Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Percy redWerewolves are kind of a snooze, right?  I mean, as far as monsters go, they’re not super exciting.  What are the great werewolf movies?  Lon Chaney’s eponymous Wolf Man got things started.  There’s The Howling, obviously, and Wolfen.  An American Werewolf in London (but not in Paris). Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves is stylish fun, and Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is the best recent example. After that?  Do I dare mention Teen Wolf?  100 years of cinema, and the wolf man can manage only a measly six quality films.

I think this is because there’s not much to do with the wolf man story.  Unlike zombies,vampires, and ghosts, which, in skilled hands, can do a lot of allegorical heavy lifting, the werewolf is sort of trapped in the “innocent man struggles with the beast within” paradigm.  This is why movies like Wolf and Joe Johnston’s recent Benicio del Toro-starring The Wolfman are such inert belly flops.  It’s just a repackaged story told over and over again in largely similar ways.  I s’pose I could add Ginger Snaps to my first list for using the werewolf story as a metaphor for a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality (a phrase which I personally find more horrifying than any werewolf), but it’s otherwise tricky to break out of the established mold.

And are there any classic werewolf books?  I guess Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf comes close.  Beyond that, I’ve got nothing, although Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon comes close.  It’s a werewolf epic, in case you were wondering if such a thing were possible, spanning a period of several years in the lives of a deep cast of characters and, contradicting what I just wrote, actually doing something different with ye olde wolf man story.

The first thing I’ll say about it is I think Percy does a commendable job of world-building.  Red Moon‘s world is our world, with references to Rodney King and Wilco and Che Guevara and Star Wars, only werewolves – lycans, as they’re called in the book – are common knowledge.  Some live among us (the latest census lists the lycan population at 5.2%), taking Volpexx to prevent their transformation from human to wolf; others live in the Lupine Republic: the werewolf homeland, established in 1948, that lies between Russia and Finland.  Recently, despite this relatively peaceful coexistence, tensions between humans and lycans have risen, caused partially by politicians like Chase Marshall, a presidential candidate who exploits anti-lycan sentiment to his own gain (he wants to create a lycan registry – remind you of anyone?), and partially by the Resistance, a group of lycan rebels not afraid of resorting to violence to achieve parity for their race.  The U.S. military, in charge of keeping the peace in the Republic, doesn’t help things with its presence.

It’s pretty fun to see how Percy so effortlessly establishes this world and then sets it spinning.  I don’t use the word epic lightly.  The cast of major characters is extensive:

  • Patrick, a teenage boy (whose father is stationed in the Republic) who is the lone survivor of the lycan attack that sets the “official” lycan rebellion in motion
  • Claire, a teenage lycan on the run from a shadowy government office seeking to wipe out the lycan rebellion
  • Max, leader of an anti-lycan militia called The Americans
  • Miriam, ex-wife of a prominent figure in the lycan rebellion and Claire’s aunt
  • Jeremy, Miriam’s ex-husband
  • Chase, the previously mentioned presidential candidate with a secret of his own
  • Augustus, Chase’s aide-de-camp
  • Neal, a doctor seeking a vaccine for lobos, the prion disease that turns people into lycans

And on and on.  The book also takes place over the course of several years, so in the case of Patrick and Claire, especially, we watch them grow and adapt to the worsening tension between humans and lycans, which eventually takes on potentially world-ending characteristics.  It’s a werewolf story told on a large canvas, and, as I mentioned above, Percy doesn’t shy away from the metaphoric possibilities of his story.  There’s the anti-lycan politicians (which, in 2013, manage to predict Trump and Cruz and their anti-Muslim grandstanding) and the anti-lycan militia; the “closeted” lycans dealing with a stigmatizing disease that can be managed through regular medication; the U.S. military occupation of a foreign land; and the violent lycan minority that believes violence is the only way to achieve equality.  Rather than tread the well-worn path of other werewolf stories, Percy chooses not to focus on an individual but instead adopts the Robert Altman strategy and examines how different lives serve as individual threads of a much larger tapestry.

Most impressively of all, Percy brings a painterly touch to this epic, investing the action with moments of real beauty.  It’s a world where “soot-black clouds occasionally puls[e] with gold-wire lightning” and feet “make chewed-ice sounds along the shoulder,” where a girl is so pale it looks as though “she had been soaking for years in a bath of moonlight” and, in a moment of rare quiet, a tractor “trundl[es] along with a gray scarf of exhaust trailing behind it.”  Rather than just rush from set piece to set piece, Percy takes the time to let his story breathe.  It’s more well-written than it has any right to be.

I said above that Red Moon “comes close” to being  a classic book.  Like many books of its size, scope, and ambition, some plot threads remain unraveled.  It’s probably unfair of me to want satisfactory endings for every character, but at least one key figure’s story just sort of drops off the map, which seems particularly egregious considering the trials he puts her through earlier in the book.  And some conflicts are resolved too easily.  You can’t set up a pursuit between two characters spanning years and much of a continent and end it so anti-climactically, nor can you have one of the characters passing as one of the book’s antagonists wrap up his arc in flashback, offstage.  And yeah, while the resolution is admirably bleak (I do like me a downer of an ending), it’s so open-ended I can’t decide if Percy didn’t know how to wrap things up or if he’s planning a sequel.  I wanted more finality, which may be more a reflection of my selfishness than a true weakness of the book.

Red Moon is, minor complaints aside, an impressive achievement: an exceptionally well-written page-turner that has more on its mind than just giving the reader a good scare.

*****

Current listening:

Four rounds

Four Tet – Rounds (2003)

When the Sun Hits

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIs there any child actor in recent memory who’s so completely lived up to her potential as Saoirse Ronan? Ever since her arrival at age 13 in 2007’s Atonement, she’s been never less than fantastic in every movie in which she’s appeared, lifting even pedestrian hooey like the Stephanie Meyer adaptation The Host into the realm of the watchable. Most importantly, though, she’s had an unerring eye for quality projects, appearing in prestige films (The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Lovely Bones), small movies from well-respected directors (Peter Weir’s The Way Back; Neil Jordan’s Byzantium), and entertaining experiments (Hanna; Violet & Daisy). Brooklyn is just the latest in her line of successes, and it’s easily one of the best movies of 2015.

The weird thing about Brooklyn, though, is that it’s one of those movies that works really well even though I’m hard-pressed to explain why. On paper, the story – young girl from rural Ireland emigrates to the U.S. and falls in love with an Italian guy despite the pull of home – isn’t particularly compelling, Nick Hornby’s dialogue isn’t especially showy, and John Crowley directs with sensitivity but with no more bells and whistles than the story requires (which is to say none at all). So most of the things that usually draw me to a movie were absent from Brooklyn.

brooklyn stillWhat it comes down to, really, is the appeal of Ronan’s Eilis, who’s sweet and kind even when suffering with an eminently relatable bout of homesickness, and her Italian beau, Tony, who falls juuuussssst on the tolerable side of “aw shucks” sappiness. They’re a couple that’s easy to root for, especially when Eilis is called back to Ireland and finds herself struggling with a variety of pressures that threaten to keep her away from Tony, and America, forever. Eilis’ ache is palpable, knowing what she’s left behind in America but feeling the inexorable pull that the easy comfort of home usually has. It’s to Ronan’s credit that this is a real dilemma – we buy into the push/pull she feels even though by this point we’re fully on board with her new life in the big city. It’s a sophisticated, nuanced performance that never takes the easy way out, and it confirms that Ronan will be worth watching for decades.

