Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Stepford Muppets

This morning, as part of my project of duping all my old cassettes and vinyl LPs over to electronic format, I am working my way through John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together. It’s one of only a small handful of Christmas albums that I can actually tolerate. But time has been awfully hard on it, and it’s tough to listen to the thing now without tears.

John Denver and Jim Henson have both been dead for a long time, and they both died stupid, stupid preventable deaths. When Henson went, for all practical purposes he took The Muppets with him. Oh, yes, I know that there are still “Muppets” working out there… but for me they are all inferior, offensive Disney-fied impostors, corporate-animated zombies, “Pod Muppets” as it were, Stepford Muppets — just pale copies of the great originals.

I could be wrong, but of the original muppeteers, I don’t believe any of them are still working with the characters they created. Some, like Jerry “The Count” Nelson, have also died. Carol Spinney is so old that he can’t possibly operate the physically strenuous Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch anymore, although I believe he would if he could; Frank Oz hung in there like a good loyal soldier longer than a lot of them, but now even Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy are being performed by others. He put up with some awful crap material: when Henson died, so did his creative sensibility, and I’m sorry, but his son Brian (although he is responsible for some wonderful things on his own, including Farscape), just didn’t have the soul to capably shepherd The Muppets. He must have known this when he sold them down the river to the Evil Bastards that now control the all-devouring, all-crushing machine that bears the name of the Disney Corporation.

That’s another thing: after Walt died, the suited corporate bastards carrying on in his name have done nothing but turn Walt’s Company into something that Walt would have hated.

So now when I look at and listen to this album, I see only Dead People. People who were young and vital and active when I was growing up, who influenced me in many ways, and who went before their time, before the world was ready to let go. 

The older you get, the harder Christmas becomes. I had some wonderful family Christmases as a child, but at some point, with fewer and fewer loved ones around the table, Christmas started to become a horrible parody of itself, an undead zombified thing that signified the exact opposite of joy. Still, Christmas was a favorite thing of my mother’s right up to the end, to the point where she kept some Christmasy artifacts out on display in the house all year round. The last Christmases at our house, with her fading out and me trying to drown it all in booze, were desperate affairs. 

Now that she’s gone, y’know what? I can hardly bear to think about Christmas. Scrooge was right, and came by his feelings honestly. For him as for me, Christmas is just another day that comes around faster every year to remind you of what you have lost.

— Freder

Friday, August 30, 2013

Get Your Gas Light On

Earlier in the year I had some friends over for one of my occasional Movie Nights. As usual, it was jam-packed with short subjects (we have rounded the bend on the 1941 Republic serial Spy Smasher, one of the best chapterplays to come out of that studio and one of the best, period). The feature, as democratically chosen by my guests, was Gaslight, George Cukor’s 1944 “remake” of an earlier British thriller — although in this case it’s fair to use quotes around the remake, as the film has claims to be derived specifically from a play by Patrick Hamilton, with a completely different script and approach to the material than the earlier version. 

It’s one of those very, very rare cases where the “remake” is better than the original: with a high-powered cast (an arch Charles Boyer as the villain, Joe Cotton taking his own sweet time, thank you very much, to save the day, and Ingrid Bergman in one of her best roles as Boyer’s victimized wife), an assured director and a far more measured “take” on the story. 

It creates a mood, to put it mildly. I’d never watched the picture in mixed company before, and a lot of the fun in this viewing came from watching the reactions of the distaff members of the audience. Oh, indeed, the women in the room got their backs right up, to the point of talking back to the screen and the Boyer character (which never happens at these affairs)! 

Never mind the plot’s hook: the plot is just an excuse, anyhow, to show Boyer slowly undermining Bergman’s confidence, first making her completely dependent upon him and then slowly driving her insane. This movie is the origin of the word “gaslighting” after all — but where I saw a fascinating thriller, the women in the room saw something that was all too real, commonplace even: the story of a controlling husband and abused wife. They were so upset by what was happening on the screen that I wanted to say to them, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, she gets her revenge!” Indeed, the villain’s comeuppance at  the end would not be nearly as gratifying as it is if the earlier scenes of casual and calculated abuse were not so effective.

With the DVD still sitting in the player at dinner time the next day, I had to take the opportunity to refresh my memory about the British version. Didn’t watch the whole thing, only about 15 minutes at the beginning and then the last five. Given that they’re based on the same stage play and have the same basic plot, they are two completely different movies! The main  characters even have different names: in the British version Bergman’s Paula is called Bella. I must say, in the long term “Bella” would have been the name to stick with. Perhaps only by word association, it’s the more gothic of the two names, and to say that Gaslight, in both versions, has gothic overtones is putting it mildly.

