There’s Nothing Like It: Ursula Liang’s 9-MAN

9-Man (Ursula Liang, 2014)

To a native Californian and Angeleno like myself, volleyball has always meant white guys and the beach. While I know that it is played professionally, and there are women’s teams, the concept of anything volleyball-esque brings up a Pavlovian response in me. Visions of blonde men with their tanned caucasian bodies appear in my imagination and I see these perfectly formed specimens, glistening with sunscreen, throwing themselves around in the sun and sand, as their bikini-clad-companions watch. While that may seem romantic and sexy, it’s always been an extreme turn-off to me.

These are precisely the kind of guys and just the kind of culture that I want nothing to do with. In fact, it is the kind of world that I spend an alarming amount of time railing against. They represent the worst of the worst to me. They are the frat-boy types who eat, sleep and breathe white privilege and couldn’t see the world any other way than monied and upper and of the higher-classes. They are blind to what is really going on and that pisses me off. I feel a little bad for the sport of volleyball, since it has suffered my associations, but I will recognize here and now that is my prejudice.  Too many summers near Santa Monica watching people play, I guess.

With this in mind, I can only describe myself as insanely curious and awkwardly starving for Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-MAN (Ursula Liang, 2014), which played at the Director’s Guild of America as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday night, May 2nd. Co-presented by the Asian Youth Center in the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese American Museum in Downtown LA (they’re currently running a whole exhibit on hot sauces called “LA HEAT”- it’s totally great! Check them out!), and introduced by the popular and highly entertaining Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man, this documentary blew my mind. Completely unseen, Yu told the audience that he was putting 9-MAN on a list of films he would consider to be in his “Angry Asian Film Club.” “Unless it sucks.” he joked,  “But I know it won’t suck!” And boy was he right. This belongs on that Film Club List with honors!

For what it’s worth, 9-MAN is a sports documentary. Technically, 9-man is a volley-ball-style sport that began in Chinatown communities in the 1930s but it is quite definitely not volleyball.  In fact, that may be why I liked it. The terms “jungle ball” and “streetball” were thrown around quite a bit. Yeah, my ears perked up for sure. As a huge fan of brutal and hyper-masculine sports activities, the minute one of the athletes described 9-man as a game that commits itself fully to a “warrior mentality” I was IN. But it’s not simply a game. 9-man developed historically and has played a significant part in the way that Chinese men have been able to keep their culture alive and dynamic, especially between fathers and sons. As Liang documents so eloquently, this was one of the only outlets that many Chinese men had to express their masculinity during the 1930s/40s and onwards. The Chinese Immigration Acts that started in the late 1880s had seriously diminished roles for Chinese men to play in American culture, and the places that they were allowed to inhabit were exhaustively feminized at that time: laundry work, food service, etc. In order to regain a sense of masculinity and as a way to bond as a community, this game was created. It gave them a sense of dignity, fun and released the stress from these daily horrors.

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

But, as Liang stated in the Q&A after the film, she wanted to give a sense of this historical background while still keeping the modern storyline. And that is what she most certainly did. The core of the film and the “meat” focused on today’s teams and the journey towards the 2010 Boston Labor Day finals for several regional teams, and, like a truly great sports film, she makes you truly love and care for all the characters. If I thought that I cried in fictional films like Warrior or He Got Game, this film gutted me. I was at the edge of my seat, really WITH every character. Loving them, routing for them, on their journey. But what made it more interesting was each person’s discussion of the cultural ties and the fact that this was not just a game to them. This was part of their life. While Liang did pointedly say afterwards that her goal was to reimagine Asian men in the sports world and do some stereotype-busting through diverse portrayals (which was quite well-done, I might add) the sports/culture/ethnic connection was what really stood out. The media does not often investigate these issues for Asian men. The discussion of these 9-men player’s masculinity stories, whether done through tales of family connections, cultural struggles or sports dedication was really singular and revealing.

Credit: A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh), published in LatitudeNews.com

The film does an excellent job in explaining the rules of the game with animated visuals- there is a difference between 6-man and 9-man games, for instance, and no women are allowed to play. There were wonderful illustrations to explain these things and the placement of the players as well. The intertitles were also quite helpful, as far as technical info was concerned. As of 1991, there was an “ethnic rule” that became part of the rule book- at least 6 men on the court had to be Chinese. The other 3 could be mixed. When asked about this in the Q&A afterwards, the responses were fascinating and reflected a very different 9-man than what had started so many years ago. Ursula was joined on-stage by two 9-man players, and each answered this question differently but with the same basic result. Both agreed (as did Ursula) that at this point it is really up to how good the player is. Many times, it comes down to that and not ethnicity. They will have the “how Chinese is he” arguments, but it will really boil down to “how good of a player is he.” They added that there are many mixed players now, and that will probably increase with time.

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

I wondered if this was losing the spirit that been expressed by so many of the older interviewees in the film, especially certain men who had discussed playing 9-man in the 1970s, who had learned to have Chinese community and brotherhood through this activity, and had passed the tradition on to their children. It also made me think about something more serious. As someone who has studied sports that are familial and passed on in that manner (ie wrestling), this “more sports than culture” view being expressed might end up deteriorating the 9-man community and a cultural history and important activity that goes beyond “sports.” But as the final interviewee in the film said about the game, sports or cultural expression, “There’s nothing like it and I’d never give it up.”

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Ursula Liang has created a documentary that has inspired tears of triumph and heartbreak, nail-biting suspense and loud cheers of joy. This primarily female-produced film (as Liang discussed during the Q&A, most of the crew were women as well, something “you don’t see very often these days!”) combines historical fact with tough sportsmanship and really intelligent discussion about a highly marginalized and underrepresented community.

One of the most beautiful things about the screening was when Phil Yu asked the athletes during the Q&A what it was like to watch the film, and Lawrence, one of the athletes, replied, “I got to see people I know for once.” While it was clear that this referred to 9-man players he was pals with, it had a double-meaning: he got on-screen representation for once. Which is really what the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is about, and I am glad for it.

 

CS_9Man

FILM ARCHIVIST’S PLEA:  One final note that I would have to make and this is more of a plea. I spoke to Ursula after the screening because, as a moving image archivist I was SINGULARLY IMPRESSED by the footage in the film. Not only is the subject INCREDIBLY unique and rare (she told me very few people she encountered had even heard of 9-man) but the stills and visual elements that are used have come almost entirely from personal collections. Museums and archives that specialized in Asian or Chinese historical works didn’t have anything on this, regional archives were empty, barely anything. I know that Prelinger Archives was on there, but they are amazing like that. Here’s the thing-  THIS WAS ALOT OF HOME MOVIE STUFF, GUYS.  This is not a surprise to mePLEASE see this movie. I will tell you why:

1) It is THAT good. I’ll say it again. IT IS THAT DAMN GOOD.

2) The archival footage will show you that you need to go looking in your Nana’s house for all the cultural 16mm/8mm/etc stuff. It can be really important. LIKE NOW. GO.

3) If you are a POC, your works are EXTRA important and MUST BE SEEN. This film is a FABULOUS WATERSHED EXAMPLE of what can be done if you have a good subject and are a great researcher & can get some help. Liang went the extra mile on this because she taught herself how to be a filmmaker as she was making this film.

4) If you know of anyone who might have any other footage like this, let’s make sure it’s all out there. Seeing this was so great. As an archivist & as someone in preservation, this is *exactly* what we strive to do- restore history to its rightful viewers: us and everyone in the future. Make goodness happen with film. It can be magic. I BELIEVE THIS.

5) Female filmmaker. Need another reason?????

 

DID YOU MISS 9-MAN LAST NIGHT? NO WORRIES. IT’S PLAYING AGAIN! HERE’S THE INFO!

9-MAN – LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL

MONDAY, MAY 05, 2014 – 4:30

Tateuchi Democracy Forum, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012

BUY TICKETS HERE!

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Nothing To Lose: Foreign Cinema and the Position of the Child

So I went to see A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) tonight, and, like everyone I know who has seen it, I was completely enraptured.  Indeed, even the over-cosmeticized quasi-senior citizens sitting a few rows over discussing ceramic tile patterns seemed to be  enchanted by this beyond-outstanding piece of Iranian filmmaking.

A tense and provocative film, this story seems to increase in density the further you travel inward, without leaving you feeling too overwhelmed. While the main thrust of the film deals with a fairly standard familial drama (divorce), it gives birth to a web of heartache and agony that is so well-crafted that each blow hits you like an angel’s kiss- that is, if the angel was giving you really sad, complex, hand-wringing-style pecks! And if that wasn’t enough, Farhadi is also working with strong themes of religion, femininity, the legal system and, most importantly, childhood.

What fascinated me most within the film was his sensitivity towards characters who had little to no power of their own, yet were fully formed and explored people. Even if a character’s dialogue consisted of simply one or two words,  the combined narrative and visual structure engendered a consistent and advanced sense of empathy.  In particular, his highly attenuated  depictions of children, young developing women, and the infirm seriously gave this film a higher sense of power and core stability. His use of lingering camera shots enhanced the relationship between the audience and the characters, pushing us into a deeper and more intimate relationship of our own with the film and each aspect of it.

The character of Termeh is in a constant state of turmoil for most of the film, having to handle adolescence, her parents' relationship struggles, and her own decisions about where she fits in within all of it. While her father, Nader would argue against it (like many parents who engage in this type of behavior), he uses his daughter within power-play constructs, thus negating altruistic family motivations much of the time.

Because of her age, Somayeh is at an even clearer disadvantage. Beyond the fact that she is the "working woman's child," thus relegating her to an altogether different class, she must handle all the things that come with that identity: her unemployed and possibly abusive father, her very religiously-observant mother having to work and having to go with her to work, and being caught directly in the center of a terribly amount of adult issues that she is far too young to deal with. The continual shots of her face, her trusting demeanor and her inquisitive-but-shy glances only reify her position as The Innocent, in the film.

It is, however, the systematic visual returning to the “powerless” characters that make us feel that the film has established a kind of unspoken unity and communion.  Indeed, within the narrative, they seem to be the only characters that are not constantly at war with one another, and they are pointedly shown communicating positively together, as in the scene where Termeh, Somayeh and Nader’s father are all participating in a foosball game and enjoying it together. Even though the other characters are around, they seem different somehow, like they are part of a different tribe. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari takes great care so as to depict these individuals that way and to make them stand out, even when surrounded. Within the larger diegesis, not only are these characters that have little to no say in what happens in their lives, but they are also the ones that we (the audience, the secret voyeurs) can look in upon and watch as they bond, getting closer and sticking together. They share that secret only with the audience. The rest of the characters are too busy with the drama. While everything else within this film is being pulled apart and “separated,” it is these things that are coming together: these budding relationships of the powerless.

