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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ANNUAL SPOOKY-ASS HALLOWEEN STORY

    We ran this story in October of last year and it almost scared you all to death, so we figured we'd get the job done for real this time out. Good luck, y'all.

    It's that time of the year again, happens every twelve months or so, when little kids and grown-ups of all ages zoom along our nation's highways scaring one another with buckets of blood, fright wigs and large pictures of Nancy Grace. Yep, Halloween is almost upon us once again, the tickling teeth of vampires, the fuzzy wool of werewolves, the butterscotch aroma of mummies and the awkward stair-climbing of Frankenstein's monster--Lawd, help us gain sanctuary, wontcha, puh lease?
    Back when I was just a tyke, about like the kind of hoodlum you'd find today sniffing wax figurines and wondering what Betty and Veronica might look like naked, I used to love Halloween because that was the time of year when this extremely old guy who lived up the road would stagger out of his decrepit old farm house, pull on his Levis, scratch his underarms and set out to put the scare on us kids with the intent, I suspect, of ridding the streets of we little buggers until the dawn of the next civil war or two, which it might have had it not been for the distraction of school and television.
    The old man would relate the same story every year, usually about two days before trick or treat. I'm gonna relate that same story here in just a shake, but I have to warn ya'll that this one literally has been known for generations to shrink up the tiny testicles of transmuting terrorists, to make frigid the fascinating frost-colored hair of old ladies in Pontiac, Michigan, to empty the churches and scatter buckshot throughout cemeteries, and in general to keep the streets and highways of America shed of all kinds of vandals and wanking winkers.
    The old man would just sit down on the edge of his property line, cross his legs and lower himself down onto the leaves and wet grass of central Ohio autumn, place his open palms on his knees and wait for a group of us bastards to show up. By that time things were usually getting chilled and dark and the crows made all kinds of auditory punctuation throughout the tale that unfolded. It was a long time ago, the old man told us, although not all that long ago, in this very town, back when most people didn't have cars and the roads were mostly dirt and houses leaned up against the arches of foothills. It was a simpler time, the old man reminded us, but even simple times have confusions, weird things that you can't expect and sometimes you can't even figure them out years later.
    Living in one of those houses at this time was a woman named Tildy. Her husband Wilber had disappeared five years earlier while he was on a hunting trip. They never did find his body, although even half a decade later kids would swear they could hear the man's anguished screams, kind of like some raw and wild animal were still ripping him to shreds. Well, Tildy had a son, a boy named Patrick. The boy was a precocious seven years old at the time of this particular October evening of which we are speaking. Patrick had all kinds of ideas about fun things he could do when the night of trick or treat arrived and probably the last thing in the world that he wanted to do was to go to the general store for Tildy, but all the same that was what she asked him to do. "Patrick!" his mother called out. "I'm going to bake some bread for our dinner. I need you to go to the general store and buy us some flour. Could you do that for me please?"
    Patrick loved his mother very much, but he had quite a few things he would have rather done this particular evening. One of those things was a mask he had been constructing for several weeks, a mask that made him look like a one-eyed creepy old goat, the kind of mask you'd find left hanging on the fence posts outside graveyards where kids had been having nasty sacrifices and that type of nonsense. Patrick was a good kid, though, and all he wanted to do was to surprise his mother with the hard work he'd put into his disguise.
    "Patrick? Did you hear me?"
    "Yes, mother!"
    He trudged down the staircase, turned into the family kitchen, lowered his head and held out his hand.
    His mother plucked a single dollar bill from her old purple change purse and folded it into Patrick's opened hand. "The flour will be seventy-five cents. I'll have a quarter change coming, Patrick. And please don't get involved in some long-winded talk with that old fool Baxter Prentice."
    Baxter Prentice owned the general store and Patrick reckoned his mother was right about him being a fool. Patrick asked, "May I buy myself one piece of penny candy, mother?"
    Tildy looked down at the tousle of hair messed up on the head of her only child's head. She ran her fingers through his hair and smiled. "Yes, you may. But please, Patrick, do not take too long. I have ironing to do and then I'll be ready to bake the bread."
    Patrick shuffled off to the General Store, a small structure that Patrick knew from memory was exactly one mile away. He had even measured out the 5,280 feet between his own front door and the rusty squeaking hinge of the door to the store. He let his mind wander as the late afternoon clouded over and the sun lowered in the sky. Baxter Prentice looked up from his newspaper as young Patrick tried to open the door without having the hinge moan in recognition.
    "Patrick! How in the world are you, boy? How's that beautiful mother of yours?"
    "She's just fine, Mr. Prentice. She sent me to fetch a three-pound bag of flour, please, sir."
    The store keeper smiled. "Yes, yes, and I suspect you'll want to sample the new batch of chocolate drops I just got in from San Francisco this morning, eh?"
    Patrick had been waiting for those chocolate drops for weeks. Baxter Prentice had assured him they were the world's finest sweet thing and Patrick knew Mr. Prentice's word was good.
    The shopkeeper retrieved a three-pound bag of whole wheat flour and sat it down atop the folded newspaper upon the old counter top. Looking down at the paper, his memory clicked on and he wrapped his knuckles three times. "Have you heard, Patrick, about the terrible mountain lion that came down from the hills last night?"
    Patrick shook his head as he accepted the first of several truly delicious chocolate drops from Baxter Prentice. They were not merely good. They were, as his mother said his father had always claimed, better than anything this side of Montezuma.
Patrick's eyes widened at the mention of the mountain lion. It had been a mountain lion, so people said, that had killed his own daddy five years earlier on a night such as this one.
    "She's a man-eater, this one is," Mr. Prentice assured the young boy. "Already tasted the blood of Hank and Julie Shepherds' best bovines. Done ate the Chilton's dog, Hinty. Then, this morning, so it says right here in the newspaper, Cecil Campbell was out milking his goats when the damned thing--pardon my language--sneaked up and ripped out his guts. Gog and Magog, it's a terrible thing indeed. You'd better head on home now, son, or else your mama will be all kinds of worried. Your ma's a mighty fine woman, but she'll blame me for keeping you so long. Here, take one more drop of that San Francisco chocolate. Don't forget the flour and don't forget your change. You be careful, Patrick."
And with that the shopkeeper lifted the newspaper open and proceeded to resume his reading as if Patrick had never so much as arrived. Well, he was a strange duck, as his mother would have said. Patrick shoved the tiny chocolate bit into his shirt pocket, tucked the flour under one arm and couldn't avoid the groan of the rusty hinge as he headed out the door and turned to go home.
    One mile, thought Patrick. How long would it take him to walk that one mile? Not even half an hour, surely. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes. But what if he put the heel of one foot to the toe of another and once again measured out the distance, just to be sure it really was still 5,280 feet? Well, that might take a little longer, but he felt as if he was doing all right on time, even though he had noticed that the orange part of the late afternoon had faded and the crystal blue after-effect was giving way to absolute darkness. This was a time when there were no streetlights, mainly because nobody had considered the need for such things, what with crime being mostly imaginary or limited to the big cities north of this small central Ohio town.
    Patrick measured out the distance step by step, keeping track of the numbers in a sing-song way, moving his lips along to the self-composed tune. He reached one hundred fourteen when he heard the low growl behind him.
    Meanwhile Tildy was fuming. She had finished the ironing twenty minutes earlier and was waiting for that son of hers to get home so she could bake their bread for their dinner. Afterwards, she planned to delight him by acting surprised with the mask he had been making. He didn't know she had accidentally discovered the thing in his bedroom and she planned to feign genuine horror when he put it on to scare her. That was, she reminded herself with a tisk, if he came home any time soon, the way he was supposed to do.
    Patrick no longer concerned himself with the precise measurement between the store and his own front door. All he cared about was getting his hand on that door knob, throwing open the door, jumping into his mother's arms and crying until the terror went away. All he wanted to do was to get home, to get as far away as possible from the horrible hungry growling that was shortening the distance between itself and him. Patrick knew better than to break and run. If it really was a mountain lion behind him--that mountain lion, the one that had already done so much damage, maybe even the same one that had killed his own father--then to show fear or panic was to invite death. Patrick knew he shouldn't run. But the fear was getting hold of him, it was gaining strength even as his own legs were stiffening and his breath was coming faster and shorter. The growl came again and this time Patrick believed he could actually feel the growl blowing out of the wild animal's mouth. He felt the growl breathe out against the back of his own shirt and that feeling was all that Patrick could stand of the terror, so he did what he knew he should not do and he ran. He ran hard, the chocolate drop in his shirt pocket flying out and striking the dirt behind him, the bag of flour threatening to slow him down and quickly forgotten as he let it fall from his arm and ran and ran and listened against his own hard breathing to get some sense as to how close the evil beast was behind him.
    Patrick ran as he caught sight of the front porch to his house. He ran as he quite clearly heard a terrible sound, a sound behind him, ancient and disturbed, a sound of blood gurgling out from the heart of an animal and into that animal's lungs as it prepared to pounce.
    He kicked his legs out as hard as he could as he turned to run up the footpath to his own house, his house where his mother would protect him, his house where the mountain lion could not get at him, his house, the house his father had built with his own hands, way back before the terrible thing had happened, back before his father had gone out hunting and had never been seen again, although the sounds of his anguish still floated down from the foothills.
    Tildy looked up from her sewing at the banging on the front door. She had locked it not so much out of habit but as a way of teaching Patrick that when he kept her waiting there would be some small inconvenience awaiting him as well. She sat her sewing down beside her chair and stood to walk across the room to open the door.
    The door shook from the pounding. This annoyed Tildy just a bit, and it even frightened her just slightly. She called out. "Patrick? Is that you?"
    The pounding continued. Then it was broken by the sound of panic in her son's voice. "Mother! My God, mother! Open the door! Please! Open the door!"
    She walked over to the door and placed her hand on the knob. She recognized the fear in her son's voice. He was afraid she was going to lock him out over night, as she had sometimes done to his father, back before the horrible thing had happened. But she was not that cruel. Patrick was her only son and she would never leave him out over night. She called through the door, "Patrick? Did you get the flour as I asked you to do?"
    There was silence for just an instant. Then the fist-pounding resumed. Tildy held the knob in her hand and was just about to turn the lock when something very heavy and very large struck the door, shaking it on its hinges. The weight striking the door made Tildy jump back. That could not possibly have been Patrick. That had to have been something else. In that moment of hazy awareness, her mind filled with an image she had long pushed into the recesses of her consciousness. She saw her husband ripped apart and hanging all across the trees in their front yard, She saw his mouth strangling on words she had ignored. She heard the drops of his essence strike the dirt like anvils falling from tar-colored skies.
    And she heard a sound from the other side of the door. She had never heard this sound before, yet somehow she knew what it was, somehow she recognized the gurgling of life flowing out of the heart of some insane creature.
    She gripped the door knob in her hand and as she turned it, blood spilled beneath the door and formed a puddle around her feet.


