Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Doctors around London are being picked off one by one, the modes of death bizarre (rabid bats, grisly exsanguinations, a deadly head-crushing vice disguised as a frog mask, hungry locusts -- to name but four). Inspector Trout, assigned to the case, cannot help but think the same psychopath is behind them all. He's ridiculed for it throughout his department, but his hunch is correct -- all the expired doctors had a single case in common: they operated on the victim of a long-ago car crash, Victoria Phibes (B-queen Caroline Munro) who died during surgery. Trout's theory that her husband, Anton Phibes, is seeking revenge on the attending surgeons is marred by one simple fact: Phibes died in the accident, long before his wife got to the operating table.

Or did he? Vincent Price turns in one of his more outlandish performances (and all without moving his lips) as a demented cross between a mad scientist and a serial killer. In the years since his disfiguring accident, Phibes has been plotting his revenge, which follows (for no good reason, other than it provides for interesting murders) the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Trout gets hip to this after Phibes drops one of his pendant glyphs, used in the ritualistic killings, and has it interpreted by a Jewish scholar. Between strikes, Phibes hides in his creepy mansion, belting out show tunes on his pipe organ while his lovely but silent assistant Vulnavia looks on. Kind of a precursor to Seven (1995) when you think about it. Stunning psychedelic set dressing as well as a healthy dose of intentional humor (mainly involving the bumbling detectives) on the part of director Robert Fuest have made this a deserved camp classic.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mr. Sebastian & the Negro Magician (2007)

It's an old storyteller's saw, of course (and rarely, these days, sharp enough to cut a woman in half): ye olde Deal with the Devil. Doctor Faustus, well-known metaphysician and seminal mad scientist, leads the way, providing motivations extant in a legion of fictional satanic pacts ranging from "The Devil and Daniel Webster" to Angel Heart (1987). It's always about getting drunk with some kind of power, influence, maybe a little immortality thrown in for good measure -- a lesser evil of the heart begetting a greater evil in the soul. And it never turns out very damned well.

Daniel Wallace, with the fantastic Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, subverts the Genre of Devilish Dealings by removing the aforementioned motivations. Our hero isn't a wrong-minded egomaniac looking for the secrets of the universe, but a mere boy, Henry Walker, lodged at a painful crossroads. It is the grainy depths of the Great Depression, his mother recently dead, his father fallen from Wall Street mogul to destitute hotel janitor, and his beloved, angelic sister Hannah has decided she loves a stray dog (which she names Joan Crawford) more than him.

Henry stumbles from grace via a chance meeting with "Mr. Sebastian" (if that is his real name), a peculiar pasty-skinned gentleman who offers to teach Henry some nifty magic tricks, most of them to do with a deck of ordinary cards -- but Henry must vow to never reveal the source of his artistry, which turns out to be shockingly powerful, if not borderline sinister: along with the preternatural sleight-of-hand technique comes powers of telekinesis, teleportation, and conjuring. Henry can just as easily make a full-course meal appear from thin air as he can commune with the newly dead. By the pricking of their thumbs and the mingling of their blood, Henry's fate entwines with the murky wishes of Mr. Sebastian -- who then vanishes into the aether, with Hannah in tow. Henry will spend the rest of his life searching for her, in one way or another.

This tragic story is told in a series of secondhand flashbacks by Henry's former fellow sideshow performers, who knew him at the end of his career as a hysterically inept magician barely managing, thanks only to the color of his skin, to find work. Like a giddy mash-up of The Canterbury Tales and Carnivale, we meet Rudy, the "Strongest Man in the World" (who actually is far from it), Jenny the Ossified Girl (who, as a woman passively rejected by Henry, is best able to tell the doomed tale of his One True Love), JJ the Barker (who seems to confuse his own childhood memories -- specifically his feelings about his father -- with those of Henry), and Jeremiah Mosgrove, the proprietor of Mosgrove's Chinese Circus (which is in no way Chinese), as well as a few other figures who emerge from Henry's past, both real and imagined. Each of these characters is privy only to a particular part of Henry's life story, parts which eventually connect even as they contradict each other. Depending on who is doing the telling, Henry is depicted by turns as a miracle worker, a broken-down con artist, a heartsick lover, or a lost soul in perpetual mourning over his departed family, still seeking revenge against the man who took it all away from him. Or all of the above.