Nader's father has Alzheimer's and actually has less independent ability than either of the two children in the film. While he is an old man, he has shifted to the final stage of being an old man, which means that he mirrors the beginning stage of human development: he is incontinent, cannot bathe himself, and must be cared for...as though he were a child. The connections between him, Somayeh and Termeh are first and foremost about survival: all three need adult supervision and need to be cared for. However, they also feel kinship based upon a sense of loneliness seeing as all the "adults" in their immediate vicinity have decided to act like children. While Nader's father can only operate on certain levels, his presence is important, especially for Termeh. He is more than a grandfather to her, at this juncture. He is someone that, like her, needs care and needs to be able to trust that it is going to be given properly.

Farhadi also enjoys the use of the two-shot in order to drive key points home, although it never feels heavy handed. In A Separation, he uses it mostly to link certain family members together and emphasize relationships. Since this film is about the breaking-down and, in some cases, building up of relationships, these are some of the most important shots of the film.  Kalari generally shoots these sequences with a great deal of expression and skill, making sure that Farhadi’s direction is centered and the apparatus does not overshadow the content. That said, there are times when it is shot in such a manner that the camera is actually first-person, thus it does edge on the accusatory. This, however, is used quite sparingly and…Leila Hatami is so easy on the eyes that you feel she could easily have given half of the starlets in 1940’s Hollywood a run for their money.

Farhadi always has Razieh and her daughter Somayeh depicted against a wealth of machinery or industry, underscoring the fact that they are part of a class that is not as well-to-do as the people she works for. They are seen as small and insignificant at times in comparison to the larger Iranian area which is bustling with activity. But Razieh is always very watchful of Somayeh and, in turn, Somayeh seems to be equally as watchful of Razieh. In certain shots, such as this one, it almost seems that the role of mother/daughter is reversed and Somayeh has been charged with the care of her mother and not vice/versa.

A Separation focuses on many different relationships being revealed for what they are and still others coming undone. Within the limits of this film, Nader shows how deep his relationship with his father is, again emphasizing the film's high level of concentration on the parent-child connection. While the primary parent-child examples are with children who have yet to reach maturity, this relationship is with a parent who has reached maturity and is on his way out. Farhadi underscores the intensity of feeling that Nader has for his father by frequently shooting the two of them together in tight, closed spaces, similar to this bathroom. Others include a doctor's office, the car and his father's bedroom. What this ends up doing is increasing the intimacy and attachment that Nader clearly has with his father, even if, as Nader's wife Simin says, "He doesn't even know who you are."

The film opens with this scene of direct address and invites the viewer to "participate." By the end of the scene, the relationship between Nader and Simin has become clear, but so has the political and legal climate under which the remainder of the film will operate. While many of their other scenes together involves some kind of variation on this discussion of their relationship, none of the rest of them are shot straight to the audience. While this shot may seem to have been intended to establish Nader and Simin's relationship, it was actually constructed so that the audience could have a working understanding of the legal world at play within the film. In a sense, it is almost its own character. This two-shot is actually a two-shot of the viewing audience and the Iranian justice system that Farhadi is exploring within A Separation.

Thinking about A Separation got me thinking about other foreign films, due to the way that children and the relationships with children were of such high consequence in this film. Within the confines of this film, children were the one thing that were held above almost anything else, aside from religious traditions and the Qur’an. As discussed, this was exhibited in the way they were shot and the way their characters were constructed as well. But this is not a purely Iranian filmic function. In fact, a high respect for children seems to be very traditional to films that were not made in the United States.

From Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio di Sica, 1948) to Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) and beyond, children have been celebrated in foreign cinema. That celebration may take on different forms (I wouldn’t call Edmund’s experience in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero much of a “celebration” but he is still a remarkable protagonist, nonetheless), but the idea that children can function as fully-fleshed out characters in a diegetic context is something that is not new to the foreign film circuit.

With some exceptions, the American film world has insisted on portraying the under-12 set as a bunch of fun-loving idiots who just “wanna have fun.” These kids will eventually grow up to be the Tall, Dark and Handsomes that we jettison onto the silver screen, is the thought process. That’s all fine and good, but please note that we also are the film industry that began the Killer Kid genre. So, while I love the hell out of The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956), The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) and Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009), we should be thinking more critically about this. I would argue just as hard as the next gal for the rights of Killer Kid films to exist, but depictions of children are quite real and quite dangerous. More importantly, as part of our media, they are also quite provocative.

If Forbidden Games  (Rene Clement, 1952) doesn’t break your heart, I’m pretty sure that you don’t have one to break.  Like Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, this was a direct reaction to World War II. Clement, who had just had quite reasonable success with his French Resistance film in 1945, La Bataille du rail, was not quite finished with the subject matter. Then again, in 1952, Europe hadn’t quite recovered fully from the war, financially or psychologically.

Using children to investigate the horrors of war was something that many European artists did, either through literature (The Tin Drum  by Gunter Grass, published in 1959, then filmed by Volker Schlondorff) or filmic means. The anti-war slogan “War is not good for children and other living things” was practically created by post-WWII cinema in Europe.  Forbidden Games is still highly effective on every level it was intended for, and probably several more. Clement used the idea of the war orphan, something that, by that time, had become as commonplace as breathing, and used it as the method through which to tell his story and voice his message.

The idea that “children won’t understand” is a myth. When Paulette and Michel have a conversation about her parents’ death, she may not be able to comprehend the idea that it was a Nazi-air-raid that killed her parents, but in their conversation she is the one who puts two-and-two together. Michel does not have to inform her of her parents’ demise, Paulette just renegotiates them on her own terms, making it all the more heart-breaking. “So they are in a hole to keep dry from the rain?” she inquires. Michel nods. No fuss, no big harrowing sit-down. She gets it.

Foreign films seem to place more faith in children than we do. It’s rather unfortunate. One of the best films I’ve ever watched or ever will watch is about an adult having faith in a child. (sidenote: this is also where the graphics for my blog come from and I totally cried when I rewatched this clip before adding it in here!)

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) is another film that goes by Forbidden Games standards: if this doesn’t hit you right where it should, you’re running on empty, buddy. The relationship that this film explores is one that very few films in the world ever have. It portrays an adult who trusts a child to be smart and talented and never treats him as anything less than that. One other thing of note- although this film was released in 1988, the story being told starts within a flashback that begins just after WWII. Once again, the trope of post-war Europe and its various parts plays an awfully big role in Cinema Paradiso.

There are many, many more to be looked at and discovered. Plenty more that I have not encountered, I am sure. But I still find it puzzling that we have only recently begun to utilize children within our cinema, and I’m still not certain that it is to their advantage. While I enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine  (Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2006) quite a bit, that was still not the central protagonist role that I believe that children are capable of playing.

Perhaps it is too late for us. Perhaps we are too corporate of a country to develop anything more than Toddlers and Tiaras, a show certain to produce more antisocial personality disorder than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps we do have to leave it to incredible films like A Separation to show us that children are still able to function as powerful positive figures within the cinematic spectrum. I’m not sure. Either way, I think it’s important that we remember that the world hasn’t always been about Firestarter (Mark L. Lester, 1984) and Audrey Rose (Robert Wise, 1977). Sometimes it’s just been about Pather Panchali  (Satyajit Ray, 1955) and The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959).

To Hell With You: Blazing a Trail Through Hollywood with John Constantine

Seeing that it is now June and Comic Con is nipping at my writerly fingertips (as it does every year), I figured I would drag one out from the vaults to entertain and/or annoy you all with.

For the last 5 or so years, I have been a participant in the Comic Arts Conference, which is kinda like the Red Headed Stepchild of the Con. We don’t consider it that way, of course, and anyone who is interested in the academic side of the comic book world wouldn’t see it that way either, but anyone who spends the night outside the convention center in hopes of catching a glimpse of a sparkly vampire could really care less that many of us pour a goodly amount of time and energy into these papers. After all- it is an academic conference.

In any case, what I am presenting for you here is the piece that I wrote for the panel I was on in 2007.  I remember liking it. In any case, my opinions haven’t changed much so…here you go- now you too can feel like you were there…minus the crowds, the smelly fankids, and the overzealous everybody. Enjoy!

He’s been compared to James Bond, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer. Critics have described the film as everything from “a clever fantasy/horror noir with a dash of broad comedy,” to one that “lacks the richness of its source material” and is “entirely beyond redemption.” Whichever way you slice it, the 2005 filmic adaptation of John Constantine: Hellblazer seems to be quite a source of discussion and debate, whether or not you were even a fan of the comic. It is common knowledge that all comic to film adaptations go through many stages on their way to becoming their own media object . Whether the parent text is used exactly or whether it is paraphrased, one can usually see the skeleton of the originating document underneath any new additions. Sometimes, however, when a given filmmaker is dead set on extricating him/herself from the previous incarnation of the work, the adaptation can lead to a obscuring of the source material, causing a rift to grow between that which was adapted and the adaptation itself. Director Francis Lawrence’s desire to create his own version of John Constantine and the universe in which he dwelt overshadowed his ability to portray a character that maintained any veracity to the original work. While some amount of this is to be expected, Lawrence’s methodology for addressing John Constantine led to a film that not only removed the character’s cultural trappings but also eradicated his larger theological basis. In doing so, Lawrence erased the things to which every author of Hellblazer had remained loyal to throughout the entire comic book series, thereby creating a character that was decidedly not John Constantine.

I have been working with filmic adaptations of comics for the last several years. Through the careful study of production methodologies, narrative changes, and textual similarities how smooth the transition from comic text was (or was not) became more apparent. The overall success of each film as compared to that of its progenitor is a key ingredient within adaptation analyses. However, the longer I studied Constantine, the more I found myself unable to defend it as a valid interpretation of the comic book. Not only did this movie willfully exchange the narrative complexities and character depth in the comic for easily digestible storylines and generic protagonists, but it also blatantly lifted items from another film in order to fill out the less, shall we say, “full” areas. By leaning heavily upon previously established film iconography and reformatting the substance of the comic book text to match, the writers and director of Constantine created a new media object that cast out all substantial elements of the initial comic and produced what could only be called a ghost-adaptation.