Add in a vibrant cast of supporting characters (the tenants and owner of Eilis’ New York boarding house; Tony’s family; a friendly Irish priest played by the reliably excellent Jim Broadbent) and Brooklyn is a huge smothering bear hug of a movie, the cinematic equivalent of slipping into a warm bath or sipping a mug of cocoa while snow gently drifts from the sky. It’s a movie to make you feel good – nothing fancy, just a simple story well told by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

*****

Current listening:

Afghan black

The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)

Join the Dots

Flyingcircus_2I’ve written a lot over the years about just how crucial it was to my developing personality to discover independent music when I was 15 years old, and I’ve undoubtedly worn out my welcome writing about how Stephen King was a flashpoint for so much of what I’ve done with my life.  One area that’s gone oddly unexplored – even though it’s easily as important as those other two – is comedy.  Mirroring what happened for me with R.E.M. and Stephen King, I got into comedy in a fairly heavy way as a freshman in high school, and it unequivocally shaped the way I looked at the world.

There were three names that loomed over the others, all of which I discovered in less than a year.  George Carlin came first.  My parents had a vinyl copy of Occupation: Fooleand once they decided I was old enough to handle it, I wore out the grooves listening to his “Filthy Words” bit.  Next came Steve Martin.  I’m sure I was aware of him on some level before high school (probably as the King Tut guy from Saturday Night Live), but my first viewing of The Jerk hit me at just the right time. I made quick work of the rest of his filmography, and I also got my hands on his standup album Let’s Get Small, which, in its deconstruction of the genre, stood as sort of a counterpoint to the polish of Occupation: Foole.  Carlin and Martin both taught me that comedy could be smart and principled, but also simultaneously irreverent and idealistic.  I gravitated toward the anti-authoritarian vibe they both clearly possessed, but also responded to Martin’s romantic streak and Carlin’s strong undercurrent of optimism.  They were (and still are) two artists whose work I hold dear.

And then came Monty Python. My friend John (two years older than me and also responsible for turning me on to the band Marillion, more on which some other day) introduced me to Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and my world was never the same.

monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-bts

The absurdity, but also the undeniable intelligence, was worlds away from anything else I’d seen at the time.  I wasn’t sheltered by any means, but my parents’ tastes always ran to the conventional.  Growing up it was a steady diet of whatever sitcoms were popular (Three’s Company, The Facts of Life), and if I ever saw R-rated comedies, it was only the edited versions on network TV.  So while I’d seen Caddyshack, Airplane!, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, I hadn’t really seen them, if you know what I mean.

To suddenly watch Graham Chapman come galloping over a hill followed by a servant banging two coconuts together was a total paradigm shift.  You mean . . . this was possible?  And there was more of it?  John quickly became my supplier.  He passed me VHS copies of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, and episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus he’d recorded from the local PBS station.  Our library had a copy of And Now for Something Completely Different, and I watched that, too, even though I’d already seen most the sketches.  I became that nerd (in addition to all the other nerds I already was), repeating catchphrases ad nauseam to the annoyance of friends, family, and teachers.  I was obsessed.

Just like it was with The Beatles, everyone has their favorite Python.  For me, it’s always been John Cleese.  He always seemed like the smartest in the troupe (although Michael Palin ran a close second), and I appreciated the fact that he could do both verbal humor (“Argument Clinic”) and physical humor (“Ministry of Silly Walks”) with equal facility.  What I tapped into most of all, though, as an angsty little guy who didn’t have a firm grasp on his emotions, was the deep reservoir of rage that seemed to be coursing just below the surface of Cleese’s aloof British exterior.  In many of his sketches there’s the impression that he’s just barely holding it together.  “The Parrot Sketch” is probably the most well-known example of this, although I think “The Architects Sketch” is where he does some of his best work.  Cleese plays the title character, pitching an abattoir to two stuffy business types who really want a block of flats.  Watch the build until the glorious explosion at the 3:00 mark.

Cleese would, of course, turn “slow burn escalating to a tirade” into an art form in Fawlty Towers which is, for me, the Sistine Chapel of British comedy.

In my late teens and early 20s, as I got more involved with improv and sketch comedy, Cleese sort of became the Platonic ideal of how to mix low and high comedy.  Or maybe it was more that he illustrated how to do low comedy with intelligence and high comedy with a visceral edge.  Most importantly, I can draw a straight line from Cleese to many of my current favorite comedians (Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Louis C.K., Kyle Kinane, Paul F. Tompkins, etc.), all of whom seem to be spiritual descendants of what Cleese was doing in the 1960s and 70s.

Tonight Amanda and I go see Cleese’s tour with fellow Python Eric Idle.  Most shows I attend for a relaxing night out.  A few others, though, are more about paying tribute to the people who, even from a great distance, taught me how to be me.

IMG_0490

*****

Current listening:

World harmlessness

The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (2015)

Cinema Sunday (10/18/15)

Crimson peak“It is a monstrous love.  And it makes monsters of us all…”

There is nothing subtle about Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.  Every aspect of it, from the sweeping score to the elaborate costumes to the ornate set design to the gruesome climax, is elevated, ecstatic, and over the top.  Some people have seemed surprised by this, as though the director of Blade II and Hellboy has been all about nuance in the rest of his career.  Nope – what Crimson Peak is above all else is a glorious throwback to the extravagantly gothic horror movies of the 1950s and 60s., and to criticize it for being obvious is like criticizing water for being wet.  Even the movie’s big “twist” is telegraphed early, and the fun of the movie isn’t in the (nonexistent) surprise, but in knowing what’s coming and seeing how a master filmmaker plays his instrument to get us there.

Some plot: It’s Buffalo, New York, at the cusp of the twentieth century.  Edith Cushing (and there’s no way that surname is an accident, given Peter Cushing’s prominent role in the horror films of Hammer Studios, which del Toro clearly adores) is an aspiring writer whose father Carter, a prominent businessman, views her aspirations with a sort of patronizing back-handed encouragement (he gifts her a pen, but is less excited when she tells him she wants to use a typewriter to mask her gender to potential publishers).  When Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille, arrive in Buffalo from England to find investors for Thomas’ invention to mine clay, Edith is quickly taken with the dapper Englishman (and he with her).

