31 May 2007

Regal Theaters wants YOU...to do their job for them

Movie theaters face a crisis. More people turn toward the home cinema experience, via the combined wonders of DVD, Blu-ray, widescreen and megascreen TVs, thundering digital sound systems, and Netflix-style home delivery of movies. I can see this happening on the personal level, because within the last five years I have reduced my theater-going experience by half, seeing many more new releases on DVD. I still prefer seeing movies on the big screen, but the prime reason I’ve reduced my cinema-going is that I have become more selective about which movies I will chose to pay six bucks (my local matinee price) to see. Epics and blockbusters, films I feel may lose some of their impact on the more intimate and smaller home theater systems, tend to get my patronage now.

Facing the downturn, some theater chains have turned proactive in luring back patrons. A few have hatched bizarre schemes that reveal much about why the theaters are losing their audience. Just peruse this article from Yahoo! Tech:
One movie theater is empowering preferred customers with tools that would summon security guards in the case of any disturbance or movie malfunctions. According to USA Today, Regal Entertainment Group is equipping loyal moviegoers with the new Regal Guest Response System in 114 theaters nationwide. The small remote control has four buttons to report disturbances, sound, piracy, and picture malfunctions anonymously. Pressing the button would alert a manager faster, and people don't have to worry about being confronted later by an angry customer. Sounds like a great idea to me, one that I hope they eventually implement in every seat.
The device sounds cute, but clearly this is a scam pulled by Regal under the guise of “customer service.” Regal says it will equip loyal moviegoers with the device; what does “loyal” constitute? Whaddya bet it means “customer willing to pay more”? And what guarantees that the device will really work? This device also allows Regal to slack off on the job it should be doing by having ushers patrol the movie theaters. With one move, Regal cuts down on employee responsibility (might be able to cut some jobs, too) and finds a new way to charge customers extra. In no way is this “empowering” the customer.

There's another sneaky element of the device that should draw your attention: the piracy button. This is the only button that Regal actually wants you to press. Chances are that someone surreptitiously recording the film won't actually disturb your movie-going experience. This button serves Regal, not the patron.

Finally, one in every seat? I hope the author of the article was making a joke when she suggested this. Can you imagine the chaos if everyone in the theater could summon the management with the press of a button? And you thought cell phone abusers and overactive kids were annoying!

My own experience in movie theaters hasn't declined much over the past few years because of other patrons. I’ve noticed fewer cell phone problems since “turn off your cell phone” title cards now run before the movie. (It’s gratifying to see folks throughout the theater reach down and shut off their cells when the announcement runs.) The “talkative teens” I often hear complaints about? Never had a problem with that; hardly even notice it. (Teens are once again the easiest scapegoats. I can hear the crumudgeonly screaming now: “Damn kids with your Hula Hoops and Rock n’ Roll!”) Screaming kids and babies? That has occurred occasionally, but only once did it get bad enough that I had to tell the mother to get control of her kids, who were running all over the theater. (This happened in Denver, by the way, not Los Angeles.) A few years ago I almost saw the people in front of me get into a fight because one man kept using a cell phone, and when the woman next to him politely asked him to take a call outside the theater, he told her to “shut up,” causing the woman’s boyfriend to get justifiably unhappy. But these are rare instances, and usually my experience in theaters isn't much hampered by other patrons.

But you know what has caused my theater experience to decline? The theaters themselves! This is why theater chains are really losing business: poor management that comes across as completely anti-patron. Untrained nonunion projectionists, insufficient staff not doing their jobs, allowing equipment break, constantly shoving advertisements at us before the movie starts, jacking up prices with no end in sight . . . and now Regal has found a way to charge patrons extra so they don't have to do their own job, and hopefully turn their customers into stoolies as well.

Thanks Regal. No thanks. Turn your cell phone off.

30 May 2007

Benny's swingin' Birthday!

While we're into jazz birthdays, today is also the birthday of the "King of Swing":

Benny Goodman
The "King of Swing" desgination was foisted on him from the media of the day; but although Benny may not have "invented" swing (other orchestras had been playing it since the late 1920s), it was the Goodman Orchestra's break-out in 1935 that ignited swing as the popular music of its time...and subsequently made my favorite dance, Lindy Hop, the official great folk dance of the U.S.
Regardless of whether Goodman deserved the Kingly title or not, he fronted one helluva band. I may prefer Count Basie and Artie Shaw, but Goodman runs in a tight pack at the front of the race for greatest swing band of all time. I own a huge collection of his recordings, and any one of them can get my feet moving and Lindy Hop grooving. Especially the period from 1935–1938 when he had Gene Krupa playing drums and either Bunny Berigan of Harry James on the horn. In addition, black bandleader Fletcher Henderson was throwing out amazing charts for the band, bringing the sound of Harlem into the homes of Middle America through radios and 78s. It was a thrilling time in music, and every time I play Goodman's version of "Swingtime in the Rockies," or "Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance)," or "Christopher Columbus," or "Roll 'Em," or "Stompin' at the Savoy," or any number of other astonishing pieces, I'm whisked back to that era.

29 May 2007

Averoigne reprint

It’s an older article, but it’s at a new location with an attractive graphics layout courtesy of the webmaster: my overview of Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne Chronicles has been moved over to Black Gate’s online site. So if you haven’t read it yet, please check it out.

Honey, I've got something to tell you

My Yahoo! Homepage loves to throw "news" articles at me about 1) Work Issues and 2) Relationship Issues. "How to Ask for That Raise." "Five Tips on Meeting the In-Laws." Etc. Easy to ignore, still annoying to have flash up on my screen as if it has the wait of the mess in the Middle East. But occasionally one catches my interest, but inevitably the article doesn't live up to my imaginative perspective on what it could contain.