NO TRENCHCOAT, NO ACCENT, NO SERVICE

Locating the film within US confines instead of the UK was a change, but it really wasn’t that much of an issue. After all, it had been done countless times within the comic book with little to no detraction. However, changing John Constantine into an American freelance exorcist, who stockpiles Judeo-Christian weaponry, and doesn’t make a habit out of hustling, witchcraft and trickery as daily routine was more than slightly ridiculous. As far as the comic was concerned, no matter who was writing or drawing him, John Constantine was none of these things. In making these alterations in his career and religious orientations, John Constantine was changed from the protagonist seen in the comic book Hellblazer to a new character, one that was invented specifically for the screen that shared little more than the name.

However, it was something else entirely that created the ultimate disparity.  To add insult to injury, this film committed the cardinal sin against a comic book character: they erased his history. What if Superman had not come from a different planet? What if a spider had not bitten Peter Parker? Either situation is analogous to what the creators of this film did to John Constantine. While it is essential in adaptations to “edit” the parent text for time and cinematic rhythm, it is not essential to completely alter or eradicate it. Sure, Constantine’s history is very involved and can’t really be boiled down to a single incident like a spider bite (unless you count Newcastle!). But just because a character has a complex background doesn’t mean that you throw the baby out with the bathwater!  Changing Constantine’s story to one that damns him to hell because of a suicide attempt as a teenager, changes his entire character, pathology, and situation. While it could be said that this was simply an attempt to save time and “edit” the comic to fit its screen counterpart, I would argue that the erasure of John Constantine’s history reveals a slightly larger problem: the erasure of his identity, period. The character played by Keanu Reeves in the film, is not the character within the pages of the comic. By taking him out of the UK, and making him an American with a whole new background, the wedge between comic book and film is driven deep enough to make it irreconcilable.

Made by the same man who gave you Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” video and Jennifer Lopez’ “Waiting For Tonight,” the film version of Hellblazer was certainly updated quite a bit from the comics. As the director himself stated in one of the documentaries on the DVD, “[Constantine is] based on a comic book, but I didn’t want it to feel like a comic book movie.”[1] Unfortunately, this may have been his biggest downfall. Frankly, it wasn’t about John Constantine’s trench coat and aesthetic, nor was it about his country of origin. Both things could have been worked with, and perhaps forgiven to an extent. However, as it turns out, in this circumstance, playing with those items was like playing with fire. Lawrence’s desire to dissociate himself from the text that he was supposed to be drawing his inspiration from left him empty-handed, causing both the film product and the source material to suffer from this decision.

In the introduction to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing (issues 62-67), Warren Ellis makes a solid point about John Constantine as he is portrayed throughout the entire comic book series, no matter who was writing or drawing him.

Frequently painted as a mystic investigator in some kind of bastardized Chandlerian tradition…John is one of horror fiction’s more complex characters…Since his creation, John Constantine has gone from the young English occult wideboy of Alan Moore’s initial vision to the troubled and aging adrenaline addict of Jamie Delano’s bleakly poetic writing…The strength of the character, that has him remain so clearly the same man even when viewed through two or three different writers’ eyes, is that he is a terrific mouthpiece for anger.[2]

While I believe that Ellis’ simplification of Constantine as a “mouthpiece for anger” tends to be a bit reductive, his underlying analysis is spot-on. John Constantine has been written and rewritten by no less than 10 different authors. While each of these individuals showcase different qualities of John Constantine and his varying desires/pursuits/intentions, at the end of the day, they all remain faithful (more or less) to the basic skeleton built by Mr. Moore back in 1985. Even Brian Azzarello, when he took up the reigns of the comic upon Warren Ellis’ abrupt departure noted that while his own approach to comic book writing wouldn’t change, his portrayal of John Constantine would require extra conscientiousness. “I’m going to have to be sensitive to this guy’s past,” he stated in an interview with Sequential Tart, “Readers have expectations with Constantine; if I don’t deliver they’re going to scream foul. Not that I’m not going to toy with those expectations, but at this point we know who he is, and what he’s capable of.”[3]   Azzarello, an American writer who excels at noir-type fiction, knew that “you can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy.” He knew that a character that was so deeply British would suffer enormously from any dilution of that cultural heritage.

Even with that in mind, John Constantine’s Britishness made it more challenging for anyone who was not British to write the comic. Brian Azzarello’s run tends to be a good example of this, as his portrayal of Constantine did suffer slightly from what seemed to be his own unfamiliarity with British culture. While the storylines were excellent, his attempts at accented dialogue were forced, and his American characters were far more fleshed out and confidently written than his protagonist. Where his American characters were expressive and extroverted, speaking freely and often, Azzarello tended to keep Constantine silent and stoic, qualities that he never really possessed in his previous incarnations by British writers. The discrepancy between Azzarello’s quiet and reserved Constantine and the more aggressive and loud American characters seemed to signify something more than a narrative choice. To a certain extent, it seems that Azzarello might have been slightly uncomfortable with bridging the nationality gap with Constantine’s dialogue and cultural components, causing him to take less chances with the character.

Considering that Azzarello himself is not British, and that, as previously stated, he wished to remain as faithful to the character as he could, Azzarello’s choices made a good amount of sense. However, they were also very revealing in a cultural capacity. Azzarello’s run was indeed a fascinating look at how one might interpret a foreign culture and attempt to negotiate it within the terms that you, yourself, are intimately familiar. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the portrayal of John Constantine did suffer as a result of his silence and non-participatory stance, whereas the American characters in that run truly triumphed.

Within the comic book’s infancy and adolescence, the reader is reminded, over and over, that the protagonist is an incredibly culturally entrenched persona. John Constantine’s northern accent, working-class persona and addiction to Silk Cut cigarettes speak of a certain “Britishness” that, to be fair, would be almost impossible to translate onto American soil.

Azzarello attempts to negotiate cultural difference using cigarettes as the tool. Clearly, Constantine is not not a fan of the ones in the US.

Beyond his own affectations, certain famous London pubs and general British landmarks and cities consistently find their way into the visuals, populating the comic with innumerable reminders that John Constantine is unmistakably a Brit. From stories about football hooligans to his travels to see his family in the north, the geography of John Constantine is as much part of his identity as his bad attitude and knack for hustling everyone from his own pals to the devil himself.

By editing this character’s physical attributes, sartorial expressions, and homeland, the film adaptation makes his identity into something different and diluted. It is almost as if the name “John Constantine” has simply been reappropriated to fit a dark, brooding American who smokes too much and can see ghosts. Upon being asked about the aesthetic and nationality changes that were made for his role in the film, Keanu Reeves told Dark Horizons[4] that as far as he was concerned, the only change that was really made about the character was hair color and accent. Unfortunately, it should be noted that this was also a statement made by an actor who told Wizard magazine that he had only “read sections” of the comic books, and “looked more towards the script that I had. Most of what I’ve gotten has come from having a feeling of who Constantine is inside.”[5]

Ideally, seeing who the character is on the inside should be enough to give a fair portrayal on screen, no matter how bad the actor or the acting. On the other hand, not reading the original text is clearly going to buy the character a one-way ticket to Hell, pun intended. On the other hand, if Keanu was simply looking towards the script for inspiration, this means that the fault lies primarily with the writing and not with his apparent disregard for the parent text. The distancing from “comic book movies” that Francis Lawrence had desired made its way into the script, as well, causing an even greater disparity between texts as the actors gauged their performance by what was given to them within the pages of the multi-authored film layout, not with that which existed in the original work.

With additional items that were changed in the script, there was no way to avoid having a film that was barely even shaped by the Hellblazer series. Alongside the cultural amputation in the character, the script itself was an indiscriminate muddle of parts, few of which were from the comic text or original writing. Through the commentary of several actors who readily admitted that they used only the script for reference and had never picked up the comic at all, we can see that the diegesis progressed by the script failed to convey the kind of “spirit” of the comic that Francis Lawrence and the writers talked about wanting to capture. The narrative changes that were made as well as the multitude of alterations to John Constantine himself served to distance the film from the comic book in approximately the same fashion as Lawrence wished to distance his film from the rest of the “comic book films,” which is to say Far Too Much for it to retain the kind of fidelity it desperately needed.

THE EXORCIST REDUX: “THE POWER OF HOLLYWOOD COMPELS YOU!!”

A good portion of my research does involve looking at the natural connective tissues that are formed in comic to film transitions, such as those I have found in films like Hellboy and Sin City. As I studied Constantine and its companion piece, Hellblazer, I was unable to find the same kind of organic growth as I did with the aforementioned comics and films. Instead, what became more and more apparent with each subsequent viewing and reading was that this film interpretation not only struggled to dissociate itself from the comic book, it attempted to align itself with the properties and narratives more befitting the generic restrictions of religious horror films of the 70’s, in particular William Friedkin’s film, The Exorcist. This departure from the comic book made the film version of Hellblazer resemble a remake more than it did a comic book adaptation. As a result, its position within the world of comic-to-film-adaptations is highly questionable, and can be seen as yet another attempt at using a newly popularized genre to try and make a few bucks. Tragically, this comes at a very high cost to the integrity of the actual work, and the trajectories of the comic book series as a whole.

Lawrence’s work may fit into the genre of “comic book movies,” but that identity can only go one of two ways. On one hand, the adaptative identity can be good; it can emulate a type of cinematic hypertext, leading the viewer back to the source material, and perhaps creating new fans or refreshing the memories of old ones. However, on the other hand, this identity can be that which conforms to its own generic restrictions. In this case, as Gerard Genette has written, the piece will, like a genre itself, proceed  “by contagion, [or] imitation, [it has] the desire to exploit or modify a current of success and, as the vulgar phrase goes, ‘jump on the bandwagon.’”[6] Thus, when producer Lauren Shuler-Donner stated that upon receiving the script she saw an opportunity to make a “very classy classic horror film like The Exorcist,”[7] she was basically already mapping out the film’s fate. Donner and the screenwriters wanted to “capture the spirit” of the comic book within the confines of a big-budget horror flick. The director wanted the film to bear a resemblance to the primary text, but not feel like a “comic book movie.”  With that in mind, we can see exactly how this film traveled down the darker path of exploiting both the horror genre as well as the comic book genre.

