Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fiend Without A Face

"The Thought-Monster" [1930]
Written by Amelia Reynonlds Long

Fiend Without A Face [1958]
Written by Herbert J. Leder
Directed by Arthur Crabtree

When legitimate critics deign to examine the gutter genre of science-fiction, they are often interested with the examined text's political undertones. How would Robert Heinlein vote based on Starship Troopers? What does Star Trek's multiculti Federation say about 1960s liberal social optimism? Battlefield Earth---what the fuck? The journey of Fiend Without a Face from page to screen serves as an interesting footnote to such investigations.

Long's short story, originally published in Weird Tales---the greatest of the sci-fi pulps, has do with mysterious deaths in a small town. Thanks to the title, we know that they are being caused by a (get ready for it) THOUGHT MONSTER! The titular beast is an invisible being who is scaring people to death. A psychic investigator comes to town to investigate. He starts getting close, so the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the creature decides to sacrifice himself in destroying it. Trapped in a room with violet lights, the thought monster is destroyed, but not before robbing the poor scientist of his sanity.

So far, nothing special. The story reads like second-rate Lovecraft. By the time a film was made, atomic energy was all the rage. Radiation was waking up dinosaurs (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla), enlarging invertebrates (Them!, Tarantula), and luring spacemen to our planet (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Plan Nine From Outer Space). Oddly enough, there's an odd sort of ambivalence that runs through many of these pictures. When blame is placed, it's usually on the scientist...and most of the time it was an accident. The problem isn't atomic power, we just need to be more careful with how we use it next time. Coming towards the end of the 50s radioactive monsters cycle, Fiend Without a Face reads almost as an apologia for nuclear power.

We again have the scientist and his attempts to make thoughts flesh. He begins siphoning energy from the local radar station (built in Canada to spy on the Russkies). The atomic kick proves enough to solidify his thoughts, but they become "evil" (his stated scientific opinion) and start murdering townsfolk (by sucking out their brains and spinal cord through two holes in the back of the head...neat!). The "superstitious" (the film's description of them) locals think that fallout or something to do with radiation is causing the rash of mysterious deaths. And maybe it's also affecting the cows and their milk production. No, no, the US Army assures the local Canuck bumpkins, it's nothing atomic, you uneducated fools. You would have to be superstitious to think anything bad could come from the atom! (Well, the atom in freedom-loving American hands, at any rate. Not to sure about those atheist Commies though....)

This drags on for about fifty or so minutes. There's a love interest and a great sucking noise whenever one of the invisible monsters is about to attack. Finally, the fiends take over the power station and overload the system, making them visible. And they're BRAINS! Brains that creep along using their spinal cords as tails. The hero Army Joe has the brilliant plan to BLOW UP the reactor as a means of stopping the monsters. (Apparently blowing up a nuclear power plant wouldn't cause some sort of nuclear disaster...whew...someone tell Homeland Security not to worry about that one.) The plant is blown and the monsters melt into goop and the Army Joe gets to kiss the girl while everyone looks at him and knows he's totally gunna get some hot Canadian poon. The End.

You really need to see Fiend Without a Face. The final attack of the stop-motion brains is jaw-dropping. Our heroes shoot them, causing them to rupture and gurgle out something the consistency of Smuckers jam. And there's an absolutely revolting noise that accompanies said gurgling that is too wonderful for words. And this is all part of The Criterion Collection, the people who restore and present definitive editions of Kurosawa, Bergman, and other respectable directors! It's Psychotronic Heaven---rent this now!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

They Live

"Eight O'Clock In The Morning" [1963]
Written by Ray Faraday Nelson

They Live [1988]
Written and Directed by John Carpenter

The modern (North) American horror film, whose origins lie within the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s, has frequently been used as a venue for debating social concerns. George Romero's Dead quartet is the most obvious in its critique of American society (consider the mall zombies of Dawn of the Dead). David Cronenberg's early work is a pulsating examination of the breakdown of the family unit, particularly in 1979's The Brood. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be seen as a Swiftian take on the generation gap: the younger generation is literally being eaten by its forebearers. Although no less politically inclined than his peers, John Carpenter would take longer to make a cinematic statement. The result was 1988's They Live and it was worth the wait.

The premise of both Nelson's original short story and the film is that aliens (called the Fascinators in the story, unnamed in the film) have taken over the world by lulling humanity to sleep. They use subliminal orders in the mass media to keep us numb while they harvest us like cattle. Nelson's story is a masterwork of economy. The edition I read was only five pages long, but had enough ideas and interest for a much larger work. A man named Nada is accidentally "awakened" by a hypnotist and sees the invaders for who they really are. He is given the order to die (on the titular eight o'clock in the morning) and must do anything he can to awake the rest of humanity before he is either captured or dies at eight.

Carpenter removes the death at eight and makes the aliens visible though sunglasses. He compares the alien's plans to a twisted version of big 80s capitalism: the aliens are merely exploiting the savages of their local third world. The galaxy is, after, all just an infinite free market. For a fun poke in the eye, one of the first things Nada sees is an alien on TV (possibly the President of the United States) quoting Regan's "morning in America" maxim. Carpenter also adds a significant group of human collaborators to the mix. Not every evil yuppie is a Fascinator; some are just assholes who've decided to sell out their own species for a life of privilege.

Nada is not alone in Carpenter's film. There is already a resistance movement by the time Nada is awakened (they created the sunglasses). The shootouts between the resistance and the Fascinator-led police provide the requisite 80s action sequences. Of course, this is a satire, and as such even action is up for parody. The fact that Nada is played by professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (giving a fun and believable performance) constantly reminds us of the artifice of the whole construction. (Yes, that's right, I just said that the star of Wrestlemania III contributes to an overall Verfremdungseffekt in a late-80s sci-fi movie. Deal with it.) The film contains a jaw-dropping fight between and Nada and Frank (Keith David---earlier of Carpenter's The Thing) that drags on for a comedic five plus minutes.

While They Live was a seminal 80s release for those growing up at the time (such as your humble blogger here), the film has lapsed into a state of semi-obscurity. No longer do we hear cineastes quote Piper's immortal line: "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of bubble gum." In fact, for those who don't remember the 80s, the film is best known because the Nada and Frank fight was restaged line for line and shot for shot by Timmy and Jimmy in the "Cripple Fight" episode of South Park.

If you haven't seen They Live, you should. It's fun, funny, and no less dead on almost a decade later. In fact, the idea that the Fascinators are disrupting the environment (a throwaway line in the film) cuts deeper now than at the time of the film's initial release. Ultimately, you get a liberal message movie hidden beneath the facade of a macho 80s action pic. How can you go wrong? I mean, if you haven't watched a professional wrestler take on the defleshed zomboid aliens responsible for global warming, don't you think now's a good time? If not for yourself, for future generations....

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

The Screaming Mimi [1949]
Written by Fredric Brown

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage [1970]
Written and Directed by Dario Argento

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an excellent example of a film adaptation that strays from its source text, but does so to the point of becoming its own autonomous work of art. The film stands so well on its own that many have completely disregarded the book. In all of the work on Argento that I've read, there is little to no comparison of novel and film---usually just an aside noting that Bernardo Bertolucci gave Argento a copy of the book and that Dario wrote his script shortly after finishing it. Such oversight is unfortunate, because, as loose an adaptation as the film is, elements of the books pop up in the film in interesting ways.

The plots of both works center on a man who witnesses an attempted murder. In Mimi, alcoholic newspaperman Sweeney only catches the aftermath: a bloodied (and quickly denuded) exotic dancer being guarded by her faithful dog Devil. In Bird, writer Sam is caught in the glass doors of an art gallery and witness a woman being attacked by a black trench coat-wearing assailant (the standard villain of the giallo). In both cases, the protagonist is unable to lend any kind of support to the victim.

The men's motives for investigating the attacks differ. Sweeney wants to catch the Chicago ripper so he can get closer to (read: bed) dancer Yolanda Lang. Sam is initially considered a suspect by the Italian police, but is soon removed from suspicion. Something about the attack lingers in his mind, demanding he solve the crime before returning to America.

Both works revolve around an esoteric clue referenced in the title. In his investigation, Sweeney comes across a terrifying statue of a screaming nude woman which is dubbed Screaming Mimi. He believes that it served as the trigger for the ripper on at least one occasion. Argento keeps the "activation through art" motif (so much so, in fact, that aesthetics and bloodshed have become completely entangled throughout his oeuvre), this time in the form of a rather macabre landscape painting. In both book and film, the hero journeys to meet the artist, who turns out to be somewhat crazy himself (but not ripper material). The bird of Crystal Plumage, despite its mineral name, is an actual animal who's location serves as the final clue to the killer's lair (sort of).

