Friday, June 15, 2012

A Note on Prometheus

Please note:  this post contains spoilers, so don't say you haven't been warned.

Ridley Scott's original Alien is of course a classic, in no small part because of the scene illustrated above, which is remarkable for the way it takes the classic female fear of the terror and pain of childbirth and reverses it by inflicting it on a male character.  Given the near-universal reverence in which childbearing is held, the scene even now has a subversive edge that resonates to this day.

All of which makes Scott's kinda-sorta-prequel, Prometheus, a bit of a disappointment.  Well, it's a disappointment on a number of counts, but I'm limiting myself to one in this case and that's this:  One of the main plot points is that the Noomi Rapace character, Elizabeth Shaw, is impregnated with an alien parasite that left to its own devices will almost certainly kill her if it is allowed to fully develop.  She demands that it be taken out of her, but David, the robot played by Michael Fassbender, refuses because being a stooge of the corporation that funded the mission, he presumably figures that the critter inside her may have some sort of potential as a bioweapon.

Okay, I can buy this so far, but the film now has Shaw undergo an extremely painful Caesarian to get the alien critter out of her.  Not an abortion, which would have been traumatic enough, even if her "child" were not a grotesque alien parasite, but a Caesarian, which means that she spends much of the rest of the film doing typical Action Girl stuff while presumably held together by nothing more than a row of staples, which doesn't help the believability of a film whose credibility is straining at the seams already.  But hey, at least she didn't have an abortion, right?  Because that would totally be worse than unleashing a hoard of alien parasites that would kill every living thing on earth.

And the sad thing is, is that ridiculous as that last sentence is, there are conservatives in this country that would totally believe it and liberals who would go along with it just to avoid offending anyone.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Never Mind The DaVinci Code, Here's Rat Scabies

Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail: Can a Punk Rock Legend Find What Monty Python Couldn't?Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail: Can a Punk Rock Legend Find What Monty Python Couldn't? by Christopher Dawes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In which Christopher Dawes, a mild-mannered music journalist, somewhat improbably discovers that he's been living across the street from one of his boyhood idols, Rat Scabies (real name: Chris Millar), the former drummer for the seminal English punk band, The Damned.  Even more improbably (this is nonfiction, believe it or not), it turns out that Scabies' father, an antiquarian bookseller by trade, is something of an amateur expert on Rennes-le-Chateau, being both a crony of Henry (Holy Blood, Holy Grail) Lincoln and a past president of the UK branch of the Sauniere Society, an enthusiasm he's managed to pass on to his son. Consequently, Scabies decides, more or less on a whim, to rope Dawes into helping him look for the Holy Grail.  His method, to the extent he can be said to have one, consists primarily of careering around southern France half-drunk and freaking out the locals, which, when one thinks about it, is probably not that far removed from the approach previously used by King Arthur.

This book is not only hilariously entertaining but it proves once and for all that The DaVinci Code isn't entirely useless, as Dawes and Scabies discover at one point when they run out of rolling papers.

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Genre Alert

The SmokeThe Smoke by Tony Broadbent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Surname-less cat burglar Jethro gets in over his head by swiping the wrong person's stuff in the course of a "creep" at an unspecified Eastern European embassy and soon finds himself at odds with both Eastern Bloc and British intelligence, a rival cat burglar, and various factions of postwar London's criminal underworld. While the plot is hardly original and the ending is weak the book really shines in its depiction of its setting: a London only just adjusting to a peacetime scarcely less austere and depressing than the war that preceded it. And Jethro, through whose eyes we see it, is an able guide to "the Smoke": a charismatic Cockney antihero whom I could easily see being played onscreen by Michael Caine in his younger days. This novel is its author's first and it appears that he has at least two sequels planned, so I imagine any weaknesses of this book may be ironed out in the future.

