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.


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 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.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but a tweet..."

Your Friends Close (2012)
Directed by Jocelyn Kelvin
Written by Brock Wilbur
Starring Jocelyn Kelvin, Brock Wilbur, Kovar McClure, Heather Wood, Laura Nicole Harrison, Blake Silver, Rob Ondarza, Ricky House, Michael Eliopolous, Lisa Renee Foiles, Ramsay Robinson and Yahtzee Croshaw [as well as many others]

[Disclaimer: I know Brock, Jocelyn and some of the other cast members from college. I also read an early draft of the script and served as an extra in a scene or two. That being said, I do not profit from this film, except the sense of pride someone gets from knowing about an awesome thing before other people and knowing the people involved in it]

Video game movies are pretty common at this point. Good video game movies are very very rare. Even rarer are movies that eschew adapting a video game to focusing on the people that make and play video games. Your Friends Close is not Super Mario Brothers or House of the Dead or Tomb Raider. It's not even Tron. It's more like The Bad and the Beautiful or Contempt. It's about awful, backstabbing people who somehow create something, for better or worse. As always, the question is whether that something is worth it.

Becca (Jocelyn Kelvin) and Jason (Brock Wilbur) are two up-and-coming game designers who happen to be married. They've just created a revolutionary new video game called "Your Friends Close" that basically turns the Turing Test into a multi-player strategy game. Users are put into a chatroom and must discover who is a real person and who is a computer. The winner could win anything from a rain forest named for them to a night with a porn star, depending on who the sponsor of the competition is.

Thing is, the game still needs to be developed and tested and Becca and Jason are about to fly to France to work on it. They're throwing a going away party the night before they leave, and they've invited their  best friends (a mix of family, friends, professional rivals, exes, current lovers and colleagues).

And the normal tension, regret and bitterness that crop up at any party are exacerbated by the fact that, just after the party starts, Randall Sconce (Michael Eliopolous), owner of the video game company developing YFC, wants Jason to stay in San Francisco to develop a tie-in TV show for YFC. Which means there's now a slot open for someone to fly to Paris with Becca and develop the game. It's the chance of a life-time, and Jason announces that the attendees are contestants who must convince him to give them the job.

Needless to say, this night will prove to be the end of relationships, maybe even Becca and Jason's.

The first thing to note is that Your Friends Close really understands that what makes a movie (or any story) interesting are interesting and complex characters. The script balances exposition and video game theory with the establishing of relationships and characterization while never breaking a sweat. This movie is extraordinarily quotable (there's a joke about Miles Davis and Secret of Monkey Island that cracks me up each time I think of it), but all the cleverness is in service of the characters and the story. The characters are mostly overly-intellectual nerds who delight in showing off their knowledge and their verbiage, and as the night drags on, it becomes apparent that even they cannot fend off disappointment, fear and despair with clever quips.

The direction by Jocelyn Kelvin (aided by DP Chad Nagel) is lively and restless, following the party from one corner of the house to another in extended Steadicam shots that impart a video game quality to the action. However, Kelvin knows when to pause on a moment, allowing us a tension-filled long take worthy of Rohmer when the story calls for it. Two long conversations between Becca and Kaylee (Jenni Melear), Jason's assistant and possibly his lover, unwind slowly and hypnotically, teasing us with violent resolution of the rivalry at any moment.

Of course, all of the technical skill would be for naught if the actors in front of the camera weren't equally skilled. Brock and Jocelyn each prove a match for their parts, with Brock slowly drawing out the childishness and fear underlying his manipulative ways and Jocelyn possessing a enigmatic and intelligent quality that reminds me of Lena Headey or Anna Karina. The rest of the cast is just as talented, with Blake Silver drawing out the nuances of a beta male trying to will himself into alpha male status, and Heather Anne Wood, as Jason's sister, slowly stripping away the disguise of a good girl with a secret life.  Finally, Yahtzee Croshaw deserves special notice for his voice acting on the titular video game, crafting a mix of charm and malevolence that is utterly entertaining and chilling.

At one point in the movie, Jason talks about how big a jump movies made between the 1920s and the 1930s, from chase scenes and pie fights to meaning and romance, before saying that video games are about to make a similar jump. I can't speak to video games, but I can say that Your Friends Close shows that movies can still develop and advance even in the video game age.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tramping the dirt down?

I'm not exactly a huge Russell Brand fan, so that's why I was so surprised to read his cogent recollections of growing up in Thatcher's England that doesn't devolve into sheer vitriol. And he latches onto something that the people who hero worship Thatcher seem to forget. Thatcher might have dismantled what she saw as a socialist government, but she also dismantled any relationship between the British people, their state, and their society, without building a new relationship. People were willing to die for the England Churchill ruled, but does anyone want to sacrifice anything at all for post-Thatcher England?

Maybe that's the reason for the Cult of Diana. She's the one person, post-Thatcher that the English people felt a personal connection with. Now you have a bunch of unappealing Royals who are either unpleasant or doddering.

