Never Cursed

Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top. Bacon. Scones, butter, cream, jam. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea…. And some sausages.

—- Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread

 

 

One of the ideas that I had when we decided to Cut the Cord (eliminate cable television) is to rent movies from the library. Free and easy. Our library has a huge selection of DVDs – movies on the ground floor and instructional/educational on the third. I see people, especially families with children, checking out monstrous piles of DVDs – I don’t know how they can watch that many in the seven day allotted period. I used to check out movies, but haven’t in a decade or so.

I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen Phantom Thread yet – a variety of reasons, mostly related to sloth in its various forms. It’s been a year. But as I was at the library on the last day of 2018, returning a stack of books, I looked along the long rows of DVD offerings (shocked at how many I had already seen) until I chose Phantom Thread. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. It was in the running for a number of Oscars – and I don’t give a shit.

I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His work is a gift to the world.

Phantom Thread was reviewed better than his last full film, Inherent Vice. However, I loved Inherent Vice – of course, if you didn’t like it, or you think it was a piece of crap… I won’t argue with you. Paul Thomas Anderson does not know who I am – I have never met him and never will, but somehow he made a film, Inherent Vice, for me individually. If he scanned my dusty noggin and extracted whatever is in there and then made a movie that would resonate… it would be Inherent Vice. Well, actually it would be Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s impossible to put that on celluloid or nitrate or bits-n-bytes. Inherent Vice is as close as you can get in the real world.

So, I pulled out the DVD player, blew off the thick layer of dust and plopped the library disc in. It took some playing with the various remotes but I managed to get it to play in surprisingly good quality.  Excellent film – really needs to be seen twice because, like all truly good films, the first time through you sit there going “What the fuck is this?” Once you realize it’s a twisted rom-com you can enjoy the belly laughs.

I’ll let you enjoy the humor of a persnickety and slightly effeminate dress designer of a main character with mommy issues and surrounded by women (customers, seamstresses, and his sister) lugging the name Reynolds Woodcock around London. Chekhov’s gun makes an early appearance in a book about mushrooms. And the surface beauty masks the perverse melodrama simmering underneath.

So now – a trip back to the library and the return chute and another walk along the DVD aisle. I can’t plan ahead because the films churn quite a bit. Old-School baby!

 

The Screaming Skull

Jenni Whitlock:
Eric, when you found me, what else was there?

Eric Whitlock:
What do you mean, ‘What else?’

Jenni Whitlock:
A skull?

—-from The Screaming Skull

 

As I learn to adjust to a life without cable television, I explored the nether regions of the hundreds of free streaming channels available on the Roku. I haven’t researched it – but it looks like anyone can cobble their own Roku channel together – and there are lots of them. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) these are mostly poorly done and colossal time sucks.

I did stumble across a collection of old, bad, out-of-copyright horror films. These always bring back memories of when I was in sixth grade or so and discovered what that odd round wire antenna-thing that came in the box with new televisions was used for. I had discovered the UHF channels that my parents knew nothing about. I would crawl out of bed after the family was asleep and creep into the darkened kitchen and tune in what I could find on the little portable TV. This included channels dedicated at night to grade Z horror films.

Now, a half-century later, I like to look for these horrid memories from long ago. I thought I remembered one called The Screaming Skull and chose it. Turn’s out I had never seen it – and my life isn’t enriched by seeing it now.

I’m not going to review The Screaming Skull… take my word for it – it’s bad.

 

You know it’s bad from the first scene… a cheap plastic skull rises from a bucket of water bubbling with dry ice and you get:

Narrator:
“The Screaming Skull” is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. It’s impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may *kill* you! Therefore it’s  producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone that dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.

I’m sure they didn’t have to pay out… ever. The movie is simply not scary.

The only good thing is that the main character, despite being poor, drives a seriously cool car, a mid-’50s Mercedes-Benz 190SL Gullwing. The movie brightens every time this car appears. I would love to learn the story about how such an exquisite expensive hunk of steel made in into such a low-budget film.

