Monthly Archives: April 2007

Remembrance of grindhouses past

The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino flick Grindhouse is flopping so badly that the producer is talking about re-releasing each of the films separately and seeing how the box office responds. Considering that Grindhouse itself has a split personality, that strategy would be poetically apt, but the film has so many other problems I doubt it will make a difference.

Apart from the basic idiocy of spending something like $100 million to make and market a film about the tawdry pleasures of ultra-cheap 1970s schlock, Grindhouse fails because it doesn’t really deliver on its own premise. Leaving the film, I wanted to echo Lloyd Bentsen when he sawed Dan Quayle off at the knees during their vice presidential debate: I knew grindhouse movies and you, sir, are no grindhouse movie.

Only the first half of the bill, Rodriguez’s splatter-sodden zombie flick Planet Terror, sticks to the format, but not in a good way — it is grindingly, unrelentingly awful, yet lacking a certain quality that can only be called innocence or sincerity. You see, grindhouse movies were made by Z-grade filmmakers trying to work their way up, not A-list directors trying to dumb themselves down. Crap isn’t improved by being served with a knowing smirk — it just reminds you that everyone involved had better things to do than make this movie, just as you have better things to do than watch it. Even with digitally-generated scratches on the film stock and umpteen shots of Rose McGowan in various states of undress, Planet Terror is about as much fun as a case of kidney stones. If Harvey Weinstein does decide to play Solomon and split Grindhouse in two, Planet Terror is the half that will vanish without a ripple.

But give Rodriguez this much credit: He stuck to the plan. Quentin Tarantino’s half of the bill, Death Proof, shows he either lost track of what he was supposed to do (or got bored with the idea) and made something that is, for better or for worse, entirely his own and nothing at all like a grindhouse movie.

Why “for better or for worse”? Because Death Proof, like Tarantino’s previous film Kill Bill, is good enough to make you wish it were a lot better. It has a genuinely interesting villain — an aging stuntman (superbly played by Kurt Russell) who uses hyper-macho muscle cars to carry on a psychosexual war against young women — and a climactic car chase with hair-raising stunt work by Zoe Bell that should end once and for all any doubts about whether Tarantino can direct an exciting action sequence. It also has some wonderful scenes at an Austin chili parlor in which we see a group of women simply hanging out, shooting the breeze while considering if they should give any of the circling men a shot, that’s so well written and acted that what becomes of them is more disturbing than we have any right to expect.

Death Proof also goes on far too long, has at least two lengthy chit-chat scenes too many (and I like Tarantino’s dialogue) and is generally undermined by the ramshackle self-indulgence that will always make Tarantino his own worst enemy as a filmmaker — unless, of course, the failure of Grindhouse leads him to make more disciplined use of his obvious talent. The reason Pulp Fiction plays so well is that Tarantino takes stock characters and transmutes them into something his own. That’s also what he does in the best parts of Death Proof, and in the process leaves Robert Rodriguez twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.

But violence and T&A are not the only ingredients in the grindhouse recipe. There was also a mindset involved on the part of the viewer as well as the filmmaker, a mindset rooted in the way people used to watch movies. It’s gone now. Even the people who were there at the time have trouble remembering it, so what hope is there for a couple of young film geeks like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez?

People who grew up with videocassettes and DVDs just don’t think of movies the way their elders did. Films were much less commodified, and information about them was harder to come by. Being a movie lover was like living on the beach and waiting to see what washed up. Films would arrive in theaters, and once they went away, that was it — unless you lived in a city with good repertory cinemas, or a college town with great film programs, they were gone. If you ever saw a movie you had liked again, it would be on television, probably edited for content and certainly chopped up to make room for annoying commercials.

Films were mysterious. They carried an aura that existed only in theaters. You went to a grindhouse because something you’d been hearing about for months had suddenly surfaced there, or because everything else in the theaters looked dull and you wanted to see a movie, any movie.

Consider the last two authentic grindhouse bills I saw. The first, viewed at some godforsaken theater outside Philadelphia during my teen years, was a three-decker of Trip With The Teacher (smutty but not outright pornographic flick about two creeps who hijack a busload of teenaged girls), The Pom Pom Girls (low-grade comedy about horny high school kids) and Best Friends (mildly ambitious drama about a neurotic guy who undermines his buddy’s wish to marry and start a mature life). The first was interesting mainly because it starred Zalman King, who was stereotyped in menacing roles and turned to producing softcore flicks like Red Shoe Diaries. The last was noteworthy for starring Richard Hatch (who would go on to Battlestar Galactica) and Susanne Benton (whose career petered out after she played Quilla June in A Boy And His Dog). The movie also had a poster so spectacularly out of synch with its content that it seemed obvious the distributor hadn’t known what to do with such an oddball character study and simply dumped it into the grindhouse/drive-in circuit in order to milk a few bucks. Such bait-and-switch tactics were common on the grindhouse circuit: The Pom Pom Girls was the lowball hit of the summer, so the distributors threw any damn thing into the bottom of the bill. You were promised three movies for two bucks and change, and that’s what you got. Nobody promised you they were going to be good.

