Archive for the ‘book review’ category

What I’ve Been Reading

May 21, 2011

Some off-the-cuff ramblings on recent text that has entered my eyeballs.

Mutant Message Down Under – The familiar narrative of the white person receiving wisdom among the people of the earth. Usually the white person is female, as in this and also Lynn Andrews. It’s probably because males can be, to put it nicely, skeptical, or to put it plainly, closed-minded (not, please, the non-word “close-minded”). Women are seen in these narratives as caretakers of knowledge that would otherwise be lost (or remain within the circle of the elders). Essentially Marlo Morgan wanders about with Aborigines and learns all the ways in which modern Western thinking is fucked. I find it hard to argue. The question is, how many of the white Western people who read this when it was new and popular ever did anything with the insights they may have gained? I tend to think, not many. You dwell on how fucked we are and then you feel powerless to do much about it. Or I do, anyway. I often feel unworthy of such narratives — not that I don’t get something out of them. Maybe just the comforting awareness that not everyone gets riled up over First World problems or gives a shit about The Real Housewives of Reno or whatever the hell it is. The idea of losing yourself for a year among a people completely cut off from pop culture and the debased political dialogue and the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick has a tempting pull. Ultimately though it’s just a pipe dream. Anyway, this was a good read, if probably not a 100% accurate account of life among the Aborigines.

Losing Mum and Pup – Christopher Buckley’s memoir about becoming an orphan in his mid-fifties — first his mother, Patricia Buckley, then his father, William F. Buckley Jr. — is really more like Losing Pup (and Mum), since most of the book deals with Christopher dealing with WFB in decline. The elder’s detractors may find some schadenfreude in the depiction of WFB addled, wanting to invite long-dead friends to his party, pissing heedlessly out of a moving car. But anyone who’s watched a parent slowly fail should find themselves sobered. Christopher, a wickedly funny writer (who lost a lot of Republican goodwill in ’08 when he endorsed Obama; as with Dennis Hopper, Palin was the last straw), makes it sound both fun and somehow isolating to grow up the only son of William and Patricia. WFB comes off as an overgrown Richie Rich accustomed to getting his own way. He was filthy rich, of course, and inherited his fortune from his oil-magnate father. My empathy with WFB’s end-of-life suffering (and Christopher’s front-row seat for it) can therefore only go so far. Many thousands of people go through the same thing each year without the cushion of a family fortune. I consoled myself with the thought that WFB would not have approved of the book’s portrait of him near the end, enfeebled, finally dying alone in his garage office. The book did lead me to WFB’s amusing collection Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, which I’ve been nibbling on at work during bathroom breaks.

Django Unchained – Following up Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino seems to have anointed himself America’s grindhouse historian. Both stories are wish-fulfillment revengesploitation in which the insulted and the injured rise triumphant against their oppressors. Contrary to early belief, this script doesn’t have much at all to do with the ’60s Django film. It’s essentially a rambling buddy movie in which a German bounty hunter frees a slave and takes him under his wing. Along the way, much racist blood is spilled and the N-word is said so many times in so many contexts the film will likely be protested by one group or another, but as has been said elsewhere, the script is crudely honest about race in a way that a more polite film never could be.  In any event, a cracking good yarn, as QT’s scripts always are; can’t wait for the movie, which should be worthy of shelving alongside John Singleton’s vastly overlooked Rosewood.

Pauline Kael: A Reader’s Guide

April 19, 2010

My eFilmCritic associate William (“Not Will.I.Am”) Goss put out a Twitter request for “any preferred Kael volumes.” I own Pauline Kael’s complete output, and at the time of her death in 2001 I posted a brief guide to her books on my website. So I figured, why not revive it?

- I Lost It at the Movies (1965) – David Rabe used this seminal book as a prop in his play Streamers; in return, Kael criticized some of the more speechy passages of Rabe’s script for Casualties of War. In this first collection, which includes a truly funny bit when she answers irate reader mail (back when she was writing reviews for the radio), Kael gets to tackle Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard, and most hilariously, her scorched-earth diatribe on West Side Story. She was just getting warmed up.

- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) – Kael nicked the title of this one from a poster for an Italian movie. This collection includes pieces on Brando, Kurosawa, Chimes at Midnight, the review of The Sound of Music that got her booted from McCall’s, a lengthy report from the set of The Group, and almost 200 pages of “movie notes” that are sort of a dry run for her later 5001 Nights at the Movies.

- Going Steady (1970) – Kael on Norman Mailer, Mel Brooks, Planet of the Apes, Yellow Submarine, Coppola before he was Coppola, and the great, huge essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in which, among many other things, she definitively brings her admiration for Kubrick to an end (“…maybe some people love 2001 just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff….In some ways it’s the biggest amateur movie of all…”).