Mercedes-Benz 190SL from The Screaming Skull

And that’s about it. All the rest sucks.

Looking up information on the film – I didn’t realize that it was satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Going to have to watch that… when I have a lot of free time.

Oh, and it is very loosely based on a short story. I found it online here. Not sure if the story is any better than the film….

Anal Vice

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
—-Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos

Back a few months, with Mother’s Day approaching, I was struggling with figuring out what to do.

I checked the Alamo Drafthouse app on my phone and discovered they were having a Mother’s Day brunch along with a showing of “The Sound of Music.” I remembered that Candy had said once, years ago, that this was one of her favorite musicals. It seemed a little pricey (at first) but I went ahead and bought three tickets. Nick would be up from Houston to visit and that would be a nice mother’s day.

I told Candy (couldn’t really keep it a surprise) and she was worried about Nick.
“I don’t think he’ll like the movie,” she said.

She reminded of one time, years ago, when She, Lee, and I were watching The Sound of Music on TV and Nick walked through the living room.

“What are you watching? What kind of sick stuff is this? What are they singing about? Anal Vice?” he said.

The song, of course, was not “Anal Vice,” but “Edelweiss.”

Alamo Drafthouse is the only movie theater chain we will frequent. The food (and drafts) are good, I love the bits they show before the films, but the real attraction are their policies. One, if they catch you talking or using your phone during the film, they throw you out. Two, and the big one for me, is they do not allow anyone to arrive late. It drives me nuts how, at a regular movie theater, people keep streaming in, searching for their seat, twenty minutes after the show starts. Assigned seats and these policies are the only way to make movie-going worthwhile.

I texted Nick to ask if it was OK for him to see The Sound of Music.

“Y’all paint me as some uncultured brute,” he replied. So he was good to go.

As it turned out, the thing was fantastic. It had seemed pricey at first – but the food was amazing and way more than worth the cost all by itself. The staff came out before the film and explained how hard they had worked on the menu (Austrian themed) and hoped we enjoyed ourselves. The film was sold out and the logistics of getting four courses of food (and wine) out to all those seats in the dark, during a film was incredible.

One good thing is that the film had an intermission and that was when they brought out the main course (Schnitzel, poached eggs, asparagus, tomato) so we could eat that with the house lights up a little. Of course, the movie was fantastic. Your forget how much these classic films were designed to be seen in a theater, on a big screen, and not on a television. Really enjoyable.

So, I’m going to keep an eye on the Alamo Drafthouse to see when they will do something like this again. A close eye – this one sold out in hours. It’s a really special special treat.

Just don’t forget to turn your phone off.

No Country for Old Dogs

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

—- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

I am so tired when I come home from work – it’s a struggle to do anything other than fall asleep.

So I try to do something on the way home – anything remotely useful, fun, or interesting. Today I stopped off at a tea place, Kung Fu Tea, to get some milk tea and write a bit on my netbook.

Everything worked out, except I couldn’t think of more than a few interesting words – and once my tea was gone I packed up and went home. I sat on the couch to decompress and turned on the great mind-eater… the television.

Flicking deftly and expertly through a long-learned series of channels I ended up watching the last twenty minutes of “No Country for Old Men.” I love that movie.

First, I’m a big, big fan of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read pretty much all of his books. I put “No Country for Old Men” in the middle of the pack… but middle of the pack for McCarthy is still better than pretty much anything else in the world.

I’m even a fan of the screenplay he wrote, “The Counselor.” Everybody else hated that movie. You see, the average moviegoer saw the previews and thought they were in for a drug deal-fueled thriller. And that isn’t what it is. It’s a Cormac McCarthy movie. The plot is merely a distraction, a feint that the magician waves in front of the audience to distract the suckers from what is really going on – you have to pay attention to the long bits of boring dialog – that’s where the real story lies.

