Sunday, July 23, 2006

Being Harper Lee

I don't know Harper Lee, and I don't pretend to. I know some people who do know her -- but this is like saying "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." So when Charles Shields contacted me last fall about the biography he was putting together, I spoke to him more out of my own curiosity than anything else. What could I know that could possibly be of interest? He was surely scraping the bottom of the barrel, calling me.

And there are arguments to be made that Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee is composed primarily of barrel scrapings: Shields did not have access to Lee herself, and many of her closest compatriots were loyally mum. Still, like any mulligan stew, the success lies in how you combine the elements you do have on hand. Given that this particular stew is one for which people have been hungering for some time, the question becomes: How much flavor can something have when there's no main ingredient?

The book concentrates on the obvious eras: Lee's childhood and college years; her early period in Manhattan during the writing and revising of To Kill a Mockingbird; the time spent with Capote researching In Cold Blood in Kansas; the release of her book and then the film version; and finally an essentially speculative section, only fifty pages or so, devoted to the time since 1965. To flesh out what little is known, Shields uses heaping helpings from previously published biographies of Truman Capote, Gregory Peck, and Horton Foote. He's collected a multitude of interviews with and articles about people who surrounded Lee at one time (it seems he dug up every article ever published that even mentions Lee's name, quite a feat of research). Though of questionable value, there's also an abundance of first-hand accounts from people who claim to be former classmates, childhood friends, and other varieties of distant acquaintance. 

Even with his careful reliance upon this bounty of sources, Shields misses crucial inconsistencies and downright contradictions that prove the fallibility of such varied subjectivity: in describing A.C. Lee, the man whom so many believe is the template for Atticus Finch, neighbors recall him being "detached... not particularly friendly" and further say "the image of facing down the crowd of rough necks has never rung true to me." But a page later, without comment, come two hearty, if slightly at-odds, accounts of A.C. facing down a group of Klansmen. Shields also leads himself into some early, unwarranted speculation about the personality of Lee's mother; by the time he offhandedly admits, late in the book, such views come from mistaken (or intentionally mistaken) accounts, the damage is done -- he has perpetuated the error. 

It is reasonable to assume that a reader wishing to better understand the author of To Kill a Mockingbird would appreciate a detailed description of small town life in Monroeville during the 1930s and the prototype personalities and events that would eventually find their way into Lee and Capote's stories (the Jewish store owner who knowingly sold bedsheets to Klan members; the snuff-addicted baker of fruitcakes; the Monroe County court case that became the basis for Tom Robinson's trial). The book is therefore flush with ornamental, atmospheric, secondary detail. While impressive and engrossing, it ultimately becomes testament to the Invisible Center: Shields at one point spends six lines of text describing the functions of an Underwood typewriter. 

He makes the same miscalculation later on, describing the Clutter investigation and initially making the most of newly unearthed materials from the Capote Papers at the New York Public Library -- but buries the effort by piling on information (a four-page room-by-room description of the Clutter home, mainly devoid of any firsthand accounting) that can be more effectively gleaned from the pages of In Cold Blood itself.
 

The book is most effective when Shields stands back and lets Lee speak for herself. Good use -- revealing Shields' reverence for his subject -- is made of excerpts from the University of Alabama publications Crimson White and Rammer Jammer; Lee wrote for both during her time there. Even better are the snippets from interviews conducted during press junkets following both the 1960 publication of Mockingbird and the release of the film version a handful of years later. All of the excerpts showcase Lee's warm personality, not to mention wicked wit. (An authorized collection of these first-hand materials, framed only by editorial, contextual narration, would make a great read -- though such a beast seems unlikely to appear any time soon.)

+ + +

On a chilly November evening in 2005, I entered the Capri Theatre in Montgomery and settled in to watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of Capote. Even in understanding that the film was a speculative, compressed take on the investigation of the Clutter murders that led into the writing of In Cold Blood, I was taken out of the experience each time Catherine Keener appeared onscreen as "Harper Lee." I knew by the report of a mutual friend that Ms. Lee had indeed already seen the film and, though she reportedly thought Hoffman did a fair enough job, was largely dismissive of its many inaccuracies.

I could not keep from wondering how uncommonly weird it must be to live a complete life, quite like anyone else, but for a moment or two, decades prior, when you had a hand in something extraordinary and which left a profound legacy. And for someone to then make a movie about that legacy, that singular moment from your life, without your input or consent. A movie that then hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people see. I tried to think about how I might feel if someone in Hollywood made a film about something that happened in my life during, say, my college years (our intramural water polo team, while not heroic on the order of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, did, in fact, rock). Would they get the details right? What would it be like to look into the 30-foot face of my onscreen avatar and think, Some of this is right ... but the rest is all wrong?

