Saturday, December 30, 2006
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
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
... 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
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.
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