    At this point in the narration the old man would spring up from his lotus position and holler out a vile scream that would send the pack of us pedaling our frail asses the hell home. Every year the story would get just a bit more embellished and after a while, of course, we stopped going, though whether because the old man passed away or because we thought we were too hip to be scared, I do not rightly know. What I do know is that over the years some of us have worked on that story, tweaking it here and there to make it more suspenseful or more intense. You feel free to do the same now because the story belongs to you just as it once did to me, just as it once did to an old man in central Ohio. 
My only advice to you, if you choose to repeat it in your own fashion: Don't forget about the blood puddling up around Tildy's feet. And don't be quite so certain that locking your front door is such a good idea.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

WILL THE SHAM MEET BRUNO?

    
    One of the curses raining down like flaming toads from heaven these days is a tendency towards too much technical proficiency in popular music. In the days before I was even a teenager, group used to make mistakes all the time and those mistakes took on the talismanic power of a coin with a double-dye date or a two-headed calf. In other words, the very rarity of the occasional amateurishness of the recording might actually make for a more fascinating experience. An obvious example of this occurs in the most popular recorded version of the song "Louie, Louie,"  wherein singer Ron Ely (I think that was his name--this is an election year, so I'm forbidden to fact check my copy) screws up and comes in from the instrumental break for the last verse ahead of schedule. "Me see Ja--" is as far as he gets before someone points out that we're not there yet. Then we get the right one: "Me see Jamaica moon above. . . " Now that song's producer could have called for another take, but why bother when the very fact of that glitch helped make the tune infinitely more interesting? 
   Amateurish mistakes can even end up being used on purpose to great effect. John Lennon felt the early Beatles' recordings failed to capture the live sound of their days in Hamburg. He took the inadvertent feedback created whenever an electric guitar is placed too close to its amplifier--a rookie mistake--and used it deliberately to introduce the song "I Feel Fine," arguably the first intentional use of feedback on a rock recording. 
   The inability or unwillingness to play grand sophisticated works may be a drawback in jazz combos and in classical music it's probably always going to be verboten. But in an essentially disposable medium such as rock and roll, a lack of familiarity with one's instrument may even be a strong selling point. My roommate was playing some songs this afternoon by a band called Awolnation. The singer, Aaron Bruno, who seems to be most of the band, has the technical aspects of performing down as well as anyone I've heard in years and the truth is that of the six or seven songs Lisa Ann played me of theirs, I liked them all quite a bit. The sound is not reminiscent of anything in particular, which is good, because I get tired of identifying influences when I listen to presumably new material. The feel of the songs, however, especially on a song that I think was called "Jump on My Shoulders," really reminded me of 1966 and the pre-Sergeant Pepper/Smiley Smile essence of energetic studio and live recordings. A song such as "Wooly Bully," for instance, is often remarked upon as being an unmitigated piece of shit (that's what Bowie fans would say, anyhow), whereas I've always thought the count-off, "Uno dos one two tres quatro!" was just brilliant, a bit of inspired anarchy that a more self-conscious era would have shunned but which I always embraced wholeheartedly. 
   That song was recorded, of course, by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, a fine group led by Domingo Samudio (or Zamudio, as it often appears). Sam was one wild dude, always performing in a turban, arriving for shows in a hearse and the band was equally bizarre in their Egyptian robes, saxophones and drums. "Wooly Bully" is a simple Farfisa organ riff, played by Sam, that launched the story of two gals who didn't want to be L7 (square), so they had to learn the dance. Or else it was about the discovery of a vagina. It's difficult to know which.
   The original band didn't last long and soon enough a whole new set of guys grouped together around Sam. This version of the group had a hit with "Lil Red Riding Hood" and a few other lesser tunes, the best--i.e., most idiotic--being "Oh That's Good, No That's Bad," which has the advantage of being sung so horribly that you almost forget that the drummer has no idea what he's doing. Shortly after this number, a group of females calling themselves the Shamettes joined the Pharaohs on a tour of Asia. 
    In any case, the sheer foolishness, lack of self-consciousness and embrace of folly and fun made this kind of thing possible at a time in the world when serious adolescence was first coming into form. That's what made what I'm calling amateurism so appealing.
    To give you a kind of contrast, I never cared much for Eric Clapton and in fact find only three things he's ever done to be enjoyable. I'll tell you those three things in a minute. The reason I usually don't care for his stuff is that he's simply too damned good. And he's far too good to be playing rock and roll, which is probably why he sounds most at home on the three things of his I like, being Layla, which is impossible for anyone with a human soul to less than love; his performance on the live Delaney and Bonnie album; and "After Midnight," which he didn't write and which probably happened in less than one take. All three of these recordings still sound as if they were played and sung by a guy who was either in terrible pain or who was having so much fun that he didn't care what he sounded like. That's why those three hold up and the rest of his more "professional" stuff yawns dated. 
    I'm not suggesting here that someone who has absolutely no rudimentary skills with his or her instrument is a better evening than someone who knows what he or she is doing. I am saying that in these days of pre-packaged talentless gloss a la "American Idol" and "The X Factor," hearing something with the rawness and abandon of Awolnation was a get down hoot and a half. I'll admit that Bruno and Company are way more proficient than Sam the Sham. I'll also argue that that has nothing to do with why they're enjoyable. They are fun to hear because they have the spirit of some very smart folks who've listened to one too many Beck albums, learned all the right lessons and ignored the nonsense, then drank a huge vat of early Who albums and washed that down with some northern California angst. The use to which the band's song "Sails" has been put tells me that Aaron Bruno and the Boys aren't quite so indie anymore. And that's okay too. A guy's allowed to be successful. No shame in that at all. It'll be interesting to hear what the follow-up album is like. If Bruno's smart, he'll bring in Sam to produce it. I hear he's available.
   