About a month later, I was contacted by Charles Shields. His research had led him to an old essay I wrote for the Mobile Register Sunday book review page, describing how I tackled the popular Alabama parlor-game of half-baked speculation regarding whether or not Truman Capote had actually written To Kill a Mockingbird by reading Mockingbird and In Cold Blood back-to-back and, observing the different styles and tones, concluding that a kindergartner could figure out the truth of it. I was rewarded for this exercise by a phone call from the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. You can surmise that it was, indeed, Harper Lee -- Truman Capote having been dead since 1984. Not to mention, our mutual friend Wayne Greenhaw confirmed the call, chuckling, "She doesn't make a lot of those." For a while, I included sho
rt account of this interaction as a "postscript" to my essay, but finally excised it since, frankly, it's more fun to tell in person, with added jokes and detail and whatnot; that Shields could use the Way Back Machine to access it anyway is a reminder that the Internets never forget.

+ + +

Meanwhile, there is no disputing the mystique surrounding the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I don't think you can pin it down easily by attributing it to a "literary mystery" regarding her singular output and long silence. After all, go tell it to Emily Bronte. I don't think the ongoing fascination has, at its core, anything much to do with Lee's personal choices -- that is just a symptom. The fascination, truly, is deeper -- having much less to do with Lee herself than is comfortable to admit.

We live in a culture that equates success not only with cash flow but with notoriety, where the media feeds on personalities who are famous for being famous -- a phenomenon so common, it's become an accepted joke. Lee is someone who bucks all expectations, who has achieved unqualified success in her chosen field of endeavor, and who has subsequently chosen the joy and satisfaction of simply having done Good Work. There is no evidence of a drive to better what, perhaps, could not be bettered. Not even the apparent need to ride the self-satisfying gravy train of celebrity that could certainly accompany Being Harper Lee -- at any moment, she could pick up the phone and start making the talk show and lecture circuits. But there's really no need. The literary and popular stature of To Kill a Mockingbird is above and beyond any aid she could give at this point.

And I'm banking that Harper Lee knows it. So she has chosen for herself the dignity of a quiet, normal life. Being the woman who wrote a book that defines a watershed moment in American culture and has touched and inspired millions -- millions -- of human beings around the planet, she chooses, courageously, to let her Good Work speak for itself.

For many of us, that choice -- the conundrous decision to not behave like a famous person when in fact it is always within her ability, at any moment, to do so -- is baffling. The unfortunate thing is that it should not be. We should all just aspire to have a little value in our lives, to do a spot of Good Work, find pleasure in it, and move on.

Atticus himself would ask of us little more than that.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, July 23 2006

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Omega Man (1971)

Charlton Heston escapes from the Planet of the Apes (1968) only to crash land in a deserted Los Angeles, following some kind of nuclear/plague apocalypse. He's the only dude around, long as you don't count that torch-carrying, monk-robed band of mutated survivors who call themselves "the Family" (no relation to the Mansons), and you might as well not, because they blame Heston for the whole nuclear/plague-apocalypse-thing, and are hell-bent on rewarding him with some old fashioned murder. But, thanks to the plague-thing, they can only emerge at night, so Heston can spend the daylight hours joyriding in hotwired Mustang convertibles and looting stores for fashionable track suits. Sundown, he holes up in a fortified brownstone and plays chess with a concrete bust of Caesar while the Family taunts him from the streets below; tip o' the hat to the NRA as Heston occasionally opens a window and answers with sub-machine gun fire. Damn dirty apes, no matter where you go. Based on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, but without proper vampires or amazing ironic twist ending (nor even Vincent Price) this is a sour, defeatist exercise, especially when the third act turns up a small clutch of other human survivors who seem to exist only so they can screw up their chances. Cold dead hands, indeed.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Creepozoids (1987)

Stupid combination of Alien (1979), It's Alive (1974), and a bottle of NyQuil. Reset your watches: it's 1999 and post-nuclear apocalypse time. Five army deserters -- garbed in trendy 80's-chic uniforms supplied, undoubtedly, by the Gap -- seek shelter from the radioactive rain in a deserted military facility comprised entirely of endless corridors and supply closets. Linnea Quigley (also an associate producer) has a nude shower/sex scene, and then the monsters arrive. The main beast looks like Lou Ferrigno wearing a giant ant mask; he sprays black gunk that makes people melt/explode into puddles of Koogle. (Remember that stuff? Mixture of peanut butter and jelly, came in different flavors. What they're using here appears to be Blackberry.) There's also a mutant chihuahua-sized rat with yellow fangs that stick straight out, so he's always hungry and trying to bite. Eventually, porn star Ashlyn Gere (billed as "Kim McKamy") turns into one of those angry, violent zombies from Evil Dead (1981). Then a man-eating baby shows up. Why? You got me. Something to do with weapons-grade amino acids, if I heard the one exposition scene correctly. And that's why you should eat your wheat germ, kiddies. Director David DeCoteau confuses cinematic suspense with long shots of nothing that take place in the dark. Creepocrap.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The Replacements (2000)

Former college quarterback-turned-goat Shane Falco (the inscrutable Keanu Reeves) is recruited by coach Jimmy McGinty (the irrepressible Gene Hackman) to lead a team of rag-tag scab players during a pro-football player's strike. If the Washington Sentinels win just 3 of 4 games, why, they'll make the playoffs! It's up to Falco to huddle his players (a fraidy-cat running back, a Hawaiian sumo guard, a chain-smoking Welsh kicker, among others) to victory, and bag the hot cheerleader (the irresistible Brooke Langton) on the sidelines. Plot? What plot? What works about silly comedies like The Replacements -- or, say, Galaxy Quest (1999), or Major League, (1989), or Clue (1985) -- is the ensemble nature: the loony-but-lovable characters provide the primary engine for the film; watching them interact, the audience understands there's either no story, or a story not worth following too closely. In other words, sometimes cardboard tastes good. Would make a great sports romp double-feature alongside Slap Shot (1977).