Crimson PeakThings happen.  A lot of things.  A lot of slow things.  This isn’t a criticism as much as a warning.  Those expecting to walk into a fast-paced, whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute phantasmagoria will be disappointed.  Del Toro takes his sweet old time to establish character, back story, and setting.  I liked it.  Many won’t.  It reminded me in some ways of the beginning of The Exorcist, where not much happens for a while in the service of world-building. There’s the courtship between Edith and Thomas.  There’s the pitch Thomas makes to Edith’s father.  There’s the lovelorn (and Carter-endorsed) McMichael, a friend of the family who pines after Edith. There’s a subplot with a private detective.  There’s a mysterious murder.  But none of it is scary and all of it appears to be in direct contradiction of the movie’s ad campaign, which paints the movie as a Gargantuan Thrill Machine.™

Crimson peak 2Instead, as Edith arrives at Allerdale Hall in rural England as Sharpe’s new bride, we get more slow burn.  Only this time, instead of exposition, it’s all in aid of amping up the creep factor.  See, Allerdale – nicknamed Crimson Peak for the way red clay seeps, blood-like, through the snow-covered ground in winter – is another in the long line of wind-swept, desolate houses that populate gothic horror stories.  And man, is it ever gorgeous.  Designed by Thomas E. Sanders and sumptuously shot by Dan Laustsen, Allerdale is a dilapidated beauty, all ornate carvings, winding staircases, clanking elevators, and soaring ceilings that have given way to the elements, allowing it to snow inside.  And now Edith finds herself tucked away in this remote house (we’re told it’s a four-hour-walk to the nearest village), getting acclimated to life with her husband and his sister, a distant, suspicious woman who constantly looks at Edith out of the corner of her eye like she just opened the fridge and smelled something rotten.  Things go bump (and worse) in the night.  The walls seep red clay like blood and Edith is warned never to go into the basement.

It’s at this point that del Toro can’t seem to decide if he’s making a ghost story or a mystery and decides to split the difference, largely successfully.  Through a series of encounters with a particular specter (who shall go unidentified here), Edith begins to unravel the mysteries of Allerdale Hall, which soon puts her in conflict with one of her apparent benefactors.  It escalates into an orgy of violence – I might have actually said “Ooooooh!” out loud at one particularly shocking act, which rarely happens – that also manages to pack a surprisingly resonant emotional punch.

It’s an odd movie that I can see a lot of people being dissatisfied with.  It starts slow and doesn’t pack a lot of scares.  It is, in many ways, a conventional horror story, which seems odd coming from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth.  The broad, sweeping melodrama can be off-putting if you don’t understand what del Toro is trying to do tonally.  But I found there to be a lot to love despite its quirkiness.  The trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain is immensely fun to watch – especially Chastain, who digs into her character with her usual ferocity.  Del Toro successfully mines some of the same thematic material as in his 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone, while also exploring the dangers of loving too much.  And of course the whole thing is visually impeccable.

And yet.  It feels like there’s another, weirder movie in here that ultimately might have been more successful.  The impression I got is that by chaining himself to the characteristics of the movies he was playing with, del Toro forgot that the most successful movies ultimately transcend the tropes of their genre.  It seemed for a while that we were going to get a del Toro-ian riff on gothic horror movies, but instead we got a gothic horror movie that merely settles for looking like a Guillermo del Toro movie.  It’s entertaining, to be sure, but by now del Toro has conditioned us to expect more.

*****

Current listening:

Manic everything

Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996)

I Can Be Afraid of Anything

halloween

Six years ago on another iteration of this blog, I put together my Horror Movie Top Ten List.  It hasn’t changed much between now and then, but it seemed to make sense to revisit it as I try to get this version of the blog up and running (especially tonight, when a lingering headache/sore throat combo prevented me from visiting a local haunted house with some friends from work).  I’m presenting it largely as it appeared in 2009, but I’ve added some minor edits and updates where applicable, along with an addendum to make up for anything list-worthy that’s shown up in theaters in the last six years.

Originally posted 10/31/09:

The rules:

1) I tried to stick with “traditional” horror movies, as opposed to movies that bleed (har har) into action or comedy or science fiction.  So that means no Alien or Shaun of the Dead or The Thing. (This is a fairly malleable criterion, though, as one or two inclusions on my list will make clear).

2) For no good reason other than I feel like it, I’ll be lumping together foreign films and their American versions, as well as original films and their remakes.  I often find I like both iterations of a movie, and sometimes for completely different reasons.  Rather than take up two spots, I combined them into one.

3) I’m crap at ranking things, so my list is alphabetical, as opposed to in order of preference.

So, here they are – My Alphabetical Top Ten (or Twelve or Fourteen, Because I’ve Combined Originals With Remakes) Horror Movies That Are Traditional Horror and Not Action or Comedy or Science Fiction.™

blair_witch_project_ver1The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) This is one of those polarizing movies, which usually means it’s doing something right.  The people who didn’t like it thought it wasn’t frightening, but the people who liked it thought it was one of the scariest things they’d ever seen.  Count me in the latter camp.  Aside from its masterful conceit – the movie is the recovered footage from three filmmakers who went missing in their search for the titular witch – the film’s naturalism (down to the occasionally obnoxious characters) made it seem all too real.  What really made the movie work, though, is the way it played on the audience’s fear of the dark and the unseen, as well as the anxiety of being completely powerless.  It’s the sense of hopelessness and desperation permeating the end of the movie that gives it its kick.  You know exactly what’s going to happen in that house, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

Update: Of course what I really should have said in here is that nothing is more frightening than the sound of small children giggling outside your tent in the pitch black of night.  It’s also worth mentioning that anyone coming to this movie fresh is likely to be underwhelmed.  15 years of found-footage movies (most of which are dreadful) has undeniably dulled Blair Witch‘s impact.  Much of the reason why this movie hit me as hard as it did is because I’d literally never seen anything like it.

dawn_of_the_deadDawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978; Zack Snyder, 2004) The original version – like all of Romero’s zombie movies – is not just a horror movie.  Yes, the gore is gruesome and shocking and plentiful, but the movie also functions as a sly satire of consumer culture.  When the survivors take refuge in an indoor shopping mall, the parallels between the shambling zombies and brain-dread shoppers are writ large.  Snyder’s 2004 reboot strips down the satire, turns the zombies into sprinters, and delivers a bare-bones monster movie whose acting is a cut above the standard horror-movie fare.  The always-terrific Sarah Polley takes a break from independent films to head up this scary, fast-paced, no-fuss zombie flick.  The fact that this is – so far – Snyder’s last decent film before disappearing up his own ass makes it all the more worthwhile.

TheDescentPoster-755748The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) A movie that’s far scarier than it has any right to be, The Descent manages to transcend its potentially hokey premise (female spelunkers are terrorized by a clan of mutated cave dwellers) to become one of the most genuinely frightening films of the last ten years.  Like most good horror movies, The Descent works precisely because it preys on the audience’s own fears.  Marshall takes our natural aversion to darkness and claustrophobia and uses it as another monster.  The creatures don’t show up until well into the movie, but by the time they do, the audience’s nerves are already fried from anticipation and the natural stress of the situation in which the women find themselves.  The terror comes on multiple fronts, and Marshall makes it look effortless.  Be sure to watch the movie’s original, blacker-than-black ending from its European release.

