30 April 2007

Book Review: The Hollow Man

The Hollow Man (1935)
U.S. Title: The Three Coffins
By John Dickson Car

I have an odd relationship with the classic murder mystery.

The first adult books I read, starting in sixth grade, were murder mystery stories of the Golden Age, principally from Agatha Christie. I was as shocked as anybody by the bizarre solution to Murder on the Orient Express, but it was Death on the Nile that I first read and first hooked me. Eventually I discovered And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians; I've never settled on which title I prefer more, although I certainly don't like the original and now buried racist title), which I still think is Christie's masterpiece: not only a murder mystery, but a genuine suspense tale that has influenced every genre since. After all, Alien uses the same suspense device as And Then There Were None, the burning question "which one of us is next?" I also read the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes. This was around the time that PBS was broadcasting those tremendous Granada Television adaptations of the stories starring Jeremy Brent, and it was a golden time to be discovering the Great Detective.

27 April 2007

Does this mean "The Transylvania Twist" will make a comeback?

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, is dead. I could say more about him and the ratings system, but that would turn into a rant about how much I dislike the MPAA (see This Film Is Not Yet Rated if you want an enjoyable summary of what's wrong with the MPAA), and all this complaining would sound disrespectful to the deceased.

Instead, I'll talk about another recent death, one connected to the greatest holiday in the world. Robert George Pickett, a.k.a. Bobby "Boris" Pickett, died of leukemia on Wednesday. He was sixty-nine years old.


"Who the...?" you're asking. Ah, I have a very good answer. Bobby "Boris" Pickett was the voice the 1962 novelty tune "Monster Mash."

"Wait, wasn't that Boris Karloff?" you're asking.

No, it was Pickett doing a spot-on imitation of the sepulchral-voiced horror icon, and which turned the strange song into "a graveyard smash" and the perennial rock n' roll Halloween anthem. Not a Halloween goes by that Pickett's funereal urging "to do the Monster Mash" doesn't invade the radio airwaves and every single costume party across North America.

According to D.J. Dr. Demento, an expert in the weird world of novelty tunes, Pickett had a sense of humor about his single-hit status: "As he loved to say at oldies shows, 'And now I'm going to do a medley of my hit.'"

(In a related gag, Elvis used to say at some of his shows: "And now I'd like to perform one of my biggest records. Actually...they're all about the same size.")

Pickett performed with his band The Cordials at nightclubs where he perfected his Boris Karloff imitation. Pickett and Leonard Capizzi whipped up a song to exploit the Karloff voice "in about a half-hour," as Pickett remembers it, and recorded it during a couple of hours with a backing band dubbed "The Crypt Kickers" and piano by some guy named Leon Russell (well, nobody knew who he was then). Gary Paxton signed the single to his label, and the song turned into an instant hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard chart three times: 1962, 1970, and 1973.

Halloween, far and away my favorite holiday, would never be as fun as it is today without Mr. Bobby "Boris" Pickett's contribution to it. May he always mash.

And...does this mean "The Transylvania Twist" will make a comeback? Whatever happened to it?

I'd like to thank Mr. Maxwell DeMille for some of the information about Pickett's life, as well as the alert that he has passed through the great crypt-door.

25 April 2007

A sure sign you've got a bad swing band

I have lindy hopped my way about the Los Angeles swing dancing scene for over eleven years now, so I've not only seen just about every local band, but also most of the national and international ones as well. (Canada produced one of the best groups of the late '90s, the Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra, and Germany currently has a spectacular band called Ray Collins' Hot Club.) So along with superb groups like Lee Press-On and the Nails, Stompy Jones, George Gee and His Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra, The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra, Big Time Operator, Eight to the Bar, and Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet-Lickers, I've also seen a fair share of pretty awful bands. The worst of these were hanging around in the late '90s during the swing boom, and were nothing more than low-budget wedding bands that slapped on a couple of horns, learned to play a few Louis Jordan and Louis Prima tunes, and declared themselves a "swing band." When the boom died, most these slacker outfits died as well. In the scene today, the majority of the bands are the survivor ones filled with people dedicated to the music, so general quality has risen higher, even if quantity is way down.

However, the cheap bands still lurk in the dark corners of the jazz and swing dance scene. I don't like to hurl harsh criticism at the low-quality swing bands, and that's because I have respect for musicians who are out there trying to make a living. It's a tough job. But sometimes the poor musicianship is hard to take, and I get mad at the venue or the booking agent for thinking that they can scam a few extra buck off me and I won't care about the lack of talent in the band as long as there's a beat.

One group in particular that's still kicking around in Los Angeles really gives me the blues—the wrong kind of blues. I won't name them; as I've said, I am not interested in smearing local musicians. I'll refer to them as "Swing X." Swing X started out performing in the big faddish days of the 1990s and played a long-running gig in a Pasadena club. They've shown up at the Derby only a few times, thankfully. The Derby doesn't always hire the best, but apparently even they knew this outfit was rotten. Swing X makes uncreative and boring song choices, has sub-par musicians who lack basic fundamentals with their instruments, and doesn't appear to practice much since it seems that none of the players are listening to each other.

All this is terrible enough. But what really brought home to me that I was listening to a horrible band that didn't care a flat note about the music they were attempting to play was a major goof the Swing X's leader made during one of his intra-song announcements. After getting sloppily through another number, the leader said: "And now we're going to play Glenn Miller's theme song, 'In the Mood.'"

