Plucker in C Minor

The great and magnanimous Nigel Bird invited me to interview myself for his series Dancing With Myself, where fiction writers interrogate themselves. I follow the one and only Lawrence Block, so let’s hope I don’t get booed off the stage! Check out his blog, there are some fine interviews. And buy his short story collection “Dirty Old Town,” for some emotionally stunning fiction. Truly powerful stuff. For a buck? I haven’t gotten a thrill like that for a buck since I leaned against the washing machine at the laundry and read Penthouse Forum.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

15 Directors

Inspired by Cinema du Meep and Radiator Heaven, two of my favorite movie blogs, here are the fifteen directors who changed how I think about the movies. Some are better, but these are the ones who affected me most and made me the movie molester I am today. Just off the top of my head. Don’t spend too much time on it.

John Waters and some creepy guy.
Martin Scorsese

Tex Avery

Alfred Hitchcock
Stanley Kubrick

Mel Brooks
John Landis
Charles Laughton
John Carpenter

Errol Morris
Savage Steve Holland
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Michael Haneke
Buster Keaton

© 2010 Tommy Salami

the thing about The Thing

John Carpenter’s THE THING has long been a favorite of both horror and science fiction fans for its perfect mood, taut pacing, and its faithful adaptation of John Campbell’s unforgettable short story, “Who Goes There?” First written in 1938, the tale lacks the Cold War paranoia of the Body Snatcher films, and touches an existential, primal childhood fear of the unknown. Are people what they seem?

The opening credits, with the dissonant, haunting score thrumming in the background as a helicopter follows a sled dog over the endless, snowy expanse of the Antarctic wasteland, is how most of us remember the story beginning, but first, we see our lonely planet in the darkness of space. But it is not alone; an object circles, then crashes and burns into the atmosphere. A tiny flaming speck, like an insect or even a virus to the massive planet, but we know how dangerous those tiny things can be. Every scene sets a paranoid, chilling mood that eases us into willfully suspending our disbelief for the fantastic tale to come, of an invasion on a cellular level. The dangerous speck of a spaceship is replaced by that of a grey dog fleeing across the snow, looking back over its shoulder eerily at its pursuers, in a way a dog never would. A man with a rifle is shooting at it frantically, panicked beyond reason.

The dog heads toward a research station, where we meet our only companions for the rest of the story, without introduction. They seem pretty laid back except for the one man in uniform, Garry, who represents the only presence of authority in this remote outpost at McMurdo station, and he is disrespected by his peers, treated almost as a joke. They seem more like fierce independents: bikers, mountain men, cowboys, MIT computer nerds, rather than scientists. In fact, we never even find out what they’re doing out there, except escaping the shackles of civilization. The dog runs into their camp as they come out to investigate the approaching helicopter, and their visitors immediately wound one of them, trying to kill the dog. They shout in a foreign language, and their aberrant behavior- who would want to kill a dog that isn’t attacking anyone?- is taken for cabin fever, and they die before any explanation can be given.

I don’t intend to synopsize the film, or do a shot by shot study of it, for that has been done. There are entire websites devoted to it, such as Outpost 31 or these reviews by people who’ve actually lived in Antarctica. I’m more interested in what makes the film so effective, and popular enough to spawn a prequel 30 years later. And yes, my expectations are quite low for that film, even if it ends with two Norwegians, the last alive, chasing a dog across the snow in a helicopter. Hollywood no longer takes risks like having an all male cast, unless the film is Oscar bait. While it has no basis in fact- women served in Antarctica since the ’60s- it makes for a tight screenplay that can safely ignore romantic subplots. Unless you think Blair and Doc Copper were a secret couple. Maybe that’s what Doc’s nose ring signified? That’s a nice little touch that we notice again now that big screen TVs and HD transfers are commonplace, that Doc has a nose ring, very uncommon in the ’80s, showing him to be a bit of an odd character like his compatriots.