- The Citizen Kane Book (1971) – Kael’s hotly debated (mainly by Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich) epic essay “Raising Kane” was packaged with the original screenplay for this out-of-print collection. Kael’s essay was later reprinted in its entirety in For Keeps.

- Deeper Into Movies (1973) – The fireworks begin. Kael skewers more than a few critic’s darlings (Butch Cassidy, A Clockwork Orange, El Topo, Husbands) and popular hits (Billy Jack, Dirty Harry), but also discovers Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Fosse (Cabaret), and Coppola (The Godfather). This is also where you’ll find Kael’s famous summing-up of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as “the first fascist work of art.”

- Reeling (1976) – And the hits keep on coming — it begins with her singing the praises of Sounder and The Emigrants, and towards the end she hauls out her infamous Nashville rhapsody (infamous because she published it long before the movie was even released). Somewhere in there she’s also got Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Last Tango in Paris, and The Sugarland Express, the debut of some guy named Steven Spielberg (“uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way — for humor, and for a physical response to action….If there is such a thing as movie sense…Spielberg really has it”).

- When the Lights Go Down (1980) – Kicks off with “The Man from Dream City,” Kael’s mammoth tribute to Cary Grant. As Kael moves into the mid- and late-’70s, you can see the beginning of the end — Kael grows more and more exasperated as movies like Star Wars (“like a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes”) rule the roost. Still, she works up enthusiasm for Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, Citizens Band, De Palma’s back-to-back telekinetic blockbusters Carrie and The Fury, and even B-movie stuff like King Kong (yes, the remake) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

- 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982; expanded in 1991) – Essential collection of capsule reviews — many are short versions of reviews in her other books, but tons of them are older movies you won’t find Kael covering anywhere else.

- Taking It All In (1984) – This one picks up Kael after her return from her six-month tour of duty as a consultant at Paramount. She jumps right back into the thick of things with a slam at The Shining (“It’s like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes”), then follows that with a beefy essay called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers.” She gets to praise two more De Palma movies here (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), slap Spielberg down to size (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and then lift him back up (E.T.), and write a review of a Richard Pryor concert film that’s really an excuse for her to discuss his greatness in general. She also deals Scorsese a one-two punch with unimpressed takes on Raging Bull and The King of Comedy (the latter of which she hated, hated, hated).

- State of the Art (1985) – No big central essay on the status of movies (in fact, her next two books don’t have one, either) — just reviews, reviews, and more reviews. Kael has to find good stuff in an awful lot of unremarkable movies here. Still immensely readable, from her baffled disappointment in De Palma’s Scarface to her “what the hell, it’s fun” review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the beginning of her hate affair with Tom Cruise (Risky Business is “like a George Bernard Shaw play rewritten for a cast of ducks and geese”).

- Hooked (1989) – One last hurrah, mainly because she discovers a lot of new talent in the wasteland of the ’80s — Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice), as well as new gems by old favorites (Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Almodovar’s Law of Desire and Matador, Huston’s The Dead, Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being). It was really her last real run of meaty, zesty films to cover. As Kael herself says in her intro, “The period covered in this book…begins rather lamely, and then suddenly there’s one marvellous movie after another” — just like old times. Not that Kael doesn’t open a can of whup-ass when called for, either — her hoots of disbelief at Tom Cruise and Top Gun are hilariously cruel (“The best part of the movie comes when he’s suffering: he speaks in a little-boy voice and looks such a Nautilized, dinky thing”).

- Movie Love (1991) – Kael in decline. You can’t really blame her for losing steam, forced to make do with stuff like Punchline, Always, Beaches, and Madame Sousatzka. Still, she finds glowing things to say about Batman, Scrooged, Vampire’s Kiss, Vincent & Theo, Glory, My Left Foot, and of course De Palma’s Casualties of War. But Kael giveth and Kael taketh away: the collection also includes Kael’s what-was-he-thinking pan of De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sacred cows like Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Dead Poets Society, Roger & Me, Field of Dreams, GoodFellas, Edward Scissorhands, and The Little Mermaid also fall under Kael’s broadsword. She finishes off the Godfather trilogy with a rather depressed-sounding “oh how the mighty have fallen” review; Kael’s overjoyed reviews of the first two Godfather films are included in For Keeps, but her dispirited review of the third one isn’t, maybe because she couldn’t bear to kick Coppola one more time. Her very last published review is of a Steve Martin comedy, L.A. Story, which is sort of fitting — she always loved his style. But she retired a week before The Silence of the Lambs came out, and damn, I would’ve loved to have read a Kael review of that. (In a later interview, she said she wasn’t very impressed with it.)

