actions are repellent, is due to our own social programming, not anything the film itself brings up. Most of us assume violence is bad, and despite what we enjoy in movies, we recognize that such behavior in real life would be horrible, but the film doesn't make any such assumption. It doesn't go quite so far as to glamorize what Paul does, but it doesn't seem to think it's such a bad thing either.

Now, Death Wish was pretty neutral, and so was the film. Death Sentence, the sequel to the original novel, was very clear about which side of the argument the author was on, and Death Wish 2, while not based on the book, clarifies it's stance as well, albeit in the opposite direction. Death Wish 2 is plainly on Paul's side, and glorifies every single act of violence he perpetrates, inviting the audience to cheer along as he guns down gang member after gang member. The more I think about it, the more disgusting the movie seems, although I have to admit I enjoyed it when I watched it. This was probably due to the people I saw it with, and the fact that we were eating cheese steaks and laughing at the ridiculous elements of this film, and not actually due to any skill actually on the screen.

Five years after the events in the first film, Paul Kersey is living in Los Angeles with a new girlfriend, and his daughter is finally being released from the psychiatric institute she was sent to at the end of Death Wish. Apparently he found it very easy to stop roaming the streets and killing people, because Paul is no longer the vigilante he once was. But this is a sequel, and not only do we need violence, it needs to be bigger, bloodier, more disgusting than the last entry. And so on her first day out of the hospital, after a day of sailing and shopping with her father, Paul's daughter is kidnapped and raped by a gang led by a pre-Cowboy Curtis Laurence Fishburne. This is the second gang rape in the first 20 minutes of the film, and when viewed alongside the rape in the first film, sets up a pretty disgusting trend that I foresee continuing through the rest of the series. The rape in the first film was brief(yet no less hard to watch), and although unnecessary I could understand the filmmakers desire to make the attacks more horrific, to give Paul and his daughter more motivation for their individual reactions. In this film the violence against women is taken to extremely uncomfortable levels, and the rapes(there are a couple more to come) give this film an upsetting level of misogyny. It doesn't feel like the criminals are punishing women, it feels like the director is punishing women.

There's no act of violence in this movie that doesn't seem endorsed by the filmmakers. The rapes feature plenty of extended shots of bare breasts and asses, and carry with them an air of titillation, not disgust. Not only Paul's, but the gangs acts of violence are treated as exciting movie spectacle.

Up next:
I'll be taking a little break from the Death Wish films. I don't feel like watching them without my friends, and we can't get together that often. So next will be A Brand New World. I've finished the book, now all that remains is for me to write the review.

After that, Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which will probably be up by this weekend.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Now, normally I'm a very nonviolent person. Despite what you may think of my reading or viewing habits, I normally go out of my way to avoid confrontation in real life. There is, however, one place in the world where this isn't true; the movie theatre. You probably could have guessed that from my review of the Kingdom. I don't know exactly why this is. Well, scratch that, I think I have a pretty good idea of why that is, actually.

I love going to movies. Movies are such a part of my life that seeing a movie in the theatre is almost like church. As technologically advanced as my living room setup gets, and as much as I enjoy lounging back on my couch while eating horribly fattening food, nothing beats being in the audience when the lights go down and the movie starts to roll. It can be magical, and it's always a good time for me. The movie may be utter shit, but that's not the point. The point is the shared experience. One of the best movie-going experiences in my life was Star Wars Episode One. I saw the very first showing in Alaska, and went right along with the crowd as they cheered. They cheered when the lights went down, they cheered when the Lucasfilm logo popped up, and they gave the opening title crawl a standing ovation! Everyone there was there to enjoy the film, and they completely gave themselves up to the joy of seeing this with a theatre full of like minded people. Of course, I went and saw it again with my family a week later, and I couldn't believe I'd been duped like that.

My point is, seeing a movie in the theatre is almost a sacred tradition with me, and I can't stand it when others don't give it the respect it deserves. Of course, I'm not alone in this; I'm probably the last blogger on earth to jump onto this bandwagon. People begin to treat the theatre as a large living room, talking on cell phones, talking to each other, and generally making an ass out of themselves and disturbing those few people left who seem to want to watch the movie.

Over the past couple years, my tolerance for this has dropped WAY off. I used to make do with passive-aggressive looks at the person behind me, hoping they would see my pointed stares and be shamed into silence. That never works. Now, though, I'm much more direct. If people don't shut up in the movie, I lean over and tell, not ask, them to politely shut up. If someone a few rows down won't stop playing with their cellphone, and the light keeps distracting me, I'll get up and go tell them. And, believe it or not, it works almost every time. I'd had a few sarcastic remarks, but they still shut up or put the cellphone away.

It's something I try and encourage my friends to do, because we need to reclaim our theatres. If movies are costing 10 bucks(more in other places, but in Alaska it's about 9.75 for a non-matinee show), why should we have to put up with distractions? For that matter, why would people pay 10 bucks a piece, and twice that probably when snacks are counted, to not watch the movie? Just tell them to shut up. Politely, though, that's probably a bit more unnerving to them.

[I have to mention this: either my spellcheck is getting stupider, or I'm actually getting a bit smarter. This post, and my last one, each had only one mispelling in it, and that was punctuation! Yay me!]