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Crash (2005)

Two harmless-looking college kids (Larenz Tate and Ludacris) take time out from discussing class to highjack a car; following the incident, Rick, LA's rich, liberal white DA (Brendan Fraser) puzzles out the proper politically-correct spin for the situation, which only underscores his callow nature; his traumatized wife Jean (Sandra Bullock, for once playing a raging nasty) wants the locks changed on their house a second time, in fear that locksmith/"gangbanger" Daniel (Michael Pena doing an interesting Mark Ruffalo impersonation) will return with his "homies" to rob them at gunpoint; Daniel is actually a loving family man who has recently moved to a safer neighborhood to protect his scared daughter... blah blah blah. Paul Haggis's movie works as a kind of flipside to David Cronenberg's tale of sexual fetishism gone haywire. Both films concern disconnected people who have moments of awakening thanks to roadside accidents or violence; the critical difference in Haggis's film is that the characters are willfully disconnected, deliberately ingrown, self-involved to the point of social debilitation, no longer capable of empathy, finding it irresistible not to prejudge solely based on appearances (not to mention, they don't end up having frantic, disassociated sex). At the center of this maelstrom is despicable beat-cop Ryan (Matt Dillon), who salaciously feels up Christine (Thandie Newton), the wife of an African-American television producer, during a questionable traffic stop. The movie brazenly pretends to flesh out both of sides of this incident, and while Officer Ryan's behavior is never rendered excusable, it is given a thematic axis: Racism is bad, absolute racism is absolutely bad, something like that. Crash is like a scatter-shot anthology wherein the stories are all different, but the characters are just varied faces for the same static personality: unlovable, unoriginal, devoid of wit. And this won Best Picture? That's a crime worse than Forrest Gump.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Invisible Man (1933)

A mysteriously bandaged stranger arrives in Iping Village one snowy evening -- criminal or accident victim, no one knows. One thing's for sure: he's a grumpy bastard, especially if you interrupt one of his intense chemistry experiments or meals. Disrupt his work one time too many and it's not just the gloves that come off ... next thing you know, there's an invisible marauder terrorizing the countryside... Unlike other of H.G. Wells's works, from War of the Worlds to The Island of Dr. Moreau, Universal got the adaptation of The Invisible Man so correct, there's was no need to attempt a big-screen reboot (multiple sequels and rip-offs not withstanding) for nearly a century. James Whale's timeless direction is faithful to the source material, adding only an erstwhile love interest for Mister Invisible (thus allowing chances for some compassion, if not redemption), and simplifying his mode of disappearance (here just a poisonous, mind-altering combination of chemicals, down from Wells's multi-chapter pseudoscience explanation of magnetic vibrations, &c.). One thing left completely intact: Wells's humor and ironic detachment; Whale remains one of the few filmmakers, past or present, able to tackle the elements of mad-science SF and still tell a compelling, human story. Revolutionary special effects involving traveling mattes and double exposures are still effective (traveling mattes were only recently replaced by digital motion-controlled cameras). This was the debut film for Claude Rains, and subsequently made his career, largely thanks to his distinctive voice; he's seen for only a few seconds at the very end.

Friday, June 2, 2006

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Joker-painted Captain Spaulding (a gleefully foul-mouthed Sid Haig) leads the murderous Firefly clan out of Rob Zombie's previous film, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and into a wide-eyed multi-state serial-killing spree, dispatching the cops at every turn and along several straightaways just for good measure. The bloodflow begins with a grisly shootout at the Firefly ranch, providing beleaguered Sheriff Wydell leverage for his quest for vengeance, and is rarely staunched thereafter. With violence never in doubt, tension arises from the mystery of just how sick things will get, especially with the good guys so far in the distance (witness the excruciating kidnap/torture sequence at one of the gnarliest roadside motels ever put to celluloid). Spaulding & Co. eventually make a break for an abandoned amusement park-slash-brothel owned by Altamont (another great turn by the perpetually underused Ken Foree) where they regroup and reload. Mostly, they reload.

Any charm exhibited by Rejects comes from the joy with which the film embraces its genre. Latter-day exploitation (under the moniker "torture porn") tends to take itself too seriously, inspiring revulsion and contempt rather than ironic disturbance, much less any entertainment value; worse yet are films that play highbrow games with the audience, cartoons pretending to be above their own violence, with a "lesson" beneath the gore. Tossing such claptrap aside, Zombie delivers something mean and pure. Rejects is a gritty, witty road movie, an unrelenting examination of amoral death-dealers at every edge of a badge, and a snappy homage to the low-budget terror films of the early 1970s.