Monday, October 29, 2012

WALL ST VANISHES ALONG WITH OUR FILM OF THE EVENT

    
    I'm glad the New York Stock Exchange was not operating today, even though the reason for the closing was one of the more severe storms in recent memory. With the U.S. stock market closed, the feeling I get is that the world--or at least some of it--kind of got the day off from the normal run of exploitative behavior that passes itself off as free enterprise. Unlike the stock exchange, Google decided to place a link beneath their logo pointing to information and resources for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. But of course, Google is made of nobler stuff than the NYSE. 
    The stock idea motivated my mind just a bit. I wonder, wondered I, just what it is that drives this thing called The American Economy? Is the trading of stocks, bonds, securities, the bidding of futures really what drives us onward, or is it something else?
    If you are a worker and you have an IRA wherein your employer matches your contribution by some factor, that contribution may be in the form of shares of stock in that corporation. So on any given day, you might consider your retirement position by checking the figures on how much a given share is going for these days. If you own a huge investment firm, you might wonder how to flood a pension fund with junk bonds so that you can bet against the rise, starve off the employees, get fat and happy, and blow your brains out in the Islands. But unless you are one of those two types, or possibly some form of mutant "day trader" or erstwhile economics professor, you certainly do not give a good Goddamn what the stock market is doing. What you might find yourself interested in is something called wages. 
   Unless you do own that investment firm, your real and actual wages have not gone up noticeably since halfway through Reagan's first term. The nice people at the Economic Policy Institute--hardly a bastion of radical politics--points out that governmental policy over the past thirty years has been redefining what is meant by "economics" as a way of managing discontent. As the EPI puts it:  
Rather, the focus has been on policies that were thought to make consumers better off through lower prices: deregulation of industries, privatization of public services, the weakening of labor standards including the minimum wage, erosion of the social safety net, expanding globalization, and the move toward fewer and weaker unions. These policies have served to erode the bargaining power of most workers, widen wage inequality, and deplete access to good jobs. In the last 10 years even workers with a college degree have failed to see any real wage growth.

   That's important. High school graduate, college graduate, labor union stalwart--it no longer matters. The policies of every administration beginning in 1981 through Obama (surprise!) has gone out of its way to ensure that you stayed in the same exact situation you were in last year. All the nonsense about big or small government is absurd on its face. The goal of any major party candidate is to keep a tight grip on the steering wheel that directs the wages and productivity of workers. Productivity is the other side of the wages coin. You see, I have no idea whether people work harder these days than they did fifty years ago. What I do know is that productivity has been growing like a pot plant in a roomful of hydroponics equipment over the last three decades. That means that profits are going up. How can I know that? Simple. Wages are flat. Production is up. Wages are the main drag on a business' profits. If productivity increases--meaning more stuff gets put together so that it can be sold--then, unless the prices of the raw materials are going up, the business in question is doing better today than it did thirty years ago. Ah, but how can I know that the prices of raw materials have not increased? Again, the answer is easy. The prices actually have increased a lot. And yet the expense has lowered. Impossible? Not at all. 
    In 2008, the United States imported $2.1 trillion in imported goods. Crude oil topped that list. Oh my goodness! What a dependence on "foreign oil!" 
    Exxon/Mobile, which is the largest oil company that most Americans think they know, ranks seventeenth in the world on the list of global oil companies. Right: seventeenth. Based on existing known oil reserves, the largest oil company going is Saudi Arabian Oil Company. Now, because the company is called the Saudi Arabian Oil Company--or Aramco--you might get the idea that the company is in Saudi Arabia. Well, it is, but not only. The company has subsidiaries in New York, Houston, Rotterdam and Hague, Dalmine, Italy, London, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai, Gurgaon, India, Singapore and Dubai. Aramco Services Company, the Houston subsidiary, "facilitates the safe and reliable delivery of energy to customers around the world," according to their website. Regardless of the source of the raw material--in this case, crude oil--the profits are made both here and there. When you have people buying from themselves, there is a tendency to expect a bit of a bargain. It doesn't matter, therefore, what the price is. When you buy from yourself, or your cartel, the cost is nothing.
    When technology accelerates productivity, when real wages lie flat, and when unemployment is right where the U.S. leaders all want it, a small portion of the public (the greediest mercenaries, say) will be the ones who reap the profits while your savings account dwindles. 
   Savings? Remember those? Probably not. Since the Reagan years (coincidence?), personal savings (defined as disposable income minus the money that actually gets spent) has dropped from fourteen percent in the 1970s to less than one percent. So your wages are stagnant and your savings are depleted. Is all hope lost? Most certainly. At least, hope is lost as long as your primary concern is the newest Apple i-product or the amount of tequila you can consume in one hour or whatever other nonsense you waste what little money you have on so as to endure the horrible monotony of your job and personal life. Oh, and please do not tell me how unaffected you are because you don't even own a TV, well at least it's small one and you never shop at Wal-Mart, although there still are a lot of "Made in China" tags on your merchandise--I don't wanna hear it. We're all in this together because we all let it happen. And don't think for one minute that I'm talking Big Party Politics here because the one thing all the economic charts and grafts prove is that it makes no difference who is president. Except for matters of style, both major parties weaken the people and pamper the elites. Half of these politicos try to make you believe that being forced to fellate the king will make you a better person and the other half will tell you that they can save you from such servitude. Both sides are lying. They are lying because there is only one side and it is staring right at you.
    Now I am not suggesting in any way that money should be a priority in your life. Personally, I like watching movies, smelling the flowers on the patio, spending time with my small coterie of friends, playing with the dogs and wiggling my toes in mud. But money helps. It really does. Especially when you want to try to stay alive, or keep your children alive. 
    So where are we? We are producing almost twice the load we produced thirty years ago. We have no money in the bank--thank you, PLS--and our income is flat as Aunt Mabel's butt. 
    If Wall Street takes the day off, I suspect the minions of mendacity will somehow shoulder on 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

