Hausu

I always discuss important matters with children. Adults can only think about things they understand so everything stays on that boring human level.

—-Nobuhiko Obayashi

House (1977)

I knew I had some time to kill coming up so I decided to download a film from The Criterion Channel onto my tablet and watch it later. After some searching I decided on House – a Japanese horror film from 1977 that was supposed to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

And it was. Somehow this thing was made by Toho (the movie production company of Godzilla fame) in response to the success of Jaws. The two have nothing in common with each other – either in style, subject, or even a shared universe.

House is a trip – a strange, slightly perverse, bloody technicolor work of… if not crazed genius – at least extreme craziness. I would compare it to something else – but there is nothing else to compare it to.

The plot, such as it is, involves seven young Japanese schoolgirls with names that fit their personalities

Gorgeous – the main character – a thing of beauty

Fantasy – her best friend – a flighty girl who means well, but it subject to a lack of reality at most times.

Prof – bespectacled and brainy – the problem solver of the gang

Sweet – bubbly and naive – a bit frightened all the time

Mac – likes to eat and thinks of little else

Melody – a musical prodigy

Kung Fu – her name explains her gift – at one point she kicks her way out of her skirt and spends the rest of the film in her underwear.

These seven friends, after some misadventures, are bundled off for vacation to Gorgeous’ aunt’s house – which, of course is haunted, and very bad things begin to happen.

Fantasy finds Mac’s severed head in a well. The head proceeds to fly up and bite Fantasy on the ass. I told you it was weird.

What makes the film really strange and unexpected is the sweet, innocent and colorful tone which is mostly maintained even through the scenes of horror and bloodshed.

One thing I really liked were the beautiful painted backgrounds. At one point, once they leave a train, the seven girls are shown in front of an obviously painted scene of mountains and clouds. The camera pulls back revealing the painting – but it and the girls are in front of another, different panorama of mountains and clouds – this one also obviously painted.

So, if you want something more than a little different, but still very entertaining, pull up your streaming Criterion Channel and settle in for some House.

My Octopus Teacher

The problem when you’re a crab, you’re now being hunted by a liquid animal. She can pour herself through a tiny little crack.

—- Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago Nasher Sculpture Center Dallas, Texas

This morning I had to go into work before dawn to supervise a job. When I arrived on site I discovered everything had been delayed an hour and a half (a phone call came in while I was driving and I don’t answer calls in my car). So I had some time to kill.

I have Netflix on my relatively new personal phone and had downloaded a handful of films to watch offline. So I sat there waiting as the sun rose and watched the rest of the Oscar-Winning documentary My Octopus Teacher.

It was really, really good. The photography of the kelp forest was breathtaking. It’s hard to believe that a mollusk could be so captivating. The end of the film is bittersweet – I did not know anything about how an octopus reproduces….

It reminded me of a short, wonderful time in my youth – a middle school teenager living in Panama – on the Atlantic side of what was then the Canal Zone. A friend and I would take the bus out to Fort Sherman, hitchhike to Playa Diablillo and walk down the coast snorkeling and exploring the mangrove forests and coral reef – just like the guy in the movie.

One day we were walking along the exposed coral heads at low tide when something wet hit me in the side of the head. I turned and there was a large octopus mostly out of the water on the coral. He did not like us walking through his ‘hood and was squirting us with jets of water and ink out of his siphon. As we watched him he went through an amazing series of shape and color changes, trying to convince us to leave him alone (although we would never have noticed him – his first color and texture blended in with the coral – if he had not squirted us). We looked at him for a while, then granted his wish and left him alone.

If you are curious, it was right here. There is actually a streetview – this is exactly where I saw the octopus.

The film conveys spectacularly the freedom and the zen-like concentration of swimming with a snorkel in the cornucopia of life that is a coral reef or kelp forest. The ecosystem interacts like a single, enormous creature and when surrounded by that water, you become part of it.

I am so glad that I experienced that and am afraid I will never do so again.

A Hard Day’s Night

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
― John Lennon

Music at the Brewery Tour

I was worn out, innervated and wanted to watch something that didn’t take a lot of thought. Cruising through The Criterion Channel’s streaming potpourri, and chose the Beatles’ 1964 chestnut, A Hard Day’s Night.

I remember when I first saw the Beatles, in about 1963, I was six. They were at the airport in New York, on their first trip – it seemed to be a big thing back then when a band crossed the ocean… I’m not sure why. On the news, I thought they were women. It was a different time.