Most recent case: A Yahoo! Health article provided through Men's Health titled "Secrets You Better Tell Your Partner." According to the link from my homepage, it promises to list four secrets. I gleefully anticipated one secret in particular. But here are the four I found:

1. I have issues
2. Someone else is romantically pursuing me
3. I like that [guess what that might be]
4. I need more

Excuse me, but where is the ultimate secret, the one that drives most film noir and great mystery and suspense novels?

5. Honey, I've murdered somebody

Come on, Men's Health! Where's your damn imagination? Don't you watch movies? Is Cornell Woolrich's career all for nought? (Just read his stories "Red Tide" and "Goodbye, New York" and you'll see what I mean.) Stop with "issues" and "honesty and bed" fluffery and get down to the nitty gritty that your readers really need.

26 May 2007

Happy birthday to Miles Davis

Happy birthday to one of the 20th Century's greatest artists:
Miles Davis

For the record, my favorite Miles Davis recordings are the ones that later became the album The Birth of the Cool. The photo above is Miles circa that era.

So...are we ever going to get that movie starring Don Cheadle as Miles? (Good choice, by the way.)

25 May 2007

In praise of a Gothic Bat

The waiting period for The Dark Knight will be intense. More than a year away (actually, 416 days and twelve hours away as of the moment I write this sentence—thank you very much Batman-on-Film) and already I'm as giddy about seeing this movie as some poor victim of Joker Venom. Batman Begins rocked my world something fierce in 2005, and it looks as if director Christopher Nolan keeps making one great choice after another for the sequel. I am 99% certain he won't let me down and the film will rule all of 2008.

Sitting around thinking about The Dark Knight and trying to squeeze every bit of information I can out of the Internet about it (spoilers be damned! I want to know now!) has of course got me thinking about Batman in general, and the other movies in particular. And when I start thinking about the Batman films, I always gravitate to that dark spot in my heart that loves 1992's Batman Returns.

I'm not alone in loving the film. But those who hate it aren't alone either. It's nobody's least favorite Bat-film—that would be Batman and Robin and that can be proven scientifically—but many Bat-fans dislike what director Tim Burton did to the character. Taking the dark and Gothically stylized Batman from the 1989 mega-hit, Burton then produced what can best be described as a macabre fantasmagoria that melded Fritz Lang and DC comics by way of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens in a particularly foul mood, and leather S&M fetishists. It was one big Dark Carnival, to borrow a title from Ray Bradbury. For a lot of Bat-fans it was too much Burton and too little Bat.

And I agree. But I still love the film. I'm a huge Bat-fan who owns all the movies on DVD, plus all the episodes of the different animated series, and will be the first to purchase the 1960s TV show on disc whenever the rights issues gets hacked out (and can we make this soon please, Fox and Warner Bros.?). I've read comics from all the different eras of the Bat thanks to the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. I know my Bat pretty well. And the Batman who appears in Batman Returns is definitely more a product of director Tim Burton than any of the dominant comic book versions. He's probably closest to the Batman envisioned by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, in which Bruce Wayne is a borderline sociopath with fascist underpinings. Miller's Batman had a huge influence at the time, but I think Tim Burton would have gone ahead and made his violent, slightly crazed Batman-who-kills (remember when he blows up the strongman with a smile on his face?) regardless. Because he was making a Tim Burton film, not a comic book film.

And since I'm a Tim Burton fan as well as a Bat-fan, I can't help but love the gothic weirdness of Batman Returns. It's a sheer freakin' delight for me. Even though it's the darkest of the Bat-films, I think it's also the funniest. Morbid funny, like "I could have blood gushing from my nose!" kind of funny. Like "life's a bitch now so am I" funny. Like a mutated freak commanding an army of rocket-strapped penguins to annihilate the population of a major city. The thing is just so demented that I can't believe it was meant to be a summer blockbuster. That's the darkest joke of all, and Tim Burton got away with it!

On a psychological level, it's an intriguing text about the masks people wear, and the torture of the dual identity. The Catwoman-Batman/Selina Kyle-Bruce Wayne relationship is perfectly realized, especially how it explores the idea of the same person split down the center. And around this twisted love story is the disgusting figure of the Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. "The Penguin," one of my favorite film villains ever. I love how Burton created the Penguin as the anti-Bruce Wayne and the anti-Batman: a boy whose rich parents lost him, and who seeks to avenge that loss by murdering the wealthy of Gotham (or the infant children at least). It's the exact reverse of Batman's origin. Although the Penguin is a grotesque figure, he's also tragic. Deformed, rejected, and ready to do something nasty about it. Batman chooses to be a freak, the Penguin had it thrust upon him. Added to the mix is Max Schrek (a nod to the actor who played Count Orlock in Nosferatur), the perfect example of what Bruce Wayne could have become had his parents not died: a cold-hearted rich industrialist whose only out to pilfer more dough. The "axis of wealth" in the Wayne-Schrek-Cobblepot combination fascinates me, and it gets only better with the Wayne-Kyle/Bat-Cat sexual axis crossing it. It's a Sociological/Economic/Freudian funhouse—with a wicked "have a very Gothic Christmas" setting. (The Christmas backdrop is a great touch; this is Burton's original Nightmare before Christmas.)

Okay, so it's not exactly a Batman film. And it isn't as great as Batman Begins. But damn, I love the movie anyway.

My favorite quote, coming from the maw of Mr. Cobblepot: "You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask."

24 May 2007

Deliver Us from Evil

Now that I've watched Deliver Us from Evil, I only have only one more movie to go—Iraq in Fragments—before I've seen all five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category of the 2006 Academy Awards. I'm passionate about feature documentaries and try to see as many of them as I can each year, but I rarely get to watch them in theaters: were it not for Netflix, I don't think I could stoke my passion for this art form. However, the theatrical documentary has grown considerably in box-office exposure and power in recent years: Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, and An Inconvenient Truth (the 2006 winner for Best Documentary Feature) all had major success in theaters. I hope the trend continues.

