Friday, November 28, 2008

Movie: The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

So we have Timothy Carey, an actor who may have been unmatched at conjuring up a sense of genuine menace, a wild man onscreen and off, a favorite of directors like John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick. For me, Carey will always be the malignant scarecrow who rifles down a racehorse in The Killing.

Carey grew tired of playing supporting parts, so he decided to engineer his own breakthrough. The World’s Greatest Sinner is entirely his; he wrote, produced, financed and directed. (Sensibly, he hired Frank Zappa to do the music.) Ultimately he had to distribute it as well; Sinner never had a formal theatrical release. In some sense it’s the definitive underground movie, spoken of more than seen. I was stunned to learn that TCM would be premiering Sinner on TV last month. I would be out of town on the day, but it is for such occasions that the DVR was invented.

Carey, looking like a cross between Nicolas Cage and Keith Olbermann with a pinch of Michael Madsen for flavor, plays an insurance salesman who quits his job to start a cult. He changes his name to God, and you know he means business because he has it embroidered onto his sleeves. He incorporates music into the pitch, although his act consists mainly of doing flaccid belly rolls in a lamé suit. The next step, obviously, is to declare himself a candidate for president. He actually has a shot at winning, because in the days before the “gotcha!” media no one discovers that he’s screwing underage girls. The film culminates with a jawdropper of an ending that manages to:

1. Completely misinterpret the fundamental Catholic precept of transubstantiation;

2. Undermine the entire concept of religious faith;

3. Switch from black and white to color a few seconds too late.

Is that everything? Oh, yeah, it’s all narrated by the devil. Did I say that? I probably should have said that.

Sinner looks lousy; don’t tell me the jump cuts and choppy editing are artistic choices, because I simply will not believe you. Carey never explains his character’s philosophy, offering up guff about how we can all be “super human beings” over and over. He pushes every conceivable button purely for the sake of button-pushing.

And that wildness is why the movie is worth watching. It’s a ferocious cry, a discharge of pent-up frustration, the full-throated scream of a salesman stifled by his work ... or a character actor suffocated by the scope of his roles. It reminded me of a Charles Willeford piece about how every man has to make his sound. Rosemarie, better read than me, quoted Shakespeare:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

I watched Sinner on Wednesday night, thinking it might be my annual Thanksgiving movie turkey. No dice. The World’s Greatest Sinner may be a bad movie. But it’s a hell of a lot more than a turkey.

Besides, the last fucking thing I need is the ghost of Timothy Agoglia Carey haunting me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Miscellaneous: Doorbuster

Thanksgiving turkey is being digested, which means it’s time to get those Christmas decorations up. So here’s a holiday classic.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rant: Pure Pulp Power

Rewatching The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) I was bowled over again by that closing soliloquy, courtesy of Richard Matheson.

... So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle ... And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Heady stuff for a sci-fi tale that gives away the game in the title. But that’s the genius of Matheson, providing a textured, philosophical climax without skimping on the thrills. Scott Carey’s epiphany occurs after he’s fought a battle royale with a giant (to him) spider, for Christ’s sake.

Matheson works similar magic in I Am Legend. Robert Neville spends pages killing the vampiric creatures that have taken over the Earth, only to realize that they are not the monsters of his world – he is the demon of theirs. It’s a demanding notion that survived, albeit in muddled form, into last year’s blockbuster movie adaptation, only to wind up an alternate ending on the DVD after test audiences gave it thumbs down.

Shrinking Man was remade once as farce, and a second such treatment is in the works with Eddie Murphy. Thus proving that the famous dictum “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” applies only to execution and not signing on the line that is dotted; half the remakes cited in the trades nowadays are “comic reimaginings.”

Such is the way of the world. I don’t expect studios spending millions on popular entertainments to spring for existential wrap-ups. What bothers me is how few Oscar bait movies attempt to convey ideas as nuanced as Matheson’s anymore. Once you got food for thought in the story of a man who almost becomes food for a house cat. Now most films aimed at adults can’t convey an idea more sophisticated than “Love endures” or “Families are good.” Yet another sign that we are no longer a serious society, and that we are fated to end in ruin.

Rant over.