The stunning centerpiece of the novel concerns Henry's love for his stage assistant, the willowy, troubled Marianne La Fleur, a creature ever fluttering on the border between Life and Death. Henry conceives a magic show -- part trickery, part séance -- around an eerie aspect of their relationship that has his audiences gasping simultaneously in admiration and utter horror. Henry ultimately defines himself by his losses; his signature card trick involves the Three of Hearts: one heart each for his departed mother, his vanished sister, and his unattainable Marianne. And being the performer, knowing the foul secrets of his magic disallows Henry the gifts of wonder and hope and laughter he is able to bestow upon his audiences. Believing in nothing, he is shrouded in his own lies and illusions.

It won't be until he encounters a trio of hoodlum hecklers that Henry at last remembers magic isn't about the trick, believing isn't always about the truth, and that his illusions don't have to be as real as he's made them. The Devil, as it turns out, really isn't in the details -- those small, beautiful, ordinary moments of our lives. It's the fact that we take such moments for granted that is a true evil. "Only love can take us to the darkest places," a character eventually remarks, underlining the double-edged, tragic-comic nature both of this story and of the approach Wallace takes in telling it.

Following three works of, essentially, shorter fiction, with Mr. Sebastian Wallace inherits the storied mantle in American Letters previously shouldered by Ray Bradbury, master of simultaneously sentimental and wicked observation -- a delicate and bittersweet trick indeed, one capable of revealing the innermost chambers of the human heart. (This book, in fact, makes a fitting companion to Bradbury’s equally wonderstruck carnival tale Something Wicked This Way Comes.) We might allow magicians to trick us, but it's love that will ultimately make fools of us all.

Meanwhile, the sideshow parade only seems familiar to the Wallace canon -- circus freaks peopled the Big Fish movie, but the citizenry of the novel was more mythical in nature; this is an illusion/allusion that Wallace, perhaps, fully intended -- here using freaks and misfits to mis-remember, mis-tell, and just plain mistake the true story of Henry Walker, and carry it into the realm of lofty folklore, reminding us how ordinary lives fit into the larger pattern of human history. The tale, as such, flows like an unexpectedly long string of particolored handkerchiefs from the pocket of a skilled and charming prestidigitator, one who always keeps a knowing eyebrow lifted towards his audience, luring them with a recognizable trick, only to unleash an unexpected but heartbreakingly appropriate flourish at the end -- a tale that is transcendently amusing in its variety, startling in its unregulated humor, bewitching in its final originality. This is, simply enough, one of the best, most captivating books of the year. And it's impossible not to wonder what tricks Daniel Wallace yet has hidden up his sleeve.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Bigger Fish Swim in Wallace's Latest," Aug 19 2007

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Host [Gwoemul] (2006)

Following a formaldehyde dump into the Han River, a dinosaur-creature emerges from the depths, hungry for man-flesh. Was it activated by the toxic waste, or created by it? Does it matter? This vintage monster-movie formula is an excellent mix of comedy and dysfunctional family pathos as, after snacking on several full-size humans, the monster drags young schoolgirl Hyun-seo underwater, presumably as a treat for later. Trapped in the creature's lair, deep in the, uh, bowels of the city sewer system, Hyun-seo finds a cellphone and manages to alert her waste-case father, Gang-du, to the fact that she's alive and could need a little rescue -- though naturally the signal breaks up, the phone goes dead, just before she can reveal her location. Another hurdle: any contact with the creature means you're the carrier of a deadly, contagious virus -- and Gang-du got up-close and personal with the beast during its initial riverbank rampage. Agents in hazmat uniforms track him down, isolate him, instigate a series of torturous tests ... while Hyun-seo, awaiting rescue from her sewer hidey-hole, can't escape the snapping jaws of the hungry beast forever ... Perfect drive-in fodder. The formula satisfies and never strains beneath its own weight, or takes itself too seriously, even when offering pointed social commentary (the formaldehyde dumping and Agent Orange allusions are well grounded in actual events) -- just enough originality and genuine jump-scares to keep the proceedings fresh. Compare this to the wretched Godzilla (1998) for a good lesson in the right and wrong ways to make a latter-day Creature Feature.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Against the Day (2006)

James Thurber once said, "There are two kinds of light -- the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures." There is also a middle ground, a Twilight Zone between these two qualities: contre-jour, "against daylight," a photographic term for backlighting, that moment when the glare and the glow meet, and the outer edges of foreground subjects begin to disappear into the light beyond them.

