Category Archives: The Viewing Life

Game of Shout-outs

Game of Thrones is a class act. Yes, the show is so eager to display the naked female form engaged in sexual acts whenever possible that I sometimes think Paul Verhoeven took over the camera to make a medieval version of Showgirls. Yes, the previous season’s depiction of how Theon was transformed into Reek (which took place mostly offstage in the novels) played like outtakes from Salo.

But in the second episode of the new season, King Joffrey (aka Caligula Bieber) brandished his new sword and wondered aloud what to name it. “Stormbringer!” someone shouted off camera. “Terminus Est!” someone else shouted, just as another called out the name used in George R. R. Martin’s novel — Widow’s Wail.

The plot rolled on and I rolled with it, but not before I had my little glow of appreciation for the shout-outs to Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe. What is turning out to be the greatest fantasy series ever made for television took time to give props to two other fantasy greats. Terminus Est is the massive sword used by Severian, the apprentice torturer in Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.  Stormbringer is the soul-devouring weapon featured in Moorcock’s long-running series about Elric, the semi-human albino who needs the sword to keep himelf alive.  So — a class act.

If someone had also called out “Graywand” or “Scalpel,” thus referencing Fritz Lieber’s classic Lankhmar stories, the episode would have scored my personal heroic fantasy trifecta. Maybe another episode. I’m sure they’ll get around to it. This show is, after all, a class act.

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The King in Yellow and the Herring in Red

Now that the final episode of True Detective is out of the box, it becomes clear that all the time we adepts spent delving into Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow would have been better spent doing . . . well, just about anything else. With its elaborately unsatisfying climax and ThePledgedeliberately hokey wrap up, True Detective brings to mind not The King in Yellow but The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “Requiem for the Detective Story,” which used the genre’s tropes to cock a leg over the very concept of the detective story.

In other words, I got suckered, just like you. Turns out that True Detective was meant all along to be nothing more than an eight-hour piss take. Rust Cohle’s nihilistic mumbo jumbo and the ominous hints about Carcosa were just bread crumbs leading us to a dead end. Throughout its eight-episode run, True Detective deliberately used the most hackneyed mystery story devices — the mismatched partners, the tormented genius detective, the perpetually angry supervisor — but burned through cliches with doomy swampland atmosphere, hints of something bigger and scarier just around the next corner, and, above all, the forceful acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. 

With the season finale, series creator Nic Pizzolatto trotted out every standard move from every serial killer tale you’ve seen since The Silence of the Lambs. The killer’s isolated house. The detective chasing the bad guy into his dungeon, when years of police training and simple common sense would have dictated securing the area and calling for backup. The bad guy’s disembodied voice taunting the detective as he picks his way through the chamber of horrors. (Nice set design, by the way.) The tormented genius getting a chance at inner peace and redemption. Even a cheesy joke at the end to show us the combative partners are now BFFs. When Marty’s family showed up in his hospital room, their fixed smiles and robotic stares had me expecting some kind of last minute explosion of weirdness. But that’s not what Pizzolatto was after.

Durrenmatt’s story showed a brilliant police detective who becomes obsessed with finding a serial child molester, long after the case is officially closed, and loses his mind when his foolproof plan to capture the killer goes unresolved. Durrenmatt’s point was that the random workings of chance played a bigger role in life than the insights of genius detectives. Point taken. I guess Pizzolatto’s point was that viewers may be intrigued by hints of real evil, but really what they want is a formulaic resolution and a cup of warm milk before bedtime. Point taken. Now go bug somebody else with your postmodern narrative critique.

There’s some undeniable nerve involved in creating a series that ends up giving its viewers the back of its hand. But if there is a second season of True Detective, I’m not so sure I’ll be around to see how it turns out. Fool me once . . . you know the rest. Or maybe you don’t. In that case, have fun with the second season.    