Never mind that "In the Mood" is an overdone piece that no serious band plays; it's the first swing piece most people know about, and the first one they forget once they start to really dig the music style. What's really wrong is that "In the Mood" is not Glenn Miller's theme song. Never was. It is his most popular piece, but it isn't his theme. The theme for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (and the version that still exists under the name The Glenn Miller Orchestra) is "Moonlight Serenade" (one of the few Glenn Miller pieces I genuinely love). Swing X's frontman apparently thought that "popular" meant "theme." But an orchestra's theme in the 1930s and '40s was the music they played to open and close a show, and it wasn't necessarily their most popular number. For example, Benny Goodman is best known for "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)," but his theme is "Let's Dance" with "Good Bye" used as the closer. Artie Shaw had his biggest smash with "Begin the Beguine," but his theme is "Nightmare." With Count Basie, his most popular number, "One O'Clock Jump," actually is his theme as well, something that happened with Duke Ellington the 1940s when he adopted the hit "Take the 'A' Train" as the band's new theme. (They had used a few different themes prior to it.)

So: "In the Mood" = Glenn Miller's Theme. FALSE.

The leader of a band that plays music of the era should know this. Your average listener might think "In the Mood" was Miller's theme—that's completely understandable—but a swing musician, and a bandleader nonetheless, ought to know better. This sounds like a minor nit-picky complaint, but I think it reflects the general carelessness that surrounds Swing X's performances. You can't play swing right until you really live swing.

Excuse me for going all Heinlein geeky on you, but this band may have "Swing" in its name, but it apparently doesn't "grok" swing.

(However, when I think about it, I would rather that Swing X mangle "In the Mood" than "Moonlight Serenade." The latter is a bit more tricky to dance to as well and harder to play—it would have been a disaster.)

Doc Savage in Quest of Qui

Quest of Qui (1935)
Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

Pulp is a passion of mine. I when I use the word “pulp,” I mean it in the pure, historical definition: the genre fiction which was published in cheap paper story magazines between 1896 and 1952. And nothing epitomizes true pulp better than the novels that appeared in Doc Savage magazine in the 1930s. Fortunately, Bantam reprinted all of the novels in paperbacks in the 1960s and ‘70s, making them easy to obtain. (Buying an original issue of one of the pulps from the ‘30s can easily run eighty bucks minimum, and the condition is usually atrocious.)

I've read a stack of Batam’s Doc Savage reprint novels, and still have a wonderful stack of them yet to go. I read a couple each year so I can vacation in the imaginary world of “High Adventure ‘30s.” My most recent read is Quest of Qui, first published in magazine form in July 1935. The Bantam cover by Bama seen here is a grabber, but it looks as if the original pulp cover was completed before the artist knew what the story was about (this often happened in the fast-paced pulp publishing world, and sometimes writers were forced to write to fit the cover).

Quest of Qui was written by Lester Dent under the house psuedonym of “Kenneth Robeson.” A few other authors produced Doc Savage novels during the golden age, principally Laurence Donovan, Harold Davis, and William G. Bogart, but Lester Dent is the one who matters. He invented the characters and wrote the vast majority of the novels. He’s the only Doc Savage author I've read and I have no desire to read one from anybody else.

Quest of Qui ranks as only an average adventure for Doc Savage. Bantam reprinted it early in the paperback run (#12), and since they usually placed the best novels at the front (The Thousand-Headed Man, The Lost Oasis) to hook readers, Quest of Qui’s weakness is a bit surprising. The opening is fantastic: a pleasure-cruising yacht off of Long Island is suddenly seized by a dragon boat full of Vikings. That Lester Dent, he sure knew how to open a story. The rest of the novel never lives up to the joyful absurdity of this first chapter. Doc Savage and his team adventure up to Greenland to find a lost pygmy civilization (the “Qui” of the title) and stop robbers looking to loot their ancient treasure. There are icy death traps, a few bizarre attacks by ancient Viking weapons that seem to fly out of nowhere (Dent loved seemingly impossible murder methods), and a very exciting aerial dogfight where Doc just barely manages to outwit his enemies and down their plane.

But it hangs together too loosely, the comic interludes with Ham and Monk taunting each other and Johnny throwing out big words are more tiresome than usual, and the final explanations don't satisfy the way they do with the best of Dent's Doc Savage adventures. Dent refers to the ancient language the Scandinavian woman Ingra speaks as “Viking,” which is rather silly: viking is merely the term for a raider, and no scholar would use it to refer to the language spoken by medieval Scandinavians. The proper name for the language is “Old Norse.” Doc Savage would certainly have known better. But I'm quibbling.

24 April 2007

Handwriting sample from my journal

When it comes to the digital revolution, I'm a "jacked in" sort of guy. I'm writing a blog and run my own website, after all. But when it comes to writing, I still have traces of the nineteenth century in me. I write most of my notes for my stories and novels in longhand in notebooks. And in complete sentence, I might add, a habit that has dogged me since high school. When someone wanted to borrow somebody else's notes, they wanted to borrow mine.

I do this not out of a serious mistrust of digitial information storage; I make multiple saves and keep them in remote locations. But I sometimes worry about the obsolesence of hardware making it difficult to retrieve older data. But the real reason I still write longhand in my pre-draft note-taking stage is just a love of feeling a connection to true "writing," the hand scratching pen across papyrus.