Monday, May 29, 2006

American Beauty (1999)

Lester Burnham does not go quietly into his midlife crisis, shucking his career as a Corporate Cog of some description for a gig as a fry jockey at the local Smiley's burger joint. Meanwhile, his emasculating wife Carolyn begins a robust affair with a fellow real estate mogul after sharing the libidinous joys of the local firing range. Ricky, the creepy new boy next door, a kind of video camera-wielding Eddie Haskell on Prozac, leverages the true counterforce for change, slow-burn seducing Lester's disaffected daughter Jane on the one hand, becoming Lester's life coach-slash-pot dealer with the other. Ultimately, however, it's Ricky's father, Marine colonel Frank, who knows the secret of the crying game. Alan Ball's prequel to Six Feet Under (it's true -- look closely for the cameo by Fisher & Sons...) is an effective blend of Death of a Salesman and Lolita (with just a pinch of Sunset Boulevard thrown in for good measure). While we're on the subject, I had a friend a while back who, whenever spotting an empty plastic grocery sack snared and tumbling in the wind, would say, "It's tough to be a bag." Hard to argue, I suppose.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Pride & Prejudice (1995)

Elizabeth meets Darcy at the Netherfield Ball; noses are upturned, and we're off to the races. While Darcy nixes the burgeoning romance of Lizzie's sister Jane with his own pal Bingley, Lizzie stokes Darcy's jealousy (and sates her own arch-but-curious heart) by courting fop-in-disguise Wickham, who has his eye set on anything with a dowry. Sinuous subplots and intrigues work to keep our star-crossed lovers from recognizing that they are, in fact, star-crossed lovers. You know the rest.

Keira Knightley's giggly performance of Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 film version didn't transfer Austen's acerbic social comedy (not entirely her fault, as that film generally fell victim to overly lush production, with atmospherics overpowering scenes of simple character interaction: heated arguments in the pouring rain; romantic reconciliation upon dewy sunrise-lit meadows; breathlessly whispered passions during thunderstorms; &c. until Jane goes a-spin in her box...). By contrast, the BBC's elder but stately, understated, solid production allows the direction to lift Austen's story right off the page. The actors make the most of their roles -- particularly David Bamber as the beguilingly smarmy Mr. Collins, and Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet, at times so gratingly comic you could swear she's channeling Terry Jones in Python drag. Colin Firth's career-making turn as Darcy is pitch perfect; the critical moment when he pivots to declare himself to Lizzie is a delirious relief -- and done with nary an atmospheric thunderstorm in sight.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television (2004)

Made-for-cable documentary chronicling the controversial but lauded EC horror comic book line, from its troubled original print run to its eventual home-video resurrection. William M. Gaines came to comics ignorant of the field, and it paid off; his stories were a raw blend of morality play melodrama and Grand Guignol gore designed to entertain and to sell books, not necessarily in that order. Fingered as the cause of juvenile delinquency and the general corruption of youth in the 1950s, Crypt and Vault of Horror were the subject of Congressional hearings on "decency." The result: the industry invoked a self-censoring "comics code of approval" which ultimately put EC out of business (except for Mad Magazine -- because it's fine to be subversive if you're funny, but not if you're scary and gross). Talking heads who tout the Crypt as an influence include George A. Romero, R.L. Stine and film producer Joel Silver (who eventually produced the HBO series). Stephen King is oddly MIA.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Destroy All Monsters! (1968)

Those wacky Japanese folk have exiled all the world's giant beasties-who-are-totally-not-dudes-in-rubber-costumes (Godzilla, Baragon, Mothra, Rodan, Gorasorus, &c.) to a remote island imaginatively code-named "Monsterland." (And what a dump compared to that swanky Skull Island, no turn-down service or anything, but I digress.) Undoubtedly cutting short plans to open a theme park featuring Jeep safaris -- See the Monsters in their Natural Habitat!! -- some no-good Kilaaks swoop down from their secret base on the Moon, and set all the creatures loose. Before you can say "Toho" the liberated beasts are smashing up cardboard replicas of London, Manhattan, Tokyo, Peoria, you name it. This is all part of the Kilaak's plan for world domination, right up until the beleaguered Earthlings invent broadband wireless and regain control of "their" monsters. A showdown with Ghidrah (representing the Kilaaks) atop Mt. Fuji decides the Ultimate Fate of Mankind. For all their troubles saving Earth from alien invaders, our conquering heroes are promptly sent back to the critter ghetto that is Monsterland. What's the lesson here?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hide & Creep (2004)