Deliver Us from Evil is another powerhouse documentary that should have gotten wider exposure. It easily makes my list for the best movies of 2006. Like the other "children and religion" documentary in the Oscar category, Jesus Camp, this movie is far more frightening and upsetting than any horror movie in my recent memory. Television producer Amy Berg directed this film that follows the case of former priest Oliver O'Grady, who continually molested children (the interview subjects estimate the number of victims around a hundred, with the youngest nine months old) from 1976 onward while the Catholic Church covered up his actions and moved him around from parish to parish to keep his actions hidden. The film is especially damning to future Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahony. The documentary eventually broadens to include the entire Catholic Priest sexual abuse scandal that has exploded to attention in recent years. Thomas Doyle, a priest who leads a battle with the victims and their families to stop the cover-up, turns into the hero of the story at the conclusion and at least gives hope that the people who have had their lives ruined will receive some redress, some form of contrition from the Church. It doesn't look likely however—but their fight is inspiring.

This is a very upsetting film, and a few sequences are literally gut-wrenching and had me in tears. O'Grady is extensively interviewed in Ireland, where he lives a free man after serving half of his fourteen-year sentence in the U.S. On camera he's a genial and avuncular figure, "the very image of what we thought a Catholic priest should be," the mother of one of the victims says. It rapidly becomes clear how deeply mentally ill the man is as he describes his actions in a calm, clinical way. In his video deposition, the examiner brings up the possibility that O'Grady suffers from a dissociative disorder, and based on the manner in which O'Grady discusses his actions, this makes complete sense. The man needs to be institutionalized, treated, and kept away from children at all costs. Yet the Church, fully aware of his record, let him roam around central California, prowling parish to parish, where he actively pursued more victims. And that's where the "evil" of the title truly appears.

The stories of the victims who agreed to take part in the documentary are harrowing. Now adults, they have never fully recovered from the persistent sexual abuse, often flat-out rape, they received from Oliver O'Grady. But the film's most searing moment comes from Bob Jyono, the father of one of the victims, Anne. A sweet-faced old man, a Japanese-American who married a sweet-faced Irish woman, and probably someone who never hated anybody in his life, he explodes in a mix of rage and sorrow as he relives the moment his adult daughter finally revealed to him what O'Grady had done to her when she was a little girl. The image of Mr. Jyono's tears and anger ("He molested my daughter—no he raped my daughter! When she was five years old!") is something I will never erase from my mind.

Bob Jyono. His wife Maria is at the far left.

22 May 2007

What the &%#$! does RBOB stand for?

I currently work a day job, as do most writers I know. I also happen to work in a field that I had never envisioned myself getting anywhere near: commodities trading. The world of big business is not my world, and even after four (or is it five?) years at American National Trading Corp., it still isn't my world. I'm a historian/writer/artist by inclination, and the Allmighty Dollar is only important to me in terms of its ability to purchse books (and pay rent, but that's a necessary evil). However, the job pays well, I get treated fine, the drive is only fifteen minutes with no traffic, and I never have to take work home with me. My time away from work is my time. For a writer, it's a nice deal.

But the operation of the commodities world continually baffles me. And I actually have a Series 3 commodities license, passed the test and all! For example, recently the New York Mercantile Exchange ditched the old commodity of Unleaded Gasoline for a new commodity entitled Gasoline RBOB. The letters are always pronounced as a true acronym, "Our-Bob," which has become the workplace nickname for a guy in the office named Bob. (Yep, we're that creative.) But nobody seemed to know what the letters actually stood for. They didn't make any logical sense. Today I looked it up since a client asked about it, and here's what I learned RBOB means:

Reformulate Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending

Oh, pleeeeze. What desk jockey in NYMEX dreamed that up? I'm sure they thought they were being specific and this improved immensely over the word "Unleaded," but it's this sort of noodling about that makes big U.S. business incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't watch Bloomberg 24/7.

Before I looked the RBOB up, I conjured up some much more interesting possibilities for those four letters. Wouldn't Gasoline RBOB be far more thrilling if it stood for:
  • Rocking Back On the Beat (Dance instructions)
  • Randy Bastards Operating Buses (A bus drivers' union)
  • Robust? Bloated? Often Barfing? (Slogan for a new infomerical product)
  • Radically Bombastic Operas by Bach (An eletronica album)
  • 'R Babes Our Bosses? (A misogynistic organization, and the "R" is kind of cheating)
  • Rolling Basie on the Blues (A cool new Big Band number)
  • Republican Base Or Beelzebub? (A left-wing pamphlet)
  • Roasted Brie on Bread (Menu item)
  • Run, Big Orville Belches! (Simply good advice)

The commodities business needs to loosen up a bit, I think.

21 May 2007

I believe in Christopher Nolan

Here it is, Batfans and True-Believers. After a silly hoax last month, Warner Bros. has finally released a true publicity photo of Heath Ledger in his Joker make-up for 2008's future Best Film of the Year, The Dark Knight.

If you're afraid of spoilers, I've kindly hidden the picture behind this link. You should be afraid anyway, I'm warning you.

My opinion? I think's its dead-on for the tone that Christopher Nolan set in the first movie, Batman Begins. This is a psycho-killer with a twisted face that meshes perfectly with the realistic and dark feel that Batman Begins established. We knew we wouldn't see a repeat of Nicholson's Joker from Batman, and Nolan has delivered soemthing deliciously twisted. As Alex Winck's astute commentary over at Batman-on-Film points out, "If I met a guy looking like this in a dark alley, I’d run like crazy." Indeed. It remains to be seen how Ledger will play the Joker's particular brand of sick crazy, but from the visual side, everything looks bat-tastic.

As I expected from earlier rumors, the Joker's smile appers to be some kind of injury or mutilation, which I suspect he might have done to himself. The skin has the uneven appearance of acid scarring or possibly some sort of birth-defect, not the pure white clown make-up look of either Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson's Clown Prince of Crime. (I have, by the way, no problem with either earlier Joker, but the character has had so many interpretations that there's room for plenty more breeds of Jokers.)

Also, just so you know where I stand politically:

18 May 2007

Night at the Museum: Teaching Tool?

