Monday, August 25, 2008

An ode to the Swamp Thing

I've been re-reading my collection of old Swamp Thing comics the last couple of weeks. I have pretty much all of Swampy's appearances up through the founding of Vertigo (a founding built as much on Alan Moore's run on the book as anything, even though Moore had long since left when it happened). Here are a couple of thoughts on the matter.

First, when the movie version of Watchmen comes out next year, I hope the filmmakers have the wit to invite Wes Craven to the premiere. Without Craven, their film probably would not exist because the Swamp Thing run by Alan Moore would not exist. The version of the book on which Moore cut his teeth at DC was originally launched to tie in to Craven's Swamp Thing movie. The second issue of this run even had letters of encouragement from Craven himself and actor Dick Durock, who played the character on screen. It used a still from the movie on the cover:

Second, I think two periods of the book's first and second runs have been unfairly overshadowed by the bookends of the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson era and the Alan Moore/Stephen Bissette/John Totleben era. There isn't anything wrong with Nestor Redondo's art on the post-Wrightson issues, except, of course, that he's not Wrightson. And the Marty Pasko issues that precede Alan Moore's run on the book are pretty good. What isn't discussed much about the Alan Moore run is that great whacks of it are built upon and reference Pasko's stories, from the corporate bad guys who have it in for the Swamp Thing to a couple of the stand-alone adventures. Moore's interpretation of the supporting cast of the original series--Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane--derives directly from their depiction by Pasko rather than the one found in the series original run. There's at least one of Marty Pasko's issues, the Twilight Zone-y 16th issue, that's easily as good as any of the Alan Moore issues. Hell, it's better than some of them.

Third, I think Alan Moore lucked into an astonishingly good situation with the art team he inherited. I had been buying the book from the outset, though by the time the book was in the mid-teens, I was wavering. I skipped an issue or two of the later Tom Yeats issues (I filled them in after the fact), but when Bissette and Totleben came on the book, I was hooked. I had been a huge fan of the work they had done in Marvel's black and white magazines, particularly "The Blood Bequest," a waaaaay over the top Dracula story, and "A Frog is a Frog," which is one of my favorite horror stories in any medium from the 1980s. Bissette had been contributing layouts for Swamp Thing during Tom Yeats's run on the book, and invariably, they were Yeats's best pages. When he and Totleben took over the book full-time, there was a noticeable jump in quality .

I should note, in passing, that I liked Tom Yeats's art. It was dark and moody and classical, in the tradition of Berni Wrightson. But it wasn't batshit insane, which Bissette and Totlebens' art categorically was.

In any event, I have some serious doubts about whether or not Moore's initial success would have been as large as it was without the contributions of his artists. Tonally, his first couple of stories are very similar to Pasko's, though they are very different in terms of narrative technique. The work that Bissette and Totleben were already doing was amazing. Take for instance this panel from issue #17:

This is much more tonally dense than Yeats's work, not just in terms of image, but also in terms of technique. There are several separate and distinct methods of drawings working in this panel, and they throw in a photographic element as well.

I'm also fond of this scene, a couple of pages later:

For the most part, I think Pasko as a writer gave the artists their heads. I don't know if Pasko wrote using the Marvel method (in which he provided a plot for his artists and filled in the dialogue after the fact), or if he wrote full scripts. Based on the results, I rather suspect the former, because every so often, they would cut loose with something like this, from issue #19:

(click the image for a larger version)

Moore's sensibility seems to have been more closely in tune with the artists, though, because when they were clicking, they were unbeatable. This is my favorite page from the Moore run, the splash page of issue #42. It's positively droll:


A Light Week

248. I was taking a drink when it happened, so when May Canaday walked across the screen near the beginning of Brick (2005, directed by Rian Johnson), towing her cooler full of body parts behind her, I wound up with a sinus full of cranberry grape juice. I didn't quite spray it out of my nose, but it was close. Director Johnson was the film editor on May, which explains some of the similar feel this film has in the early going. Both films are in touch with a kind of adolescent anomie, translated to the screen as a kind of existential dreamscape. I mean, the high school confidential entered this realm a long time ago now with films like River's Edge, so I'm surprised it took as long as it has to mate this sensibility with the existential dreamscape of film noir. It works surprisingly well. I mean, I occasionally laughed at the hardboiled dialogue, but I think that it was intentionally funny. Droll, but intentional. The movie is singularly fortunate to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead. He sells the dialogue with authority. Gordon-Levitt is one of the best actors currently working. I mean, he makes me want to watch a Gregg Araki movie, for Pete's sake! That's charisma.