ASIDE #1: The Shrinking Man DVD also included The Monolith Monsters (1957), featuring ISM’s star Grant Williams and a story by that film’s director, Jack Arnold. I saw Monolith once as a kid and never forgot it. The monsters of the title – fragments of an asteroid that grow to skyscraper heights when exposed to water only to collapse and start the process anew – are the very definition of implacable. The movie doesn’t hold up completely, but damn, are those rocks still scary.

ASIDE #2: Irving Gertz, who composed the music for both movies and plenty of others, died this month at age 93. Margalit Fox offers a sterling example of the obituary writer’s art.

Monday, November 24, 2008

John Michael Hayes, R.I.P.

The screenwriter, who died on November 19 at age 89, had a remarkable career. The highlight was easily the four consecutive films he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock in the mid-1950s: Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, To Catch A Thief, and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This impressive run led to a falling out with Hitchcock; in Hayes’ words, “we parted because I was being too identified with him.” Hayes would make out just fine on his own, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place and writing the script for Butterfield 8.

I reread the interview with Hayes in Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 3 this morning. In it, Hayes recounts his relationship with Hitchcock, the reasons for his fade from Hollywood in the 1960s, and his surprise return to movie theaters at age 75 with 1994’s Iron Will. The piece ends with Hayes being asked about a rumored sequel to his greatest achievement, Rear Window. I love his response. It’s the answer of a true professional.

I was offered an absolutely monumental sum of money by the man who owns the rights ... That money would help me in my old age ... I don’t know. Some pictures have a magic that’s almost indefinable. Grace is gone. Hitch is gone. Jimmy’s too frail. Wendell Corey’s gone. Raymond Burr is dead. We couldn’t recapture that kind of innocence. What could it possibly be?

But I’ve done a story, just in case.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie: JCVD (2008)

Ah, but a man should turn toward the camera and explain how his reach exceeds his grasp, or what’s a meta for? In JCVD, the unlikeliest star goes all Tristram Shandy on our collective asses to tremendous effect. Jean-Claude Van Damme, nee Van Varenberg, plays himself: a 47-year-old Belgian action star with a history of divorce and drug abuse, reduced to making DTV crap in Eastern Europe, reeling from a protracted child custody battle. He returns home to start over only to find himself in a dog day afternoon, trapped in a robbery gone wrong where he’s both assumed to be the villain and hated for not being a hero.

Reflexive stuff fails far more often than it succeeds. (Exhibit A: Richard Belzer’s recent I Am Not A Cop!, which squanders the potentially killer premise of a recognizable TV detective swept up in an actual mystery.) But Van Damme and cowriter/director Mabrouk El Mechri get a surprising amount of mileage out of the idea. It’s strange to watch a guy who fought time-traveling thieves and zombie soldiers meet his match in three desperate, greasy losers, including one who looks like a sleazoid Geddy Lee. And nothing will prepare you for the impact of JC’s impassioned, fourth-wall-breaking speech about the cost that following his dreams of stardom has had on his life. By the end, the movie has built up some genuine emotional power. Plus JC executes a few of his trademark high kicks into the bargain.

The lead Belgian police inspector in the movie is named Bruges. Isn’t that like coming to America and meeting Doctor Detroit?

As it happened, Hard Target (1993) was on cable last night, and I watched it again to see JC at his peak. One of JCVD’s heisters says that if Jean-Claude hadn’t brought John Woo to Hollywood, Woo would “still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong!” Hard Target remains completely ridiculous, and I still kind of like it.

This short interview offers a taste of JC’s crackpot Zen wisdom.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book: The Business of Dying, by Simon Kernick (2002)

Tell me that a writer has been influenced by Lawrence Block and I’ll read them. It’s taken me some time to get to Simon Kernick, but I’m glad I did.

The protagonist of The Business of Dying is Dennis Milne, a police inspector who occasionally moonlights as a hired killer. After gunning down three people in a hotel carpark who may not be the scumbags his boss made them out to be, Milne is assigned to investigate the murder of a young prostitute. As the noose closes around his neck he desperately hunts the girl’s killer, hoping to save another life and in some small way redeem his own.

Milne isn’t a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, which is Kernick’s greatest accomplishment; there’s scarcely any daylight between assassin and detective. The Block influence is there in the deceptively simple prose, the darkness, the haunting ending. Milne also appears in 2005’s A Good Day to Die. I’ve got that and some other Kernick books to read.