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Your Weekend Dose of 70s Nostalgia

You're welcome.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Wicker Tree

Robin Hardy's belated followup to his 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man, isn't quite a sequel and isn't quite a remake either.  It's more a variation on a theme, using the basic framework of the earlier film to tell what starts out as a sort of fish-out-of-water comedy rather than a mystery.  It's as though he'd decided to crossbreed his original film with Local Hero, sending a pair of born-again missionaries from Texas off to convert the "heathens" of Scotland, where they end up in one of those deceptively idyllic Hammer Films-style villages where Things Are Not As They Seem (in another sly nod to its possible antecedents, Hardy plays a version of "I Know Where I'm Going", the folk song used in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's film of the same name -- and the gold standard for Scottish-set culture clash comedies -- over the opening and closing credits).

Exactly what the point of the whole thing is, though, beyond, perhaps, a desire on Hardy's part to recapture his now-four decades past glory, is a bit harder to say:  those familiar with the original film are unlikely to be as shocked by the ending as the film needs them to be, whilst those who aren't may very well check out long before they have the chance, due to its somewhat meandering and uneven pace, which, lacking the built-in suspense of its predecessor's police procedural format, mostly just marks time until the big finish.

Still, the picture is not without its charms:  it has an agreeably off-kilter tone, and fans of the original may have fun spotting the parallels to it.  And while it doesn't contain, say, any scenes of Nicolas Cage in a bear suit punching women in the face or the like, it's still better than Neil LaBute's godawful Wicker Man remake, so there's that ....

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Aqua Teen Jesus Force*

ABC's Nightline recently devoted a segment -- in all seriousness -- to three high school girls in Arizona who claim to be exorcists. The segment and accompanying online article describe them with all the hard-hitting journalistic objectivity of a Hollywood flack puffing an upcoming CW show:

Brynne, Tess and Savannah from Phoenix are black belts in karate, expert horseback riders and avid musical theater fans. And they perform exorcisms.

"We're just normal girls who do something extraordinary for God," Brynne said. "After seeing an actual exorcism in person, led by us, you will walk away with no doubt, whatsoever."
Brynne, 17, is the leader of the pack, the one the others call the "enforcer." She is home-schooled and a regular on the beauty pageant circuit. Savannah, 20, is known as the "compassionate one," a college student who likes to shop. Finally, there's Tess, "the middle man" because the others say this 17-year-old can play both good and bad cop. She also performs in local musicals.
"There is a war going on every day, being waged against us," Brynne said. "Satan hates us. We know how the enemy is, we know what he's attacking and we can fight back."

You can see the whole thing right here:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Part of me suspects that the girls, like so many others striving for easy money and media attention out there, are just angling for a reality TV show contract (you can almost hear the pitch: "It's like Mean Girls meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- only it's for real!"), which would be bad enough, but then I think that they might actually believe it, which might be even worse.

I mean, back when I was a kid and imagined what living in the Twenty-First Century (then thirty or so years in the future) might be like, I like a lot of people, imagined a world of flying cars, vacations on the moon, cures for cancer, and so on. Sure, I was prepared to be disappointed and find out that none of that would happen, but I also thought that the only reason it wouldn't, and that instead we'd be living in a time when those who thought other people's problems were caused by evil spirits were taken seriously by anyone other than credulous backwoods troglodytes would be because civilization itself had collapsed due to nuclear war or some other global catastrophe.

Sometimes I think nuclear war might have been preferable.

*Thanks to Esquire's inestimable Charles P. Pierce for both the title and the subject of this post.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Boogie Nights Redux

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film IndustryThe Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry by Legs McNeil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating book, regardless of what you might think of the subject matter. Most accounts of the porn industry tend to hew to obvious cliches about predatorily exploited lost souls with self-esteem or child molestation issues, and while the stereotype is common enough to have a fair amount of validity (although I'd wager it's not appreciably more common than it is in the legit film business), and while the book does depict its fair share of victims and casualties (John Holmes, for instance, seems to have been a genuinely fucked-up person, while Linda Lovelace comes across as damaged goods from the beginning, but many of the book's interviewees come across as surprisingly articulate and with a refreshingly clear-eyed perspective on their past), Legs McNeil and his collaborators here paint a more nuanced picture.