Dang it all if small-town Thorsby AL ain't overrun by zombies. On top of that, there's no TV reception to speak of, which means no coverage of the (suspiciously off-screen) flying saucers whizzing overhead. Ah, hell, who cares -- The News has been a hoax since the "moon landing" and everybody knows it. Meanwhile, some non-union actors in pancake-zombie makeup stagger uninvited into strip clubs and barbecue joints, whilst mullet-endowed yokels hunt them down armed with rifles and machetes and, well, mullets. Where's the General Lee when you really need it? When some kind of Space Lady shows up, that's the end. I would spend more time describing the plot, but I can't. Loopy no-budget hybrid of Clerks, Shaun of the Dead, and any given Ed Wood production (be sure to go heavy on the Ed Wood now, y'hear?). Filmed in the scenic college burg of Montevallo. Which might explain some things.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Eponymous Melquiades (no relation to Erik) slips across the border into the American Southwest to befriend rancher Pete Perkins, the film's moral anchor and former roommate of Al Gore. Perkins hires Melquiades for some honest ranch hand type work, the kind most Americans won't stoop to anymore, too busy skimming stockholders of big energy companies to be bothered. Melquiades thereby makes a passable living herding goats, 'til one day a twitchy border patrol officer named Norton, graduate of the MAGA Sharpshooting Academy, "accidentally" takes him out. Local law enforcement in the form of Dwight Yoakam settles in to do nothing -- nothing, that is, until Perkins enacts his own justice, crisscrossing the border with a complaining Norton in tow, aiming to deliver the body of Melquiades back to family and country, to oversee a proper burial for an improper death. Magnetic performance by Tommy Lee Jones was but a warm-up for his turn in No Country for Old Men (2007).

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The World's Fastest Indian (2006)

Anthony Hopkins, looking for all the world like 1980s-era Ray Bradbury, plays Burt Munro, a Kiwi with a one-lane mind. His quest: to break the world motorcycle land-speed record at Bonneville with his custom 1920 Indian Scout. To that end, Munro is your favorite nutty uncle: living a stripped-down life, mechanically inclined, viewing the world chiefly through the prism of his obsession, blind to most else. Hopkins' portrayal is note-perfect, exuding a sublime, only occasionally corny charm as Munro explores a world that at first seems a few steps ahead of his naivete, but eventually gravitates to his gentle but inflexible grace, an application of the same patient, meticulous approach by which Munro has modified his precious "motor-sickle" for the odds-defying run across the salt flats. Indian is based on "one hell of a true story" according to the poster, making it a kind of high-octane version of David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), and certainly the best character-study film this side of The Apostle (1997). Great cameos from Diane Ladd and Paul Rodriguez.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Good Doctor arrives at the village fair displaying a wonderous zombie-in-the-box named Cesare, a somnambulist oracle. Actually, puppet-like Cesare is no oracle, he's only following Caligari's diabolical directions, which include night errands of serial murder. A wax dummy kept in the box doesn't fool the authorities for long, and Caligari is traced back to his lair by a friend of one of the victims, and the evil conspiracy uncloaked. But there's one more twist awaiting those who would seek justice... Caligari remains a weird and disorienting experience for the modern viewer; aside from bookending moments set in a serene garden, all events transpire in a cramped, off-kilter dreamworld of oddly striped geometry -- a landscape that has inspired visual designers ever since, as evidenced by everything from Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) to the Batman (1966-68) TV series to the entire career of Tim Burton. Because it is secondary to design, the story moves in compartmentalized moments, and sometimes not at all; what a modern viewer would consider the "plot" occurs in the final ten minutes. Undoubtedly an influence on H.P. Lovecraft's tale of psycho-spiritual transference, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, written just seven years later.

[Seen at the Capri Theatre in Montgomery AL with live musical accompaniment by Devil Music Ensemble.]

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

Our eponymous, experience-challenged sad-sack is Andy (Steve Carell), surrounded by well-meaning but clueless bro-buddies who endeavor to liberate him from his lifelong celibacy. Despite questionable adventures in meat-market bars and speed-dating carousels, Andy finds lovely compatibility in Trish (Catherine Keener). But can true love deliver the dirty, dirty sex that Andy's been hearing so much about? Crude and crass without being too-terribly stupid, this coming-of-age (see what I did there?) comedy never degrades or insults its characters, elevating a one-joke premise into a nuanced story. Much credit to Judd Apatow and company; turning the obsession over "collectibles" (action figures kept pristine, in the original packaging, to maintain value) into a hilariously layered psychosexual metaphor deserves kudos. But what was the deal with the whole Bollywood Age of Aquarius set piece? Oh well, I laughed anyway. Wasn't that the point?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Slacker (1991)