In the British version the initial murder (although not the killer) is shown in detail. The victim is a little old lady, not a singing star. All of that musical backstory of the Cukor version was an invention of the American writing team that adapted the play.

In the Cukor version, Bergman is the ward of the victim; but in the original she is no relation to the victim at all, and comes to the house for the first time as the wife of the Boyer character, who is the nephew of the murdered woman. Am I making this clear?

The backstory that takes up so much screen time in the American version is nonexistent here; we first see the couple as they move into the fateful home. They don’t get a speaking scene until ten minutes into the movie, and by then the “gaslighting” of Bella is shown as already being quite well along: their very first scene is one that was shifted well into the middle of the Cukor version, an incident in the study in which the husband convinces his wife that she’s taken down one of his paintings.

A very young Angela Lansbury has a juicy role in the American version as a saucy maid who greatly complicates things with her stupidity. This character, in the British version, is an undeveloped walk-on part, a deus ex machina to get the detective’s assistant into the house. The big ol’ fancy jewels of the American film and are small rubies, and it turns out that they were secreted in a different place, in a different manner, and here the film does not quite play fair with the audience as certain details known to all the characters are withheld from us. 

It is the detective (who makes a much-delayed entrance in Cukor’s film) who occupies the earliest scenes of the original. He has some dialogue about his suspicions and begins to take action before the couple have a single scene together!

Even the ending, which I must say is incredibly satisfying in either version, with the villain tied to a chair and his victim finally realizing what has happened and getting some back in a small way, is very slightly different, with somewhat different dialogue... and the Boyer character actually escapes from his bonds and makes a lunge for the jewels before being wrestled back into submission.

The British version runs 84 minutes compared to the much longer 113 minutes of the American version; one of those cases where extra screen time is not only fully justified but, it could be argued, essential. The two movies have completely different writing teams. The American version is co-written by John Van Druten, whose stage play Bell Book and Candle was given a particularly insensitive film version starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, and who also wrote the stage play, based on the memoirs of Christopher Isherwood, that later became the musical Cabaret; and by John Balderston, a prominent figure in the history of Universal’s great Monster Movies. It was Balderston who adapted the stage play of Dracula to the screen for Universal -- gutting the title character’s  dialogue in the process (when Bela Lugosi, fresh off his Broadway success in the role, got to Hollywood and saw the script for the movie version he actually slapped it and said, “only three sides?”). 

Taken together, both movies make a wonderful study in film writing and film making. Taken separately, on their own terms, the British Gaslight is a creditable if minor thriller — while Cukor’s 1944 version is a great classic of the genre, a leisurely stroll down some very, very dark corridors. 

— Freder

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dreams of Divorce

This morning I was bothered by dreams of my parents’ divorce. Why?

I suppose that I could blame James Bond: I watched the latest Bond, Skyfall, again last night and was again brought to tears by its themes of death and loss; it is an uncommonly deep Bond. In Skyfall, the past is something to be respected and held — but only a little bit, only insofar as it motivates you to action in the present. More often, the past is something to be obliterated without mercy, or something to be used as shield to prevent your own obliteration. In Skyfall, the past is meant to be put down, before it puts you down. More important than anything else, the past is not something to get sentimental about. For all of its power to wreak destruction in the here and now, it is something that you approach only rarely, and then with extreme caution.

Skyfall may be the most remarkable James Bond movie ever, if you look beyond the explosions. Certainly it resonates with me, focussing as it does on the loss of M (the only mother figure Bond ever had) and of Bond’s childhood home in one stroke.

Still, it’s hardly reason that my dreams should be affected this morning on the subject at hand.

My parents, I think, were breaking up almost from the moment they got married. They were breaking up certainly as long as I was alive. It just took them forty years.

Still, not enough to provoke the harrowing scenes that played out behind my eyes this morning.

I have to ask also, why, when my mother invades my sleep, does it always happen in the morning hours when I am in that middle-ground, trancelike state that is halfway between sleep and waking? Is she out there somewhere, still trying to influence me? Is she still, in some purgatory, re-hashing the past over and over again? It would be Just Exactly “Like” her not to let go of old regrets and resentments. She never did in life. 

I can only lay claim to one or two “psychic” experiences in my lifetime, and both of them happened in the morning, when I was between sleep and waking. It gives me cause to wonder. Just wonder, that’s all. I wish that I could say to her, “It’s time to let go. I don’t want to have any more dreams about your regrets.”