Update: This one still holds up for me.  I didn’t say it at the time, but if I was going to pick my favorite horror movie of the 21st Century, this one wins, full stop.  A couple come close (see below), but The Descent ticks all the right boxes for me.

evildeadjuly05The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a ranking of the goriest movies of all time, but this one has to be close to the top.  Sam Raimi’s calling card as one of cinema’s most inventive, playful directors was this creepy, gruesome take on demonic possession that also launched the career of Bruce Campbell.  Not so much a horror movie as an assault on the senses, I first saw The Evil Dead in high school and was unused to a movie sticking with me the way this one did.  The series got progressively sillier, culminating with 1992’s Army of Darkness, not a horror movie as much as a comedic riff on time travel.  The Evil Dead, if not Raimi’s definitive masterpiece, is at least the movie that most effectively illustrates what he’s capable of as a director.  As a sidenote, it was so good to see him return to this territory earlier this year with Drag Me to Hell, surely a contender for future versions of this list.

Update: I wrote this original list well before the 2013 remake, and I probably need to watch that one again.  I wasn’t particularly impressed, finding that it mainly tried to outdo the original’s gross-out factor with none of its wit or smarts.  But I suspect I owe it another viewing, this time without the weight of expectation.  Also, with six years of hindsight, Drag Me to Hell most certainly won’t be making an appearance on new versions of this list.

exorcist_posterbigThe Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)  Man, this movie. I don’t remember when I first watched it, but images from it are seared into my brain to this day.  One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because it takes its sweet old time getting things established.  Watching its re-release in the theater several years ago was a fantastic experience, but it struck me that this movie would never be made today.  It’s slooooow – especially as it establishes Father Merrin’s experiences in the Middle East and introduces Chris MacNeil and her soon-to-be possessed daughter, Regan.  The leisurely pace is key to the movie’s success, though, because we come to know and care about these characters.  And when it swings into action – with all the head-rotating, pea-soup-spewing, crucifix-abusing notoriety it gained – it never lets up until the final climactic moment.  I love horror movies, but there are very, very few of them that actually bother me – not just scare me, but lodge in the back of my brain for days afterward, where I worry at them when my mind is otherwise unoccupied.  The Exorcist is, for my money, probably the greatest horror movie of all time.

halloween2Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) Unfairly sullied by an abundance of inferior sequels (as well as by Rob Zombie’s pointless reboot), Halloween remains the archetypal slasher movie.  It also shouldn’t be held responsible for the raft of slasher movies that followed in its wake (and which continues to this day).  Carpenter’s original is genuinely frightening, from the big reveal at the end of the prologue to Michael Myers’ escape from the psychiatric hospital to his inevitable appearance in and terrorizing of bucolic Haddonfield, Illinois.  Throw in the bookish heroine played by Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as all the other devices that have since become horror movie cliché (Horny teens!  Booze!  Boobs!), and it’s easy to see why Halloween became the template followed by many less inventive filmmakers.  When it comes to slasher movies, accept no substitute.  Halloween is all you need.

Update: A year or two after writing this list I saw the original Friday the 13th on the big screen, and it’s tempting to lump the two of them together here in a bit of revisionist history.  Friday holds up better than I remembered, and, like Halloween, it can be easy to forget how good the original was in the deluge of far inferior sequels.

nightmare_on_elm_streetA Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)  It’s fitting that Wes Craven’s tour de force follows Halloween, because A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s influence has been diminished for many of the same reasons as Carpenter’s film.  An abundance of genuinely shitty sequels makes it easy to forget just how awesomely spooky and disturbing the original was.  While Nightmare is sort of a slasher movie, it goes deeper than that, plumbing the frequently surreal depths of the characters’ dreams.  And bogeyman Freddy Kruger (a child molester burned to death by the parents of the children now haunted by him) is a horror movie character fit for a time capsule.  He’s bent on revenge, but that revenge takes increasingly uncomfortable forms.  As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street provides just as many memorable images as The Exorcist (Johhny Depp’s girlfriend being dragged across the ceiling is just one that stuck with me for a long time), and is, in its own way, just as frightening.

rec-movie-poster1[•Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)/Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) A surprisingly creepy variation on the zombie formula, [•Rec] is a Spanish movie that tells the story of a TV film crew that gets more than it bargained for when it goes along with the fire department on what was supposed to be a routine emergency run.  Upon arrival at the apartment building, the situation quickly spirals out of control as they discover – but of course – that the building’s residents have been infected with some sort of virus that turns them into feral, zombie-like carnivores, and now the authorities aren’t letting anyone out.  Related, documentary-style, from the perspective of the TV news reporter on the scene, [•Rec] puts the viewer right in the middle of the horror, and as a result, it hits even harder.  The final sequence is, to put it simply, one of the most viscerally frightening things I’ve ever seen.  Quarantine, the American remake, sticks close to the original but manages to find its own voice and adds one or two kicky little twists of its own.  Most impressively, the final scenes are every bit as effective as in the Spanish-language original, which means, as remakes go, Quarantine is an emphatic and unqualified success.

Update: [•Rec] is one of the few movies to challenge The Descent for my personal top spot.  It’s just unrelenting, even on repeat viewings.  And I wrote this list before I knew the Jennifer Carpenter of Quarantine was the Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter.  It was a kick catching up with her on that series after being blown away by her work here.

texas_chainsaw_massacreThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) One of the other big guns of modern horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I always feel like I need to bathe afterward.  Focusing on a group of 20-something’s on a road trip, the entire movie seems coated with a patina of grime, from the first interaction with the hitchhiker to the shots of the cattle in the slaughterhouse to the confrontation that gives the movie its name.  It’s a crude, disturbing movie that left me feeling profoundly uneasy.  It was only after I thought about it, though, that I realized how little gore we actually see onscreen.  The movie is horrific, to be sure, but most of the violence is implied, leaving our over-active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  Often incorrectly labeled as a slasher movie, it seems to me that Chainsaw Massacre actually has more in common with the recent “torture porn” movies (Hostel, Saw, etc.).  The difference, of course, is that Chainsaw Massacre is genuinely frightening without being especially graphic, while the movies that emulate it only get the graphic part right, and almost completely leave out the fright.

twenty_eight_days_later28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)  In terms of pure entertainment, it doesn’t get any better than 28 Days Later. Jim wakes up in a deserted London hospital, wanders outside, and finds that the entire city is a ghost town.  These shots of empty British streets are breathtaking, and it’s this visual panache (courtesy of Danny Boyle, one of my favorite directors, and his frequent director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle) that helps establish 28 Days Later as being more than a garden-variety horror movie.  Jim comes to discover that the population has been virtually wiped out by a virus that turns the infected into hyper-aggressive (and very hungry) cannibals.  A movie about human nature as much as it is about survival, 28 Days Later is an intense and harrowing experience.  If the ending feels a little like an optimistic cop-out, I forgive Boyle for wanting to give viewers a single ray of sunshine after the 90 minutes of pitch-blackness that preceded it.