Oh, and as for “The Counselor” – it doesn’t help that it has two scenes – one violent, one sexual – that are so far over the top that ordinary moviegoers are appalled to the point that there is no way they can enjoy the film. Again, that’s McCarthy. Read his masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” if you want over the top. I read that the proposed Russell Crowe / James Franco movie version has been shitcanned. Probably just as well – “Blood Meridian” is unfilmable… as the best books must be.

Back to “No Country for Old Men.” I’m sure a lot of moviegoers thought that film also was a drug deal-fueled thriller… even after they had seen it. It isn’t. The movie is about the Tommy Lee Jones character and his inability to soldier on in the face of overwhelming modern evil. The rest of the plot is, again, a distraction… or more accurately a colorful backdrop against and armature holding up the story of the aging sheriff – the last of his line – as it plays out.

The movie ends with the defeated and retired Tommy Lee Jones telling of his haunting dreams. To end this way – it must also start this way or the whole thing is unfair. On my television, right after one showing ended, another began. So I stayed for a few more minutes. Sure enough, the movie starts with a five minute monologue voice-over spoken by the sheriff while scenes of beautiful West Texas desolation slide across the screen.

That voice-over, ignored and forgotten by most viewers, tells the whole story… before anything actually happens.

Our old dog, Rusty, slept on the couch through all this… as he does for pretty much everything. He has to get his solid twenty-three hours a day of sleep in or he isn’t happy. Right in the middle was a commercial for Burger King. Apparently, they have decided to take all the guts of a Whopper and wrap it in a tortilla. They call it a Whopperito.

This truly is the best of all possible worlds.

I couldn’t help but look at the sleeping dog and think about how happy he would be if he could ever get his paws on a Whopperito.

It would be the best day of his life.

PS – If you really want to see the two horrific scenes from “The Counselor” – and I hesitate to do this – you can watch them… here and here. But please don’t blame me – you were forewarned.

Cruise the Boulevards Of Regret

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.

Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.

Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.

Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.

On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.

The Alamo Drafthouse is such a nice experience. You get a reserved seat, craft beer (Temptress Baby!) and the food isn’t bad at all. I ordered a hamburger – a Royale With Cheese, of course. Alamo’s policy of no talking and no cellphones is certainly a welcome perk.

So… how was the film.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?

You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.

Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.

Afronauts

I look everywhere for ideas to lie about… to write fiction about. One of the worst, but most tempting, sources is this internet thing.

Surfing around a few weeks ago I stumbled across a series of photographs that referred to the Zambian Space Program of the 1960’s. Further research revealed that it was for real. This guy, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, from 1960 to ’69 claimed to have a program that would send a seventeen year old girl to the moon before the Americans or the Russians.

He called the members of his program “Afronauts.”

This story seemed to be a fertile source for a fictional story. I moved the location to Latin America and the Zambians became descendants of escaped Jamaican slaves – the voyagers became “RastaNauts.”

But my momentum stalled about a third of the way through and the little pile of text sits in its file unused, waiting, about as fertile and useful as the Zambian space program itself.

Meanwhile, Candy and I bought tickets to a new film that is premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival about the heady days of the Starck Club here in Dallas… and looking through the festival catalog, I saw a showing of a short, experimental film called, Afronauts.

Maybe this could give me a kick in the pants… I was there.

I bought my ticket online and discovered the film was showing at 10:45 PM on a Sunday at the Angelika as part of a collection of five odd works in a “Late Night Shorts” exhibition.

Even Better.

I showed up at the festival box office with my receipt in plenty of time and talked with the people behind the counter.

“I’m looking forward to this, I have always liked short films, but it’s hard to see them now,” I said.

“Back in the day,” I said, showing my age, “When HBO first came out, they would show short films between the feature movies. Sometimes I would enjoy the shorts more that the full-length fare.”

“You know, they have a Short Film Channel on cable now,” one of the guys said.

“Yeah, I saw that once tuning around. But it isn’t in our package. I’d probably have to pay for the volleyball channel or something like that to get it.”