A year later, in an East Brunswick two-screen theater on Route 18 that was on its way to becoming a strip mall, I saw a double-bill of Wes Craven’s grimy rape-and-revenge flick, Last House On the Left, and The House By the Lake, a not-bad Brenda Vaccaro thriller about a fashion model whose weekend in the country is marred by the arrival of a bunch of homicidal goons. I had just convinced an equally movie-loving friend to see a revival of Carnival of Souls at a Manhattan theater; I had come across the film on late-night television a few years earlier and I really wanted to see it properly. He in turn wanted me to see the Vaccaro film, which he had considered a sleeper. Also, neither of us had seen Last House On the Left, which had already achieved near-legendary status among exploitation fans.So — we showed each other two of our favorite obscure movies and caught up with a third. I wanted to take a long hot shower after watching the Craven movie, but that was part of the grindhouse experience as well.

Nowadays, we’d simply rent the DVDs. Direct-to-video is the closest the early 21st century can get to what the grindhouse represented in the late 20th century. It ain’t the same thing, though. All I can say to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez is: Sorry, guys, but you had to be there. And as far as your movie is concerned, I wish I hadn’t been.

Bookworks

I had no idea that artists were finding so many uses for books. Other than reading them, I mean.

The compost-heap of history

I’m a sucker for books and documentaries like James L. Burke’s Connections, which traced the genesis of world-changing inventions through centuries of accidents and innovations, and novels like Creation, in which Gore Vidal exploited the fact that there was a point in time during which a well-traveled man could have met Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu and the founder of Jainism.

So this upcoming Weather Channel series, 100 Biggest Weather Moments, sounds fascinating to me. Any show that ranges from the effects of a blizzard on the Super Bowl to humidity and the tonal qualities of Stradivarius violins is going to be worth a look:

At No. 100, football coach Don Shula laments his Dolphins’ 3-0 loss to the Patriots during a blizzard on Dec. 12, 1982. The Patriots were able to score the field goal only because their snow-plow driver cleared a spot for the place-kicker during a timeout. “What I should have done in retrospect,” says Shula, “is run out onto the field and throw myself in front of the snow plow.” A sportscaster—Bob Costas, of course—tosses in the fact that the plow guy was a convicted criminal on a work-release program, and because the photo researchers on 100 Biggest Weather Moments are diligent and inventive, we get a glimpse of his mug shot. It’s a telling place to start, this misty sports-bar memory. The show loves small, deep trivia and tribal factoids. It makes a compelling meal from the variety meats of history’s buffet.

Making a sharp turn to the highbrow, we somehow arrive at a discussion of cold air, spruce wood, and the tonal quality of Stradivarius violins featuring Itzhak Perlman. Getting serious at No. 98, we revisit the severe flooding of the Midwest in 1993. The first hour also finds Dan Rather looking at William Henry Harrison’s inauguration, the wine columnists of the Wall Street Journal exploring the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, and, in a tribute to the invention of the hygrometer, both Al Sharpton and Mary Hart discussing bad hair days. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale gets an explication, as do the Battle of Dunkirk, the dimples on a golf ball, and the social history of the umbrella. The dork appeal is limitless.

Amen to that. These unnoticed juxtapositions and factoids are the compost heap of history. The difference between a show like Connections and a random assemblage of details is the presence of a keen guiding intelligence to bring everything together. The mini-series starts tomorrow, so we’ll see.

Passages: Harlan Ellison

Okay, kiddo, so you went to see Grindhouse (which I’ll comment upon later this weekend) and now you think you know something about The Authentic Grindhouse Experience? If you want to know what the real sticky-wall grindhouses in and around Times Square were like, try this excerpt from Harlan Ellison’s essay “The Three Most Important Things in Life.” It’s one of his best:

New York. Early Seventies, maybe ’73 or ’74. I was in the city on business. Business taken care of, I got together with a friend, a writer from Texas who loves movies as much and as indiscriminately as I do. The ritual: the movie crawl. Load up on junk food, start at the first movie theater on the downtown side of 42nd Street, and just work our way from Times Square to 8th Avenue, cross the street, and work our way back to Times Square. Days. Endless days. Twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours straight time in the dark. We eat in there, sleep in there, piss and daydream in there. Hot dogs, popcorn, slabs of cheese, munchies, French bread, anydamnthing. And we see them all: the good flicks, the bad flicks, the kung-fu operas, the porn jobs, the superfly stomp the paddy flicks . . . all of them. One after another, till our eyes turn to poached eggs, staggering from theater to theater like refugees from a Macao opium den.

