Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 442: The Bump In The Night

Horror movies just get no respect. From the early days of film they've been outliers, considered at worst pandering to the lowest common denominator and at best a grubby way to make a lot of money.

Like all kids, I was fascinated by monsters and sitting in theatres watching Dracula and Frankenstein gave me a chance to prove I was all grown up and wasn't no fraidy cat. 

And then one afternoon, as a fully formed adult I bought a ticket to see "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" on the strength of the audacity of its title alone and realized that Horror in the hands of a master filmmaker has the power to both shatter the psyche and renew it.

What makes so many Horror fans so rabid? They've faced a fear and walk out of the theatre empowered and emboldened by that. All of us remember what it was like to leap off the high diving board for the first time, take on the looping roller-coaster, or finally get up the nerve to talk to that hot girl or guy we're smitten with. The high of those accomplishments is exciting and ultimately life affirming.

But in polite society. Horror still sits on the lowest rung of the film ladder. When I took on the job of writing the "Friday the 13th" series, a lot of my friends thought I must've been desperate for work. And virtually all of the established writers, directors and actors I tried to convince to come aboard refused to sully their careers by having that title on their resumes.

But, as Alyse Wax's recent book about the series "Curious Goods" reveals, the brave band of brothers and sisters who did also felt Horror helped them find their artistic voice.

And yet, the show business desire to be accepted in polite society continues with endless essays on films like "The Witch" demanding that audiences embrace "respectable" Horror films like it or "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" instead of whatever Eli Roth or the folks on "The Walking Dead" are rolling out this week.

After all, wasn't last Sunday's premiere of Season 7 of TV's Zombie drama just the ickiest ever? And look at all those Youtube selfies of audiences being traumatized! How awful to treat people that way!


That's the point.

That's why they come in droves.

To paraphrase a well-known politician. "When Horror goes low Audiences go High".

I saw "The Witch" and yeah, the kids and the goat are great. Except those scenes don't build to anything truly frightening and ultimately you're watching Masterpiece Theatre with more suspense and less brocade. 

And while the brocade's better in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", once the literary irony wears off there's not much worth watching.

Horror is not about suspense. And it's not about torture porn or gratuitous gore either.

It's about that bump in the night. The moment when something so out of the ordinary happens that logic evaporates, you're in Tiger Country and the rules you've always lived by no longer apply.

It's about being scared.

And one of the best places to see examples of this are the multitude of Youtube horror short channels like "2SentenceHorror" or "Fuck You Zombie".

You will be frightened.

And it's Halloween weekend, so...

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 441: Movies You Can't Make Anymore

"Your head's so filled with thought you can't use your imagination
Like a sky so filled with stars, you can't find a constellation.
And everyone's so sensitive to any bad vibration
You're so impressing, while we're regressing..."

The first time I visited Hollywood, I felt like I'd gone back to high school. The cliques of super cool kids, jocks and brainers determined not to intermingle less cooties might be spread. The desperation to fit in, to be immediately identifiable, to catch the latest trend and flaunt your wealth or status.

And as much as Hollywood films have changed, those traits of the community making them have not.

To be a Hollywood player you always need to keep your thumb on the pulse of the nation and maintain the appearance of one who espouses the right causes, knows what "the other kids" are thinking and champions the next big thing.

Corporations don't give out those six-figure gift bags at the Oscars because they like the kids from Hollywood High. They need their access to the market that will either buy their products or aspire to buy them.

And at their best, movies do change hearts and minds. "To Kill a Mockingbird", "In the Heat of the Night", "Mississippi Burning" and "Selma" revealed garden variety racism as the illogical evil that it is.

Films like "Philadelphia", "Paths of Glory", "The Big Short" and "Spotlight" were all rightfully honored for opening our eyes to the way the world really works.

Game-changing films such as those are rare, however, since most of us buy a ticket at the box office to get away from the real world for a couple of hours and just enjoy some action, adventure, romance or comedy.

