Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
Okay, so I finally got to see the trailer for The Mist thanks to the good people at YouTube:
And it looks pretty good--I actually had a Mist-related nightmare last night, for whatever that's worth, although that's probably at least in part because the TopSpinner and that swinging boat ride at Astroland literally had me convinced I was going to fall out of them and plummet to my death. Like Jason, I was happy to see that Marcia Gay Harden's Mrs. Carmody isn't a Jonathan Edwards fire-and-brimstone whackjob, which works great in the story but not so much in a movie. It seems like they're painting her as your run-of-the-mill pastel-wearing minivan-driving evangelical, who's read every Left Behind book and sees what's going on and is like, "Finally!" That's actually pretty scary. The problem is that it's nowhere NEAR as interesting as giant tentacle monsters, and the trailer seems to overvalue the scare factor of an angry church-fundraiser organizer and her yokel minions in the context of A MONSTER APOCALYPSE. As for the SFX that have come in for some criticism, well, yeah, I hate boring glory shots of what the computer team hath wrought as much as the next guy, and we're not talking Weta Digital here. But on the other hand I love the Mist monsters so much that I'm not sure how much I'll care. We'll see.
Also on the giant monster invasion beat, MTV's Movie Blog has posted a Dragon Wars creature gallery, and it's pretty bitchin'. (Via Cinematical.) This movie is already experiencing some "the effects suck!" backlash, and let's face it, the effects will probably be noticeably cheesy. But also let's face it, so what? This isn't like The Host where we're all supposed to think the ridiculous-looking giant monster is a new milestone in horror filmmaking--it's a Godzilla-like B-movie. If primitive stop-motion and guys in suits still delight us while we're watching the just-for-kicks monster movies of yore, I don't think digital should be any different.
Finally, they're making a movie out of the old arcade video game Joust, the one where you fly around on giant ostriches and fight pterodactyls who eat eggs, if I recall correctly. (Via Cinematical again.) The high concept is "Gladiator meets Mad Max," which on the one hand is cool, and on the other hand sounds like one of those comic books that are so common right now that exist primarily as mercenary glorified movie pitches. Let's just hope they keep the flying ostriches.
I think ["Werewolf Women of the SS"] would be a great movie but I don’t know how they’re feeling now because “Grindhouse” didn’t live up to [Dimension’s] expectations. So I don’t know if they really want to make movies based on the trailers. [Laughs] I think “Grindhouse” was a great idea and doing more of them would be great but—and we’ve discussed this to death because we have the trailer and it’s the same company doing “Halloween”—the main thing that went wrong was that the average person was confused about what it was. Because there were two movies—“Planet Terror” and “Death Proof”—but the actual movie was called “Grindhouse.” I’ve talked to people I consider to be fairly intelligent and they were confused. “Like, wait, is this a movie? Do I have to pay twice?” Because movies are all the same—all the trailers, all the marketing. So when something is different, people just get confused. I just don’t think people got what it was and stayed away. I thought it was pretty self-explanatory. But the concept of “Grindhouse” is a very obscure concept. Not to me, not to [director Quentin] Tarantino, but to the average person. Kids today are like, “What’s a double feature? What are you talking about?”
--Rob Zombie, in a really interesting, really long interview with Wizard's Chris Ward about Halloween and all things horror. It actually makes me want to go see Halloween, in fact.
I've watched the Mist trailer quite a few times now, because it's based on my favorite Stephen King short story and that's how I roll, and one thing I meant to comment on but didn't was how wonderful Andre Braugher is as the supermarket's main Flat Earther, Brent Norton. In the story, Norton's one of those trademark King "man, I can't WAIT until he gets eaten" infuriating know-it-all types, which is a blast. But Braugher seems to be playing it extremely cool, as well he should: Norton has to be believable as a character to whom other people would rally. If his approach to the mist is tantamount to sticking his fingers in his ears and chanting "la la la la not listening to you not listening to you," the conflict evaporates. He needs to be persuasive. I know this is just based on the trailer, but so far I'd follow Braugher's unflappable Norton before Tom Jane's tough-guy David Drayton.
I managed to sneak a peek at the San Diego Comic Con footage from the movie, and they really seem to "get it"--more so than the past year or two of comics starring the character, if I may be so bold--from Downey's hilariously confident yet not arrogant performance to the use of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" on the soundtrack. This could be pretty cool.
In defense of "torture porn"/towards a definition of "torture porn"
Not torture porn the genre, mind you--"torture porn" the term.
The Horror Blog's Steven Wintle today called the label an "utterly useless term". If you're reading this blog, chances are you already know that you can't swing a dismembered arm in the horror blogosphere without hitting just that very kind of expression of both dismissal and angry contempt from the cognoscenti. You hear it quite a bit from filmmakers, too.