TWISTED

    
   It's sadistic revenge drive-in horror movie night here at Philropost, where we bring you our famous in progress review of the first feature film bearing the writer/director credits for Wes Craven. As you may have guessed, the film is The Last House on the Left (1972), a movie based on the story conveyed in an Ingmar Bergman film called The Virgin Spring (1960). Bergman's film stirred a bit of controversy upon release and even found itself banned in parts of Texas because of its depiction of a particularly brutal rape. Craven's film was far more shattering and found itself awash in controversy that actually helped promote this movie (budgeted at less than $90,000) into the ten million dollar zone. 
    One thing must be understood going in. This is a horror movie. What happens in this film is horrible. You would not want to be one of the victims and you would not want to be one of the perpetrators. You would not want to be close to either group. Chances are you wouldn't want to be the parents of the victims, even though it's the parents who seek to balance the scales of justice. You certainly would not want to be the two idiot cops who are only in the film to confuse us, which is part of what I'll be bold and refer to as Craven's style. 
     One of the things about this film that continues to disturb many people all these years later is that the inserted scenes with the sheriff and his deputy have their humorous elements, yet those scenes are invariably inserted between incidents of vile torture and brutality happening not far away. Plus bad guy David Hess, who plays Krug, the leader of the sadistic gang, also gets to sing the songs in the movie and the songs are all upbeat bluegrass or country rock numbers. So on the one hand we are properly repulsed by some elongated and grisly stuff initiated by Krug, Weasel and their accomplices against Mari and Phyllis, two seventeen year olds out for a fun evening at the rock show. On the other hand, we have chirpy music and clownish cops punctuating the proceedings for no apparent reason other than to demarcate the distinction between the naive wholesomeness of the law and order boys and the depraved actions of some savage sex offenders. When Mari tells her Dad that nobody wears bras anymore, we're a little surprised at her candid approach with her pop. Yet we also suspect that what's really going on is that her fascination with her own developing physique is going to parallel with some unwanted trouble. After all, they didn't call this an exploitation film for nothing.
    The two girls are out looking for some Colombian red bud smoking material when they happen upon Krug's junkie son. He says he can hook the two up and leads them to their doom. Krug and Weasel have escaped prison and joined Junior and Sadie on a crime spree of torture and delight. To give you one example (one that back then caused a lot of people to freak out--and I'll bet it still does), out in the woods, Krug orders Phyllis to piss her pants. She does it. She does it because she is afraid what will happen if she refuses. 
    I don't doubt for one second that there are bad folks out there who would get their kicks doing something very much like what happens in this film. I imagine they'd think themselves fairly cool and removed from Pleasant Valley Sunday, the way the four bad folks in this movie do. We're accustomed to seeing that kind of gang mentality in gangster movies from the 1940s. What no one was expecting and the reason this film remains noteworthy all these years later is that it is the parents who act out the revenge. And that, in a strange way, is an attempt to make a moral statement, something that did not always happen in a drive-in knife flick.
    Moral statement? Am I nuts? Yes, possibly, but it also happens that in this particular case I may also be correct. That's because in its own occasionally sloppy way, The Last House is an allegory for certain atrocities that were taking place in Vietnam. When the cops finally get to the house where the parents have systematically taken care of business, there is not much doubt but what these two representatives of authority are going to cover up the crime. Now we are never explicitly told this and it must be admitted that subtlety is not exactly an overwhelming component of this movie. But one needn't be Kreskin to figure out that the cops are going to side with the parents because of what the bad guys did to the two young girls. So while this movie may go about its subject in a way that you will feel is somewhat less than admirable (and you may be right about that), it does suggest that the history of violence is that it (a) begets more violence, and (b) that people tend to be more sympathetic to what they consider revenge than to other motivations when it comes to violent behavior. Hey, at least this crazy thing offers an idea, which is much more than most of the grindhouse movies of that time were doing.
    Incidently, Craven reportedly worked with Rogue Films on the 2009 remake, although you won't find his name attached to the IMDB listing, probably because the remake was so grossly inferior. The original, while not exactly earth-shattering in its visuals, does have the advantage of starring Hess, one of the most underrated villains you've ever loathed.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ALL MY LOVERS ARE LESBIANS

    
    After sleeping in parks, getting two ribs cracked open by a psycho with a baseball bat, running a behavioral health clinic, writing speeches for Salt River Project, getting shot at while driving a taxi, sweating out nine years at American Express, finding twenty dollars in a landfill, getting kicked in the head by a cop on Christmas morning, being raped by two losers outside a Starbucks one night, fighting back from pancreatic cancer, owning a portrait studio, getting my windpipe busted by a jealous teenage girl, reading every volume of the 1967 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, driving across the country in two days in a car that had been falsely reported stolen, working as a corporate trainer at a collection agency, having a pacemaker put in above my left tit, receiving a prestigious award from a Canadian writer's association while remaining largely ignored in my own country, alienating virtually all my friends and then slowly, surely reestablishing those treasured relationships--after all this and a lot more that has receded into the un-dusted crevices of my memory, I figured the worst was over. 
    There was a period of about three years, back in my early twenties, when the only women who would go out with me were lesbians, and that was mostly because I was at that time the prototypical non-threatening male, not a bad thing to be, I'll admit, but also a not infrequently frustrated nonthreatening thing to be, one who--when the movie ended and my mind set to wandering about the soft brush of lips, the slightest hint of unbra'd cleavage, or the gentle swelling of an exposed calf, and what I ended up getting was an easy slap on the back or punch on the shoulder, some well-intended laughter and an occasional meal cooked to perfection--almost invariably found myself alone with a warm hand and a cold shower. And even though, all these wondrous years later, I still find my head turning and my neck straining bands of admiration at some beauty in her forties or fifties who finds herself unable to comply due to a firm commitment to her own gender, despite this, I still figured the most frustrating moments of my life had passed.
    A couple years ago I had not one but two book deals lined up with a more than reputable American publishing house, found myself in receipt of flattering emails and encouraging telephone calls, as well as more dinner invitations than I could possibly have accommodated. Yet about two weeks before the deals were to be consummated, as it were, the publisher went back on its word and its representative actually expressed a certain delight in that they had managed to extricate themselves from an arrangement with someone--presumably me--who had such an unpleasant attitude. Well, at least the worst is over, I assured myself.
     I was in error. I only thought that I had encountered enough ups and downs in a life that was beginning to resemble a tiny raft in an angry ocean of swells and recessions. 
    Tonight I watched a movie called A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970). Now, friends and family, I know the true pulsing waves of confusion, expectation and disappointment. 
    As with all the other rocks that fell from an azure sky of deepest summer, I should have seen this disappointment coming. I mean, the star of this motion picture was Fabian Forte who, it turns out, is still very much alive as of this writing and who, for all I know is one hell of a nice person. In case you're unaware of it, Fabian, as he was known, started out the path to fame as a teen idol, a handsome face behind some tepid hits between the years 1958 and 1963, back when Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in the pokey, Buddy Holly was dead, and Jerry Lee Lewis was banned, and before the U.S. arrival of the Beatles. Anyway, once the British Invasion, as they called it, hit our eager shores, there was no audience for Tepid, so he did what others before him had done: he turned to acting. 20th Century Fox bought him up and he appeared in some quickie exploitation flicks of the mid-to-late 1960s. Then Fox went through one of its frequent changes in policies and Fabian found himself looking mighty hungry at the front door of American International Pictures, the real Big Daddies of exploitation and drive-in fare for the Clearasil generation. 
    This was exactly the kind of movie that AIP loved to make. Bonnie and Clyde had rocked everyone from the gang at the Starlite to lovely Pauline Kael, so it only stood to reason that Depression-ear gangster pics were the latest craze. Because Fabian had remained a good-looking guy who fit the age bracket (Floyd died at age thirty), he was cast amidst a group of people, only one of whom could really act to save her life and that was a young lady named Jocelyn Lane, a British spitfire who had made the drive-in circuit the previous year in a some wondrous trash called Hell's Belles. Her role in Bullet was first as the hooker who seduces the escaped convict Floyd, and later as his trusted accomplice. Her performance as Floyd's foil is really excellent. She bites her lip, not to be coquettish but in rage. There, I said it.
    The movie does not hone to historic accuracy in any regard, so far as I can tell. There never was an accomplice named "Preacher," for instance, and at the time of Floyd's capture and death, the FBI did not go by that name (they were called the Bureau of Investigations). The movie also ignores most of the details of the folk hero aspects of Charles Arthur Floyd, even though those details were mostly false, even in the 1930s. Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded a song called "Pretty Boy Floyd" with the memorable line "Some rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen." Guthrie did a good job pointing out the irony of the government going after Floyd for robbing banks while the banks had robbed the country and left its people starving. (The Byrds recorded the most famous version of the song on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.) I kept expecting to hear bits of this song during the movie. Instead I heard some guy named Harley Hatcher singing about how he was always running from himself. Ole Harley had made kind of a name for himself with exploi flicks like Killers Three, Satan's Sadists and Cain's Cutthroats, so this film was a natural move for him. 
    I could go on and on about how it would have been nice if someone had bought the camera operators a tripod so the picture didn't jump around at the wrong moment, or how if the two brothers of the brothel owner hadn't been moving with poles up their backs, or how Fabian himself might have been encouraged to understand the difference between being cold and having no emotion whatsoever. I could talk about that stuff all night. You are spared that particular rant because there is no earthly reason why you should debate with yourself about seeing this movie based on this or any other review. You might, however, ask yourself why, with a $350,000 budget, AIP (who made some of the most fascinating cheap films of the era) turned out this rubbish. As for me, the phone's ringing. I'd better get it. With any luck, it'll be Rachel Maddow. Yay!
    