Director Lawrence pursued the adaptation of this comic through a long standing cinematic horror tradition mixed with a desire for wide public consumption; a methodology that the comic book writers involved with Hellblazer couldn’t have been less concerned about. They stayed true to horror, as it was a horror comic, but they could have cared less about “making it big.” They just wanted to keep telling a great story. Tragically, what the film did was perform a highly publicized castration on the parent text, leaving the most crucially important aspects within the comic and lifting only that which could be digested by the American public within Judeo-Christian terms- ironic for a comic primarily about magic and things of the occult nature. Lawrence’s film simplifies the Constantinian universe to one singular battle between good and evil- heaven and hell- God and Satan. In doing so, the foundation of the original text is transmogrified and refocused. Instead of looking critically at the institution of religion as a whole (like Hellblazer did and still does), the film Constantine only involves Judeo-Christian (in particular, Catholic) theology.

If anyone were to doubt this film’s trajectory, they need only watch the first appearance of John Constantine. Our protagonist’s entrance not only confidently casts him in a role traditionally belonging to Catholic teachings, but also allocates this scene, visually and thematically, to another, widely familiar, cinematic instance. In this scene, we bear witness to a young girl with long stringy hair wearing white or lightly colored nightclothes. Previously seen climbing the ceiling, she is now tied to her bed, writhing and speaking in growls and snarls and a demonic tongue. Constantine enters the girl’s room, and, after a few attempts, finally exorcises a demon from the body, leaving her previously evil and distorted countenance to relax back into that of an innocent; no longer the vessel for a predatory demon.

You don’t need to have read Hellblazer to recognize this scene, after all- it’s not in the comic books. Within this dramatic opening, you have the very basic component parts of the beginning exorcism scenes in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The significance of this is immense. Not only is John Constantine being posited as a surrogate Father Karras, but he also produces the same result: the casting out of the demon from the young girl’s body, and her return to innocence. While Constantine may perform certain exorcism-type activities within the Hellblazer series, none of them come anywhere close to the way that this one is visually or thematically represented. This scene includes enough familiar horror iconography so as to “jump on the bandwagon” and attempt to include a wider audience who may not be familiar with the comic, but are all-too-familiar with the now cliché Exorcist schema.

In his book, The Satanic Screen, Nikolas Schreck identifies Friedkin’s film as a

“big-budget Bible-thumper,” a title that could easily be applied to Constantine as well. Schreck’s main criticism was that Friedkin positions Woman as “literally the gate to Hell.” (Schreck, 169) While the female body has been used time and time again as the vessel for horror (see practically any Cronenberg film for further reference), Francis Lawrence’s Constantine utilizes the female body in much the same “gateway “ role as Friedkin. Not only is there the opening exorcism scene, but also the remainder of the film centers on a Catholic female, Isabel, who has seemingly taken her own life. In doing so, she has used her body to engage with Hell. Suicide, according to Catholic doctrine, damns Isabel to eternal hell, and means she cannot be buried in sacred ground. The film follows Isabel’s sister Angela (played by Rachel Weisz) as she enlists John Constantine’s help to try to prove that her sister did not in fact commit suicide and therefore deserves a good Catholic burial.

This very narrative substantiates Schreck’s argument, and makes Constantine a definite competitor for the “big budget Bible-thumper” contest. While the opening of the film is meant to establish Constantine’s religious identity, the more thematic and stronger correlative comes at the end, making these two scenes like bookends, sandwiching the film into the familiar Friedkin terms.

As the film gets ready to head into the final confrontation between good and evil, we are confronted with another “situation.”  Through a series of incidents involving the Spear of Destiny and Mexico, Angela has now become possessed. Once again, an exorcism is needed. Constantine begins the exorcism; laying hands on Angela, with his young apprentice Chas looking on. Within the comic book, Chas is a character about 20-30 years older than he is in the film, and he couldn’t care less about anything mystical or magical except for possibly trying to decipher where he might find a good pint. In Lawrence’s interpretation, he is approximately 20 years younger than Constantine, with an eagerness and fan-doration for Constantine that would leave most Harry Potter lovers in the dust. However, the way the two characters are positioned in the film is not unlike the way that Father Karras and Father Merrin are positioned, age difference included, in The Exorcist.

As the exorcism continues, it becomes clear that Constantine needs assistance, as Angela’s belly is looking like it might repeat a scene from Alien. So the young apprentice begins to chant along with his mentor, their voices rising in volume and power. The exorcism continues, an older and a younger exorcist, combining their powers to banish Satan from the body of the innocent Catholic girl.

The cadence of their voices practically mirrors that of Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin in the 1973 film. In those final thrilling scenes of Friedkin’s piece, the possessed young girl is eradicated of her demons by the powers of actors Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow repeating with increasing volume, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” and chanting over her body with all their might. Eventually, the spirit is exorcised from little Regan and inhabits Father Karras, who, in a final act of self-sacrifice, throws himself out the window in order to exterminate the demon from the innocent form and the mortal plane. Poor guy… No one told him there would be sequels…

Karras, the younger priest, and Chas, the apprentice, are parallel characters in that they both provide a central act of self-sacrifice in the face of evil. After Constantine and Chas succeed in ridding Angela of her demons, so to speak, Chas looks up at Constantine and smiles broadly. “We did it!!!” he exclaims, with great joy, at which point we are witness to his body being suddenly torn away from Angela and Constantine, and smashed again and again and again into the ceiling with great invisible force, and dropped to the ground like a rag doll. Just before Chas expires, however, he has the opportunity to utter the most unintentionally appropriate line in the whole film. He looks up at Constantine who has run to his bleeding and broken body, and says haltingly, “It’s not like the books, is it John?” To which John replies, “No, Chas, it’s not.” Although this was referring to a previous conversation the two characters had had, what this line really does is give a full disclosure of how this film, with its familial ties to other films and divergent issues of faith and culture really is “not like the books.”

We have cast John Constantine in the bifurcated roll of exorcist as well as Judeo-Christian representative. Through this introduction, and a little boost from a film so well recognized as to become part of common parlance and culture[8], the character of John Constantine is marked within a set of primarily Catholic terms. The problem of this demarcation is that this is not who this character has been defined as, within the pages of the comic. In fact, this definition is about as far from Hellblazer as you can get. Indeed, as one fan of the comic noted in an online forum discussion,

John Constantine has given the Judeo-Christian god the finger, outwitted the devil on his own battlefield, pissed on the king of vampires in a drunken victory, and can con any man into giving him a smoke. That is who John Constantine has always been. True, he may have sought small redemptions. After all, he is human. But the…storyline depends so much on mythos other than that derived from the Judeo-Christian point of view.[9]

BETTER THE DEVILS AND THE ANGELS YOU KNOW

The Hellblazer universe, borne out of Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing, was never meant for such reductive measures as were given by the film. Yes, it is a comic text that wheels and deals in religious iconography. In fact, any given run contains more religious issues than an episode of the 700 Club. However, unlike that show, it does not concentrate on religioN, it concentrates on religionS. Where Lawrence went monotheistic for the sake of easy audience digestion, the multiple authors of Hellblazer went pluralistic, indicting and exploring any aspect of the larger concept of capital “R,” Religion that they saw fit to print. Hellblazer was impartial when it came to the treatment of religion and spirituality. Linking Margaret Thatcher and demon yuppies in one story, discussing figures from Chilean folklore like the invunche in another, and following witchcraft-bound killers in yet another, John Constantine had no proclivity towards any particular brand. Thus, by casting him in the role of freelance exorcist/ Father Merrin surrogate/ Catholic superhero, the foundation and real substance of the comic is eradicated, leaving nothing but a phantom of what had previously existed.

So, in the end, what happens when you base your film on a theology and religious narrative that is so disparate from what this character has ever been or done in the originating material?  The answer can be found within the pages of the film reviews. To use one of the oldest and most easily accessible stories within our myth-laden culture, the battle between good and evil, may be easier, but it is also lazy. And the laziness showed. Very few reviews from this film were positive, whether the writer had read the parent text or not. Sure, the establishment of a protagonist that plays to what Max Braden called “Catholic Rules Sinball”[10] creates an easy entrance to the film for a non-comic-reading public. However, in the end, it hurts the cinematic translation as well as the comic book world. Indeed, as Barb Lien-Cooper accurately observed,

    Bad reviews of comic book movies reflect badly on all comic book movies and, by a VERY slight extension, all comic books. When you read the reviews of Constantine, notice if and when the critics talk about the fact it’s a comic book…The easiest way for the comic book boom to go bust is to produce movies that make the public feel that all comics must be as bad as the movie adaptations. We can’t coast on the good will of the Spider-man movies, the two X-Men movies, The Road to Perdition, Ghost World, and American Splendor forever.[11]

And she’s right. Creating a ghost-adaptation like Constantine is not only damaging to the newly-established genre of comic book films, a genre only now able to start exploring its capabilities, but it also endangers the comic book community at large. Indeed, if it has taken us this long to establish ourselves as “real literature,” a film that erases the truly admirable aspects of the comic book is only going to make the struggle for recognition that much harder.


[1] Lawrence, Francis. Special Features “Conjuring Constantine.”Constantine. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005.

[2] Ellis, Warren. Introduction. “We Never Liked You Anyway.” in Ennis, Garth. John Constantine, Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

[3] Vega-Rasner, Lauren. “Blood Letters and Badmen: Brian Azzarello.” Sequential Tart. Volume 2, Issue 8. August 1999. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug99/azzarello.shtml

[4] Franklin, Garth. “Constantine: Set Report.” February 20th, 2004. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news04/const2.php

[6] Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

[7] Shuler-Donner, Lauren. Special Features. “Conjuring Constantine.”Constantine. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005.

[8] Films such as Scary Movie 2 and Repossessed as well as TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” have all make liberal use of the original Friedkin film.

[9] Big_chris, “Constantine” http://www.popcultureshock.com/reviews.php?id=3882, accessed November 11, 2006.

Made it, Ma! Top of the World!: TCM Classic Film Fest, 2011–PART 1

I guess I didn’t realize exactly how excited I was about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got there that first day. I rolled in, locked up my bike, collected my pass, and sat down to get some food. I looked around me, and I realized that I was surrounded. It was like a scene from John Carpenter’s They Live, only instead of being beset by alien creatures I was actually surrounded by people who were, more or less, my people. They were the kinda folks that could chat at length with me about Ida Lupino’s career or discuss why Ball of Fire (1941) is probably one of the greatest examples of “ensemble cinema” ever created.