It is in exactly just such an area that Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day takes place. As though assembled from those split seconds occurring between the flash of the bulb and the chemical alchemy of the silver nitrate that will eventually form a frozen image, Pynchon delivers a sprawling photomosaic of the World That Was in the decades prior to WWI -- itself heralded by a mysterious, supernatural "heavenwide blast of light" in the wastes of Siberia on June 30th, 1908 -- over a century distant from the present time, yet perhaps an event that still illuminates, if not irradiates, this familiar world.

The novel begins in pure innocence as the Chums of Chance (five young, bickering zeppelin pilots who, along with their literate dog Pugnax, happen to be the heroes of a series of adolescent adventure novels) descend upon the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. But it isn't long before the narrative focuses instead on a temporary passenger assigned to the Chums, the hapless Lew Basnight, a proto-noir private detective who has committed an unspeakable crime unknown to himself but that nevertheless has alienated him from society ... before switching to the power schemes of railroad tycoon Scarsdale Vibe, a kind of cross between John D. Rockefeller and Snidely Whiplash ... then on to photographer and amateur chemist Merle Rideout and his daughter Dally, as they cross the American heartland, into Colorado where they fall in with anarchist dynamiter Webb Traverse ... Wait! What happened to those Chums?

They'll be back in a few hundred pages. Pynchon wouldn't be Pynchon without a little sleight of hand, a few red herrings wiggling upstream. After all, the Chums exist in a kind of fictional universe, parallel to the universe where the rest of the characters exist ... just as that universe, in turn, is parallel to our own, a place of suburban trains never meant to arrive at any destination on the rail map -- as if, to be brought to any shelter, one would first have to step across into some region of grace hitherto undefined.

The yarn of Against the Day is spun mainly from the lifelines of the Traverse family, beginning with kooky anarchist/domestic terrorist Webb and continuing to his four children -- sons Reef, Frank, and Kit, and daughter Lake -- who scatter to the respective winds following their father's murder at the hands of a hired gun, Deuce Kindred. Reef tries marriage but is more at home as a swindler and dynamite handler, like his old man -- shifty employ that keeps him tuned to the underground, just in case he should ever find the will to act upon his weak desire for revenge against Deuce. It is Frank, meanwhile, disappearing into the desert landscape and eventually becoming a cog in the Mexican Revolution, who learns that blood spilled in retribution will not necessarily equal redemption. Kit tries to break family ties by attending engineering school in Europe -- but his scholarship comes by way of Scarsdale Vibe, the man who likely paid to have Webb killed for blowing up his railroad lines. It is Lake who binds herself most closely to a sense of disastrous familial legacy and fate, by marrying Deuce -- knowing full well his role in her father's death. (The Traverse family tree, incidentally, ultimately branches all the way into Vineland.)

While the Traverse children are the tesseract cornerstone of the novel, their numerous associates receive if not equal then certainly quality time. Along with Basnight, the Rideouts, the Vibes, and the Chums, there is Professor Vanderjuice, a kind of mad scientist, studying the aether and delving into time travel; Yashmeen Halfcourt, a gorgeous "polymorphous prodigy" and schoolmate of Kit who is capable of warping space through sheer mathematical computation; the Zombini family, traveling magicians who create doppelgangers of their stage volunteers by using mirrors made of the refracting calcite Iceland Spar; an enclave of pseudo-spiritualists known as T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys); and Cyprian Latewood, a fop who seems to have been teleported in from an Evelyn Waugh novel, most likely The Loved One. It's a cavalcade often bordering on being a parade of names, only a few of which will morph into full characters. Pynchon favors characteristics over characterizations; it is his forte, and the subjects in Against the Day are every bit as lifelike and as valid as Prince Florizel and company in Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights, or for that matter the legion of wacky servicemen in Heller's Catch-22. By abdicating any deep psychological qualities not relevant to the matters as hand, Pynchon frees himself to render a world that refracts through his characters.

