Monthly Archives: December 2007

Auld Lang Syne

From Jimi Hendrix

From Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston

Falling Hare (1943)

Sometimes I think the main value of my education was giving me the chance to catch up on all the World War II vintage pop-culture references in the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. I didn’t know from Wendell Wilkie, A-cards or “4-F” draft classification when I was a wee bairn, but I laughed whenever they cropped up in Warner Brothers cartoons because the master gag writers at Termite Terrace were such genuises at pacing and delivery that even the more obscure jokes in their cartoons arrived just as you were primed for a laugh. Only much later in life did I learn that Wendell Wilkie played a role in society beyond that of generating yucks for Warner Brothers — though I still find him far more plausible in the context of Merrie Melodies than politics — or that “Was this trip really necessary?” had a wartime provenance.

Falling Hare is one of my all-time Bugs Bunny faves, in large part because it is one of the few cartoons — maybe even the only cartoon — in which Bugs is somebody else’s patsy. It was also my introduction to the gremlin, that creature invented by RAF pilots in the early 1920s and introduced to the wider public by Roald Dahl, who made them the subject of his first children’s book. They were gleefully appropriated by the Termite Terrace crew, who after hitting a career best with Falling Hare created a Slavic strain of gremlin for Russian Rhapsody (1944) to take on Adolf Hitler himself:

Russian Rhapsody is a particular fave with Termite Terrace scholars because many of the gremlins are caricatures of Warner Brothers staffers, including Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Michael Sasanoff. A couple of decades later, gremlin lore inspired “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” one of the better episodes from the original Twilight Zone series, which became the redeeming episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and a showcase for one of John Lithgow’s best bits on film:

Oh yeah, there were a couple of films titled Gremlins of which the less said the better. Not only were they cruddy movies, but the whole concept of the gremlin as an aviation trickster was discarded.

PKD talk

One of the best Philip K. Dick fan sites, Total Dick-Head, has posted a link to my piece on Richard Linklater’s film version of A Scanner Darkly. The proprietor disagrees with my take on the film but thinks the argument is worth considering, which I very much appreciate.

Hangin’ with Junot, Gwen and Phil

Star-Ledger columnist Maureen Berzok puts me in some pretty lofty company in her rundown of the “Best Jersey Books of 2007,” which lists my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway right up there with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Exit Ghost by Philip Roth and The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross. Thank you, Maureen, and thank you to everyone who bought the book this year (and if you haven’t, well, that’s why you got all those gift certificates for Christmas).

Bearding Santa in his lair

An account of what it’s like to visit Santa Claus on the Arctic Circle, in Finland. Be sure to check out the slideshow. And I wonder what bear meatballs taste like?

Holiday hiatus

I won’t be checking in too often between now and New Year’s Day — family, friends and paying work all beckon. On New Year’s Day I’ll post the long-awaited first and second installments of “The Greatest Swordfight Movies of All Time.” Before that, I will spend some quality time on Christmas Day with Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Apropos of which, here’s an interesting animated version of the Sir Gawain story, done up to resemble panels of stained glass.

And after that, here’s a chaser.

Storytime with Saruman

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin was published earlier this year, I got a copy strictly as a collectible. Tolkien in his non-scholarly mode always struck me as a third-rate writer with a first-rate imagination, and while there are inspired passages in The Lord of the Rings, I find the whole thing too baggy and unfocused to be a satisfying reading experience. The Hobbit is a pleasant enough story, but the other works don’t do much for me, and there isn’t enough espresso in the world to get me through The Silmarillion.

So when I opened The Children of Hurin — cobbled together from Tolkien’s papers by his son, Christopher — I found it closer stylistically to The Silmarillion than The Hobbit, which rendered it pretty much unreadable for me. But the just-released audiobook version read by Christopher Lee is a different matter entirely. Once you get through the drizzle of names and genealogies at the beginning of the story, the tragic narrative develops considerable momentum and power, and Lee handles the Elvish names and languages as though he grew up speaking them. Only hardcore hobbit-heads will get through the first disc, which gives us Christopher Tolkien reading his own preface and introduction in the same mumble-mouthed fashion as his sire, but I can recommend the rest to anyone who might want another trip to Middle-earth with a master narrator for a guide.

Houghton Mifflin should get on the stick immediately and commission Lee to narrate all of The Lord of the Rings. The current audio edition read by Rob Inglis is pretty lackluster stuff, and who wouldn’t want Saruman himself reading the whole epic?

Oh, and the video above? Let’s just say that with the way now clear for a film version of The Hobbit, with Peter Jackson producing and maybe directing, I thought I’d remind everyone of the high stylistic bar that’s already been set.

Fripp’s dream

I’ve been reading reports of the imminent demise of the big-time record business since about the late 1970s, when Robert Fripp did a bunch of columns for Musician magazine comparing big labels to dinosaurs that were going to die out and be replaced by small, mobile intelligent mammals.