249. I'm slowly getting around to last year's Best Picture nominees. After watching Michael Clayton (2007, directed by Tony Gilroy) this weekend, I have only Atonement left yet to see. This one isn't bad. It's a legal movie recast as a thriller, in the manner of John Grisham, and it's a chilly one, at that, but it gets by on the strength of its performances. George Clooney is excellent in the lead, but the movie belongs to Tilda Swinton, as a very nervous corporate villain. She deserved her Oscar. But then, I've been a fan of Tilda for years. Tom Wilkinson goes a bit over the top, but this is balanced out in the supporting cast by the late Sidney Pollack, who is superb.

Monday, August 18, 2008

It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

243. One of Roger Corman's last films as a director, Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1971) is a colossal mess of a movie. It's not an entirely unwatchable mess--indeed, it's never really boring--but it's a hard core weird hippie shit movie, in which the director indulges his European influences (in this case, Godard). It's beautifully shot by cinematographer Ron Dexter (the head of make-up is future great cinematographer Dean Cundey), and it's edited at a brisk pace, but it's all completely random, like it's a bunch of crap that the filmmakers made up as they went out in the desert. I know, I know, most weird hippie shit movies are a bunch of crap they made up out in the desert. I'm sure AIP's approach to these movies was to give the cast and crew some tabs of acid and a Bolex and send them out to make the movie, hoping for something to cobble together in the editing room. Of course, Corman was hardly the type, even if he IS responsible for several key weird hippie shit movies. This one posits a world where a deadly gas wipes out everyone over the age of 25, and follows a hippie couple through the absurdist wasteland afterwards. It's all hopelessly dated, but so what? The notion that the jocks at your high school are only a step or two away from becoming the fascists of tomorrow still has an eerie resonance today. But this isn't a film that should be taken seriously.

244. Alec Guinness does his then-patented meek nebbish bit in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, directed by Charles Crichton), in which he has the perfect bank heist on his mind. He's in charge of bullion shipments, but he can't touch the stuff until he finds a way to ship it out of the country. Enter Stanley Holloway, whose character makes lead Eiffel Tower souvenirs. A bargain is struck, and the heist goes off. As is usual in heist movies, it's not the heist itself that goes afoul, it's the aftermath, but as this is one of those charmingly droll Ealing comedies, it sends its characters to relatively gentle dooms. Meanwhile, there's a fleeting glimpse of a VERY young Audrey Hepburn, and great fun is had by all.

245. When I wasn't puzzling over the great, gaping holes in the narrative, all I could think of while I was watching Mongol (2007, directed by Sergei Bodrov) was that exchange from Conan the Barbarian:

Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.
Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

This movie, generally, has more or less the same plot. It also has the same appetite for spectacle. Many many people are stabbed in this movie. I mean: stabbity stab stab stab. But beyond that, it's hard to really figure this movie, because those gaps in the narrative would seem to included seriously important stuff. Temudgin--the future Genghis Khan--escapes from the Tangut Empire and then suddenly rides at the front of a huge army? How? The movie doesn't say. Oh, I enjoyed the hell out of this sucker. It keeps one's attention, after all, with brutal violence and a ton of ethnographic detail in the background, but it sheds more heat than light. Still, it's the first part of a trilogy, so perhaps the next segment will focus more on the nuts and bolts of empire.

246. I think the key to Humphrey Bogart's enduring appeal is that he was willing to take chances that other stars of his day would never have considered. It's understandable, I suppose, given that Bogart's early career was spent playing thoroughly loathsome characters, that he would have no compunctions about playing a frankly unlikeable character like Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, directed by John Huston). I mean, even when Cary Grant played a heel (in His Girl Friday, for example), you still couldn't help but like him. Bogart, though, he didn't care if he punctured his image, and as a result, he added to it considerably. Dobbs, paranoid with gold fever, reminds me a lot of Bogart's later portrayal of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, in so far as both of them start out as "Bogart" and gradually transform into something else. This film has great, rough-hewn characters in it. Walter Huston gets most of the glory (and the Oscar), but pretty boy Tim Holt manages to hold his own, while the parade of bit players is fascinatingly diverse. "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."

247. It was an effort of will today not to log in and change my user name to "Vulnavia Phibes." I don't really know why that name appeals to me, but it does. I like it out of all proportion to my affection for The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971, directed by Robert Fuest) from which it is drawn, but love's love, I guess. I mean, I like the movie, don't get me wrong, but I don't love it, really. It's an attractive film, if a bit over-lit. The art-deco designs of the film hearken back to the great horror movies of the 1930s, and they bespeak a production sensibility that's more lavish than what AIP normally paid for. But there's something lacking in it. The themed deaths are clever and occasionally ghastly, but they aren't really all that suspenseful, and no one in the movie is very likable. On this last point: I don't need someone to root for--some of my favorite movies are about bad people doing bad things--but I do need to view the characters on film as something other than mannequins. In a lot of ways, this movie reminds me a lot of an Avengers episode in which the naughty by-play of Steed and Mrs. Peel is completely absent. Alas.

