Saturday, December 30, 2006

144. Orphans in the Storm

I've been away--Christmas-time at my house is full and grinning, like Dickens' second Ghost--and maybe with those scary children clinging to its ankles; but we're too busy cooking and making music and grading papers and getting it all done so we can do it* to notice our Ignorance and Want. All we see is light and expectation. Then we get sick--this year, a stomach flu coursing like reindeer for twenty-four hours straight through us, no waiting (and I cannot resist: all things must pass)--then bang! it's gone and we're hungry again, but never again for what we ate at Christmas. (Without a keen--and forgiving--sense of irony, one can neither believe in nor put up with God and His little jokes.) But I'm back again, just for a word or two, then gone for a few days. I think.

I'm finally getting the true grownup present--you know, the good feeling of giving things to other people; that gift, and no kidding. But I am also blessed with children who know me well, and one gave me a remarkable Springsteen book, more like a museum installment, packed with photos and removable inserts and reproductions of tickets and backstage passes and programs. A Compleatist Fan's scrapbook. And another gave me Tom Waits' Orphans, three dreamy, spinning discs of "Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards." And listening to them--some "Bastards" first, now "Bawlers"--led me here, ruminative at the tail-end of the year, with James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein suddenly now, if I can say it, the same. You may not agree that we are all guilty of everything--and I'll admit that sometimes I'm not sure what Dostoyevsky and I mean by that assertion of not-so-original sin--and you may yourself assert that one should not derive moral equivalencies too hastily, but some equivalencies are more equivalent than others, and looking back over the past few queasy days I'm not sure if I see Soul Brother Number One's white-horse ride to the Apollo, or hear Ford's artillery, or Saddam's--what? I didn't wait around to see if they really would air his execution--CNN and Fox were both promising it, there in the watches of the blue-glow TV night; all I have in my head are those wide-eyed shots of him, looking a bit perplexed, a bit angry, sometimes with his (rueful? exasperated?) hand alongside his cheek, an opposite-number Jack Benny--to be or not to be, with a (literal) vengeance--almost as if he were unsure exactly what all the fuss was about: After all, God is great, and what can happen as long as the cameras are rolling?

So here I am, driven by the sentimental confluence of Waits' growl and the flu and other ailment recoveries and onsets while the year wanes and the Way of All Flesh works its lasting charms on the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tom just sang, "There's somethin' to be said for sayin' nothin' at all." An easy exit cue, one I'm willing to follow, "down there by the train." Happy New Year, then; one more swift digit further up the twenty-first century.

*And OK, watching movies; but kiddies, I gotta finish the Halloween Roundup (and imagine that: You had simply to read those words; I had to write them) before I can parade through the Christmas Cavalcade.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

143. Halloween Roundup (12):
Round and Round

In an ecstatic moment of combined hyper-self-awareness and displaced cultural identification, David Lynch swooned like a lady with the vapors and woke up in Uzumaki/Spiral (2000), onetime music video director Higuchinsky's manga-inspired debut, dedicated to sliming--literally--the shiny veneer of small-town life, while mourning its demise, as slippery to the touch as a swatch of blue velvet. I watched this one last year, and it seems destined to become a regular at the Roundup. Like Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead, Uzumaki lives in its own world, even though we recognize almost every individual object from our waking life--even the ubiquitous spirals that herald the town's lurching transformation into, I kid you not, giant snails. Wandering its streets, catching out of the corner of spinning eyes spirals along walkways, in the clouds, on the water's surface, we come upon the secret town, the one that turns and turns. But more than that, this dream vibrates with its manga origins, as full of sudden exclamations and blackouts as snail-slow approaches toward terror and sickening revelation.

The humor of this film lies in its willingness to be absurd (the spiral-coiffed high school girls are a hoot); but of course in the best of the absurd lies revelation, true visions almost impossible to describe, as clear as they may be right there before you. A childhood friend of mine once told us about a dream he had: One by one, his seven brothers and sisters start disappearing. Eventually, he makes his way to where all dreams show their secrets, the basement, and sees his mother standing triumphantly over an open washing machine. He looks in, and, as he described it to us, saw a kind of oatmeal slopping to the brim: his siblings, mashed into domestic annihilation down there. Like Jack Torrance's dream in The Shining, the parent "corrects" and goes mad.

At one point in Uzumaki, a man obsessed with spirals finds himself unable to resist the interior of his washing machine. He is discovered by his son's girlfriend, wrapped like a meaty beachtowel round and round the wringer's curl, his face staring, his tongue suddenly popping out of his mouth in a curl, a spiral within a spiral within a spiral. Not the thin gruel of my friend's dream, but a turnaround, if you will forgive the term, in which the parent's obsession punishes the parent--again, "corrects" his shape into the inevitable spiral. Even the smoke rising from the man's cremation assumes the same shape, snaking down into a resevoir--the town's drinking water?--weather and geography combined to force the dream into what's left of the rational day, darkening the skies and leaving us with a "widening gyre" as solid as a snail's shell, as pervasive as any teen culture trend--which it seems for a while, until it rights itself as a full-tilt possession, making everyone's head spin.

For better or worse, this is why movies like this matter so much to me. I may be viewing them in my cozy armchair, but first someone dreamed them in the cellar, and had a hard time of it, as giddy as it sometimes may appear. Turnabout, as always, may be fair play, but, at least in Uzumaki, remains a dirty job for all of us.

I've always promised myself that this blog would not descend too far into cutesy self-reference (and I don't want to know how wrong I am about this), but searching for images to use for this posting, I was led to a Japanese site devoted to Pugs--and realized with horror that we own a dog, Frank, with an uzumaki growing out of him.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

142. Halloween Roundup (11):
Diabolikally Dangerous

... and speaking of promises made, then long after fulfilled: First there were the glories of living near a (now-departed) Movies Unlimited rental megastore in New Jersey during the late '80s; the darn thing was as big as a chain drugstore, cowboys, with both retail delights and rental rarities--and true video-geeks behind the counter, as ready to wax rhapsodic about Enemy from Space (1957)* as they were Touch of Evil (1958)--both of which I was able to see courtesy of Movies Unlimited's (near-)unlimited movies. And then DVDs, and Netflix, and the flood after. As The Beatles sing--about something much more important--it's all too much for me to take. But I'm not complaining; in fact, I'm belly-up to the bar, downing one straight-no-chaser after another.

Take Mario Bava. When I was a kid with Carlos Clarens' book in my trembling hands, the ghostly, irresistible still from Terrore nello spazio/Planet of the Vampires (1965) drew me in like--well, like a vampire mesmerizing the soft neck closer--and I do think I may have caught it on UHF TV in the early '70s--or did that still simply work its way into my semiconsciousness, another cinematic deja vu, certain yet slipping away, at once something I knew and something I knew I'd lost? In any case, I finally saw it a few years ago on DVD, and have since viewed more Mario Bava, including both the "straight" and MST3K versions of Danger:Diabolik! (1968), with John Phillip Law's krazed-kat eyes and Spy vs. Spy pointy chin sweeping along the diagonal of Bava's go-man-go tomorrow-today sets. Durable goods, as long as you don't handle them too much.

