Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Evil Dead (1981)

USA, 85 minutes
Director/writer: Sam Raimi
Photography: Tim Philo
Music: Joseph LoDuca
Editor: Edna Ruth Paul
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManincor, Theresa Tilly, Bob Dorian

Low-budget, loud, and grotesque, The Evil Dead has insinuated itself across the decades into the pantheon of horror. That's probably more on the strength of its sequels, certainly in terms of tone, which yoked a certain Three Stooges slapstick aesthetic onto the usual otherworldly and/or nefarious sources of blood, gore, and screeching. But in terms of the impact of The Evil Dead, a clever parody / homage that came along a few years ago, The Cabin in the Woods, made it abundantly clear. Even as Cabin self-consciously (in the postmodern vein) flattened history and took on all horror of all ages and forms, it was hard not to notice that the fundamental framework traced directly to The Evil Dead. Proportionally speaking, there aren't actually that many horror movies about cabins in the woods (especially when you recall that Friday the 13th was set in the woods, but at a summer camp).

Just so, a close look at The Evil Dead (after the distraction of the initial fear and trembling passes), discloses that, in turn, it has borrowed liberally from classics, new and old. It owes its greatest debt to the look and feel of demonic possession in The Exorcist (if Friedkin and company hadn't already used and owned them so ostentatiously I have little doubt director / screenwriter Sam Raimi would have resorted to his own versions of lines such as, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell"). A chainsaw makes a brief and gratuitous appearance at one point (much more of that in the later installments, of course). At the end of the movie our hero Ash (Bruce Campbell, whose performance is often reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld ginning up hysteria) is barricaded in the cabin in the woods much as the hero in Night of the Living Dead found himself in that lonely farmhouse. The demon-possessed creatures even spew a white milky substance from their mouths when they are injured, an unusual point seen previously, as far as I know, only in Alien.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Man in the High Castle (1961)

Philip K. Dick's breakthrough novel, his only Hugo Award winner, feels in many ways barely like science fiction at all. In fact, it is widely considered a landmark in another genre entirely, the alternate history. The concept is butt simple: Japan and Germany won World War II, and carved up the United States much like Germany was carved up in our present time stream (it is likely symptomatic of Dick's sway that I make reference to a specific "time stream"). Japan and Germany are quite a bit like the US and USSR, with relations having turned chilly between the wartime allies and a cold war setting in. Well, that's about it. The Japanese are very wise, the Germans are very evil, and a shattered America is a place of lost dreams and ennui. One suspects massive opiate addictions. The action, such as it is, is set in San Francisco, under Japanese occupation and control. The characters are largely listless and accepting of the world as it is, though numerous narrative strands show some of them attempting to face down tides of history (or maybe that needs scare quotes: "history"). The principals organize their lives and decisions by consulting the I Ching. A bestselling book everyone seems to be reading or at least aware of, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is a speculative fiction in which Japan and Germany lost World War II. That plot point is a little too cute for my taste, but again, Dick has a way of pushing past the obvious, here traveling into a kind of proto-string-theory vision of a multiverse with infinite parallel universes. There is a method for traveling between realities that some of the characters have stumbled on, including quite possibly the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy aka the man in the high castle, which is located in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne is also an important place, a capital city, in at least one other Dick novel, Now Wait for Last Year. Hard to fathom the fascination—maybe because it's inland, with further protections, necessary in times of great conflict, afforded it by the surrounding mountains. I'm also hard put to say exactly why The Man in the High Castle works so well. It's thoroughly conceived and imagined and for the most part resists the impulse to clonk one over the head with its obvious points. Nonetheless, somehow, I always find myself righteously clonked by this little beauty.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)

USA / UK, 225 minutes, documentary
Directors/writers: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Photography: Jean-Yves Escoffier, Frances Reid, Nancy Schreiber
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editors: Kenneth Levis, David Lindblom
With: Martin Scorsese

I'm not always sure what others mean by "essay-film," but I know my own sense of it favors both an individual point of view, and movie clips—projects like Los Angeles Plays Itself and this long love letter from Martin Scorsese, his salute to the movies of America in the middle of the last century. As such, it is necessarily deep-dipped in the medium itself. Scorsese's Personal Journey was made in collaboration with the British Film Institute and originally aired on UK television in 1995 (making its way to the US some three years later). Scorsese is the host, with lots of voiceover explication. Organized by digressive rumination, it comes armed with—and this is the important part—copious film clips. You are usually looking at scenes from movies, occasionally broken up by archival interview clips with great film figures such as Clint Eastwood, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Gregory Peck, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Billy Wilder. It is the medium on the medium.