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‘True’ grue


I watched the first episode of the HBO series True Detective with low expectations. Very low expectations. The promos made it look like yet another Thomas Harris knockoff; even the standard-issue baroquely defiled murder victim, a woman displayed with antlers bound to her head, was anticipated by Hannibal. The tormented genius detective (Matthew McConaughey) threatened to be a photocopy of Will Graham in Red Dragon, and the idea of pairing him with a stodgy by-the-book partner (Woody Harrelson) went from moldy to mummified round about the first Lethal Weapon flick. The pyramidal twig thingies brought back unfortunate memories of The Blair Witch Project. Somebody even stood over the corpse and said, “He’ll do this again.” (At least he didn’t use the term “unsub.”) Did I say “low expectations”? Try sub-basement, dungeon-below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel expectations.

I hope you haven’t fallen asleep by now, because True Detective turns out to be a master class in bringing fresh, vigorous life to fossilized tropes. A big part of it is the Louisiana setting, all swampland menace beneath merciless sun, with a dash of Flannery O’Connor as the investigation brings in a revival-tent huckster with a pompadour that could have been applied with frosting from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. But the salty byplay between the two leads gives the show its hammering pulse. Three episodes into this season, McConaughey’s detective is entirely believable as a bunch of shredded nerves that defy all attempts at self-medication, and Harrelson’s good old boy persona is flaking away to reveal a picture of quiet desperation. The framing device — an after-the-fact investigation of how the detective solved their case — promises all kinds of interesting revelations.

The second episode gave me a pleasurable surprise with a shout-out to The King in Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that influenced H.P. Lovecraft and, through him, a host of other horror writers. (You can download it for free from Project Gutenberg.) The title refers to a fictional play Chambers suggests has been banned because of its disturbing power; the play appears only as fleeting excerpts used to introduce the individual stories. The murder victim in True Detective turns out to have kept a diary that refers to the King in Yellow and the city of Carcosa, which also figures in Chambers’ work. Chambers was a fan of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, notably “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and he swiped the name Carcosa along with other bits of Bierce-invented nomenclature. Lovecraft, in turn, admired The King in Yellow and emulated Chambers’ technique by salting his stories with vague references to forbidden works like The Necronomicon. The Bierce-invented deity Hastur also turns up, much mutated, in Lovecraft’s weird cosmology, where he has remained. As the saying goes, talent borrows but genius steals.

How all this will play out in True Detective is anybody’s guess. The yellow deity is absent from the third episode, which ends with a glimpse of a meth-cooker as monstrous as anything in Lovecraft. We are almost halfway through the first season, after which — assuming the ratings are good — the series will reset in its second season with a new story and a fresh set of characters. Maybe it will turn out that Cthulhu is slumbering off the Louisiana coast. After the BP oil spill, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.       

ADDENDUM: Art of the Title, one of my favorite Internet time-sucks, has an informative piece on the very cool title sequence for True Detective.


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James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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That’s two big dragon heads up


The 1988 fantasy adventure Willow is nowhere close to being a good film, but this Behind the Scenes Photo feature at Ain’t It Cool News reminded me of its most distinctive feature: its anti-movie critic subtext, courtesy of producer George Lucas, who conceived the story but assigned directorial duties to Ron Howard. The chief villain is General Kael, whose name was a jab at the famous Pauline, and the two-headed dragon that makes a brief appearance in the middle of a battle was dubbed the Eborsisk by the effects team at Industrial Light and Magic. That name, of course, is a cock of the leg at Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who doubtless incurred the great man’s wrath by dumping all over Howard the Duck, the big-budget fiasco Lucas produced in 1986. With Ebert’s death still in the news, some obliging film buff posted the clip of the Eborsisk in action:   