Brand new stuff:

Okay, like I said at the top, not much has changed in the last six years.  I still stand by all these selections, but reviewing the list now it bugs me that classics like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London didn’t make the cut, and not representing more recent films like Brad Anderson’s unbelievably creepy Session 9 and Bryan Bertino’s home invasion masterwork The Strangers also seems like an oversight.  But if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure which films on the existing list they’d replace.

Finally, in the interest of staying current, here’s quickie reviews of four more movies released since I wrote the original list that could show up in my Top Ten on a good day.

220px-The_House_of_the_DevilThe House of the Devil (2009) This slow-burn throwback to the grungy 70s isn’t for everyone.  It starts slow and stays slow (until the batshit crazy climax), but writer/director Ti West’s meditation on Satanic cults transcends its stylistic affectations to deliver something truly unique (and uniquely frightening).

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It Follows

It Follows (2015) Read it as an allegory for the dangers of promiscuity all you want, but I found it to be a clever riff on the inexorability (and inevitability?) of slasher movie villains.  Writer/director David Robert Mitchell cannily plays with tone and setting in a way that consistently keeps the audience off-balance, and in “final girl” Maika Monroe we’ve finally got an heir to Jamie Lee Curtis.

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ParanormalParanormal Activity (2009) One of the few found-footage movies to up the ante from Blair Witch (and do something original in the process), Paranormal Activity scared the hell out of me for many of the same reasons as its predecessor.  Capitalizing on our (or maybe it’s just my) completely natural fear of crazy shit happening while we’re asleep, writer/director Oren Peli tells a tale of demonic possession solely through camcorder footage.  Rather than being hokey, he uses this limitation to his advantage, showing us in inventive ways all those things that go bump in the night.  Paranormal Activity is that rare breed of movie that literally had me covering my eyes.  And I firmly believe that the first three movies in the series, taken as a trilogy, are the high-water mark in 21st Century horror filmmaking.

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UnfriendedUnfriended (2015) I know, I know.  But trust me on this one.  Taking place entirely in real time on one girl’s computer screen – through the manipulation of applications like Facebook, Spotify, IMs, Skype, and so on – Unfriended gives us something truly original.  As a killer stalks a group of high school friends communicating online, director Levan Gabriadze ratchets up the tension in wholly unexpected ways.  It may not age very well (as technology evolves, it’s probably going to look as quaint as Drew Barrymore’s landline in Scream), but for now it’s got the goods.

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Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Recommendations?  Sound off in the comments.

*****

Current listening:

New get

New Order – Get Ready (2001)

Deliver Us from Evil

last-exitI immediately get suspicious whenever a book or a movie or a TV show is lauded as an accurate depiction of anything.  This comes from years of seeing the frequently overwhelming grind of the teaching profession inaccurately compared to schmaltzy, saccharine hooey like Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus.  They’re all undeniably effective as drama, but they might as well feature a classroom full of unicorns for how realistically they depict the classroom.  And when we take these movies as reflections of real life, it makes sense that the public wants to know why their school and their teachers can’t just snap their fingers and solve all the problems of the world in less than 120 minutes.  If I had a screenwriter penning all the dialogue in my class each day, I’d look pretty awesome, too, and each class would feature a stirring montage backed by sweeping orchestration.  This is one reason why Alexander Payne’s Election is the most accurate version of high school ever committed to celluloid (thanks due, of course, to the Tom Perotta novel on which it’s based).  Payne isn’t afraid to admit that teachers can be both well-intentioned and petty, inspiring and manipulative.  I knew lots of teachers like Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, and in some of my worst moments I can even relate to him.

I knew the hype surrounding Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, first published in 1964, and my reality radar was already pinging.  The cover blurbs attest to its verisimilitude, promising it to be a depiction of “the fierce, primal rage seething in America’s cities.”  I love it when a book shows me things I’ve never seen – and this sheltered, Ohio-born coward certainly isn’t on a first-name basis with the mean streets of New York City – but once again I wondered: Just how realistic should I consider Selby’s version of Brooklyn to be?

After reading it, I’m still not sure.  There’s no doubting its power, that’s for sure.  It’s a gut punch of a book, half a dozen loosely-connected stories that feature a collection of profoundly unlikable characters doing generally horrible things to each other.  They hang out at the local diner, they get into fights, and – oh yeah – they beat their wives, over and over and over again.  There’s an argument to be made that Selby’s book is unrepentantly anti-woman, but the problem I have with that characterization is that the men doing the beating are clearly meant to be seen as despicable lowlifes.  Their behavior isn’t punished, but it certainly isn’t valorized, and at no point do we (or at least did I) ever feel that we’re meant to admire Vinnie or Mike or Abe or any of the mob who brutally beat and gang-rape Tralala in one of the book’s centerpiece stories.

And then there’s Harry.  The main character in “Strike,” he’s simultaneously the most unlikable and most sympathetic of characters.  A union worker who basically does nothing but cause problems for management, he’s tasked with organizing and running a months-long strike.  At the start, there’s no way to like Harry.  He’s lazy, he’s verbally and physically abusive toward his wife, and he is, above all, chronically angry.  Once the strike starts he looks like every recent Fox News union caricature: barely working and abusing his privileges by charging the union for food and drink after hours.  He buys friendship from the neighborhood ne’er-do-wells, inviting them to enjoy the free food while tiresomely regaling them with stories of all the (not very) difficult work he’s doing.

I know, I know: “He’s also sympathetic, you say?”  He is (and spoiler alert ahead).  During one of these evenings with the local guys, Harry becomes infatuated with Georgette, a neighborhood drag queen.  He doesn’t question the realization that he’s a closeted homosexual, and that this likely has everything to do with his animosity toward his wife.  He experiences a few moments of reservation at Mary’s, a Brooklyn gay bar, but as soon as he overcomes these he ardently pursues a series of relationships with an assortment of drag queens.  It’s in these moments that Harry is truly, finally, happy.  Content, even.  And in this way,despite all its misogynistic undercurrents, Last Exit to Brooklyn is also decidedly pro-gay.  If anything, the drag queens are the most positive characters in the book, standing out in stark contrast to the bullies and creeps that populate the stories.

It is, I have to admit, a little concerning how Selby undercuts this progressive stance by later equating homosexuality with pedophilia at the end of “Strike.”  I know we’re supposed to see Harry as a broken man, one thoroughly beyond redemption, and I also try to remember that we now know more about homosexuality than Selby did in 1964, including the fact that there’s no link between homosexuality and pedophilia.   And of course we also see Harry get his comeuppance at the end of the story.  But it’s hard to know how to feel.

And that pretty much sums up my opinion of Last Exit to Brooklyn as a whole.  Is all the hype about its supposed reality accurate?  Do I read this as an accurate reflection of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/early 1960s, with Selby simply acting as a reporter?  Is the misogyny and brutality (which I have to admit occasionally reads as pretty cartoony) just Selby telling it like it was?  In either case, I’m not sure I can recommend the book.  If it’s just stylized awfulness, it doesn’t really work as satisfying fiction, and if it’s truly a realistic depiction of Brooklyn life, it’s almost too disturbing to contemplate.