Some writers have a romantic attachment to the old typewriter, which I can empathize with. But I'm either super-hi-tech or nadir lo-tech: computer or pen-on-paper. The typewriter falls in the middle ground, so I've never had much affinity for the old Smith-Corona days—except in the image of my favorite pulp writers hacking away at them in shabby New York apartments.

One way I get to practice my pen-to-paper love regularly is in my book-and-movie journals. I have a scholar's love for the marble-covered Mead composition book, and I use them to keep track of all the books I read and movies I see. I write mini-reviews of each one, coding them with different color ink and noting the date I finished the book or saw the movie. I like to flip through my older notebooks and refresh my memory of books and films; it's amazing how much more you can remember later if you leave notes behind. (I used to teach this to my students when they were reading, having them keep a list of the main events of the chapters they had just read. Months later, a glance at their notes would bring memories of all the details back to them immediatel. It impressed even them how much they could remember.)

Below is a handwriting sample from a page of one of my film/book journals. This is a review of the 1950 science-fiction film Destination Moon. (Click on it for a larger version.)


19 April 2007

Another One-Screener Falls

In yet another incident in the sad decline and death of the grand one-screen movie palace in the face of the multiplex onslaught, the thirty-six year-old Mann National Theater in Westwood, Los Angeles, is closing down and is scheduled for demolition. This is one of L.A.'s largest seating capacity theaters, and along with the Mann Village (better known in the Vernacular as "The Fox," and one of the greatest, grandest theaters remaining in the city) was one of the principal premiere spots for films in Westwood.

I have some great memories of seeing films at the National: I saw most of the Star Trek films there, and waited in a long line to see opening night of the James Bond film Licence to Kill inside its great cavernous auditorium. I also saw the opening night of Mission: Impossible there. I am sad to see the old behemoth go, even though as a piece of architecture it isn't anything of sterling beauty; all utilitarian '70s decor with a screening room enshrouded in beige pleated curtains as its sole decoration. I can't imagine there was much effort made to save it, not like there would be if somebody got the Philistine idea of taking a wrecking ball to the Fox in Westwood. Regardless, the loss of the old movie palaces is a loss of our movie heritage.

The theater had a cameo appearance in this year's Zodiac, where it masquerades as a San Francisco theater showing Dirty Harry. Fincher couldn't have picked a more perfect theater to project the 1970s period feeling of the movie. I'll bet that the National did show Dirty Harry when it premiered.

18 April 2007

The fight for Gremlins

It was one of the biggest hits of 1984. It had a score from a famed name in film composition. It contained an addictive jazzy theme. But for mysterious reasons, Gremlins never received a proper film soundtrack release. All that music fans could get was a “Specially-Priced 7-Cut Mini Album” (so the cover advertised, see above) with three pop songs on one side, and four Goldsmith tracks, totaling under fifteen minutes, on the other.

And since then... nothing. Except for a recording of a suite Goldsmith sometimes played in concert and a bootleg. That’s it. Despite the huge amounts of both classic and obscure Goldsmith scores that have been available on CD, from Gremlins we’ve had a big fat zero. I thought that Goldsmith’s death in 2004 might hasten getting the score available as a memorial, but nope. Still nothing. Where is my Gremlins album? What’s holding it up? Apathy? Rights issues? Ignorance of the demand for it?

I finally wearied of simply hoping an album would appear and decided to do some checking. My first stop, Varèse Sarabande, the premiere CD releasing company for film soundtracks. They’ve release more Goldsmith albums than any other company and have licensed many scores from Warner Bros. films. I went to their website and fired out this email to the soundtrack division:
Dear Varèse Sarabande Soundtracks Department,

First of all, thank you so much for the release of The Vanishing. [Always starts these letters with a compliment.] As a Goldsmith fanatic who owns probably every Varèse release of a Goldsmith score available, it was wonderfully to finally get my hands on a score that I had previously thought “lost” forever to the listening world.

Second—and this is probably a question asked often about Goldsmith’s unreleased scores—what are the possibilities of a real, full release of the score to the original Gremlins? The only crumbs collectors have had is that tiny “mini” album released back in 1984. I know this would be a huge seller for a Goldsmith album. Are there legal issues involved with a release of such a score, such as issues with Warner Bros. music? Has any attempt to made to get such an album put together? If there are such problems, what can we as fans do to help?

Thank you for your time,

Ryan Harvey
A few days later, I got the following response from Varèse Sarabande:
Thank you for your note, kind words and suggestion.
That’s it (except for two pages of pasted-in advertisement for upcoming releases). A disclaimer on the mail page on its website says: “Due to the large volume of email we receive, we cannot reply to every message submitted.” However, I expected a slightly more detailed response to a serious letter that posed some serious questions. I’m thinking of writing back to Varèse and putting the question to them again. Perhaps they skimmed over it, or an intern was answering the mail that day. Anyway, considering my positive experiences with Varèse Sarabande in the past, this sort of brush-off is disappointing.

