Halloween 2021

For my Halloween weekend viewing, I watched three low-budget midcentury grindhouse classics: Fiend Without a Face (1958), The Tingler (1959) and Carnival of Souls (1962). Watching all three, in that order, all in a short period of time, was both instructive and transformative, and reminded me that things like plot, performance and production value are not the only valid measurements of a movie’s quality.I’ve never been one to watch “bad” movies just to laugh at them, I’ve always figured that there are plenty of great movies to watch, why watch bad movies just to laugh at how bad they are? But now I watch flawed productions like these not to laugh at them but because they present cinematic ideas that, for a whole host of different circumstantial reasons, fall outside the mainstream. One can watch a movie like Fiend Without a Face and get plenty of enjoyment from it, just by looking at what the filmmakers were trying to do, and what they accomplished despite — or because of — the limitations of their budget and schedule (and talents). So, in effect, you’re watching two dramas unfold — one involving the characters onscreen and one involving the people making the movie. Through this lens, one can have a rich and rewarding viewing experience.I owe a lot of this understanding to the writer Brie Williams, who showed me Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood a few years ago. I’d always avoided Corman because he’s just not a very talented filmmaker, but A Bucket of Blood presented, to me, a new bargain in artistic terms. Corman said, in effect, “forgive me my total lack of production values and I will take your brain somewhere it’s never been before.” Since then, I’ve found that simply opening my mind to incorporate the circumstances of a film’s production into the narrative unfolding onscreen has brought me many hours of thrilling viewing. And it’s not just a question of being “in the know,” it’s a question of taking what’s presented onscreen and asking “Why is the camera there? Why is this scene lit like this? Why was this actor cast? Why does the director cut where he does?” and so forth. When you start asking questions like that, you start to be able to separate the ideas in the movie from the finished product, and get a sense of the challenges that presented themselves to the production, and a whole new meta-narrative unfolds.Fiend Without a Face (which is on the Criterion Channel) was an independent British production, made in England in an attempt to grab some of the American creature-feature horror market. Its plot centers around the delicate relations of an American air force base in a small Canadian town, and how those relations are strained by the sudden presence of mysterious brain parasites that may or may not be the result of the air force powering their base with a nuclear power plant. There is an A-plot about the people trying to solve the mystery of the invisible brain parasites, and then a B-plot about the politics of the shifting sands of paranoia in the small town by the base. The detective story is flaccid, but the political story is presented with comparative subtlety and complexity. For a movie about brain parasites, that is. Then, in Act III, the brain parasites become visible and lay siege to a house where all our main characters are trapped, while the protagonist attempts to solve the problem of the brain parasites by (checks notes) blowing up the nuclear plant. The third act is completely bonkers, with an army of oddly endearing stop-motion brain-monsters attacking the cast as the protagonist frantically scrambles to blow up the nuclear plant, saving the day and not creating a worse problem by blowing up the nuclear plant. The Tingler is directed by gimmick-master William Castle, and was a genuine studio picture (Columbia) with a still-low but appreciable budget of $400,000. Vincent Price is a scientist studying a, yes, brain parasite, which he calls “the Tingler,” which lives at the base of everyone’s spine and which is imperceptible until a person is frightened, at which point the parasite wraps itself around the spinal cord and applies pressure until the victim is dead. The movie was released in theaters with a gimmick where there were electric motors attached to certain seats in the movie theater, and during certain scenes the motors would activate, causing the seat to vibrate, freaking out whoever was sitting there. There were actors at screenings who screamed and pretended to faint, to be carried out by fake medical personnel.So here is a movie that owes its existence to a gimmick. It was a gimmick-first, production-values second production. And yet, it’s a studio picture, so it’s well shot and well-lit. Or, rather, it’s shot and lit according to the standards of low-budget horror of the day. And again, you see the limitations of talent butting up against the demands of the material, and the demands of the “typical” audience. You see the interests of the screenplay ram into the demands of the producer, and, above all, you see the performances try to make sense of it all. In the case of The Tingler, well, I’d never really understood the value of Vincent Price as an actor until I watched The Tingler directly after watching Fiend Without a Face. Both movies are ridiculous, but Price’s performance in The Tingler elevates the whole movie. He commits to the absurdity of the piece and never, ever talks down to the material or rolls his eyes or winks at the audience. He singlehandedly pulls the movie together and keeps all its elements balanced, even when the narrative breaks the fourth wall in the third act and the Tingler is let loose in the VERY THEATER YOU’RE IN NOW. The Tingler’s script is also 100% more propulsive and weird than Fiend Without a Face’s, with not one but two subplots about severely dysfunctional marriages, and a brilliant acid-trip horror sequence that is genuinely disturbing. When you stop and think about it, the whole movie is genuinely disturbing, especially when you get to the end and then rewind in your mind all the choices that the filmmakers made to make the ending arrive as it does. Like Fiend Without a Face, the third act of The Tingler is off-the-hook batshit insane, with plot points stacking up by the dozens as it careens to its conclusion.After those two, Carnival of Souls feels like a giant leap into sophistication. It’s the only one of the three that doesn’t need the “so bad it’s good” apology. It’s the work of a genuine visionary who, for whatever reason, never made another feature. Its director was a successful director of industrial films, who had risen to the top of that field and worked with some of the biggest names in the business, and parlayed his success into the making of this psychological thriller. When it bombed, he became discouraged and never made another feature, but his work on this movie announces the arrival of a director as talented and unique as Kubrick. And if you’ve ever seen Kubrick’s first two features, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, you know that they are cinematically ambitious but utterly lacking in production values, performance and narrative logic. Carnival of Souls is quite a bit better than those movies, and while there are aspects of it that fall short, again, the more the viewer thinks about it, the more unique and peculiar the movie becomes. The performances are oddly flat and creepy, but it comes off less as amateurism and more of a directorial choice. Same goes for camera placement, lighting and editing: the director knows what he’s doing, but what he’s doing is out of step with the rules of traditional Hollywood moviemaking.The movie is about a young woman who survives a car accident and begins to have vivid hallucinations. She sees a creepy man following her around and is drawn to an abandoned amusement park at the edge of town. Her life unravels in a manner reminiscent of Polanski’s later Repulsion (both movies are essentially gothic horror, about young women going crazy), and while the production values aren’t great, they’ve been chosen with care — that care, again, dependent on the limitations of budget and schedule.At the peak of the movie’s oddness is a fantastic sequence where the woman goes to a department store to buy a new dress. She takes the dress into the changing room, and when she comes out of the changing room she has seemingly become imperceptible. Suddenly she lives in a world of silence, and people around her cannot see or hear her. Horrified, she wanders out into the streets, where the sound slowly comes back and she becomes perceptible again. It’s a perfect example of how ideas can trump production values, as it sinks in that, from an outsider’s point of view, there was a woman who went into a changing room and then never came out, and who then suddenly reappeared later in a park nearby. That’s a horror concept right there, and there are no special effects required.I sometimes think that someone needs to publish a book about these kinds of movies, where it’s explicated that they’re not to be judged like traditional Hollywood movies, but instead need to be handled with a little more care, with less consumerism and more analysis. At one end of this extreme is Ed Wood, who had no talent whatsoever but had a boundless enthusiasm for filmmaking, and at the other extreme is something like The Shining, a big-budget studio picture that is, nevertheless, deeply weird and unconventional, with a lead performance that veers wildly from naturalism to screaming, eye-rolling insanity. (I’ve often said I would pay good money to see a cut of The Shining that’s made up of all of Nicholson’s “normal” takes.) Movies like Fiend Without a Face, The Tingler and Carnival of Souls need a curator who will explain to new audiences that they can be watched for something other than camp value.