I did enjoy the film. First, the music, you forget how good the early Beatles were. It still sounds great today.

I saw the movie sometime… maybe a year or so after it came out. What I remembered the most was the character of Paul’s Grandfather. He steals every scene he is in. He is such a clean little old man.

But what really stands out to me is the (more or less) subtle, absurdist humor. The film is really just a bunch of Beatles songs, strung out like a string of pearls, interspersed with little funny bits. The funny bits are strange, though. Today, the film would be full of slapstick and broad humor… but here, everything is a little off.

And a lot of fun.

For example here are a couple more scenes. One, with the brilliant character actress, Anna Quayle, trying to figure out who John Lennon looks like.

Or there’s this extended scene with George Harrison – a comment on fashion and trends – still relevant today.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Altered States

Emily’s quite content to go on with this life. She insists she’s in love with me – whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I’m not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don’t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind. Does that answer your question, Arthur?

—–Eddie Jessup, Altered States

Transcendence, on the first night.

RIP William Hurt

I saw last night that the actor William Hurt had passed away. He exploded on the scene in the years right after I graduated from school – and I saw a lot of movies then.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was always special to me… and there was Body Heat, of course… The Big Chill, Gorky Park, Children of a Lesser God…. But for me, the film that I always remembered was Altered States.

A coincidence, I had it queued up; I’m not sure what it was but something made me think of it the other day. So I watched it tonight.

1980 was a different time – the movie is more than a little dated – but I think movies were better then. Altered States is flawed – but it is audacious (a Ken Russell directed visual weird-fest about primitive Mexican Hallucinogens combined with a sensory deprivation tank – what do you expect) and a lot of fun.

Re-watching it after all these years – I forgot how much of an entitled prick William Hurt’s character was. In becoming a beast – he becomes a human being. I also forgot how dead-solid sexy Blair Brown was.

Not a perfect movie – but a fun ride. A nice change from what we have now. I don’t think this could be made today – there is too much money and computer graphics for a film this gritty and strange.

And you have to love a horror film that inspired the end of A-Ha’s Take on Me.

Jojo Rabbit

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

H.O.P. Rabbits, by David Iles

Just a couple days ago I watched a movie and wrote a blog entry about a Nazi WWII movie. It’s just a coincidence that I watched another one so soon – Jojo Rabbit was recommended by a website listing underrated, quirky movies. It was on the internet, so it has to be true.

Jojo Rabbit was made by Taika Waititi – who wisely chose to spend some of his Thor Ragnarok money on an odd film that would never have been financed otherwise.

It’s a comedy/drama about a young boy, an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth in the waning days of the second world war. The boy has trouble fitting in, so he develops an imaginary playmate – Adolph Hitler himself, played as a dim-witted goofball by Taika Waititi himself.

Here’s an early scene that sets the tone and moves the plot forward:

The movie has a real Wes Anderson feel to it – which is fun. There is a lot of star power here and a lot of talent behind the camera – which is fun.

Of course things take a dark turn. Even a friendly, goofy Gestapo is terribly deadly. The boy starts to part from his imaginary best friend (HItler) when he is inspired and confused by a discovery in his attic (no spoilers here – other reviews of this film have too many). There is tragedy and redemption….

And a pretty damn enjoyable underrated, quirky movie.

Conspiracy

“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said to me that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was. No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no sibling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce. All her birthdays, exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships—gone. She went on living, but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook. I think of this every time I hear of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’: Do those who talk this way truly wish for the slate to be wiped? Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction. You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a ‘clean’ sweep? Try Vladimir Nabokov’s microcosmic miniature story ‘Signs and Symbols,’ which is about angst and misery in general but also succeeds in placing it in what might be termed a starkly individual perspective. The album of the distraught family contains a faded study of Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir

Sacrifice III, Lipchitz, Jacques, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

I am not sure what reminded me of the historical WWII movie (not a film, really, it was made for TV) Conspiracy – but I did a search and found it streaming on HBO Max. I had seen a good bit of the short (hour-and-a-half) work before. I had searched it out because I had seen a documentary on and was interested in the life and death of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich – a particular hideous man assassinated by a team sent by the Czech government in exile.

So I re-watched it and it was crackerjack. It is the story of the 1942 Wannsee conference, set at a posh estate outside of Berlin. A group of top Nazis meet and develop the monstrous plan to settle the “Jewish Question.” It is based on the only surviving transcript of the meeting and is an awful, yet illuminating record of the thoughts of the butchers involved.