Of course, Fripp was working from an obsolete metaphor: if an asteroid hadn’t slam-dunked itself on the Earth’s surface, there’s every reason to think the dinosaurs would still be around and maybe even evolved to the point where they could sit around and bitch about the rotten music business. Lots of terrific independent music labels — Artists House and Rough Trade spring immediately to mind — have come and gone, done in by the unforgiving economics of production and distribution.

It took a couple of decades for the music industry’s asteroid to arrive in the form of the Internet, and now Fripp’s dreams have come true. And here’s David Byrne to tell us all about it.

Money changes everything

I admit it — I’m tickled to hear that Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema have decided to bury the hatchet and make another truckload of money with a film version of The Hobbit, to be released in two parts. Christmas is coming and that means I’ll be settling down with Dances With Mermaids at some point for our usual marathon viewing of the three Lord of the Rings movies. It will be fun to know there’s another trip to Middle-earth in the offing.

I guess we can chalk this decision up to the lackluster box office reponse to The Golden Compass, which New Line had positioned as the next Lord of the Rings. Stuck without a franchise and mired with a lawsuit filed by the director of its most successful release — all of a sudden, an out-of-court settlement starts to make loads of sense.

Worst. Date. Movie. Ever.

Dennis Cozzalio’s fond recollections of his first encounter with Eraserhead, David Lynch’s 1977 feature film debut, have brought me back to those bright college days when I first got a look at Henry and his mutant child.

Word of the film had been bubbling for the better part of a year, with rave reviews in Cinefantastique and Newsweek sharpening my appetite, and on a rain-drenched, chilly Sunday night in early spring, my date and I folded ourselves into her tiny car and crossed the mighty Raritan into New Brunswick, where an art cinema cunningly named the Art Cinema showed Eraserhead to round out its weekend roster of midnight movies. (Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was still a somewhat fresh phenomenon, so we’re talking ancient history here.) There was no way we could have anticipated what we were going to get. Cinefantastique, that most knowledgable of magazines, had taken the easy way out by citing Bunuel, though the writer added that the film was unique in that it seemed to have no real stylistic precursors. The Newsweek piece touted it as a horror movie. It wasn’t, but I don’t blame the reviewer for misusing the term — Eraserhead appeared at the same time David Cronenberg was making his name with queasy venereal-horror items like The Brood and They Came From Within, and it appeared some squelchy new movement was being born. It would be several years before “Lynchian” entered the lexicon via Blue Velvet, so how to find a short, snappy description of Eraserhead?

As it turned out, I coined the perfect description as we left the theater, so shaken by the movie’s repulsive imagery and distortions of flesh that the mere idea of physical contact was unbearable. What we had just seen, I realized, was the worst date movie ever made.

It was also, later on, the wellspring of an endless stream of black-humored one-liners — to this day, whenever I pass Cornish game hens in the supermarket, I have to resist the impulse to cry, “They’re manmade! Damnedest things I ever saw!” — because Eraserhead is, among other things, a film that gets weirdly funnier with each viewing. Maybe that’s the reason I still like the movie even though I finally consigned Lynch to the same life-is-too-short dumpster occupied by Woody Allen. In Eraserhead, the dream logic of the story — in which Henry seems to retreat from the post-industrial horror of his daily life to the even more surrealistic space inside his head — seems purer and less forced. Eraserhead is the film David Lynch made before he started making David Lynch films. Lost Highway was where I finally lost patience with the dicking around. People tell me Mulholland Drive is the flick in which Lynch pulls it together, but I heard that same line for Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, both on television and film. Inland Empire is out on DVD, you say? Fine — go have a ball. Knock yourself out.

Some of Cozzalio’s commentators debate whether Eraserhead is best seen in the kind of dirty, coffin-sized theaters that would have shown a film like Eraserhead in the late 1970s, and I have to come down on the side of the theater experience. The Art Cinema was extremely small and extremely dingy, and the other people in the audience seemed on the verge of engaging in some Lynchian activity (e.g., having their heads pop off and sink through the floor), so the film gained considerably from its setting. New Brunswick itself was a very Lynchian place in the late 1970s, never more so than after midnight, when the abandoned buildings lining Albany Street looked like they had nasty secrets to keep. Part of the reason Grindhouse fell on its face earlier this year was that it could not replicate the most crucial element of the real grindhouse experience — the nagging doubts about whether you would be able to make it to your car after the movie ended, and whether your car would even be there if you did. The excellent DVD version of Eraserhead released in 2000 has none of that impact, though it does allow one to freeze-frame the many What the hell just happened? moments that give the film its continued punch.

It didn’t take much longer for the Art Cinema to stop being an art cinema — Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara finished it off — and revert to its X-rated grindhouse roots. Everything along Albany Street, from the train station to the river, ended up being torn down. Lynch used to tell interviewers that his debut film was inspired by his time living in Philadelphia, but for me, Eraserhead will always exist in a private New Brunswick of the mind. It may sound strange, but I consider that a compliment to the film. I don’t doubt for a moment that David Lynch would understand.