First of all, why is it "useless" as a descriptor? You know what it means. I know what it means. We all know what it means and what movies it's meant to encompass. "Torture porn" (noun): Horror films in which the physical brutalization of a person or persons, frequently to death and always while somehow immobilized or held captive by the brutalizer or brutalizers, is the primary locus of horror in the film. I'd imagine the intent would be clear upon introduction to many people who'd never heard the term before--sure, "porn" might give them the wrong idea, but it's a hell of a lot more instantly grokkable than, say, "graphic novel."
My guess is the dislike of the term stems from the facts that it's frequently seen as pejorative, that it tends to lump together films that we horror buffs like (Hostel, Wolf Creek) with films that we don't like (Chaos, the Saw franchise, sequels to remakes of classic '70s genre antecedents like The Texas Chainsaw Massacare and The Hills Have Eyes), and that it lumps together films that, in terms of things like plot structure and financing and intent, don't really have much in common. But isn't all of that true of the term "horror" itself?
On this blog, I myself have tended to use other terms when referring to the movies generally placed under this rubric, like "meat movies" or "the current brutal-horror cycle." But that's because I made them up and like them, not because I have any beef with "torture porn" per se. I know exactly what it means and so do most people who care about this sort of thing.
Own your torture porn, people. Live your torture porn. Love your torture porn!
Steven's response is the lengthiest, so I'll take it point by point. He starts by arguing that appending the word "porn" to the equation adds a qualitative connotation above and beyond what a straightforward might do. (In order to illustrate the point, he tacks the word on to a whole bunch of different genres to striking and humorous effect here.) "I’m sure someone will come along to correct me on this," sez Steven in the original post, essentially tossing me a softball right down the middle, "but I’m fairly sure 'Torture Porn' is the only horror sub-genre label that denotes not only the content of the film but also suggests a particular quality, as well." Now, I've already suggested that the term "horror" itself has a pejorative connotation. But even putting that aside, there's the entire "-sploitation" super-genre: exploitation, sexploitation, blaxploitation, nazisploitation, et cetera and sometimes ad nauseum. Then you've got "trash," an appellation enthusiastically embraced by many niche horror bloggers. And surely "splatter," "slasher," and "creature feature" were not coined in the same value-neutral fashion as, say, "romantic comedy." The recently en vogue "grindhouse" sure wasn't. Hell, I think "torture porn" fits a lot more comfortably in the same continuum as "weepies" and "chick flicks" and "queer cinema" than Steven would admit.
Next, he quibbles with my attempt to play Webster, saying he's encountered at least three applications of the "torture porn" label that hold to different definitions than the one I proposed ("horror films in which the physical brutalization of a person or persons, frequently to death and always while somehow immobilized or held captive by the brutalizer or brutalizers, is the primary locus of horror in the film"). He cites this John Campea post, arguing that "torture porn" refers to films that focus on torture to the exclusion of all other considerations, as exhibit A. In this case I think the problem lies not with the term, but with the person using it--he's clearly out to use the phrase to describe only "bad" movies with torture on them. He's written good movies involving torture clean out of the term, in a micro example of what the "transcending the genre" crowd does with horror writ large. But just because he has doesn't mean we have to! As the above list of horror sub-genres demonstrated, we horror fans have embraced any number of labels with the scent of disrepute lingering about them, and I don't see why a few misguided attempts to conflate "torture porn" with "horror movies that suck" should steer us away from doing so again.
Steven's second example of a rival, irritating "torture porn" definition is one where it's used to attack both film and audience, indicating a film designed for people who "get off" on torture. Steven means this in the "enjoying watching other people suffer" way; Jon takes it a step further and says it implies that they enjoy watching other people suffer "in a sexual way." Again, I wouldn't let certain critics' attempts to use the term to deride the films' audience dictate whether I must use it the same way. But regarding the linguistic point, Jesse points out "food porn" as an example of a genre wherein the "porn" tag is not meant to imply that people literally get aroused by watching the Food Network (unless, of course, Nigella Lawson is on), just that the food content is designed to bypass your usual rational filters and hit you straight in the lizard brain. Along those lines I've seen references to kitty porn, shoe porn, and T-shirt porn (I coined that last one myself, naturally). In my view, the violence in torture porn movies and in many horror movies in general is spectacle in the filmic sense, material that through its confrontational, aestheticized, frequently plot-independent presentation is meant to bypass the typical processes by which we view and comprehend film narratives and access you in a rawer way. "Torture spectacle," though, doesn't have that catchy internal rhyme to it. (I kid.) If the porn fits, wear it.
