Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fantasy if it was written by sci-fi writers...

So, a random tweet made me think of Robert A. Heinlein's LORD OF THE RINGS, which in turn put me in mind of how classic fantasy is usually very conservative (in the little c sense). Science fiction writers usually have their own brand of crazy political ideology, but at least few of them share the same idiosyncrasies.

So without further ado, here are synopses of how sci-fi writers would have handled some classics of fantasy:

MOUNT DOOM IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A. Heinlein - Clever, plucky adventurer overcomes monolithic state regulation and transformation into giant floating eye to become successful vulture capitalist. When elven and human monopolists try to break up his free-steading organization, he expands his operations and introduces the Industrial Revolution to his land.

I, HOUSE-ELF by Isaac Asimov - When a house-elf by the name of Dobby breaks the 3 Fundamental Rules of Hogwarts, an investigator from the Ministry of Magic has to figure out what caused this. He discovers a man named Dumbledore is trying to create a cult that will preserve magical knowledge after the collapse of wizard society, hidden as a religion built around a figure called "Harry Potter".

THE DOMINATION OF THE WHITE QUEEN by S.M. Stirling - Sexually-liberated pagan woman flees a disintegrating world to found a new one colonized by survivalists, soldiers of fortune and hunters. She subdues the primitive natives with her superior organization skills and weaponry. By her efforts, she slows global warming and does away with a hopelessly repressed, sexist society. Then a fanatical religious leader shows up with four children to serve as his figureheads, and does away with all her achievements.

I encourage you to add your own attempts in the comments.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Post-Christmas Wishlist, Unlikely To Be Fulfilled Edition

I actually had a pretty decent Christmas, but as I get older, the more Christmas becomes about the joys of giving than getting something. Now that I've reached adulthood and have the internet at my disposal, there are fewer and fewer things that I can't buy or at least borrow/rent.

But there are things that are either in legal limbo or hard-to-find (even on the gray market or in archives) that I'd like to see:

  • the notorious Rolling Stone documentary Cocksucker Blues (which apparently paints them in a worse light than Gimme Shelter!). Forever in legal limbo, because apparently it could destroy the Stones' image in a way that their last 30 years of touring and recording have failed to.
  • the 1926 silent film version of W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician, assistant directed by Michael Powell (yes, of Powell & Pressburger fame!). From what I've read about it, it diverges significantly from the novel and is a possible visual and plot inspiration for several major horror films, including Svengali, and the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
  • the famous "last" film of Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind. The cast includes Claude Chabrol (RIP), Dennis Hopper (RIP), John Huston, Edmond O'Brien, Susan Strasberg, Rich Little and Cameron Mitchell. It's mostly been edited/completed by Peter Bogdanovich, but it's held up by legal complications from Welles' estate (or more precisely, Welles' daughter).

What films do you guys wish to see, despite similarly impressive obstacles standing in the way of their release?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Such an unlikely Christmas movie...

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
directed by John Hough [who also directed Escape From Witch Mountain, oddly enough.]
Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill and Gayle Hunnicutt

So I watched Legend of Hell House yesterday and I just realized that, since the science team's stay in the house starts on Monday December 20th and runs through Friday December 24th, technically, it's a Christmas movie. I can't remember if the book takes place over the same range of days, but since my copy of the book is packed away, and since Matheson wrote the screenplay and the book, I'm guessing it does.

I also doubt it's a coincidence or random, given the intelligent way Matheson went about his horror. Hell House is probably my favorite work of his, just because he follows through on the haunted house tropes with his own twist, in ways that very few other haunted house stories ever do. He's got the right balance of tastelessness and restraint.

But Hell House certainly isn't a Christmas movie in the sense of Die Hard or Gremlins or Black Christmas, where the Christmas cheer is a counterpoint to the darkness of the human soul. In this film, Christmas just isn't.

And it's not that Legend of Hell House is post-Christian in the way that most haunted house movies seem to be. After all, where vampire movies usually acknowledge the trappings of Christianity, movies like The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill take place in a world where only science and vague mysticism are the only responses to the supernatural. Amityville Horror might be the only film (off the top of my head at least) that uses religion specifically to combat the haunting (even if it fails).

[Digression: My feeling has always been that hauntings (outside of possession) harken back to our pagan roots. Not that they can't happen in Christian times or areas, but that the very idea is outside the boundaries of the Christian afterlife. After the resurrection, there should be a place in the afterlife for everyone, whether good or bad. No one can slip through the cracks of God's plan, after all. And, especially as a Catholic, I feel like every circumstance is covered by some part of Heaven, Hell or purgatory.