I don’t remember the name of the particular theater, but it was on the uptown side of 42nd Street, close to Broadway. It was something like four in the morning. My buddy and I were almost totally cacked-out. I remember the double-bill, however. The lower half, the B feature, was Fear is the Key, a really dreadful action-adventure turkey based on a crummy Alistair Maclean novel. The main feature was Save the Tiger, a contemporary drama starring Jack Lemmon. He won the Oscar for the role in that film.

And there we slumped, way the hell up in the balcony, our knees jammed under our chins, best seats in an almost empty house. Four ayem. Two rows below us — and it was steep up there, what I’m talking here is damned near per-pen-dic-u-lar — some black dude was juiced out asleep, lying across three or four seats, snoring.

My buddy the Texas writer is dead asleep, having polished off a recent meal of three boxes Good’n’Plenty and a frozen chocolate covered banana on a stick. And, blessedly, Fear is the Key ends, and Save the Tiger begins.

About ten minutes into this serious, sensitive study of a garment center guy who is killing himself with floating ethics, and from the very first row of the balcony, below and to the right of us, but still very high above the floor of the theater, I hear a shrieky black voice start mouthing off. Dialogue straight out of ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING.

“Muh-fugguh! Gahdamn muh-fugn stupid piece’a shit. Dumb sunbish cah-suckin’ piece’a shit garbage . . . Leroy! Hey, you sumbish niggah prick Leroy! Le’s get th’ fuggoutta here, Leeeeeroy!”

Clearly, the critic in the first row of the balcony found this deeply penetrating study of middle class morality as seen through the dissolution of Jack Lemmon’s knock-off sweat shop less than relevant to his existence as a mid-Twentieth Century denizen of the shitty slum to whence he would wend his way once this stupid kike film about muh-fuggin’ honk paddy bastids ended. Which wasn’t soon enough for him. “Leeeee-ROY!”

I had the feeling that Leeee-ROY was the terminal case lying over the seats two rows below us. Out of it.

Well, I peer through the gloom and see the dude down there in the front row of the balcony, his feet up on the brass rail, his partner beside him, silently watching the film but not stopping the noise. And I watch the two of them for a little while, hoping the third member of the group, good ole Leeee-ROY, will bestir his ass and go rejoin them there sepia Athos and Porthos, and maybe just maybe vacate the site quietly so I can watch the goddam muhfuggin’ movie.

But no such luck. The critic only gets wonkyer, yelling at the top of his lungs. Leeee-ROY don’t twitch a bun.

And just as the critic is reaching a pitch that will cause sonic tremors, squealing sunbish and muh-fugguh at the top of his lungs, from behind me I hear The Voice of Doom . . .

You’ll have to read the rest of the essay to find out what happens next, but something tells me Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have lasted long in one of those places.

Someone to watch your back

Over at Identity Theory, Jane Friedman has started an interesting back and forth over whether a literary agent is necessary for writers trying to place their novels. She cites Steve Almond, who has apparently done very well for himself without an agent, as an example. (No doubt there are others. There’s always lightning striking someplace, but do you want to bet on where?)

In response, author Christian Bauman (whose third novel, In Hoboken, has just found a publisher, I’m happy to say) notes that while it is certainly possible to sell an unagented manuscript, marketing manuscripts is only one of the services an agent performs:

It is a common misperception that all an agent does is take 15% of your money in exchange for placing your book somewhere. But this is not true. In fact, the selling of the book is somewhat lower on the list of things an agent does for you. Anyone with determination and some savvy could sell the book eventually (although only to those presses who take unagented submissions), but what happens AFTER the book is released? Who is going to go back year after year and audit Simon & Schuster to ensure they paid you correctly? Who is going to follow-up with all those various foreign presses? The business details are endless, and authors left to do them on their own would have no time for writing.

He also points out that the publishing era of decades-long relationships between authors and editors (think John Steinbeck and Pascal Covici, or Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins) is pretty much dead. In the modern publishing industry, where editors frequently change jobs and a book-in-progress can find itself orphaned by personnel changes, you really need someone to watch your back — someone whose financial interests are links to yours.