The story isn’t perfect; do we ever learn who sabotaged the blood supply? Like that famous murder in THE BIG SLEEP, where even author Raymond Chandler was hard pressed to explain who did it? Some things are best left unexplained. I don’t want to know where the aliens from ALIEN come from; I didn’t want to know about Hannibal Lecter’s childhood, much less Michael Myers’. The unknown is an important function of horror, and coupled with the isolation of the Antarctic continent, the paranoia of the hidden menace, and the fear of a death that ends with your identity truly stolen, THE THING offers up a panoply of terrors from the beginning. The creature itself, a mockery of the living form, doesn’t just steal your face or your corpse; it turns your organs into modern art sculpture and uses them as weapons. We see a flower of dog tongues that H.P. Lovecraft enthusiasts love to point out, because it resembles the Elder Things from his novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Carpenter is definitely a fan of his work. Not until a year later with David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME would body horror stand on its own; here at least you’re dead and being mimicked. Cold comfort.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Another risk taken is the infamous ambiguous ending, which thankfully never spawned a film sequel. There was a comic book mini-series called The Thing from Another World that took off with the ultimate fan betrayal by making Kurt Russell’s MacReady be the infected one. I never want to know if Childs or MacReady are real, or a thing, to use Mac’s words. It is unnecessary for the story, and it robs us of that unease in the pit of our stomachs when the film’s unsettling soundtrack rises up again for the end credit roll. We know Mac and Childs are slugging whiskey, watching the camp burn, and the two men- or the man and the thing- will be frozen statues staring each other down when the rescue team comes after the long winter. The script by Bill Lancaster- whose only other credit is another fave of mine, THE BAD NEWS BEARS (full review)- is so sparse that Carpenter’s direction seems to fade into the background, as if it’s a documentary. The reveals often occur in the back of the frame, like the famous spider-thing head that tries to sneak off on its own. The rest is close, accentuating the cramped quarters of the compound or the loneliness of the outpost, with nothing but mountains for miles and miles around.

My favorite scene.

It was a brave thing for Carpenter to tackle this one after getting panned for THE FOG; he could’ve done another slasher, or another post-apocalyptic hit like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but he once again chose to go in a new direction. Horror, science fiction, but something we’d never seen before. And one we are likely to never see again, with the advent of computer generated effects. Pioneers Rob Bottin and Stan Winston used every effects trick in the book, even stop motion, to create the Thing, and its visceral design is effective even today. On occasion you can see its slip showing; something done in reverse perhaps, but all you need to watch is Doc Copper getting his hands amputated and his “patient’s” head tearing itself off to be impressed at the horror effects, which are arguably the best of the traditional model work you’ll ever see. Carpenter took this level of detail down to the title sequence, paying homage to the 1951 Howard Hawks film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which due to budgetary concerns changed the original mimic creature into a plant-based, bloodsucking lifeform that brought its own set of challenges.

I don’t think of this film as a remake, but another adaptation of the story, one truer to the simple question it asks: what if something could mimic us perfectly, down to our personalities; would that really be us? Taken over cell by cell, betrayed by our own DNA, would we know we were a “Thing” until it decided to strike our friends, or defend itself? The film never answers these questions, but does ask them. Amazingly enough when compared to its life on video, THE THING was both a commercial and critical failure upon release, panned by viewers and critics alike for its brutal gore and bleak ending. Being 11 years old at the time, I never had a chance to see it in theaters, but it was one of the first things I taped off HBO, and watched until it shredded. Along with ALIEN, this was one of the formative films of my early years, and skinless, bizarre dog-like creatures are what populate my nightmares. IMDb trivia states that this is Carpenter’s favorite of his own films, and I have to agree.

This post was written for the John Carpenter blogathon this week at RADIATOR HEAVEN. Make sure to go there and check out J.D.’s posts there. I always learn something new, even about films I’ve seen a dozen times.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Some clown sent me brownies!

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll hear me rave about the hilarious, touching, eye-opening blog of André du Broc, Too Many Cookies. Go read it now. Come back if you aren’t crying, laughing, and ravenous from reading how he’s baking all 175 cookies from Martha Stewart’s cookbook, and regaling us with tales of his life in theater while doing it. It’s one of my favorite blogs, and I follow over a hundred.