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Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert may not have set out to become the world’s number one film critic, but circumstances handed him the title. When newspapers began their long dumb-down retreat from cultural life, Ebert was there to take up some of the slack. He had the Pulitzer, he had the name recognition, he had the television show, and he had the energy to churn out reams of wire copy as most newspapers were abandoning the idea of nurturing homegrown talent. That was his great good fortune. Our good fortune was that Ebert, in a position where he could have spent the rest of his life coasting, decided to step up his game in a big way. Blessed with a reach and status enjoyed by no other critic, Ebert became a better critic than he needed to be. In fact, during his last decade or so, he became a great one. There are many critics just as good as Ebert, but I doubt there will ever be another one who combines his talent with his wide-ranging impact. It’s standard for career retrospective pieces like this to end on a for-whom-the-bell-tolls note, but in Ebert’s case it’s more than appropriate. In terms of impact, he really was the last of his breed.

Ebert was tagged early on as a “Paulette,” favored by the influential film critic Pauline Kael, and his best work shared her passionate engagement, disdain for deep-dish critical theories, and readiness to celebrate art (or, at least, craftsmanship) where he found it. But he had a shaky start as a rather callow and conventional reviewer. This early piece about George Romero’s seminal horror film Night of the Living Dead is a long whine about violence in movies, with only the last paragraph devoted to the real issue — that the theater owner should have been horsewhipped for showing such a Sneakpreviewsfilm as a kiddie matinee. The early months of Sneak Previews, the PBS show that made Ebert a household name, featured a stinker-of-the-week selection, complete with an appearance by Aroma the Educated Skunk, that invariably picked on some no-name release that hardly seemed worth the bother. The show’s chief attraction back then was the simmering dislike between Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, and the chance of seeing it boil over on camera. (See above.) One of their themed shows presented movies they thought celebrated the American family, one of them being The Great Santini, a film that could serve as a legal defense of patricide. A lot of writers who imagined that someday they would have a good media perch and a Kael-scale five-foot-shelf of books with their collected reviews scoffed at the show and thought, How did these two dweebs luck out? I know whereof I speak, because I was one of those scoffers.

But the genius of Sneak Previews, at least during its initial 1975-1982 run, was that it tapped into the essential quality shared by all movie buffs — their love of argument. There are passionate fans for any art form, but movie geeks are in a class of their own in terms of their readiness to throw down at any moment. By pitting two pugnacious critics from competing newspapers, the format tapped into that argumentative streak. Over the years Ebert and Siskel became friends, but Siskel remained officially unimpressed by Ebert’s Pulitzer-laureled credentials, and he never hesitated to call bullshit on camera. About 3.33 into this clip, you’ll see Siskel berating Ebert for giving higher praise to Benji the Hunted than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:

Note that Ebert gives as good as he gets during the exchange, which both parties allowed to air without any edits or re-dos. It reflects well on bot parties that they didn’t mind being seen at sword’s points. That air of intellectual aggression between equals vanished when Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews and took their show on the syndicated road in 1982. (They were succeeded by journalist Neal Gabler, who left in 1985, and Jeffrey Lyons, an over-the-hill showbiz columnist so desperate for TV time that he stayed on as Michael Medved’s dog until the show was euthanized in 1996.) Bob Costas once got Ebert to admit on camera that he probably never would have enjoyed the same level of success without Siskel. Costas also got each man to describe what he envied most about the other during a 1992 interview:

Some critics are hunter-gatherers who range far and wide, seeking art in obscure corners and disreputable genres, then returning to bring readers the good news. Other critics are more like country club desk managers, categorizing high and low art in order to decide who will be allowed into the swimming pool area. Ebert was a hunter-gatherer. Like Kael, he was shaped by a period in which American filmmaking was breaking down barriers and exploring new artistic frontiers — a period in which movies were exciting in ways that went beyond the hyped-up marketing of peanut-brained behemoths like The Dark Knight Rises. Kael worked her way up through the decades when European and Asian films were making their first serious inroads into American viewing habits; Ebert wrote about those films (and the later works they influenced) with an appreciation that was clearly shaped by Kael’s critical judgments. When American filmmaking narrowed, Ebert responded by widening his focus: no critic of comparable stature devoted as much space to foreign works. In May, when the studios usually rolled out their big summer blockbusters, Ebert was at the Cannes film festival, prospecting for works of promise and greatness, and sending dispatches back Stateside. One of the great pleasures of working as a wire news editor in the Nineties was the opportunity to read those dispatches, unedited, even though the paper I worked for would never use them.    