A bad agent is worse than no agent at all, but a good agent is as valuable as having Bruce Lee walk you to your car every night.

Vonnegut remembered

The Internets are loaded with tributes and reminiscences in response to the death of Kurt Vonnegut. Salon has compiled mentions of Vonnegut from published works by Andre Dubus, Geraldo Rivera, Andy Warhol and Isaac Asimov, among others. They’re good, but this Andrew Leonard piece about playing chess with Vonnegut tops them. Nicholas Lezard calls him the master of farting around. South Brunswick poet and editor Hank Kalet phrases his praise in a more flattering way. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an adulatory take. Vonnegut’s 2005 appearance on The Daily Show is waiting for you at C&L. Blanton’s and Ashton’s mourns the death.  

Kurt Vonnegut

It’s not meant as an insult, but I think of Kurt Vonnegut — who died last night at the age of 84 — as the writer who brought the world irony and tragedy on training wheels. Reading Cat’s Cradle (my favorite Vonnegut novel back in my high school years) , The Sirens of Titan (where he introduced The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent) or the high school favorite “Harrison Bergeron” prepared you for the tougher, more rewarding writers out there.

Vonnegut himself echoed this view: in his 1974 essay collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, he approvingly quotes a friend who, after taking in his collected works, told him, “You put bitter coatings on sweet pills.” Though he often cited Mark Twain as his writing idol (with his deeply lined face, rumpled hair and untidy mustache, Vonnegut even bore a passing resemblance to Twain) and shared his blackly cynical view of existence, Vonnegut wrote nothing with the harsh power of The Mysterious Stranger or “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” This didn’t hurt his book sales any, but I suspect that if Vonnegut is remembered at all in the coming decades, it will be as a 1970s antique.

Vonnegut often spoke of his phenomenal luck at having begun his writing career during the mid-twentieth century magazine boom, when it was possible to make a living writing short stories for glossy magazines. For someone who had been introduced to Vonnegut via the satirical novels, it was a surprise to go to the short stories collected in Welcome to the Monkey House and find deeply conventional commercial ditties like “Miss Temptation” (first published in The Saturday Evening Post) alongside the mildly raunchy title tale.

His 1952 debut novel, Player Piano, was even more conventional: a tamely satiricial plea against corporate conformity and industrial dehumanization. His distinctive voice began to emerge with The Sirens of Titan (1959), and the succeeding novels — Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) — remain the core of the Vonnegut canon. Slaughterhouse-Five, the 1969 novel in which Vonnegut finally addresses his harrowing World War II experiences as a POW and survivor of the Dresden firebombing raid, was supposed to be the culmination of his work. Instead, with its goofy singsong prose and coyly cynical games that muffled what must have been truly appalling memories, it was a harbinger of bad things to come. Shortly after Slaughterhouse-Five became a bestseller, Vonnegut confided to a New York Times interviewer that he had started a novel called Breakfast of Champions but dropped it “because it was a piece of shit.” The novel was subsequently resumed and published in 1973, but Vonnegut’s initial assessment remained accurate.

Except for Jailbird in 1979, Vonnegut’s later novels are of little interest: long, forced marches across dry terrain, with no reward at the end except a little tin cup marked “Irony.” But even as the energy leaked from his novels, Vonnegut’s essays and political broadsides were loaded with vim and vigor. I expect the news of his death will bring a wave of scorn from the right side of the aisle, not because of the slack quality of his fiction but because of the unforgivably blunt force of his essays. His column for In These Times, with its provocative statements about terrorism and 9/11, will provide rich fodder for professional cherry-pickers, but any doubts about the man’s moral character may be addressed by this passage:

By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December.

Though his works were full of Doomsday technologies like Ice-Nine, philosophical aliens and time travel, Vonnegut made a point early in his career of shouting that he was not a science fiction writer. (He explained in a short essay, “Science Fiction,” that SF was a niche that critics frequently mistook for a urinal.) It was a wise career strategy —  echoed by Michael Crichton, among others — that brought him respectability and good sales, as well as the eternal enmity of the SF community. Philip Jose Farmer appropriated the name of a Vonnegut character, Kilgore Trout, for Venus on the Half-Shell, a viciously accurate Vonnegut parody, and when Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle reimagined Dante’s travels in their novel Inferno, they reserved a special spot in hell for Vonnegut.