Some thoughts on The Boys

It’s a tough time for satire. The Trump Circus is so insane, so flamboyantly, egregiously stupid, that it’s impossible to address it head on. Saturday Night Live gave up a long time ago, it merely sums up the week’s events in a slightly more cartoonish delivery.


In order to satirize the unthinkable, you have to approach it from a different angle. Horror has always been good at this, allowing people to experience the terrors of everyday life through the lens of metaphor. The hellscape of 1968 was perfectly encapsulated in the movie that sprang from it, Night of the Living Dead, and They Live was, if anything, too blunt a metaphor for the Reagan era.


Amazon’s The Boys, based on a comic of the same name, has emerged as the most relevant show of the day, taking all the ugliness, greed, desperation and horror of our present moment and adding just one pop-culture ingredient to make it palatable: superheroes.


The premise, at first, sounds merely waggish: what if the Justice League were assholes? But, like, really, really, unredeemable assholes? But then it goes deeper, much deeper, as it presents a world where there are superheroes, but the superheroes are controlled by a REAL superpower, a gigantic multi-national corporation. This corporation promotes its superheroes as media stars, putting them into movies and TV shows, promoting their Instagram accounts, organizing Twitter armies to sway public opinion about them, creating their personas and origin stories, and, above all, keeping the public constantly entertained by their antics in order to cover up the many, many horrendous crimes they commit.