For the Roundup this year it was Blood and Black Lace (1964), a true giallo--and once and for all I found out why Italian serial-killer-spree movies are called "yellows": The source material came from Italian pulps featuring yellow covers. More than a penny, mates, but still dreadful. The point of this arched-eyebrow subgenre is outlandish deaths--and so many American movies have followed suit, from My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me (both 1981) to the Friday the 13th and Final Destination series. What remains with me most strongly from Bava's picture is the varied faults, sins and depravities of the victims--all of whom begin as suspects, until these little Italian Indians fall down, leaving us with the ugliest of them all unveiled and dispatched. The backdrop is a house of couture, a wild scene, baby, that is punished for being its rotten little self. There is something almost smug in such fatal reprimands; Blood and Black Lace follows the genre in this by playing all sides, enthrallingly shot, admonishingly disapproving of our indiscretions, and leeringly attentive to detail, all of it soaked in titular red and black. None of the giallo pictures quite adds up, but that defines their slippery nature, and one must give either in or up. I sometimes want to be done with them and move on to less uncomfortable surroundings, because, at least in Bava's theater, the aesthete, the moralist, and the hedonist have to put up with each others' ugly giggles, tsk-tsks, and gasps, as Bava, like a mad-genius pastry chef, makes delicious dainties in shapes one would prefer not to put in one's mouth.

*I still remember a conversation with one fellow who was originally from England and insisted the radio show devoted to the SF/horror adventures of Professor Quatermass was even better than the movies; this was an opinion I found at once intriguing in its aesthetic possibilities as well as indicative of the fine state of radio in Great Britain.

Friday, December 01, 2006

141. Halloween Roundup (10):
Dark Shadows

I know somewhere or other I've already written about Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, but I'm more than willing to do so again; it's importance to my movie life cannot be overestimated. I still have my original copy from 1968, when I was at the sloppy cusp of adolescence, trying to muster interest in playing with toy soldiers, solemnly committed to afternoon cartoons--all to no avail, as I noticed with dismay that I had lost interest in the little land of counterpane and that the new almost-'70s generation of cartoons had nothing to them--or in them, or on them; "blank and pitiless" in their banality. One glossy sheet of illustrations from the Clarens book is missing--and I'm not sure what was on those two pages, why the pictures were so--what? compelling? "illustrative"?--that I removed them; and I like not knowing. A long-held book lives its own life, shared with its owner. And if the two of them stay together long enough, of course they begin to keep secrets from one another, sometimes even from themselves. So I will let those pages go, and the wherefores can be what they want.

Clarens taught me that movies were special effects--every one of them, at least as the product of an odd mechanism that flies and folds images until they achieve sequence, juxtaposing shot and reverse-shot, angle and length and depth, effecting more than observation of actualities and actors, set and scenario--and more than "reality" (I've been more or less reading Derrida, which puts one in the mood to hold at arm's length such hapless terms), but instead some kind of special truth, an object that works its way into the eyes and ears until it becomes a subject, a breathless thing as beautiful as black and white and shades of grey. And Clarens also taught me that such beauty often comes toward the viewer with an odd gait, a touch of evil, so to speak, that arrives slowly--like Lugosi toward Jonathan Harker or feline Simone Simon along the swimming pool's edge--or abruptly--like Spielberg's night-visiting shark or Tobe Hooper's Leatherface--until beauty and horror merge, of course in shadow. And best--or worst--of all, Clarens held out to me promises, but ones that at the time neither of us could keep: Dreyer's Vampyre, Murnau's Nosferatu, Jacques Tourneur and Mario Bava. But reading his book, I prepared rooms for them, and he gave me a sharper eye and more attentive posture as I've watched every day since.

And naturally many have kept at it, especially behind the camera. These days I see it again and again in Japanese horror films, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo/Pulse (2001), which manages to sustain the dim glories of the expressionst/noir vision, particularly in its subterranean uncertainties. The movie is offhand in its exposition, incidentally plotted, like Caligari or Cat People, and demands that the viewer almost constantly strain to see exactly what is that in the frame's periphery, and why it scares one so. Like so many of its late '70s-early '80s American progenitors, Pulse features young friends in peril, and holds out thwarted hopes of rescue and safety, until the world itself grows indistinct and silent, while everyone recedes into a whispering gloom.

As Clarens points out in many of his overviews of such films, narrative gestures may be perfunctory in this "certain tendency" of horror--"vague," indeed, in the English sense--but one must forgive such lapses with a barely apologetic shrug. After all, as Clarens writes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's approach, "for the night creatures themselves, these films substituted our dread for them." So the last special effect is produced by the viewers, consuming indistinct objects but never completely understanding them, even as they are held in the hands and brought up to the face, as close as one's shadow, and in the deepening gloom indistinguishable from the self. Pulse sees eventually the whole world this way, one in which there are no more stories, just the open sea and the fog rolling in.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

140. Rating Game Redux 1: 3 '70s

In an effort to encourage my natural laziness, I have decided to use this blog for occasional reprints of "Ratings Game" lists that I've assembled for our local paper, The Register-Mail. Some of these have been in non-movie categories, but I will offer here only the cinematic lists. (And as proof of my simultaneously industrious and self-indulgent nature, I will supply addenda in boldface.)

Three Greatest '70s Stars

Robert DeNiro
If these days he seems content to mug his way through comedies, it's easy to argue it's because he burnt out in the '70s; just consider the roles he tackled: Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and in 1980, Raging Bull. I'm exhausted just looking at the titles.

Of course, he always seems on the verge of a major commitment; his upcoming CIA movie may not be the King Lear I've been hoping from him, but at least it reveals he knows he can do more than Focker-baiting--even though he's awfully good at it. Then again, the real strength he may be showing here is as a director. So I'm still waiting.

Bruce Lee
With about six appearances on film in his entire career--as many as DeNiro in this one decade--Lee still completely remade cinema’s notion of what an action picture could look like or be about, let alone how it could move.

I must admit, though, that my real affection for Bruce Lee lies in the genre he helped create--and which is at its best when it waxes poetic (Hidden Croucher, Dragging Tiger, or whatever the heck it is) or hysteric (Kung Fu Hustle); and better yet, in the memory of seeing one of his movies thirty years or so ago in a Cuban neighborhood movie theater. With my abuelita, no less, who screamed hysterically and wondered loudly--as did the entire audience about everything they had to exclaim--where they managed to get all that ketchup.

Jack Nicholson
Smilin' Jack. Jack--make that Knave--of Hearts. The big grin and the bigger trouble that came with it. In other words, the real '70s show.

Nicholson belongs here most of all; originally, I realized that such a list also demanded Burt Reynolds, Karen Black, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, John Cazale--not to mention Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier, Alex Rocco and Richard Conte. But "The Ratings Game" calls for three and no more; a cruel mistress in a small paper. So I now make partial amends.