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

ONE NATION, IDIOTIC


   
    A nation of idiots. That is how I sometimes feel about us--all of us, with myself included. We rally around our two-party system declaring that however imperfect it may be it nevertheless remains the best system on earth, a statement which is, as a previous generation once termed the suggested demise of the quality of American products: bunk. 
    We sing hosannas to our beloved First Amendment (even though most of us could not recite it against penalty of death, while an even greater number could not locate within its words the separation clause, or for that matter, define the word "clause"), yet we remain intent on applying the freedom of expression provisions as a means of denying other people the rights that are also enumerated in that same edict, specifically freedom of and from religion. 
    We glorify ourselves at every public opportunity with the words "God bless America" as if something holy enshrines our fragile country and that that glorious something entitles us to special consideration from on high, a consideration to which the rest of the global population, unfortunately born elsewhere, has simply not earned. 
    Okay, so we're the best, have it your way. I assume that by "best" you mean the most ethnocentric, jingoistic, narcissistic, paranoid prima donnas on the planet. If that is your definition of something to which vast hordes of people should aspire so that they might become more like us, then congratulations, dear sir or madam, I sit corrected and we are the finest folks whatever did crawl upon the face or jowls of this here madly spinning orb, yessiree. 
    I have written here and elsewhere (and been taken to task for it) that freedom of expression is absolute. It is absolute, not because some old piece of paper says that it is, but rather because the mere saying of that radical statement makes it so. Freedom of expression is not a right, not a privilege, not a clever exercise. It is existence itself and as far as I can tell, any society or system that does not respect that statement does not respect the humanity of its people. However, because I have been to a few places and observed a few things, I must admit that this declaration--true as it is--does not meet with the same presumed respective reverence in all parts of the world. (One could even argue that it isn't held in much esteem in America, either, but I suspect that is a different conversation.) There are people on this planet, inside and outside of America, who hold other considerations to be of higher importance than the freedom of speech. That fact does not make those people stupid and it does not necessarily make them wrong. If you put me in a situation where I am fighting for my daily meal, where my daughter risks getting raped every time she leaves the house, and where the countries living next door and across the street are looking to enslave me, I might well come to believe that something other than the freedom of expression is extremely important. I might look at the American system of electioneering as an interminable exercise in greed that disenfranchises almost everyone and yet which enchants those same disenfranchised people the way a shiny watch mystifies a small dog and which has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom and democracy. I might grow weary from politics in general and find myself linking souls with my own countrymen, many of whom are old and learned, many of whom believe that violence is acceptable as a means of changing society, what with their interpretation coming from sacred texts that I have not yet been taught to read. Did I mention that this hypothetical me is hungry and frightened? 
    If we are unable to understand that the conditions in developing and underdeveloped countries are different from ours, then we cannot hope to fully appreciate the sentiments expressed in that sacred document of our own, by which of course I mean the Constitution. 
    But we like to think that our way is best. If our way is best, then that does not allow for the possibility that other people can express their offense at wholly irresponsible intolerance on our part, e.g., Terry Jones of Florida, or whomever the latest proselytizing imbecile may be. The First Amendment does not condone intolerance, although even saying that is to risk an inverse tautology along the lines of "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." Yet intolerance is not expressly forbidden, either. I have the right to say that I do not like the Mormon religion. Okay. And the Mormons have the right to respond that they do not give a rat's ass how I feel about them. Good. I do not have the right, and do not seek it, to ban individual Mormons from attending one of my lectures or from reading PhilroPost. But let's take this discussion beyond the stupid bourgeois parlor games. Do I have the right to say something genuinely inflammatory, such as "Brigham Young was the illegitimate son of Lucifer"? According to my own earlier argument, of course I have that right. That the statement is untrue is irrelevant. So why say it? There can only be one reason: to send a large portions of the Mormon faith into fits of apoplexy. Why would I want to do that? The truth is, I don't want to do that. But there are among us many people who want to say things like "Mohammed was a pussy" in the hopes of outraging millions of members of the Muslim faith. Why would they want to do that? Mostly they want to bring on Armageddon. But Armageddon is not a fact. It is a belief that is part of their religion. So what is really going on is that these idiots are wanting to bring about the final war of mankind and they are hoping that people in our embassies get killed. They hope that Iran develops nuclear weapon capabilities. They yearn for the beheadings of infidels. And so do the very people these idiots hate. The Osama bin  Ladins of our world want to us to turn against them for the same reason our Terry Joneses want it: that final conflict. 
    So, yeah, say whatever you want. There'll always be some doofus waiting to misinterpret it anyway. But somewhere along the line, if you live long enough, you may have to decide which you hold in higher esteem: your sacred First Amendment or Social Responsibility. You can have both. You cannot have one constantly trump the other. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