It was at that point that I started feeling like I was walking on air. THIS WAS IT!!! A full weekend-plus that was just full of film. I had done something right. Yep.

Last year I had just sorta gone about my business, running into pals and such, maniacally running from film to film, overflowing with anxious joy and wonder at the fact that I was getting to see such an astonishing number of my favorite films on 35mm. I had lived off the food and coffee provided me by the concession stand at the Chinese theater, and gotten little to no sleep. But I was more concerned about getting into the screenings due to the fact that I didn’t have a pass. I was on stand-by. This year proved to be, well, very similar. However, I had a pass. Did that make things easier? Not really. I still ate very little and pumped even more coffee through my poor sleep-deprived body. But having the pass definitely made me less stressed out about whether or not I was going to get into the screenings I wanted to get into, and that was worth every bit of it.

The postcards for this year...I like them so much better than last year!

So as I sat there, having one of the only relaxed nice meals I would have for the next 3 days, I was giddy. It was what I call “conference energy” and it was wonderful. I’ve done so many of these damn things, from purely academic to absurdly geeky and…the buzz on the TCM Festival went up to 11, in the way that Spinal Tap truly intended it to. EVERY table had the schedule out and was eagerly arguing and planning out their course of events for the next 3 days.

:::NIGHT ONE:::

“I kissed you because I loved you…for a minute!”–THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN

I finished up, tipped my good-looking waiter, said good-bye to the Gregory Peck that was playing on the screen. Timely as ever for film-related events, I entered the welcome party in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just at the perfect moment to hear Robert Osbourne give the “Welcome to the TCM Classic Film Festival” address. I schmoozed a bit, met up with some lovely folks that I had gotten to know due to the wonders of the internet such as the lovely and wonderful Sales on Film (who I was also lucky enough to spend some quality time with over the weekend), and ran into some old and dear friends like my good pal Eric Caiden of Hollywood Book & Poster.  Looking at  the time, we realized

Not gonna lie. As many times as I could, I saved my silly ticket stubs. They make for good copy! And, well, that archiving thing ya know...

that social time was over and Film Time was ON. So…we scrambled over to the Chinese and grabbed seats for Night at the Opera (1935). The guests that they had were Robert Bader and Groucho’s grandson, Andy Marx. The Q&A was lovely, with a good discussion about different parts of comedy and the place that it had within the relationship between Andy and his grandfather.

One of the things that interested me most was the discussion that Bader and Marx had about technology and comedy routines. Having recently watched the Bill Hicks documentary and cried my ever-loving EYES out (if you haven’t seen it, see it. NOW. Even if you don’t know who Bill Hicks IS), I’ve been thinking about good comedy quite a bit and so their revelations were most enlightening.

The two men discussed how they used to record people’s comedy routines off of the television and play them back and memorize them that way. Marx said he used to do that with his grandfather’s own work. To me, that kind of translatory learning is fascination. Visual learning is one thing, but to realize that comedy, good comedy is so damn multi-faceted…that is clearly another. And while the Marx Brothers are incredibly physical comedians, their other major strength is in the pure, unadulterated speed and complicated linguistic play that took place within their dialogue- something that could only be learned through an aural reification.

After the Q&A, and just before the feature, they showed the Warner Brothers’ cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” As many of my friends can attest, I am a junkie for old cartoons and this was a REAL WINNER. As my research showed, it was indeed what I thought: a condensed version of Wagner’s operas. You can’t get much cooler than that. And with Chuck Jones at the helm? HELL YES!!

Merris Melodies does Wagner!

Then it was time for a complete change around. From the zaniness and chaotic anarchism of the Marx Brothers, it was time for Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935). While this film is notorious for a multitude of reasons, it is apparently most well-known for the fact that it really hit a nerve with the Spanish government officials who hated it with a passion, due to its portrayal of the police guard. They threatened to ban all Paramount pictures completely if the studio didn’t do something about Von Sternberg’s film so…Paramount pulled the picture and destroyed the master. Because, ya know, it’s important to throw the baby out with the bathwater (I know, I know, different time…different time…).

Paramount also decided, in their infinite wisdom, that it would be a good decision to release Von Sternberg from his contract early. And once again, hindsight is 20/20, but GOOD LORD. What hindsight!! Can you imagine what the situation would have been if…this had not been Marlene’s favorite movie? The thought gives me chills. Because this was one of the best films I saw over the course of the festival and it is one of the best Marlene movies ever. Don’t get me wrong- she’s done great stuff- but her out-and-out petulance and lust for life in this film is incomparable. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve watched a good deal of old movies with great divas, Dietrich included.

Asked why this film was her favorite, Marlene Dietrich simply replied, "Because it is my favorite."

The Devil is a Woman is a film that stands apart. It is to be noted that the festival background gives it a flavor of defiance and exoticism that is all-at-once erotic and, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word, Carnivalesque. Ideas of the fool and the grotesque populate the film as often as the drippingly sensual flowers carefully placed within Dietrich’s hair. It would be dismissive to call this film a “movie.” It is, by my count, both a stunning prayer to the alter of Marlene (and we all know the Von Sternberg-Dietrich thing, so…) and an exquisite exploitation of the cinematic medium.

The woman who came up beforehand, Katie Trainor, is the Film Collections Manager (read: killer moving image archivist and who I wanna be when I grow up!!) at MoMA, and is a total rockstar. She explained that although the master of the film had been destroyed, per Paramount’s instructions, Marlene Dietrich actually had a print of Devil in her bank vault. She gave the print to MoMA, who restored the film a while back, but restored it again now, this time to polyester film stock, making it good for another 300 years! Of course, I was sitting there while she talked about this stuff geeking out mercilessly, hoping she would continue talking about it for a good time more. Luckily, I was able to hear her speak one more time during the festival, but sadly I was not able to talk to her in person.

After the films were completed, we all went our separate ways in order to get some sleep in preparation for Friday- a day that I knew was going to be exciting, difficult, and invigorating all at once. It proved to be all of these things.

:::DAY 1::: 

“That’s Neat! I like That!”–BECKET

I got up incredibly early. Like REALLY early for me. Having not had to get up early for a very long time, this was a challenge. But, surprisingly, it went incredibly smoothly. Got up, showered, dressed, got on the bike, grabbed a breakfast sandwich & a huge bucket full of espresso (4 shots and the rest filled with coffee, please…yes, I do know how many ounces it holds, I’ll be drinking from this all day, I appreciate the concern!) and I was off.

When I got to the Egyptian, I was actually surprised to see that there was a mass of folks that had gotten there WAY before I did, and we still had about an hour and change to go before we got let in!

It's all about the Saxons. And the Normans. And...well, the O'Toole of course!!!

The doors to the Egyptian finally opened, and I shuffled up to the front of the theater. It may be a little intense for the screen, but if I want to see a guest at the Egyptian…I’m gonna try to be at the front. And so? I found myself a lovely little chair and patiently waited.

For me, this was a fairly big thing to check off my list. I had DVR’d Becket (1964) a few months back, but when I heard that it was going to be at the Festival, I had quickly erased it and been anticipating this moment the whole time. Especially since I knew that Peter O’Toole himself was going to show. At this point, I can’t wait to see what O’Toole film TCM Fest’ll play next year, since last year I saw The Stuntman (1980)! In any case, there we all were, waiting, anticipating, patience dwindling to nothing like a 10-year-old child’s on the tram to Disneyland. You could literally look at the people beside you in the theater and they had the “Are we there yet?” look on their faces. Considering the various age-ranges (a good percentage retirees or thereabouts), the look of wonder and child-like excitement was fantastic. It gave the audience a wonderful sense of democracy that technical generation gaps were not permitting.

And then it happened. Ben Mankiewicz appeared and the crowd went nuts. He came out and chatted a bit, making a few jokes about the Royal Wedding that had happened the night before and the film Royal Wedding, since that was going to be presented later in the day (all I could think at that point was how hard that made me laugh and…oh boy- I must be a really BAD film nerd if those are the jokes that get me! I’m sunk for good!). Mankiewicz was even more charming and a hellovalot smarter and cooler than he is on tv, and I like him on tv, so that’s saying a lot!  After his initial presentation, he gives a bit of historical background on Becket and they run the film.

Is the film good? It’s better than good, it’s great. When I call this the first “bro” movie, I’m not kidding. I say that in a slightly off-the-cuff joking way, but I do mean it in the sense that it does discuss all the issues that pertain to that which we have come to look at as “bro” culture. Perhaps not what it is now, in that it has completely been degraded and turned in upon itself in some kind of commodified and trivialized way (like most other things), but in the sense that there is a sense of loyalty and masculinity that two men can share with each other that women have no place in.

On the other hand, I recognize that there is a highly sexual element of this film, between Henry and Becket. It is quite exciting and enthusiastically celebrated, in fact. This may be one of the first films that I have seen in a long while where, with one notable exception, women are portrayed as horrific, evil creations, and I’m…almost down with that struggle. Mostly because I am so dearly and desperately in love with the relationship as it evolves/devolves between Henry and Becket.

The colors were beautiful. The story exquisite. I could write about this film alone for an entire entry. However, I cannot do so, as I have to discuss the actual in person visit from Henry II, himself! You know a film is good when it closes and it feels like a lover pulling away in the morning…you know they have to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And thusly, Becket wrapped for me, and Mankiewicz returned to the stage.

"They found Burton at the Pair of Shoes and I was under a piano at the Garrison club. They had to get us all dressed up like a king and a priest again for those final shots. We were very confused."

And then came the man. There’s no getting around it. I’m prejudiced. His eyes and his acting got me one day and…I was sold.

Well, I wasn’t any less sold that morning. He was elegant and charming, and seemingly surprised at the film. I don’t think he had been there the entire way through, but he mentioned that it was quite something to hear the way he sounded “all those years ago.”

The discussion wound its way through all sorts of topics: theater, Lawrence of Arabia, drinking, Burton, their relationship, cricket, and Katharine Hepburn. The most memorable moments, of course, were when O’Toole would go “off the script” as they say, and add something that truly was a personal touch. When discussing Richard Burton, he asked Mankiewicz if he was familiar with the cricket expression a “pair of safe hands” (the generosity of this made me smile- Americans? And cricket? I love you, Mr. O’Toole!). When Mankiewicz replied in the negatory, he responded that it referred to someone who was reliable and could be counted on not to make a mistake, someone who would back you up properly. “I knew with Richard Burton it would be like that,” O’Toole said.