Now admittedly the book concentrates primarily on the Boogie Nights era, and the industry has changed a lot since then. Given the the near-ubiquity of porn nowadays, thanks largely to the internet, it's easy to forget the peculiar cultural niche porn occupied in the 70s: back then traditional notions of propriety were changing rapidly. The Production Code had lost its grip on Hollywood and mainstream filmmakers were pushing the limits of acceptability with pictures like Carnal Knowledge, Midnight Cowboy, and A Clockwork Orange, while plays like Hair and Oh! Calcutta! were hits on Broadway. While X-rated films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door never quite achieved the same level of legitimacy, it did briefly seem like there was a period when porn might go mainstream.

It didn't happen of course. The hostility of the Nixon and Reagan Justice Departments saw to that. Add to that first the home video revolution, which killed off the theatres, and the AIDS epidemic, which rang down the curtain on the party, and those days now seem like a lost era. A smutty one, naturally, and one fueled by drugs and bankrolled by organized crime, but one that in retrospect nevertheless had a curious sort of free-spirited innocence that couldn't exist today and that McNeil & Co. manage to capture in all its sordid glory.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Long Goodbye

I've always felt that this movie poster, by longtime MAD Magazine cartoonist Jack Davis -- and, yes, it was actually used in the film's promotional campaign -- perfectly captured the spirit of Robert Altman's freewheeling 1973 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Public Service Announcement

Thanks to the good folks at Open Culture, this film, an early short by David Lynch, is just one of 450 films, including cinematic milestones like Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows; Hollywood classics like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, and Royal Wedding; film-historical curiosities like Alfred Hitchcock's last silent film, The Manxman, Stanley Kubrick's long-supressed debut feature, Fear and Desire, and Quentin Tarantino's incomplete first film, My Best Friend's Birthday; cult favorites like Spider Baby and The Last Man on Earth; and a veritable cornucopia of silent, animated, avant-garde, and documentary films, all of which are available for free and are thoughtfully archived here.

An Emancipated Slave Writes:

"Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance."

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

John Dies at the End

Cracked editor David Wong's novel, an internet cult hit before being published in dead trees form, is a glorious mutant: a horror spoof that manages to be both funny and scary. It's a wild mixture of Lovecraftian horror, Cheech and Chong-style drug humor, gross-out gags, and outright mindfuckery. Judging from the above trailer, Don Coscarelli, the director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm movies, seems like the perfect choice to bring it to the screen.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alan Moore Meets the Occupy Movement

A Kiss is Just a Kiss, Part One: The Rise and Fall of the Production Code

Note: This is a new version of an old article I wrote several years ago for a website that no longer exists, and which I have repurposed somewhat rather than discard entirely.

Check out the above clip: not to spoil it for you, but it won't look like much to an audience accustomed to Judd Apatow comedies or The Jersey Shore. If you click on it you'll see a rather beefy, formally-dressed, middle-aged couple sitting side by side. The man, John C. Rice, smoothes back his mustache, puckers up, and then plants a wet one on his co-star, Mae Irwin. It's all over in a about a minute, but to audiences in 1896, Thomas Edison's The Kiss was hot stuff indeed—hot enough to incur the wrath of those guardians of public morality who were suspicious of what the upstart new medium of cinema might bring. Writing in the Chicago magazine, The Chap Book, publisher Herbert S. Stone fulminated, "Such things call for police interference. Our cities from time to time have spasms of morality, when they arrest people for displaying lithographs of ballet-girls; yet they permit, night after night, a performance that is infinitely more degrading.... The Irwin kiss is no more than a lyric of the stock yard."

Such old-fashioned prudery may seem quaint today, but as the recent defeat of the SOPA and PIPA bills attest, censorship has always been with us, so it might be worth looking at How We Got Here:
The earliest known official instance occurred in 1907, when New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham recommended that all nickelodeons be closed outright as a threat to public morals, a suggestion Mayor George McClellan was to attempt the next year until a coalition of exhibitors was able to obtain an injunction against him.