I'm a big proponent of using movies as teaching tools for children. Even a poor film can spark discussion with a child if the adult knows the right questions to ask and the right projects that can branch off watching a movie together. When I worked as a reading instructor for younger children, I emphasized with their parents how important reading with the child was; not just passively reading out loud, but prompting thinking about story and characters, engaging the child's mind with questions that relate to his or her own world. The same tactic works for movies: watching a film with your child in an active and engaging way can be wonderful experience for both youyou’re your child…even with a film that's, uhm, not that great.

(Note: this is a better activity done with home video. Try some of this "active viewing" in a movie theater and the guy behind you will toss his overpriced cup of Pepsi at your head.)

Therefore I recommend, with understandable reservations, the recent DVD release of Night at the Museum.

Confession time: I didn't think the film was horrible. Compared to a lot of family-fare that gets pushed out around the winter holidays, it's far superior to, say, The Cat in the Hat or Cheaper by the Dozen. It's definitely the best film yet directed by Shawn Levy, who I will always think of as the actor who played the kid with the big '80s hair in the lame horror flick Zombie Nightmare. (Sorry Shawn, you seem like a nice and funny guy in all your interviews, but once you've appeared in a film on Mystery Science Theater 3000, that's the image you permanently wear in my mind.) The effects are good, the cinematography by Pan's Labyrinth lensman Guillermo Navarro is fine work, and it has some genuine laughs without overplaying the comedy away from the chaos in the museum. For what wants to be, it isn't awful. Yes, truly the stuff of a five-star review, isn't it?

But in the middle of its slapstick silliness and cute moral father-n-son bonding, Night at the Museum might actually gets some children wondering about history and nature. Who are these Roman folks? Who was Attila the Hun? What's the big deal about the Easter Island statue? Why are the Civil War soldiers fighting with each other? What's the full story of Sacagawea? One of the characters in the story even encourages Ben Stiller to read up on his history so he can handle his job better. (He does most of it online, of course, but picks up a few books, like Attila the Hun for Dummies, one of the better visual gags). The film has a hundred starting places for discussions with children, all centering around the importance of museums in our culture.

So why not finish a viewing of Night at the Museum with a trip to the museum? Turn that silly holiday comedy into a learning obsession.

Okay, I'm down off my teacher's soapbox now.

Nitpicky Note to Filmmakers: Please remember that in Classical Latin that a "v" is pronounced like our "w." So the Roman Octavius that Steve Coogan plays should call himself "Oc-tay-WEE-us," not "Oct-tay-VEE-us." There had to have been somebody on the set who knew enough basic school Latin to tell you that.

17 May 2007

Hello Again to The Long Goodbye

There's a Long Goodbye,
And it happens every day.
When some passerby
Invites your eye
To come her way.
Even as she smiles a quick "hello,"
You let her go,
You've let the moment fly.
Too late you turn your head
You know you've said
The Long Goodbye.

"The Long Goodbye" by John Williams and Johnny Mercer

Perhaps a reaction to recently reading an old-fashioned parlor room murder mystery, perhaps my reflective mood, or perhaps because when reaching for another book my hand brushed against its spine and I felt that tingle of an old friend, but I picked up and re-read Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye this week. It remains one of my favorite books, and I use the word “favorite” in its strongest possible sense. This is not a book I like, or even love. This is a book I treasure, and it belongs on the imaginary short shelf of the works that have meant the most to me in the brief time I've existed on this weird planet. The Long Goodbye is one of the most penetrating looks at that planet. It's a difficult novel to digest emotionally; no matter how many times I read it, I feel my world has changed in some way when I close it after the last line. The air around me feels heavier, sounds outside my window have a distant echo, and human voices sound unreal. A potent spell Mr. Chandler weaves.

Raymond Chandler was an author of hard-boiled “Private Eye” mysteries. No one had a greater effect on the genre, not even Hammett or Spillane. All the cliches we associate with it come from his novels and his P.I. character, Philip Marlowe. However, Chandler was not a prolific writer, turning out only seven novels about Marlowe between 1939 and 1958. The Long Goodbye was his sixth, published in 1953 in England and 1954 in the U.S. and written under arduous conditions: his beloved wife Cissy, eighteen years his senior, was dying at the time (she would die in 1954). Cissy's death would launch Chandler into deep depression and alchololism and a suicide attempt in 1955—and you can feel it all coming in the pages of The Long Goodbye. Chandler, already a reflective and introspective writer who specialized in a reflective and introspective character who narrates in a reflective and introspective first-person, got especially reflective and introspective with the new novel. Not to mention satirical, bitter, and sentimental. (Read an excellent article about the writing process of the The Long Goodbye, which contains some plot spoilers.)

As a detective mystery or whodunit, The Long Goodbye will shock and stun no one, and Chandler was aware what he was writing would not appeal to the hardcore mystery and tough-guy aficianados. Chandler toned down his usual metaphor-happy style, for one. And, although by far his longest book at over 125,000 words, it has the simplest murder plot of any of them—in fact, it's the easiest to follow, compared to the Byzantine craziness of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. The idenity of the killer isn't hard to spot, even for someone like me who almost never sees the plot twists coming in a murder mystery. (I'm too much of an “in the moment” reader, plus my mind doesn't operate with the mechanics of a mystery writer. I could never write one, for example, nor would I try.) The book also contains scant action and violence. For readers in 1953 coming off the high of Mickey Spillane's recent blood-drenched noirs, The Long Goodbye’s sojourn through the rich high life, with only the slightest hint of gangsterdom in the character of Menendez, must have felt a touch anemic.