I know Helen Rittelmeyer, at one point, wrote an article that touched on this (which I can't find the link to), but Brand sums it up rather well:
If you behave like there's no such thing as society, in the end there isn't [...] All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people's pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate.
And in a few sentences, Brand sums up the core contradiction of modern Conservatism: the pull between Free Market selfishness and the yearning for the bonds of a traditional, connected society. But if you say that everything must be bought at market prices, then "traditional society" is at best a hobby for privileged people, the Live Action Role Playing of a society. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In which JCVD kickboxes a giant penguin to death...

This weekend, I was watching Sudden Death, a really cheesy mid-90s action movie, where Jean Claude Van Damme is a firefighter who must rescue the Vice President from a scenery-chewing Powers Boothe during the 7th Game of the Stanley Cup. It's a master-class in cheap dramatic irony (Sudden Death refers to both the end of the game AND the situation Van Damme is in!), mainly notable for a sequence where JCVD must fight a woman in a giant penguin costume to the death. It makes Hard Target look even more eligible for a Criterion Collection edition.

It's very clear that the pitch for this must have been "Jean Claude Van Damme does Die Hard at a hockey rink". And while Die Hard has reached a level of relative acclaim (despite being a blockbuster and the birth of a franchise), there's a tendency to rope it off from the films it inspired (including some of its franchise). Die Hard 2, Under Siege 1 and 2, Sudden Death, and Air Force One (maybe even Speed and Con Air, if you squint a little) are some of the more notable successors.

It's pretty easy to state the formula: working class tough guy squares off against a highly-skilled, intellectual bad guy during a hostage situation in a contained setting, with the working class guy kicking the ass of the flamboyant/foreign/intellectual/wealthy bad guy.

But what I forgot, until I watched such a generic version of the formula as the JCVD version, are the differences from the action films that came before them and after them.

First of all, the 1980s action template is usually something like Cobra or Commando, where an over-muscled tough-guy guns down a million faceless bad guys. There's still occasionally a flamboyant bad guy, but the focus is on body-count and sheer destruction. The good guy might have a braying lieutenant or commanding officer, but there's no sense that that commander has any authority. The good guy(s) might even go vigilante at the end, with the authorities showing up and telling them good job. Michael Bay's films revived this trend, upping the superhero element, where the hero is basically invulnerable. The last two Die Hard movies have trended even further in this direction as well.

Whereas, in Die Hard and its descendents, the lesser villains are usually individualized. Even though they are usually two dimensional, multi-ethnic terrorists or Eurotrash, that's still one more dimension than Cobra or Bad Boys provides us. I still root for Theo to get knocked out, or the crazy earring guy in Sudden Death to get shot through a helicopter, but they're not just cannon fodder that feeds our blood-lust. On top of that, there's an emphasis of one on one combat. The bad guys have guns, but the good guys rarely start out with them, so there's usually a lot of very brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Our heroes are usually bruised and bloody at the end of each fight, even though they've won. Once again, compare this to Commando, where Ahnuld takes out an entire army and just gets a gnarly gash on his stomach.

Most importantly, the Die Hard template has a working class, if skilled, hero who faces off both against a corrupt or hidebound authority and the actual bad guys. While it's not that unusual to have a cop/secret agent having to take a dressing down from the boss, it's in the Die Hard template movies that the authority is actively working against the hero's goals. Agents Johnson and Johnson, for example, in Die Hard, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Under Siege cause almost as much destruction and death as the bad guys, even though they have good intentions.

Furthermore, this working class attitude extends to a nuts-and-bolts attitude towards work that has become rarer and rarer as cinema has progressed into the 21st Century and the focus of international capitalism has been turning everyone into interchangeable office temps. Die Hard takes place in a classy executive office building, but the environment that Bruce Willis mostly occupies is the blue-collar work-site of a building still under construction. In Under Siege, the kitchen and other living/working areas of the battleship are intimately explored and become sites of battle and conflict, not just the command center. And Sudden Death gives us a detailed look at the day-to-day, banal and prosaic operations of a hockey rink before blowing them up.

Perhaps that is what I find most unusual in this day and age in these films is this interest in establishing the prosaic and banal of day-to-day working life, an interest that is harder and harder to detect in more recent cinema. The protagonists of most blockbusters are either tech-savvy kids, specially-trained and well-to-do secret agents, or independently wealthy superheroes. Even when the protagonists are down-to-earth people like in Date Night (in which the bourgeois banality of the protagonists, contrasted with generic thriller trappings they are roped into, are played for laughs), we don't really see them at work. Perhaps the only notable exception, off the top of my head, is Machete, which intentionally politicized work and labor as elements of an ongoing class and ethnic struggle.

Die Hard and its followers, despite their faults and flaws, honored the idea of working class labor. The modern blockbuster now only honors the wealthy superhero, a demographic that is excluded from labor (teens/kids), specialized agents, or a combination of the three.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Helen Rittelmeyer has written a post about blogging etiquette. As she is one of the most talented Catholic female Ivy league alum bloggers, it is great to see her blogging about this topic, even though she has never once condemned the Armenian Genocide, to my knowledge.

I am skeptical her advice will work, as people disregard common sense all the time. Truly, this lack of following advice is one of the most annoying faults a blogger can show, proving the merits of those who disdain blogging.