Monday, November 27, 2006

139. Halloween Roundup (9):
Lonely Dreams

In blissful ignorance I hold in my mind what I prefer to think of as a private truth: that Annette Bening is lovely because she brushed, ever so lightly, against the soft cheek of Gloria Grahame, whose eyes flashed just a moment before returning the caress, a softly shadowed almost-wave as the past took her in black and white. I have no critical faculties--OK, maybe hardly ever, but never with Grahame, from It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Crossfire (1947) to In a Lonely Place (1950) and, of course, The Big Heat (1953), in which Lee Marvin--such perfect casting; point blank, if I may indulge--swept up the boiling carafe in his long meaty hands and splashed rough pleats into her lovely cheek. And somehow Annette Bening (actually two years younger than me, but always seeming all grown up) smoothed that cheek, and wears it as her own.

You can see Grahame's bequest to Bening all over in the latter's work, especially in the wide-eyed outbursts of Neil Jordan's* In Dreams (1999), where Bening's hysteria seems as big-heat raw as Grahame's. Her daughter has been killed, and her dreams lead her to the murderer, played by Robert Downey Jr. with lips as pursed as Lee Marvin's--not, though, in snarls but kisses, each rotten-sweet, like the apples piled high in which he hides. It is in fact one squashed mess of a movie, beautiful and dumb--but never sitting still long enough to let you go. And while Downey, as usual, demands my attention, it is Bening I lean toward--tentatively, because her sometimes-nasty panic is dangerous, more than an echo all the way back to the late '40s, when her long-gone twin receded into the shadows, ashamed of what's happened to her face, but refusing to leave. Bening re-invents that tendency in Grahame, but adds a less jaundiced eye, and in doing so becomes not so much Grahame's savvy dame as her agitated double, vibrating with violence. It's odd, in a way: Despite her vigorous performance, Bening seems less capable than Grahame--and I do not mean as an actor, but in her character's response to evil: She scraps with it, topples over the edge with it, makes it happen. Grahame seemed to flow more, sometimes right into the rocks, but never openly rushing toward the growl of the rapids. In fact, in her headlong plunges, Bening often seems scarier than Downey.

I am not sure where the seam shows between the two, but it might be in Bening's aggressive posture, convincing and uncontrolled. She may, then, be giving us both Grahame and her nemeses, rough men who hardly ever stop to see if she's going to get up, but shoulder past her down the hall, slamming the door shut--all, of course, except George Bailey, who saw she needed attention. And in such a "protected station" she was able to find the breathing room to give us Annette Bening, a Hollywood pro-/re-creation that urges me to keep my eye on that soft cheek, unwilling though I may be now to raise my hand to it, because Bening might slap it away; and that too draws my gaze, a little afraid but thankful that I can see the shadow of her twin, lonely but not forgotten.

*This is a director whose "body" of work is a sprawling--mercurial? chimerical?--hybrid, all jammed onto the screen with a spliced-diced sensibility, including Breakfast on Pluto (2005), The Good Thief (2002), The End of the Affair (1999), The Butcher Boy (1997), Michael Collins (1996), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Crying Game (1992), Mona Lisa (1986), and The Company of Wolves (1984). All of them up to something or other.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

138. "One tough gazooka
that hates all palookas
that ain't on the up and square":
Robert Altman, 1925-2006

I will simultaneously arise from weeks-long silence and pause the (still-running) Halloween Roundup to pay my respects to Robert Altman, the original meatball surgeon. It's hard to imagine him being born a year before my father: The former's sensibilities seemed so much a part of the good-bad chemicals of post-modern cut-out/up culture, while my Dad was, if I'm to be stuck with this line of comparison at least for another sentence or two, a High Modernist, full of the whiz-bang optimism of a world defined by change. He enjoyed the fact that he was born in a Philadelphia where horse-drawn wagons were common, and was approaching a (never-to-be-realized) old age (gone at 70) in which microchips (and -waves) were as ubiquitous as boredom over space travel. Positivist flux, "all the way down the line."

Altman, on the other hand, seemed in some ways to have sprung out of the '60s forehead both brand-new and all grown up--and gleefully outraged at It All--with M*A*S*H in 1970. And he didn't seem to look back much, barreling along with both guns blazing--and sometimes out of true, wild shots often, all smoke and noise and beautiful overlap, like Buffalo Bill (someone he and Paul Newman took apart messily in 1976, by way of Arthur Kopit's 1969 play) giving Mad Hatter history lessons. As the '70s circus rolled on, I found myself missing his bulls'-eyes (McCabe and Mrs. Miller/1971, Nashville/1975, Three Women/1977), instead lingering on the ones that sometimes seemed like feature-length outtakes fiercely proud that no one was watching (Quintet, 1979)--or unashamed if everyone was, but jeeringly (Popeye, 1980).

The Altman I held was one slippery fish, and either too big to hold on to or too ugly to handle. I didn't always love his movies, but I did always want to see them. And although I still cannot forgive him for trashing Chandler/Marlowe in 1973's The Long Goodbye, at long last I can admire how thoroughly he did so. (Two horrifying words: Elliot. Gould.) So when I saw his beautifully crafted TV version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988) or the light-infused, deliberately paced and patched Short Cuts (1993), I would point to them as signs of his greatness, until after a while, it seemed I didn't need Nashville and company, while something like The Player (1992) seemed an Altman movie only marginally, as much his as The Thing from Another World (1951) was Howard Hawks'--which might mean mostly, but only in the set-ups and punchlines. The "real" Altman, you understand, was not interested in filling theaters, just the screen.

I'm glad this is my perception of him: a sideshow of import, an iconoclast who irritated his own generation by encouraging the noisy habits of their children. But a quick glance at Altman's TV work belies another take, with all those episodes of Route 66, Bonanza, Combat!, Maverick, Whirleybirds, Peter Gunn. Perhaps not simply Altman the blissed-out pest, but after all just one of those aspiring Americans reaching adulthood after World War II, often dazed and confused themselves, but workin' on it every day, and hard; the evening lineup as palliative and preamble. So go ahead, now that he's gone: look at Quintet's frozen beauty and the first real live-action cartoon, Popeye, and relax just a little bit in the fit-filled glow of Altman's long and bittersweet grin-and-grimace. (And, while we're on the subject of Buffalo Bills, ask, along with e.e. cummings, "how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.")

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

137. Halloween Roundup (8):
To Die For

(I know it's November 1, but the Roundup is--OK, has become--atemporal; I have a good dozen or so movies to cover before I can wave those bony fingers and bid a cackling "Bye-bye, kiddies!" to Halloween. Besides--and as usual with this Humble Viewer--such mundane details interfere with the flickering rush of one movie after another, unhindered by the labor of marking time. So let us speak no more of it.)

