Friday, March 31, 2017

"Past Lives, Now Available on Videocassette" in Scrutiny



My magical realist short story "Past Lives, Now Available on Videocassette," is available to read online at the literary journal Scrutiny. Longtime devotees of this site will likely not be surprised by the subject matter.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... SEA OF LOVE

Only now does it occur to me... that not only does SEA OF LOVE offer the trappings of a kinda-mediocre-but-fun sex thriller in the FATAL ATTRACTION/BASIC INSTINCT/SLIVER/BODY OF EVIDENCE vein, not only does it feature Al Pacino and John Goodman as hot-doggin' detectives,
who prefer to work outside the system––much to chagrin of their straight-laced boss, John Spencer (of course),
not only does it feature an extremely young and quippy Samuel L. Jackson,
Credited in the role of––no joke, unfortunately––"Black Guy"

not only does it contain an absurd GODFATHER reference alluding to the restaurant cop-killing of Sterling Hayden,
 
Pacino: "What is she gonna do, confess? Shoot me? We're in a restaurant!!"

not only do Pacino and Ellen Barkin offer the most hilarious, post-9 1/2 WEEKS, food-related seduction scene this side of TROLL 2:
 
He was lookin' for Chips Ahoy 

 
She was lookin' for fresh produce, but then she found...

No, not love––she found...

Yellow bell peppers

Oh yes she did

No, we shouldn't, look at all this fresh romaine

Just waiting to go on a salad, perhaps a Caesar

not only does SEA OF LOVE offer all of these sublime and occasionally laughable joys, but it also, and perhaps most importantly, it depicts the best shower curtain of all time––
this beautifully whimsical portrait of rumba musicians who happen to be alligators. Said shower curtain belongs to hardboiled cop Pacino,
whose street cred has never been more crystal clear.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... STORM WARNING

Only now does it occur to me... I never thought I would see Hollywood dancing legend Ginger Rogers being brutalized by members of the Ku Klux Klan...
...and that said tableau would not be "kitschy," but instead would function as a small part of a wider, more profound, and all-too-relevant whole. 

Stuart Heisler's STORM WARNING (1951) is a noir-ish message picture and a late entry into the "B-movies depicting the dangers of hate groups in America" genre, which includes films like BLACK LEGION (1937), NATION AFLAME (1937), and LEGION OF TERROR (1936).

Ginger Rogers plays a dress model who's passing through the small town of Rockpoint, USA to visit her newlywed sister (Doris Day). That the studio chose Ginger and Doris to portray key figures in a serious assessment of American hate groups (which is, for the record, not a musical in any way, shape, or form) feels like kind of an artistic coup. [If you'd asked me two weeks ago if there existed a movie where Ginger Rogers was bullwhipped by Klansmen, I would have been incredulous. Even now, I can barely conceive of the idea.] In any event, Ginger is in town for approximately three minutes when she witnesses the Klan murdering a journalist.
 
For a film about the KKK, the aspect of racial prejudice exists mostly as an implication; we only explicitly see the KKK harming white people who threaten to expose or destroy them. It is an obvious blind spot for the film, but as far as old Hollywood goes, the fact that they are willing to spend 93 minutes attacking a hate group instead of 165 minutes glorifying it (see: 1915's A BIRTH OF A NATION, among others) shows definite progress.

When she goes to tell her sister about it, she recognizes her new brother-in-law as one of the Klan murderers. Using a melodramatic framework that recalls the Blanche DuBois/Stella/Stanley Kowalski dynamic in a STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,
Doris Day as the suffering, dutiful wife, darkened by the shadow of her abuser (Steve Cochran)...

a man who uses power dynamics and outright intimidation...

...to extend his sphere of abusive influence,  illustrated through Elia Kazan-esque theatrical blocking.

Ginger struggles between the ideas of spilling what she knows to the relevant authorities and lying to protect her sister's domestic purgatory. And did I mention that the relevant authority in this instance––the district attorney who's trying to destroy the Klan once and for all––is portrayed by none other than an eyebrow-indicating Ronald Reagan?

Facing external threat and familial guilt, Ginger stays quiet for a while, and the film takes advantage of her uncertainty to twist the knife; laying out an excellent case for why hate groups must rely on secrecy, the threat of violence, the silence of the good, and the indifference of the rational.