Obviously, that doesn't mean ghosts don't scare me or interest me. There's just something in the concept that conflicts with the idea of an afterlife ruled by an omnipotent god.]

But LoHH does attempt to grapple with the spiritual. Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin with a wonderful mix of naivete, sanctimoniousness and actual innocence) is explicitly Christian. In the book, if memory serves, she's some denomination of American evangelical, though in the film she seems more Anglican. The details of her religiosity are only sketched in, but there's no doubt that she's representing a Christian viewpoint and that the power(s) haunting Hell House attack her faith with blasphemy and mockery. Her faith endangers the investigation ( it's never made clear if her attempted destruction of Barrett's machine is because it could destroy a soul or because she's under Belasco's power, and the question is quite disturbing) but she's not completely wrong about the haunting when she's arguing with Barrett.

Pardon Pamela Franklin. She's just a little cross.

My bad puns aside, the Christ of LoHH, insomuch as he's acknowledged, is the Christ of the Crucifixion.* The suffering, tormented Christ, the Christ with a crown of thorns. At the end, maybe there's a hint of the Christ of the Resurrection, as McDowall's character's final lines hold out hope for salvation even for the evil spirit haunting Hell House.

But the Christ of the Nativity? The one who was greeted with "peace on earth and good will towards men"? That Christ is nowhere in evidence. 

And yet...

When McDowall and Gayle Hunnicut walk out of the house at the end, it is the day of Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Well, they certainly didn't forget the red. But where's the green?

* I wonder what the origin is of the Christian "Hell House", the evangelical response to Halloween's "haunted houses"? Is there a very religious Matheson fan who was also anti-Halloween? And what does it say that the hell houses often embody a threat more real to their attendees than the haunted houses? Few people leave a haunted house with an enduring existential fear. But a hell house seems meant for the same purpose as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"... 

Hell House   The Legend of Hell HouseThe Haunting

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wrapping yourself in the flag...

Over on the newly revived Unplanned Misadventures of Mirmir and Bess (come for the anecdotes of fun adventures, stay for the feminist/anti-imperialist dissection of nerdery), Miriam dissects the white supremacist boycott of THOR very well, but I wanted to respond to the fact that she's never been a fan of Captain America.

And that's because Captain America's adventures are probably consistently the most politically complex of any Marvel superhero.

I think Marvel has always known that Cap as a character is loaded with political significance, both due to his wartime popularity and the way he stands for America. Unlike a lot of other "patriotic" heroes who had cute names or historical inspirations, his name proclaims that he represents America. Which immediately

And writers for Marvel certainly figured this out relatively early. While Green Lantern was awkwardly trying to prove that he was concerned about the inner-city when not fighting Sinestro (in what reads now as a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? argument for tolerance), writers of Cap grappled with more complex issues.

Steve Englehart's run in the early 70s (collected here and here), though sometimes clumsily and earnestly written, was an incredibly ambitious attempt to grapple with the problems of post-Vietnam/Watergate America. Cap acquired a black sidekick from the inner-city who disagreed with Cap's more conservative views. Cap encountered an insane anti-Communist imitator who embodied the worst of 1950s McCarthyism. And he faced a conspiracy led by the Committee to Re-establish America's Principles (just read the bolded words), a clear attack on Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President, which attacked Cap as a left-wing radical for his moderate views. Englehart's first major storyline culminated in a showdown at the White House where a shadowy figure in the Oval Office committed suicide to avoid paying for his crimes against the American people.

And in the 80s, while DC's British Invasion pushed forward the subject matter and tone of comics, Mark Gruenwald's run on Captain America and Squadron Supreme tried to do the same for Marvel's titles. While Squadron Supreme certainly deserves further examination, Gruenwald's attempts to engage with Reagan's "Morning in America" in Cap are also quite canny.

Gruenwald's most important political storyline was one where a Senate Subcommittee decided that Captain America's political loyalties were way too nuanced and unreliable and that Steve Rogers (Cap's alter-ego) had to be replaced by someone else. The irony that a man who fought Nazis in World War II was insufficiently patriotic for Reagan's America was subtly underplayed.

In the ensuing storyline, the Senate selects a character named the Superpatriot to replace Steve Rogers. He gets the job after all sorts of staged and falsely spun PR antics that show him as more "law and order" than Cap. As the storyline unfolded, John Walker (the new Cap) proved himself to be more brutal and less competent than his predecessor and easily manipulated by his enemies. In the end, it falls to Steve Rogers and his more compassionate/moderate left style to save the world where the jingoistic Reaganite asshole failed.