Sweeny is a significantly less put-together character than Sam. Our newspaperman is just coming off of a two-week drunk when he gets a flash of bloody Yolanda. He drinks throughout the story just to stave off the shakes. Sam, on the other hand, is getting ready to leave Italy with his Italian girlfriend. He does a great job in his sleuthing, especially considering he's an amateur and that at one point he's almost decapitated.

Both works even share the same twist ending. The motives are slightly different, Argento's not surprisingly being the more nonsensical of the two, but arrive at the same conclusion.

Checking out The Screaming Mimi provides a new frame of reference for analyzing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. I think this angle has been ignored in Argento scholarship (upon writing that, I could hear a thousand critics snort with disdain at the phrase) mostly due to the relative obscurity of the novel. Thankfully, the book is in print again and readily available for order. The committed Argentophile will want to check it out to see what originally got Dario's fevered directorial imagination going. Fans of the pulp detective novel should get a kick out of the book's strange characters and punchy, often self-referential, prose. Mimi is by no means a classic, but it's a really fun read. Residents of Chicago will dig the literally street-by-street descriptions of their city pre-1950.

Newcomers to Dario Argento, or the giallo genre in general, will find as easy a point as any in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. As his career progresses, Argento becomes less and less interested in the basic structure of narrative, which tends to confuse and sometimes irritate the novice. While Bird's not bad, my favorites by the maestro are Suspiria (his acknowledged masterpiece) and Opera. Watch either one and see just how absolutely beautiful the splatter film can be.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Die Hard

Nothing Lasts Forever [1979]
Written by Roderick Thorp

Die Hard [1988]
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
Directed by John McTiernan

Reading Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever really demonstrates how likable the characters in Die Hard are. First, you have Bruce Willis as John McClane. He can be a smartass, but he really cares for his wife and kids. That outer shell of sarcasm (and later blood and soot) cover a surprisingly loving guy. Bonny Bedelia's Holly McClane is equally tough as nails and equally vulnerable. Even the villains are charismatic. On paper, Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is one of the coldest, most calculating baddies of 80s action cinema. He is calmly orchestrating the murder of a good score of people so that he can pull off the heist of the century. But he's so damn suave. And he's not prone to any sort of delusions; he may play the freedom fighter for the cameras, but he really couldn't give a toss about the Asian Dawn Movement. He wants his detonators so he can get the six million dollars worth of verabonds in the vault.

Nobody in Thorp's novel is so involving. The protagonist is Joseph Leland, perhaps the crankiest ex-cop in history. Imagine Andy Rooney at his least pleasant, then toss in a healthy dash of intergenerational friction and you'd be getting closer. Season with a good dose of hypocritical self-pity and a dash of self-piety and you've got our "hero." Ol' Leland is part of the Greatest Generation, and damn it if these young kids with their computers and their drugs and their mass media haven't begun to destroy society. Things just aren't like they were! Sure, he was an alcoholic, but his daughter Stephanie (and by extension everyone under forty) keeps fucking things up so much they make him look like a saint.

And let's not get started with these terrorists. They're all one-dimensional caricatures of Eurotrash scum, middle class kids who want to play liberator to mask they're innate bloodlust. Though they play at extreme leftist politics (a galling game at that!), they don't really have a cause. They're just bored and European...and thus decide to kill capitalist industrialists. Of course those guys are jerks, too. Instead of the Nakatomi Corporation we have the Klaxxon Oil Company, which has just brokered a deal with the oppressive government of Chile. So when Gruber whacks Rivers (the Takagi surrogate), you really can't feel all that bad. It's like if someone killed the head of Haliburton. No love lost.

Much of this reactionary claptrap could be ignored if the story had any sort of momentum. One of the reasons that the film still holds up is because it's exciting. The novel's narrative is extremely patchy. Each action sequence is followed by Leland's self-serving ramblings about his broken marriages and what a fuck-up Stephanie is and how he was an alcoholic and blah, blah, blah. For someone fighting for his life, Leland devotes a lot of time and energy to extraneous bitching, none of which makes getting through this short book any more enjoyable.

Thorp has no problem with throwing people he doesn't like to the lions. Both Stephanie (the Holly McClane character) and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson are given fairly ignominious deaths. But that's OK, 'cause neither character was as wonderful a person as Leleand. I mean, sure, he was an alcoholic and he has a terrible marriage track record and he didn't really do a great job of raising his daughter, etc. (We were reminded of all these facts about fifty times throughout the narrative at seemingly regular intervals.) But everyone else is part of these newfangled times and thus are essentially interchangeably corrupt and expendable. But thinking that other people are expendable is part of this crazy modern philosophy that's turning the world into a giant Los Angeles (the horror!).

There's a major difference between a flawed protagonist and an asshole. John McClane is the former, Joe Leland is the latter. I simply can't recommend Nothing Lasts Forever. If I weren't reading it for this blog, I would have chucked the poorly written little time-waster after about the first fifty pages (and that's being generous). Stick with the movie. Whenever I see Bruce Willis in schlock like Breakfast of Champions (the worst film ever made) or Grindhouse (a blasphemy unto the hallowed name of trash cinema), I like to re-watch Die Hard and remind myself that he can be a good actor if given a decent part.

However, I gotta admit that my colon clenches at the thought of this summer's Live Free or Die Hard. So much for nothing lasting forever, eh?

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Thing

"Who Goes There?" [1938]
Written by John W. Campbell, Jr.

The Thing [1982]
Written by Bill Lancaster
Directed by John Carpenter

If I've learned anything from The Thing, it's that being a scientist totally kicks ass! You get to hang out in the Antarctic with dogs and helicopters. You get a private arsenal of guns and flamethrowers. You get a pinball machine and computer chess. You get lots of booze and some weed. And you get to rock out to old-school Stevie Wonder ("Superstitious" to be exact). The only problem is that you could become infected by a malevolent amorphous extraterrestrial. And then Kurt Russell would have to set you on fire. (Which, as deaths go, would still be one of the top 10 most awesome ways to check out.)

Upon its initial release, The Thing met with considerable critical derision and audience disgust. Bob Bottin's literally eye-popping SFX work was just too much for early 80s audiences to digest (pun intended). Many critics grumbled that Carpenter had merely remade a classic, 1951's The Thing From Another World, and diluted it with gore and slime. Eventually, The Thing would find a second life on home video; it is now recognized as a modern classic of science fiction/horror and a benchmark in the history of special effects. However, it is still not uncommon to see the film referred to simply as a remake, a notion which will serve as the focus of this post.

Both The Thing From Another World and The Thing are based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?". The first film is derived from the first half of the story, the latter from the second half. The notion that the Antarctic scientists discover the Thing's ship and bring the alien into their camp is used in the 1951 adaptation; in Carpenter's Thing the xenomorph uses the body of a husky to infiltrate the camp. But the 1951 monster is no shape-shifter. It's actually an intelligent space vegetable which vaguely resembles Karloff's Frankenstein's monster (and is played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness). Campbell's constantly mutating alien is reintroduced in the '82 Thing, and along with it comes a wave of paranoia unthinkable when trying to fry a killer space carrot.

Anyone could be the Thing. It could be Kurt Russell. It could be the black guy who does the voice-over work for US Navy commercials. It could be the farmer from Babe, the guy who married the mom in Six Feet Under. It could be Wilford Brimley. (Yes, the Quaker Oats guy.) And there's no way to know who's a monster until they explode into a slimy, writhing mass of tentacles and teeth. Campbell's Thing-infected scientists transform, but the author never dwells over their metamorphoses. Carpenter on the other hand gives us every gory detail.

The major discrepancy between short story and movie is the ending. Campbell finishes his tale with an improbably happy finale. He sets up the possibility for some ambiguity (and thus some lasting dramatic tension), and then off-handedly dismisses it with a sentence. Don't worry, all that messy "Thing" nonsense has been completely tidied up. Oh, and we might have just discovered the secret to unlimited energy and anti-gravity. Carpenter's ending is much darker. I won't spoil it here; just don't expect a tidy, rosy conclusion (not that you would based on the preceding hour and a half).

If you've got the stomach for it, you really need to see The Thing. It's a masterpiece, a rare film which deftly balances extreme gore with genuine creeping terror. For a fun follow-up, check out the song "The Thing" by the group Engorged (www.myspace.com/engorged) on their seminal Where Monsters Dwell album. It's a five minute deaththrash summary of the plot complete with samples from both Thing films.

And remember....KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!!!