Next stop, the source: Warner Bros. Records. A Gremlins album would be perfect for their Warner Archives label. And perhaps they will know if there is a music rights issue involved. However, Warner Bros. Records apparently doesn’t want people to contact them through email, so after fruitless searching for an email address on their website, I had to resort to their snail mail address:
Warner Bros. Records
P.O. Box 6868
Burbank, CA 91510

Dear Warner Bros. Records,

I am writing this letter to inquire about a possible CD release of the full score to the motion picture Gremlins by Jerry Goldsmith. ­Gremlins was one of Warner Bros. biggest hits of the 1980s, and the late Mr. Goldsmith is one of the most revered film composers in history (and has a long line of excellent releases of his material to CD, even from his most obscure films). However, the only album of music from Gremlins available when the film came out was a “Specially Priced 7-cut Mini Album” which contained only four tracks of Goldsmith’s score on the second side, totaling about fifteen minutes. Since then, there has been no lengthier release of Goldsmith’s score with the exception of a bootleg, even though many of Goldsmith’s classic scores in his catalog have found their way to CD and eager fans; Gremlins is one of his best-known scores and comes from his long collaboration with Joe Dante.

Certainly, a full album of Gremlins is long overdue, and would sell well if it were released. It would be a perfect CD for Warner Archives, much like the release of the full score for the original John Williams score to Superman a few years ago. You could also license the music to the superb soundtrack releasing company Var
èse Sarabande: a limited run through their Soundtrack Club would easily sell out in a month.

Is it possible there is a rights issue involved in a release? Does Warner Bros. Music not own the full score? If this is the case, what can we as fans do to help expedite getting Gremlins onto CD?

Please consider my suggestion, and thank you for your time.

Ryan Harvey
I wonder if this will prompt any response. I doubt I’m the first person to bring this to either company’s attention, but every little prod helps. And that there is no Gremlins album at all is really completely nonsensical considering how many lesser Goldsmith albums (like the recent Vanishing release or my new CD of Breakheart Pass) are available.

If you have the time and the inclination, please give a shout out to Varèse or a mail to Warner Bros. and maybe we can get the rusty wheels of the music business moving and give us the Gremlins Rag!

Update: I chose to send a letter through regular mail to Varèse as a follow-up. The content remains the same as my email, but with this preface:

I recently sent you an email request regarding the possible release of a full-length CD album of Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Gremlins. I posed a few serious questions in it, but the only email response I received was the single line: “Thank you for your kind words and your suggestion.” I am now sending my questions through regular mail in hopes that this will receive the proper attention and response.

Polite, but expressing subtle disappointment.

Update II: And I never heard anything back.

16 April 2007

The Hoax

The Hoax (2006)
Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy, Marcia Gay Harden.

For years, I knew that one day a brave filmmaker would tackle the true story of how writer Clifford Irving almost managed the amazing feat of getting his completely fake autobiography of mogul/lunatic Howard Hughes published. I also knew that I would see the film; I’ve found the story of the grand scam of Clifford Irving intriguing ever since I ran into mention of it as a elementary school kid in The Book of Lists, contained in a list of “The Top Ten Hoaxes of All Time,” compiled by Clifford Irving himself (although the best hoaxer on the list is William Henry Ireland, who had the nerve to write his own “new” Shakespeare plays).

And now, here's the film, and it's a solid piece of filmmaking for adults: The Hoax, directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules), with Richard Gere as Clifford Irving and Alfred Molina as his hapless co-conspirator and researcher, Arnold Susskind (to whom Molina bears an uncanny resemblance). The movie's tag line is: “Based on the true story. Would we lie to you?”

Answer: “Well, a little. Hey this is a movie, after all.” For the sake of extra drama and hefty doses of paranoia to fit in with the legacy of Howard Hughes and the dawning of the Watergate Scandal, The Hoax has hocked up a few howler fabrications of its own. I’m not complaining—movies aren’t the real world, and on-screen drama comes first—but viewers who want to know what's real and what's the screenwriter’s imagination can read this account the details of the actual hoax. Hallström’s movie plays up an angle involving Hughes manipulating Irving’s hoax and the fake autobiography as a driving motive behind Watergate. I also don’t known much personally about Clifford Irving, but I don’t believe he suffered from Hughes-style delusions himself, as the film shows. Irving has has publicly stated: “I had nothing to do with this movie, and it had very little to do with me.” I can only imagine he isn’t fond of being portrayed on screen as willing to destroy his friends’ lives and break-up his marriage in the name of a bestselling book. That Gere’s performance is excellent must just make it seem worse. Irving had chutzpah, you cannot deny that, and the aggressiveness to push his falsehood to the breaking point, daring anyone to prove him wrong. Repeat the lies enough, and somehow it becomes the truth... until the one slip up that brings it all down. Our current administration has learned this lesson, although they continue to push their falsehoods any way to a public that no longer believes a word they say. I doubt Hallström intended this, but this theme gives The Hoax a searing timeliness.

The Hoax might make an interesting double-feature with Scorsese's biopic of Hughes, The Aviator—although it would be a long double feature. Hughes only appears in archival footage in The Hoax, and once as a veiled figure in a false flashback in the Desert Inn, but his legacy and specter hovers over the whole story. I doubt Clifford’s dementia about Hughes really happened, but it is easy to see how someone could be drawn hypnotically toward a figure as fascinating and frustrating as Howard Hughes, and thus toward a story like The Hoax.

12 April 2007

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut Has Become Unstuck in Time

Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died yesterday, at age eighty-four. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he, like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, has become "unstuck in time."