Finally, Steven points out that there are, in fact, literal torture porn films, movies involving extreme S&M and sex. Well, yeah. But this just reminds me of the argument that there are literal "graphic novels," novels containing graphic sex or violence or language or whatever. That's certainly a drawback to that particular term--and even if it weren't, one need look no further than From Hell artist Eddie Campbell's blog on any given day to see that you can haggle about definitions until armageddon--but take a look at my bookshelf and you'll find a lot of book-length comics with the words "graphic novel" above the ISBN.
Sean and the Missus, Negril, Jamaica, August 2007.
The David Bowie shirt was an eBay find--I wish I could dig up the vendor, but alas. It's a shot of Bowie holding a revolver, from The Man Who Fell to Earth, part of the era during which David was the best-looking man in the world.
Learn what one Sean T. Collins thinks of the most recent issues of Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America: The Chosen, Countdown, and The Exterminators over at Wizard's Thursday Morning Quarterback.
God bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail's house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problems. When the cells began to clump together and grow dark. You didn't have to give the cops guns until the cops couldn't remember the names...the faces...
Fran lit a kerosene lamp and it made a soft yellow glow. Peter looked up at them quietly, already sleepy. He had played hard. Fran slipped him into a nightshirt.
All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter's lifetime, his children's lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.
"What?" she asked, and he realized he had murmured it aloud.
"A season of rest," he repeated.
"What does that mean?"
"Everything," he said, and took her hand.
Looking down at Peter he thought: Maybe if we tell him what happened, he'll tell his own children. Warn them. Dear children, the toys are death--they're flashburns and radiation sickness, and black, choking plague. These toys are dangerous; the devil in men's brains guided the hands of God when they were made. Don't play with these toys, dear children, please, not ever. Not ever again. Please...please learn the lesson. Let this empty world be your copybook.
"Frannie," he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
"Do you think...do you think people ever learn anything?"
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
"I don't know," she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
The need for my opinions on this week's issues of B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Punisher War Journal, Ultimate Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead is the disease. Wizard's Thursday Morning Quarterback is the cure.
I will never understand so many comics readers' apparent desire for "hugely popular" comics, and the implied belief that that popularity goes hand in hand with being "aesthetically vital"....I don't care if comics in the future are aimed at 13-year-old girls or 31-year-old boy-men or both. I don't care what genre they fit into, or what country they're produced in. All I want are comics that are good.
After all (the theory goes), one must be interested in what is popular and therefore relevant. (You see similar arguments being made against comics readers who don't read a lot of manga, incidentally.) My question is, what is it about hip hop (and manga, I guess) that has enabled popularity to replace quality in terms of the reason why a listener/reader/critic should or should not get into a particular work?
This week's Horror Roundtable asks what horror-related event from the past we wish we'd been present for. My answer sort of begs the question: Is it possible to "be there" for what I'm pretty sure is an urban legend?
Never let it be said that goofball hipsters are good for nothing. This fine fellow is sporting a shirt that reminds me of that corpse they find upstairs in the Night of the Living Dead house, and good for him. (Misshapes, via the never-miss-a-week Blue States Lose.)
Man alive, I waited ever so impatiently to be able to post this, and now it can be done!
As readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me really, are likely aware, I am a big David Bowie fan. I also enjoy comics. When I discovered that several of my coworkers had themed sketchbooks in which they coaxed various artists into all drawing the same character--Nova or Lockjaw or Yoda or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, say--I knew what had to happen. And at MoCCA this past summer, happen it did. And so...
SEAN T. COLLINS'S DAVID BOWIE SKETCHBOOK
Jeffrey Brown: Jeff grabbed the sketchbook from me during an afterparty and furiously produced this elfin rendition. Bowie as homunculus.
Charles Burns: Even though I've interviewed him before, I was still enormously starstruck by watching Burns draw live and in person, not least because of how much I love the Bowie imagery in Black Hole. Burns didn't use photo ref, but I'm not sure if that's because he didn't want to or just because he didn't realize I had it. I don't care either way.
Brian Chippendale: The only color image, and the only one to riff on early-90s bearded Bowie. "Bow down to Bowie" indeed--he looks like a real rock and roll animal here.
Becky Cloonan: Becky was extremely gung-ho about drawing David, perhaps more than any other artist. Given her Pirates of Coney Island and East Coast Rising gigs, she naturally went for the late-glam pirate look. "As a general rule...Bowie does it better!" Truer words, my friends.