His stories were wonderful. I could have listened to them for hours. But the one that stuck with me the most was the one that he told about Lawrence of Arabia. “I find acting very difficult,” O’Toole commented, and then discussed David Lean in some detail. “To sit on a camel, in the non-existent shade, covered in vermin, is not my ideal platform. But I came out, and David said, ‘It’s an adventure!'”

And Peter O’Toole himself is an adventure. Even as an older gentleman his eyes sparkle and his wit is sharp. “It’s an adventure!” No doubt. His life could not have been more of one and his films could not have expanded that if he had tried. Seeing him before me that morning was a dream. Theatrically, scholarly, and filmically, Peter O’Toole will remain one of the greatest actors in the world and I feel irascibly lucky to have been able to see him have a live Q&A after the masterpiece that was Becket!

I rushed out of there like a house on fire, unlocked my bike, and slid amongst Friday morning cars along Hollywood Blvd on my bike. I have to say- it was SO much quicker than walking! I love my bike! So I found a place to lock her up, and charged straight up to the Chinese 3 for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956). Some of you may remember that I have written about Nicholas Ray before or know my passion for his films, so you can imagine how excited I was. Well, quadruple that. It was a spectacular event, in the true meaning of the word spectacular originating from “spectacle.” Not only was star Barbara Rush there to do the Q&A with Robert Osborne, but it was in glorious DeLuxe color and Cinemascope.

Words fail to describe how good Barbara Rush looked. The fact that a woman who is in her 80’s looks like she just popped off the screen is almost unfathomable. Yet there she was, plain as day, gorgeous, funny, bright and quick as hell!

For a young actress to work with Nick Ray was a big thing, but James Mason...that VOICE!

When Robert Osborne asked her to talk about some of her leading men, she quipped back in the middle of his question, “I had ’em all!”

Her discussions on Paul Newman’s aspirations to character actorhood were especially enlightening. due to the fact Indeed, looking at his career and certain roles he chose to take on, you can see that desire manifest itself more than once. However, due to the fact that he was deadly good-looking,  he lost the character-actor lottery and was more leading-man stock (can’t say I’m complaining much). She said that he always really wanted to be Wallace Beery.

Rush was also on very good terms with Sinatra, too. He made sure to let her know that he had her back, no matter what. “Kid,” he said, “If you ever need help…” to which Rush replied “You would be the last person I’d call! You’ll kill ’em!!”

For someone who was extremely unfamiliar with her work, this Q&A was a godsend. Not only was she delightful and funny, but she was informative, incisive and analytical about the Hollywood system then and now. She stated, pure and simple, “There were no Lindsay Lohans because of the Studio System. They would give them picture after picture, shape them and mold them, protect them.” It was an interesting and saddening thing to consider. It’s not like people were partying any less back then. It’s just that the Studios and the Agents and the assorted folks in and around that circus authentically cared more (not about the person, mind you, about their product/commodity) and that, in effect, prevented a great deal of mishap. Don’t get me wrong, bad things still happened, but the covering up and shaping/molding/continuing to provide pictures after scandal may have saved more lives than we think.

Then there was the film itself Bigger Than Life is aptly named. And no, it could not have been shot in black and white or any other aspect ratio. It was a deliberate use of tools for a deliberate study on addiction, psychosis and different kinds of abuse-related traumas. It felt like a Douglas Sirk movie that had gone to the circus but in that upside-down, ten-in-one, freakshow kind of way, not the cotton candy and ferris wheel. It was dark and twisted and over the top, and while many might see this as the basis for a cult film and cause for laughter, I saw it as hauntingly beautiful and uncontrollably disturbing. It was meticulously thought out in the way that only a Ray film is, and is very clever at disguising itself as simply the American dream gone wrong. The issue is that this is the American dream gone to Hell in a handbasket. It deals with drug abuse, sure, but it deals with all kinds of other abuses and their repercussions on the psyches of the most vulnerable. We’ll put it this way- I adored the film and will be writing on it more at a later date, I’m sure.

So I believe I might have had something to eat at that point. I honestly don’t remember. I think I did, but that seems highly unlikely seeing that there was no possible way that I was going to miss the next screening. The bits and pieces in between the screenings at the Festival seems so meaningless unless you are in the company of fantastic and awesome people (which I was for good portions of the weekend) or getting to know some new ones, so anything less than that pales.

The next thing I knew, I was making my way into the Chinese 3 again, when who should I see but my good friend and companion, writer-on-film extraordinaire, and all around excellent being with opposable thumbs, Dennis Cozzalio. I was THRILLED to pieces. I always love spending time with him and so every time I see him it’s like some cool holiday. I snagged a seat right by him, sat down, and we immersed ourselves in the glory, the magic, the unbelievable brilliance  that is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In my notebook, as I was watching, I scribbled the following phrases:

1) Indiana Jones and Goonies totally bit off this!! Dude!!

2) Pixar for nerdy grown-ups!! [ok, so maybe I shoulda written Aardman. SUE ME.]

3) Who let the dragons out? Who? Who? Who? [YES. I went there. TO MYSELF. In the movie. THANKS.]

My decision, right then and there: any film that has such beautiful and skillfully battling skeletons has won my heart. Now I know you might say- hadn’t you seen Harryhausen’s work before? The quick answer is yes. The longer answer is a) never a full film (but many clips, pieces of documentaries, and virtually hours of footage on the making-of stuff) and b) NEVER ON A BIG SCREEN.

Never let anyone tell you that the big screen doesn’t change the way you seen a film. Even one you have seen a bazillion times. It is a complete falsehood. Seeing this film on the big screen with Bernard Herrman’s excellent score ripping its way through my ears was life-changing. The 13-year-old boy in me was doing cartwheels and flips. It was so brilliant. I’m surprised that my seat remained in one piece considering how much I was bouncing around in absolute glee.

Delightful doesn’t begin to describe this film. ROCK an ROLL comes close, but…that doesn’t sound too scholarly, now does it. Perhaps we shall split the difference?

When that came to a close, I walked out into the lobby with Dennis and we ran into a friend of his. As it turned out, his pal John is finishing up the same program that I will be starting up in September! So after a bit of movie dishing, Dennis moved towards his next film and John and I chatted about film archiving and all sorts of fun stuff. Also how fencing/fighting skeletons essentially just rule. After grabbing some coffee with him, I made my way down to the courtyard in front of the big Chinese, so that I could get in line for Spartacus (1960).

It wasn’t so much that I felt a need to see it on the big screen (although seeing anything in the big Chinese is almost like seeing the face of a god…well, maybe a junior deity, seeing as it’s all digital now and I’m a sucker for a good print. But still- stuff in the big Chinese? GREAT) as I wanted to see Kirk Douglas. I love the man. Lonely Are the Brave (1962) (Douglas’ favorite film of his career, by the way!) is possibly one of the best modern Westerns to grace the silver screen, and Ace in the Hole (1951)? Well, let’s just say I still don’t go to church. It still bags my nylons. I’ve also read his autobiography (the first one, anyways) and have a very keen sense of him due to my minor obsession with the blacklist and blacklist history. So aside from the fact that my mother had seen the very same film in the very same theater when it came out, 50 years ago (sorry for outing your age, mom! Forgive me for the sake of journalism?), I had my excitement gauge set firmly to “Elder Statesman of HELL YES I RULE” Douglas. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Kirk Douglas has had multiple strokes over the years which have made his speech difficult to understand. I can’t say I got everything, but I got most of it. His poise was brilliant. His timing? SPOT ON. Whatever neurological explosions happened within the Douglas anatomy, they have not, for even one instanteffected his ability to turn on a crowd and keep them going.  People were laughing at his jokes (damn funny), murmuring in agreement at his statements and watching intently as he discussed certain elements of his life now in comparison to back then. He actually said that he was happy that he had the strokes, as they taught him to stop taking things for granted.

"I think for a guy who can't talk, I'm saying a lot!"

My favorite story that he told was when he called Stanley Kubrick and wanted to make Paths of Glory (1957) (another GENIUS performance from this man). He said he had to cajole Kubrick into it a little, and his stance on Paths when he decided that he wanted to make it, verbatim, was: “This picture won’t make a nickel. But we have to do it.” That attitude ruled his career and it still rules him. It was inspirational to see clips from his one-man show and to know that this man has the strength of a thousand winning armies. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, still.

He received a standing ovation in response to his statement about breaking the blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo’s name as an actual credit and making sure that Trumbo was let on the lot when no one had the balls to do that, and with that we said our farewells to the man who changed Hollywood (and my personal film life) forever, and got on with the show.

Spartacus itself was quite enjoyable. It was made a little less enjoyable by the people in the audience who persisted in taking pictures of the screen. I knew when the flashes would go off, too. It was like clockwork. People’s credits at the beginning? FLASH. Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the now-infamous “snails-oysters-bathing scene” FLASH FLASH FLASH.

I do understand that there were a ton of people attending this festival from different cities, states and countries. I also understand that those places may not have theatrical screenings of these films, thus you make the journey to the seriously amazing TCM Classic Film Festival. But…it was quite distracting and disappointing. There are amazing screen captures that you can get online. It is entirely unnecessary to disrupt other people’s film-going experience by shooting pictures through it. If the staff could’ve done something, I think they would have. But quick flashes in a large group of people…well, not much you can do.

Spartacus is truly an amazing film. Due to the emotional attachment to storyline/characters I am always guilty of when I go to the movies, I tend to forget how many extraordinary actors are in it together. You can probably play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and connect him to any one of these actors because of this one picture. How poignant, too, that I was seeing another Tony Curtis movie at the TCM Festival, as last year I had seen one of my ALL time favorites, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and he had been the guest for the Q&A beforehand.

As the film let out, I had to throw in the towel. I was spent. This broke my heart because I was so looking forward to seeing William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) at the Egyptian. Castle is one of my 100%, no-question-about-it, favorite humans to have come into the world of the cinema. But I had to admit defeat, and so I biked home, opened my door, put the bike down with my stuff, and promptly passed out completely. It was necessary. I’m kinda glad I did, too, as Saturday turned out to be the biggest and most movie-filled day of ’em all!!