But Chandler wanted to achieve something different with his new book, and in his own stressed mental state you could hardly blame him for trying to bust out of the formula of the P.I. mystery. And he succeeded 100%: if not a great mystery, The Long Goodbye is superlative literature, the apotheosis of the hard-boiled style into high art without a trace of “selling out.” It’s a hard book, an emotionally difficult pill to swallow. Marlowe is the lonely but decent man who wanders through a world of careless corruption where nobody really gives a damn about anything. Everything to Marlowe is a disappointment, but he doesn't rail against the world; he just tries to make sure he does the best he can do, follow his own inner sense of what's right, even if it means he'll end up alone in the end. The novel, while outwardly tracing the murder of rich Sylvia Lennox, the flight and suicide of her no-good husband Terry Lennox, and its complicity in the life of a rich, alcoholic, and depressed writer (uhm, sound familiar?) named Roger Wade, actually follows the consequences of Marlowe helping the down 'n' out Terry Lennox for no other reason except that no one else would help the poor guy. This small act of kindness drives the reast of the story. The dramatic revelation of the murderer and Marlowe's explanation of events happens fifty pages before the end of the book; it's not the focus, it's merely the catalyst for the real finales that follow, concluding in the long goodbye of the title. Or “goodbyes.” More on that in a moment.

What appeals to me so much about The Long Goodbye is that it is one of the few novels I've read that contains no illusions whatsoever. Raw, slapped down on a clean white plate, here you go...whether it's the author or the character talking (and whether it even matters) there are no lies between you and him/them. Welcome to my life: Philip Marlowe/Raymond Chandler/(Your Name Here). And welcome to Los Angeles. The most real Los Angeles you will ever read about. More real than the one I see out my window at this moment.

Subjective analysis? Hell, yes. Subjective only scrapes the sun-burnt surface of such a subjective bathing beauty like The Long Goodbye. It's a complex experience, and so based on emotional gut reaction that getting to grips with it is a tough task. You can't say that about many mystery novels.

I imagine that living for most of my life in Los Angeles does affect the way I view the book, and it may not strike someone who hasn't lived in the city as strongly as it does me. I can feel my city breathing down my neck as I read Chandler's prose, even though more than fifty years separate his City of the Angeles from mine.

I can't argue with one of the most beautiful book titles in existence, but strictly speaking there is more than one long goodbye in The Long Goodbye. The title must have had deep resonance for Chandler, since he was involved in his own long goodbye with his slowly expiring wife. In story terms, the goodbye between Terry Lennox and Philip Marlowe, the novel's central disillusionment, is the crucial one. The word “goodbye” rings out throughout the pages, each time like a funeral bell marking the death of another illusion, the end of another relationship that did not go as we planned. Chandler provides two marvelously potent descriptions of the “long goodbyes” that appear throughout our own lives:
We said goodbye. I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach.

The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.

To say goodbye is to die a little.
And in the closing pages:

“You bought a lot of me... For a smile and a nod and a wave of the hand and few quiet drinks in a quiet bar here and there. It was nice while it lasted. So long, amigo. I won’t say goodbye. I said it to you when it meant something. I said it when it sad and lonely and final.... So long, Señor Maioranos. Nice to have known you—however briefly.”


The Long Goodbye was made into a film in 1973, starring Eliot Gould as Philip Marlowe and Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade, and directed by Robert Altman from a script by another master of pulp detection (as well as space opera science fiction), Leigh Brackett. Some Chandler fans feel the movie insults the book with its jokey style and sloppy portrait of Marlowe, the updated setting in the 1970s, and the massive changes to the ending. I don't understand this criticism at all: the film The Long Goodbye differs in plot from the book, but it conveys the exact same feeling I get from the novel. The theme remains intact, only updated for the 1970s and given that usual idiosyncratic Altman twist. I even like its new ending: it's a shocker, but for the Marlowe of the 1950s who has woken up in the 1970s, it makes perfect sense. It's a catharsis I think Chandler at his most bitter may have approved of. Mr. Altman, you are missed.

On a personal level, I also love the film because it reminds me of my early childhood growing up in Malibu in the 1970s. The houses, the people, the beaches, the parties—they look exactly like the young images in my head of my youngest days.

14 May 2007

Review at Black Gate: The Children of Húrin

My newest article for Black Gate magazine is now online: J. R. R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin. It's paired with an excellent review from Howard Andrew Jones of Imaro, by Charles Saunders—a sword and sorcery classic that hasn't been in print in far too long. Read and enjoy.

Show interest in your local "Cryptid" economy

Your first question, upon arriving at any remote village or town in a tranquil and scenic area, should be: "Do you have a Lake Monster or a Big Ape Monster?" If there is no large body of water nearby (but really, any stream will do) the question might seem superfluous, but it's always polite to ask. It shows you have an interest in the local economy.

Of course, not every village will have one or the other. A few have some unique beasties that don't fit into either category. Ask this question in Pine Barrens, NJ, and you'll mostly likely get this answer: "Nah, we got a horse-bat-sheep-kangaroo monster." You'll probably bust a gut and hurt yourself rolling the on the ground laughing before you realize they're dead serious. But I kid New Jersey.

(My own confession: my first attempt at writing a screenplay as a misguided college kid was a horror movie about the Jersey Devil. It's the only long form work of mine I have purposely lost. I don't have a copy of it anywhere—if I can't find it, that means nobody else can either and I'm saved from eternal embarrassment.)

Ah, cryptids. What would local folklore and the "New Age" section of our bookstores be without them? Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, Yeti, Champ, Morag, Skunk Ape, Fouke Monster, Dover Demon, Chupacabra, and J. D. Salinger. Those mystery animals that defy easy explanation, clear photographs (even in an age where everyone is armed with a digital camera phone), logic, and mounds of evidence that they do not exist. Or more exactly, lack of mounds of evidence that they do exist. Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster have been pretty much conclusively dismissed by the scientific community: they do not exist. But people go on believing in them anyway. Why? 'Cuz it's fun man.