I was flabbergasted to find out how much I did not know when I first saw Personal Journey several years ago, how much was simply unfamiliar. Yet even in those cases I was hardly prepared for all the daunting insight that Scorsese brings. The Band Wagon, Cabiria, Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, The Furies, Leave Her to Heaven, The Left-Handed Gun, Murder by Contract, My Dream Is Yours, The Naked Spur, The Regeneration, The Roaring Twenties, The Robe, The Tall T—some of them were vaguely familiar as titles. I furiously wrote down every one and immediately ported them to my Netflix queue. Those that are available anyway—a good many are not. I suspect I'm not the only one trying such an exercise, because many fall into Netflix's "very long wait" category.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Long Time No See (1977)

Another basically solid entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. By this point most of the leading man duties have devolved onto Steve Carella, who is again the primary lead on the single case this is focused on, the murders of three blind persons and an assault on a fourth. It's more of a mystery book riddle (in the "cozy" vein) than procedural, but it goes to some interesting and unexpected places, such as dream interpretation, with an avuncular appearance by a psychiatrist who discusses Freudian theory. All right, but inevitably the dream and interpretation are perverted to the ends of answering a mystery book riddle. Still, I will look the other way because the mystery book riddle is done well, expertly scattering out its ration of red herrings and dead ends. I had to keep guessing right along, even though I figured out early the basic shape of it—what this serial killer was more or less about. It's a good strategy and produces a book that is fun to read. The focus on the case is pretty tight, with few detours into the various characters and their personalities and lives. I think I like it when there's a little more of that—and I also like a mix of ongoing cases big and small—but there can definitely be too much. So it's nice to see the foray into mystery writing and keeping the tight focus. By this point in the series McBain slips into bantering digressions easily and frequently, so there's that too. I like the pun in the title, I like a case involving a mysterious serial killer (who obviously has a rational motivation) going after blind people, and I like both Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer, so this goes down well. I'm afraid the knife fetish features again prominently—it's basically the manner of the murders. In fact, at one point there is a discussion of the difference between stabbing and incision. Good to get that straightened out for those wondering. So this is not without faults we already know, but overall a worthy effort for the series.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

USA, 136 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Ira Levin, Roman Polanski
Photography: William A. Fraker
Music: Krysztof Komeda
Editors: Sam O'Steen, Bob Wyman
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Patsy Kelly, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Grodin, Tony Curtis, William Castle, Hope Summers

Devil worship in the heart of Manhattan was not exactly a new idea in 1968—producer Val Lewton had already taken a turn at it with The Seventh Victim some two decades before. But Rosemary's Baby is a series of contradictions at multiple levels, mixing old and new, outlandish and pedestrian, fashionable and homely, into a heady brew. It starts with the contradiction of stylish European film director and screenwriter Roman Polanski at the helm of a William Castle production. Castle, whose legend is lampooned in Joe Dante's 1993 Matinee (worth seeing), was famed for his horror movie promotions in the '50s and '60s: The House on Haunted Hill ("filmed in Emergo"), The Tingler ("filmed in Percepto"), and 13 Ghosts ("filmed in Illusion-O"). The words ending in "o" refer to stunts such as vibrating motors attached to the undersides of theater seats for The Tingler.

Castle even makes a cameo in Rosemary's Baby, grinning and honking on a stogie while he waits for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) to free up a public phone. Rosemary's Baby, both the movie and the novel it was based on, was very much of its particular moment, come swirling out of the mid-'60s and the year of the beast, 196-6-6, long hot summers and deepening of the Vietnam War, etc., when Joan Didion first began to embrace dread as a critical aesthetic and Time magazine dedicated one of its covers to the question, "Is God Dead?" That very Time magazine cover puts in an appearance at one point in Rosemary's Baby in a doctor's waiting room. Blood and fantastical images are used sparingly, but Polanski is working very self-consciously in the realm of horror, with these devil worshipers and a celebrity appearance by Satan himself. At one point, the gnawing physical pain Rosemary experiences in her pregnancy suddenly vanishes and she feels it kicking inside her. "It's alive," she cries with joy and relief, echoing the famous lines from Frankenstein. "It's alive!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Talking Heads' Fear of Music (2012)

(My Internet-ironical review of the album here.)

Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite writers and Fear of Music is one of my favorite albums—of all, ever, not just of Talking Heads albums. So this was practically guaranteed to impress and it did not disappoint. For what it's worth it's also the first book I've read, beyond browsing in bookstores, in the still-growing 33⅓ series. The series matches one writer to one album (based on a curated volunteer system, it appears). Lethem is good, a really fine novelist (Motherless Brooklyn is a particular favorite), and this shows how casually excellent he can be as a rock critic too. Well, 2003's Fortress of Solitude had already made that quite evident. But I really love the way he goes at it, bearing down so hard. And this should be instructive too—for me and for all of us! Hours and hours of intense listening and gathering up of scraps of notes and thoughts went into this. It is as much a labor of love as anything I know. I think he might even like Fear of Music more than me, and I have always been that crank in my circles. Lethem attacks the whole by theme and each song individually, exploring a taxonomy of "types": Talking Heads versus David Byrne albums, text, concept LP, science fiction, Asperger's artifact, in terms of the paranoiac, etc. It's an album you can go quite deep with and he is here to prove it. I don't agree with him on many particulars—he calls "Electric Guitar" rather than "I Zimbra" the weakest track (one of my theories for why it's such an underrated album relates to kicking off with the one song that doesn't belong). And he often seems to be missing the humor I perceive as pervasive. But he brings a tremendous, even daunting level of insight to the album, the music, and the band, picking up on all kinds of things I had missed before or never exactly put together. Lethem makes a beautiful argument for why "Life During Wartime" and "Memories Can't Wait" are titled appropriately for the album's naming schema, as opposed to "War" and "Memories," which might seem more apt at first. Admittedly, we might be going into the deep weeds here. I love it when he talks about the "disco ambulance" of "Cities"—that is nigh perfect. He locates a critical center of gravity on the album in "Cities" and "Life During Wartime," side by side, nearly direct inversions of one another, each furiously name-checking city names and worried about the future, albeit in very different ways. "Memories Can't Wait," Lethem says, implodes them both, proceeding out of themes first established in "Mind." It's altogether quite a trip, much like the album. Recommended.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Grifters (1963)

It's true I have misgivings about a few of Jim Thompson's most highly regarded novels, such as The Killer Inside Me and After Dark, My Sweet. Nothing major, just a little underwhelmed for one reason or another. For all its strengths, I think I might have to put The Grifters in that category too. It's obviously significant in terms of the rehabilitation of Thompson's reputation that came after his death, providing the source for a 1990 neo-noir movie with John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Bening, directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese. And Thompson obviously went to a good deal of effort to research the con artist and his many tricks. But it only seems to provide distracting shape and underpinning to his more typical impulses (incest, alcoholism, gambling, etc.). The explanations of the tricks inevitably bear a certain pedantic tone, and though the tricky tricks remain interesting it's not exactly why we read Jim Thompson novels. (If it's con games you're after, see linguist David Maurer's 1940 The Big Con.) Yes, the Thompson elements are classic: a seamy Freudian tale of the relationship between con man Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly, who was 13 when she had him, further complicated by Roy having a girlfriend, Moira. There's a hot nurse named Carol too, a concentration camp survivor. As always, it is more or less about the rot that creeps into human relationships, a sickness unto death, with a thousand and one identical faces. Lilly is a monster and all the women here seem to have that potential. But it also feels just slightly artificial, as if Thompson has donned a girdle. It often feels programmed: a few tidy details on the intricacies of "short" and "long" cons here, some all-in-a-day torture with a cigarette there, and lots of lascivious blurp all over the place. The writing does feel more fresh and urgent than in many of his '50s novels, which saves it. Between the research and the writing, The Grifters is pretty good Thompson, even as it attempts to slot into some commercial format of popular taste. I won't argue with anyone who calls it essential. It's good enough, and you don't want to miss it if you're reading him.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Alien (1979)

USA / UK, 117 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Photography: Derek Vanlint
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editors: David Crowther, Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Jones

Every time I come back to Alien I am somehow surprised all over again by how good it is—setting aside the first time I saw it and the trauma it caused me, and could well cause you too if you happen to have never seen it. It's a very scary movie, first and foremost, grimly determined to be exactly that. But once past that, with all the shocks and surprises it delivers about the reproductive and survival processes of the terrifying alien monster—"alien" in every sense of the word—the sheer elegance of how this picture is put together shines: savvy in conception, heavy on production design, with a uniformly excellent cast, a tight focus on a single predicament across confined spaces, and with utterly no mercy. It's equal parts great science fiction and great horror, and it is full of twists and turns, some of which I'm going to talk about, so spoiler alert.