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ninth Configuration

Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane! [1966]
Written by William Peter Blatty

The Ninth Configuration [1980]
Written and Directed by William Peter Blatty

The Ninth Configuration is a film destined for the Cult Classics section of the video store. It's about Vietnam and veteran readjustment. It's about sanity in an insane world. It's a wacky/serious psychiatric hospital picture in the vein of King of Hearts or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's a Gothic "dark, scary castle" picture. It's a Catholic discourse on God's silence in response to the evil that plagues creation. And it's a sequel to The Exorcist about a character who got five minutes of screentime in that film...and was upstaged by Linda Blair pissing on the carpet.

That character is the astronaut to whom Blair's Pazuzu-possessed Regan remarks, "You're going to die up there." His name is Captain Cutshaw and on the launching pad of his moonshot he had a bit of a freak out. Now he's in an imported German castle in the Pacific Northwest that the Marines have converted into an experimental asylum for vets who lost it in 'Nam. Are Cutshaw et al. really beyond the pale, or are they faking it to stay out of harm's way? Marine psychiatrist Colonel Kane is sent to assess the men and evaluate if they can return to duty or not. But, not surprisingly, Kane himself has terrible secrets that are roaring to escape.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that Kane was written and published before The Exorcist, and that the astronaut in that book/film was unnamed. Correct and correct again. After the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, author Blatty used his newfound Hollywood clout to write and direct the film version of Kane. He got a better (and spoiler-free) title, updated the story, dispensed with some unnecessary (and relatively flat) buffoonery involving a paranoid senator and the general hounding him for funding, and shifted the locale a few hundred miles north. The uneven tonal shifts of the novel are finessed and equalized; the decision has been made to take things a bit more seriously from the get go, and we're clued in to that fact by the film's moody atmosphere and music. There are still some smart bits of comedy (the dogs learning Shakespeare bits still amuse me), but an outer darkness rings and reins in the absurdity. Oh, and there's a kick ass bar fight and a minor miraculous denouement.

The Ninth Configuration is the second in Blatty's "Trilogy of Faith," being followed by The Exorcist III. (Sorry, John Boorman's literally abysmal The Exorcist II: The Heretic has no place within the Blatty canon.) Each film deals with the problem of retaining faith when contested by evil. The Exorcist portrays spiritual evil, The Ninth Configuration portrays human evil, and Exorcist III combines the two in the form of a Satanic serial killer. In each, a troubled Catholic uses the wickedness around him to reaffirm his faith in the one true church. There's usually a martyrdom in there somewhere, too.

Admittedly, it can all get a bit heavy handed. I had to grit my teeth when Cutshaw ecstatically muttered, "He gave his life for us." And as viewers we're never really in doubt that the path of righteousness will be proven true and just. But the acting's good, the dialogue (when not devoted to sermonizing) is sharp, and the sum of the parts yields a truly unhinged spiritual redemption film for which there is no real comparison.

If you're up for some gonzo Catholicism and you need a break from Mel Gibson, give The Ninth Configuration a try. After all, where else are you going to see Christ crucified on the moon?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Diva [1979]
Written by Delacorta [Daniel Odier]
Translated by Lowell Bair

Diva [1981]
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix and Jean Van Hamme
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beneix

"I don't like fidelity. A screenplay has to be creative even if it's based on a novel. If it tries to be the same thing, it doesn't succeed. I ask the filmmaker to be completely free and not to repeat the book. I want to enjoy creativity, not repetition." - Daniel Odier

So then, by decree of the author, the film Diva cannot be the same as the book. The unwritten assumption of the blog so far has been that a successful adaptation requires being a faithful adaptation. The classic argument against such a position is that, as both book and film are essentially equal, it makes having two editions redundant. Ironically, I had never felt that particular sense of bored déjà vu until I popped Diva into my DVD player.

Of all the texts encountered so far, Diva has been the most cinematically written. The pacing is perfect, with an assured balance between character development and exciting action sequence. The moped chase through Paris has to be one of the most well-written set pieces I have ever come across. Due to its position roughly halfway into the book, we know that Jules will survive, but the whole thing is so gripping that we must read on. For some reason, I couldn't maintain that oh so precious disbelief during the movie's chase. By all technical and aesthetic standards it was just as good, but a terrible "been there, done that" vibe seemed to dampen my enthusiasm.

Would a literal filming have been better? Should Alba have been 13 and not Vietnamese? Would the frisson be increased by making Saporta's role more transparent from the get go? Had the damn thing been too hyped up by all and sundry, making the viewing a textbook case of expectations raised too high? Did I just want to plough through the DVD so I could return it to the library and go back to my reading? I honestly don't know. But my gut feeling is that this particular experiment has been a bit of a bust. I'm sorry, but I'm just too lukewarm about the whole thing to really break into any sort of heady analysis. Let's just go the verdict and pray for better results with the next comparison.

Neither film nor book are classics by any stretch of the imagination, but each are diverting enough in their own right. Ultimately, having one negates the need to have the other. I hate to admit this, but you can probably skip the book; it's had less of a cultural effect in America than the film. And if you really need to be able to discuss Diva at a cocktail party or to impress a date, the assumption will be that you're talking about the movie. Should you need the book, just fall back on the introductory quote and you'll be OK.

We'll be seeing more of Jean-Jacques Beneix in future posts. Let's hope I'll have more to say when we get there....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Most Dangerous Game

"The Most Dangerous Game" [1924]
Written by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game [1932]
Written by James Ashmore Creelman
Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

So far in this series, when we have discussed adaptation our primary focus was on plot: Do book A and movie B tell the same story? Do the same characters do the same things? For our reading of the two incarnations of The Most Dangerous Game, it would be more profitable to examine tone and its relation to genre. How do short story and film tackle the subject of hunting humans?

The topic is grim, and the narrative (regardless of medium) is often unceremoniously dropped in the "horror" bin, sometimes to be regaled as one of the "good" examples of this generally reviled class of fictions. But the two "Game"s are hardly horrorshows; while both dabble in the macabre (particularly when dealing with Zaroff's trophy room), the primary aim of neither story nor film is to horrify. The terror which pervades the hunting sequence of "Game" is different than that generated by (and I cite these instances as great exemplars of their type) Sally's pursuit in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Ripley's mad dash through the Nostromo at the climax of Alien. No, the sense of the abject which serves as a traditional litmus test for horror is all but absent as Zaroff chases Rainsford (and, in the film, Eve) through the jungle.

Connell opts to create a thriller. The bulk of his short story involves Rainsford drawing upon all of his hunting skill to rig lethal booby traps for Zaroff. Both men are portrayed as ruthlessly pursuing their goal, the death of their opponent. In particular, Rainsford holds no illusions about the outcome of the game; either he or Zaroff must murder the other. The means of death dealt by the traps aren't pleasant: crushing or impalement. We may cringe once a trap is sprung, but Connell never revels in the ensuing gore. His narrative is a model of economy; stopping to rubberneck over the mangled remains would only detract from the heart-stopping pace of the hunt.

Pichel and Schoedsack cut the two impaling traps, but give us a guided tour of the dreaded trophy room (complete with head in a jar)! Combined with scenes of Rainsford killing one of Zaroff's hunting dogs, it provides a deliciously nasty little taste of pre-Code filmmaking. But, again, the directors aren't out to horrify. In fact, when these gruesome elements are placed within their tropical context, the film is revealed as a jungle action picture. Zaroff and his Cossacks are the Slavic analogues to the African headhunters of any number of adventure yarns. (In one ludicrous moment Zaroff even refers to his people as being "savage." So much for the ethnic warrior pride of Taras Bulba....)

What most stands out to a modern viewer of The Most Dangerous Game is its similarity to the next year's King Kong. Schoedsack, actress Fay Wray, and producer Merian C. Cooper would all reuinte for the giant gorilla move which would be filmed on several of its predecessor's sets. It's hard not to smile seeing Rainsford and Eve race across Kong's infamous log bridge (watch out for the spiders!). Their jog through the Death Fog swamp is replicated by several (doomed) sailors in the Brontosaurus chase sequence from the ape picture. Even the music is similarly composed and utilized.

The story and the film are worth your time, each for different reasons. Check 'em both out, if only so you can see the inspiration for a thousand subsequent B-action movies, notably 1993's Hard Target. It's John Woo directing Lance Henriksen trying to kill Jean-Claude Van Damme! How can you go wrong?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Censored Roger Rabbit? [1981]
Written by Gary K. Wolf

Who Framed Roger Rabbit [1988]
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

In a "making of" doc that accompanies the 2-disc DVD version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, executive producer Steven Spielberg enthuses about how he loved the idea of a human detective working with a zany cartoon rabbit. That makes about as much sense as watching Saving Private Ryan and saying, "Gee, that opening scene was sure intense; war must be great!"