Semi-scripted documentary showcasing the bohemian fringe community in Austin TX, circa 1990. Richard Linklater's camera functions like the proverbial fly hanging out on yonder wall, focusing on a rotating series of characters -- many of whom appear to be students or at least campus ne'er-do-wells, all of whom lead busy but job-free lives (though Linklater has stated his usage of the term slacker was meant to be positive, it has entered the lexicon distinctly otherwise). The capricious narrative bounces from one eccentric persona to the next: Linklater himself gets the ball rolling as the motormouthed "Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station," ranting about alternate universes from the back of a taxicab. Other oddballs of note: "Guy Who Tosses Typewriter," "Scooby Doo Philosopher," and "Hand Stamping Armlicker." While a young scam artist tries to unload "Madonna's pap smear" on the nearest rube, an aging anarchist bemoans being out of town on the day Charles Whitman climbed the UT clocktower to a dude who believes NASA astronauts encountered aliens on the moon, just like in 2001 (1968). Before long, this bizarre clutter begins to cohere into a crazy-quilt whole. Best of all, everyone seems to be having a good time, if not actually "Having a Breakthrough Day." Shoohee, howdy, shucks.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down-on-his-luck writer (is there any other kind?) who finds employment revising a bloated Salome screenplay, pet project for aging silent-screen diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). The rub is that he must dwell in her creepy mansion/shrine-to-her-former-self while he works, listening to Desmond emote to the shadows. She is convinced Salome is the key to her comeback. Gillis knows better, but he soon comes to forget or ignore that fact, as the ghostly allure of faded stardom gets the better of him, all despite the cloaked warnings of Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma's mysterious butler. As the plot of Billy Wilder's noir classic slowly spirals in on itself, the movie itself spirals outward, one particular scene being key: Desmond snuggles down with Gillis and commands Max to screen one of her early silent pictures -- the meta-joke being that the film screened is Queen Kelly (1928) indeed starring Swanson, and directed by von Stroheim, one of the few he helmed before falling out of Hollywood's favor, keeping his career afloat by taking bit parts ... much like the role of Max, in this film, perhaps. Likewise, the Twilight Zone episode "The 16mm Shrine" is a supernatural narrative extension, in which an obsessed and secluded actress finds a portal out of this world and into the world of her old movies. Better than the static hell seemingly preferred by the characters of Sunset Boulevard.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Network (1976)

After declaring intent to commit suicide during his live broadcast, newsman Howard Beale is kept on-air by network bigwigs for the ratings generated by his spontaneous, outrageous statements ("I'm mad as hell..." and other greatest hits). As revenue increases, the dowdy set is exchanged for a velvety, spotlit stage Beale shares with gossip-mongers and soothsayers, while the suits upstairs (Max Schumacher, the principled head of the news department, and Diana Christensen, the bloodthirsty new head of programming) make for literal odd bedfellows. This would be a one-track satire if not for Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant late-reel turnabout involving a shadowy corporate figure who delivers a fire-and-brimstone carpet-calling. Mad Prophets, indeed. A sub-plot unveiling how acts of terrorism are staged for video hits uneasily close to the the 21st Century; a weirdly prescient journey into the dark heart of television news/entertainment. Bring back J. Fred Muggs!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Back in the day, zombies weren't out-and-about, freely chomping on the living, munching on brains, begetting other zombies. They were, well, just dead people who wandered around, looking creepy, because they were dead. In this particular case, a nurse sent to the West Indies to care for a rich man's invalid wife ends up falling for the guy, despite the escapades of his drunk half-brother, not to mention their wicked mother, or the voodoo freaks all around, etcetera. How can our heroes find time for love with all these zombies underfoot? Great atmosphere was Val Lewton's hallmark; the eerie path through the sugarcane field that the women must take to get to the houngan is a high point. Years later, ethnobotanist Wade Davis would document exactly the kind of voodoun society depicted here in The Serpent & the Rainbow -- which in turn Wes Craven would use as inspiration for a zombie B-movie of his own. Reincarnation, anyone?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heaven (1987)

Diane Keaton's short documentary about the Great Beyond is a zesty picnic of original interviews and bizarro Heaven-related stock footage. No celebrities or notables are questioned (everyone appears to be a random citizen of Hollywood's back alleyways, except for that one dude who eventually became a cheap-suited televangelist in the 1990s; perhaps this movie was his big break?). Under Keaton's lens, nobody has any real evidence of the afterlife, so any faith-based theory will do, no matter how kooky -- just pick one that fits. The one indisputable line: "In one-hundred years, everybody in this room will be dead." Worth seeing for 1950s-era television footage of three Bible "experts" cheerfully defining the architecture of Heaven: literal streets of gold, wealth, and mansions. Is that all there is? More of the same crap we mindlessly fight over down here? *sets an alarm for 100 years from now*

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wild Palms (1993)

Patent attorney Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) becomes embroiled in a virtual reality/3-D TV/mind control conspiracy puzzle-plot involving randomly appearing rhinos, a network of tunnels beneath the swimming pools of Los Angeles, roving packs of black SUVs, and extra-perception sunglasses that aren't nearly as cool as those in They Live (1988). This six-episode miniseries intends to skewer Scientology but instead ends up being about four (five?) episodes too long. Uninspired direction and flat cinematography are at odds with the scripted elements, rendering the final product akin to a crappy mash of All My Children and a latter-season installment of The X-Files; nothing looks eerie or intriguing when it's videotaped through a Vaseline-smeared lens under the warm California sun. The acting is both hammy and wooden at the same time, a real feat from the likes of Robert Loggia, Angie Dickinson, David Warner, Dana Delany. Not to be confused with the William Faulkner novel of the same name.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Catch-22 (1970)