****WATCH THIS SPACE SOON FOR PART 2 OF THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL SAGA!!!!!!!****

The Cult of Hate: Godfather III

To start with, I really liked seeing Sicily. I spent some time there in 2001, and dammit- that place is gorgeous.

When Michael says to Kay that he wants to show her around Sicily because then maybe she’ll  really “understand the family,” I knew exactly what he meant. You would too, had you been to Sicily. It is unendingly beautiful and full of life. Coppola translated this magnificently to film. I think he even got a fairly decent sense of Real Italian Culture, too (or at least what I experienced in the time I spent in Italy), when he wasn’t dealing with Corleone drama.

While I wouldn’t say this is a great film, I would not say this is a film to be hated. In fact, I found this film to be a quite interesting coda to the series. In fact, what it ended up doing was discussing some features that have been subtextual in many mafia films, but never quite laid out as significantly as this. Perhaps it is because it is clear that this is the finale, and Michael Corleone is on his last legs. Perhaps that is the only way that this can come through. Perhaps it is because Francis wanted to feature his daughter and give her some significance. Either way, The Godfather III is actually more about the women as powerful figures than the men, and I found that fascinating.

I wonder if that is why it is the film that everyone scrunches their nose up upon its mention. The series is highly male-based. Having major actions in this film be based upon female characters is more than slightly counter-intuitive to the series as a whole and thus makes it a bit uneven. However, if one were to look at mafia/gangster films, the female presence and female power structure is alive and well.

Let’s start with Scarface (1932), directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes. There has been a great deal written about the main character, mob boss Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni), and his unnatural sexual attraction and obsession with his sister. Not only does this underscore the fact that he is driven by what I call Mafia Moll Magnetism, but what occurs in the film just supports the theory. Not unlike a femme fatale, many Mafia Molls undo their men purely by containing their power in their sexuality. In Scarface, Tony is undone by his obsession for his sister. The irony of this circumstance (and what complicates the situation sometimes) is that Cesca (played brilliantly by Ann Dvorak) may be aware of the power she has over Tony but chooses not to manipulate him or use it against him. This is not the usual set of circumstances.

Skip forward a few years, and maaaaany gangster films later and you have another stellar example of Mafia Moll Magnetism, only…she is well aware of her position in the gang. White Heat (1949) was directed by Raoul Walsh and introduced us to Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), an iconic gangster figure the world had never seen the likes of before. Now, Cody not only had a double-dealing wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), but he has a ruthlessly unscrupulous mother, “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) to whom he is beyond dedicated to.

Another facet of the Mafia Moll Magnetism is that no matter what happens, the “protagonist” (in this case, Cody) will generally select the Maternal Figure over anyone else, no matter what anyone might try to tell him. In the narrative, Verna and Ma…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that they had a bit of a power struggle. This also figures in highly within the women who are vying for their Don. Someone’s gotta be Alpha Female. However, at the end of the day, there will always be only be one Alpha Female to Cody: “Ma.” Therefore, no matter what happens to that character, in a sense, Mama still wins. The most famous line of the film, “Look Ma, top of the world!” is one where Cody is still talking to her, and it is clear that, once again, he has been undermined by his dedication to the Main Woman in his life.

It’s a slightly different story with two women who are simply competing for top position due to sexual positioning, but Mafia Moll Magnetism still functions the same way and it is to remove power and functionality from the main mafia unit and bring some of it back within their own realm. It can be seen in a similar way to the femme fatale in noir, only that the Mafia Moll will coalesce and go along with much of what is going on. However, at certain key moments she will assert herself and make herself known, figuring in as an extremely powerful and significant icon within Mafia Media.

How does this relate to Godfather III? Well, having never seen it before, I went to see it tonight and I found it to be a perfect example of this theory. First of all, in all three Godfather films I discovered that there is only one truly sympathetic character, and that is Tony Corleone. Poor kid just wants to sing opera for his dad who’s trying to take over the world…legitimately? Yeah. Right.

So what about Kay? She’s an innocent! Nah, not really. She stood by for too long. Let stuff happen. And her position in GIII is one of a manipulative mother. She trades one child for another. Mafia Moll Magnetism? You got it. In order for Tony to be able to sing opera, she gives Michael Mary. She had to know what would happen with that decision. Sorry, lady, I don’t buy it. You knew. You said you knew. You repeatedly stated you knew the family, etc. So…a child trade-off. Automatically makes Kay an unsympathetic character.

Then there’s Michael’s sister, Connie (Talia Shire). Wooooah, boy! She practically invented the whole concept behind my theory. In GIII, if it wasn’t for her, nothing would get DONE! It seemed to me that this film was about the waning of Michael Corleone, and the waxing of Connie Corleone. When he was down, she would get up, sharpen her nails, and get in command. She knew exactly about Mafia Moll Magnetism and how blood relations only booster that.

Then there’s poor little Mary Corleone (Sofia Coppola). Hmmm. Yeah, sure. It seems that she did know what she was getting into. And she wanted more. There was something about the way she positioned herself several times within the film that said, “I want in.” Even when Vincent (Andy Garcia) lied to her face, it appeared to me that she understood that perhaps this was just under the list of “things we don’t talk about/mention” which meant that she knew he was lying. The fact that Mary orchestrated the entire relationship with Vincent says that perhaps there is more to her than the innocent girl that she was portrayed as. I feel that, while the acting was lackluster, the character definitely contained the qualities that move towards this same goal: a manipulative figure within the familia.

In summation, I feel that Godfather III contained some properties that were far more complex and interesting than your average film. Additionally, it was beautifully shot which is always appreciated. I feel that there are enough shitty movies out there that deserve everyone’s unrequited hatred that this poor film should be left alone as it has some very interesting aspects to it, and definitely ones that I did not count on finding.

Mother Knows Best

From the very opening of Grace, I had a feeling that it might be a slightly different kind of film. With its very delicate and feminine visuals and sounds, it opens as a film that is very much in accordance to what ends up being the subject matter: maternalism and child-rearing.  However, as it is indeed a horror movie, the light and airy features of these opening shots and the camera drifting languidly over Jordan Ladd’s recumbent naked form seem remarkably eerie when the promos so very clearly advertise death and something “unnatural.”

graceposter

So the opening, with its almost Downy-commercial-type cleanliness, seems to be underscoring not only the most physically sensual elements of the female but the very natural elements of the female body in general, as the first action we see in the film is the sex act (and what could be more natural than that?).

Throughout the film, what is “natural” seems to be a running theme, which I found to be quite interesting. At first, since there were so many discussions about health food, midwifery and non-traditional health methodologies in general, I initially took the film to be making a critique of all these kinds of hyper-liberal vegetarian/vegan sensibilities. However, I then realized Grace had much deeper-seated and smarter thematics then that. See, ANYONE can take a horror film and chuck in a few “Oh, check out the seitan-eating, soy-milk drinkin’, edamame chompin’ folks!” jokes. That’s simple. Put a few of those in, then have them be the first to suffer and/or die, and *presto*!!  Instant laughs from the horror community!  Hell, I’d probably laugh…if they were funny! But it takes a pretty special film to take these issues and involve them into a deeper seated narrative that discusses mother issues and what is natural to being a mother. It also was pretty impressive to me, as a female, that there was a male director who was able to hit on as many issues as he did in this film without it feeling in any way, shape or form invasive, exploitative or disgusting.

This was a horror movie. No doubt about it. But it was very sophisticated and brought a great many women’s issues to the forefront, whether intentionally or not. To a woman like me, who digs on women’s issues? I found that pretty exciting.

So let’s get my problems with the film out of the way first: the lesbian shit. There was one character who had a jealousy issue and…the actress wasn’t my fave and the lesbian jealousy weirdness angle is…a bit played out in my opinion. HOWEVER, it was done with a bit more class than normal, and I’m not sure if I could see another route to take if they were gonna have that involved, and it sorta was part of the story, so…I guess it was alright. I really do wish that there could have been a different way that the narrative could have gone without using the age-old (and somewhat tired) old college-relationship between 2 women that comes back as a central figure within the film, but…hey- it didn’t distract me SO much that I didn’t like the movie. It was the ONLY thing that I had ANY problem with and to say that? That’s pretty awesome. It means that this is a pretty damn good film.

On to the good stuff: EVERYTHING ELSE. This movie has tension coming out of every pore of celluloid. When we stayed for the Q&A, the composer discussed some of the aural reasonings why and I thought that those reasons ALONE were incredible. Turns out that Austin Wintory recorded actual baby cries and then mixed them into the music that he composed for the film. The reasoning for this, he said, beyond the actual sound which increased tension in and of itself, is that the pitch of a baby’s cry is the one sound that every human can hear (well, unless you’re deaf, I suppose), no matter what. Scientifically, he reported, the sound is at such a level that your body will respond to that sound in a way that it does not respond to anything else in the world. Indeed, I would say, this does seem to make sense, as somehow we can ALWAYS seem to hear babies crying whether we want to or not. Wintory used the example of being on an airplane and being able to hear a child in the very back of the plane and yet having it sound like the infant was right in your face. Ever been there? Thought so. At any rate, I am a huge sucker for music in film, and THIS FILM had it, and I will say that Wintory’s intermingling of baby sounds with the rest of his lullaby-esque tunes as well as the other scoring was incredible. A good score/good music can make or break a horror movie for me. Would Halloween have been the same without that tune? Psycho? Exactly. So…well done, Mr. Wintory, good addition!

Carrie_Piper_Laurie_Margaret_White

Margaret White *seriously* loved HER daughter!

On to the story now…Within the horror film genre, we have seen some pretty interesting mother figures,  have we not?

Norman tried to please you, Mrs. Bates, he really did!

Norman tried to please you, Mrs. Bates, he really did!

 

Dude, Mrs. Voorhees, we get it. We would've been pissed if Jason was our kid, too.

Dude, Mrs. Voorhees, we get it. We would've been pissed if Jason was our kid, too.

The mothers represented within Grace bring forth a whole new kind of mothering to the horror world that I feel has begun within the last few years, and I last saw represented within the astonishingly fantastic French film, Inside. It seems to me that there has always been a certain amount of fascination with the mother figure within the world of horror. Clearly, as shown above, that figure has not always been the figure of protection in, um, the most positive manner, shall we say? Now within films like Grace and Inside I feel like we may have turned a corner. I’m wondering, since men made BOTH of these films, if there hasn’t been a certain change within the way that these directors have come to synthesize the maternal representatives within the slasher genres at large, as well as other horror cinema venues. It seems that, with these films, we are starting to witness a kind of sea change that, frankly, is ALL TOO WELCOME.