GOSFORD PARK BLUES

    
    Anyone who thinks much about movies will eventually find that there is one director with whom he connects better than any other. Often this connection has more to do with sensibility than specific technique or auteur theory. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, was a masterful craftsman who could busy up the screen with more psychological manipulation than anybody in history, and while it is possible to marvel at that accomplishment, I've always found his point of view of humanity to be a bit cold. Jean-Luc Godard continues to make some of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen and even his relative duds are capable of whacking me upside the head with their majesty and splendor. Even Woody Allen, who may not necessarily be that great of a human being, has made more than his share of troubling, beautiful romances and for years he has wavered in stature as my second favorite director. But when it comes to the one person who gets it right for me, there can be nobody who comes close to Robert Altman. 
   The driving force behind any formidable talent is always ego and with ego comes de facto the occasional success. In Altman's case, there were lots of those successes. But the redoubling of this ego-success drive can also lead to some disasters, or at least lapses in judgment. This is certainly true of this director, as anyone who has watched Thieves Like Us, Ready to Wear, or O.C. and Stiggs can attest. The thing about the failures of a genius like Altman is that even they are at least interesting. We can forgive these digressions from perfection because of the glory of movies such as MASH, Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, The Player, and his two finest films, Nashville and 3 Women
    With the exception of the latter film, Altman was at his best when he developed the panoramic cast of characters whose lives were never subordinated to the plot. In fact, you could argue that MASH, Brewster and Nashville did not have any plot whatsoever, at least in the common sense of the word. You could even argue that plot would have gotten in the way of the story in those movies. That concern on someone's part for a cohesive storyline is what damaged some of his otherwise remarkable films, including McCabe & Mrs Miller, California Split, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians
     Plot almost gets in the way of Gosford Park (2001). Happily, we are saved from that perdition because in this murder mystery, the guy who gets killed is hated by almost everyone in the movie. Set in November 1932, Gosford Park takes place in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" type of English mansion and the film's forty-some major characters are nicely divided between the hoi polloi and the servants, except that there are impostors afoot everywhere and one is never certain who are the wealthy and who are the servile. The whole fact of the murder itself is nothing more than a concession, a contrived device to move the people along a bit, as is evidenced by the fact that at least half the characters have a reasonable motive to have killed the master of the castle and no one is much disturbed that he was actually killed twice, once by poison and once by stabbing, and by two different murderers. Altman himself even remarked that he hoped people would see this movie more than once so that they could enjoy it the second or third time without having to worry about whodunit. That actually makes tremendous sense because there is simply no way that the first third of the film will make sense to you on a single viewing. But that's actually a good thing in this case because that also happens to be the way life is. Picture yourself as a character in this movie. You're at a party the night before the big pheasant hunt. You know the host and the misses, of course. Maybe you know a couple other people from previous outings. But most of the people are strange to you. You haven't much of an idea what the hell the Hollywood producer is going on about with his long distance calls. You don't know why the handsome actor keeps playing the piano and singing boring songs. You wonder at the servant who claims to be from Scotland and yet feigns every accent imaginable except a Scottish one. You try to figure out why table knives keep disappearing. You stare in amazement at the young whelp who keeps bleating about being ruined in the market, or the player who attempts to convince you that no matter what kind of employee you're looking for, he is the best. Then,  by the next morning, after too brief a night of sleeping, you begin to pull things together. Still, certain statements made earlier are now forgotten, though you know you wish you could remember them because they might be revelatory, especially after the murder. 
    None of this even addresses the beauty of the gold and brown hues that sparkle and dampen throughout the filming. None of this addresses the magnitude of the talent in front of the camera, most of these players being unknown to American audiences, except for Clive Owen and the guy who played the head of NBC in "Seinfeld." None of this approaches the subject that by the end of this movie you will very much care for all of these people, these people who so confused you at the beginning. Just like in the real world.
    Gosford Park is a beautiful place to visit. It is worth a second run, and likely a third. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

THE FRUIT IN THE BOWL DOWN THE LANE

   
    Just in time for a week or so before Halloween, we have a chilling little suspense thriller called The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (1976) starring--as every movie ever made has done--both Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen. Jodie was all of fourteen during the shooting of this film, a fact which raised some eyebrows as well as other parts of a perverted public because of a quick nude scene that actually feature Jodie's sister Connie (then all of twenty) as the body double. 
    The movie is strictly standard narration--beginning, middle, end, in that order--and the cinematography, while pleasing, isn't any big shakes in a decade that specialized in some major earth tremors. Yet this remains one of the most charming of suspense films for two very obvious reasons.
    First, the acting gets your attention without calling attention to itself. I've read that Ms. Foster does not recall her work on this picture with much fondness and that's a shame because she really glows as a kid her own age, one who is left to run her own life at the blossoming of her teen years. Her sassy patter, the way she defies without overt belligerence, the vulnerable yet struggling air of superiority--she did every bit as good a job here as she did in Taxi Driver, which had been released just a few months earlier. 
    Martin Sheen ain't half bad either, working to broaden his wings as one of the creepiest molesters in memory. He plays the son of the real estate lady who has leased the house--the one down the lane--where Rynn--Jodie--lives with her nonexistent father. 
    Alexis Smith plays Sheen's mother. Gotta admit it, folks, everybody loves a good bitch and Smith plays one of the best. She marches into Jodie's house looking for the father, for her jelly jars, for whatever it might be, as if she owns the bloody house and the tension between her character and Rynn will have you cheering in your skivvies, the appropriate attire for this bedtime tale.
    Even Mort Shuman, the music supervisor for the movie, appears here, playing the friendly and a slightly awkward town cop, Ron Miglioriti. When I saw the name on the opening credits, I thought, "Mort Shuman? The songwriter who worked with Doc Pomus, the team responsible for such hits as 'This Magic Moment' and 'Viva Las Vegas'? That Mort Shuman?" Yes indeed. Now Shuman was a lyricist because he wasn't that polished an actor, as this movie makes clear, and yet that actually works out just fine here because it gives a bit of indirect emphasis to the superior acting of Foster and Sheen.
    It also helps with the acting of Scott Jacoby, who plays the smart accomplice to Rynn's survival instincts. Matter of fact, the whole bond between Foster and Jacoby feels so incredibly natural, spontaneous and improvised that you might even forget about the dead lady down in the cellar. 

    Two (and if you recall, we were indexing here), the music for once does not overpower the film in the way all too common then and now in movies that were trying to scare us or even just tense us up. I know that from the above trailer you'd get the idea that this movie was all sloppy dialogue and organ grinding (pardon the pun). But's it's much better than that. Shuman selected a cool Chopin piano concerto for the mood and praise God there's no hokey AM radio blather pretending to be pop music anywhere in the film. 
    The film is also set at Halloween time and that's no mere coincidence, just as it's not entirely exploitive of the season. There is an undercurrent of witchiness to this film that comes out in the blatant bigotry of the leasing agent, as well as in the names of most of the characters, and it's definitely not an accident that Mario, the love interest, is both crippled and a magician. 
    So see The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. See it because the writer used the proper personal pronoun referent. See it because of Jodie Foster. See it because the music will lull you in. And see it because Halloween is almost here.

BLACK 1972

    We talked about 1970. We talked about 1971. But the biggest of the first three years of the new decade was undoubtedly 1972 because it was by that time that a legitimate genre was taking shape. Directors, writers and future stars of an earlier time had either begun their slip into obscurity or rocketed their ascent to fame, glory and occasional infamy. Although the formidable likes of Sidney Poitier were hardly a thing of the past, a new breed of talent was kicking down the doors and demanding to be taken seriously, or if not seriously, at least as viable. We began to see more and more the names Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal, Gordon Parks Jr., Sid Haig and of course Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto, possibly the two finest actors to emerge from this beautiful period of strange sex, violence and occasional politics. 

Buck and the Preacher (1972). Directed by and starring Sidney Poitier. Also starring Harry Belafonte. Horse opera, slaves, free labor, and a man of God, or at least of peace.


The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972). Directed by Martin Goldman and starring Fred "Hammer" Williamson in the title role. This movie answers the musical question: "If you beat a man with a whip, are you punishing him or just teaching him the value of pain?" 


Cool Breeze (1972). The ads at the time of the film's release were careful to remind us that they (MGM) were the hep cats who had brought us Shaft, so you know they had to have the creds to pull off a flick about a small group of black guys determined to rob three million in cold diamonds in order to finance a Black People's Bank. Directed by Barry Pollack, whom you likely do not remember from his work with the TV show "Trapper John MD," and starring the wild Thalmus Rasulala as Sidney Lord Jones, aka Cool Breeze Himself. This kind of white-financed African American vengeance cinema absurdite is what really got people to calling the genre blaxploitation. Still, it was exciting.


The Final Comedown (1972). Four years earlier, Jimmy Garrett wrote a powerful play called We Own the Night. This movie, which stars Billy Dee Williams (who also directed and financed the film), is approximately the screen adaptation of that play. 


Shaft's Big Score (1972). Once again director Gordon Parks (Sr) teamed with rising star Richard Roundtree in this sequel to begin all sequels. Another MGM gem, you had to "ask your mama" if you could see this R-rated action adventure that featured lots of fifty dollar bills, some erotic dance sequences, about one million bullet holes and some genuinely exciting car chases--honest! I know most people think car chases equals stupid, but that's just silly. Best line? "My mama always told me to watch out for black honkies with big flat feet!" At least half the Seventies cop and P.I. shows could not have existed had it not been for the action sequences in this film to show the way.

