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.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

128. Screen and Scream Again (with any luck)

In the spirit (heh-heh-heh) of this post I will provide a grisly explanation for my dearth of postings: Lately, I had been wearing so many hats--father sending daughter off to college, website builder, New Student Orientation assistant, weekend visitor host (but of course, love and kisses to Mimi and the Monkeys Three), teacher (X3), writing instructor, workshop leader, film series presenter, film festival committee member (more on this later this month), plus all that Modern Equal Partner housekeeping (and through it all one car short, the "old and busted" '93 Suburban's dead battery--the relative size and cost of a Ford Fiesta--leaving us to bounce around town with one car, like a gas-powered boomerang); with an equally busy wife--grammar school music teacher, church organist (my own personal Carnival of Souls), assistant tennis coach, band leader and performer, and also keeper of the house; and with two additional back-to-school children--it seemed the only cure to this plague of hats would have been to cut off my head. But a kinder, albiet potentially as gruesome, cure has arrived--and as the ultimate appositive to said cure, allow me to quote those dear little Shaggs:

It's Halloween
It's Halloween
It's time for scares
It's time for screams
It's Halloween
It's Halloween

The ghosts will spook
The spooks will scare
Why, even Dracula will be there

It's time for games
It's time for fun
Not for just one
But for everyone

The jack-o-lanterns are all lit up
All the dummies are made and stuffed
By just looking you will see
It's this time of year again

It's Halloween
It's Halloween

All the kids are happy and gay
There doesn't seem to be a cloud in their way
But when it's over and they've had all their fun
They'll wish that Halloween had just begun

Oh, there are witches, goblins, Frankensteins and zombies
And there are tramps, Cinderallas, pirates, angels and gypsies
So let's have lots of fun and give many cheers
For Halloween comes but once a year

It's time for games
It's time for fun
Not for just one
But for everyone

It's Halloween
It's Halloween
It's Halloween
It's Halloween

It's Halloween!

(Thank you, girls)

I was suddenly struck with the fact that this is it, the Bradbury month, the Dark Ride into October Country; and that means once again the Cavalcade of Terror, the Carnival of Creeps, the Carpe Diem of the Dead that is our annual Halloween Roundup. I ran to Netflix, and cobbled together the first, tentative lineup:

The Wolf Man
Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man
Carnival of Souls
Masters of Horror: Jenifer
In Dreams
The Outer Limits: Season 2: Disc 1
Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns
Masters of Horror: Homecoming
Blood and Black Lace
Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House
Masters of Horror: Chocolate
Population 436
The X-Files: Season 7: Disc 3
Masters of Horror: Deer Woman
Murder in the Rue Morgue
The Black Cat
The Raven
Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road

The Roundup at this point is Showtime's-Masters-of-Horror-heavy (thank you, Milwaukee Paul); things may change, but for now I'm a bit more at (un)ease, ready to be ready, as it were, for my second-favorite Holiday--oh, OK: Horror-day--Season. Oh, what fun, to play Crypt-Keeper and not only indulge in excruciatingly forced puns but wallow in the black lagoon of my Guiltiest Film Pleasures. And simply looking at this list, I'm getting that lively buzz, good enough for a Frankenstein, and wondering: Do I dare to screen Re-Animator, From Beyond, the original Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw in the same home as a thirteen-year-old? (Then again, boys and ghouls, I'm betting some of those Showtime movies are going to be fairly gore-riffic). Oh, what the literal hell: It's Halloween, and "Not for just one / But for everyone." So hold on to your heads, kiddies, because it's going to be a bumpy ride--you know, what with all those corpses underfoot. So welcome to El Mes de Muertos, and all the sugar-skulls you can eat.

Below: A partial view of my favorite Aurora Model Kit, one I built twice. (The first one somehow was broken, and I jammed the witch herself in the crook of a fir tree in our front yard. The years went by and the tree grew around her; eventually, the lower branches were trimmed so that I could see her once more. I even pointed her out to one of my children, back in the early '90s. The tree is gone, but plastic lasts, somewhere, forever.) I wish you could see the cauldron she's standing over. Then again, we do get a pretty good view of that rat about to nest in her hair. (Choke!)

Copyright Notice

Content copyright © 2005-2011 by Paul J. Marasa. No part of the written work displayed on this site may be reproduced, linked or distributed in any form without the author's express permission. All images, video, audio and other materials used are deliberately and solely for illustrative purposes connected with each article. Each accompanying element is intended as a research and reference tool with relation to each article. No challenge to pre-existing rights is implied. Aside from The Constant Viewer, the author claims no responsibility for websites which link to or from this website.