What first struck me was the illustration of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. Despite the apocalyptic subject being discussed, the men are obsessed with jockeying for power, style, and the food being served. It is truly a slice of genocidal bureaucracy.

I watched it with the subtitles on so I could follow the exact language. The way the couched the subjects, the way they pounded on the table, the way they insisted what they were doing was not only legal, but the only moral imperative – was chilling. Absolute, pure evil was disguised and couched in the language of duty. Think about this the next time you watch a Zoom meeting where a disastrous or immoral conclusion is arrived at without anyone talking about what is really going on.

Oh, now I remember what reminded me of this movie…. The algorithm presented me with a YouTube video showing someone that had a tiny, bit part (a radio operator) in the film. I always enjoy spotting a future star with a background part in a film.

I guess it’s inevitable that Loki would be present at the conception of the Holocaust.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

“It is never too late to be wise.”
― Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

(click to enlarge) Mural, Deep Ellum Dallas, Texas

Let’s see, the movie came out in 1964… but I would have seen it on an Army base (which one? probably Fort Leavenworth) which are second-run theaters (back then, a movie cost a quarter) so I would have seen it a year or two later. I would have been eight or nine years old. And yet I remember it like it was yesterday.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is streaming on the Criterion Channel and I had nothing better to do, apparently, than to waste a precious afternoon of perfect weather re-watching it… after all these decades.

Despite the bilious title, it isn’t a bad movie at all. Adam West has a small, pre-Batman, part (spoiler – he dies near the beginning). The special effects are economical but practical, the flying saucers cool looking (they look like the aliens from the original War of the Worlds– which was made a decade earlier).

Spaceship, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Spaceships, War of the Worlds (1953)

Oh, no wonder. Here is the answer from IMDB:

The Martian spacecraft are leftovers from The War of the Worlds (1953). Director Byron Haskin was involved in both projects, although George Pal is often given sole credit for the earlier classic.

I remember thinking that they looked the same in 1966 or whenever. War of the Worlds was on TV and had made quite a splash we me and my diminutive friends. But there was no internet then and I couldn’t find out for sure.

RIP Dean Stockwell

I saw in the news that Dean Stockwell had passed away. He had a long, varied, and successful career. When you look at his IMDB page, the top performances are listed: Quantum Leap, Married to the Mob, Paris Texas, and Dune (the 1984 version). I think of him as a very young actor or as a bizarre bad guy in Blue Velvet.

But I remember him from another really, really, odd role. He was the star of a 1970 Lovecraft-based C-movie The Dunwich Horror. I saw it as a teenager – it really made an impact on me. I wrote about the film in 2012 – and thought I’d revisit it here.


Sandra Dee and the Son of Cthulhu

For folks that are around my age, the most influential person in our upbringing and general outlook on this best of all possible worlds may be Samuel Z. Arkoff. Just looking at that name brings a flood of almost subliminal memories from my childhood. Arkoff was one of the founders of American International Pictures – the source of the flood of B-movie oddness that was the main warped window we had into the world at large.

American International Pictures made films for years based on the ARKOFF formula –

  • Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
  • Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
  • Killing (a modicum of violence)
  • Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
  • Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
  • Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)

Which pretty much says it all.

When I look at a list of American International Releases from say, 1956 up to 1981… It looks like about 232 films – I am horrified by how many, well more than half, of them I have seen – and remember seeing. There were the horror films that I saw late at night on a tiny 12-inch b&w television after discovering the amazing new world of UHF television (more than three channels – wow!…Do you remember the little loop antennas?). There were the beach films. There were the Poe films (capped by The Conqueror Worm). Blacksploitation. Bad Science Fiction.

I lived on a lot of military bases growing up and they would show at least three different movies every week; I think it cost a quarter. One of the oddest experiences I had as an adult is when I realized they don’t play the Star Spangled Banner before every movie (Army brats will know what I’m talking about). American International Pictures schlock…. Most of those would wind their way around the bases sometime.

Now they are on Netflix Streaming… though I wouldn’t advise wasting too much of your time.

But I noticed one film that had really left its mark and I wanted to re-watch it (although I knew it wasn’t a very good film) to see if my memory served me well. This was The Dunwich Horror.

It came out in 1970, so I may have seen it at a theater in Panama, but probably saw it in Managua. We would get three films a week on 16mm there and would show them at the Embassy, the Marine Compound, or our house.