Does this sound familiar?


The show is not for everyone — it’s not just caustic in its satire, it’s positively scabrous, presenting a harsh, scorched-earth vision of a world where there is no real good, only different aspects of evil. There is nothing pure in its world, nothing is left untouched by its brackish, curdled moral sense. It’s pungently profane, and baroquely gory. People are routinely dismembered and beheaded, when they’re not exploding outright, but, for my money, that profanity and violence is the best mirror we currently have in a world where there really are people above the law, backed by moneyed interests with power beyond our imagining, who blithely circumnavigate the globe crushing the weak beneath their heels.

The Big Lebowski and our present moment

I’ve been thinking about The Big Lebowski a lot recently, specifically this line from Walter Sobchak, the gun-toting, conspiracy-loving, live-wire, converted-Jew Vietnam vet. “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.”

Walter, in the moment, is complaining about the German nihilists who have been bedeviling his friend The Dude, but the line gets me thinking about Jeffrey Lebowski, the “Big” Lebowski of the title. Jeffrey Lebowski is a local plutocrat who sets the mystery plot of The Big Lebowski by hiring The Dude to help recover his kidnapped wife Bunny. In the tradition of American noirs, things are not as they appear. Specifically, (spoiler alert) Jeffrey Lebowski is a fraud. He’s not wealthy, he’s a desperate embezzler who is using his wife’s disappearance to steal a ton of money from his family’s foundation.

Does that sound like anyone we know?

Jeffrey Lebowski likes to lord his wealth over people and pretend to be a big shot. “Your revolution is over, the bums lost!” he bellows at The Dude, advising him to “get a job.” Lebowski, of course, has no job of his own, he’s been living on his family’s wealth all his life.

Which brings me back to our President. Donald Trump could have been a Jeffrey Lebowski, whiling away his time in his mansion, living off the interest of his inherited wealth, but he had to be a big shot. He just had to be, he couldn’t live otherwise. He had to put his name on a thousand buildings, in letters as big as structurally possible, and put his face in front of every camera in sight. Unfortunately for all of us, he’s a bona-fide mouth-breathing idiot, a devastatingly stupid businessman who has never had a success in his life.

As a liar, con-man and thief, Donald Trump lives in constant desperation, terrified that, at any moment, he will be unmasked, that people will learn that, like the big Lebowski, he’s a tiny man in a big house, a blustering fool who blames his threadbare soul on everything but his own actions, actions he made while possessing every possible advantage available in his society.

And so he’s destroyed the foundations of an entire country, turned an entire government into a criminal enterprise, replaced a generation of civil servants with toadies and sycophants, not out of any ideology whatever, but simply to cover up his crimes, which escalate exponentially with every passing hour. Our nation is being demolished not from a fiendish plot toward fascism but to distract from the crimes of a single man.

Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, at least it has an ethos. Or, as Rick and Morty put it, “You’re like Hitler, but even Hitler cared about Germany, or something.”

Some thoughts on The Lion King

UNPOPULAR OPINION: The Lion King is actually really good.

I was not looking forward to seeing this movie, I wasn’t even particularly interested in it. I had seen the 1994 movie, of course, and had analyzed it in depth when writing Antz in 1996. I’ve seen the Broadway show, which is wonderful. So I’m pretty familiar with the material, I didn’t think it would be necessary to see this new version. But I found myself in Hollywood with a few hours to kill while waiting to pick up my daughter, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll go see The Lion King.

The reviews that I’ve read complain about the characters’ lack of expressiveness and the lack of spectacle in the musical numbers. And yes, the decision to make the animals look, and behave, like real animals, obviates the question of Broadway-style show-stoppers and dancing giraffes.

So the challenge before the director, Jon Favreau, is to match, or top, the energy and beauty of the original movie while keeping one cinematic hand tied behind his back, as it were. And I have to say, he succeeds beautifully.

I didn’t find the characters unexpressive at all. Me, I generally find the performances of animated characters WAY over the top, every emotional i dotted to death, with bugging eyes, smirking mouths, bobbing shoulders and gesticulating hands. And yes, real animals don’t do any of those things. But it is not true that real animals aren’t expressive. Just around our own houses, we find animals expressing themselves in both obvious and subtle ways, fear and excitement and trepidation and boredom and anger, and we have no problem reading their expressions. And so it is here. The Lion King, like the Jungle Book adaptation before it, also directed by Favreau, substitutes the “cartoonish” expressions of its characters with real-life animal expressions, and I found it fascinating, because the characters are SO realistic, and so well-observed, that the design logic — real animals acting out a carefully-contrived script — got under my skin super fast, and I found myself seeing animals, hundreds of animals, thousands of animals, as though I’d never observed them before.