Captain Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more WW2 bombing missions. The more he flies, the greater the likelihood he'll get killed. So flying more missions, well, that’s just crazy. But the base doc won’t ground him -- not wanting to fly dangerous missions is a sure sign of sanity -- which means he can’t be grounded and is therefore suited to fly more missions. Which is crazy. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Mike Nichols’ take on Joseph Heller’s midnight-black comedy is an underappreciated war-movie spectacle; Band of Brothers on acid. Transferring as many of the novel’s zany characters and madcap nuances as would fit into a single film, Nichols effectively distills the comedy and the greater allegorical message, especially as a third-act turn delves into more serious, bloody territory. The brilliant menagerie of players reads like dream-team casting for the period: Alan Arkin, Bob Newhart, Martin Sheen, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, Martin Balsam, Buck Henry, &c. The scene where Orson Welles shows up as General Dreedle (with a sexpot WAC in tow) to unnerve Richard Benjamin’s Major Danby is a masterpiece of comedic restraint. Yep, best catch there is.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) thwarts a robbery and probably worse at his small-town diner, and becomes a local hero. The ensuing press attention puts him on the radar of some creepy underworld types who claim to recognize Tom as "Joey" from some time back in Philly. Oops. The problem: Tom is a settled family man, docile and soft-spoken, lovely wife, two kids, rural home, all of which seems at odds with the kind of guy who would attract scarred-up gangster-types. Eventually Stall must answer to who he was (or at least to whom these men accuse him of being) in order to continue as, if not preserve, who he is. Not since The Dead Zone (1983) has David Cronenberg served up such a masterful depiction of extra-normal horror lurking behind the thin facade of everyday life. In this case there's nothing overtly supernatural in the story: the monster in question is Tom's past. The film explores the deceptive territory between what we've witnessed and can vouch for in our loved ones, the shared time and trust -- and that which we can never know, secrets buried by calendar pages and strategic silences. Where is the tipping point toward deception? Perhaps more to the point: when should we ask that of ourselves? Cronenberg never maps out easy answers, and this film ends -- in a sublime dialogue-free scene -- just as the biggest question is raised. A meaty, intelligent psychological thriller.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Journalist Edward R. Murrow goes on a witch hunt against Senator Joseph McCarthy, and for decent reason: McCarthy's hysterical "red scare" tactics in Washington are trickling into the greater American experience. Mere accusations of Communist sympathy are suddenly enough to ruin careers, marriages, lives. Murrow takes the high ground, using McCarthy's tactics against the man himself. But will his own career survive when the inquisition inevitably boomerangs back to him? George Clooney's history-as-allegory is suitably presented in black and white, as that's the way he's shaded the story. This is not a biopic, not a film focused on subtlety of character; it is very cleanly fictionalized events washed in appropriate sociopolitical philosophy, and presented with documentary aplomb. The principals are conduits for their belief systems, but the fine performances keep the proceedings from being a simple lesson in civics -- as in the tiny moment when Murrow (David Strathairn) completes a vacuous interview with Liberace: the On Air light dims and Murrow's smile implodes, exposing his professional dyspepsia at having to stoop so low. The radical idea that reporting should not necessarily pretend to be non-biased, especially in self-evident cases of injustice and democratic crisis, is played well against the more commercial notion of simply giving the people what they want: sheer entertainment. What good is a light in a box if it doesn't provide some warmth?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Repo Man (1984)

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is disaffected, ambitious but dulled by empty opportunities, disconnected from his burned-out parents, and bored with his dead-end supermarket job, shelving generic products for zombie consumers. Like all good monomyth heroes, he enters an underworld to ultimately emerge a Repo Man -- where the life is "always intense." Loosely strung vignettes detailing Otto's education as a repossession artist at the hands of old pros Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) and Lite (Sy Richardson) are bisected by scenes featuring a rogue 1964 Chevy Malibu. Seems J. Frank Parnell, the raving crack-up aimlessly piloting the Malibu, is keeping a secret in the trunk. The secret might have to do with aliens, or with neutron bombs, or maybe with time machines, nobody knows and to a great extent it doesn't matter -- but the Government is for sure trying to retrieve it. So too are the repo men, because there's a $10,000 bounty attached to the car. Dioretix, anyone? 

Alex Cox's first feature film, shot guerilla-style around Los Angeles, features many players (Dick Rude, Zander Schloss, Miguel Sandoval) who would grace his later classics Walker (1987) and Straight to Hell (1987). Like Gilliam and Romero, Cox is an underappreciated (and usually underfunded) master of subversion. A savvy social satire, with allusions ranging from Kiss Me Deadly (1955) to Close Encounters (1977), not to mention enough inside jokes, sly cultural references, and running gags to make Thomas Pynchon's head spin. A cult classic, totally.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Serenity (2005)

What more do you want out of a SF western? Checklist: bank robbery; dizzying chase across high plains; vicious bounty hunter; Indians vs. Cavalry-style ambush; various standoffs and shootouts; to top it all off a saloon brawl (but, this being a Joss Whedon flick, where a teenage girl whups everyone singlehandedly). In this continuation/conclusion of the Firefly television series, Captain Mal Reynolds comes to terms with his sublimated freedom-fighter ideals as he escorts the babbling River Tam to a hidden planet, hoping to unlock both the secret of her madness and a truth that will bring down the authoritarian Alliance. Only problem: the Alliance is hot on their tails -- as are a tribe of (literally) bloodthirsty space zombies known as Reavers. Suddenly, there's no safe place in the 'verse for the hero-pirate crew of Serenity. Whedon understands well everything George Lucas forgot with his Star Wars prequels: a keen sense of ongoing fun, logical accelerating stakes with consequences from all sides, zippy characters who can quip their way to a happy-ish ending. Deserves a sequel. Or a revival television series...

