Monday, July 9, 2018

Critical Mass For The Envelope

Since the dawn of music, movies, and film,  people have been trying to get to the extreme edge of expression.  

Society itself usually provides the method of reigning it in, whether it be mild watchfulness or censorship, it doesn’t matter. The outside layers get pushed further and further out over time.

I think we may have reached critical mass.

Maybe I’m talking about the door that was opened by punk in the 70’s and the metal and grind core blacksmiths that wandered through it that have brought us to the brink with black metal. 

Perhaps I mean the dark corners probed by cyberpunk and splatter authors that exacerbated and maybe even blasphemed the pathways laid by Stephen King?

Of course there’s the awful rough edges of film created by filmmakers I won’t mention by name here.  Their stuff is not the material of mass marketing, but I know who they are and what they’ve done and cannot understand them.  It seems as though they want to drag the awful into the light so you can stare at it like Malcolm McDowell at the end of “A Clockwork Orange”, while they grin at the hideousness they have wrought.

What is the purpose of the exposed flesh these musicians, writers, and filmmakers have birthed?

It’s possible to flash the dark angles of the soul to express your anger, your pain, your frustration.  Those pieces of night, when bared, are definitely supposed to let folks know that there’s a layer to you that they should be sad for, feel the anger associated with, perhaps even be wary of. 

Those moments that the author, the creator, allows to flicker, do indeed shock because they are of themselves and by nature limited. It’s painful because its unsustainable. The expression of sadness, anger, sorrow, yes, even hatred can be beautiful when its measured. When you prolong it, it becomes something else. 

It becomes ugly. 

It becomes cruel.

It becomes Evil.

The raw, ripping music of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Misfits.  The words of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, and Joe R. Lansdale.  The filmed brush strokes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George A. Romero.  These were the extremities of my youth, my roots, where I came from.  These were the hard edges that kept me up at night….

Yes, there are numerous moments in all of their accomplishments that are disturbing, disgusting, and painful to behold.  Those moments are surrounded by great beauty however, even if its just in the way the works are constructed or machined.  When the darkness comes, it tears at your heart, makes you leap, perhaps even reel back on your heels in shock.  The reason for that effect is because they are layered among the existence of other possibilities, and therein lies the art, shining is the beauty. 

I do love how I’ve seen all of these creators of legend being a direct influence on many artists today, so perhaps the apocalypse is not near.  That being said, I also see an outpouring of music that is 100% shock value, with vocals that sound like someone belching into a drive-thru speaker, writers that only merely sprinkle plot among the bloodshed, filmmakers that seek only to exploit the very base vile actions that humanity can perpetrate.  Like Stephen King himself said about one of his own short stories, they have "no redeeming social value".

Yes, it is a sort of critical mass.  Due to the pure monstrous id of what these folks have created, the others with a story to tell, a song to sing, a visual painting to create, can no longer be seen as “the edge”.  It's because the envelope the true artists pushed has been set alight by those who want to only disgust.  The edge hasn’t been pushed, it’s been leapt over, screaming and flailing, without a parachute.

It’s a shame, really.  I’m one of the lucky ones, having done enough research to know where those that dwell in the dark have displayed their work and choose to avoid it.  The world is dark enough on its own. Especially in these awful, multi-level monstrous days.  The true shocks, the startling moments of the soul, are best experienced when what exists around them actually provides them the strength and meaning they possess. 

I choose to take my darkness where it actually accomplishes what it’s supposed to. 

In the light.

And sometimes, in well designed darkness, the light has power too.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Spectrum Files: Johnny Got His Gun

I'm no big fan of guns, that's not a mystery to anyone that knows me, because my lizard brain has a hard time detangling them from warfare.

In the winter of 1988, all the long-hairs in my Central Wisconsin High School were jacked to the moon because it happened.

Metallica crossed over.