- For Keeps (1994) – Or, The Portable Pauline Kael, except it isn’t portable (thought I’d swipe a line from her review of Bertolucci’s 1900, included here) — it weighs in at 1,291 pages. It’s a decent sampler of her work, which is a good indication of how much writing she produced, when a 1,300-page book is only a sampler. If you buy this without owning her other books, be warned that the omnibus may well drive you to bookfinder.com in search of her entire output (much of which is out of print). I don’t actually open For Keeps very often — I prefer to swim around in a movie period along with Kael (“Okay, Pauline, tonight we’re going to revisit 1975-1978″), reading her reviews as she wrote them, week in and week out.

Also recommended:

- Conversations with Pauline Kael (1997, edited by Will Brantley), a collection of interviews with Kael spanning four decades (1966-1994), including a lengthy chat with Hal Espen in the pages of The New Yorker three years after she left it. This is where you’ll find her talking off-the-cuff about some movies that came out after she put her pencil down.

- Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), wherein her friend, jazz critic Francis Davis, talks movies and other things with Kael. Essentially a (barely) book-length companion to the above collection.

- Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004), Craig Seligman’s tribute to Kael and Susan Sontag, perhaps the two most-admired and most-feared female essayists of their day. Kael was safely dead when it came out; Sontag died seven months after its publication, though of leukemia, not of a severe case of umbrage.

Also worth looking up: Wes Anderson’s account of taking Kael to a private screening of Rushmore.

Book Review: The Total Film-Maker

November 12, 2008

jlcmnsb_3It’s fitting, perhaps, that I first heard about Jerry Lewis’ The Total Film-Maker in Bill Griffith’s absurdist comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.

Griffith was fixated on one line from the book’s prologue: “You have to know all the technical crap as well as how to smell out the intangibles, then go make the birth of a simian under a Jewish gypsy lying in a truck in Fresno during a snowstorm prior to the wheat fields burning while a priest begs a rabbi to hug his foot.”

Huh?

When you read the book, though, that slice of advice actually makes sense. To translate from Jerry-ese to English: “Learn the basics, then do all the weird stuff you want.”

First published in 1971, drawn from many hours of tape recordings of Jerry’s film course at USC, The Total Film-Maker is probably the most readable and common-sensical book any aspiring director could own. Unfortunately, it’s out of print. No matter. If you want to make movies, do what you have to do to find a copy. If you don’t want to make movies, but simply want a fascinating account of Lewis’ filmmaking (sorry, “film-making”) career with dozens of examples of what he had to do to get film in the can, find a copy. If you’re a Jerry fan, find a copy. You can’t have mine.

Spiked with bits of Jerry’s inimitable verbal humor (on shooting inserts: “Some directors want to shoot everything in their picture, including the mongoose’s armpit”), the book is divided into “Production,” “Post-Production,” and “Comedy,” the third section focusing on how to shoot funny stuff. Now, some of the specifics are outdated these days. Hell, we’re talking 37 years ago. But Jerry’s tough-minded creative advice still holds true. Even if you don’t want to make slapstick pitched at six-year-olds, you’d do well to heed a lot of his guidelines, particularly his chapter on dealing with actors. (As an actor himself, he’s seen it from both sides.)

Two things loudly unmentioned here: Dean Martin, and Lewis’ notoriously, painfully aborted labor of love The Day the Clown Cried, which remains the Holy Grail for collectors of rare cinema (and which, in any case, hadn’t happened yet at the time the lectures were being given and assembled). In the “good call” department, he writes this in the epilogue: “Recently I saw a film made by a twenty-one-year-old, Steven Spielberg. It was twenty-four minutes of film called Amblin’, produced for around $17,000. It rocked me back. He displayed an amazing knowledge of film-making as well as creative talent.” You get Jerry’s take on other directors, too: Kubrick’s 2001 (“a brilliant film”), Hitchcock’s Psycho (“He crossed the line of decency”).

Jerry is rarely given credit for being a technical pioneer. On the cover of The Total Film-Maker is the massive $900,000 indoor set he had built for The Ladies’ Man, the biggest studio set ever filmed up to that point. On the same movie, Jerry started using a video camera next to the film camera, a process that changed filmmaking and became an industry standard. Even if you have little use for his actual movies, the man has contributed.

