Monday, June 01, 2009

This evening in procrastination

Tonight I stayed late at work in the hope of getting some writing done. Instead, and among other things, I:
  • Anxiously talked to a coworker with a wicked, hacking cough while thoughts of germs and of the imminent arrival of my own symptoms impaired my ability to listen.
  • Considered homoeroticism between Ygor and the Monster in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and how it develops and deepens in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).
  • Took the Munsell Hue Test (courtesy of Shandon) repeatedly, getting worse each time and wondering if I could be suffering hysterical colorblindness.
  • Fantasized about the crossword puzzle I would work later this evening. (I mean really work.)
  • Leafed through one of the Office Manager's books, Working with a Transsexual: A Guide for Coworkers. Realizing I share the name of one of the book's subjects, I hope Norman's "transition" went well.
  • Engaged in lofty talk of personal entropy and then looked up the word "entropy."
  • And finally, with the other Norman's courage as my inspiration, vowed to do better tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Turn your head (or avert your eyes) and CoFH

Last night, Shandon and I narrowed down our list of 30 or so candidates for this year's Cavalcade of Filmic Horrors (CoFH), the annual program of horror flicks we screen, mainly for ourselves, in anticipation of, and culminating with, Halloween. (The tradition of the last several years has been to watch Halloween, John Carpenter's seminal slasher, on the film's namesake day, but we've decided to impose some distance between the film and ourselves. All the better to enjoy it once we decide to return to this immensely entertaining and truly frightening film we've already committed to memory in its entirety, as though it were one of our little cult's sacred texts.) We take all this programming very seriously, even if we're pretty casual about the scheduling of any given title. August seems as good a time as any to start the series, what with the month's lengthening shadows and whiff of late-summer decay.

Nine titles (ones I think Shandon -- watch this space -- will address in greater detail) made the cut, and I became fixated on any potential significance held by that particular number. I thought to myself, Well, a black cat could have nine lives, while wondering whether a complete set of 10 wouldn't make more sense, as in this season's "top ten." Top ten what, I wasn't quite sure, as the enterprise of finding good horror movies becomes increasingly difficult with each new "festival." Then eleven, a Shandon fave, sounded like a good, odd number. But once you're there, why not simply bypass twelve altogether, holding out for an unlucky baker's dozen (a la Friday the 13th), given that this is a horror series?

Anyway, I finally decided to let go of this numerology obsession, but I did come up with a tenth title. It is the one I kept vaguely referring to as "that movie, you know, where the completely automated house rapes its female occupant." Yes, house. Based on my uncertainty and Shandon's facial expression, I prayed I wasn't making this shit up. I am happy to report that there is such a movie, something called Demon Seed (1977), starring Julie Christie no less, and featuring an uncredited Robert Vaughn (naturally) as the creepy voice of the house. Most people familiar with the movie's basic premise were exposed to it in a segment from Treehouse of Horror, The Simpsons' yearly Halloween-season anthology. In this segment, entitled "House of Whacks," Marge's "Ultrahouse," resembling HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and silkily voiced by Pierce Brosnan, becomes infatuated with her and plots to kill Homer. (The Ultrahouse's scheme, in an especially delicious touch, involves luring Homer to the kitchen in the middle of the night by frying bacon.)

I have some bizarre need to see the original source material, and, er, saints be praised, Demon Seed is available on DVD.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy 4th, all

And, if anyone's asking, I still support the troops.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Death wish fulfillment (and then some)

Did you know there are four sequels to the movie Death Wish, that paean to vigilantism that makes Dirty Harry appear restrained? I knew there were at least two, and probably three, installments in this series, but five? I noticed this excess when I was leafing through my wonderful 800-page TCM Catalog (in association with Movies Unlimited) and came across the Charles Bronson subsection in "Action & Adventure." I think I may be forgiven for conflating two or more of these titles because, according to the catalog's descriptions, they all share the same storyline and other key elements [emphasis mine throughout]:

Death Wish (1974)
Original vigilante thriller that spawned a slew of sequels [you don't say] and "copycats" still packs a potent punch. Charles Bronson takes the law into his own fists when his wife is killed and his daughter raped by local toughs. ["Original"? Wasn't this a "copycat" of Dirty Harry?]