I have enough of my own.

— Freder.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Call of Cthulhu

This post is something that’s been on my agenda for almost a year now! It’s about time.

I’m not sure why the stories of H.P. Lovecraft are considered unfilmable by the Hollywood mainstream… certainly every time they’ve tried, they’ve made a major ballocks out of it. It’s true that Lovecraft’s tools are dread, anticipation, and suggestion; but that’s not, I think, why so many lousy movies have gone out invoking his name.

I believe it’s more to do with a lack of imagination on the part of the moviemakers, and lack of respect for the stories and the storyteller. Hollywood is quick to plaster Lovecraft’s name on the movies but unwilling to actually adapt the experience of reading Lovecraft’s stories. It takes no effort or skill to throw a lot of fake blood and guts on the screen; to actually evoke the power of the imagination, as Lovecraft demands, is something else entirely.

Enter the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Hollywood outsiders to say the least, their only qualifications for movie-making were a few full-cast audio adaptations of the stories and a long history of conducting elaborate role-playing games based on the Lovecraft Mythos.

As it turns out, those may be the perfect credentials: because these guys know what old radio shows sound like, they know what old movies look like, their years of creating prop documents and the like have made them into spectacularly talented graphic artists; and most important, they have been nurturing their imagination all this time, and bring a genuine respect and love for the source material to the table.

When in 2005 they decided to film Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, they began by asking a question: What if the movie was made the same year that Lovecraft’s story was published? That would be 1928. That would make it a silent movie.

On a budget of about a buck ninety eight, and driven mainly by enthusiasm, that is the movie they made: a contemporary adaptation of the story that feels just as if it was pulled out of some European archive. Whether or not you like Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu is a great film. Part of its genius is that it’s not a parody of silent movies or their style: instead, everything about it is authentic, even down to the hairs and grains of dust that sometimes flit through the frame. 

With a brief runtime of just 40 minutes, it moves at a brisk clip and tells the story with no fuss and nonsense, not sparing the atmosphere, which is rich and dense. The performances are big silent-movie performances, but genuine — not comically exaggerated. Its structure of flashbacks within flashbacks and its bottomless array of wonderful imagery whisk us along: this really does feel for all the world like a genuine German Expressionist Horror Classic: on a par with Caligari and Nosferatu. Oh, and the barely-seen stop-motion monster at the end is just wonderful.

It’s one of those rare things: a modern movie that makes me want to grab people and say, “You’ve got to see this! Just sit down and watch!” And you know, they did it just for fun. Just for love. Only genuine fans could come up with an idea this eccentric and make it work: the Hollywood mainstream could never have conceived its like.

The Call of Cthulhu is remarkable on its own: all the more remarkable was that they did it again five years later with their 30’s-style adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness. But that’s a subject for another post.

If, like me, you feel that modern Horror cinema has lost its way, if you’re looking for a genuine Art Film that’s as much fun as it is clever, if you just like silent movies… do yourself a favor. The Call of Cthulhu is waiting for you!

— Freder

Friday, August 16, 2013

Seen Enough

No graphic this time, because it's not worth the effort. Sucker Punch, which is still airing on FX as I type this, is nothing more or less than a sick pervy wet dream aimed squarely at naughty little sweaty-palmed adolescent boys who were born after 1990 and raised on a steady diet of computer games, Playstations, Japanimation and internet porn.

I feel really bad for the girls in SuckerPunch, because the picture sexualizes them in such unhealthy ways and uses them to promote the very degeneracy that it pretends to condemn.

But then, what else would one expect from Zach Snyder, the grotty little green-screen pussy who gave us 300 and Wacthmen, a man whose only talent lies in playing with his little joystick?

Yeah, the production designers, photographers, costumers and set decorators all do a bang-up job on this picture, but in the service of what?

There's so much great fantasy literature out there that would translate to the screen beautifully with all the tools that these young filmmakers can bring to bear, but you know what?


Snyder belongs to the not-very-exclusive club of young braindead pornographers like splatte-rmeister Eli Roth who need to be given a drool cup and a towel and told to get get their sorry talent-free asses out of the business to make way for moviemakers who possess at least HALF a brain. Thank heaven for people like Guillermo del Toro, who can make fantasy movies using all the same tools that at least try to have something on their minds and have at least an ounce or two of humanity in their souls. Looking at unredeemable crap like Sucker Punch is enough to make you think that the world is coming to an end -- and to hope that the end comes soon.

-- Freder

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the Center Ring...

... presenting the first tentative cover design for my new novel, coming in paperback, Kindle and eBook editions this fall! What do you think?