Ebert was a man of sides. Apparently he used to be quite the drinker, as is to be expected when one’s colleagues include Mike Royko. He worked with exploitation king Russ Meyer on the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and reteamed with him for the never-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi. (Charles M. Young, who wrote a classic profile of the Pistols for Rolling Stone, paid a visit to Meyer’s hotel suite and was introduced by Meyer: “This is Roger Ebert. He’s really into tits.”) He was an unabashed science fiction fan, and had actually published stories in genre magazines before turning his attention to full-time reviewing. During the Nineties, when his critical writing truly bloomed, Ebert also showed himself to be a shrewd writer on politics. When the Gingrich gang was on its contemptible jihad against Bill Clinton, Ebert’s response to the campaign of humiliation against the president was as discerning as it was outraged. Perhaps for that reason, when the smoke cleared, Ebert has granted an interview with Clinton as well as a screening in the White House movie theater.

The love of argument overlapped with the instinct to teach and inform. He did DVD commentaries for six films, and an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging bunch they are: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Ozu’s Floating Weeds, Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about Robert Crumb, the cult fantasy Dark City, and, naturally, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Now, Citizen Kane is one of my favorite flicks — I’ve read biographies of Orson Welles, even Kael’s much-maligned essay “Raising Kane.” But I found the flow of information on Ebert’s Citizen Kane commentary so exhausting that I had to switch it off halfway through and go staggering into the kitchen for a couple of boilermakers. The man knew his onions.         

The love of argument also led him to the Internet, that nonpareil domain for never-ending debates. Ebert dove into the Internet head first in a way that few other critics matched, and his website remains a model for all writers. When websites like Ain’t-It-Cool News were still being derided as watering holes for unhygienic dorks, Ebert invited AICN ubergeek Harry Knowles to share the balcony with him. Late in life, as recurring bouts of cancer sapped his strength, Ebert turned his site into a meeting place for movie writers from all over the world, giving Stateside readers a chance to see how Hollywood films affected their counterparts in India and elsewhere. The collapse of the newspapers and magazines that once hosted film critics (as well as reviewers in all other fields) may have saddened him, but Ebert knew the intellectual fizz of cultural commentary had moved to the digital realm, and he made himself comfortable there early on.

There are plenty of great film websites and lots of fine film writers on the Internet. I have my favorites; you have yours; tomorrow we’ll both find plenty more to follow. The collapse of credentialism has, overall, been a good thing for criticism. One need only look back to the days of Bosley Crowther, or some snobbish bit of snark in the New York Times, to recognize that pedigree and critical judgment don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand in the arts. But I’m old enough to remember when there were lots of magazines and newspapers worth following and arguing about, and I miss them. When I started to develop a serious interest in movies, I sought out critics in the scores of magazines glutting the news stands — The New Yorker, Clay Felker’s New York, Time, Saturday Review, The Atlantic, the Village Voice, and even TV Guide, which at one time gave space to both Judith Crist and Cleveland Amory — and the hunt introduced me to other writers and subjects along the way. Movies were worth reading about and arguing about, and even the most low-rent mass market magazine felt obligated to join the conversation. Ebert was the last great writer to cross that landscape, and the last to enjoy the kind of clout that came with the role. As Lester Bangs once said about Elvis Presley, we will never agree about anything the way we agreed about Roger Ebert. We really are moving into a new realm, and one of the compass points for getting around in it is now gone for good.

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David Letterman is happy this morning

I didn’t watch all of last night’s Oscar broadcast, but I did watch enough of it to conclude that if Seth MacFarlane did nothing else, he made David Letterman very happy. I’m sure Letterman slept like a baby last night, content in the knowledge that he is no longer the worst Oscar host on record.