(as a further aside, regarding "identification," I've always loved what writer Caitlin Kiernan had to say about readers who needed "someone to root for." "Pigs root, dear," she says. "Are you a pig?").

Monday, August 11, 2008

Scream and Shout

239. So following up my viewing of Hellraiser a couple of weeks ago, this week, I stuck Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, directed by Tony Randel) into the machine. My memories of the film were hazy--like its predecessor, I hadn't seen it in well over a decade. My memory of the film consisted mainly of the notion that Hellbound is closer to Clive Barker's prose, in spirit if not in letter, than the first movie. I still think that's true, though it's not necessarily a compliment. My impression at this viewing was that this is a movie with No. Damned. Plot. You have a setting in a mental institution, the elements remaining from the previous film, and writers who think that that will make the movie without any input from them. It's pretty bad. More troubling: the later part of the movie seems drawn more from the Nightmare on Elm Street series than from Hellraiser, with hell substituting for Freddy's dreamland, and with the evil doctor cum Cenobite filling the role of Freddy, suggesting that the filmmakers had exhausted their own ideas in the first two reels. This also features the pussification of the main Cenobites. What a cop out. I mentioned that I think this is closer in spirit to Barker's prose, and here's why: Barker throws narrative coherence to the wind in favor of startling verbal images. This movie attempts the same, and occasionally succeeds. Unfortunately, none of those images really connects with any experience that anyone has ever had. Some might call this "visionary," but I don't know that that's what I'd call it...

240. So having abused my brain with THAT movie, with what did I scrub the lingering residue from my tortured gray matter? That would be Cutthroat Island (1995, directed by Renny Harlin), perhaps not the wisest choice. My significant other brought it home from some bargain bin ("Honey, it was only $4.98") a few weeks ago and we hadn't filed it in the collection yet. So I stuck it in the machine.


Let me tell you about wall to wall action--a fallacy into which this film falls. If you pitch everything at just the far side of hysteria, how do you know what's really important? Most movies that boast a thrill a minute? They're DULL. Monotonous, even. They're like being trapped on a long car trip with an ADD-afflicted ten-year old on a sugar high. And Jesus, does THIS movie fit that description. Oh, the elements are all here: pirate map, scurvy sea dogs, hissable villains (thank you, Frank Langella, but this was NOT your finest hour. I'd still sleep with you, though). What's lacking is mood. What's lacking is rhythm. What's lacking is brains. I mean, I like the idea of casting Geena Davis as a pirate captain, in theory. She's a fine actress, and I like seeing Mensa members do well. I'm sure that the movie sounded fun at the time. But performances are crafted by directors and film editors, and her then-husband Renny Harlin picks the worst possible takes and the clumsiest line readings imaginable.

So I was bored. In the big sea battle at the end of the film, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, my mind was wandering. I was wondering why it seemed like neither of the pirate ships was actually moving. Now, the movie sets up a classic stern chase, but that's not cinematic (don't tell Master and Commander, which has a stern chase that's a corker). It wants the ships to beat the hell out of each other with full broadsides. As a result, neither ship is maneuvering for advantage. They just sit there firing volley after volley, not even creating a wake. This is dumb. But by that point I just wanted it to be over so I could go to the bathroom and take some aspirin for the throbbing headache the movie gave me.

241.So God bless Brian De Palma and his 1981 thriller, Blow Out, which may be the high point of his career. It's my favorite of his movies, and when I was thinking about what to write about it, I stumbled across this review from Reverse Shot. It begins:

Like John Travolta, I remain, long after Blow Out’s closing credits roll, haunted by a scream—so piercing, palpable, so full of anguish. “Now that’s a scream!” exclaims a delighted sound technician in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue. Indeed. Not only does Nancy Allen’s climactic cry, as she reaches out to her potential savior, put to shame all of the other scream tests enacted by a succession of stalker-flick bimbos throughout the film as its central running gag—it erases the memory of all other movie screams. Anyone who denies De Palma’s humanity, or sense of the tragic, has a lot of explaining to do in the agonized face of 1981's Blow Out, which manages to be at once the director’s most melancholy, gripping, and empathically engaged work, a monumentally humane and grim film, perched ever so slightly on the edge of sadism. The scream is thus recorded, within and without the movie, played back, fraught with horrible memories; it’s the scream of all damsels in distress, the scream of every De Palma heroine, but most importantly, in the film’s world, it’s “real.”

