Thursday, March 13, 2014

LIE #108: Signs & Wonders Abounded in February, and Most Weren’t Even Cinematic Ones!

Lemme tell ya, February was a HARSH month here in The Big Apple:
This winter was CRUEL—and it smells like it might just return one last time—and then there were all my personal hassles—which I have been hinting at somewhat during my infrequent posts over the last 18 months….

But Big Bad Febz was also an incredibly busy month for me: Got 47 day’s worth of work accomplished in 28! I worked in a smelly warehouse, visited the Toy Fair, did this, did that, did the other thing, did the right thing, and even more importantly:
I have been, after much stress and worry, accepted into the NYC Teaching Fellows program, and within less than a month, I will be in an inner city high school, first assisting a teacher, then taking over a class myself!
I am SO excited and nervous!

Suffice to say, some changes may be on the horizon, but as of yet, what those changes could be are as yet, unknown.
But hopefully I won’t lapse back into the poor publishing schedule which plagued me recently…
[Why am I using “Signs” as illustrations? Because it feels as if the last year-and-a-half was spent looking for signs—and only having my own faith in myself to keep me going—lemme tell ya, it’s been a crucible, what I’ve been going through, and it’s made me a changed man. That said, searching for signs does not mean finding meaning: often what “signs” tell you is what your own philosophical conditioning imposes upon them….]

The Films of February (In Order Screened…)
One of the more interesting things about this month is how many films I started, but couldn’t finish. I just didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with something that didn’t grab me intellectually or emotionally. Life’s too short, there isn’t enough time to deal with movies that rub me the wrong way.
That said, yes, I did see some flicks that I really liked!
Starting with…

Uninvited (1987; Greydon Clark) Unintentional camp genius! I’ll be giving this a more detailed review/critique later (this is a flick I simple must try and schedule at The Spectacle, but let’s just say that when the director of Black Shampoo sets out to make a “demonic mutant killer cat loose on a pleasure boat” movie—costarring George Kennedy and Clu Galager—he delivers!

Stop Hitting Yourself (created by Rude Mechs; performed at Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center on February 5, 2014) Fun, but ultimately shallow avant-garde/musical/dance/comedy/performance art that seems to be a criticism of “The Plutocratic 1%,” but gets bogged down in a lot of extraneous nonsense. A pleasant enough diversion, however.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013; Jeff Tremaine) I was a big fan of Johnny Knoxville’s insanely politically incorrect Special Olympics spoof The Ringer (2005), and Bad Grandpa succeeds in that fearless and, more importantly, shameless vein. Yet despite all its poop and other “wrong” bits of humor, this hidden camera comedy is surprisingly good-natured—while never breaking character. Bad Grandpa made me laugh and laugh, and when a scene or bit lagged, I didn’t worry; I knew something insane would eventually result. A satisfying comedy, worth renting!

Knoxville’s great, but the flick wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the excellent, fearless perf by Jackson Nicoll as his grandson. After a certain point, you get that these two genuinely LOVE each other—it’s a unabashedly unsentimental movie that tugs the heart strings—if you’re a lunatic like me.

The Train (1964; John Frankenheimer) is a favorite; a film I own on DVD. It is a grim, intricately plotted action film that goes beyond being a “mere” WWII flick. With the Allies advancing, the Nazis are planning on leaving France, and taking that nation’s art treasures with them. This film is based on a true story—but mercifully never uses that obnoxious “Based On a True Story” title-card—of how the mild-mannered Frenchwoman who was the art collection’s supervisor convinced the Resistance of rescuing the artwork, all of it by masters like Gauguin, Monet and the like. (This part is, I’m told, very much like the documentary The Rape of Europa, a film I need to see.)
In the film, a ragtag rail crew works with the Resistance to trick the Nazis, but it never gets as lighthearted as that may sound. The fatality rate is high, with most of the men dying. They don’t understand the value of “art,” but do it out of patriotism. The destruction is intense and impressive—the director never used miniatures, at one point dynamiting an entire rail yard to simulate a bomber attack, and he routinely crashes full-sized locomotives all over the place. The logistics of this movie must have been absurd. But it looks AMAZING, and is never anything but fascinating and exciting. I love The Train.