John Cuneo: Cuneo is primarily an illustrator, and he's a big honking deal in that world. MoCCA was his first comic con and this was his first sketch request, and he was really amused/bemused by the specificity. After some self-effacement, he tore the goddamn roof off the book, even matching the photoref he more or less randomly chose with the era (Diamond Dogs--note the tail) with no help. People who've looked at the sketchbook say "this is my favorite" a lot.
Robert Goodin: Goodin's table was set up next to ours at MoCCA, and I grabbed him last minute. He's the only guy to go for the "Space Oddity"-era perm.
Paul Hornschemeier: A definite Young Americans lounge-lizard vibe to this one.
Michael Kupperman: This was the most painstakingly drawn sketch in the book, at least of the ones I watched happen. I handed Kupperman the book open to Gary Panter's sketch so as to be impressive, but he took this as a request to sketch on the same page, which he did. He handed the finished product back saying "This is NOT worthy of being on the same page as Panter's," which I think is selling himself short, but I was bummed out for making him feel that way nonetheless.
Vasilis Lolos: Vasilis, like Paul Pope and Charles Burns, eschewed photo ref. You could tell that this Bowie had been in his head for a while.
Anders Nilsen: From my standpoint on the other side of the table, watching Anders draw this upside-down, I couldn't figure out what was going on in this sketch until he turned the book back around and gave it to me. This sketch seems to get to people.
Bryan Lee O'Malley: Bryan knew exactly which era he wanted to tackle--the Thin White Duke. This tends to be a lot of people's favorite sketch, and Bryan took a picture of it himself before he gave the book back, so I guess he dug it too.
Gary Panter: Panter was the first artist I approached to do a Bowie sketch, thinking (correctly) that a) this would be awesome in and of itself and b) having Gary Panter in your sketchbook will go a long way toward convincing other artists to go along with this cockamamie idea. He was game but concerned that he wouldn't remember what Bowie looked like--then blam, out came my book of photoref (BowieStyle), and off he went.
Paul Pope: Unlike virtually everyone else who was nice enough to draw for me, Paul a) dove right for the virgin first page of the book (and his idea coincidentally made a great kick-off image) and b) didn't need photo reference at all. Note the mistaken label of "SPX" in the dateline--he caught this right away but didn't want to screw up the sketch by scribbling it out.
Zak Sally: When I pitched him on the Bowie idea, Sally immediately brought up the recent incident where an audience member lobbed a lollipop at David's eye during a show, and lo behold that's what he drew. Note the microphone cord.
Frank Santoro: I was really excited to get a Santoro sketch because his comic with Ben Jones, Cold Heat, captures the Ziggy-era Bowie mystique and appeal as well as anything I've read, even though it isn't about Bowie.
Adrian Tomine: I find Tomine's work very sexy so I suppose I expected something glammer, but his Bowie (which I believe was the tiniest rendition) has a nervous, almost fragile air. And the surprisingly popular pirate look makes another appearance.
Then there were the ones that got away: Alison Bechdel (I missed her signing by literally 30 seconds), Bill Sienkiewicz (a no-show), Nick Bertozzi (he promised to do it at a future time when he could take it slow), and Hope Larson (she felt like she couldn't do David justice). We'll see what the future brings.
Here's the link to the whole shebang as a Flickr set. Hopefully I'll have more to add after SPX next month. And oh how I wish I'd made it to the superhero-artist bonanzas that were San Diego or Chicago this year. Again, look to the future!
My life on the D-list, or "I'm of a mind to make some Imoogi"
After much anticipation I saw Dragon Wars (aka D-War) yesterday. It's a strange beast because it really is about 50% eh, 50% awesome, and ymmv as to whether the latter outweighs the former.
In terms of the awesome, the monster material is really dynamite. I'm baffled by the complains alleging that the CGI work is SciFi Original-level terrible. You can certainly tell it's CGI--at the risk of repeating myself around here, we're not talking Weta Digital--but (again at the risk of repeating myself) you could tell King Kong was stop-motion animation, couldn't you? The real issue is the visual imagination behind the effects, and in this case it was excellent. Several images made me gasp out loud or laugh with delight: A giant serpent weaving its way up a crowded city avenue loaded with cars, tossing them into the buildings lining either side with explosions and debris galore. A helicopter pilot flying low down a skyscraper-lined street, looking up to see the side of a massive building literally crawling with winged creatures, then a cut to a shot nearly straight-down the building right at the creatures themselves. Cut-away vistas of a bustling metropolis engulfed with combat between the military and the invading army of creatures and their demonic warrior handlers, on the streets, on the buildings, in the sky. A Korean dragon hovers vertically in the air against a backdrop of stormclouds. And most breathtaking of all, the two protagonists isolated atop a towering skyscraper as the giant serpent, coiled around it, rears its head yards above them, while the camera swirls around to offer a vertigo-inducing panorama of the city that surrounds the scene. At their best--and their best is very, very good--Dragon Wars' giant-monster images offer the same terrifying, awesome (in the original sense) sense of scale, sweep, and immensity as The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson's King Kong, even that masterful bird's-eye-view shot in the clouds from Hitchcock's The Birds.