Film: Lost Movies

Via GreenCine comes this piece by director Mike Hodges on making films that disappear without a trace. I’m a fan of Hodges’ The Terminal Man, the most underrated Michael Crichton adaptation. I wrote about Pulp here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Miscellaneous: Business, Bigamy & Brass

Busy, busy, busy here at Chez K. There’s always my Twitter feed. It’s amazing how often you can say all you need to in 140 characters or less. But here are some recent discoveries worth a sentence or two.

Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, by Philip Delves Broughton. The author, the former Paris bureau chief for the Telegraph, dealt with doubts about the future of his profession by enrolling in the Crimson’s MBA program. His book is an engaging, warts-and-all portrait of an institution with an uncommon amount of global influence; HBS graduates include George W. Bush and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. (OK, that’s not exactly a representative sample. But in light of recent financial events, fuck fair.) If you want to understand how the people who can be said with little exaggeration to run the world think, this book is a good place to start.

The Bigamist (1953). Don’t let the pulpy title fool you. Sadness is the overriding tone of this Ida Lupino film, which I caught on TCM. Edmond O’Brien is a decent, profoundly lonely man who finds different satisfactions from each of his two wives (Joan Fontaine and Lupino, directing herself for the only time). The story is handled in compassionate, humane fashion, right up through the slightly unsatisfying ending.

But the goodwill is almost squandered in a strange reflexive moment. Miracle on 34th Street’s Edmund Gwenn is cast as the adoption agency employee whose investigation causes O’Brien’s double life to unravel. It’s already tempting fate to have Fontaine say that he looks like Santa Claus. But when a Hollywood tour guide blithely announces that the bus is now passing the home of actor Edmund Gwenn, that’s a stunt even Charlie Kaufman would steer clear of.

Moon & Sand. This Rhapsody channel dedicated to West Coast jazz of the ’50s and ’60s was off the air last week, stranding yours truly at his wit’s end. It’s my daily soundtrack. Recently it introduced me to my new favorite song, ‘Swingin’ on the Moon’ from Mel Tormé’s album of the same name. It features the immortal lyric “Tell mater and pater/We live in a crater.” And dig that crazy cover art.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book: Killing Castro, by Lawrence Block (1961)

One of the many benefits of having a spouse who also reads pulp fiction is that it doubles your chances to win advance copies of books from Hard Case Crime. Thanks, Rosemarie!

Killing Castro marks the fifth time Hard Case has gone to the Lawrence Block well, and you never come back from that trip thirsty. The novel, published before the Cuban missile crisis as Fidel Castro Assassinated by Lee Duncan, tells the tale of five Americans who sign on to complete the title task. Each accepts the assignment for reasons of their own, which Block efficiently lays out. Not one of them meets the fate you would expect. Block also weaves in a brief, illuminating history of Castro’s then-fresh revolution. And the ending still has the capacity to surprise. It hits stores at the end of the year. As always with Block and Hard Case, it’s worth picking up.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been!: Leisureville, by Andrew D. Blechman (2008)

Continuing in a premature nostalgia vein ...

I knew what I was getting into before visiting my parents at their home in a Florida retirement community last month. I’d heard the stories about those places. Sexagenarian shenanigans. Septuagenarian salaciousness. Octogenarian ... you know what, I’m going to stop now.

Point is, I knew. I also knew that a recent book on retirement in America focused specifically on The Villages, the largest such development in the area where my parents live. (CAUTION: Music may automatically start.) I put off reading it until after my trip, so I could draw my own conclusions.

Leisureville was inspired when author Andrew Blechman’s active retiree neighbors abruptly left New England and went south to putt and putter. Blechman does a sturdy job of tracing the history of retirement communities and of raising valid questions posed by The Villages’ sprawling success: the autocratic nature of the place, the long-term social, economic and environmental effects.

But the bulk of the book chronicles his experiences during the month he lived in The Villages. In short, he finds the place isolating and weird, filled with aging lotharios racing to assignations in their pimped-out golf carts before their Viagra wears off.

On my brief foray there, I found The Villages somewhat disorienting myself. We visited one of their prefab downtowns, with its man-made lake and a radio station pumping out feel-good music around the clock. The fake town has its own fake history, complete with phony tracks for the trolley that never ran there. As for the mack granddaddies, I can only offer as an example the fact that my married and visibly pregnant sister was hit on at the community pool. Repeatedly.