And that's where the progressive impulse of the film community sometimes trips over itself and in its eagerness to show how forward thinking it is, forgets what it was really trying to accomplish in the first place while corrupting film memes that audiences have come to love.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we shouldn't have gotten rid of Stepin Fetchit, white guys playing Charlie Chan or hordes of blood-thirsty savages (of any ethnicity) charging in to massacre our hero and heroine for no other reason than "that's just what they do" and "how else can the cavalry come to the rescue".

But I'm feeling a little like the appearance of championing diversity, gender equality and acceptance of sexual preferences has become more important than actually helping things change.

"Well, I don't mean to piss you off with things that I might say
So when I try to shut my mouth they come out anyway.
Cause when I speak my mind, that's when we connect
Yeah, but that's not politically correct..."

A while ago, some Hollywood bright light had the idea of rebooting "Ghostbusters" with an all-female cast. Maybe not such a dumb idea at the concept level. But then nobody seemed to think it through much further than "let's put some actresses into those grey coveralls" and certainly not as far as "and put in some good jokes". 

The film flopped. Simply because it just wasn't very good. A reality the studio tried to blame on a negative wave of misogyny that was eventually revealed as a pretty much a PR ruse.

Not to be deterred, another studio has embarked on a female version of "Ocean's 11" to be re-titled "Ocean's 8". Again, not a bad idea -- and from my point of view terrific if they keep Matt Damon in the same role.

Somewhere I joked that if this was the latest high-concept formula, I was looking forward to the all-male version of "Thelma & Louise" -- which is probably under consideration somewhere but using Gay or Asian guys instead.

It just seems to me that if we are serious about increasing the work opportunities for artists no matter their gender, race or sexual preference, then we need to play to the strengths of those artists and not just park them in some lame cinematic attempt to appear inclusive.

What's more, we may need to a get a handle on confronting what's a real issue and what's just fashionable in the moment. 

With the passing of Gene Wilder, for example, there was an out-pouring of affection for "Blazing Saddles" a movie most of those praising it would have turned down flatly for its political incorrectness alone and most certainly wouldn't be caught buying a ticket to see it.

That film is just one example of the kind of work you just can't do anymore. Simply because the appearance of doing it is something the cool kids in Hollywood cannot abide.

And the number of those films increases daily. Five examples follow, along with SR-71's performance of the song lyrics included in this post.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

Monday, October 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 440: Playing Bob's Records

A poster version of the image above hung in my bedroom for a good chunk of my teenage years. But Bob Dylan had been around for a while before I really listened to him. 

He arrived in my world around the same time as "The Beatles" and they and all of the following British Invasion invaders took up most of my time and vinyl budget. 

I was probably only aware of him because I was, at the same time, smitten with a beautiful blonde who ironed her hair just like Jane Asher (McCartney's girlfriend) and sang and played guitar well enough that she got invited to perform at a local coffee houses and every high school Hootenanny.

For those who didn't keep track of the 60's, A hootenanny was the final supernova of the Folk Era, where all these singers, guitar and banjo pluckers would get together for a wholesome sing-song, which always included Bob tunes like "Blowin' In The Wind", "Girl From The North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's all Right" -- the last of which always made the goatee'd Assistant Profs get maudlin over their cappuccinos and clutch the suede elbows of their corduroy jackets as they tried to hit on my girlfriend.

But I didn't listen to Bob's records. He was just kinda this folk guy who got lucky by having "The Byrds" record "Mr. Tambourine Man" so he could have a real hit.

But in the Summer of 1965, Bob caused a bit of a scandal by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. It was in all the papers and had Folk people calling him a traitor and guys like me suddenly paying attention because he'd finally seen the light.

I remember hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" a few months later while listening to a cheap. tinny sounding Japanese transistor radio on a noisy bus. It was longer than every other song on the radio and seemed to be about something more important than all the others too, and I started paying attention.