Despite its postmodern trappings, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is fundamentally a mystery novel. Eddie Valiant is the archetypal private dick with a love for the sauce. His distaste for 'toons runs parallel to the casual xenophobia of classic noir. We could easily replace "'toon" with "colored" throughout the novel and come to a sardonically accurate portrait of racial integration (and white fear and disdain for it) in major metropolitan areas during the post-war era.

Wolf's 'toons aren't film stars; they're essentially models. Comic strips are reproductions of still photos of posing 'toons. Most 'toons speak by having word balloons appear above their heads. Some, like Jessica Rabbit, suppress this to "pass" for human.

There are no car chases with gruffly likable talking cabs or star-filled detours into Toontown. There's no "dip," no Judge Doom, and no weasel goon squad. Jessica is a heartless bitch who posed for some porno pics as she was clawing her way to the top. Roger is by turns a love-struck idiot and a plotting, back-stabbing little shit.

And there's a genie.

Basically, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are two entirely different stories with overlapping characters. They share exactly one line of dialogue (spoken by Baby Herman), and even that meets with slight alteration.

This is what bugs me about the standard-issue Disney adaptation. They take a perfectly good source work (be it a Märchen, a kid's story, or even a classic novel), bowdlerize it, toss in some catchy musical numbers and marketable plush-toy sidekicks and release it into the American collective unconscious like some sort of Burroughsian thought virus. And then they soak up all the credit and the cash. The Roger Rabbit that lives in the public's mind isn't Gary K. Wolf's...it's the Disney Corporation's. It lives alongside Disney's Snow White, Disney's Pinocchio, Disney's Aladdin, Disney's Hercules, and Disney's Quasimodo---all pale shadows of their original incarnations. And these shadows are further diluted by the continuous flood of straight-to-video sequels, theme park rides, and TV series.

Words fail me. Let's face it, you've probably already seen the movie. Try reading the book now. It's a surprisingly smart and gripping little novel. Introduce yourself to the real Roger Rabbit. Find out what a little rat bastard he is. And wonder why Spielberg and the Mousketeers thought the whole thing should be reduced to big, loud, expensive, broadly played, special-effects-laden family event film.

{Oh, that's right, it's the fucking money, stupid.}

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Full Metal Jacket

The Short-Timers [1979]
Written by Gustav Hasford

Full Metal Jacket [1987]
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Full Metal Jacket in my generation's (and subsequent generations') understanding of the Vietnam War. For thousands of American men and women, Vietnam is a historical abstraction, photos of green-clad grunts in worn history textbooks. For those who don't have a primary connection to the conflict (like a dad or uncle who served), and this includes myself, it seems as impenetrably past as World War II. Our introduction to the terrible realities of the war comes through film, particularly Jacket and Oliver Stone's Platoon. Of the two, Jacket seems to have become the (and I know how morbidly ironic this will sound) popular favorite. Maybe because "Me so horny" is part of the lexicon and a sampled staple of hip-hop. Maybe because R. Lee Ermey parlayed his drill instructor role into a well-deserved career. Or maybe because the film, like most of Kubrick's work, is a fucking masterpiece of cinema. But like most of Kubrick's work, the whole thing started with a book: former Combat Correspondent Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers.

I cannot begin to address in its entirety the issue of Kubrick and adaptation. Through the progress of this blog I hope to look at things on a case-by-case basis. At times, the director is an exacting cinematic transcriber of text to celluloid (c.f. A Clockwork Orange). Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his source (c.f. Dr. Strangelove). Jacket is something of a halfway point between the two; in fact, the film is divided into sections which are, respectively, a to-the-letter filming and a condensation of disparate material.

Hasford's "The Spirit of the Bayonet" concerns the Parris Island training of Combat Correspondant Private Joker. While Kubrick makes some slight changes here and there (Private Pyle is now a lardass rather than an actual dead ringer for Gomer Pyle), his fidelity to the book is at times uncanny. Consider the following passage (and you'll instantly recall the exact scene in the film):

"During our sixth week, Sergeant Gerheim orders us to double-time around the squad bay with our penises in our left hands and our weapons in our right hands, singing: This is my rifle, this is my gun; one is for fighting and one is for fun. And: I don't want no teen-aged queen; all I want is my M-14.
"Sergeant Gerheim orders us to name our rifles: 'This is the only pussy you people are going to get. Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over. You're married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood, and you will be faithful.
"We run. And we sing:
Well, I don't know
But I been told,
Eskimo pussy
Is mighty cold

Dead on, nah? If anything, Kubrick (with the assured participation of Ermey) elaborates on this section of the book. What Hasford describes in a sentence, Kubrick allows Ermey to stretch into whole minutes of profanely quotable film.

Joker's wartime experiences constitute the final two sections: "Body Count" and "Grunts." Kubrick compresses these two sections into the film's second half. The adaptation is not as literal, but retains the fundamental thrust of the narrative. The centerpieces of both book sections are sniper attacks on the company Joker is attached to (first as a correspondent, then as a grunt). The setup is mostly from "Body Count" (the woman sniper in a dilapidated building), but the slow picking off of the marines is straight outta "Grunts."

Other sequences and patches of description and dialogue undergo recombination for film. We get some downtime, but Joker and Rafter Man see The Green Berets and don't meet the "Me so horny" prostitute. The rat hunt is eliminated, but the dead VC's birthday is intact. "The Mickey Mouse Club Theme" even shows up, though its placement in the movie serves as a grim coda to the previous 120 or so minutes.

From the literary perspective (my supposed grounding in this monotonous process of blog-typing), what is most phenomenal about Full Metal Jacket is its ability to translate without translation. Hasford wrote The Short-Timers in the military-slang-filled language of the marine. Even the title is a euphemism for a draftee forced to serve 100 days in country. As we have seen, Kubrick keeps this particular dialect . It would seem like a daunting enterprise (remember how they had to give out glossaries to early screenings of Dune?), but through context and cultural osmosis the reader/viewer quickly becomes acclimated to the rhythms and content of speech and description.

Sadly, all of Gustav Hasford's works are OOP. I had to inter-library loan my copy of the novel (thanks to the Ann Arbor and Grand Blanc libraries!). Should you want to read the book (and you should) and such a route is not be open to you, the complete text of The Short-Timers is available at the author's website: http://gustavhasford.com/

Read, learn and remember.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Illusionist

"Eisenheim the Illusionist" [1990]
Written by Steven Millhauser

The Illusionist [2006]
Written and Directed by Neil Burger

Millhauser's "Eisenheim" is a magical realist fable in the tradition of Borges. It concerns the career of the titular conjurer in fin de siècle Vienna. Eisenheim appears from the eastern outskirts of the Hapsburg Empire and begins to make a name for himself in the capital city. His early performances tend to be variations on current tricks, but as he progresses in skill, the tricks become more fantastic. Soon Eisenheim beings summoning ethereal entities; the controversy which arises parallels the contemporary clash and combination of science and spiritualism (should we miss this notion, Millhauser namedrops Madame Blavatsky).

Rival magicians attempt to upstage Eisenheim, but all fail. The best challenger of the lot is soon revealed to be Eisenheim himself in disguise. Ultimately though, the police, led by Herr Uhl, begin to get nervous about the illusionist's fame and power(s) and decide to arrest him (the arrest representing the final victory of the rational over the irrational). When they attempt to take him away, they find that Eisenheim himself is mere illusion.

An interesting Christ parallel runs through the story, although I don't know if it is intentional or not. Eisenheim is the son of a Jewish carpenter. He performs miracles which amaze the public but frighten the aristocracy. Here the parallel ends; Eisenheim is not portrayed as a messianic figure. But he does appear to have magic powers.

The film serves as a variation and extension of the short story. Several of Eisenheim's tricks are performed as they are described in the book. Burger removes the competing magicians angle (that apparently is the plot of 2006's other magician film, The Prestige) and adds a love story with Jessica Biel. Surprisingly, the addition of a WB-starlet love interest doesn't derail the proceedings. In fact, Fräulein Biel holds her own against Edward Norton and Rufus Sewell, a pleasant surprise.

A more unpleasent surprise is that everything really was an illusion. Herr Uhl pieces together what happened in a Usual Suspects-style series of flashbacks, and Eisenheim and his Duchess love live happily ever after in Sound of Music country. It's a modernist cop-out; don't worry folks, there's no such thing as spirits. It would be easier to swallow if we weren't given such amazing CGI effects throughout Eisenheim's performances. As 21st century viewers, we have a general grasp of the amazing technical wizardry involved in making Paul Giamatti's hand wave through Edward Norton. So there's no conceivable way that such an effect could be performed in the 19th century, especially before a live audience.