Supposedly Frankenheimer was not the first choice of director, but brought in after star Burt Lancaster clashed with his predecessor. Whatever the case, Frankenheimer makes The Train thoroughly his, leaving his style all over the place. Questions of art and its meaning are touched upon, while Frankenheimer’s obsessive attention to detail makes sure this is a technically perfect film with several impressive set-pieces of either nightmarishly complicated no-edits tracking shots or else genuine trains and buildings destroyed in explosive fashion.

Tourist Trap (1979; David Schmoeller) Hmmmm… What a unique, yet terrible, terrible film! This movie is the epitome of nonsensical: Chuck Connors isn’t just a psycho with a mannequin obsession; he’s a psycho with a mannequin obsession with PSYCHIC POWERS.
Double you tea eff.
(Of course, if the movie hadn’t been so damn dull, sense wouldn’t have mattered!)

The Wild Bunch (1969; Sam Peckinpah)
Spinning off of Danny Peary’s Cult Movies critique of The Wild Bunch as a war movie, I consider the film a “mercenary” movie—it’s easy enough to (re)imagine the film set in 1960s Congo: Pike & the Gang would be recontextualized as disgraced French Legionnaires (with the Gorch Brothers as former Wermacht commandos), and General Mapache would be a mau-mau commander.
You could be even more daring and set it in Viet Nam (or Iraq): with The Bunch joining with the Commies (or Jihadists) against Yankee troops.

Meanwhile, I sincerely believe this film was a big influence on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad with themes like doing evil for good intentions; what is the greater of two evils in a situation; and a willingness to show the worst side of people—then countering it with images of kids in a playground.

With this most recent screening, however, I noticed how damn sentimental Peckinpah is! It’s kind of gross how The Wild Bunch often borders on treacle. Maudlin nihilism that ends with “suicide by cop” writ large. Calculatingly sentimental for the oldsters, with Technicolor blood squibs for the kids? It’s that combination that probably helped the movie become successful.

It’s actually audacious how obvious Peckinpah is in the legend building of his characters, and if it wasn’t for the horrific violence, the puerile sappiness would be unbearable—and as such, it does date some segments of the film terribly, especially most of William Holden’s “quiet, reflective” moments. In the flashbacks, Holden’s Pike Bishop (named after San Francisco’s radical Bishop James Pike, by the way) seems like such a cornball dreamer, one has to wonder how a humorless pragmatist like Deke Thornton ever got involved with him.

In fact, I would posit that a viewer needs to pay closer attention to Deke Thornton, whom I consider the most interesting character in the film, and its moral core. Deke, like all of us, has to live in a compromised world. The Bunch is lucky in that it gets slaughtered while still having the emotional maturity of children. Deke might have been as frivolous as his former riding buddies (although he doesn’t seem it in the bordello flashback), but doing hard time at Yuma has aged him fast. Now Thornton’s like any working stiff, having to kow-tow and grovel to The Man.

Aside from getting just enough dialog to be memorable without being repetitive (unlike most of Pike and Dutch’s interactions), Thornton is unsentimental, direct and driven: extraneous baggage has been burned away, and this world disgusts him. If you notice, he never takes off his leather gloves.

But he’s a desperate man, hounded by various demons from the past, and surrounded by the vilest of the vile. Through most of the flick he’s tightly wound, but still the ultimate professional, only losing his cool twice. First at railroad goon Harrigan after the massacre in the town, and then later he blows his top at the inbred bounty hunters while they’re searching in Mexico—

Thornton: [W]e haven’t lost them. I could point to them right now. Sit still, dammit! Y’think Pike and Old Sykes haven’t been watching us? They know what this is all about! And what do I have? Nothing but you eggsucking, chicken-stealing guttertrash with not even sixty rounds between you. We’re after men—and I wish to God I was with them. The next time you make a mistake, I’m gonna ride off and let you die.
Brilliant stuff, delivered eloquently by great actor Robert Ryan!