To which I say: so what? Yes, it would be nice if the older generation knew a little about safe sex – did they learn nothing from Robert Mitchum and Noah Beery, Jr.? – but where’s the harm in letting them swing? Communities like The Villages offer people of a certain age the chance to live with others who remember the same presidents, all within fifteen minutes of everything they need including health care. After forty or fifty years of hard work, especially at the sort of difficult jobs my parents had, they’re entitled to that comfort if that’s what they want.

It’s not for me, and I doubt it will be. When I reach what my father calls “a big age” I’m fairly sure I’ll still crave the stimuli that only the city and the company of younger people can provide. But who knows? They do drink an awful lot down there, and maybe the cold will finally get to me.

My problem with Leisureville is that Blechman, like many participants in our current discourse, takes things far too personally. He’s not simply aggrieved by his neighbors’ choice but offended, as if their decision is a judgment on him. It’s not a good sign when people who agree with you think you lay it on a little thick.

ASIDE: A while back I noticed a flurry of hits on the website from The Villages, all of them interested in VKDC’s most popular feature, this photo of actor Pat Harrington. I knew it wasn’t my parents, because they don’t have a computer. But I mentioned it to them anyway.

“Oh, that’s because he was down here,” my mother said. “He was visiting his brother. It was written up in the paper. Would you like me to send you the article?”

Monday, November 10, 2008

DVD: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (U.S. 2008)

Hysterical. One of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while. At a time when spy farce seems old hat, this French movie breaks new ground by making the bold decision to go period. Not just in setting (Egypt, 1955), but in appearance. OSS 117 is a note-perfect recreation of late 1950s/early ‘60s films. The cinematography, the sets, even the fight choreography. As a fan of the early Bond films, I was laughing at individual shots. Star Jean Dujardin, as the sublimely oblivious secret agent, even looks a little like Connery.

The deleted scenes are funny. The making-of is funny. The whole enterprise is funny. Rent it before the sequel comes out. Rent it before Quantum of Solace comes out.

Miscellaneous: Links

L.A.’s one-stop shop for sheet music needs is in danger.

A day in the life of The Daily Show.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been!: Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Call it premature nostalgia. I visit a place and immediately make plans for a return trip with a book or movie set there. Which is why, as I walked the streets of Provincetown, Massachusetts last month, I decided to watch Tough Guys Don’t Dance again.

The movie, written and directed by Norman Mailer from the novel by Norman Mailer, is a product of the Go-Glo ‘80s. When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ran Cannon Films, they cranked out properties high and low. When the movies were good, they were serious, adult, auteur-driven titles like Barfly. When they were bad, they featured Michael Dudikoff. (The Golan-Globus factory produced one of my favorite films of that decade, Runaway Train.)

Tough Guys was one of Cannon’s highbrow projects. I haven’t read Mailer’s book, an exploration of masculinity in the guise of a detective story. I do know that the movie is a borderline-camp frenzy of purple prose, Byzantine plotting and gay panic.

I sought it out after reading about its controversial debut. The story I remember is that when Mailer’s two-fisted drama was greeted with laughter, he cagily rechristened it a black comedy. When he got away with it, I knew I had to see the movie.

It soon became clear to me that I was in over my head. I only saw Tough Guys once, but some of its dialogue has never left me. A few favorites:

I am so wrong for this kind of imbroglio.

(My husband) gives me five orgasms a night. That’s what I call him. Mr. Five.

I just deep-sixed two heads.

I’d say the last line in the gravelly tones of Lawrence Tierney. Because of the inflection, Rosemarie assumed I meant “I recently murdered a pair of hippies.” She was stunned to discover that the line is to be taken at face value: I have of late disposed of two severed skulls.

Ryan O’Neal plays a recently divorced ex-con turned aspiring writer prone to alcoholic blackouts, Norman Mailer being unafraid of saddling a character with baggage. Tierney turns up as O’Neal’s dying father, and O’Neal recounts in a series of Russian doll flashbacks how he came to be in possession of the aforementioned detached craniums.

Like you can follow the plot. O’Neal does what he can with an unplayable part. The performances range all over the map. John Bedford Lloyd as a Southern wastrel is right at home, as is B-movie icon Wings Hauser playing deranged police chief Alvin Luther Regency. I never forgot that name. I also never forgot the scene where O’Neal, the poor bastard, is forced to repeat “Oh, man! Oh, God!” as the camera swirls around, a shot that cinched the movie’s cult status. (Mailer admits it was a mistake in the documentary on the 2003 DVD. He also calls Tough Guys a “subtle horror film.” So much for black comedy.)