And it is an eerie, doomed world, indeed. Though the principals never articulate it, they clearly feel the boom being lowered, as the century turns and the War approaches, as from a dark cloud bristling with lightning. Pynchon treks into the metaphorical sci-fi terrain most frequented by Ray Bradbury, and retrofits history in the same fashion that Area 51 scientists supposedly reverse-engineer crashed UFO parts into our own, less advanced aircraft. Characters meet shadows of themselves: Trespassers, they are called -- ghosts from the future who have come to warn, or perhaps mourning time travelers who want to revisit what is to be lost; it is never made sure. Meanwhile, among comical Star Trek and Doctor Who allusions, a military search is underway to locate the fabled land of Shambhala, to secure a backup paradise before the greater world is lost. And finally a device is invented that extrapolates information from photographs, allowing views into either the past or the future, moments beyond the shutter click -- suggesting that all of history is only some kind of false memory, anyway. A trick of the light.

Pynchon's first five novels -- from the paranoid quiltwork of V. to the giddy, melancholy divisionism of Mason & Dixon -- are all stories of wrong-minded, impossible, disrupted quests. Against the Day breaks this tradition, and Pynchon, late in his career, boldly sets off in a new direction -- a move that seems to have disoriented some critics. Ironically, it is his esteemed Gravity's Rainbow that is often described as a plotless, unstructured beast. That novel actually has a definite though deliberately incomplete structure -- the book even ends in mid-sentence to point this out. Here at last, Pynchon has turned in the novel he has been accused of for thirty-five years: there is no plot device outside the simple passage of time.

As such, the novel runs like, well, like clockwork. Exactly like clockwork, actually -- gears clicking, cogs a-spin, cuckoos and all, chiming at intervals dictated by a kernel mechanism just out of sight. Though some might say the trouble with clocks is that they measure something you're never going to get to the end of, the pacing is ingenious: the multiple storylines alternate for exact amounts of time -- just long enough to introduce some new tantalizing thread, or provide symbolic echo for one of the other episodes. Like Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa, I suspect it would be possible to read the stories separate from each other, that Against the Day -- like the split beams of light that comprise the novel's controlling metaphor -- would come apart just as easily as Pynchon has put it together.Though there may be no tangible plot, don't be fooled -- this by no means signals a dearth of story. In fact, Pynchon throws away more story elements than most novelists employ in a full career. Through 1,085 pages of slapstick encounters, thwarted intentions, and sinister conspiracies both explicit and alluded to, he still only skims the surface of the world he's imagining. This is no shaggy dog narrative -- the narrative is the shaggy dog, a tail-wagging catalog of visions of the unexpected, breaches in the Creation where something else had had a chance to be luminously glimpsed. Ways in which God chose to hide within the light of day, not a full list, for the list was probably endless, but chance encounters with details of God's unseen world.

Long discussed as our one living writer capable of inheriting the literary mantle of Melville, Pynchon is actually shooting for the throne of Cervantes, here. And with this much story afoot, this many characters, this much mischief, Pynchon exhibits an astonishing restraint. Absent are the massive, brain-crushing narrative monologues, the characteristically arcane and cryptic ramblings; his tangents are now controlled, precise. What once took entire passages is now often done in a few words -- a remarkable, heartbreaking economy, redeeming light from the inertia of precious metals. This is lightning that strikes right out of the bottle.