see also: Firefly (2002)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Firefly (2002)

Gene Roddenberry famously pitched his original Star Trek (1966) as "Gunsmoke set in outer space." Joss Whedon actualizes that pitch with Firefly -- right down to the long-barrel pistols, cattle rustlers, and hyup-flavored rustic dialogue. After Earth becomes uninhabitable, a slew of Eastern Rim planets are terraformed through Yankee ingenuity. Eventually, civil war erupts between the Alliance (a kind of corporate government, formed by merged superpower companies from China and the US) and the "Browncoats," consisting of a scrappy clutch of small outer planets and moons declaring their independence; the Browncoats fight valiantly but are ultimately doomed. The truncated series takes place a few years after the end of this Unification War.

Mal Reynolds, former Browncoat, now captains the Serenity, a Firefly-class cargo/transport ship. He retains his ideals (the ship is named for the bloody, deciding Battle of Serenity Valley), buried as they are in a life of smuggling operations, the occasional Robin Hood-like gesture, avoiding the Alliance whenever possible. This quiet, personal rebellion is endangered when he takes onboard Doctor Simon Tam and his sister, River. Turns out River suffers from a lab-created psychosis, courtesy of the Alliance, who now want her back -- discovering the secrets of her strange powers and knowledge, and the quest to keep her hidden and safe until she can be brought back to normal, are the undercurrent story threads for Firefly.

But the show is truly buoyed by its characters, all of whom are cookie-cut in the shape of stereotypes, but crumble to subvert those very stereotypes. Serenity's crew consists of: loyal first mate Zoe, who fought beside Mal in the war and has never left his side. Zoe is married to wise-cracking Wash, pilot and resident peacemaker. Jayne Cobb is the proverbial numbskull thug-for-hire, always carrying too much ammo, and ready to rat out the Tams for the reward money. Kaylee is the ever-beatific mechanic, radiant despite ever-present swatches of engine grease on her cheeks (and not-so-secretly in love with Simon). Shepherd Book is a mysterious, dogma-free holy man -- never actually delivers a sermon, still functions as moral compass. Inara is Serenity's associate "Companion," a cross between a Geisha and a high-class call girl; Mal disapproves of her profession but keeps her onboard out of necessity (she's often their cover for landing clearance on Alliance planets) ... and out of underlying romantic friction.

After the fashion of the characters, several episodes make use of stock plots, only to transcend them. There's a train robbery; an outlaw township whose citizenry worships Jayne as a folk-hero; a femme fatale who tricks Mal into marrying her so she can pull off a heist; even a brothel-set recasting of Seven Samurai (1954). The characters, continually cracking wise, move through these scenarios with a kind of "Oh, this old story" attitude that refreshes the entire enterprise. (And there's blessedly little "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" gibberish, even in "Out of Gas," the one episode revolving around the technical operation -- or lack thereof -- of Serenity.) The milieu is so complete and enchanting that the lack of any scaly or slimy aliens is hardly noticeable. This is a human 'verse -- these characters and the worlds they inhabit feel real and knowable, and you want to keep knowing them...

see also: Serenity (2005)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Aeon Flux (1995)

Lithe cartoon female assassin/espionage agent in skimpy dominatrix gear continually thwarts the leader of the neighboring authoritarian state in this ten-episode series. Based on a menagerie of animated shorts initially shown out-of-order on MTV (now stitched into a sort-of cohesive whole for home video), the individual episodes honor those origins with loose, dreamlike (read: incomprehensible) narrative structures. No episode necessarily connects to any other, and Aeon dies at the end of at least two. Interest is maintained chiefly by the lush visual design, the amusing philosophical rants of the main characters, and the occasional creepy plot element. Best enjoyed after midnight, when sleep is elusive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Slasher (2004)

John Landis directed this IFC documentary about a wiry and wily mercenary-for-hire used car salesman. The Slasher (aka a dude from California, name of Michael Bennett) swoops down on a moribund auto dealership in Memphis TN in order to boost sales on a holiday weekend. Aside from a stone-faced DJ and some trucked-in beauties for eye candy, the chief bait is an "$88 car" supposedly hidden somewhere on the lot. The awful truth is that in the depressed local economy, the only car people can afford is an $88 car, so nobody has any interest in shopping beyond the gimmick, or even listening to sales pitches. When there's anybody on the lot other than the inflatable tube dancers, that is. Bennett, obviously accustomed to success, crashes and burns as gracefully as used-car-selling con man can -- smoking and drinking the whole way down. Several moments will induce flinches in veterans of the retail wastelands. At least the Slasher has opportunity to get elbow-deep in a plate of Memphis BBQ before returning to his loving family at the end. Meanwhile, that $88 car is still out there somewhere....