Twenty seconds into Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and I remembered--what? Not that I'd seen it before; another five minutes and I was pretty sure I hadn't--although already it's happening again, a strange cinema deja vu: I choose a movie I'm not sure I've seen before; I watch it, assuring myself I haven't; I think about it afterward--or (and this works even better) start writing about it--and the feeling slips along my forehead, like a trailing damp breeze, that I have seen it before. It's happening right now, as I think about the opening shot, the canoe in the water, Jessica's voice-over wondering if it all really happened or is she mad and was it a dream, and so on. And the rest of the movie is a flashback, returning at the end to the canoe; so is that the moment of deja vu, simply seeing the scene twice? Or does it trigger a real memory? Or is it simply reminiscent of other horror films I've seen that feature a small boat in the water, from Friday the 13th to Humanoids from the Deep (both 1980)? Persistence of vision, the notion that the eye is fooled into seeing a series of still pictures as a single moving one, has been pretty thoroughly dismissed as a way of describing how movies are processed by the brain; but it remains an apt phrase for this refusal growing within myself over the past few years to tell one movie from another. Of course, I can still make such differentiations--but not at the level of memory, not after seeing it. So while I hope I will never confuse the three films I've mentioned so far, I know they have confused themselves in me, so to speak, these simply filmed observations of a simple thing: A woman sits in a rowboat while the bad moment waits to happen. So maybe I remember the movie only now; or maybe I've never seen it before, but watching it means I now have seen it, at least this one time (whatever could be, I wonder, the right verb tense for such uncertainty?); and so, at this stage in a life of movies, it at long last becomes one I've seen before, and gets to sidle up and insinuate itself into other films. The vision that persists, then, is not that I have seen every movie, but that I want to remember having seen them all. As Joseph and Barbara Anderson put it in "The Myth of Persistence of Vision Revisited" (1993), "we process movement in active meaning-seeking ways." This is, at least, how I process, if not movement, then at least movies: actively, seeking meaning (or at least recognition)--but also passively, succumbing to the myth/vision that every movie persists, somewhere. Well, I have silenced myself with this; better to just keep watching, and let them all be repeat viewings.

But what I do know I saw was Jessica herself, played by Zohra Lampert, an actor I immediately recalled--better yet, a face, a form, a set of mannerisms that never went away, not since I first saw them on some TV show or other. I checked the IMDb, and she was on TV a lot, in episodes of Route 66, The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, plus appearances in various movies. A face that invites deja vu if only because it must've darted and shimmered across my line of sight for a decade or so as I consumed TV with foolish nonchalance; after all, it was on.

Zohra Lampert, though, was no mere who-was-that bit player, a lost '70s face in the crowd. No, if you saw her at all, she stayed with you, if only because, as even my son noticed, you cannot read her. She seemed perpetually undecided whether the world was laughing with or at her, whether she wanted to grin or flinch, stay or go. She was like some kind of gangly land-bird just about ready to dart off. In some ways, playing in Let's Scare Jessica to Death a recovering head-case with a chuck-it-all-and-start-a-farm husband (with a remarkably sideburned friend in tow), Lampert found a perfect role: She really did look crazy, and maybe was, in an effectively indeterminate way. She made Jessica seem trapped in a particularly damaging emotional-memory exercise, star pupil of an unbalanced acting coach who didn't care how much harm all this stress was doing her; so Jessica herself didn't seem to know exactly where things were or who she could trust or whether the small-town vampires were real or, like everything else increasingly seemed, figments of a constructed imagination.

In other words, I couldn't stop watching her. For ninety nervous minutes, Lampert captured the essence of that first nameless sap who gets it just so we can glimpse the monster--except Lampert is forced to hang on, to walk the dark corridor the whole way, to creep along the hedge for an hour-and-a-half, to listen at the too-thin door far too long. And in her hands the effect is not unrelenting suspense, but exhausting explication of victimhood. But don't get me wrong: Lampert is no limp rag wrung in the anxious hands of whatever and blah-blah-blah (to tell you the truth, every once in a while even I get tired of writing like me), but a performance artist, if I may mix metaphors (or occupations), turning toward the viewer a self-conscious eye, a direct request that the audience watch her acting. It was fun but disconcerting, a true tall tale about horror's fractal pattern, lightning clawed across the sky, cliched but still making you jump. And at the very end, as Jessica slumps suddenly below the gunnels, she has been so indecipherable that all we can do is refer to the title to make sure what has happened: that they have indeed scared Jessica to death, something that, as I look back on the film--suddenly remembering it--Lampert had been insisting all along.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

136. Halloween Roundup (7):
Things to Come

As I settled in to watch The Sentinel (1977), Michael (Death Wish) Winner's post-Rosemary's Baby vulnerable-waif-in-creepy-brownstone effort, I asked myself why I had it in my head that this was a good movie, one I was getting ready to watch for maybe the third of fourth time. On the surface, it was the same old story for me: the memory of a striking image, a mood, a feeling. For The Sentinel it is the effect of a ghostly naked old man passing silently through a darkened room, inches from the heroine, close enough to give us all the shivers. The Ghostly/Ghastly Visitation, the matter-of-fact appearance of the hellish. Good enough?*

Well, once the movie started, I was assured--and not so sure. It chaffed with everything itchy about those polyester '70s, from the giant posters and pastel upholstery to the chrome and indoor fronds. And everyone looked a bit ill, photographed with that crappy (Kodak?) filmstock that seemed worn-out when it was new, ready to fade and fall apart at the slightest change in barometric pressure. And everybody's attitude was slightly nasty, so ready to disdain and dismiss. (There's something to be said for '90s PC-ness, despite all its bad press; at least it urged us not to be so rude.) I figure being in a horror film's bad enough; does the poor heroine (Cristina Raines) really need Ava Gardner and Chris Sarandon (and although I remember him fondly--if that is the right word to describe a vampire--from Fright Night (1985), my view of him will now always be tainted because my wife commented, "He doesn't have a nose!" I think it was the camera angle, but things won't be the same again--between me and Chris, that is; my wife is another matter) getting all abrupt at her? Overall, I found plenty that irritated.

But then I suddenly recalled why The Sentinel was such a guilty pleasure: It was situated right there at a great and grating turn of the Hollywood wheel of fortune, as the last remnants of the studio era gave way to actors who would soon burn--at various levels of brightness and heat--some even now, others at least for a while (and it surely is a sign of age to be an adult witness to rising stars' falls). So there was the aforementioned Ava Gardner flouncing around while Jeff Goldblum acted like a fashion photographer; and Martin Balsam puttered about his professorial digs while Beverly D'Angelo panted in autoerotic ecstasy (oh, those hapless '70s; more on this in a bit); and Eli Wallach grumbled cop-talk while Christopher Walken(!) stood in the background, receiving a number of closeups I can only explain by assuming that Michael Winner, like the rest of us, couldn't stop looking at Walken's friendly, feral face; and Arthur Kennedy and Jose Ferrer and John Carradine guarded the gateway to Hell while Tom Berenger and Nana Visitor (Kira from Star Trek: Deep Space 9) innocently moved in to the new apartment building/gateway to Hell. I suppose this kind of thing still goes on, especially in made-for-cable movies, but the '70s seemed to be a particularly campy-depressing promenade of last gasps and first cries--although, and this should be no surprise, Burgess Meredith rises triumphant, cat in arms and birdie on his shoulder, as the indulged elderly gay man who, for a time, seems so charming.