It’s pretty standard Arkoff horror fare – let’s see how it stands up to the ARKOFF formula:

Action them til they’re dizzy. Don’t stop. It must be in your screenplay and in your director’s head. Employ only film editors who are as movement-crazy as you are. Kid’s love action…and they”ll go back…and will tell their peers, inferiors, and superiors what’s good.

-The Dunwich Horror definitely has action – though it doesn’t always make sense. Well, actually, it starts a little slow, but does build to a frenzy of monstrous murders with the traditional villagers pursuing and being pursued by an unseen fiend.

Revolutionary scenes get talked of. Use some new photographic devices…editing techniques…locales…smells…stunts or something. Make ’em so the sheer experience of seeing them is unique. New language, new juxtapositions, new shocks, new relationships, new attire, new oncepts…new, new, new. Revolve situations, relationships, hell, even the camera if it will get your movie talked about.

-Although it came out in 1970 – it is full of (now dated) 60’s psychedelic effects – grating electronic music/noise and solarized stylized colorized fisheye scenes of naked actors in bodypaint making grotesque faces at the camera… the usual stuff. Now it’s silly… it was sort of silly back then… but it was unique enough to leave an unpleasant memory then on a kid watching it – enough for me to remember it to this day.

The attack of the garish, gaudy Evil Dream Hippies

Kill colorfully and often. Young audiences… like to experience death. Vicariously, of course. But then all storytelling is experiencing something that happens to someone else and you come out alive.

You should be sure to kill and do so in bizarre ways so your audience will get their money’s worth, and so they will tell others…Without death or the glamourous threats of it, I would never have been able to make the highest grossing independently-produced, independently-released film of all time, The Amityville Horror.

-Plenty of death. Again, some of it is diluted by the cheap and garish sixties effects – but still there.

Orate! Tell the world about your picture! Talk about it but more important…get people talking about it. Best way is through publicity. As my old buddy Jack Warner used to say, “The movie good enough to sell itself has not yet been produced!”

-I guess this is more concerned with publicity, which I can’t speak for. The characters do like to orate within the film, of course…

Fantasy is what audiences spend money for. Give them fantastic adventures. Entertain them by rushing them into worlds you dreamed up for them. Avoid the prosaic and commonplace. When they’re in those fantastic environments, keep everything moving ultra-fast. Action will help suspend disbelief.

-There was the fantastic element that I didn’t know anything about when I first saw the film – Lovecraft. The movie is adapted from one of his short stories. I didn’t read any H.P. Lovecraft until I was in college – they had these cheap paperbacks at the bookstore with lurid covers.

There were a whole series of these collections – I read them all.

I would read a story from one of the collections and think, “no big deal,” and then try to go to sleep. It is only in the half-world between waking and somnolence that the true horror of the tales would emerge. I was hooked and am still a fan.

The Dunwich Horror of the film only bears a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s tale, but it features more than a few touchstones of his fiction: Arkham, Miskatonic University, Yog-Sothoth, The Necrominicon, and the strong hint that the protagonist and his twin brother are actually children of Cthulhu.

Fornicating is the answer to an exhibitor’s dreams. You can’t get an ingredient in most movies that draws better than sex. Of course, you have to use it wisely…You gotta have taste. Foreplay is as important in dramaturgy as in bed. But avoid too much visual sex. It is embarassing and if it goes on too long it puts audiences to sleep. Arouse but don’t offend!

Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee!

-Ah… here it is. This is what etched The Dunwich Horror into young minds. It stars Sandra Dee, for God’s sake… Gidget. She was the symbol of the innocent, wholesome teenager – so much so that she is now known mostly as the subject of ridicule in a song from “Grease.”

The Dunwich Horror, for all its Lovecraftian touchstones, is really the story of the sexual corruption of Sandra Dee. She starts out as a prim and proper university librarian that trusts an odd but handsome stranger too much, offers him a ride home, and falls under his evil spell. Before she knows what’s going on she’s up on writhing around on an altar in an unforgettable skimpy costume as the centerpiece of a ritual to bring a monstrous race of ancient horrors back to life.

This is not how she imagined this day would go.

At the very end, even after the sudden, inexplicable, defeat of the evil brothers, it is shown that now she is pregnant with Cthulhu’s grandson… the horror continues.

There is nothing explicit here – a modern film would not even bother with this sort of silliness. That’s sort of a shame – the schlock masters knew what they were doing, how powerful on a subliminal level the image of once innocent Sandra Dee writhing on that altar would be. Nothing much is shown, everything is implied, the imagination fills in the blanks so powerfully.

