Thursday, December 1, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING

Only now does it occur to me... that TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING (1977)––a film I hadn't even heard of until a few weeks ago––is one of the finest political thrillers of its generation. Directed by master craftsman Robert Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY, THE DIRTY DOZEN, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH), it's a chamber drama of the highest order (and with the highest stakes possible), and the only contemporary film of its kind I can think of that explores the disillusionment of post-Nixon America with such magnified audacity.

The set-up is this: an Air Force General (Burt Lancaster) has threatened to spill a few inconvenient truths about the Vietnam War to the American public––and winds up in prison for his trouble.

After befriending some fellow convicts (Paul Winfield and Burt Young, in sympathetic performances),

he busts out of jail and hijacks a nuclear missile silo (!), threatening to begin WWIII unless the sitting President, who had nothing to do with Vietnam (Charles Durning, sort of standing in for Carter), publicly releases the incriminating documents. To modern audiences, it may encourage comparisons to THE ROCK (1996), from its likable, spurned, and volatile General to the ginger handling of green, gel-based chemical weapons (sarin gel) in a particularly suspenseful sequence.

Above all, it's an adult thriller, brilliantly acted and directed, that trusts its audience to understand its labyrinthine politics and moral shades of gray. It could easily be a stage play, with the nuclear bunker on stage left and the Oval Office on stage right.

Charles Durning is particularly remarkable––he's sensitive and firm in his portrayal, the kind of clearheaded President you'd want on the front lines when something heavy goes down, like Henry Fonda in FAIL-SAFE or Martin Sheen on THE WEST WING. He grapples with the idea of the presidency becoming a puppet beholden to a shadow government, wondering if said government does not trust its own people, how can the people trust it? As a Carter-figure operating under the shadow of the presidents who came before, he must determine whether or not executive opacity has already crossed its Rubicon––or does the corrupted infrastructure yet contain an exit strategy for a decent man?

There's also a great moment where a brigadier general steals Durning's scotch

and Durning reprimands him, shouting:

"That's my drink, you make your own fucking drink!"

The supporting cast is a Who's Who of Old Hollywood testosterone, featuring everyone from Melvyn Douglas to Joseph Cotten to Richard Jaeckel to Richard Widmark.
And because it's a thriller with so few locations, Aldrich pumps it up with a style best described as "Brian De Palma on steroids," with plenty of two-way, three-way, and four-way split screens. Unlike De Palma, the tone is slightly detached, and consequently you almost feel like you're watching different news feeds of a historical event, rather than different channels jockeying for your attention.

Finally, Jerry Goldmith's wonderful score lends it a real, melancholy, FIRST BLOOD vibe. Like that film, it paints a picture for people who aggressively love America but don't think it's above reproach. (I guess I'm saying not to expect THE GREEN BERETS.) In all, it's an underseen gem with a clear and fervent voice that suceeds both as a white-knuckle thriller and as an investigation of a sadder, wiser American people.

Also, on a more frivolous note––half of the Rebellion from STAR WARS is working for the U.S. government in this movie: Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter in STAR WARS),

William Hootkins (Jek Porkins in STAR WARS),

and John Ratzenberger (Bren Derlin in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

all appear in bit parts as American soldiers.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Obsesssions: Authoritarian Kitsch" Online at ZYZZYVA

A new short essay of mine called "Authoritarian Kitsch" is available to read online at ZYZZYVA, as a part of their ongoing "Obsessions" series. It takes on some of my more complicated feelings regarding camp entertainment––and when it overlaps with fascist mythmaking.

ZYZZYVA is a San Francisco literary journal, founded in 1985, that has published work by writers such as Haruki Murakami, Amy Tan, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... THE BLACK CAT

Only now does it occur to me... that Lucio Fulci's THE BLACK CAT is one of the most compartmentalized films of all time, bizarre in its dissociation even for Fulci, an assemblage of isolated parts that come to approach abstract art. If you were to see individual clips out of context, your descriptions might resemble the fable of the blind men and the elephant.
A good 10% of THE BLACK CAT is roaming cat POV. This is to be expected, as it's an Italian horror movie from the 1980s called THE BLACK CAT. If Fulci had directed ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, at least 10% of it would have been bird POV.
But being as it's an Italian horror film with POV and black cats, obviously the cats are going to be doing some murdering. And so about 5% of the film is a disembodied cat paw being dragged across human flesh.
It's a feat of puppetry, the likes of which we would never see again at least until the appearance of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.

This ain't CAT'S EYE, but about 15% of the movie is cat eyeball closeups. We don't really get the classic Fulci trauma-shot, but practically every cat attack is preceded by EXTREME CLOSEUP: HUMAN EYEBALLS, EXTREME CLOSEUP: CAT EYEBALL, EXTREME CLOSEUP: HUMAN EYEBALLS, EXTREME CLOSEUP: CAT EYEBALL, CLOSEUP: CAT FLUNG AT HUMAN EYEBALLS. You feel like you're watching one of the duels in a Sergio Leone film, except with cats instead of Clint Eastwood.
10% of the movie is "charming-but-spooky English small town" atmosphere. It feels a bit like STRAW DOGS or AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.
The fog machines are working overtime, in other words.