With the single "One", the Bay-area four piece thrash outfit had gone from headbanger cult band to a chart-topping rock act.  This opened the door to hearing the type of hard-rock on mainstream radio that most people wouldn't think possible.  It was a watershed moment.  That overshadowed the true accomplishments of the song, however.  The structure of "One" is based on the concept of a man who goes to war and loses all of his limbs, his eyesight, and his hearing.  He lays in a complete void wanting nothing but release.  In all reality, it is pretty impossible to imagine a worse fate.  The concept is mirrored by the story "Johnny Got His Gun" and subsequent film, both of which the band claimed to have never heard of when they composed the piece.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1982, Spectrum aired the 1973 film written and directed by the since-legendary Dalton Trumbo.  Trumbo was played to Oscar-nominated effect by the actor Bryan Cranston, in a film about the man and his membership of the group known as The Hollywood Ten, blacklisted for their alleged ties to communism.  Trumbo's gifts were such that he was allowed to work in the industry behind closed doors, uncredited.

At the outset of Johnny Got His Gun, I thought it was another visualization of war, like many I'd seen previously.  That is, until its descent into hell began.  The lead character, Joe Bonham, goes off to fight, eagerly hoping to defend his country in World War I before his fate befalls him.  When he awakes in his black and white nightmare, only his dreams (in full color) are a release from his nightmarish existence.

The film's final scene is a bleak and uncompromising vision of awfulness in its cold honesty.  As a 10 year old, it was an ice bath that accomplished its goal.  It disturbed me to my core.  A long-standing fear of mine is confinement, like being buried alive.  This young man's situation probably wasn't much different from it.  It was some of the scariest shit I've ever seen.  An allegory of my worst fears thrown onto the screen as some sort of punishment for patriotism.  I wanted nothing more but to help this young man pull free from the bonds of an impossible quagmire of unrepentant misery and was helpless to do so.  I knew it was fictional, but not impossible.   Hence my unease, my reluctance to forget it.  While many friends were watching movies painting war as action films, I'd not look at those movies the same way after Johnny Got His Gun.

Regardless, over time, the movie had settled under dust in my memory sharing time with other problems, and was dragged back into the sunlight by Metallica's video.  The clip used footage from the movie as a backdrop for performance shots of the band playing their instruments in an empty warehouse setting.  All of what that movie had to share was brought back in excruciating revival,  firing off receptors of recall, and I welcomed it.

Sometimes we need a reminder of what the viciousness of man can do, even if we don't necessarily want it.  But then again, in years since, art hasn't been necessary to provide that reminder.

It's been said that Jimmy Carter demanded all of his state department members view this film before beginning their work.  Perhaps it is time to resume that practice, and maybe have a few other people in government positions view it as well.

War is hell, but lessons can be learned in a much easier way than experiencing it for yourself.  Johnny Got His Gun is among the best teachers film has to offer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Vinyl Destination: Eddie & The Cruisers

In the winter of 1983 my parents were going out for the night, so on the way home from work, my Dad brought home a pizza and Coke for me.  He also rented a VHS tape of "Eddie & The Cruisers" to keep me entertained.  Killer gesture from Pops, that's for sure.

Eddie & The Cruisers is a pedestrian movie in retrospect despite its cast of up-and-comers, namely Joe Pantoliano, Ellen Barkin, and Tom Berenger.  However, this particular 12 year old was excited as a slick teaser trailer from about a year prior had my interest piqued.  The story as it was sold in the trailer seemed compelling.  It felt as though it had that urban legend air of possibility, possessed decent direction and cinematography, and it featured one hell of a killer soundtrack.

The movie also references legendary French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his stellar work.  In the story, Eddie Wilson, charismatic lead singer of the titular rock and roll outfit Eddie & The Cruisers, is obsessed with Rimbaud's work to the point of naming his upcoming final album after a collection of Rimbaud's poetry, "A Season in Hell".  He even pulls off a mirror-image of Rimbaud's real-life disappearing act.