This barely scratches the surface of the ways Cap's been used to comment on America's view of itself and how we define the ideal American. Some of these stories are clunky, especially compared to the more stripped-down "realist" style most superhero comics prefer these days, but they do make ambitious attempts to grapple with America the ideal versus America the reality.

Englehart uses Cap to grapple with Watergate.
(Thanks, Paul Constant for the image.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

One last thing about 55 DAYS AT PEKING...

During one sequence set in the Forbidden City, the camera pans past to take in all the exotic ornamentation... and shows a statue of a white elephant.

Manny Farber would be proud.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An epic problem's not a problem for me: 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963)

Directed by Nicholas Ray (and Andrew Marton and Guy Green)
Starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, John Ireland and a bunch of white people in yellowface make-up (including poor Robert Helpmann)

I better start off by admitting I've never seen King of Kings. I know Nicholas Ray as the guy who made Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause (among others). And they're big films, epic emotionally and physically, but still personal.

55 Days at Peking doesn't feel personal. It feels like a Samuel Bronston production. Mr. Cairns, whose Late Show Blog-a-thon I'm piggy-backing on, has already gone into Samuel Bronston's gift for Spanish tax shelters and destroying talented auteurs from the '50s (poor Anthony Mann). (At least Uwe Boll's main artistic victim is himself.)

And we're back in Spain (here playing Peking), with star Charlton Heston, and now it's poor Nicholas Ray having a heart attack trying to dramatize an epic historical event.

And it certainly feels like the kind of film that would give someone a heart attack. In most of the crowd scenes, the details are way too busy, overwhelming the eye and the attention, to the detriment of the story and shot composition. Eventually the story itself overwhelms any attempt at characterization by about an hour and a half in (about the time the intermission ends), and characters disappear for long stretches of time, to be replaced by explosions and extras. Spectacle qua spectacle just drains you, weakening previous effective scenes with repetition.

There are some nice grace notes, especially in the first part of the film. When Ray (or whoever is behind the camera) is shooting a couple of people together, it can be very effective. There are two scenes practically back-to-back about an hour and fifteen minutes in which first Heston's character and then Niven's character are put through the wringer as they risk losing someone they love to combat. Heston actually emotes in a subtle way, battling back a mix of prejudice, anger and despair as he tries to tell a half-Chinese girl her American father is dead. And it's framed in a half-ruined church, with a priest checking in from over an altar, in half-light.

On the acting front, Ava Gardner is flirty and beautiful, Charlton Heston is comfortably being Charlton Heston and Robert Helpmann, so wonderful in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, decides to try out for a role as Republic serial villain.
Robert Helpmann will finally crush Flash Gordon!

David Niven's the one who comes out of this film smelling like roses. It helps that his character is the most complex. He's a good husband, a loving father, and a talented diplomat; he's charming and friendly even to someone as frustrating as Heston's Major Lewis. But in the name of peace he's willing to risk the lives of everyone in the foreign sector, including innocent civilians, and we already know his larger goal of preventing large-spread violence is going to fail.

An interesting sidebar: I wonder if this film could have been released any time other than 1963. Earlier than that and too many people might been bitter about the Korean War to want to see a movie about China's first fight against the West. Make it so much as a year later, and too many people would have seen uncomfortable parallels with what was going on in Vietnam. The muddled politics would have probably made it too hard for either side, left or right, to cheer it on (unlike, say, The Ballad of the Green Berets). As it is, when Heston's Marine says something like, "I'm just a soldier patrolling rice paddies in the back country" before demanding more soldiers, I get an uncomfortable shudder knowing what is coming down the pike for '60s America.

Anyway, the Boxer Rebellion ought to be a dramatically interesting subject for a movie. The problem is that this film is wedded to a "oh no, these white people are in danger" story-line that really limits it. Perhaps the problem is that, after a certain point, all the initiative and maneuvering is taking place in other military camps or in the Forbidden City, so that we only see our heroes reacting to things. The plot itself becomes a war of attrition on our attention, which is thematically appropriate but rather boring when it happens unintentionally.
I'm pretty sure they stole this shot for Ghostbusters.

Maybe part of it is just that I keep thinking a movie about the Peking embassies trying to maintain their Western way of life in the face of logistical and political impossibilities on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion would have been a fascinating film. But it's not one that would have starred Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, let's be honest.