-- Freder

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Hard Stuff

OHMIGOD whataheadexplosion!

SeemymotherownedaFrenchPresscoffeemakerbut weneverdidlearnhowtousethedamnthing stillitookitwithmewhenilefttheoldhouse stillnotusingitatall i'velivedoninstantcoffeeallofmyliofe! onlydrinking THE REAL STUFF whenIworkedataplacethatservedituptoitsstaffasaPERK (HahahahaPERKgetit?)


Igotsomecoffeeforthedarnthingwiththeintentogfinallylearninghowtousethedamnthing -- looked up"HOWTOUSEAFRENCHPRESSCOFFEEMAKER"ontheinterwebs


Andstilldidnothingaboutitfor THREE YEARS untiljusttodayonalark



Thedamnthingworkedprettydangedwellandsuddenlynowiamdrinking REAL COFFEE forthefirstimeverathome --


IguessIdidmakeaballocksofitafterallbecauseIthinkImusthaveusedaboutDOUBLEtheamountofcoffeeoneis SUPPOSED touseinoneofthesedamnedthings




can you tell???!!!







UPDATE 12.13.13:
I have since figured out that the right amount of coffee to put into that pot is 5 rounded tablespoons. The day I wrote this post, I put more -- much more -- than THREE TIMES that amount into the pot!
-- No wonder I was sailing!

Friday, August 9, 2013

When Big Gets Bigger

The 1924 Ben Hur aired on TCM last night. For the past year or so I’ve been shunning TCM for no other reason that I prefer to watch pictures when I want to watch them, and not at the behest of some programmer in California — but this Ben Hur seemed worth making an exception for: it’s a picture I’ve wanted to see for a long while now. Yes, it’s included on the big four-disk DVD set of William Wyler’s version that was issued several years back… but I just couldn’t picture myself sitting through the Wyler again. Charlton Heston was always a bit of an eye-roller for me (although Planet of the Apes was pretty much perfectly suited to his style), and particularly after he “came out” as a whore for the National Rifle Association I have put up with the SOB only when I absolutely must.

But here’s a funny thing: who would have thought that Ramon Novarro would turn out to be an even more overwrought, scenery-chewing poseur than Charley Heston? Egad… his performance as the title character could have been telegraphed in from a thousand miles away! This is a little bit to do with silent-movie style… but only a little bit. 

And he’s not alone! Oh My God, Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary is not required to do anything but sit there on the damn donkey and look radiant — her “performance” is more a Monty Python parody of radiance. Instead of Carl Davis’s wonderful score one expects to hear a choir of heavenly voices accompany her every moist, uber-serene closeup. I last saw Ms. Bronson as the star of Universal’s silent version of Peter Pan (also reviewed somewhere on this site), and her Peter was similarly overwrought as she bounced, pranced, strutted, preened and galumphed her way through J.M. Barrie’s story. The woman is the human equivalent of a Klieg spotlight.

Putting aside the spectacle for half a mo’, when the 1925 Ben Hur works, it works very well indeed. There are times when that transcendent quality common to the best silent films comes shining wonderfully through. Frances X. Bushman’s Messala is nicely evil without ever descending into the comical: he brings a lot of genuine force to the part. I was entranced, as I was meant to be, by Carmel Myers as Eras the Egyptian. The early two-strip technicolor scenes are marvelously effective, adding highlight to the picture. And even more so than in the Wyler version, the studious avoidance of showing anything more than the hands of Christ really works here.

When the movie doesn’t work, which is pretty much whenever Novarro is onscreen, it evokes chortles of laughter.

But Oh My Word, the spectacle is truly, madly, deeply spectacular. When silent movies went big, as in Griffith’s Intolerance, they went B-I-G, and the 1925 Ben Hur has sequences (plural) in it that boggle the mind even today. Perhaps especially today, because all those folks leaping about and falling on the screen are real people, not CGI creations. The chariot race is not the only example of this, although it’s the most memorable. So spectacular is the chariot race that the best Wyler could do years later was copy it shot for shot. It is, hands down, one of the greatest bits of movie-making I have ever seen, and one wonders how it was accomplished without the versatility of modern equipment.

The raid on the Roman slave ship is pretty danged spectacular, yes, but here’s the thing: the chariot race is such a marvel of movie making that you actually feel honored to have seen it. 

On the other hand — I imagine the ASPCA would have something to say about it today… and there’s still a part of me crossing my fingers and hoping that all those dead horses on the field weren’t real dead horses.

— Freder 
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