I won't lie.  As a kid, I was a huge fan of the soundtrack, became an avid fan of the actor who played Wilson, Michael Pare (who has long since derailed into a career of low-budgetry after a fierce start that also included The Philadelphia Experiment and the remarkable Streets of Fire) and later in life, the works of Arthur Rimbaud.

A handful of years back I was doing some sniffing around into Rimbaud's history and it was the first time I actually saw a photo of the poet.  On the top, Rimbaud, below, Pare.


Though Rimbaud's work is mentioned in the film, nowhere does the photo come up, so imagine my surprise at the fact that (at least in this photo) Michael Pare is a doppelganger for the long-dead Rimbaud.  Look up the actor anywhere online from when he was a youth and the resemblance is really quite amazing. 

So, the question is. What came first, the chicken or the egg? 

Eddie & The Cruisers is based on a book by PF Kluge, and in the novel, Wilson's muse is apparently Walt Whitman.  It has been mused upon that due to the Eddie Wilson character's dying in the mid 60's, a real-life popular music influence couldn't work.  Director Martin Davidson wanted to have Wilson's hero be someone kindred in spirit to the late Jim Morrison instead of Whitman.  Enter Arthur Rimbaud.  (reference here)

Where in the process of the script's development was it decided to go with Rimbaud?  Was Pare cast because he looks like Rimbaud?  If so, why isn't this eerie connection utilized to what could have been incredible effect?  Because the ball was dropped in a major way if the writers were indeed aware of the incredible resemblance...

As it stands, it would indeed be one (Season in) hell of a coincidence.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Bound to the Past: Salem's Lot

November 17, 1979 may have been the most frightened I have ever been by the filmed medium.   My beloved mom and I were in the living room alone, 38 years has muddled the fact of whether or not anyone else was in the house.  Chances are, gauging our binary fear, the answer was no.  My father was in the hospital for a few nights receiving cancer treatment.  At this point in the game, I was unaware of that knowledge, and would be for a couple more months.

That night was CBS' premiere airing of the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's novel, "Salem's Lot".  The film is quite legendary and notorious for being among the most frightening of the made-for-TV medium at the very tail end of a decade famous for it.  The 70's small screen gave us "The Night Stalker", "Trilogy of Terror" "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark", and "Bad Ronald", after all.

A little history:  Before we had moved to this house, I had vivid memories of a particularly creepy paperback book I saw resting on top of my sister Linda's stack of textbooks at the breakfast table.  For those of you younger than 30, please reference here:   Textbook.    I had been monumentally creeped out by the Salem's Lot cover.  It wasn't just the simultaneously innocent and malicious facial expression, but that damned drop of blood that answered the question of which one of those two adjectives should be used to describe the gargoyle-like vampire's face on the paperback's front.  (See the title heading of this post for a representation)

I had no idea when it started what we were up against, and the film's director Tobe Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy) let us know none too quickly.  By the opening credits, I was pinned up against the footrest of my Mom's orange recliner as she crocheted nervously.  The scene where Geoffrey Lewis and a partner drop off the crate in the Marsten House basement never left my mind.  Nothing particularly evil happens through the bulk of the scene, and it seems to go on forever, but I'm still creeped out by it as much as the much more notorious scenes in the film. 

Then the Glick bastard disappears, starts hanging outside of windows of friends and family in a terribly unnatural way, and by night two, BARLOW makes his presence known in another poor kid's kitchen. At that point, my Mom and I, both holding on to our heroic dog Ginger, were glued to this story and to the floor/recliner.  Smart?  Nope.  This was terrifying... but we both loved a good story.  A trait all of us kids inherited from Mom.   The subject of both the book and the movie come up in family discussions to this day.  I for one, won't forget my Mom and I's monumental battle against Stephen King's goddamned imagination.