I met André through Firecracker’s sister, who is a stage director. André himself has been everything from a clown in Ringling Brothers circus to a short order cook. We met over drinks at Bill’s Gay Nineties, a theater folk bar in NYC when he was in town. He is an ebullient, witty fellow with a dash of sarcasm. There he told us that he was participating in an AIDS charity walk, and if he made over $3,000 he was going to bake all 175 cookie recipes from Martha’s book. Of course, the donations rolled in from friends all over who like cookies. And who doesn’t like cookies? Besides Newt Gingrich. So we donated, and so many others did that he raised $4500 for the cause. And he got to baking.

His friends, co-workers and family got so inundated with decadent treats that he now asks people to mail him cookie containers- and I suggest you slip in a tenspot or double sawbuck to cover shipping and ingredient costs- and he’ll mail you back a gift of delicious, fattening treats. Because Firecracker loves peanut butter and chocolate so much that if the Reese’s had not existed, she would have invented it, he sent us peanut butter swirl brownies. They are amazing. Especially when you heat them and put ice cream on them, but even plain, they are a rich, chocolatey haymaker punch to the palate that makes you want to collapse into a bean bag chair and moan like a pregnant walrus.

So, go read André’s blog. You’ll get to read about naked midget clowns getting electrocuted, among many other things. Here’s the link again if you’re too lazy to scroll up:
Too Many Cookies

© 2010 Tommy Salami

and the lovely blogs did gyre and gimble in the wabe

Ivan over at The United Provinces of Ivanlandia has gifted me with another Major Award! He’s got quite a lovely blog himself, funny and insightful film reviews over there. Go read some. This Ponzi scheme award requires that I nominate 10 others, and these are the blogs I’ve enjoyed most of late:

Strength Basics
Thoughtful Eating
Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur
Radiator Heaven
Designer B.S.
Cinema du Meep
A Shroud of Thoughts
1416 and Counting
Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
The Sexy Armpit: Whiff of Pop Culture from New Jersey

The Killer Elite

“There’s not one power system that really cares about its civilians!”
This was written as a contribution to Agitation of the Mind’s Peckinpah Month blogathon! go check it out.

James Caan. Robert Duvall. Burt Young. Mako. Sam Peckinpah. Sounds like fun, don’t it? Well it is. This lesser known Peckinpah film was made during the nadir of his relationship with Hollywood, when no producer would give him a dime; eventually Mike Medavoy of United Artists assigned him this film because he believed in Sam’s talents. Made after his classic nihilist tale Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the same cynicism pervades this film, but the story isn’t Peckinpah’s, and it’s often treated as a joke.
James Caan and Robert Duvall had just finished The Godfather, Part II and were probably looking for lighter fare; Caan would also make Freebie and the Bean (full review) this year, and he still has some of that carefree attitude that made that film a classic. The story opens with them playing Mike Locken (Caan) and Gerry Hansen (Duvall), two off the record operators for a shadowy government agency, taked with rescuing a foreign national from assassination. They blow up the building as they leave, tearing off in a land yacht, cracking sarcastic jokes all the while. After the job, they go to a party and Locken gets laid; later Hansen tells him he found a doctor’s note in the gal’s room saying she’s got VD, and shows him the paper.
The plot hinges on a betrayal that makes little sense, but that is the point- that the government’s shifting and mercurial alliances during the Cold War were cynical in the extreme and put civilian life at a lower priority than maintaining the current power structure. Not long after fooling Locken into thinking he’s got the clap, Hansen pulls a double cross and shoots their foreign national in the head, and Locken in the knee and elbow. He slips away after leaving his ex-partner with this deliciously dark goodbye: “You just retired, Mike. Enjoy it.”
While the film doesn’t delve too deeply into why they do this job, as Frankenheimer’s Ronin did, Peckinpah does inject a bit of absurdity later on. He said he prepared for it by watching Bruce Lee movies, which makes a bit of sense, as Mike recovers from his crippling injuries using tai chi and kung fu, and his final job will be escorting Mako and his daughter to a ship bound for China. I was quite interested in watching Locken’s training, because he’s saddled with a cane and uses it to fight. Beyond the usual wizened, cane-wielding master in kung fu films, cane fighting is a serious martial art- check out Cane Masters sometime- but Sam doesn’t take it very seriously. The slow-motion fighting recalls his later film The Osterman Weekend, which seemed to fetishize it and mock it at the same time.