Yet he has never been honored at the Oscars*, and he has not directed a feature film in 25 years (1983’s Smorgasbord); he has not shot a frame of film at all in 15 years (he helmed a segment of 1993’s anthology Comment Vont les Enfants). The disappointment of The Day the Clown Cried killed him a little, I think. But in this book, published only a year before that disaster, Jerry is still madly in love with film and film-making, and the love is infectious. Some enterprising publisher of film-related books (say, Applause) needs to bring The Total Film-Maker back into print, with perhaps a new introduction by Jerry (or maybe by Martin Scorsese, who directed Jerry so memorably in The King of Comedy), so it can be in bookstores alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew inspiring a whole new generation to get out there and — as Jerry exhorts — “make film, shoot film, run film.”

*Since this review ran, Lewis has indeed received an Oscar — a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his telethon work, not a lifetime achievement award for his film work.

Book Review: Cinema Sewer

October 30, 2008

Robin Bougie is a very, very, very sick and twisted man. And thank the gods of filth-film fetishism for that. Actually, I’ve never met Bougie; for all I know, he gets his taxes done on time, goes to church twice a week, and cries at Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies. I have a feeling, though, that he’d rather be considered very, very, very sick and twisted. The creator of Cinema Sewer — the zine and then the book (published a year ago today) — would probably have it no other way.

Comprising the best of the zine’s first twelve issues, along with a surfeit of new stuff, Cinema Sewer is about as disreputable a movie book as they come. It’s like holding a stack of inky, sordid photocopied zines in your lap, between slick, attractive covers. (Maybe too attractive, I think; a book like this really should look like something you find in a supermarket bathroom.) Bougie not only enthusiastically reviews porn, he draws scenes from it. The aesthetic is a bit like the old Loompanics catalogs that were later collected in trade paperbacks, with radical, disturbing essays illustrated by artists who clearly didn’t care about making it cute. Aside from the index and the interviews, wherein the subjects are allowed Courier font, there’s hardly a dot of machine-printed text anywhere in Cinema Sewer — it’s all hand-printed, in rigorously ruled all-caps. This may look like a slim volume, but it’s a dense read — perfect for (of course) shithouse perusal.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I dig what Bougie is doing here. He covers ferociously wrong shit, stuff that would give even Michael J. Weldon pause, and often finds insightful things to say in its defense. At times, especially in the porn coverage, it’s as if we’re getting a sharp, unapologetic direct line to Bougie’s id. (You haven’t lived until you’ve read him rhapsodizing about the remote possibility of Thora Birch starring in a porno.) “Look,” he says (in effect), “this stuff fascinates me. It’s fuck-ugly, but I can’t leave it alone.” It isn’t just rude-boy wanking, though: Bougie’s lengthy piece on Linda Lovelace goes through various attitudes and moods about the infamous porn queen (who later repudiated her triple-X efforts) before finally settling on compassion. Two pornos by the recently deceased Gerard Damiano (who directed Lovelace’s opus Deep Throat) are reviewed here, as well as other vintage stroke flicks either famous or justifiably obscure.

Bougie was born in 1973, and therefore wasn’t around the first time for most of the stuff he loves. He’s also Canadian, so he’s doubly estranged from the mostly-American material in this volume (he samples some Japanese fetish porn too, and even he seems a bit nonplussed by its sheer what-the-fuckery). Yet he has the passion of someone who spent years ruining his eyeballs with this stuff in 42nd-Street fleapits back in the day. What I like about Bougie and his no-bullshit, this-is-what-I-watch approach is that it leaves absolutely no room for pretension or condescension; it cuts to the chase with starkly rendered ejaculations and frequent cameos by a cartoon Bougie sweating and eye-popping his way through various rants (as when he flips off his fellow moviegoers). Bougie implicates himself in his own tastes more fearlessly than just about any film critic out there; in a way, the book and the zine are his ongoing trash-culture autobiography.

Cinema Sewer comes on like some Peter Bagge idiot projectile-vomiting turds of wisdom about best-forgotten crap, but that’s by design; it’s actually a good deal more thoughtful than that, and, I suspect, more carefully pieced together — the pages may look DIY and junky, but considerable craft and planning have gone into making them look that way. Whenever the blue-hairs and red-staters harrumph about the latest supposedly youth-corrupting pop-cultural confection, I have to chuckle and say “This? This is what you think is going to bring America down? Do you even know what kind of legitimately deranged shit is out there and has been out there for decades?” Well, Robin Bougie, a 35-year-old Canadian, sure as hell knows, and has devoted himself to telling us all about it. Hell, anyone so cheerfully eager to point a Klieg light at American culture’s fat, semen-crusted underbelly is performing a goddamn public service.

Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Books

October 28, 2008

When Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Video magazine folded in 2006, I took it like a death of a friend I’d only heard from intermittently in recent years but still held great fondness for. Infrequent though it had become, it still came home with me whenever it eventually hit the stands — the few stands that still carried it. The death of Psychotronic Video felt like the end of an era, much as the demise of Famous Monsters of Filmland had.

Maybe you didn’t realize it — I didn’t until too late — but October 12, 2008 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Weldon’s magnum opus The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. This monolith of cult, exploitation, classic, mondo, and just plain cool films became the gold standard by which all other such compilations would be judged — the schlock-cinema equivalent of The Trouser Press Record Guide, left atop coffee tables in slacker dens everywhere for friends to lose themselves in. Other movie books handled the mainstream stuff, the Mighty Films of Cinema, the ones you felt duty-bound to watch at least once. Weldon, with the help of Ballantine Books, legitimized the low, the weird, the obscure, the greasers and sluts and punks of celluloid. He made it okay for budding movie buffs to bundle in some Eurotrash sexploitation and teenagers-with-mutations flicks along with our Kurosawa and Bergman.

Hilariously, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia occasionally made a half-hearted effort to include mainstream hits — Weldon’s disinterested review of Star Wars misspelled Ben Kenobi’s name “Ben Kanoby” (this was corrected in a later printing), showing us exactly how much Weldon sweated the details when it came to that phenomenon. My favorite example of Weldon’s trying to find some point of interest in a scholar-approved work of cinematic art is the book’s review of Fellini’s 8 1/2; it reads in its entirety, “Barbara Steele is Gloria Morin.” That’s all he has to say about it because that’s all that matters to him: Barbara Steele is in it. Weldon was also not shy about preferring a director’s earlier, lesser-known stuff to the later hits: “It’s good,” Weldon wrote about John Carpenter’s Halloween, “but Assault on Precinct 13 is even better.” (Often, Weldon — as much of a rock-music wonk as he is a movie geek — sounds like one of those rock snobs who say “The Wall is good, but Animals is Floyd’s true unsung masterpiece.”)

Thirteen years and a sheaf of Psychotronic Video issues later, Weldon put together his sequel, The Psychotronic Video Guide. The new volume, which picked up where the first left off (no reviews of anything that had been covered back in ’83), was by its nature more exhaustive, since it included every little video Weldon had been sent to cover in the magazine along with whatever gems or turkeys he’d stumbled across on his own. This time, the covers sported blurbs from the likes of John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of whom had prospered by taking the psychotronic aesthetic to the masses. (Weldon has said that Tarantino once visited Weldon’s shop and gave him a duped videotape of the then-not-yet-released Reservoir Dogs.)

By 1996, psychotronic had long since gone mainstream, or mainstream had gone psychotronic; the biggest indicator of the sea change was probably the box-office triumph and quintuple-Oscar victory of a film about a psycho who eats people and a sicko who carves off women’s skin and wears it. To this day, psychotronic continues to reign: Heath Ledger’s Joker is nothing if not a psychotronic avatar, the sort of perverse, rugose monstrosity that never would’ve been allowed anywhere near a major motion picture — let alone one that turned into the year’s gigantic breadwinner — twenty-five years ago.

Weldon noted the cultural shift in his intro to Psychotronic Video Guide, even though it didn’t quite redound to his benefit. Tarantino’s imprimatur didn’t keep Psychotronic Video‘s advertisers from flaking out, or independently owned shops that carried the mag from closing their doors. Psychotronic Video folded roughly a year before Weldon’s ultimate godchild, the Tarantino/Rodriguez psychotronic fetish object Grindhouse, hit theaters. But Weldon, you see, not only worshipped grindhouse before grindhouse was cool — he made grindhouse cool.

By recent accounts, Weldon and his wife are still running their Psychotronic shop on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. One still hears from him once in a while, on the radio or podcasts or in interviews. But he should be writing, he should be read. Or, failing that, he should at least be remembered and revered. A note on the back of Psychotronic Encyclopedia reads, “Warning: The author of this book has been watching these movies obsessively since the age of 6. He is now unfit for conventional employment.” Well, conventional employment’s loss was our gain. I ache for a third volume of psychotronic angel-dust — maybe you do, too. (It’s been twelve years, almost as long as the gap between the first two books.) But for now, we can simply raise a toast to the original gray brick’s 25th birthday, perhaps take it off the shelf and swim around in it all over again, and give props to the man who was there before everyone else, without whom there wouldn’t have been a Grindhouse or a Tarantino or a Film Threat or perhaps even a Hollywood Bitchslap. Michael J. Weldon, for those about to schlock, we salute you.


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