For a time. Because the other thing that struck me (like a low blow) about The Sentinel was its attitudes towards the sexual. Of course, sex equals death in horror films; but in this masochistic movie it seems that sex equals degeneration. The heroine's aged father drives her to attempted suicide after she catches him in bed with two prostitutes; when she sees his shade wandering around the Old Dark Apartment Building, she tells a priest it makes her think she should try suicide again. And, as I mentioned earlier, Beverly D'Angelo, Sylvia Miles--and even the de-gendered cutie-pie Meredith--all signal not only sexuality but homosexuality-as-depravity--and damnation, since we find out they are all souls on some kind of shore leave from Hell. Not to be too obvious about the emerging metaphor here, but I can't help seeing this film as a record of '70s self-loathing gravitating toward self-destruction; after all, 1977 is just a few helpless breaths away from AIDS, and in retrospect The Sentinel seems ready to lay some nasty blame. Feh; I think I've just found the least savory Halloween Roundup entry so far--and if you glance at the previous six, that's saying something--and, with its cold heart and homophobic little mind, I say to Hell with it.

*Writing this sentence, I was reminded of a friend's email about seeing the documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque, and recounting Langlois' comment about Vincente Minelli's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that it may not have been a good picture, but there were a couple of memorable scenes, so for him "the rest doesn't matter." I am in good company--and I just Netflixed the doc to bask in the glow. Thanks, Mike.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

135. Halloween Roundup (6):
If I Were a Carpenter

I'm not entirely sure it's all that much fun being John Carpenter. I don't mean as a person; for all I know, life is a cheery affair for him, filled with warmth and love and so on. And I also don't mean as a "Master of Horror" (as Showtime calls him, one among a number who directed a series of more-or-less Tales from the Crypt for the channel)--at least, not exactly. You know, that "Oooh, it must be scary being you!" gag interviewers pull on professional Gothicists. I'm just thinking of the need to keep at it, regardless of vocation, while dealing with a bright past, a mushy middle, then ... What? Fingers crossed, hopes springing eternal? Or just made-for-TV short subjects? And then there's the issue of a long life and a short rope: How many more of these things, one wonders, can Carpenter manage? I just saw "Cigarette Burns," his Showtime entry, and it seems to be, if not spelling out the terms of a weary capitulation, at least gazing at the long walk down the dark corridor, with the distance receding but never disappearing, and the end, while always in sight, seen not in relief but exhausted surrender.

A collector of rare films (played by Udo Kier; now there's another tired fellow-traveler; still, he manages to keep that doll's-eye glisten while talking his way around his accent, oily charm mingled uneasily with just-below-the-surface panic) asks a movie-theater director, Kirby Sweetman (I kid you not) to find a print of a short film, Le Fin Absolue du Monde, which purportedly turns its viewers into homicidal/suicidal maniacs. This is meta-narrative at its unwholesome "best": a short film about a short film about death. End leading to end. Carpenter does a good job of capturing the insistent demands film makes on the cinephiliac--culminating on Udo Kier's final sacrifice for--well, not art, but the art-lover's wish to be overwhelmed by art, to enter it, to become it. I will not give away the moment--not that it's something you should look forward to--but be warned: Like all Grand Guignol exhibitions, this one is at once supremely silly and thoroughly damning, as always a haymaker, but also a sucker punch. "Cigarette Burns" indicts the viewer, laughs at--while feeding--the voyeur, and discourses with surprising clarity on obsession.

So I'm still left with an image of John Carpenter slogging through what has become a Halloween fog, filled with princes of darkness, ghosts, things, body bags, and the damned, all cradled in the mouth of madness like one last bitter treat--and way in the background, the first King of this long cinematic trail, Carpenter's Elvis, "slumped up against the drain," as Springsteen puts it, "with a whole lot of trouble running through his veins." "Cigarette Burns" proves Carpenter can still name that tune, while piercing our ears with excessively high notes. A nasty little business, but it seems the only one he has.

Monday, October 16, 2006

134. Halloween Roundup (5):
Brain Dead

Those closest to me are sometimes fond of pointing out that I tend to be anal-retentive. This is something I must admit--at least privately (give no quarter in the family feud!); after all, why else do I find it difficult to relax and watch a movie until the room is picked up? As though a half-glass of juice and some socks on the floor are going to matter as I sit there in the dark watching Will Ferrell yell at Ben Stiller. In my cloudier moods I fear my old friend AR may actually be OCD--and then I really am in trouble: Imagine trying to pay attention to a film while chanting "bring in the milk, bring in the milk, bring in the milk." And as far as the cause of this thing goes, I continue to hope I can blame all my problems on my parents. Botched toilet-training has a dark and terrible poetry to it; the imagery alone is desperately intimate. But consider the biochemical explanation, one that fingers low levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine or serotonin as the culprit. Feh; where is the delirious, festering beauty in that? I will not expend all this energy being crazy simply to fill the coffers of Lilly and Pfizer; and while receiving a Positron Emission Tomography scan seems fraught with Asimovian frigidity, accompanied by the wire-sharp whiff of ozone and the impassive ratchet of spiking readouts, nothing beats the blind and lumbering approach of The Past, a neurotic puppeteer insisting that you better stack those dishes just so, or else.

Or else what? Freud tellingly defines the desire for "order" as a "compulsion to repeat," a deflection from the fundamental discomfort with facing life's messes, a basic sense of disgust. This feeling is of course universal: all peoples in all cultures at all times have their gross-out lists. On the home front, back in 1994 the researcher Jonathan Haidt developed a series of "disgust scales" to test the American gag reflex.

Here are a few of the statements the scale asks you to mark true/false (and by the way, I admit I may be nuts, but if none of the following "bothers" you at all, I'd suggest immediate attention):

It bothers me to see someone in a restaurant eating messy food with his fingers.
It bothers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucus.
It would bother me to be in a science class, and to see a human hand preserved in a jar.
It would bother me to see a rat run across my path in a park.
If I see someone vomit, it makes me sick to my stomach.
It would not upset me at all to watch a person with a glass eye take the eye out of the socket.
It would bother me tremendously to touch a dead body.
I probably would not go to my favorite restaurant if I found out that the cook had a cold.
It would bother me to sleep in a nice hotel room if I knew that a man had died of a heart attack in that room the night before.

Others are statements you rate from "not disgusting at all" to "slightly disgusting" to "very disgusting":

You see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream, and eat it.
You see maggots on a piece of meat in an outdoor garbage pail.
You see someone accidentally stick a fishing hook through his finger.
Your friend's pet cat dies, and you have to pick up the dead body with your bare hands.
A friend offers you a piece of chocolate shaped like dog doo.
You are about to drink a glass of milk when you smell that it is spoiled.
You are walking barefoot on concrete, and you step on an earthworm.
You see a bowel movement left unflushed in a public toilet.
You see a man with his intestines exposed after an accident.
You accidentally touch the ashes of a person who has been cremated.