I liked the movie well enough, but I thought the end was a bit of a cheat. But that's the nature of magic and professional wrestling. You know it's all rigged. It's a sort of punishment for belief I suppose, something to douse the embers of child-like wonder smoldering in our hearts. Maybe I'm reading way too much into all of this. I would just like a little magic to be real once in a while.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


M*A*S*H [1968]
Written by Richard Hooker

M*A*S*H [1970]
Written by Ring Lardner, Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman

M*A*S*H tells the hilarious story of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John as they experience the insanity of the war with the 4077th MASH unit. But you knew this already. Everybody knows it. Because it was on the TV show that somehow defined a generation and reinvented the medium, etc., etc. But I am not of that defined generation. In fact, I've tried to avoid the show on reruns and can successfully boast that I've not seen one episode in its entirety! So I come to this whole M*A*S*H thing untainted and ready for evaluation, starting with the original novel....

The book sits well in the company of Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 as an absurdist take on modern warfare. While the previously named classics both dealt with World War II, Hooker's novel deals with Korea (and does so in the shadow of escalation in Vietnam). Hooker's book is also the least absurd of the three texts. There are certainly moments of sheer comedy (the "human sacrifice" of Shaking Sammy and the promotional tour of Jesus Christ are two memorable sequences), but they are often buffeted by chapters of serious medical work. MASH units were alternatingly too busy by a third or too quiet for rational minds. The choppy chapter-by-chapter leaps from comedy to surgery are meant to illustrate this discontinuity of everyday life at the 4077.

I really enjoyed reading M*A*S*H, which made watching M*A*S*H all the more painful. Altman's film has not aged well; it plays like the obvious late 60s anti-establishment flick it is, a watering down and vulgarization (in both senses of the word) of a fantastic novel.

Lardner is given credit for the screenplay (he won an Oscar even), but the picture is pure Atman. You know that overlapping dialogue schtick that everyone raves about? Well, you get a lot of it here. Too much. What begins as an interesting attempt to provide realistic conversations quickly becomes a gimmick. We are immersed in a world where nobody listens and nobody shuts up. No, that makes it meaningful and workable. OK, it's like being in a restaurant full of loud talkers. It's not groundbreaking; it's annoying.

The film is also discomfortingly macho, especially since it's hailed as being a countercultural response to a stereotypically macho genre. Consider the story of the Painless Pole's suicide as it occurs in book and film. In the book, the Painless Pole is known to suffer from bouts of depression. He decides to commit suicide and consults the Swampmen (our protagonists) for advice. Concerned for a friend and excellent field dentist/poker game administrator, our boys give him some knock-out drops, pretending they're suicide capsules. While passed out, they tie a blue ribbon to his gargantuan member (dubbed the "Pride of Hamtramck"). He awakens and we get a variant of the old punchline, "I don't know where ya been, but I see ya won first prize!" In the film, the Pole finds himself impotent for the first time. As such, he decides he's going queer and that he must die before wholly giving over to his sickness. The Swampmen again drug the Pole (after the film's famous "Last Supper" sequence) and Hawkeye has a nurse give Painless some sexual healing. The next morning, the Pole is in great spirits and the nurse ships out with a wistful look on her face. As Vito Russo summarizes in The Celluloid Closet: "A good lay cures a sudden case of homosexuality."

A key player in the Pole's suicide is Dago Red, the unit's Catholic chaplain. While the book does skewer religious types (Shaking Sammy and Major Burns), Dago Red proves himself a remarkable man. He is a friend and even helps within the operating theatre when necessary. He is ribbed for his faith by the Swampmen, but he is also accepted whole-heartedly by them. In the film, Dago is an ineffectual, timid little man. He's a wimp in a world full of men, another piece of army bureaucracy and order which is put up for scorn. A truly compassionate character is reduced to simplistic buffoonery.

And we must mention the character of Hot Lips Houlihan! In both book and film she arrives at the 4077 as an uptight order-minded officer. In both she sides with Major Burns against the Swampmen. But after she is rebuffed by Colonel Blake, she all but disappears from the book. In the film, however, she must be broken and reinvented as a "proper" woman. So we get the "Hot Lips" radio sequence (not in the book) and the unveiling in the shower (also not in book). By the film's climatic football game, Hot Lips is an air-headed cheerleader.

Oh that football game. Wow, what a terrible piece of film that is! In case you didn't know you were watching a comedy, you get horrible slapstick-style music pumping from the soundtrack. And several shots of players toking dope. Maybe this abortion of a film would be funnier with some grass. I don't know, and I don't intend to waste any good God's green trying to find out.

Read the book for entertainment. It goes quick enough and is a well-written piece of literature within an established genre of post-modern fiction. If, even after my scathing attack, you do happen to watch the movie, think of it as a historical piece. I just warn you, suicide might be painless (as the cloying theme songs reminds us), but watching this clunker sure as shit isn't.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Come and See

Khatyn [1972]
Written by Ales Adamovich
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Frances Longman, and Sharon McKee

Come and See [1985]
Written by Ales Adamovich and Elem Klimov
Directed by Elem Klimov

Flyora Gaishun is a blind college instructor. He sits on a bus with his wife, Glasha, and his son. Florya was a Belorussian partisan in World War II; he and the other surviving members of his unit are going to view the memorial in Khatyn (which is real and accurately described). On the ride out he remembers his days as a partisan, of the horrors he beheld. Interspersed with his war memories are scraps of conversation with his friend Boris Boky. The two discuss man and what is to be done with him. Boris, who was not in the war, argues that man is hopeless, that it's just a matter of time before another Hitler rises upon the tide of blood. Flyora, a veteran, argues for humanity. The My Lai massacre serves as a talking point.

Khatyn author Adamovich was himself a Belorussian partisan. While the novel is not strictly autobiographical, Adamovich's experiences give it the ring of authenticity. As the Nazis advanced through Belarus they systematically massacred entire villages and burned them to the ground. Often they would collect the townsfolk into a single building and set it on fire. One quarter of the population of Belarus was dead after World War II. Adamovich describes in detail the extermination of the village of Perekhod. At the height of horror of his description, he begins quoting testimony of Belorussian citizens who escaped the Nazis. The first quotation comes from the only survivor of the city of Khatyn. The survivors' accounts are followed by Nazi documentation of the massacres.

This is not light or easy reading. The text is dense and specific. There are few breaks in the narrative. There are no chapters, so the reader must stop in between paragraphs. While we know that Flyora, Glasha, Kosach, and others will survive (they're all on the bus and this is no Twilight Zone), there is a momentum to the work that compels further reading.

Klimov's film, its name taken from The Revelation of Saint John, is a masterpiece of cinema. The bus trip to Khatyn and the interludes with Boky are stripped away, leaving only the story of Flyora's education in dehumanization. It is one thing to read about a barn full of screaming, burning people. It is something entirely else to see it on screen. While bits and pieces of the novel are tinkered with for film, the major events are left in tact. Watching Flyora and Glasha fleeing though the marshes, wading armpit deep in primordial slime, gives the viewer the tactile point of reference unavailable to a reader. Aleksei Kravachenko stars as Flyora. As he travels through the war, we are often given close ups of his face. His expressions as he evolves from naive boy to hardened soldier are perfect. They transcend acting (and bypass melodrama altogether). It's chilling (for lack of better words, and there are no better words...this is a strictly moving pictorial phenomenon).

Klimov's use of borderline surreal imagery is perhaps best compared to Coppola's in Apocalypse Now. But while the American film is finally engulfed by the psychedelic madness of its final Kurtz sequence, Come and See never loses it believability. At worst it can be attacked for its occasional "artiness." (But doing so only makes the critic look like an ass.)

Opinons are divided on the film's penultimate scene. Flyora comes upon a portrait of "Hitler the Liberator." He shoots it. After each shot, we see war footage run backwards: We see concentration camps liberated and Pearl Harbor bombed; we see Paris fall and Hitler's willful Triumph. Then we loose sight of WWII. Weimar is marred by riots. Those crowds scurry exactly like the men hurtling out of WWI trenches. Finally we are faced by a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a baby. Flyora stops shooting.

What does it mean? It's an extremely visually satisfying sequence, but I'm buggered to pin an absolute meaning on it. There is quite a bit of footage/information that Flyora wouldn't have access to/understanding of, so the sequence is probably not meant as a literal visual transcription of a specific thought process. The best explanation I've come across is that Flyora is attempting to purge history. He is shooting everything that leads to his present experienced (using Blake's definition of the word "experience") situation. Finally, he is given the option of shooting the infant Hitler. Here he stops; he cannot kill a child, and thus he retains his humanity.