Here's a Klan member condescendingly explaining all the "good" they do:


And here's two Klansmen fearing what will happen if Ginger testifies:


And here's national press coverage illustrating the depth of the mistrust of outsiders and intellectuals, a sentiment that boils down to––"don't tell me what to do in my backyard, especially if they're lynching people in my backyard."

When Ginger refuses to testify and it looks like the case is all but lost, the locals cheer Reagan's defeat from outside the courthouse. Then we're privy to a stirring, Capra-style plea on behalf of rationality and tolerance:

All of this builds to a vivid conclusion, rife with madness and Klan imagery.
Films like this ought to be in the dust-bin of history, to be extracted for purposes of derision, at how uncivilized we used to be. They used to burn books? They used to collect in mobs and wear bedsheets and follow tyrants? They needed to be told that was wrong? What a quaint, dumb, superstitious and intolerant people! And yet STORM WARNING has outlived this movie-of-the-week shelf life. It says, in vanilla terms, and with the most vanilla stars imaginable––Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, and Ginger Rogers, for godssake!––the vanilla message that kindness and moral responsibility are American qualities, and that narrow-mindedness, harassment, lying, and intimidation are anti-American. But these days, that feels like a "contentious" message. The hoods have come off, and the Klansmen are emboldened to ply their poison trade by daylight, and under more innocuous flags. The image in the film that sticks with me is this; a fleeting shot of a child whose parent has dressed them up in Kiddie Klan gear:
This image, and the film that contains it, is a 66-year-old plea. To quote Ronald Regan's D.A.: if the good do nothing, "They're gonna rip up the old laws and make new ones. They're gonna do every rotten thing they can think of doing..."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Only now does it occur to me.... DANGEROUSLY CLOSE

Only now does it occur to me... that Cannon Films––the studio of DEATH WISH 3 and INVASION U.S.A.––was capable of turning out a socially progressive message picture! While BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO may sort of tackle corrupt real estate developers and BLOODSPORT might address shady Kumite ethics, DANGEROUSLY CLOSE––helmed by Albert Pyun, director of CYBORG, VICIOUS LIPS, and KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK ––takes a bleak and (mostly) sober look at yuppie vigilantism and institutionalized hate, updated for the '80s.

It's an oddly effective mashup of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, WALL STREET, and THE STEPFORD WIVES with a sort of STREETS OF FIRE/music video aesthetic (the smoke machines are working overtime).

It depicts a gang of preppy neo-fascists (called "The Sentinels") who are hell-bent on ridding their Academy of "undesirables,"

whether that means subculturally speaking, or otherwise.

In other words, the lone punk in a sea of preppies should be worried.

It prefigures HEATHERS (with none of the humor) as a cynical high school movie willing to "go there," particularly in depicting its suspicion of authority figures, the horror of school shootings,

 toxic jock culture,

and the American System's segregationalist tendencies.

The best part is that this is all dressed up in a video box that gives top billing to "Featuring Robert Palmer's Grammy Award-Winning Song 'Addicted to Love'!"

[Indeed, the soundtrack is pretty good––featuring music by Depeche Mode, Black Uhuru, Fine Young Cannibals, The Smithereens, and T.S.O.L., among others.] 

I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it's more sensible than you'd expect from Pyun, and almost plays like a grim riposte to the optimistic sex comedies, Savage Steve Holland romps, and John Hughes flicks that dominated the '80s teen landscape.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

Only now does it occur to me... that THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) has much to offer viewers in 2017, whether it is the perfect metaphorical image of an American flag composed of three types of caviar:
or the "Manchurian Candidate" himself, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), a blunt, vulgar, and simple-minded instrument of Machiavellian operators (including Angela Lansbury)




who, despite being the most transparent of bullies and liars, is widely regarded as a harmless buffoon with a particular flair for riling up the intelligentsia.



Perhaps, ultimately, it is worth remembering that the Manchurian Candidate––a man who craves the spotlight and the illusion of power, no matter the cost and consequence, no matter the motives of his brutish handlers and willful enablers, a man who reduces every argument to 'us versus them' and appears incapable of deep and critical thought––this is a man who disgusts even those who regard him as a useful fool or a muscle to be flexed. In some ways, he is a tragic figure, tragic like the termite who chews through the support beam that destroys his nest, tragic like the energy magnate who befouls a world his grandchildren must inherit, tragic like the oversized child who douses his steak in ketchup while playing at sophisticate.