Vonnegut’s works often came across better when adapted by other hands. George Roy Hill’s wonderful 1972 version of Slaughterhouse-Five, based on a script by novelist Stephen Geller, exposes the dark core of sadness and fatalism at the heart of the novel which discarding the tiresome whimsy. That same year saw a made-for-television movie, Between Time and Timbuktu, that offered up a banquet of tidbits from various Vonnegut works — a bit of Cat’s Cradle here, a touch of  “Harrison Bergeron” there — wrapped around an agreeably preposterous storyline about a poet named Stony Stevenson who wins a jingle contest and gets shot through a Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. As a showcase for Vonnegut’s works, you could hardly do better. Won’t somebody please resurrect it for DVD?      

Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe

Here it is, albeit in PDF form. Because it’s in the new Library of America volume about American food writing, and just to show the old boy could whip up something besides a Declaration of Independence.

Cannibalism, rape, murder — all your faves

Back in my teen years, when I decided to get serious about getting familiar with Shakespeare, I had two big shocks. The first was to look up The Merchant of Venice and find it listed under Shakespeare’s comedies. The second was when I read Titus Andronicus, possibly the first play in the canon, and discovered . . . . well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

With The Merchant of Venice, I had just seen the 1973 made-for-television version, which essentially recorded the 1970 production by the National Theater, starring Laurence Olivier as Shylock. Olivier was so powerful as a man who gives in to vengefulness and pays for it by losing everything except his life, that I had assumed the play was a tragedy. Years later, when I read Olivier’s two books, I realized that he had deliberately skewed the play, which he considered a loathsome piece of Jew-hating. Certainly his gravitational field sent the subplot about Portia’s suitors spinning in the direction of outright farce: after hearing Olivier howl the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, the old man opening the silver casket came across like Chico Marx playing piano with a rubber ball. (I’m reminded of the way Marlon Brando’s talent skewed A Streetcar Named Desire, upending the play by tipping the audience’s adulation toward Stanley rather than Blanche. In his memoir, director Elia Kazan acknowledged the effect but shrugged: “What could I do? Tell Marlon to be less good?”)

The second shock was reading The Elizabethan Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also known as Titus Andronicus, which is so violent that it starts to become black farce, and often so crudely written (I defy you to read Titus’s closing words to his daughter without either laughing or groaning) that you can only marvel at what came after it.

Scott McLemee just took in the production of Titus Andronicus now on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. and had a few thoughts of his own:

The word “obscene” was originally a dramatic reference to something so shocking that it had to take place off-stage. But most of the horrors in Titus occur right out in the open. True, we don’t actually watch Lavinia, daughter of the noble general Titus, being raped by the sons of Tamora, the Goth queen turned Roman empress. But we are shown the two men taunting her later, after they have cut off her hands and her tongue. Eventually Titus exacts revenge by killing them and cooking their flesh into a large pie, which he tricks the queen into eating.

The queen’s lover, a Moor named Aaron, is a villain who announces that his soul is as black as his skin. In the final moments of the play, he is condemned to be buried up to his neck and starved to death. Meanwhile, the newborn child he has fathered with Tamora is sentenced to execution – for otherwise, the baby is destined by nature to grow up to be evil. So at least there’s a happy ending . . .

You don’t have to see that many plays by Shakespeare to know that his universe can be violent. Think of the children slaughtered in Macbeth, the pile of corpses at the end of Hamlet, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in Lear.

But the mayhem in Titus is more extensive and far more concentrated. Apart from the high points covered in the abbreviated sketch above, there are two decapitated heads, several murders and one scene of dismemberment. The sight of Lavinia following her attack — unable to communicate at all, her mouth opening only to scream and to spit blood — has a visceral power that is overwhelming.

It’s grimly amusing to think that one of the first things Julie Taymor did with all those Disney bucks she made from her Broadway staging of The Lion King was to direct the first and very likely only film version of Titus Andronicus, with a grade-A cast: Anthony Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as the Goth queen who gets to eat her sons in a pie, and Laura Fraser as the raped and mutilated daughter.

I guess after you’ve had to listen to sugary tunes like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” for the thousandth time, you’ll do just about anything to get them out of your head. I expect that staging Titus Andronicus probably did the trick.

Dude, where’s my trailer?

I hear radio ads for books from time to time, some of them quite good — I remember one for the paperback edition of Stephen King’s The Shining, back in the day, that was actually pretty scary — but I don’t recall any book getting its own movie-style trailer before. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong — I’m interested in seeing other examples.) But that’s what Houghton Mifflin and HarperCollins have done with The Children of Hurin, the posthumous J.R.R. Tolkien novel excavated by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s mountain of notes and manuscripts.

Boy, I’d love to have enough clout for my own upcoming book to get a movie trailer. Well, maybe the paperback . . .