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.