Adamovich is definitely a humanist. His work is not meant solely to depress or enrage us. Ture, we must never forget the horrors of our past, and we must be on constant guard against forces that would create new horrors (the latter point is emphasized in the novel by the Boky discussions). But in so doing we must live on as humans ourselves.

I would like to close this essay with a quotation from the novel, one which underscores the above interpretation. I'm not easily given in to sentiment, but this passage really took ahold of me. I now leave it to you:

"Never cease your efforts, even when it seems that all possibilities have been exhausted and the battle is finally lost; that has always been the rule of military commanders. But then it was only the fate of someone's authority, or even a state that was at stake. Today, it is the destiny of man on the planet for eternity. In a direct and not philosophical sense, it is a question of 'To be or not to be?' Too much is at stake and, no matter what the situation, man does not have the right to say: 'Enough! It's hopeless!'"

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1974]
Written by Heinrich Böll
Translated by Leila Vennewitz

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1975]
Written and Directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta

Subtitled How Violence Develops and Where it can Lead, Böll's Katharina Blum is an examination of how man can use the most vital tenants of a liberal democracy (the free press and the legal system) to suffocate himself. The narrator is something of a reporter himself; the story unfolds in the manner of a true-crime drama, with the terrible event described, attempts made to reconstruct "the last days," and a concluding short series of epilogue-like passages. The narrator constantly avoids violence and salaciousness, but sadly confesses that it does occur in the story and he must give the reader a true accounting of things!

It's a brilliant bit of satire: Böll mocks the sanctimonious yellow journalists by writing in a similarly hypocritical vein. Should we somehow miss the point, the novella opens with the warning: "Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung [Germany's equivalent to The New York Post apparently], such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable." It's an epigram worthy of Twain, telling the reader beforehand exactly the kind of scum with whom (s)he will be soon dealing.

Katharina is a housekeeper and sometime waitress/caterer. She meets a handsome man named Ludwig at a party and has him over for the night. The next morning Ludwig is gone and the police are at her door demanding his whereabouts. She is taken to the station for questioning, scrutinized in the most brusque fashion. The next day her face is on page one of the Bild-Zeitung as a gangster's moll. A chain of events is now set in motion involving Blum that will lead to her shooting the BZ reporter responsible for the smear campaign. While Blum is the focal point of the story, we see the effects of the incident on her employers the Blornas (the husband of whom is her lawyer), her mother, and anyone who tries to help her.

Chapters are fragmentary, often jumping around in the story's chronology. The effect is of someone pasting together the story as best as possible from scattered chunks of court testimony, BZ articles, secret sources, and simple rumors and allegations. In so doing, it is revealed to the reader just how secretly interconnected things are in a supposedly transparent democracy...and who's ass gets saved from the fire when embarrassing information comes to light.

The most notable change made by Schlöndorff and von Trotta is the (perhaps necessary, perhaps unnecessary) linearization of the story. We go from Thursday to Sunday with intertitles dividing the days. While this ultimately keeps Katharina's violent outburst a mystery, it does allow us to view the collaboration of the police and the BZ explicitly and immediately. It's a shift in emphasis that aides the dramatic: Blum's role as martyr is thus given more pathos and the malfeasance of the BZ is thus more dastardly portrayed. The text's satirical touches are also thus stripped away. The book's message is retained, but it is presented in darker, more serious tones.

The narrowing of focus means we also lose sight of the Blornas' storyline. It's Katharina's movie and we are blessed with a stunning performance by Angela Winkler. The incredible irony of the title is that, no matter the slander or setbacks, Blum never acts dishonorably. There are shades of Joan of Arc here, but Blum isn't acting on God or any man's behalf. She does what is right and honorable because that's the kind of woman she is. Such a complex character is hard to pull off, especially without crashing into Steel Magnolias territory. If this were a Hollywood production, complete with Meryl Streep in Oscar-bait performance, we'd get haunting string music, long shots of sunset vistas, and silent tears...all the shit that we've been taught symbolizes a strong woman, but in fact only signifies expensive melodrama. Winkler is given no such pedestrian cinematic crutches; she simply acts and is fantastic.

Not that melodrama doesn't sneak into the proceedings. There are two pseudo-car chases early on which seem a bit out of place (they weren't in the book). Katharina is present at the aftermath of Ludwig's capture and even gets a tearful last embrace with her beloved as the two cross paths while being escorted to their respective cells by the police. That last one is an emotional cop out along the lines of what I was ranting about above (in the Oscar telecast, it would be her clip in the Best Actress montage), but it does not diminish an otherwise spectacular performance.

The movie is beautiful, if not a bit one-dimensional at times. It's worth a watch, but you've got to read the book to get the full story.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1886]
Written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1931]
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is such a part of our culture that attempting to describe the plot at first seems a bit redundant. We all know that the virtuous Dr. Jekyll devises a potion which unleashes his inner evil, the nefarious Mr. Hyde. Since this revelation is the novella's final twist, one may even question the need to read the book at all. But Stevenson's book is well worth reading more for what you don't already know than what you do.

It is initially surprising how little the titular character(s) occur(s) within the text. The protagonist is the lawyer Utterson. It is through his investigations that we are introduced first to the foul character of Hyde, and then to the benevolent Jekyll. The most important events in the book are generally related to the reader through conversations between Utterson, the doctor Lanyon, and/or Jekyll's manservant Poole. The rest appear in letters from sealed envelopes, opened in the last twenty pages or so. In lesser hands all this textual circumambulation would quickly grow tiresome. But Stevenson balances each new discovery with a new twist, allowing the reader to piece together more of the story each go around.

What is also interesting are the characters of Jekyll and Hyde as they appear in the novella. Jekyll is a fifty-year-old man. Some of the impetus to create his potion comes from the need to deal with his younger debauches (whether to negate them or indulge more in them is an issue which could be debated). He is a perfect Victorian gentleman, completely compartmentalizing his unacceptable thoughts and letting them out sporadically in societally designated ways. Hyde is something altogether tougher to describe. There are no specific descriptions of him; "troglodytic" seems to be the best adjective used. He's much shorter than Jekyll, sometimes referred to as a dwarf, and has knotty, harry hands. He is also substantially younger, somewhere in his early twenties. As with Jekyll, we are never given descriptions of Hyde's debauches, though we are given testimony to his murder of Sir Danvers Carew, M. P. (We do not witness the act; we must rely on the account given by a maid who spied the attack from a balcony. )

Perhaps the best metaphor for a modern reading of Strange Case is that of a puzzle. You already know what it's going to look like; the fun comes from the reassembly of the image.

Any fun to be had with the 1931 film adaptation is surely unintentional. Time has not been kind to Frederic March's iconic Hyde. The arch-fiend now comes across like a Batman villain, overacting at every single turn. The film's Jekyll is rather young, so his Hyde (the unleashed id) is less the freed expressions of an old debauch than the world's horniest, geekiest monkey man. March obviously studied monkey behavior; his Hyde sniffs the air and swings about like the best of his primate kin. The special effects are passable. The initial transformation, achieved by filming makeup though a series of successive filters, is very well done (only to be undone by Hyde's hamming); each successive metamorphosis is less welcome because we know it will bog the film down in more ridiculousness.

Great liberties are taken with the text's plot. Utterson is utterly absent. Jekyll takes center stage. He's to be married to Muriel, the daughter of Carew, now a general. But he has a secret longing for a pretty bar girl named Ivy whom he saved on the way back from his fiancé's house. In case we didn't get the two sets of contrasts (Jekyll-Hyde and Muriel-Ivy), Mamoulian has the habit of employing split screens to push the symbolism. Sometimes it works, but it's a tad overused.

Oh, and man shouldn't tremble in God's domain. Admittedly, the hint of a moral does appear in Stevenson, but it's secondary to the mystery. We get no such shelter in the film; at one point Hyde even grips a bible and begs God for help. The final shot of the film, after Hyde has been done away with, is of a boiling kettle overflowing into its fire. You know, like Hell. Where the good Jekyll is going. 'Cause he transgressed the limits of human knowledge. (And he killed a hooker and a general, but it's the knowledge transgression thing that really puts him on the Almighty's shitlist.)