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972). This was the non-anticipated sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem. Boredom comes to audience. Great name, though.


The Big Bird Cage (1972). Speaking of great names, the first half of the 1970s had few names greater than Jack Hill and Pam Grier, who directed and starred (respectively) in this remarkably exploitive black revolutionary-women in cages in the Philippines flick that did nothing to further the cause of liberation but was fine drive-in fare all the same. 


Bone (1972). A little bit of irony in the night. Yaphet Kotto stars in what was sometimes called Beverly Hills Nightmare. Social relevance plus great acting by Kotto and even lovely Joyce Van Patton.


Super Fly (1972). Directed by Gordon Parks Jr and starring Ron O'Neal as the genuinely dangerous Priest, a coke dealer who wants to get out of the life by committing one final million dollar score that will free him up to live in peace on some quiet island somewhere. As O'Neal himself would later admit, this was basically a long commercial for cocaine. It also solidified the black genre because of the tremendous strength of O'Neal's performance and especially because of the incredible soundtrack brought by the beautiful Curtis Mayfield.

Slaughter (1972). For all intents and purposes, American International Pictures launched exploitation films. It is therefore a little curious that they would come right along a couple years later and formula-ize the mixture of black star, white support cast, and bigotry begets violence brew that this film epitomized. Directed by Jack Starrett and starring Jim Brown, this movie also gave us buxom Stella Stevens as "the girl" and occasionally hilarious and always fascinating Rip Torn as "the mob." Slaughter, the trailers of the day proclaimed, is not just his name. It's his business. 


Blacula (1972). Another AIP hoot-and-a-half, this one referred to the title character (played by William Marshall, although the real star was Thalmus Rasulala) as Dracula's Soul Brother. This was just a mostly lame attempt at marrying black culture to the horror genre that had by then become  AIP's stock in trade. Still, there were some great lines, as when the bartender asks the title character what he'll have and the response is "Bloody Mary."

Hammer (1972). Fred Williamson stars as the prizefighter caught in a corrupt system. Rocky meets Super Fly. 


Trouble Man (1972). Not even Marvin Gaye's first-rate soundtrack could save this unfortunate flop from the dustbin. Star Robert Hooks simply didn't have the dark charisma of his contemporaries to elevate the lame script from the shredder.

Black Gunn (1972). For a little while there things got so predictable that the writers couldn't be bothered to come up with a character name that didn't smack of pedantry. Guess what kind of weapon Jim Brown used, for instance? Why not have a movie called Em-16, starring a teenaged sister named Emma who falls into possession of automatic weapons that she sells to the Brotherhood so they can take over the Catholic Church in Scranton? Actually, that kind of works, doesn't it?


Trick Baby (1972). Robert Beck spent ten months in solitary for pimping. When he got out, he changed his ways and turned into the writer Iceberg Slim. He wrote Pimp, as well as the novel that became this movie, a film that starred future "Hill Street Blues" heartthrob Kiel Martin and occasional "All in the Family" neighbor Mel Stewart. The movie probably cost about two hundred dollars to make, including acting lessons for all but the two principal characters, but it still was good in the way it captured both the danger, thrills and even humor of the hustling life.

The Harder They Come (1972). An excellent movie in its own right, blaxploitation or otherwise, Harder starred a young Jimmy Cliff in the role of real life gangster Ivanhoe, a man who was to Jamaican culture what Clyde Barrow was to white folks in the Great Depression. "I was here but I disappear." Brutal, gorgeous and genuinely frightening, it also presented America with a first-rate soundtrack and launched Cliff as a major reggae star.

Across 110th Street (1972). I would walk across sheets of blazing metal to watch the late Yaphet Kotto act. Add Anthony Quinn to the mix and we have a painfully dark drama about the mob and the brothers battling it out while the cops scratch their heads and treat their own wounds. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

AN OPEN LETTER TO A FUTURE ENGLISH TEACHER

    
   One of the things I very much enjoy about Google Search is the way the creative end of the team will place some interesting graphic that connects to an anniversary or birthday of something nonpolitical and relevant, as in today's anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, an American novel of such majesty that today few people can bear to read it, a bit of tongue in cheek that says virtually nothing about the book and shouts ill for our time. 
    One of the most enjoyable things about any classic novel (an expression that no writer today has found a euphemism more pejorative than to describe a book he's never read) is the use of the words. I was going to say "the language," but I don't want to get controversial on this subject. The love of words and their usage is what distinguishes a real writer from a hack, even though sometimes real writers pretend to be hacks to get themselves into print and to stay there. 
    The love of using words to communicate ideas, sensations, tangible products, intangible fog, emotions common and uncommon, and most of all experience--this is what the so-called art of writing is really about. It's more important than everything else, including experience, something that--give or take Hemingway--is the most overrated aspect of the craft. I have no idea if Herman Melville ever passengered himself aboard a sea-going vessel in his life. Henry James, so the story goes, never strayed more than a few miles from his home and yet described African elephants in such amazing detail that one would swear he had raised them from pups. But let's just assume for fun that Melville did go to sea. We can even consider him the literary Charles Darwin, if that helps. Here's a paragraph, taken at random (I just opened the book to page 185 and skipped to the second paragraph.). What living writer wouldn't give his or her complete essence to be able to write the following words?
     Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at birth or a bridal.
   We can argue about the presumed malaise of contemporary slovenliness in terms of the modern writer's disrespect for the tools of the craft. It might be better, though, to just fall back in cosmological awe of the hard-earned gift that is the case of being able to write a paragraph that says precisely everything it needs and wants to say without one wasted space, letter or punctuation. Even the first word of that excerpt puts the reader right there on the stage with the narrator, telling that person to assess what is unfolding. He didn't say, "Imagine this" or "Think about what I'm describing." He wrote "Judge," which is exactly what a conscientious reader ought to do when in the presence of a writer powerful enough to command it. 
    If you consider any "classic novel" written in English, or translated with some skill, the first thing you notice is that the writer is not in a hurry to get on with the story. In many cases, the writer is even a bit reluctant to impart whatever the story is, and seems not averse to taking up dozens of pages just settling in. That is often because the writer was toiling for an audience that wanted to take its time going through the words, running those words around in the mouth, perhaps chewing them a bit or even bouncing lips to further the assonance or alliteration, or to have fun with the occasional malapropism or idle digression.
    One of the most digression-oriented novels in the history of such things is the nine volume work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Here is the first paragraph from that large book, a sampling that will tell you right away whether you will enjoy what follows.
    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.    Looking closely you will observe that this excerpt is only two sentences long. If you have ever taught an English class, or any class that has involved some degree of creative or even expository writing, you may have engaged in a dandy exercise called Let's Write A Sentence Of One Hundred Words. I tried this a couple times when I was teaching in a liberal arts college. The results were usually along the lines of elliptical sentences that would have left the most pompous present-day politician in awe. I actually found that an occasional student was able to comply, although the sentences were written with so many conjunctions that they were not so much a solitary sentence as they were twenty sentences strung together in search of a period. So I revised the assignment to Write a One Hundred Word Sentence With No Interior Punctuation That Is Grammatically Correct. That I was not lynched remains a testament to the mercy of youth.
     I am occasionally accused with justification of the crime of verbosity. However, there are also times when I am so in love with the words I am using that I need to slap the reader across the face with them, far beyond reason, so that the reader can get some sense as to what I mean as well as how excited I am to be able to say it. 
    Things do not always have to be lengthy to make their point, of course. A great example of concision is popular lyrics. One of the most imagistic rock lyrics I've ever heard is one popularized by The Coasters (nee The Robins) called "Shopping For Clothes."
    Songwriter Kent Harris had written a tune called "Clothes Line" that tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller transformed a bit. 