I just watched Salem's Lot during the Halloween Season last fall and it holds up remarkably well despite some dated clothing and hairstyles.  David Soul plays a great tortured soul (Do you believe a thing can be inherently evil?), a young Bonnie Bedelia as his paramour, and James Kerwin, who was a TV star at the time on a show called "James at 15", whose star was soon to fade, rounded out the cast.   Bedelia was amazing on the recent dramedy, Parenthood that just finished its run on NBC.  It appears her career actually outlasted the others, who were much bigger stars at the time.

The Lot means a lot (pun intended) to me.  The affore-mentioned Linda left a yellow copy of "The Shining" laying around that I read over the course of a couple of weeks in late 1982.  I really loved this Stephen King guy!  Even at 11 years old.  My Mom, very excited by how I had taken to reading, bagged up a bunch of her old paperbacks and drove me down to a now-legendary store in Kenosha, WI. called The Paperback Exchange.   Not as much a bookstore as a trade-in library, the place's selection was incredible.  I traded in those donated novels of my Mom's into a stack of Stephen King's work.  The Dead Zone, The Stand, Night Shift, Firestarter, and of course, Salem's Lot, among others.  The book still packed a mean punch when I finally read it in the summer of 1983. 

Linda sparked the fire, my Ma stoked it, and I couldn't have been happier.  Talk about support and encouragement! That's how it's done. Of course, Stephen King is one of the most famous novelists of all time, and is experiencing a bit of a renaissance as we speak, but back then, when he was just starting to exercise his dominance, I was all in. 

And in a late fall evening of 1979, his work crossed media avenues to attack my unexpecting mother and myself, and I'll never forget it.   

And I'll always be grateful for it.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Looking for Laughs: Music

My step-dad (only using that term for the purpose of differentiation) was always one to support my interests; sports, card collection, my kids, ad infinitum.  At one point in middle school, to follow in his footsteps (and possibly avoid a bus-ride home) I stayed after school and joined the Washington Junior High Band to be a trumpet playing Wildcat.  (Dad wasn't a wildcat, but he did shred on a trumpet, infinitely better than I ever would.)  Such a badass.

Anyway, the afternoon Mom, Dad, and I went to the music store to rent my trumpet was special for more than one reason.   This was in the days (it makes me feel old to make this upcoming description, so should I throw in the word "Sonny" at the end of it?) where musical instrument and sheet music stores often had very sizeable vinyl record departments.   As did department stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward, et al.  My Dad was a bit of a social butterfly, so as he was chattering away with the person behind the counter that he probably knew (interesting fun fact: by 1984, my Dad knew approximately 77% of the adult population of Kenosha, WI.) I asked another person in the store if they had the new record by Weird Al Yankovic.

"Eat It" was a huge hit at the moment, and being a connoisseur of things that made fun of other things that I didn't particularly enjoy (like Michael Jackson's "Beat It") I was interested in picking up the album, should they have it.  To my true surprise, this mom-and-pop establishment indeed did carry a brand spankin' new copy of "In 3-D", the most recent full-length from Mr. Yankovic.   Dad was more than happy to pay the $6.99 for the new record and made my afternoon.

Listening to "In 3-D" was the beginning of my realization that often, the best of Weird Al's work were the "deep cuts" on his records.   The mainstream parodies were his bread and butter, but his originals were often more vital-sounding, and certainly funnier.  I found myself looking forward to these off-tracks, for lack of a better term, on subsequent albums, as well as his consistently hilarious Polka medleys and "style parodies".  I have been, for over 30 years, a fan of his and will continue to be.  His work will never grow old, as he changes with the culture.  Al, a comedy chameleon of the highest order, was a gift given to me by the "Dr. Demento" radio show that I listened to every Sunday night after "The Young Ones" was over with on MTV.  The Doc gets his own post in this series, so I'm moving on here.