Like many science-fiction fans/writers, I went through a serious Kurt Vonnegut phase when I was in high school. Vonnegut's books are often assigned in English Literature classes, and I was assigned two in sophomore year: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and the story collection Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). I went on to read a slew more, sometimes as independent reading assignments for class: Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990, the first new book to appear after I started reading him), Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye, Blue Monday (1973), Galápagos (1985), Bluebead (1987), Sirens of Titan (1959), etc. Although it isn't a book you hear much about, Galápagos is the Vonnegut novel of which I have the strongest memories and remains my personal favorite. Sadly, I don't think I've read a Vonnegut work since I went to college. Everyone moves on to new authors, but as I moved on I took a lot of Vonnegut's humanism, satiric comedy, politics, and unusual novel structuring (such as purposely spoiling his books' endings on the first page) with me on my own journey as a writer and fan of speculative fiction.

Vonnegut's work and influence has received copious amounts of study, probably far too much for his own comfort. He was New Wave science fiction long before the wave started to rise, but he was also an unclassifiable talent, a dark jester and curmudgeon of American letters who straddled genre and mainstream fiction. But I want to shine a spotlight on one of the most subversive and influential aspects of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one that hasn't received as much attention: he is one of few science fiction writers who became part of the high school literary canon. Science fiction and fantasy still receive supercilious sniffs from the literary establishment, but somehow Kurt Vonnegut—a humanist and satirist with socialist leanings—found his way into the high school curriculum. A book like Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains heavy sexual content, pops up on assigned reading lists to this day. Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle, wickedly subversive books, are also common English class assignments.

Now that's a damn achievement, one for which we should all thank Mr. Vonnegut as his slips around in the time stream.

So it goes.

11 April 2007

The Right to Read Is the Right to Be Free

As we approach the summer of "Harry Potter Mania," with the release of the fifth movie (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and the seventh and final book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), it's time to remind everyone about the importance of our freedoms as members of democracies—all democracies. We frequently pontificate about Freedom of Speech, and to a depressing extent in recent years have had to actively defend it against our own governments, but much less is spoken about the Freedom to Read. It is just as important, just as crucial, to the protection of basic human freedoms. With the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in 2005 that freedom came under assault from the very institution the should have protected it.

The mention of the word "controversy" around the name "Harry Potter" usually means the new Christian Right attacking the series for promoting "witchcraft" and other such twaddle. I have plenty I could say about that, and I'm not even particularly a Harry Potter fan. But I am a fan of fantasy in general, so an attack on Harry Potter could easily widen into an assault on the most imaginative genre in all of literature. However this particular controversy had nothing to do with religion or witchcraft. It was about the freedom to read a book.

In July 2005, a few days before the official release of Half-Blood Prince, a Real Canadian Superstore in British Columbia accidentally sold fourteen copies of the novel to consumers. The natural reaction from the store and the Canadian publisher, Raincoast Books, should have been, "Ooops! Oh well." Offer the buyers some goodies if they return the books, but otherwise leave it alone. Maybe ask them to please be kind to other readers and not spoil any of the secrets.

But then the unthinkable happened. Raincoast Books asked for an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia to prohibit the buyers from reading the books or discussing their contents. And the court granted the injunction. A U.K. lawyer even said "there is no human right to read."

Think about that. A few people were accidentally sold some children's books by mistake a few days before they were technically supposed to go on sale. And a court in one of the largest democracies in the world ordered them not the read the books.

Anyone who respects democracy, freedom of speech, or just old books in general should be outraged that this happened. These people had purchased the books legally, even if the seller had made a mistake as to when he could sell the books. They had the right to read them. Even if they hadn't purchased them, if someone had just handed the book to them, they could read them. Even if the stole the damn books, they could read them. The theft is what is illegal, not the reading. The Supreme Court of British Columbia bowed down to pressure from corporate interests and chopped away at the most fundamental tendon of democratic rights. That Raincoast Books offered some inducements to the buyers if they returned the novels, like a free T-shirt and an autographed copy of the book, is just a further insult: hey kids, sell your freedom for some goodies.

There was some outrage in the Canadian press, such as a call to boycott buying the books, and this strong defense from lawyer Michael Geist:

This is all done purely in the name of furthering commercial interests. In Canada, we have some narrow restrictions on hate speech and child pornography. But we do not issue court orders that prohibit children from reading books.

For a judge to issue such a blatantly unconstitutional order is appalling. For a book publisher and a children's author to request such an order, is shameful.
But there should have been even more outrage, especially in my home country of the U.S.A. The freedom to read is the freedom to think. There is a human right to read, no matter what that lawyer said (how much do you think corporate shills paid for that announcement?); it is part of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. If you have no freedom to read, you have no freedom: it is that simple. Just take a look at George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel that continually becomes more and more frightening as we move away from its hypothetical year. To control language, to destroy words, is to take away a person's ability to form his or her own ideas or thoughts. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four hacks away at words, chopping them up until almost nothing is left so that no one can form a thought that the Party does not control. The only material allowed to be read is junk churned out on machines for the "proles."

When I taught reading classes to children, I emphasized to them, over and over, that reading gave them power. It gave them the power of free thought. It gave them the power to expand their minds. It made them thinkers. In these times when too many democracies believe they can curtail freedoms based on vague notions of security or, as in this case, pressure from corporations, thinkers are our greatest hope. Thinkers are frightening to the oppressors. Good…be frightening. Dare to think.

