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Monday, November 18, 2013

Fear of monsters...

I wrote this piece for a Halloween-themed story-telling event about fear.

It's very different from my normal snark. It's about the murder of a close friend and it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Italian buffonery at the outset of World War II

I'm reading The Second World War by Antony Beevor, which is yet another general account of World War II, distinguished by two things: 1) With the exception of Weinberg's World At War, this is probably the most global depiction of the entire war that I have read; and 2) Antony Beevor wrote it.

As always, reading a history of World War II can be dehumanizing or brutalizing: endless statistics and battle formations on one hand, a parade of endless atrocities on the other. Luckily, Beevor is an expert at the telling details and little anecdotes to help ground it.

And, at the moment, having reached the point where the Italians got involved in the war at earnest, there is lots of comic opera buffoonery from the Italian military. Here are some of the disasters that the Italians had inflicted upon them (or inflicted upon themselves) between June and October of 1940:


  • The British took 70 Italian soldiers prisoner in Libya on June 11. The Italian soldiers were confused because no one had told them their countries were at war.
  • During another raid a few days later, the British took captive about a hundred soldiers, as well as "a fat Italian general in a Lancia staff car accompanied by a 'lady friend', who was heavily pregnant and not his wife" (p 147).
  • Marshal Balbo, the Italian military commander in Libya, died on June 28 because his plane was accidentally shot down by "over-enthusiastic Italian anti-aircraft batteries in Tobruk" (still 147).
  • In September 1940, when the Italians finally started their invasion of Egypt, they "managed to get lost even before reaching the Egyptian frontier" (seriously, still on the same page, 147).
  • Finally, in October 1940, Mussolini decided to invade Greece because he thought the Germans had sent troops into Romania without mentioning it to him first. Unfortunately, Ribbentrop, the German foreign secretary, had mentioned it to Count Ciano, Mussolini's foreign secretary. Ciano had just forgotten to tell Mussolini.
This is the kind of behavior you expect from Republic serial villains, not from a member of the Axis powers. I'm not trying to downplay the atrocities the Italians committed in Libya and Ethiopia. But, you got to take your levity where you can find it in this period.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Christianity is stupid! Communism is good!": IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO?

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)
Directed by Ron Ormond
Based on the writings of Estus W. Pirkle
Starring Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, and Gene McFall

While Ron Ormond might not be as famous as Ed Wood or Herschell Gordon Lewis, he occupies a very curious place among schlock auteurs. A hacky B-movie director in the 50s, Mr. Ormond found religion and decided to devote his "talents", such as they were to spreading the word of Jesus Christ, specifically as preached by Reverend Estus W. Pirkle. Of course, Ormond's talents did not improve despite his conversion, and, in conjunction with the very "fire and brimstone" preachings of Reverend Pirkle, produced some very odd movies aimed at the religious "market", to be shown on 16mm projectors at churches. The best way to describe If Footmen Tire You, is to imagine if Red Dawn were being done as a Christmas pageant by your local Baptist church, and the whole thing were directed by Ed Wood.

The first thing that might strike the viewer as odd is the year given as the release date: 1971. But with the exception of brief mentions of inner-city riots and campus protests (and one hilariously out-of-touch "sex education" scene), this might as well be a colorized version of INVASION USA (the 1952 propaganda film, not the 1985 Chuck Norris action film). Most of Pirkle's broadsides against youth culture are so vague, and Ormond's dramatizations so clueless, that they could be criticizing beatniks or rockers in the 1950s. And the gore effects (and yes, there are gore effects) could have come out of BLOOD FEAST... caro syrup drenched over "dead" people who are clearly still breathing.

The story, as much as there is one, is that Reverend Pirkle is giving a sermon to his flock one Sunday. Judy (played by Judy Creech), a rebellious teenager, comes to mass and realizes that her dead mother was right about believing in Jesus. And every so often, Ormond cuts away to dramatize Pirkle's vision of Communist-controlled America.