So Dad knew about musical parody, and put in an order at the record store that same day for a collection of the best of  Spike Jones and his City Slickers.  Jones' music was in vogue in the 40's and 50's.  Not so much parody material, and if it were, I wouldn't have been too familiar with the original. The bands tunes consisted of zany slapstick takes of classical pieces, and relevant-to-its time comedy.  A personal favorite of mine was "Der Fuhrer's Face" a direct comedic kick-in-the-nuts to Adolf Hitler. 

Most kids would have frowned on this "old fogey comedy" because Spike Jones was a good 35 to 40 years ahead of my era.  This was 1984, after all.  "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and "The Safety Dance" shared air time with Cyndi Lauper and Billy Joel.  The gap was wide and would have been difficult to traverse for most kids.  Not me.

Listening with my Dad and watching his massive grin grow as we heard the goofy horse race play-by-play on the "William Tell Overture", or the ridiculous vocal machinations on "Chloe" and "Hawaiian War Chant" are some of my favorite quiet moments.  I miss that breathy quiet laugh-turned-chuckle of his. (It was quiet, like he was trying not to laugh).  You saw it, more than you heard it, but you sure as hell felt it, and it was contagious.

My Dad shared other classic comedy with me beyond just Spike Jones.  It's just one of the many ways that he shaped me, and I'm very grateful.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Spectrum Files: Altered States

Spectrum was important for peppering my film growth.  It was like film school to me, albeit I was only in about the 4th grade. My film experience before we subscribed consisted of TV-edited car chase movies and the occasional sci-fi epic.  We borrowed a boat-anchor VCR a few times which peppered in the infrequent Cheech & Chong or Bruce Lee flick, but there wasn't much there but a slightly dusted blank slate as a film history for this boy.  While Spectrum broadcast first-run films just off their theatrical jaunt, it believed in variety and most importantly films of historical importance, despite their audience size or box office cume.  As I stated in the explanation of this blog series, whoever ran the show down there at Spectrum was ahead of their time.  Some of the fairly recent movies it peddled at the time of the subscription, are now deeply regarded as cult classics.

Ken Russell's Altered States was fresh off of its theatrical run, but nonetheless fit into the pretentious art-film mind-funk category just as easily.   A very young William Hurt plays a scientist who decides to dabble in sensory depravation in a quest for exploring the depths of the human subconscious and manages to drive himself a few versions of crazy in the process.  Lots of psycho-medi-babble is bandied about by various actors-as-scientists, and I'm quite sure I remember Hurt being one of those driven men of groundbreaking ignoring warnings by his peers!  At the time up-and-comer (and red-haired Jacqueline Kennedy look-a-like) Blair Brown played Hurt's put-upon lifemate in this inordinately weird opus, and I seem to remember her suffering at the altar of near-subservience, a character trait very common for females of the genre in this era.

William Hurt is now a frequent supporting actor, but his punch is still felt.  His uber-bastard "Thunderbolt" Ross is one of the great baddies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he plays the role with great relish, having lost none of the power he possessed as an actor over 30 years ago.  The character he plays in Altered States doesn't seem far from the type of scientific mega-geeks Ross torments with regularity in the name of the government and national defense in the MCU.  But I digress.  

Much like many films in the Spectrum playbook, at 10, I wasn't prepared for the route I'd be heading down.  I was blasted with psychedelic and often disturbing quasi-religious imagery that I was in no way prepared for.  The special effects were up to the task in adding the required punch to what I was receiving to my young and not completely formed psyche.  If Mr. Hurt's character was victim, I was a goddamn innocent bystander.

The seeds for future films like Jacob's Ladder and The Doors were sown here, and it is obviously a movie designed to get under your skin and it does so successfully.  Mind you, at the age I was, I was probably processing about 20% of what was happening, and understanding even less, but was still affected and wanted what was happening to Hurt's character to stop.  Didn't anyone else in the room see my head snapping to the left and the right during the most obvious scenes, looking for an explanation or at the very least to be armed with a way to deal with it?