In lieu of expensive special effects, we have skimpy outfits, strange facial expressions, and odd awkward hand gestures.

I’ve rambled on too long about a second-rate B movie that’s almost a half-century old and deservedly mostly forgotten. But these are the memories that we live with every day – some are so deep we don’t even know they are there.

PS – a fellow blogger wrote a post on this subject:
The ARKOFF Formula and the Peter Pan Syndrome

Dune

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune


Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, Nick in 1996
Nick in 2001 (we need to go back and get a shot now)

I read Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, in college, in Kansas, in the Dorm – maybe 1975 – about ten years after it was published. I liked it… though I can’t really say I understood it completely. I was reading a lot… I was young… I had a sense that there was a lot going on under the surface that I couldn’t really comprehend.

Then, in Dallas, in 1984, I went to the theater and saw the David Lynch film. I was a fan of Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) at the time and actually liked the film a lot. There was so much hate for it at the time. It wasn’t flawless but it was a unique vision – and that is rare. The film actually helped me understand the world of Arrakis better and it inspired me to re-read the source. Dune is definitely a book that benefits from a second reading.

Then right after the turn of the millennium there were the two television mini-series which covered the first three books, somehow. Again, not the best, but a game attempt. I barely remember them, except that my kids – nine and ten years old – watched them and actually liked them better than I did.

And now, 2021, forty-six years after I read the novel, we have Denis Villeneuve and his film.

Again, I was (am) a huge fan of the director (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and have been hyped up for the film for years – the Covid delay was tough to take. But patience is rewarded, sometimes.

I had big plans of going to the theater and seeing it on the big silver screen – but I have picked up a bad habit of hanging around the house during the pandemic – something I need to work on breaking – something I should have used the film as an aid to breaking – but I didn’t have anyone to go with… so I ended up closing off the living room, scooting the recliner close to the screen, turning up the sound system, and streaming the thing at home.

(don’t worry – no spoilers)

It was very good – as good as I expected, better than I feared (and fear is the mind-killer), worse than I hoped. The only criticism is a bit of slow pace the last quarter. The best part – visuals, sound, acting – all top notch.

The first Dune film was interesting because it was, at the heart, a David Lynch film – with all his personal demons leaking out of the screen. I didn’t realize how much an impression the Lynch Dune made on me, but I could feel echoes of the earlier work all over this one. It is, of course, only half the story, and there is plenty of story for two films (I almost wonder if it should have been a modern cable R-rated mini-series) and it definitely benefits from not having the rushed pace of the earlier one-film version.

The new Dune also shows the mark of its director. There is a unique visual vocabulary – it reminds me of Arrival (especially the shape and motion of the space ships) more than Dune 2049. Denis Villeneuve does have the chops to handle the visuals, the complex political science-fiction landscape, and even the larger-than-life personalities – a lot of balls to keep in the air, but he pulls it off.

Now, how long do I have to wait for the next one? I will definitely go see that one in a theater (if such a thing still exists).

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune

Cowboy Bebop and Licorice Pizza

“We’re all children of Kubrick, aren’t we? Is there anything you can do that he hasn’t done?”
― Paul Thomas Anderson

Cook throwing dough at Serious Pizza, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Years ago, maybe twenty years ago, my son Lee and I (I guess he was about ten at that time) watched an anime series on television together, Cowboy Bebop. It was your typical bounty hunters in outer space kind of thing. Very stylish – odd spaceships, neo-noir atmosphere, women in impossibly skimpy outfits, an intelligent dog… that sort of thing.

But what I really liked was the music. A very jazzy eclectic score – it was greatness.

And now, after all these years, I see that Netflix is going to make a live action series based on Cowboy Bebop. The trailer is a scene-by-scene remake of the animated intro.

It looks like a lot of fun.

One thing that the fanboys are complaining about is that the female lead, Faye Valentine, has had her costume sanitized – gone is the skimpy bright yellow halter and hot pants of the anime. Yeah, I understand the objection but really? That was a cartoon woman – there is no way an actually living person could look like that. Really.

Out in November on Netflix.

In looking around I saw there is another thing – this time a movie, dropping in November.

I have (like everyone else) been a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. I even enjoy his failures – such as Inherent Vice. Any director willing to take on a Thomas Pynchon novel deserves kudos – even if the film turns out exactly like you were afraid it would.

And now I see he is doing a movie due in November with the interesting title Licorice Pizza. I know nothing of the film other than its online trailer.

I think I’ll keep it that way and go to the theater when it comes out.