I was shopping for a suit the other day
And walked into the department store
I stepped on the elevator and told the girl
"Dry goods floor"

When I got off I saw a salesman was coming to me
He said "Now, what can I do for you"
I said "Well go in there and show me all the sport's clothes
Like you're supposed to"

He said, "Well, sure, come on in buddy
Dig these fabrics we got laid out on the shelf"
He said "Pick yourself out one
Try it on, stand in the mirror and dig yourself"

Ohhhhhh...That suit's pure herringbone
Ohhhhhh...Yeah, that's a suit I'd like to own
Ohhhhhh...Buddy, that suit is you
Ohhhhhh...Yeah, I believe it too

I see for the business man you feature the natural shoulder
That retail, wholesale indeed
It's got the custom cuffs and the walking short
He said "And I'm gonna let you have at a steal"

And for the playboy you have the latest in tweed
With the cut-away flap over twice
It's a box-back, two button western model
He said, "Now ain't that nice"

Ohhhhhh...Them buttons are solid gold
Ohhhhhh...You made a deal, sold
Ohhhhhh...That collar's pure camel hair
Ohhhhhh...Well, you can just set it down right in that chair

Now you go back there and you get that paper and let me sign on the dotted line
And I'll make sure I get all my payments in right on time
Hey wait a minute buddy, let me go back there and do a little checking on you
Then the man come back, he said "I'm sorry my man but your credit didn't go through"
Why, what you mean

Ohhhhhh...Ain't this a shame
Ohhhhhh...My heart's in pain
Ohhhhhh...Pure, pure herringbone
Ohhhhhh...That's a suit you'll never own
Oh, Lord have mercy

   What first attracted this song to me and me to it was the line about going overt to the mirror to dig yourself. My second thought was "Dry goods?"
    If you can find some sense of awe in Leiber and Stoller putting this together (a song covered by no less than Duke Ellington, among others), then there's nothing stopping you from jamming aesthetically to something as misleadingly off-putting as, say, Pamela (aka Virtue Rewarded) by Samuel Richardson, a book that is considered by some to be the first English novel, although I would grant that honor, if that's what it is, to Molls Flanders by Danny DeFoe. Pamela was published in 1740 and blew the minds of all the local gentry because it was so bloody long! As an epistolary novel (a collection of chronologically placed correspondence between Pam and her family and friends), the tome weighed in at a girth similar to a boxed set of jazz CDs, the latter being something the masses would've liked a lot better because most of the greatest jazz composers and players were an illiterate bunch of drug addicts, but then again, Richardson liked his opium as much as the next guy. Anyway, what I'm saying is that nobody from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, in America, England, or elsewhere, wrote a long story such as the ones under consideration in this essay (which many of you may feel is too damned long its own self) without what they had somewhere along the line developed and encouraged among themselves a genuine adoration for the useful play of words, in much the same way that those blackest of white guys, Leiber and Stoller, loved to come up with (or borrow) expressions like "Stand in the mirror and dig yourself," a line that would fit as well in a dance-oriented techno or hip hop song as well as it did in the rhythm and blues number that it originally was. 
    As we were saying before I digressed myself out of focus is that the most important thing a writer needs is to have a naturally developed love of words. Here's a simple set of for instances for your pleasure. What, prey tell, do the following seven letter words have in common? 
acceded,baggage, bedface, cabbage, defaced, and effaced.
    The answer is that each of them can be played on a musical instrument, or to put it more simply, they only contain the letters a b c d e f and g. 
    Here's another puzzle. Dermatoglyphics, misconjugatedly, and uncopyrightable. Each word is fifteen letters long. What else sets them apart? They are the longest words in English in which no one letter appears more than once.
    Granted, neither of these riddles has anything directly to do with creative writing. They do, I suspect, have everything to do with being fascinated by language (and possibly with using it to show off). And without that initial love, nothing that follows will hold up. 
    Just ask Herman Melville. Or the creative team at Google Search. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ELI AND OSKAR

    It's that time of year again. Halloween, they call it, that fun-loving place on the calendar when grandma chases you down into the darkened basement waving cat entrails over her head while screaming curses in Nahuatl and grandpa mixes up his patented treat of dolomitic lime brownies with ear wax frosting. Huh? I'm revealing a little too much personal history? Okay, have it your way. Just don't say I didn't warn you about the oldsters in your midst.

    Funny enough, that makes for a decent segue into our very special Halloween movie review. The movie in question is called Let the Right One In (2008) and it has earned this year's honor for scariest vampire movie of all time. Please don't confuse this intoxicating masterpiece with a sub-par English remake two years later called Let Me In. That latter flick was good, I suppose, but for a really tingling experience the way vampire movies are supposed to be, you need the Swedish. Now, if you're anything like me, you probably didn't even know that they made major motion pictures in Sweden, at least not since the days of Ingmar Bergman. It turns out there's all kinds of first rate Swedish filmmakers. Who? Well, there's Roy Andersson and Ulf Malmros, and there's Lukas Moodysson and Thomas Alfredson, the latter gent being the genius mind behind tonight's flick of the jugular. 
    Let the Right One In, or, as they called it back home, Låt den rätte komma in, is the story of two adorable twelve year olds, Oskar and Eli. The time is Fenruary 1982. The location is a town called Blackeberg, which is near Stockholm. Oskar is a somewhat studious young boy who gets bullied by a trio of idiots. Eli is new in town and even though she assures Oskar that they can never be friends, he charms her with various puzzles, such as a Rubik's cube and Morse code, and before long, the two find themselves going steady. The only real problem in their relationship is that Eli cannot quite remember her own birthday. I mean, hell, it has been two hundred years and a gal forgets these kinds of things, especially when the gal is a vampire. 
    Eli charms Oskar in return. The object of her affections is a lonely boy and the fact that Eli has no specific genitals or that she's cold as a gravestone is not going to deter young Oskar from hooking up with the love of his life. Wouldn't you know it, though? Even at twelve, or two hundred twelve, there's always got to be some damned conflict to get in the way of the plot. In this case, the conflict is of the vampire versus human variety, in that the local drinkers in Blackeberg have observed that some most unfortunate things have been happening to the less sober in their midst, most of these things being the result of a bungling Familiar named Hakan. This guy has been sent out by Eli to drain blood out of the people he strings up. But you should never send a grown-up to do the work of a kid. He ends up committing a very strange version of seppuku (harikiri), an act of extreme contrition that speeds up the film considerably.
    Probably the best element in this movie, aside from the acting, which is amazing, and also aside from the scenery, which is so beautiful you'll forget how cold it looks, is the fact that Eli inspires Oskar to become stronger than he is when we first meet him. Oh, he's not exactly a coward to begin with, but he just doesn't know what to do when the bullies come after him. "Hit back hard," Eli advises him. "But there's three of them." "Hit back even harder."
    This is a major movie and the fact that it didn't take the Oscar for best foreign film in 2009 speaks to the narrow-mindedness of that arcane institution. It lost out because of its genre and just possibly because the very real romantic tension between Oskar and Eli made certain members of the academy a trifle uncomfortable. The viewer gets just as hung up on this relationship as the two protagonists do and I suspect that fact made certain glorified pornographers in the Academy a bit uneasy. There's nothing trite or exploitive going on in Let the Right One In.  It's a real love story, one with cosmic implications. 
    Lina Leandersson, who at seventeen should have an amazing career ahead of her, lures Oskar (given understated magnificence by Kare Hedebrant) to his own salvation throughout this movie, chock full as it is with some of the most seductive scenery you're ever likely to see in a vampire picture. 
    As the above trailer (and the two unfortunate imbeciles who appear at the end of it--very sorry) makes clear, a vampire movie needn't be exploitive of teenage emotion (Twilight) or even stupid (Lost Boys) or even campy (Fright Night). This, friends of goth and foes alike, is one for the ages. Five stars out of five.