So, this summer, as you line up to purcahse that last Harry Potter novel, think back to a frightening incident two years ago surrounding the boy wizard, and remember:

The Right to Read is the Right to be Free.

10 April 2007

A "Vanished" Score Reappears


Legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith has been dead for almost three years now, and I still find it hard to deal with his absence. Ever since I "discovered" his music in 1990 (after enjoying it for years in films without knowing who he was), he turned into a key part of my artistic and musical life—and a focus of album collection mania. I believe my Goldsmith album library comes to around a hundred and fifty individual CDs and LPs. Dealing with his death has often been nothing more than straight-up denial. But as I approach the third year anniversary of Jerry's death from cancer in July, I more and more realize that we haven't had a new Goldsmith score since Looney Tunes: Back in Action and the posthumous release of the rejected score to Timeline. And there will be no more new scores. The silence from Jerry Goldsmith has only started to sink into my musical mind three years out.

But there remain a few gems from Goldsmith's unreleased back catalog that have started to see their way into the palsied hands of collectors like me. Genuine releases, not bad bootlegs. So it almost seems as if Jerry Goldsmith still lives and still cranks out like clockwork one genius score after another. As the liner notes of the newest Goldsmith gem to emerge from the vaults, The Vanishing, states: "There is just so much Goldsmith to love."

Although the dark side of this is that its easier to live in denial of Goldsmith's death with new albums still coming out.

The Vanishing arrived in the mail yesterday, direct from Varèse Sarabande's CD club. A full, glorious, sixty-minute CD of Goldsmith music never released in album form until now. This 1993 suspense film (an inferior re-make of a 1988 Dutch thriller) mysteriously never received a soundtrack album release when it came out; at the time, nearly all of Goldsmith's new scores received a CD release, albeit often a skimpy thirty-minute one—damn music union re-use fees made longer releases prohibitively expensive for the smaller music labels. But The Vanishing and the comedy IQ skipped release altogether, and the liner notes for The Vanishing unfortunately don't explain why this happened. It couldn't have anything to do with the quality of the score: it's another Goldsmith winner, much in the suspense vein of his Academy Award-nominated work to Basic Instinct. The use of jazz interspersed among the "ticking" sound of suspense is a genius stroke, and the End Title, like that for his score to The Edge, uses a jazz orchestration to make a strong counterpoint. Hearing fresh Goldsmith, even if it's really fifteen years old, creates a frisson of joy in my musical soul. (And, as a bonus, at the end of the last track we can hear Jerry himself say, "Really nice job" to the musicians.)

Okay, Varèse... where's that full Gremlins album?

09 April 2007

Early Noir: This Gun for Hire

This Gun for Hire (1942)
Directed by Frank Tuttle. Starring Alan Ladd, Veronic Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston.

It was 1942 and film noir was just beginning—although no one would know that until the French made the discovery in the mid ‘50s. This Gun for Hire helped form the new language of the crime film: literate, bleak, psychological. Its source novel from British author Graham Greene, 1936’s A Gun for Sale (This Gun for Hire is the U.S. title, but I’m a purist when it comes to titles), gave it a boost in the literary department and bequeathed the world of crime literature a fascinating anti-hero in a hit-man known as Raven.

Greene introduced his character in a perfect show of amorality so common the emerging genre:
Murder didn't mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful. You had to use your brains. It was not a question of hatred. He had only seen the Minister once: he had been pointed out to Raven as he walked down the new housing estate between the small lit Christmas trees, an old grubby man without friends, who was said to love humanity.
From such a description—appearing on the first page of the novel—could anyone else but Alan Ladd have played the part? Fresh from radio, but new to the big screen, Ladd got fourth billing (but a special "Introducing" credit in the main titles) but turned into a tough-guy celebrity forever linked with dazzling co-star Veronica Lake. This was especially surprising considering Ladd's unimpressive height did not usually indicate leading-man stature. But some clever camera work (Ladd always walks behind people on the stairs) and unflappable icy acting made Ladd appear a giant, an invincible calculating killer who never lets anyone get the better of him. I guarantee you'll never remember the name of the guy who got second billing with Veronica Lake. This is a Lake-Ladd picture, without a doubt.

Shot against the background of World War II, which the U.S. had just joined, This Gun for Hire had to insert requisite doses of patriotic speeches. But unlike many other films of the era, the propaganda element is subdued in favor of Raven’s unpolitical revenge. He doesn’t care that the people who hired him are selling poison gas secrets to the Japanese government. He only cares that they tried to frame him for the murder they hired him to commit. You don’t double-cross a man like Raven. Through his encounter with Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a singer roped in by a senator to investigate the suspicious activities of her boss (a perfectly smarmy Laird Cregar), Raven starts to awaken to the larger implications of his vengeance quest. But even at the conclusion, when he finally faces his framers and his own end, Raven remains Raven, the ice-cold killer we met in the beginning. And so we see the beginnings the film noir’s potently immoral and confused world, mirrored in the implacable face of one of its acting icons.

This Gun for Hire is quintessential film noir viewing. For a film so young in an emerging style, it shows immense maturity. It’s also the origin point for one of the greatest tough-guy actors in the business.