I was definitely a ful convert to cryptozoology as a little kid. I loved the Loch Ness Monster, and could recite from memory all the major sightings and theories. I remember getting a book about "Nessie" in my hot and sweaty hands at a third grade book fair—what a glorious day! I wasn't so hot on Bigfoot, but he did get his fair share of time. I also dug up some books on the rarer cryptids: Thunderbirds, the Jersey Devil, the tazlewurm, and legends of hundred foot snakes in the Amazon. (Thankfully, the documentary Anaconda proved beyond a doubt the existence of these creatures, and also that John Voight is the master of the "where the hell's he from?" accent.) If it was a mysterious monster someone said they saw once by the light of the Scottish/Indonesian/Appalachian moon, I'd believe it.

Now I'm a hardcore skeptic and adherent to science, losing any solid support for most cryptids by the time I was in college. Fantasy for me lives in the novels I read and write. But I still get a kick out of reading about cryptids and the arguments between small coteries of fringe adherents over their existence. Wikipdedia pages often erupt into hysterical flame-wars over "evidence" for cryptids. The Bigfoot page, in particular, was the sight of a woeful conflict between serious Wikipedians and a fringe-theorist who even fringe-theorists think is off the deep end. It doesn't matter how many studies show the unlikelihood of the existence of an undiscovered race of enormous hairy hominids in Oregon or a plesiosaur in a freshwater Scottish Lake. People will still believe in them. 'Cuz it's fun, man. Hey, I don't believe them, and even I think they're fun.

Message from the Department of Evil

For once, I agree with Senator Specter: the Department of Defense should really should be part of Homeland Security. First "Orange" alerts, now this.

And while I am in this mood for onions, this is perhaps the single most cynically accurate satire piece they've ever posted:

11 May 2007

A puzzling musical question

Something I'm pondering today:

If I drive the Chevy to the levy, but the levy is dry, then why will there be no place to stay if the levy breaks?

09 May 2007

'Tis the Season for another Useless Gas Boycott

Oh goody, here we go again!

It's time for the Annual Useless Call to Boycott Buying Gas. This time, the date of the "Gas Out" (sounds like an unfortunate experience at a Mexican restaurant, if you ask me) is set for May 19th (or the 15th in some emails). If you haven't gotten the email calling for the boycott forwarded to you, don't fret. Some well-meaning friend will ship it to you post-haste.

Oh hell, I'll do it. Here's one I received, with my comments. Remember, you are more convincing and professional IF YOU WRITE IN ALL-CAPS!!!!!!!!



THE ONLY WAY THIS CAN BE DONE IS IF YOU FORWARD THIS E-MAIL TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN [because they aren't already receiving enough penile enlargement and weight-loss spam] AND AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN TO GET THE WORD OUT.



WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. IF THEY DON'T GET THE MESSAGE AFTER ONE DAY [wait, didn't you just say last year's boycott worked?], WE WILL DO IT AGAIN AND AGAIN. [More spam emails next year!]


There's a myriad of reasons this doesn't work, and Snopes has kindly outlined all of them. It's another example of what they've termed "Slacktivism": appearing to make a difference while making no effort at all.

It comes down to one simple fact: not buying gas on May 19th is no sacrifice at all. It's simply planning to buy gas so as to not make your purchase on a specific day. For example, I believe I've "participated" in every one of these boycotts for the last five years because I didn't need to purchase any gas on that particular day. I just filled up my tank last night (at $3.39 a gallon—and that's cheap for my area!), and with my driving habits I won't need to buy gas on May 19th, and am therefore "participating." Millions will "participate" in the same way. So, logically, this boycott does no good at all.

Gas prices are ludicrously, criminally high, and we should all worry about it and all do something about it. The high prices are gas gouging, pure and simple. Political pressure against these blood-sucking petroleum companies is one way to have an effect. Please watch the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? to see how our dependence on natural gas is a fiction that Big Oil sells to keep them in business while the environment and the public suffer. But there are many more immediate ways to affect the price of gasoline—genuine sacrifices you can make. Drive less (I've cut down significantly in the last year). Take public transportation more often. Carpool to work. Buy a hybrid.

But skipping buying gas on May 19th? No help at all.

Tragic Love Songs

Last night, while out watching (and dancing to) my friend Dave Bertiz's band, The Crown City Bombers, in Burbank, I had a chance to sit and talk with their featured singer, Lori DeWitt. I've known Lori for a couple of years; she's a superb singer and I really hope she gets her breakthrough soon, as she certainly deserves it. The Crown City Bombers play rockabilly, which Lori can sing excellently (she did a great job on "Mean Mean Man" and "Jackson"), but her real passion is jazz standards... something we're completely simpatico about. We talked about some of our favorite jazz love songs, and found that my four top one are also among the toppers for her—ones she would love to perform one day: "Solitude" (Duke Ellington), "Haunted Heart" (Arthur Schwartz), "You Go to My Head" (Coots-Gillespie), and "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" (Link-Marvell-Strachey). Any one of these old songs makes contemporary music sound like childish piano plunking. Not only are the melodies infectious, but the lyrics have piercing tragic poignancy.

And this leads me to a subject that I've pondered more than once: Why do jazz love songs excel with tragic love, but have a harder time with joyous, successful love? There are some great upbeat love songs, such as "Our Love Is Here to Stay," but when I go over my list of favorite love tunes, the vast majority (even many uptempo ones) concern lost loves, unsuccessful loves, unrequited loves, unfaithful loves, and (occasionally) murdered loves. Just look at the four I've listed above:

Solitude. The title explains it all. A person alone, haunted by "memories of days gone by," and praying, "Dear Lord above, bring back my love." (By the way, did Duke Ellington ever write a bad song?)

Haunted Heart. This song hurts. Quite strongly. In fact, I always associate this piece with depressing noir writer Cornell Woolrich; it could be the title song for a movie version of Rendezvous in Black. The lyrics are all grim mourning for the "ghost of you, my lost romance… lips that laugh, eyes that dance." The opening line alone is a romantic stake to the heart: "In the night, tho' we're apart, there's a ghost of you inside my haunted heart." Many singers have tackled it, but I don't think anybody has made it ache more than Jo Stafford.