In 1907, though, movies were still largely a novelty, while in less than two decades they would become big business. The rise of popular media—not just movies, but radio and mass-market glossy magazines—increasingly brought conservative, small-town America into contact with urban sophistication in a manner that had been unprecedented before or since. And small-town America increasingly started to fight back. At first, producers ignored the patchwork of local censorship boards that sprang up around the country, inflicting their own often whimsical proscriptions on their product, cutting scenes of pregnant women in Pennsylvania, or of women smoking or drinking in Kansas; but with the wave of scandals that rocked Hollywood in the twenties, including the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the death of actor Wallace Reid from a cocaine overdose, and finally the sensational Fatty Arbuckle rape trial in 1921, they could no longer ignore the outcry from the hinterlands accusing them of corrupting the nation's morals. By then the studios were expanding into distribution and needed to convince the Wall Street bankers whose capital they so desperately needed that they were respectable businessmen, and so they reluctantly decided it was time to, if not clean up their act, at least create the impression that they were doing so.

Enter Will Hays. Postmaster General, former Republican National Committee Chairman and a long-standing elder in the Presbyterian church, Hays was the perfect front man for the newly-formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the forerunner of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which oversees movie ratings to this day. Although often caricatured as a know-nothing prude, Hays was in fact an able politician who managed to ward off many far stricter proposals by state and local authorities (48 between 1922 and 1927 alone) by such measures as convincing the studios to include morals clauses in actors' contracts and asking that producers forswear "unsuitable" subject matter.

Of course, the producers didn't always listen, since they soon realized one very important thing: sex, violence, scandal, and titillation sell tickets, and as participants in a highly competitive industry, they couldn't afford not to give the public what it wanted, and what audiences wanted were racy flapper comedies like It (1927), with Clara Bow, Erich von Stroheim's merciless portraits of decadent aristocrats like Foolish Wives (1922) and The Merry Widow (1925), and Cecil B. De Mille's historical melodramas with their hordes of scantily-clad extras ("studies in diminishing draperies", as his brother and fellow director William C. de Mille once quipped). After all, the Jazz Age was a time for testing limits, and despite Hays' efforts, the twenties continued to roar on screen and off. Even when he appointed former Colonel Jason Joy to review scripts in advance, most producers either made only the most cursory attempts to comply or ignored him all together.

Things started to change in 1930, with the introduction of the Production Code. The Code was the brainchild of Martin Quigley, the publisher of the Motion Picture Herald and a devout Catholic, who felt he could thereby strike a blow for decency and enhance his paper's prestige in one fell swoop. Building on Joy's list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls", Quigley, working with Chicago archbishop Daniel Lord, came up with a list of specifically prohibited subjects, including profanity, nudity, prostitution, drug use, and miscegenation, and also asked that the Code's signatories more generally forswear any picture likely to "lower the moral standards of those who see it."

At first, the studios treated Quigley's proscriptions pretty much the way they treated Joy's—as suggestions to be ignored when they were inconvenient, since, even if the Hays Office disapproved of something, they could always appeal to the "Hollywood Jury", a panel of three West Coast producers chosen in rotation. Naturally, since any juror might one day find one of their own pictures up for review, there was a pretty strong incentive for them to go easy on any film on which they were asked to pass judgment.
Hollywood's moguls had other incentives to ignore the Code too. The expense of converting their production facilities and theatres to sound, coupled with the financial uncertainty that followed in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, meant that in order to sell tickets Hollywood increasingly fell back on its old standbys—sex, as in the Mae West vehicles I'm No Angel or She Done Him Wrong (both 1933), and violence, most notoriously in the cycle of gangster movies that began with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar in 1931 and Scarface in 1932. Modern viewers, accustomed to the more sanitized pictures that were to prevail when the Code finally took hold, may be surprised at just how frank and modern the films of the early sound period can be. Take, for example, Jack Conway's Red-Headed Woman (1932), in which Jean Harlow plays a gold-digging stenographer who methodically sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. While, in a sop to the Hays office, she's sent packing at the end, she still has the last laugh and is seen at fadeout happily motoring off into the sunset in the arms an elderly French millionaire (while trading heated glances with his handsome young chauffeur—played by a young Charles Boyer—to boot!), something that would be unthinkable a couple of years later when any movie character who committed adultery would almost invariably be punished by death or social ostracism by the final reel.