The 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film classic which I really tried to give the benefit of the doubt. But it's creaky and melodramatic to the point of overkill. And all of its pre-Code excesses (moderate as they may be) are severely diluted by the sermonic tone of the film's last half hour. Give the book a read instead.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Steppenwolf [1927]
Written by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Basil Creighton
Updated by Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz

Steppenwolf [1974]
Written and Directed by Fred Haines

Though he may appear to be a mild-mannered 47-year-old author on the outside, Harry Haller is a man torn asunder on the inside. He sees his higher self, his human component, at constant war with the Steppenwolf (the wolf from the Steppes), his base desires. While part of him reads poetry and loves classical music, the other is lustful and prone to thoughts of violence. Each part of his personality checks the other, leaving Harry absolutely miserable. Compounding his sadness, all he can see around him is a stupid, childish humanity licking its wounds from the Great War and readying itself for another, more devastating go 'round. Life being so unbearable, Haller has decided to kill himself at 50 years of age. But strange things start to happen....

Harry notices an advertisement for The Magic Theater and is given a copy of Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a pamphlet which describes him so well as to address him by name. He meets a girl named Hermine who determines to make him fall in love with her, so that he will kill her. Some dance lessons, some cocaine, some hot loving by a gal named Maria, and Harry is finally able to enter The Magic Theater.

Each door in the Theater leads to a possible reality. One leads to the war with the machines. Another to a world of lovemaking. Yet a third shows the rather nasty Taming of the Steppenwolf. Each door has some philosophical lesson to teach Harry (and by extension the reader). Eventually Harry is taught to find more humor in life and leaves the Theater uplifted.

I know how terribly hippy-dippy my description of this sounds, but it surprisingly works. Hesse was 50 years old when he wrote Steppenwolf and we can read the book as his literary-therapeutic means of dealing with a very real Weimar Weltschmerz. Of course, his open endorsement of sex, drugs, laughter, and music would ensure that the young and rebellious would find a place in their hearts for the novel, too.

Haines' film is a nearly flawless adaptation of the text. The skeletal plot of the book is retained, and attempts are made at visualizing Haller's various dreams and hallucinations. While the movie is shot on film, much of the effects work is done on video. This visually identifiable transition in media actually adds to the presentation. Where a modern filmmaker might drown the film's finale in CGI, Haines takes a more minimalist (and likely budget-minded) approach. The sense of the uncanny this provides is fantastic in every sense of the word.

Of particular interest is the Treatise sequence. Books nested within books tend to kill momentum. Think about how the political lecture in 1984 grinds the plot to an absolute halt for pages on end. Well, Steppenwolf's Treatise does likewise (and for a much larger chunk of text, relatively speaking). In the film, this section is visualized as a Terry Gilliam-styled animation sequence. It's the first time the film makes a major break from basic stylistic convention, and it's a good way to warm up to the idea that things are gunna get a little lysergic during the next 90 or so minutes.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Max von Sydow perfectly embodies Haller; he is moody without being melodramatic, lustful without being lecherous. The supporting cast are all able to hold their own. Having Pablo offer Haller coke with the line "You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need" is a potentially fourth-wall-breaking move (in a bad way) that's just subtly spoken enough to work. (I had to rewind the tape to make sure he said what I thought he said.)

Give both book and film a chance. The book is slow-going for the first hundred pages, but the final fifty give some small reward. To really appreciate the film (and get some of the more obscure symbolism...if that's possible), you need to have read the book. At the very least, you'll know where the 60s acid rock band got their name. And why only a band with that name could honestly sing "Born to be Wild."

Monday, February 26, 2007

November Rain

"Without You" [1995]
Written by Del James

"November Rain" [1993]
Written by W. Axl Rose
Performed by Guns n' Roses
Directed by Andy Morahan

Mayne is a man with problems. He's a world-famous rock star with a monster addiction to...well....everything. But what's worse is he can't sleep. See, whenever he starts to dream, it's always of his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth. She had helped him to write "Without You," the song which catapulted his hard rock band into megastardom. But she left him after catching him in a ménage à trois. And then she blew her brains out. Ah, the sweet perils of love and rock, eh?

In a speedball-induced fury, our hero goes blazingly insane and begins destroying all of his worldly possessions. Meanwhile, he seems to have set his apartment on fire. In a Nero-esque finale, Mayne plays the damning "Without You" as flames engulf everything.

Del James was an early friend of Guns n' Roses. He wrote "Without You" after spending a particularly volatile evening with a pre-Appetite for Destruction Rose and his then-girlfriend Erin Everly. James then showed the story to Rose, who of course loved it. About the same time Rose was working on an epic ballad in the Elton John style. The ballad would become "November Rain," and its video (along with the videos for the preceding "Don't Cry" and the following "Estranged") would serve as an adaptation of the James story. "Without You" would only see publication after its recognition as source material (thus explaining the seemingly conflicting dates above).

"November Rain" tells the backstory to "Without You" as it occurs in the nightmares of Axl Rose. He marries his beautiful paramour, played by real-life love Stephanie Seymour, and lets Slash totally rock out a solo outside of a church (used in Silverado) in the middle of nowhere. But as the car leaves the church, Stephanie seems less than thrilled. Everything seems groovy at the reception, but then it starts to rain. All Hell breaks loose; the wedding cake is tackled. Something bad has happened.

Cut to a funeral service. Stephanie lies in her coffin. Only half of her face is visible, the other half obscured behind a mirror. This is a (pardon the pun) dead giveaway of serious unreconstructible facial trauma...like that caused by blowing off half your face whilst committing suicide. The music hits its rockin' crescendo. Axl visits the grave and cries, doused with yet more of that damned metaphorical (possibly November) rain. Then he wakes from troubled sleep to find himself, not a bug, but a lonely rock star.

While the James story ends with the promise of death, the video is much more open ended. The narrative would spill over into the "Estranged" video, wherein Axl is saved by dolphins. Yes, dolphins. It's a happy ending, but the milieu described in the short story would prove to be sadly prescient. The bulk of the text describes the human wreckage in which Manny lives, and it's hard not to imagine it to be a guided tour of Rose's life as he worked on (works on?) the infamous and elusive Chinese Democracy album.

But we must retain a bit of the videos' dolphin-promised hope. All of Axl's band retinkering and obsessive sonic construction will someday end. After all, nothing lasts forever, even cold November Rain.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


"The Forbidden" [1985]
Written by Clive Barker

Candyman [1992]
Written and Directed by Bernard Rose

Candyman is Clive Barker's second most famous creation, trailing only behind Hellraiser's Pinhead in notoriety. Ironically, Candyman only appears on a few pages of Barker's work. By the time he was writing the final three of the six-volume Books of Blood, from whose fourth volume (published in the U.S. as In the Flesh) "The Forbidden" is culled, Barker was moving away from his splatterpunk origins. As such, the story primarily focuses on urban myth and the power of belief. The heroine is even a semiotician named Helen (ain't that a name full of meaning). Around Guy Fawkes' Day, Helen begins searching the Spector Street (get it) housing developments for material on a thesis about graffiti. What she finds are tales of a hook-handed maniac on the prowl. In true horror narrative style, the inhabitants of the project are wary of talking about things, but they tell Helen just enough to get her and them in trouble.

A baby is found murdered and Helen's suspicious. Of course it was done by Candyman, resident malevolent spirit, to both punish the locals for their loose lips and to reinforce his legend (the source of his immortality). He catches Helen, and he, she, and the baby all go up in a Guy Fawkes bonfire. Now Helen has entered the urban English pantheon of Fawkes and Candyman.

All told, "The Forbidden" is a reliable and smart little terror tale. It may even be too smart for its own good. Scratching the surface of Barker's immaculate prose reveals a world of possible pretensions, as if Barker is screaming, "Take me seriously. Look, I'm educated and ever so good with your trendy po-mo meta-fictional concepts. Just ignore the dead baby over there, eh what?" I remember reading the story in high school, during the bloom of my Barker infatuation, and being knocked off my feet. A degree in English later and I find all the throwaway semiotics to be a bit of a drag on an otherwise taught little suspense yarn.

Writer/director Rose pumps some necessary blood into the Candyman tale, keeping the meta but adding a bit more meat. The location is shifted to Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green housing project. Helen is a UIUC student researching urban legends. Of course she's stupid enough to go to the Green and pursue Candyman.

Alongside the monster, Helen finds Candyman's backstory. Seems he was a slave's son who was murdered on the lot upon which Cabrini Green would be built. He had been with a white woman. Taking a cue from any number of Universal mummy films, Rose makes Helen the reincarnation of the aforementioned white woman. Bloody mayhem ensues. We get some pretty decent gore effects and some great aftermath shots. Despite the carnage, Rose keeps things posh enough to skirt being a grindhouse production. He even throws in a genuinely chilling Philip Glass score---beats "Tubular Bells" any day of the week.