I left out some of the "morally disgusting" ones dealing with same-gender or varied-age/species sex; I'll leave those hangups to you and your dank little doubts and anxieties. I must admit, though, that the ones I have mentioned squat within a personal padded room of my own, daring me to keep looking and to quell the rising gorge as I deal with the untidy aspects of the body, especially the wetter, looser ones--in particular the idea of severed or damaged parts, or exposed innards. (I'll ignore the food and poop items for now.) Which brings me to The Brain (sometimes Head) That Wouldn't Die (1962), one I'm almost sure I saw sometime soon after its original release. And checking it out on the IMDb, I read a "user comment" from someone who saw it when he/she was five years old (a year younger than I would've been in 1962) and it was amusing to see all the capital letters and exclamation points used to indicate how CREEPY! and VERY SCARY! it was back then. Well, maybe not "amusing"; more like "revealing." I, too, remember being afraid--but more than that, disgusted. A woman is decapitated in a car accident, and her husband/researcher bundles it up in his jacket and puts it in a shallow pan filled with Some Liquid and sticks tubes into it. So there it/she sat, bandaged and bound, voice raspy, asking to be allowed to die more times than I wanted to hear. And the end of the movie also slopped over the rim of the disgust pan, as the mad doctor's previous experiment--a misshapen creature with the requisite googly eye--tears off the assistant's arm, with all kinds of attendant wetness and black smears. (And speaking of doubts and anxieties, I had forgotten that the doctor, in his search for a suitable replacement body, visits a burly-q joint and also cruises town, adding all kinds of discomfort to the already-troubling voyeurism at the heart of the nervous, the lonely, and the involuntarily disgusted. You know, watching horror films really isn't the best coping strategy for adolescence. But I digress--or do I? Hmm.)

This most recent viewing of The Brain That Wouldn't die, though, came, to my relief, as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 entry--I believe Mike Nelson's first appearance--and, bless him and the 'bots, they dis-disgusted the movie for me almost all the way. Except: Their own disgust, albeit less visceral, was more Freudian, and I was able to examine the wet end, so to speak, with some dispassion, while laughing at what is even more deeply unsettling about this movie, and that is one odd, repeated shot: closeups on the scientist--"from another dimension!" the 'bots scream every time--as he ogles the strippers or salivates over his wife's head (sorry). So one kind of body-disgust is replaced by puerile sniggering over another. This does not seem the most salutary turn; still, it's better than the last nauseous dregs of childhood, and the thought of severed limbs and all the gooey business of life literally cut off and turned inside-out. No wonder as an adult I found myself drawn to David Cronenberg. He understood that, while it may indeed all come down to The Body, it can still remain something that stirs in The Head, and, wisecracks aside, it dies hard.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

133. Halloween Roundup (4):
Game Over

When I first saw Weird Science (1985), I was happy whenever I saw two actors on screen: First of all, I must confess, Kelly LeBrock, whom John Hughes photographed in such an iconic way that--like Betty Grable in the '40s stretching her legs out, just so, for all those G.I.s--she grew to represent the '80s ideal of the American Beauty--which oddly enough included a British accent. But the second welcome sight was Bill Paxton's Chet, Hughes' grinning-est teen nemesis, splay-footed in his skivvies, "gettin' off" on his own evil. At once manipulative and malleable, Chet drew me into the off-center middle-west knuckleheaded world Paxton would fool around with for a while: A year after Weird Science, he earned his own niche in the wall of movie immortality with his freaked-out Pvt. Hudson in Aliens; I can even remember downloading an early home-made video game in which, when you lost, you heard Hudson's famous exclamation as the inexorable aliens left them stranded and hemmed in: "It's game over, man, game over!" Good ol' boy Bill: a cigar-chomping bully until his bluff was called.

His first triumph along these lines is in Kathryn Bigelow's redneck vampire road movie, Near Dark (1987), in which Paxton gets to say things like, "We keep odd hours." It's a ruthless, smirking performance, full of dark fun and adolescent menace. And should be the focus of a Halloween Roundup. But I play 'em as they come, and last night I watched Frailty (2001) again--and by the way, Paxton's second career as a producer-director has been interesting; check out Traveller (1997), which he co-produced. And while that film does have a Southern Gothic feel around the edges, in Frailty the gothicism is, to put it mildly, head-on and up-front.

I'm afraid I won't be able to do too much here with the plot: This is the kind of movie I like to consider a "mule," if only because, once you get to the back end, it kicks. But in its tale of an amiable single Dad (Paxton) with two boys (Matthew O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter; as an adult--we receive the story in flashback--one of them is played by Matthew McConaughey, another actor who makes good choices; go watch Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, released the same year as Frailty), all seems well until the father wakes up the boys one night to inform them that God's angel has spoken to him, and they must seek and destroy demons, who are of course disguised as (more or less) ordinary people. What follows is a frank discourse on Hell--if Hell is a place in which someone you depend on asks you to watch him become a monster, and demands you do the same. While surprisingly free of blood and gore, Frailty disturbs because of that demand.

When I was a kid I remember being told by one of the nuns at my school that you had to follow the commandment to obey your parents--unless they told you to sin. I used to imagine my parents deciding to enter a life of crime--bank holdups, as I recall--and telling me I would have to go along. And while the thought of my mother and father, wearing masks and turtlenecks, startling the patrons with cries of "Stick 'em up!" made me uneasy--after all, they must've been lying to me all along if they had that in them--a part of me relished the thought of saying No, and having God on my side for once.

Ahem. Frailty pretty effectively puts the kibosh on that strange little daydream. And I'm wrong to be joking about it, because the movie refuses to compromise its vision of Hell on Earth. As the older son digs a gigantic hole in their back yard (the future "dungeon" to hold the demons before death by lead pipe and ax)--part punishment, part prelude to his own scary version of fasting in the desert--I saw with Gothic clarity the terror of obedience and the nausea of defiance. One son accepts the father's world--claiming to see the demons beneath their human disguises--but the other, his hands torn by his work, then flung into the hole (now covered with a shed) to sweat out his lack of faith, faces the need to avoid sin, and ... but I will not give away too much. Those with the stomach for it can watch it themselves, and observe that the "error of one's ways" can be as difficult to see as the way out of error. If Frailty works as a title, then, it is because of the tenuousness of love and understanding in a world of sharp turns and sudden drops.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

132. Halloween Roundup (3):
Sad, Sad, Sad

Not to be too cute with the title of this, but watching The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man* (1943) I was reminded of another, slightly similar title, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, made into one rough night of a movie in 1966 by Mike Nichols, in which Dick and Liz--and a suitably hapless George and Sandy--do some pretty thorough tearing and rending themselves, as "sad, sad, sad" as they may be. The similarity, then, goes beyond the W-word, because Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) wins hands-down the title of Saddest Monster of Them All, sadder than all those creepy-creaking child-ghosts in J-horror movies, or--and this is saying a lot--Karloff's haunted face, even in its most extreme bouts of loss and descent in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Chaney the Younger had a strange face--I always want to use the word "mug"--whose dull despair had made him a good choice for poor Lennie in the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men. (It was Broderick Crawford on stage in 1937.) In The Wolf Man, the last thing he looked like was a Scottish gentleman--and while the plot tries to cover that up a bit, his Larry Talbot still seems straight out of Brooklyn (circa 1935), a weary schlump trudging back and forth from depressing job to threadbare existence. It is a Depression face, beaten but only realizing it after the fact, the big galoot who doesn't get his as much as someone else's.