*****

Current listening:

XTC oranges

XTC – Oranges & Lemons (1989)

The Feast and the Famine

Stephen fromI’ve written so much elsewhere about my love for Stephen King that I steadfastly refuse to do it here.  It’s not just because I’m tired of my own enthusiasm, but because From a Buick 8 is such a tepid, by-the-numbers effort that my affection starts to look a little silly.

Reading this book – and thinking about King’s longevity – I couldn’t help but think in terms of my other great pop culture loves, music and film.  At some point we have to acknowledge that artists who’ve been around for 30+ years essentially get by on their past glories, and that if we appreciate their newest efforts, it’s rare that we love them in the way we love their earlier accomplishments.  Claiming to adore a 21st Century Stephen King novel is sort of like fawning over a new Rolling Stones album: it’s good that they’re still alive, but do we really want to compare Bridges to Babylon with Exile on Main St.?  I’ll dutifully see every film Woody Allen directs, but it’s pure folly to think Magic in the Moonlight can hold a candle to Annie Hall. That isn’t to say late-career artists can’t create a winner – Dylan being Example A – but it’s rare.  And so the question becomes: At what point do we stop letting nostalgia cloud our opinion of new works from tired artists?

And that’s sort of where I am with From a Buick 8. I don’t really fault King for recycling storylines after all this time – to continue the Stones metaphor, Keith Richards only has so many riffs in him – but I’m not sure there’s any way to look at a second haunted car novel as anything but creative fatigue.  In the Afterword, King describes how the idea came to him on a drive up the Eastern seaboard and how he then filtered it through his subsequent near-fatal accident, but it doesn’t do much to make the story seem fresh.

And that story?  A group of Pennsylvania State Troopers, headed up by chief Sandy Dearborn, talks to Ned, the 18-year-old son of a colleague who was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, about the haunted car in their storage shed.  Resembling a 1953 Buick Roadmaster…

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…the car was abandoned at a gas station by a mysterious driver and later appears to be the portal to another world.

It’s a book where, to be honest, not much happens.  The car spends the book in the shed, occasionally emitting blinding flashes of light … and, oh yeah, sucking unknowing people into its trunk and occasionally sending creatures from the other world to our own.  These arrivals look vaguely like things from our world  – a creepy bat, a creepy fish, creepy leaves – without actually being from our world, and they don’t live long once they’re here.  One of these sequences – a screaming humanoid thing arrives after an unusually violent light show – is the most effective scene in the book, a genuinely disturbing encounter that’s right in King’s wheelhouse.

But the rest of the book is more a story of how Ned’s father Curtis became obsessed with the car – or, maybe more importantly, how the car obsesses Curtis.  Structurally it’s sort of interesting, told mostly in flashback by the troopers, but their voices are largely indistinguishable (with the exception of Arky, a Michigan transplant who speaks in dem‘s and dere’s), and King’s folksy idioms seem clunkier than ever, bordering dangerously on Garrison Keillorisms.

It’s not even really a case where I can say, “Man, there’s a good story in here somewhere, but this isn’t it.”  It’s a goofy premise handled about as well as can be.  Fortunately, I’ve read a couple of King’s post-Buick 8 works, and it’s good to see that he would return, near as can be, to form.  11/22/63, especially, is close to prime King – his Match Point rather than his Scoop.

*****

Current listening:

House spy

The House of Love – A Spy in the House of Love (1990)

One Wave in the Sea

Gaiman oceanI don’t believe in magic.

Nor do I believe in ghosts or zombies or vampires (even the hot, sparkly ones).  I don’t believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil, and if I’m going to be thorough, I suppose I should also mention that I believe in angels and demons as much as I believe in leprechauns and fairies, which is to say not at all.

But man.  I want to believe.

This has been a constant in my life, reaching all the way back to my early exposure to J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit when I was five years old.  I can start there and trace a line of influence that stretches all the way to high school, passing through dalliances with Greek mythology (3rd grade), Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (6th grade), Dungeons & Dragons (middle school), and ending with my discovery of the stories of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison.  I was the kid happily brandishing a stick for a sword as I plunged headlong into the woods behind our house on those endless summer days when I could play with the giants and monsters that crept from the underbrush.  And it pains me to know just how dissatisfied that kid would be with the skeptical adult I’ve become.

But the desire to believe persists to this day.  It mainly manifests itself in my love of horror movies.  This morning I watched Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2014 film Willow Creek.

A played-straight, found-footage riff on the Bigfoot legend, the movie is a lot of fun, but as soon as it was over I immediately began scouring Wikipedia for more information on sasquatch, which sent me down a cyber-rabbit-hole of Native American legends, scientific jargon, and hoaxes.  This, despite the fact that I laugh with derision whenever clips from the TV show Finding Bigfoot show up on TV.  Of course I know there’s no such thing as Bigfoot, but the thing I wanted to do most this morning was go camping in the Pacific Northwest just in case, you know, if.

I went through something similar after watching André Ørvedal’s brilliant found-footage gem, 2010’s Trollhunter.

A Norwegian film based on the Scandinavian legend, I immediately lost myself in stories and descriptions of the various types of trolls while simultaneously resisting the urge to book a flight to Norway.  These found-footage movies are especially good at stoking my imagination because of the way the camera acts as a surrogate for the viewer.  In a way, I’m there, watching things through the other end of the lens.  And for a kid who was scared of the dark like I was, there will never be anything more frightening than two people cowering in a tent while small children giggle maniacally from the darkness.

The point is, all my skepticism and cynicism notwithstanding, I’m obviously susceptible to stories of the supernatural that are done well (and even some that aren’t).  And they’re rarely done with as much grace and style as Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  The novel is bookended by a funeral, as the unnamed narrator, now grown, returns to rural England to memorialize someone whose identity is never revealed.  He’s struck with the impulse to visit the site of his childhood home (long since demolished), and once there he decides – is drawn? – to visit the home of Lettie Hempstock, his playmate when he was seven.  He arrives at her house, meets her grandmother (who vaguely remembers him), and ventures out to the back of their property to visit the pond that Lettie called the ocean.

From there the narrator is cast back in memory to the age of seven, when he met Lettie and her mother and grandmother for the first time, and how they helped him save the world from dark forces that lurked in the pastoral English countryside.  To reveal too much would be to do two things: 1) Ruin the immense fun of the book, and 2) Render it potentially uninteresting due to its relative simplicity.  Distill any fairy tale to its essence and it loses its power.  Such would be the case here, because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at its core, a fairy tale.  A fairy tale that begins with a suicide and at one point involves a character having an extramarital affair with a demon, but a fairy tale nonetheless.