Needless to say, Mike Locken wants revenge. After proving that he’s still dangerous with a metal arm brace- which he learns to bash heads with- and a cane, his old boss Weyburn recruits him for another job, in Chinatown. Escort Yuen Chung (Mako) and his daughter to a Naval transport before ninjas and assassins can take them out. Gig Young plays the boss, and has that WASPy sense of old family cool befitting a paranoid Cold War thriller. This was done to much better effect in Three Days of the Condor, but this one’s got more action; it’s from the Max Von Sydow perspective. Mike puts together a team of old pals, including Miller the Sniper (Bo Hopkins) who we meet skeet shooting by the Golden Gate bridge; and Mac, the car expert, played by Burt Young as a bit of a schlub who’s got it when it counts.
Mac hooks them up with a bulletproof taxicab. “Some union guy put it all together, bulletproof glass, and then they shot him in bed. I got it from his widow.” Oh, the irony. The pickup in Chinatown of course leads to a shootout, that Hansen is behind- who else? The story is predictable, but at least the performances and Peckinpah’s casual attitude toward the material make it entertaining. The bullets fly, and while nothing recalls the frenetic mayhem of The Wild Bunch, we get a sense of the cheapness of civilian life as gunfire riddles the city streets with abandon. This is later punctuated after Mac manages a reliable San Francisco car chase and ditches the cops, only to find a bomb wired under the car. The tension builds as a motorcycle cop senses something awry, but it’s played for laughs; the inconvenience of a traffic stop while the timer ticks away. Mac ends up handing the bomb to the cop, and they tell him to throw it in the harbor.
Ebert missed the payoff in his lukewarm review, as it’s the opposite of the ’66 Batman “some days you just can’t rid of a bomb” gag; they drive off to the shipyard, and as they get out of the car, a distant explosion is heard. I liken this to another hilarious wink Peckinpah gives in Convoy, when the trucks are circling by the flag-draped coffin of their compatriot. That’s almost too ridiculous to take, but it’s the kind of pompous gesture the establishment would demand to assuage the public’s ire. But the bomb made me wonder, was Sam just trying to be funny by giving the hated ’70s icon of the motorcycle cop- mocked so well in Harold & Maude– comeuppance, or was he having the callous “elite” kill off an innocent casually to underline the clumsy yet memorable line of Mac’s that leads this post:

Mac: Damn it, Mike! You’re so busy doing their dirty work, you can’t tell who the bad guys are!
Mike Locken: Don’t worry! I know who the bad guys are: anybody who tries to hurt me!
They’re all tryin’ to hurt you Mike! All the goddam power systems! All the wheelers and dealers at the top with their gin and fizzes! They need guys like you to do their bloodletting, while they’re busy making speeches about freedom and progress! They’re all full of bullshit! There’s not one power system that really cares about its civilians!

That seems to be the kind of cynicism Sam would like; the modern world having no place for honor. Locken is robbed of his revenge by expediency, in a Mexican standoff that in most films would have ended with his fast-draw besting his rival’s. The final battle aboard a decommissioned battleship between gunmen and ninjas might have had the melodrama of The Last Samurai, but no one takes it seriously; it may work on paper, but in broad daylight it ends the only way it should, with cloaked swordsmen cut down like wheat before the scythe. When Mako faces his challenger, Locken and Mac want to “just shoot the guy,” but he demands the ceremonial battle. Caan ad-libs with snarky comments, but is it because he knows his own concept of honor is a fraud? The ending recalls a buddy picture like Freebie, and The Killer Elite is too vague and unfocused to make any grand or weary statements, but is still enjoyable enough to watch.

Oh boy, sleep! That’s where I’m a Viking!

Thus spake the immortal Ralph Wiggum. He’s a Viking in his “head movies,” as Simple Jack would say. But what real movies with Vikings are there to entertain us, not make our eyes rain? I’ve got a bunch on deck and I’m going to watch them all. Did I miss any?