Fuckin’ A, do I love a good horror movie. Slashing, hacking, blood, guts. You name it? I love it. I ADORE GORE. But I’m not one of those people who loves without discrimination. I *am* particular. But what I love, I do love very much. And I am extremely fascinated by this new turn in the world of horror. It seems that for years and years we have had a certain set of (for lack of a better term) Horror “Family” Values, many of which have been covered by academics such as Carol J. Clover, Barbara Creed, Harry Benshoff, just to name a precious few (as there are *so* many goodies!). These Horror Family Values have very stringent ideologies in regards to sexuality and motherhood. Essentially, in a horror movie, if you fuck, you’ll die and if you’re a mom, you’re a crazy homicidal bitch with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, emphasis  on the crazy, if-you-please. While I think we’re still all waiting for a film where kids can safely orgasm and survive past the post-coital beer (if they even get that far before a knife/axe/murdering-object-of-choice rips through their young nubile flesh), the Mother Issue seems to be making a change.

I hate spoilers, EVEN in reviews, so I’m not going to give anything away. But I will go so far as to say that starting in the film Inside and now continuing on with the film Grace, I’m seeing an evolution in the depiction of motherhood in horror which I quite like. While I could attempt to use some of my Freudian feminist film scholarship stuffs on this, I’m not sure I want to at this juncture. My feelings about this transition probably need more fodder in order for that kind of highly formulated (and quite possibly extensively boring to many) discussion on Sigmund and where he’s at today. I’d probably use the ol’ Virginia Slims adage, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”  I think that the concept that we are no longer treating the mother figure with anger and exposing her to the kind of harsh negativity within the horror film that we have been doing for YEARS is a big step.

It could definitely be argued that both of the mothers seen in Grace have elements of Teh Crazy in them, and Have Issues. However, on the whole, I feel that their portrayals actually have a kind of yin/yang sensibility to them, and do more for exploring female mother issues and issues of loss and attachment. And to say that there are characters in a horror movie that are explored with class and sensitivity is a pretty bold statement, but it must be said. This is a very mature film, and comes with high recommendations from me.

So, here’s to ya, boys. Its fascinating to see that it took a few young men to promote women and motherhood within the horror world. I like it. I like it a lot. I hope to see more people do it. It has actually brought the calibre of the horror film UP, significantly, which, in my eyes is DREADFULLY needed sometimes! End points? If you haven’t seen Inside, holy shit- SEE IT!!! And if you haven’t seen Grace? WELL, what’re you waiting for?

See ya in the front row!

Forged in Fire: Heavy Metal and the Male “Bromance”

Disclaimer: I will have you know that I hate the word “bromance.” I hate it with the burning heat of a thousand fires. That said, as a writer and a pop culture participant, I will retain the use of the damn word in my title as it has become part of popular language and is firmly recognized to mean the exact type of relationship which I wish to discuss within this piece. Thus, for brevity and, in truth, more for ease, I’ll use the word…. I still abhor it though.

So the other night I went with a friend to see Anvil! The Story of Anvil at the Nuart Theater.  I had heard many good things about it, but was not certain what to expect. Was it going to be ironic? Was it going to be serious? Were we going to be watching Spinal Tap or were we going to be witness to something completely new?

Now, I cannot say that I was introduced to anything new and different with Anvil. But that does not mean it’s a bad film, by any means. It’s GREAT. I just know how these documentaries (and rock’n’roll stories) go. They’ve been around for 30 years, never got the recognition they deserved, still busting ass to *try* to get *something* out of the dream. The main difference with this band is that these guys toured with big names a billion years ago, yet never made it while their peers did, yet they stuck it out. IN CANADA.

anvil1

In a way, it reminded me a bit of American Movie, only…not as depressing (I find that film to be a wee bit depressing. Many find it funny, but my sense of humor is often weird and picky like that…). I felt that Anvil afforded more dignity to the individuals represented in the film and there was rarely a sense of “making fun” of them, even when it came to bits where the band (and their songs and notions) were clearly beyond the pale of normalcy. In a time where it seems like everywhere you look things are chock full o’ snark, this was quite refreshing.

But…they are still Spinal Tap in their own way. However, looking at the ad campaign, they seem to be pretty aware of their stature in this whole engagement, and, as they say repeatedly (with a genuine zeal rarely heard anywhere I might add) they just want to rock.

So…….at the end of the day? Fantastic movie. We had a great time. Why the title? Because this film got me thinking. A LOT. About metal. And guys. And guys’ relationships with each other. And how metal is the catalyst, the solder, the very cornerstone, for some of the most intimate and tender, loving and loyal relationships between men I have ever encountered in my life.

I had this boyfriend once. Metal guy. Amazing vocalist. He was totally the guy I dreamed about dating when I 13 and hanging out on Hollywood blvd. at the rock shops by day, and surreptitiously on the Sunset Strip by night. Only I met this guy when I was in my 20’s, and in grad school, so it was a little late for me to be whisked off my cowboy-boot-clad-feet into the sunset. No matter, he was my Metal Boyfriend. Super hot, long hair, tattoos, the whole nine yards.

At any rate, we were together for quite some time. Practically living together. But he had this friend, from back in the “old days” of Hollywood, and this friend had since moved away, but they still talked. A lot. And even if they hadn’t talked, every story involved  this person. They had clearly spent a GREAT deal of time together and it meant something very very significant. Now, when they did talk, they watched football together or talked music, or things like that. But they still did it together. It always struck me as one of the most beautiful things I had ever come across, actually, to see my significant other who was very much not someone you would gauge as vulnerable by any stretch of the imagination, having this fantastic relationship with his Best Friend, across state lines. I absolutely loved it. I wanted to meet his friend SO bad. But we broke up and that was never to occur.

What does my ex-boyfriend have to do with Anvil? Well, everything, I’m afraid. You see, it’s sheer METAL BROTHERHOOD, as the band Manowar might say….

What seems to occur within the world of metal (and I will freely admit that it is not ALL metal- for example, I have not seen this happen as extensively within the world of Black Metal male relationships, or Death Metal male relationships, or even Doom Metal male relationships, but these are subsections, albeit large ones, of the larger “metal” body) is that the men within these music cultures seem to come together and couple in a way that they do not seem to do in other musical cultures; this especially occurs if they are in a band together.

Upon this coupling, this “bromance” if you will, a certain sovereignty is given to that relationship above and beyond all others. And the most fascinating part of this whole dynamic is that everyone else gets it and goes by it. Married? Well, your wife’ll know that she’s second best to your BFF. Because, the bottom line is, it’s not personal.

It’s a slippery slope and quite tricky but the bonding that these men do with their chosen male partner is so exceptional and unusual that it is like a marriage of a different sort altogether. So one might say that these men are both gay and poly-amorous at the same time, but that would be quite silly.

But society gives creedence to the relationships that women have with each other over those that they have with the men in their lives. It is one of the few things that we do get, undeniably, as women (although we do periodically get teased about that too, so perhaps not completely without strings attached…). So men should not get these relationships?

At any rate, I’m not really here to discuss the dynamic between the way society treats men’s and women’s relationships, but the relationships that men form themselves.

For some extremely ODD reason (to me, anyway) it seems to be that heavy metal/hard rock brings out these relationships. I will give you 5 prominent examples, some fictional, some real,  that show the kind of “bromance” of which I speak, each one more intense than the next.

1.  Wayne’s World

2. Anvil

3. Spinal Tap

4. Aerosmith

5. Rolling Stones

In each of these examples, you have real or imagined relationships between male rock characters that not only overstep the boundaries of what would be essentially seen as an acceptable “friendship” level but also border upon intimacies that mirror those of a romantical nature. We all know that Rock’n’Roll and sexuality are conjoined twins, but these relationships only go that extra step in making it a little bit more substantial.

Wayne & Garth’s relationship in Wayne’s World, while being entirely fictitious, is also parodic and based upon an entire generation of kids who were just like these characters. So, while humorous, this structure was also demonstative of a larger part of young male rock culture and young male social culture. It was, in fact, a perfect recreation of how they related to their media, their peers and themselves. But what is most important to be gleaned from all this, was that unlike many other subcultures that strove to isolate  and drive wedges in between people, supporting their right to be an “individual” and all that, metal and rock fostered a kind of community, albeit almost solely male.

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So in Anvil, when “Lips” says that if they don’t make it this time he’ll jump off a cliff, it only makes sense that his partner and bandmate, Robb, states simply, “No you won’t.” Lips then looks at Robb quizzically, and Robb just shrugs and says, “You won’t jump off the cliff cuz I’ll stop ya.”  As though it were nothing. Like Lips had asked him to pass the salt. It is that much a part of his being.

Realistically, the way that a band structures itself is not unlike that of a familial structure anyway, so it is not beyond reason that the key figures might play the roles of the paired-off/romantic leads. Even when there is infighting, it is always more painful to watch that infighting go on between the key players because you know that there is more love, more loyalty and more at stake in THAT relationship than in any other relationship in the band.

We all would be much more concerned if we heard that Mick and Keith were on the outs than if Mick and Ronnie Wood had a conflict.  And each time that Joe and Steven from Aerosmith have had issues? Well, we know that it has effected not only the band but the musical output, and even their solo work isn’t as much of a force to be reckoned with as it is when it is a full band. But these are just examples. Some out of many. You can take any number of such examples out of the rock world and do the same.

The point is  the relationships are there. There is a certain magic that comes to exist between two men that spend an inordinate amount of time together in all sorts of ways. This magic mirrors the romantic magic that comes to exist within the most deep, intimate relationships that you can ever have based on the kinds of things that these men share: creativity, life experiences, hardships, success, drive, ambitions, dreams, and, most of all, time.  One might argue that these relationships could exist anywhere, but I would argue against that. I would say that the ones that exist within rock music and certain time periods/genres and mentalities (as evidenced by the examples I have given previous) make these ones quite unusual.

Male relationships are, in and of themselves, strange beasts. So, too, is heavy metal music in all of its variants and especially its variants on sexuality and masculinity. However, the fact that we can find some of the most pure and tender, loyal and true relationships within that musical arena is fascinating and quite satisfying, to say the least, in a genre that many times supposes itself to be devoid of emotion and focused solely on carnal desires.