I had the same feeling watching MacFarlane’s performance that I got watching his cartoon, Family Guy. I duly noted the fact that my outrage button was being pushed — hammered, actually — but nothing registered because there was nothing resembling wit behind the mechanically delivered outrage. The early skit with Captain Kirk telling MacFarlane his jokes were tasteless and crass may have been intended as inoculation — Look, I’m so edgy I even criticize myself going in! — but it ended up being more of a prophecy. I’ll credit MacFarlane with looking cool and poised throughout a long, demanding broadcast. The flop sweat was all in his material.

For the record, I’m perfectly happy that Argo got the biggie, Daniel Day-Lewis got another gold guy. (Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview, Abraham Lincoln — what a roster!) and Jennifer Lawrence got her crown. I haven’t seen Life of Pi, but Ang Lee is a real talent. It was cool seeing Shirley Bassey belt out the Goldfinger theme song, then Adele doing the same for Skyfall, its only peer in the Bond canon.       

To show their appreciation, I suggest the Academy voters commission a special Oscar for Seth MacFarlane: a statuette with the hands clenched a little below waist level, to commemorate what Edgy Guy got to spend the night doing in front of millions of viewers.

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The Parker files

Blunt dialogue, lean action, minimal exposition . . . you’d think the Parker novels would be naturals for Hollywood. But the antihero created by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) is a tough pill for story editors in search of — how do they put it? — characters we can care about. This makes for some highly variable movies.

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The future ain’t what it used to be

Actually, the predictions aren’t as far off the mark as you might think.

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Tempus fuhgeddaboudit

All fiction is historical fiction. That’s hardly a piercing insight — even if all topical references are scrubbed out of a story, the author’s assumptions and preoccupations will fix its place in history. What IS startling, though, is how quickly that history becomes ancient history.

  While I continue the search for full-time employment, I’ve signed on as a substitute teacher in several school districts. The other day I filled in for the teacher of a reading comprehension class. The middle schoolers had been going over Rod Serling’s teleplay for “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” one of the best-known episodes of The Twilight Zone,  I warned the kids that as an artifact from pre-CGI 1960, the show’s visuals effects would look cut-rate and frequently corny — once again I marvel at how often the show reused sets and props from Forbidden Planet — but they should try to stay focused on Serling’s writing. Then I filled them in on a bit of Serling’s background as one of the first great talents of the television era, and how after years of fighting with timid programmers and intrusive advertisers, he hit on the idea of using a fantasy and science fiction-oriented series to comment with the social and political issues of the day. In an interview he called himself “a tired idealist,” but the best episodes of The Twilight Zone are anything but tired.

Then I tried to give them some more context, and promptly fell into a black hole of memory. The students got a few quick laughs at the sight of cars with running boards, but when I tried to convey the idea of living in an era when mass media consisted solely of newspapers, radio, snail mail, and television — no Internet, no smartphones, no texting — they were simply puzzled. (One of the main character is a ham radio operator — try explaining that one in millennial-friendly terms.) I asked them if they could relate the story to what was going on in current America. Some of them knew a bit about the Cold War and the civil rights movement, both major elements in the story’s background, but only one had heard of Joe McCarthy and the paranoid political climate he exploited. When I talked about 9/11, I ran into the realization that it, too, was history — they hadn’t even been born.They did smile knowingly, however, when I recalled that a great many people responded to 9/11 by becoming suspicious of all Muslims.

This isn’t going to be another complaint about how Those Damned Kids Aren’t Learnin’ Anything. I threw a lot at them in a small period of time, and a gratifyingly large number of the students tried to engage the subject. I learned a couple of things, too. One, tempus fugits a lot faster than you realize. Two, Serling’s closing message has a lot in common with Edward R. Murrow’s sign-off remark in his commentary on McCarthyism.

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