Now for a downer: 25% of the movie is Mimsy Farmer, looking at things. Looking concerned.
Right now, she is concerned by Patrick Magee, pictured on the right.
Look, I have nothing against Mimsy Farmer, whether she's nuzzling with Lee Van Cleef in the Italian WILD GEESE rip-off CODE NAME: WILD GEESE or wiggin' out in Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. I can never decide if she's unexceptionally inoffensive or inoffensively unexceptional. It's not her fault, though. She's given practically nothing to do and has a compelling set of eyebrows as a scene partner half the time. Which leads me to:

35% of this movie is Patrick Magee eyebrow action. 
You may remember him overdoing it in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. If that's the case, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
The eyebrows have been unleashed. Even the cat is powerless.
This is what puts it over the edge. I'm gonna be honest, without Patrick Magee, this would be a contender for Fulci's worst film. As is, it's in the bottom tier, but, can you say no to this face?
If we're going to split hairs, Fulci probably should have called this film THE WILD EYEBROW.
Also, outside of the last five minutes, THE BLACK CAT has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe's story. Even the last five minutes are a stretch. If Fulci's THE BLACK CAT is an adaptation of Poe's "The Black Cat," then we might as well say that PLACES IN THE HEART is an adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart." But if you want another whacked-out Italian take on the same story with equal amount of cat POV and 100% more Harvey Keitel, I highly recommend Argento's segment of TWO EVIL EYES, which I have to believe is some kind of taunt directed at Fulci. 

And because I can't plug this enough, if psychotic cat attacks are your jam, you're doing yourself a disservice if you've not seen Ngai Kai Lam's THE CAT.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Forbidden Melodies from a Diminishing Octave" in So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

My latest short story, a science-fiction satire called "Forbidden Melodies from a Diminishing Octave," has just been published in the "Indiana Bicentennial" issue (Issue No. 5) of So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and it is now available for purchase in print.

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is located in Indianapolis, Indiana and is a leading champion in preserving Vonnegut's legacy, fighting censorship, and giving a voice to veteran artists and writers. I'm extremely proud to be a part of So It Goes, which has previously featured work by Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), Etheridge Knight (Poems from Prison), Marge Piercy (He, She, and It), and comedian Lewis Black.

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Dreams of the Clockmaker" Radio Drama in Cleaver Magazine

Some longtime readers may remember my spooky play "Dreams of the Clockmaker," which starred Jillaine Gill and ran in New York City (first at The Duplex, then at The Wild Project) in 2010 and 2011. Time Out New York described it as a "dystopian metatheatrical fantasia," and The Huffington Post said of it, "...there is something primitively human in listening and watching as a story unfolds, and if you are lucky enough to be in the presence of someone who is truly talented in this regard, allow yourself to imaginatively engage and enjoy the experience."

Five years later, playwright Grace Connolly has abridged, adapted, and realized the play as a full-on radio drama (starring Kelly Chick) for Cleaver Magazine. You can listen to it here (it runs about eighteen minutes), and read an interview (with yours truly) about the play here.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... THE PROPHECY

Only now does it occur to me... how in the hell did they succeed in making THE PROPHECY so boring?

Let's begin at the beginning: this is an apocalyptic, supernatural horror movie (from the writer of HIGHLANDER, no less), apparently popular enough to spawn four sequels, starring Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel,

a character with bizarrely 'wig-like' slicked-back hair, who is defined mostly by his propensity for perching on things

and his profound, nearly Trumpian sniffing:

who is probably based on the "Angel of Death" character from a Madonna music video.

In "Bad Girl" (1993), Walken's just sniffin'

and perchin' all over the place.

Did I mention we also also have Eric Stolz (as the Archangel "Simon") looking all Jesus-y and

also perching on lots of things, like the best of them.

We have Elias Koteas lending serious pathos as a priest-turned-detective:

SEINFELD's "Kenny Bania" (Steve Hytner) in an oddly serious role:

Adam Goldberg dealing with some serious limbo/substance abuse:

Virginia Madsen looking seriously sad all the time:

and Amanda Plummer doing some serious gurgling in a hospital bed:

Wait a minute, why is this all so serious?!  This is a movie about creepy-wacky Archangels that sniff and perch on things, it should be kind of fun, right?

When we're given visions of a battle in heaven, I was reminded of ARMY OF DARKNESS

and immediately wished that I was watching ARMY OF DARKNESS instead.  Or at least TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT.

By the time Viggo Mortensen shows up as Satan

Two of Cronenberg's faves sharing a tender, sniffin' moment––Viggo (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES) and Elias (CRASH).

(also perching on things, come to think of it)
we should be having peak fun––it's so patently ridiculous, that no amount of overwrought, inspirational voiceover; no amount of clumsily-delivered Biblical exposition should be able to ruin our fun. And yet. And yet.

Allow me to quote a line from THE PROPHECY:

"And in the end, I think it must be about faith, and if faith is a choice, then it can be lost––for a man, an angel, or the devil himself. And if faith means never completely understanding God's plan, then maybe understanding just a part of it ––our part––is what it is to have a soul. And maybe in the end, that's what being human is, after all." 

Dear lord, I believe I've stumbled upon the problem. I wanted this to feel like PRINCE OF DARKNESS or HELLRAISER or DEMON KNIGHT––hell, I would have even taken END OF DAYS... but instead, watching this movie feels like going to church. THE PROPHECY is not a horror movie. It's a sanctimonious Hallmark Channel drama masquerading as a horror movie. THE PROPHECY tricks you into thinking you're buying tickets to a Black Sabbath concert, but really it's a 'hip' Christian rock festival called Whack Sabbath. THE PROPHECY approaches you at the mall, and you think, wow, you're getting a coupon for a free Orange Julius, but really you're being handed a pamphlet that asks, "Are you saved?" THE PROPHECY is a breaking news alert about "War!" and after you scramble to click the link, you see they mean the War on Christmas. PROPHECY is a better movie, and PROPHECY is a movie about mutant bears directed by a blacked-out drunk John Frankenheimer. I could go on. But I won't. Um, Amen.

[Also worth mentioning: there are a number of elements (including the Weinsteins) that this movie shares in common with Kevin Smith's DOGMA, and while the flavors couldn't be more different, I feel pretty confident that THE PROPHECY served as at least a partial inspiration.]