If this film has any cultural currency outside of a select film buff community, it is as the source of the sample for experimental rock group Negativland's track "Christianity is Stupid" (which is also the source of the post title). There is something absurdly thrilling about hearing a Southern Baptist preacher, in stentorian tones, yelling, "Christianity is stupid! Communism is good!" over and over again. And, if this movie has any value beyond historical footnote to Christian pop culture & exploitation cinema, it is the absurdity of a evangelical sermon that tries to scare the congregation with misunderstood facts and half-remembered anecdotes about the counter-culture and Communist countries.

On the most basic level, the movie fails because its image of a Communist take-over and its consequences are so absurd. While Pirkle, at several points, buttresses his arguments with claims that these events are inspired by true events that happened in Russia, China, and Vietnam, but without understanding the context or widespread nature of these events. Pirkle only talks about Christian persecution, but he doesn't say anything about the state-sanctioned persecution of other religious minorities, ethnic minorities, intellectuals, artists or business owners, or the starvation of millions of peasants in the name of industrialization.

Furthermore, Pirkle's vision of a Communist take-over, while barely believable in 1952, is absurd in 1971. He shies away from specifics, but the few hints he drops are big enough whoppers. He anticipates a 5th Column-esque takeover, claiming that within 15 minutes of a signal, a legion of shadowy Communists will murder the President, Congress and most state governors. Even Joseph McCarthy would have blanched at that claim!

Remember, this movie was released seven (!) years after DOCTOR STRANGELOVE,  but there is no discussion of a nuclear war of any extent. Pirkle envisions a Fifth Column takeover, which results in total subjugation of the U.S. by Communist Cuba!

That's right, not China, not Russia.

Cuba.

If Ormond was a good director, this movie would be offensive. But since he's a schlock auteur, it's hilarious.

Except for the occasional Pirkle whopper, the sermonizing is pretty static and dull. Even the extras playing congregation, which one would assume might include members of Pirkle's own congregation, look bored and on the verge of yawning throughout the film.

Where the film comes alive is in the flashbacks to Judy's (inoffensively) rebellious life and the flash-forwards (or visualizations) of the aftermath of the Communist takeover. Judy's scenes with her mother and un-named boyfriend are hilarious: watching Judy & her mother woodenly over-emote in each other's general direction as they deliver awkward dialogue is a delight, as is Ormond's depiction of Judy's whitebread rebellion, as she and Mr. Boyfriend drink beer and smoke cigarettes!'

But even better than that are the torments the Communists devise. They sound pretty gruesome:

- Soldiers sticking nails through the ears of children;
- Soldiers forcing children to lower their father onto a series of rakes stuck into the ground;
- A boy getting his head chopped off with a machete after refusing to step on a picture of Jesus.

But when all the depictions are as inept as the one below...


Next they made him wear a headband with an arrow on other side.

Well, you can't help but laugh.

Adding to the hilarious incompetence is the fact that all the Communists wear costumes that were made by a high school theatre department that can't do a hammer-and-sickle, while the actors playing the Commisar (Cecil Scaife) and the Deputy Commisar (Gene McFall) seesaw between a broad Russian accent and a Deep Southern accent, sometimes within the same word!


Oh, and the Commisar looks like he should be coaching the Sweathogs.


If you're someone who actually suffered under Soviet totalitarianism, this movie would make you want to pound nails into the makers' eardrums. But if you think evangelical Christianity and fear-mongering are absurd, well, this movie might prove rewarding.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Self-promotion time: Sketch comedy!

So some friends of mine (the amazingly talented Katie Hall & her fiancee Travis Goodman) shot a sketch I wrote for them. I've worked with Katie before through my college's alumni association, and she & Travis did a good job bringing this to life.


Check it out on Youtube!

Oh, and stay tuned after the credits for some hilarious out-takes.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Helen Rittelmeyer has returned...

And it's been well worth the wait.