Here’s something I wrote in January 2012:
Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969)—Starting the year with one of the greatest films ever made is always a good idea—and I cannot recommend enough the DVD’s supplemental features:
Peckinpah caught lightning in a bottle, and it was wonderful to learn all about it.
“All it is, is a simple adventure story,” said Sam about his film, but he poured his soul into it.
Just imagine how amazing, how breathtaking, how utterly shocking that movie must have been when it was first released? I’d love to have a time machine and go back to experience a 1969 movie audience’s first reaction to a screening of The Wild Bunch.

Lost In America (1985; Albert Brooks) Some very, very funny stuff—and Albert Brooks always makes fascinating films, but this one especially feels like a 30-minute short strrrrrrrreeetched out to a full-length feature, with lots of “driving montages” as padding.
However, the scenes where Brooks tells off his boss, and later, tries to convince a casino manager to give back the money wife Julie Hagerty lost (it was their nest egg) are classic: utter comedic brilliance—genius writing with the right amount of repetition and “callbacks” (as well as “The Rule of Three”), and essential viewing for anyone interested in comedy.

A Bucket of Blood (1959; Roger Corman; written by Charles B. Griffith) A breezy and twisted flick that gets better and better with age.
While spoofing on the Beats and Beatniks, this flick—unlike every other H’wood production—at least respects them. Sure, some are phonies, but others, like the painter who treats shlub busboy Walter Paisley (the never-better Dick Miller) kindly, and who is also the gal he’s got a crush on, are genuine and artistic people—
The film wisely uses the Beats as window-dressing, sticking to Dick Miller’s Faustian bargain that trades murder for artistic success.
But the flick’s subtext is almost Satanic: Had Walter actually been interested in ART, he might have gotten away with it. But he was only pursuing FAME.
Of course, these days Walter would simply eliminate the “cover the bodies in clay and turn them into sculptures” process, and jump right into the “KILL for FAME” zone.

Started These Films And Stopped Watching Them After 10 Minutes Or Thereabouts (In Order Unfinished…):

The V.I.P.s (1963; Anthony Asquith) Liz & Dick soap opera snoozer set in an airport when all flights are cancelled because of bad weather. Stupid rich people whining about stuff that no one could ever think was important, not even real rich people. This flicked knocked me out better than a sleeping pill. Dull nowheresville flick. Couldn’t get close to finishing it. I borrowed this DVD from Otto Mannix and I still can’t figure out why he owns it….

Tiny Furniture (2010; Lena Dunham)—I just couldn’t get interested with this pampered, self-satisfied navel-gazing. Gosh, I wish I had rich parents. Sometimes I think the U.S. needs a 50-year moratorium on liberal arts colleges—or else a good invasion; “thin out their ranks,” as Bart Simpson has said.
Nothing personal. I’m not interested in Dunham’s TV show, either.

The Catechism Cataclysm (2011; Todd Rohal)—So how did the incredibly stupid and obnoxious main character get to be a priest in the first place? Was he brain damaged after receiving orders? I don’t like comedies that have no logic; this idiot would never be in this situation in the first place! Grrrrr!
As you can tell, this flick filled me with rage—I turned it off after not even ten minutes. LOATHED this flick. The director later made a very funny movie spoofing the Boy Scouts, starring Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, a hilarious Rob Riggle, and other familiar alt comedy faces, but I’m so angry about this film, I’m not going to look up the name! Grrrr!