The problem, as you might have guessed, is a script that's almost completely inadequate to the task of supporting these images with an involving plot or interesting characters. Time and again, when it comes to developing its leads, delineating relationships, or creating a sense of the stakes at hand, the film is content to assert or intone rather than establish through dialogue, performance, or visual framing. We're required to believe that leads Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks are reincarnated lovers whose passion is destined by heaven, but it's tough to imagine them calling each other after an awkward first date. Poor Robert Forster really phones in a role as the wise old man, with his tough-guy accent marring every attempt at playing Basil Exposition with regards to the Good Imoogi and the mark of the red dragon and on and on and on. Contrary to several reviews I've read, the constant mystical mumbo-jumbo infodumps didn't bother me at all--I mean, I wasn't expecting Ursula K. LeGuin, I just wanted some basic set-up for the giant monsters, and that's what I got. But the film's ability to sell the mystical mumbo jumbo, to create a sense of urgency without resorting to a giant snake showing up to eat a house or whatever, was nonexistent.
I hit a matinee (score one for unemployment!) and thought it was seven bucks well spent; the strength of the monster stuff was worth sitting through the weakness of the other stuff. If you're an intolerant type you might wanna wait for a rental. I think all of us are waiting for someone to apply that visual imagination--a "what if the Battle of the Pelennor Fields took place in Manhattan?" imagination--to a film whose other aspects are its equal.
Shoot 'Em Up is a shitty movie. I mean that literally: At least two scenes involve the feces of an infant being smeared across someone or something in all its brownish-green, Vertigo Comics color palette glory. The ostensible reason for this is because the movie involves a gunsel and a prostitute attempting to save a baby from assassins, and hence the baby shit. But the real reason is for the filmmakers to show us that that's how far out they'll go! That's if you didn't catch the part where they jammed a carrot through a guy's throat, or through a guy's eye. Or where a john looks up from Monica Bellucci's awe-inspiring breasts with her milk dribbling down his chin. Or where another john moans and groans up against a dumpster as Bellucci sucks his cock off frame. Or where a woman who's just given birth is shot in the head and left in a stairway by the hero with one breast exposed, with said exposed breast of a dead woman getting a close-up as our hero leaves, and another as the bad guy takes a look at her, and a third and final one a while later as the bad guy checks it out, lasciviously fondles it, then sniffs his hand after the fact.
In other words, Shoot 'Em Up is an icky movie in which the shit-smearing is all too appropriate, because yes it's far out, but it's also unpleasant and who wants to see that? The fact that it's knowingly far out--it is called Shoot 'Em Up, after all--only makes things worse. Why should Paul Giamatti engage in necrophiliac groping in a movie whose ostensible goal is to be Kung Fu Hustle with shooting instead of kicking?
Maybe that tonal inconsistency will hook fans of stuff like The Host, but for me the laughs (well, "laughs," because nothing in this is terribly funny except for one bit about drivers who don't signal while changing lanes, a bit that's immediately undone by a bout of wanton property destruction that is a lot more inconsiderate than our hero's pet peeve about signaling), anyway for me the "laughs" don't leaven the icky stuff at all--they make me feel like I'm being either pandered to or condescended to or both by that icky stuff by filmmakers who know better. I got the same vibe from the gun-control message that pops up rather incongruously in the fourth act. I totally get the point--there's nothing about enjoying gun violence in the movies that makes gun violence okay in real life--but first of all that's a truism, and second of all, again, there might as well be a subtitle reading "we're slumming" running across the bottom of the screen every time Clive Owen shoots someone in the torso.
Thanks to the periodic Manly Movie Mamajamas that my friends and I get together for every few months--in which we gather at someone's house, eat junk food, get drunk, and enjoy a triple bill of extremely macho movies--I've seen quite a few action films of '80s vintage in the recent past. At last I understand why Reagan-era culture warriors thought movies like Rambo were undermining America's moral fabric. This is because movies like Rambowere undermining America's moral fabric. Rambo, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Tango & Cash, Road House--it's almost difficult to describe how gratuitously violent these films are, how much these films are unimaginable without violence, how much the violence is woven unthinkingly into what makes them work so goddamn well, unless you've seen them. They make Shoot 'Em Up look like a Noel Coward comedy of manners. How? Allow me to demonstrate with this scene involving Mikhail, the bad guy from the 1985 Chuck Norris vs. invading Communists actioner Invasion U.S.A.. (Originally found at the wonderful So Bad It's Good.)