Helen has an interesting essay on "the distraction war" and the internet mindset which lowers the stakes of that conversation debate, in the best possible way. She sums up pretty well that these new things aren't the end of the world or its salvation, they're just new. And they serve the same purpose as talking about weather or mutual friends.

I do want to add that the biggest problem for me in this age of overwhelming content is the sense that, as a blogger, I don't have much to add to the conversation. I'm not saying this to get self-pity. I just don't have a sense that, in the final analysis, my Golgo 13/Conan comparison really merits finishing, for example. The problem gets greater when we move onto subjects that other people already cover. What can I add to a conversation on cult movies that Tim Brayton or And You Call Yourself a Scientist! or 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting haven't already said just as well, if not even better? What can I say about comics that hasn't been covered already, in detail, by the TCJ.com crowd or a dozen comics bloggers? What can I say about screenwriting that screenwriting blogs or Scriptshadow posts haven't already discussed?And so on and so forth...

Even if I don't agree with everything those blogs or sites post, to add my voice to the echo chamber just feels empty. The few times that I actually have enjoyed writing blog posts are when I've promoted something that lacks coverage or attention, like my posts on Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, or United Trash or Your Friends Close.

I don't know what this says about me. Perhaps it says my blogging is a kind of vanity, or maybe I lack the discipline to get the words out on a regular basis. Or maybe it's just difficult to blog when also trying to balance a personal life and other writing.

I'm not saying I'm shutting this blog down. I do like posting when there's something worthwhile. The problem is that I just don't have much to say at the moment. Or anything other than snark & shallow opinions.

But I do want to sincerely welcome Helen back. She is a writer that always has a distinctive and well thought-out point of view, as well as a great intellect.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What I learned from... watching END OF WATCH

So, in the interest of actually putting things on my blog, despite the fact that I'm not really in the place for major thoughtpieces right now, I'm going to try a new thing.

I've got mixed feelings about the screenwriting site Scriptshadow on various levels, ranging from the aesthetic to the ethical. But one thing I have found interesting is the occasion feature the site does where they list 10 things they learned from a certain film from a writing perspective. So I'm going to go through a couple of movies I saw recently and talk about what I learned from them. Not going to be 10 things, not even going to review the movie. Just think of it as a series of quick thoughts on what techniques worked and which ones didn't.

END OF WATCH (2012, David Ayers)

Tip 1: Supporting characters need to have a reason to exist.

Jake Gyllenhaal & Michael Pena's significant others barely get any screentime and they don't have a character arc of their own. But yet they occupy a lot of time and space in the movie relative to their function. What do they establish that Gyllenhaal & Pena's conversations & squad-car time do not already establish?

Tip 2: For big emotional moments, less is more.

At the end of the movie (SPOILERS), a main character gets up at someone's funeral to give the eulogy. Normally, you'd think a writer would go for broke on this. But Ayers just has the character choke out, "he was my brother" and then break down. It's a very strong choice because the character has been established as macho & intelligent & talkative. So this gives us an idea of how much the character has been hurt by this death.

Tip 3: Know when to end.

Unfortunately, Ayers decided to end the movie with a flashback to a typical "day in the life" moment. It doesn't give us anything new, emotionally or information-wise. In fact, by cutting back, it undermines the genuine emotion the previous scene had brought up.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Thought about Steve Ditko

It's been a while between posts, but life has been interfering. To tide you over, here's something I wrote about Steve Ditko's latest work from Robin Snyder's publishing imprint. They are Kickstarting a reprint of another one of Ditko's later works right here. My thoughts, inspired by reading his self-published SEVENTEEN:



There’s something great about seeing a master at work, who is comfortable and confident enough  with his style to pare the work down to the bare essentials. Very few creators get there (or have the opportunity to get there), so I’m glad readers get a chance to witness Steve Ditko at this stage. It reminds me of John Ford in his late period, how he could make a film like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE where every shot, every gesture, every word is essential. I feel that is where Steve Ditko is at. Every pencil stroke, every word, every image is essential.