In other words, a perfect werewolf, a victim of another's violent spree--Bela Lugosi's, in fact; the werewolf (actually named "Bela") who bites Larry. It's interesting to watch Talbot's split reactions in these movies, as he seeks death with all the energy of a convalescent-home inmate while his werewolf counterpart/stunt double rolls around with reckless glee through glade and glen, nimble as a faun, hungry as a satyr. But even more, notice how all that energy does not lead to "eternal delight"; no, we'll save that for some postmodern Goth-werewolf who finds liberation in consumption. Larry is only miserable, and the werewolf is simply scary. My sixteen-year-old daughter still remembers when she was little, up and itchy-hot with chicken pox, sleeping on the sofa bed under a penguin-patterned counterpane, watching The Wolf Man late at night with me. And sharing her first viewing, I was reminded how frightening Larry was as the Wolf Man, how perfectly at home in the thick fog, always snarling sotto voce, the only sign we needed that he meant business, and that business was booming--and shrieking, at least for a moment, until his slavering embrace cut it off short.

Like Lugosi's Count, Chaney's lycanthrope produced no blood to speak of; but he seemed at once the most unwholesome, unstoppable and also least understood of Universal Studios' monsters, a cruel cipher that everyone, Larry included, knew needed killing. (Some day I'd like to write about T.R. Hummer's poem, "The Rural Carrier Stops to Kill a Nine-Foot Cottonmouth," the most arresting thing I've ever read about "things in this world a man can't look at without / Wanting to kill." And I suppose, this being the Halloween Roundup and all, over the next few weeks such a poem should pretty easily come to mind again.) I'm reminded of The Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's own little tale of death in the woods, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and the mopey-yet-teeth-gnashing progress through his "meanness"; and how still, at the end, all the loose ends tied up in bloody knots, he too must wearily admit, "It's no real pleasure in life." Now there, kiddies, is a fitting motto for the Talbot family crypt.

*I was calling it Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man, but my son corrected me. He didn't stick around to watch it, but he was right: Between Larry's kindred-spirit rescue of the Monster (Lugosi at last accepting the neckbolts) and dogged (sorry) insistence that Dr. Frankenstein's work must somehow hold the secret to a cure for what ails him, it is definitely more a matter of meet rather than vs. Indeed, their spirited tussle at the end almost seems an afterthought; the crumbling dam already ensures mutual destruction. Still, my memory of it as a kid is much more pugilistic, and I'll hang onto that when no one's looking.

Monday, October 09, 2006

131. Halloween Roundup (2):
Not in Kansas Anymore

For years I thought that the abandoned amusement park in Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) was in Kansas; but this morning I checked the IMDb, which informs us that it was actually something called the Saltair Amusement Park, located outside Salt Lake City. And watching the movie again, the place does have a salt-flat feel to it, with a broad oily pool of water stretching at its feet. Utah it is, then.

Of course, though, what matters most about Carnival of Souls is the almost entirely internalized geography it spreads before us, the shadowland of Mary Henry's*--not "mind," because, from the moment of her cooly observed emergence from the water--the drag-racing car she rode in plunging over a bridge--Mary slips away from us, closer to the pallid face and pale invitation of the Other Side. So maybe it is the geography of her refusal to die, to admit she is not so much being pursued by ghosts as reclaimed by them. A church organist without faith, she fades (as do the sounds and human contact of the world around her), fluttering like a small bird held in soft, cold hands.

Where did this movie come from? Well, if you go to Herk Harvey's entry in Wikipedia, you'll discover he was a theater major who entered the industrial/educational film business in Lawrence, Kansas (and so this is why I thought Carnival's abandoned pavilion was located in Lawrence). He worked for Centron films for over thirty years, first as an actor and then as a director and/or producer, with titles such as The Sound of a Stone (1955) (Methodist-Church-funded anti-McCarthy film), Why Study Home Economics? (1955) (I'm sure they offered numerous convincing reasons), Manners in Public (1958) (short answer: You should have them), Oxidation Ditches: One Answer to Manure Disposal (1970) (some titles write their own jokes), and, with a title almost as unsettling as his one feature film, Pork: The Meal with a Squeal (1977). Carnival of Souls, though, was an intensely personal project, and his fascination with the idea of a dance of the dead allowed him to build a mood piece of surprising resonance. I will not dwell on its high reputation as a "cult film"; what matters for me is that I first saw it with little fanfare--an image of the white-faced Man was enough to get me interested--and immediately saw both its flaws (for my taste a bit too heavy on the organ music--then again, it fits the plot in a way other horror-movie organ scores do not--and some stiff (heh-heh-heh) acting) and its lasting strength: as an almost cruelly impartial observation of a nightmare, with its matter-of-fact slow decline, its relentless delivery of Mary into the hands of her fellow dead. It begins with the simple fact of universal mortality, and refuses to provide any reprieve.

And it is beautifully shot (make sure that you're watching the Criterion DVD; Netflix sent me an inferior print), its lighting and camera placement remarkable--well, OK, perfect. This is a movie that looks exactly the way it needs to, that manages to bypass its weaknesses--even overcome them--simply by looking at its subject without blinking. As the dead rise from the black water, or dance in fast-motion--without any attendant silliness--and as Mary flees under the dark skies and shadowed streets, as the camera looks over, down and up, always holding just long enough to see, but not to break the mood, Carnival of Souls joins the short list of films that move like dreams. Its very detachment becomes an invitation to the danse macabre, and its slim resources force us into the narrow passage Harvey demands we follow, back to the car wreck, the spit of sand, and the thing we've known all along, but had to be told--because we want it so little: that Mary needs to go the way of all flesh. It is a movie that, like Thomas Gray's poetry, tells me to see the world as a graveyard, and ultimately is not so much cruel as clear in that vision; in the end, almost with kindness, it "leaves the world to darkness and to me."

*Played by Candace Hilligoss, looking, don't you think, like Judith O'Dea, the immortal--and equally stunned--"Barbra" in the original Night of the Living Dead. Always coming to get you, yes?

Friday, October 06, 2006

130. Halloween Roundup (1):
A Kiss Before Dying

As I believe I've mentioned before, my son and I are dutifully watching every X-Files episode in order. The implicit promise is two-fold: to satisfy the compleatist's urge and to free us from ever having to watch the show again. I can remember watching M*A*S*H reruns until they took on the consistency of a thin gruel, with small bits of cardboard thrown in for bite. I am on the verge of this with Seinfeld as well; and I will be sorry when the day finally comes that I cannot bear to watch any episode one more time. (This point of no rerun has occurred with quite a few already, and I fear for the rest.)