It starts with the gleaming spaceships of 2001 and Star Wars and adds rust and office politics. The spaceship in Alien is more on the order of a river barge, with battered and well-used industrial workstations. It's just a corporate freighter mostly empty of life except for the crew of seven, two of whom, blue-collar working stiffs, bicker with the others about their compensation and other grievances. The humdrum ongoing mission (toting materials from one place to another around the known universe) is interrupted when the crew is wakened from deep traveling sleep for a visit to a planet from which a distress signal has been detected. Everyone inside and outside of the movie has a bad feeling about responding to it, the usual starting point for a horror movie. You know how it goes: Don't spend the night in that house. Don't spread out in the woods to look for your missing friend. And whatever you do, don't answer that distress signal.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Tender Is the Night (1934)

Tender Is the Night seems to come up a lot as the novel to read next by F. Scott Fitzgerald if you like The Great Gatsby. People genuinely seem to go for it. The 1998 Modern Library list of greatest 20th-century novels, for example—which has Gatsby at #2 (behind the inevitable Ulysses)—puts Tender Is the Night at no less than #28. It's ahead of, among others, All the King's Men, The Call of the Wild, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Maltese Falcon, Pale Fire, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sister Carrie, and many others that seem plainly much better to me. I will echo the sentiment that if you like Gatsby you might as well try Tender, but in my experience it's a sad pile of fragments by comparison. This may be partly a reflection of how much I like The Great Gatsby—a favorite of mine for its brilliant structuring, its perfect vantage from which to observe the '20s high life on Long Island, the way it subtly expands to encompass something as universal and persistent as the American Dream itself, and of course for the beauty of the language. The language in Tender Is the Night is about as beautiful as ever, I can confirm that. That was Fitzgerald's enduring gift, and it's there at least in flashes in practically everything he did. I can also throw in the personal caveat that the whole Zelda / Paris-in-the-'20s thing (see the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris for a primer on the basic cliches) has never much impressed me. I recall a time when it seemed like everyone I knew was reading Nancy Milford's Zelda biography and mooning over the romance. Maybe I missed an opportunity. Maybe reading it would help me understand Tender Is the Night better. But I do think fiction has to stand on its own, without the necessity of "understanding" factual underpinnings. And honestly, the ignorance on display in Tender Is the Night about mental illness should be enough to put anyone off nowadays. It's certainly something anyone reading it should bear in mind. Fitzgerald's fictionalized retelling of his and Zelda's trials and tribulations, while affecting in moments, feels constantly labored and overworked to me. A miasma of all too understandable depression hangs over it—understandable, but not a winning formula. It's often unpleasant too; there is something between the principals but it doesn't feel like love. It's not much surprise to learn the novel can also be taken as one more artifact from perhaps the most painful case of writer's block in literary history. Approach with caution.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Waldo Salt, James Leo Herlihy
Photography: Adam Holender
Music: John Barry
Editor: Hugh A. Robertson
Cast: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Barnard Hughes, Bob Balaban

Midnight Cowboy has always been preceded by the dust cloud of its reputation, involuntarily turning into a lightning rod for social values by focusing on underclass characters. For its efforts it was rewarded with a scandalous X rating—based mostly on the existence of a delicately handled scene of an anonymous gay encounter—and then three gaudy Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Adaptation) along with endless praise for its stars in Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Shortly afterward, the MPAA rating group approached director John Schlesinger with an idea for a compromise. Schlesinger refused to change a single frame. The rating group shrugged and reassigned it an R anyway. I'm not sure what the lesson here is.

Obscured in all this still is a very fine and subtle movie, rock solid in every particular, a showcase of film performance and direction, a wonderful profile of New York City in the '60s, and one of the best winter movies I know. It's also, always, a weird and unexpected picture. In a year of buddy movies (with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider), Midnight Cowboy took the framework to hypersexualized and frenzied places it rarely goes, matching a strapping naïve Texas boy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), with a tubercular Bronx con man, Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). In the end, what unites them is the 100% will to survive. Before that, the mind immediately leaps to a thousand ways this goes wrong.