Around the same time, my friend Marc, who played drums in a band, got his own apartment. Perhaps my first buddy to do so. He also bought a stereo system that filled most of the place and covered the walls by thumb tacking his album covers to the peeling plaster -- which also saved having to build a shelving unit or steal plastic milk crates to store them.

That might've been the first time I ever laid eyes on Bob's actual albums, like "Freewheelin", "Blonde on Blonde" and "Highway 61 Revisited". It was certainly the first time I played them in full. Both sides.

And when Marc and I picked up chicks and brought them back to his place, I quickly realized that the presence of Bob's records transformed us (in their eyes) from a couple of horny guys into guys who were "sophisticated horny" and deserved a little more attention.

I started to listen to Bob's records more closely. And have continued to this day.

Years later, I met Bob for about ten seconds. I was staying at a friend's house in LA and one morning there was a knock at the door and some scrawny little homeless guy looking for his dog. Only later did I learn Dylan lived nearby and his dog was always wandering off.

This week, Bob was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which caused another round of literary types feeling betrayed and guys like me knowing our affection for his words had been validated.

And hey, Don Delillo might still have a shot -- just as soon as he goes electric...

Herewith, my all time favorite Dylan tune...

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday #439: Dawson City, Frozen in Time

Several years ago, I was approached to write a documentary about a cache of "lost films" discovered during the demolition of a movie theatre in Texas.

In the parlance of film historians and preservationists, "lost films" are those for which there is evidence of their being made -- but no existing prints or negatives.

And they number in the tens of thousands.

A vast majority of the movies made during the silent era are long gone, never to be seen again. They were shot on highly flammable nitrate based film stock and either self-immolated or turned to dust in storage. 

But many did not even get into storage in the first place. After being humped around the country to first run theatres, then second runs and eventually small town mom and pop movie houses, nobody wanted to pay the freight to have them returned to the studio.

So they were simply trashed, while the pristine prints and negatives kept in Hollywood vaults holding one of a kind stories and performances simply rotted away before anyone noticed.

But many of the films trashed in small towns have returned from the dead. The cache I dealt with came from a small town in Texas where the theatre owner, for reasons nobody knows, decided to park the films he was stuck with in a storm cellar in the movie house's basement, a room that turned out to be cold and dark enough to prevent their decay.

It was amazing to sit in a preservation lab and watch films no one alive had ever seen. The Texas collection included several films from the 1930's and 40's made only for African-American audiences, among them one with the only known footage of Bessie Smith singing.  

But the largest collection of lost films every discovered was found in Canada's Dawson City in 1978. Most dated from the Klondike Gold Rush, when boats returning to Vancouver and Seattle were laden with gold and newly rich prospectors and nobody wanted to make space for heavy metal cans of year or two old movies.

Instead they were dumped into the town's old swimming pool, providing the fill to turn it into a skating rink. For decades, more than 500 films, including newsreels of WWI, silent comedy shorts and Hollywood features remained hidden under the ice and preserved in permafrost.

For 50 years, even the residents of Dawson City didn't know that 500,000 feet of lost movie art was under the skates of the local hockey teams they cheered.

And then in 1978, the old film cans were unearthed as the hockey arena was torn down and a foundation dug for a new recreation centre.

A Canadian Forces Hercules was dispatched to carry the thawed but now highly flammable film to the National Film Archive in Ottawa, where the preservation process began.

The story of this discovery, how the films were saved and what they revealed has recently been released by American filmmaker Bill Morrison. It's a fascinating glimpse into a world that was once thought lost and movies that were the building blocks of the industry we have today.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

Monday, October 03, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 438: In the Middle of Somewhere

To Joseph Conrad, the work of a writer was simple, "My job is to make you see." 

But sometimes you're somewhere where the beauty overwhelms and words seem inadequate.

Active Pass. Sunset. Today.

And people wonder why Canadians love this place so much.

Enjoy Your Sunday.