Don't bother trying to out-batshit-crazy a movie that contains a scene like that. You can't! It isn't knowing, it isn't camp, it isn't funny, it isn't pretty, it isn't prettified with in-jokes, irony, or Looney Tunes references. It's approximately 90 minutes of people being shot to death with machine guns--cops, bystanders, women in shopping malls, office workers, Cubans, fucking everybody. It's insane, a gleeful kind of crazy you can only get from the movies. I love it. I'm sure it was made as a cheap cash-in that no one thought twice about, but that too is part of its magic. It is what it is, like Yahweh. You go po-faced or you don't go at all. The second you add wink-wink nudge-nudge you confront the audience with idea that on some level you know better. And to hell with that.
I don't know, part of my principled defense of those indefensible action flicks may just be blog bullshitting. I think those '80s action movies are extraordinary films for how guilelessly manipulative they are, is mainly what I'm saying--today, in the post-Bay/Bruckheimer world, the popcorn explosion flicks are so much slicker about it, or they put it in quotes like Shoot 'Em Up does. And maybe I'm inventing a principled objection to Shoot 'Em Up where none exists. I think that ultimately my real beefs with the movie are simple. The jokes aren't funny (late-period Pierce Brosnan Bond wordplay, mostly). Worse, the action isn't really innovative or well-choreographed or even particularly bloody. For every memorably sanguine offing, there's like forty miscellaneous goons getting popped in their black leather jackets in medium shot. It's like the squib shipment got sent to the wrong set, and maybe if I go see that movie where the Rock has to take care of a little girl, all of a sudden her ballet class will erupt in a Wild Bunch orgy of bloodletting. There's certainly nothing that'll push boundaries or stick in your head like Sin City or 300 or Kill Bill, to use three idiosyncratic American action films to which this one will inevitably be compared. (I'd compare it to the John Woo Hong Kong action flicks that have been cited as inspiration, but I don't think much of those either, to be honest. End already, Hard Boiled!) If there were, that'd go a long way to replicating the gonzo thrill you get from watching Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren punch each other in the face for ten minutes at the end of Rocky IV, but you don't get anything like that. You don't even see Monica Bellucci's tits or Clive Owen's ass. Instead, you get Paul Giamatti groping the exposed nipple of a mother who was shot in the head minutes after getting birth, and a baby's shit smeared on a henchman's face. The Bugs Bunny riffs can't help you.
Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman defends the (in)famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage--the one of the big ape walking through a clearing in the forest that you've seen a million times--as its 40th anniversary approaches next month. Actually, his list of points in its favor is more a defense of the entire sighting than just the film itself, which has me a bit puzzled since if the film is fake, we can assume that accounts of the creature's effect on the expedition's horses or its aroma are also bogus. This is all interesting to me because Coleman is extremely hostile to pranks and forgeries, yet still feels that this frequently analyzed, frequently alleged-to-be-phony-by-John-Landis film is the real deal. Then again, since it's one of the few remaining non-debunked blockbuster bits of evidence for a major cryptid out there (Surgeon's Photograph, anyone?), its importance to the field, and therefore to the field's practitioners, may have an effect on analyses thereof.
They share two major stylistic/formal elements: (1) a commitment to surface realism and (2) spatial integrity is the cohering idea behind their action sequences.
By #1 he means that "no-nonsense spectacles" without the fancy (artsy?) camerawork of genre stylists like Sergio Leone. I like what he's getting at here as it articulates something I've noticed in my hobby of watching '80s action movies: they exist to show you the action. You know how most comedies are utilitarian, from a filmic perspective? Shots, lighting, sound, mise en scène are all designed so as to distract as little as possible from the jokes. This is why you can probably count the number of great comedies you've seen that also function as beautiful or striking movies on one hand if you remove the ones by Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers first. Well, I think the same is true of the action movies Jon's talking about. They're there to wow you with the "action" half of "action movie," not the "movie half." Because of this even slight, largely failed deviations from the norm become very noticeable; I was really struck by Sylvester Stallone's strange freeze-and-dissolve cuts and almost comical overuse of montage sequences in Rocky IV, for example.
Jon's second point is, he admits, kind of just a way of restating point one in the context of action scenes themselves, especially when he formulated point one thusly:
despite the craziness of the situation, despite the often superhuman feats, despite the frequent fudging of the laws of physics, Golden Age Action Movies present everything with a straight face. There's no stylization or attempt to put quotation marks around any of the action.