07 April 2007

Grindhouse: Half a Good Movie

Perhaps the Century City crowd isn't the ideal group with which to see Grindhouse, this weekend's gimmick "double-feature" homage to the exploitations films of the 1970s. Too mellow, not worked up enough, and not the sort of crowd that longed for an homage to exploitation cinema of the 1970s. However, I don't believe that anybody was really pining for a return to those days of the one-week-and-out cheapies from the decade of shame except for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, but they have enough filmmaking clout to get their obsessions up on thousands of screens. At least, Tarantino's obsession. While watching the final product, I decided that Rodriquez cares far less about "grindhouse films" than he does about practicing his "Mariachi" filmmaking style with tongue in-cheek humor and loads of zombie silliness. Mostly, I think he just wanted to hook-up with actress Rose McGowan (which actually happened, so Rodriguez's experiment was a total success on the that level, although it trashed his sixteen-year marriage). On the other side of the table, it appears that Tarantino did honestly want to do his own version of a '70s muscle car chase film/slasher flick mixed with his own "round-robin dialogue" techniques.

So, despite the duplex set-up of Grindhouse, the two movies inhabiting it—Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof—are completely different beasts. Planet Terror is a parody of exploitation films, and Death Proof is inspired by exploitation films. Guess which one works better?

After an hour of exploding pus-covered zombies and redneck chophouse mayhem, I was extremely ready for Planet Terror to end. I've never enjoyed zombie films, and Planet Terror isn't even trying to be a good zombie film. It's an intentionally bad movie, complete with an artificially scratchy and washed-out print and missing frames. The bogus "missing reel" actually helps the story by thrusting the viewer straight into the third act in a surreal moment. The plot is so intentionally lazy and nonsensical that viewers don't need the missing reel to understand what's happening. And what is happening? Oh, a bunch of zombies created by the military run amuck in Texas, Marley Shelton's husband finds she's had a lesbian affair and threatens her with syringes, and Rose McGowan's stripper gets an assault rifle as a leg replacement. It's all sleaze and sometimes plain icky to watch, but the gore is frequently hilarious, done as cheaply as possible to increase the parody. But the gag-nature of the movie can't sustain itself for a whole ninety minutes, and when it ended I actually shivered to think that I still had another full film to go.

Luckily, Death Proof is a nifty little car-stunt flick. I enjoyed it far more than either volume of Tarantino's Kill Bill. The scratchy look is mostly absent—a few frames have been replaced with blue leader, and there's another missing reel that cheats us of a lap dance—and Tarantino is in his least self-indulgent mode. The movie models here are obviously Vanishing Point and Duel; indeed, the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point features as one of the stars. (If you haven't seen either film, please do so now.) The film starts in neutral, with loads of the obligatory Tarantino small-talk conversations. Once Kurt Russell as "Stuntman Mike" starts using his "death proof" black stunt vehicle to kill nubile girls, the rest of the movie is one groovy, fun ride. The final chase is a corker, and when the words THE END abruptly popped up on the screen, the audience cheered with excitement. It surprised me after Planet Terror, but Death Proof really is a feel-good cheap thrill. And watching Kurt Russell howl and scream as his tries to staunch a bullet wound ought to get him some sort of bizarre honorary Oscar. Man, that guy is cool.

The four fake trailers before and between the feature presentations are entertaining additions to faux-'70s experience. The best is Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, which is surprisingly disturbing. It owes a lot to the gravel-voiced narrator, who adds a level of grime to the images no amount of film scratches could. It's a compliment to Roth to say that I would never ever see Thanksgiving if it actually were a real movie.

06 April 2007

The Untouchables 1987 Retrospective


I had planned to do a year-long retrospective on the films of 1987 (starting with RoboCop) on my website's movie review section, but I'm in the process of phasing out the movie reviews (except what I post on this blog)—they simply take up too much time, and so I end up not doing enough of them to make the section worthwhile. Nonetheless, I still feel like making some observations on the films of 1987, so here are some thoughts on Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.

My parents got to see a special screening of The Untouchables before its premiere as a charity presented through my younger brother's elementary school. I remember my mother liking it, which seems strange considering the high level of violence in the picture. Actually, my mother liking any picture from director Brian De Palma seems bizarre—but this goes to show that De Palma never made a more general audience accessible film than this one. Even his big hit Carrie doesn't appeal so strongly to the popcorn crowd. (Mission: Impossible and Mission to Mars don't count; the former has little of De Palma's stamp on it, and the latter is so blasphemously awful that it only appeals to people suffering from total sensory deprivation.)

De Palma consciously tries to make himself into Howard Hawks with this movie, and therein lies it's friendliness amongst the bloodshed. Even the violence isn't so heavy as some of De Palma's other films, like Body Double and Scarface. De Palma casts the film as a "professionals in action" tale the way Howard Hawks would have liked it, and the outdoor action scene at the Canadian border plays like a direct homage to some of Hawks's Westerns. It's a strange scene in many ways, since it abruptly moves the film from the nighttime caverns of Chicago and into the bright wilderness, but makes sense viewed in De Palma's nod the film's spiritual progenitor, Hawks.

Playwright David Mamet adapted the script from the popular 1959–63 television series starring Robert Stack and Neville Brand, itself based on Eliot Ness's memoir of his war against Al Capone in prohibition Chicago. The biggest similarity between the movie and television show is their simplified version of the downfall of Al Capone, which casts Ness and his band of "Untouchables" as central to the war. Since The Untouchables never pretends to tell a true story, its fantasy tale is forgivable as a red-soaked fairy tale of cops n' robbers—or Treasury officers n' bootleggers.