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America
Made by a crew of 8 people and scored with Black metal like Dimmu Borgir, this minimalist tale of the Vinland saga tells the tale of two Vikings left behind in an ill-fated raid on the New World. Essentially it is shaky scenes of Vikings pooping in the woods and wiping with leaves, killing chickens and salmon, burning huts and watching newts to Dethklok. I’m watching this with Milky right now, which inspired this project.

The 13th Warrior
Based on Michael Crichton’s Beowulf-reimagining The Eaters of the Dead, this one may play with history by having a Saracen visit the north, but it’s a lot of fun and pretty realistic. The guys who play the Vikings are all Nordic fellows and the “Grendel” they find is plausible, scary and a good fight. Antonio Banderas plays the Arab traveler with good humor, this is a top of the line B movie.

The Vikings
Obvious. Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis! A good old Hollywood epic. I imagine this one’s as historically accurate as my dream movie of “The Jeffersons” meeting Thomas Jefferson, but Douglas is always good. Plus Ernest Borgnine as “Ragnar” makes for a must watch.

The Long Ships
There is a legend about a great bell, called “The Mother of Voices,” made of pure gold, three times the size of a man, made by monks many years ago… with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Those guys elevate most material, so I’ll give it a shot.

I actually liked this all-CG fantasy by Robert Zemeckis quite a bit. It gets silly at times- Beowulf fights Grendel naked in an Austin Powers-inspired mead hall battle, but it’s good adventure fare. I think making it all CG was a mistake, but Grendel and the Dragon both looked great. I have it on HD-DVD and I’ll rewatch it for this project. There’s also a Christopher Lambert movie called Beowulf, set in the future, and I may suffer through it for the hell of it.

Beowulf & Grendel
This tried to tell things from Grendel’s perspective, making him one of the last Neanderthals whose father was killed by Vikings. It’s not all action, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, and the Icelandic locations are stunning. The effects are good, and I’d love to watch this again.

On the other hand, I’ll never watch this turd again. I really wanted to see Indian braves battle Vikings, but they ruin the premise by making Karl Urban be a Viking child left behind, raised by Indians, and have to fight more Vikings who come later. Vikings who don’t know what ice is. WTF? According to Led Zeppelin, they come from the land of the ice and snow. This movie is fatally stupid and best avoided, but I’ll eviscerate it again for your pleasure. Original review here.

When the Raven Flies
I came upon this ’80s Icelandic revenge flick about a young boy who is spared by Viking invaders and avenges his family 20 years later, and I have to give it a chance. I imagine Icelanders would make a good Viking movie!

Erik the Viking
This was a silly movie by Terry Jones, but he’s a noted historian and a funny Python alumn. I haven’t seen it in years, and want to watch it again. There’s also an Italian ’60s production of the same name I think I can get my hands on.

This one is a kid’s fantasy where Thor and Loki take two disobedient children to Asgard, and they get a tour of Viking mythology. Should be fun to see.

Embla: The White Viking
Another Scandinavian movie, this one involves the Viking clash with Christianity. But this quote sold me: “By the legacy of almighty Thor, we shall see the enemy in Valhalla!”

I loved this recent B-movie of Alien vs. Vikings. It just came out on DVD, and is definitely worth watching again. Full review here.

Grendel Grendel Grendel
An animated film from the ’80s, from Grendel’s point of view. As voiced by Peter Ustinov. Nostalgia ahoy!

The Last of the Vikings
Oh, cheesy Italian movies from the ’60s how I love you. I think this will be a lot like a Hercules movie with different costumes.

The Viking Queen
A Hammer film that seems to be about Druids vs. Romans; a VINO, Viking in name only. I think I have a line on it, and it’s loosely based on Boudicca, so I’ll give it a shot.

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent
Two words: Roger Corman. Then again, how can I avoid a movie with such a great title?

The Viking Sagas
Starring Ralf Moeller, this one is almost universally panned, but it’s on NetFlix streaming, so why not?

Tarkan vs. the Vikings
I have shamefully ignored cheapo Turkish films and this seems like a good place to start.

So, are there other Viking movies worthy of the name that should be considered? Besides of course, this epic kitten film where they come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow: Viking Kittens