In fact the two points are so blended together that I hope he tries to distinguish them a bit more in the futur, or else just mash 'em together. Anyway, regarding point #2 again, in terms of direct comparisons, he says that rather than Bourne Supremacy-style hand-held cameras and choppy editing (an "impressionistic" approach to shooting action) or John Woo-style operatic slow-mo and lighting (an "expressionistic" approach),
these movies aim for scenes that make sense spatially in terms of how everything is happening. Not that there isn't fudging and not that the integrity isn't really an illusion.
Of course. But I think where this criterion needs a little tightening is in the idea of the spacial integrity itself. Thinking of scenes from movies that obviously don't fit in this category of action film--the House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill Vol. 1, the subway fight from The Matrix, the three-way lightsaber duel from The Phantom Menace, the treetop chase in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--it's clear that a sense of the spatial relationships between the characters themselves and between the characters and the objects in their environment is absolutely key. As a matter of fact I would assert that this is a necessary ingredient to any great action sequence. This is actually something I realized while reviewing countless superhero and genre comics every week for Wizard--a sense of place, a sense of space, a sense of where the characters are in relation to one another and to their surroundings, is the difference between, say, a memorable fight in Miller or Maleev or Lark Daredevil and some generic lasers-shooting-in-all-directions pose-fest from early-90s X-Men.
What I think differentiates the films of the Golden Age of American Action Movies from other great action movies isn't so much the spatial integrity, which is always important, but how the bodies (or vehicles, which in these films are extensions of bodies) of the characters act within a space. Simply put, I'm saying that in these action movies, the actions and abilities of the combatants may strain credulity, but never do so in an openly obvious way. When John McClane ties a firehose around his waist, jumps from a rooftop, rappels against a glass window, shoots it out in midair and swings through it to safety, it's something that's unlikely to happen in real life to say the least, but it's presented--in the performance, in the filming, in the special effects--as something a human being could conceivably do with his or her body given the right combination of strength, canniness, and luck. Compare that to bullet time, wire-fu, CGI Jedi powers--while when done right there's still a palpable physicality to it all, it's obviously intended to call attention to the superhumanness. The reaction from the audience there is "wow!" The reaction from the audience in the case of Golden Age Action is "whoa!" or more bluntly, "holy shit!"
It's a really fascinating post and you should read it. I look forward to reading what else he has to say on the subject.
Friday T-shirt blogging, with a little announcement
Loch Ness, Scotland, summer 2001
Back then I was an editor at Abercrombie & Fitch's A&F Quarterly. I did a lot of great interviews for them, many of which can be found in that sidebar to your left, from Chuck Palahniuk to Underworld to Bettie Page to a TON of comics people, which is really how I became involved in comics in the first place. A travel story assignment for A&F was the reason I was in Scotland, in fact. While I was at A&F I had an employee discount to A&F stores, and one of the few times I used it was to purchase this little gem. It reads "I'm Easy" in baseball-jersey lettering. I don't know what it says about me that my first thought upon seeing it was that it was a reference to the song Keith Carradine sings in Robert Altman's Nashville, and that my second thought was that it was a reference to the Commodores song, and that my third thought was that maybe some hip person had actually intended it to be a reference to Faith No More's cover of the Commodores song, and that only several weeks after I purchased and first wore it did it finally occur to me that it was most likely intended to proclaim that I was readily available sexually.
I bring all this up because, in the words of Stephen King...
Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long.
And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.
...and I am in the way of knowing that Abercrombie & Fitch will be relaunching the A&F Quarterly in the U.K. with a Spring Break 2008 issue, and that I will be involved. That's all I can say at the moment, but stay tuned.
The other day I said that any modern-day action movie that tried to out-batshit crazy Chuck Norris's Invasion U.S.A. was doomed to failure. I said that because of scenes like these:
(SPOILER ALERT on this next one...)
But the more I watch these two Internet-only John Rambo trailers, the more I feel like I may have to eat my words.
It's hard to judge based on trailers alone, but it seems to me that the reason that John Rambo stands to be far more successful at being viscerally exciting than the self-aware (read: "self-conscious") approach of Shoot 'Em Up is that it's not setting out to be crazy. It's setting out to be extremely violent, which is has some venn-diagram overlap with crazy but is not entirely contiguous with it, and thus far it's really good at what it's setting out to do.
Snake Eyes from You Can't Do That On Television here would like to inform you that comments have been switched off in the face of a truly colossal amount of spam, until the crack ATF tech team can get registration up and running. My email's to the left if you really wanna sound off, though.