So we get a happy ending where a multi-national force marches in to strip China of its autonomy and Charlton Heston reaches out his hand from astride a horse to a little half-Chinese girl (who is really us, we all suddenly realize in the audience as the horns toot and strings swell and a supporting character gives an approving glance) and offers to give her a ride back to America.

But then again, there's a strain of cynical irony deep down in the grain of the film as we hear Russian aristocrats and Austro-Hungarian diplomats talking about imposing their will on China, not realizing they'll be in the dustbin of history in less than two decades. Or when Heston and Gardner flirt and waltz in an ancient temple, as an austere, ageless, uncaring Buddha stares down at them, knowing that this too shall pass. People come and go, but they won't stay. Nations come and go. Trends come and go.

And an exhausted Charlton Heston, worn out from a day of subduing natives, will collapse on his bed, a cross between the pieta and the dying Marat, and that little half-Chinese girl will look out from behind the rubble, afraid to approach. And she waits.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three views of Yogi Bear

(Inspired by this FunnyorDie video. With apologies to Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Alan Moore)


Yogi and Boo-Boo returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Without his fedora, Yogi's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thrown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Boo-Boo said, sliding down the ditch with a chuckle.
"She would of been a good woman," Yogi said, "if it had been somebody there to maul her every minute of her life."
"Some fun!" Boo-Boo said.
"Shut up, a-Boo-Boo," Yogi said. "It's no real pleasure in life. Just pic-a-nic baskets."

And they are picnicking, the ground slamming under their jackboots and the rangers grinning hideously under their canted hats. Towering over them all is Yogi and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and dark and hairy, like an enormous teddy-bear. He never sleeps, he says. He says he'll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the Bear. He wafts his fedora and the furry dome of his skull passes under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the pic-a-nic baskets and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and eating at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He picnics in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He says he is smarter than the average bear.  He is picnicking, picnicking. He says that he will never die.

"Hello, Smith. I was hoping we'd have the chance to talk.... I know people think me callous, but I've made myself feel every picnic. By day I imagine endless sandwiches. By night... Well, I dream about walking past the same cave... no, never mind. I'd hoped you'd understand, unlike Boo-Boo..."
"Yes, I understand, without condoning or condemning. Ursine affairs cannot be my concern. I'm leaving this park for one less complicated. Goodbye, Yogi."
"Ranger, wait, before you leave... I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end."
"Nothing ever ends, Yogi. Especially not a Hanna-Barbera cartoon."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Overheard at Runyon Canyon

To be fair, he is a creationist

Wife: How long ago do you think they put this here? A hundred years?
Husband: The trail or the mountain?

Sharon Osbourne's Alaska?

Guy #1: I don't even know who she is.
Guy #2: She's Sarah Palin's daughter. She's the only person to gain weight on that show.
Guy #1: Kelly Osbourne got hot on that show!

Mr. Ed's people had a hard time keeping him in line...
Guy in wife-beater: I couldn't believe I was hearing it from the horse's mouth.
Friend: (sympathetically) That's why you need paper on whoever you're developing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

In case anyone needed an idea for a Christmas gift....

Warner Brothers' Archive (their Burn-On-Demand DVD service) just issued the film version of Richard Stark's The Outfit, one of my favorite Richard Stark novels. It's part of the Parker series, about a sociopathic robber/thug who is also strangely professional. This time, Parker (in the movie, his name is Macklin) and his outlaw cronies decide to start robbing from the mob.

And it's got Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Robert Ryan and Joe Don Baker. The film is a '70s exploitation fan's dream!

I doubt it's as good as the amazing and strangely European New Wave-influenced Point Blank, based on a different Richard Stark novel, but still, I'm excited.*

(And I noticed they just put out Pretty Maids All in a Row as well! Sleazy Roddenberry/Roger Vadim collaboration from the 70s! Yay! )
*Also, I forgot Godard's Made in the USA is based on The Jugger. It's great how love for Stark bridges high-concept action films and artsy weird films. Though now I'm just thinking of Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull.

The Outfit: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels)Point BlankPretty Maids All In A Row [Remaster]The Jugger: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels)Made in U.S.A. (The Criterion Collection)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Weird trivia you can learn from reading Variety...

I didn't realize that Ronni Chasen (the publicist who was shot and killed recently) was actually Larry Cohen's sister. She worked as a publicist on Hell Up in Harlem & The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.

As much as I love my sister, I doubt we could ever collaborate in any way on a piece of art. More power to her and Larry for getting along well enough to work on two films!