The clampdown finally came on July 1, 1934, when Hays finally gave the Code some teeth by abolishing the Hollywood Jury and appointing Joseph Breen as Director of the Production Code Administration. This time it worked. After years of seeing Hollywood give only lip service to regulation, middle America had lost its patience, and the moguls suddenly found some big guns being trained on them, including the Catholic church, press baron William Randolph Hearst, and Iowa Senator Smith W. Brookhart, who introduced a bill to have the motion picture industry placed under the direct control of the Federal Trade Commission. Hollywood had no choice but to submit.
During the two decades that Breen served as the Code's chief enforcer, he was to all intents and purposes the most powerful man in Hollywood. A tough-talking former publicist with close ties to the Catholic church (which could be relied upon to throw the weight of its Legion of Decency behind his decisions if need be), he refused to be bullied by the moguls. He vetoed projects, rewrote scripts, and re-cut films and, despite some memorable battles such as those over Howard Hughes' heavy-breathing western The Outlaw (1943)—ostensibly the story of Billy the Kid, but largely sold as an ode to Jane Russell's d├ęcolletage—and Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), he almost always got his way (one memorable defeat was over the use of the word "damn" in the famous last line of Gone with the Wind (1939)—Breen refused to allow it, but Hays overruled him, fined producer David O. Selznick $5,000 for violating the Code to save Breen's face, and then had the Code amended so that "hell" and "damn" could be used sparingly in certain dramatically valid circumstances).

Breen's downfall, however, was to come in the unlikely form of The Moon is Blue (1953), a relatively innocuous romantic comedy by Otto Preminger, which nonetheless took an entirely too light (for Breen) approach to what was called at the time "free love", and whose script contained such forbidden words as "virgin", "pregnant", and "seduce", and lines like "You are shallow, cynical, selfish, and immoral, and I like you!" Breen demanded the offending material be cut, but after making a few token changes Preminger, declaring the Code to be "antiquated" and protesting that Breen had approved many far more offensive pictures, dug in his heels and declared that he would release it as is, with or without Code approval. Breen refused to budge, so Preminger made good on his promise with the result that Moon went on to become the fifteenth highest grossing film of that year. It was a major black eye for the Code and Breen finally retired the following year.

Preminger was able to do this because he was an independent producer and because his distributor, United Artists, wasn’t a Code signatory, but as the decade wore on the studios themselves began to rebel. Forced to sell their theatres by the Supreme Court's United States v. Paramount decision in 1948, which ruled that ownership was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, they no longer had a guaranteed outlet for their product. In addition, the new medium of television was breathing down their necks, forcing them to look for new ways to attract audiences. The surest way of doing so was to give them something they couldn't get at home, and while technical innovations like 3D or widescreen formats like Cinemascope might attract viewers through sheer novelty value, in the long run the surest bet was the time-tested solution of more adult subject matter.

After all, foreign films, such as Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1946) and Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948), which already dealt with adult subjects in a much more frank and open manner than most American films of the time, were already showing without Code approval in independent "art" cinemas. The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Burstyn v. Wilson in 1952, which declared New York's ban of Rossellini's The Miracle (1949) on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity was unconstitutional on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, only further underscored how out of touch the Production Code Administration was. The times were changing, and if the Code was to survive, it would have to change with them.

To be continued

If Only It Were That Simple ...

Obviously this gorilla's scheme for world domination is doomed to failure. If he really wants to bend us foolish humans to his will, he should check out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as well ...