The thing is, there’s a tradition of this in Disney animation. Before Timon and Pumbaa did their vaudeville act, Disney animation, from Bambi to 101 Dalmations, was very much about observing the real motions and behavior of real animals. When you watch Bambi, it’s remarkable how much drama and pathos Disney wrings out of the common behaviors of deer. When you watch Lady and the Tramp, it’s as though Disney is sitting beside you saying “Look, a Cocker Spaniel, have you ever seen anything like it? How awesome is that dog?” The magic of Disney’s classic animated features is that, by putting its animals in their contrived plots, it allows us to see those animals as though we never have before.

And so it is here. When the young Simba takes a hesitant step back from a threatening Scar, we see a real lion cub reacting to a real threat. When Pumbaa sticks a hind hoof in his ear while distractedly answering a question, it’s a real warthog we’re seeing behaving in a real way. Favreau has taken the place of Disney, sitting beside us, saying “Look, a meerkat! How awesome is that?”

And so a “production number” like “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” while it does not have a pyramid of dancing animals, it DOES have Simba romping through the Savannah, with all the actual, true, real spectacle of all the wildlife there, building and building in its multiplicity and complexity, and, while we don’t get Broadway glitz, we DO get a thrilling, exalting, satisfying spectacle of the actual natural world. It’s a real achievement in moviemaking, and I’m rather baffled that more people haven’t seen it that way.

Piece in The Guardian

Well folks, here I am with my graphics pieces in The Guardian. I’ll be the first to admit, this is weird.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Thank you to my faithful followers who have been waiting patiently for my analysis of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. You’ll have to wait a little longer, but, for those who want a short, sharp, incisive overview, this video is an excellent place to start.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Design Observer podcast

For those of you who have been following along with my alternate career as a graphic-arts prankster, this morning brought me the surprise of being featured on an actual very-serious design podcast run by actual design professionals. They spend most of the time talking about actual design things, but then they talk about me and my work for the last five minutes or so. It’s a kick to have actual design people recognize what I’m doing.

And then of course there’s the actual site where I sell these things, which is here.

Kubrick book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey folks, my new book on Kubrick, gathering my analyses of Dr. Strangelove2001: A Space OdysseyA Clockwork OrangeBarry Lyndon and The Shining is now available where finer books are sold (meaning: Amazon). Pick up a copy for your electronic device, or, if you like paper things, it’s available as a paper thing!

Star Wars Minute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In all the Barry Lyndon-ness of the past week, I’d forgotten that I was also a guest commentator on a whole week’s worth of Star Wars Minute, where I discuss, in staggering detail, my thoughts about minutes 21-25 of Revenge of the Sith. In a weird coincidence, those minutes are probably my favorite in the entire prequel trilogy, so it was a real treat to sit down for five hours or so and chat with Pete and Alex, who are great guys and very kind to a guest who laughs too close to his mike and goes off on too many tangents.

You can catch up on my episodes starting here!

Kubrick: Barry Lyndon part 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scene 92-96. Barry’s plans for becoming a gentleman have come to nothing. He still lives in a nice house, still has access to money, still has a beautiful wife (who apparently loves him more than he deserves) but he will never be a true gentleman. His violent streak — that is, his tendency to deliver violence on his own terms, rather than through money or an intermediary — has put an end to that dream forever.

Without social advancement, what does he have left? The answer, oddly enough, is “love.” Barry loves his son Bryan with great abandon. We’re treated to the longest “montage” yet in Barry Lyndon — five scenes of Barry interacting with Bryan and being a loving, indulgent father. He fishes with him, reads to him, teaches him how to fence, plays croquet with him, and takes him horseback riding. The narrator deepens the images with background on how Barry feels about the boy, and also spoils their love by announcing that the boy is doomed to die young.

There’s another way to read the montage, of course — Barry wants social advancement, and he threw that chance away when he kidney-punched his stepson in a packed recital hall. So in order to achieve the gentlemanly status he craves, he employs the oldest trick in the book: he chooses to achieve his goal through his progeny. And while that reading is more cynical, it also indicates that Barry, at this stage of his life, has at least begun to think outside himself, to understand life on a more cosmic level, to see himself as part of a continuum.

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