Yes, Pynchon still has his fastball, after demonstrating a deceptive curveball (Vineland) and wicked slider (Mason & Dixon). His style is again historically (not to mention hysterically) affected -- this time it's chiefly an era-appropriate turn-of-the-20th-Century idiom; think Arthur Conan Doyle on mescal. (I'm quick to imagine a hypothetical audio book, read by a smirking Orson Welles.) What's too often forgotten in the discussions of Pynchon's word games and conceptual puzzles is that the man can flat-out write. In his dreamlike prose, all described action takes on the thrust of greater import, of movement toward revelation. Descriptions of social conditions, mathematical theories, even just passing landscapes turn into roaring visual sweeps, the royal thunder of genius coming over the mountain -- a sound not heard since the publication of Gravity's Rainbow. The resulting reading experience is both luxurious and unsettling, very like a moment of post-lunch midday drowsing that results in vibrant, unlooked for flashes from the deepest parts of the brain.

Against the Day is, ultimately, that kind of book, demanding to be read on its own time, for a reader to pay attention, to actually read, a simple thing we sometimes forget to do in an age when books are too often expected to behave like television shows and merely distract us. Distraction is, after all, the last thing Pynchon is after. How else to explain the fierce moment he brings the proceedings to a halt, some 150 pages in, to describe a terrible tragedy in a city that must be Manhattan -- Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes ... but with only dwindling moments of normal history remaining, where could any of them have found refuge in time?

Using history both real and imagined, Pynchon creates a world that floats off the page, into our own, and beyond. People see the world differently -- which must necessarily mean, according to the logic of Against the Day, there are different worlds to see. Parallel universes have long been Pynchon’s main concern -- on landscapes divided between the Haves and the Have Nots, he ever takes the side of those forgotten by history: the Passed Over, the Preterites, the Thanatoids. And now, the Trespassers, lost somewhere between a real doomed world and a paradise that probably never existed, not even in memory. Where does the truth lie? Was there a moment, now unreachable, where things took a terrible turn, and the world split, leaving us in the Bad one, while the Good one goes on spinning right next to us, but always out of reach?

Well, to paraphrase one of Against the Day's many characters, the "truth" is never as important as what lessons you might learn from the events themselves, however distorted they may appear to be. But ultimately Pynchon leaves us to our own devices, we Constant Readers, lost, ourselves -- for in the end, we are the Trespassers into the world of Against the Day. And the fractured reality we see within is only a reflection of our own.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, May 13 2007

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Illustrated Man (1969)

Rod Steiger chews his own tattooed scenery as "Carl," a wandering sideshow freak cursed with body art capable of weird telepathic tricks, soothsaying, show tunes, the works. The three tales originally penned by Ray Bradbury depicted are: "The Veldt" (two children imagine a world where lions eat their parents); "The Long Rain" (astronauts seek shelter on a rain-soaked Venus); and "The Last Night of the World" (The End is Nigh, but everybody sticks to their workaday routines). The source anthology contains thirteen more stories, nearly all of which would have been better suited to cinematic drama, starting with the flight of fancy provided by "The Rocket," all the way to the spacewreck nightmare of "Kaleidoscope." Uninspired production is reminiscent of an unsold television pilot. Absolutely no help: Steiger carves ham with a bizarre hick accent and grumpy, alienating demeanor. Better to have let the tattoos do the talking. The original promotional tagline was "Don't stare at the illustrated man." Good advice.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Vanishing Point (1971)

Kowalski (Barry Newman), a cop-turned-race-car-driver, is tasked to deliver a white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. It's Friday night, he has until Monday -- all kinds of time -- but then he goes and makes a bet with his speed dealer, he can do the deed in half the time. Translation: It's On. Kowalski, fueled by uppers and insomnia, zooms his supercharged vehicle through gauntlet after gauntlet of cops, still to be dogged by other drivers, roadside bandits, roadblocks, &c. The chase eventually leaves the road, enters the blistering sands of the Sonora Desert, Kowalski egged on by a blind, perhaps psychic disc jockey, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a Greek chorus of gospel R&B records and cryptic rants. And what's that mysterious black sedan reappearing around every corner, no matter how hard Kowalski jams the pedal to the metal? Quintessential grindhouse fare. Sublime desert cinematography. Insanely gratuitous nudity. And no hot rod dies harder on the silver screen (except for the Barricuda in the Phantasm movies -- that's a heartbreaker).