To hell with it, I was probably watching it alone anyway.  That still isn't clear, but I did truly give myself whiplash anyway.  A smarter boy would have simply run from the room.  (once, and I'm not sure what prompted it, a friend, the quirky Neil,  said to me: "I never run from a room" with a straight face, no hint of irony, humor, or even malice.  It was one of the most hilariously glorious moments of my life) Those moments from Altered States, so easily avoided had I the gumption to do what the heroic and obviously suffering-for-all-of-us Neil never stooped to doing,  are vividly implanted in my memory.

Altered States may not be a horror film by definition, but it sure as hell felt like one, and it was one of hell of a mark-leaving introduction to the class, edge, and nasty of the still undervalued William Hurt. (and the stubborn deer-in-the-headlights movie watching I subjected myself to.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bound to the Past: Star Wars Storybook

The above scene is one of my five favorite scenes of all time in film.

Not because of my love of Daniel Stern.  Not because I grew up with a crush on Ellen Barkin.  But because part of me is Schreivie.  That guy who remembers not only record labels, years, baseball statistics, movie trivia, and song titles, but also connects them firmly to a moment, or moments in the past.

I think everyone has a little bit of that in them.  I once knew a girl who swore to me with stars in her eyes and a tilted grin, that the Joan Jett & The Blackhearts' version of "Crimson and Clover" took her back instantaneously to the summer of 1981 each and every time she listened to it.  She hung back there for a moment or two after telling me that, seemingly hypnotized by the song's echoey refrains, before snapping back to the present moment.  I believed her instantly because she seemed a bit embarrassed by the loss of consciousness that took place there, albeit briefly.

She had gone back in time.  It's a connection.

The connection doesn't always have to be aural.  It can be visceral, like a faint smell of a food not often enjoyed floating in the air at a county fair you remember fondly... or even visual, as in my story to tell, where a picture can take you back in time.  Perhaps even with a quick shocked jolt of shortened breath of warm nostalgia you experience if you haven't seen it in some years.

I have a book full of those moments.

Sometime in 1978, My parents ordered me a copy of "The Star Wars Storybook" from the Scholastic Book Club order form, that by now all kids of several generations are familiar with.  I reopened it recently after re-discovering it, and had that gasp hit me several times...

The still shot of Luke admiring Obi-Wan's blue light saber after he turns it on for the first time.  The X-wing fighter with red laser beams skating perilously close to it, released by the tie-fighter behind in its fierce pursuit.  This same exact image actually graced my metal Aladdin lunchbox.

Those images danced me back almost 40 years.  An old home in Somers, Wisconsin.   A boy in his pajamas, sitting on the rug of his bedroom, just off the living room.  Book open wide in his lap, tiny fingers tracing the line of the Tusken Raider's weapon, flipping pages, ignoring text to regale more images as the smell of pancakes and corned beef hash sifted through the air. Chewbacca and Han Solo inside the Falcon against the refrain of Dad calling his sister to come upstairs to eat breakfast.

And C3-PO and RD-D2, with the sharp twinkle of the falling sun's reflection sparking warmly off of their dusty metal.  Before DVD, and even VHS, it was books like this that kept the image of the movie alive in a young boy's imagination.  It was harder work than re-watching, but in many ways more satisfying, because of the creativity of the mind it elicited in him, as he involved himself in the fantastical storylines.

Yeah, this old book isn't worth much, but it is priceless to me.

As far as books go, It has immense power.

It doesn't contain incantations or rituals, nuclear codes, or manuals of weapon creation.  Its strength is tenfold over any of that.  It can travel through time and take a person with it.  It can bring about smiles, laughter, pride, and sometimes, tears as it is gazed upon.  It can reconnect people who haven't seen one another in decades.  It's a product of love, emanating from the passion of the creators of its contents, in collaboration with those who would bear it as a gift.

Show me a government classified document that can do any of that.