You Go to My Head. This one sounds positive most of time, rhapsodizing about the giddy effect a new love can have. We all know the feeling. But the lyrics eventually pull us from the clouds with the upsetting line: "Still I say to myself, get a hold of yourself, can't you see that it never can be?" And we all know that feeling too. Unfortunately.

These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You). A listener might imagine that the singer is currently in a strong relationship, and his/her heart soars with each little sight that brings memories of the object of affection. (I especially adore the line, "those fumbling words that told you what my heart meant."). But... the lyrics don't carry the overall impression that this is an on-going love affair, but one in the past. And finally, the lyrics make it obvious: "Oh, how the ghost of you clings…" Suddenly, the whole point of the song appears bleakly clear. And so we're back to ghosts and haunting. Love has such strong connections to the undead, apparently.

07 May 2007

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, J. K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris.

My primary reaction to Spider-Man 3: it’s nowhere near as good as Spider-Man 2. Following up on Doctor Octopus is a tough task.

My secondary reaction: the film is far too long and overstuffed.

My tertiary reaction: it’s still a fun experience, and probably better than any other big blockbuster slated for the remainder of the summer. (Have I that little faith in the rest of the summer?) The action comes plentiful, the effects are the best yet, the drama remains realistic and grounded, the original cast members still have their parts down solid, and the music from Christopher Young does right by the original Danny Elfman material.

The film’s biggest surprise is James Franco’s turn as tragic Harry Osborne. He ends up as Spider-Man 3’s stealth weapon and the emotional center of the story. Franco isn’t an actor anyone expects to pick up drama awards (he’s an great comedic actor), but he rises to the occasion in this film, where he has the most important role yet. The movie completes Harry’s character arc through the “trilogy,” and Franco does a polished job.

What then, exactly, are the film’s problems? I'll walk through these step-by-step, as they occur to me. (There are spoilers involved, but considering the box-office numbers, you’ve already seen the movie anyway.)

04 May 2007

You want a hoax? I'll give ya' hoax!

MSN has an article on the Top 25 Internet Hoaxes. It appears they swiped most of it from Snopes.com, which has turned into a true cultural force for debunking Internet scams and the promoting the “In-boxer Rebellion.” I remember an era when it seems I was the only person reading Snopes; now everybody checks with it the moment a new “Virus Alert” pops up in their in-boxes or a claim that another freckle-faced little girl has gone missing in Ordinary, OH. The MSN list of course includes the classic of all Internet con-jobs, “The 419/Nigerian Money-Laundering Scam,” which has bloomed into an interesting Internet hobby and online culture called “scambaiting,” where recipients of these scam letters respond with hoaxes of their own in order to waste the scammers’ time and make them look idiotic. You can see some of the results of this odd Internet social war at this site. It makes entertaining reading, but it’s not something I would waste time actually doing, and advise you don’t either. I’m glad someone is taking it to the con-men, but I’ll just stick the scammers’ letters in the spam folder and move on with my life, thanks.

The list only contains Internet hoaxes, so MSN should consider posting a list of some of the major “real world” hoaxes, some of which have altered history. I’m not speaking about Clifford Irving, the “Surgeon's Photo” of the Loch Ness Monster, the Cottingley Fairies, Uri Geller, the Amityville Horror, the Priory of Sion, or Sylvia Browne. Hoaxes all, indeed, some of them hurtful and damaging... But if you measure a hoax’s impact on history, two emerge at the top of the heap: The Donation of Constantine and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

No one knows who really wrote the two documents, but they had worldwide effects. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—likely a creation of the Imperial Russian secret police, the Okhrana—entailed a fictional Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It fueled anti-Semitism across Europe… and we know the tragic results of that. The Donation of Constantine appears to have been forged by someone in the early medieval Catholic Church, probably in the eighth century C.E., to cement the Church’s claim of legitimacy over the Eastern Orthodox Church and temporal power over all of Western Europe. The document claims that Emperor Constantine I granted the Pope authority over the entire Western Roman Empire. Now that’s a mighty big hoax. Imagine if I produced a document whereby George Washington ceded all new land acquired beyond the Thirteen Colonies to the sole dominion of the descendants of the Harvey Family, thus making me heir to absolute control of thirty-seven of the fifty states. (Although I really only want Montana, if that’s okay with you. Nice national parks.) The only actual difference between the two hoaxes is that nobody would believe me, while the Church managed to carry the claim and tried to enforce it for centuries.

Although it didn’t have a large impact on history, for sheer hoax audacity, I nominate William Henry Ireland. Clifford Irving had the moxie to forge a Howard Hughes autobiography, but young Bill Henry, at age eighteen in 1777, forged a “new” play by William Shakespeare. Think about that: a teenager decided to make a fake play he claimed was written by the greatest author in the English language, in the author's own handwriting, and then fooled the experts of the day into believing it was legitimate. Clifford Irving, eat your heart out. Ireland eventually got exposed when the play, titled Vortigern and Rowena and based on mythic English history, was produced in Drury Lane. But the manager and star actor of the theater, John Philip Kemble, suspected during rehearsals that something wasn't right. The show played one night to hisses and boos, and immediately expert opinion swung against Ireland and the whole façade came tumblin’ down.

But he was so close. I doff my cap to you, Mr. Ireland. That’s genius. And it didn’t incite a genocide or any religious wars. I wonder if anybody has considered a revival of Vortigern and Rowena, just for historical curiosity. I would go see it.

"You know who you look like...?"

Most people have a particular celebrity that they "resemble," and strangers or new aquaintences are always bringing it up. "You know who you look like?" The answer: "Yeah, ———. I get that all the time."

I used to be told I looked like David Hyde-Pierce, or "that guy who plays Niles in Fraiser" since people could rarely remember the actor's name. While out dancing and wearing my pinstriped suits, I would be told I looked like a young James Cagney. A girlfriend told me, after watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, that she thought I was dead ringer for him. Guess which resemblence I preferred: David Hyde-Pierce or Jimmy Cagney.

