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.

Marketa Lazarová

Those who do not suffer can not experience delight.

—-Marketa Lazarová

Crepe Myrtle trunk in the snow

It was a long weekend and I had some time and decided to check out The Criterion Channel’s streaming collection and, for some reason, chose Marketa Lazarová. The blurb did say it was voted the best Czech film of all time – and that seemed to be enough reason to watch it.

It was not an easy film to get into. It is a three hour historical epic set in the late Middle Ages, full of snow and symbolism as early Christianity battled with the dregs of paganism for the hearts and minds of the peasantry. It is a brutal film – the initiating incident is the robbery of a coach in the winter by a band of bandits led by two brothers. A neighboring clutch of cutthroats tries to muscle in on the action. This sets up a three-way power struggle between the crown (a high ranking bishop is in the coach) and the two rival groups of bandits.

There is kidnapping, rape, dismemberment, a preternatural pack of wolves, a lamb’s head bouncing down a hill… and plenty of brutality and human humiliation.

I’ll spoil it for you – it doesn’t end well.

Still, if you have the patience for it, it is a great movie and an educational, emotional, and entertaining experience.

I think about this movie and try to compare it to… say, Avengers Endgame. Which is the better movie? What does that even mean? How can you compare the two?

I prefer Marketa Lazarová. The plot is not predictable. The characters are real (they act like real… if really nasty… people). The movie forces the viewer to think. I know that scenes from the film will haunt me for a long time (I know I watched Avengers Endgame… maybe twice… but I have no memory of anything that actually happened in it other than some fighting and Doctor Strange’s transportation fireworks circles).

So there are a whole bunch more Czech films on Criterion. I’ve seen Fireman’s Ball ( I have always been a huge fan of Milos Forman) and I think I’ll add a few more to my viewing queue.

So many movies, so little time.

Disney World Marathon

My son Lee’s friend Casey is making a series of Instagram short films for him, publicizing his charity to help him run in the New York City Marathon. Here’s the second one.

Please think about donating at this link.

Lee has always been a fan of Princess Vanellope – here’s a drawing he did of her.

Princess Vanellope – drawing by my son Lee

Dave Made a Maze

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
― Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings

A street in the City of the Dead. Family crypts on the left, wall crypts on the right.

I have been spending way too much time surfing youtube videos. I did see one the other day that was almost useful. It was a list of “twenty weird and cool movies you haven’t seen” or something like that. I had seen most of them. But there was one I had never heard of – “Dave Made a Maze.”

It took some time of searching – but I found a place where I could, almost legitimately, stream it.

And it was good. Not great, but worth the precious time it took. It boasts a crackerjack idea (a failing artist decides to finally finish a project, a labyrinth made of cardboard in his apartment – it is much, much larger on the inside, by the way), some good performances (Meera Rohit Kumbhani stands out) and fantastic art direction (the maze is…. well, amazing).

The premise peters out a bit (the weirdness of the initial premise is not maintained) and the dialog is a bit stilted. All in all though… Worth the trouble of seeking it out.

Exotica

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

—-Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

Mia Kirshner as Christina in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica

This weekend I had time to sit down and pick a movie from The Criterion Collection. I decided on a film I had seen before – but many years ago and one that I didn’t remember… really… at all. It was Exotica, directed by Atom Egoyan.

I always viewed this film as sort of a bookend to Egoyan’s masterpiece – the fantastic and shattering (and very hard to watch) The Sweet Hereafter. Exotica was made three years before The Sweet Hereafter and contains many of the same themes of survival, guilt, and disaster – but in a different and less focused form.

I don’t think I paid close enough attention the first time I watched it – the movie was very, very good (a notch below The Sweet Hereafter, though the comparison isn’t really fair). Exotica is the name of a strip club where much of the action takes place – though the term and idea of Exotic is one of many themes that soak and permeate the film.

The structure is circular and there are many things that keep reappearing in different ways. Watch for:

  • Handing money to someone (often in a long envelope)
  • One way mirrors (also the murky green glass in the pet store)
  • Parrots
  • The brittle nature of exotic beauty
  • People watching other people, with more than a little bit of threat and danger
  • Contracts, where each person gets a little bit of what they need/want

Be sure and watch until the end. The movie misleads you about what is going on – it plays on your fears and expectations. In the end, it is all explained and the final third of the movie is a fantastic payoff and worth waiting for.

I did a little research about the film – and found an amazingly misleading publicity campaign. It came out roughly at the same time as Showgirls and Striptease… and as it is set in a strip club the movie was billed as another erotic thriller. Look at this trailer:

This trailer is so bad. So bad and misleading I suspect it isn’t a real trailer – someone’s satire.The movie is not exciting or overly sexual, it is a carefully tuned meditation on loss and what it takes to get through disaster and people trying to help each other in any way they can.

Of course, there is the strip club, and the unique and memorable dance by Mia Kershner to a Leonard Cohen song. It actually appears in the film twice (with subtle differences).

So, if you have some time and a decent streaming service – sit down and take a look at Exotica. It may take an open mind and some patience, but it pays off in the end.

Accidence

“Every balcony is a poem, a chant — a muscle! But whoever lives with that extra blueprint luxury of a balcony lives on the wrong side of a cross-section, on the busy, narrative-addled side of something like an ant-farm window, a brazen architectural arrangement selling cheap peeks into the naked sideshows of the quotidian — even the grisly. Step right up! Behold! A ten story wall of solid twitching muscle!”

—-Director Guy Maddin in Paste Magazine on his short film Accidence

Manor House Balcony, downtown Dallas, Texas

After watching and enjoying The Forbidden Room I was working through the selection of Guy Maddin films streaming on The Criterion Channel. And I now have a new favorite movie.

It’s a nine minute short called Accidence. It is an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The entire film is a continuous take (zoomed in and out with a bit of panning) of the side of an apartment block – thirty units in all. There is a view of the balconies, some windows into the apartment interiors, and a glimpse of things moving up and down the stairs.

Ok, so it’s only nine minutes long… but you can’t watch it only once. On first viewing it is a confused ant-like cacophony of people on and off of their balconies. But as you watch it again and again, patterns emerge and a story is created. It is a story of doppelgangers, violence, families, boredom and drama. And a fuzzy white dog.

Who is the murderer? Who is the victim? Are they the same person?

I have watched it maybe forty times and will watch it many more. I still see new things. Watch the balloon for example. There is a red ghost that appears against the brick a couple of times – I think I figured out who that is.

Weird, wild stuff.