Death Wish II (1982)
Charles Bronson is back...and meaner than ever. His daughter's been assaulted [Again? Yeesh.], so once again he goes on a one-man vigilante spree against the crooks, rapists and muggers of the city.

Death Wish 3 (1985)
Crime-busting vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns in the third action thriller, defending the terrorized residents of a New York apartment building from a horde of marauding gang members and blowing the punks away as only Bronson can. [Filling the breach left by law enforcement with all its rules and red tape!]

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) [The series graduates to "colon" level, indicating its seriousness!]
He takes the law into his own fists, on a one-man vigilante spree, blowing the punks away as only he can. Yes, Charles Bronson returns to the streets, and viewers of "Death Wishes" One, Two and Three know what that means! [I.e., you know what you're gettin', and no explanation necessary!]

Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) [And returns to a Roman numeral! Unless that's V for Vigilante . . . ]
Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey is back, this time returning to New York with girlfriend Lesley-Anne Down. When she's killed in the crossfire of her ex-husband's protection operation, Bronson hunts down the scum responsible in his legendary vigilante style.

So, I guess if these films have a "moral," beyond legal process being for pussies, it's that you shouldn't cross, get close to or even hang out with Paul Kersey. You'll be in for a world of hurt.

And, Chuck, I hope you've achieved the peace you denied (or supplied) so much street "scum."

Actually, there is a lot that could be said about vigilante "justice" and cinematic depictions thereof. Is vigilantism justified under any circumstances? Are nonjudgmental or even glorifying treatments of vigilantes and their actions, by their nature, pernicious? Do they reinforce or activate our most base instincts and impulses or, alternatively, provide something of a safety valve or outlet that could reduce the commission of acts of real-world violence or both, depending on the particular presentation or state of mind of the viewer? Does the appeal of movies of this sort reflect a powerlessness many feel in day-to-day life? Does the particular vigilante hero, say, a rape victim seeking vengeance against her attacker(s), make a difference? Was Pauline Kael fair when she excoriated Dirty Harry for its "fascist medievalism"?

Discuss. With me. I'm lonely. And unarmed. I promise.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sex-shooter, Or: A rambling discussion of unseen films

I’ve known for some time that my knowledge of western films, as a genre, is woefully lacking. In response to Shandon’s film noir program (which commenced last night in fine form with The Petrified Forest), I decided to schedule a set of oaters, for my own education as much as anything else. As I was finalizing the seven titles that would make up this series, Shandon shared a sensational one-sheet for a lurid little “western” feature entitled The Female Bunch.

Intrigued, I watched the film’s trailer, which was so entertaining – “Independent women. Turning women’s lib into a menacing reality!” – that I couldn’t imagine the full-length feature possibly living up to it. Moreover, I had limited my western program to seven slots, and while I was open to pulpy fare well outside the sanctioned western canon, The Female Bunch didn’t quite fit the bill. It is clearly not a western but rather desert-set sexploitation and is, in all likelihood, quite tedious after a few minutes. My “discovery” of this film, however, did dovetail with my dawning interest in another title, Hannie Caulder, a rape-and-revenge* western starring Raquel Welch and featuring a gang of tormentors played by an almost unbelievable troika: Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam. This film, notwithstanding its higher production values, seems to appeal to some of the same prurient interests as The Female Bunch. If its promotional materials are any indication, Hannie Caulder traffics in its star’s sex appeal without addressing the true horror of sexual assault or any moral quandaries presented by the pursuit of vengeance. Not that, from a filmgoing perspective, there’s anything wrong with that, I do hope it goes without saying.