When I first saw the movie, I was a budding young cineaste who didn’t know anything. Rewatching it now that I have some knowledge of noir conventions, I spot layers that were lost on me back then. And I realized that I like Tough Guys Don’t Dance. It’s a movie that’s hellbent on taking you on a journey, even though it has no idea where it wants to go. It’s also batshit crazy.

The film’s best feature is its feel for off-season Provincetown, beautiful in its windblown isolation. The inn where my friends Barry and Buzz were married is one of the movie’s key locations. I have now downed bourbon in the same room where Ryan O’Neal swilled the stuff. That’s no small accomplishment.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Music: You Have Your MTV!

With the election over, you’re no doubt on the hunt for prime time-wasting opportunities. Look no further than MTV Music, a database of almost 20,000 videos. It’s already yielding surprises. More to the point, it has finally delivered unto me my own personal white whale.

For years I have been obsessed with the 1986 video for “American Storm” by Bob Seger. Not the straight performance version that occasionally surfaces on VH1 Classic or is easily found on YouTube. No, I mean the video featuring scenes from an action thriller with an all-star cast including James Woods, Scott Glenn, Randy Quaid and Lesley Ann Warren.

The only problem is ... the movie doesn’t exist.

The “scenes” were shot exclusively for the Seger video. To this day I have no idea if this was intended as post-modern commentary on the then-standard practice of using videos as film promotion tools, or just a really, really bad idea.

I hadn’t seen that version of “American Storm” since high school. Thanks to MTV Music, I present it to you now.

As if that’s not enough, you can also enjoy an absolutely pristine copy of “Crucified” by Army of Lovers. My first wife has never looked so good. The minx.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Miscellaneous: Polling the Electorate

I exercised my franchise today. Also, I voted.

Total time involved: six minutes. There were longer lines for free coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks. I would have gladly waited to cast my ballot, because the Catholic in me is a great fan of ritual. The impending loss of that ritual is what weighs on my mind most today. King County, Washington is switching to all-mail voting in 2009, and the prospect depresses me. I like going to the polls. I want to put forth the effort. It adds something ineffable to the process.

Following the policy I’ve adhered to all year, that concludes my comments on the election. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. Anybody else watching Scream Queens on VH1?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Miscellaneous: Your Samhain Weekend Roundup

The Black Scorpion (1957). This low-budget creature feature was our Halloween evening entertainment. Ignore the scorpions’ “faces” and focus instead on the tremendous stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson. No less an authority than Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (now celebrating its 25th anniversary) says: “The terrifying huge scorpions make the monsters in most other films look pathetic.” Star Mara Corday is so much of a ringer for Gina Gershon that it lends a whole new layer of meaning to the proceedings.

The movie has a special place in my heart because of the circumstances during which I first saw it. I was nine years old, visiting family in Ireland with my mother. She noticed that the movie would be coming on at two in the morning and suggested that we watch it together. Sure enough, she woke me at 1:45 AM with tea and cookies at the ready. I sat with her in my grandfather’s living room watching giant scorpions rampage across Mexico, then went back to bed and slept like an angel. It’s funny to think she had me figured out that early.

Pride and Glory (2008). After all the trouble this movie had, it’s almost unfair of the New York Times’ Dan Barry to have a go at it in an admittedly funny piece about the depiction of Irish Catholic New York cops. But Pride and Glory can take the heat. It doesn’t break new ground, but director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor, the son of an NYPD officer, knows the terrain and gives it a gritty, lived-in texture. Colin Farrell continues his string of terrific performances. Jon Voight’s teary Christmas dinner speech would be right at home in any number of Keenan family gatherings. I could have done without the reel on the jukebox during the bar fight. But the one cliché that did stand out – Edward Norton’s character living on a boat – has nothing to do with being Irish, and O’Connor takes pains to justify it. Smart, solid filmmaking.

Earshot Jazz Festival. I missed most of Seattle’s premiere jazz event thanks to traveling. But we did squeeze in the Phil Markowitz Trio at Tula’s last night, and we’re glad we did.