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 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....

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Cruising [1970]
Written by Gerald Walker

Cruising [1980]
Written and Directed by William Friedkin

Both book and film have the same basic premise: a serial killer is stabbing gay men to death in NYC. The boys in blue, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of gaydar, decide to send a sexually confused officer undercover in the seamy world of *gasp* ho-mo-sexuls! It's a pretty ludicrous premise, I know. The movie ups the ante, and the potential for disgust/offense, by localizing the murders in the pre-AIDS leathersex community.

The book's chapters alternate between the thoughts of the killer, the undercover officer, and the police captain leading the investigation. No one's thoughts are particularly illuminating. The killer hates his dad and likes stabbing gay guys. His homophobia is caused by his own sexual confusion; we know he's gay at heart because he's a college student writing a thesis on American musicals. The officer is a racist ex-army shitkicker who also happens to be a closet homosexual. The police captain likes to make some sort of reference to his Jewish ethnicity about once every paragraph (imagine Mel Brooks as a cop with a yarmulke and you wouldn't be far off). It's a gloriously ridiculous parade of stereotypes and we're all invited to watch the feathers fly!

In the book, the killer never actually engages in sex with men. He leads them to secluded areas, then stabs and sexually mutilates them. In the film, he has sex with them, ties them up, then stabs and (presumably) disembowels them. In case the Freudian segue from penis to knife wasn't clear enough, Friedkin even splices in scenes of anal sex during the knifings. Meanwhile, the progress of undercover cop Al Pacino from hesitant homophobe to bisexual leather-clad slasher is shown with all the meticulous disgust of watching an Ebola infection work its body-fluid-soaked course. The film gives Al a girlfriend, which makes it seem that his sexual fruiting (pun intended) is less a consequence of the closet doors being hewn down, but rather that all the time spent amongst homosexuals is giving him a bad case of "gay."

And what a nasty strain of "gay" it is! Friedkin shoots scenes within real NY leatherbars with real NY leathermen. We get the types of mustachioed perversion imaginable only in the feverish nightmares of Jerry Falwell. We even get an actual fisting on screen! There's an obstruction in the foreground to hide the point of contact, but from what I've gathered it's real and it's happening! And, in case our delicate sensibilities haven't been bothered yet, we have the late, great Joe Spinell (best known to gorehounds as Frank Zito from splatter classic Maniac) as a dirty cop who likes to harass the more femme looking boys and get free BJs. We're talking degenerate greaseball city here.

It's horrific, it's sleazy, and I love every second of it!

The biggest concern that audiences, particularly gay audiences, had/have with the film is the depiction of homosexuals. We don't get any stock cross-dressing, Judy-Garland-singing, delightfully swishy sissies here. Oh no. Just some hardcore guys looking for a little (well, maybe not a little) of the rough stuff. If this imagery was somehow counterbalanced with any sort of positive "acceptable" behaviour, I would agree with the charges of homophobia. But the movie posits the familiar crime/noir Weltanschauung of an infinitely corrupt universe populated by beings who are a hairsbreadth away from acting out their most base tendencies. Call it dirty existentialism.

If the preceding hasn't frightened you away, I highly recommend Friedkin's Cruising. As I write this, the movie is only available on VHS. (Rumors of an imminent R1 DVD are circulating though.) You can skip the book; it lacks the gratuitous filth that so invigorates the film.

Besides, you don't know what you're into until you give it a try....

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Introduction and Prologue

"In the beginning was the Word...." - John 1:1

Hello kindly reader. This post will serve, not surprisingly, as the introduction of your humble narrator/raconteur and as the mission statement for this blog.

I love literature and I love film. Whenever I find out that a film I want to see is adapted from a book, I try to read the book before seeing the film. In so doing, I come away from the film with a good amount of "compare and contrast"-type observations that no one in particular is interested in hearing. So, like the thousands of other people with opinions that no one cares about, I've decided to pour my thoughts into a blog.

At least once a month, I hope to read a book and watch its film adaptation. I will then post my highly opinionated assessment to this space. For a work with multiple editions and/or several different filmings, Frankenstein serves as an example for both cases, I will choose which textual and cinematic versions to compare. In true postmodern style, there will be no distinction made here between canonically justified classics of literature and rancid pieces of pulp fiction; if it's both a written work and a movie, it's eligible for review here. Essays will be written in a vein similar to this post: meandering but (hopefully) intelligent and intelligible. No apology will be made for off-topic personal asides. Breaks in the text/film cycle will be announced as interludes.

The above-mentioned guidelines will be broken by the author of this blog if and when he sees fit.

I'm looking to kick things off within the next week with a look at Short Cuts (Raymond Carver vs. Robert Altman). I've just finished the stories and am now waiting on the Criterion Collection DVD to arrive.

In the meantime, in the words of The Tick's nemesis Handy:




Auf wiederlesen und -sehen!