Since this is a class act, we don't get a dead baby, just a dead Helen. While "The Forbidden" allows Candyman to regain his status as urban legend, in Candyman Helen usurps his claim to deity, herself becoming Chicago's ghoul du jour.

Both versions of the tale are worth checking out. Barker is a master craftsman of words. Even as its most gut-wrenching, his prose reads with the assurance and determination that is rare in contemporary literature, much less in the dark fantasy/horror genre. The movie matches Barker's text with the same level of visual skill. You may even be a little timid about saying Candyman in the mirror five times.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Gospel According To Saint Matthew

The Gospel According to Matthew [c. 70-100]
Revised Standard Version
Author unknown

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew [1964]
Written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the four versions of the life of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Christian Bible. Although church tradition attributes its authorship to the apostle Matthew, a tax collector whom Jesus calls to His service, biblical scholars tend to dispute this. Despite one's views on authorship, for simplicity's sake "Matthew" is often used as shorthand for "the unknown author of Matthew." The translation I have chosen for review is the Revised Standard Version, which dispenses with the archaic "thee-and-thou" language of the King James Version.

The life of Jesus as it is popularly understood is compiled from a variety of sometimes conflicting sources. There are even discrepancies between the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; stories that appear in one book may appear at a different time in another book---or not at all. For instance, in Matthew there is no birth in a manger. Lazarus is not raised from the dead, and Jesus does not change water into wine.

Matthew's audience is a Jewish audience whom he is trying to sway to accept Jesus as the messiah, the Christ. As such, Matthew takes great pains to show how the life of Jesus occurs in accordance with Jewish messianic prophecy. Often, after something has happened, Matthew will quote the bible verse which prophesied the event. One of the themes repeated in the teaching of Matthew's Jesus is how the law of the God of the Jews has changed. Jesus preaches how His coming has fulfilled the old law and brings about a new law. And if you thought YHVH had some hard rules to follow, check out what His son's teaching. Jesus basically forbids earthly wealth. He forbids divorce, hate, and lust towards anyone but your spouse. He preaches absolute passivity and forgiveness. And, He often reminds His followers, if you break these new laws and/or do not accept Me as the Son of God, you will be burnt in Gehenna!

Jesus blasts the contemporary Jewish religious order, the Pharisees and, to a lesser extent, the Sadducees. The Pharisees conspire against Jesus, eventually handing him over to the Roman authority Pontius Pilate. Pilate reluctantly sentences Jesus to death by crucifixion. (Pilate's reluctance is a considerable bone of contention. Historical records show him to be an efficient, if not ruthless, Roman governor. His unwillingness to get rid of a Jewish rabble-rouser seems highly unlikely. But that, as they say, is the "gospel truth"....) Jesus dies and on the third day is raised. He instructs his apostles to preach the good news (the gospel) to people of all nations, for, He claims, there will be some in this generation who shall not taste of death.

Well, not quite. Several generations have tasted of death since the time of Jesus's preaching. In the intervening years, His radical new brand of Judaism developed into Christianity, ultimately becoming the state religion of the very empire which executed Him. Many artists in a variety of media have represented events from the life of Christ in art. By 1964, there had already been several film versions. What is initially most striking about this Matthew is its writer/director. Pasolini was a gay Marxist atheist. He had spent his career to this point writing about the outcasts and the downtrodden of society: the poor, the hustlers, the whores, and the petty criminals of Italy.

Perhaps this is the attraction of the Jesus story. While the film is faithful to its source, it is unlike any previous (or, for that matter, future) bible films. It is a strikingly uncinematic film. The picture book vistas and Renaissance painting characters of previous movies are replaced with desolate squalor and simple, plain actors. Even the Angel of the Lord and Satan are rendered without any of the special effects which one would expect of their stature as divine (resp. infernal) beings. Jesus does perform His miracles (walking on water, exorcising the demoniacs, healing the afflicted, feeding the multitudes, etc.), but, again, these feats are done with the minimum of camera trickery. Following this style, Pasolini cuts out Christ's transfiguration, wherein he meets with the souls of Moses and Elijah Jedi-style.

So what's left? Quite a bit actually. Pasolini faithfully displays the major teachings and parables. Stripped of the wonder of their attendant miracles, it is often surprising to hear how radical Christ's teachings are. Perhaps that is what Pasolini is emphasizing here: Christ was a deliberately anti-bourgeois revolutionary leader. He constantly rails against the hypocrisy of the ruling class and severely disparages those who seek worldly things.

But how do the Jews come across in all of this, you ask me. Consider that the infamous "blood libel" verse, where the Jews cry out that the blood of Christ is on their hands and on the hands of their children, comes from Matthew. The line is included in the film. And, as often occurs, Rome is all but absolved of blame (which is ridiculously historically incorrect of course, but, again, that's what's in the book). The original text's wisps of antisemitism (as we understand the term today) remain in the film, but Pasolini does nothing to emphasize them. The offense to be taken from the film will depend on the viewer.

At 142 minutes, Pasolini's Matthew is something of an endurance to get through. Outside of an intermission at the one hour mark, it makes little effort at being viewer friendly. Those familiar with the director's gruesome Saló will be surprised at how bloodless the humiliation and death of Christ are. Pasolini even cuts out the post-trail flogging which so invigorated Gibson's Passion. Just as in the original text, it's the message, not the life or messy death of the messenger, that counts.

Here endeth the lesson. Go now in peace.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Short Cuts

Short Cuts [1993]
Written by Raymond Carver

Short Cuts [1993]
Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt
Directed by Robert Altman

Raymond Carver is the master of what is known as the "short short story." His works are simple and concise slices of blue collar life in the upper Northwest. They're like abbreviated O. Henry's...with more drinking. Lots more drinking. There are a lot of sauced up characters stumbling and driving through the world of Raymond Carver.

There's a sort of unfinished quality to the stories. Not that the stories seem hastily dashed off (far from it), but rather that we as readers don't get the closure traditionally associated with well-composed literature. In Carver, problems don't get resolved; the reader merely turns away after a certain point. Sometimes we turn away with the bitter sting of irony, sometimes with a tear.

There is a danger in reading too much Carver in too short a span of time. It's the same danger that one has listening to, say, a Ramones best of. Taken individually, a single Carver story or a Ramones song is a masterpiece. Taken in large doses, a sort of sameness creeps in. With Carver, the stories begin to lose their subtle stings and joys. Oh look, here's another unhappy couple, content to drink away the pain of [insert tragic event here]. But while there are similarities between characters, you never get the feeling that any two people would cross stories and meet each other. Each story is like a private prison for its inhabitants. They can't escape their own lives; how can they break into someone else's?

Enter Robert Altman. Altman's Short Cuts transports Carver's characters to LA and attempts to interconnect them. People become friends, relatives, or lovers to other people. New faces appear, most notably Jack Lemmon in a scene-stealing (but ultimately unnecessary) performance. It's a "jazz variation on Carver," as press materials accompanying the film helpfully intone. But that's just a hipster cop-out way of saying it's a loose adaptation of the original works.

Pretension aside though, I did find myself liking the film. Despite passing the three hour mark, I never felt bored during the proceedings. The cast is, for the most part, excellent. I didn't quite believe Lyle Lovett as the harassing baker (here is where Tom Waits would have really shined), but it was still a passable performance. Plus, we get to see Julianne Moore's pubis, so things ain't that bad. But there is a price to be paid for the accumulated power of this jazz symphony of rocky relationships. The power of certain stories is sapped by their extension. The bitterly excellent (especially for anyone who's lived with a dog they hated) "Jerry and Molly and Sam" is stretched to the point of farcical dilution. And changing the story's main character into Tim Robbins' pompous cop leads us away from the real meat of the piece. Art-film kookiness for its own sake starts to creep in. Where just about everything in Carver seems believable, the longer Altman stays in this universe, the less believable things become.

Ultimately, it's an aesthetic trade-off that the potential reader/viewer must make. To put things in drinkin' terms (as that would suit the average Carver protagonist far better than any sort of artsy-fartsy lit crit bullshit), do you wanna get drunk by sipping wine or by downing shots? Either way, you're gunna end up on the floor.

One final criticism: there was way too much Captain Planet in this movie. For those of you who might of missed it (you lucky few), Captain Planet was an environmentally friendly PC cartoon show about a superhero whose multi-culti band of teenage teammates wandered around stopping what the theme song referred to as "bad guys who like to loot and plunder." It was absolute crap that no one really seemed to like, but which kept getting support because of its unbearably positive message. In Short Cuts, Frances McDormand's kid is a huge Captain Planet fan. I actually felt sorry for Tim Robbins' cop as he's being bored to death by this little brat going on about Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Torturous!

Sympathy for the piggies, kids....