“What’s wrong with volleyball?” asked one girl working there. She obviously didn’t get the point.

After waiting around, I traipsed upstairs to wait in line. I was one of only a couple folks that had a ticket, everyone else had a big film festival badge draped around their neck. It was a film nerd-fest. One guy beside me in line was espousing on the subject of proper punk attire – criticizing one guy with a leather jacket and bright red Mohawk because he, “was trying too hard.”

“How can you be showing off your uniqueness when you are wearing something that has become, in essence, a carefully regulated uniform. I’ve seen that exact jacket a half dozen times.”

He had a point.

The conversation then turned to rude animation. To illustrate his point, “I don’t know how they were ever able to get this stuff on the air,” he showed everyone a particularly obscene clip from Ren & Stimpy that he happened to have saved onto his phone.

For educational purposes only – this was the clip. NSFW – Not safe for anything… really. You were forewarned.

At this point, the doors opened and we went in. The films we saw were:

Flesh Computer
USA, 2013, 14 min., Color
Director: Ethan Shaftel
When his cybernetic pet project is put in jeopardy, the handyman of a decaying apartment building is forced to take a stand, blurring the lines between human and machine.

Effed!
USA, 2013, 19 min., Color
Director: Renny Maslow
Two friends pedal across a post-apocalyptic landscape on a tandem beach cruiser and face the question: when oil runs out, where exactly is the line that society can cross before it ceases to be a society at all?

Beasts in the Real World
Canada, 2013, 8 min., Color
Director: Sol Friedman
An experimental mixed-media short exploring the tenuous connections between a naturalist, a rare land-mammal, some ghosts and a pair of sushi chefs.

Afronauts
USA, 2014, 14 min., B/W
Director: Frances Bodomo
On 16 July 1969, America prepares to launch Apollo 11. Thousands of miles away, the Zambia Space Academy hopes to beat America to the moon. Inspired by true events.

Mr. Lamb
USA, 2013, 15 min., Color
Director: Jean Pesce
A dark comedy about a lonely waitress who is in love with her pen pal — the convicted murderer, Charles Lamb.

Flesh Computer was really good – probably the best of the lot. It successfully tread the fine line between weirdness and a comprehensive plot with characters you cared about. Fantastic use of special effects.

Effed! Was a fun romp through a dystopian future with some surprisingly recognizable actors. Especially notable was the ultimate bad-ass road warrior vehicle – a solar powered Segway carrying a helmeted rider armed with a baseball bat.

Beasts in the Real World was my least favorite. It had a good premise – some laughing hipsters place a small camera on the conveyor belt of a fast food sushi restaurant. The entertainment comes from the camera as it winds around and ends up back in the kitchen. There are a couple amazing scenes, but the story falls a little flat – especially when the most compelling character is a blobfish about to be sliced.

Afronauts was the most serious of the selections. A stylized look at the Zambian astronauts. An unforgettable vision, especially the mesmerizing Diandra Forrest as the young pilot, Matha. The drama is played out as the Apollo eleven landing bursts from a transistor radio. What happens? I’m not sure. But it is haunting.

Finally a hilarious, scary, and ultimately uplifting portrait of a woman infatuated with a jailed serial killer, Mr. Lamb. This was especially enjoyable because the director, Jean Pesce, was in attendance and enthusiastically answered questions about New York theater actors, heavy cameras, and shooting in extreme cold.

Then it was time to bundle my way home and get some sleep so I could show up at work early the next morning.

I’m not sure if I found any inspiration for my story but I did have a good time. Maybe next year I’ll buy a pass, take some time off work, and see a whole boatload of movies.

I don’t get to the theater as much as I would like any more.

Now, of course, I realize that I can find more short films that I could ever possibly watch on the internet. Even beyond youtube and vimeo – past hulu and netflix – there are sites and sites dedicated to collections of them, from the prosaic to the sublime.

Another rabbit hole to fall down into.