What you need to know: In an effort to help Lettie cast an evil being out of this world, the narrator accidentally brings something back from the other side, and this thing is bent on destroying reality as we know it.  What follows involves the narrator coming to terms with what he’s done, dealing with the aftermath, and figuring out how he’s going to fix the problem he created.  It’s a simple story that follows the arc of most fairy tales, but Gaiman writes with such uncommon poetry that the novel is imbued with an otherworldliness that suits its content:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams.  In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real.  In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie.  It is the most basic building brick of everything.  In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole,’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

Beyond all this, though, it’s a novel about the power of literature (the narrator reads as an escape when things get bad) and the discovery of friendship.  Even more, it’s about a boy’s realization that adults can’t solve everything.  At one point the narrator has a conversation with Lettie’s mother, and she tells him this:

“‘Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole wide world.'”

I haven’t gone out of my way to find books reflecting this very same belief that’s been occupying my thoughts lately, but they’ve definitely taken the time to find me (see my recent reviews of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon and Roger Ebert’s Life Itself for evidence).  In Gaiman’s book we see it again – the notion that nothing much changes as we age, for better or worse.  Only here we get an addendum: If something needs saving, the first place to look is within.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, if anything, perhaps deceptively simple.  It’s brief, it shares the worldview of a seven-year-old, it follows the pattern of children’s stories.  But it’s sly and it’s wise and it possesses the kind of magic in which even a cynic like me can believe.

*****

Current listening:

Okkervil stage

Okkervil River – The Stage Names (2007)

Before the Night Falls

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‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs.  No need to spell them out.  I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.  To make others less happy is a crime.  To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.  We must try to contribute joy to the world.  That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances.  We must try.  I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, Roger Ebert entered my life at an early age and forever altered the way I look at the world.  Even though I was too young to appreciate it, I still remember the opening credits to Sneak Previews – the ticket, the popcorn, the candy, the broken soda machine – which also means I must have seen at least a couple early episodes of Ebert’s review show with Gene Siskel.  I have stronger memories of At the Movies, the show that ran until Siskel’s death in 1999 (I don’t really consider Ebert’s pairing with Richard Roeper – which ran until 2006 – as part of the canon).  Since I was still a nascent film buff, the big appeal for me was the fighting.  Ebert and Siskel’s friendly – and occasionally not-so-friendly – rivalry was legendary, and I think many people tuned in to the show for the same reason I did, to watch these two passionate men argue about the medium they loved most.  Of course I came to value the show for the duo’s informed criticism, but for a while I just remember feeling a delicious discomfort when I saw Ebert getting hot under the collar.

Roger Ebert, Gene SiskelI know the common perception is that the two hated each other, but I think anyone who’s shared a passion with another person recognizes their own arguments in Ebert and Siskel’s squabbling.  My own friends and I argued constantly over such crucial topics as Star Wars or Star Trek? Conan or the Beastmaster?  Spider-Man or Batman? (Incidentally, Star Wars, Conan, and Batman are the correct answers.) The arguments were usually heated and often personal, but our friendship was never in doubt.  And of course that’s exactly what I came to see in Ebert and Siskel: you don’t argue like that unless there’s a core of love – for the medium and each other – at the heart of the dispute.

Ebert gives Siskel a couple loving chapters in Life Itself, his memoir, along with accounts of his life growing up in Illinois, stories of his newspaper days with the Sun-Times, anecdotes about some of his favorite celebrities, and meditations on all his loves: cars, breasts, Steak ‘n Shake, the movies, and, most crucially, his wife Chaz.  It’s a memoir with an air of the autumnal; at the time of its writing, Ebert had survived his cancer recurrence and three failed surgeries to repair his face and restore his voice, but there’s an inescapable melancholy to it, and the sense that Ebert was, in some ways, starting to close the curtain.

I think the thing that struck me most about the book is how much of myself I saw in it.  It’s likely I’m just projecting because I admire the man so much, but I noted several times his observation – which I’ve also had with increasing frequency – that none of us ever really change as we age.  It’s conventional wisdom that at some point we figure it all out, and we enter the later stages of our life secure in the knowledge that we can just ride things out with confidence and aplomb.  But I still – for better or worse – feel like the same dweeb I was at 16: thin-skinned, socially awkward, passive-aggressive, a romantic who doesn’t know how to talk to other people, teeming with an ambition that was generally nullified by laziness and procrastination, and given to fits of self-righteous indignation while still retaining a general hopefulness and optimism.  I was that guy then; I’m that guy now.

Ebert acknowledges this stasis in different ways, not least in the acknowledgement that many of his passions – especially breasts and the movies, in that order – remained constants throughout his life.  But we also see it in some of his offhand comments.

On being punished by his Catholic school teachers: “I felt humiliated and outraged.  It seemed to me I had been mistreated by people with no imagination or sympathy.  I suppose in another sense I was being a little jerk.  That pattern has persisted.”

On attending his 50th high school reunion: “Looking at my classmates, I wondered if perhaps the person we are in school is the person we will always be, despite everything else that comes our way.  All that changes is that slowly we become more aware of what matters in life.”

Rereading those quotes, maybe I’ve not accurately characterized Ebert’s point.  It’s not that we don’t change; it’s that when we do, our core remains the same.  For everything else the book does – and it does a lot – it’s this lesson that stuck with me, and, seeing my own experience reflected in Ebert’s, I find it oddly comforting.  This is the way life is; why fight it?

As good as the book is, there are parts that worked less well.  This is likely just a matter of taste, as Ebert’s candor and humor is a constant.  Still, I found myself drifting during some of his lengthy tales of workplace personalities at the Sun-Times, and I will never be particularly interested in tales of John Wayne or Robert Mitchum.  But there were more places that set my little movie-loving heart aflutter – entire chapters on his experiences with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Werner Herzog – and the closing chapters, where he details his illness and recovery in heartbreaking detail, are worth the read by themselves.

The biggest influence Ebert has had on my life isn’t one from the book.  In one of his reviews – and I’d do unspeakable things now to remember which one it was – he said, and I’m paraphrasing: A movie isn’t what it’s about; it’s how it’s about it.  This is true of movies, but of books, too, and it’s a lesson I try to impart to my students.  The content of a movie – or book – is less important than how the director – or author – frames that content.  It’s not that a character is killed; it’s how that death is treated by the film.  Is it trivialized, or does it have gravity and import?  Context is everything, and it’s the respect, or lack of it, that a director brings to his characters and their struggles that dictates how much corresponding respect we should pay the work.

With that in mind, there’s just no way to look at Ebert’s memoir as anything but an unqualified success.  With life itself as the subject, Ebert is funny and unflinchingly honest in equal measure.  It’s a beautiful – but never regretful – elegy for a life well-lived, from a man who sees the end coming and knows that that’s the perfect opportunity to celebrate it.

*****

Current listening:

Jam setting

The Jam – Setting Sons (1979)

As Close as I Came to Being Right

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The Biggest Loser returns tonight.  I will watch it, I will enjoy it, and I will steadfastly refuse to care that I’m not supposed to do either of those things.

I understand the impulse behind naming certain things “guilty pleasures.”  We all want to think our taste is beyond reproach, that we worship at the altar of the highbrow, and that at the very least we recognize that certain entertainments have little or no redeeming social value.  To cite something as a guilty pleasure is to position oneself as someone who knows better and in the process claim a certain moral or intellectual high ground.