Hannie Caulder also didn't make the program even though it happens to feature Christopher Lee(!) in his only western. According to his autobiography, he wishes he had appeared in more of them. Lee further relates that throughout his career he “[p]ranc[ed] from genre to genre, like the devil on stepping stones.” His experience with “erotica,” for instance, reveals the horror icon’s overriding gentility and perhaps hyper-sensitivity:
Erotica was a genre I did not fancy. It was true that as Dr. Sadismus in The Torture Chamber of Dr. S [Netflix it! – ed.] I was surrounded by a sea of nude women, and the effluvium that rose from their bodies as the lights grew hotter was like marsh gas, but I could not believe the picture incited to erotic indulgence.
Mr. Lee goes on to address his varying levels of involvement in soft-core projects such as Stud, The Story of O, Philosophy of the Boudoir and Eugenie’s Journey into Perversion.

In retrospect, maybe it’s too bad that, in the case of The Female Bunch, Christopher Lee, unlike Russ Tamblyn and Lon Chaney, Jr., was not available, affordable or even considered. And speaking of due consideration, I have perhaps, in light of this discussion’s clear (and inevitable?) drift away from westerns back into my exploitation comfort zone, unfairly given this movie short shrift. On the off chance I seek to rectify my summary dismissal of this Bunch, all apologies to Sam Peckinpah in advance.

* reports that certain customers who purchased Hannie Caulder (VHS, the only format in which it’s readily available in the U.S.) also bought, among other items, the Millennium Edition DVD of another film involving the rape of its protagonist and her quest for violent revenge, the non-western I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman), which was the subject of some controversy upon its release. I don’t find this overlap inherently problematic, just curious. Is “rape and revenge” its own subgenre? Were a set of grad or seminar students recently assigned these materials so that they may study such depictions?

Next time: More on cinematic rape and revenge (a little "r & r") and vigilante justice more generally.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Memoirs and consequences

The latest literary cause célèbre, the exposure of the fabulism (read: rank deception) of author Margaret Seltzer (under the pseudonym Margaret Jones) in connection with her book Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, saddened me for two reasons, one fairly trivial and self-interested and the other, uncharacteristically not. As for the first reason, I had some interest, beyond its corny subtitle, in reading Ms. Seltzer's now-discredited "memoir" of coming of age in an inner-city gang environment, although in truth (whatever that is nowadays), I might never have read it and certainly won't now. (For an account of an independent bookseller's "on-the-ground" response to the book's recall, go here.) More importantly, the book represents a missed opportunity to address, in a compelling way, some of the alternately demoralizing, tempting and crushing facts of life in areas of South-Central Los Angeles or, according to Ms. Seltzer, "to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to." She states further, in what reads more like an attempt at an explanation than a defense, "Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it." Her ploy to pass off fiction as some sort of reportage is compounded by the added hubris of inserting herself into the middle of a story that seems to be, at least in part, a composite of moments taken from the real lives of others, others without publishing deals.

With objectives similar to Ms. Seltzer's expressed intent, other authors have, through "real" fiction, very movingly covered similar urban terrain, whether it be in David Simon's Baltimore, George Pelecanos' D.C., Dennis Lehane's Boston or Richard Price's fictional Dempsy (something of a stand-in for Jersey City across the river from Manhattan). Mr. Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is best known for being the driving force behind HBO's seminal series The Wire, and the other "crime" or "mystery" writers, in their novels, demonstrate a shared desire for authenticity and social realism. These novelists have, not surprisingly, participated in the creation of Simon's series to varying degrees, from writing individual episodes to contributing overarching storylines, key characters and critical plot developments. Although they collectively strive to maintain the show's essential veracity while shedding light on social issues that are generally dismissed as intractable or otherwise ignored, the creators of The Wire appreciate that any serialized drama, like a novel, must make concessions to the traditional demands of narrative. The show's highly dramatic moments, couched as they are in a richly textured, pulsing environment, are all the more arresting and moving for having been earned. Notwithstanding the palpable authenticity of their five-season epic, the writers, who have together produced what is, to my mind, probably the greatest television series ever, understand that life, to its disadvantage and credit, is not a story. Craven attempts to blur this distinction and denigrate the truth damage the fundamental credibility needed by writers of memoirs and fiction alike, particularly those with ambitions to, through their work, do good in the world.