Otherwise, Mamet's script and De Palma's direction ignore the stylistics of the television show and make no attempt to imitate tropes like Walter Winchell's pinched voiceovers or the musical styles. The story is given a straight interpretation: clean-living family man Eliot Ness takes up a crusade against Al Capone's hold on Chicago, and enlists the no-nonsense approach of experienced beat-cop Jim Malone to help him. The story flirts with the concept of Ness compromising his ethics to fight dirty against the mob, but never delves deeply into it. Ness still emerges the hero and the champion of the women and children whom the movie portrays as the collateral damage of the mob's bootlegging operation, and Al Capone is nothing more than a swaggering monster who dupes the public with a loveable image while bashing out his associates' brains with a baseball bat and blowing up pre-teen girls. It helps that he's played by Robert De Niro, who trades in his subtle method actor image for a delicious gesture-heavy portrayal. Capone isn't prime De Niro, but it's damned good Al Pacino.

However, if The Untouchables belongs to one actor, it's Sean Connery. He won an Academy Award for playing Malone, and even if it isn't the best performance in his long career—The Man Who Would Be King deserves that honor, with Goldfinger a close second—he's a joy to watch strutting through the film in the textbook example of a "crowd-pleaser" part. Oscars aren't handed out for great acting chops, they're given for the pleasure a performance offers, and on those grounds I can't begrudge Connery the golden statue for The Untouchables.

Poor top-billed Kevin Costner has the heavy burden of facing two legendary co-stars with ostentatious roles. He seems a touch wooden, but it makes sense for the out-of-touch Ness, and he makes no attempt to outdo the more outrageous characters around him, which is exactly the way it should be.

But of course, if the name on the film is "De Palma," it's gonna look good. And the camera will probably do some oddball stunt in a few places. The sequence that everybody remembers is De Palma's half-tribute to the "Odessa Steps" from the 1925 Russia classic Battleship Potemkin. Ness and Stone try to retrieve Capone's bookkeeper from the train station without Capone's goons putting a hole in him. This results in a slow-motion shootout on the train station steps while a baby carriage holding an infant rattles down the stairs. The baby carriage comes straight from Battleship Potemkin, although the toddler met a far worse fate in the Russian version, but the slow-motion violence ballet is much more in dept to Sam Peckinpah than anyone else. Regardless of the scene's origin, it's still as crowd-pleasing a segment as De Palma ever produced.

It's a touch depressing to realize that if executed today, The Untouchables would probably be filmed in an anonymous city in Canada, the Czech Republic, or Australia to save on the production budget, instead of smack in the middle of downtown Chicago where it belongs. The use of historical Chicago buildings, like the Chicago Cultural Center and Roosevelt University standing in for Capone's hideaway in the Lexington Hotel (later the site of the notorious "Al Capone's Vault" television fiasco with Geraldo Rivera), add baroque verisimilitude to the setting: the Gilded Age city grown into a twentieth-century palace of corruption. The film's design is beautiful and convincing of the setting, especially the Armani outfits. I've never committed a violent crime in my life, but I would seriously mug Billy Drago just to get hold of that suit he wears as Frank Nitti. Along with Chinatown and Barry Lyndon, The Untouchables is one of the rare period films that seems honestly rooted in the period instead of a reflection of the time when it was made, and that explains why, twenty years later, I'm still exited to write about it.

And Ennio Morricone's music is stupendous. But you don't need me to tell you that.

04 April 2007

Choose Your Own Adventure: The House of Danger

The first great “game books,” the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series, started appearing as I was reaching independent reading age. I loved this series as a kid, and read them voraciously until I outgrew them (first moving to the Time Machine series before abandoning game books completely for young adult novels). I’ve discovered that, after a few years hiatus, the CYOA series has returned to print. Here’s the website for the reprint series. Most of the reprinted volumes are by R. A. Montgomery, whose books I always felt are far weaker than Edward Packard’s. The reprints have made a number of changes to update the technology (such as the inclusion of cell phones). The purist in me objects to this, but I realize the purpose is to not alienate a new set of younger readers. I also don't like the new illustrations, but this comes from nostalgia, not an objection to the quality.

I picked up one of my old favorites from the series, carefully read through it, tracked the various pathways and endings, and thus can now present to you a (spoiler-filled) full review of . . .

House of Danger (1982; rev. 2005)
COYA #15 (original series); COYA #5 (revision series)
By R. A. Montgomery

A young detective (the role of the reader) who also does psychic investigation work receives a mysterious phone call from a man pleading for help. The detective traces the call and discovers that it originated from a house belonging to Robert Mescall. Who is Robert Mescall, and what is behind that strange call? Since this is an R. A. Montgomery book, there are no straight answers to these questions. Depending on the choice made, the young detective could learn that Civil War ghosts, counterfeiters, or super-chimpanzees are behind the odd quest. Consistency of storyline isn't the strongest aspect of Montgomery's CYOA writing style, but he does have a penchant for random weirdness, and the chimpanzees and the appearance of two completely different kinds of aliens rank high on the weirdness meter. You can also get turned into Chinggis Khan. The sheer bizarreness of the adventures keeps the book entertaining, and I enjoyed it immensely as a kid. Ultimately, however, the book lacks solidity.