It’s nonsense, of course.

When it comes to entertainment, why should we feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure? The truth (for me, anyway) is that I don’t trust people who claim to only like the “right” things. Thanks to my association with a certain music festival, I’ve come into contact with folks who claim only to like Japanese musicians who create found-sound drone collages out of kitchen appliances and the subsonic echoes of beating insect wings or six-hour black-and-white films about a Romanian peasant eating a potato.  It’s like a real-life episode of Portlandia, where  the insufferably pretentious assert their superiority by claiming never to have heard of Lost, and it always smacks of an effort to hide their insecurity by trying too hard.

I do recognize, however, that the flipside is true.  A steady diet of American Idol, Maroon 5, Nicholas Sparks, and Adam Sandler will do no one any favors, and those of us who have friends who snack incessantly on junk food should logically steer them in increasingly more substantial directions.  But taking those things in moderation – and, by necessity, recognizing their flaws – is nothing to feel guilty about.

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to quickly discuss three entertainments (TV, music, and book) that some people would call guilty pleasures, but for which I make absolutely no apologies.  I like what I like, and that’s really all that should matter.

I know I’m not supposed to admit to any of the things that follow.  I have a Ph.D., and therefore should spend my days surrounded by fine art, books of philosophy, and classical music.  But I have nothing hanging on my walls, I haven’t read a philosophy book since my brief fascination with Foucalt in the late 90’s, and classical music bores me to tears.

jillian-michaels-and-bob-harperTelevision – The Biggest Loser

The perennial weight loss competition works for me for a couple reasons.  The main one is that, at its best, it’s truly inspiring.  Unlike most reality shows that seem to wallow in humiliation, Biggest Loser actually tries to make a positive difference for people, introducing them to exercise and a healthy diet (in between those annoying product-placement spots for Subway and Tupperware, which assume the contestants have all been living on Mars) and encouraging viewers in need of weight loss to make a similar change.  I mean, sure, there’s humiliation here, too, as we watch horribly obese people fall off treadmills, but on balance it does far more good than harm.

It also works because the show has chosen its trainers well.  Bob Harper is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian Michaels’ batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs.  I’m ambivalent about the most recent addition, Dolvett Quince.  He’s sort of a combination of the other two, with a penchant both for sappy platitudes and yelling.  He’s an an inoffensive character and many of the contestants seem to like him, but I’m not sure what he offers that the show didn’t already have.

There are, of course, drawbacks that I have a harder time defending.  Most problematic for me is the way the show constantly falls into a hero/victim dichotomy.  I sort of resent the clips of Bob telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if the contestants are doing it to be better parents.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you a responsible human.

On that same point, I grow tired of how the female competitors – usually mothers – are often portrayed as victims, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives have held them down and force-fed them Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout each season, Jillian or Bob or Dolvett will say something  like this to one of the women: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  Look: I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show starts, many of the women are pushing 250 pounds or more.  That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight.  They might not have had time to take care of themselves, but they sure as hell had time to stuff their faces.  I think this bothers me precisely because in most instances The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for some contestants’ obesity at their families’ feet seems like a cop-out.

All of this is to say that, even with its flaws, I have no problem supporting a show that encourages its viewers to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  Where most reality shows glorify bad behavior, The Biggest Loser asks us to live up to our potential.

ColdplayMusic – Coldplay

Ever since 2005 and the band’s appearance as the “You know how I know you’re gay?” punchline from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay has been seen as the relentlessly sappy group of effeminate Brits who give romance a bad name. Among certain music fans, their name is shorthand for cheap emotion and mass-market sentiment – the Hallmark Cards of guitar rock.

It’s not a totally undeserved reputation, but I love them anyway because, left out of that larger discussion is a really important point: they write some killer melodies.  Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, is a dynamite collection of songs that’s been overshadowed by the ubiquity of hit single “Yellow,”  and its follow-up, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of my Top Ten albums of the first decade of the 21st Century.  And yeah, some of that album has been overplayed, but seriously: listen to “Clocks” with new ears and dare to tell me it’s not an amazing song.

Those first two albums went a long way toward replacing The Smiths in my lovelorn late-20’s vocabulary, and I vividly remember singing songs like “Shiver” and “The Scientist” at top volume as a balm for another broken heart.  And maybe this is why I’m drawn to Coldplay despite their detractors: at heart, I’m just as sappy and weedy as the band.

Anyway, 2005’s X & Y isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors (although I still find “Fix You” to be almost annoyingly wonderful in its panoramic, widescreen bombast), but their last two albums, 2008’s Viva la Vida and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, have taken the admirable tack of following stylistic tangents while still incorporating some of the most hummable melodies of recent times.  It hasn’t made them more masculine, but in our testosterone-heavy culture, I’ll take a little sensitivity anyday.

Stephen KingBooks – Stephen King

I’ve written about King so much in my other blogs that I’m a little tired of my own effusiveness.  But for the benefit of new readers: Stephen King is almost solely responsible for the reader I am today.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.

I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly,why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old rear.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  Up to that point I was heavily into the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks and my reaction was this: “I’ve been reading about elves when I could have been reading this all along?  Ho-lee shit.”  Fortunately, this was in the late 80′s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order. This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who continued my literary journey.  Ellison led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who eventually got me to Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy and T.C. Boyle and most of the other writers who are my favorites to this day.

But King set me on this path, and I still feel a debt of gratitude for that.  To this day I faithfully pick up his newest book whenever it’s published, but I don’t do this out of obligation or nostalgia.  King’s very popularity leads people to lump him in with (in my opinion) less-talented writers like Sparks or Grisham, but, as with Coldplay, I think this knee-jerk reaction obviates people from actually experiencing the art.  And King, for as long as he’s been doing this, still writes terrific stories with great passion.  Not every book is a winner – I grew tired of the Dark Tower series around Book 5 and still haven’t been able to finish it, and I’m still reluctant to read From a Buick 8 because I think we can all agree that two haunted car books is two too many for anyone – but I think we’d all be lucky to maintain such consistently high quality for nearly forty years.  So, y’know, struggle manfully with the new Thomas Pynchon if you like. King’s upcoming sequel to The Shining will give me more pleasure in the long run.

One final note about all of this: liking what you like and being proud of it, as I hope I’ve shown here, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge its faults.  But it also doesn’t mean that just because it has faults that it’s not worthy of your attention.  For me, it’s more important that we have passions than that we worry overmuch what other people think of them.  And, to that end, you should feel free to make fun of me for liking any of the things I’ve written about here, just as I will make merciless fun of you for liking Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Nickelback.  It’s only fair.

*****

Current listening:
Joy big
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar (2011)

Notes on Achieving Orbit

rickygervaisstephenmerchantWhen it comes to movies and television, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington (and the subsequent travel program, An Idiot Abroad) is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais in previous posts on previous blogs, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a decent standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.  These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****
Current listening:
Love forever
Love – Forever Changes (1967)