Oddly enough, news of Ms. Seltzer's deception appeared in the print edition of The New York Times and elsewhere yesterday, the same day the paper featured a review of author and Wire contributor Richard Price's new book by one of the critics who had been duped by Ms. Seltzer's own claims to authenticity. (The reviewer, describing Price's book as "his most powerful and galvanic work yet," acknowledges that "[n]o one writes better dialogue.") The Times article first detailing Ms. Seltzer's lies reported that her editor, Sarah McGrath, was shocked by the revelation. McGrath's father is, as the article discloses, Charles McGrath, a regular contributor to the paper who had supplied an extensive author profile for Sunday's edition two days earlier. The author profiled? Richard Price.

Yesterday the world of books just seemed small, incestuous and a little untrustworthy.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy(?) Leap Day

While astronomy and its arcana don't particularly interest me -- whatever interest I have in science fiction doesn't seem to carry over to fact -- the concept of a leap (or intercalary) year, the "extra" day and the history and lore surrounding both have suddenly and inexplicably become fascinating. The mere fact that, as we are reminded, the duration of the solar year is 365 and a quarter days, or more accurately, 365.2425 days or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds, seems relevant to me only as the basis for social and cultural responses to both our calendar's imperfection and its necessary corrective. (Perhaps I'll add this current preoccupation to my long list of obsessions/compulsions that includes, among other disparate items, the ongoing election cycle, crossword puzzles and my short-lived all-beef jerky diet. Don't ask.)
Until recently, today in fact, I did not appreciate the historical import and potential of leap year. Most importantly to my mind, during leap years in earlier centuries, women in certain countries were permitted, against otherwise prevailing law and custom, to propose marriage to the (unmarried) man of their choice. The man who refused might face punishment in the form of a fine or the like. Fearing such levies, the advances of an unappealing mate or, in some cases, presumably, the brazen overtures of any woman whatsoever, men sometimes succeeded in limiting the legal exercise of this special "freedom" to Leap Day, February 29. (Even as a single-day affair, it is distinct from Sadie Hawkins Day, which didn't exist before the 1930s.) The following postcards, generated (I think) well after the rejection of a woman's marriage proposal carried any legal consequences, nonetheless capture the residual insensitivity, anxiety and perceived risk associated with a practice in which women assumed a traditionally male prerogative:

This next card is a doozy, conveying a historical practice that temporarily reversed the "natural" order only to reinforce it, that became, in effect, an exception that proved a rule: The women here appear desperate, predatory (notice the teeth on that bear trap -- yikes!) and, in one case, a bit mannish (as evidenced by a phallic holstered gun and what appears to be a pipe). The none-too-subtle message seems to be, "Hey, fellas, wouldn't we be in dire straits if this state of affairs wasn't temporary (or merely a joke) and became the norm?!?"
Anyway, the archaic language of this excerpt captures the flavor of female-initiated marriage better than I can:

And, for the record, I'm open to offers from women of "high estate" -- but low taste.

As mentioned, this tradition has not always been -- and need not be -- limited to Leap Day but may extend through the end of the year. Therefore, ladies, you have only about 300 more days in which to pounce. Tick, tick.
This month has been exceedingly tough, what with its competing and confusing demands for romance (Valentine's Day), patriotism (Presidents' Day), equality (Black History Month) and, in this leap year, vestigial sexism. Good riddance, February.
Then again, March looms like a long, brutal slog . . . . Wait, February! Come back!! All is forgiven!