Clue (1985; Jonathan Lynn) is a feature that really should have been a short or some sort of TV-special.  The film is weirdly political, with some solid laughs. But I also fell asleep repeatedly while watching it.
Artless direction and an overly convoluted script help sink this flick, but an awesome “Singing Telegram” gag, and some other good bits of slapstick are worth hunting down. Had this flick been made in Polish with subtitles, I think it would be better. However, Madeline Kahn is a vision in black, and Leslie Ann Warren is incredibly sexy, too.
But I’ve no desire to ever finish watching Clue. Who killed this movie? Mr. Lerner in the living room with the remote.

Captain Sindbad (1963; Byron Haskin) Beautiful, offbeat design work livens this otherwise snoozeville rip-off of Harryhausen’s animated epics. I liked the monsters and optical effects—some seamless hanging-miniatures, and director Haskin is a vet at handling the fantastic, but I watched this mostly at fast-forward.

The Beat Generation (1959; Charles F. Haas) Aside from having NOTHING to do with the Beats at all (the flick’s a neo-noir manhunt flick, if anything); this is an incredibly distasteful and nasty motion picture—and it isn’t even fast-paced enough to deserve your most prurient attention. Following an utterly misogynistic and mean cop as he chases a Schopenhauer-obsessed serial rapist, the movie leaves a horrible taste in the mouth—which is compounded by the sneering and condescending attitude the film has towards people who chose an alternative to Squaresville conformity. I had to turn this off after about 30 minutes of frustration and annoyance. I was started to gnash my teeth!
It’s especially shocking how wretched this movie is when considering some of the production talent behind the camera, especially producer Albert Zugsmith and co-screenwriter Richard Matheson. These two gents rarely disappoint, but with The Beat Generation, they came up with the rottenest of goose-eggs.

Still Watching But May Never Finish
Louie: Season Three (2012; created by Louis CK)
I only watched the first four episodes, and they were HORRIBLE. Utterly unfunny. What the hell happened? I used to think LCK’s show was perfect. With what I’ve seen of this season, it has become utter shit.
Friends tell me to at least watch the last few episodes, with David Lynch making a cameo as a TV producer (and I do love it when Lynch acts), but I am severely discouraged by the dreadful first quartet of this season. What the hell happened?

BOOKS, ETC. READ IN FEBRUARY 2014 [“*)” means “I’ve Read This Before!”]
How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster (2003)—Starts off well, and a good refresher on how to read with open eyes and a questioning mind—how to be an active reader—
then becomes too amused with its own cleverness. Often feels padded with excess verbiage, as if the publisher said, “We need more pages!”
Then its use of an incredibly dull and heavy-handed Kathleen Mansfield story as a literary example practically ruins the book.
Overall, I’m glad I read Foster’s book, but How to Read Literature Like a Professor really could have been improved.

*) Such Men Are Dangerous by Lawrence Block (1969)—one of my favorite pulp novels; this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it.
Wonderful dime-store paperback existentialism as a burned-out Special Forces vet is conned into becoming a mercenary by a rouge CIA agent. What makes this pageturner stand out is its stoical bent; the novel has got a great philosophy: “When in doubt, do nothing”—a phrase I’ve lived by since I first read this in the early-1990s.
Name-dropping: It was Cinema of Transgression filmmaker Richard Kern who turned me on to this book in the mid-1990s. Thanks, RK!

*) Maggot by Robert Flanagan (1971)—Good intense pulp that needed a tad of editing: the book’s tone gets overwrought too often. But this is the book for the folks who wished that Full Metal Jacket only took place on Parris Island.

Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013; graphic novel)—Moore & O’Neill happily continue exploring the world of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” but wisely visit aspects of this universe other than Mina Murray & Co. This time, in the first of a proposed trilogy, Nemo’s daughter continues the pirate’s adventuring and buccaneering, this time crossing paths with (among others) Charles Foster Kane (I’m already in love with this comic!) and a variety of E.A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft creations. Moore & O’Neill’s incredible batting average continues with this brilliant entry, and I for one appreciate their continuing exploration of these themes via a female protagonist: it adds shading and characterization that wouldn’t appear in a more testosterone-heavy tome.


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