Then Spider-Man came out in 2002 and that all ended. Suddenly to everybody, I was a mirror image of Tobey Macguire. Even my mother thought so, and she's seen more of me than any human on the planet. I even got asked point-blank once if I was Tobey Macguire. To be fair, a girl I met at a dance club had told me back in 1998 that I looked like Tobey Macguire, but at that point almost nobody knew who he was. I certainly didn't know him by name. But post-2002, this is the usual conversation with people I've just met.

"You know who you look like?"
"Yeah, Tobey Macguire. I hear that all the time."
"No, you look like that Spider-Man guy."

Okay, a lot more people remember the actor's name, but Spider-Man inevitably is brought up. And to little kids, it's flat-out, "Hey, you look like Spider-Man!" If I wasn't taller than Tobey, I should have applied for a job as his stand-in.

Which one of these is the real Spider-Man?
(Wait a minute... we're talking about a fictional character.)

03 May 2007

Of Spiders and Vultures

So, here it comes... Spider-Man 3.

Tomorrow is the opening of what will certainly turn into the Summer's #1 money-maker, and probably the #1 grossing film of 2007. With a budget of $250 million, Sony better hope it ends up both. It will probably also be the last Spidey film for the near future, since many of the creative personnel have indicated hesitation about returning for a fourth installment. Sony probably recognizes that going past three films risks fatiguing audiences, creating diminishing returns, and draining the creative well. They only need to glance across town to Warners and remember what a train-wreck Batman and Robin was to understand why the number four can be deadly. (I might also mention Alien: Resurrection as further proof of franchise-killing #4; some would argue for Alien3, but I love that film).

I expect an enjoyable comic-book experience when I see the movie on Saturday, but I don't anticipate that Spider-Man 3 will equal Spider-Man 2, one the greatest comic-to-film adaptations ever made—second only to Batman Begins. The reviews mostly seem to agree. From early pre-production rumors, Spider-Man 3 sounded overstuffed with plot and characters. After two solo-villain outings with the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, the new film has crammed in ­three heavies: the Sandman, Venom, and a pseudo-Green Goblin Harry Osborne. (In the comics, Harry fully adopted the mantle of the Green Goblin, and reverted to it a few times.) The multiple-villain tendency in superhero films makes a tricky juggling act, since trying to focus on the origins of more than one bad guy sucks away screen time, and trying to combine unrelated villains tends to stretch credulity. I thought that Batman Returns did a nifty job combining the Penguin and Catwoman, but this was done by downplaying Batman. Both villains were superbly realized (that I have a mild Penguin obsession you can see here), and this contributed to the film's success. Batman Begins got Ras al-Ghul and Scarecrow in one movie efficiently by doing the exact opposite: making Batman the focus and keeping the villains as supporting parts. But Joel Schumacher's two Batman films ended up complete disasters with too many villains too sloppily used. Four great villains with awesome potential, Two-Face, the Riddler, Bane, and Mr. Freeze, ended up trivialized. (There was never any hope for Poison Ivy.) Now that the Spider-Man series is taking the sudden leap into villain-plicity, there's reason for concern. At least I trust director Sam Raimi more than a I do Joel Schumacher. Which is akin to saying I trust the Dalai Lama more than Sylvia Browne.

I've never liked the Sandman, even though he's a creation of the original Spider-Man team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, first appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #4. Many great artists have graced the pages of Spider-Man comics, but none better than Ditko. Sam Raimi has indicated he prefers the old-standard 1960s villains, most of whom were Lee-Ditko creations, over latter-day adversaries like Venom and Carnage. I completely agree, but Sandman never grabbed my attention the way that other Lee-Ditko nasties like the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Electro, the Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, and The Scorpion did. He was a visual treat for the crafty Ditko to draw, but his cheap-thug mentality…meh. Trying to tie the Sandman into the killing of Ben Parker isn't a move I like either, the same way I disliked the Joker as the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne in the 1989 Batman.

As for Venom, he sure looks awesome, both on the page and realized for the silver screen. (Yes, I've seen the recent full screenshot of how he appears in the movie, something Sony has kept under wraps in all publicity.) I'm not a huge fan of the hulking symbiote, but I think he could have supported a whole movie as the principal villain, with possibly a minor Spidey bad-guy used as a warm-up act in the first half-hour to get the action rolling: somebody who doesn't need much of a back story and who can just appear on the streets of New York committing a crime that Web-Head has to stop. I nominate... the Shocker! A Stan Lee-John Romita Sr. creation, I always found him a fun, cool-looking second stringer.

I had hoped that the Lizard would be one of the villains in Spider-Man 3, since his alter ego Dr. Curtis Connors appeared in Spider-Man 2 (played by Dylan Baker), missing arm and all. The Lizard would combine well with a characrer like Kraven the Hunter, or possibly a more standard gangster figure or Ditko's cool trio of the Enforcers.

Another villain I pushed for in the early "who's-it-gonna-be" stage of Spider-Man 3 is the Vulture. The Vulture was the first super-powered adversary Spidey fought, appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #2. In the previous issue, Spidey went up against a disguise expert, the Chameleon, but the Vulture brought superpowers to contend with Spidey's own. In a simple write-up, the Vulture doesn't sound that thrilling: he wears a flying harness that also grants him enhanced strength, although not on a par with Spider-Man's. But under the amazing pen of Steve Ditko, Vulture was a marvel. It's not just that the Vulture can fly; he can maneuver with dazzling agility, able to fly through office windows and down hallways, turning on a dime. In the air, nobody can touch him. On film, he would be a dizzying opponent for Spidey, swooping, soaring, and striking in a flurry that could keep even our hero's spider-sense off balance.

After Batman, Spider-Man has the best rogues gallery of any superhero. If the series ends here and goes on indefinite hiatus, even if it's for the creative benefit of the franchise, there's a pallet-load of cool baddies we'll miss out on.

But we'll always have Doctor Octopus, the coolest Spider-Man villain.