Longtime readers of this blog are no doubt aware that I am a pretty big fan of Dionaea House, Eric Heisserer's mockumentary-style multi-site webfiction project about--well, google "dionaea" and clue yourself in. For a while a film adaptation was in the works with a major studio, but after many delays and a title change, the project was dropped by the studio. In May of 2006 Heisserer told his Yahoo group that the prospect of the film receiving funding from some other source seemed promising, but no other updates have been forthcoming.
Just for kicks I started hanging around one of the sites that comprise the story, and in the comments I discovered this recently created blog, which appears to be incorporating the failure of the film version and the "death" of Heisserer himself into the fiction. Is this an official continuation, or the work of an enthusiastic fan? Does it even matter?
Christopher Eccleston, who co-stars as the villainous character called the Rider in the upcoming fantasy film The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, told SCI FI Wire that the film is considerably different from its source material...."I think there are many, many departures from the book to the film," Eccleston said in an interview...."The novel has been hugely Americanized in the film."
In Colombia, the motion-sickness drug scopolamine is being used by criminals as a "zombie drug," robbing its victims of free will. It gets blown in their faces and prevents the target from resisting rape, robbery, and murder. More here.
Kim Thompson of the great comics publisher Fantagraphics pays homage to George A. Romero's great zombie movie Dawn of the Dead in one of those "two great tastes that taste great together" deals.
These days I tend to find black T-shirts with a huge visual that was originally designed for a movie poster or album cover or some other mode of presentation a bit too clumsy looking, but there are some exceptions, usually particularly striking horror imagery. My prize Hellraiser T-shirt, the only shirt I've ever re-bought after wearing one out, is one of them; this one's pretty great too, in large part because of that no-nonsense font on that amazing tagline.
A couple days ago I finished rereading Stephen King's The Stand for the fourth time, I think. If it's not his best book it's in the top two, and it has the added bonus of boasting the best film adaptation of any of King's works. That's not to say that the TV miniseries of The Stand is better than Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, of course, just that it's a better adaptation. When your mind's eye can take advantage of that spectacularly spot-on casting job, trotting out Gary Sinise and Ray Walston and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Fagerbakke and Adam Storke and Jamey Sheridan to deliver the lines, a lot of work is done for the book right there. Even in the cases where the casting isn't nailed--Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Corin Nemec, Matt Frewer, and Molly Ringwald were all too old for their characters, for example--there's still something right about it.
But I have found that the older I get, the more that certain flaws in King's stuff that I didn't notice when I first read it as a kid, or even later during re-reads in high school or college, stand out to me a bit more. In The Stand's case, as in It's case, they don't ruin the book or anything, but they're worth pointing out.
1) During the opening section of the book, where we're introduced to most of the main players, the Frannie stuff is much, much weaker than the rest. From the "girl loses her virginity and gets knocked up in one fell swoop" angle on down, it's a parade of young-adult novel clichés that makes Frannie come off like a histrionic dope. Also, everyone slaps each other. Fran slaps her boyfriend. Her boyfriend slaps her. Her Mom slaps her. Her Dad slaps her Mom. It's almost like that Cheers routine with Sam and Diane. When you compare it to, say, how tight King's depiction of the rise and fall of budding pop star Larry Underwood is, or how evocatively he sets the scene for Stu Redman, it suffers all the more.
2) Nick Andros disappears from the book after he meets Mother Abagail, at least as a focalizing character. Seriously, take a look and you'll see that the entire segment of the novel set in the Boulder Free Zone is really the Stu Frannie Larry Nadine and Harold Show, with the entire story being told from their perspectives. It undercuts Mother Abagail's protestations that she believed Nick would be the one to lead the forces of good, as well as the emotional impact of the shocking turn of events that befalls him.
3) I think something is lost in not showing the initial meeting between Stu, Frannie, Harold, and Glen's party and Mother Abagail. That's the hero, the heroine, the Basil Exposition, and the Gollum figure right there, and that's an oversight. It may also be a way for King to dodge explaining how Mother Abagail didn't catch on to Harold from the get-go.
4) I think the ending--the very ending, after Stu and Tom get back to Boulder--feels rushed. Who keeps Kojak, for example?
That stuff being said it really is a remarkable book. The unfolding of the superflu epidemic is just magisterially well done and very frightening, and quite brutal in its depiction of the government and military to boot. By rights the Flagg material should be vastly less interesting, but he's a magnetic villain whose evil manifests itself in constantly startling and entertaining ways, like those constant litanies about how when birds hear him walking they fly into telephone poles, and if he walks through a building project guys hammer their thumbs, and if he looks at you funny your prostate goes bad. It's like if John Cougar Mellencamp became some sort of mutant Hitler.