And it ends:

The final images and sounds of Blow Out are definitive, horrible, and final, and, apologies to Antonioni’s art-house trend-setting, much more terrifying than the existential what-if miming that closes Blow-Up. De Palma wants to penetrate and shatter—with perhaps the exception of Carrie and Casualties of War, never have De Palma’s characters felt so vivid, dynamic, and therefore, cruelly snuffed out. From this point on, De Palma moved into the excess pageantry of Scarface and the truly miserable, meta-effects of Body Double, perhaps the end point in the erotic thriller, a film in which the very sight of a naked woman seems to give off the stench of rotten flesh. Blow Out is a penance for all of De Palma’s past and future cinematic crimes, as well as ours as viewers. I can think of no greater image of the force of movie watching than Travolta sitting alone in a dark room in Blow Out’s final shot, covering his ears from the horror he has witnessed, recorded, and fed back to the world. A victim and perpetrator of his own crimes, he still can’t stop watching. And listening.

...which summarizes my own thoughts on the movie so thoroughly that I can hardly improve upon the sentiment. I had forgotten, however, just how utterly bleak the ending of Blow Out is, which is not exactly how I wanted to end a weekend that was actually pretty bad for me.


242. I ended the weekend with Linda Linda Linda (2005, directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita), which just makes me smile with my whole being. The band assembled for the movie apparently toured Asia for a bit (including Bae Doo-Na, the terrific Korean actress who some of you may know from The Host or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). This movie feeds my appetite for girl group power pop, and the title song is so infectious that it will stay in your head for days. Take a look, if you've got a mind:


Monday, August 04, 2008

Last Night I Dreamed of Manderly...

237. Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) is a haunted movie. Rebecca De Winter, the title character, is dead before the first frame of the movie, but her presence--her malign presence--is felt all through the film. It's so strong that it all but eclipses the film's lead character, the second Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine), whose name the audience never even learns. Certainly, Manderly is one of the cinema's great haunted houses, and there has never, ever been a more sinister sinister servant than Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers.

Despite the fact that Rebecca was the director's sole Best Picture winner, it has never occupied the first rank of Hitchcock's films among critics and scholars. It tends to defy auteurist theorizing, because it just doesn't seem like a Hitchcock film. Hitch rarely went in for gothics, and this film is just about as gothic as it gets. It's a facile explanation to say that the movie is more David O. Selznick's film than Hitchcock's, but a close examination of the film and its context suggests that this might actually be an overstatement. Hitchcock was no stranger to Daphne Du Maurier, after all. Prior to Rebecca, he adapted Jamaica Inn. Later he adapted The Birds. More than that, it's widely held that Hitchcock was actively undermining Selznick's control of the film by editing the film in the camera. Selznick hated the way Hitchcock filmed. He called it a "jigsaw method" of filming. It only went together one way. Hitchcock didn't provide Selznick with "coverage," and so greatly reduced Selznick's usual role. Some of the film's other flourishes come directly from Hitchcock: the wrong man falsely accused shows up late in the film, as does the director's perennial examination of a guilty conscience. The use of deep focus cinematography is out of character, but it appears that Hitchcock was still experimenting with the possibilities of film. The most interesting thing I noticed about Rebecca with this viewing, though, is the striking similarities it shares with Vertigo, and not just in the theme of a man haunted by a dead woman. Several scenes seem oddly twinned, like Mrs. De Winter's appearance in Rebecca's costume gown and Madeline's transformation from Judy. This isn't the first time I've noticed Hitchcock working out themes and images to which he would later return. Maybe being an auteur means you never throw anything away.

238. Director Johnny To is a master at cinematic legerdemain, so if you take his 2001 duelling hitman movie, Fulltime Killer (co-directed by Wai Ka-Fai), at face value, you might think that it's ONLY an exercise in cinematic hyperbole and miss the deeper waters the film explores. It certainly wears its style on its sleeve, but beneath that, it's a sly deconstruction of the hitman subgenre. It's pretty up-front about its influences/targets: a little Seijun Suzuki here, some Jean-Pierre Melville there, a dash of John Woo. Ostensibly, it's a remake of Branded to Kill, in which the #2 assassin in the world seeks to knock off #1 and assume pre-eminence in his chosen field. The set-pieces in this movie are a lot of fun--the best involves a bunch of hand-grenades and a a prison cell--but it's the structure of the filmmaking itself that is most arresting. A polyglot of languages and styles and a fractured narrative will challenge an action fan looking for cheap thrills. But it's worth it. The closest thing to it is probably Wong Kar-Wai's The Ashes of Time.