I did not want that to happen with The X-Files, in part because it already did, and while the show was on its first run. As David Duchovny went on to bat around .225 in movies--pretty good if you're swattin' at the ol' horsehide, but in movies a hit for every three or more strikeouts is a sorry sight--and slipped away from the series (that image of him in the opening credits fading away like the Twilight Zone clock is as good a jab at his departure as he deserves), I,too, began to grow weary of The X-Files. But the mood of the show remained original, and the subject matter was just ooky enough to keep me jittered; so I hung on. Besides, Gillian Anderson was able to make it work on a regular basis, carrying herself with all the cool charm of a Joseph Singer Sargent m'lady in The House of Mirth (2000)--and slightly surreal as a trailer-trash chick in The Mighty (1998)--while continuing to slip through the dark passages to which Mulder led her. And as Dana Scully, with all those classic closeups they gave her, Anderson never lost her old-time Hollywood cool, even when she was having a decidedly unwilled religious experience.

In short, like Scully the show had legs (sorry), and we've been good about looking (at the episodes, that is), so it is fitting that we began the Halloween Roundup with some X-Files episodes (from season 7)--and with one in particular, "Millennium," which (just like in The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction) revealed that Mulder and Scully lived in the same TV universe as Frank Black (three cheers for Lance Henrickson) from Chris Carter's other creepfest (creepier, actually) Millennium, which ran for 67 episodes, according to the IMDb. And every one was more deeply weird than the previous. I remember it vaguely, even though it ran only a half-decade ago, which is fitting, because the show itself moved like a thick-muscled, jagged-toothed sea creature in a dream's murky water, slippery and muffled, its bite lethal but its direction occult (in every way).

Belatedly, Carter tried to wrap up the series with a New-Year's-Eve X-Files episode. And it works, to some degree, if only because of the way Henrickson glides from one awful decision to the next, with his trademark deadpan (accent on the first syllable) and all-but-unreadable cool. He appears in the episode like the promise of evil confronted that the X-Files always seemed to make, but which it almost never fully kept. However, with Frank Black as the only link to a man--a "necromancer"--resurrecting the corpses of ex-Millennium Group agents to form a homebrewed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Mulder and Scully are forced to tag along, watching someone who plunges headfirst into the brine work with clean precision, as capable of being thrown off-guard as Big Blue. Even the reckless Mulder must stand within a protective circle of salt, wounded and in the dark, as Black storms in to the rescue.

The episode ends with Black's reunion with his young daughter (a little something for the Millennium fans) while Scully and Mulder kiss--and I had always thought for the first time; but earlier, in the finale of a two-parter, there they went, and with a remarkable combination of relief, fear, and passion. Afterwards, the two seem relieved that the kiss was over--but also that it happened. Sweet and long overdue.

Two episodes later, though, they conflate New Year's Eve and Halloween, and the zombie Horsemen seem much more impending than romance. Again, a good start for this year's Roundup, in which for thirty days or so love and death prove what strange bedfellows they make.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

129. Play Time's Over

Before the Halloween Roundup begins, I need to clean the cinematic house and write about a movie that even now, four days after watching it, continues to grow in my head--no, echo, a low reverberation of sweet melancholy and last glimpses, a middle distance sound that does not want to fade away. I once heard a recording--I think I downloaded it from a site called (I've been trying to get to it this morning, with no luck)--made by lowering a musician--a trombonist, if I recall--into a big empty cistern or water tower, a circular one, to play single notes. The acoustics of the space generated something like a 90-second reverb, so each note played within that interval overlapped with the previous for a long time, and so on. It was sonorous, a little mysterioso, almost silly, even irritating, but in its way beautiful.

Jacques Tati's character, Monsieur Hulot, part Chaplin, part Keaton, an essentially silent character in a world of increasingly complex and subtle sounds, appears in three films: Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), and Play Time (1967). Tall and almost blocky, with his hat and long raincoat and umbrella and pipe, Hulot, like that trombone in the cistern, stretched his note long, but with an inevitably diminishing tone. Just look at the titles. The first seems to belong to him, but even at the start it is his vacances on which the film focuses. In the second he is not primarily himself, but someone's uncle. And in the third, nine years later, he has all but disappeared, that 90-second reverb gone at last in the midst of another kind of holiday, a single long Parisian night, a "play time" that begins in a lengthy first act of blue steel and geometric severity, leading toward a chaotic symphony for jazz nightclub and tourism, and ends with perfect calliope diminuendo (if such a thing is possible) as Paris, which in the film had been cold and impassive throughout the day, then raucous and grating in the nightclub--while joyfully falling apart, chair by chair, garment by garment, wall by wall--suddenly comes to life at dawn, transforming itself into a rush-hour carousel, a country fair that fades as the tourist bus leaves the city; at this last moment, Hulot finds one more opportunity for the gentle offering of a gift (a scarf for a young woman, a tourist he had befriended during the long night of free jazz and dismantled architecture), and the curve of a spray of small flowers he had put in the giftbox mimics the branching ultramodern streetlights marching outside the bus's windows, a last fond dream that Paris (that is, the modern--heck, the American--world) just might have hidden in its monolithic polish and metallic hiss a memory of the plaintive-but-happy notes of a cafe accordion, accompanied by a fine but thin--and a little tipsy--voice singing, after everything closes down.

Someone out there wrote that watching Play Time takes the same kind of patience one needs for Kubrick. An apt comparison, if only because the film was released one year before 2001, and both share a leisurely pace and almost cold and--as Terry Jones mentions in his fine introduction to Play Time on the Criterion DVD--alienating tone. The nightclub scene, for instance: A jazz ensemble takes the stage, and plays almost constantly throughout the sequence, a half hour or so, with peppy but grating percussiveness. I'm tempted to be reminded of the opening of Scorsese's New York, New York, in which De Niro's Jimmy Doyle insistently tries to pick up Liza Minelli's Francine Evans, while "Opus Number one" plays in the background; the music follows the rhythms of Doyle's efforts to win over Francine, as in Play Time, where the band falls apart as the nightclub does. Still, perhaps the better musical comparison would be to the "Jupiter and Beyond" squeaks and howls of Kubrick's 2001.

In any case, Play Time refuses to fade away. I am not as lucky as Hulot, who gets to stay behind, perhaps lost in a France that looks almost nothing like the strolling ease of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, but still able to recede (maybe to some last corner of his Paris-that-was, a city as small town, all winding streets and stray cats and children), his owlish half-smile tentative but secure. No, I travel with the bus, back toward the airport where the movie began (let me add in passing, a pre-Spielberg Terminal of confusions and missed connections of all kinds), having never seen Paris' old-time charms except in plate-glass reflections, more a memory of a memory. It is a long goodbye from Tati, from 1953 to 1967, but we can still see Hulot waving, smaller as we move away, but never disappearing.

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